Homosexual identity precedes modern capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Dec 4 07:59:23 MST 2000

Michael B. Young. King James and the History of Homosexuality.
New York: New York University Press, 2000. xi + 155 pp.
Notes, bibliography, index. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8147-9693-1.

Reviewed by James S. Hart, Department of History, University of Oklahoma.
Published by H-Albion (June, 2000)

Sex and Sexuality in Stuart England

Michael Young's book sets out to complete two separate but related tasks.
The first is to examine the matter of James I's [1567 to 1625]
homosexuality -- and to do so in the most direct and unambiguous way
possible. This becomes, quite rightly, the centerpiece of the book. James'
homosexuality had an enormous impact, first, in real political terms, as a
source of on-going (and frequently destabilizing) factionalism and court
intrigue, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a source for raising
public awareness of (and discussion about) homosexuality as a sexual and
social phenomenon. The former dimension of the subject has, of course, been
well-covered, at least on one level. Historians have rarely failed to
acknowledge the King's reliance on his male favorites or to measure their
impact on his ability to govern effectively. But they have also tended to
treat the subject of his homosexuality rather gingerly. When spoken of at
all, it is usually referred to in imprecise language or with veiled
allusions, and the relationships in question are assumed, in many cases, to
be based on mutual affection and companionship rather than genuine sexual

Professor Young pulls no such punches here. He very carefully traces the
history of James' relationships, beginning with his earliest affairs in
Scotland, in order to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that James I
was actively involved in sexual relations with his young clients. Without
direct first-hand evidence, of course, the case can never be proven to a
legal certainty, but Young's argument and his thoughtful and careful use of
evidence is certainly convincing. The second task evolves naturally from
the first. Since the royal court was thought to be the apex of social and
political life, James's errant behavior inevitably incited comment and
criticism, and Professor Young sets out to measure that response, through
private letters, dramatic and literary sources, and published pamphlets.

He does so, in large measure, to suggest that the seventeenth century's
understanding of homosexuality was a good deal broader and more complex
than has been assumed to date. Historians of homosexuality have tended to
argue, to the contrary, that contemporary perceptions of intimate male
relationships were limited to the physical act of sodomy, something
considered so 'monstrous' that it was not to be spoken of or even
acknowledged, pervasive as it may have been. Professor Young argues against
this view, suggesting that while seventeenth century commentators may have
lacked the vocabulary and the constructs necessary to articulate a
sophisticated view of homosexuality, they were nonetheless well aware of
its existence and were more than willing to comment upon it. He
demonstrates convincingly that many of James' contemporaries, including
members of his own government, not only recognized his behavior for what it
was but were forthright in their condemnation of it, issuing what he calls
a 'chorus of protest'. Moreover, their reasons for doing so, in Young's
view, suggest that their perceptions of homosexual behavior involved more
than just the sin of sodomy.

Young argues that James' intimacy with and affection for his favorites, his
'sodomitical relationships', were condemned not only because they sinful
and because they violated social norms, but because they bespoke weakness
and effeminacy on the part of the King and his court. Sodomy and effeminacy
became interchangeable. James' determined pacificism only fed into that
perception and came to be seen as a by-product of his unmanly nature.

The evidence marshalled here about James I 's homosexuality, and about the
public response to it, is designed to refute the notion (articulated
principally by Alan Bray) that our modern construct of homosexuality
emerged suddenly, in revolutionary fashion, at the beginning of the
eighteenth century. Professor Young wants to argue instead that modern
notions of homosexuality developed slowly, in an evolutionary process, and
began much earlier. In essence, he argues that the reign of James I was
critical because the revelations about this king forced the public to come
to terms with a much broader concept of homosexual relations -- one which
took a variety of forms and which often transcended simple matters of sex
to embrace notions of genuine love between two men. Professor Young is well
aware that such a hypothesis is difficult to prove definitively, and his
claims are tempered with caution. But this is a well-written and and
convincing account that will win many adherents.

Louis Proyect
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