Make A Wilderness And Call It Peace

The thing about the Early Modern period is that so much change happened, so quickly, that society had a hard time keeping up. Change is good, but too much change too quickly can result is upheavals and war and disaster. In order to keep its society stable, most European countries further strengthened their moral laws as the 17th century progressed. As Europe spread across the Atlantic, so did the morals and moral laws that had shaped it since the rein of Constantine.

In 1620, Brandenburg-Prussia became one of the last places in Europe to criminalise sodomy, which had more to do with its politics than anything else. Brandenburg-Prussia wasn’t even a political entity until 1618, when the Brandenburg Hohenzollerns intermarried with the Duchy of Prussia. The Duchy of Prussia had, previously, passed laws criminalising sodomy, but it was’t until the intermarriage that the crime held the punishment of death. (Prussia would become one of the key players in 19th century Europe, up until the Unification of Germany).

Although most American school children are taught that Columbus landed in America (he didn’t), and that the Pilgrims came for religious freedom (which is just… plus, irony we’ll get to in a later post), the English citizens who settled North America brought with them English law. The legal structure of America, as much as it may dispute this, is a teenager’s attempted rebellion against the motherland. Prior to 1789, America was the 13 Colonies. Those 13 Colonies were ruled as an English colony, with English laws. (After establishing itself after the American revolution, moral laws would actually increase, not decrease… but we’re jumping ahead..although, a fact to remember.) The Buggery Act of 1533 set sail and found itself embedded in colonial legal structure, with the same punishments that existed in England, a fact that Richard Cornish would learn in 1624 when he was tried and hanged for sodomy. In March 1649, Plymouth, Massachusetts, saw the first known conviction for lesbianism (not called witchcraft) when Sarah White Norman was charged and convicted of “lewd behaviour with another upon a bed.” (Norman’s bed partner, Mary Vincent Hammon, was 16 and not prosecuted.) In 1655, Connecticut passed the first colonial law criminalising sodomy. The colonies in the New World were quickly establishing their own moral laws, most of which mirrored the laws brought over from England.

It was, ironically, an English King who first commented about the ludicracy of anti-gay laws (or at least the first that’s survived). In 1690, William III, who had several close male friends, was accused by political enemies of being a homosexual because of his friendships. In 1697, the Earl of Portland wrote to William, warning William that his kindness toward young men left some to say things which the Earl of Portland was “ashamed to hear.” and tarnishing William’s reputation. William replied back saying that he found it “extraordinary” that it was impossible to be kind and have close friendships with another man without it being perceived as criminal. There has never been any evidence to suggest William’s relationships with any of his male companions were anything but platonic. However, the rumour of William’s preferences persisted long after his death.

By the end of the 17th century, Europe had establish colonies thousands of miles across an ocean, but moral laws followed. Although most colonies created their own legal system, and were allowed a modicum of self-governance, not one choice to ignore the moral laws of their homeland. All of Europe had established sodomy as a “crime against nature,” although the English colonies in America wouldn’t classify it as such until after the American Revolution.

[Disclaimer: I haven’t been intentionally ignoring Russia, there’s just nothing to tell yet. Russia’s an enigma (even before Churchill proclaimed it so). Also, I’ll say again: I have absolutely no academic experience in Asia/Middle East/India (aside from the 100lvl classes in undergrad) until we hit modern day politics…so I won’t be talking about them, until after WWII. I’d rather stick to the realm of things I have the right to talk about, rather than things I’m entirely not comfortable with. If your curious about the areas of the world I’m ignoring, I can probably find you some sources, just ask. Having said THAT, however, China won’t be mentioned at all because, technically, sodomy has never been criminalised there (nor was witchcraft, which is a whole other thing).]

[History Note: I’m using the term ‘homosexual laws’ a lot…but please remember that the term ‘homosexual’ didn’t yet exist in the vernacular…and wouldn’t until the mid-19th century. The idea of sexuality as we think about it hadn’t yet become something universally understood. BUT, it’s easier to use current terminology than to try and explain past terminology, for the purpose of understandability, although I’ve tried to be careful of the use of the word ‘gay,’ because before the 17th century it had zero association with sex. ALSO: homosexual laws and sodomy laws are NOT interchangeable, and I’ve tried to be very careful of that. Sodomy was always defined separately, with other “acts” defined in their own right (except the ones that that fell under “indecency”…which was pretty sweeping). In most cases, sodomy carried the penalty of death, while lesser offences carried lesser penalties.]

Part VII: Homosexual Politics and the 18th Century


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