“But in the Days Before Modern Science, they Didnt Understand Homosexuality”Posted: July 5, 2013
Ive repeatedly read people claim (EG) that in the days before modern science, human-kind didnt understand homosexuality. Matthew Vines, for example, stated in his misleading yet popular 1 hour video that “the concept of sexual orientation is very recent; it was only developed within the past century”. A court submission (p.3) in Canada during their process of changing marital gender laws, claimed that “the idea of ‘homosexuality’ was not possible until after 1870”. This claim is made alongside a statement that “the word ‘homosexual’ did not exist until after 1870.” From these assertions, you can easily start to assume that people from centuries past were completely isolated from the concepts of same-sex sexuality, and that they perhaps had no vocabulary for it either.
But apparently the word ‘brunch‘ did not exist until the 1890s. Does that mean that before that point, people had no concept of a late morning meal, and that they would not be able to understand such an idea? I dont think so.
And although scientific knowledge of homosexuality has increased over recent centuries, this does not mean that those from past centuries were completely ignorant of gay concepts. Im sure that like today, people’s understanding of it varied, based on factors such as whether they lived in big community and whether their community regarded it as a taboo topic that was not to be spoken of. But what reason do we have, to conclude that ancient people would not have grasped that some people have an ongoing sexual attraction to members of their own sex rather than to the opposite sex? Is that concept really too complex for ancient people to grasp?
The concept doesnt sound too difficult to me. Im inclined to believe that ancient people could easily grasp the basic idea, at least if they knew a gay person who was willing to share their inner thoughts.
And what is the traditional position of the church? Some say that the church became particularly anti gay sex during the 20th century. Others basically say the opposite. John Wesley appeared very much opposed to it.
So what does the evidence show about historical societal understandings of homosexuality? Lets look back through some specifics in history …
Some gay-themed websites detail examples of homosexual activity, including homosexual relationships throughout most of history, EG this one.
The English-speaking world tended to regard same-sex relations as a taboo (EG), and in an effort to appear polite, would often avoiding using specific words for it (EG, ref, EG2), use vague catch-alls like “unnatural vice“, or would use euphemisms such as or not speak of it at all (Ephesians 5:12). But 18th century dictionaries for example, show that even without the word ‘homosexual’ they were not lacking in vocabulary for the subject. For example, in the 19th century, Andre Raffalovich wrote of people experiencing a life-long same-sex preference, referring to such people as ‘inverts‘, and others wrote of male same-sex attraction by using the term ‘Uranian‘. And there was mention of same sex couples being regarded as being married, eg in 1971, 1968, 1957, 1932 and 1847.
And gay sex certainly occurred. News reports, eg from England and elsewhere a few centuries ago talk of ‘sodomy’ offences, and other records talk of ‘buggery’ offences. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both reportedly regarded gay sex as being deserving of harsh punishment. The meaning of the word ‘buggery‘ was also linked to heresy.
The historical record is more littered with court records than tales of romance, as homosexuality was frowned upon. However reports on a conviction of buggery in 1631, include a claim that the instigator, the Earl of Castlehaven, expressed love for one of the men he had sex with.
Records from 1707 include a reference to a William Huggins who was charged with attempts at homosexual sex in England. This report on the Huggins case states that it had been heared that “there were such sort of Persons in the World”. Yes folks, there was talk of the concept of there being some people in the world who had a tendency to engage in same-sex intimacy. Sounds like a matter of identity doesnt it – EG a group of people that today we may call homosexuals. And in Britain’s 1772 sodomy trial of Captain Robert Jones at The Old Bailey, we find that character witnesses find it highly relevant to state that the Captain appeared to be “fond of the women”. IE public opinion seemed to be that a man who was fond of women, was unlikely to have sex with men. Again, this sounds to me like the character witnesses perceived that men tend to be either attracted to one sex or the other – ie they grasped the basic idea of sexual orientation.
The book The Worst of Crimes: Homosexuality and the Law in Eighteenth-Century London, reportedly claims that “In 1700 London had a heterogeneous population of nearly 700,000. There were therefore enough homosexuals to form corteries. They found one another in up to twenty cruising grounds scattered across the town from Wapping to Westminster, making themselves know to each other by signs, such as using handkerchiefs and patting the back of the other’s hand. The convenient assumption disappeared that confirmed sodomites were solitary beings, maybe spawned by the Devil, hardly ever encountered by the majority of the population. In a climate of heightened interest in everything to do with sex, English heterosexuals looked around them and discovered the mollies. The word ‘molly’ described an effeminate homosexual, who liked dressing up in women’s clothes and was possibly known by a girl’s name ‘Kitty’ or ‘Mary’, or fancifully grand ones such as the ‘Countess of Camomile’ and the ‘Queen of Bohemia’. There were also molly houses, which were not brothels but clubs, some of them with several dozen members who met, in various venues all over town, to hold parties and make love.”
And there were people in long term same-sex relationships in centuries gone by. There was at least one gay marriage in USA in the 20th century, possibly more and at least one in Australia. And historian Rictor Norton, writing in the context of 18th century France, writes that “Police records reveal men who had long-term homosexual relationships and who recognized in themselves a lifelong inclination that made them different from most men.” Norton also writes of women in 17th century Holland who were effectively married to other women, and of one Arnold Verniolle who in the year 1323 “confessed to frequent homosexual affairs with students, some of them long-term relationships”.
According to Yale law professor William Eskridge, there were even same sex marriages in the Americas in past centuries. He states that one Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote in 1552 in History of the Indies that “men marry other men who are impotent or castrated …” And Eskridge states that according to Pedro de Magalhase de Gandavo’s History of the Province of Santa Cruz, of 1576, some women in Brazil would “give up all the duties of women and imitate men … [E]ach has a woman to serve her, to whom she says she is married, and they treat each other and speak with each other as man and wife.” Eskridge also claims that accounts of love affairs between men in China, are detailed in the 17th century stories of one Li Yu. One account is of Jifang and Ruiji, two men whose wedding apparently conforms to all the standard Chinese requisites. Further accounts like these are found in the book The Origins and Role of Same-sex Relations in Human Societies by James Neill. Homosexuality has also been recorded in Africa by European missionaries, from the 16th century onwards.
In the 11th century, St Peter Damian wrote of men having sex with men. He wrote that “the handling of masculine flesh delights” those who engage in homosexuality, though it shouldnt. He described those who engage in homosexuality as “emasculated” and “effeminate”. He said that turning to the “masculine sex” might be due to “the fury of lust” and might be due to “the madness of excess”.
In the early centuries AD, in Matheseos libri, we find talk of astrological circumstances that result in “lovers of boys who never wish for intercourse with women.” And more insightful comment on sexuality such as
“If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men.”
“[T]hose shameful acts against nature, such as were committed in Sodom, ought everywhere and always to be detested and punished. If all nations were to do such things, they would be held guilty of the same crime by the law of God, which has not made men so that they should use one another in this way” (Confessions 3:8:15).
In A.D. 319, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote in Proof of the Gospel –
“[H]aving forbidden all unlawful marriage, and all unseemly practice, and the union of women with women and men with men, he [God] adds: ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; ”
Ula said: Non-Jews [litt. Bnei Noach, the progeny of Noah] accepted upon themselves thirty mitzvot [divinely ordered laws] but they only abide by three of them: the first one is that they do not write marriage documents for male couples, the second one is that they don’t sell dead [human] meat by the pound in stores and the third one is that they respect the Torah.
And in AD 181, the Chrisitian Theophilus of Antioch wrote, in To Autolycus (1:14),
“For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and ‘arsenokoités‘, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire.”
And what does ‘arsenokoités’ mean? Its component parts translate to men + bed and it’s the word that is usually translated in modern English translations of the Bible, as ‘homosexual’!
And what about closer to Biblical times? Staff at the British Museum imply a relationship between the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and Antinous.
And there’s more. The historian Flavious Josephus lived in the first century. In his book Against Apion, Book II (section 25), Josephus wrote in the context of a section about marriage, that a relationship between males is rejected by Jewish society. Given that the context of section 25 is marriage, perhaps Josephus was referring to a marriage-like relationship between males. That the possibility of such a relationship is raised by Josephus, suggests that Jewish people of that era were also aware of the concept of men who wanted such relationships.
And there were others in the first century who mentioned homosexuality also. Philo for example, wrote a lengthy description in The Special Laws III;
“Moreover, another evil … has made its way among and been let loose upon cities, namely, the love of boys, … which sin is a subject of boasting not only to those who practise it, but even to those who suffer it, and who, being accustomed to bearing the affliction of being treated like women, waste away as to both their souls and bodies, not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes … and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one. … the man who is devoted to the love of boys … pursues that pleasure which is contrary to nature, and since, as far as depends upon him, he would make the cities desolate, and void, and empty of all inhabitants, wasting his power of propagating his species … At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, … And some of these persons have even carried their admiration of these delicate pleasures of youth so far that they have desired wholly to change their condition for that of women, and have castrated themselves and have clothed themselves in purple robes …”
Obviously at least some of these men, those who were “devoting their constant study and endeavours” to becoming effeminate to the point of castration, or not being at all procreative, had no interest in being heterosexual, and it makes sense that the community would be aware of this.
In his book Faithful to the Truth, Stephen C. Lovatt writes of –
“the existence of a clear account of heterosexual and homosexual (but not bisexual or transgendered) males and females as stable types of human beings with distinct natures which is to be found in Plato’s Symposium [of around 3 centuries BC]. This text was written long before the birth of any professional sexologist.”
According to one Preston Sprinkle, a poet named Dorotheos, who lived in St Paul’s time, wrote in a work named Carmen Astrologicum (2.7.6) of women being born desirous of women, and of men being born desirous of men. Others have written that even in St Paul’s time, there was an existing vocabulary to refer to homosexuality.
Gay activists such as Matthew Vines talk of the ancients perceiving homosexuality as being lust about lust and excess, claiming that around the year 0 AD; “The only discussion we see of same-sex attraction and behavior was as a vice of excess along the lines of gluttony and drunkenness. The idea is that same-sex behavior grew out of wantoness and excess, of men seeking more exotic pleasures to sate an ever-growing appetite. The concept of same-sex relationships between social equals was not conceivable.” (AL.com, Feb 13, 2015) The dubious nature of Vine’s claim is revealed by the historical record. Historian Flavious Josephus, like St Paul, lived in the first century and being Jewish, is likely to have shared the same cultural perspectives as Paul, the writer of much of the Bible. In Against Apion, Book II (section 25), Josephus wrote in the context of a section about marriage, that a relationship between males is rejected by Jewish society. That the possibility of such a relationship is raised by Josephus, suggests that Jewish people were aware of the concept of men who wanted such relationships.
But even before Jesus, there is evidence of the ancients perceiving homosexuality to include a heartfelt component. Chinese culture for example refers to “the passion of the cut sleeve” in reference to homosexuality. According to Chinese historians, this reference arose from the emporer Ai, who ruled between 27 and 1 BC, and “did not care for women”, but rather for men such as the married Dong Xian. According to author Ban Gu, cited in A Little Gay History (p. 15) –
emporer Ai was sleeping in the daytime with Dong Xian stretched out across his sleeve. When the emperor wanted to get up, Dong Xian was still asleep. Because he did not want to disturb him, the emperor cut off his own sleeve and got up. His love and thoughtfulness went this far.
Some activists claim that although it’s known that sex between men took place in ancient times, those were abusive relationships. This view is challenged by examples such as Alexander the Great, and Hephaestion, although details are scarce.
Clearly, the claim that people of centuries past had no understanding of homosexuality, is an overstatement. In more recent times, even Matthew Vines have acknowledged this. In 2015, Vines said that even in the Biblical era “… you can find some examples here and there of loving same-sex relationships.”