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Private Identities and Historical Methods

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Ruth McClelland-Nugent

on 14 June 2015

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Transcript of Private Identities and Historical Methods

B. R. Burg
B. R. Burg's article is from one of the earliest attempts (1983) to study the sexuality of pirates. Same sex activity among sailors in the 20th century was widely acknowledged, if jokingly; Winston Churchill once said that the three great traditions of the Royal Navy were "rum, sodomy, and the lash."

Burg used then-current anthropological and sociological frameworks to tackle the research. By comparing records of pirates behavior to observations of then-contemporary gay communities, he explores possible evidence for same-sex activity in early modern Caribbean pirates.

Although Burg's work remains useful, the passage of time has raised questions about some of his assumptions. His descriptions of the modern gay community may seem strange to you. Writing largely about the pre-AIDS gay male American social scene he describes a worldly vastly different than the 21st century. Is the 17th century comparable to the 1970s?

Even some of the stereotypes he discusses are no longer current; while many people int he 1970s associated gay men with "sadism," that is no longer true. Indeed, Burg conflates true love of torture with the sexual play now known as BDSM, and considered by social scientists to be quite different.

Burg also makes comparisons between ships and prisons in exploring situational same sex activity (i.e., men who might not normally identify as gay engaging in sex with each other) as products of all-male "total institutions." These comparisons have received much less challenge, as the phenomenon of sitational same sex activity in prisons seems to have remained steady throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Molly Houses and Mateloge
More recent historiography has explored institutions of which Burg was largely unaware. For example, Molly Houses began to appear in the early 18th century. These taverns (sometimes coffeehouses) provided what many taverns did--food, drink, and lodging--but catered to men looking for other men. We might think of them as early gay bars that also provided rooms for sexual encounters. Sailors were frequent customers.
Another institution explored more thoroughly since Burg's groundbreaking work is "Matelotage," which we've previously encountered. Burg suggested that these agreements, in which pirates deeded their goods to another man in case of death, might have served as a same-sex partnership contract. Scholarship remains divided on this. Economist Richard Leeson sees these as no more than insurance policies; historian Marcus Rediker sees these as more evidence of pirates being outside regular society. A third possibility exists as well: matelotage may have most frequently been a sort of insurance, but it also offered a way for gay men to acceptably form a partnership and provide for each other. Even the word, which originally meant seamanship but came to mean "buddy" or "mate," can be interpreted in more than one way.
Burg's work also reveals both the promise and limitations of some sources for social history--the history of common people.

For example, legal codes give us a good sense, most of the time, of what a society considers right and wrong. Going by the death penalty prescribed in all early modern English codes for "buggery", we might expect that same-sex activity was treated with horror.

But as Burg discovers, the paucity of cases, as well as the fairly light punishments actually meted out, suggests this was not actually the attitude held by most justices, juries, and others.
Ready to discuss?
Historiography of Sexuality
"Historiography" refers to two things: the methods historians use to research history, and the history of writing history. Over time, approaches to history change as new questions and problems are encountered.
Although sexuality is a basic part of the human experience, it had been little studied by historians until the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Studying sexuality from records of elite people is challenging; studying sexuality from the fragments left by non-elites is extremely difficult (but not impossible.)
Private Sexualities at sea: Other approaches
Pauline Greenhill's article looking at the largely maritime ballads form Newfoundland is an example of the cultural approach to history, which became more common int he 1990s. Using pieces of culture--plays, ballads, etc.-- one can get information about general cultural attitudes. While the ballads may not reflect an accurate picture of any given case, they give us a very good idea of what people thought, their mindset towards the ambiguous cabin "boys," for example.
Dian Murray's article is an example of comparative history, with a cross-cultural approach. She asks if pirate homosexuality is consistent across different times and cultures, eventually suggesting it seems not. Yet she, too, has difficulty with slippery legal evidence that may overestimate same-sex rape and underestimate consensual same-sex relations.
Were there "gay pirates"? The evidence taken together supports a "yes." But going much beyond that is a challenging task, as these articles should make clear.
And so it is for research in many aspects of the private lives and personal identities from the past. Pirates, largely non-elite men who were often illiterate, left vanishingly few records of their own. To research their private lives in any respect--sexuality, emotions, perceptions-- takes a good deal of patience and creativity.
Private Identities and Historical Methods
Sexuality at sea as an example of research challenge
The Earl of Castlehaven
and the problem of legal evidence
One of the cases Burg mentions is the "Earl of Castlehaven" case, a celebrity case involving not only "Buggery," but domestic abuse of the Earl's wife and monetary fraud by the Earl, Mervyn Tuchet. It ended with the earl's execution.
Yet the trial seems to have set no great precedents, save for establishing the right of a wronged wife to testify against her husband in court. Legal cases brought for same-sex activity were few in common law as in Admiralty law, and when they were brought, most juries proved reluctant to convict. Does this mean that same-sex encounters were unheard of, or widely tolerated?
Historians David Underdown and Susan Amussen, working in the 1980s and 1990s, suggested a different approach to all kinds of social issues. The law, they argued, was actually the last resort to solving issues of sexual misbehavior and a variety of other offenses. Social pressure, often in the form of mocking rituals called "charivari," were preferred.
Records describing charivari do indeed uncover rituals shaming men for same-sex activity. One example was a mock baptismal feast in rural Gloucester from 1710, in which the village gathered in mock celebration of the "baby" conceived from the union of two male farm labourers.
Illustration of two "mollies" embracing.
One of the more recent works exploring early modern gay subcultures, focusing on a particular house run by "Mother Clap." You can read more here: http://rictornorton.co.uk/eighteen/mother.htm
Mervyn Tuchet, Earl of Castlehaven
A Dutch print, suggesting the kind of mockery same-sex relations received in popular culture. These men are identified particularly as sailors, with one playing a "feminine" role.
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