New Book Examines “Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome”

A new book by a University of Virginia history professor makes the claim that same-gender marriages existed in the city of Rome during the Renaissance.

Gary Ferguson, the  Douglas Huntly Gordon Distinguished Professor of French at the Charlottesville school, recently published  Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity and Community in Early Modern Europe  (Cornell University Press, 2016) in which he displays evidence that, while not commonplace and not legal, the idea of marriages between two men or two women did exist in 16th century, just under the shadow of the Vatican.

In an essay for The Daily Beast, Ferguson begins by noting some literary evidence for the practice of same-gender marriages:

“In the late 16th century, the famous French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote about two marriages between people of the same sex. The first involved women in eastern France, the second a group of men in Rome. At the time, same-sex marriages were not recognized by religious or civil law, and sodomy—a term that included a wide range of sexual acts—was a crime. As a result, when those involved were discovered they were usually brought to trial and punished, sometimes by death.”

Ferguson’s thesis is that even in the Renaissance, “marriage was a highly contested issue.”  He explains:

“Marriage between two men or two women might seem like a concept that has emerged only in recent decades. For centuries, however, same-sex couples have appropriated marriage in their own ways.”

Using one of Montaigne’s examples as a case study, Ferguson examines the French writer’s story by exploring  “several sources—diplomatic dispatches, newsletters, fragments of a trial transcript, and brief wills. . . ”   The result is a description of a planned marriage, thwarted by authorities:

“On a Sunday afternoon in July 1578, a sizable group of men gathered at Saint John at the Latin Gate, a beautiful but remote church on the outer edge of Rome. Many of them were friends who had met there on previous occasions. They were mostly poor immigrants from Spain and Portugal but included several priests and friars. They ate and drank in an atmosphere that was festive, yet strangely subdued. It turned suddenly to confusion and fear with the arrival of the police, who arrested 11 of those present. The rest fled.

“The Roman authorities had been tipped off about the group’s plans to celebrate a marriage, perhaps not for the first time, between two of its members. In the end, the wedding between Gasparo and Gioseffe hadn’t taken place: The latter—reportedly ill—failed to appear. But Gasparo was among those taken prisoner, and, following a trial that lasted three weeks, executed.”

Ferguson reveals that the marriage which was to have taken place would not have been a traditional one for many other reasons besides gender, including the fact that it may not have been intended as a sexually exclusive arrangement.  But the fact that such ritual practices is still significant, he claims:

“The evidence, then, points to a handful of motivations behind the Roman weddings. Since the friends took the ceremony seriously enough to put themselves at considerable risk, it very likely served to recognize and sanction Gasparo and Gioseffe’s relationship, claiming that such a union should be possible. At the same time, it may also have had a playful element, parodying and subtly criticizing elements of a traditional wedding.”

In fact, because of the greatly different historical situations,  Ferguson says that these unions are not identical to modern same-sex marriages:

“. . . [T]he context for extending marriage rights to same-sex couples today is very different from the 16th century, when most marriages weren’t based primarily on love and didn’t establish legal equality between the spouses.

“It was after the changes effected by the women’s rights movement in the second half of the 20th century to make the institution more equitable that gay and lesbian activists adopted marriage equality as their major goal.”

Yet, their historical significance must still be considered for another reason:

“. . . [T]he stories from the 16th century show that marriage has never been a universal and fixed phenomenon. It has a contested history, one that both excludes and includes same-sex couples, who have claimed marriage on their own terms.”

Ferguson’s case brings to mind John Boswell’s 1994 Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe which made the case that union ceremonies, equivalent to marriage, between two men or two women took place, often in religious settings, during the medieval era.  Some critics of Boswell claimed that the texts he had which described union ceremonies were not analogous to marriage, but represented other forms of friendship.  Boswell, unfortunately, died shortly after the book’s publication so he could not defend his thesis against such attacks.

I hope to get a chance to read Ferguson’s book in the coming months and provide a full review in a later post here at Bondings 2.0.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 17,  2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit http://www.Symposium2017.org.

 

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One thought on “New Book Examines “Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome”

  1. John Hilgeman February 17, 2017 / 10:48 am

    Looks like a good book to read.

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