Reviewed in 1996
Any inquiry from Ned Dickerman and Anita Walker about whether I could put something together for a panel prompted me to recall that years ago I had had some satirical engravings of parlementaire judges photographed from B. N. collections, the centerpiece being a Sébastien Leclerc work depicting a conseiller as effeminé. My search for bibliography led me to Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982, with an update in 1995).
Certainly one of the most profoundly historical works I have ever read, Bray is a model for all historians to ponder and to use. Lip-service is often paid to philology by historians, and then words and images become slammed together to create reified social, cultural and gender histories grounded on some general social-scientific principles. Not so for Bray. The caution, care and thoughtfulness found here will awe any historian who truly knows that all we have with which to understand the past are words, pictures and artifacts. His point of departure is to note that "effeminate" lacks the specifically homosexual connotations it was later to acquire, something obvious, one might say, but then by scrutinizing the historical meanings of words, Bray lays the foundations for understanding his subject as social history. The chapter on Molly, the private houses which were meeting places for gay men in 18th-century London is a model study of a cultural space. Bray is sensitive to metaphors and images, but it is really the ontological and social that he is after. Friends who keep up on the recent work in this field will no doubt say to themselves that I am hopelessly behind the times, and that Bray is out of date. Gay theory does contribute to understanding gender history, but I doubt that all the methodological rigor of Bray has been superseded, and that his reading of crucial literary and judicial sources is sound. Debates are there, and I will seek advice and bibliography from other historians, namely Randy Trumbach and Bob Nye, before I tackle writing my paper this fall , but Bray has given me a "map" of a subject on which I have not hitherto worked. By the way, this paper will be part of a sub-set of others on the body — Guillaume du Choul's on bathing and d'Hemery's on signalement in the police of 18th-century Paris being two recent examples.