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The love that dared to speak its name

4 October 2003

12:00 AM

4 October 2003

12:00 AM

The Friend Alan Bray

Chicago University Press, pp.380, 28

As you went into the tower door of the church at Marsh Baldon (Oxon), there used to be two wall-tablets. One was to the relations of Sir Christopher Willoughby, who died in 1808, and the other was

To the Memory of Friends,

listed as John Lane, Elizabeth Lane, Phanuel Bacon, Margaret Bacon and Ann Barton. About which, 30 years ago, there seemed to be little to note, except that it was ‘unusual’. But why? Given the high value we still set on friendship and the tendency of some Britons to advertise themselves through their connections, such mementoes ought to be quite usual; if not in churches, then in fields and gardens and town squares. But they aren’t. Squires tend to be immortalised like Sir Christopher’s successor at Baldon, not through friendships, but because his

useful talents were always exerted in the cause of truth and justice for the correction of error or the enforcement of sound principle;

which nowadays seems a terrible thing to say about anyone. Fashions change. By 1865, Sir Christopher’s will have seemed whimsical, sentimental and possibly unsound.

Looking at church monuments was evidently one of the late Mr Bray’s habits, but with much more penetration and understanding than we who ‘sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence’. So much so that in this quite extraordinary book he was able to summon the dead through brasses, inscribed slabs, marble statues and upright crosses (the one shared by Cardinal Newman and his friend St John at Rednal is a sort of climax of the argument) reinforced with a range of written sources stretching from St Anselm to the oaths of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, to present a new view of friendship which ought to change our versions of social history from top to bottom for the foreseeable future.

This involves rescuing same-sex relationships of the past from the over-amicable embrace of sex historians, who have smeared them with the colouring of modern homosexuality. That is understandable, when until the 18th century and later in some cases, sworn friendship meant the public and private exchange of kisses, embraces, loving language, rings and tokens, as well as the sharing of beds, tears, clothing and washing: intimacies alien to us, when even man and wife prefer not to use the same toothbrush. Such a ‘gift of the body’, as Bray calls it, now seems explicable only as the prelude or sequel to physical caresses in the genital area, or your plain sodomy, or whatever lesbians do, bless ’em. The sexual act has become the determinant of character and behaviour, genetically preordained, worshipped and glorified. So the late John Boswell found ‘Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century’, to cite the subtitle of his famous book; but he found them mainly on evidence of close contact between men which at the time was the normal expression of a friendship or brotherhood sanctified by vows, blessing and the approval or acceptance of church, kin and community. If men and possibly women chose to become friends or brothers or sisters in this formal sense it was for a hundred more important reasons than self-fulfilment through one sort of sex.

Of course, buggery was always a possibility, then as now, even when it was seen as a crime against God and Nature and punished as such. But sexual love was not the point of these relationships. It was a deviation from the more sober business of finding a companion who would swear to act as ally, partner, defender and collaborator against the rest of the world outside the ‘natural’ family, in return for the same commitment. Swear before God, that is, and look forward to a shared burial if feasible; as when, in a very late and strange example, the ‘wedded’ female companion of Anne Lister, a pious and strong-minded Yorkshire gentlewoman, accompanied her embalmed body all the way from Georgia, in the Caucasus, to the parish church in Halifax where they worshipped, to see her buried there.

That was in 1840. Earlier on, such unions had been advertised by the physical intimacy usual among members of households where there was little privacy anyway. The contract could lead to or symbolise all sorts of material advantage: in Tudor and Stuart times, friends helped each other to rise in status, to find jobs, heiresses and patrons, and even to enjoy real power in politics, as did the favourites whom the ruler befriended. It was another way of getting what led men to join themselves to wives as husbands, to lords as vassals, to masters as servants. Or it could enable two individuals to end quarrels between families or groups to which they belonged, like the old bishop and dean whose slabs in Hereford cathedral are linked by clasped hands, because their friendship ended a dispute between bishop and chapter which had lasted hundreds of years. Or it could unite pairs of university men with no clear ulterior motive in their wedding, as these pledged combinations were called.

The evidence lies open to view, if little noticed hitherto, in churches, letters, treatises, wills and poems, of which Shakespeare’s sonnets are the best-known and most misunderstood. His expressions of friendship carried to extremes of playfulness, pedantry and despair are often dumbed down into avowals of homosexual passion. It is more realistic, if just as crude, to read them as a particularly inventive form of social climbing. They belong to that set of conventions in thought and deed which, so Bray argues, went out of fashion in the period 1690-1740, when educated men and women came to prefer the benevolence of civil society in general to life-and-death partnerships got up between individuals and God, whether in unofficial marriages between the sexes or in wedded same-sex friendship. In this new and tepid climate, friends diluted the friend, because, as Dr Johnson said to the Quaker, ‘All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps against the interest of others.’ That was certainly the case in times past, as in the popular ballad of Amis and Amiloun, where one of them kills his own children to cure his friend of leprosy with their blood, and God restores the children to life: strong stuff, but once upon a time an acceptable fantasy about a relationship which Bray presents as a crucial element in English history for 1,000 years or more, as important as any other social tie but almost completely overlooked by historians.

It would be unfair to summarise further. The author did it very neatly and added a dense historical afterword to show where his contribution fits in to the arguments of other social and political historians. He may have tried to say too much in the time allotted him; there is reason to be grateful that he was able to complete, if not to perfect this book, which has been elegantly printed by Chicago. There is more in it than in most others.

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