Like other monarchs, James spoke easily of himself as the benevolent husband and father of his people, his kingdom and his parliament. But he could not conceive of really being married to anyone but his own wife. This was easier to do in Renaissance Italy, where it was much more socially acceptable though still illegal for same-sex love to extend to sodomy.
More generally, though, and certainly in the English-speaking world, men did not tend to live together as conjugal couples. Passionate friendship and love between men took lots of different forms. But from James I to Oscar Wilde, and beyond, a man who loved other men was also quite likely to wed a woman and have children with her. If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century.
In fact, for the last years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. In Amsterdam in , the middle-aged widow Trijntje Barents fell in love with year-old Hendrickje Lamberts.
Some time into their affair, Hendrickje began to dress as a man. They were a settled couple, who wished they could legally marry. Other Dutch couples did just that. In the s, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel disguised herself as a man in order to wed her long-time lover, Elisabeth Boleyn, in an Amsterdam church.
Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.
Quick, secret marriages were easy to contract in London until the act: The first clergyman they approached refused to do it. But they would easily have been able to find another priest. Bishops and legislators take note: Sometimes it seems that female husbands were what we would now call intersex or trans.
Long before the modern transgender movement, individuals and communities grappled with the potential fluidity of sex and gender. It is fitting that the most sensitive interpreter of this fragmentary and opaque evidence, Emma Donoghue , is a brilliant novelist as well as a scholar. For, as she explored in her first book, Passions Between Women Scarlet , almost nothing about these cases is clear-cut — except the inescapable fact that, even three or four centuries ago, it was not unheard of for two women to cohabit in marriage.
From this point on it became increasingly possible for women to live together openly in western society. The growth of cities, the expansion of domestic service, the development of textile trades and the spread of schooling for girls all created new opportunities for unmarried women to travel away from home, make a living and meet one another.
The 18th century also saw a revolution in ideas about male and female sexuality, which created a new cult of female friendship.
In poetry, fiction and real life, innocent love between women came to be celebrated on an unprecedented scale — as an elevated and enduring passion, and a crucial support to courtship and marriage. The cultivation of intense same-sex relations became as important to middle- and upper-class womanhood as being a daughter, wife or mother.
This was the world into which Charity Bryant was born in She was the youngest child of a Massachusetts doctor — educated, spirited and constantly at odds with her crabby father and domineering stepmother.
When she turned 20, they threw her out, and she became an itinerant schoolteacher. By the age of 23 she had decided she would never marry. For several years she kept up a secret correspondence, and spent as much time as possible, with Mercy Ford, who lived in a nearby village.
In their parents became alarmed and put a stop to it.