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Book unearths 16th century same-sex marriage

by Brian Bromberger

Author Gary Ferguson. Photo: Courtesy University of<br>Virginia
Author Gary Ferguson. Photo: Courtesy University of

With all the talk of same-sex marriages this century, one would think that the idea of two people of the same gender becoming wed was a very contemporary idea. But as Gary Ferguson, a historian and French professor at the University of Virginia, would say, that is definitely not true.

In his recently released book, "Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe," published by Cornell University Press, Ferguson has unearthed a case about a same-sex wedding ceremony in 16th century Rome.

Ferguson, 54 and gay, was interviewed by the Bay Area Reporter via email about this fascinating and tragic early queer marriage and its ramifications for the same-sex marriage debate today.

On a Sunday afternoon in July 1578, a group of men, mostly poor immigrants from Spain and Portugal (but also including several priests and friars) gathered outside a remote church on the outskirts of Rome, Saint John at the Latin Gate, to celebrate a festive marriage between two of its members, Gasparo and the friar Gioseffe. However, Gioseffe, allegedly having taken ill and gone to hospital, didn't appear. The Roman police, somehow tipped off, arrived and arrested the 11 men, including Gasparo. Eventually, eight prisoners were tried, found guilty, and subsequently hanged and their bodies burned. The exact nature and purpose of the intended ceremony remain uncertain.

"Some sources describe a marriage celebrated after Mass. Others refer to the giving of rings, a hermit who officiated, even the participants disguised as women," wrote Ferguson. Apparently the wedding was a kickoff to a large community celebration in the form of a banquet, which the men had been preparing for several days, and eventual public sexual consummation between the partners and likely the others present as well.

When asked how he became aware of this case and why he decided to write a book about it, Ferguson replied, "Since my primary area of specialization is the literature and culture of Renaissance France, I had read the story of this marriage the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne recorded in his travel journal. Since the story is so unusual and so unexpected, I wanted to explore further to see what I could discover, and that led to this present book."

Ferguson used fragments of the transcript of the men's trial (most of it had been destroyed or lost), and documents preserved by Confraternity of San Giovanni for his research. The confraternity was composed of pious laymen whose mission was to minister to and comfort condemned prisoners, especially to get them to make a confession and receive communion before dying, thus reuniting them with the church so they could write letters to relatives and dictate a will, both of which occurred in this case.

Also, dispatches of the Venetian ambassador in Rome, Antonio Tiepolo, contain his testimony of the case, as do newsletters sent from Rome to the Duke of Urbino, Francesco II della Rovere, and the Fuggers, a German banking family. Ferguson has synthesized the often-contradictory evidence and through literary detective work has weaved a single, detailed, only occasionally contradictory account.

Aside from having so much available information, what is unique about the case is that rather than following the usual Renaissance pederastic relationship, involving an older partner, who takes an active or penetrative sexual role, and a younger partner, who takes a passive or receptive one, the men here were of mixed ages and their sexual lives don't all reflect this usual pattern.

"One of the most important and exciting discoveries about the group is that their relationships and sexual practices were much more varied and flexible," Ferguson wrote. "Some of them seem to have an exclusive interest in partners of the same sex, for example. There are also older men who are passive or versatile, and older men who have sex with each other. It's possible to suggest that these kind of behaviors â€" which historians have sometimes seen as relatively modern developments â€" were in fact more common earlier than has been thought."

When asked about the implications of the case vis-à-vis the essentialist/constructivist debate about homosexual identity, Ferguson wrote, "Some people thought of their desire for members of their own sex as innate, part of their physical constitution; they describe it as something that is 'natural' for them or a 'taste' they were born with, a defining characteristic."

He wrote that while that "isn't exactly the same as a 'modern homosexual identity,' it shares significant elements in common."

Thus it could be argued that what historians would call modern forms of homosexuality did exist in the 16th century.

This evidence, while qualified, would seem to question assertions by the famous gay philosopher-historian Michel Foucault that homosexuality was a product of the 19th century.

Ferguson claimed that while he would respond mostly yes as to these men having had a homosexual identity, "it does depend on how we define these terms."

"I try to draw out carefully the aspects they share with our modern ideas and the ways in which they are part of a culture that is very different, meaning in different historical periods identities have been formed in different ways, so the men who met at the Latin Gate would require that we not construe it in relatively modern terms," Ferguson wrote. He added, "I take seriously the work of queer critics who remind us that we cannot assume homosexuality as we know it today to be a self-evident or single phenomenon."

Gay Identity

One of the key ingredients of a gay identity is the formation of a rudimentary gay subculture. Ferguson maintained that this group had developed many of those characteristics, "like those established by homosexual men in 18th century Paris (gens de la manchette, men of the cuff) and London (network of 'mollies'), although less extensive and more fragile," he wrote.

"They had regular meeting places â€" notably the isolated church buildings of Saint John at the Latin Gate â€" shared social activities, and even particular code words to talk about their sexual desires and practices. A man who liked to be passive, for example, was referred to as a commare (literally, a godmother, midwife, close female friend or neighbor, or a gossip)," Ferguson explained.

Further evidence of this subculture could be that during the trial some of the men tried to protect those with whom they had been sexually involved, and tried not to implicate those already in prison with them.

Finally, the purpose of the feast following the wedding was a way to express and build a sense of community, a vital point since such extravagant planning likely increased the chances the men would be caught, Ferguson noted.

As to the wedding itself, Ferguson pointed out that the evidence suggests a handful of motivations.

"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," he said. Still, the case, as well as other 16th century stories, proved that marriage has never been a universal and fixed phenomenon, and has long been "a highly contested issue," Ferguson said.

Just 15 years earlier, the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent had decreed that a wedding had to be performed in a parish church by an authorized priest in the presence of witnesses, with a pre-public announcement of the ceremony. Previously, from the 12th century on, the only requirement was the free consent of the spouses expressed in an exchange of vows, so no priest or witness(es) was necessary. While this most likely would have been the format of the Latin Gate wedding, Ferguson explained that it's also unlikely that had a marriage taken place it would have been a traditional one and not just because it involved two men, but probably would not have been intended as a sexually exclusive arrangement or that the two men were going to live together.

Thus, Ferguson surmised that there may have been a playful element, parodying and subtly criticizing elements of a traditional wedding, "even what today we might call a campy version," he wrote.

However, whatever the "polyvalent" motivations, the critical factor is that the group of friends was appropriating marriage in their own ways for their own purposes. This case illustrates how, despite a contested history, there have long been same-sex couples, who not only have claimed the right to marry, but did so on their own terms and were willing to challenge some of marriage's traditional norms, like sexual exclusivity.

Ferguson even hinted at a more radical proposition. "The participation of several clerics strongly suggests that some members of the church at the time thought that same-sex marriages were or should be possible," he wrote.

Ferguson said that it's important to recognize "that there might have been a variety of ideas and attitudes among the group, so I argue that the marriages had not one, but multiple, motivations and meanings."

"As a result, different aspects of their story have the potential to speak differently to individual men and women today â€" both to those committed to the 'normalization' of same-sex relationships and to queers and critics who want to celebrate and explore alternative relational paradigms," Ferguson wrote.


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