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Same sex intercourse in early modern England: a corpus-based investigation

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>21/06/2017
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of Historical Sociolinguistics
<mark>State</mark>Accepted/In press
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This paper focuses upon the public representation of men who engaged in sexual relations with other males in the seventeenth century. We wish to explore how such men were written about in public discourse during a time when male same-sex intercourse was a capital offense. While we could approach this question through the lens of conceptual history, in this paper we feel that the body of work on the study of homosexuality is substantial enough for us to use that as a point of reference. Scholars researching sexuality are sometimes divided into essentialist and social constructionist camps. Essentialists perceive homosexuality as being biologically determined and historically constant. Social constructionism arose in the 1980s and continues to be influential. Its adherents believe that sexual behaviour is conditioned by cultural factors and that participation in same-sex activity holds differing significance depending on the participant’s society. For instance, they might argue that men who engaged in sexual relations with adolescent boys in Ancient Greece were acting in accordance with the cultural norms of their society and were not conceived of as being homosexual. This approach was highly influenced by the work of the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, who claimed that the homosexual, as a personage, was only conceived of in the nineteenth century. Foucault argued that, prior to this time, ‘sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them.’ A similar note of caution is raised by Bray (1982: 10, 17).In this paper we take a neutral stance to the essentialist/social constructionist debate by adopting Bray’s solution of using the phrase homosexual only when referring to physical acts.

Bibliographic note

Tony McEnery is Distinguished Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University. Helen Baker is Newby Trust Fellow at Lancaster University.