Historiography Saturday: Báthory Erzsébet

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Known in English as Elizabeth Bathory, Báthory Erzsébet was a 16th century Hungarian countess who has accrued enough of a legend to merit a separate Wikipedia page for her appearances in popular culture. The allegations agains the “Blood Countess” are difficult to fact-check due to the time lapse and written accounts appearing only a century following her death, but what is certain is that over three hundred witnesses testified at the trial of her alleged accomplices that she had tortured and killed dozens of young women. While the evidence suggests that she did not bathe in virgin blood in an attempt to retain her youth, her practices were clearly sadistic.

One of the many rumors surrounding Báthory was that she engaged in same-sex relationships. (She had male lovers and a husband as well with whom she may have shared letters comparing torture tips.) Along with questions regarding the reliability of fragmented historical evidence, cases such as Báthory’s require thought in how they should be presented. Serial killers capture the popular imagination, and while it is duplicitous to pretend that none have ever been queer (or to suppress mention of queer serial killers), the supposed association between queer people and violence has been a long-employed stereotype with its own awful consequences.

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Chin

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Very little is known about Chin, a Mayan god of death and the originator of homosexual intercourse, since the only surviving writings detailing his (or, per one source, possibly her) role come from conquistador writers scandalized by sodomy. Chin was said to have demonstrated male-male sex with another ‘demon’, and thereby inspired the practice of fathers gifting younger men to their sons for sexual relationships. These unions were recognized as marriages in the sense that if someone else slept with the younger man it was considered adultery. While the art above does not depict Chin, it does show a male being of some kind in an awkwardly erotic embrace with a Mayan nobleman.

 

James VI and I

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James VI and I, who has been described as “the most effective ruler Scotland ever had,” takes his two numerical titles from his reign there and in England, the fusion of which created the kingdom of Great Britain. He was an intellectual who penned several books, lent his name to the King James Version of the Bible, and played the rivalries of Scottish family factions against each other to consolidate power. His ambitions and belief in absolute monarchy justified by divine right made him unpopular in England, culminating in first the gunpowder plot and then the rebellion against his son. Although historians disagree on James’s homosexuality or bisexuality, the favoritism he showed to several male courtiers did nothing to help his case.

 

Michelangelo

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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni had the good fortune to be raised in Florence, Italy, during the Renaissance, where its status as a cultural hub made springboarding to fame after an apprenticeship with a muralist possible. “Il Divino” (“The Divine One”) was a master of many media, including paints; poetry; architecture; and his first love, sculpture. His figures are known for their dynamism, emotional range, and anatomical study, the products of Michelangelo’s own scientific study into the art of the human body. His notable works include the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (which took him four years to complete); several depictions of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child; and the 17-foot high sculpture David, a piece commissioned as a monument to Florence’s glory. He also holds the honor of being the first Western artist to have a biography published about him while he was still alive.

While much of Michelangelo’s romantic and sexual life was speculation (and subject to the usual disclaimers on differing language and other social behaviors), he did reportedly fall in love with Tommaso de’ Cavalieri; even after the young man married, Michelangelo remained devoted, creating numerous poems and works of art for him. His male nudes and other poems are also filled with homoeroticism – so much so that his nephew removed the male pronouns when he published his uncle’s writing. Per Wikipedia, he did demonstrate what may have been romantic affection for a widowed friend of his, lamenting that he was never able to kiss her face before she died, so there is also a chance that he may have been bisexual. For a full account of the context surrounding Michelangelo’s plausible homosexuality, read here.

Sir Francis Bacon

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Sir Francis Bacon, a 17th century English intellectual, was so prolific and influential that, even if the dubious claims that he was the real Shakespeare are true, penning theatrical masterpieces would have been one of his lesser accomplishments. How he would have found the time between proposing judicial reforms credited with forming the backbone of the Napoleonic Code and modern common law, (possibly) drafting the charters for the Virginia colony, completing enough books and treatises that Wikipedia has assigned them their own page, and establishing methods of induction and parallel philosophical arguments to support them that led to the empiricist movement (and arguably the industrial revolution), while simultaneously running himself into financial ruin by holding civic positions that didn’t pay well enough to cover the bills, is a mystery for the historians.

Bacon’s sexuality is a matter of some debate among scholars, though considerable evidence does exist that points to him being, if not gay, at least fond enough of his young Welsh serving-men to cheat on his wife with them. A fellow member of Parliament quoted the following delightful couplet in his diary, footnote and all:

“‘Within this sty a *hogg doth ly,

That must be hang’d for Sodomy.’

(*alluding both to his sirname of Bacon, & to that swinish abominable sinne.)”

Bacon’s own writing on the subject was markedly less crude: “Although nuptial love maketh mankind, friendly love [between men] perfecteth it.”