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.

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.

 

Historiography Saturday: Philip II of Macedon

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Before Alexander the Great forged his continent-spanning empire, there was his father, Philip II of Macedon. While not as flashy of a military boy wonder, Philip had his own share of sizable military victories, triumphing over the Sacred Band of Thebes and coining the phrase “divide and conquer”; he even perfected the phalanx, a formation instrumental to his successes. His grip on mineral resources gave him the wealth to elevate his rule into a full monarchy, then unusual for Greece. Alexander inherited and executed his plans after Philip fell to assassination, the details of which make for a historiography question.

Accounts of Philips death are consistent (he was murdered by a former bodyguard) but the motives vary from one account to another. Aristotle, Philip’s contemporary, claims that Philip’s father-in-law offended the assassin, and other historians believe that Alexander and his mother were involved. The third prevailing theory (and the reason Philip is included in this blog) is a complicated story of revenge, wherein Philip and the bodyguard had once been lovers. If true, it would suggest that Philip was as bisexual as his son.

 

Historiography Saturday: Caligula

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Caligula (“little soldier’s boot”) was the nickname of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, one of the more notorious Roman emperors. While the firsthand accounts of his reign have nearly all been lost to history, the surviving contemporary and posthumous accounts do not paint a flattering picture: over a short period the new emperor went from a beloved favorite of the army to a leader known for irresponsible spending habits and wanton cruelty. When he planned to move to Alexandria from Rome, a political play that would have crippled the Senate, he was assassinated.

From the initial biographies to an infamous film adaptation, Caligula’s story has been used as a morality play for the past two millennia, making it difficult to discern what his reign was really like. The more outrageous claims, like his relationship with his favorite horse, were likely rumors, but broader accusations of sexual deviancy (incest and homosexual relations, for example) are more difficult to address, along with the assertion that he was insane, in part due to a Roman cultural meme that paired perversity and madness with poor governorship. (Seneca’s description of Caligula as appallingly ugly and pale might be a more accessible ad hominem to a modern audience.) It is possible that Caligula was bisexual, but not impossible that accounts of him as the passive partner in same-sex intercourse were intended as slander given the Roman expectations for adult male sexuality.

Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás

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The first paleobiologist, Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás, was also a near-monarch of Albania and a spy in World War I for Austria-Hungary. He rejected the concept of studying a singular academic discipline and integrated geology, paleontology, and physiology into a hybrid system for reconstructing dinosaur behavior. At the time his hypotheses were considered outlandish, but later scholarship indicates that funky crests were indeed related to sexual selection, confirms the evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, and supports the theory that smaller landmasses can produce pygmy species variations. Several dinosaur species, including Nopcsaspondylus (“Franz Nopcsa’s vertebra”), are named after him.

An adventurer as well as a scholar, Nopcsa made several voyages into the Balkans, and took a particular interest in Albania. He learned several dialects of the native language and used his influence to originate the discipline of Albanian studies; he even joined in the country’s fight for independence from the Turks, and made a bid for the title of King. His campaign cited his aristocratic heritage and proposed an eccentric solution to Albania’s financial problems: Auction off the title of Queen to a wealthy American woman. For the openly gay Nopcsa, the idea made sense: He already had a partner in his secretary, so what did it matter who he married? Albania, however, disagreed, and selected a minor German noble who was deposed six months later as the country transitioned into a republic.

Historiography Saturday: Richard I of England

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Now known by the famous nickname of “Lionheart”, the English king Richard I was renowned in his own time for his military prowess, though not for his Englishness (he came from a French line and despised the weather on the British Isles). The monicker was appointed despite a reputation for cruelty and the war against his father he endured before gaining the throne. Once there, he was active in the Third Crusade, fighting Muslim leader Saladin to a truce in a dispute over Jerusalem. His death came during an internal revolt when he received a crossbow wound to the shoulder.

The matter of Richard’s sexual orientation became an issue beginning with a publication contending that an incident during which Richard shared a bed with King Philip II of France indicates his homosexuality. Some historians consider it to have been a diplomatic formality; others point for additional evidence to a warning by a hermit in Richard’s biography that urges him to give up “what is unlawful” and from Sodom, and be with his wife. What is known is that he had no children with her, and so was succeeded by his younger brother John.

 

Felix Yusupov

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Born to an aristocratic family wealthier than the ruling Romanov line, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, Count Sumarokov-Elston, wasted no time in chasing the high life. He grew up embarking on daring crossdressing adventures, then attended school at University College, Oxford, and married the niece of the Tsar. Things took a turn for the awkward when he took part in Rasputin’s murder, and he and his family went into exile – after purloining enough jewelry and Rembrandt paintings to sustain them, naturally. Many of Yusupov’s later exploits revolved around profiting off the Rasputin story. Thanks to his libel lawsuit against MGM, American movies now feature ending disclaimers stating that the preceding film was a work of fiction.

Yusupov succeeded in evading the worst of Rasputin’s famous doom-saying prophecy and lived happily abroad with his wife and child for more than fifty years following his murder. His bisexuality earns him a place on this blog.