Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2004

The Friend, by Alan Bray

reviewed by Michelle Appleton

Alan Bray’s book is an examination of same-sex-union ceremonies in the Christian Church from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries (later ceremonies are much harder to find). The bulk of the book, because of its concentration on England, deals with the sworn-brotherhood ceremony rather than the adelphopoiesis ceremony of the Orthodox Church.

In all his discussions the devout, Roman Catholic convert Bray is determined to deny that these ceremonies mark gay or lesbian relationships without explicit written proof to the contrary. I am sure that Bray is right in believing that many of these relationships are indeed just very deep friendships but, in his drive to prove that, he seriously underestimates the number of gay relationships that did occur.

Bray uses a wide range of evidence to support his thesis, but he was inspired to begin his quest by tomb monuments, and it is tomb monuments that underpin his entire text.

Bray’s first example, the fourteenth-century tomb of Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe in Istanbul, is a perfect example of my contention that he strenuously avoids seeing a gay connotation in spite of the strong evidence that one existed. The tomb monument shows the two men’s helmets as if about to kiss. Even more tellingly, their two shields are divided in half – “impalement” is the heraldic term – as they would be for a married couple. As the inscription is in Latin and not Greek, it does not indicate adelphopoiesis, but what the fifteenth-century heraldic student Richard Strangways called “sworn brothers”.

Bray adduces many real-life and fictional examples of brotherhoods sworn on the relics of saints and followed by the Eucharist and therefore in a church. After the Reformation, there is a reduction of the linking of this ceremony with the dead and the use of the Eucharist, which had become linked with political conformity.

The ritual also includes the kiss of peace, which is how Bray interprets the position of the helmets. I was persuaded by Bray’s unromantic argument until I read his report on the deaths of these two gentlemen. According to the chronicle of Westminster Abbey:

It was also on the 17th October that in a village near Constantinople in Greece the life of Sir John Clanvowe, a distinguished knight, came to its close, causing to his companion on the march, Sir William Neville, for whom his love was no less than for himself, such inconsolable sorrow that he never took food again and two days afterward breathed his last, greatly mourned, in the same village.

However, it is also true that Neville, before 1366, married an heiress and thereby obtained property, which he needed because, being the younger son, he was precluded from inheriting that of his own family.

Bray tells us that the kinship ties engendered by the sworn-brotherhood ceremony did not prevent marriage; he also mentions that it was probable that Clanvowe never married but declines in the face of all this evidence to believe that Clanvowe and Neville were more than just good friends.

I fear that my own agenda may be showing through, so it is appropriate to stress that the burden of Bray’s discussion is indeed about friendship. Bray is very good not only on the responsibilities of friendship but also its public demonstration.

Bray’s chapter on the friendship between Sir Philip Sydney and Fulke Greville gives a detailed description of the way friendship letters can exist solely to publicly demonstrate the obligations that existed between the greater and the lesser. An example of this is the letter that Greville wrote to John Coke detailing the elaborate monument that he intended to build for himself and Sidney. The monument was never built but the letter was carefully preserved by Coke and circulated by him.

Such letters had great value because they demonstrated to third parties the value the lesser, in this case Fulke, had in public life because of his relationship to the greater (Sydney); and Fulke’s letter to Coke also performs the same service for Coke himself. Bray also tells us that English Christianity was grounded in friendship and kinship and not romantic love: “Sworn brotherhood did not create potential impediments to marriage ...”, as we saw with William Neville’s marriage to the heiress.

One of the examples of female partnerships in Bray is the early-seventeenth-century tomb of Ann Chitting and Mary Barber in the Church of St James in Bury, Suffolk. Bray says that this is just one sample among a number of female tombs and wonders if this is something new in the seventeenth century or whether they were just more visible in the seventeenth century.

Bray devotes a great deal of space to “sworn brotherhood” but we should not lose sight of the adelphopoiesis rites that continued to take place in Greek and Byzantine Europe and are still performed by the Old Catholic Church, including here in the UK, along with the Latin Catholic Ordo ad fratres faciendum rite used by the Franciscan friars in Dalmatia from the fourteenth century. Bray speculates that this rite may also have been performed in the Latin West but finds the evidence inconclusive. Bray goes on to take issue with John Boswell’s interpretation, in Same-sex Unions in Premodern Europe, of adelphopoiesis as a gay ceremony and for applying a modern definition to a society with a completely different understanding of relationships. I find Bray’s view simplistic and demonstrative of his own agenda.

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Created : Sunday, 2004-05-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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