“But I’d Rather Just Sing!” Homoeroticism at Court

This may be a bit of a meandering post, but it does have a destination (I swear!) and manages to touch on nearly all of the themes of this blog:

I’ve been working my way through the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin and its attending Game of Thrones TV series (on DVD, since I’m resistant to subscribing to HBO for just one or two shows, but I don’t particularly like piracy either).  One of the characters, Renly Baratheon, is in a same-sex relationship, implied strongly in the novels (we never really see the narrative from Renly’s point of view) and made explicit in the adaptation.  Judging by the various fan forums, the fan reaction to this ranged from homophobic rage at the inclusion of gay characters to waxing poetic about Renly’s “manscaping” scene with his lover Loras.  Others like me have had more ambivalent reactions, uncertain of whether this is a perpetuation or a satire of an old trope (or both).  The camping of Renly can’t really be lain at Martin’s feet, whose writing is unusual in the forefronting of gender non-conformists.  I chalk it up more to HBO’s desire to add gratuitous and “boundary-pushing” (i.e. actually rather banal) sex scenes and nudity in all of its series to justify its “premium cable” status.  But while Renly’s likeable character is certainly not as egregious as the depiction of Edward II in Braveheart, the homosexual or effeminate noble is an easily recognizable trope in both imaginative literature and in historical literature.  It’s not a random trope, though, and delving into the history of it reveals some very interesting things about the intersection of perceptions of homosexuality, social class, and foreignness (and Muslim-ness in particular).  (See my definitions page for how I’m using the terms homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and gay).

Game of Thrones’ Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony): a real man’s man with royal power, but doomed to die of excessive special effects in the second act.

Central to my discussion is the historical connection between adab (courtliness, belles lettres) culture of middle period Islamic courts and the courtly or chivalrous ideology of the European medieval period.  Until recently, the connection was denied, in part because of European (and particularly Franco-era Spanish) refusal to acknowledge Islamic influence on European culture.  But most European historians now acknowledge that the European tradition of courtly etiquette and courtly love (i.e. romance, in its original sense) owes a lot to Islamic court mores and practices (which itself had roots in Greco-Persian court practices).  European and Islamic court cultures were, of course, not identical, but the connection between the two is concrete and traceable, even to the point of European individuals who spent time at Spanish Islamic courts.  The era of the Crusades only increased this effect, as fanatic knights returned home with more nuanced conceptions of “civilized” behavior.  This is not to say that the European courtly traditions were adapted cookie-cutter style or exclusively from their Islamic equivalents, but the influence is now considered undeniable and not insignificant.

Interestingly, the attitudes toward same-sex desire and homosexual activities at court played out along similar lines in both Islamic and European cultures.  The reactions among the religious classes and sometimes the common classes associated the tolerance of homosexuality to either an upper class libertinism or to the influence of foreign or ancient (pre-monotheistic) indulgences.  Christian Europe came to connect same-sex desire with Islamic influence, in addition to ancient Greco-Roman hold-overs.  Obviously, medieval European attitudes toward same-sex desire are complex, and I’m only attempting to shed light on one dimension here.


Narratives set in real or fantastic medieval contexts often make an implicit link between social privilege, insufficiently martial masculinity, and libertinism (as well as implicitly defining homosexuality as an expression of libertinism), which derives in part from the construction of an isolated social circle by courtiers themselves.  From the medieval Islamic perspective, it is not uncommon to find a distinction between the elite (khass) and the common (‘amm) folk.  Sensually-oriented poets and intellectuals at court used the elite/common distinction to suggest that Islamic Law (shari’a) could be interpreted differently or more loosely for different social classes.  Wine-drinking was exceedingly common at Muslim rulers’ courts in the middle periods and was referred to in matter-of-fact terms even in the most proper of political etiquette texts.  Even the ascetic Sufis, only some of whom may have indulged in actual wine-drinking or same-sex love, made use of intoxication and homoerotic imagery as a metaphor for the overwhelming emotional power of God’s presence and love.

While the elite/common dichotomy may have justified religiously deviant behavior, the scimitar cut both ways.  The career of Abu Nuwas (a nickname meaning “Father of the Flowing Locks,” d. 814) is a prime example of the ambiguous status of courtly elites who experimented with the limits of sexuality.  His poetry is sharp, biting, blasphemous, and unapologetically raunchy:

Satanic Pride

I quarreled with my boy – my letters
Came back marked ‘Unknown at This Address – So Bugger Off’
In solitude & tears I damply prayed – to Satan:
‘Weeping & insomnia have got me down to 90 pounds –
Don’t you care that I’m suffering?
That I’m so depressed I’ve almost run out of lust?
This obsession’s getting in the way of my duty to thee;
My sinning’s half-hearted – I feel a fit of repentance coming on!
Yes!  Thou hadst better stoke up some love for me in that lad’s heart (you know how!)
Or I’ll retire from Sin: from Poetry, from Song, from pickling my veins in wine!
I’ll read the Koran!  I’ll start a Koranic Night School for Adults!
I’ll make the Pilgrimage to Mecca every year & accumulate so much virtue that I’ll . . . I’ll  . . .’
Well, three days hadn’t passed when suddenly my sweetheart came crawling back
Begging for reunion.  Was it good?  It was twice as good as before!
Ah, joy after sorrow!  Almost the heart splits with it!
Ah, overdose of joy! . . . And of course, since then I’ve been on the best of terms
With the Father of Lies.

– Trans. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam, cited in Night & Horses & The Desert: An Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, ed. Robert Irwin (pg. 125)

Abu Nuwas was tolerated, even celebrated, at the court of caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Amin, but al-Rashid’s other son, al-Ma’mun, was rather more disapproving of Abu Nuwas, although it is unclear whether his sexual proclivities, his acid tongue, or his support of al-Amin during the civil war between the brothers was the chief cause of his imprisonment and death – his critics cited all of these.  That being said, his odes to the beauty of young cupbearers are considered the best of the genre.  The very existence of whole poetic genre revolving around erotic encounters with pages is telling in itself.

The 10th-century Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and his slave and beloved Ayaz: Mahmud is celebrated in courtly and mystical poetry as the proverbial slave of a slave

For the sake of accuracy, it’s important to issue several caveats to avoid projecting our modern concept of “gayness” onto this material.  First, adabi homoeroticism was typically, but not exclusively, asymmetrical, like the predominant structure of Ancient Greek and Persian homosexual relationships.  The “active” partner was generally of a higher age and/or social class.  Young male servants not yet married were the “passive” partner.  Socially equal relationships were not unknown, but they would probably have been the minority and carried more of a stigma even at court, particularly if you were the “bottom.”  Second, these homosexual relationships were not expected to preclude heterosexual marriages and relationships.  It is likely that not all participants in these relationships preferred the same sex, and there was not an identity marker (like the modern term “gay”) to distinguish those who truly preferred the same sex from those who participated in homoerotic relationships or behaviors for the sake of pleasure alone.  In fact, homosexual liaisons were considered more similar to extra-marital liaisons with female servants or mistresses than to sex in the context of marriage – for those at court, sexuality and marriage were not coterminous.   And third, not all of these relationships would have been sexually consummated.  Many thinkers considered the erotic admiration of the male form praise-worthy in itself both aesthetically and morally, as long as it didn’t overstep the idealized form – not unlike the chivalric European knight taking on a female patron, to be adored but not touched (Lancelot crosses this line, bringing doom upon the kingdom).

In both the Christian and Islamic contexts, disapproval of same-sex relationships was often connected to a critique of class privilege and lax religiosity, and usually subordinated to it.  Such critiques usually came from religious leaders (even as other religious leaders participated in court culture).  The elite somehow escape the consequences of disobeying the religious law, it would be lamented.  Sexual deviancy came to be connected to other infractions of the law: drinking, adultery, inappropriate contact between the sexes, wearing silk, etc.  This is not to say that homosexual behavior among other classes didn’t happen – it certainly did – but this rarely attracted the attention of chroniclers more interested in the exploits of rulers and courtiers (such as themselves).


An interesting subtext to both the medieval Islamic and Christian critiques of homosexuality was the idea of its inherent foreignness.  Arab critics attributed the practice to pre-Islamic Persian courts.  Christian writers attributed the practice to Muslims and Jews.  From the perspective of the critics, homoeroticism at court was not just a function of coddled privilege; it was also a matter of “foreign influence,” a betrayal of native purity.  (It is an irony-drenched irony that Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a Persian Muslim, has denounced homosexuality as the export of European colonialism.)

In medieval Islam, figures like Abu Nuwas were embroiled in a cultural struggle to define the civilization.  On the one side were those who felt the spartan martial values of the Arab Bedouins had been diluted by centuries of effete city living among diverse peoples.  On the other were those who believed that the adoption of the urban lifestyles of the ancient empires (particularly the Persian) was the best thing to happen to Islamic society (guess where Abu Nuwas came down).  A late expression of this tension can be seen in the theory of the venerable ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), who believed that the cycle of history was driven by waves of nomadic peoples with purer social values and stronger sense of tribal solidarity conquering decadent and diverse sedentary peoples, only to succumb themselves over time to the strength-sapping temptations of the conquered cultures.

Islamic courtly homoeroticism existed well into the 20th-century (and beyond, if certain rumors are true), but so did the discomfort with it among certain religious scholars.  The Egyptian traveler Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi, who visited Paris in 1826, reveals his ambivalence as he notes the absence of same-sex love in French society (He perhaps wasn’t looking hard enough):

“Amongst the laudable traits of their character, similar really to those of the Bedouin is their not being inclined toward loving male youths and eulogizing them in their poetry for this is something unmentionable for them and contrary to their nature and morals.  One of the positive aspects of their language and poetry is that it does not permit the saying of love poetry of someone with the same sex.  Thus, in the French language a man cannot say: I loved a youth (ghulam), for that would be unacceptable and awkward wording.  Therefore if one of them translates one of our books he avoids this by saying the translation: I loved a young female (ghulamah) or a person (dhatan).”

– cited in Khaled el-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World (pg. 2)

While homosexual acts were condemned and punishable in Islamic Law (although the death penalty was rarely a punishment on the table – it was not considered adultery since it did not violate a husband’s exclusive sexual rights to his wife), there is little evidence for an institutionalized response to homosexual activity beyond the criticism and lamentations from the religious scholars.  The European response, however, was often brutal and systematic.  The Spanish Inquisition, designed to enforce the orthodoxy of Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity (as a condition for keeping their homes or sometimes their lives), often specifically targeted those suspected of engaging in homosexuality, seen as a mark of retaining the values of Islamic culture.  Among the crimes attributed to the heretic Cathars and Templars included homosexuality.  Even if such accusations were unfounded or exaggerated, the association between sexual activity and the dangerous other is clear.

Jean-Leon Gerome, The Serpent Charmer (1880): fatefully used as the cover art for Edward Said’s Orientalism

The popular association of Islamic culture and sexual permissiveness up into the 20th-century has been well-documented by historians of Western Orientalism.  The “Islamic culture” under discussion, however, is court and elite culture more specifically. It is interesting to note how the contemporary Western imagination has shifted its image of Islamic sexuality 180 degree in the last fifty years or so, which perhaps says more about the West than it says about Islam.


Spoiler: They’re really crab people from beneath the Earth plotting the overthrow of surface dwellers

While there are many dimensions to modern American attitudes toward homosexuality over the last century, the perception of it as an elite luxury and as a “foreign” practice persist, particularly in the popular association of gay culture with the performing arts and Hollywood.  Traditional American understandings of masculinity could be characterized as aggressively heterosexual.  Up until recently, gay characters in popular media were typically relegated to subordinate or support roles to the leading man – in effect, courtiers: hair stylists, costumers, interior designers (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy annoyed many gay rights advocates for this very reason, even as it contributed to a trend of positive and non-threatening media depictions of gay people).  Just as the association of homosexuality with court, the association of homosexuality with Hollywood is not a baseless connection.  Until recently, show business had the highest proportion of out constituents.

But it’s here that I would like to flip the narrative.  Is the “luxury” of being openly gay a function of elite cultures encouraging the abandonment of traditional morality or is it rather that social power grants “relative” immunity from the social and physical sanctions that attach to being gay among other social classes?  In other words, courtliness might not be the dividing line between gay/not gay but between visible/invisible.  Projecting the origins of homosexuality onto others – economic others, religious others, ethnic others – has allowed certain assumptions about “authenticity” to persist: real men, true Americans, right-thinking Christians.  Perhaps the true revolution in the past several years has been the disintegration of this trope and the undermining of the illusion that “there are no gays in these here parts.”

One of these things is not like the other! Or is it?