Review: Harry Cocks: Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire and the End of the World in England 1550-1850 (2017)

March 14, 2017 in General

Review: Harry Cocks: Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire and the End of the World in England: 1550-1850: Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2017.

The “Sodom and Gomorrah” discourse plays a not inconsiderable role in fundamentalist apocalyptic and antigay rhetoric alike, never mind its absence of concrete historical veracity. However, for the most part, analyses of this account of apocalyptic anality have largely been restricted to the present day, with fundamentalist conspiracy theories about the European Union, USSR, the United Nations, credit cards, despotic planetary government and the ‘inevitability’ of nuclear war. The godawful Left Behind fundiepulp potboilers recycled the concept in the Noughties, but with the end of the Cold War and the turn of the millennium, apocalypticism has died a subdued death- although perhaps, that is, until CE 2033 and the bimillennial anniversary of the Crucifixion.

Anyway, Harry Cocks has changed the focus of this inquiry to the early modern past. In the sixteenth century, it might have seemed to some Europeans as if the world were ending, faced with the resurgence of Islam as a military force that now threatened Central Europe, the Catholic/Protestant schism, resultant religious insurgencies against specific denominational ascendancies, heresy burnings in Catholic nations and fears of subversion and assassination in Protestant jurisdictions. This led to a profusion of apocalyptic social movements, particularly the Anabaptist Kingdom of Munster in 1535, as well as peasant revolts and cross-class regionalist initiatives against centralised regimes such as those in Tudor England. At the same time, from being an ecclesiastical offence, ‘sodomy’ became a secular criminal offence under the Buggery Act 1530, although specific antigay prosecutions were rare in England until the advent of the Societies for Reformation of Manners, the first “Christian Right” movement in the United Kingdom, in the 1690s. At times like the assassination of William the Silent in the Netherlands, the Spanish Armada, the Jacobean Gunpowder Plot, the Civil War, the absolutism of Louis XIV in France, and the Jacobite insurgencies of 1715 and 1745, it may have seemed as if the world were ending. However, in that case, why didn’t greater effusions of ‘anti-sodomy’ rhetoric mark these periods of history? Why did they only emerge in the 1690s, ironically under the gay William III? Certainly, there were anxieties about a Catholic revanche after 1688, especially as William III, Mary II and Anne all displayed childlessness, which threatened the return of James II and his heirs from France. The eighteenth century also saw the use of anti-sodomy legislation to undertake capital punishment against apprehended gay men, which was pursued within the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and pre-revolutionary France, usually hanging or burning at the stake. Early Hanoverian England was not a happy place to be a gay man. At the same time, evangelical Protestant Christianity began to emerge out of the matrix of Methodist non-conformism, with its emphasis on micromanagement of everyday life, social control and policing urban space. Oddly enough, the apocalyptic and antigay strands of these discourses were out of synch with one another for prolonged periods- the Civil War, Great Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of 1666 all resulted in outpourings of apocalyptic rhetoric, but not antisodomy moral panics. Those did not arise until the eighteenth century, when the spectre of civil disorder had receded, as had apocalyptic discourses. However, it is possible that the troubled past could be recuperated as an element within later antigay rhetoric and propaganda. As time went on, however, that particular element of rhetoric would increasingly fail to mobilise supporters.

As the nineteenth century dawned, Europe experienced further upheavals in the wake of the French Revolution, Napoleonic imperialism, widespread warfare, and the collapse of absolutist monarchies across Western Europe. However, at the end of this period, Napoleonic France had decriminalised male homosexuality and even Georgian England had mitigated criminal penalties from capital punishment to long-term imprisonment. Then, after 1860 and the heyday of Victorian England, fears about mechanised militarism, mass mobilisation and centralised government led to renewed apocalyptic fears- at the same time as a large-scale metropolitan gay male community began to emerge in many European cities, resulting in the Cleveland Street scandal, Park and Boulton trials and the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. That fear of apocalypticism had some foundation as the brutality and carnage of the First World War actually made clear. Cocks has usefully historicised contemporary debates about ‘sodomy’ rhetoric and antigay activism that uses such tropes. This is an excellent historical account, well worth reading.

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