Producing Patriarchy: Male Sodomy and Gender in Early Modern Spain

June 1, 2012

Though I unfortunately have only a limited experience with the vast body of scholarship concerning homosocial and homoerotic relationships in early modern England, I am aware that there is a large and growing corpus of research about the subject, all of which interests me and much of which I have read to help understand and analyze Shakespeare and his oeuvre better. Unfortunately, I have not been aware, until now, of the seemingly smaller but equally compelling body of scholarship about the same phenomenon and what form it took in early modern Spain. This article (cited below), though historical and not exclusively literary in focus, was a great introduction.

Berco, Cristian. “Producing Patriarchy: Male Sodomy and Gender in Early Modern Spain.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 17.3 (2008): 351-376. Web.

Berco is a historian, and he uses an assiduous perusal of archived documents taken from court cases in Aragón during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Spain’s Siglo de Oro) to justify his thesis that sodomy in early modern Spain should not necessarily be seen as a “queer” practice that challenged heteronormativity and patriarchy but rather often as a very extension of patriarchy and a practice that often reinforced patriarchal notions of masculinity and femininity and how the two are accessed and accrued.

Berco starts by noting that early modern Spain was a highly hierarchically organized and deeply patriarchal society. He makes the interesting note that, among women who had certain political or financial prestige and power, masculine attributes were often attributed them, thus reinforcing the notion of the masculine as proper, good, and puissant, while the feminine was weak, fallible, and inferior. (Berco mentions a book written about the tenuous power of Isabel the Catholic, ruler of Castilla and wife of Fernando of Aragón, in a patriarchal world, and it reminded me of the large body of research done about Elizabeth I in England and her similarly precarious situation.) After giving his theoretical underpinnings, Berco then dives into his own research, which looks at court cases of men accused of sodomy or some type of same-sex sexual affection (known as molicies) and how the prosecuted were sentenced and treated. Berco essentially shows that to be penetrated was disgraceful, as it emasculated the receptive subject and made him seem to lose his virility. Being the penetrator, on the other hand, was often seen as something quite normal, a standard extension of the unbridled male sexual impulse. Though the penalty for the penetrator was often worse, given that he was the one leading both partners into sexual sin and therefore more responsible for the vice, socially he was seen as simply indulging in a natural impulse to dominate others by penetrating them, and he could even boast of his sexual exploits rather than cower in opprobrium like the penetrated often did.

Berco’s larger thesis, therefore, is that patriarchy produces a sexual society in which penetration, either of women or of men, helps a man accrue masculinity and assert superiority over those around him. The flip side of the coin, therefore, is that being penetrated, be you male or female, solidifies your status as property, as inferior, or simply as a tool to be used by virile men for their pleasure. When seen this way, male same-sex homoerotic activity might have buttressed early modern Spanish patriarchy and not been a subversive, queer force against it.

This article was lucidly written and contained a sedulously gathered list of sources from archives in Valencia, Zaragoza, and other cities in Spain. Footnote 18 included a host of references that I hope to read in order to understand better the relationship between literature and this phenomenon of early modern Spanish same-sex relationships. Also, Breco included in a footnote and once in the main body of his text allusions to some of the most important writers of the Siglo de Oro, including Quevedo, Lope de Vega, Cervantes, and Góngora, opening up the possibility for some comparative work analyzing same-sex relationships between early modern writers of England and Spain. There is a fertile land of literary research out there, and I hope to till and harvest a fair share of it in the years to come!

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