New Directions in the History of the Body: Holly Fletcher in Conversation with Gary Ferguson on Same Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome

by | Jun 7, 2024 | Uncategorised | 0 comments

In January, the Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective hosted Professor Gary Ferguson who delivered a lecture on the subject of his latest book ‘Same Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome’. Dr Holly Fletcher spoke to Professor Ferguson about his experience of researching and writing the book as part of the interview series ‘New Directions in the History of the Body’.

Recording of Prof Gary Ferguson (Virginia), Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Bodies, Emotions, Material Culture, 16 January 2024, online lecture hosted by The Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture Collective, with a response by Dr Holly Fletcher (Manchester)

GaryPhotoGary Ferguson is Douglas Huntly Gordon Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia. He is a specialist of the literature and culture of sixteenth-century France, and of early modern Europe more broadly. His research focuses on the areas of gender, sexuality, and queer studies; women’s writing; and the history of religion. His latest book, Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe, explores the case of a group of mostly Iberian men living in Rome, executed in 1578 for reportedly having celebrated weddings between themselves at the church of Saint John at the Latin Gate. His previous book, Queer (Re)Readings in the French Renaissance: Homosexuality, Gender, Culture (2008), was among the first to bring questions from the history of sexuality and queer theory to bear on both canonical and lesser-known literary texts from sixteenth-century France.


Holly Fletcher is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Manchester on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘Sleeping well in the early modern world: an environmental approach to the history of sleep care’. Her work focuses on the history of the body and its entanglements with the material world and her research has been published in leading journals including Historical Research, Gender & History, German History and Food & History. Her article ‘“Belly-Worshippers and Greed-Paunches”: Fatness and the Belly in the Lutheran Reformation’ won the 2021 German History Article Prize. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2020 for which she examined the cultural significance of body size, fatness and thinness in early modern Germany.



Holly Fletcher: In your paper you returned to the case covered in your book Same Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome, involving a group of men who were arrested and later executed for planning to conduct a same-sex wedding ceremony at the church of St John at the Latin Gate in Rome. The book includes a close reading of fragmentary remains of the trial transcript from the case, the original records having been deliberately burned. You describe the story, very movingly, therefore, as ‘one of both oppression and erasure – of bodies reduced to ashes scattered to the wind, or records destroyed’. How did you navigate these gaps in the sources when writing the book and returning to this material for your talk? What would you say are the main challenges when looking for ideas about, or experiences relating to bodies, emotions and material culture in sources such as these, and how can we overcome them? 

Gary Ferguson: Of course, like anyone engaged in historical research, I tried to fill in the gaps as much as possible, striving to find as many potential sources as I could, as well as turning to existing documents and studies for relevant contextual information. For example, we know how some members of the group earned a living, but not others. So I drew on the work of scholars who have shed light on the demographics of lower class labourers in early modern Rome and similarly for the Spanish and Jewish populations of the city. It was also important to me always to be clear about what the available sources say and what they don’t say; about where they agree or disagree (and the possible reasons for this, if discernible); and about what eventualities, on this basis, I might extrapolate or what possibilities I might hypothesise. Finally, I decided to deploy two inverse strategies to complementary effect. First, to value factual elements that in relation to central questions might seem less important or revelatory, even accidental or tangential – for example, concerning material possessions, clothes worn, or food eaten: to ‘go with’ or tell ‘the stories that were there’ and to allow them to ‘speak’ in whatever way they might. And second, taking inspiration from post-colonial historians, to respect silences, to render them explicit and, thus, in some sense, ‘eloquent’. Concerning bodies, the sources are relatively informative – from the sex acts the men enjoyed and performed to the judicial torture and execution that were inflicted on them. By contrast, emotions are hardly ever evoked and can only be inferred or imagined; it’s important to do this openly, not prescriptively, so as to acknowledge the different possibilities a given situation might entail. Like bodies, elements of material culture figure frequently, whether ephemeral fragments, at this point long disappeared, or perennial structures, traversing the ages, that continue to make up the urban fabric of the ‘Eternal City’.

HF: An interesting question you pose in the book is why the men chose to marry in the first place when they had no intention of forming a household or raising offspring – though modern observers might assume it was for love, you found no mention of this sentiment in the records relating to the case. You suggest that their decision needs to be viewed in connection to the wider collective or ‘emotional community’ within which the men were operating, as well as a more communal sense of identity in this period. Do you feel that this case holds implications, therefore, for our broader understanding of early modern marriage and the emotional communities it could involve?

GF: As I’ve just mentioned, individuals’ emotions are not referred to explicitly in the extant fragments of the trial transcript. What emerges most clearly from these is a picture of the wider community, the collective actions and plans of the members of the group, and some of their activities in and around Saint John at the Latin Gate. As you note, historians have also shown how a sense of personal identity was more communally constructed in the Renaissance and that marriage remained distinctly family and community focused. For the most part, then, I was working from the wider context to the specific case, from the history of marriage as an institution to what that might imply for the same-sex weddings at the Latin Gate. Crucially, the second half of the sixteenth century was a time when the institution of marriage was in evolution, a site of tension. In Catholic regions, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the prerogatives of individuals but also subjected them to greater constraints. In different ways, then, the members of the group might have been influenced by traditional or more recent views of getting married. In the end, given that the main social constraint operating in their case was that all same-sex relationships were forbidden, it’s hard to imagine that their appropriation of marriage didn’t involve, to varying degrees in the different actors, forms of complicity, affection, friendship, attraction, love, and lust. As for the possibility of working from this case back out to the wider context, that’s an interesting question and not one I’d fully considered before. As I’ve suggested, socially sanctioned marriages were deeply embedded in emotional communities made up of family, neighbourhood, religious, professional, and other sorts of networks. But what kinds of emotional communities or refuges might be available to a person – especially perhaps a woman – unhappy in such a situation, to a couple involved in a non-sanctioned or proscribed relationship, or to spouses of minority or marginal status in one way or another, bereft of the usual social support? Each case would no doubt be different, but that of the Iberians at the Latin Gate might hold resonance for other situations involving immigrants, for example, or ethnic minorities.

HF: The case, and your recounting of it, challenges some ingrained understandings within the history of sexuality regarding sexual activity among men in this period. Several of the men’s testimonies reveal a flexibility and versatility of sexual practice (rather than being limited to one ‘active’ or ‘passive’ role) that has generally been presented as unique to modernity. Moreover, some of the men’s appearances defy common historical assumptions about what kind of role they would take – the boatman, Battista, for example, was described as being big and brawny but as sexually passive. Would this also have challenged early modern expectations regarding body size and sexual practice? Can you expand on the significance of body size for sexual activity in this period?

GF: The pederastic model of male same-sex relations constituted the predominant cultural paradigm in Renaissance Europe. Consequently, while the extent and forms of actual practices may have varied in different times and places, it was generally ‘understood’, if not expected, that an older partner would penetrate a younger one, with resulting implications for body size and form. An adolescent youth would typically be lither and smoother; a more mature male would usually be physically larger and more hirsute, with the growth of facial hair being considered particularly significant. In this context, a well-developed man taking a passive or a versatile role did go against common expectations and in Italy older males who were passive were often punished more severely than younger ones in the same situation. This explains why a sexual relationship between two mature men also ran contrary to contemporary cultural codes.


Church of St John at the Latin Gate. Wikimedia Commons.


HF: A strong sense of the significance of place emerges from both your book and your paper. The site of the Latin Gate was where the men initially gathered to celebrate the wedding, and later where their bodies were burned having been paraded through the city following their execution. In your paper you suggested that this place was perhaps a site of ‘emotional refuge’ for the men and you mentioned that, when researching the book, you went to visit the church of St John at the Latin Gate. Was it particularly important for you to visit the site? What did you gain from this experience?

GF: Yes, it was important. On the one hand, I wanted to ascertain if the church complex might house a parish archive or other collection of records. I discovered this wasn’t the case, as might be expected from the fact that the building has changed hands many times over the centuries. But I was also viscerally drawn to the place, at once highly curious about it and somewhat apprehensive. I suppose going there was a kind of pilgrimage for me and I wanted to see what the building and its surroundings might be able to tell me, if anything. The isolation of the site was obviously suggestive, though historical knowledge is required to appreciate that today’s bucolic green spaces were formerly fertile ground for bandits and malaria. What I gained from the experience of visiting the Latin Gate, I strove to articulate in the book’s final chapter, which moves beyond traditional historiographical methods, taking inspiration from a number of post-colonial and queer scholars, and in particular their reflections on the ideas of ghosts and haunting. This is a vein of thought that queer writers continue to develop. In a recent memoir mixing personal retrospection and historical exploration, for example, Jeremy Atherton Lin writes poetically in response to the Adelphi area of London: “I am a participant in an archaeology of looking, of cruising. (Cruising was once called haunting, and the men who participated were referred to as ghosts.) What I find may be my projected fantasy – like idealizing a stranger in the dark. But given our history has been erased and revised, I take no issue with inventing a few mythologies” (Gay Bar: Why We Went Out [New York, Boston, London: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 2021], p. 112). From the standpoint of traditional historiography, such approaches have their limitations and may indeed pose serious problems. My personal view is that when they are developed carefully and responsibly and are clearly signalled, they can avoid becoming simply anachronistic and serve to expand historical understanding in meaningful ways.

HF: In the book, you describe the conflicting emotions that this visit provoked for you: ‘profound sadness and melancholy, but also anger, and a sense of identification and pride’. How would you say the emotions you experienced in relation to this case informed your recounting of it? What role do you think the emotions of the historian can or should play in history writing? 

GF: In relation to your first question, I’d have to say ‘fundamentally’, since a degree of emotion as well as intellectual intrigue was what drove me to work on the case in the first place, to pursue the historical questions, after reading the story in Montaigne’s Travel Journal: Could this really have happened? And if so, how and what might it have meant? That having been said, I also believed it was essential to construct as factual and objective an account as possible – as I said earlier, in response to your first question, to distinguish between what could be established with (relative) certainty from the sources and any more subjective elements, including hypotheses I might extrapolate, and reflections involving alternative historiographical approaches. There are two sections in particular where I explore the latter, giving rein to emotions elicited by the elements of material culture I mentioned earlier. The first section concludes chapter 5, which opens Part 2 of the book, devoted to the examination of the documents in which the men themselves appear and their words are recorded. Here, confronted with a series of terse testamentary statements and taking inspiration from Michel Foucault’s response to the eighteenth-century records of ‘infamous men’, imprisoned the Hôpital général and the Bastille, I ‘pause’ to ‘dwell on’ the long-lost worldly possessions of the condemned prisoners, inventoried before their execution. The second section is chapter 11, which concludes Part 3 and the book as a whole. I referred to this chapter in response to your last question concerning the site of Saint John at the Latin Gate. This chapter offers, in a sense, an alternative – optional – ending, a line of reflection complementary to the traditional historical narrative that culminates in chapter 10.

Regarding the second part of your question, it seems to me that a historian’s emotions must often play some role in his or her writing. At the least, I think there must usually be some degree of personal investment – and this is likely greater, the greater the emotionally charged nature of the subject (e.g., the Holocaust, other genocides, slavery…). Perhaps it might also be greater in the case of microhistories, where a conviction of the actors’ wider significance must be a driving force, as in Carlo Ginzburg’s evident interest in Menocchio the miller or that of Natalie Zemon Davis for Martin and Arnauld, and, most importantly, for Bertrande. Without such investments, we would surely have fewer hi-stories to enjoy. At the same time, I also believe it’s important for emotions and other forms of personal investment to be acknowledged and controlled or circumscribed, if the aim is to offer a historiographical as opposed to a fictionalized or some other hybrid form of account.