Long Reads Pick of the Week: The Secret History of Same-Sex Marriage

Since I spend so much time reading long-form non-fiction online, I’m going to link to my favourite one every week for anyone who’s interested in similar reading.

Same-sex marriage seems like a quintessentially 21st-century issue. In fact such formal unions have a long and fascinating history. You can read the full story here.

460x420 SARAH TANAT-JONES for REVIEW 150115 same sex marriage web

If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, for the last 400 years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women.

To begin with, this was a secretive and punishable matter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: households were supposed to be headed by men. Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. After 1600, as the Dutch scholars Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol discovered, examples of such “female husbands” become much easier to find, especially in England, Germany and Holland.

In Amsterdam in 1641, the middle-aged widow Trijntje Barents fell in love with 27-year-old Hendrickje Lamberts. Some time into their affair, Hendrickje began to dress as a man. This improved their sex life, Barents later confessed – from then on, the younger woman “sometimes had carnal knowledge of her two or three times a night, just as her late husband had – yes, and sometimes more arduous than he”. They were a settled couple, who wished they could legally marry. Other Dutch couples did just that. In the 1680s, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel disguised herself as a man in order to wed her long-time lover, Elisabeth Boleyn, in an Amsterdam church. They were only found out years later, when Cornelia tired of wearing men’s clothes.

Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early 1730s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. Mary put on male clothes and turned herself into “James How”. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: s/he served as the foreman of juries, on the night watch, as overseer of the poor. For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.

The Secret History of Same-Sex Marriage by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

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