Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England, c.1550-1850, by H. G. Cocks

Peter J. Smith lauds a powerful study of the relationship between homoerotic desire and anxieties about social, religious, cultural and even apocalyptic collapse

June 22, 2017
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin 1852
Conflagration: the ‘story of Sodom’s destruction is central to the history of homoerotic desire’, writes Cocks

At the time of writing, a rainbow flag hangs over Tate Britain. The gallery’s current exhibition, Queer British Art, celebrates the creativity of the closet between 1861 (the year that execution was replaced by life imprisonment for a conviction of sodomy) and 1967, the year of the Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between consenting men. Have we come a long way in the past 50 years? A recent news report in The Guardian stated: “A spokesman for [Ramzan] Kadyrov [Chechnya’s leader] has previously denied their existence, saying if there were gay people in Chechnya, their families would have killed them.” It seems not.

In Visions of Sodom, H. G. Cocks examines the relationship between homoerotic desire and the various anxieties about social, religious, cultural and even apocalyptic collapse. He demonstrates how the contemporary Christian Right (especially in America) has hijacked the discourse of Sodom for a homophobic cause. But this is a comparatively recent association. From the early modern period and through to the 19th century, Cocks shows, the homoerotic was understood “in relation to broader categories of behavior such as fornication, uncleanness, or atheism”.

Some of the most virulently anti-Sodomitical propaganda was, unsurprisingly, that of the early modern Protestants accusing the Papacy of religio-sexual turpitude. Chief here was John Bale, employed by Thomas Cromwell to denigrate the Roman Church from which Henry VIII’s new religious splinter group had departed so acrimoniously. William Tyndale as well as Bale insisted on the perversion of clerical celibacy that flew in the face of scriptural evidence as well as the practice of the early church. This could lead only to sodomy and whoredom as the Antichrist established increasing dominance over the institutions of Catholicism – both in Rome and in the remnants of the Roman faith closer to home.

In a fascinating chapter, Cocks demonstrates how the discourses of lewdness and urban growth were entwined: “the city made material the overlapping connection between apparent prosperity, economic iniquities, luxury and sexual excess”. This led (from about the 1680s) to the emergence of the many societies for the reformation of manners of which “by 1699 there were eight such societies in London, along with others in nineteen English towns”. The apparent deathbed conversion of the period’s libertine par excellence, the Earl of Rochester, “was held to prove conclusively that sin was contrary to reason and nature”.

This shift in emphasis was intensified by Louis-Félicien de Sauley’s claim (in 1851) to have located the historical city of Sodom in the area of the Dead Sea. While Darwinism and geology had served to undermine scriptural literalism in “an age of creeping religious rationalism and historicism”, de Sauley’s sensational discovery “electrified evangelicals and anti-Catholic writers” as well as appealing to political radicals such as the Chartists.

This is a powerful and important book. As St Paul insisted, sodomy was a crime not to be named and so homoerotic desire quickly became screened by hyperbolic accusations of all kinds of iniquity. In disentangling these complexities, Cocks demonstrates not only how the “story of Sodom’s destruction is central to the history of homoerotic desire”, but how its various inflections have been shaped by religious, political and cultural contingencies.

Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University, and co-editor (with Deborah Cartmell) of Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Reader in Arden’s Early Modern Drama Guides (forthcoming).


Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England, c.1550-1850
By H. G. Cocks
University of Chicago Press, 352pp, £41.50
ISBN 9780226438665 and 8832 (e-book)
Published 24 April 2017

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments