A memorial has been discovered in Istanbul, dated 1391, dedicated to Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. It shows two helmets in profile, as though about to kiss, their shields tilting towards one another and overlapping, symbolically indicating marriage. Nearly five centuries later, Cardinal Newman was buried in the same grave as his friend Ambrose St John, south of Birmingham, in accordance with what he described as "My last, my imperative will". "This I confirm and insist on," he wrote.
At the heart of The Friend is a detailed examination of similar memorials, burials and ballads commemorating an intense and publicly recognised relationship between two people of the same sex. Alan Bray considers the late 14th-century memorial brass in Merton College, Oxford, to two priests, John Bloxham and John Whytton; the monument of Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines in Christ's College, Cambridge, their relationship described by Finch as animorum connubium (a marriage of souls); the memorial of Thomas Legge in the chapel of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, erected by John Gostlin with a heart of flames held aloft by two hands and the words below "Love joined them living. So may the earth join them in their burial. O Legge, Gostlin's heart you have still with you"; the relationship of James I with the Duke of Buckingham, and so on.
How are we to understand these relationships? The short answer from this important, scholarly and subtle book is "Not in any obvious way". For the public meaning of friendship has differed from age to age and the late Bray brings this out through a sophisticated interpretation of small details.
For example, in the 16th century, as we can see in the relationship between Fulke Greville, Philip Sidney and John Coke, a letter suggesting intimacy was an important public document recording connection and status - but also danger. For a person's interests were tied to someone whom one publicly acknowledged as a friend. So such letters needed to be subtly nuanced.
Gestures, such as kisses, also had an important public function. When Robert Carr, the Earl of Somerset, said goodbye to James I in 1615, "The king hung about his neck slobbering his cheeks" and "Lolled about his neck" as they came down the grand staircase. This was very much a public gesture - a false one according to the account we have of it, for Carr was going to the inquiry that led to his death.
Furthermore, until the 19th century, society encompassed a range of relationships that established kinship: betrothals, for example, and becoming a godparent. This latter made one "God's sibling", a "gossip", not only to the child but other godparents and the family. A relationship of "sworn brotherhood" fitted more easily into that world than our own and brought about relationships of families not just individuals.
For Bray, the Christian significance of these committed relationships is fundamental. Sometimes they were entered into in the porch of a church, at other times at a eucharist, and they were seen in the context of a loving Christian community, symbolised by the kiss of peace. They were perceived as foreshadowing the all-loving relationships of the communion of saints.
As the memorial on Newman's memorial stone put it " Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem " (from shadows and images into truth).
John Boswell's book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe identified a rite of adelphopoesis (making brothers) in certain Greek and other Eastern Christian rites. He left it uncertain as to what these really were, with some implication that they corresponded to present-day same-sex partnerships. Bray concentrates on the Western tradition, and it would appear, from his evidence, that there is rather less in common with present-day sexually expressed relationships. One difference of background is that, for most of the period that Bray discusses, it was natural for men to sleep in one another's beds, and to empty their slops. There was an intimacy of body that led to a certain amount of scatological humour but did not lend itself to sexual intimacy, for the most part. An exception is the relationship of Ann Lister and Ann Walker. Lister wrote millions of words in her diaries and notebooks. When the coded parts are deciphered, it is clear that there was a sexual element in their relationship but, again, one that was firmly placed within a religious perspective. They sealed their troth in 1834 in a service of Holy Communion. One Sunday in February in 1834, Lister went to church and wrote afterwards "Mr Musgrave preached a three minute, good sermon from Romans I. 22". This is the only text in the New Testament that explicitly condemns lesbian sexuality.
The Friend is a work of history at its most judicious and illuminating.
Richard Harries is bishop of Oxford.
Author - Alan Bray
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 380
Price - £28.00
ISBN - 0 226 07180 4