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The ‘queering’ of the Mary Rose insults gay history

The wreck of the Mary Rose at the museum in Portsmouth. Credit: Hufton + Crow

August 9, 2023 - 2:30pm

Gay men and lesbians from the past have proved a fruitful area for historians interested in those who lived secret and proscribed lives. Writers such as John Boswell and Alan Bray have patiently illuminated lost existences, recovering evidence their subjects would have felt compelled to conceal or destroy. However, the principle that drives good historians and curators, to understand how people of the past saw themselves differently from present day attitudes, has been apparently lost. 

This week, the museum dedicated to Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, published a blog post about “Queering the Mary Rose’s Collection.” Visitors to the ship were invited to consider objects like a mirror which may bring “queer people […] a strong feeling of gender dysphoria”. A nit comb is important because “queer people […] subvert and play with gender norms [to] find hairstyles that they feel comfortable with.” (Presumably nit-free.) 

More than that, a gold ring reminds us that “queer people” have often regarded themselves as married. Probably not with this ring — but, anyway, it happens these days. Rather curiously, none of this engaged with what British sailors have done since the dawn of time: namely, have sex with each other. But “queer people” are often, I find, a bit prudish like that.

Institutions including the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England, and Historic Royal Palaces are connecting curators through a “Queer Heritage and Collections Network”. This aims to “map the needs of the heritage sector in relation to LGBTQ+ histories”. Of course, the word “queer” has been appropriated by an activist sector of the gay male community within the last 30 years and then, more recently, has even been extended to heterosexuals to claim a comparable “otherness”. Whether this latter usage could be fairly applied to anyone at all before the year 2010 seems most unlikely.  

Still, it seems clear to the whole sector that gay and lesbian people, famously baffled by and uninterested in art, culture, and all that, urgently need a curatorial guide to lead them to the doors of a museum. Enter the juvenile satraps of the Network’s Steering Group, for whom understanding the past is evidently a secondary concern.

It is unusual and deplorable that, before sharing its blog post, a museum like the Mary Rose didn’t say, quite firmly, “sorry – this isn’t good enough for us to publish.” It is perfectly reasonable for the author to incorporate her personal experience into a conversation with friends, and tell them what she feels when she looks into a mirror. But a historic public institution with a job to explain lost, past lives is just wasting our time and its own by letting people witter on about what it’s like to be them in 2023. 

There is a more serious point to be made here. Gay and lesbian history had an enormous struggle to emerge into serious consideration, and it was the dedication of scholars like Boswell and Bray which brought it there. What serious and talented historian or curator now would think of dedicating his or her career to the subject? Who would want to say that they are working on networks of working-class gay men in 19th-century Manchester, for instance? An academic interlocutor would say “queer history, I suppose” and mentally lump them in with people who think looking at a Tudor mirror reminds them of being a bit different when they were, like, struggling with issues. Thanks, but no thanks.

The end result may be that bad work drives out good, and selfless scholarship runs aground, driven by people who aren’t half as interested in the past as they are in telling you all about themselves, at length.


Philip Hensher is the author of eleven novels and a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University

PhilipHensher

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

“Enough about me; let’s talk about you–what do you think about me?”

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Great post. Made me chuckle.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
11 months ago

Great post. Made me chuckle.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago

“Enough about me; let’s talk about you–what do you think about me?”

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

What the hell is ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ history? Is this where queer historians out Shakespeare as a cross-dresser and Henry VIII as a closet gay? As someone who loves and has formally taught pre-1800 history and literature, it really grinds my gears when activists appropriate history to forward their own agendas. It is a study of postmodern narcissism if nothing else.

Ryan Scarrow
Ryan Scarrow
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

If you had read the article you’re commenting on, you’dve seen where Hensher refers to historians who have specialized in history about gay and lesbian individuals who lived their lives in secret and about the various ways that homosexuality has been part of human society, rather than making your snide comments conflating this serious work with activists who ‘queer the dead.’ But again, this implies you read the article and are commenting here in good faith.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

That was perhaps the case about thirty years ago and the reason why queer scholarship was permitted into the humanities. Since then queer scholarship has become hell-bent on painting all history as millennia of heteronormative oppression or a series of historical cover ups of gay identities. My comment comes from a place in which I’ve taught in the humanities for twenty years and am therefore fully aware of how much of it has devolved into petty critiques of anything masculine, heterosexual, and pale-skinned.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Ryan Scarrow

That was perhaps the case about thirty years ago and the reason why queer scholarship was permitted into the humanities. Since then queer scholarship has become hell-bent on painting all history as millennia of heteronormative oppression or a series of historical cover ups of gay identities. My comment comes from a place in which I’ve taught in the humanities for twenty years and am therefore fully aware of how much of it has devolved into petty critiques of anything masculine, heterosexual, and pale-skinned.

Ryan Scarrow
Ryan Scarrow
11 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

If you had read the article you’re commenting on, you’dve seen where Hensher refers to historians who have specialized in history about gay and lesbian individuals who lived their lives in secret and about the various ways that homosexuality has been part of human society, rather than making your snide comments conflating this serious work with activists who ‘queer the dead.’ But again, this implies you read the article and are commenting here in good faith.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
11 months ago

What the hell is ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ history? Is this where queer historians out Shakespeare as a cross-dresser and Henry VIII as a closet gay? As someone who loves and has formally taught pre-1800 history and literature, it really grinds my gears when activists appropriate history to forward their own agendas. It is a study of postmodern narcissism if nothing else.

AC Harper
AC Harper
11 months ago

A while ago I walked around a reconstruction of a medieval village. There was a bowl of broccoli in one kitchen which would not have been in Britain in medieval times.
I guess someone applied ‘modern expectations’ to a completely different time.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The next time I’m at a reconstruction village I’m looking forward to eating a period-accurate Kinder Surprise Egg.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The one thing that you should not do is point out any errors to staff – it is niot appreciated. I made the mistake of commenting to a member of staff at a Roman period museum that they would not have had orange carrots; I was told that the museum staff were better informed than I, and I ought to just shut up and believe what I’m told (the last wasn’t worded quite like this, but that was the implication)

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

I’ll say! I went to an event about the witch trials in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut. One of my companions kept correcting the man leading the tour to the point that the other participants simply ignored him and looked to my friend for information. I was embarrassed for him: he was humiliated, and he was obviously ill-informed.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago

My wife tells of sharing a flat with a girl who worked for well-known cruise company back in the 80s and the company liked their office staff to go on cruises if they could and at a discount if there were spare berths on a cruise. Nice staff perk. The berth was for two and so invited my wife to be along for the jolly. One thing and another they ended up being co-opted as tour guides, given a crib sheet and led a couple of the tours. We always have a giggle now if a tour guide is a bit vague about stuff. Can’t help it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Gee

That sounds like a lot of fun! And educational!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago
Reply to  Samuel Gee

That sounds like a lot of fun! And educational!

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago

My wife tells of sharing a flat with a girl who worked for well-known cruise company back in the 80s and the company liked their office staff to go on cruises if they could and at a discount if there were spare berths on a cruise. Nice staff perk. The berth was for two and so invited my wife to be along for the jolly. One thing and another they ended up being co-opted as tour guides, given a crib sheet and led a couple of the tours. We always have a giggle now if a tour guide is a bit vague about stuff. Can’t help it.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
11 months ago

I’ll say! I went to an event about the witch trials in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut. One of my companions kept correcting the man leading the tour to the point that the other participants simply ignored him and looked to my friend for information. I was embarrassed for him: he was humiliated, and he was obviously ill-informed.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You don’t have to go back that far. The Beeb recently featured an “historic” drama of WW2 in which a Spitfire was apparently fitted with an ejector seat.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The next time I’m at a reconstruction village I’m looking forward to eating a period-accurate Kinder Surprise Egg.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The one thing that you should not do is point out any errors to staff – it is niot appreciated. I made the mistake of commenting to a member of staff at a Roman period museum that they would not have had orange carrots; I was told that the museum staff were better informed than I, and I ought to just shut up and believe what I’m told (the last wasn’t worded quite like this, but that was the implication)

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
11 months ago
Reply to  AC Harper

You don’t have to go back that far. The Beeb recently featured an “historic” drama of WW2 in which a Spitfire was apparently fitted with an ejector seat.

AC Harper
AC Harper
11 months ago

A while ago I walked around a reconstruction of a medieval village. There was a bowl of broccoli in one kitchen which would not have been in Britain in medieval times.
I guess someone applied ‘modern expectations’ to a completely different time.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

I went to the Ashmolean in Oxford years ago which has some Ancient Greek vases with figures. One showed a male suitor offering a gift to a younger male. This would have been quite unexceptional to the Greeks of the time.

Under the vase, some modern health and safety muppet had put by way of explanation; ‘Paedophile grooming child’.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Future homophobia will be enforced by the same people who currently sport rainbow lanyards and pronouns in their e-mail signatures.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I saw that; I must admit that I found it rather amusing. It got the classical scholarship world in a bit of a tizzy which is always fun to watch.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago

Agreed. Our world is beginning to look like an old-fashioned sketch comedy/variety show. Sometimes the best entertainment is accidental!
Will the classical scholars be doing a musical number?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
11 months ago

Agreed. Our world is beginning to look like an old-fashioned sketch comedy/variety show. Sometimes the best entertainment is accidental!
Will the classical scholars be doing a musical number?

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Future homophobia will be enforced by the same people who currently sport rainbow lanyards and pronouns in their e-mail signatures.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I saw that; I must admit that I found it rather amusing. It got the classical scholarship world in a bit of a tizzy which is always fun to watch.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
11 months ago

I went to the Ashmolean in Oxford years ago which has some Ancient Greek vases with figures. One showed a male suitor offering a gift to a younger male. This would have been quite unexceptional to the Greeks of the time.

Under the vase, some modern health and safety muppet had put by way of explanation; ‘Paedophile grooming child’.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

“selfless scholarship runs aground, driven by people who aren’t half as interested in the past as they are in telling you all about themselves, at length.”

All the Mary Rose witterers are telling us is that they are frightened bureaucrats. They fear being labelled as “homophobic”, and foresee articulate noisy activists organising placards or twitter pile-ons. So they feed the crocodile and hope it will be satisfied and move on. “We’ve mentioned you without sniggering or sounding clinically censorious. We even used the once-forbidden q-word to show we are in the academic wing of the club. Now please leave us alone!”

On this occasion, though, the only crocodile food they could get was meagre and of poor quality. The more it’s fed, the better it thinks it deserves.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I very much doubt those responsible for the labelling are “frightened bureaucrats”. The language used is indicative of the activists you refer to, who’ve marched into this particular institution and taken over the helm.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Maybe. When I was working, we copied the language to keep on the right side of the thought police, but nobody really believed it.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

Maybe. When I was working, we copied the language to keep on the right side of the thought police, but nobody really believed it.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

I very much doubt those responsible for the labelling are “frightened bureaucrats”. The language used is indicative of the activists you refer to, who’ve marched into this particular institution and taken over the helm.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

“selfless scholarship runs aground, driven by people who aren’t half as interested in the past as they are in telling you all about themselves, at length.”

All the Mary Rose witterers are telling us is that they are frightened bureaucrats. They fear being labelled as “homophobic”, and foresee articulate noisy activists organising placards or twitter pile-ons. So they feed the crocodile and hope it will be satisfied and move on. “We’ve mentioned you without sniggering or sounding clinically censorious. We even used the once-forbidden q-word to show we are in the academic wing of the club. Now please leave us alone!”

On this occasion, though, the only crocodile food they could get was meagre and of poor quality. The more it’s fed, the better it thinks it deserves.

Hugh Jarse
Hugh Jarse
11 months ago

It’s bewildering tosh to any sane person but what else to expect when responsibility for comms is handed to the interns.

Hugh Jarse
Hugh Jarse
11 months ago

It’s bewildering tosh to any sane person but what else to expect when responsibility for comms is handed to the interns.

Richard Kirker
Richard Kirker
11 months ago

Anyone hoping lgb history at Oxford is in objective hands need only ponder the appointment of Prof Matt Cook to the first Jonathan Cooper Chair of Sexuality, now more commonly referred to as LGBTQ History, funded to the tune of ÂŁ4.9m by the relentlessly trans activist Arcadia Fund. His three anthologies to date are Locating Queer Histories, Queer Cities, Queer Cultures. What Mansfield College and Arcadia failed to honour was the fact Jonathan Cooper was first and foremost a widely regarded human rights lawyer, not a historian.

Richard Kirker
Richard Kirker
11 months ago

Anyone hoping lgb history at Oxford is in objective hands need only ponder the appointment of Prof Matt Cook to the first Jonathan Cooper Chair of Sexuality, now more commonly referred to as LGBTQ History, funded to the tune of ÂŁ4.9m by the relentlessly trans activist Arcadia Fund. His three anthologies to date are Locating Queer Histories, Queer Cities, Queer Cultures. What Mansfield College and Arcadia failed to honour was the fact Jonathan Cooper was first and foremost a widely regarded human rights lawyer, not a historian.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

How many fisting slings did the Mary Rose have?

Enquiring minds want to know!!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Well, this enquiring mind is happy not to enquire into that realm.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
11 months ago
Reply to  Dumetrius

Well, this enquiring mind is happy not to enquire into that realm.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
11 months ago

How many fisting slings did the Mary Rose have?

Enquiring minds want to know!!

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
11 months ago

No sphere of human experience can avoid being distorted by the countercultural Left to push themselves to the forefront of culture. “It’s all about us, really.”

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
11 months ago

No sphere of human experience can avoid being distorted by the countercultural Left to push themselves to the forefront of culture. “It’s all about us, really.”

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago

Defund this charity ASAP

Stephen Quilley
Stephen Quilley
11 months ago

Defund this charity ASAP

xxx xxxxx
xxx xxxxx
11 months ago

Good to see the lovely late Alan Bray’s work credited here.

xxx xxxxx
xxx xxxxx
11 months ago

Good to see the lovely late Alan Bray’s work credited here.

Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
11 months ago

I trust there was an explanation of the wonderful possible uses of a belaying pin?

William Shaw
William Shaw
11 months ago

Yawn

Paul T
Paul T
11 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Past your bed-time little one?

Paul T
Paul T
11 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Past your bed-time little one?

William Shaw
William Shaw
11 months ago

Yawn