Any history of homosexuality in England encounters three problems. First, until recently, homosexual practices were ‘unmentionable’ crimes. Thus the historical record is scarce and we generally only hear of these matters in cases of complaint, scandal or prosecution. Secondly, we often read of ‘brotherly love’, and it is hard to know where this ends and ‘gay sex’ begins. Thirdly, ‘homosexuality’ is an essentially modern concept (the word, as Ackroyd reminds us, dates from only 1869). In previous ages, the focus was not on a category of persons possessing particular urges, but on deeds that might be committed by any man.
Recognising these problems, but undaunted by them, Ackroyd gives us an enjoyable romp through two thousand years of English history. He presumes that the early Celtic inhabitants indulged in the ‘passionate friendship between men’ ascribed to them by Aristotle. The Romans naturally brought their customs with them, including pederasty, the