Blurred Lines: The Criminalization of Buggery in 16th Century England

Giovanni Lanfranco, Naked young man on his bed with a cat, 1620.

This exhibit is intended to be the first step towards a larger research agenda examining sex, particularly the crimes of buggery, in early modern England. In 1533, the Parliament of England passed the Buggery Act, England’s first sodomy law criminalizing acts of homosexuality and bestiality. Existing scholarship ascribes the emergence of the law as a result of the ongoing Protestant Reformation throughout the 16th century; however, the evidence present in this exhibit demonstrates that Parliment's intervention in initial matters of spiritually was as a consequence for the unsuccess of canon law. The primary purpose of this exhibit is to examine the fears and anxieties that England experienced over centuries that led to the eventual criminalization of bestiality. Excluded from this exhibit is in-depth details concerning bestiality and women and an-depth timeline analysis of England’s relationship with animals.

The primary concerns for early Christianity and later Protestantism included issues of morality and public safety. Religion in England since the Medieval Era had attempted to define and support the boundary that seperates man from animal; unfortunately, centuries of teachings that had been carefully cultivated created (inadvertantly) more complex questions regarding the status of animals, furthering the ambiguity of a boundary. Moreover, these boundaries continued to be trangressed as a result of the church’s lack of control over the creation of “monsters.” Thus, the responsibility for the spiritual and physical protection of the realm was transferred to Parliament. No longer would the punishment for engaging in buggery be a penance but instead met with death. Lastly, individuals tried for the crime of buggery are provided in order to illuminate the seemingly perpetual difficulty that is establishing boundries.