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The Unexpected History of Friendship, or, History is Personal

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SW:      Hello everyone, and welcome to Histories of the Unexpected, the show where we demonstrate that everything – even things you couldn’t even imagine! – has its own history. Like world peace, universal justice, and…me winning a Ferrari.

JD:      Or: food, mood, and feud; rude, nude, <Sam sniggers> - I thought that would get a laugh from you – and, longitude.

SW:      That’s all about eclipses, and clocks.

JD:       But as ever we will be following the links in our minds as we come across them, explaining, demonstrating, describing, elucidating, expounding, illustrating and unfolding, how those histories link together in unexpected ways. Who knew for example, who knew, that the history of cesspits is all about letters, gloves, and the Reformation; or, that the history of sausages, is all about letters, gloves, and the Reformation. Did I mention the Reformation? Yes, I think I did.

SW:      Pfff! James, do you know what day it is today?

JD:       <cautiously> …Thursday?

SW:      It’s the International Day of Friendship.

JD:       Is it now?!

SW:      It is. It was started by the UN in 2011 as a way of promoting peace and respect between diverse communities. And this seemed like the ideal occasion for what we’re going to be talking about today. Ladies and gentlemen, the man sitting opposite me, let’s just say that if history was in need of a friend, he would give it a hug and then take it down the pub and buy it a few drinks. He is Professor Extraordinaire of Early Modern British History at Plymouth University, it’s the adorable James Daybell; hi James.

JD:       Oh Sam, you know the way to a man’s heart!

SW:      Well, the way to a man’s heart is…through his stomach. <quickly> D’you want a biscuit?

JD:       I really shouldn’t…

SW:      <teasingly> They’re chocolate-covered Hob-nobs…

JD:       <taking two> You know me too well! But be that as it may, the man sitting opposite me is the Erasmus to my Thomas More; or, from the cartoon series My Little Pony that my two delightful daughters have taught me all about, he’s the Rainbow Dash to my Twilight Sparkle, it’s the positively perfect, famous historical adventurer, and my “BFF” - my “Best Friend Forever” - Dr Sam Willis. Hello Sam. Friendship is Magic!

SW:      <laughs> It certainly is. If I look back to when we first got together and started recording these podcasts, I never thought the idea would grow and develop as much as it has. So we’ve been doing this for nearly 4 years now…

JD:       Goodness me.

SW:      …in which time we’ve also written 5 books together, and been touring around doing the live shows, and through doing all that I think we’ve got to know each other quite well. So well, in fact…

JD:       …that we can sometimes even finish one another’s sentences.

SW:      Hmm! Anyway, today’s topic was a suggestion from one of our social media followers, wasn’t it.

JD:       That’s right. They sent us a message saying “Boys…” – Boys?!

SW:      We should do the history of flattery. It’s all about sucking up.

JD:       It certainly sounds like it! Anyway, they went on to say, “your friendship is obviously the very foundation of your podcast; haven’t you ever thought of doing an episode on the history of friendship?” And we never had, had we?

SW:      But it turns out there’s been an immense amount of research done on this recently.

JD:       Yes, in the past 10 years or so people have increasingly been looking at the history of the emotions, and one of the things they’ve been doing within that is to look at the way friendship has been understood and experienced, in different societies and throughout history.

SW:      And there’s one major study that brings a lot of that together all in one place.

JD:       Friendship: a history: a brilliant book that’s been put together by a team of academics led by Barbara Caine of the University of Sydney, and it’s a wide-ranging survey of friendship right across Western culture, all the way from Ancient Greece right up to the present day, looking at how its meaning and nature have altered, and also how fundamentally important it has been and still is, both to individuals and the wider society. But, as our regular listeners will know, you and I like to approach the historical subjects we talk about in ways that are a little more…unexpected than that. So Sam, where are you going to launch us off from?

SW:      Well, “launch” is actually very appropriate, because, as I often do, I started out by thinking about how the subject could relate to maritime history. I did a bit of Googling around, and I found there were 5 ships called HMS Friendship that served in the Royal Navy. The first one was a fireship of 1673. Fireships were used as a combat tactic in the days when ships were, of course, all made out of wood. The fireship would be filled with explosives or combustible material, deliberately set on fire, and then used to break up battle formations, or even set enemy ships on fire. They could be steered or allowed to drift - drifting was preferable in a way, because okay, if you had people on board the fireship to steer it you could direct it more accurately, but then you would have to try and rescue those people later, which might be tricky.

JD:       <winces> Ooh!

SW:      You can see why this first HMS Friendship is recorded as having been ‘sunk in action’! The next one was a coastal patrol cutter that worked down in Start Bay. In 1769 she captured a vessel that was trying to smuggle 200 gallons of brandy as well as some tea…

JD:       Yes…

SW:      The name was also given to another fireship, then a 2-gun vessel that sank off the Channel Islands in 1801, and finally and much more recently, a WWII minesweeper. But then I remembered another Friendship – I mean a ship called that - and this one plays an important part in the early history of that great circumnavigator of the globe, Captain James Cook. The young Cook was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend a charity school in North Yorkshire, where his father was working as a farm bailiff. The school building’s been preserved as the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum, so you can visit there, sit in the room where Cook studied, and learn about what education was like back in those days. Cook did so well in school that he got a job as a shop assistant in the coastal village of Staithes, which is where he started to develop an interest in seafaring, and after a while he was apprenticed to a John Walker, a Quaker shipowner…

JD:       The Quakers being known as “the Society of Friends”…

SW:      You’re right! And in fact, perhaps then that’s why he named his ship, Friendship. This was a collier brig, a coal-ship, on which at the end of his apprenticeship, Cook was appointed as Mate. After working for 3 years on Friendship, he was offered the chance of promotion to Master, but instead he chose to join the Royal Navy, which then led him on to his future work in surveying, and later, exploration.

JD:       So Cook’s famous voyages began with Friendship!

SW:      <laughs> Yep, and they also involved friendship in a very different sense of the word. I want us now to take a look at the impressions Cook formed of some of the native people he encountered on his travels.

During his second voyage, Cook was particularly impressed by the welcome he and his crew received when they arrived at a group of islands in the South Pacific, that had first been visited by Europeans from the Netherlands in the 1600s. We’re lucky to have Cook’s own words about his first impressions of these islands in the form of his journal. Here’s what he writes as they arrive at the island of ‘Eua, which at that time was known to Europeans as Middleburg:

“October 1773. We had hardly trimmed our sails before we observed the shore of Middleburg to assume another aspect and seemed to offer both anchorage and landing, upon this we haul’d the wind and plyed in under the Island, in the mean time two canoes, each conducted by two or three men, came boldly alongside and some of them entered the ship without the least hesitation, this mark of confidence gave me a good opinion of these islanders and determined me to visit them if possible.”

Cook soon meets one of the chiefs and is then welcomed ashore by the native people. He goes on:

“We had hardly got to anchor before we were surrounded by a vast number of canoes full of people, who had brought with them cloth and other curiosities and exchanged for nails etc. Several came onboard among whom was one, who by the authority he seemed to have over the others I found was a Chief  and accordingly made him a present of a hatchet, spike nails and several other articles with which he seemed highly pleased, thus I obtained the friendship of this Chief, whose name was Tioony. Soon after a party of us embark’d in two boats, in company with Tioony, who conducted us to a little Creek formed by Rocks and right abreast of the Sloops and where landing was extremely easy and the boats secure from the surf. Here we found an immense crowd of people who welcomed us ashore with loud acclamations, not one of them had so much as a stick or any other weapon in their hand, an indisputable sign of their pacific intentions.” Cook concludes: “The evening brought every one onboard highly delighted with the Country and the very obliging behaviour of the Inhabitants who seemed to vie with each other in doing what they thought would give us pleasure. The sloops were crowded with people the whole day trafficking with those onboard, in which the greatest good order was observed and I was sorry that the season of the year would not admit of my making a longer stay with them.” Isn’t that a fantastic description?!

JD:       It is, and beautifully read, Sam!

SW:      Thank you! Cook then went on to visit the neighbouring island of Tongatapu, where he noted that the people “received us in the same friendly manner as those of Middleburg had done.” When he returned to the area the next year, he recorded his naming of the island group as “the Friendly Isles or Archipelago, as a firm alliance and friendship seems to subsist among their Inhabitants, and their courteous behaviour to strangers intitles them to that appellation.” However, it seems the people there were not all as friendly as Cook thought. According to the account of William Mariner…

JD:       An appropriate name.

SW:      Ah yes, it was! He was the clerk of a British privateer that was attacked in Tonga in 1806, who was adopted by and lived with the native people for several years. It seems that during Cook’s final voyage, before his murder in Tahiti, he had already narrowly escaped another plot to kill him. Here’s Mariner’s account of the story:

“The character of the Hapai people is not naturally more treacherous than that of the people of Vavaoo; but as they have more petty chiefs whose interest they have to consult, the opportunity for treachery is perhaps more frequent; and if our great circumnavigator…had known them in this respect, he would not have misnamed them Friendly. In fact, they had deliberately planned a conspiracy against him, which would infallibly have been put in execution, if the chiefs who planned it had not disputed about the exact mode and time of making the assault. Finow” – he was the chief who’d adopted Mariner – “was not the designer of this conspiracy, but he gave counsel and advice respecting it. The other chiefs proposed to invite the captain and his officers to a grand bo-méë (a night dance by torch light), and at a signal to massacre him, his officers, and all the marines. But Finow…objected to this, as the darkness of the night would be unfavourable to their operations in taking the two vessels” – Resolution and Adventure – “and proposed rather that it should be done by day, and that they should seize the opportunity of making the attack on the occasion of a grand entertainment which was shortly to be given to him in honour of his arrival…Thus the two ships…might be taken with ease. The entertainment was prepared, and Captain Cook and several officers being invited, were present. It happened, however, a little before the appointed time…that most of the chiefs still expressed their opinion that the night-time would have been better than the day, and Finow…was much vexed, and immediately forbade it to be done at all. Thus, no signal being given, the amusements went on without interruption, and Captain Cook and his officers were much pleased with the entertainment, acknowledging it to be far better than any other that they had received at the Friendly Islands”!

JD:       Which in fact had turned out to be not really very friendly at all.

SW:      It’s worth remembering that Cook hadn’t been consistently friendly to the Tongans either. He was appalled by their thefts from his men and their ships, and has been accused of using unreasonably harsh punishments, although it’s important to remember that in England at the same time, even petty thefts were also punished in a way that would seem very cruel to us today.

JD:       We should do the history of punishment…

SW:      Yes, that’d be a good one.

JD:       But anyway Sam, a toast! A toast to friendship!

“There are good ships and wood ships,

ships that sail the sea,

but the best ships are friendships,

may they always be!”

SW:      Aww!

JD:       An old Irish toast there. <he produces a cup and places it on the desk> Now, have a look at this, Sam. What have we got here?

SW:      We’ve got a sort-of chunky earthenware mug…

JD:       Yes.

SW:      …dark brown in colour, with yellowish decorations…it’s got the date 1638 here, but it’s obviously not really that old, so I’m thinking it must be some kind of replica…

JD:       Yes.

SW:      …and it’s got four handles.

JD:       This, Sam, is a replica of the British Museum’s Wrotham tyg – Wrotham being the village in Kent where large quantities of these were made. They were popular in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, and of course the multiple handles are there because these cups were shared between several drinkers. There’s also a Scottish equivalent, the Quaich, also known as - the “Cup of Friendship”. Sir Walter Scott apparently had quite a collection of them, including one incorporating wood from an elm tree, from under which the Duke of Wellington had supposedly directed his troops during the Battle of Waterloo! And a similar, large and sometimes multiple-handled “Loving Cup” is used in the ceremonies of London livery companies…

SW:      Explain what you mean by a ‘livery company’.

JD:       They’re the modern evolution of medieval trade guilds, associations that had responsibility for training and regulation in their respective professions at that time. The exact origins of the ceremony are unclear, although some say it originated as a way of protecting the drinker from attack by stabbing in the back, in the way that – according to legend - King Edward the Martyr was murdered by his step-mother Aelfthryth when he visited her at Corfe Castle in Dorset. The ceremony’s a bit complicated, but I’ll try and explain it, it goes something like this. The Loving Cup has a cover that one person removes and holds, while a second person drinks and then wipes the cup. The first person then replaces the cover and a third person removes it again to allow the second person to drink, while the first drinker stands behind them ready to protect their back; and so on around the table.

SW:      Hmmmm!

JD:       We should try it out some time, it might make it easier to follow! The point is that all these kinds of cups were intended to allow several people to share a drink together…and I can’t help noticing there’s a bottle of wine on the shelf there behind you…

SW:      We should do the unexpected history of wine…

JD:       We should definitely do that. Maybe if we were to taste some of that wine, it would inspire us?

SW:      Okay James, I get the message. <Sam unscrews the cap and starts to pour wine into the replica tyg>

JD:       Cheers! <he tastes the wine> Excellent, excellent! This reminds me of the work of Mark Hailwood, a social historian who subscribes to the idea of Early Modern historians, like myself, immersing ourselves more fully in the physical and sensory aspects of the historical world that we study. He suggests there are certain aspects of the past that we can only recover by opening our minds to approaches that transcend the more conventionally academic; and an example of this is his  imaginative insight into 17th century drinking songs, which he came about through reflecting on his modern-day experience of singing football songs at a Bristol City match, while he, and most of those around him, were drunk.

SW:      Interesting!

JD:       <passing the tyg > That’s a very good wine, Sam.

SW:      Thank you, it should be!

JD:       Immerse yourself in those sensory aspects of the past, while I talk about Hailwood’s book, “Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England”, which, among other things, explores the role that alehouses at that time played in friendship and sociability. A “good fellow” would mean someone you would share drinks and enjoy socializing with; perhaps not the deepest or most committed kind of friendship, but certainly an important form of social bonding. And the use of ceremonial drinking vessels, such as the tyg, was often part of that; the shared cup, as well as being practical, also having a symbolic significance in uniting the drinkers. There’s also evidence that, at least on one occasion, something rather more personal than alcohol was drunk. In the Case Book of Sir Frances Ashley, a judicial document, it’s recorded that, in a Dorset alehouse in 1617, a servant and a butcher “piste both at once into a chamber pot and then dranke upp the one haufe and thither the other haufe”.

SW:      Ugh! That’s unbelievably gross!

JD:       It certainly suggests they must’ve been very much the worse for wear!

SW:      I’d like to think I wouldn’t be capable of doing that, no matter how much I’d had to drink!

JD:       And it reminds me, you did say we could do the history of urine some time. But, these drinking-companionships are also expressed in many popular ballads of the period. I wouldn’t presume to inflict my singing upon our listeners, but I shall read a verse of this one, by Henry Purcell:

“Would you know how we meet o’er our jolly fully bowls

As we mingle our liquors, we mingle our souls:

The sweet melts the sharp, the kind soothes the strong,

And nothing but Friendship grows all the night long;

We drink, laugh and gratify ev’ry desire,

Love only remains our unquenchable fire.”

SW:      It sounds very friendly indeed…

JD:       However, in other songs, there’s a suggestion that good fellowship might be more of an instrumental kind of friendship. In this one, collected by the diarist Samuel Pepys, the singer laments how others only associate with him for their own advantage:

“When I had coin enough to spend,

Among good fellowes who but me,

Then each one strove to be my friend:

Until strong beere had undon me.

 

Now all is gone and nothing left,

It is not as it was wont to be,

Of all my friends I am bereft,

O thus strong beere has undon me.”

 Here, “good fellowship” has been reduced entirely to a relationship of utility, based on getting other people to buy you drinks!

SW:      <laughs> A cautionary tale, James!

JD:       Indeed, yes. Now, these examples tend to give the impression it was only men who were able to benefit from - or perhaps suffer the consequences of - good fellowship, but that wasn’t always the case. Although there are relatively few recorded instances of all-female drinking groups, women did visit alehouses - often in the company of male family members or relatives, but there are some examples of them meeting men as friends: for example in the diary of one Roger Lowe, who in 1663 noted that he had bought ale for a maid named Jane Wright and that they “were very merry together”. But she doesn’t appear to have been a love interest of his, as the rest of his diary entry for that day revolves around 2 other women who he does write about in those terms.

Interestingly, there’s been a recent scientific study that suggested alcohol is more important in social bonding for men than it is for women. Catherine Fairbairn and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh apparently analysed the contagiousness of smiling – and I’d love to know how they went about actually measuring this - in small groups of drinkers, each group being randomly assigned either an alcoholic beverage, a non-alcoholic alternative, or a drink that was in fact non-alcoholic, but disguised as and described as containing alcohol. They found that alcoholic drink significantly increased the spread of smiles from one individual in a group to the next, but - only in all-male groups. If a drinking group contained any women, the effect disappeared.

SW:      Okay…

JD:       The researchers explained it in terms of men being more inhibited in the kinds of behaviours that tend to develop close, intimate social relationships, due to being constrained by socio-cultural gender norms – and I’ll be saying some more about those later - but that alcohol reduces inhibition, thereby facilitating men’s sociability and bonding. So, fill the cup, and drink to friendship! <he pours more wine into the tyg, but spills some> Whoops! Sam, do you have a cloth handy?

SW:      Here, use this copy of Empire of Booze, that should soak it up alright.

JD:       I said before we should do the history of stains.

SW:      I imagine they featured in many a goodfellow’s drinking session. Nevertheless, compared with the sometimes frankly duplicitous friendships of drinkers, humans’ relationships with animals seem to possess a charming simplicity. And the animal with the longest history of domestication is the dog. Many of our listeners will be aware that I myself have a dog; my lovely cocker spaniel called Geronimo. Relationships between humans and dogs pre-date agriculture and go back thousands of years – some people think as far back as 30,000 years ago. The earliest definitive evidence though comes from about 15,000 years ago, in the form of some dog bones that were excavated from a suburb of Bonn, in Germany, where they’d been buried alongside the bodies of a man and a woman. Interestingly, these bones were recently re-examined by an Archaeology PhD student who also happened to be a veterinarian. He noted that the dog’s teeth showed it had suffered from canine distemper, a serious disease that can cause severe illness and even death. However, this dog had several bouts of ill health before it died, and the researchers believe it’s likely it only survived as long as it did due to receiving human care. Being so unwell, the dog couldn’t have been of practical use to the people it lived with at that time, and this is taken as evidence that prehistoric humans had emotional bonds with at least some of the dogs that lived alongside them.

JD:       They’d started to become pets, in some sense.

SW:      That’s right. It’s thought likely that the process of domestication started with wild wolves that had naturally gentler, less aggressive temperaments that led them into relationship with human communities, maybe to benefit from obtaining food, either from living close to humans and picking up discarded scraps, or perhaps even co-operating with people during hunting. This mutual relationship eventually developed to such an extent, that the dog has come to be referred to as “man’s best friend”. But where did that phrase originate?

JD:       I know the Ogden Nash poem…

SW:      Go on…

JD:       “The dog is man's best friend.

He has a tail on one end.

Up in front he has teeth.

And four legs underneath…”

SW:      Very good. Well, although there are stories of especially loyal dogs dating back much further, the earliest recorded instance of someone referring to a dog as their ‘friend’ is attributed to Frederick the Great of Prussia, a man who was so attached to his pets he requested to be buried next to them, on the terrace of his palace of Sanssouci…

JD:       Where he built a Temple of Friendship…

SW:      Ooh, okay. But I guess his relatives thought it was a bit inappropriate, so they originally had him buried in church next to his father instead, and it wasn’t until 1991 that his wishes were finally carried out. The story goes that during the Second Silesian War – so this is mid-1700s – Frederick was reconnoitring the position of the enemy when he met one of his generals, von Rothenburg. Calling his greyhound to him, he said to the General: “I must present to you one of the most faithful of my friends; I mean Biche” (which was the name of his dog). Frederick liked to think of himself as a philosopher and had a long correspondence with Voltaire, who in his Philosophical Dictionary – perhaps inspired by Frederick – defined the dog thus: “Of all the animals it is the most faithful: it is the best friend man can have.”

JD:       Voltaire also wrote that: “Friendship is the marriage of the soul; and this marriage is subject to divorce.”

SW:      That was his opinion of human friendship, wasn’t it. But perhaps my favourite example is the case of Old Drum. We have this story from the court records of legal proceedings held in Missouri in the late 1800s, in which a farmer, Charles Burden, sued for damages after his hunting dog was shot and killed. The farmer’s brother-in-law, Leonidas Hornsby, owned the neighbouring farm. He’d lost more than 100 sheep to attacks from stray dogs and wolves, and perhaps understandably, he’d resolved to kill the next stray dog he caught on his land. Then one autumn evening in 1869, a dog wandered into his yard. According to Hornsby’s account, he considered it might belong to one of his neighbours, and he claimed that he told his nephew, who was there with him, to fire a gun loaded with corn to scare the dog away. After the shot was fired, Hornsby stated that the dog yelped in pain, jumped over the fence and disappeared.

The next morning, Charles Burden’s favourite dog, known as “Old Drum” because of his unusual deep, regular bark that was said to resemble a drum-beat, was nowhere to be found. Burden went and questioned his neighbour, who basically tried to deny any involvement: he did admit that his nephew had shot at a dog, but said that he’d thought it belonged to another neighbour. Burden was suspicious, so he went with another farmer and searched Hornsby’s farm until …

JD:       Oh no, I don’t like sad stories…

SW:      Yep. They found Old Drum’s body lying by a stream with his head in the water, covered in small shot wounds. There was mud on one side of the body and the fur on that side was roughed up, and Burden believed this showed that someone had moved, perhaps dragged, the dog’s body to that place. He also found several horse hairs on Old Drum’s body that he believed had come from Hornsby’s horse.

JD:       Aha!

SW:      Burden vowed to have satisfaction for his dog’s death ‘at the cost of his life’, and filed a lawsuit for $100 damages – the equivalent of about £1500 today. It sounds a lot of money, but apparently Old Drum was quite famous in the local area, and much in demand for his hunting and tracking abilities. The legal proceedings ended up being drawn out over the course of nearly 3 years, going through 4 trials as Burden persisted in his attempts to obtain justice. Finally, in September 1870, by which time the case had attracted considerable public interest, the arguments were again played out before a packed courtroom; and at the conclusion of this trial, Burden’s lawyer George Vest presented his closing remarks. He’d previously stated that he intended to win the case or “apologize to every dog in Missouri”, and although his final speech wasn’t actually written down until some time after the trial, it’s survived as the most brilliant and persuasive tribute to dogs and their masters. Have a listen to this:

“Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in this world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stones of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fierce, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come from encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wing and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

  If fortune, drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of his company to guard against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in his embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.”

JD:       Extraordinary.

SW:      It had a big effect on people at the time, too. It’s said there was hardly a dry eye in the courtroom by the time Vest had finished speaking. The case eventually went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which awarded Charles Burden $50. And in the 1950s, a statue was erected outside the current Missouri County Courthouse building. It depicts Old Drum, and on the base of the statue is a bronze plaque on which is written George Vest’s moving testimony.

JD:       A fantastic story. We should do the unexpected history of dogs. Is Geronimo your best friend, would you say?

SW:      Well, I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that, but he’s happy to get up and come for a walk with me at 6 in the morning, James, which I’m pretty sure you would never do!

JD:       But Sam, you know I would be equally loyal! When riches take wing and your reputation falls to pieces, I too will be constant in my love!

SW:      Er…thank you...I think. But James, what’s all this about love; I thought we were talking about friendship?

JD:       That actually leads rather well into the other thing I want us to talk about. Let me take you back to Frederick the Great’s Temple of Friendship. Frederick had this built as a tribute to his sister, who he was quite close to, emotionally and intellectually. It’s a little classical rotunda, with columns around the outside that are decorated with medallions depicting friendships from Greek mythology. Now the thing is, at least some of the friendships depicted – Orestes and Pylades, Nisus and Euryalus - are regarded by some people as having had a romantic, perhaps even a somewhat…homoerotic tone; and that’s particularly relevant to Frederick the Great, who modern historians generally agree was probably that way inclined. Anyway, what I want to take a look at now is the way in which the boundaries people draw between friendship and other kinds of relationships have changed across history.

SW:      Right.

JD:       Nowadays, most people tend to try and put quite clear, distinct boundaries between their friendships and other kinds of relationships, for example, with family members, work colleagues, or sexual partners, but that wasn’t always the case. In the Classical world of Ancient Greece – which of course is what Frederick the Great was making reference to with his Temple - the word philia, often nowadays translated as “friend”, in fact included a much wider range of relationships that our modern use of the term: as well as family it included acquaintances, and relationships of hospitality and mutual benefit. Our English word “friend” derives from the Old English word freond, which could refer to what we would call a friend, a relative, or a lover, and over time, friendship has variously referred to social bonds of kinship and utility as well as emotional affection. So the kinds of relationships to which society is willing to give the label “friendship” have changed over time, as have ideas about what kinds of friendship might be regarded as most “true” or valuable. To investigate this idea further, I think it’s particularly interesting to look at the borders between friendship and other kinds of relationship, and the concept of romantic friendship is a very useful illustration of this.

SW:      Okay.

JD:       To modern ears, “romantic friendship” might sound like an oxymoron, but for much of history it was perfectly possible to talk about friendship as a kind of love, and expressions of friendship could possess considerable intensity and intimacy. The great Renaissance scholar Erasmus, recalling the company of his friend Thomas More, declared: “let me perish if in all my life I ever met with anything more delectable”; and here is More writing to Erasmus, this time in 1517: “You would hardly believe, my most lovable Erasmus, how my affection for you, which I was convinced would admit of no addition, has been increased by this desire of yours to bind me still closer to you.” To give a female example, and from a different period, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote to her friend Susan Gilbert in 1852: “I need you more and more…every day you stay away – I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie...forgive me Darling…my heart is full of you.”

SW:      Mmm.

JD:       Now, to many people today these statements sound suspiciously like there is rather more than friendship going on, and it’s possible that some romantic friendships were what we would now understand as homosexual relationships. The important thing to understand though is, homosexuality as it’s understood today wasn’t conceptualized until the late 19th century, so this modern sense of a fixed orientation, whereby certain people are thought to be consistently attracted to others of a particular sex or gender, and along with that the desire to categorize people in that way – that just didn’t exist. It’s true that there was, in various historical periods and cultures, disapproval of specific kinds of sexual activity: what was referred to as “sodomy”, which was initially rather vaguely characterized by the Christian church as any non-procreative sexual act, but in civil law was later more closely defined as anal sex. But this didn’t only cover male-male sexual acts: the Buggery Act introduced by Henry VIII, which made sodomy punishable by death, and which wasn’t repealed in England and Wales until 1861, theoretically applied equally to heterosexual anal sex and bestiality, although it’s true that convictions for these were unusual. Same-sex emotional and even physical affection, however, unless it led to someone engaging in such acts, was relatively unproblematic, and verbal and physical romantic expressions of same-sex friendship – two men making declarations of love, holding hands, cuddling, even sleeping in the same bed, were in general seen as normal and unremarkable.

SW:      Hmm…

JD:       Ironically, it was as homosexuality became more clearly defined and better understood, that these platonic expressions of same-sex affection came increasingly to be regarded with suspicion. A fascinating visual illustration of this can be found in John Ibson’s book Picturing Men, which is a collection of photographs of male friendship and comradeship, from America, dating from the late 1800s up until the 1920s: Sam, have a look at this portrait photo.

SW:      Erm…so we have two men, they’re obviously in some kind of photographic studio, there’s a sort-of fake staircase going off to the right. Then they’re sitting on a chair, with one of them sitting on the other’s lap, and er…the underneath man has his hand on his friend’s thigh.

JD:       It’s quite tactile, isn’t it. It really illustrates just how far attitudes have changed. I mean, imagine if we were to be photographed like that…you sitting on my lap, and with my hand on your leg..!

SW:      <dryly> That would put me in mind of the history of consent.

JD:       Yes, erm…here’s another one, look; this is from a bit later when snapshot cameras had become available, and it was possible for more spontaneous images to be taken.

SW:      Okay, again we’ve got 2 men; this time they’re in some woodland, looks like they’re sitting on a large boulder, and they’re side by side, with their arms wrapped around one another, giving each other a big hug.

JD:       To the modern eye, these pictures, and many others in Ibson’s book, look extremely gay. Now, we have no way of knowing whether the particular individuals, in any of these particular photographs, were homosexual or not, it’s possible that some of them were; but the point is that these photos, which seem so intimate to us today, weren’t seen at the time as any kind of expression of sexuality. Public expression of homosexuality was at this time not accepted, and the photographic studio was a very public place; these photos were quite simply expressions of the men’s friendships, in which this level of physical closeness was still considered unremarkable. And with the snapshot photos too, remember they would usually have been developed, and therefore seen, by someone other than the individuals involved, so we can assume that the poses shown wouldn’t have caused any concern. But as homosexuality became increasingly clearly defined and separated from non-sexual same-sex relationships, along with that came a growing fear of being seen as gay by others, and this led to a huge increase in self-consciousness about expressions of affection between men. As an illustration of how very much things have changed, when Ibson was putting his book together, he asked various present-day portrait photography studios whether they had ever had two men come in and have their photo taken together; and this was now so unusual, that many of the photographers said they had never seen such a thing happen in their entire career.

SW:      We’ve been photographed together, quite a bit…

JD:       But in the context of being colleagues, of our working relationship. You know, if it was a personal portrait…

SW:      …yeah, I guess; people would talk…

JD:       But now I want to bring things right up to the present day by looking at the “queering” of friendship, and this is a very recent development, that’s been mainly led by the LGBT+ communities. And one of the things this does is to challenge the assumption that friendship can never include any romantic or erotic aspects. A really quite mainstream example is the concept of “bromance” – a blend of the words ‘brother’ and ‘romance’ – to describe a close, affectionate relationship between two men. The word bromance has mostly been used to signal the heterosexual orientation of at least one, and frequently both, partners in this kind of homosocial friendship, to distinguish it from homosexual relationships. But although bromance is mostly thought of as non-sexual, it does involve a high degree of emotional and perhaps also physical intimacy; much more than is included in the modern idea of friendship, but very reminiscent of those romantic friendships I mentioned earlier.

What queer theory has done – and I’m thinking particularly of the wonderful work of Eve Sedgwick here - is to open up an increased awareness and discussion of, and also importantly, flexibility about, a much wider range of ideas about sexuality, gender and attraction. People are beginning to challenge the assumption that people’s romantic and sexual orientations will always match – that a heterosexual person will also be heteroromantic, that is, be both sexually and romantically attracted only to people of the opposite gender; or equally, the assumption that someone who experiences romantic feelings for both sexes – what would be called ‘biromantic’ – will also be bisexual. But as we’ve seen, that wasn’t necessarily the case in the past, and it’s not necessarily the case now. So is bromance a kind of friendship, or is it a romantic relationship? What we’re seeing here, again, is this modern tendency, this wish to sharply define things that in reality are not at all straightforward or clear-cut. Ultimately I think it reminds us that friendship can never be completely separated from romantic and even sexual relationships. There’s an ambiguity around the edges of it, those boundaries people are so keen to clarify are blurred, they’re fuzzy, it’s kind-of a grey area. It’s complicated, Sam, and I think if we wanted to unpack these ideas fully I’d have to go on forever.

SW:      Well don’t do that, the listenership would drop right off. Guys, thank you very much for listening, I hope you found that interesting, I certainly did. Erm…

JD:       We should do sex, Sam.

SW:      What..?

JD:       We’ve done The Kiss, and The Bed, and I think it’s time, we should…

SW:      Oh, you mean the Unexpected History of sex…

JD:       Absolutely! It’s all about hands, and lips, and tongues, and…lubrication…

SW:      <quickly> Sorry guys, that’s all we’ve got time for! Please do check out historiesoftheunexpected.com for all the stuff we’ve got on, for details of our books and all of our previous podcasts. And please do get in touch on social media: you can find me on Twitter @drsamwillis…

JD:       …you can find me @jamesdaybell, and you can follow the future progress of our friendship on @unexpectedpod.

SW:      Anyway guys, do please get in touch, we’d love to make friends – whatever that now means! -with every single one of you! Thanks a lot for listening, bye!

JD:       Bye guys!