Friday, 14 August 2015

The Seven Deadly Gay Sins : Going Green With Envy

It’s time to get sinful again! This time we go green with ENVY.

Along with red and blue, green is a colour which is instantly associated with one of the Seven Deadly Sins. The association dates from Medieval times and entered Christian tradition (not to be confused with Christian doctrine). So we place ENVY on the green stripe of the Rainbow Pride flag.
I suppose, like many gay men, I’ve been guilty of envy many times. I’ve lost count of times I wish I was as young and gorgeous as Tom Daley!

Envy has often been substituted with JEALOUSY. In modern psychological terms the two are slightly different. Jealousy is the negative emotion felt at the uncontrollable loss of something which you want back (your ex, your job, etc.). ENVY is felt against people who possess something you never had in the first place, whether status, abilities or attributes of someone else. To the medieval mind there was no difference however.

If there’s one thing my researches have shown me over the years it’s that when it comes to envy its best NOT to be highly placed in society. In particular, it best not to be a male favourite of a king, because most of them have come to a sticky end because of it.

Of particular personal interest is the fate that befell the two favourites of my ancestor King Edward II of England (1284-1327). I know I’ve mentioned them several times on this blog, most notably in this article. But it illustrates well the role that both envy and jealousy played in the downfall of Piers Gaveston, murdered by the barons whose traditional positions at court and influence were given to the favourite.

King Edward’s next favourite didn’t fare any better. Hugh le Despencer (d.1326) rose to prominence as a royal favourite 700 years ago in 1315. He was among a group of nobles who supported the king in his battle against the Earl of Lancaster. When open hostilities broke out in 1321 Hugh was well placed at court. On Lancaster’s defeat Hugh received many estates that belonged to the rebels. In 1322 King Edward (accompanied by Hugh) came to Nottingham Castle to pardon all the rebels (including one Robin Hood of Wakefield).

Soon Hugh was being envied and hated by the barons as much as Gaveston was. Even Edward’s queen, Isabella, was jealous of Hugh’s influence. It was the catalyst for her rebellion and Edward’s forced abdication. Even though I doubt there was any sexual aspect to the relationship between Hugh and the king it’s clear that their contemporaries were sure of it. Hugh suffered the fate of all those condemned for treason in England – he was hanged, drawn and quartered. Even his 89-year-old father didn’t escape punishment – he was hanged and fed to the dogs.

But envy and jealousy can work the other way round. In one of my “Around the World in 80 Gays” articles a few weeks ago I recounted how the Byzantine Emperor Mikhael III fell in love with a hunky peasant called Basileios. With no legitimate heir to succeed him Mikhael quickly elevated Basileios into a succession of imperial offices of state, culminating in that of Co-Emperor.

Apart from the general political and dynastic rivalries that characterised Byzantine history there was very little envy on display. True, there was some envy of the former peasant’s rise to power, but he was wily enough to keep in everyone’s favour. Until, that is, the arrival of a new favourite.

In 866 the 26-year-old Mikhael found a new favourite, presumably one a lot younger than the 30-plus-year-old Basileios. The new favourite flattered Mikhael so much that he was rewarded by being given the emperor’s shoes to wear. Not just any shoes, but the official red jewelled shoes that were part of the imperial regalia. Only an emperor was entitled to wear them. Even Basileios hadn’t been allowed to wear them, and he was Co-Emperor. It would be like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” giving her ruby slippers to the Munchkins to play with. Basileios complained vigorously. Mikhael threatened to give the co-emperorship to the new favourite if he didn’t mind his own business. You can guess what happened next.

Basileios became jealous and envious of the new favourite’s position and feared losing this title, even if Mikhael didn’t really mean it. But to make sure that he remained Co-Emperor he decided to assassinate them both.

After a particularly alcohol-filled evening (Mikhael’s nickname was “the Drunkard”) the emperor retired to bed with the new favourite in the adjoining room, reserved for the most trusted imperial official. Basileios burst through the chambers and stabbed Mikhael before he could get out of bed. The new favourite was dragged away, and presumably executed, though there’s no actual record of what happened to him.

Basileios was now sole Emperor of Byzantium and he reigned for 19 years. It was his envy and jealousy that got him there, but he was actually a popular ruler – you couldn’t reign for 19 years in those days without being liked! So at least envy did someone a favour even if it IS one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

(NOTE: The reason I haven’t named Mikhael’s new favourite is because I didn’t want him to be confused with Basileois. The new favourite was called Basiliskos).

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