Book Reviews

Summary: The Friend chapter 4, The Body of the Friend (part two)

This chapter summary is part of my reading summaries series. Click here for more information on the series. Click here fore more chapter summaries from The Friend.


Sixteenth century humanists may appear to “put aside such bodily gestures with disdain,” but Bray argues that “one need only lift a corner of its rhetoric to see how much it still drew on them and their continuing vitality.” This is illustrated in the paired portraits of Peter Gilles and Erasmus, which the two sent to Thomas More in 1517. In them, Erasmus looks up while composing his Paraphrase of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, towards the book to which Gilles is gesturing, More’s Utopia. “The book projects beyond the frame of the picture, and the gesture draws the unseen observer, More himself, into the intimacy of these two friends seated in Erasmus’s study.”

Copy of the Friendship Diptych, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome

Erasmus explains his gesture in a familiar letter to Peter Gilles, also the dedication of his Parabolae sive Similia: “Friends of the commonplace and homespun sort, my open-hearted Peter, have their idea of relationship, like their whole lives, attached to material (corporal) things; and if ever they have to face a separation, they favor a frequent exchange of rings, knives, caps, and other tokens… for fear that their affection may cool… or actually die away through the interposition of long tracts of time and space. But you and I, whose idea of friendship rests wholly in a meeting of minds and the enjoyment of studies in common, might well greet one another from time to time with presents for the mind and keepsakes of a literary description.”

Bray points out that “Erasmus’s point is that this is a friendship sealed by the exchange of literary gifts, a meeting not of bodies but of minds.”

More underscores this point in verses he included in a letter to Gilles, in which the paintings is meant to speak: “I represent Erasmus and Giles as close friends as once were Castor and Pollux. More, bound to them by as great a love as any man could entertain for his own self, grieves at his physical separation from them. So the measure they took, in response to the yearnings of the absent friend, was that loving letters should make their souls present to him, and I their bodies.”

Bray thinks both men are correct, but that “the design of the portrait also employs precisely the bodily tokens that Erasmus disdained,” and that More’s letter “deftly acknowledges that fact and in doing so negotiates the difficult terrain that lay between them.” While Gilles gestures towards Utopia with his right hand, his left hand holds a familiar letter of friendship. The letter, in More’s handwriting, is addressed “To the Illustrious Peter Gilles, beloved friend at Antwerp.” This handwriting, Bray argues, is “as much (if not more) a token of the body than the… [tokens] that Erasmus so disparaged.”

So More writes: “Do please let me have the letter back: it will double the effect if it is kept handy alongside the picture. If it has been lost, or if you have a use for it, I will see whether I in my turn can imitate the man who imitates my hand so well.” At the time, a letter written in the sender’s hand would have been very significant, as most men had letters written by secretaries. So while the letter may be a “spiritual token”, the handwriting here was also a “bodily token.”

Such a token provided for the “needs of the humanist scholars” in that it “allowed them at once both to employ the bodily tokens by which men had always marked their friendships and at the same time rhetorically distinguished their friendships from those of the past, in a self-conscious humanist transformation of the gift of the friend’s body into the gift of persuasive ‘letters.’” But there are other bodily tokens in the portrait, such as the ring worn by Erasmus, a gift given by More, at the time probably only recognized by More. So More sees a claim to friendship, a claim only visible to him. So the picture “was an invitation but a guarded one. It invited him to provide Erasmus with the countenance he sought but, in the manner in which he did so, to indicate that he knew the limits beyond which it would not be pressed.” It made a claim, but a claim that was carefully bound by the humanist fears and expectations for friendship.


Bray writes that one can hear in More’s letter “the shared laughter of men paying each other the compliment that they know what is appearance and what is not.” But this laughter may be unsettling, and one wonders whether it suggests “that they ethics of friendship may not be altogether what they seem to us now.” In shared laughter, there may be something eluding the outside observer.

Bray looks to the erotics of which the familiar letter may have been a token. For example, Henry Howard wrote to Robert Carr in the early seventeenth century: “Think not that I can find pain in that which give me greatest pleasure which is anything which precedes out of your pen and flows from your mind… that I am now as well acquainted with your hand as with my own, and though it were but that which man takes in cracking a sweet nut to taste the kernel or but like the pain which my Lady Francis [who became Carr’s wife] shall feel when the sweet stream follows” (adapted from old English). According to Bray, the “image extends the erotic relationship [between Carr and Francis] to include Howard, and it is entirely appropriate that it should, for it united also two men.” Similarly, Antonio Perez writes a letter to the earl o Essex likening himself to the mistress of Robert Taunton. The image is a joke, “but the later historian may have the uneasy feeling that these are jokes to which he or she is not fully a party. In such familiar letters something is being said and not said at the same time.”

There are various explanations for such language. Some treat it as evidence of “covert homosexuality”, but Bray argues that such arguments eventually give way under their own weight. Such language appears in the writings of courts prior to those accused of homosexuality, and those writing familiar letters at the same time condemned sodomy. Similarly, Bray argues that the “shared bed and embraces of masculine friendship suggested the sodomidical no more than the conventions of the familiar letter.” Thus, while Jeremy Taylor praises the embraces of friendship, he also condemns sodomy in his Unum Necessarium. Bray questions whether such jokes are about sexuality at all and instead argues that “what is common to all of these jokes is not sexuality but manliness.”

Bray points out that laughter may not come from mockery, but that “something can be a source of humor precisely because it is secure.” Friendships needed to celebrate and honor the fact that the men might father and need to care for children. It also depended on open-hearted motives for friendship. Further, in “modern society most people are likely to be more familiar with the bodies of the opposite sex than with their own. This is rather the humor of men for whom the male body, its sight, touch, and smell, was an everyday reality and… a reassuring instrument by which a man’s place in society might be claimed and protected.” We should take into account this difference in working to understand these jokes.


Bray notes that the “desire for the gift of the friend’s body… does not correspond easily to anything in our culture several centuries on.” However, he looks to a story in William Painter’s Palace of Pleasure to try to explain it. In the story, two men are deep friends, sharing “one heart, one bed, one house, one table, and one purse.” One marries, and “notwithstanding they gave not over their friendship, but persevered in their usual amity.” The husband, however, becomes jealous that his friend is committing adultery with his wife. As the story unfolds, Bray points out that “the story does not present the problem as one of jealousy or sexual desire but in the secrecy that led the one friend to keep his suspicions from the other.” The unmarried friend tells the other: “Likewise for my own part if I were amorous of your wife, you ought not to impute it as a fault unto me, because it is a fire which I bear not in my hands, to use at my pleasure. But if I kept it to myself from you, and endeavour to make your wife know it by demonstration of my love, I might then be accounted that entrustiest friend that ever lived.”

Bray notes that the “moral of the tale”, as the story goes on, “is that what destroys their friendship is not jealousy over a woman but secrecy between friends.” The story points us again to sixteenth-century secretaryship, where the secretary holds a coveted position in the house of his patron, sharing one house, one table, one bed, and one purse, and the story played on the “fantasy” of readers who may hope for such a position. And this fantasy points itself “not toward the body of the friend’s wife, the tale of adultery that we might now be inclined to see as the narrative structure, but toward the body of the male friend himself.”

The Silence Between the Lines

“The body of the friend has been the missing piece within the argument of this book, an instrument that brought into being friendship’s obligations. Friendship was given “solemnly and before witnesses, its gestures gave to the obligations of friendship the objective character that made them indistinguishable from those of kinship.” More difficult to see for later historians are the ethical and pragmatic resentment and dangers carried with these obligations. Responses to these include the eucharistic rite and the “indirection (and laughter) of the language of friendship.

But there is a difficulty in the silence that history bears concerning women, as the “historian needs to be wary of making an argument from silence.” Bray notes that women do play a role here, however, “not as friends, but as the enemies of friendship.” This is seen explicitly in the romance Athelstan, Amys and Amylion, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, in which women repeatedly challenge the friendships celebrated by the stories.

In the darker Amys and Amylion, the “two sworn brothers lie together in death not with their wives but with each other. This is explained in the story, where the Angel Raphael tells Amicus that the blood of Amelius’s children will cure Amicus of his leprosy. Against his wife’s wishes, Amelius slays his children to save his friend, and God “confirms the rightness of his fidelity” by restoring life to his children, while his wife is slain by devils who enter her. Bray cannot see the explanation to this story in what he has written so far, and, as far as he can see, this society does not “explain this lack of symmetry [between men and women] but rather asserts it.” So he works to “press the past for an account that goes beyond what it is willing to give.”

2 comments on “Summary: The Friend chapter 4, The Body of the Friend (part two)

  1. Pingback: Summary: Alan Bray’s The Friend | Ideas of a University

  2. We like your site, it has engaging articles, Have a great day!


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