“Had he not been abused against nature?” : priests, Italians, and children in French sodomy trials, 1540-1670

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2019-12-06

Authors

Taft, Alexander Edward

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Abstract

Though scholarship on the history of sexuality has at times been oriented towards a narrative of the cultural creation of the “homosexual,” the act of sodomy was itself extraordinarily complicated in its meanings, its practices, and its prosecution. In this paper, I draw on cases from the early modern Parlement of Paris, the court of last instance for the northern half of metropolitan France, to explore this sexual act on a scale from small villages to large cities. Sodomy as an act had multitudinous meanings for early modern people. Despite its premodern status as an “unnatural vice,” it increasingly fell to secular authorities to determine punishment for sodomy in the early modern period. Between 1540 and 1670, as many as 137 men were prosecuted for male-male sodomy in the Parlement of Paris. The details of their cases suggest that specific factors pushed neighbors to denounce these men over others. These relatively few individuals were prosecuted for a common sexual practice because they exhibited markers of difference which placed them on the margins of their communities. This analysis demonstrates that key markers of difference, when combined with sodomitical activities, were clerical status, foreign origins (particularly association with Italy), and age relative to their victims of possible “abuse.” However, there were also components of these identities, such as clerical privileges, which could be leveraged to advantage a sodomite in the course of prosecution. I argue that sodomy as a practice was common in early modern French cities as well as in rural villages and that these markers, particularly association with Italians, represented a kind of dog-whistle for criminal sodomitical intentions that could lead to denunciations which were serious enough to be heard in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Parlement of Paris.

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