Homosexuality’s forbidden histories

  • Themes: Books, History

Throughout Europe and the Christian and Muslim worlds, same-sex relations in the Early Modern period were far more disparate and complex than received wisdom would suppose.

The Men's Bath by Albrecht Dürer.
The Men's Bath by Albrecht Dürer. Credit: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Noel Malcolm, Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1450-1700, Oxford University Press, £25

The love that dare not speak its name has, in fact, had many. On the first page of this deeply erudite, highly original and epoch-making book, Noel Malcolm explains why he eschews modern terminology such as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ in favour of the word commonly used in early modern Europe: sodomy.

Indeed, Forbidden Desire is, among other things, a sustained and richly documented repudiation of anachronistic assumptions about past modes and manners in the sexual sphere. Though a newcomer to the burgeoning field of the history of homosexuality, Malcolm demolishes received wisdom and takes on cultural idols such as Edward Said and Michel Foucault. This is a work of formidable scholarship that will transform its subject but, like all the best historians, Malcolm is also an elegant writer who never allows his vast corpus of material to obscure his argument. Not least because that material is by turns poignant and salacious, this is an academic page-turner.

His story begins in 1588 with a minor scandal at the Venetian embassy in Istanbul, where two young male members of the household – Gianesino, a giovane di lingua or trainee interpreter, and Gregorio, a barber surgeon – attracted attention by their open display of what had evidently become a physical relationship. The bailo, or ambassador, heard evidence against them from other servants and decided to take action to prevent damage to his reputation with the Ottoman authorities.

Gianesino was expelled from the bailate (embassy). Gregorio was initially allowed to remain but repeatedly climbed out of a window. When the window was blocked, he said that he ‘might as well lose his soul’. The bailo understood this as a threat to convert to Islam and had the youth shipped back to Venice in chains.

Though both young men lost their jobs, no further punishment was imposed. In this they were relatively fortunate: many of those convicted of sodomy during this period (1400-1750) were pilloried, tortured, imprisoned, enslaved, or executed by beheading, hanging, garrotting or burning at the stake.

Malcolm tells us a lot about this case, because the records are unusually revealing not only about the accused individuals, but also about the attitudes towards same-sex relations on both sides of the Christian-Muslim divide. What emerges are patterns of prejudice, to be sure, but also profound similarities between the sexual cultures across the Mediterranean world. The affair between Gianesino, who was probably in his twenties, and the adolescent Gregorio could easily have happened if they had both been Muslims rather than Christians. It was even alleged by one witness that Gregorio had offered himself for sex to the Turkish official who accompanied them on the journey from Dalmatia to Istanbul.

What was characteristic of both faith communities was the assumption that most young men would find ‘beardless youths’ attractive, that they might well act on these desires, but that such sexual liaisons would end at the latest by the time they married. The rules around sexual intercourse were strict: only the boy (who might be any age up to the appearance of facial hair, typically at around 20 years old) was permitted to play the passive role; for a grown man to be other than the active partner was not only dishonourable, but a capital crime.

Malcolm traces both the geographical extent and historical genesis of this pan-Mediterranean phenomenon. Deploying his extraordinary range of linguistic expertise, he shows how ubiquitous this particular type of ‘same-sexual’ relationship was, not only in southern Christendom but in pagan and Islamic societies. While there was considerable variation across the Graeco-Roman world, even the advent of Judaeo-Christian moral prohibitions on sodomy could not stamp out what was accepted as a form of initiation into adulthood. The conquering Arabs adopted this among other Hellenistic practices from the Byzantines. Their established customs were, in turn, assimilated by the Turkic peoples who succeeded them.

Malcolm convincingly refutes the acolytes of Said, who try to explain away as ‘Orientalist’ the numerous Western observers who remarked on the prevalence of sodomy in the Ottoman Empire. After carefully examining the evidence and its possible contamination by prejudice against Islam, he concludes that they could not have been making up what they saw. Rather, those from Italy in particular would have recognised behaviour familiar from home, even if they chose to frame sodomy as a Muslim vice. Similar psychological mechanisms later caused Protestants and Catholics to attribute sodomitical tendencies to one another.

When it comes to Northern Europe, however, Malcolm finds scant evidence of sexual activity between young men and ‘beardless boys’. Male same-sex relationships were neither age- nor role-specific, were much less visible, and hence the evidence is sparser. He rejects the claims of historians eager to uncover a fully-fledged ‘gay subculture’ in early modern London, or of literary scholars to detect same-sexual textual references at every opportunity.

Not everyone will agree with all Malcolm’s judgements. He is surely right that the late medieval and early modern lexicon of male friendship has often been given an anachronistic sexual significance – for example, in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Even the homoerotic verses of Rochester and other libertines should, he argues, be treated as provocations rather than as proof of the existence of a demi-monde of cavaliers and catamites.

In the case of James I, however, it is harder to be sure that the objects of the king’s flamboyant behaviour and language were friends rather than lovers. Three centuries earlier, Edward II had been accused of sodomy with his favourite Piers Gaveston, almost certainly unjustly, but the defence used by Pierre Chaplais to explain Edward’s conduct – that Gaveston was his adoptive brother – does not apply in the case of James. Antonia Fraser and other biographers with no axe to grind have concluded that the king’s relationship with his ‘Ganymede’ George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was not purely platonic. Malcolm, however, makes a persuasive case that the accusations were politically motivated – not unlike the case of Henri III of France, whose alleged dalliances with his mignons brought the word ‘minion’ into English. At court, sex and politics were inextricably connected.

The picture that emerges in Northern Europe is one of a small minority of men of solely same-sexual orientation, of whom only an even smaller minority came to light through the courts. With a rudimentary jargon and haunts for cruising, these individuals are the ancestors of the modern gay subculture.

In the Mediterranean world these men must also have existed, but are less visible because able to ‘shelter’ under the umbrella of a much larger group for whom sodomy was just a pre-marital phase. As Malcolm explains, the gap between the ages at which men and women married was much greater in the South, normally at least a decade, while Northern European men and women were closer in age. Women in Mediterranean societies were also much more strictly segregated, not unlike Muslim societies today. For an Italian in his twenties, the sexual choice on offer was to run the gauntlet of potentially lethal venereal diseases with a female prostitute, or to experiment with boys. If he had himself once been groomed by an older male, sodomy was less unfamiliar, as well as less risky.

The vast quantities of empirical evidence gathered here throw new light on almost every aspect of the subject: attitudes and contexts, patterns of behaviour, causes and consequences. Dissatisfied with the schematic but influential distinction proposed by Foucault between sodomy as an act and homosexuality as an identity, Malcolm offers instead a far more nuanced account of the evolution of same-sex experience and its modes. He has already encountered resistance and this work will undoubtedly face criticism from some quarters. Yet it is doubtful whether, given the present state of research, a more careful, comprehensive and fiercely intelligent book could have been written about the pre-history of homosexuality. I am certain, however, that Malcolm’s Forbidden Desire is the best such book extant.


Daniel Johnson