A Time of Transition: Changing Social and Political Views of Homosexuality in 18th and 19th Century Europe

A Time of Transition: Changing Social and Political Views of Homosexuality in 18th and 19th Century Europe

The modern idea that homosexuality exists as an opposite or antithesis to heterosexuality fuels much of our belief system regarding sexuality. It is assumed either you're heterosexual or homosexual, with little opportunity for transition between the two. Likewise, homosexuality as a political movement requires on some level that people recognize and identify themselves as homosexual, or gay, or lesbian, or what ever the current label may be. Likewise for those who oppose homosexuality or condemn it, if you are homosexual, you aren't (or can't be) heterosexual, implying a binary system of sexuality. Historians, anthropologists, and others have spent a great deal of time trying to prove that homosexuality has always existed, seemingly to find a justification for the social construct we see today. Homosexuality is both a cultural and political identity for many, defining where one might choose to live, (as in the gay ghettos of large cities, or in the more recent evolution of gay housing communities or retirement homes), where one spends one's time (gay bars or circuit parties), or even how one might choose to spend their free time (cruising the internet, volunteering at a gay/lesbian community center, or doing political activism). Now while these are stereotypes, they do define the lives of many people who identify themselves as homosexuals, and to challenge the idea of a gay identity would for many challenge their very idea of the self. An entire social and political identity is based on this single identifying characteristic. These ideas of gay identity and distinction from heterosexuality are relatively new, however.

In England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, we begin to see a shift in how sexuality is viewed, and witness the evolution of a sub-culture. Prior to this time, participation in homosexual sex was not an identifier as separate from heterosexual, nor was it connected with particular ideas of effeminacy or unmanly behavior, as it has come to be today. As we will explore in this paper, men who committed homosexual acts (part of the larger group of “sodomy” including same-sex relations, bestiality, and non-procreative sex) were frequently married, with children, and having extra-marital affairs with both men and women. The ideas of shame and a loss of manhood in connection with these activities seems to arise around this same time, particularly in England. France has a somewhat different experience, as we shall explore. The experience in France was frequently more open regarding same-sex relations than in England. While laws condemning sodomy were at times quite strict, apparently they weren't strongly enforced, and as anti-clericalism rose, so did tolerance for homosexual acts. This paper will contrast the rise of the “Molly” or effeminate homosexual in England, and the political backlash to their activities versus the shift in France from legally condemning homosexuality, while allowing it to typically go unpunished during the Ancien Regime to repealing sodomy laws in 1791 by the Constituent Assembly, and carrying through the Napoleonic Regime. This is not to say that homosexuality was freely accepted in France; it still had its opposition, even Napoleon himself punished homosexual activities periodically, transgressing his own laws, to encourage population growth. This paper will attempt to compare and contrast the experience in England versus that of France from the late seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century.

The Rise of the Effeminate
Prior to the seventeenth century, masculine ideals don't seem to have been connected with having sex with a particular gender. We see examples of men historically perceived as masculine who were believed to have had sexual relations with other men with no negative impact upon their masculinity, including Richard Coeur de Lyon of England and Julius Caesar of Rome. During the middle and late seventeenth century, as modern ideologies emerge, including more egalitarian gender roles, what is masculine and what is feminine became more clearly defined. As these roles became more clearly defined, it included appropriate sexual behaviors. “To be masculine was to experience sexual desire only for women” (Trumbach, 130). During this transitory period, the Rake was very much a part of the urban consciousness. Rakes were men portrayed in popular literature as sexual and likewise political libertines, frequenting taverns and having multiple sexual liaisons with both female prostitutes and young men. Often the Rake was married, with children, but participated in a sort of urban wild life, holding religion and popular morals in contempt.

In this world the love of boys certainly did not exclude the love of women; but the love of boys was seen as the most extreme act of sexual libertinism; and it was often associated, as well, with religious skepticism, and even republican politics. It is as though sodomy were so extreme a denial of the Christian expectation that all sexual acts ought to occur in marriage and have the potential of procreation, that those who indulged in it were likely also to break through all other conventions in politics and religion (Trumbach 130-1).

This idea of a rakish libertine sexually engaging with both men and women interchangeably, is of course very different from our ideas of homosexuals today, in which it is expected to engage only with partners of the same sex. A change was taking place in England in the minds of people. In the 1690's as romantic ideals of marriage rose, the popularity of the Rake faded both in literature and in reality. His predatory nature was replaced by the fop, “and the fop's domesticated interests came to be more highly valued (Trumbach, 134). Fops were typically portrayed as male, wearing masculine clothing, but often with subdued, and perceptively feminized behaviors or interests.

As the Rake is fading from view socially, we see the rise of “Mollies” and “Molly Houses”. Molly was originally a slang word for prostitute. The Molly now being recognized a feminine man, frequently taking part in homosexual activities, and the Molly House being a tavern, tavern room, or private home where Mollies came together to socialize and to have sex. Perhaps the most famous of these was called Mother Clap's Molly House in London. Popular during the 1720's, Mother Clap's was only one such meeting place. Ned Ward first describes the Molly House in his work, The History of the London Clubs published in 1709, and by this time they were already securely ensconsed in the London nightlife. One of the proffered activities at Mother Clap's was “Marrying”. Two men were allowed to “marry” for the night and use a special room called “The Chapel” with a double bed. The “marriage attendant” Eccleston could assure privacy for them, if they wanted it (Norton, 55). The Molly House, was a place where men interested in homosexual sex could come together, off the street where they were in danger of being arrested and do what they chose. Alan Bray, author of Homosexuality in Renaissance England states that the Molly Houses were largely unchallenged by the government, and provided a place to escape the pillory or even the death sentence if one was convicted of sodomy (Bray, 99-100). He goes on to quote Ned Ward's essay “Of the Mollies Club” as follows: Thus, without detection, they continued their odious society for some years, till their sodomitical practices were happily discovered by the cunning management of some of the underagents to the Reforming Society.” (Bray, 100)

One member of the Reforming Society, Samuel Stevens, a Constable managed to infiltrate Mother Clap's during the 1720's. According to Rictor Norton, author of Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830, Stevens disguised himself as the “husband” of a homosexual informant. He reports his visit on Sunday, November 14, 1725: I found between 40 and 50 Men making Love to one another, as they call'd it. Sometimes they would sit on one another's Laps, kissing in a lewd Manner, and using their Hands indecently. Then t hey would get up, Dance and make Curtsies, and mimick the voices of Women. O, Fie, Sir! - Pray, Sir. - Dear Sir. Lord, how can you serve me so? - I swear I'll cry out. - You're a wicked Devil. - And you're a
bold Face. - Eh ye little dear Toad! Come, buss!- Then they'd hug, and play, and toy, and go out by Couples into another Room on the same Floor, to be marry'd, as they call'd it. (Norton, 55)

This subculture may have been a direct reaction to the conservative and stilted culture created by the Reformation and Interregnum periods in England. As the forces of civil war and uncertainty create a society that is searching for a static and controlled environment, subcultures erupt, living alongside, sometimes in secrecy with that of the dominant subculture. During the early 1700's we begin to see reform minded individuals seeking out deviance, and the Molly Houses are a place to escape these raids. Men were being arrested on the streets in places believed to be the haunts of those seeking homosexual sex. As these arrests became more public, it became more dangerous to pursue these sexual interests (not only from arrests, but from violence) outside of a particular subculture, thus creating more interest in the Molly House. Trumbach sites a rising number of arrests from 1704 to 1709, which “document groups of effeminate adult males who were interested in men or boys, but not at all in women” (Trumbach, 136). This was a shift from earlier arrests of a single individual or a pair of men. As these arrests rise, so too does blackmail of men with ambiguous sexual character. One such case was that of Joseph Stone in the late summer of 1721. He was attacked near Whitehall by William Casey and Martin MacOwen, stealing his hat, wig, neckerchief, and money. They threatened to accuse him of buggery if he called for help. One of the robbers bumped into another stranger on the street and was caught. He tried to accuse the stranger of buggering and killing Stone (who survived the beating) to escape punishment. The court found Casey guilty and hanged him, “but in his dying speech he maintained his innocence” and expressed the wish: “that the great Number of Sodomites, in and about this City and Suburbs, may not bring down the same Judgement form Heaven, as fell on Sodom and Gomorrah” (Norton, 135).

As blackmail began to rise, we see a rise in men taking on secret identities to conceal themselves, or to take on a new persona, dressing as women, and taking on female names, further pushing the acceptable boundary between the genders. In response to this questionable gender status of Mollies, other men seemed to become hyper-masculinized, by becoming the “active partner” in all aspects of life. Sailor and other men who lived within the bounds of questionable male relationships began to set aside those things that made them seem less than masculine. “All males now needed to be active at every stage of life in order to establish masculine status” (Trumbach, 139). It would seem that this rift between the masculine and feminine had become inseparable for most members of English society.

The French Experience
Homosexuality in France takes a very different road than that of England. Sodomy and Pederasty were removed from the law books in France in 1791. Because of the strong influences of the Enlightenment, the Philosophes, French Anti-clericalism, homosexuality was not viewed with the same sort of fear as that in England. Sodomy was traditionally defined by the Catholic Church in France. This definition included anal sex (both heterosexual and homosexual), oral sex, pederasty, and other forms of homosexual intercourse. French priests often called homosexuality the “Italian Vice”, and it seems they frequently worried that if homosexuality was discussed, then more people would want to try it; thus a temptation by virtue of introduction. During the seventeenth century, sodomy was illegal, and was opposed not only by the church, but by jurists, and by those who supported “Natural Law”. “Francois Bernier argued that same-sex sexuality was unique to humans and therefore unnatural” (Ragan, 9). Even though it was illegal during the Ancien Regime, it generally went unpunished. It seems at most sodomites could expect a short jail sentence, perhaps a few days or weeks, and released without a trial. The great concern emerging in France, as with much of the rest of Europe at this time was with the regulation of desire and particularly in France with the production of legitimate children. As in England, men could engage in sex with women or with younger men without a loss of masculinity. However if they chose to play a passive role, they could be teased or considered effeminate. Likewise similar to England, we see a rise of the effeminate male in France during the early 1700's. In France, however, there is also a rise of “tribadism” or lesbianism.

Tribades were represented not only in pornographic works of the philosophes, but also on the stage. Mademoiselle de Raucourt, the daughter of an actor born in the 1750's is perhaps one of the most noted “Tribads” of the day. An actress, she is purported to have gone bankrupt, partially because she refused to sell herself to men, exclusively seeking out female lovers. She was so infamous that she garnered the attentions of Queen Marie Antoinette, herself, even performing at Versailles for she and the Dauphin. “Marie-Antoinette's ongoing interest in Raucourt later earned her a place in the catalog of the queen's female lovers published during the revolution” (Merrick, 41). Raucourt frequently dressed as a man in public, and was described as having aggressive behavior and “she usurped the male prerogative of pursuing women in a predatory manner” (Merrick, 43). This sort of behavior was in stark contrast to England. When homosexuality was discussed at all, it was between men, whether effeminate or not.

French legal attitudes toward homosexuality were also strongly swayed by Enlightenment thought. Prior to the eighteenth century French law designated burning at the stake as the appropriate punishment for non-procreative sex. These laws were passed down from old Roman Law, and were “confirmed by Charlemagne;... especially the Etablissements de Saint-Louis of 1270” (Sibalis, 81). However, these codes were not frequently enforced. Apparently only two “sodomites” of the seven who were executed between 1714 and 1783 were only sodomites, all the others had numerous other charges laid against them, including rape or murder. “The two exceptions were Bruno Lenoir an Jean Diot, strangled and burned for nothing more than having had sex one January night in the shadows of the rueMontorgueil” (Sibalis, 81).

The French Revolution brought about far reaching legal reform, including sodomy laws. Surprisingly modern arguments are made for human rights and for sexual freedom, including the idea that the government had no business legislating what went on between two consenting adults in private. Some argue that the Constituent Assembly was heavily swayed by the arguments of such philosophes as Anacharsis Cloots. In fact, rape is the only sex crime included on the books at all in 1791, and it was exclusive to female rape. When Napoleon rose to power, the Code Napoleon of 1804 simply condensed these laws, and maintained them. Napoleon, however at times would be seen to transgress his own laws in the pursuit of and condemnation of sodomy.
In 1810, the penal codes were again revised, under Napoleon, and included male rape as protected under the law. When Napoleonic authorities tried homosexual acts, it was not for sodomy, but for “indecent acts”, with no regard for the orientation of the offender (Sibalis, 85). Of the Napoleonic Sodomy trials cited by Sibalis, only four exist, and three of those involved the molestation of young boys. With such a small number of trials, it would seem that sodomy was fairly tolerated in France, or perhaps ignored, during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. While there is still a rise in effeminate men, and also of “masculine” women in Paris, much like the Mollies of London, the subculture was more open and tolerated.

While England's Mollies hid in taverns and Molly Houses, the homosexuals of France seem to have much greater freedom. While sodomy was prior to the revolution, considered an aristocratic vice, after the revolution, a relaxing of the laws regarding same-sex relations is seen. In England, perhaps due to the weight of protestant thought and the rise of science, a secretive homosexual subculture developed, including its own coded language, including dress, body language, and speech. In continental France it seems that while a separate homosexual subculture was developing, mirroring the rise of an “effeminate male”, it seems far less secretive and persecuted than that of England. This subculture in Paris was visible, and had the defense of prominent philosophers, who even if they personally disagreed with sodomy, argued the rights of others to do what they would with their own bodies.

Works Cited

Bray, Alan, Homosexuality in Renaissance England, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995.

Merrick, Jeffrey, “The Marquis de Villette and Mademoiselle de Raucort”, Homosexuality in Modern France, Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds., Oxford University Press, New York, 1996.

Norton, Rictor, Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England 1700-1830, GMP Publishers, London, 1992.

Ragan, Bryant T. Jr., “The Enlightenment Confronts Homosexuality”, Homosexuality in Modern France, Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds., Oxford University Press, New York, 1996.

Sibalis, Michael David, “The Regulation of Male Homosexuality in Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1789-1815”, Homosexuality in Modern France, Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., eds., Oxford University Press, New York, 1996.

Trumbach, Randolph, “The Birth of the Queen: Sodomy and the Emergence of Gender Equality in Modern Culture, 1660-1750”, Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past, Martin Bauml Duberman, Martha Vicinus, & George Chauncey, Jr., eds., New American Library, New York, 1989.