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  • Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400–1600
  • Joel F. Harrington
Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400–1600. By Helmut Puff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pp. ix + 311. $60.00 (cloth); $24.00 (paper).

Helmut Puff seeks to liberate the study of late medieval and early modern sexuality from its teleological preoccupation with the origins of "modern sexuality." His very choice of the consistently ambiguous crime of sodomy thus represents a deliberate rejection of an essentialist approach to "premodern homosexuality," a concept whose usefulness he seriously questions. Instead he offers a much more nuanced exploration of the complicated and multifarious relationships between the words, acts, and ideas associated with "sodomy" in early modern German lands. After all, sodomy—variously linked during the period to usury, treason, and blasphemy as well as homosexuality, masturbation, and bestiality—was never "only about sex" (7). Puff is quick to point out, however, that he is not writing a book about "a term and its manifold meanings" (13) but rather about "the social life of concepts" (10) or, more precisely, the interaction of discourse and practice—how words influence actions and vice versa. Few historians or literary scholars are capable of transcending the disciplinary boundaries and evidentiary obstacles that imperil such an ambitious project. Fortunately, Helmut Puff is one of them. [End Page 116]

The book is divided into two roughly equal parts. Part 1 deals with the discourse of sodomy and its legal prosecution; part 2 focuses on the defamatory uses of sodomy, particularly during the sixteenth century. Puff's first challenge is the confusion generated by the very silence surrounding the "unspeakable vice" (vitioindicibili) or "mute sin" (peccatomuto, stümmendeSünde). Its supposed intense secrecy and shamefulness meant that sodomy itself was rarely explicitly discussed except in the confessional (and even there priests were enjoined from seeking too many details). Legal documents regularly code-switched from German to Latin at the mention of the offense (moresodomitico), and scribes inserted the decorous "with permission" (cumvenia, or simply c.v.) when forced to mention acts or concepts considered offensive to superiors reading the transcript. Learned treatises and other Latin documents similarly shifted into Greek when describing paiderastes, again underscoring the utter degeneracy of the act(s) in question. Rhetorical effect aside, such purposeful vagueness has led some scholars to declare early modern sodomy indefinable and thus unknowable. Puff, by contrast, embraces the term's manifold usages, since it is this very discourse and its social context that most interests him from the start. He is forced to rely on some English neologisms, such as "to florence" (florenzen), or in some cases merely refer to the German, as in the use of ketzern (derived from the German word for heresy) as a verb for anal intercourse. Yet even in the face of such artifices, Puff's accomplishments in contextualizing early modern sexual concepts are quite astonishing.

On the question of perceptions behind the language, for instance, he takes several tacks. The first considers the indirect discussions of sodomy in late medieval religious literature for laypeople. Focusing on three texts in particular, Puff finds the secrecy and false appearances of sodomites to have most disturbed the moralists, thus explaining the puzzling (to modern minds) linkage of a variety of secret sexual sins, ranging from masturbation to bestiality, under the rubric of sodomy. At the same time, these authors reinforced the conceptual vagueness of the term by declaring that any discussion or even contemplation of such acts was polluting and thus to be avoided at all costs. Even the devil, they wrote, was too ashamed to speak of such abominations.

Most secular and ecclesiastical legal authorities apparently shared this aversion to acknowledging the offense, only haphazardly prosecuting sodomy until the fifteenth century. Urban areas presumably attracted more homosexual men, but Puff forcefully rejects John Boswell's romanticization of high medieval cities as "gay friendly," particularly since civic courts tended to be much stricter in their punishment of sodomy than their ecclesiastical counterparts. Indeed, despite the frequent lay characterization of priests as pederasts, sexual relations with boys constituted only one third as many cases as concubinage and only one tenth of clerical offenses overall...


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pp. 116-119
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