- Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400–1600
Helmut Puff’s ambitious and innovative study is anything but a straightforward history of sodomy. Using various approaches, ranging from socio-cultural history to queer studies to literary criticism, Puff attempts to “transfer a term such as sodomy, despite its contradictions, from the moment of its invention as an ‘artifact’ in the Christian theology of the Middle Ages into the messiness of history [End Page 265] (p. 9).” In so doing, Puff hopes to shed light not only on the history of the concept itself, but more importantly on its manifold contexts and discourses in the early modern era, too. Puff does not, however, stop there, for his “particular form of social history that focuses on language (ibid.)” also enables him to explore more commonplace themes of early modern European history, like for instance the Reformations, the bureaucratic development of civic administrations, the relationship between elite and popular, and even more broadly gender and marriage. Clearly, Puff’s endeavors are elaborate in scheme and impressive in scope, and they result in a rich, albeit somewhat problematic, argument.
Puff begins the work by briefly tracing the historiography of early modern sexuality and sodomy, running from the didactic (and ironic) moralizing of Ranke and Burkhardt through the groundbreaking work of Foucault to the latest studies by Michael Rocke, Jonathan Goldberg, and Mark Jordan, to name only a few. Thanks to these later scholars and the rise of queer studies, sodomy is no longer simply viewed as a sexual term; instead, it is understood “as a concept... often used to control the boundaries between the pure and the impure, rights and wrongs, the indigenous and the foreign (p. 7).” This new interpretation, though, is not without problems, for its roots in the deconstructionist movement have led some scholars to conclude that that the term, sodomy, is unspecific, unlocatable, and ultimately undefinable. This, suggests Puff, is simply nonsensical, and he argues that this is where the latest methodologies of socio-cultural historians, such as John Boswell and Alan Bray, clarify the matter. Following their lead, the author studies both historical documents and literary texts in an effort to elucidate the “social life” of sodomy as a concept (rather than that of sodomites per se) in order to give meaning back to the “cultural matrix of sodomy (p. 10).”
Two halves comprise Puff’s book. In the first half, titled Acts and Words, Puff presents a close reading of law codes, documented court cases dealing with sodomy, and select writings of theological experts in the German-speaking parts of the empire and Switzerland. Through this, Puff builds a complex case for the profundity of sodomy in early modern German society. Beginning in 1277 with the first documented execution for sodomy and, not coincidentally, with the dissemination of Thomas Aquinas’s work, German political and religious authorities took new notice of same-sex activity, calling for extremely harsh penalties. Although court cases dealing with sodomy were sporadic at best, they frequently began, argues Puff, within local communities but quickly became high profile spectacles discussed and documented by scholars, clerics, and administrators at all levels as they struggled with establishing or re-establishing social order. However, that episodic interest underwent a significant shift in the sixteenth century, when Reform-minded authorities adopted a “politics of silence [about sodomy] reminiscent of a medieval theology of sin (p. 103).” What Puff finds interesting—and telling—about this ‘silence’ is that it came even though a new imperial law code, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina of 1532, “might have provided a novel stimulus for trials of same-sex sexual acts (p. 30).” To be sure, interest and concern about same-sex eroticism did not cease to exist, but now the drive to prosecute such relationships came only from within communities while the higher authorities preferred indifference. Thus, the ‘cultural matrix of sodomy’ reveals the complexities of early modern German society in the throes of intertwined administrative, legal, and religious transformations. And, furthermore, [End Page 266] Puff contends...