Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 558-561
[Access article in PDF]
Homosexuality in Early Modern France:
A Documentary Collection
Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant T. Ragan Jr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 256. $29.95 (paper).
This volume was assembled "to illustrate the variety of materials that exists . . . and to enable scholars, students, and lay readers to evaluate samples of such materials for themselves" (p. ix). For each of these audiences, this volume has much to recommend it. Four sections, entitled "Traditions," "Repression," "Representation," and "Revolution," include a range of documents organized chronologically within subtopics designed for each of the potential audiences. The main sections include a brief historiography, but the editors have chosen to leave many of the controversies largely unspoken, allowing the documents to tell the proverbial story. In part a pragmatic choice (more documents can be included if less attention is devoted to explication and historical apparatus), this is also a daring and generally successful pedagogical strategy. The organization favors encouraging engagement with the texts over textbook-style illustrative documents of a narrative, and the pedagogical advantage seems worth the risk. For scholars, Merrick and Ragan have selected a number of more obscure texts that invite reassessment of questions about notions of sexuality and comparisons with other national traditions. Scholars may be slightly frustrated by the absence of a bibliography, no doubt a result of the economics of academic book publishing; however, Merrick and Ragan have ameliorated the problem by providing a Web link address with an up-to-date bibliography. As for lay readers, while at some points an inattentive or unsympathetic reader might have difficulty situating the texts, the underlying assumption is that most readers come to the material willing to explore notions of homosexuality and homosexual practices in the past, and accommodating seems not to be a part of the agenda.
Merrick and Ragan begin with "Traditions," a collection of theological, legal, and medical texts about "sodomy" that collectively reveal how and why anxiety about sodomy grafted primarily onto men. While the term referred to a variety of nonprocreative sexual acts, male homosexual sodomy was seen as disruptive of unspoken social and cultural norms about male privilege in a patriarchal society. Even to those familiar with the centrality of religion in early modern legal and social structures, the degree to which the theological and legal traditions overlap in formulating cultural unease with male sodomy is striking. Whether this overlap is situational and only seems chronic by dint of repetition is not entirely clear. For instance, Jean Benedicti's derogatory comments on Theodore Beza as a sexual deviant are clearly a strategy in the sectarian conflicts of the Wars of Religion, during which sexual slander was utilized routinely as a political weapon against adversaries of different religious convictions. But did that [End Page 558] context then facilitate routine condemnations of sodomy in religious terms throughout the duration of the Old Regime? That the editors chose not to highlight how texts may be responses to particular contexts seems to be an invitation to students and scholars to explore such questions, but it is perhaps a bit burdensome for the lay reader.
On the other hand, the collection enables all readers to trace the utilization of exemplary evidence across a broad expanse of time. The transformation of a piece of information, such as St. Louis's condemnation of "buggers," from an unexamined truism to a piece of evidence utilized by Enlightenment philosophes to attack uncritical acceptance of historical truisms is a case in point. Similarly, earlier texts in the medical literature (1599 and 1612) are saturated with the language of deviant women as imperfect men, while the later ones (1690, 1760, and 1771) deal with women as a different sex with properly female sexual functions. The texts collectively illustrate Thomas Laqueur's idea, in Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), that the dominant paradigm moved from a notion of...