If Montreal’s founders – the lord Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and nun Jeanne Mance – had been given a vision of a Montreal gay pride parade in the future, they might have packed their bags and left the island to the Iroquois who also claimed it.
Maisonneuve and Jeanne-Mance are always referred to as “pious” or “devout” in descriptions. This hardly captures the reality of their fanaticism.
France was officially a Catholic country, but the alliance of church and state was brittle. With a rising tide of Protestantism, the pope was unwilling to lose such a powerful ally, and the king was wary of the pope. Partly this wariness was because their realm was filled with many deeply religious people – King Henri III was assassinated after being excommunicated. Partly the fear was spiritual – Louis XIII’s very influential wife and King Louis XIV were both fervent Catholics, and the pope was and is considered to have the keys of heaven.
At the same time, both Louis XIII and his son had a country to run, and sometimes religion had to take a back seat to politics. They continued the tradition of tolerating Protestants, and they aligned France with Protestant countries in wars against Catholics ones.
This didn’t sit well with some. The most extreme group were the dévots, a catch-all term for the Catholic revivalists. These were people who wanted to return to the old-time religion of medieval Christianity – back to visions and holy rolling. Back to self-denial and self-flagellation.
Back to burning heretics and sodomites.
It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but it’s well established by mainstream historians that between 1627 and 1630, a group of wealthy and powerful dévots founded a secret organization called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, to pool their money and resources so as to help causes they supported. It had to be secret because they were definitely pro-pope, and thus devoted to undermining the power of the king.
To be fair, they did a lot of good charitable work, setting up hospitals and helping the poor. They supported St. Vincent de Paul, a priest renowned for helping the homeless and the desperate.
Much of that money, though, went into worsening the situation for minorities. The Compagnie’s biggest success in this area was increasing the climate of fear and suspicion so much that the edict allowing religious tolerance for Protestants was revoked.
In Canada, their two big victories were the founding of Montreal, and the installation of Bishop Laval — one of their members — as New France’s first bishop. McGill University Professor E.R. Adair was the first to study the Compagnie’s efforts in Canada, and has determined that Montreal pretty much only exists because the Compagnie networked its founders together and provided the gold. They’d grown frustrated with the fact that the government saw New France only as a trading colony, and didn’t care for missionary work. Thus, the mission at Montreal was born.
Knowing the kind of man Maisonneuve was, then, the trial of a drummer for sodomy in 1648 makes a lot more sense. Being the agent of an organization determined to bring Catholicism and the French world back to the Dark Ages, it’s not too surprising that he would attempt to have a man executed for a “crime” and “sin” that would soon be tolerated throughout New France. More surprising is the intervention of the Jesuits – the order that called down holy fire on sodomites in France saved the life of New France’s first sodomite. The Jesuits are our only source of information on this man’s trial, but they never say tell us why they asked for him to be spared.
The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement was beginning to fall apart in the 1660s. Several of its chapter-houses had been exposed, and the Compagnie, rather than risk total exposure, dissolved itself in 1666. Before that, though, it managed to get Laval put into place here in Canada. Laval was as extreme a Catholic as the Compagnie could’ve wished for.
Many of Laval’s morality campaigns are funny, now, with the distance of time. For instance, he was shocked that women would come up to the altar for the ceremony of communion with bare cleavage or shoulders, or even without a hat. He considered this near-nudity, “a great risk to their salvation.”
He was a member of the Sovereign Council – the body that made laws for New France, and judged the colony as a supreme court. On the Council, he was involved in drafting some of the more interesting morality legislation. In 1670, for instance, the Council forbade unmarried adult men to hunt, fish, or trade with natives – that is, they were forbidden from doing anything which would take them into the woods. This move has been interpreted by most historians as designed to keep them away from Native mistresses. The imaginative historian can probably think of a few other possible reasons why this law might be passed.
In 1676, the Council also passed a law allowing only people whose “decency is well-known” or who have “permission in writing” to become bar-owners, because bar-owning had become a “pretext” for people of a “bad way of life” (the French words used can also mean “sexually loose”) to “continue with their debauchery, suffering public scandals in their homes.”
The council also required all bars to post all the morality laws of New France in every room where food and drink was served. Since sodomy was one of these laws, this meant every law-abiding tavern had to have a piece of paper on their walls that included the word “sodomie.”
By the time Laval was ready to retire, the Compagnie was long gone. He could not have chosen a better successor, however, than Bishop Saint-Vallier, who arrived in 1688. I’ll tell his part of the story in another instalment.
Before we move on, though, one thing should be made clear. In my last update, I pointed out that the ordinary people of New France were very open about (hetero)sexuality, and are believed to have been quite tolerant of homosexuality. It’s dangerous, however, to overemphasize this. Tolerance isn’t acceptance, and New France was not a utopia. Every moral campaign had some supporters among both commoners and nobles.
I picture the situation being something like illegal downloading of music now – it’s highly illegal, dangerous to get caught, and while some of those who do it would justify it, most would admit it’s a bad thing, if only for the artists’ sake. Still, most people would never imagine turning in a friend or family member for downloading music, though. I suspect most families in New France felt the same way about homosexual and bisexual members. Yet, every age has its fanatics.
It’s also important to note that bigotry leaves its traces on a language. The words “bougre” and “bougresse” – roughly “faggot” and “dyke” – were very popular insults among all classes. I’ve seen it claimed that that “bougre” lost its original meaning and became a general insult, because it was used in insults that had nothing to do with male homosexuality – as when one noblewoman was referred to as a “bougre de putain,” roughly a “faggoty whore.”
I don’t buy that argument. Then as now, words like “bougre,” “faggot,” and “gay” (as an insult) take their power by comparison to homosexuals, and further by the assumption that homosexuality is bad. They also create a climate of fear, and – in a place like New France – must have served as a constant reminder that it would only take one denunciation by a dévot to send a person to the courts.
And it’s just such a single denunciation that seems to have brought Saint-Michel before the law.
Now we move on from the general situation, to the specifics. In my next article, we’ll turn to the first sodomy trial in New France, which gave this journal its name.
Sources: The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement is fairly well-documented in France, but not too much has been written about it in Canada yet. W.J. Eccles mentions it in his Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760, as does University of Manitoba historian Cornelius Jaenan in an online article entitled “Church-State Relations in Canada (1604-1685).” The best source I’ve found, however, was E.R. Adair’s groundbreaking article “France and the Beginnings of New France,” in The Canadian Historical Review, volume XXV (September, 1944), pp. 246-278. I’ve also relied on the usual Déliberations et Jugements du Conseil Souverain, and on the online The Dictionary of Canadian Biography. For the commands of the Conseil Souverain, I went to their source, Les Déliberations et Jugements du Conseil Souverain. The wonderful quote by Laval comes from La Nouvelle France par les textes by Marcel Trudel. The information on insults in New France comes from L’Injure en Nouvelle-France by R. Lionel Séguin. For basic biographical details of major historical figures, I used the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography.