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Archive for June, 2007

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was increasing the climate of fear and suspicion so much that the edict allowing religious tolerance for Protestants was revoked.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.

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“To make a law and not enforce it, is to authorize the thing you would forbid” – Cardinal Richelieu.

When Cardinal Richelieu decided that only Catholics could be a part of his new colony, it may have lead some to the mistaken impression that a utopia of good Catholics was being founded. In some ways, the colony went out of its way to foster that (false) impression.

Under this reality, however, there was a long, drawn-out cold war between church and state. I’ll get to this next article. For now, we’re turning to the sex lives of the ordinary people of New France.

In theory, members of a devoutly Catholic community would either renounce sex, or at least have it only within the bounds of legal marriage. A quick glance at the court records is enough to dispel any illusion that New France was such a community. While these records only include one of the two known cases of homosexuality in the colony, other sex crimes are numerous. I came across quite a few cases of rape, and the rape of little girls especially seems to have been disturbingly common.

People could be executed for any of these crimes, and commoners sometimes were. As I went over the records, though, I noticed that the death penalty was only rarely used – 67 times, according to the historian W.J. Eccles, in 152 years of permanent settlement. I’ve seen it suggested that the governors of the colony might not have wanted to risk depopulating it. Whatever the reason, this teaches us our first lesson about New France – the laws were applied lightly compared to in the mother country.

Other sex-related court cases teach us a lot about the culture. There were numerous attempts at abortion, unsuccessful, though abortion was a capital offence. There are several paternity suits that tell us that there was plenty of premarital sex going on.

One example among many: A man named Antoine Antorche Napolitan brought an adultery case before the Sovereign Council in 1668, wanting to have both of his wife’s lovers punished. In another case, one August day in 1675, two women were brought up on trial for prostitution – one of whom had had five children by five different men, none of them her husband. That same day, a woman named Marie Pacault was brought up on charges of pimping. In 1677, a woman named Anne Bauge was sentenced to exile for adultery — she had had sex with several men, and gotten pregnant by a man who was not her husband. In 1699, two soldiers were charged with witchcraft for possessing a magic charm to cure sexual impotence.

Quebec City had only really been around since it was rebuilt in 1633 – in 42 years it had developed an entire sexual economy. Meanwhile, Montreal (once a Christian commune) was rapidly developing a reputation as an anything-goes kind of place, its men known as “wolves.”

This leads us to the second thing we can say about the colony: New France was extremely sexually permissive, at least where heterosexuality was concerned. These cases rarely caught the attention of the court unless someone directly involved (say, a jilted husband, or a pregnant mistress) complained. It makes one suspect that there were dozens of other cases that never reached the courts.

André Lachance, who’s probably the world expert on crime in New France, once plotted a chart of criminal charges superimposed against population growth. The conclusion is that as the population grew, the number of criminal charges dropped exponentially. It’s like the courts just gave up, and ordinary people became more or less self-regulating. Since the militia captains acted as the both police officers and courts in rural areas, and since these were elected by the people, citizens of the colony outside the city really were self-regulating.

Outside the bedroom, the habitants – the peasants – learnt they could get away with a lot more than they could in France. This included the way they could dress in public. One of the colony’s governors, the Marquis de Denonville, was shocked upon arrival to see men going shirtless, something he considered part of “the Indian way of life.” This was pretty much considered indecent exposure in the 1600s.

The bishops frequently made speeches from the pulpit about the evils of low-cut dresses, a fashion imported from Paris high society. Between the influence of hipsters over the ocean to the east, and the influence of the Native peoples to the west, the early canadiens were showing more and more skin.

Of course, in the cities, the authorities could keep a certain amount of control. Out in the wilderness, it was another story. In a few cases, the courts had to try someone in absentia who’d fled into the woods. They often made their way into the villages of the Huron, whose sexual values were very different from the French. Eccles tells us:

“[Huron] Women were masters of their own bodies and from puberty until pregnancy they gave themselves to any man who pleased them. To the Jesuits, this was a carnal sin

Some others of the French, the men sent by the fur trade companies to establish good trade relations, found Indian moral standards very acceptable, and took full advantage of Indian girls’ total lack of sexual inhibitions. Thus, when the Jesuits tried to persuade the Indians to live chaste lives, they met a cool reception, The Indians saw no merit in such an innovation, and pointedly asked why, if chastity were such a fine thing, all French Christians didn’t practice it. To this, the missionaries were hard put to find a convincing answer.”

The Huron frequently came into the cities, while many of the habitants worked out in the woods. What was going was a kind of cross-cultural pollination that – combined with the influence of libertinism in France – was eroding the sexual rules the peasants had had to endure before their emigration. This was the sexual revolution of the 1600s. Many French men even settled among the Hurons, adopting their ways completely.

The question is, what about homosexuality? It’s important to remember that in this age, “good” people didn’t write about such things, at least not on official records. In New France at this age, only good people knew how to write — the estimated literacy rate hovered around 25% and 33% — and most of what survives are official records. Thus, Saint-Michel’s testimony was sealed. Thus, the Jesuits always dance around the issue, calling it “the worst of crimes,” and so forth, to let the reader draw their own conclusions. In order to develop a picture of homosexuality in this era, we have to read between the lines.

Perhaps the best lines to read between are the ones in The Relations of the Jesuits about Fort Michilimackinac, in what’s now the American state of Michigan. Fathers St. Cosme and Carheil, in their reports sent back to France, complained that the French traders were worsening the situation there, encouraging “lewdness,” gambling, and drinking. The fathers went on to complain about Native women who’ve turned to prostitution.

But their complaint that the villages have become “Sodoms” is intriguing. It’s even more intriguing especially when you consider that Fort Michilimackinac was in the region of the Illiniwek, the Sauk, and the Foxes – where a thriving Two-Spirit tradition had already been described, and where 100 years later it’d be described again.

Given how important the “dance of the berdache” seemed to be in these cultures, the two priests could hardly have missed it, and maybe calling these places “Sodoms” – a word that can just mean “a place of debauchery,” but already had specifically homosexual undertones – was meant as a subtle reference to some of the other activities of the traders.

It isn’t much to go on, but it’s probably as good a look as we’re going to get into the life of homosexuals and bisexuals in New France, outside of the two trials.

While I suspect that in this sexually liberal culture most people were probably fairly tolerant, sexual minorities would still have had to have been a little discreet. Fortunately there was an entire forest beyond the palisade walls for that, though unmarried men were all but banned from it in 1670, during Bishop Laval’s moral crusade. As long as they were able to keep their heads down and not be spotted by the forces of repression, they could probably get away with a crime often thought of as worse than murder in the mother country.

In our next instalment, we’re going to have a look at those forces of repression. After that, I’m going to try to put all the pieces together.


Sources: I used The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (edited by Reuban Gold Thwaites) – this would be volume 65. My primary source was W.J. Eccles, The Canadian Frontier: 1534-1760, revised edition. I also used the Jugements et délibérations du Conseil Souverain de la Nouvelle-France, volumes 3 and 4 – these are New France’s court records – as well as the nice summaries of some of the more interesting decisions in La Scandaleuse Nouvelle-France by Guy Giguere.

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During his exile in England, the legend goes, the great Jesuit-trained French writer and philosopher Voltaire went to dinner at the home of the English writer Alexander Pope. Pope’s mother noticed Voltaire was squirming in his chair. She asked if there was something wrong.

Voltaire answered, “ I was buggered so often in my youth by the Jesuits that I cannot sit still in comfort..”

A hundred years before Voltaire’s exile, the Jesuits already had that reputation. The association of the Catholic Church with both homosexuality and paedophilia (generally considered the same thing by the authorities back then) was already quite old, and already shows up in stories like The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s.

But the connection of Jesuits with homosexuality was much stronger than for any other branch of the Church. Partly this was because they were teachers steeped in classical learning, and the belief was that anyone reading Greek and Roman classics probably liked boys, men, or both. As there’d been many high-profile cases involving such teachers since the Renaissance, there may have been some truth to the stereotype.

There was another reason people were suspicious of the Jesuits – they called louder than any other group for God to rain hellfire down on their own cities to purge them of the “sodomites.” Then, as now, this kind of moral tone was strongly associated with hypocrisy.

By the late 1600s, the French language had a word for a person who uses loud moral condemnations to distract people from their own sins: tartuffe. And even though the authorities took great care to turn any priestly criminals over for the Church to handle quietly, there’d already been some high-profile scandals involving the Jesuits.

There could be no clearer example of what the Jesuits were like and how they were seen than the case of Father Voisin, one of the witnesses at the celebrity trial of the homosexual poet Théophile de Viau. Here’s a speech he made before the case went to court:

“…blessed be the attorney general, who will purge Paris of this plague. It’s you [Théophile] who is the cause of this plague in Paris. I say, like the Reverend Father Garasse [another witness], that you are a homeless beggar, that you are a calf. Why a calf? Because the flesh of a calf is good when boiled, the flesh is good roasted, we use calf-skin to make the covers of books; but your skin, evil one, is good for nothing but grilling, as you will be tomorrow. You have laughed at the monks, and the monks shall laugh at you.” (translation by me)

The author I drew this quotation from, Didier Godard, made a comparison between this passage and Nazi views on their Jewish victims. I think that comparison is apt.

A modern audience, glutted on stories of homophobic preachers caught in bed with men, probably won’t be at all surprised to learn that Father Voisin was outed at that trial. It turned out he’d tried to bed Théophile’s boyfriend. He’d also tried to force one of Théophile’s friends to give false testimony. He was stripped of his priesthood and exiled, but he was not put on trial for his life, as a commoner would have been.

Not all of the hypocrisy was self-serving. Some priests were secretly compassionate. One abbé said to the Italian adventurer Primo Visconti that “it is necessary to have compassion because men with such an inclination are born with it as poets are born with rhyme.” And it should be noted that the Jesuits who came to New France never tried to execute the “berdaches” they found, as the Spanish did to the south.

The Church’s loud denunciations of homosexuality seemed to be more about it flexing its muscles and asserting its control in an age when the Protestant Reformation had greatly reduced the pope’s power. Throughout the 1600s Europe was engaged in Catholic-versus-Protestant civil wars. At the same time, the power of science was beginning to make itself felt, and all kinds of religious free-thinkers – minor branches of Christianity, atheists, agnostics, deists, and even a handful of people who wanted to bring back Greek and Roman Paganism – were beginning to make their voices heard as well. Catholicism felt it was on assault from all sides.

The hypocrisy went all the way to the top, too, extending far beyond the Jesuits. France’s most powerful religious leader, Cardinal Richelieu, once set King Louis XIII up with a pretty boyfriend (the Marquis de Cinq-Mars) who Richelieu thought was stupid and easy to control. Richelieu was always trying to increase his influence over the king. Cinq-Mars wasn’t as stupid as he looked however, and when he tried to get the king to get rid of Richelieu, Richelieu was faster and had Cinq-Mars executed. This drove a wedge between the cardinal and the king.

Everyone who’s studied Canadian history knows Richelieu’s name. When the cardinal wasn’t playing matchmaker to a gay king, he was running France, and – more importantly for us – he was inventing Canada. New France was Richelieu’s pet project, and Quebec commemorates his memory by having named over 100 locations in the province after him, including two rivers and two towns.

Thus, at the time when the trading outpost of Quebec became a city, and Montreal was founded, France had a homosexual king and its highest religious leader wasn’t above using that king’s sexuality to further his political ends.

In my next instalment, we’re going to turn finally to New France itself, and to sex in early Canada.


Sources: My primary sources are Le Goût de Monsieur: L’Homosexualité masculine au XVIIe siècle by Didier Godard, and Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton. I’ve also drawn a little on Richelieu by R. J. Knecht. These have been my primary sources throughout the sections on France. I’ve consulted numerous other sources for names, dates, and numbers.

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I had go back and re-write a couple of articles, particularly the story of the drummer and the story of Nicholas Daussy, Seigneur de Saint-Michel.

In the case of the drummer, it was because I’d found additional information in my researches. With Daussy, the problem was more troubling — the historians whose work I’d consulted had frequently gotten it wrong. Serves me right for not checking up on my sources, but I’d read all kinds of things (that Saint-Michel was a nickname, for instance, or that Saint-Michel was a commoner). I also discovered that there was another source for this story than just the court trial — particularly the letter from the intendant — but I don’t think anyone bothered to check up on that.

In the future, I’m going to be much more careful about checking into primary sources — and I’m going to be much more wary of taking the words of historians at face value. At some point, I may put up a full-text English translation of the trial.

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To say that life for nobles in France was different than life for commoners would be an enormous understatement, but nothing illustrates this better than the difference in how the law treated each class. The laws surrounding homosexuality are a perfect example of the quite conscious double standard built into the law.

At the top of the feudal hierarchy, the bisexual King Henri III was infamous for his “favourites” — men who (like him) dressed in drag, complete with makeup and pearls.

Then there was Louis XIII – the king who was in power while New France was taking root. At the age of 12 Louis had to be dumped crying by his “favourite” (Charles d’Albert de Luynes) onto the new queen, in the hopes that he’d produce an heir. It took Louis twenty years to get that heir. Once he’d done his duty and produced two children, there is no evidence he ever touched a woman ever again, for which he was known as “Louis the Chaste.”

Homosexuality was extremely common in Louis’s line. He was grandson of Henri III, mentioned above, but Louis’s second son, the Duke Phillipe d’Orléans, was also very open about his homosexuality. The home of Louis’s half-brother, the Duke of Vendôme was known as the Hôtel de Sodome, and Louis’s grandson, the Count of Vermandois, was whipped and exiled by his father, the Sun King King Louis XIV, after he was caught taking part in a secret, all-male orgy at one of the nobles’ country homes.

The Duchess d’Orléans – sister-in-law to the Sun King – found herself in an arranged marriage to that king’s homosexual brother. She kept on friendly terms with her husband’s lovers, and they filled her in on their semi-secret networks and parties, and described their experiences to her. Her letters are a catalogue of the life of queer life in the European upper classes, and philosophizes and separates the “sodomites” into very modern categories (homosexual, bisexual, etc.). She reported that many nobles believed that homosexuality was no longer a sin, that it was one in the past only because the world had once been underpopulated. They presented, as evidence, the fact that no cities had been destroyed by fire since Sodom and Gomorrah.

This wasn’t a point the nobles were likely to make publicly, however, especially not after the Sun King came to power. Louis XIV was a devout Catholic, and so homophobic that he made an example of his own son.

Still, when the Sun King – the most powerful man in Europe – went to his war minister to get the gays out of his military, the war minister seems to have advised against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He argued that sodomites made better generals, because they could bring their lovers with them on military campaigns, while lovers of women kept pining for their mistresses back home.

He may have had a point – many of France’s best and most popular generals of the age had male lovers. That category included the Prince de Condé, for example, who had defeated the most powerful army in Europe – the Spanish – and was called by Louis XIV himself “the greatest man in my kingdom.”

Other great generals who were homosexual or bisexual in the age of the Sun King included the Duke of Luxembourg (1628-1695), Charles Louis Hector de Villars (1653-1734), and another Vendôme. Vendôme, like his grandfather, was quite open about his sexuality, and is known to have paid male peasants for sexual favours.

He is also one of the people Vendôme Street and metro in Montreal might be named after – the most likely candidate, in fact, of four possible Vendômes – which brings me to another point. New France was planned and built largely under the reign of Louis XIII. The important figures of the age – including these homosexual and bisexual men – have their names branded onto the maps of Quebec.

In addition to Vendôme Street and metro in Montreal, there is a De Villars Street in Quebec City, named for the great general. There are several places named Condé, and while some of these are named for the Prince of Condé’s father (an important figure in New France), some of them are probably named for a man considered by many to be the greatest military leader of his time.

Of course, Quebec City grew from an encampment to a city under the reign of King Louis XIII, and everything in those years was done in the name of a king who once cried into the arms of the man he was in love with, because he didn’t want to sleep with his wife. He left his traces in the words “royal,” “du roy” and “souverain” attached to roads, towns, and geographical features during his reign.

Why the long discussion about place names? It demonstrates better than anything else the hypocrisy of the situation, and helps us to understand the situation in New France. The anonymous many in the mother country – the craftspeople and the peasants, and not-so-anonymous poets – went to the stake, while the Vendômes and de Villars and the queer kings were honoured.

Perhaps it seems obvious, but the first fact we have to take from this about France in this period is that “sodomy” laws were not applied equally at all. France in the 1600s was a delicate balance between Church and State, and priests and nobles were scared to take one another on. Ordinary folk, however, were an easy target for the church on its moral campaigns.

Of course, as we’ll see in the next instalment, the church was keeping secrets of its own.

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Malheureux espace de terre
Au gibet public consacré;
Terrain où l’on a massacré
Cent fois plus d’hommes qu’á la guerre;
Certes, Grève, après maint délit,
Vous êtes, pour mourir, un lit
Bien commode pour les infâmes;
Puisqu’ils n’ont qu’á prendre un bateau,
Et d’un coup d’aviron, leurs âmes
S’en vont au Paradis par eau.
— Charles le Petit
Unhappy patch of land
To the public gallows consecrated;
Place where was massacred
100 times as many men as at war;
Certainly, Execution Place beside the river,
after so many crimes,
You are, for dying, a bed
Very convenient for the despised,
As they need only take a boat
And with one stroke of the oar, their souls
Go away to Paradise by water.
–translation by me

These heartwrenching words were written by the homosexual French poet Charles le Petit, who’d watched several of his friends get burnt at the stake, before he himself was executed there in 1662. This was part of a wave of persecutions in Europe, as the genocide of homosexual and bisexual men in France hit its height in the early- to mid-1600s, right at the same time New France was being founded.

Since it was the first European power to legalize homosexuality (in 1791), France has long enjoyed a reputation as being the most tolerant place in Western Civilization for sexual minorities. Bisexuals and homosexuals – both men and women – fled there from every country in the West for the chance to live openly.

In the 1600s, however, France had a very different reputation – it was second only to Spain in the brutal repression of homosexuality. Time after time, men who’d had sex with men were led to the stake, tied up, and burnt, their ashes scattered. Many were burnt alive and aware, though in some cases where there were mitigating circumstances, the victim was strangled first so they wouldn’t have to face the horror of death by fire. More men were murdered in these state-sponsored killings in France than in almost any other country, and these murders were particularly gory.

There’s not enough space to get into why homosexuality was treated so brutally – historians have suggested everything from Biblical passages, to the influence of Roman machismo, to Greek stoicism and cynicism (philosophies that taught that physical pleasure was bad). It’s also clear that since the 1200s, homosexuality came to be associated with heresy and witchcraft, and during the wars of religion in the 1600s, witch-hunts and inquisitions tended to go hand-in-hand with “sodomite”-burnings.

Even women were burnt or hanged for having sex with women in France, a form of persecution very rare or nonexistent in other countries. I go into more detail with this here. As an example, female homosexuality was not even illegal in England.

Still, there were patches of tolerance even amidst this nightmare. The saying went that when it came to homosexuality, it was “In Spain the priests, in France the nobles, and in Italy everyone.” While in England, the law tended to be applied equally to lords and commoners alike, in France, aristocratic status was a powerful protection. Aristocrats could, and did get away literally with murder in France – and they could get away with “sodomy,” often considered a worse crime than murder.

Théophile de Viau – considered the greatest French poet of his day, in an age when great poets were like rock stars – noted the discrepancy. The poet, a commoner, had only escaped burning by arguing that no one had proven him a sodomite, and by promising to repent and become a monk. Théophile’s lover was a young noble, and was never once charged with any crime.

Théophile, in happier days, penned this playful little song about how prevalent homosexuality was in Greek mythology, in Roman literature, and among the nobles of his age:

Appolon avec ses chansons
Debaucha le jeune Hyacinthe,
Si Corridon fout Aminte
César n’aymoit que des garçons.
On a foutu Monsieur le Grand,
L’on fout le Comte de Tonnerre.
Et ce savant roy d’Angleterre
Foutoit-il pas le Boukinquan ?
Je n’ay ni qualité ni rang
Qui me donne un marquis pour garse.
Et tu said pourtant bien que j’arse
Aussi fort qu’un Prince du sang.
— Théophile de Viau
Apollo with his songs
Debauched the young Hyakinthous,
If the shepherd Corridon fucked Amyntas,
Julius Caesar loved none but boys.
Someone fucked the Baron of Bellegarde,
Someone fucked the Count of Tonnerre.
And this wise King [James I] of England,
Did he not fuck the Duke of Buckingham?
I have neither blue blood nor lordly rank
Which makes a prostitute into a marquis.
But you know, however, I burn
As much as any prince of royal blood.
— translation by me

In my next instalment, we’re going to turn to those nobles, and explore how the other half lived.

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Reconstructing LGBT history is difficult at the best of time. Historically, homosexuality has been seen as “the worst of sins,” “the nameless vice,” and “the unmentionable crime.” It is rarely spoken of, and then in whispers and euphemisms, until very recently.

Historians use mostly court records, newspapers, and private journals to sketch out the life of homosexuals and bisexuals before the first glimmerings of the liberation movement in the nineteenth century. Which brings us to the problem of New France — a place with a mostly-illiterate population that kept few journals and had no newspapers.

The stories of the unnamed drummer, the Seigneur de Saint-Michel, and the Two-Spirit people are the only examples historians have found of homosexuality in New France’s history. From what we can gather from the extant records, the Seigneur de Saint-Michel and the drummer were the only ones ever brought to trial for homosexuality in New France.

The lack of court cases suggests one of two possibilities about New France:

  • homosexuality was rare, or passed largely unnoticed
  • it was not rare but largely tolerated, with few cases going to trial

I think that — at least by the time Montreal was firmly established — the second possibility, not the first, better describes the situation. Though I realize this runs counter to everything we’d assume about that time and place, I think that the evidence weighs in its favour.

To begin this argument, I’d like to draw attention to Nicholas Daussy, Seigneur de Saint-Michel himself. He was clearly an intelligent man — he knew the law, he knew his rights, enough at least to demand a trial on his terms.

So why did he carry on what sounds like it was a set of very public relationships? There were eight witnesses, after all, not counting Dollier de Casson, who brought the case forward. And why — when the judgement accused him of “debauching many men” — were only two arrested?

The Saint-Michel case has all the hallmarks of the kind of trial where someone is “made an example of,” to send a message to others committing a common crime. And yet still, Saint-Michel managed to avoid jail, the galleys, and the death penalty. How did he do it?

Over the next few entries, I’m going to explore the political, cultural, and religious climate of New France. I’m going to start with life in France, since the colony was mostly made up of French immigrants until the 1700s. I will then move on to the social and sexual life of New France and the moral crusades of the church in that era.

While there’s little hard evidence either way, I think I can show that Quebec’s tolerance towards homosexuals and bisexuals is not something new, but has been part of local culture since the earliest days of its colonial history.

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