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.