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.