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.