“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.