Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrière de Saint-Vallier – the colony’s second bishop – was a fanatic of the first order, who actually forbade women who showed bare cleavage and shoulders from marrying in his church, confessing, or having their children baptized. He also outlawed dancing between men and women (though he allowed women to dance together, not seeing any danger).
In 1690, the year before the Saint-Michel trial, Bishop Saint-Vallier told the confessors of New France,
“We desire … that you make the absolution of the greatest sins more difficult, especially those that are also crimes, such as arson, witchcraft, sodomy, bestiality, and incest.”
In 1694, Saint-Vallier added that only he could grant absolution for sodomy and bestiality.
Saint-Vallier is best known to mainstream Canadian history for what’s come to be known as the Mareuil Affair. Seigneur Jacques de Mareuil was a half-pay lieutenant in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine and amateur actor. He invited the Count de Frontenac, governor of the colony, to a production of the play Tartuffe.
Now, Tartuffe has a long history of controversy. It’s by Molière, the great French playwright, who’s as influential in French as Shakespeare is in English – so influential that the French sometimes call their language “the language of Molière.” But the Catholic church has always despised Tartuffe; the play is about a fire-and-brimstone preacher who’s trying to marry one woman for her money while he tries to seduce another. The word Tartuffe had already entered the French language to mean “religious hypocrite.”
Bishop Saint-Vallier took the production as a personal attack on him. He issued a couple of commands to his church, one attacking theatre in general and the other against Mareuil. Two of the actors were barred from church and from sacraments. In a turn toward the bizarre, one of the actors – a lord named Cabanac – claimed that a priest named Father Foucault had preached a sermon against him, saying that he (Foucault) would take Cabanac out to a cabin, and have him tied to the post to be whipped by little boys that Foucault would bribe with plums and candies. Whether this sermon was really preached or whether Cabanac invented it is anyone’s guess.
In any event, Bishop Saint-Vallier accused Mareuil of blasphemy, which was a crime, and strongly implied that Mareuil was an atheist. This was significant – blasphemy carried a maximum penalty in New France of mutilation (the cutting of the tongue), while heresy was given the death penalty by burning.
The ruling Sovereign Council had Mareuil arrested, even though he was a close friend of the Governor, the Count de Frontenac. Mareuil was forbidden to speak to anyone. Frontenac had him freed, saying he hadn’t been convicted of anything, then snuck him aboard a ship bound for France. Bishop Saint-Vallier was so unpopular by this time that King Louis XIV demanded he return to France to explain himself. He wasn’t allowed back on the colony for about two years, and then only on the promise that he be nicer.
Why this long digression into the life of early Canada’s most famous libertine? Because it teaches us several things that can help us make sense of the Saint-Michel trial. To wit:
- In both cases, the trial was initiated by the church – in Mareuil’s case by the bishop himself, in Saint-Michel’s case by Father Dollier de Casson, the bishop’s second in command who was in charge of Montreal for the church. According to the Canadian Biographical Dictionary, Dollier de Casson was “the confidential agent” of the bishop in all things.
- In both cases the target was a lord, who the church would probably not have been able to get at in France.
- In both cases the maximum penalty the church could’ve hoped for was death by fire.
- In both cases, the lords closed ranks and protected their own.
Seeing these two things together, I’d like to make a suggestion I don’t think has been made before: I think that the Saint-Michel case was a deliberate attempt to assert the church’s power over the lords in the colony. I think he was aiming for an unmistakable display of power, by embarrassing the seigniorial class with a crime (homosexuality or atheism) that would be considered indefensible by “good” Christians. I think he also wanted to send a message that the church was not to be ignored, that it could even send a lord to the stake if it wanted.
Both Saint-Michel and Mareuil must have seemed particularly juicy targets to Saint-Vallier. Both were flagrantly, loudly, at odds with “good” Christian behaviour. Both used their rank to protect them, and the church tried, in both cases, to pry that protection away from them.
The conflicts between church and state are gradually becoming a favourite topic of historians of New France. Nowhere in their articles I’ve found, though, is Saint-Michel’s name mentioned. Why? Leaving aside that some historians are probably homophobic themselves, I think most who are specialized in the area simply assume that the population of New France was homophobic. They likely see it as simple cause-and-effect – no more controversial than an arrest for rape or murder.
But if homosexuality was generally tolerated, then suddenly his being denounced by the second-most-powerful priest in New France becomes political, and the kind of political that historians like to study. Saint-Michel’s trial then belongs to general Canadian and Quebec history, not just LGBT history.
Now we move on to that trial, which teaches us more about homosexuality in New France than anything else could.
I’ve leaned heavily on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography online for this one. Details of Saint-Vallier’s other crusades come from La Nouvelle-France par les Textes by Marcel Trudel. I found the pronouncements on Sodomy in several sources, including Patrice Corriveau’s La Répression des Homosexuels au Québec et en France. Descriptions of penalties from crimes come from both Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Compton, and La Scandaleuse Nouvelle-France by Guy Giguere.