Archive for the ‘New France’ Category

In all these articles, I still haven’t discussed in any real depth the laws that sent all those homosexuals and bisexuals to the stake or gallows, or into exile. Before we go any further, we’re going to have to talk about those laws.

In 1763, France officially gave up its North American colony to the British. Britain renamed it the Province of Quebec. For a legal system, it settled in 1774 on a hybrid of British and French law – it took Paris’s law for its civil cases (lawsuits, property, marriage, etc.), but used the English law for its criminal ones (murder, rape, theft – and “sodomy”). It also used English-style courts.

But before we can look at the courts, we have to look at the laws and their terminology.

Buggery and Sodomy

The two words used almost interchangeably in English and French for cases dealing with homosexuality were “buggery” (bougrerie in French) and “sodomy” (sodomie). Both these words have a curious history. They also had fairly different meanings in in the two different legal systems, which we’ll get to after.

“Sodomy” takes its name from the city of Sodom, destroyed in Genesis in the Bible for its “wickedness.” The word eventually came to mean “homosexuality” in English law, but the story had a long and complex history of changing interpretations. The earliest seems to have been that God destroyed Sodom because the city was cruel to foreigners – that’s the interpretation in the Bible at any rate, and the one suggested by Christ in Matthew Chapter 19, verses 13 and 14.

In French law, it came to mean “any kind of sex that cannot result in children” – and this, of course, was its meaning in New France as well.

“Buggery” has an even more chequered history. As “bougre” it had meant Bulgarian – as in the Bulgarian heresy, better known these days as the religion of the Albigensians or Cathars. The Albigensian faith was a form of Christianity very different from Catholicism, and which became extremely powerful in the south of France.

In 1208, the Medieval Church launched a campaign to exterminate these “heretics” – and a part of that campaign was homophobic propaganda. It seems the Albigensians had very different sexual values than the Catholics. Indeed, they thought non-reproductive sex was better than reproductive sex, because it didn’t drag another soul out of heaven to risk eternal damnation in this life. Catholic propaganda had it that this view of things led the “bougres” to commit all kinds of “immoral” sex acts, especially homosexuality.

The effect this propaganda had on the psychology of Europe was astonishing. The church not only fanned the flames of bigotry against the “heretics,” but also against homosexuals and bisexuals – the first executions for homosexuality in Europe begin later that same century. It also linked homosexuality and heresy together in the public mind. This linkage has had a surprising lifespan. When the Protestants broke away, they tarred the Catholics with accusations of homosexuality, as an indication that the Catholics were heretics. Rather than reject this old bit of Catholic propaganda, they turned it on its creators.

One can still hear it — eight centuries later — in the arguments of the religious right today.

French Law

French law was a complex patchwork in the Middle Ages. Each area had its own local laws, called “customs,” which were sometimes collected in books. No one had exactly passed these laws – they were just the way things had always been done in that region. These “customs” changed completely from one territory to the next.

While the civil laws of New France were based on the Custom of Paris, the customary criminal laws that would be eventually applied to the colony were those collected in a book called the Établissement de Saint Louis. This book contained the declaration that “bougres” and “heretics” should be put to death by fire.

The word “bougres” had almost certainly meant “Albigensians” before, but by the end of the 13th century, the Albigensians were gone, and no one was sure anymore if the law now applied to heretics or people guilty of sexual “immorality.” Since “heretic” was already in the code, sexual “immorality” was a much more common interpretation. Still, this view remained controversial. Many (including the philosopher Voltaire) continued to insist that the word “bougre” just meant “heretic.”

A man named Philp de Remi, lord of Beaumanoir collected the customs for the area of Beauvais. He came up with a creative solution in his book. The way he worded his sodomy law became very influential on other customs, and was soon the standard interpretation:

“He who errs against faith that by his lack of belief he will not come to see the truth, or who does sodomy, he will be burned and forfeits all his possessions [that is, the government takes these away from his family so they don’t inherit]…” (translation mine)

In other words, “sodomites” were automatically heretics anyway, since only the worst of heretics would commit “sodomy.” This nicely sidestepped the thorny legal issue. It also drew the attention of Beaumanoir’s boss King Philip IV, who saw in it the solution to one of his most serious problems. Philip was especially interested in the part about forfeiting possessions.

The Knights Templar had started off as an organization of body guards who escorted pilgrims safely to holy sites in Jerusalem. They received a lot of donations, and somewhere along the line, they found they had a flair for banking. They had earned plenty of money, which made them a potential target. King Philip IV was always desperate for cash, and the Knights Templar had cash. Also, Philip was deeply in debt to them.

Philip had the confessions to “sodomy and witchcraft” extracted by torture. The burning of the Templars at the stake is believed to be the first mass-killing for “sodomy” in history. Since the law allowed the king to confiscate the convicted person’s property, Philip got everything the Knights Templar owned.

Meanwhile, “sodomy” was going through another change in French law – it was becoming a form of treason.

The kings of France were always looking for ways to tame the nobles, who were a threat to royal power and – oaths of allegiance to the crown aside – often went to war with Paris. To break the power of the nobles, the French kings needed to take the courts away from them. Lords acted as judges, except in cases of treason against the king.

To take that power for themselves, the kings of France used the most convoluted logic imaginable to define everything under the sun as “treason.” In the case of homosexuality, it was decided that since homosexuality was a form of heresy (according to Beaumanoir), and a heretic denied the existence of God, and God was the justification for the existence of kings — because God chose kings, after all — homosexuality was therefore treason because it attacked the justification for the king’s power.

That’s why Nicolas Daussy de Saint-Michel couldn’t be tried in an ordinary court, only by the Sovereign Council at Quebec. His sexuality technically made him a traitor, so he could only be tried by the King’s direct representatives in New France.

By the 1700s, France had laws and a system in place for punishing all “sodomites.” They had a prescribed death sentence, and rituals of execution by burning. There was just one problem left to them – what exactly was “sodomy”?

Defining “Sodomy”

French law as yet no definition of this capital crime. Without a definition, judges were left to make their own decisions. In all the works I’ve read on the subject, male homosexuality and bestiality were the only things that merited burning. Female homosexuals were given a quicker death by hanging. I have never read of heterosexuals being executed for sodomy in France – it certainly may have happened, but if so, it must have been rare.

France finally got its legal definition for sodomy in 1757 – about five hundred years after the executions for sodomy had begun, and about a quarter-century before they’d end. According to legal expert Pierre-François Muyart de Vouglans:

”This crime [of sodomy], which takes its name from that abominable city which is mentioned in Sacred History, is committed by a man with a man or a woman with a woman. It is also committed by a man with his wife when they do not use the ordinary way of generation.
…one cannot punish it with penalties too harsh, and above all when it is committed by two persons of the same sex.
…This penalty, which has been adopted by our jurisprudence, applies equally to women as to men.” (translation by Louis Crompton)

Thus, sodomy in France was any kind of sex that can’t result in children, but is a crime that is much worse when homosexuality is involved.

This was the final form of France’s – and thus New France’s – sodomy laws when the colony fell into Britain’s hands. Britain’s criminal laws took over at that point.

Britain’s sodomy laws were very different from France’s, and these differences are crucial in the way the law was interpreted and applied. .

Sources: Numerous sources have helped, including Didier Godard’s Le Goût de Monsieur and Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, as well as John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History. For the Beaumanoir quote, I went right to a modern imprint of the Coûtumes de Beausvais. A marvellous book entitled Le Droit Civil Suivant l’Ordre Établi par les Codes, by Gonzalve Doutre will tell a person everything they wanted to know about the history of New France’s laws. Sadly, this book is out of print, but can be found for free in full-text on Early Canadiana Online.


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“[I wish] that this sodomite of a country were burnt, and reduced to ashes, along with everyone in it.”
— words spoken by a man named Pierre Beaudoin dit Cumberland, about New France – words that landed him in court on a charge of blasphemy in 1752

Four hundred years ago, there was no permanent European settlement in what later became Canada. The attitudes of the people the land belonged to were different from nation to nation – some were disapproving, others accepting.

Some – like the Illiniwek and Ojibwe around the Great Lakes – were not merely accepting, but actually had a special place in their societies for homosexuals and bisexuals. Today these people are called in English Two-Spirits, a translation of the Ojibwe words niizh manidoowag.

Among the Illiniwek, European travellers reported, there were male-bodied individuals who dressed as women did, never married women, were honoured with dances, and who were always called to Council, “where nothing may be decided without their advice.” These same people had Ickoue ne Kioussa — the Hunting Women – who took female partners and did men’s tasks. The Two-Spirit son of an Ojibwe chieftain, Ozawwendib, was similarly honoured.

Four centuries, the French planted the city of Quebec at the base of the hill where the St. Lawrence settled, beginning the settlement of what came to be known as Canada. There was every reason to expect that situation in the future Canada to get rapidly much worse for what the French called “sodomites.” These men who were honoured among peoples such as the Ojibwe were burnt at the stake in France for having sex with other men.

(This applied to commoners only, of course. The priesthood and the nobles could – and generally did – get away with homosex without risking the death penalty. Montreal was founded in the name of a king so eager to avoid sex with a woman that he could barely produce heirs.)

A closer look at the colony would’ve given a person even more reason to worry. A secret organization of religious fanatics funded much of the colony’s creation, built Montreal, and appointed New France’s bishop. Meanwhile nuns and priests poured into Native territory in search of spiritual conquests.

Yet within six years, Montreal – which had started as a commune for religious fanatics and a launch point for the religious takeover of Native society – had its first known sodomy case. The Jesuits recorded that in 1648, they stopped Governor de Maisonneuve from handing out the death penalty to a man convicted of sodomy. He was allowed, instead, to become the colony’s first executioner, then disappeared from history entirely in 1653. We don’t know his name, and probably never will.

Much research in the last 40 years has shown that New France was a much more sexually free society than the mother country. The Sovereign Council, which was both government and supreme court to the colony, was stretched to its limit fighting wars with Iroquois and English, hearing the peasants’ lawsuits, and trying to regulate the economics and politics of the place. With little time or energy left to look after morality, the peasants were left to look after themselves in such matters. Sex-related cases often only came to court when there was a victim of some kind.

These sex cases give us glimpses into a colony with a developed sex trade – prostitutes and pimps – and frequent extramarital and premarital sex. There was almost a kind of sexual revolution in New France, pushed forward by libertin ideas imported from France and the more sexually permissive attitudes of the local Native cultures.

The situation was not perfect. It only took one denunciation by a powerful person to land a queer individual in court – and into a court system that considered the accused innocent until proven guilty. This shadow must have always hung over the heads of the “sodomites.” A constant reminder of their status must have been the words “bougre” and “bougresse” – roughly equivalent to the modern “faggot” and “dyke” – which by all accounts were used frequently by the locals.

Still, New France was probably one of the safest places to be in European civilization in the 17th Century. Along with the Scandinavian countries, it was one of the few regions that didn’t enforce its death penalty for sodomy. We have what looks to be complete summaries of criminal trials for the colony’s last 97 of its 142 years – the years when New France was heavily populated – and there is not one death sentence for male-male sex in all that time. There may have been some in the first 45 years that we don’t know about, but by the time the colony was firmly established, there did not seem to have been a single one.

This easygoing atmosphere didn’t sit well with everyone. Many in the church were eager to return to the old-time religion. One of these was the colony’s second bishop, Saint-Vallier. Another was Saint-Vallier’s second in command, Dollier de Casson, who instigated a sodomy investigation in a lord and lieutenant in the colonial regular troops, Nicholas Daussy de Saint-Michel.

Saint-Michel’s is the only trial we have some solid information about, though it isn’t much. Still, it tells us that the church was likely trying to make an example of the lord. If so, it largely failed. Saint-Michel lost the trial, but was given the minimum sentence: he had to give 200 livres to charity and was sent back to France in the next ship. Two men he’d slept with – who tried, and failed, to convince the court they’d been unwilling – were only sentenced to a few extra years in the military.

The record is mostly silent about queer women in New France, except when it came to Native women like the Ickoue ne Kioussa. Another possible exception was Esther Brandeau, who dressed as a man and had lived with nuns in a man’s disguise for a time in France before being discovered in New France. Other than that, the official record says nothing.

We can speculate using examples from France and Europe, and guess that queer women were largely invisible. The most serious problem would have been for homosexual women who did not want to marry, because marriage was a necessity for women in New France. The sole option for those woman would have been the nunnery, and we can suppose that homosexual women found their way there, as they did in Europe

* * * * *

In 1759, near the end of the Seven Year’s War between Britain and France, Quebec City was conquered by the British. In 1760, Montreal passed into English hands as well. Britain’s generals suddenly found themselves in charge of the territory, not knowing if the colony was going to be given back to the French. They didn’t plan to be there long-term, and administered law from what was known as the Military Council.

Finally, during the hostage-trading of colonies called the Peace of Paris, the British gave France the choice of either taking back Canada, or getting back its tropical, sugar-producing islands. France took the tropical islands and the sugar, and left New France in British hands.

Suddenly, the British were in charge of large territory whose ways and customs were alien to them. The new Province of Quebec – which stretched then from what’s now southern Quebec and Ontario and included the American states of what’s now Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and part of Minnesota – was going to be a hybrid land. There, the new province would use both French and English, and tolerate both Catholicism and Protestantism.

Most importantly for us, it also fused the two nations’ legal systems into a hybrid system, which took its laws against homosexuality from the British, not the French side.

In my next instalment, we’re going to take a look at homosexuality in Great Britain.

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I saved this piece for last – not because it’s my best or my worst, but to stall for time. I was hoping I would be able to find more of relevance.

Researching lesbian history is almost proverbially difficult. Most of our knowledge of male homosexuality comes from court records. Female homosexuality has rarely been illegal. Where it has, the laws have only occasionally been enforced. Authorities have generally been more obsessed with male homosexuality.

Perhaps not surprisingly, so have historians. I have yet to come across a single book, article, or even reference to female homosexuality in New France, with one possible exception that I’ll get into in the second part.


France’s educated elite wasn’t exactly ignorant of lesbianism, although censors had done their best to make sure they were. Translations and writings on Sappho tended to either ignore or deny the homosexuality of the famous Greek poet from the island of Lesbos.

Then the Seigneur de Brantôme wrote a book called simply Ladies, published in 1666, that gives us one of our first serious modern descriptions of the lives of women who love women in Europe. It also introduces a new word into the European languages: lesbienne, or lesbian, meaning female homosexual or bisexual. The previous word in use had been tribade.

Brantôme argued that female homosexuality was a better alternative for unmarried women than sex with a man – not only because it wouldn’t lead to pregnancy, but because Brantôme believed it was a lesser sin than heterosexual fornication. This wasn’t the view of the law or the church, of course. The forces of authority generally agreed that women, like men, should be burnt for same-sex sexuality.

Still, Brantôme view may have won out – trials for female homosexuality were rare, convictions rarer. Two women were brought to trial in Bordeaux in 1533, and found not guilty. On the other hand, one woman from Fontaines not only married a woman, but also dressed as a man, and was burnt at the stake in 1535. The French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne records a tragic story of a woman hanged in 1580 at Monter-en-Der, France, because she had dressed as a man, taken a wife, and used a sex toy to satisfy her wife. She was given the choice of conforming to the roles expected of women, or dying. She chose death.

In the few cases I’ve been able to find that ended in execution, the problem was not only sex between women, but that a woman had also claimed male privilege by dressing and living as a man. Beyond these cases, we know very little. I have yet to come across a trial in France for female homosexuality any time after the colonization of New France had begun in 1608, and yet to come across a conviction that did not involve cross-dressing.

New France

The queerest story I’ve been able to find about women in New France is the tale of Esther Brandeau. Coming back from her aunt’s home in Amsterdam to rejoin her parents in France, she was shipwrecked, rescued by a crew member, and took refuge in the home of a widow named Catherine Churiau. She left soon after, wearing men’s clothes, and got a job as a ship’s cook. Afterwards, according to her own testimony, she lived with a (male) tailor for months, and spent awhile living – as a man – with the nuns of the convent of the Recollets at Clissay. For awhile, she was a baker’s assistant, and worked for an infantry captain for the city of Vitré, in Brittany. Then she went back to being a ship’s cook and made her way to New France in 1738. She was exposed accidentally after she’d been in New France for awhile.

Asked by the intendant’s second-in-command Jean-Victor Varin why she was dressing in men’s clothes, Brandeau – who was Jewish – explained that, while living with the widow Churiau, she was forced to eat pork and other meats once forbidden to her. Now, she said, she could never go back to her parents, where she would have to keep kosher, and she wanted “the freedom of Christians” to eat whatever they chose.

I’ll leave the reader to read between those lines however they wish. In any event, Varin took her claim literally. Her refusal to eat kosher gave him high hopes she could be converted to Catholicism. The attempt failed – the nuns turned her out – and Brandeau’s place in the colony became a political issue. King Louis XV himself offered to pay her passage back to France, so the colony could remain completely Catholic.

Brandeau was deported to France, and there set free. After that, history loses track of her.

Brandeau’s case and that of another woman – Anne Émond, who dressed as a boy as part of a plan to rescue her boyfriend – tell us something interesting about New France. Remember that in cases where queer women were burnt at the stake in France, cross-dressing was a major reason for their execution. In New France, cross-dressing seems to have earned Brandeau a simple deportation, and Émond a public whipping – light punishments by the standards of the day.

No record exists of any woman tried in New France, however, for homosexuality. It’s possible that there were early trials – record-keeping was a lot more haphazard before 1663. However, I strongly suspect no such case existed. I doubt any woman was ever brought to trial in New France for having sex with another woman, though some nuns may have wound up in ecclesiastical courts.

As I mentioned in the section dealing with male homosexuality, New France was a tolerant, though not necessarily accepting, society. Women did get called “bougresse” – “dyke” – however. In one particularly vile example, the Sovereign Council heard testimony that a man accused (and later convicted) of attempted rape, a soldier named Philippe Portier dit Lafontaine, had called one of his victims “a little dyke” for refusing to have sex with him. Another word for “dyke,” – “gouine” – was also used around this time.

On a more positive note, men and women who went out as far as the Great Lakes area on missions would’ve seen the “women who carried the bow.” These were physically-female Two-Spirit women who had wives. As the French explorer Baron de Lahontan says:

“…but I ought to have added that some young Women will not hear of a Husband, through a principle of Debauchery. That sort of Women are call’d Ickoue ne Kioussa, i.e. Hunting Women : for they commonly accompany the Huntsmen in their Diversions. To justify their Conduct, they alledge that they find themselves too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak, to be careless for the bringing up of children, and too impatient to bear the passing of the whole Winter in the Villages. thus it is that they cover and disguise their Lewdness. Their Parents or relations dare not censure their Vicious Conduct ; on the contrary, they often approve of it, in declaring, as I said before, that their Daughters have command of their own Bodies, and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit ; they being at their liberty to do what they please.”

Lahontan goes on to tell us that “the Jesuits do their utmost to prevent the Lewd Practices of these Whores, by Preaching to their Parents that their indulgence is very disagreeable to the Great Spirit,” and that hellfire awaits parents who cannot control their children. According to Lahontan, the Illiniwek women’s response to this lecture was that “if their [the Jesuits’] Threats be grounded, the Mountains of the other World must consist of the Ashes of Souls.”

Explicitly lesbian and bisexual women among the Europeans in New France, however, seem impossible to locate. The church and the courts tell us nothing. Bishop Saint-Vallier, who was engaged in a moral crusade that included a fight against male “sodomy,” simply didn’t register the possibility of female homosexuality. In a letter of advice to the governor’s wife about her daughter, the bishop said “one could permit modest and honest dancing, but with persons of her own sex only … not in the presence of men or boys, this mix of sexes being, properly speaking, the cause of inconveniences and disorderliness….”

Surrounded by silence, some speculation is necessary. If a woman wanted to or was at least willing to be with a man, she could blend easily into this society, whatever her other desires. Such desires had to be confessed to the parish priest, but these confessions were kept confidential.

For a woman who did not want to have sex with a man, however, the options were limited. The Sovereign Council was so eager to get women married off that in 1670, it offered a reward for women under 16 who married. This law also required fathers of daughters 16 and older to submit a report every six months to the Council itself, explaining why their daughters weren’t wedding. Not surprisingly, the civil records are filled with women married young and who had more than ten children.

Any time after 1642, one possibility for women who didn’t want to marry would be that imposing stone building in the heart of Quebec City. This was the convent of the Ursuline nuns.

Many Catholics dislike the popular association of their celibate orders with homosexuality, but there are plenty of examples to back it up. Certainly, some women were drawn to monastic life for religious reasons alone, and others for the chance at a better education. Yet, we have examples throughout European history of female couples in convents.

This is an area that scholars have only just begun to turn toward, so these stories are still emerging. Yet, we’ve unearthed things such as love-letters between medieval nuns in Europe. Historian John Boswell translates several in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, one of which is quite explicit:

”Everything pleasant and delightful
Without you seems like mud underfoot.
I shed tears as I used to smile,
And my heart is never glad.
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you.

(Translation by Boswell)

There’s no reason to believe that the situation for nuns in New France was any different from that of Europe. The problem is getting at the proof. The Catholic Church, unfortunately, conducted its own trials for homosexuality among its clergy. These trials took place in its own ecclesiastical courts. While some of the records of these courts have fallen into secular hands in other countries, I have not been able to locate any declassified ecclesiastical court records from New France. I’m guessing that records of trials, for example, of Ursuline nuns could tell us a lot about love between women.

For my next instalment, I’m going to bring the section on New France to an end, and try to draw some conclusions about the lives of homosexuals and bisexuals in la Nouvelle France.

Sources: For the situation in the mother country, I leaned heavily on Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. Esther Brandeau’s story can be found in both E. Z. Massicotte’s article “Le travesti sous le régime français” in Bulletin des Recherches Historiques, volume 38, pp. 60-61; or in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Anne Émond appears in Massicotte, and the handwritten summary of her trial can be viewed on the PISTARD digitized archives. I took the Baron de Lahontan quote from an uncredited 1703 edition of Lahontan’s voyages, and the poem of course is from John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

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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.

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If Montreal’s founders – the lord Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and nun Jeanne Mance – had been given a vision of a Montreal gay pride parade in the future, they might have packed their bags and left the island to the Iroquois who also claimed it.

Maisonneuve and Jeanne-Mance are always referred to as “pious” or “devout” in descriptions. This hardly captures the reality of their fanaticism.

France was officially a Catholic country, but the alliance of church and state was brittle. With a rising tide of Protestantism, the pope was unwilling to lose such a powerful ally, and the king was wary of the pope. Partly this wariness was because their realm was filled with many deeply religious people – King Henri III was assassinated after being excommunicated. Partly the fear was spiritual – Louis XIII’s very influential wife and King Louis XIV were both fervent Catholics, and the pope was and is considered to have the keys of heaven.

At the same time, both Louis XIII and his son had a country to run, and sometimes religion had to take a back seat to politics. They continued the tradition of tolerating Protestants, and they aligned France with Protestant countries in wars against Catholics ones.

This didn’t sit well with some. The most extreme group were the dévots, a catch-all term for the Catholic revivalists. These were people who wanted to return to the old-time religion of medieval Christianity – back to visions and holy rolling. Back to self-denial and self-flagellation.

Back to burning heretics and sodomites.

It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but it’s well established by mainstream historians that between 1627 and 1630, a group of wealthy and powerful dévots founded a secret organization called the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement, to pool their money and resources so as to help causes they supported. It had to be secret because they were definitely pro-pope, and thus devoted to undermining the power of the king.

To be fair, they did a lot of good charitable work, setting up hospitals and helping the poor. They supported St. Vincent de Paul, a priest renowned for helping the homeless and the desperate.

Much of that money, though, went into worsening the situation for minorities. The Compagnie’s biggest success in this area was increasing the climate of fear and suspicion so much that the edict allowing religious tolerance for Protestants was revoked.

In Canada, their two big victories were the founding of Montreal, and the installation of Bishop Laval — one of their members — as New France’s first bishop. McGill University Professor E.R. Adair was the first to study the Compagnie’s efforts in Canada, and has determined that Montreal pretty much only exists because the Compagnie networked its founders together and provided the gold. They’d grown frustrated with the fact that the government saw New France only as a trading colony, and didn’t care for missionary work. Thus, the mission at Montreal was born.

Knowing the kind of man Maisonneuve was, then, the trial of a drummer for sodomy in 1648 makes a lot more sense. Being the agent of an organization determined to bring Catholicism and the French world back to the Dark Ages, it’s not too surprising that he would attempt to have a man executed for a “crime” and “sin” that would soon be tolerated throughout New France. More surprising is the intervention of the Jesuits – the order that called down holy fire on sodomites in France saved the life of New France’s first sodomite. The Jesuits are our only source of information on this man’s trial, but they never say tell us why they asked for him to be spared.

The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement was beginning to fall apart in the 1660s. Several of its chapter-houses had been exposed, and the Compagnie, rather than risk total exposure, dissolved itself in 1666. Before that, though, it managed to get Laval put into place here in Canada. Laval was as extreme a Catholic as the Compagnie could’ve wished for.

Many of Laval’s morality campaigns are funny, now, with the distance of time. For instance, he was shocked that women would come up to the altar for the ceremony of communion with bare cleavage or shoulders, or even without a hat. He considered this near-nudity, “a great risk to their salvation.”

He was a member of the Sovereign Council – the body that made laws for New France, and judged the colony as a supreme court. On the Council, he was involved in drafting some of the more interesting morality legislation. In 1670, for instance, the Council forbade unmarried adult men to hunt, fish, or trade with natives – that is, they were forbidden from doing anything which would take them into the woods. This move has been interpreted by most historians as designed to keep them away from Native mistresses. The imaginative historian can probably think of a few other possible reasons why this law might be passed.

In 1676, the Council also passed a law allowing only people whose “decency is well-known” or who have “permission in writing” to become bar-owners, because bar-owning had become a “pretext” for people of a “bad way of life” (the French words used can also mean “sexually loose”) to “continue with their debauchery, suffering public scandals in their homes.”

The council also required all bars to post all the morality laws of New France in every room where food and drink was served. Since sodomy was one of these laws, this meant every law-abiding tavern had to have a piece of paper on their walls that included the word “sodomie.”

By the time Laval was ready to retire, the Compagnie was long gone. He could not have chosen a better successor, however, than Bishop Saint-Vallier, who arrived in 1688. I’ll tell his part of the story in another instalment.

Before we move on, though, one thing should be made clear. In my last update, I pointed out that the ordinary people of New France were very open about (hetero)sexuality, and are believed to have been quite tolerant of homosexuality. It’s dangerous, however, to overemphasize this. Tolerance isn’t acceptance, and New France was not a utopia. Every moral campaign had some supporters among both commoners and nobles.

I picture the situation being something like illegal downloading of music now – it’s highly illegal, dangerous to get caught, and while some of those who do it would justify it, most would admit it’s a bad thing, if only for the artists’ sake. Still, most people would never imagine turning in a friend or family member for downloading music, though. I suspect most families in New France felt the same way about homosexual and bisexual members. Yet, every age has its fanatics.

It’s also important to note that bigotry leaves its traces on a language. The words “bougre” and “bougresse” – roughly “faggot” and “dyke” – were very popular insults among all classes. I’ve seen it claimed that that “bougre” lost its original meaning and became a general insult, because it was used in insults that had nothing to do with male homosexuality – as when one noblewoman was referred to as a “bougre de putain,” roughly a “faggoty whore.”

I don’t buy that argument. Then as now, words like “bougre,” “faggot,” and “gay” (as an insult) take their power by comparison to homosexuals, and further by the assumption that homosexuality is bad. They also create a climate of fear, and – in a place like New France – must have served as a constant reminder that it would only take one denunciation by a dévot to send a person to the courts.

And it’s just such a single denunciation that seems to have brought Saint-Michel before the law.

Now we move on from the general situation, to the specifics. In my next article, we’ll turn to the first sodomy trial in New France, which gave this journal its name.

Sources: The Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement is fairly well-documented in France, but not too much has been written about it in Canada yet. W.J. Eccles mentions it in his Canadian Frontier, 1534-1760, as does University of Manitoba historian Cornelius Jaenan in an online article entitled “Church-State Relations in Canada (1604-1685).” The best source I’ve found, however, was E.R. Adair’s groundbreaking article “France and the Beginnings of New France,” in The Canadian Historical Review, volume XXV (September, 1944), pp. 246-278. I’ve also relied on the usual Déliberations et Jugements du Conseil Souverain, and on the online The Dictionary of Canadian Biography. For the commands of the Conseil Souverain, I went to their source, Les Déliberations et Jugements du Conseil Souverain. The wonderful quote by Laval comes from La Nouvelle France par les textes by Marcel Trudel. The information on insults in New France comes from L’Injure en Nouvelle-France by R. Lionel Séguin. For basic biographical details of major historical figures, I used the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

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“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.

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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.

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