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three pairs of lovers with space



"Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice"
     Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

European history is conventionally divided into ancient, mediaeval and modern, the defining events being the final fall of Rome to barbarians in 476 and the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453.  Though these events were of far-reaching practical and symbolic importance, and a similarly tripartite division is strongly suited to presentation of the declining fortune of Greek love in Europe, other happenings were far more influential on the latter and their dates have been adopted here.

                      by Pierre Joubert

For the division between antiquity and the middle period, far more devastating for Greek love than the fall of Christian Rome to other Christians was the take-over of the Roman empire in the preceding century by Christianity, with its harsh condemnation of male homosexuality.  Legally tolerated from 312, Christianity was the religion of all but one of the Emperors from 337 and became the only legal religion in 381, setting the stage for the persecution and destruction of classical paganism. Within this period, it took over as the religion of most of the urban population, so that by its end popular hostility is likely to have been generally supportive of state persecution. 

The legal and presumable social status of Greek love had been under clear threat since the reign of Alexander Severus (222-235), but it was only with an imperial law of 342 that its legal position became impossible with the passive role subject to capital punishment.  This law was a little ambiguous and may not have been enforced, but a clearer one of 390 definitely was.  Since the latter was merely part of the onslaught on the pagan beliefs that had upheld Greek love, and this had been underway for nine years, 381 is adopted here as the beginning of the middle period.

It is proposed here that original evidence to be presented over time will bear out the generalisation that the middle period is distinguished from the preceding and following ones by the combination of two characteristics. First, unlike in antiquity, when Greek love was tolerated and more often admired than not, it was strongly condemned by the state, resulting in variable but often savage punishment, and even more so by the Christian religion, which meant that most people believed it was wrong.  Fear of incurring the wrath of God, thought always ready to manifest itself in plagues or other disasters, was very real. Secondly, the middle period inherited from antiquity and shared with contemporaneous cultures an assumption that boys as well as females (but not other men) were sexually attractive to men in general. The relevant question for men, when they asked it, was not whether boys were a sexual temptation, but whether to give in to sin.

It was the beginning of the unraveling of this assumption that distinguishes the middle period from the modern, for the consequent cultural change, though subtler and much less sudden, was in the end just as injurious to the practice of Greek love as the adoption of Christianity had been.

The Laws of the Christian Roman Emperors against homosexuality began with the outlawing of passive homosexuality as an offence against properly masculine behaviour in 342. They steadily expanded and became more explicity Christian in their justification, until Justinian inflicted the death penalty on both parties to any act of male homosexual lust in his Body of Civil Law, completed in 534. This remained in force for the remaining existence of the Roman or Byzantine Empire and formed the rough basis for the persecution of homosexuality throughout mediaeval Christendom.

The Secret History of Prokopios is a contemporary account of the actual persecution of homosexuality begun by Justinian which exposes the true motives of the Emperor and his wife, as well as incidentally making it clear that it was taken for granted that homosexual acts would involve a man and a boy.

The new animosity to Greek love in Justinian's reign was reflected in the literature of the day. The Cycle of Agathias, an anthology of poems composed then or just afterwards, includes four attacking it and none sympathetic.

The continuity from antiquity of the assumption that both women and boys were sexually attractive for men is brought out well by the 12th-century Debate of Ganymede and Helen, in which both protagonists are portrayed as exceptionally attractive and their arguments as to loving which of them is most desirable imply that men are not bound to prefer one or the other. The same is more emphatic in the four passionate Greek love poems of Hilary the Englishman, which run even more counter to the prevailing Christian condemnation of sodomy, but, surviving in a single manuscript, did not share Ganymede and Helen's remarkable popularity. The likewise unique 13th-century Ganymede and Hebe, a poem in which the eponymous protagonists dispute the former's displacement of the latter as Jupiter's cupbearer, took a more partisan view of Ganymede's preferability. Slightly earlier than these were the Greek love poems of Marbod of Rennes, in two of which he wrote positively of Greek love being consummated at least as far as kisses were concerned, but in another of which he denounced homosexual copulation, by which he clearly meant that between men and boys, as "a crime less serious than none". This, however, is in keeping with the spirit of the age in which courtly love emerged.  Though most of the foregoing authors lived in France, that is also merely in keeping with the literary flowering of France at that time:  their works were copied and evidently therefore appreciated elsewhere in Europe, and their ideas as high-mediaeval European rather than peculiarly French.

Much the most important early modern treatise on pederasty was Antonio Rocco's humorous polemic, Alcibiades the Schoolboy, written about 1630 and first published in 1651, of which there is a full English translation here, an introduction here and a review here.

Nineteene Yeares Travayles by William Lithgow, published in London in 1632, offers valuable insights on the prevalence of Greek love in Italy (see the extracts from 1609 on p. 38 and 1616 on pp. 335, 356 and 358) and Hungary (see the extract from 1616 on p. 364). As would be expected, in informing us about the European, Near Eastern and North African lands he visited, he made assumptions about behaviour that also shed light on the relatively puritanical attitudes of his native Scotland.



In startling conflict with the Church's fierce denunciation of homosexuality and its sporadically savage punishment, the social opportunities for Greek love to flourish provided by the system of raising non-peasant boys in mediaeval and early modern Europe were rich.

Boyhood was conventionally divided into three phases. Until the age of seven, boys were raised mostly by women. At seven, they moved into a more masculine world. Upper-class boys were sent away to be fostered (in old Germanic societies, for example) or raised as pages by friends of their parents, as the best training for their future. The sons of artisans and craftsmen would likewise help their fathers with their trades and thereby come into constant contact with a world that was mixed, but male-dominated.

At fourteen, not coincidentally the age at which spermarche was thought to occur and the classic age of the boy in Greek love, the upper-class boy graduated from page to squire, beginning a seven-year period of intense personal service to a knight, with whom he ate and slept and whom he accompanied in battle, while receiving the social and martial training from which he could emerge at twenty-one as an independent and accomplished man of his age. Similarly, the middle-class boy was sent off at fourteen to be bound for seven years to serve as the personal apprentice of a professional man whose trade he would at the end be qualified to follow, both by law and through practical knowledge and skills.

Parallel to these, a fair number of boys of every social class passed from their mothers to the care of the monasteries, where they were raised and carefully educated in a strictly homosocial environment by men; men who, whether through choice or not, had renounced for life romantic or sexual opportunities with women.

Given that sodomy (often equated with pedication and seen as the inevitable outcome of lust for boys) was a mortal sin, literally unmentionable most of the time, it is unsurprising but deeply frustrating that very little was recorded to indicate how prevalent it was. By far the most important study of this question is Michael Rocke's Forbidden Friendships, reviewed here. Rocke was able to draw on the chance survival of exceptionally rich records for the courts that dealt with cases of sodomy in fifteenth-century Florence to demonstrate that at least two thirds of Florentine men were implicated in sex with boys, thus providing proof, rare in a European context, that sexual interest in boys could be general, rather than the interest of a minority. Rocke argues convincingly that broadly the same sexual culture may reasonably be assumed to have prevailed throughout Europe from antiquity until the 17th century. What the Florentine records do not really address, however, is the question of what effect ubiquitously-practised pederasty had on a society? Florence did have a special reputation for sodomy in an Italy that was likewise distinguished, and one might well say exactly the same about their respective reputations at the forefront of the extraordinary cultural flowering known as the Renaissance, a flowering that included the revival of the naked male youth as a worthy subject of art by artists themselves often well known for their love affairs with boys. 

Rare and thought-provoking insight into how things may have stood, both generally for old Europe and specifically with respect to Renaissance Florence as a distilled exemplar, is offered by the unusually-frank autobiography of the sculptor Cellini. These, read together with the records of his convictions for sodomising boys, reveal a man who accepted without shame that it was man's natural lot to love and lust after both females and boys and that his apprentices should be beautiful for both modeling and love. How typical was he?



The foregoing has drawn attention to articles shedding light on the characteristic attitudes surrounding Greek love throughout the Europe of this period. The following addresses by country some more specific instances of its practice.



In The Portrait of Mr. W.H. and Shakespeare's Boyfriend and Sonnet XX, Oscar Wilde and J. Z. Eglinton respectively present the arguments for believing that the boy for whom Shakespeare professed his love in that sonnet was one of his boy actors, while differing on which one.

Shakespeare's Boy Actors and Forbidden Discourse by M. Teare-Williams is a thorough and scholarly study, hitherto unpublished, of the female roles in Shakespeare’s comedies played by boys, showing how for full effect Shakespeare relied on  his audience’s appreciation of the pervasive though subtle erotic tension between boys and men.

Three contemporaries of Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, 1561-1626, the Lord Chancellor  and philosopher, say he habitually had sex with boys in his service. Paying careful attention to their tone, one can observe that, though two were firmly condemnatory, they in no way insinuated that this marked him out as having a fundamentally different nature to most men (as would be done towards the end of the century in northern Europe).



An encounter with an eager Styrian boy in 1691 recounted by the Ottoman captive Osmân Agha illustrates the still-pervasive idea that pederastic feeling was to be taken for granted, however sinful it was to yield to the impulse.


The Netherlands

"A Distinguished 17th Century Uranian by Georges Eekhoud" and "For the reason that thou, Hieronymus Duquesnoy ..." by Geert Debeuckelaere are two articles about the execution of a great sculptor in Ghent in 1654 for sodomising boys, the former giving a broader picture of his life, and the latter more detailed and accurate on his fatal liaisons.



Rare insight into habitual pederastic practice in the early 13th century is offered by the detailed documents pertaining to the trial of Arnold of Verniolle for heresy and sodomy with boys of fifteen to nineteen.

The Ottoman prince Jem and the lovely French boys is a poem, probably by the exiled prince's foremost follower, celebrating the beauty of the French boys at a banquet they attended at Nice in 1482.

The Memoirs of Pierre de l'Estoile, 1576-1611 are a royal secretary's account of events, including some Greek love scandals, and are especially notable for the description of the homosexual King Henry III's mignons.

The trial of Anthony Bacon, 1586 is an account of a prominent English spy's trial for sodomising one of his pageboys in Montauban.

The "attentat manuel" on Louis XIV is an intriguing mystery from the memoirs of a valet de chambre: who had what kind of sexual rapport with the 13-year-old King in 1652?



Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Spain by Norman Roth is a study with a few characteristic examples showing that it was a popular genre accepted by the Jewish communities of mediaeval Spain and with many similarities to the Moslem boy-love poetry of the time, though the love depicted is not known to have been physically expressed beyond licit kissing.



Amongst the many Renaissance artists besides Cellini who loved boys was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, for whom it led to his being better known as "Il Sodoma".

The Journals of Jean-Jacques Bouchard provide a lively witness account of the practice of pederasty in Naples in 1632.

The Life of Ferdinando II, 5th Grand Duke of Tuscany illustrates how a ruling Italian prince in the 17th century could with impunity indulge pretty openly in Greek love.


The Balkans

The Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles's history of his own times, finished in about 1465, includes several pederastic episodes in various Balkan lands, including Greek love affairs between Ottoman sultans and future rulers of Albania and Wallachia.




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