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three pairs of lovers with space



The involvement of ordinary people in Greek love in early modern France is little known beyond the grim record of severe repression that emerges from criminal records, sodomy remaining a capital offence until the Revolution, as the population was occasionally reminded by brutal executions.

However, it was evidently fashionable in highest society. The Marquis de la Vallière, speaking of who practised sodomy in the 1670s, said “in Spain the monks, in France the great, in Italy everyone.” When the historian Primi Visconti reported this to his friend the abbé del Carretto, the latter replied: ““it is necessary to have compassion because men with such an inclination are born with it as poets are born with rhyme,”[1] a clear indication of the profound shift in northern European thought that begun around this time: sodomitical desire was no longer a temptation any man might feel for sex with boys, but the innate and pitiful urge of a minority for sex with either boys or (occasionally, but increasingly) other men.

Similarly, the Archives of the Bastille reveal a situation first exposed in 1702 where schoolboys in Paris were being seduced by men with an "inclination" in common and then prostituted to the nobility and clergy. Some of the men belonged to an "order" which included the newly emergent androphiles who in English were called "mollies", little distinction being drawn between the two types of "sodomite". The main concern of the authorities with respect to the boys was the new one which followed from sodomy being the inclination of a debauched minority, that they would be corrupted into sharing it. Typically, the low-born were imprisoned, while nothing seems to have been done against the high-born.

The vast and candid correspondence of Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchess of Orleans contains many references to Greek love practises both at the royal court and elsewhere amongst the highest European nobility between 1681 and 1720. These include the induction of the King’s 14-year-old legitimated bastard, the Count of Vermandois, into the Holy Fraternity of Glorious Pederasts.  This provoked rare retribution from the furious King, though nothing nearly as brutal as less privileged participants in Greek love would have suffered.

A striking indication of the openness to Greek love of the French nobility in the last years of the ancien régime was reported in 1776 by an English traveller who saw it as an example of French "profligacy". A young Englishman on the Grand Tour, "Lord P---",

being invited by a French Gentleman to spend a day at his Chateau, [...] took occasion to tell his Lordship, that in order to render the day as agreeable as possible to his company, he had provided some young people of both sexes to attend, and desired to know his Lordship's goût. The young Nobleman concealed his surprise, and told his generous host, that he was not fashionable enough to walk out of the paths of nature. The same question was then put to the other company, in the order of their rank; and the last, an humble Frenchman, replied, it was to him egal l'un, et l'autre, just as it proved most convenient.[2]

During this "age of enlightenment", the use of biblical authority as a justification for brutal repression was called into question, both generally and specifically with respect to Greek love. An example is the article on "Socratic Love" in his widely-read Philosophical Dictionary, first published in 1764 by Voltaire, the pre-eminent philosophy of the times, which is also typical of its day both in the newly-extreme disgust expressed for it and for the continuing assumption that it was boys rather than men who were capable of arousing male desire.

Presumably effected by this new spirit, prosecutions became rarer over the 18th century: no one in Paris was executed for sex with a boy after 1714, except when a more serious crime was involved. Nevertheless, the records of the Parisian police show that in the 1780s they were still patrolling the streets looking for "pederasts" to arrest, interrogate  and, in some cases, send to prison. By this time, however, the word pederast was being frequently misused as a word for "male homosexual", since the majority of those arrested were suspected androphiles, their greater number reflecting the aforementioned surge over this century of sex between men (often accompanied by cross-dressing and other shows of effeminacy).

The Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 by François Rude, depicted on the Arc de Triomphe, 1833

The humane questioning of the old order bore full fruit in the Revolution, of which Greek love was one of the greatest long-standing beneficiaries. The first Penal Code of 25 September 1791 contained no mention of homosexuality, the ban on it being dropped without recorded explanation or debate, presumably as part of the abolition of "that host of imaginary crimes" that had traditionally been defined in religious terms. According to the Code of Municipal and Correctional Police issued a week earlier, those who “corrupted young people of either sex” could be imprisoned for up to a year, but jurists interpreted this as penalising only child prostitution.

Suspicions have been raised by historians that Robespierre, the pre-eminent revolutionary, was attracted to boys. J.-C. Féray has adduced the revolutionary artist David's painting, The Death of Bara, as further evidence of this.

The Napoleonic Code of 1804 likewise ignored homosexuality, the new emperor personally asserting his determination to tolerate what disgusted him. The next Penal Code of 1810 maintained the complete toleration of Greek love, the only reference to homosexuality being the now more clearly defined provision that those involved in the “debauchery or corruption of young people of either sex under the age of twenty-one” could be imprisoned for up to two years, but jurists likewise interpreted this as penalising only child prostitution.  The legality of consensual Greek love was underlined by the broadening of the definition of rape to include the sexual assault of males.

As a result, nineteenth-century France stood in startling contrast to most of Europe, very few other countries following suit with legal toleration. Social intolerance of all male homosexuality remained fierce, however, and sometimes involved police harassment on legally nebulous grounds, so that real toleration and actual practice continued to be much more widespread in Italy and the Ottoman Empire. In Moslem accounts of France 1803-46, travelers from three Moslem countries describe both the boy prostitution scene in Paris early in the century and the general social disapproval of Greek love. A Parisian's letter to the police complaining about boy prostitution in 1846 gives an idea of how highly visible it was to those not looking for it. France in Boys for Sale is a brief survey, written in 1969, of the history of boy prostitution in France, mostly in the 19th to 20th centuries.

In April 1832, a new Penal Code outlawed sex with children of either gender under eleven.  While such a low age restriction could hardly in itself be of great concern to pederasts, as the first outlawing anywhere of homosexuality only below a fixed age, it provided an ominous precedent for the global repression of Greek love through unreasonable “ages of consent” that was to come in the next century, particularly when the age was raised to thirteen in the next Penal Code of May 1863.

The Preface to the French translation of Alcibiades the Schoolboy, 1891 is principally of interest for the reactions in France between 1862 and 1891 to attempts to publish this remarkable 17th-century Italian polemic in favour of Greek love.

In "Can a worthy scientist be a pedophile? The Alexandre Yersin case", Louis Gerschenk presents convincing arguments for supposing the eminent bacteriologistYersin, who lived in Paris 1886-90, was a lover of boys.

"A Masquerade and the Penalty" is a chapter of The Memoirs of a Voluptuary, published in Paris in 1905 but set there in the early 1890s, devoted to an aristocratic French boy of 13's vivid description of defloration by a stranger who had initially taken him for a girl.

The initiation of André Gide is the author's account of his first sexual experiences in 1893-5, with Arab boys in the French colonies of Tunisia and Algeria. Experience in Another Culture: A Nobel Prize-Winner’s Story is Parker Rossman's account of Gide as a pederast, drawn from a wider range of sources.

Bosie's Misadventure in Paris, 1900 is two newspaper accounts of Lord Alfred Douglas's unfortunate quest for a boy, illustrating both the quasi-legality of such a quest (since Douglas himself complained of its outcome to the police) and the derision bound to attend its exposure. That the law against corrupting minors could at this time be stretched beyond real prostitution was demonstrated by the conviction for it in 1903 of the young writer Jacques Adelswärd-Fersen, who (besides heavier but incidental sexual involvement with boy prostitutes) had merely put on on mildly erotic shows involving aristocratic boys and masturbating them in private.

The Austro-Scottish writer Norman Douglas lived in France at various times. He left a lively account of two of his liaisons with boys there in the years 1918-23 in his memoir Looking Back, and these were described more comprehensively in Holloway's biography of him.

A passage in Evelyn Waugh's diary for 1925 shows that it was then quite easy to find a boy brothel in Paris.

Somerset Maugham's lesson on sexual naivety is the story of a boy prostitute of 17 in the Côte d'Azur with whom a naive young Englishman fell in love in 1936, only to find the affair had been contrived by his famous uncle-writer, who was also enjoying the boy.

Propaganda of the war-time French State headed by "le Maréchal" (Marshal Pétain)

In 1942, the new authoritarian French State, which had supplanted the third republic following capitulation to the invasion of National Socialist Germany, and had replaced its motto of "Liberty, equality and fraternity" with "Work, family, country", outlawed Greek love in a single stroke by raising the homosexual age of consent for boys (but not girls) from thirteen to twenty-one.

Though pre-war full legal toleration was never to return, social toleration did for a generation, especially during the liberal reaction of the 1960s and 1970s. The successful literary careers of Gide (awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, well after publicising his love of boys through his aforementioned memoir), Roger Peyrefitte (whose novel Special Friendships about Greek love at a boarding-school won the coveted Prix Renaudot in 1944, and who later wrote about his love affair with a boy of thirteen in Our Love, reviewed here) and the overtly pro-pederastic Tony Duvert (who won the Prix Medicis in 1973 and a wide variety of whose unpublished work are assembled in Tony Duvert: A Man Speaks) show that the state and society were well capable of turning a sympathetic blind eye. Influence of the Past: An Aristocrat’s Story is Parker's Rossman's life, narrated in the first person, of Georges de Sarre, the older protagonist of Special Friendships,  and mixed up with that of his creator' to give an interesting and nearly-true story running from the 1920s to the 1970s. In Goudu, Jacques de Brethmas, amusingly recounted the dramatic story of a Jesuit priest who introduced him, in around 1960 and aged 12, and countless other boys, to irrumation. The same writer's Hunting Boys is made up of a series of insightful anecdotes of his sexual liaisons as a young man with Parisian boys in the 1970s, together with damning criticisms of French intolerance of pederasty, which look ironically overblown from the perspective of the age of mass hysteria on the subject that was soon to follow.

The drive for toleration reached its apogée in May 1977 with the signing by eighty eminent intellectuals of a petition to parliament calling for the decriminalisation of sex between adults and children, its immediate inspiration being the imminent trial of three men for sex with willing pubescents of 13 or 14.

As elsewhere in Europe, however, the liberal tide was turning fatally.  The child-liberationist campaign bore ultimately feeble fruit in the reduction in 1982 of the homosexual age of consent of boys to conform with a general such age of fifteen, leaving Greek love since then largely illegal, whilst the kidnapping and  murder in 1990 of pastor Joseph Doucé, looking suspiciously as though done by the intelligence services on account of his support for pederasts, was a sinister symptom of pervasive and growing intolerance.


[1] Primi Visconti, Mémoires sur le Cour de Louis XIV (Paris, 1908) 136.

[2] Philip Thicknesse, A Year’s Journey Through France and Part of Spain, Bath, 1777, vol. I, pp. 105-6.




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