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‘Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe’ by Noel Malcolm review

Regular users of social media may be aware that the peach emoji is used to indicate not only the fruit in question but also the buttocks. This metaphor is not new. It was used in the middle of the 16th century by Francesco Berni, a Florentine poet, who assured his readers that the fruit was ‘good at the front and perfect from behind’. While drawing such modern parallels is tempting, it also presents dangers for the historian. This is particularly true for the history of sex between men, where so many sources derive either from the prosecution of illegal acts, or from literary texts that were by necessity often coded.

One of the most thought-provoking books I have read in some time, Forbidden Desires is an ambitious comparative study of sex between men in the Mediterranean and northern Europe. Its argument unfolds in a very readable narrative: this is a rare academic book for which I must tell you that my review contains spoilers. From the starting point of a scandalous case of sodomy in the household of the senior Venetian official in 16th-century Constantinople, Noel Malcolm first compares patterns of sex between men in the eastern and western Mediterranean, before asking whether these also prevailed in northern Europe.

The Mediterranean half of the story is relatively straightforward. Synthesising a large body of research based on legal codes, court cases (both secular and ecclesiastical) and literary sources, Malcolm paints a convincing picture of a broad Mediterranean pattern of sex between men. In both the Ottoman Empire and the western Mediterranean (strictly speaking Iberia and Italy, because the study does not take in the south of France, nor the Maghreb), this consisted of illegal but nonetheless relatively common sexual relations between men under 30 and ‘beardless youths’. Those whose sex lives sat outside this pederastic model faced much harsher condemnation, both legally and socially (the ‘inveterate sodomite’, for example, who kept having sex with men after his marriage, or the older man who took the passive role in sex). This pattern has its variations: there was a more open literary culture around love for boys in the Ottoman texts than in the Italian, while Italy (especially Florence) seems to have had a wider sodomitical culture than Iberia. Malcolm has little time for scholars who dismiss European travellers’ accounts of Ottoman sexual practices as only Orientalist fantasies, pointing out that the Ottoman sources provide ample confirmation of a real-life phenomenon.

Northern Europe, however, presents a conundrum. In England, sodomy was criminalised under civil law for the first time in the 1533 Buggery Act. (It had previously been a matter for the church authorities; the legislation is generally seen as an element of Henry VIII’s break with Rome.) Compared to Italy, however, the number of prosecutions was very small. This may have been a good thing for your average 16th-century sodomite, but it has left historians of early modern English homosexuality with a distinct lack of material. Similar patterns are found elsewhere in the north. In search of the origins of later sexual identities, a significant number of studies have filled the gap by assuming that the Mediterranean pattern of sex must have prevailed in the north, too, and that the lack of prosecutions is to be explained by a high degree of tolerance. Malcolm offers an alternative explanation: ‘In these societies, sodomy was just infrequent anyway.’

Coming in for particular criticism in the course of this argument are literary historians, who, Malcolm argues, have tended to read more homoerotic content into the English texts than can really be justified. Friendships between early modern men were often expressed in terms of love, kisses and meetings of the soul. To the reader today these often have a sexual connotation, but we should not assume this language was interpreted that way in the past. Here I would point out that the acceptability of such passionately expressed friendships would potentially allow a couple who were having sex to hide in plain sight. However, it is fair to say that we do not and cannot know which particular couples those might have been. Malcolm is sceptical, for example, that any of them involved James VI and I.

Where does this substantial intervention now leave the study of early modern sex between men? Malcolm identifies a number of under-researched geographical areas, in particular the south of France, which may provide new evidence to confirm or undermine his theory. There is undoubtedly more to say about how ideas about sexual practices were transmitted between countries; his chapter on the European empires suggests that there is a good deal still to establish about how encounters with different models of sexual practice shaped European norms. The conclusion, proposing a link between the differing marriage patterns of northern and southern Europe and the practice of pederasty in the south (where men married later and the age gap between partners was wider), will prompt many questions, not least what the women in these societies thought about any of this.

Early modern historians might also look to developments in the modern history and sociology of male-male sexual relations, which in recent years have thrown up some significant challenges to the idea of a straightforward modern concept of homosexuality. Helen Smith’s research on sex between working-class men in northern England 1895 to 1957 found that their identities did not follow the trajectory of the ‘modern homosexual’ that had been extrapolated from studies of upper- and middle-class London. Even today there are many men who have sex with men without adopting a gay or bisexual identity, as Tony Silva’s Still Straight showed for contemporary rural white America (and sexual health practitioners will confirm). Perhaps rather than keep looking for the origins of modern homosexuality we should ask how far that concept is useful to our histories – and indeed for whom it ever really existed.

  • Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750
    Noel Malcolm
    Oxford University Press, 608pp, £25
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)

Catherine Fletcher is Professor of History at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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