Review of Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe – The Christian Church’s Brutal Battle Against Homosexuality.
Noel Malcolm’s book, “Forbidden Desire,” is a serious and heavily researched account of male homosexuality from 1400 to 1750. Interestingly, it shares its title with several other books on Amazon, including stories of male friendships, lesbian relationships, and even a scandalous tale about a witch and a demon. Despite the competition, Malcolm focuses on a diverse group of individuals, such as lustful Turkish leaders, predatory Catholic priests, and corruptible servants, as well as two English kings rumored to have had relationships with young men. However, the majority of those who engaged in same-sex relationships were forced to keep their desires secret. Malcolm’s main concern is the strict religious laws that were violated by these couples and the harsh punishments they faced under the guise of upholding divine order.
The act of sex in this place appears to result in a painful death. In the 15th century, those found guilty of sodomy in Venice were punished by beheading and their bodies were burned to ensure no evidence remained. Killing a religious man was forbidden, so a lustful clergyman was publicly confined in a cage at Piazza San Marco and left to starve. In Florence, a 15-year-old boy was castrated and then fatally sodomized with a hot metal rod on the scaffold. A Dutch teenager placed in the pillory was subjected to being pelted with dirt and stones until his death. Others were sentenced to death as slaves on galleys; those considered fortunate had their noses, rather than their heads or genitals, amputated as a strange act of mercy.
The prosecutions caused a moral panic, often hiding ulterior motives of financial gain or political agendas. In the 14th century, the French targeted the Knights Templar, using accusations of sodomy as an excuse to seize their riches. Similarly, Spanish conquistadors used accusations of sodomy against Indigenous tribes in Peru to justify their violent actions. Malcolm suggests that this fear of outsiders, known as “xenohomophobia,” may explain why Christian Europe was so guarded against foreign influence. This idea can also be applied to Trump’s proposed border wall, seen as a way to protect America from outside threats.
As Malcolm illustrates, this irrational prejudice originated from a misinterpretation of religious texts. The city of Sodom was condemned for a heinous sin committed by its inhabitants, but the Bible does not explicitly state that this wrongdoing was related to “male-male sexual intercourse or desire”. Early religious commentators filled in this gap by condemning a practice they deemed “unspeakable”; cautioning that even uttering it would defile both the speaker and listener’s ears, leaving the devout to wildly imagine a taboo love. Sodom remained conveniently vague, to the point that when the Marquess of Queensberry used it to condemn Oscar Wilde for corrupting his son, he misspelled the word on the card he left at Wilde’s club, referring to him as a “posing Somdomite”. Thanks to one of Malcolm’s scholarly asides, the synonymous accusation of buggery also falls apart. The term originates from the French word “bougre”, which originally referred to the Bogomil dualists of the Balkans, a sect of Gnostics who rejected procreation as a means to reject the material world. In English, Bulgaria became buggery, a general expletive that reduced the religious condemnation to mere name-calling.
At the end of Malcolm’s book, Enlightenment thinkers challenge the Christian imposition of moral codes by arguing that our natural bodily desires should not be labeled as unnatural. In 1785, Jeremy Bentham rejected traditional sacred taboos as “offenses against oneself” and proposed that if punishment was given to pederasts, then monks should also face the same consequences. In contrast, Muslim theology allowed for indulgence in sensual pleasures, as seen in Malcolm’s account of Ottoman culture where poets compare young male servers to paradise’s cupbearers and describe ejaculation as “extracting milk from the sugar cane”. In fact, eleventh-century Muslim scholars even permitted sodomy in the afterlife. On Earth, non-procreative sex was condemned to prevent depopulation, but in heaven, where there would be no new births, such restrictions were unnecessary. After all, what better way to spend eternity?
Malcolm states that he approaches this subject without any personal bias and challenges the romanticized views of historians who are also advocates for the LGBTQ+ community. He criticizes their tendency to impose modern sexual interpretations onto innocent friendships between men in medieval times. While academic impartiality is acceptable, I struggle to remain unemotional about the tragic consequences revealed in his book. The historical crusade of Christianity to suppress desire was a destructive attack on humanity, and it is only now, after much delay, coming to an end in defeat.
Noel Malcolm’s book, “Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750”, has been published by Oxford University Press for £25. To purchase a copy and support the Guardian and Observer, visit guardianbookshop.com. Delivery fees may be applicable.