Boy-love in European history

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By: Dr. Edward Brongersma

part 1

Before Christendom conquered Europe, the continent was populated by tribes of warriors. In such peoples sexual relations between men and boys are always common.

It is one of the paradoxes of human nature that boys usually become stronger and pluckier when brought up with care and tenderness than when subjected to a rough pedagogy. Fighting and hunting peoples need strong warriors ans skillful hunters, and therefore their men concern themselves with the growth of boys, paying much attention to their training and seeking their companionship on expeditions. Constantly being together apart from women leads inevitably and spontaneously to sexual contacts. And as often happens when men sleep with women as well as with boys, in the end they come to prefer the boys.

In Germanic tribes official marriages were celebrated between men and boys. Athenaios, the Greek who in the Third Century collected curious passages from the works of many authors, tells that Celtic women were very beautiful, but that, nonetheless, the men were more attracted to boys. So much more, indeed, that some men wanted to share their bed of animal skins with two boys at the same time. Gallic men, Athenaios reported, used their women only for procreation, sleeping on other occasions with youthful male companions. They liked slender bodies, and boys were punished for getting too fat. Norman men wanted to train their boys to be valiant warriors and favored them in bed. The Taifals, a tribe dwelling in the Fourth Century in the region we now call Romania, were depicted by the historian Ammianus as being so dissipated that their boys at the arrival of puberty engage with the adult men in an "alliance of an unspeakable kind." When such a boy grows up and is able to catch and kill a boar or bear with his own hands, he is "released from this depravity."

Saracenes and greedy mice

In the tone of this text we hear the Christian moralist! Under Christian domination boy-love, nevertheless, did not become a special problem. The phenomenon was seen as part of the general crime of "sodomy," a word originally employed to indicate every same-sex-oriented activity, especially anal intercourse, but later extended to any sexual activity condemned by Christian ethics.

Sexual contacts of men with boys were considered sodomy because the partners were of the same gender. As such, it was said to deserve capital punishment. For - so said theologians and lawyers unanimously - if the authorities tolerate such abomination on their territory, God's wrath will fall upon the whole country and all its inhabitants. This was already proclaimed in 538 and 541 by the Roman Emperor Justinian, and it was articulated again in 1635 by the German lawyer Benedikt von Carpzow: "Christians should take strong action against sodomites, for God orders this expressly. He condemns this crime so strongly that he visits the sons unbelief with famine, pestilence, war, earthquakes, floods, and other general disasters." Later commentators didn't think this severe enough and added still to God's ingenuity "the invasion by the Saracenes and a pest of fat, greedy mice."

Why this fury? The Emperor Justinian quoted the Bible story of Sodom and Gomorrah. A critical reading would have shown that this tale doesn't discredit homosexuality at all. But if you can discover in the Bible a pretext to hurt your neighbor, then why spoil such a pleasant situation by reading critically?

Hermeneutics to the rescue

Let's look at the facts. Lot took up his residence in Sodom, in spite of the local people having a very bad repute. Two angels, in the shape of handsome young men, begged the hospitality of his home, and then all male inhabitants of the city, young and old, assembled in front of Lot's house and wanted to rape the attractive strangers. Of course this whole population cannot entirely have consisted of "gay" males in the modern sense of the term. Lot, "a God-fearing and pious man" resisted this encroachment on the protection he owed to his guests and proposed to the rioting crowd to let them rather abuse his two virgin daughters: "Do with them as you want!" (In the Old Testament the personhood of girls was evidently not so much taken into account, even by holy and pious men!) His proposal proves that Lot also didn't see the crowd as purely "gay" oriented; it was simply a dissolute gang, bent on having sex in one way or the other, as was usual in a period where the gender of the sexual partner was of less importance than its youth and beauty.

Even better than this story, biblical scholars could apparently invoke texts from the book of Leviticus that forbid men to sleep with men as they do with women. But here something else is wrong. In the region of Canaan, where Leviticus is set, the inhabitants traditionally venerated the temple prostitutes - boys and girls - like saints. Boy prostitutes, in particular, were considered superior to all other servants in the temple and equal in rank to priests. When the Jews conquered this country, they wanted to do away with every reminiscence of this old religion and culture. Any individual celebrating the ancient rituals was beaten to death. The kedeschot, the "saints" of the Canaanites, were now reviled as "dogs." The striking violence of these laws makes it evident that the old traditions were not easily abolished. To venerate a deity by sexual abandonment is so in keeping with human nature that it even became popular with the Jews themselves. During three centuries, until the Babylonian exile, the Jews also had their "kadesh" (male temple prostitutes), in spite of the violent attacks on this cult from the prophets.

Piety and mercy

The biblical texts that could be misinterpreted as proscribing homosexuality were inflated and elevated to the level of Divine Law, and as such poisoned Jewish and Christian moral teachings. Drawing on this so-called law of God, fanatics killed off throughout Europe thousands and thousands of men and boys. They were burned alive, strangled, hanged, beheaded, drowned, lynched, tortured, exterminated in concentration camps, and condemned to languish in prisons. At times these authorities showed extraordinary mercy and ordered executioners only to cut off the genitals of the prisoner so that he died peacefully by loss of blood. Castration and mutilation continue up to the present, not because the victims were guilty of being temple prostitutes - nobody remembered theses origins! - but because they sought an intimate connection with somebody of the same sex. Considering the ease with which large number of other prescriptions from the Biblical Jewish Law have been put aside and neglected, the tenacity on this point reveals something of the true character of these faithful Bible-readers.

And yet this attraction of boy to boy or of boy to man is so strong and unconquerable that in spite of vigorous persecution, men and boys in the Western world continue to love each other and join their bodies in physical tenderness. If Christians point to the steadfastness of their martyrs as a proof of their teachings' truth, what to say then about the steadfastness of boy-lovers? Isn't it proof of something essential to human nature?

Beware, empire builders

Looking at the history of the Occident, we see periods of cultural ebb-tide. In between come golden times. Then the arts flower, and there are many great poets, authors, and thinkers. These "golden centuries" are always characterized by sexual exuberance, for enterprising and creative people are full of vital impulses, and sex is an expression of this vitality. The brightest, the most energetic, vigorous and lively boys, on the average, become sexually active long in advance of their stupid, dull, timid, and inert comrades. In the same way. in those eras wherein the intellect and the artistic sense thrive, people are not so easily curbed by the irrational taboos of so-called morality. They listen with an open mind to the demands of body and spirit.

The brilliant historian Arnold Toynbee perceived a connection between the decline of a civilization and sexophobia. If American students clamorously declare that they won't spoil their precious time with sex because they can employ their forces in a more rewarding way, and people join in numbers the "Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous" to get rid of their "addiction" to sex and love, exactly like one wants to fight his addiction to alcohol and drugs, this could be seen as a bad omen for the future of the American world power.

part 2

From the beginning Christian moralists battled against boy-love as a species of sodomy. But even in their own ranks they didn't succeed in checking completely the forbidden relationships. John Chrysostom (340-407), for example, complained bitterly about people coming to visit the church only to gaze at handsome choirboys.

As the church dominated the Middle Ages, many suppose this was a period of severe "morality." Nothing could be less true. A scholar like the historian Cleugh even calls that time "the most sexually licentious period, among all classes, of European history." Around the year 1000, sex with boys was the most popular sexual vice- among princes and serfs, bishops and monks.

There was complete absence of prudishness. In the field, peasants labored stark naked. In the towns, men and boys walking to the bath houses did so nude, and women at least partially so. Once inside, male and female alike entertained themselves for hours in entire undress. In the passion plays, often performed inside the church or in front of it, Adam and Eve or Christ would act their parts stark naked. An anonymous poem from the ninth century teases the burghers of Orleans because they prefer boys to women. In a French cathedral the chapter recommends the faithful not to have sexual intercourse in the choir during the ceremonies, but rather outside the building. Hilary of Poitiers (about 1125), Abelard's famous pupil, frankly confessed in public that he liked amorous play with boys. In the beginning of the twelfth century Hugue of Orleans says in a poem about the Bishop of Sens: "When the lust of his salacity excites him he calls for a boy, the son of a knight, whose soft fingers will produce the rigidity of his yard." Archbishop Baldric of Dol (1046-1130) was a troubadour; half of his poems are dealing with boys. A well-known bishop declared frankly that he shared his bed with both sexes. Frederic the Second, German emperor and king of Sicily, had the reputation of "sodomizing" the young pages at his court. In the thirteenth century a bishop in the south of France proclaimed a practical solution: after having slept with a boy or a girl, he absolved himself from sin with the usual formulas of confession. The evangelical sect of a certain Segarello (burned alive in 1300) tried to press young boys to be willing partners in "sodomitical" relations. Giordano da Rivaltio criticized in 1303 the habit of father who sold their handsome sons to rich boy-lovers, hoping to assure them a prosperous future.

A medieval poet says in verses addressed to a boy, "You are beautiful and charming from top to toe... a miracle, uniting the essence of girl and boy. You are the common desire of girls and boys. All people who are acquainted with you, the unique, sigh for your love and vehemently covet you." If Zeus still existed, the poet continued, the divine master of the universe would drop Ganymede in exchange for this boy, ordering him to pour sweet drinks during the day and to give still sweeter kisses at night.

A stricter code of morality only got the upper hand after the bloom of the Middle Ages succumbed to the Black Death, the AIDS of those times. Pest-borne epidemics carried off a third of Europe's population to an untimely death.

But the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries brought the Renaissance. This was a period of enormous cultural florescence animated by a passionate interest in classic antiquity, whose values were rediscovered, and with them "Greek Love." So common in Venice was sex with boys that the authorities ordered the female whores to sit at their windows with breasts exposed in order to entice men away from sodomy. The poet Angelo Poliziano (1454-1496) always swarmed about with boys. "Boy-love," he wrote, "I swear, is the sweetest, the softest, the finest!" He died while singing a song a love to a boy. Marsilio Ficino (1443-1499) stated that he who in love is more intent upon the soul than the body man better love a male then a female, and better an adolescent than a child. Pope Sixtus IV was said to officially permit relations between men and boys during the hot summer months. But in Florence the fanatic monk Savanarola (1452-1498) thundered in his sermons against this unspeakable and atrocious sin: the love of beardless boys. After his execution at the stake one of the city fathers said with a grin, "Now we may commit sodomy again!"

The poet Ariosto (1474-1533) affirmed that all males everywhere in Europe indulged in boy-love and that no man limited himself entirely to the female sex. Michelangelo, on the contrary, declared in a poem to his beloved Tommaso Cavalieri that boy-love should be restricted to the real connoisseurs, as it was above the capacities of ordinary people. The father of one of Michelangelo's students insisted that the painter should sleep with the boy to strengthen his affection for his master and make him a more zealous student. Leonardo da Vinci, at the age of 24, was implicated in a scandal with his 17-year-old model Jacopo Saltarelli and narrowly escaped condemnation. Meanwhile, Caravaggio (1573-1610) painted his young models so that they frankly ogled the spectator to seduce them.

Italy was not the only country to share this spirit. Richard Barnfield, an English poet born in 1574, shocked chaste hearts by transposing the classic love story of Daphnis and Chloe into the love of two boys, Daphnis and Ganymede. He also penned these fine lines: "If it be sinne to love a lovely lad, of then sinne I..." Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) - chancellor of the King, famous philosopher and scientist - adored the flaxen-haired, red-cheeked boys of Wales. Shakespeare wrote his sonnets to a handsome youth and his no-less famous contemporary Christopher Marlow (1564-1593) declared firmly: "All thee that love not tobacco and boys are fools."

The English criminologist Prof. D. West says, "Pornographic literature and scandal-mongering accounts of the behavior of particular groups (particularly the nobility, priests, and nuns) suggest that semi-covert flouting of the official rules was always fairly common, even when the penalties for exposure were extraordinarily severe. The facetious treatment of the topic in the theater suggests that pederasty, though officially a high crime, was always a commonplace vice and to ordinary people a subject of derision more than horror."

An Italian whose identity is controversial wrote in 1652 the delicious booklet "Alcibiade fanciullo a scuola" (Alcibiades as a schoolboy). Its main character is the incomparably beautiful boy Alcibiades, who in the fifth century BC turned Athens upside down. As a boy, it was said, Alcibiades had all the men of the city at his heels, while as a young man, he made all the wives forget their husbands. This booklet renders the conversation between young Alcibiades and his teacher, who tries to seduce him. Every argument from philosophy and literature is invoked to convince the boy that the best thing he can do is to abandon himself to his master. Finally he is persuaded and offers his body to the man, "who is panting from desire." The teacher profits so much from his willingness that Alcibiades, from that moment on, feels content only when their bodies are united.

In 1671 Liselotte von der Pfalz reported that in the royal court of Paris she would not be able to mention the names of six courtiers not addicted to young male lovers. Some took their pleasure with small boys, ages 10 and 11, but most preferred the bigger ones. Not all of these relationships were consensual. About 1720 there lived a so-called marquis in Paris who enjoyed such fame as a dealer in boys that people came from London, Rome, Berlin, and Warsaw to buy them. He guaranteed the qualities of his merchandise, as he first had probed every boy himself. In 1730 a certain Jacob Backer ran a house in The Hague where gentlemen could get "a nice young fellow." In 1738 an author affirmed that people did not observe any more secrecy when talking about sleeping with a boy than they used discussing a relation with a woman. Rome, in the eighteenth century, was called "the capital of boy-love." In England, William Beckford, 19 years old and immensely rich, fell in love with 10-year-old William Courtenay. Five years later they were caught in intimacy and Beckford had to flee to Switzerland.

Punishment remained extremely severe for both boys and men. In about 1600 a French doctor of law pled for compassion for boys under the age of 18. He proposed that they no longer be burned alive but only singed by fire and flogged. Nevertheless, even in tolerant Holland a few 14-year-olds were hanged. A Swiss priest found guilty about 1730 of abusing German boys and girls was pinched with red-hot tongs and then beheaded. The boys involved were imprisoned for months in a pitch-dark cave and then caned with thirty strokes. As late as 1810 a boy of 16 was hanged in London, a big crowd looking on, for having relations with a man.

Princes, of course, received more consideration. In France King Henry III was always surrounded by his "mignons," who on at least one occasion held 1 15-year-old while the king raped him. William of Orange (1650-1702) consulted his physicians about a general feeling of fatigue. Imitating the medieval scientists who recommended in similar cases "using and embracing a boy," the doctors told the prince that he should sleep with one of his pages and thus absorb some "spirit of life" from his healthy young body. As the patient was known to amuse himself gladly with his pages, he had no difficulty following their advice.

Though Lord Byron, the adventurous English poet, was married he had a most tender and passionate relationship with a 15-year-old boy. One of his biographers observed that Byron's relations with boys were so much more hale, hearty, and happy than those with women. In a poem Byron described a harem of boys he saw at the court of a Turkish prince in Albania.

His German contemporary Goethe quite frankly confessed to having slept with boys: "With boys I did it too, but I prefer girls. If you get tired of a girl, you've only to turn her around and she can serve you like a boy." Boy-love might seem unnatural, he said, but in reality it is part of human nature. Goethe was evidently preoccupied with this theme. In the second part of his "Faust" angels appear in the shape of boys and the onlooker addresses one of them: "You, big boy, in my eyes are the most beautiful. But don't look so popish. I'd rather you blinked at me salaciously. It would be better if you were naked; this long, pleated shirt is too chaste. Now they turn. Seen from the backside these young lads really kindle your lust!"

In the same years Goethe wrote this, Ludwig van Beethoven was finding himself unable to write music, consumed by unrequited love for young Karl, his cousin. He was not the only composer with such tastes. Camille Saint Saens hunted Arab boys in the public toilets of Paris. When someone called him a homosexual, he replied, "No, that I'm not, I love boys." Francis Poulenc sought his young Arabs in North Africa. Gustave Flaubert, the novelist, told in a letter from Cairo dated 1850 that he himself was looking for an opportunity to give it a try. Paul Verlaine put it even more baldly. He loved coarse working-class boys, he wrote. He celebrated their strong genitals, their dancing buttocks. "There is Charles the choirboy, now developing to be a coarse fellow; Odillon, still a child, but equipped like an adult; Francois the supple, with the legs of a dancer and such a fine cock!"

Coming to modern times, listing famous boy-lovers would seem impossible, but here are some particulars: John Addington Symonds was dismissed in 1877 from Oxford University because he was too familiar with boys. London was shocked when it was discovered that a member of the royal family frequented a brothel on Cleveland Street where telegraph boys were making extra money with rich clients. In the US Horatio Alger wrote books for boys, but was dismissed from the clergy for "abominable and disgusting unnatural conduct." Oscar Wilde, society's adored favorite, was broken by his tow years in an English prison, but before this happened he had imparted new life to Noble-prize winner André Gide by initiating him into love-play with Arab boys in an Algerian oasis. In Germany, Thomas Mann wrote his outstanding novel, "Death in Venice," and he confessed in his diary to having been completely thrown off balance by seeing the nude body of his pubescent son. In France, Henri de Montherlant and Roger Peyrefitte pursue their young friends and write their love stories. In Italy, the Baron von Gloeden became famous because of his romantic photos of naked Sicilian boys. English literature exalts the beauty of boys and their boyish character became so fashionable that Timothy d'Arch Smith was able to compose a one-volume anthology. In the Netherlands names of famous poets and authors crop up, like Couperus, Boutens, Jacob Israel de Haan, Willem de Merode, and the Flemish poet Guido Gezelle.

All of this is just a handful, without the least pretense to being complete. Besides so many well-known boy-lovers, there are thousands were or are more hidden. If they decide to proclaim their love openly, they are certainly in good company. That is all I wanted to show.

Men from every period of history and all regions of the world have known this particular tenderness, affection and veneration of youth's budding masculinity. And a good thing it is! Wasn't the Jesuit Father van Kilsdonk quite right when he declared, referring to boy-love, "that out culture, not to say creation, would be the warmer and the richer if there were more men with this talent."

source: Article 'Boy-love in European history' by Dr. Edward Brongersma; Nambla Bulletin, Vol. 12, No. 3; April 1991 & Part 2: Vol. 12, No. 4; May 1991