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‘One of the most accomplished pieces of social history I have read’—Noel Malcolm’s ‘Forbidden Desire’ reviewed

A masterly new history of male-male sex ought to recast our thinking about the emergence of homosexuality
February 28, 2024
Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750
Noel Malcolm (RRP: £25)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

One of the many curiosities of academic publishing is the process of peer review. Theoretically, it provides a kind of quality control, in which the piece you have written is vetted by two, sometimes three, experts in the field. As peer-reviewers retain an anonymity that is not generally extended to the authors of the work they evaluate, things are almost comically open to abuse—backscratching, nepotism, grudge-bearing, territorialism, partisanship, and so on, all presented in the most high-minded terms. On the whole, though, peer review can be ranked in the class of things that includes representative democracy: indefensible until you pause to consider the alternatives, and surprisingly effective at preventing the worst from coming to pass.

The only place where peer review regularly comes unstuck is in confronting work that is genuinely new and transformative. Human nature being what it is, not all experts can be counted on to welcome, or even to comprehend, the offerings of those who would upset the applecart of their expertise—especially if those doing the upsetting look to them like under-credentialed upstarts, or if they are from a rival discipline or sub-discipline or school of thought.

I don’t suppose anyone would deny that a strong and possibly unanswerable case can be made that Noel Malcolm is the greatest living scholar-historian. He is the author of breathtakingly learned books on subjects including Bosnia, Kosovo, George Enescu, English nonsense verse, Thomas Hobbes, Albania, John Pell, Marco Antonio de Dominis, 16th-century collisions between the Ottoman east and Christian west, and the influence of Islamic thought on the western political tradition; he is also the editor nonpareil of Hobbes’s correspondence and Leviathan. He has for the past 20 or so years been a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.

When working through some records in the Venetian state archive, Malcolm’s attention was caught by a sex scandal of 1588 that occurred in the residence of the Venetian ambassador to Constantinople. This indiscreet relationship between two young Italian men caused a stir less for itself than because the Venetians felt that, if news of it reached the Ottomans, they would lose face. (Rather as the Spanish liked to claim that male-male sex was an exclusively Italian vice, so the Italians were fond of suggesting that there was something peculiarly Ottoman about it.) For Malcolm, the case was a prompt to reconsider the circumstances in which male-male sexual activity occurred and was tolerated in the various cultures and jurisdictions that surrounded the Mediterranean basin. He wrote a long and characteristically well-documented article on the subject, only to find that it had fallen victim to three anonymous peer reviewers who couldn’t or wouldn’t allow themselves to see the point, or the merit, of his submission.

This is one of the most compelling and accomplished pieces of social history that I have read

We should, I suppose, be grateful for the narrowness of these gatekeepers’ critical vision. As Malcolm explains, the article they sought to reject would eventually see publication with only “cosmetic” revisions, and, Malcolm being Malcolm, he was moved by their hostility to write a book elaborating on his findings. The result—Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male-Male Sexual Relations, 1400-1750—is astonishing: one of the most compelling and accomplished pieces of social history that I have read.

Malcolm ranges with equal authority from Scotland and Scandinavia to north Africa, from the Iberian west to the Ottoman heartlands of the east, and from Europe to European colonies in Asia and the Americas. As befits one drawing his net so widely, he has been rigorous in deciding what to omit. His focus is exclusively on male-male sexual acts, and not on what you might think of as homosexuality itself. This decision is historically—or, rather, historiographically—responsible: quite aside from the fact that “homosexual” is a coinage of the 19th century, the early modern world thought in terms of “sodomy” and those who chose to indulge in it. “Sodomites” were no more a class apart than were, say, thieves and adulterers: people who had given in to the unnatural temptations presented by sin. Beyond its practicality and historiographic virtue, Malcolm’s approach shows his willingness to grapple with a truth that is alien to our own prurient and compulsively moralising age: in human relations, the experience sometimes is the meaning.

So, although Malcolm does not stint on memoirs, travel narratives and literary depictions of sex between men (he makes good use, for example, of homoerotic poetry in Arabic and Turkish), he directs his attention to representations of male-male sex that are less bound to discretion, idealisation (positive or negative) or the canons of style: principally, those found within legal, ecclesiastical, diplomatic and medical records. As ever, Malcolm’s polyglot virtuosity is dazzling. As ever, his commitment to history from the bottom up, to privileging the primary and the first-hand over the refined and the suppositional, yields spectacular results. What’s more, while Malcolm is inclined to let his more forthright texts speak for themselves, his own voice is pleasingly free of cant and prudish-genteel euphemism—a decision that has the incidental benefit of highlighting the humour in more timorous or buttoned-up approaches. A personal favourite is the Strasbourg preacher who, in the years around 1500, distinguished between those who “florenced” and “those who let themselves be florenced by others”.

The overarching claims of Forbidden Desire are two. First, that there was a pan-Mediterranean model of male-male sexual relations in the early modern period; second, that a very different model of male-male sexual relations prevailed in more northerly parts of Europe.

The outlines of the Mediterranean model will be unsurprising to any student of the ancient Greeks and Romans: on the top, young adults in their twenties and early thirties; beneath them, adolescents (up to the age of about 20), praised for their beauty and disqualified as objects of desire after the emergence of their facial hair (which seems to have emerged later in the 16th and 17th centuries than it tends to today). Although this way of proceeding was condemned in both Christianity and Islam, it was the subject of broad tolerance—albeit that this tolerance was framed with sometimes very different degrees of leniency and indulgence. The exceptions who proved the rule were those males who enjoyed receiving anal sex after the end of their adolescence or who pursued it—in any form and with partners of any age—after their mid-thirties. They were known as “inveterate sodomites”. If identified as such, social stigma was the least of it: your chances of an appointment with the executioner were high.

As Malcolm reconstructs it, the pattern in the north was radically dissimilar. There was no received culture of sleeping with beautiful adolescents (though, from time to time, such things of course took place, especially in the proximity of the classroom and the cloister), and male-male sex seems principally to have occurred without hierarchies of age or sexual role: that is, not between adolescents (passive) and young adults (active), but between what the Mediterraneans would have called “inveterate sodomites”. Although Malcolm is at pains to acknowledge that the surviving documentary record can only have captured a fraction of what went on—and knows well that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence—he concludes that there must therefore have been a lot less male-male sex north of the Alps.

All of this matters not just for itself, but for what it tells us about the emergence of homosexuality as an idea and an identity. On the standard account, what Malcolm describes as the Mediterranean model is taken to have prevailed throughout Europe. The lack of direct evidence for this position is written off to accidents of legal culture and archival preservation: such accidents should not be allowed to stand in the way of a general theory of early modern male sexual activity based on the rich archival holdings of Florence, Venice and so on. Then, in a few decades at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, everything changed. At this point, or so the story goes, a concentration of like-minded souls in expanding cities such as London, Paris and Amsterdam led to the appearance of the modern homosexual and the eclipse of earlier approaches to male-male sex—first in the north, then in the Mediterranean itself. Before the great change, having sex with other men was simply something that certain men did for a while, before settling down to raise a family or pursue a respectable career; after it, male-male sexual desire denoted a separate and sharply distinct identity based as much on persecution as on mutual recognition—an identity that would be an object of fear and occasional celebration for centuries. (As a side note, I remain bewildered at the sheer imbecilic barbarism of sex between consenting adult men having been illegal in the UK until 1967, and in Australia—where I am writing this review—until 1994. 1994.)

© Wellcome Collection © Wellcome Collection

Malcolm turns all of this on its head. The Mediterranean model never prevailed in northern Europe, and it follows that there was never a moment at which red-blooded northern men in their twenties and thirties decided to stop having sex with their smooth-skinned juniors. Rather, Malcolm maintains that “inveterate sodomites” simply became more visible in the changing cityscapes of the years around 1700, and that this visibility led to more attention both from the legal authorities and from groups of morally panicked Christian vigilantes. Their archival footprint increased accordingly, and in due course they became more visible to historians too.

In Malcolm’s own summation, “same-sexuals… existed everywhere in early modern Europe; the acts-based, age-differentiated pattern of sexual behaviour did not.” It is from these “same-sexuals” that modern homosexuality can trace its beginnings—the likes of Francis Bacon’s elder brother, Anthony, who reportedly held that there is “nothing wrong with being a bugger and a sodomite”, and the notorious, rather wonderful, Italian writer Pietro Aretino, who wrote a sonnet celebrating the power of love in converting him, a “born sodomite”, into one who took pleasure in sex with women. Such people did not think of themselves as “gay” in the way that one might in the 21st century (though it would be ridiculous to project a single category of gayness or queerness or whatever onto all men who take an erotic interest in other men), but they manifestly considered themselves set apart from the heteronormative mainstream.

Malcolm thus positions himself to resolve one of the longest-standing and most fractious debates about the history of homosexuality: on one side, the essentialists, who take the view that homosexuals have always been present in human society in forms cognate with those of the present day; on the other, the constructivists, who believe—after Foucault—that all human sexuality is created by the discourses of power at particular times within particular societies. Malcolm regards all such viewpoints as expressions of the regrettably “aprioristic” urge to make the evidence fit predetermined interpretative agendas, and in their place offers a story that is characterised as much by continuity as by change—in which nature and the circumstances in which human subjects come to be nurtured are both given their due.

Malcolm positions himself to resolve one of the longest-standing debates about the history of homosexuality

Forbidden Desire is difficult to fault. It’s true that Malcolm has nothing to say about Russia or the Slavic east, but he acknowledges this with due regret and offers good reasons why it should be the case; he also has very little on the Habsburg territories (the Prague of Rudolf II might have been a rich hunting ground) or on central Europe north of the Balkans more generally. Perhaps one might find a hint of circularity in his suggestion that the standard Mediterranean model of male-male sex was absent from the north because northern men tended to marry women roughly their own age in their mid-twenties—as opposed to Mediterranean cultures, where men tended to marry teenaged women at some point around, or a little after, their 30th birthdays. Who can say whether the practice of sleeping with beardless teenagers was chicken or egg? Not me, certainly. It may be that correlation, rather than causation, is the best that anyone can do when seeking to explain phenomena as inscrutable as those of human sexuality.

I suspect that some theoretically minded readers, including perhaps the peer reviewers of whom Malcolm’s original article fell foul, might take the view that Forbidden Desire refuses to distinguish the wood for the trees; that Malcolm is reluctant to extrapolate from the observations that are in the gift of his archival mastery, and that the importance of a subject like this one demands extrapolation aplenty.

What such criticisms would miss is that Malcolm is a naturalist. One who reads not with an axe, but a magnifying glass and a notebook; not so that he can chop trees into logs and haul them off to the sawmill and beyond, but so that he can illuminate and explain the ecologies and sub-ecologies that comprise the forest. By doing so as triumphantly as he does in Forbidden Desire, he not only expands and reconfigures the evidentiary base on which all further discussions of male-male sex in early modern Europe will depend. He also ensures that those discussions will reflect a degree of conceptual and historical sophistication that is entirely new. Forbidden Desire is an extraordinary achievement—and the work of an extraordinary historian.