Scotland’s government marked International Women’s Day 2022 by issuing a formal apology to the 2000 women and 500 men who were executed between the 16th and 18th centuries in a mania against witchcraft.
“Addressing Scottish lawmakers, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was “injustice on a colossal scale” that was “driven at least in part by misogyny in its most literal sense – hatred of women.”…
‘Sturgeon noted that some critics had queried the point of an apology centuries later, but said “it might actually be pertinent to ask why it has taken so long.” https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202203/1254411.shtml
THERE IS AN UNADDRESSED LAYER TO THIS STORY … the men! Gay sex was deeply associated with Pagan magical practices and heretical Christian beliefs in ancient and medieval times. Gay men had been on the receiving end of Christian persecutions from the 4th century onwards – in large part because of the prominence of queer deities and gender-bending priesthoods in the ancient pagan culture. 4th century historian Eusebius praised Emperor Constantine for his suppression the effeminate pagan priests of the Goddess temples. Eusebius described a temple:
“where men unworthy of the name forgot the dignity of their sex and propitiated the demon by the their effeminate conduct.”
The Emperor ordered the army sent in, “that this building with its contents should be utterly destroyed.” Eusebius recorded that:
“inasmuch as the Egyptians, especially those of Alexandria, had been accustomed to honour their river through a priesthood composed of effeminate men, a further law was passed commanding the extermination of the whole class as vicious, that no one might thenceforward be found tainted with the like impurity.”
The persecution stepped up under Constantine’s successors. Roman senator Firmicus Maternus wrote a polemic called ‘The Error of the Pagan Religions’ in 346 which firmly associated pagan cults with sexual immorality and especially homosexuality. He was particularly fired up about the effeminate priests or holy men, writing that those of a Carthaginian love goddess:
“can minister to her only when they have feminised their faces, rubbed smooth their skin, and disgraced their manly sex by donning women’s regalia. In their very temples we see scandalous performances, accompanied by the moaning of the throng: men letting themselves be handled as women, and flaunting with boastful ostentatiousness this ignominy of their impure and unchaste bodies…. Next, being thus divorced from the masculine, they get intoxicated with the music of flutes and invoke the goddess with an unholy spirit so they an ostensibly predict the future to fools.”
And from there it all began – the suppression of Goddess priesthoods, of sex-positive versions of Christianity, and eventually homosexuality itself – which of course went hand in hand with the suppression of women’s sexuality and self-hood, of which the witch trials were the ultimate manifestation of using FEAR to keep women subservient, as had been used against gay men since the 4th century.
The tide turned violently against paganism in the 380s when an imperial edict against sacrifices inspired what has been called ‘an orgy of destruction and spoliation’ when bands of monks and Christian fanatics destroyed temples and statues across the Empire. Thousands of years in which queers had served the holy life of the community came to an end, our ecstatic-erotic practices that opened the gateways to spiritual communion were wiped out.
In 390 a law focussed on male brothels attacked “the poison of shameful effeminacy”. In 438 this was expanded to call for all who engaged in gay sex to die “in avenging flames in the sight of the people.” The Code of Justinian, issued in 534, sealed the fate, setting a legal climate regarding homosexuality that would influence Europe until the 20th century, and his violent actions in 528 against men who loved men established a climate of fear that still persists in some places. The Justinian Code expanded an old law from the time of Augustus against adultery to include the death penalty for ‘illicit sex with males’ (stuprum cum masculis).
Byzantine historian John Malalas (c 491-578) recorded the great persecution of men who loved men in the late 520s in the eastern half of the Empire, after the collapse of Rome itself. Justinian issued laws that could be applied to past crimes, not simply ones that occurred after its creation. Note however that the Church did not support his actions, in fact the first victims were prominent men of the Church itself:
“At that time, bishops of diverse provinces were prosecuted for the lustful act of sleeping with males. Among them were the bishops Isaiah of Rhodes, formerly the Nycteparchus of Constantinople, and Alexander of Diospolis in Thrace. After they were brought to Constantinople by an edict of the Emperor they were examined by the prefect of the city, stripped of their rank and punished. After he had suffered severe torture, Isaiah was sent into exile. Alexander, on the other hand, has his male organ cut off, and was place in a litter and exposed as a spectacle to the people. Shortly after, the emperor passed a law that the crime of sex with males should be punished by castration. And at that time many androkoitai (men who slept with men) were seized and their genitals were cut off. And a great fear ensued among those who suffered from the evil desire for males.” John Malalas
The Emperor’s court historian, Procopius, left us a ‘Secret History’ in which we read that Justinian:
“…prohibited sodomy [paiderastein] by law, not examining closely into offences committed subsequently to the law but concerning himself only with those persons who long before had been caught by this malady. And the prosecution of these cases was carried out in reckless fashion, since the penalty was exacted without an accuser, for the word of a single man or boy, and even if it so happened, of a slave compelled against his will to give evidence against his owner, was considered definite proof. Those who were thus convicted had their privates removed and were paraded through the streets.”
Georgius Cedrenus, wrote later in 1060 about this persecution: “Many citizens and senators and not a few of the high clergy were found guilty, were castrated and exposed naked in the forum and died miserably.”
There is considerable amount of evidence that the Celtic and Germanic peoples of northern Europe were accepting and approving of same sex relationships in ancient and medieval times. Aristotle noted this in the the 4th century BCE, calling the passionate, erotic friendship between Celtic males ‘synousia’, and so did Greco-Roman writers several centuries later. 1st century rhetorician Quintilian wrote a speech in which an imaginary German soldier called Marianus declares that male love is seen as honourable amongst his people. Sextus Empiricus (160-210 CE) wrote that among the Germanic people sodomy was “not looked upon as shameful but as a customary thing.” Eusebius of Caesarea (4th century CE)wrote that “Among the Gauls, the young men marry each other (gamountai) with complete freedom. In doing this, they do not incur any reproach or blame, since this is done according to custom amongst them.”
Most medieval law codes, such as from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, made no prohibitions against male sexual relations. Visigothic Spain carried forward the late Roman prohibitions, advising castration as the punishment for offenders, but as Spain came under Islamic rule from the 8th century a much more tolerant atmosphere prevailed until the return of Christian rule and the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition.
Medieval church declarations and penitentiaries reveal a growing obsession with regulating the sex lives first of monks and clergy, then eventually the whole population. For example, the Council of Paris in 829 issued a canon associating God’s wrath at gay sex with the devastation of the Great Flood, and endorsed the death penalty for sodomy. Saint Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah (11th century) attacked homosexuality among the clergy, whom he accuses of “wallowing voluptuously in the pigsty of foul obscenity.” He complained that “Vice against nature creeps in like a cancer and even touches the order of consecrated men. Sometimes it rages like a bloodthirsty beast in the midst of the sheepfold of Christ.” The Pope of the time was not prepared to go as far as Damian proposed in punishing same sex acts, and when the 1102 Council of London wished to issue a decree that sodomy be condemned from every pulpit Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury prohibited its publication, saying that homosexual acts were common and not seen as a sin by the population.
In the 13th century the homophobic stance of the Church hardened – the work of Thomas Aquinas defined ‘unnatural’ sex as masturbation, heterosexual acts in the ‘wrong vessel’, ie wrong orifice, sodomy (meaning any sex relationship with someone of the same gender), and bestiality. This century saw the suppression of the Cathar heresy, which was so associated with gay sex that the German language inherited the word ‘Ketzer’ as slang for a queer person. Similarly, English and French gained ‘bugger’ from the Bogomil heresy from Bulgaria – Bogomil in fact meant ‘beloved of God’. From the start of its reign of Terror, the Inquisition was on the lookout for sodomites, who were assumed to be either pagans or Christian heretics. The Society of the Blessed Mary, pious laymen supporting monastic endeavours, set out to track down gays as well as heretics – in 1242 the Italian city of Perugia appointed 40 men to seek out sodomites, a phenomenon repeated in Renaissance Florence’s Officers of the Night. The suppression of the politically powerful Knights Templar in the 14th century was justified in part by their indulgence in “the execrable outrage of the Sodomites.”
Secular laws in the late Middle Ages set the scene for the Church and State to work together in the suppression of homosexuality. The 13th century law in the Beauvais region north of Paris explicitly combines heresy and homosexuality:
“A person departing from the faith by disbelief so that he will not come back to the way of truth, or who commits sodomy, must be burned and he forfeits all his possessions.”
A 14th century copy of a 1290 English legal treatise, known as Britton, which cites fire as the penalty for sodomy and calls it a ‘mixed’ crime that could be tried by state or church, states:
“The inquirers of the Holy Church shall make their inquests of sorcerers, sodomites, renegades and misbelievers; and if they find any such, they shall deliver him to the king’s court to be put to death.”
Another English law code of the time indicated that the punishment for gay sex, along with bestiality or friendship with Jewish people, should be to be buried alive.
In Spanish Castile Christian King Alfonso X issued a law in 1255 that stated:
“…when a man lusts after another to sin with him against nature, we order that whoever commits such a sin shall both of them, as soon as it has been discovered, be castrated before all the people, and, after 3 days, shall be suspended by the legs until they die, and shall never be taken down.”
Historian Louis Crompton, in his 2005 book Homosexuality and Civilisation, says that “no comprehensive account of executions in earlier periods has been made… Undoubtedly, many men and women suffered whose fates are forever lost to history.” Some examples are known – such as in Basel, Switzerland in 1277 when the annals record that King Rudolph I, founder of the Habsburg dynasty “burned Lord Haspisperch for the vice of sodomy.” All levels of society were at risk – in 1292 Jan de Wettre, a “maker of small knives” was burned to death in Ghent, Flanders.
A remarkable record from the town of Olite, near Pamplona, informs of us of the burning of two Jewish men “because they had committed the sodomitical sin with each other.” First the men were tortured to obtain confessions, then “accompanied to the stake by a cortege of twenty men while a musician played the anafil, a long Moorish trumpet of lugubrious tone.” (Louis Crompton) The record lists the payments to the trumpet player and the man who tied the convicted pair to the tree and “administered the fire.”
Louis Crompton lists burnings of gay men in France (Laon 1317, Dorche in Savoy region 1344, Reims 1372), Antwerp in the 1370s, Augsburg 1409. The first known execution for sodomy in Venice was in 1342; in 1357 a Venetian boatman, Nicoleto Marmagna, and his lover of three years, Giovanni Braganza, were sentenced to be burned alive. Venice was to be a hotbed of gay life, and its repression, in the 15th century, beginning with the trial in 1406 of 15 young noblemen and 18 commoners. Most convicted men were burned alive – until 1446 after which they were decapitated before the burning, perhaps the screams had become too painful to hear. More than 400 men were tried in 15th century Venice for sodomy with other men, and 34 for sodomy with women.
Preacher Bernadino de Siena (1380-1444) described in a sermon the burning of a sodomite in Venice, whom he saw “tied to a column on high; and a barrel of pitch and brushwood and fire, and a wretch who made it all burn, and I saw many people standing round about to watch.” He also spoke of other executions, including regular burnings in Genoa, and told of a man quartered, his limbs hung from the city gates, in Verona.
Florence in the 15-16th centuries saw even more arrests and prosecutions, but in general imposed less harsh penalties. The city had such a long standing reputation as a gay locale – in 1305 Dominican preacher Giordano da Pisa declared in a sermon: “Oh how many sodomites there are among the citizens! Nearly all are dedicated to the vice, or at least the majority” – that during the Renaissance in German lands sodomites were known as Florenzer. The intensity of persecution varied over time, but Louis Crompton estimates that around 12500 men were prosecuted during a long anti-sodomy campaign in Florence that lasted from 1432 to 1502. At this time this quite small, city had an anti-sodomy police force, the Officers of the Night, which was eventually disbanded due to the amount of publicity its presence gave to the gay subculture of the city.
An even more virulent homophobia took hold in Spain after the unification of the country in the late 15th century under Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. An edict of 1497 summed up the attitude that had developed over 1000 years, that because of male-male sexuality “God… in His indignation sends pestilence and other earthly torments” and declared that “Because the penalties hitherto established are not sufficient to castigate and extirpate totally… such an abominable crime… we order and command that any person of whatever rank, condition, pre-eminence, or dignity who commits the abominable crime against nature, being convicted by that means which according to the law is sufficient to prove the crime of heresy or lese majeste [ie treason] shall be burned in flames of fire.”
From 1570 to 1630 the Spanish Inquisition was particularly active in hunting down gay men – over 1000 men were brought to trial in Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia, many punishments were assigned and there were around 100 executions, with a similar number via secular courts. Louis Crompton describes this period as “arguably the worst moment in the history of a mighty institution,” for which “the church must bear the guilt for having inflicted an enormous amount of unwarranted an atrociously cruel suffering.”
The inquisitors cared little about saving the souls of the men they accused – their expressed aim was to strike fear into the multitude – to “terrorise the people [ut alli terreantur]”. (Franscisco Pena, Spanish law scholar, 1578). Executions peaked in the 1620s, after which the appetite for the death penalty waned, though other punishments remained, such as imprisonment, lashings, fines and banishments, or being sent to work in the galleys of the great ships. Spain of course exported its homophobic attitudes to the New World of the Americas, and one of the earliest recorded atrocities there, from 1513, involved releasing hunting dogs to kill a group of 40 effeminate shamans, whom explorer Vasco de Balboa had observed with the king’s brother in Panama.
Crompton estimates that around 150 men and women were executed for sodomy in France in the 16-17th centuries. The Netherlands experienced a horrific gay persecution in the 1730s, called by Louis Crompton “the most deadly persecution of homosexuals known to us before Hitler.” A trial of two men in Utrecht led to the implication of many more and a ‘witch-hunt’ against gay men across the whole country. Around 250 trials took place and at least 75 men executed. Mass arrests also happened in Dutch cities later in the century, such as Amsterdam in 1764. The last execution for sodomy on the European mainland took place in the Netherlands in 1803. The last in England, of James Pratt and John Smith, took place on 27 November 1835.
England had been a late comer to the persecution game – it did not suffer the extremes of the Inquisition and Henry VIII’s Buggery Act of 1533 set a harsh tone but was not much used against gay men until the 18-19th centuries, when it did lead to many hangings. England abolished the death penalty for sodomy in 1861, but of course other punishments remained. Scotland was the last country in Europe to abolish the death penalty for gay sex, in 1889. The homophobic tone of the Buggery law was of course also to spread around the worldwide British empire and still darkens the lives of many queers in former British colonies, especially in Africa, today.
Christianity adopted its homophobic stance from the Jewish prohibitions of the Old Testament, in stark contrast to the many other faiths of the ancient world, which not only accepted gay love but gave spiritual roles to queer people. The Levitical prohibition on gay sex was a reaction against the cross-dressing, gender-bending priests of the pagan temples, and the first homophobic actions of the Christian emperors of Rome was also against these priesthoods. From that point began the long, dark 14 centuries where the extermination of gay people became the official policy of European countries. During the Middle Ages the darkness deepened as “heresy of the flesh” became equated with “heresy of the spirit.” Stoked by religious preachers of both Catholic and Protestant faiths, the fire of homophobia burnt strongly first in the Catholic south and later in the Protestant north of Europe, with executions in England reaching their peak in the early 19th century.
The many centuries of homophobic persecution inspired by the Christian faith sit alongside the intolerance also meted out to heretics, Jews, Muslims and of course witches. Add to this the endorsement of the African slave trade for several centuries and the suppression of native faiths the world over and it is clear the Christian Church has been responsible for a lot of suffering.
Nowadays Christianity no longer supports the suppression of pagans, Jews, Muslims or witches – but homosexuality remains either a huge taboo or a grey area in certain Christian circles. The climate of religiously based fear that queers have had to live with for so long began the 4th century, worsened in the 13th and persists in some parts of the world to this day. An apology from the Christian churches would be a catalyst to expose the dark history of persecution and reveal the religious roots of Christian homophobia – queers were pagan Goddess worshippers, who revelled in holiness through the body, in sexuality, in ecstatic intoxication. And throughout the dark centuries, maybe some of us remembered this fact, and for sure some of us are remembering and reclaiming it today.
“We have been a SEPARATE PEOPLE…. Drifting together in a parallel existence, not always conscious of each other.. yet recognising one another by eyelock when we did meet… here and there as outcasts… Spirit people… in service to the Great Mother.. Shamans.. mimes and rhapsodes, poets and playwrights, healers and nurturers… VISIONARIES… REBELS” Harry Hay, Radical Faerie