three pairs of lovers with space

GREEK LOVE IN EUROPE IN THE 5TH TO 17TH CENTURIES

 

"Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice"
     Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

                      by Pierre Joubert

European history is conventionally divided into ancient, mediaeval and modern, the defining events being the final fall of Rome to barbarians in 476 and the fall of Constantinople to Islam in 1453.  Though these events were of far-reaching practical and symbolic importance, and a similarly tripartite division is strongly suited to presentation of the declining fortune of Greek love in Europe, other happenings were far more influential on the latter and their dates have been adopted here.

For the division between antiquity and the middle period, far more devastating for Greek love than the fall of Christian Rome to other Christians was the take-over of the Roman empire in the preceding century by Christianity, with its harsh condemnation of male homosexuality.  Legally tolerated from 312, Christianity was the religion of all but one of the Emperors from 337 and became the only legal religion in 381, setting the stage for the persecution and destruction of classical paganism. Within this period, it took over as the religion of most of the urban population, so that by its end popular hostility is likely to have been generally supportive of state persecution. 

The legal and presumable social status of Greek love had been under clear threat since the reign of Alexander Severus (222-235), but it was only with an imperial law of 342 that its legal position became impossible with the passive role subject to capital punishment.  This law was a little ambiguous and may not have been enforced, but a clearer one of 390 definitely was.  Since the latter was merely part of the onslaught on the pagan beliefs that had upheld Greek love, and this had been underway for nine years, 381 is adopted here as the beginning of the middle period.

It is proposed here that original evidence to be presented over time will bear out the generalisation that the middle period is distinguished from the preceding and following ones by the combination of two characteristics. First, unlike in antiquity, when Greek love was tolerated and more often admired than not, it was strongly condemned by the state, resulting in variable but often savage punishment, and even more so by the Christian religion, which meant that most people believed it was wrong.  Fear of incurring the wrath of God, thought always ready to manifest itself in plagues or other disasters, was very real. Secondly, the middle period inherited from antiquity and shared with contemporaneous cultures an assumption that boys as well as females (but not other men) were sexually attractive to men in general. The relevant question for men, when they asked it, was not whether boys were a sexual temptation, but whether to give in to sin.

It was the beginning of the unraveling of this assumption that distinguishes the middle period from the modern, for the consequent cultural change, though subtler and much less sudden, was in the end just as injurious to the practise of Greek love as the adoption of Christianity had been.

The continuity from antiquity of the assumption that both women and boys were sexually attractive for men is brought out well by the 12th-century Debate of Ganymede and Helen, in which both protagonists are portrayed as exceptionally attractive and their arguments as to loving which of them is most desirable imply that men are not bound to prefer one or the other. The same is more emphatic in the four passionate Greek love poems of Hilary the Englishman, which run even more counter to the prevailing Christian condemnation of sodomy, but, surviving in a single manuscript, did not share Ganymede and Helen's remarkable popularity.

 

England

In The Portrait of Mr. W.H. and Shakespeare's Boyfriend and Sonnet XX, Oscar Wilde and J. Z. Eglinton respectively present the arguments for believing that the boy for whom Shakespeare professed his love in that sonnet was one of his boy actors, while differing on which one.

Shakespeare's Boy Actors and Forbidden Discourse by M. Teare-Williams is a thorough and scholarly study, hitherto unpublished, of the female roles in Shakespeare’s comedies played by boys, showing how for full effect Shakespeare relied on  his audience’s appreciation of the pervasive though subtle erotic tension between boys and men

 

France

The Ottoman prince Jem and the lovely French boys is a poem, probably by the exiled prince's foremost follower, celebrating the beauty of the French boys at a banquet they attended at Nice in 1482.

 

Renaissance Italy, Hungary and Scotland

Nineteene Yeares Travayles by William Lithgow published in London in 1632, offers valuable insights on the prevalence of Greek love in Italy (see the extracts from 1609 on p. 38 and 1616 on pp. 335, 356 and 358) and Hungary (see the extract from 1616 on p. 364). As would be expected, in informing us about the European, Near Eastern and North African lands he visited, he made assumptions about behaviour that also shed light on the relatively puritanical attitudes of his native Scotland.

 

Counter-Reformation Italy

Much the most important early modern treatise on pederasty was Antonio Rocco's humorous polemic, Alcibiades the Schoolboy, written about 1630 and first published in 1651, of which there is a full English translation here, an introduction here and a review here.

 

The Balkans

The Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles's history of his own times, finished in about 1465, includes several pederastic episodes in various Balkan lands, including Greek love affairs between Ottoman sultans and future rulers of Albania and Wallachia.