Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male–Male Sexual Relations, 1400–1750 by Noel Malcolm - review by Tim Smith-Laing

Tim Smith-Laing

350 Years of Sodom

Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe: Male–Male Sexual Relations, 1400–1750


Oxford University Press 608pp £25 order from our bookshop

In January 1730, the authorities in Utrecht arrested a 52-year-old man and a nineteen-year-old man found in flagrante delicto in a tower of the city cathedral. It turned out to be a watershed moment. Interrogation of the older man revealed that he’d had many male sexual partners over the years, some of whom were in turn arrested and interrogated. It was like pulling on a thread and unravelling the whole garment. One of those caught in the second round-up, a 22-year-old named Zacharias Wilsma, revealed no fewer than 144 sexual contacts in cities across the Netherlands. By May, Noel Malcolm notes, what had started as ‘a minor local investigation’ had become ‘a nation-wide campaign’. By July, the High Court of Holland and Zeeland had decided to issue a special decree or plakkaat against sodomy. In one village in September of the following year, the magistrate Rudolf de Mepsche ‘presided over the public execution of no fewer than 21 men and boys, including one fifteen-year-old and two sixteen-year-olds’. Others were less bloodthirsty and public recoil from such excesses eventually led to the panic fading. But the results of that initial arrest were remarkable nevertheless. In the course of the moral panic, ninety-eight men were executed; others were flogged or sent into exile, and some four hundred more fled abroad.

For most readers in the 21st century, incidents like this will seem chilling. From a historian’s standpoint, they are something of a godsend. They pull into the light matters that, by their nature, tend to remain hidden, allowing us to study precisely those aspects of human life that societies were

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