CONTEXTUAL ESSAYS

We have more documents about sexual relations between men, whether “real” or “represented,” in Paris than for any other city in the eighteenth century. As our database, which is drawn primarily from policing documentation, continues to grow, we hope that it will provide opportunities for general readers and scholars alike to explore systematically a wide range of topics.

The policing of men who were thought to be interested in same-sex sexual relations in eighteenth-century Paris, we should be quick to note, did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, cultural attitudes and political institutions helped shape the construction of sodomitical and pederastic identities. Surveillance and repression, in particular, depended on the social status and social networks of suspected men, and various urban spaces afforded different kinds of opportunities for sodomites and pederasts to connect with one another, as well as for police to harass them.

Below, please find a (growing) collection of orienting essays. Written primarily to provide context for those general readers who are interested in learning more about the policing of sodomites and pederasts in France’s capital during the eighteenth century, they highlight the wealth of information contained in the database.

Here a few caveats might be in order. This collection is not meant to be comprehensive; not every topic can or will be covered. Similarly, we do not intend individual essays to be exhaustive or the last word on the topic. Rather, in keeping with the original French meaning of essai, that is, an attempt or a trial, our goal is that they offer—in a readable and less pedantic style—opportunities for readers to equip themselves with their own research questions as they approach the primary-source materials offered by the database.

Drawing inspiration from Michel Montaigne, the sixteenth-century master of the form, the present essays vary widely in form and content. We have not, for instance, attempted to impose a standard structure, length, or analytic orientation on them. In other words, they are not meant to be formal, “scholarly” articles, at least not in twenty-first century terms. For those who would like to read more comprehensively through the scholarly literature, we encourage you to consult the quite thorough bibliography provided on this website. And for those who would like to think for themselves about other questions raised by the policing of these Parisian men, we invite you to read the documents themselves, which we have provided as jpegs, and come up with your own analyses. Your intellectual engagement is our primary ambition!

Though reviewed by the entire leadership team, please remember that these essays are the work of individuals who have selected to write on topics of particular interest to them and who have addressed them in ways that seem particularly suitable to them. Some essays, then, are meant to offer information in a straightforward manner, while others are intended to be more playful and provocative. Some have required more digestion of the primary material found in the policing documents, while others focus on broad conceptual issues in the history of sexuality. Some carefully analyze key case studies and examples, while others provide lists of references, which take a great deal of time and energy to collect and organize, for others to use. Given the wide variety of questions, topics, styles, and analytic/theoretical orientations, we can well imagine that as this collection of essays continues to grow, there might come a time when the same topic is treated in different essays by different writers. In that regard, we would happily follow in the footsteps of our forebears, the writers of the eighteenth-century Encyclopédie. In short, we want to open up discussion, not shut it down, invite participation, rather than exclude.

Regardless of the topics treated in these orienting essays, this project is not simply about men who desired men in the long ago and far away. These documents help bring to life the vibrant urban world of eighteenth-century Paris. “Our” sodomites and pederasts did not constitute a world apart, but were instead deeply connected to their families, neighbors, employers and employees, and so on. Many significant questions can be explored through these documents and this database. Given the importance of the work of scholars such as Michel Foucault and Randolph Trumbach, we can continue to question the extent to which these men thought of themselves as different because of their taste, as well as the extent to which others thought of them as different for the very same reason. Difference, of course, is not given, obvious, unchangeable, or axiomatic. Our job is to understand how these historical actors understood themselves and their lived experiences in their own time and place, bearing current knowledge in mind but working against projecting the present anachronistically onto the past. We will feel rewarded if these essays help equip readers to see these various issues as worthwhile fields of inquiry that require and reward scrutiny and reflection. And if they help save readers some time in tracking down some of this information as they engage in their own pursuits of different aspects of these topics, all the better!

In the spirit of Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, this enterprise is collective in nature. But rather than using only pen and paper, digital technology affords us new possibilities to spread the word and share the work. We invite you to work with us as we explore the lessons of this archive. There is so much that it can teach, not only about sexual relations between men, but also about the relationship between sex, on the one hand, and politics, culture, and society, on the other, in the decades preceding the French Revolution.

Finally, please allow us to add that if you have ideas for other topics to be considered here, do not hesitate to let us know.

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