We cannot assume that French subjects under the Ancien Régime comprehended and experienced the passage of time and the progress of age in the same ways that we do in the twenty-first century. They did not carry Social Security cards, drivers licenses, or passports, and they did not always know for sure when they were born or how old they were. They often used generic adjectives like “young” and “old” and imprecise constructions like “around 20.” They lived in a world in which higher percentages of children died during infancy and higher percentages of adults died before senescence than today. Most of them entered the workforce sooner rather than later and exchanged marriage vows later rather than sooner than we might think.

The traditional pattern of age-differentiated relations between men and boys in Greece and Rome continued into and beyond the eighteenth century. It is obvious from extant sources that many though not all Parisian sodomites desired young or at least younger partners and that the police routinely assumed that predatory older males corrupted vulnerable younger males. It is not obvious what the words “enfant” [child], “garçon” [boy], and “jeune homme” [young man] mean in every document.[1] The dictionary of the French Academy did not define ranges of ages and did not oblige all Frenchmen to use the same words in the same way. Adolescents of the same age could look older or younger than they were and could have different degrees of practical and sexual experience. We could and should study other clues, such as adjectives with different connotations: “joli” [cute, pretty], “beau” [attractive, good-looking, handsome], “bien fait” [well-formed, well-built].

We cannot assume that sodomites inevitably equated youth with androgyny or passivity or that all “young folks” were innocent because of their age. A few men seduced, molested, or violated pre-teens.[2] Many more teenagers sought sex with adults for pleasure or profit. On the one hand, Jean Baptiste Coqueret, 15, apprentice watchmaker, reported that the older and stronger journeyman who shared his bed committed “the infamous act” with him in spite of him, so he left the master they served (AB 10258, f. 8). On the other hand, Benoît Bergeron, 14½, assured a decoy that “he was not a novice in these things,” since he had been corrupted at the age of 11 by other boys in his neighborhood (AB 10257, ff. 1-2).[3] In recounting his history to the police, he moved from mutual touching, with another boy in the latrine of the building where they lived, to random encounters in the streets and solicitation on the quays, both followed by sex in alleys. Adults ejaculated between his thighs, and more recently one man, 30-35, in a red cloak and a wig, penetrated him. Some sodomites insisted that they had never liked women and always liked men, but more, like Bergeron, reported that they had acquired a taste for men through experience, often but not always as youngsters.

Bergeron’s sexual history

Old age was less problematic than youth because the differences between 50 and 60 and 70 were less significant, sexually and culturally, than the differences between the years before and after puberty and because sodomites did not desire seniors. A few older men expressed consciousness of age by admitting, regretfully, that they did not have as much sexual energy as in the past or insisting, defensively, that they did.[4] Jacques Gazon, arrested at the age of 70, still managed to entice “young folks,” including pages and students, and to “corrupt” them with food and drink (AB 10748, f. 246). A few younger males expressed aversion to seniors, but others sold their services to them.[5]

It is not enough, of course, to count the ages of individuals specified in police records and create decadal and aggregate tables. We need to know the ages of the males they had sex with or at least wanted to have sex with. In some cases boys and men lied about their age to make themselves sound older or younger than they were. In most cases we do not know the ages of decoys involved in entrapment. In many cases we do not know the ages of both men arrested in couples. The database will allow comprehensive quantitative analysis of age, rank, and role, as interdependent variables, as well as comparison with other cultures, ancient and modern. At this stage we can say that older and newer patterns coexisted. Many sodomites in eighteenth-century Paris, as in other times and places, sought younger males, but others did not.


[1] The word “garçon” means not only boy but also bachelor and assistant, including even apprentices or journeymen.

[2] For ages 10-12 see AB 10260, f. 372v; 10786, f. 58; 10811, f. 18; 10821, f. 50; 10989, f. 207v; 11102, f. 177; 11207, f. 92v; AN, Y13408, 29 January, 9 and 14 July 1781. For younger children see AB 10861, f. 280v; 10911, f. 183v; 11207, f. 92v; 11251, ff. 24-38; 11887, ff. 16-19; AN, Y13408, 28 January and 13 July 1781.

[3] Just a week before a decoy had not allowed Bergeron to accost hm because of “his great youth.” AB 10256, f. 370v.

[4] AB 10256, f. 261v; 10778, f. 223v; 10815, ff. 50-51.

[5] AB 10257, f. 153v; 10770, f. 394; 10786, f. 33; 10797, f. 226; 10858, f. 165v; 11251, f. 167. For aversion to “young folks” see AB 10782, f. 310v; 10838, ff. 65-65v.


Author: Jeffrey Merrick