Popular Attitudes

The police avoided judgmental language in their records, more often than not, but they reported some negative comments made by Parisians who witnessed sexual connections in public places, by men who rejected unwanted advances, and by parents and neighbors of youngsters pursued by sodomites. When the police arrested two men caught in the act in the Luxembourg, some “lords” and “others” who witnessed the “abominable tragedy” said “with one voice that “all villains of this nature should be burned” (AB 10798, ff. 205v-206). In response to propositions, one man simply replied that “he was not a man of that bad character” (AB 10742, f. 327), but another drew his sword and conducted the sodomite before a commissaire (AB 10815, f. 21). Some “young folks” abused an old man who made “infamous propositions” to them (AB 11233, f. 105). Scandalized parents and neighbors confirmed the charges. All such evidence about popular attitudes deserves scrutiny, with at least one caveat in mind. We do not have as much documentation about Parisians who did not complain, protest, or denounce, so we should not overestimate hostility and underestimate indifference. People of all stripes and types coexisted in the capital. It seems reasonable to assume that most residents did not bother sodomites who did not bother them. Whatever they knew or at least thought about sodomy in the abstract, they did not make an issue of it unless they were confronted with it in ways that disturbed and distressed them.

The incomplete series of reports of police spies who recorded public chatter in gardens and taverns includes two dozen passages about sex between men (appended). These passages suggest more questions than they provide answers about the circulation of news in public spaces and the underlying assumptions about same-sex relations. The Journal de Paris, the first daily newspaper in the capital, never printed the word “sodomy,” from 1777 to 1789. The clergy rarely addressed the subject, even indirectly, in catechism, confession, and sermons. We can only assume that Parisians learned what they knew or at least thought they knew about sex between men, in theory and practice, from each other, through word of mouth or, in the case of males, through experience with brothers or cousins, playmates or schoolmates, or adults.

The relevant passages in police sources are valuable but not transparent or conclusive. A squadron of the municipal watch received a tip from two witnesses about two other men involved in public sex on 26 March 1741 and captured one of the guilty parties. Although they had all heard the same comments, two watchmen reported that the witnesses called the couple in question “wretches,” and two others reported that they asserted that the man who fled “deserved to be burned.” (AN, X2A 729, unpaginated, 4 July 1741). We do not know which words, the generic or judgmental ones, represent popular attitudes more accurately. Crowds sometimes demanded and sometimes prevented arrest, without always knowing all the facts about the men they delivered to or protected from the police.[1] The database will finally allow us to assess the extant evidence comprehensively and systematically.


16 February 1726 (AB 10156, f. 68): In the last few days [Des]chauffour[s], who held gatherings of the most infamous libertines at his place, was conducted to the Bastille, and an extraordinary commission was set up at the Châtelet to handle their trial.

24 March 1726 (AB 10156, f. 135): A few days ago the Châtelet recorded the creation of the extraordinary commission to conduct the trial of [Des]chauffour[s] and other libertines who gathered at his place. The lieutenant general of police is the president of this commission.

27 March 1726 (AB  10156, f. 139): In several cafés it was said that the court had set up a special tribunal[2] against all the young folks who are involved in the most infamous libertinism and that the lieutenant general of police is the president of this tribunal. Everyone highly approves the inquiries to abolish, it is said, a crime that has made tremendous progress in France, and, it is said, if the investigation were rigorous, there would be many folks in the most distinguished positions who would find themselves included in the inquiries of the special tribunal.

15 April 1726 (AB 10156, f. 180): At the Châtelet they have begun the trial proceedings of the libertines already mentioned, with [Des]chauffour[s] at their head. The 5 indicted men have been interrogated, and it is believed that 2 others will be likewise indicted immediately.

24 May 1726 (AB 10156, f. 231v): By final judgment of M. Hérault, lieutenant general of police, and the gentlemen constituting the presidial court of the Châtelet, on the 24th of this month, Deschauffour[s], convicted of the crime of sodomy, was condemned to be burned alive in the place de Grève[3] and his ashes scattered in the wind, which was carried out the same day.

3 June 1726 (AB 10156, f 247): The libertines involved in the Deschauffours affair were sentenced on the 25th of last month, two to further inquiry and 3 months in prison, three to further inquiry and 6 months in prison, pending evidence. The judgment of a 6th was suspended, and a 7th was released. On the day of the execution and the next day 8 other libertines who had apparently been denounced were arrested.[4]

8 June 1726 (AB 10156, f. 254v): The king granted the confiscation of property of Mr. Deschauffours to his son, who is 8 years old.[5]

19 February 1727 (AB 10157, f. 41v): The judgment of the Châtelet that sentences a tapestry worker who was arrested a while ago for the infamous crime in the Hôtel-Dieu[6] to preliminary torture was confirmed by the criminal chamber of the Tournelle.[7] They are also undertaking legal proceedings against the sick man, his accomplice, who escaped.

6 January 1728 (AB 10158, f. 5v): It was said that a magistrate in the Grand Conseil,[8] sixty years old, had been arrested on the Half-Moon last Sunday [the 4th] for the act of sodomy and that he was conducted to the residence of the lieutenant general of police, who released him, it is said, inasmuch as it was he who put him forward for the Grand Conseil when he was received as royal prosecutor.[9] It is said, however, that this magistrate [has] always [been] a sodomite and that they should not leave a habitual sinner unpunished.

22 September 1728 (AB 10158, ff. 163-63v): Others affirm that the Jesuits are lost forever in the mind of the court and that the letter written by the bishop of Montpelier[10] to the king unmasked them completely. It is said that they will do with respect to them as they did previously with the Templars,[11] that is to say that they will exterminate them as they did that sect. Others say that an abbé was arrested in the last few days in the Notre Dame cloister for having had money transmitted to the Carthusians in Utrecht. Others say that this abbé ran a wicked place for sodomy and that since he was arrested he has accused a number of bishops and clergymen of being guilty of the same crime.

29 September 1728 (AB 10158, ff. 169-69v): They talked there about father Poisson[12] and the licentious life he leads with a young monk whom, it is said, he adopted as his son. It is said that the father superior noticed their dissolute life and made the decision to send this young monk to Caen despite the objections that father Poisson offered to it, on whom the superior, it is said, imposed silence by telling him that if they knew, as he did, the crimes that he commits daily with this monk, he would be burned in the public square. Others say that it is sodomy. Others say that this young monk is given over to women, that he got one into his room with father Poisson’s help, that it was this that the father superior noticed and this that made him decide to send this young monk to Caen. Whatever the case may be, it is said that father Poisson went to see him and that the superior in Paris wrote the one in Caen to take notice of how he conducts himself with the young monk, which means that he is confirmed in the common opinion that father Poisson is a sodomist.

10 March 1728 (AB 10158, f. 280): They talked there about the morals and religion of courtiers. As for morals, it is said that they are corrupt, that there are few lords and ladies who did not have all the capital vices, that one is given over to sodomy and another to women.

14 June 1729 (AB 10159, ff. 220-20v): It is also said that the marquis de Sainte-Maure committed an action in the Luxembourg last Saturday [11th] at about 9:30 pm that will be very advantageous to his wife in obtaining her separation of habitation from him. It is said that one of the equerries of the Spanish queen escorted him to the residence of the lieutenant general of police. He believed he would secure his liberty from the magistrate, who found him so guilty, based on the report, it is said, of the Swiss Guards in the Luxembourg that the exempt had him sign, that he was obliged to send him to prison until he informed the court about the matter. Others say, on the contrary, that the lieutenant general of police sent him home. But the king is so indignant against him that it is believed he will lose the reversion of the office of the comte de Sainte-Maure, his uncle, that His Majesty granted him. And others say that the affront that M. de Sainte-Maure has just received was premeditated by his enemies, and those who say they know him well maintain that he likes women and not men.[13]

9 November 1729 (AB 10160, f. 121v): Others said that father Poisson had a fight a few days ago with M. Marchand, their organist, who lives in their monastery and that the subject of their quarrel was caused by the excess of wine they had consumed together. In the course of the quarrel it is said that Marchand reproached father Poisson for being known in Paris for being given over to sodomy. Father Poisson, for his part, reproached Marchand for being dismissed from the king’s household and for having let his wife die of hunger. Whatever the case may be, it is said that the father superior decided against father Poisson and that he told him that it was only too true that he is a debauchee and that if he does not change his life, he knows how to have recourse to higher authorities to have him punished. It is even claimed that he is currently detained in the monastery until further orders by order of the lieutenant general of police. What is certain is that it is said that this father has young lay folks in his room every day with whom he passes the day.

14-21 November 1733 (AB 10164, ff. 229v-30): The duc de Villars Brancas,[14] 50 years old, who was exiled in the time of Louis 14 for the pleasures of the cuff he took with his domestics and who retreated for a while to La Trappe,[15] then to the Oratory, married the widow Moras,[16] 45 years old, only on account of the immense property that this widow brought him to have the title of duchess. Her husband, who amassed all this property, died a Huguenot.[17]

8 February 1736 (AB 10165, f. 65): It is said in public that the comte de Sainte-Maure continues his debauchery with men, and it is believed that the court will make a decision to enjoin him to get rid of his office. But others claim that he has only the reversion of his uncle, who is working to have him put in Saint-Lazare.[18]

7-14 April 1736 (AB 10165, ff. 166-66v): They say that a sentinel of the patrol found a nonconformist (this is the new term, instead of the cuff) in the act with a young boy behind the chapel of Versailles at about 11 pm, arrested him and made him maintain his position, with the gun cocked at him, at the risk of being killed, until the patrol laid hands on him. They say that this nonconformist is more than 60 years old, that he has a wife and several children, that he is also the clerk of the troops in the patrol, and, finally, that in light of these considerations the king pardoned him, in having him only confined, while duChaufour [Deschauffours] was burned.

15-22 March 1738 (AB 10166, f. 528v): There have appeared, quite secretly, some diabolical verses written by hand dealing with sodomy. Judgment is passed on the Jesuits, who refer the question to the Pope,[19] who offers as a solution, Gaudeant bene nati [The well-born may enjoy].

26-27 May 1741 (AB 10168, f. 246): We believe we must report that it is said that the crime of sodomy is much in vogue and that in Paris, conspicuously in all the monasteries in this city, not excepting the Benedictines,[20] although it is said that these monks feign appearances that tend only to prove the purity of their morals. The archbishop[21] cited various anonymous letters or memoirs on this score and consequently contacted all the superiors of said communities, whom he specifically enjoined to watch over the conduct of their monks, especially that of the students.

Undated [1726] (AB 10170, f. 31): It is said that commissaires have been named to conduct the trial of a number of sodomites who are prisoners in the Bastille and that they absolutely want to make an example of them. Others add that they will be put on trial but that a sentence against them will never appear, that they will be satisfied with having them spend time in the dungeons.

Undated [1725-40] (AB 10170, ff. 107-17v): At the Café de la Régence[22] it was said that it can be said that the inquisition is at work in Paris because we hear of nothing but nocturnal searches every evening. Apparently M. Hérault wishes the sin of sodomy to come into vogue. First they will arrest all the women [for prostitution], as they are doing. . . .

Reports of police spies about public chatter about father Poisson, 1728-29


[1] For crowds that protected sodomites from police see AB 10729, f. 212; 10764, f. 97; 10839, f. 49; 11145, f. 224; 11241, f. 223. For crowds that delivered sodomites to police see AB 10753, f. 369; 10843, f. 202.

[2] Chambre ardente, the name of tribunals that tried Protestant heretics in the 16th century.

[3] Section of the place de l’hôtel de ville along the Seine, site of executions.

[4] No such arrests on 24 and 25 May 1726 in Funck-Brentano.

[5] Deschauffours, former infantry lieutenant, married Louise Panée or Pavée, widow of Etienne Guibert, écuyer, conseiller du roi en l’élection du Mans, on 23 April 1714. The inventory compiled after her death is dated 17 June 1716. He and his second wife, Marguerite Rousseau, had a son, François Godefroy, baptized on 7 December 1720.

[6] Oldest and largest Parisian hospital, on the Ile de la Cité.

[7] The criminal chamber of the Parlement.

[8] Royal court with jurisdiction, unlike the regional parlements, over the entire kingdom.

[9] René Hérault, procureur général of the Grand Conseil, 1718-22.

[10] Charles Joachim Colbert de Croissy (1667-1738), bishop as of 1697, Jansenist.

[11] The prosecution of the Crusading military order in 1307 involved charges of sodomy.

[12] Pierre Poisson, Cordelier, Jansenist (see for example AB 10161, f. 119), author of funeral orations and other publications listed in the BNF catalogue, mentioned in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, 1728, 21, 34, 47.

[13] For a reference to a mistress see AB 10162, f. 241.

[14] Louis Antoine, duc de Villars-Brancas (1682-1760).

[15] Monastery in Soligny-la-Trappe [Orne]

[16] Marie Angélique de Moras (1676-1763). They married in 1709 and had two children.

[17] Guillaume Frémin de Moras (1650-)

[18] Prison located at 107 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis.

[19] Pope Clement XII, 1730-40.

[20] There were several Benedictine monasteries in Paris.

[21] Charles Gaspard Guillaume de Vintimille du Luc (1655-1746), archbishop as of 1729.

[22] Place du Palais Royal.


Author: Jeffrey Merrick