People in Fiction: Ancient and Modern Pederasty

Screenshot-2017-06-26-23.16.27 People in Fiction: Ancient and Modern PederastyThe last page of The Gentleman’s Magazine comprised a “Register of Books” published the previous month. The April 1749 issue listed the text “Pederasty investigated and exemplified, 1s.” No author or publisher was listed.

Three other references to the text — full title, Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify’d — were discovered by eighteenth century scholars in the following years: a letter from John Cleland (of Fanny Hill fame) written to the Duke of Newcastle’s law clerk, accusing the “son of a Dean and grandson of a Bishop” of being the author of “a pamphlet evidently in defence of sodomy.” A letter from Newcastle to the attorney general calls on the state to prosecute one Thomas Cannon (son of the Dean of Lincoln; grandson of the Bishop of Norwich and Ely; and one-time close friend/maybe lover of Cleland) as the author of said pamphlet. The third letter was written by Cannon’s mother to Newcastle, begging that the charges against him be dropped.

The pamphlet remains lost to this day.

So why, then, am I blogging about it? Well mostly because I studied eighteenth century literature at Manchester University under Hal Gladfelder, who at that time had just published nine additional contemporary documents he’d located which referred to the text. One was the indictment of the publisher, John Purser, and was comprised largely of excerpts of the text itself. Rather poetically, the very efforts by the state to suppress the pamphlet are the means by which it was preserved. Given the sale price of the pamphlet, and the length of the excerpts, we can assume with a fair degree of certainty the majority, if not the entirety, of the text was reproduced within the indictment.

The excerpts from the indictment are ranged in twelve stories, some familiar such as Jupiter (Zeus) and Ganymede, who I’ve already blogged about here; some are barely more than a line long (such as the quote from the Tullia, heroine of Elegantiæ latini Sermoniswho “after an unlawful Entry into her B-dy by two abominable Florentines, declares; Titillation gain’d so agreeable upon her, she found, she cou’d get a charming Knack of this Sport, if she gave her Mind to it.”)

For the “modern” part of the tract, Cannon recited gossip, such as that circulating about Barbara Palmer, the first Duchess of Cleveland and mistress of Charles II (“That after a usual Bout she wou’d turn her R-mp to the rapturous Spark, and say; you have pleas’d yourself; now please me.”). Often, the stories are funny, rather undermining the author’s repeated insistence that he provides his examples in order to show how abominable a vice pederasty really is.

The Duke of Orleans’s Confessor pops upon some of his Highness’s Pages in a Figure of Three: The reverend Father trots puffing to the Prince with his Story of the Pages’ growing together. His Highness with great Attention Hears both Tale and Invective, then exclaims in his turn, my God; what was the Joy of him in the Middle.

Screenshot-2017-06-26-23.17.07 People in Fiction: Ancient and Modern Pederasty

A “figure of three”

What’s most obviously noticeable from the pamphlet is that by the 1700s “pederasty” has come to mean “anal sex” in all its forms. Cannon doesn’t distinguish between male/male and male/female intercourse (some of the excerpts claim to be medical in nature, advising that married couples wishing to make love while the wife is pregnant would be better engaging in “pederasty” so as not to harm the fetus), nor does the age of the participants seem to matter.

This is perhaps not so surprising when we remember that before the age of sexology, people concerned themselves with acts, not identities. Although Cannon refers to “pederasts” (meaning queer men) he uses that word because that is the act in which they engaged. There is no expectation that they should look or act in a certain way.

That Cannon’s intention was to defend pederasty, rather than condemn it, can be seen from the outset of the pamphlet.

Among the many Unspeakable Benefits which redound to the World from the Christian Religion, no one makes a more conspicuous Figure than the Demolition of Pederasty. That celebrated Passion, Seal’d by Sensualists, espoused by Philosophers, enshrin’d by Kings, is now exploded with one Accord and Disown’d by the meanest Beggar. Wherefore since Fashion discountenances, Law punishes, God forbids, the Detested Love, we may present it in it’s studied Attitudes, and the lively colouring, with which the Master-hands of the Ancients have so pompously overspread it, free from Apprehension of exciting in any Breast so preposterous, and Severe-treated an Inclination.

The language is a little stilted, but the rhetoric is clear. Cannon begins by saying that Christianity has “demolished” pederasty — that he calls it an “unspeakable benefit” suggests, of course, a negative connotation from the outset. Pederasty is a “celebrated Passion… espoused by Philosophers, enshrin’d by Kings” — hardly a damning statement. He continues that since pederasty is unfashionable, criminal, and un-Christian, he may speak of it as the Ancients did (i.e. praise it) without fearing to make it seem appealing. He then, of course, continues to do precisely the opposite.

Screenshot-2017-06-26-23.17.46 People in Fiction: Ancient and Modern PederastyBy speaking from both sides of his mouth, Cannon attempted to write and publish a defence of anal sex at a time when such a thing was punishable by law. Although he wasn’t entirely successful (the prosecution against him was dropped, although the publisher was convicted), he managed to produce the earliest known English-language defence of sodomy, more than two hundred years before it would be decriminalised.

Much of the tract is concerned, naturally, with sex and scandal, but Cannon ends on a sweeter note, translating Patronius’ Satyricon to present the story of Encolpion and Giton, and an image of enduring love which was, ultimately, how the laws against same-sex relationships were broken down.

Encolpion and Giton sail into a storm which sinks their ship. Some men make for the smaller boat on board, others cling to the sinking vessel. Our heroes are among the latter, and don’t expect to survive.

Clasping my Giton more fast than ever, with forceful Tears, and heart-bled Sobs, I vent the high swoln Passion, Thus, Thus, may we not die thus, O severe Divinities? But no; dashing Mountains are on their Way to separate our Embraces; so, Giton my Soul, kiss while permitted, kiss your Encolpion, if ever he was dear to you. Let us snatch this last Joy spite of Fate, that so raging rushes to overwhelm us. Upon this, Giton throws off his own Robe, and wrapt with me in mine, puts up his lovely Face to kiss, and receive a thousand Kisses.

Moreover, the thoughtful Charmer binds us about with his Sash, least the Waves malignant prevail over so dear a Situation. Thus, however, observes he, we float together. Thus we lay to be cover’d with Stones by the Humanity of some Passenger. At worst the undesigning Sand entombs us; I calmly wait Death, disarm’d of it’s Terrors by the sweet Encirclement. Meanwhile the Tempest executes the Decree of Heaven, and leaves nothing of our Ship but the Hulk, which tumbles at the Will of the yet heaving Sea, and invites the Strangers of the Coast to plunder. Accordingly some Fishermen put off in their little Boats, but finding People able to defend their own, change their cruel designs into a very kind Assistance. Thus breaks the Cloud; thus shines the golden Sun.


Born on this day: Paul Bellini (56, Canadian), comedy writer and TV actor; Leslie Cheung (1956-2003, Hong Kong), singer and actor; Tony De Vit (1957-1998, English), DJ and record producer; Connor Franta (23, American), YouTube vlogger; and Minnie Bruce Pratt (69, American), academic.

Died on this day: Raymond Burr (1917-1993, Canadian-American), actor best known for Ironside.

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