Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600

Article excerpt

Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600. By Helmut Puff. [The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History, and Society.] (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2003. Pp. ix, 311. $24.00 paperback.)

Helmut Puff's book, part of "The Chicago Series on Sexuality, History and Society," is an extraordinary example of how a social history of language can lead to a contextual understanding of sexuality and communal identity. Tackling an oft ignored and marginalized topic, Puff demonstrates how a careful analysis of "multifarious relationships between acts and words" (p. 11) leads to a nuanced understanding of the changing usage of the various terms, including, sodomy (sodomia), sinning "against nature" (contra naturam or wider die nature), heresy (Ketzerei), and florencing (florenzen), to describe male same-sex sexual acts in late medieval southern Germany and Switzerland. Combining extensive archival research with a well-grounded understanding of contemporary literary theory and historical method, Puff proposes that the discursive rhetoric surrounding sodomy played a significant role in creating a unique state, religious and social identity in German-speaking lands during the Reformation.

Part One, "Acts and Words," shows how sodomy accusations and trials had more to do with local conflicts than sustained effort by secular or ecclesiastic authorities to control same-sex sexual behavior. Puff, however, asserts that the medieval "Church's relative lack of interest in homosexual behavior" should not be equated with "tolerance" (p. 21) and that seeming inaction itself can constitute action when scrutinized closely. In Chapters One and Two, Puff argues that while those convicted of sodomy were severely punished, trials themselves were "episodic" rather than "systematic" (p. 30). He finds that class issues rather than concern about sexual behavior dominated sodomy prosecution, since most cases pursued by civic authorities dealt with upper-class men or clergy until the Reformation. Particularly fascinating is Puff's discussion in Chapter Three of "tropes of unspeakability"(p. 57) in theological tracts, confessional manuals, and printed sermons and catechisms, and of how the presentation subtly shifted according to audience. …