Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Commissioner Foucault, Inspector Noel, and the "Pederasts" of Paris, 1780-3

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Commissioner Foucault, Inspector Noel, and the "Pederasts" of Paris, 1780-3

Article excerpt

On 10 October 1783 Jacques Francois Pascal, a defrocked monk who had assaulted an errand boy and stabbed him seventeen times, was broken on the wheel and burned alive in the place de Greve before a large crowd. The Memoires secrets, the most voluminous collection of news and gossip about the court and the capital in the last decades of the Ancien Regime, reported, wrongly, that no "sodomist" had been executed since Benjamin Deschauffours in 1726 and suggested, rightly, that the authorities did not want "to make the sin against nature more common by making it known" through exemplary public retribution.(1) It explained that they generally exiled, imprisoned, or simply chastised men arrested in flagrante delicto, "depending on personalities or circumstances." It also noted that this vice, previously associated only with "aristocrats, wits, and Adonises," now infected the populace as a whole. "Commissioner Foucault, recently deceased, was responsible for this matter and showed his friends a big book in which were written all the names of pederasts known to the police. He claimed that there were almost as many of them as prostitutes in Paris, that is to say about forty thousand."(2) The crime was already so widespread, the Memoires secrets concluded, that the authorities not only had no need to worry about acknowledging that fact but also had good reason to make a "striking example" of the monstrous Pascal. This case was not typical, to be sure, because of the identity of the man, the age of the boy, the use of violence, the involvement of neighbors, and the severity of punishment. The authorities knew that they could not eliminate what they called pederasty, any more than prostitution, by making examples of the most transgressive individuals. With the means at their disposal, they attempted less to enforce sexual morality from day to day than to contain urban problems in the long run.

As indicated by recent publications, scholars investigating the intellectual, cultural, and social history of same-sex sexual relations in eighteenth-century France, and in early modern Europe more generally, have a variety of printed and manuscript sources available to them.(3) In studying prescriptive works written by theologians and magistrates, and by critics of the religious assumptions incorporated into traditional jurisprudence, they have realized that the laws were not enforced systematically and recognized that the critics had mixed feelings about this subject. In analyzing literary and polemical texts, which expressed social and political messages by connecting private and public order and disorder, they have contextualized perennial sexual themes in specific historical circumstances. In exploring criminal records, they have not only described the geography, chronology, and sociology of sexual relations between men (these records contain little information about sexual relations between women) but also discussed the ways in which deviance was experienced, regulated, and represented. They have asked what the men arrested by the police thought about themselves, as well as what others thought about them, and related their research to ongoing debates about the development of sexual identities. Three series of Parisian criminal records, composed of different materials and located in different archives, provide a considerable amount of information about the sodomitical subculture of the capital in the eighteenth century.(4) Two of them, from the first half of the century, have been examined systematically, but the third, from the 1780s, has not. This series does not, unfortunately, include commissioner Foucault's "big book," but it does include his official papers, which document the cases of hundreds of men who did not make it into the pages of the Memoires secrets and other published sources.(5)

Like the other commissioners of the Chatelet, the royal court with jurisdiction over Paris, Pierre Louis Foucault performed a variety of judicial and administrative functions within his district. …

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