Private and Shameful Vices – the debate continues

Adriana Sisko of the University of Kentucky, who works on  same-sex relationships in the French Revolution, gives an extended response to the debate opened in the previous post:

This is fascinating, and I’m happy to see a discussion of this nature amongst scholars I admire.

I’ve never read the ‘des bains chinois de Saint-Just’ reference before so I’m very interested to hear more on that. My initial thoughts are that Danton’s claim relates to both 1) the preexisting rumors of Saint-Just having ‘noble blood’ and therefore aristocratic habits…some amusingly mocked Saint-Just by calling him ‘Le Chevalier’; and possibly 2) an insinuation of the sexual debauchery some attributed to public bath houses, as well as the linkage frequently made between aristocratic monetary greed and sexual greed that ‘exceeded’ the bounds of the natural. After all, earlier during the 18th century police monitored public bathhouses based on the fear and assumption that indecency was more likely to take place there. There were of course several bathhouses in Paris. Even during the Revolution there were multiple bathhouses in Paris. I would be interested in confirmation in this, but I’ve read in secondary sources that the history of public baths as places of sexual debauchery and even sodomy dates back to the Middle Ages in France (Queer Sites: Gay Urban Histories Since 1600, by David Higgs). Fun fact, earlier during the 18th century Diderot wrote the following in a confessional private letter of his: “In the public baths among a number of young men, I noticed one of astonishing beauty, and I could not help drawing near him”.

As for Camille’s vices honteux, I have four points I would like to address:

1) It’s important to consider the context. Saint-Just decries Danton as a ‘false friend’, then declares that Danton ‘spoke evil two days ago of Desmoulins’ by attributing these ‘vices honteux’ to him. Saint-Just is calling out Danton for lacking integrity. In their wary political climate a violation of friendship could be a serious and even dangerous misstep. Danton speaking ‘evil’ of Camille would certainly be a violation. This context also offers insight into how much secrecy they thought this ‘private vice’ should have been allowed: that a good friend wouldn’t have spoken of it. This lends even more credence to the idea that the alleged vice might’ve been something seen as quite severe at the time.

2) Robespierre’s half-erased note (where Saint-Just gleaned this reference from) remarked that Camille’s vice was ‘totally unrelated to the revolution’. I’ve read speculation that this vice is related to Camille’s journalism but I highly doubt Camille’s journalism would be seen as entirely unrelated to the Revolution. Therefore, I think the vice at the very least refers to something outside of Camille’s work. Additionally, as Jeremy Teow mentioned, the timing of the ‘vices honteux’ accusation may not line up with the gambling theory. I’ve also read speculation that the vice was simply drinking, but frankly that seems extravagant.

3) Is Camille’s vice a reference to sodomitical activity? I think this is entirely possible however not certain. The ‘vices honteux’ wording possibly matches up with 18th century vocabulary surrounding sodomy, as Dr. Loiselle remarked. On the other hand even if the ‘vices honteux’ reference was intentionally vague this doesn’t negate the possibility that the accusation has a sexual dimension. Some politicians of the time weren’t above making sexual insinuations against fellow politicians when it proved advantageous. For example Chaumette ordered the Marquis de Villette (who’d been harassed and lampooned for years for his alleged lack of sexual morality, involvement with men, etc) to appear before the municipal court after two Paris sections denounced Villette for his writings on the September Massacres. Chaumette claimed that in doing so he was defending good Republican citizens as well as defending broader morality “against a Villette”. Many already saw Villette as immoral due to his alleged anti-physical sexual interests. Chaumette didn’t have spell out the sexual nature of his accusation in order for it to be understood.

It would be interesting if Robespierre and Saint-Just’s references to ‘vices honteux’ were similar. However, if their references were subtle nods toward a preceding reputation of Camille’s for sodomy, it is very puzzling how there have been no traces of Camille’s rumored sexual preferences in archival texts. Certainly there was quite a bit of talk/parody in pamphlets regarding same-sex sexuality between men, as well as between women. The concept of same-sex intimacy was not an unknown by any means. (Ironically rumors that Chaumette felt attracted to men have followed him in history texts for years on the basis of some fairly amorous letters he wrote to a male friend. Interestingly this opens up the possibility that despite whatever one’s own sexual preferences were that didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t ready to ‘out’ somebody else.)

I’ve read a single contemporary claim about Hérault de Sechelles ‘anti-physical passions’ bringing him close to legal reprimanding (Coste d’Arnobat’s ‘Anecdotes curieuses et peu connues sur différents personnages qui ont joué un rôle dans la Révolution’— as discussed in ‘Homosexuality in French History and Culture’ by Jeffrey Merrick, Michael Sibalis). According to Coste d’Arnobat Hérault was able to evade punishment since he was a magistrate (a privilege the ‘rabble’ couldn’t access). Despite this being a contemporary (1794) claim to Hérault’s sexual preferences I have yet to come across other contemporary references and rumors regarding Hérault and sodomy, nor have I read considerable references to Hérault’s potential ‘anti-physical passions’ in historical works. So, while there is a lack of archival backup for rumors about Camille’s sexual preferences, that doesn’t necessarily mean ‘vices honteaux’ lacks a sexual dimension.

4) It’s possible that Saint-Just and/or Robespierre considered sodomy to be a private vice, but a vice worthy of slander nonetheless. It is possible Robespierre felt hesitant to reveal what he referred to as ‘un vice privé et honteux’ judging by his only partially erasing the comment. There were certainly some contemporaries who considered sodomy to be morally perverse but also a private matter. For example Condorcet argued that while sodomy was ‘base’ it didn’t violate anybody else’s rights when committed between two consenting adult men. In a sense Condorcet, while finding sodomy personally repulsive, ultimately deemed sodomy as a private matter that didn’t bring greater harm upon society.

2 thoughts on “Private and Shameful Vices – the debate continues”

  1. Hi Adriana,
    thank you so much for your comments in response to our question. What you say is impressively thoughtful, historically sensitive and well-informed. I found your points about Chaumette and Hérault de Séchelles very thought-provoking for what they suggest about the wider context of such accusations in revolutionary politics. I am interested too by what you say the lack of evidence regarding Camille Desmoulins. I wondered if you had come across the review of Hilary Mantel’s book by P.N. Furbank – which states that there is no actual evidence for Mantel giving him a racy bisexual past, that she did it to make him seem more ‘edgy’ and less like the rather romanticised C19 image of him. I don’t think he knew about the ‘vice honteux’ quote – which seems to be the only actual ‘evidence’ – if evidence it is.
    It is great to hear from younger scholars such as yourself and Jeremy. So welcome to the blog! and please do carry on the good work responding to comments and encouraging other young scholars to do so.

  2. The idea of Saint-Just frequenting public bath houses is not corret. Jörg Monar’s bios of Saint-Just reconstructed clearly that Saint-Just’s new appartement in Rue Caumartin 3 had a bath with flowing water because of bassins for rain water on the top. Saint-Just’s idea of hygienic standards perhaps learned in his school is the problem. That leads us to the insult of beeing arrogant and a Ci-devant. That is what Danton wanted to say: Saint-Just always talks about the need of the poor but he himself live in a luxurious appartement. It is an insult to discredit Saint-Just in the eyes of his supporters. Saint-Just as gay is completely nonsense see the arguments of Vinot and Monar: He sees queerness as a vice of the old regime, he always talks about love and women in his private papers and mentions, he has ideals of spartanian life in seeing the idea of friends/camerades without seeing the phenomenon of queerness because in school they excluded that. The relationship towards Robespierre is clearly that of an elder brother (see the mentions of Elisabeth Duplay and Charlotte Robespierre).

    Well, I hope this could help in the discussion
    Mirjam Holl

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