On this date in 1292, Johann de Wettre, “a maker of small knives,” was condemned to die at Ghent for sodomy.
De Wettre was consequently (whether on September 8 or subsequently) “burned at the pillory next to St. Peter’s” in what appears to be the earliest documented execution of homosexuality in Christian Europe. Whether he was a habitual or a one-time offender, how he was detected and prosecuted, and the fate of his male partner — all of these are obscure.
One can safely suppose that de Wettre was not the first European executed for sodomy; perhaps the scanty lines we have of his death are only fortuitously preserved because he suffered his very public fate in one of Europe’s largest and most prosperous cities.
However accidental, de Wettre’s stake is a landmark for Christendom’s emerging conception of same-sex desire as not only a capital crime, but a downright existential threat.*
No matter what Leviticus might say on the subject, the late Middle Ages furnish no documented examples of official persecutions but a rich corpus of same-sex literary amour, often penned by monks — a class of men whose debauchery (real or alleged) would come to invite violent attacks in the coming centuries.
|O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.
|Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Whose face was so lovely he could easily have been a girl,
Whose hair fell in waves against his ivory neck,
Whose forehead was white as snow and his eyes black as pitch,
Whose soft cheeks were full of delicious sweetness
When they bloomed in the brightness of a blush of beauty,
His nose was perfect, his lips flame red, lovely his teeth —
An exterior formed in measure to match his mind.
Now, the Church was still issuing plenty of edicts proscribing same-sex activity around this period, so whether or not the ability of these men and many others to produce overtly homoerotic verse while still prospering within the holy orders constitutes “toleration” is a lively scholarly debate. Suffice it to say that around the 12th and 13th centuries there was a social and legal shift underway from treating sodomy predominantly as a vice for personal penance, to treating it as, well …
If a sodomite had been executed, and subsequently several times back to life, each time he should be punished even more severely if this were possible: hence those who practice this vice are seen to be enemies of God and nature, because in the sight of God such a sin is deemed graver than murder, for the reason that the murderer is seen as destroying only one human being, but the sodomite as destroying the whole human race.
For this diabolical new construction of homosexuality Warren Johansson coined the term “the sodomy delusion”:** “a complex of paranoid beliefs … to the effect that non-procreative sexuality in general, and sexual acts between males in particular, are contrary to the law of Nature, to the exercise of right reason, and to the will of God and that sodomy is practiced by individuals whose wills have been enslaved by demonic powers.” It was a conception that would find its way into law and popular prejudice in the centuries following our Ghent knifemaker’s immolation — and would continue thereafter, evolving across revolutions† religious, political, and economic to shape public discourse about homosexuality down to the present day.
* And also a potent political weapon. Same-sex deviance featured prominently in the charges used to destroy the Knights Templar in 1307.
** Johansson explicitly sets “the sodomy delusion” alongside “the witchcraft delusion” and “the Judeophobic delusion” as analogous phenomena.