Harry Cocks

In September 1850, the French savant Louis-Felicien de Saulcy, charged with a Mission Scientifique from the French government, and in the company of a Catholic priest and four young men on a tour of the East, set out to circumnavigate and map the Dead Sea. Four months later, on his way round the shores of the Dead Sea, de Saulcy passed through what he described as a “huge mass of disconnected ruins” on its south western side, at a place called Kharbet-Esdoum (the “Ruins of Sodom” according to de Saulcy’s translation), some of which looked “as if they had been burnt.” By reconciling Scriptural accounts with those provided by classical authors, and considering the Arabic names of places on the Dead Sea shore, de Saulcy rapidly convinced himself and many others that he had found the actual site of the biblical city of Sodom.

The reading public, already primed for such revelations by the excavation of the lost Mesopotamian city of Nineveh by Layard and Botta in 1849, received de Saulcy’s account with rapture. For a brief moment, his “discovery” electrified Europe and seemed to prove the veracity of the Bible as a historical document. Soon, however, serious objections had been made, and the lack of any archaeological evidence undermined de Saulcy’s claim. Sodom retreated again into sublime obscurity. De Saulcy’s expedition was, however, only one of many attempts to uncover the secrets of Sodom and Gomorrah.

John Martin, “Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,” 1852. (Wikimedia Commons)

According to Genesis 19:24, God had destroyed the cities “and all the plains, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.” The Sodomites’ crimes are variously described in scripture as “going after strange flesh” (Jude 1:7), as well as “pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness,” and neglect of the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49). By the sixteenth century, though, the sins of the Sodomites had generally narrowed to the different species of fornication, of which homoerotic desire was one key component.

In my new book, Visions of Sodom, I examine the different ways in which the Sodom story was read in England and Protestant Europe in the three centuries after the Reformation. Sodom was not only a representative of fornication in all its forms, but also the epitome of false (usually Roman Catholic) religion, an exemplar of the iniquitous city, a foreshadowing of the world’s fiery demise, an embodiment of divine and earthly punishment, and an actual place that could be searched for and discovered. The centrality of scripture to Protestant faith (and therefore to English and British national identity) meant that Sodom’s demise provided a powerful origin myth of homoerotic desires and sexual excess, one that persisted across centuries, up to and beyond de Saulcy’s quest.

The book is also an attempt to rethink the nature of early-modern sodomy. After Foucault, we became used to thinking of sodomy (the collection of sins named after the original Sodomites) as an “utterly confused category,” a signifier of all kinds of sexual, moral, civil and religious disorders. However, although the Sodomite could be ranked with “monsters and prodigies,” as one reforming bishop put it in 1728, “sodomy” also had its own internal logic. In defining sodomy, English Protestants categorised it simply as one transgression of the seventh commandment against adultery.

Adultery was the master category, and within that, as the theologian William Perkins put it in 1591, there were “strange pleasures about generation, prohibited in the word of God: the which are many.” These were sexual acts done with beasts, with devils, with members of the same sex, close relations, the unmarried (fornication), with those married people who were not your own wife or husband, and those involving the excessive enjoyment of the marriage bed. Sodomy, therefore, was commonly defined as a homoerotic act, subsumed and listed under the broader categories of fornication and the supra-category of adultery. So when early-modern writers referred to sodomy as a species of adultery, and identified the Sodomites’ crimes as a form of that sin belonging to the broad category of fornication, this is what they meant.

Mattheus Merian, Flight from Sodom, c 1630. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sodomy also had a logical and coherent history. Its existence in the world could be explained in historical terms in several overlapping ways. Broadly speaking, most accounts explained the presence of sodomy in the world as one among many legacies of the Fall. Within that framework there were three specific historical ideas. The first stated that sodomy entered the world with the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and then descended genealogically through the posterity of Noah’s wicked son Ham, the Canaanites and their kinsmen the Sodomites, to the Roman Empire, and then on to the Roman Church, and into the present.

The latter manifestation of sin expressed the fulfilment of prophecy laid out in Revelation and other scriptural passages that predicted the reign of Antichrist in a “spiritual Sodom.” Revelation was a vitally important Protestant text, and according to its many interpreters, indicated the pattern of history to come and especially the imminent climactic battle between true and false religion, the Pope, and Protestantism. One way of identifying Antichrist, according to many Protestant polemicists, was through his impurity. Revelation had indicated that Antichrist would reign in his “great city,” the spiritual Sodom, and that his seat could be identified by its immorality. For many Protestants, that great city meant Popish Rome and the broader jurisdiction of Catholicism. In that sense, identifying Rome as Sodom enabled Protestant writers on prophecy to align scriptural and earthly history, and to predict the coming demise of “impure” Catholicism and its Antichristian leader. Sodomy, in that reading, had an apocalyptic and prophetic significance.

The second historical theory was that sodomy was closely linked to idolatry, and hence only or mainly happened in places outside the reformed religion where heathenism and heresy held sway—though that of course included Catholicism. Finally, the view prevailed that sodomy was a form of eternal wickedness outside time—a fact attested to by providential histories that compiled lists of punishments meted out to sinners and thereby testified to the eternal quality of sin and its punishment.

Flight from Sodom from Nuremburg Chronicles, 1493. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Sodomy” could therefore be understood in terms that made logical sense within the key categories of Protestant belief. How, then, can we explain the apparent breakdown of this model and the emergence of “secular” figures of homoeroticism like the eighteenth century “molly”? As other historians have argued, this reflected the gradual decline of the idea, common after the Reformation, that false religion was the cause of sexual and immoral excess. Where I differ from earlier accounts is in suggesting that this did not mean the end of religious treatments of unnatural lust or the emergence of some kind of “sexual Enlightenment.”

In fact, many late-seventeenth-century theologians began to rethink homoerotic lust as something that was inherent in the experience of sexual desire itself, rather than something brought on by popery or atheism. William III’s archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson, for instance, argued that “all sensual Excess” tended to go “beyond the limits of nature.” Deists, such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, agreed that giving in to “debauch and excess” could result in “all horridness of unnatural and monstrous Lusts, regarding neither Sex nor Species.” In that sense, the nature of homoerotic desire moved from being mainly an effect of religious error to something that was located in the individual and his or her failure to seek the assistance of God’s grace in commanding the passions. This was a mainly cultural shift, it resulted from different ways of looking at homoeroticism and religion rather than the emergence of a molly “subculture.”

De Saulcy’s quest for the remains of Sodom shows, however, that the Sodom story and its related prophetic notions continued to provide a context for the discussion of homoerotic behaviour, even in the nineteenth century. Then, de Saulcy’s alleged discovery helped to sustain a new interest in prophecy. The episode also provided material for anti-Catholic sentiment and lurid tales of popish depravity. More recently, the Sodom story has featured as one of the key arguments of conservative Christians against gay rights. The idea that the descendants of the original Sodom might cause social breakdown by giving in to an excessive desire retains an apocalyptic echo even in our own day. In February 2015, the popular Texan megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress argued that increasing toleration of homosexuality and gay marriage was one of the many signs of the moral disorder that would herald the rise of Antichrist. Many people are still searching for Sodom and its secrets.

Harry Cocks is an Associate Professor of History at Nottingham University, and author of Nameless Offences: Homosexuality in 19th-Century England (2003), The Modern History of Sexuality (edited with Matt Houlbrook), Classified (2009), and Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England c. 1550-1850 (2017). 

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