Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

Reverb Effect Season 2, Episode 2 Transcript

Hayley Bowman: In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, amidst countless other scandals and negative advertising, a photograph surfaced of democratic candidate, Joe Biden, kissing his adult son, Hunter Biden, on the cheek. Right-wing TV host and commentator,  John Cardillo, called the image, and thus the Bidens, “creepy” in a tweet on October 22nd. Biden supporters were quick to clap back, praising the image as a loving embrace between parent and child, causing hundreds of fathers to post pictures of themselves embracing their sons of all ages. This disparity raises the question: what does it mean to be a man in American society? 

For examples of American ideals of masculinity, we need only to travel as far as the nearest supermarket or pharmacy. Genres of products—especially those considered somehow inherently feminine, such as hygiene, laundry, or infant care—include special sections loudly proclaimed “for men.”  Bar soap “for men” boasts sleek black packaging with chrome details, available in a rugged sense described as sporty, extra, fresh, and cool, “specially formulated” and “tough enough” for men's skin. Dryer sheets “for men” branded with racing stripes to keep sports jerseys and workout clothes soft after washing. And new dads need not worry that caring for their infants might make others question their masculinity—bottles shaped like hand grenades can ensure that feeding your baby has never looked so… violent? 

Here, we might want to pause to think for a moment about this overlap of explosive weapons and baby bottles. What does it mean to be masculine feminine or something in between, or altogether different? What does it mean to say that masculinity is “toxic” or even “fragile?” What do our definitions of what it means to be “manly” say about us, and are such distinctions even helpful or necessary?

Welcome to episode two, season two of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan Department of History. I'm your host Hayley Bowman. This episode is our first episode recorded at home due to COVID-19 restrictions. It features Aidyn Osgood, a PhD candidate in the departments of History and Women's and Gender Studies. His dissertation, “The Role of Armies and the Sexual Imaginary of France and the Holy Roman Empire, 1500 to 1650,” is an investigation of how armies acted as a prominent forum in which 16th century artists and authors made sense of gender and sexuality.  

Aidyn Osgood: The year is 1642. It is early September and the Catholic Imperial German army has settled into camp near Zons. It's twilight on September 7th and a 30 year old soldier has gone to the field with his horse to graze. It has been a tiring and dangerous march. The women who come to normally accompany the army have been sent to local garrisons to protect them from harm and to conserve as many supplies as possible. This soldier feels their absence acutely. With no outlet for his energies, the soldier looks inquisitively at his horse. What happens next trains, credulity. He—how can I put this?—became intimate with his horse. Unbeknownst to this soldier, however, two of his companions witness his act and immediately run to the authorities. The soldier does not deny his crime during his trial, and after it has concluded, his commanders sentence him to death by burning. When the soldier approaches the stake, he notices the horse already by the pyre. Two minor officers tie him tightly to the wood, and the pastor has assembled his compatriots in prayer over his misdeeds. One of the officers then lights the fire and as smoke fills the soldier’s, nostrils flames lick his feet. Within a few minutes, this soldier has been charred for his sin. The soldiers around him stand solemnly, a mix of horror and fascination, brutal contempt, profound sorrow, and utter disbelief written across their faces.  

I made that up, at least for the most part. We don't know exactly where the army was when this event happened. Although because of painstaking reconstruction by military historians, we know it was likely somewhere near Zons. We don't know exactly what actions took place, if anyone witnessed them, or what date they took place on. We don't know how many officers assisted in the trial or execution. And we don't know the reactions of those who stood before the pyre on September 9th, 1642. As is true of so much during war time in the early modern period, the period between roughly 1500 and 1800, we have only clues we can gather from other documents. What we do know is this, written down in a journal by a common soldier, turned non- commissioned officer, named Peter Hagendorf.

“The 9th of September a soldier was burned with a horse in front of the camp because he committed unzucht with it.”[1]

Hagendorf’s words will be our guide. His terms, their resonance, and their ambiguity call for us to explore a world we have lost, but a world whose ideas reverberate today, and which continues to shape our ideas of masculinity. I want to suggest that unzucht  gives us a key to explore early modern Europe's intellectual culture, especially as it relates to masculinity and sexuality. To conduct this exploration, we will have to take a tour of nearly a thousand years of European history. We’ll become acquainted with towering intellectual figures of the Middle Ages, like Peter Damien and Thomas Aquinas. We’ll try to figure out how unzucht and its rough synonyms in other languages came to acquire their rhetorical traction, and how these terms are connected to conceptions of masculinity. Finally, we'll explore how the history of unzucht and of masculinity calls us to revisit how masculinity is made. Ultimately, I want to suggest a historically-informed understanding of masculinities in the past, especially as they relate to sexuality, can give us the tools to challenge and rethink some of masculinity’s more harmful associations today.

Unzucht is a term that is impossible to translate. In fact, it may be best to begin with its opposite. Unzucht strongly negates the German term Zucht, which comes from the older Germanic root meaning “to raise, cultivate, breed, or educate” and is closely related to conceptions of moral propriety. The prefix-un represented the negation of Zucht as a concept. To quote historian Helmut Puff, 

Helmut Puff: The prefix un-, like in the English words “unnatural” or “unamerican,” denotes meaning that far exceeds the mere absence of what is “natural” or “American.” Puff writes: “Unnatural is not simply nonnatural, the opposite of natural. By the sheer weight of the rhetorical tradition and frequent usage of moralizing contexts, un-words take on additional connotations, the other side of the norm. From the point of view of the speaker, they articulate a polemical stance. Un-enunciations condemn that which is expressed, declare it as treacherous, dangerous, ground. 

Aidyn Osgood: Rather than simply the absence of Zucht, correct moral training, obedience to social mores, chased sexual conduct, and disciplined personal behavior, Unzucht represented their antithesis, their negation—their condemnation. In selecting the term Unzucht to describe this act, Hagendorf condemned the act that took place and leveraged that act to connect lustful activity to social and moral decay.

So you're probably wondering what actually happened on September 9th, 1642? The short answer is that we don't know. In all likelihood, we never will. The longer answer to that question is more complicated, for the obsession over the act, the quest to figure out what Hagendorf really meant to tell us, reveals more about our preoccupations with language and with sexual activity today than it does about the world in which Hagendorf inhabited. As a historian trying to answer this question, I have to take Hagendorf’s words, and his ambiguities, seriously.

If you type Unzucht into Google translate—far from sound historical research, but sometimes necessary as an early step to get a conceptual handle on some unfamiliar terms -- you get two hits: fornication and sexual offense. If you do the same on, an online English-German dictionary, you get a longer list: “unchastity, scortation, lasciviousness, bawdry, and sodomy.”[2] That last term is interesting, and is one of the reasons that I suspect that something of a sexual nature took place between the soldier and the horse on September 9th, 1642 in Hagendorf’s company. 

Sodomy possesses a long contested and complicated history. Its story begins in the biblical book of Genesis with a man named Lot and the city he called home: Sodom. Lot was the nephew of the patriarch Abraham and Lot lived in Sodom with his wife and daughters. Sodom, and its sister city Gomorrah, both possessed a reputation of hedonism and licentiousness. Its inhabitants neglected prayers and were ruled not by pious reason but by their rapacious lusts. God, conscious of the city's reputations, sent to angels to investigate these claims.  

The angels met Lot at his home. When news of the arrival of these two beautiful and unknown figures spread, the city’s inhabitants grew restless. After a short while, a crowd had formed outside of Lot’s house, demanding to see and have intercourse with the angels. As the situation escalated, the angels intervened, ushering Lot and his family to safety and commanding them to leave the city and never turned their eyes towards it again. As a fire and brimstone engulfed Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife turned back to witness the city's destruction and immediately turned into a pillar of salt. 

Much debate has revolved around this story in both Rabbinic and Christian teaching. These debates tend to revolve around why God punished Sodom and Gomorrah. One side, the one I was exposed to as a child in a Presbyterian church in the 1990s and 2000s, insistents that the crimes of Sodom and Gomorrah were same-sex sexual attraction, and same-sex intercourse. On the other side, many scholars of the Torah and the Old Testament maintain that the chief infractions of Sodom and Gomorrah were their attempt egregiously to violate norms of hospitality by raping guests of the city. 

Of course, both sides of this debate are themselves historically produced. I’ll focus on the Christian tradition because it's the one I'm most familiar with. Interestingly, it wasn't until more than 1000 years after the death of Jesus that we have firm evidence of a Christian theologian interpreting the story of Sodom as one primarily condemning sexual attraction between two people of the same sex. Only in 1051 did Benedictine monk Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhianus—Latin for “Book of Gomorrah”—sketch out a predominantly homophobic interpretation of Sodom’s story. Damian argued that God’s punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah reflected God’s prohibition of a range of sexual practices, including mutual masturbation, anal sex, oral sex, and intercrural sex. His words do not differentiate between whether the sexual partners are members of the same or of different sexes. 

Damian’s writing was influential for future generations of Christian thinkers. Chief among them was Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican friar who is recognized today as one of the most influential theologians of the middle ages. In perhaps his most cited work, the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas dedicated a section to exploring the sin of lust. In it, Aquinas considers whether what he calls “the unnatural vice” is a species of lust. What he says is worth quoting extensively: 

Taylor Sims: “wherever there occurs a special kind of deformity whereby the venereal act is rendered unbecoming, there is a determinate species of lust. This may occur in two ways: First, through being contrary to right reason, and this is common to all lustful vices; secondly, because, in addition, it is contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race: and this is called ‘the unnatural vice.’ This may happen in several ways. First, by procuring pollution, without any copulation, for the sake of venereal pleasure: this pertains to the sin of ‘uncleanness’ which some call ‘effeminacy.’ Secondly, by copulation with a thing of undue species, and this is called ‘bestiality.’ Thirdly, by copulation with an undue sex, male with male, or female with female ... and this is called the ‘vice of sodomy.’ Fourthly, by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation.”

Aidyn Osgood: If you’re wondering what Aquinas means, that’s good. His words here defamiliarize the common conception of sodomy today—one that acts for many as a paramour for gay sex and is still called “the unnatural vice.” Aquinas's words here are hard to parse because they authorize so many mutually exclusive interpretations. In other words, we can read into Aquinas's words our own beliefs and come away with a feeling of confirmation that we're interpreting him correctly. This has been true historically as well. People have cited this paragraph to  advance profoundly contradictory interpretations. What is a historian to do in these situations? Instead of trying to make Aquinas conform to our competing conceptions of sexual propriety, let's try to understand his in all of their contradictions and complexity. Ultimately, I want to suggest, the intellectual slippages Aquinas makes in this paragraph are just as, if not more, interesting than what comes across as immediately recognizable. Let's dig in.

First, Aquinas dedicates the entire passage to an unnamed “unnatural vice.” Although some have claimed that Aquinas is referring primarily (or even exclusively) to sex between men, it’s not clear at all that this is what Aquinas means.  Instead, Aquinas is arguing here that whenever sex disrupts what he takes to be natural hierarchies between humans and animals or men and women, a sex act is unnatural. In short, for Aquinas, sex is dangerous when it threatens masculine self control and blurs the lines between people of different social standings. For Aquinas, these dangerous acts include what we have come to call masturbation and other forms of non-committal sexual activity, which he calls effeminacy. They also include beastiality, same-sex intercourse, and sex between men and women, where the woman takes charge of her own pleasure, among other sex acts. Aquinas groups all these acts together as sinful behavior. He lambasts the entire constellation of non-procreative sexual practices or any sexual practices that disrupt firm boundaries between man and woman or between human and animal.  

Arguably the most important hierarchy for Aquinas in this passage is that of reason over pleasures of the flesh. quinas makes this very clear in his “first way” of engaging in the “unnatural vice”—which he calls “effeminacy” and which we might loosely call masturbation. For Aquinas, men are “effeminate” insofar as they strive for fleeting pleasures of the flesh instead of the more elusive goals of sovereign reason and divine inspiration. In this paragraph, then, Aquinas is condemning not only or even primarily same sex intercourse, but instead any act that displaces God and reason at the forefront of the human mind and blurs social hierarchies. 

Still, it’s hard to overstate the influence of Aquinas’s unwieldy argument about “unnatural sin.” To get a handle on how Aquinas was received even centuries after he wrote, we can journey to the French court of King Henri III, who reigned from 1574 to 1589. 

The city is Paris, around 1585. The last of Catherine de’ Medici’s sons to become King of France, Henri III sits upon the throne. Henri, most modern scholars agree, was something of a religious moderate. His beliefs employed financial carrots rather than military sticks in an attempt to unite France’s warring religious factions. With little political or financial room to maneuver and opposition to nearly all of his actions, Henri was deeply unpopular by the close of the first decade of his reign.

Henri’s unpopularity was reflected and spurred on by vicious publications that decried both his person and his rule. According to these pamphlets, Henri was effete: he preferred tennis and dancing to horseback riding and hunting. Instead of ruling and taking sage political counsel, he spent his evenings dining and drinking with exquisitely beautiful and lavishly fashionable young men with flowing locks of pampered hair. Many contemporary texts disparagingly called these young men in Henri’s inner circle “mignons,” a patronizing term that translates roughly to “cuties” or “favorites.”Critics contended that Henri was ruled by his impulses and his desires rather than his head. Few things were more emasculating in his world. And many writers of these polemics accused Herni of sodomy to encapsulate this dense nexus of conceptions of gendered and sexual behavior.  

At first blush, the accusations of sodomy against Henri seem to fit some of our more damaging cultural myths and scripts for homosexuality and gayness. Henri comes off as promiscuous, as feminine and interested in masculine activities like hunting and the governance. Henri’s frivolity comes to the fore rather than his restraint. To an extent this familiarity is important. There are important points of continuity and attitudes towards gender and sexuality between 1585 today, but there are also important differences. And as historians, it is our job to navigate both the continuities and the changes with care. I suggest we do this by considering the so-called memoir journal of the Parisian writer, Pierre de l’Estoile.  His writings form the backbone of many historical treatments of the court of Henri III. In an entry for the year 1576, l’Estoile wrote that Henri’s mignons dressed like “whores in a brothel with their long hair, laced artifices, and lavish jewelry.” Their demeanor and conduct gave them the “truly odious” name of mignon for their “effeminate and immodest accoutrements.” Rather than provide the king sage counsel, “their exercises were to gamble, blaspheme, skip about, dance, somersault, quarrel, and fornicate.” Note that l’Estoile does not say “their exercises were to ... fornicate with each other.” At issue is not necessarily with whom they conduct their frivolous pursuits, but the fact that they are so obsessed with pleasures of the flesh in general.

Indeed, according to l’Estoile, the largest issue was that Henri and the mignons who accompanied him placed their personal pleasures over their duty justly to rule the Kingdom. You see, contemporary ideas about gender revolved around the idea of masculine sovereignty. Adult men were supposed to be rational and in control of those around them and of themselves. This was in contrast to the widely held misogynistic assumption in this period that women were primarily emotional creatures driven by whims and fancies rather than sound reason. Being womanly did not so much reference the kind of bodies one found attractive, but one's inability to subject one's own desires to a supposedly masculine, rational and sovereign will. That’s the basis of l’Estoile’s critique of the mignons. It’s not that they are engaged in these activities with the wrong people. It’s that their frivolity with women signaled their inability to control their own urges.

How can I be so sure? How can I be so sure? Well in 1578, l’Estoile reports that one of the consequences of the mignons’ poor self-governance was violence. The mignons’ rulership by their emotions, and the excessive fornication l’Estoile had decried two years earlier, was not connected to love between men, but to male competition for women’s affections. Here is what l’Estoile reports: “On Wednesday the 2nd of April 1578, Souvrai and la Valette, to resolve a fight they had taken up for the love of ladies, assembled grand troops of young gentlemen. Souvrai was supported by the House of Guise, la Valette by the mignons of the King.” What’s notable here is the cause of the fight. Not love for one of the same men, but for an excessive love of ladies at court. That’s what made them, in the words of one poem l’Estoile collected, “princes of Sodom.” 

The stakes for sexual politics were incredibly high. As invective against Henri continued in the pamphlet press, it grew more incendiary and Henri grew more profoundly unpopular. This unpopularity culminated in his assassination on August 2nd, 1589. In one manuscript from 1585, a nobleman named René de Lucinge, seigneur of Allymes, castigated Henri and his mignons severely. Lucinge blamed the political, religious, social, and economic turmoil of France on Henri’s inability to control his desires. Lucinge went so far as to insinuate that one of Henri’s mignons had “imbued him by the vice, which nature detests.” It is possible that Lucinge was making a reference to same-sex intercourse. In this reading, one of Henri’s mignons had quite literally imbued the King with the vice, perhaps through sexual penetration of some sort. 

But it is also possible that the imbuing of Henri with the unnatural vice was operating on a figurative level. In this case, the plasticity and communicability of one sinful archetype into another, a conception of sin that Aquinas did so much to advance, connected Henri’s political sins to his religious and personal sins. His sex drive slipped into and helped shape his disastrous political positions. The ambiguity of Lucinge’s terms lent them power because they called on people to draw their own conclusions about what Lucinge meant. In the process,more people read Lucinge and more people speculated about what vices were actually being practiced in Henri’s court. Once again, effeminacy and its ambiguous origins—was Henri effeminate because of whom he slept with, or did it have more to do with his inability to remain chaste more generally?—loom large. What remains certain is that sodomy and the various categories whose ambiguities mapped more or less onto it was a charge levied at Henri for his failure to control his urges and subordinate his desires to his duty to rule the Kingdom. 

Now that we’ve immersed ourselves in early modSo how does sodomy’s early modern history reverberate today? What’s stayed the same? And what’s changed? To answer this question, let’s take a look at two sources from the 21st century. The first is a YouTube channel and the second is a book. Let’s start with the YouTube channel. The channel “Epic Meal Time” has been active since late September 2010. The basic conceit of the channel is that a number of chefs attempt to make the booziest, most caloric, and fattiest creations they can possibly imagine. In one of their earlier videos, they hold a taco-themed night with bacon nachos, a gargantuan bacon and tequila burrito, and an equally large bacon and tequila taco. Together, these dishes included two bottles of tequila, almost 100,000 calories, and over 9 kilograms of fat. After the cooks have prepared this heart-stopping meal, they devour as much of their creations as they can stomach with wanton abandon. 

The channel is clearly aimed at a male audience—at one point during the eating scene of the taco-themed episode, two women eat opposite ends a piece of food so that they come very close to kissing—an example of female sexuality subordinated to the male gaze a nd for the erotic benefit of the presumed male spectator. This is the general tone of Epic Meal Time—an objectification of women and a jaw-dropping excess of booze, fat, and food meant to document the daring masculinity of its creators. This is one kind of modern masculinity. A rugged one. I would say one incompatible with the ideal masculinity of Henri III’s critics. 

To understand better how the masculinity of Henri’s time is related to ours today, we need to examine the second source from the 21st century. Let’s take a look at Michael Kimmel’s 2008 book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In one chapter, Kimmel unpacks what he calls “The Guy Code”—the unwritten and often unstated code of conduct for American men. Although Kimmel does not say this, most of his anecdotes and analysis reflect a specifically white American masculinity. Kimmel’s “Guy Code” is related to what the social psychologist Robert Brannon described in his 1976 study of American masculinity. Here are Brannon’s four basic rules of masculinity: 

Josh McCurry: "1. ‘No sissy stuff!’ Being a man means not being a sissy, not being perceived as weak, effeminate, or gay. Masculinity is the relentless repudiation of the feminine. 2. ‘Be a Big Wheel.’ This rule refers to the centrality of success and power in the definition of masculinity. Masculinity is measured more by wealth, power, and status than by any particular body part. 3. ‘Be a Sturdy Oak.’ What makes a man is that he is reliable in a crisis. And what makes him so reliable in a crisis is not that he is able to respond fully and appropriately to the situation at hand, but rather he resembles an inanimate object. A rock, a pillar, a species of tree. 4. ‘Give ‘em Hell.’ Exude an aura of daring and aggression. Live life out on the edge. Take risks. Go for it. Pay no attention to what others think."

Aidyn Osgood: Some of these qualities are familiar from the ideal masculinity of sixteenth-century thought, but some are potentially antithetical to it. As we saw, ideal men in the time of Henri III were supposed to exude authority and constancy as Brennen’s first three rules state. Henri’s opponents suggested that Henri, insofar as he was inconstant and too focused on the pleasures of the flesh, was effeminate and womanly. Brannon’s fourth rule, however, deviates markedly from that of Henri’s intellectual culture. Whereas Henri’s critics prized consideration, constancy, and reason, Brannon’s fourth rule celebrates daring and antagonism. In many ways, the exact same behaviors that made Henri effeminate in the sixteenth century – especially the excessive love of women that Henri celebrated at his court – would make him a paragon of Brannon’s masculinity. 

So, where does this history leave us? I’ve been arguing that one of the keys to understanding masculinity is sodomy. Sodomy, like masculinity, is slippery and contextual. In so many ways, sodomy and its reverberations today in stereotypes about gay men structure what it means to be masculine. Yet the differences between depictions of masculinity in these two 21st-century media suggest to me that broader conceptualizations of masculinity have changed as well. What this historical change shows, I contend, is that there is no such thing as a stable historical “masculinity.” Being “manly,” in other words, is an ideological product, a contingent set of social accomplishments, not a biological imperative. Because masculinity is constructed by society, then, it is changeable. Indeed, masculinity has changed remarkably in the past five-hundred years.  

Hayley Bowman: Thank you so much for joining us, and a special thank you to our segment producer for this episode, Aidyn Osgood. Another special thank you to our voice actors, Professor Helmut Puff, Taylor Sims, and Josh McCurry. Our editorial board is professor Melanie Tenelien  and Taylor Sims, our production team is executive producer, Gregory Parker, and I'm your season producer, Hayley Bowman. I hope you'll join us for our next episode for more stories on how the past reverberates in the present. This is Reverb Effect. 


Further Readings

  • Mark D. Jordan, The invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

  • Helmut Puff, Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

  • Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  • Michael Kimmel, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).




[2] ;