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French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
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While evidence from earlier centuries is sparse, from the sixteenth century onward there were several French writers who treated male and female homosexuality.

The Difficulty of Obtaining Reliable Information

The number of gay and lesbian French writers living before 1800 for whom we have documented evidence of their sexual orientation is small indeed. This fact reflects in part an ignorance that time and fear have imposed on us.

Not only has little of substance survived concerning the lives of the authors who wrote in the earliest centuries, but in all periods, even our own, many homosexuals have had good reason not to commit to paper any record of their thoughts or actions. , it must be remembered, was an offense for which as late as 1750 the French authorities could and did order that a man be burned alive.

When we enter the sixteenth century and documents become more numerous, additional factors complicate the problem of identifying gay and lesbian figures.

With some frequency, strident accusations of or lesbian behavior begin to be heard, and they will be repeated in ensuing periods. More temperate musings about the behavior of pre-nineteenth-century Frenchmen and women have emerged from modern authors who continue to sift through the leavings of the past.

Yet do any of these voices speak the truth? Did Henry III have sexual relations with his mignons? Did Molière's interest in a boy called Baron include wanting to bed him? There is no simple way to arrive at a definitive response to such questions. The quantity of evidence available is very limited; the quality of the evidence, highly suspect.

The attacks against Henry III (and similar ones made later against Voltaire) come from their enemies who, moreover, never maintain that they were eyewitnesses to the acts of which the accused stands charged.

The Case of Muret

One case where we may feel rather confident about the charge of is that of Marc-Antoine Muret (1526-1585). During the early 1550s, Muret taught some of the finest literary minds in Paris. He befriended Pierre de Ronsard for whose Amours he wrote a commentary, explaining by means of his extensive classical learning the more recondite allusions in Ronsard's love poetry.

In the very year that the commentary appeared (1553), he was obliged to quit Paris after, according to one source, having been imprisoned for a time. He fled to Toulouse, where in 1554 the law pursued him again.

When Muret escaped, the city authorities ordered him burned in effigy "for being a Huguenot and a sodomite." Not one of Muret's Parisian friends defended him against the accusation, which soon resurfaced and brought his stay in Padua to an end (1558).

Muret's apparent inability to quell the rumors about his sexual behavior or to exonerate himself has convinced most scholars that the humanist was in all likelihood guilty.

Nevertheless, the charge did not prevent him from securing a post at the University of Rome, where he taught for twenty years (1563-1584). In 1572, the Pope accorded him the highly coveted title of Roman citizen.

Muret published annotated editions of many of the major Latin writers. He wrote commentaries on Cicero and Aristotle; his orations cover nineteen volumes.

All these writings are in Latin, and Muret's command of that language was exceptional enough for contemporaries to consider his style a model to be imitated. Other humanists surpassed his editions of Tacitus and Horace, but of Aristotle he had a profound grasp and dared to defend Greek letters against those who did not appreciate their significance.

The Introduction of Anacreon and Sappho by French Humanists

French sixteenth-century humanists must be credited also with introducing the modern world to Anacreon and Sappho. In 1554, Henry Estienne (1531-1578) produced the first printed edition of the occasionally Anacreontea. Rémy Belleau (1528-1577) used Estienne's edition to render some of these happy poems of wine and love into French.

Notable are his "Ha vrayment je vous puniray" (Ah, I shall punish you indeed) and "Fay moy d'une façon gentille" (Paint for me with a fine hand) where Belleau preserves uncensored the Greek poet's amorous words about his beloved Bathyllus.

Estienne's 1554 volume also included two works by Sappho. (One, already printed in 1546 by his father Robert, is still counted among Sappho's writings; the authenticity of the other has been questioned.)

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Denis Diderot's La Religieuse (1796) portrayed lesbianism as a perversion but also defended human sexuality against any effort to deny its full expression.
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