Buggery, Body Snatchers and Bewitchings

Throughout early modern and modern history homosexual acts have been the focus of condemnation, religious outrage, penal sanctions and considerable suspicion. In the 16th century further connections between the act and sinister superstition were made, contradicting earlier works which suggested that even demons drew the line at buggery. The new narrative claimed that witches, in particular male witches, engaged in diabolical sex (I’m sure we’ve all experienced this) and is evident in the, admittedly rare, references to sodomy in 16th and 17th century Scotland. Michael Erskine was accused of engaging in both sorcery and sodomy in 1630 and on being found guilty on both charges was burnt at the stake.  Half a century earlier, a John Litster and John Swan shared a similar grisly fate.

While the Dutch were busily garroting ‘sodomites’ during the 18th century, the Scots, particularly legal theorists, were ambivalent on the thorny issue of same-sex desire. Whilst some classed it amongst the ‘sodomitic sins’ (including buggery, bestiality, and opposite sex ‘unnatural fornication’), others such as John Millar viewed sodomy as a victimless crime (although it still warranted punishment). However, the taint of the diabolical apparently remained reasonably strong in popular discourses of same-sex desire well beyond the age of enlightenment. Take for example the case of George Provand, a successful young Glasgow oil and colour merchant, whose home in West Clyde Street was attacked and vandalised in early 1822. Provand’s tale of terror has been told numerous times on Glasgow local history sites and by the well-known Glasgow journalist Jack House in his book The Heart of Glasgow. According to these popular sources, Provand was accused of abducting local children, butchering them and adding their remains to his oils and colours. One ‘witness’ swore that he saw in Provand’s basement a flowing river of blood upon which bobbed the decapitated heads of children. Provand was also accused by the mob of being involved in black magic, or, in the supply of fresh corpses (albeit missing their heads it seems) to medical instructors.  There seemed no end to Provand’s devilish pursuits.

However, what these popular sources often ignore is that he was also accused of inviting the sexual favours of young local men. The riot, which led to the ransacking of Provand’s mansion, may have been instigated by the claims of 17 year-old John Graham (amongst others) who stated that Provand had paid him 6d ‘to work his privates’ (a description which occurs frequently in cases relating to homosexual acts). Criminal charges were laid against the rioters and looters, with one ‘whipped through the town’, and another 4 sentenced to transportation.  Provand was charged in April of that year with sodomy and was initially found guilty. His failure to appear in court led him to be outlawed and ‘put to the horn’, but ultimately the allegations were viewed as being an attempt to discredit the victim of (or to justify) violent crimes. Whether Provand did enjoy the regular physical company of men is open to debate but these accusations grew legs and ultimately alluded to demonic pursuits, which although hysterical, bring to mind the accusations made against 16th and 17th century male ‘witches’, whose fates were considerably bleaker than Provand’s.

Further Reading

Theo van der Meer, ‘Sodomy and the Pursuit of a Third Sex in the Early Modern Period’ in Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, ed. by Gilbert Herdt (New York : Zone Books ; Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1996, c1993), pp. 407-429

Tamar Herzig, The Demons’ Reaction to Sodomy: Witchcraft and Homosexuality in Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola’s “Strix”, The Sixteenth Century Journal , Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 2003) , pp. 53-72

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