Richard Davenport-Hines

Flirting in 15th-century Florence

In his history of male-male sexual relations, Noel Malcolm describes how a man in Renaissance Italy would seduce a boy in the street by seizing his hat and holding it ransom

Detail of Donatello’s bronze sculpture of David, c. 1440. [Getty Images]

Noel Malcolm, a former political columnist of The Spectator, the historian of English nonsense verse and editor of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, has written a book on an arresting subject. Forbidden Desire in Early Modern Europe gives close and relentless scrutiny to male-male sexual relations in Europe, the Ottoman empire, north Africa and in such dispersed colonies and outposts as New England, Peru, Cape Town and the Dutch East Indies.

Malcolm’s interest in the subject began with his find of a cache of documents dating from 1588. These recorded the official investigation of a male couple – a trainee interpreter for Venice’s envoy in Constantinople and the envoy’s barber – who fell in love. He described this affair in an essay which he offered to the scholarly periodical Past & Present. The dogmatic, uninformed and dismissive responses of the magazine’s advisers convinced him that many historians of sexuality are self-confined in an echo chamber of mutually reinforcing, uninquisitive and conformist orthodoxy.

Forbidden Desire has been written in response to this incident. It is a book of startling originality and depth. The abundance of Malcolm’s archival research, the range of languages and the geographical diversity of his material are stupendous. Only the Orthodox Slav world is omitted for lack of reliable evidence. No one else has had the temerity or linguistic skills to attempt so comprehensive a survey.

Time and again Malcolm detects western historians of sexuality in crass mistakes, wilful exaggeration, lubricious pipe dreams, distorted quotes, abuse of evidence and deliberate obscurity. His relentless precision and crystalline prose should rally historians of nuance and scruple to confront the propagandist sham-scholars who prefer identity-driven theory to hard, clear evidence.

The prevalence of man-boy sexual relations in the ancient world and Mediterranean region, which had been attested for centuries, started to be denied in the late 20th century.

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