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'Vices Once Adopted': Theorising Male Homoeroticism in German-Language Legal and Forensic Discourses, 1752-1869

by Ross Brooks, Centre for Health, Medicine and Society: Past and Present, Oxford Brookes University [1]



Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century legal and forensic tracts in vernacular German offer a prime opportunity to understand elite attitudes towards homoerotic desire and sexual activity in Central Europe prior to the hegemony of psychiatry as the arbiter of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ eroticism. They demonstrate that changes in body concepts conveyed largely by the anti-masturbation crusade affected discourses of same-sex eroticism (pederasty, boy-defilement, or sodomy) in specific ways. Penetrative, as well as receptive, roles in male-male anal sex were described in terms of pathology with the boundaries between cause and effect ambiguous. Increasingly fanciful descriptions of the perceived consequences of such penetrative practices spread from the anal and genital regions to cover every conceivable aspect of a participant’s body, mind, and being. As the integrity of pederastic stigmata was inevitably questioned, classical readings were utilised to rejuvenate pathological epistemologies of homoeroticism. In particular, Julius Rosenbaum’s presentation of the ‘feminine disease’ of the Scythians and of the hereditary potential of acquired sexual nonconformity was absorbed by Prussia’s leading forensic physician, Johann Ludwig Casper, and subsequently aided the integration of homoeroticism into nascent psychiatric discourses.

KEYWORDS: Male homoeroticism, German medicine, forensic medicine, degeneracy theory, inheritance of acquired characteristics, gender nonconformity



Among his last published remarks, the distinguished sexologist Vern L. Bullough stated that unfamiliarity among English speakers of early German-language sexology has often led to ‘a misconception and misunderstanding of the history of homosexuality as well as some confusion about how the medical community came to be involved’ (Bullough, 2006: xxviii ). Misunderstanding on this subject frequently manifests itself in scholarship as a belief that modern medical constructions of same-sex eroticism, give or take a few precursors, were ‘invented’ around 1869 when Berlin’s leading psychiatrist, Carl Westphal, published a significant article in which the term ‘contrary sexual feeling’ was coined to account for, among other things, certain manifestations of same-sex attraction. It was, of course, Foucault who took this moment as the ‘date of birth’ of the psychiatric, medical category of what subsequently became termed homosexuality (Foucault, 1978: 43).

This article puts continued theoretical considerations of this proposition (such as that made by Halperin, 2002) on hold in favour of some historiographical groundwork. Without detracting from the undoubted influence of Westphal’s diagnosis, it will make the case that European medical professions involved themselves with theorising same-sex eroticism in significant and complex ways long before psychiatric contributions became hegemonic. It follows through on the recent edited volume by Kenneth Borris and George Rousseau, The Sciences of Homosexuality in Early Modern Europe (2008), in which it was demonstrated that diverse scientific disciplines, including medicine, were integral in constructing concepts of same-sex eroticism through the Renaissance to around 1750. This article aims to bridge the gap between the early modern discourses covered by Borris and Rousseau and the later psychiatric discourses for which abundant histories are written (e.g., Oosterhuis, 2000). It will highlight an important genre of German-language legal and forensic discourses on same-sex eroticism from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and suggest some ways in which this genre can be read. It is hoped that this exercise will pave the way for a more comprehensive appreciation of the deep roots of modern medical constructions of homoerotic desire and sexual activity and help alleviate the present misconceptions, referred to by Bullough, that currently prevail in the historiography of eroticism.

In one aspect this article diverges from the approach taken by Borris and Rousseau. In repudiating the excesses of schematic Foucauldian histories one must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Recent historiography has successfully demonstrated that the term homosexuality is too clinical, historically-bound, and conceptually unreliable when referring to the vicissitudes of ideas pertaining to same-sex desires and acts in diverse contexts. The more inclusive, general term homoeroticism (alternated with same-sex eroticism for grammatical variety) has now been utilised to good effect by several authors in the field and this article has consistently found it a preferable means of terming same-sex thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and identities across temporal and cultural zones.



Article 116 of the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (C.C.C.), introduced throughout the Holy Roman Empire in 1532, stated: ‘if a human being and an animal, man with man, woman with woman practice defiled acts, they should be, as it is the general custom, sentenced to death by fire’ (Hutter, 1993: 80). Where the harsh strictures of the C.C.C. were applied to sex crimes in the Germanic regions – by no means a uniform or fair procedure – judicial torture was routinely used to extract confessions that offences had actually taken place. For example, Boes (2002) describes how two males suspected of eliciting sex acts with other males were subjected to judicial torture in Frankfurt am Main; the first in 1598 and the second in 1645. The accused were certainly unlucky. Elsewhere in Europe the use of physical evidence as means of determining culpability in cases of illicit sexual intercourse was gaining ground. This development is largely attributable to the papal physician and founding father of modern forensic medicine, Paolo Zacchia (Rousseau, 2008). Drawing on a tradition that appears to have prevailed for almost two centuries, Zacchia broached the subject of male-male sex acts in his Quaestiones Medico-Legales (first published in Leipzig in 1630), advising that certain physical signs or proofs would have occurred in the rectal area during the act of anal penetration and that such signs could be used in court to determine whether or not the accused was guilty. Anal fissures, rhagadia (‘tears’), hemorrhoids, the obliteration of the radial folds around the anus, and a loosening of the anus itself could all indicate signs of penetration, although Zacchia did warn that such conditions could be caused by other means (such as constipation). Even if it was outside their area of expertise, Zacchia stated, ‘doctors can easily pronounce the truth concerning this matter’ (Rousseau, 2008: 82).

Although judicial torture remained in routine use for cases of illegal sex acts in the German regions well into the eighteenth century (Steakley, 1989: 165-66), the application of forensic evidence to such cases flourished, at least in tracts that dealt with the subject if not in practice. Generations of forensic practitioners cited Zacchia as the leading authority on the subject of illicit sex crimes although it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which medical professionals were called upon for testimony through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and what kinds of evidence they utilised in this pursuit (Rousseau (2008) recommends further research on this subject for the period following Zacchia, an endeavour that this paper concurs would be extremely useful).

Beginning in 1752 with a German-language translation of Hermann Friedrich Teichmeyer’s influential forensic manual, a profusion of such works began to be published in the vernacular by diverse authors. At least fifty German-language works which included assessments of homoeroticism, female and male, were in print through the first half of the nineteenth century. Usually these assessments were included as part of a broader approach to questions of sex crime and public morality. Legal-focused tracts provided clarification on the status of particular sex acts in law while forensic-focused tracts included information to help medical practitioners identify evidence that illegal sex acts had occurred in order to secure conviction. Other commentaries also broached the subject from specific perspectives, offering a wealth of information about elite attitudes to homoerotic desire and sexual praxis in Central Europe prior to the ascendancy of psychiatry as the arbiter of sexual ‘normality’ and ‘abnormality’. The differing conceptual trajectories of male and female homoeroticism demonstrated in these works necessitate separate histories. This article focuses on attitudes to male homoeroticism although, even with this limitation, it can only provide an overview of the genre.



One of the reasons for the great expansion of interest in sex crimes was undoubtedly the complexity of approaches taken to the subject by the various German penal codes, particularly during and after the Revolutionary Wars (Hutter, 1993). It is clear, however, that fundamental changes in elite attitudes towards sexual activity were also driving the growing interest in the subject. The quintessential expression of these shifts in attitude was the crusade against the perceived perils of onanism (masturbation) that spread throughout Europe during the eighteenth century (Stolberg, 2000). The German regions were by no means exempt from this phenomenon. The anonymously-written Onania received its first German-language translation in 1736. Simon-André Tissot’s tract on the subject, the first work to give medical respectability to the panic, was translated and expanded from its original Latin into German in 1760 with numerous editions thereafter. Copious other German-language works by pedagogic and medical commentators followed (Hull, 1996: 258-80).

Hull (1996: 277-78) has noted that masturbation was conflated with other sexual activities, including same-sex contacts, which were perceived as ‘pure, objectless sexual pleasure, where neither penetration nor social relation occurred’. Although true in a very general sense, the interplay between discourses of masturbation and those of male-male sexual contacts (variously referred to as sodomy, pederasty, or boy-defilement [knabenschande]) is more defined and discernibly textured than Hull’s description of a ‘single phenomenon’ allows. For example, in his Mosaisches Recht (1774) Johann David Michaelis presented an influential assessment in which themes familiar from the antimasturbation crusade, particularly changing body concepts, were applied specifically to ‘unnatural crimes of lust’ (boy-defilement and bestiality). Despite the theological nature of the work, it was a litany of secular anxieties that concerned Michaelis. Diminished incidence of marriage, depopulation, and national weakness would inevitably follow, Michaelis argued, if sodomy lost its shamefulness and became fashionable (‘not perhaps in the very first generation, but certainly in the course of the third or fourth’). The reason for these perils is that the constitutions of men who ‘submit to this degradation’ are often totally destroyed (‘though in a different way from what is the result of whoredom’). Michaelis therefore believed that the occurrence of boy-defilement was partly regulated by the physical and constitutional strength of a people, a factor that was, in turn, influenced by climate. Based on this assessment he advocated more severe legal restrictions for warm southern countries than those in the cooler north (Michaelis, 1814: 114-18; note that this English translation uses ‘sodomy’ for knabenschande).

Masturbation and boy-defilement were allied more explicitly in a section of Johann Jakob Cella’s Über Verbrechen und Strase in Unzuchtsfällen (1787). Both, he stated, were an unnatural form of lust ‘by which the body is weakened, the spirit enervated, and the inclination toward propagation by copulation with the other sex […] is gradually entirely weakened.’ Cella believed that such moral depravity was a particular problem of ‘aged lechers’ who had become satiated from the enjoyment of ‘natural pleasures’ (i.e., heteroeroticism), a popular belief repeated time and again throughout the period. Of grave concern to Cella was the assumption (again, commonly held) that penetrative sex between two men required one of the parties to behave in a subservient manner. Of the boy-defiler Cella wrote: ‘he is satisfied with a very young, immature, underaged comrade; indeed, in order to increase the sensual titillation he usually seeks out the youngest, prettiest boys as the victims of his infamous lusts.’ Male homoerotic contacts therefore involved seduction of innocents and an associated ‘public nuisance’, as well as occasioning deleterious effects on mind and body. Still, Cella argued, sex between males ‘in regard to its morality, its sources, and the measures for its future prevention is very homogenous with masturbation’. He stated that he would not classify them as separate if it was not for prior practice; he simply would have dealt with boy-defilement as a more serious, more harmful degree of masturbation (Cella, 1999).

The subject of the ‘sources’ of homoerotic practices, mentioned here by Cella, was an increasingly pertinent one as new conceptual possibilities of the male sexual body were explored by forensic practitioners. The approaches adopted in German-language legal and forensic commentaries were diverse. Some authors maintained a traditionally pious perspective. For example, ‘Immorality and neglected culture of the human mind’ were responsible for both pederasty and bestiality according to Johann Daniel Metzger (1793: 389). Others clearly believed that homoerotic desires developed directly from masturbation. After all, there had been a firm suggestion in Onania that among its many ‘frightful consequences’ masturbation ‘destroys conjugal Affection, perverts natural Inclination, and tends to extinguish the Hopes of posterity’ (Anon., 1722: 8). So too had Onania suggested that boys would sometimes masturbate together, ‘the Elder Boys teaching it the Younger, as soon as ever they arrive to the Years of Puberty’ (Anon., 1722: v). Tissot drew similar connections adding a warning to parents that teachers (who were largely hired privately) frequently taught onanism to children. He wrote: ‘I could produce but too great a number of young plants, who have been lost by the very gardener who was intrusted with their rearing’ (Tissot, 1766: 44). The idea passed smoothly into forensic manuals. For example, Johann Valentin Müller (1796: 140-41) stated that ‘onanism in the most real senses is the original source from which springs the impure love of youths’, an approach that was later developed in Heinrich Kaan’s Psychopathia sexualis (1844).

Others, however, did not require masturbation as a mediatory factor in delineating causes of homoerotic activity. Michaelis (1814: 117) briefly stated that a greater propensity to boy-defilement had been observed by physicians to proceed from ‘causes altogether physical’. Unfortunately, Michaelis does not cite his medical sources but it is clear that some of his contemporaries within forensic medicine were looking toward physiology and less toward theology for ideological grounding in a concerted effort to explain homoeroticism. For example, in his Diskurs über die medizinische Polizei (1786) Zacharias Gottlieb Hußty sought to disentangle ‘criminal follies’ (including sodomy, suicide, witchcraft, and necromancy) from a ‘tendency to the magical’ which had hitherto been apparent in criminal proceedings. Every police force, Hußty urged, should ensure that the realities of cases involving these follies should be investigated non-prejudicially. Expanding his thoughts on sodomy (bestiality and pederasty), Hußty wrote:

Generally well organised human beings, whose imagination does not yet tend to dissipate above the sphere of instinct, have been implanted with enough abhorrence by nature, to protect themselves from this crime. However, human nature has its endless divergences from itself, every nerve, within or outside of its consensus, is capable of these divergences, to an overstretching or slackening as well as to a specific predisposition, through disease, education, example, and some unforeseen concourses of impressions. Therefrom result the endless degrees and varieties of the depraved feeling and taste (Hußty, 1786: 171).

These packed sentences contain a key message: illicit sexual practices are occasioned when a fragile nervous system is made to diverge from its natural state by a variety of efficient causes. In this schema, the boundaries between cause and effect are by no means clear; experience (‘disease, education, example’ or ‘some unforeseen concourses of impressions’) is absorbed into the physiology of the nervous system which in turn creates experience. Hußty stated that some (he mentions the physician Melchoir Adam Weikard and the Lutheran preacher Johann Heinrich Schulze) would use medications to cure pederasty and bestiality but Hußty believed that castigations by the police were enough to remedy ‘moral diseases’, even in cases where a ‘complicit and disordered nervous system’ was equitably asserted (Hußty, 1786: 172).

Hußty’s comments, along with those of Michaelis and Cella, bring late eighteenth-century discourses on homoeroticism firmly within the sphere of physiology – particularly those discourses on sensibility and the spermatic economy (e.g., Rousseau, 2004; Stolberg, 2000) – in their own right. A noticeable consequence of this development was that descriptions of the deleterious consequences of anal penetration were extended from a narrow focus on the anal region of the penetrated male throughout his entire being. Such an approach is discernable in Adolph Henke’s influential Lehrbuch der gerichtlichen Medicin (1812: 105) which distinguished local complaints (wounding, bruising, inflammation and suppuration of the anus, paralysis of the sphincter, rectal fistula, prolapses, tumours, calluses) from illnesses of a more general nature (emaciation, consumption, dropsy) which not infrequently result from the practice of pederasty.

In a chapter of his Ausführliches Handbuch der gerichtlichen Medizin (1826) Ludwig Julius Caspar Mende made Henke’s account look meagre indeed. After an extensive description of all manner of deteriorations to the genitals and anus, Mende described the long term consequences of anal penetration on the penetrated pederast:

The general appearance of such individuals is pale and wasted. Their eyes are deep in their sockets and are without sparkle; facial bones protrude markedly; the skin is wrinkled; and the lips seem barely able to cover the teeth. The spinal column, usually the upper half, is bent to a greater or lesser degree, the head hangs down and the shoulders are bent forwards. The whole body is gaunt, knock-kneed and the gait is unsteady. Such unfortunates feel as if ants were crawling up and down their spines; they feel a constant dull pain in the back of their heads, their face has become weak and their intellectual ability has decreased to the point of idiocy. Finally dropsy and a hectic fever set in and, if world-weariness and despair have not already led to suicide, death in this way now brings to a close this tragic scene (Mende, 1826: 509).

Moreover, penetrative pederasty could now be conceptualised as equally as physically degrading as receptive pederasty, if not more so. The loss of semen and mechanical damage to the nerves of the penetrative pederast would occasion the same deleterious effects on body and mind as that of the masturbator. Again, Mende led the pack in this development. The typical penetrating pederast, he stated, was already advanced in age, his entire body exhibits a weakening and a certain shrivelling. He is pale, bloated, cross-eyed, and stares at boys and youths with lustful eyes, stroking and caressing them. Men with slender and short penises were particularly given to the vice either because they do not find sufficient satisfaction with a woman or are spurned by women. Mende stated that: ‘aside from signs of exhaustion and weight-loss in the perpetrator, stemming from excessive loss of semen and from repeated nervous shocks, there is not infrequently evidence of thickening and areas of hardening in the foreskin, ulcers around the crown of the glans and excrescences similar to genital warts, with the result that there is a loss of pleasure, or inability to partake, in normal intercourse’ (Mende, 1826: 506-8). Subsequently, commentaries that exercised the semiotics of penetrative as well as receptive pederasty and which referred to the whole body and personality of the perpetrators were routinely provided along similar, even plagiaristic, lines (e.g., Klose, 1837; Gadermann, 1840: 85-90).

Unsurprisingly, the increasingly melodramatic descriptions afforded to the perceived consequences of pederastic activity were counterbalanced by growing concern among other forensic practitioners that the integrity of these physical signs and their value in court proceedings was, at best, dubious. Several commentators cautioned that physical evidence indicating male-male penetrative praxis was gradually lost, that an examination therefore had to be conducted soon after the act had taken place, and that some signs could always result from causes other than anal penetration (e.g., Bernt, 1834: 101-2). In his first published remarks on homoeroticism, Prussia’s leading forensic physician, Johann Ludwig Casper, was doubtful about the whole endeavour. The facts of a case, he wrote, were ‘extremely difficult’ to determine forensically and previous writings on the subject which had identified permanent damage ‘were probably often extremely exaggerated’. Only tears to the anal sphincter and prolapses should be considered as potential evidence. In three cases that he had been asked to examine (where other reasons indicated ‘a high probability of a voluntarily tolerated abuse’) Casper could not find the slightest deviation from the norm apart from a small tear in the sphincter of one man (Casper, 1843: 462). By the time he was writing, the peak of the German anti-masturbation panic had long passed and, until its resurgence at the end of the nineteenth century, Germans generally remained ‘relatively unimpressed’ by the prolonged campaigns experienced in Britain and France (Hull, 1996: 260-61). A similar pattern appears to characterise forensic discourses on homoeroticism although in repudiating the more outlandish descriptions of pederastic stigmata, a different approach to the subject was developed.



As well as tempering the excesses of his more imaginative contemporaries, Casper is rightly credited with introducing conventions that would subsequently be developed by psychiatric discourses on sexual nonconformity (e.g., Hekma, 1994). He was the first to support his deliberations with descriptions of actual case studies with which he was personally familiar. Largely as a result of this more practical approach, Casper questioned received forensic wisdom regarding what actually transpired between two men engaging in sexual contact, recognising that the act of anal penetration did not take place in all, perhaps even the majority, of such contacts. This fact led Casper to focus more on the psychological aspects that motivated homoerotic practices, using the term ‘sexual insanity’ (geschlechtswahnsinn) to describe the pederastic desires of one of his cases (Casper, 1852: 67). Moreover, he introduced an association between gender nonconformity and pederasty, an association that is absent in German-language legal and forensic literature until the mid nineteenth century.

Casper also distinguished between acquired and congenital pederasty, the latter taking an increasingly prominent position in his view of the nature of homoerotic desire. Writing a second, more substantial assessment of pederasty in 1852, he stated: ‘the sexual attraction to a man by a man is in many of the unfortunate – but I assume in the minority – inborn, whereas it only occurs in later life in other men as a result of supersaturation in the usual service of the Venus’ (Casper, 1852: 62). Writing his third assessment of pederasty in his influential Practisches Handbuch der gerichtlichen Medicin, the congenital minority becomes the majority: ‘in most of those addicted to it, this vice is hereditary, and appears to be a kind of mental hermaphroditism’ (Casper, 1864: 62-3; the text is the same in the first, 1858 edition).

Some qualification needs to be added to Casper’s general explanatory scheme since the interplay between social and biological factors (‘nurture’ and ‘nature’) remained as dynamic and ambiguous as it was when Michaelis and Hußty each broached the same issue a generation or so earlier. Casper certainly believed that an individual’s habitual behaviour, particularly sexual overindulgence, could alter their physiology and become an ‘innate’ characteristic within a single lifetime. He stated as much in his fourth and final assessment of pederasty written in 1863 in which he described ‘a mysterious, dark and inexplicable innate urge’ that compels pederasts to turn away from females in disgust and towards members of their own sex. In such cases, Casper argued, ‘not a depraved fantasy is operating, [but rather] a corruption due to over saturation of natural [i.e., heteroerotic] sexual indulgence, as this incidentally turns into the agent in not too few. From such an innate urge […] it can also be explained why very many pederasts indulge in a more platonic lewdness, feel attracted to the object of their desire with a fervour hotter than the natural in the different sexes’ (Casper, 1863: 34). This broadly stated conceptualisation should be distinguished from the notion that, once acquired, a congenital disposition toward homoerotic desire could then be passed on in a hereditary manner.

Greater elucidation on this pivotal aspect of Casper’s thinking is gained by investigating its genealogy. Casper was explicit in identifying his greatest source of influence: the ‘learned and instructive authority’ for the whole of his chapter on pederasty in his Practisches Handbuch was Die Lustseuche im Alterthum (‘The Plague of Lust in Antiquity’) by Julius Rosenbaum, a docent in the Medical Faculty of the University of Halle and a recognised pioneer of dermatology (Casper, 1864: 330n; he had read the work much earlier, see Casper, 1843: 462). Lustseuche was first published in 1839 with manifold editions and translations thereafter reaching well into the twentieth century (an English translation was published in 1901). Its influence has been curiously neglected in the medical genealogy of homoeroticism, arguably because its focus on classicism deflects the historical gaze from its intended relevance to contemporary medical issues. The degree to which the German medical profession utilised classical readings should occasion little surprise. The Graeco-Roman medical corpus maintained great authority throughout the period, particularly in those areas in which contemporary medical science had little to say. Despite great advances, sexual science in the early nineteenth century was in its infancy and the likes of Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen appeared the most learned authorities on many sex-related issues. Although largely a recapitulation of the more earthy references to sexual praxis from the Graeco-Roman canon, Rosenbaum’s Lustseuche is a serious work of medical history that was meant to inform contemporary medical professionals on the nature of venereal disease.

A full consideration of Rosenbaum’s complex presentation of pederasty would entail an article in its own right. Here it is only possible to outline two key themes that were subsequently echoed by Casper – gender nonconformity (usually referred to as ‘effeminacy’) and inheritance – and note the pathological context in which they were applied to discourses on homoeroticism. Both themes are central to Rosenbaum’s chapter on the ‘feminine disease’ of the Scythians. The concept of the feminine disease originates with some enigmatic references from Herodotus and Hippocrates concerning a largely unspecified affliction of the enarees, the ‘men-women’ of the nomadic Scythian tribe. The mystery of the feminine disease was debated at considerable length by German classicists and physicians alike. Different authors posited different explanations for the phenomenon variously ascribing it to a vice (pederasty or masturbation), a physical pathology (haemorrhoids, menstruation, gonorrhoea, loss of testicles), or a mental condition (a form of melancholia). Rosenbaum summarised the debate, siding with receptive pederasty as the most likely explanation.

In support of this position he provides a lengthy quotation of a fifth century text entitled On Chronic Diseases by Caelius Aurelianus who is in turn summarising Soranus, an eminent Greek-born physician of the second century. The piece seems to be a retort to the assertion in a still earlier text (the pseudo-Aristotle Problemata) that anatomical conformation in some males can give rise to the desire to be anally penetrated and effeminacy (typified in the Roman figure of the cinaedi). Such behaviour does not arise naturally in human beings, Aurelianus argues, only lust is responsible for making some males use body parts for uses other than those ordained by divine providence. As evidence of this, Aurelianus points to the fact that such men often dress and move like women. Such behaviour only results from ‘a corrupt and utterly foul mind’. Having ascribed sexually receptive desires and concomitant effeminacy to a mental defect, Aurelianus still allowed for the possibility of it being a congenital condition either through circumstances at conception or through inheritance. Although no single model of inheritance was dominant among the Greeks and Romans, a ubiquitous belief was that acquired characteristics (physical or mental) could be passed to offspring through heredity. Thus Aurelianus states that those who believed that a mentally defective disposition to sexual receptivity was inherited did not blame nature. Instead, the blame fell on humans since it is ‘the human race that retains so obstinately vices once adopted, that by no renewal can it be purified’. In other words, once an acquired affliction has entered the seed, subsequent generations cannot help but be born afflicted (Rosenbaum, 1901: 161-67).

Following the quotation of Aurelianus, Rosenbaum subsequently describes his own belief, deduced from ancient sources and contemporary forensic accounts of the weakening of virile function (he cites Klose, 1837), that the act of receptive pederasty feminises a ‘pathic’ (i.e., an effeminate man who relishes sexual receptivity) until he actually becomes a woman. Beginning by simply manipulating his appearance, the pathic attempts to resemble a woman through his clothing, allowing his hair to grow long, and by shaving. Subsequently, the consequences of the ‘stretching of the fundament’ (i.e., anal penetration) meant that the pathic’s buttocks became broader toward the lower part and the space between them wider ‘causing the hips to take more the shape they have in a woman’. So too do the legs lose their straightness and the pathic becomes ‘knock-kneed’, the entire lower half of his body assuming the ‘feminine type’. Subsequently, the transformation permeates the pathic’s entire habitus (‘deterioration of the body is followed by deterioration of mind, and the character also grows womanish’) so that what began as a vice eventually becomes an actual female condition with pernicious physical and mental consequences (Rosenbaum, 1901: 189-94).

Clearly influenced by Rosenbaum’s presentation of a ‘feminine disease’, gender nonconformity occupied a significant presence in Casper’s writing on pederasty. Three of the eleven case studies described by Casper in 1852 identified effeminacy as a pertinent characteristic of pederasts. References to gender nonconformity in legal cases of pederasty subsequently appeared as a staple feature in German forensic and wider medical literature. For example, the homo mollis (‘soft man’) described by Hieronymus Fränkel was a cross-dressing man who seduced young men (Fränkel, 1853). A Dr F. Dohrn reported on a 67-year-old pederast who lived in a home for the destitute. He had sexually abused five boys between the ages of seven and sixteen years old with whom he had been allowed to sleep. Dohrn reported that the man’s nickname was Zwitter (‘hermaphrodite’) and that he was assumed to be hermaphroditic by his neighbours who suspected him of carrying on affairs with men (Dohrn, 1855).

Similarly, the application of the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics to sexual and gender nonconformity resonated in mid nineteenth-century Europe where evolutionary theorising was rampant. Although synonymous with the name of Lamarck, it should not be forgotten that alongside his theories of natural selection and sexual selection Darwin fully accepted the prevailing belief that characteristics acquired during an individual’s lifetime could be passed in a hereditary manner, leading to heightened adaptation to the immediate environment. Neither Lamarck nor Darwin applied the principle of the inheritance of acquired characteristics directly to homoeroticism but others, particularly those who were promoting models of hereditary degeneracy as a means of explaining perceived social ills, did not hold back in doing so. Thus, Rosenbaum preceded his quotation of Caelius Aurelianus by stating: ‘we see at the present day how the impurity of the father passes on to the son; so it need be matter for no surprise whatever to find the vice of the cinaedi descending in the same way among certain members of a family’ (Rosenbaum, 1901: 160).

Following Casper’s acceptance of the principle, already outlined, the emerging discipline of forensic psychiatry fully embraced the model of inherited, degenerative sexual and gender nonconformity. Fraenkel (1869), for example, referred to two individuals, one who wore female attire and one who wore male clothing but was ‘foppish in bearing, gait and speech’. ‘In both cases,’ he wrote, ‘a certain foolish trait was evident in their nearest and more distant relatives, and thus were also traces of hérédité progressive’. Fraenkel also considered it very probable that the vice of the penetrative pederast was inherited even if was not as evident as inherited effeminacy. In support of this he referred to a case, initially described by the Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso, where the two sons of a convicted pederast became pederasts themselves.

It was, without doubt, Westphal’s 1869 article that inextricably linked same-sex eroticism, gender nonconformity, and degenerative inheritance for the nascent psychiatric imagination. Westphal believed that he had identified an autonomous psychiatric condition that accounted for ‘the feeling of being alien to the whole deep nature according to one’s own sex’, a condition that may or may not involve homoerotic feelings and behaviours (‘it is a matter of difference in degree’). Much has been written about Westphal’s diagnosis and the subsequent influence it exerted in Continental psychiatry, particularly through the unprecedented success of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s momentous Psychopathia sexualis (1886). This paper will not therefore dwell on it here except for a brief, indulgent exercise in speculation. Westphal labelled the diagnosis ‘contrary sexual feeling’ (conträre Sexualempfindung), a term that had been suggested to him by ‘a respected colleague who has excelled in the field of philology and the study of antiquity [Alterthumswissenschaften]’ and had been decided upon after both had been unsuccessful in formulating a shorter or more accurate term (Westphal, 1999). We will probably never know for sure who Westphal’s silent partner might be but Julius Rosenbaum must surely stand as the primary contender (he was certainly still alive; he died in 1874).



In some key ways this article has bridged the scientific treatments of homoeroticism described in the papers in Borris and Rousseau (2008) for the early modern period and the more familiar psychiatric discourses that became hegemonic in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Much remains to be done in this bridging endeavour, particularly for the eighteenth century for which the content of pertinent Latin tracts remains frustratingly elusive. Notwithstanding scholarship on the life and work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (e.g., Kennedy, 1988 who draws attention to Ulrichs’s use of medical sources in formulating his ‘third sex’ theory), the further juxtapositions of gender nonconformity with homoeroticism within and beyond medicine during this period also remain to be fully explored as does the situation in other geographical regions. Still, even this overview of German-language legal and forensic commentaries has provided a deeper and more nuanced understanding of how the medical community continued to be deeply involved in theorising male homoeroticism through the transition to modernity. The influence of the anti-masturbation crusade and the changing body concepts it conveyed were integral to the ongoing processes of materialisation, morbidification, and medicalisation. When the virility with which these ventures were being undertaken was itself questioned (largely by Casper), ancient theories of gender transmutation and the inheritance of acquired characteristics bolstered flagging degeneracy theories and offered apparent justification for the continued pathologising of homoeroticism in medical discourses.




I am extremely grateful to Dr Joanne Bailey and Dr Elizabeth T. Hurren for their advice and support. I would also like to thank the two anonymous peer reviewers for their comments. For providing me with professional English-language translations I am indebted to Christine Langhoff (Bernt; Casper, 1843, 1852, & 1863; Gadermann; Hußty; Klose; Metzger) and Helen Shiner (Fraenkel; Fränkel; Henke; Mende; Müller). Where made, quotations are taken from their translations and are referenced to the original text.



[1] Ross Brooks is now in the third year of his course in Combined Studies (Sexuality & Society) and History. He aims to develop his interest in the history of homoeroticism at postgraduate level. E-mail address for correspondence ross dot brooks at oxfordbrookes dot net



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To cite this paper please use the following details: Brooks, R. (2008), ‘'Vices Once Adopted': Theorising Male Homoeroticism in German-Language Legal and Forensic Discourses, 1752-1869', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1, Issue 2, Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.

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