An “Obscure” Object of Desire: Muslims in Spanish Homoerotic Sociability

We saw in the case of Hamete the extent to which Spanish secular and religious authorities used sexual transgressions to reinforce the boundaries dividing the Christian majority and the Muslim minority. Today we will shed light on the other side of the coin. The response of the institutions was, indeed, a reaction to deeply-rooted anxieties in a society where the lines dividing faiths were more blurred than the religious rhetoric of that time would make us think.

Religious miscegenation was an obsession in the Christian West. Unlike in Muslim countries, interreligious marriage was strongly prohibited in Christian Europe. Any kind of sexual intercourse between ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’ had been strictly prohibited since the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).[1] Sexual intercourse with ‘unbelievers’ was regarded as a source of pollution. Moreover, civil and religious institutions feared that acquaintance with non-Christians could lead to apostasy. Notwithstanding this severe prohibition, what we know about Spain, and western Christianity in general, is that slaveowners expected sexual services from their female slaves, even when they were non-Christians. Often these relationships resulted in numerous offspring.[2] Concubinage with non-Christian women was also tolerated and largely practiced in the Iberian world.[3]

Homosexual acts were different. Although they could not result in pregnancies, the stain they were believed to carry with them was so polluting that their practice was no less feared than the risk of a ‘bastard’ offspring. By virtue of their forbidden nature, however, they called for the development of an underground sociability in order to be performed, one that ended up opening spaces for social interactions that could not have occurred in other, more out-in-the-open, settings. As Tomás Antonio Mantecón Movellán has shown, despite the barriers erected by the prejudices against Muslims, the most representative cases reported by Pedro de León (see previous post) show how in daily homosexual life in Seville, ethnic and cultural distinctions were easily transcended. Moreover, Muslim slaves who were not converts, moriscos, and mulattos – all subjects on which, notwithstanding their diversity, normative discourse placed the heavy and infamous accusation of indulging in sodomitic practices – were immersed in circles of homosexual sociability defined by a marked transversal social composition. In some cases, these individuals even occupied privileged positions (as objects of desire).

Pedro Dávila, the Sevillan noblemen we already met in the previous post, appears to have had a weakness for Muslims, sometimes having been seen with more than one simultaneously. Apparently, he was very demanding. He often “looked for Moors or Turks with big sexual organs [que tuviesen grandes naturales], to buy them for that purpose.” Yet there were others who were prepared to pay even more for that kind of service. A merchant admitted in court that “another gentleman gave him a hundred ducats every time he had been an agent with him.”[4]

Machuca, known as “the Black,” was captured in the late 16th century and “by the way he addressed young and handsome gentlemen,” he had earned deserved fame within the most frequented homosexual circle in Seville. He acted as a pimp [alcahuete], “arranging the meetings of one youngster with another one and telling them: certainly, you will be able to spend time with this one who is also prone to the vice of sodomy.” He also facilitated the love conquests of caballeritos (well-off men) among the youth of the popular classes. Maybe for this reason Machuca’s execution caused a great deal of anxiety across the city: some feared that the proceedings against him could also send others to their death, including some who enjoyed a good reputation among the local elite. This, however, did not take place.[5]

The activities of matchmakers like Machuca led to the proliferation of meeting points, reunion places, and rooms where several “of the most embellished and elegant young men” could freely express their emotions and passions. Notably, these spaces created room for interaction among members of different social classes. In this context, individuals such as the freedman Machuca were essential intermediaries in the secret contacts between men from diverse backgrounds. Prostitution was a way to put men of great physical prowess in contact with others such as Don Pedro Dávila, the soldier who had a weakness for moors with “large sexual organs”, or with other local caballeritos and members of the nobility.


To set an example and leave a deep impression upon the viewers, authorities carefully orchestrated the scene for Machuca’s execution on 21 October 1585: “he was carried in a carriage with his face painted, wearing a collar with many agave tips, curly hair and a big tuft [of hair], and on both sides of the carriage, which were also painted, there were very handsome and embellished youngsters with their own collars of agave tips and curly tufts of hair. The Black, who was depicted as being even blacker than he was, took the boys by the hand as if to marry them.” [6]

The decoration on the carriage and the personal ornaments, together with the skin colour and the gestural language, represented the punishable behaviour and manners that, because they were attributed to Machuca, were considered to be sins against nature. Machuca was a “moor” and a pimp among same-sex lovers, but also among clients and prostitutes. These facts rendered his actions particularly objectionable and punishable.

Some of the strategies we have already seen at work in Hamete’s case (see previous post) were functioning also in Machuca’s execution. The cases briefly presented here, however, shed light on the role played by homosexual transgressions in the relations between morisco and Muslim minorities and the Christian majority in early modern Spain. The sexual relationships reflected the unbalanced relations of power between the two groups. The eroticization of dark-skinned men was the flip-side of the racial stereotypes elaborated in centuries of anti-Muslim propaganda. However, this semi-clandestine network could also provide a place where men of Muslim origins could pursue a certain degree of social mobility. Homosexual practices played a role in cementing social bonds and favoring cross-religious and cross-class contacts that could hardly have taken place in other, more overt, settings. Prostitution allowed non-converted Muslims and black slaves to gain not only money, but also a position of dominance within these groups. We know that on the opposite shores of the Mediterranean Sea Christian slaves could enjoy similar social benefits, using homosexual relationships as a vehicle for social promotion.

It is clear, from what we have said so far, that these phenomena of mobility were influenced by racial constructs. I will deal in my next post with the issue of race and its problematic use in pre-modern history.

This article presents abstracts (in italics) from a research by Tomás Antonio Mantecón Movellán: “Beyond Repression: Gender Identities and Homosexual Relations between Muslims and Christians in 16th- and 17th-Century Spain,” forthcoming in U.Grassi, ed., Mediterranean Crossings: Sexual Transgressions in Islam and Christianity  (10th-18th Centuries), Rome: Viella. I thank the author for its authorization to share here this material.

[1] Marina Caffiero, Legami pericolosi. Ebrei e cristiani tra eresia, libri proibiti e stregoneria (Torino: Einaudi, 2012), 232.

[2] Children inherited their father’s status if he was willing to acknowledge his paternity. Mary Elizabeth Perry, The Handless Maiden: Moriscos and the Politics of Religion in Early Modern Spain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 51.

[3] Ragnhild J. Zorgati, Pluralism in the Middle Ages: Hybrid Identities, Conversion, and Mixed Marriages in Medieval Iberia (London, New York: Routledge 2012), 129-139.

[4]  Pedro de León, Compendio de las Industrias en los ministerios de la Compañía de Jesús con que prácticamente se demuestra el buen acierto en ellos (1628). University of Salamanca, MS 573, ff. 390-392.

[5] Ibid., ff. 282-283.

[6] Ibid., ff. 280-281.

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