On this day: state-sanctioned drowning of gay children

Geneva Bartholomé Tecia gay children

On this day in 1566, the Swiss Republic of Geneva drowned 15-year-old Bartholomé Tecia for the ‘crime’ of sodomy. The republic also drowned other gay children a couple of years before.

The Republic of Geneva

Geneva acted as a Protestant hub in the second half of the 16th century, exporting dogma to fledgling congregations across Europe. The Republic’s holier-than-thou despots desired that their own earthly kingdom sparkle with godliness.

But that gave the Catholics a bit of a chuckle.

Catholics and Protestants remained mortal enemies, burning each other at the stake at every opportunity. Indeed, the faithful devoted more time to fighting each other than their common imaginary foe – the Devil.  And Catholics scoffed at the idea of Geneva as a bastion of godly behaviour.

They claimed the spiritual leader of the Republic was himself a sodomite.

In his wild youth, Théodore de Bèze hung out in Parisian literary circles and found fame as a poet. However, some of his poems, published in a collection titled Poemata under a pseudonym, indicated an easy familiarity with same-sex desires, and supposed same-sex mannerisms.

The following example, a 1577 English translation from the original Latin, tells of a priest’s confusion when confronted with a bride and her effeminate groom.

“For to be married yesterdaie,
To Churche, a gallant jetted gaie:
His crisped locks wavde all behind,
and his tongue did lispe, and visage shinde.
His rovyng eyes rolde to and fro,
He fiskyng fine did mincyng go:
His lippes all painted semed sweet:
When as the Priest came them to meet,
(A pleasaunt scouse, though nought of life)
He askt of both, whiche was the wife?”

Torn between two lovers

However, detractors of de Bèze zeroed in on another poem that did not require much reading between the lines to posit as autobiographical. The poem was titled Théodore de Bèze: Son Affection Pour Candide et Audebert.

Yep! Despite publishing the collection anonymously, de Bèze gifted the protagonist his own name (and the same place of birth). He also named one of the objects of his affection after his friend and fellow French poet, Germain Audebert.

The poem related a classic dilemma — the subject, de Bèze, torn between two lovers — in this case, one female (Candida) and the other male (Audebert).

Théodore de Bèze: Son Affection Pour Candide et Audebert. (extract)

“Candide is so miserly, I know,
That she wants to hold all Bèze;
And of his Bèze, Audebert is so greedy,
That he burns to possess all of Bèze:
So I embrace both of them,
Desiring to see them all together, both,
And to enjoy, in my integrity, all of them.
However, someone must be preferred: Too cruel a necessity!
But since, finally, I must choose, I prioritise you, Audebert,
And if Candida loudly complains, what then?
Well, I’ll silence her with a little kiss… deep.”

The poet implies that despite propriety demanding he marry Candy, it’s Audebert who stirs his loins. So, he’ll marry Candy and slip her a bit occasionally to shut her up while maintaining his relationship with Audebert. A not uncommon set-up even today.

Interested readers can check out the poems in French in an 1879 edition available at the Internet Archive.

Following the publication of his poems, de Bèze contracted a serious illness and upon his recovery from that, contracted religion. Poor guy couldn’t win! He married a chambermaid and fled Catholic France for Protestant Switzerland where he eventually inherited the spiritual leadership of the Republic of Geneva.

But his religious enemies regularly denounced de Bèze as a sodomite throughout his life.

Bartholomé Tecia

Young Bartholomé Tecia was a foreigner. He came from Piedmont in northern Italy. His family sent him to study theology in Geneva at the famous academy run by… Théodore de Bèze. Like some other students, Bartholomé Tecia stayed at the de Bèze home.

The lad arrived in a town with a zeal for judicial killing. The Republic punished the most serious crimes with burning at the stake. However, women, boys and others considered worthy of special consideration were spared the flames and allowed an alternative ‘milder’ punishment — death by drowning. Between 1558 and 1619, Geneva drowned 13 people for sodomy, including two women. In 1564, three boys even younger than Bartholomé Tecia went to their deaths in the Rhone River for the same ‘crime’.

As a foreigner, the Italian student was probably lucky to escape burning. Three Turkish slaves and two Frenchmen were consigned to the flames for sodomy in 1590 despite local adult males receiving sentences of drowning around the same time.

The case involving Bartholomé Tecia apparently arose after authorities interrogated students at the de Bèze Academy.

A student named Emeric Garnier told the court, “When the Ministers came to the class to interrogate, the master said that whoever did not answer what the Ministers would ask, would be beaten.”

A great cheau!

Emeric claimed that while studying with Bartholomé, the latter said, ‘I have a great cheau’ and stripped off his breeches to show it. The Italian boy then allegedly tried to forcefully ‘put his shameful parts around [Emeric’s] foundations (arse)’.

Another student, Agrippa d’Aubigné, said that Bartholomé Tecia ‘wanted to bugger him’ when the pair shared a bed.

It appears no actual sodomy took place, only attempts. It is impossible to know now if Emeric and Agrippa told the truth when they claimed Bartholomé Tecia tried to forcibly sodomise them. They surely knew that if they admitted to consensual sexual activity, they would also go to a terrible death. We do know that Agrippa d’Aubigné fled Geneva immediately following the trial and later became a famous Protestant poet and soldier.

Bartholomé denied the allegations so the magistrates ordered him tortured. It took four trips to the torturers before the child finally confessed to homosexual activity with his fellow students. He further confessed that back in Piedmont he allowed a lawyer to sodomise him in return for some apples.

Abominable and despicable crime

The court found the boy guilty of the ‘abominable and despicable crime of sodomy’.

“You Bartholomé Tecia, are hereby condemned to be tied up with rope, led out of the Corraterie, to the Rhone River, and then be submerged and drowned in the customary manner, so that your soul is separated from its body. And so will end your days to be an example to others who might commit similar acts.”

A crowd followed the bound lad and his executioner from the public hearing outside city hall to the river. Men, women and children clambered for a good vantage point while fishermen anchored their boats close to the traditional place of execution. Oarsmen rowed the victim, executioner and two religious ministers into the middle of the river. There, the executioner lifted Bartholomé Tecia over the side of the boat and held the struggling child underwater until he drowned.

Today, a river-side plaque erected by a Swiss LGBTIQ+ group marks the sport where the murder took place.

Jean-Claude Humbert wrote a play about Bartholomé Tecia based on the minutes of his trial still held in the State Archives of Geneva.

“My intimate conviction is that [Bartholomé Tecia was] designated as a scapegoat. In the context of the very strong tension that existed between Protestants and Catholics, exacerbated by the wars of religion, this Calvinist republic really wanted to set an example. He had the ideal profile: a young foreign man, who could hardly defend himself.”

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