Waiting for a bus home a few days ago, I was reminded yet again how history surrounds us, and that we simply have to open our eyes to it. Leaning on the rail looking contentedly across the river and over towards the lake, I noticed for the first time a small glass panel, which tells the story of Bartholomé Tecia.
Bartholomé, it says, was a 15 year old student from Piedmont, who was accused of, tortured, and drowned for the crime of homosexuality in 1566.
Given some pause for thought that the banks of the Rhône were not always so pleasant, I decided to look him up in the state archives. Bartholomé was in Geneva to study under protestant theologian Théodore de Bèze, when an accusation was made against him by fellow students Émeric Garnier and Théodore Agrippa d’Aubigné, who later found success as a a French poet and soldier. Sadly, his treatment was nothing especially unusual – he was one of numerous, mainly male, persons accused and condemned for homosexual activity in Geneva during the ancien régime.
However, the case does reveal a number of interesting things about prosecution of these so called ‘crimes against nature’, which also included other sexual crimes such as adultery, rape, or incest, as well as cases of infanticide.
Bartholomé’s execution, which occurred right in the heat of the reformation, came at a high point of executions generally, and specifically drownings. But the reasoning for the choice of method was rapidly evolving, and Batholomé’s case marks this evolution. Prior to this, drowning had been seen as a softening of the death penalty, for example given out to those who readily confessed. In 1554 it was the method selected for 3 of a group of 5 boys also convicted of sodomy, who were judged to be too young for the fury of the stake. The punishment of the other two, still younger, boys, was even lighter and designed to prevent their recidivism. However, for Bartholomé it was the inverse. His youth was judged to be inexcusable, since according to his accusers he had repeatedly attempted to ‘make a move’, and moreover refused to confess – even during the torture arranged to elicit his admission. It was precisely because of this that he was condemned to death, and his punishment was not softened. This therefore marked a significant change.
The attempts to seek an admission are also interesting. He was clearly going to be judged guilty either way, since without a confession he was still executed. If he were to confess, however, his penalty might supposedly not have been so severe. And yet, Bartholomé still denied his crime, even under torture designed to help him reach a confession. This behaviour surely requires some further explanation. What did he have to gain from his denials, and what did the authorities stand to gain in trying to seek a confession?
The accuser was critical in the process: as Tecia’s case shows, it was on their testimony the case stood, not the confession or denial of the defendant. Accusing someone was no light matter. Garnier and Agrippa d’Aubigné would themselves have been imprisoned until the decision to prosecute Tecia was taken. Their liberty, and their own lives, was at risk. Agrippa d’Aubigné appears to have fled Geneva for sometime after the case. In loading Tecia with the crime, they certainly saved themselves; but this does make their own role and their motives ambiguous.
Finally, the punishment demonstrates the complex role of human judgment under the principal of predestination. Human authority was called upon to enact divine justice, partly so divine vengeance was not exercised on the whole community. Justice was a concept which extended beyond the individual and his relationship with God. Apart from anything else, it was a very public spectacle.
See Sonia Vernhes Rappaz, ‘La noyade judiciaire dans la République de Genève (1558-1619)’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés, 13 (2009), pp. 5-23.
The featured image of people drowning is taken from the Nuremburg Chronicles. No image exists of Tecia.
Sonia Vernhes Rappaz, based here at UNIGE, was able to help clarify some of my questions about the case. I include an abridged translation of some of her comments below.
In the sixteenth century Europe, except in England, an inquisitorial system was primarily used. The most important proof, apart from the two eyewitness testimonies, was the confession of the accused, obtained if necessary with torture and repeated without. Perhaps Tecia simply hoped that the judges didn’t have sufficient evidence. However, after being tortured four times he finally admitted to the crime (whether or not he was guilty), which gave the magistrates sufficient proof to convict him.
Additionally, Vernhes Rappaz pointed out that the use of drowning was very specific to Geneva and this time.
For further reading, she suggests William Naphy and Robert and William Kingdon Mount.