Sexual Hierarchies, Public Status: Men, Sodomy, and Society in Spain's Golden Age.


201 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 978-0-8020-9139-3
DDC 306.76'62094609031




Reviewed by Ian C. Nelson

Ian C. Nelson is Assistant Director of Libraries at the University of


Cristian Berco is an assistant professor in the Department of History at Bishop’s University.


The outstanding feature of this scholarly work is Berco’s meticulously balanced and nuanced exploration of the peculiar mixture of state, church, and individual perspectives that made up the world under his historical microscope. He brings to the fore a very complex ambiance with its particular mix of secular and ecclesiastical elements and the essential starting point of all proceedingswhat he calls the “popular participation” (i.e., denunciationincluding self-denunciationof homosexual activity in the community). His prime documents include the record of some 500 inquisitorial trials. He pays particular attention to the pervasive norm of the period, which pitted macho penetrative sexual behaviours against passive/receptive ones. Subversive erotic encounters seen in this light were a serious upset of various regulated hierarchies: citizen vs. foreign immigrant, freeman vs. slave, Christian vs. Muslim, adult male vs. adolescent boy. Threats to these accepted social structures in the views of that day justified sometimes rabid investigation and subsequent punishments that ran the well-known gamut from banishment, through service in the galleys, to “relaxation,” to the secular arm and the dreaded auto-da-fe. Without denying the severity of such court determinations, he assuages more popular and grotesque views of these consequences by noting that inquisitors were generally “mere receptors of denunciations.” Berco is thus uncommonly successful in viewing the proceedings from the perspective of the age. Yet he does not neglect to address our contemporary issues with “gayness,” in particular the identity argument of Foucault and the essentialist take of Boswell.


Because of the highly relevant elements of poverty, race, and Islamic-Christian relations associated with the trials in Spain’s Golden Age, this book proves to be a compelling study for the modern reader and deserves to be on all academic library shelves and in all collections of queer studies.


Berco, Cristian., “Sexual Hierarchies, Public Status: Men, Sodomy, and Society in Spain's Golden Age.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 25, 2024,