From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 15.2 (1995): 5-15.
Copyright © 1995, The Cervantes Society of America

Images of Deviance in Cervantes's Algiers


Deviance, like beauty, seems to be in the eye of the beholder. Beyond the reworkings of proverbial beliefs, that is at least what sociologists of deviance would have us think. For example, in his essay “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance” Kai Erickson defines certain forms of behavior as normal or deviant based not upon any inherent qualities of the behavior, but instead based upon the social audience's reaction to it (10-11). While the general public, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, still grapples with its feelings or assumptions regarding sexual “difference” and its deviances, historians of sexuality and gay activists debate more precise questions.
     One of those vexing issues, especially after Foucault's contentions in his History of Sexuality, is whether or not homosexuality even existed as a social category prior to the nineteenth century. A generally held position is that homosexuality —understood as a self-conscious individual and / or group identity based on sexual orientation— is a new social construct, one that did not come into existence until the nineteenth century.1 Nonetheless, dissenting views are held by several scholars whose works recognize the existence of early modern homosexual subcultures. Among these are

     1 This social constructionist view is opposed by essentialist historians who maintain that homosexual identity is an inherent transhistorical essence.



John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980); Alan Bray's Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982); Guido Ruggiero's The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (1985); and Joseph Cady, who specifically contends that the Renaissance recognized both [male] homosexuality and heterosexuality as real categories of experience. To round off the relevant scholarship for the eighties there is James Saslow, who also affirms in this regard that: “the lack of our modern terms ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual ’ did not prevent Renaissance theorists from marking a clear division between two kinds of love differentiated by the gender of one's chosen object” (81).
     Whether we wish to affirm or deny the existence of the social category of homosexuality in early modern times, there can be no empirical historical doubt that in Cervantes's cultural sphere homosexuals existed, at times participated in what would now be called a homosexual subculture, and were recognized as such, or at least as sodomites.2 At the same time, there is widening textual evidence, and concomitant scholarship, to indicate that the figure of the homosexual is not always relegated to the darker corners of Golden Age literature. Indeed, Roth finds antecedents in medieval Hebrew poetry of Spain. Yet the types of desire analyzed in the essays included in Quixotic Desire, the book that inspires this issue of Cervantes, are often seen as unconscious and rarely are homosexual.
     Nonetheless, one of Quixotic Desire's contributors, Paul Julian Smith, departs from Guy Hocquenghem's work and touches marginally upon the theme of homosexual desire in his essay on the Captive's Tale from Part One of Don Quixote. He sees the renegade as a “marginal creature, defined by the frontier or the space between two cultures” (230). Smith interprets Cervantes's description of the renegade as a pampered youth (“regalado garzón”) as implying perverse sexual practices “in the Moorish manner” (231). His conclusion regarding the Algerian episode is as follows: “The betrayal of nation and religion are here combined with a rejection of the compulsory heterosexuality enforced in the Christian territories. In the pleasure dome of the Orient, even the nefarious vice may speak, at least for a moment . . . homosexual desire opens out onto the Other (cultural, religious, ‘racial’)” (231).

     2 Carrasco affirms the existence of homosexual ghettos in sixteenth through eighteenth-century Valencia. He bases his assertions on the testimony given by accused sodomites before the Inquisition regarding where homosexuals would congregate, who their partners were, their demeanor, and secret signs they used to recognize and communicate with each other.

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     Said reminds us of how conclusions like Smith's still fall within the parameters of latent and manifest “Orientalism” because, as he states in a very recent rereading of the original argument of his book:

The construction of identity —for identity, whether of Orient or Occident, France or Britain, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction— involves establishing opposites and ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and reinterpretation of their differences from ‘us’. Each age and society recreates its ‘others’. Far from a static thing then, identity of self or of ‘other’ is a much worked-over historical, social, intellectual and political process that takes place as a contest involving individuals and institutions in all societies (1995: 3).

     It would be pertinent, therefore, to begin examining what the so-called Muslim Others of Cervantes's time thought about the West, and whether “our” side of the world occupied a privileged sphere in their consciousness. In other words, we still need to investigate from a historical literary perspective the issue of whether Muslims of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries needed the West to formulate their own identities.3
     With respect to the Other and the Otherness Smith rightly brings forth, they had already been perused in Diego de Haedo's extensive three-volume treatise on the history, geography and customs of Algiers entitled Topographía e historia general de Argel (first published in 1612 in Valladolid). Haedo, himself a captive in Algiers from 1579 to 1582, explains the sociohistorical background of the Captive's Tale in great detail, providing much of the empirical evidence I mentioned before. Now, is there more room to ground assertions like Smith's historically, and, as a matter of fact, are there other texts by Cervantes that would allow us to further recognize and analyze a homosexual presence in his work? To begin answering these questions, I propose a reconsideration of several brief but profoundly significant episodes from Cervantes's two Algerian plays.

     3 It is along these lines, and mainly in terms of the contemporary period, that Said's work has created an ongoing polemic. Without wishing to reduce the scope and importance of what is otherwise mainly an academic problem, I refer readers to two salient critics of Said: Aijaz Ahmad's abridged “Orientalism and After,” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia UP, 1994): 162-171; and Homi K. Bhabha, “The Other Question. Stereotype, Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism, ” The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994): 66-84.


     In the first comedia, Los tratos de Argel, two Moorish merchants purchase two young Spanish captives, Francisco and Juan, separating them from their parents. The perverse use for which the two brothers are destined is made immediately obvious, since they are both advertised by the pregonero as young and beautiful garzones. In fact, one of the Moorish buyers exclaims with pleasure: “enamorado me ha / el donaire del garzón” (Cervantes 871-872). The term “garzón” is explained in Haedo's treatise under the heading luxuria. He speaks of the social being and function of the garzón and of the high esteem in which the Muslims hold these young boys: “La sodomía se tiene . . . por honra, porque aquel es más honrado que sustenta más garçones y los celan más que las propias mujeres y hijas . . .” (I: 176).
     Haedo adds that fathers must guard their sons carefully in order that they not fall prey to this vice, as do most since they are actively courted by the older men. He describes the garzón as a type of soldadera who accompanies the alcayde on his travels, the Turk to war, and the corsair on his expeditions, serving him at table and accompanying him in bed. If we are to believe Haedo, the garzón also apparently fulfilled a function of attracting clientele to Algerian barber shops. The barbers employed them in their shops to shave and wash the Turks, renegades and Moors, concluding that “son dellos tan continuamente festejados como si fuesen las más principales y hermosas damas del mundo; y, en efecto, las boticas de barberos son unos públicos burdeles” (I: 177).4
     It is obvious that the degree to which Haedo's comments reflect the social and sexual reality of seventeenth-century Algiers is less easily established than the extent to which they reflect a Christian fear and rejection of what was, to them, deviant sexuality and a real threat to Christian captives in Northern Africa. In Los tratos, Francisco, the older of the two brothers sold into slavery, remains firm in his goodness and his faith, refusing to change his name to Mamí (a name as sonoro y significativo as other Cervantine inventions given its play on mamar and mamá), and abjure his religion. Even when threatened with physical violence, the boy's response is: “¿Para qué es mudar el nombre, / si no ha de mudar la fe?” (872). The father's last advice to Francisco is to live as a good and loyal Christian, while the mother enumerates the means by which slave boys are moved to abandon their faith: amenazas, gustos y regalos,

     4 Albert Mas contextualizes further the figure of the Turk in other Cervantine works in Vol. 1 of his Les turcs dans la littérature espagnole du siècle d'or (Paris: Institut d'Etudes Hispaniques, 1967): 289-383.

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palos, and trazas (872). It is neither surprising nor irrelevant that, besides the gustos y regalos, the other means are not enticements but rather disciplinary tools and measures not very different from those adopted by the Inquisition.
     Throughout Los tratos de Argel the lustful, often deviant, instincts of the Moors are emphasized and contrasted with the pure and “natural” love maintained by the Christians. For example, the lascivious couple Zahara and Yzuf are ready to renounce the tenets of their faith in pursuing their Christian slaves Aurelio and Silvia, and mentions of more turpid desires and acts are frequent in the play. Aurelio affirms that “el mancebo cristiano al torpe vicio / es dedicado desta gente perra, / do consiste su gloria y ejercicio” (882). Later in the play, when a Christian slave is teased by two young Moorish boys, he exclaims that he hopes to see Algiers burned to the ground, “pena que justamente le es debida / a sus continos y nefandos vicios” (887).
     In act three the mother's worst fears come to pass when her younger son, Juan, reappears dressed “como turco bizarro.” The Turkish garb is a crucial emblem of deviance since according to Haedo the Janizaries in Algiers commonly engaged in sodomy, “sirviéndose de mozos cristianos cautivos que compran para este vicio, que luego visten a la turquesca” (I: 76). Juan has been won over by food, material comforts and presents, he has renounced his faith, and now answers to the name Solimán. Francisco laments his brother's apostasy, crying: “¡Oh tierna edad! ¡Cuán pressto eres vencida, / siendo en esta Sodoma requestada / y con falsos regalos combatida!” (896).5
     At the moment of Francisco's lament Cervantes's political message becomes explicit: to a great degree the play is a warning to Spanish Christians to be more charitable and pay ransoms in order to save its young:

¡Oh, cuan bien la limosna es empleada
en rescatar muchachos, que en sus pechos
no está la santa fe bien ar[r]aigada!

     5 Bunes Ibarra explains that to contemporary Christians (such as Haedo, Jerónimo Gracián de la Madre de Dios, Antonio Fajardo y Acevedo and others) Christian apostates were the greatest sodomites of all: “Según este tipo de testimonios, cualquier cristiano que reniega de sus principios adquiere con la circuncisión buena parte de los vicios y defectos de los musulmanes. Al residir y convivir con los moros y turcos, que se dan a la sodomía sin ningún perjuicio y a la luz del día, se va confundiendo su moral hasta llegar a aceptar este tipo de prácticas sexuales como cosa natural” (239).


¡Oh, si de hoy más, en caridad deshechos
se viesen los cristianos corazones,
y fuesen en el dar no tan estrechos,
para sacar de grillos y prisiones
al cristiano cativo, especialmente
a los niños de flacas intenciones!
[ . . . ]
¡Oh secta fementida de Mahoma,
ancha, lasciva, poco escrupulosa!
¡Con qué facilidad los simples doma! (897)

     In the second half of the Cervantine dyptich, Los baños de Argel, two young boys are wrenched from their elderly father's arms and sold into sodomy by their own uncle, the renegade Yzuf. In this play it is the Algerian judge, or Cadí, whose lustful and deviant desires are aroused by the sight of the two beautiful young slaves. Meanwhile, the boys' father repeatedly insists that he would rather God kill his sons than allow their purity, both religious and sexual, to be sullied by the sodomitical Cadí:

Conservad a estos armiños
en limpieza, ¡oh, limpios cielos!,
y si veis que se endereza
de Mahoma la torpeza
a procurar su caída
quitadles antes la vida
que ellos pierdan su limpieza (228).

     In a parallel episode to Los tratos, these boys also appear dressed “a la turquesca de ga[rzo]nes” (231), an emphasis that is not totally innocent in terms of the issues Cervantes is developing. But this time the older of the two, Juanico, quickly allays his father's fears, assuring him that Moorish finery cannot move their faith. The Cadí finally becomes furious with Francisco's refusal to be swayed by promises, threats and tricks to renounce his faith and give in to his master's sodomitical desires. The boy is eventually martyred and crucified, transformed into a Christ figure bathed in his own divine blood.
     The Algerian plays are emblematic of early modern Christian Spain's views on the so-called nefarious sin of sodomy. Heresy and sexuality are tightly interwoven in the early modern European mind and sexual and religious deviance commonly transgress together. Golden Age authors often made the connection between Moors and

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sodomy when citing the double epistemological error of the followers of Islam. The Arabs, it was presumed, not only venerated a false prophet, but also violated natural law by being incestuous and great sodomites (Carrasco 212). Many Spaniards believed sodomy to be common practice among male Muslims, making them the “natural” counterpart to the stereotype of the lascivious mora. This argument of the sexual perversion supposedly authorized in Islam was often wielded in order to exalt the superiority of Catholicism. For instance, it was used in this manner in Spain by the apologists for the expulsion of the Moriscos in 1609.6
     But a fuller explanation would take into account the nature of homosexuality in Islam and perhaps further illuminate Cervantes's portrait of Algerian deviance. Remembering Edward Said's admonishments about how the (mainly academic) West has created the East, recent studies of sexuality in Islam by Arabists might prove meaningful in clarifying the episodes in the plays I am discussing. Both the Algerian Bousquet (L'Ethique sexuelle de l'islam) and the Tunisian Bouhdiba (Sexuality in Islam) explain how in Muslim teaching, the lawfulness of sexual pleasure was never connected with procreation, as it was by Christians. To the contrary, the Koran teaches that the sexual function is in itself a sacred one (Bouhdiba 14). Sexual pleasure was viewed as a precursor of the joys of Paradise, since it is explicitly stated by the Prophet that believers will be able to make love throughout eternity (Bousquet 48). Thus the hostility of Judaism and Christianity towards sexuality lead to a restrictive and hostile approach to manifestations of the sexual instinct, while the Koran is quite open to the idea of sexual pleasure. In fact, a famous hadith says that “Each time that you make love, you perform a meritorious act before God” (Daniel 63).
     From the tenth century on, Islamic theologians thought that homosexuality deserved no bodily punishment since the Koran teaches that Muslim blood can only be shed legally because of adultery, apostasy or homicide. This attitude becomes more meaningful when we remember that the official punishment for sodomy in Spain was burning at the stake. In a recent essay (quoted above)

     6 See Pedro Aznar Cardona's Expulsion justificada de los moriscos españoles (Huesca, 1612) and Bernardo Pérez de Chinchón's Libro llamado Antialcoran, que quiere dezir contra el Alcoran de Mahoma (Valencia, 1532). The greater context for the Catholic church's historical relation to homosexuality has been updated by Uta Ranke-Heinemann in Eunucos por el reino de los cielos, trans. Víctor Abelardo Martínez de Lapera (Madrid: Trotta, 1994).


about Arab civilization and male love, Marc Daniel explains that the true reason for this indulgent attitude in Moslem culture is that in reality the crime or sin of homosexuality did not fit into the mental categories of Islam. Therefore, no logical reasons existed in Islam for forbidding it on moral grounds. In fact, whatever the theoretical condemnation (and even that was little emphasized) leveled against homosexuality by the Koran, the force of events soon caused in the Arab world a vast flowering of homosexual love under all its forms (Daniel 62-63).
     Because of this fundamental divergence between Christian and Muslim perceptions of sexuality, the reality of boy love within Islam is an underlying issue which must be addressed when considering Christian notions of deviance and their literary projection upon Arabic cultures, in this case seventeenth-century Algiers. While the Cervantine Cadí is demonized for his perversions, proofs of actual and frequently practiced homosexuality abound in Islamic texts celebrating boy-love (Daniel 64). In fact, the boy-love theme is commonplace in both Arabic and Hebrew poetry written in Medieval Spain, although the latter lacks the explicit references to sexual activity contained in the former (see Roth). In this regard, López-Baralt's Un Kama Sutra español (1992) also discusses briefly the permissive nature of many Arabic erotic treatises with respect to homosexuality, and Boswell treats the boy-love theme in the medieval Christian world in his 1980 work.
     Western scholars are well aware that from medieval polemics to contemporary scholarship, Islamic societies have been characterized as sanctioning and even promoting licentiousness and sexual deviance (Rowson 50). This fact brings me back to my initial observation regarding cultural positioning and the relativity of sexual deviance. The insistence upon interpreting as perversions the sexual otherness of Islam represented in these two plays and other literature of the Golden Age serves a powerful and compelling political end. The episodes I have briefly discussed validate the perception of homosexuality as the ultimate threat of Spanish Christianity in the Algerian bagnios. There innocent Christian boys are inducted into the degradation of Moorish sodomy, either by force or by enticement. What better call to action to Spanish Christians and to the monarch? The imprisoned slaves must be ransomed at all costs in order to save them from Islamic “promiscuity” and the threat of apostasy. If they were not ransomed, their likely fate was to abjure their faith and swell the ranks of the many thousands of Christian apostates residing in Algiers who, according to Haedo, held almost all the

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power and wealth in the city (I: 52-55).7 The only other possibilities for the young slaves were to be sacrificed as Christian martyrs or to be sacrificed to Moorish lust.
     The ultimate symbolic value of helpless, enslaved Christians in these texts is as an emblem of Cervantes's varying sexual and spiritual positioning of his characters, as well as of the historical entities on which they may have been based. Said reminds us that “The geographic boundaries accompany the social, ethnic, and cultural ones in expected ways. Yet often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is ‘out there,’ beyond one's own territory. All kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crown the unfamiliar space outside one's own” (1978: 54). Although after his five-year captivity in Algiers that land was hardly unfamiliar space to Cervantes, he chooses to depict it as oppositional in the most compelling and controlling socio-cultural spheres: the religious and the sexual. By presenting the non-Christian territories across the Mediterranean as centers of multiple deviance, Cervantes's twin Algerian plays both serve and are served by the inevitable Orientalism of their time.


     7 See Bartolomé and Lucile Bennassar's Les Chrétiens d'Allah (Paris: Perrin, 1989) for the most extensive treatment of Christian apostates during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. London: Routledge, 1985.

Bousquet, G.-H. L'éthique sexuelle de l'Islam Paris: Maisonneuve, 1966.

Bunes Ibarra, Miguel Angel de. La imagen de los musulmanes y del norte de Africa en la España de los siglos XVI y XVII. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1989.

Cady, Joseph. “Renaissance Awareness and Language for Heterosexuality: ‘Love’ and ‘Feminine Love.’” Renaissance Discourses of Desire. Ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1993. 143-158.

Carrasco, Rafael. Inquisición y represión sexual en Valencia. Historia de los sodomitas (1565-1785). Barcelona: Laertes, 1985.

Cervantes, Miguel de. Teatro completo. Ed. Florencio Sevilla Arroyo and Antonio Rey Hazas. Barcelona: Planeta, 1987.

Daniel, Marc. “Arab Civilization and Male Love.” Trans. Winston Leyland. Reclaiming Sodom. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Erickson, Kai. “Notes on the Sociology of Deviance.” The Other Side: Perspectives on Deviance. Ed. Howard Becker. New York: The Free Press, 1964. 9-21.

Haedo, Fray Diego de. Topographía e historia general de Argel. [Valladolid: Diego Fernández de Córdoba y Oviedo, 1612.] Reedición de Ignacio Bauer y Landauer. Madrid: Sociedad de Bibliófilos Españoles, 1927. 3 vols.

Roth, Norman. “‘Deal gently with the young man’: Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Spain.” Speculum 57.1 (Spring 1982): 20-51.


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Rowson, Everett K. “The Categorization of Gender and Sex Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists.” Body Guards. The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Random House, 1978.

——. “East isn't East: The Impending End of the Age of Orientalism.” The Times Literary Supplement 4792 (February 3, 1995): 3-6.

Saslow, James M. “‘A Veil of Ice between My Heart and the Fire’: Michelangelo's Sexual Identity and Early Modern Constructs of Homosexuality.” Genders 2 (Summer 1988): 77-89.

Smith, Paul Julian. “‘The Captive's Tale’: Race, Text, Gender.” Quixotic Desire: Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Cervantes. Ed. Ruth Anthony El Saffar and Diana de Armas Wilson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993. 227-235.

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes