Image of two men kissingHomosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

Ancient and Modern Pederasty


In 1749, at the same time that John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure / Fanny Hill was published, Thomas Cannon published a pamphlet in defence of homosexuality titled Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified. Cannon and the printer, John Purser, were arrested on charges of obscenity. After several delays, Purser was tried at King’s Bench and convicted in February 1751, though he was subsequently pardoned. But Thomas Cannon – son of the deceased Dean of Lincoln – broke bail around June 1749 and fled abroad, where he lived for the next three years.

All copies of the offending book were destroyed, and no detailed description of its contents survived. However, in 2003 the literary historian Hal Gladfelder, through clever detective work and persevering scholarship, began uncovering nine previously unknown documents relating to the case, which he published in 2007. The most notable is the actual indictment against the printer, which contains the equivalent of perhaps twenty pages of Cannon’s book, which were extracted as examples of the obscene passages to be presented as evidence in the trial. [Note 1] Cannon’s book, as represented by these lost fragments, is an astonishing defence of ‘pederasty’, which contains not only pornographic passages similar to those in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (published in the same year), but also passages about gender ambiguity, and philosophical defences of same-sex love.

Cannon’s book was essentialy an anthology of a wide variety of material that could be used to defend same-sex love, a veritable canon of prohibited and subversive texts. It begins with a history of the practice of sodomy, noting how the ‘preposterous inclination’ was disowned by Christianity. It contains some lascivious reverie on the superiority of the male body, which has the touch of sincerity that suggests Cannon’s own desires, and also some misogynistic passages. Cannon calls attention to the praise of pederasty in ancient literature, such as Lucian’s Dialogues and Petronius’ Satyricon: ‘Every Dabbler knows by his Classics, that it was pursu’d and prais’d with the Heighth of Liberty. . . . With wond’rous Boast curst Pederasts advance, that Boy-love ever was the top Refinement of most enlighten’d Ages.’

In one long anecdotal section, an elderly beau named Amorio, who regularly ‘creeps about St. James’s, and the Park’, recounts how, as a young man, he once went to a masquerade and fell in love with a lady who, when naked in bed, revealed herself to be ‘of Gender masculine’, namely a boy named Hyacinth. This story launches into a celebration of the delights of male sexual intercourse, and specifically the pleasure provided by the tight anal passage: ‘My dear Amorio does not enfold a Woman; but one who more than Woman Grasps and Binds. Penetrating Love takes the Meaning and the most libidinous Fire ever felt by our wondering Glower, seizes his panting Frame. He is quickly piloted into a Streight [i.e. narrow passage], whose potent Cling draws all the Man in clammy Streams away.’

In a very different section, Cannon presents a rational, Enlightened defence of homosexuality:

In a Company where I happen’d, an abhorred, and too polish’d Pederast, attack’d upon the Head, that his Desire was unnatural, thus wrestled in Argument: Unnatural Desire is a Contradiction in Terms; downright Nonsense. Desire is an amatory Impulse of the inmost human Parts: Are not they, however constructed, and consequently impelling, Nature? Whatever Modes of Thinking the Mind from Objects receives, whatever Sensations pervade the Body, are not the Mind and Body Parcels of Nature, necessarily receiving these Thoughts, necessarily pervaded by these Sensations? Nature sometimes assumes an unusual Appearance; But the extraordinary Pederast seeking Fruition, is as naturally acted as the ordinary Woman’s Man in that Pursuit. The Pleasure, all Beauty gives, is even of Necessity follow’d by Desire, when Process of Time has stor’d Man with those Lights, which are the only Erudition and Accomplishment. Nature is Boundless, comprehending all animate, and inanimate Things; the Libyan Marvels, with their bak’d Sands, are no less natural than Peasants whistling in the verdant Vale.

Gladfelder has also discovered interesting documents concerning the relationship of Thomas Cannon and John Cleland, who at the time seem to have worked together in partnership, and who had a falling out. Cleland was worried that his reputation would be ruined by being associated with Cannon. Cannon took out a libel charge against Cleland, who he claimed had nailed to his door a message calling Cannon an ‘execrable, white-faced rotten Catamite: His name is Molly Cannon.’ Cleland was arrested for obscenity at the same time as Cannon, for Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which has a section describing sex between men, which also was probably the main reason for the prosecution. The section – which describes ‘the first straights of entrance’ during anal intercourse – was removed when Cleland republished the novel in 1750 under the title Fanny Hill; presumably it was removed because of the prosecution of Cannon and Purser, but we may wonder if Cannon was its author.

Cannon seems to have been incredibably naïve to have published Ancient and Modern Pederasty without realising what trouble he would get himself into, but he must have believed that there would be a market for such a book. This suggests the possibility that there existed a coterie of educated homosexuals or pederasts. It is curious that someone who met Cleland in 1781, when he was living in the Savoy and was about 80 years old, and had lost his government pension as a result of some political writings, said that Cleland was labouring ‘under the Censure of being a Sodomite, . . . and in Consequence thereof Persons of Character decline visiting him, or cultivating his Aquaintance’. [Note 2]

Thomas Cannon, having no means of subsistence when he fled abroad, returned to England and lived with his mother Elizabeth in retirement in Windsor for two years. Then two men who had given sureties for his bond of recognizance began a lawsuit to recover their costs from Cannon and his mother, who had underwritten the bonds. Cannon fled abroad again, and his mother, on her own behalf and on her son’s behalf, petitioned the Court for remission of his offence and cancellation of the bonds, for otherwise she and her son and her two daughters would be rendered destitute. She acknowledged that her son had written ‘a certain Tract or Pamphlet, containing the most detestable Principles of Impurity, not fit to be even remembered in the Title’, but she said that during his exile he had published a short Retraction, ‘Recanting and abjuring in the most solemn manner the Principles there broached’. At the present time her son ‘most humbly Implor[ed] your Lordships that [his recantation], together with his long Sufferings for a Series of five years past, attended with a Disappointment in every View of Life in consequence of his offence, may be now accepted in some degree of Satisfaction and Attonement to the Justice of the Publick, and that the memory of his Crime (which it is hoped hath been long since buried in Oblivion) shall not be again revived by further Prosecution against your said Petitioner, who cannot reflect upon his past Offence without Horror and Detestation.’ She assured their Lordships ‘that her once offending and now Penitent Offspring shall learn hereafter to Revere that Government whose Lenity and Clemency he has Experienced, and shall not be deprived by the Severity of the Law from an Opportunity of giving the Publick further fruits of his Repentance in a future course of Life Expressive of his utter abhorrence and detestation of the Principles which have unhappily fallen from his Pen, but never yet descended into his heart.’ [Note 3] The Court did grant the petition, and the Recognizance was struck from the Roll, but a reputable family had been effectively destroyed by the suggestion that homosexuality was nothing ignoble.

Extracts from Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd, 1749

The book begins with a mock praise of Christianity's extermination of pederasty, but which quickly reveals itself to be a defence of the pederasty of ancient Greece and Rome:

Among the many Unspeakable Benefits which redound to the World from the Christian Religion, no one makes a more conspicuous Figure than the Demolition of Pederasty. That celebrated Passion, Seal’d by Sensualists, espoused by Philosophers, enshrin’d by Kings, is now exploded with one Accord and Disown’d by the meanest Beggar. Wherefore since Fashion discountenances, Law punishes, God forbids, the Detested Love, we may sure discuss it with Freedom, and the most philosophical Exactness; we may present it in it’s studied Attitudes, and the lively colouring, with which the Master-hands of the Ancients have so pompously overspread it, free from Apprehension of exciting in any Breast so preposterous, and Severe-treated an Inclination.
          What Charm then held so many Sages and Emperors, clear Heads and hale Hearts? Inform me, what was that which like a chrystal expanded Lake drew all Mankind to bathe entranc’d in Joys, too mighty every one for our poor Utterance? Not the Flavour of forbidden Fruit: Every Dabbler knows by his Classics, that it was pursu’d and prais’d with the Heighth of Liberty. Was it the Perfection of a gradually lessening Shape? or, you in turn demand, was it the Firmness, yet Delicacy of Masculine Limbs? Hush; the Beauty-engrossing Sex will over-hear us. In Time, was it the more equally close Pressure, a certain Part afforded?
[i.e. anal intercourse] Let the Adepts in the Abominable Practice pronounce. With wond’rous Boast curst Pederasts advance, that Boy-love ever was the top Refinement of most enlighten’d Ages; or, never in Supreme Degree prevail’d where liberal Knowledge had not fix’d his Seat, and banish’d crampsoul Prejudice. When polish’d Greece bow’d her once laurell’d Head to all-subduing Rome, frequent Journeys to and fro wore a capacious Channel, thro’ which to the great Victrix roll’d the proud Streams of Learning, Taste, and Pederasty. The Theology of the Ancients plainly Shews, they preferr’d the horrible Passion to the Love of Women; blooming Hebe resigns to dazzling Ganymede, who ever after enjoys the Place of Cup-bearer to Jupiter.

Cannon goes on to give his lengthy translation of Lucian's homoerotic Dialogues of the Gods between Jupiter and Ganymede. He then turns to the Satyricon of Petronius, making his translation even more sexually explicit than Petronius's. After retailing the anecdote of Amorino and Hyacinth, which seems to be original to Cannon, Cannon translates the defence of pederasty from Lucian's Amores, and this leads on to an argument about the superiority of men over women:

Two opposite Lovers maintain their several Passions in Lucian with a deal of Eloquence, but too diffuse for the Sapient Reader. I here cull out the Illustration of an already cited Repartee; He-brutes do not love their own Gender, because Brutes. Bulls, the Woman’s Man cries, lust not after Bulls. Rams to Rams are not Objects of Desire. This is extreme ill judg’d, replies the Pederast, and if it made an inadvertent Sally, you shou’d have mumbl’d it unintelligibly; for it utterly overthrows your Argument; Bulls are not Bull-lovers; neither are they Philosophers; neither are they Musicians; neither have they Capacity for the Smallest Improvement of Life; a Demonstration that Male-love, like these sublime Sciences, is the distinguishing Portion of Sovereign Man. Lucian, the Umpire, decides in favour of this Disputant, pronouncing; that, for want of Adherence, and steady Courage, compleat Merit is not in Woman. The Females’ Votary hangs his Head: Our Arbitrator tells him; he was a notable Champion on the weak Side of the Question. They walk to the Victor’s and are receiv’d with an Elegant Entertainment, tho’ no more than the Ordinary of the House.
          This Pederast was a spiritual Gallant; but Theomnestes being ask’d by Lucian, what were his Sentiments of the Debate, after holding back a while in Compliment to the learned Wit, thus speaks; The Man of Taste was mighty sonorous; but too much in the Clouds for me. What; are we perpetually to converse with Youths of a Fairness, which only does not overflow the Eyes; and, when we can lay our Lips to it, and take a Draught shall we be such foolish Tantalus’s to suffer Thirst? The airy Food of seeing and hearing does not satisfy a hale Appetite: A Lover erects a Flight of Steps, by which he ascends to the supreme Felicity; first, he paints Passion in his soul-moving Eyes: then so tenderly touches, as tho’ afraid of marking the Wax-like Object; but this light Touch pours thrilling Transport thro’ him. Thus advanced, he gives a Kiss; not yet the gluy one; no; insensibly joins and withdraws his Lips, to cause no Alarm in the Delicate Creature: However this presently inspires him with Boldness; he takes the fair one in his Arms, smuggles him and almost expires with Extasy: Now his Tongue plays in the charming Mouth; his left Hand grasps the Pleasure-hills: while the Right presses the gently heaving Breasts, and moves down to the sweetly piercing Spear. To conclude; master’d by Desire, he enters a narrow Passage, which carries to the Ocean of absorbing Rapture. This is my way of Loving.
          Your high-flown Philosophers, to themselves unintelligible, may lift their spread Eyebrows, and make the World gaze; but Socrates, their great founder, was a most devoted sensual Pederast, so far from being such a fool to let the all-out-looking Alcibiades rise from Bed untouch’d; it might pass so for once to talk of; which Plato pompously does in his Symposium; but that every Author introduces this amiable Sage, a little before his Death, in tender Play with the famous Catamite Phædon’s Hair, and entreating him not to despoil himself of that beautiful Ornament to solemnize the Loss of his beloved Philosopher. Besides; what tolerable Account can be given of Xanthippe’s excessive Rage, but this Part of her Husband’s Character.
          To exemplify farther: It is not with any Probability to be supposed, Achilles and Patroclus found no better Amusement, than to sit looking at one another: No, no; he who so longingly waited, ’till Æacides clos’d his Song, had a grand Object in View. Love, substantial Love alone, did and cou’d so fast cement them. Destitute Love tore the unconquerable Achillean Heart, when Menætiades was no more. This is well display’d by that Tragedy Poet, who makes the swift Pursuer exclaim in a Burst of Grief, and my Acquaintance with your adorable Thighs, O Patroclus, which far surpast in Delightfulness all I have mention’d.
          Pray too, what were the handsome Fellows styl’d by our Ancestors, The Curl’d, but Catamites, and nothing else? Your nice People may call this filthy Stuff ; but, by Heaven, ’tis all true. The conclusive Place Lucian Assigns this Opinion, signifies his Approbation of it. I have heard the foremention’d ever-detestable and accurst Pederasts thus reason in Harangue; The Males of all Brutes are without Dispute more beautiful than the Females; the Peahen cannot equal the Peacocks starry Tail; the Lioness sneaks before the Lion’s majestic Mane; and so on: Is Nature devious only in the human Species? No; consistent, and invariable: The gradual Fall of a Man’s Shape as much excels, as is possible to excel, the almost breaking Nip of a Woman. Delicacy is the same in both, till the Boy is expos’d to all Weathers, while the Girl is hous’d, and her Skin kept nicely clean; but Coarseness and Hairiness, are amply compensated by Strength and Elasticity: Then the Shape weighs down the Scale.
          And if in Body Man surpasses, the Minds of the Sexes are throughout a Contrast of Beauty and Deformity: Here an even Temper; there Humoursomness: Here a Capacity of assisting others; there an Incapacity of Supporting Self: Here a Nobleness of Nature; there a Cruelty proportion’d to their Fears, which are immoderate: Here a Controul of the Passions and Discernment; there Subjection to hurtful Appetites and an Imbecility which adopts any Error, rather than take the Pains of Enquiry. It is an Advantage past Expression, to have upon Journey a vigorous Second, a clear headed Companion, an Enjoyment piece, that can Enjoy, in one Person; all which is commonly predicable of Man: While your Flat, (Woman so nam’d from undoubted Flatness) ere she sallies, plagues you to Death for Want of Judgment to Dress soon and well; talks Nonsense; falls in Fits; only takes. Your Man does not urge Musick, when you are out of Tune; but the Flat proceeds to Insistence; and, deny’d, rages untameable.
          Forgive what follows, O you who will still dissent, except your Ears are unusually rous’d. With regard to Undermotion, by Posture, and by Vigour, Man [far] distances Woman. If you object the Pollutedness of the Male-sheath, bring to Account menstruous Defluxions; forget not urinary Fur, proper to another Sheath; and tell me in which the Nose wou’d most delight to dwell. It is urg’d, you have your choice of Sheaths in a Woman; but do you there meet with the swelling Bolt, to handle which Jove tost from his Grasp the avenging one?


1. Hal Gladfelder, 'In Search of Lost Texts: Thomas Cannon's Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd', Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 22-38; and Hal Gladfelder, ed., 'The Indictment of John Purser, Containing Thomas Cannon's Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplify'd', Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter 2007), 39-61. I attended a seminar which Gladfelder gave at the Institute of Historical Research, London, on 24 May 2006, during which he circulated examples of the lost text, and he allowed me to publish some extracts in my book Mother Clap's Molly House (2006).

2. Henry Merritt, 'A Biographical Note on John Cleland', Notes and Queries, vol. 226 (1981), pp. 305–306.

3. The petition is reproduced in Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, Vol. VIII, July–December 1859; note for 28 July 1859, pp. 65–66.

The complete text of Ancient and Modern Pederasty is available here.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "Ancient and Modern Pederasty, 1749," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 29 May 2017 <>.

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