Research Stream


Umberto Grassi
The University of Sydney

Ambiguous Boundaries: Sex Crimes and Cross-cultural Encounters in the Early Modern Mediterranean World

The main goal of Grassi’s project is to investigate the emotional dimensions of the relations between Muslims and Christians in the Early Modern period, reinterpreting their interactions in the Mediterranean world through the interpretative tools provided by Gender and Sexuality studies.

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In Western Christianity the use of sexual tropes played a crucial role in constructing the image of Muslims as lascivious and sinful beings. Nevertheless, sexual attraction created bonds overcoming the boundaries that divided the two cultures. In both Islam and Christianity, sexual transgression provided a ground for unexpected cross-cultural relations.

Grassi analyses the complex interactions among different and often conflicting emotional regimes. Some of them defined norms, decency and acceptability, both in the multifaceted Islamic cultures and in the composite Western Christian world. Others shaped the sense of belonging of the religious minorities living in both sides of the Mediterranean. Still others prevailed within specific subcultures of transgression (in taverns, brothels, baths).

The inquiry focuses on homosexual relationships between Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. Grassi works on Spanish Inquisitorial sources, studying trials for sexual crimes in which both Christians and Muslims were involved, in particular, proceedings against sodomy between “Old Christians” and Muslim slaves in Spain, and between “renegades” and North Africans in Sicily. Muslims and Moriscos (Muslims who converted to Christianity) played a crucial role in the covert homoerotic networks of Early Modern cities in Spain. At the same time, many renegades had voluntarily embraced the Muslim religion in search of sexual freedom. In some cases, the convicted worked out complex heretical opinions, fiercely defending not only the “naturalness of sodomy”, but also ideals of religious tolerance, summarized by the heretical statement that “all can be saved in their own religion”.

Image: Map of the Mediterranean, 16th century, Biblioteca Nacional de España