Though the word mignon originally had a nonsexual meaning (a "charming" or "dear" person or child), and came also to denote a heterosexual male or female lover (mignonne), the mignons best known to the history of sexuality were the group of male favorites and lovers surrounding the homosexual French monarch Henry III (r. 1574–1589). Indeed, the homosexual notoriety of Henry's court helped establish mignon (in England, minion) as a pejorative male homosexual term in the Renaissance, where it was routinely associated with the stereotypes of "effeminacy" and "passivity." Evidence of this phenomenon abounds in the diary and scrapbook of the contemporary court official Pierre de L'Estoile, the invaluable primary source for myriad aspects of French social and political life during the period.
L'Estoile's materials contain the Renaissance's most extensive, frank, and graphic depictions of homosexuality now known. In them he describes Henry as "usually dressed as a woman … at his jousts … and … masquerades" (Cady 1996, p. 133), but it is the mignons who are most often characterized in "other-sex" terms. An anonymous 1576 broadside poem calls them "effeminates,… vile effeminates," and an angry anonymous 1577 sonnet castigates them as "effeminate men" (p. 132). Furthermore, the sex between Henry and the mignons is sometimes portrayed in traditional "active"-"passive" terms, with the king as penetrator and the mignons as purely opportunistic receptive partners. A "court exposé" poem of December 1581 declares that "The King fucks his mignons," while an anonymous broadside entitled "The Mignons in 1577" describes Quélus, one of Henry's first favorites, as "advancing [at the court] totally through his ass" (p. 128).
Considerable skepticism, however, should be exercised about the factual accuracy of this portrait. Both the king and the mignons had significant records as warriors (Henry in the 1569 Battle of Jarnac early in the Wars of Religion, and the mignons in conflicts with rival court factions). In addition, the "effeminate" detail most mentioned by commentators about the mignons is their penchant for rouge, perfume, and ornate clothing, an actually unremarkable trait in an age in which elaborate dress and makeup were common among men of rank. Furthermore, other depictions of the mignons suggest a genuine homosexual orientation and a sexual interchangeability not limited by role. The 1576 broadside quoted above also asserts that "They practice among themselves the art / Of lewd Ganymede," and a 1578 sonnet portrays them as "Comrades / In perverted spirit, fucking each other" (Cady 1996, pp. 140, 128; emphasis added). Relatedly, L'Estoile's portrait of Henry's behavior at the deaths of Quélus and another mignon, Maugiron, killed in a fight with followers of the rival Duke of Guise, conveys a mutual romantic vulnerability and would automatically be read as a love scene were the figures male and female (Quélus's dying words are "Oh! my king, my king!"; the king "covered their dead bodies with kisses [and] clipped their blond locks" [p. 131]).
Groundbreaking research has shown how persistent the motifs of male homosexual "effeminacy" and "passivity" have been in homophobic discourse, where they have functioned largely to contain what heterocentricism actually fears more, self-acknowledgement and self-expression by non-polaristic homosexuals (those not conforming to the heterocentric, "opposites attract," logic that because they desire their own sex they must therefore "really be," and behave like, members of the other sex [Borris 2004]). Though Henry III's mignons provided a new popular name for those stereotypes that would persist for at least 200 years more, that image of the favorites seems markedly at odds with historical fact.
see also Homosexuality, Defined.
Borris, Kenneth, ed. 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470–1650. New York: Routledge.
Cady, Joseph. 1996. "The 'Masculine Love' of the 'Princes of Sodom' 'Practising the Art of Ganymede' at Henri III's Court: The Homosexuality of Henri III and His Mignons in Pierre de L'Estoile's Mémoires-Journaux." In Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West, ed. Jacqueline Murray and Konrad Eisenbichler. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
L'Estoile, Pierre de. 1992–2003. Registre-journal du règne de Henri III [Scrapbook and diary of Henri III's reign], 6 vols., ed. Madeleine Lazard and Gilbert Schrenck. Geneva: Droz.