The Experience of Homosexuality in the Middle Ages
The following is a paper written in 1988. I would change some, perhaps many of the conclusions, and certainly the theoretical approach. In particular I would emphasis the position of large aggregates of human beings [i. e. cities and monasteries] as a necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for homosexual sub-cultures. It should also be noted that this paper stands firmly against the social constructionist model of homosexual cultures.
It sees, in Western culture at least, the persistent existence of recognizably homosexual sub-cultures which recur whenever pportunity presents itself. I am now much more open to constructionist arguments, but would insist that the free variation some aspects of constructionism seems to posit, does not exist:- in fact a small number of formulations recur repeatedly. The bibliography on medieval homosexuality in the ten years since this paper was written has grown enormously. There is an up-to-date online bibliography available.
Anyone seriously interested in this topic needs especially to get hold of the following (full citations in the online bibliography): Michael J. Rocke: Forbidden Friendship James Brundage: Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe John Boswell: Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe Mark Jordan: The Invention of Sodomy Bernardette Brooten: Love Between Women Let me stress this was a term paper by a graduate student. It may still have some interest, but it does not represent my current ideas, or what I would regard as publishable material.
Paul Halsall [email protected] fordham. edu Homosexual sex was widespread in the Middle Ages and there is abundant information on what church writers and secular legislators thought about it. Shoddy or partisan scholarship and a distinctly modern disdain of homosexuals by scholars until recently marked much of the discussion of the history of this medieval homosexuality. Since 1955, and especially since 1975, much work has been done that is of reasonable quality . The concentration has tended to be on the Church’s, or society’s, attitude to homosexuality.
This paper takes a different tack and looks at the personal experience in the Middle Ages of those we would now call homosexuals and the structures in which they were able to experience their sexuality. Their experience fits in with the wider experience of sexuality in Middle Ages and this also will be considered. Naturally, we can say little about what sexuality felt like for individuals, but a possible framework for their experience can be reconstructed from existing sources. This will be, necessarily, a framework for the experience of homosexual males for significant information exists only about men and boys .
The main focus of the present paper will be on the experience of homosexuality for individuals and on what can be gleaned about the subcultures or other kinds of social networks homosexuals belonged to in diverse medieval periods. There are theoretical issues to face in this inquiry, about the concept of homosexual and homosexuality, and the overall place of homosexuality in the study of medieval sexuality. Only after looking at these will we move to a consideration of sources and the uses that can be made of them.
A examination of the often ignored issue of why people engaged in homosexual activities will help us to focus better on the core of this paper which will be to consider those medieval societies in which we have knowledge of homosexuality and to see if they fit into any typology. The typologies looked at are of the types of homosexuality we can see present and at the social contexts in which this sexuality was expressed. Use of Terms Michel Foucault opened up the serious investigation of the history of sexuality .
His view was that sexuality is socially constructed in a way similar to grammar, and so to talk about homosexuality in the past would be a solecism; for Foucault the experience of a modern western gay man is incommensurable with same-gender sex in other periods or cultures . This distinctive perspective has become orthodox for many writers . John Boswell led the attack on Foucault’s thesis , although his own theory that there have always been homosexual subcultures  does not seem to be verifiable.
Other authors not attached to structuralist theory, such as Guido Ruggiero , are now joining Boswell. The core issue is did homosexual behavior exist before the modern period as the affective preference we call homosexuality? The word homosexual is a nineteenth-century invention, and it is often suggested that one alternative, sodomy, had too varied a meaning in the Middle Ages to substitute for it. Self-conception is surely important in defining a person’s sexuality, but we need not be too realist about it: a thing does not need a name to exist.
Homosexual acts existed and even though the meaning of the word sodomy has been much discussed for the Middle Ages, and it could be applied to acts such as anal intercourse between married people, in the majority of cases it refers to various sexual acts between men . A working definition is that homosexuality, the desire for at least sexual contact with someone of the same gender, is a perquisite of a person practicing omosexual acts on a regular basis, even though as this paper makes clear, the social framework may vary greatly.
Medieval Sexuality A study of homosexuality fits into the wider history of sexuality in the Middle Ages. Discussions of sex dating from the period are almost all ecclesiastical, while current scholarly interest is with the sexual lives of lay people. This requires an oblique use of sources similar to that needed with the history of homosexuality. Late antique thought in general had turned against sexuality . The revival of transcendence in philosophy downgraded the body and exalted rationality as a path to divinity. Christian theologians took up the theme with gusto. In the West, St.
Jerome and St. Ambrose conceived of sex as a way of tying the spirit to carnality . St. Augustine took up another platonic theme, that passion derogated from reason, and argued that, while procreation was a virtuous end for sex, attempts to gain pleasure were unnatural since rationality was inevitably compromised . His views set the tone for western Christianity. Sex was permissible only within marriage and when it aimed at procreation, and only then if you did not enjoy it too much . This general theme was particularized in discussions of what was allowable between married people .
Masturbation was out, as were anal and oral sex; all were pleasurable and did not lead to procreation. Vaginal intercourse also was permitted only in what has become called the “missionary position” and there was an extended discussion of the sinfulness of having the woman on top, of entry from behind and anal sex . Eventually many commentators came to the conclusion that any unusual coital positions were unnatural, although it was never agreed exactly what was ermitted and the concept of “natural” proved to be flexible .
Clearly the theories of ostensibly celibate authors did not accord with the practice and types of sexual activity practiced by heterosexuals. The discussions of possible sins by theologians indicate that some people were committing those sins; there is some evidence that users of early medieval penitentials inquired into what sins a penitent had committed  and so the penitentials do reflect practice as well as churchmen’s concerns.
After the institution of compulsory confession at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the practices of he laity resulted in a new consideration of ethics by theologians; Bishop Grosseteste of Lincoln, for instance, worked on Aristotle’s Ethics, and new handbooks for confessors were produced. This evidence shows that heterosexuals in the Middle Ages practised a wide range of sexual activity. As well as procreative sex in the missionary position, heterosexuals seem to have enjoyed sex with the woman on top, in the “doggy position” , and oral sex .
Heterosexuals also had anal sex , and this seems to have been used as a orm of contraception along with coitus interruptus. In periods when marriage was delayed we can also be fairly sure that masturbation was an outlet . Other evidence, apart from conventional love literature, makes it clear that people also loved each other on occasion . People do seem to have had psychological defenses against the ecclesiastical onslaughts on their sexuality; there was a popular belief that sex between married people was always without sin , and there was a phrase si non caste, tamen cauts .
This wider world of medieval sexuality includes homosexuality, and we have been looking at it to establish that homosexuals were not alone in having their sexuality negated by ecclesiastical ideology. Turning now to how historians have approached this aspect of medieval sexuality, we find that three themes predominate; biography, church and society’s views of homosexuality, and the persecution suffered by homosexuals. The least informative in terms of gaining a historical perspective on the subject has been the biographical approach.
There are numerous biographies of St. Anselm, St. Aelred, William Rufus, Richard I and various renaissance homosexuals. Little context has been given to their sexual lives, and the goal is often prurient or to “prove” that homosexuals are as good or better than heterosexuals . Another approach has been to look at society’s view of homosexuality. This takes into account church views and secular laws. Bailey’s work  is well known in this area, and the results of this sort of study have been informative. The goal has often been to change ontemporary opinion.
The persecution of homosexuals has been the greatest concern of many writers on the subject. Gay writers in particular have seen the origins of modern oppression in Christian Europe . The two major themes have been the growth of intolerance and actual persecution. John Boswell  argues strongly that Christianity only became hostile as it absorbed the effects of social changes which had nothing to do with religion. Furthermore, it was only in the thirteenth century that condemnation of homosexual activity became major theme.
Boswell sometimes overstates his case , but he is on to something; churchmen become much more consistent after the mid-thirteenth century in their condemnation at the same time that in the secular sphere capital punishments begin to be handed out . Various writers have drawn links between the treatment of Jews, lepers, heretics and homosexuals . Each group tended to be scarred with the stigma of the others. Physical persecution followed the increase in intolerance. The burnings began when the ecular lawmakers took up the ecclesiastical themes .
Their motives were explicitly religious; fear of the divine vengeance meted out to Sodom was often given as a reason for the new laws. Why these laws and punishments were made only in the thirteenth century is disputed. Gay activist writers tend to see Christian morality entering the laws, but equally important was that it was only in the thirteenth century that secular laws were made in great numbers and law makers looked to Roman Law which since Justinian had explicitly condemned homosexuality.
If physical persecution was a factor in the lives of homosexuals only in the late Middle Ages, it was not the only way they might have felt attacked. They were constantly aware, if they had contact with the church, that their sexual desires were sinful. There has been a tendency to see homosexuals as unique in this respect, but as the discussion of sexuality in general made clear, almost all sexually active people were in a similar position. Heterosexuals were allowed at least some sexual expression and the whole orientation of ociety towards marriage gave them a way of coping.
Homosexuals’ social networks will be examined to see if they provided a similar mechanism . Sources There were earlier studies of the history of homosexuality, but the work of Derrick S. Bailey  marked a new departure in the use of sources. Bailey’s sources were canon law, secular law such as Justinian’s Code and the barbarian codes, and some writings of the church fathers and their medieval successors. Bailey’s work was constantly referred to by many of the other writers in following two decades .
John Boswell  also uses these sources, although with a broader knowledge, but due to his determination not to look only at negative attitudes to homosexuals, he introduced evidence from sources such as troubadour and other poetry and writings of monastic authors such as Aelred of Rievaulx. Boswell also took care to look at the context in which, for instance, canons were issued, and was able to question Bailey’s interpretations . In this way and by taking medieval discussions of friendship as relevant to homosexuality, Boswell has widened considerably the evidence available for discussion.
It is important to look at these sources because both Bailey and Boswell are interested in a global understanding of medieval homosexuality; Bailey is mainly interested in the Church’s view while Boswell also attempts to comprehend the lifestyle of homosexuals. The problem with both is that their sources are discontinuous . There is much information, but we are talking about a thousand years of history on a diverse continent. Canon law and commentaries, along with theological and spiritual writing do allow a fairly continuous nalysis of the views of the clerical elite.
The need to jump from Spain to France to Scandinavia  does not allow a similar analysis of the actual situation of homosexual people. Law codes, canons and scholarly commentaries are difficult to tie to what was happening in particular places to particular individuals. They necessitate that the authors who use them talk about “medieval culture” and “Christian attitudes” over large areas and long time periods. The hermeneutical difficulties of using such contrasting sources as eventh-century Visigothic codes and twelfth-century monastic writing to say anything consistent about medieval homosexuality are immense.
There has been an increase since 1978 in the number of studies looking at local areas. Ruggiero, Goodich, Gade, Krekic, Roth  and others have used local inquisition records, court records and poetry to present the history of homosexuality from such diverse local areas as Norway and Dubrovnik to Venice and Florence. The opportunity is now available to use these local records to come to refine more general conclusions. Many of the sources already used on a global basis can also be used as local evidence, for instance St.
Peter Damien’s Liber Gomorrhanius  might be looked at for the information it gives on central Italy in the eleventh century. The goal in this paper is to direct attention away from the generality and to the variety of homosexual people’s lives. Motivations for Homosexuality Given the difficulties of homosexual sex in the Middle Ages, it is legitimate to ask why people chose to act in this way. No etiology has ever been established for homosexuality and its expression has varied from culture to culture; in most it has been tolerated or approved, but in others it has been absent .
In contrast with some non-European cultures homosexual activity is referred to in such diverse places and times that it always was an option, a conceivable possibility, in the Middle Ages. John Boswell thinks it is basically an urban phenomena, and this is true of anything we can call a subculture, but the evidence of the Irish penitentials, produced in a land without cities, suggests that the urban aspect should not be pushed . It might be thought that homosexual activity, seen as personal motivations and desires, does not fit into any economic pattern.
Differing patterns of heterosexual institutions such as marriage can be linked to economic trends. Marriage as a means of property transfer among the twelfth-century French aristocracy was a different institution to that of marriages between peasants, or between town dwellers. Homosexual subcultures, however, emerged fully only in urban areas. We can see the impact of the commercial revolution here. The growth of towns was connected to the rise in trade. Several factors resulted from this.
First of all, especially in Italy, the cities were large enough to provide anonymity; social control was shifted to the family and the magistracy and away from the community at large. This “gap” in social control is what allows a subculture to develop. Delayed marriage in late medieval Italian towns also meant that there were sexually mature young people who might experiment given the lack of heterosexual opportunity . Men who were by inclination homosexual were also given longer to discover this before being married. Some reasons for being homosexual, or developing homosexual traits, do seem to have an economic base.
Another explanation for being homosexual has been suggested, again in the Italian context, by Herlihy . He takes up the issue of the age differential, which could be up to fifteen years, between married couples in Florence. This meant that mothers were often as near their children’s’ age as their husbands. Herlihy thinks this affected infantile development, retarded the age of marriage and produced a “feminized” society . This is a Freudian explanation of homosexuality, and apart from being unprovable does not explain why “feminized” man should become a distant paterfamilias when he finally married after the age of thirty.
One of the reasons people have sex is usually overlooked. They find it pleasurable . There is no sexual activity that is unique to homosexuals, although some acts may be more frequent. The sources available enable us to say something about the type of sexual activities homosexuals practiced. Early medieval Irishmen seem to have confessed to anal intercourse, interfemoral intercourse , and mutual masturbation . Oral sex including the swallowing of semen  was also noted. We have no information as to whether kissing was practiced.
Flagellation seems to have been a penance rather than a pleasure. St. Peter Damian thought this constellation of activities was prevalent amongst his clerical contemporaries in central Italy . When we hear the voice of homosexual poets from Spain, Arab writers discuss anal sex but, along with their more chaste Jewish counterparts, the emphasis is on kissing  and its pleasures. Kissing was about as far as monastic writers in Christian Europe would go , although the Templars were accused of analingus .
Renaissance Florence saw prosecutions for anal sex [55}, and Ruggiero recounts the trials of a transvestite prostitute and another case in which the relationship of the two charged parties was sadomasochistic . There was then a variety of sexual activity practiced by homosexuals and the repertoire seems more or less complete. It can be noted that discussion of oral sex apart from kissing is relatively rare, and that interfemoral intercourse is discussed as frequently as anal penetration. Medieval writers and trial reports all seem to assume that anal sex was always done from behind.
All these activities were condemned by the Church and society throughout the period. For people to break such persistent taboos we must acknowledge just how strong the drive for sexual pleasure is in many individuals – as strong and sometimes stronger than any moral precept. Types of Homosexual Activity in Medieval Europe Discussion of medieval homosexual sex has brought us to one of the major themes of the paper – the types of homosexuality we can see in medieval Europe. Randolph Trumbach  has suggested one way of understanding the variety.
His thesis is that there are homosexually-oriented men in most societies, but equally that there is usually horror at the idea of an adult male playing a passive role in sex, the so-called “women’s role”. He suggests that two strategies have normally  been adopted to cope with the conflict; the first allows men to have sex with adolescent boys, who are allowed to be passive for this period of their lives, or there are fully accepted adult male transvestites. These were strategies to retain the masculinity of one partner.
For Trumbach, Christian society is unique in rejecting both active and passive homosexual activity, and because of this there is the phenomenon of homosexual subcultures in West. He thought that because of this there must always have been homosexual subcultures in the West. Trumbach is wrong – there have been long periods in western history without any discernible homosexual subculture . Trumbach was also at fault in not distinguishing between types of sexual activity and types of social networks or subcultures; the two are not necessarily connected.
His discussion of types of sexual activity raises the legitimate question of why in some societies we observe homosexual relations between equals, and in others the adult/adolescent pattern . This is not reducible, as Trumbach supposes, to whether or not there was a homosexual subculture. There were societies such as Spanish Jewry which show signs of a conscious subculture but where all the evidence points to adult/adolescent activity, and places where the opposite seems to hold. Trumbach’s theory is far too rigid, but has alue in raising questions about the variety of forms homosexuality takes.
This variety is the subject now under consideration. This section will look at those societies  in which we can see the first type of pattern of sexual activity, that between men and boys, or where one partner played a definitely passive role in sex. There were real variations within this pattern. Scandinavia has left a little evidence in law and literature about homosexual practice . A single regulation of 1164 survives against all homosexual activity, but does not seem to have been enforced .
The literature makes it clear that homosexual acts were acceptable as long as a man played a “male” role. There was a word “argr” or “ragr” used to insult men who had played a receptive role; the indication is that anal sex was the activity imagined . Gade asserts that homosexual relationships existed in Norse society , but offers no proof of this from either law or literature. Old Norse society seems to have been one where it was acceptable for most men  to express homoerotic desire, especially with slaves, but where no evidence of homosexual social networks survives.
The sex in question is usually described as between men; a strong distinction between active and passive roles does not here reflect any emphasis on pederasty. Medieval Hebrew/Spanish culture has left a more varied record of homosexual activity than Scandinavia . Maimonides took a strict view of homosexual activity and admonished both partners, but seems to have been more lenient when one of the partners was under nine years old . Although this would be a young age to have sex, this Rabbinic view has some links with the Hebrew/Spanish literary culture whose poets wrote many beautiful verses dedicated to the love of boys.
The most notable poets of the period wrote on the theme, and there seems to have been no question of them copying ancient Greek forms, although Arabic ghazal poetry was known to them. The allusions in the poetry were distinctly Jewish:- Like Joseph in his form, like Adoniah his hair. Lovely of eyes like David, he has slain me like Uriah . The sexual activity referred to by Jewish poets, unlike Muslims, did not go beyond kissing  and fondling. There were themes and images that recurred in this genre of poetry from the eleventh to thirteenth century.
The poets knew of each other’s work, were widely ead, and were integrated in society . There was here then, the same active/passive pattern of homosexuality as in Scandinavia, but there the similarity ends. Amongst Spanish Jews homosexuality was a question of sex with boys, but it was also surrounded with a halo of romance. The boys suffered no disgrace, although sex with bearded youths was despised, and there was a literary and social network of those who were attracted to other males.
There are numerous references to homosexual activity in literature in twelfth-century Christian France. Here the evidence of the type of sexual activity is mixed. The poetry of the homosexual bishops Baudri of Bourgueil (1046-1130) and his friend Marbod of Rennes (1035-1123)  reflects the situation of Jewish Spain with an emphasis on pederasty and some awareness by the poets of each other’s work. The bishops were even less forthright about the sexual activity they envisioned than the Jewish poets.
However, pederasty probably was not all that was going on; Ivo of Chartres, at the same period and in the same region, discusses sodomy and fellatio distinctly from pederasty , and Peter Damian, who wrote at the same period although in a different place, mentions mutual asturbation, interfemoral sex and “the complete act against nature”  without making a special complaint of pederasty or one partner being passive. For the poets however, pederasty, and by implication an active/passive distinction, was the norm but this might have been a literary topos reflecting an awareness of Roman literary themes .
Trumbach’s first type of homosexuality, where a great distinction is made between active and passive roles is made, does then appear to have occurred in medieval Europe . In the instance where the strategy was most clearly to preserve the masculinity of one articipant, Scandinavia, pederasty does not seem to have been an issue. Where we find pederasty as the pattern of active/passive activity our evidence comes from individuals who do not stress their own masculinity.
So while passivity/activity is a fair way to typify sexual activity, more than just the desire to preserve masculinity was at issue; in the Jewish case, Mosaic law was slightly less harsh on pederasty and Christian intellectual poets had classical models to consider. Trumbach’s theory may be correct for “primary” ultures, ones that do not have to come to terms with previous cultural norms, but in Jewish and Latin Christian societies constant referral to earlier classical formulations requires that anthropological data and theories be used with care.
Homosexual activity where there was not an active-passive pattern would, in Trumbach’s theory, be unique to the West and related to the subculture he thought always existed. Here we are talking about the possibility of reversing sexual roles in a given culture, or where no strategy was deliberately adopted or expected by society to preserve masculinity. In every culture there would be some who preferred an active or passive role, but the strategy, if it could be called that, would be the agreed pleasure of the participants. Was this sort of sexual pattern evident in any time or place in the Middle Ages?
Early medieval Irish confessors, as reflected in their penitentials, were not worried by pederasty and made no great distinction between active and passive activity. They do distinguish between men and boys and talk about sexual acts that are mutual  and do not fit into the active/passive paradigm. The penitential of Cummean (c. 50) in particular talked about boys having sex together  and Columban (c. 600) instructed that a sodomite should never be housed with another person  without mentioning the age of either person.
Sex between monks was condemned frequently, and here also there was some equality in that sexual activity was between men of similar status. So in early Ireland , where there is no evidence of any homosexual subculture, there may well have been the option of sex on an equal basis. In this case Christian condemnation of both parties may ,as Trumbach predicted, have led each partner to act for pleasure rather than to preserve social status. The only problem concerns the degree to which we can trust the penitentials to reflect social reality.
Monastic writing on love and friendship in the twelfth century represents some of the earliest evidence we have of the views of homoerotically inclined men. Unlike Baudri of Bourgueil’s musings over pretty boys, writers such as Anselm and Aelred of Rievaulx wrote to other monks. The objects of their affection were younger men but they envisioned lifelong and exclusive relationships, such as the affair Anselm had with the young monk Osbern . It is not clear what part sex played in these relationships; although it is not entioned overtly by the writers they were attracted to males and all their emotional life centered on men .
In this milieu also we can perhaps allow some sort of equality in the activities of homosexuals . Contemporary with these loving monks, there was a very different society of young fighting men, the aristocratic elite of northern France. Duby described the life of aristocratic youth and thought it possible that they had sex together . Possibly the education of knights in all-male groups, for many years with little prospect of early marriage, would have encouraged homosexual activity .