Homosexuality Part One

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HOMOSEXUALITY by Warren Johansson and William A. Percy

Homosexuality in the Middle Ages long remained virtually unexplored. All that the three major works of the pre-1933 period, Xavier Mayne’s [pseudonym of Edward Irenaeus Prime-Stevenson], The Intersexes (1907), Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (1914), and Arlindo Camillo Mon-teiro’s Amor sáfico e socrático (1922), had to say on the entire period from the death of Justinian the Great to 1475 could have been contained in one and a half printed pages. The pioneer investigators evidently dreaded to look for what they suspected that they would find. The first writings that ventured into this “blind spot” in history were Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey's Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955), which sought to exculpate the Church from blame for homophobia, and J. Z. Eglinton's Greek Love (1964), which devoted a section to the continuity of the pederastic tradition of antiquity into the Middle Ages. Vern L. Bullough further opened the field with Sexual Variance in History (1976), which devoted 67 pages to un-con-ventional sexuality in the Latin West in the medieval period. It is, however, the distinct merit of Michael Goodich, with The Unmentionable Vice (1979) and above all John Boswell, with Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), Talking advantage of the lack of documenation Boswell expanded Bailey's thesis that Christians were not particularly homophobic before the 13th century–inspite of the death penalty imposed by the Christine Emporors and the anathemas hurled at sodomites by the fathers of the Church.

Did homosexuality (or gay people) exist in the Middle Ages? This question is not so fanciful, rather it is one needing a precise answer. “Homosexual” and “gay” are concepts created by the clandestine subculture that had been driven underground by Christian intolerance and Victorian prudery. The former was invented by Károly Mária Kertbeny and first used in print in an anony-mous pamphlet of 1869; the latter with our meaning belongs to the slang of the American homosexual underworld (first attestation OED2 1935). “Homo-sexual” has (erroneously to be sure) acquired in the minds of many a medical connotation, while “gay” is for not a few speakers restricted to the politically self-conscious and activist homosexual of 1969 and the following twenty-five years. Nowadays some self-conscious radicals prefer queer. In these contemporary accepta-tions no one in the Middle Ages was or could have been “homosexual,” “gay” or “queer.” However, the dominant Latin Christian culture classified homosexual behavior under the deadly sin called luxuria, “lust” or “lechery,” and assigned it to the worst form, namely the peccatum contra naturam “sin against nature,” of which there were three subdivisions, ratione generis “by reason of species,” that is to say with brute animals, ratione sexus, “by reason of sex,” with a person having the genitalia of the same sex, and ratione modi, “by reason of manner”, namely with a member of the opposite sex but in an orifice that excluded procreation, which was thought the sole legitimate motive for sexual activity. It was widely believed that anyone could be tempted into sodomy, although some casuists were dimly aware of inveterate if not exclusive sodomites. This theological definition of peccatum contra naturam underlay the definition of “homosexual” in late nineteenth-century Germany as one exclusively and involuntarily attracted to others having the genitalia of the same sex. All the other dimensions of the physique and personality of the partners–and even the active-passive dichotomy that had dominated the Greco-Roman conceptualization–were simply disregarded. Hence it is not surprising that more than a century of medical and biological research have failed to find any common denominator in those labeled “homosexual.”

However, yet another term was applied by medieval theologians and jurists to those who engaged in the “sin against nature,” namely sodomite. The origin of the medieval notion of the homosexual cannot be under-stood without some cultural archaeology. The account in Genesis 19 of the destruction of the city of Sodom on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants1 cannot alone explain the semantic development of Jewish Hellenistic Greek Sodomites, Christian Latin Sodomita, into the medieval notion of the “sodomite”–a far broader concept. The depravity of the Sodomites took the form of attempting to rape the male strangers (supposedly “angels”) who were visiting Lot. Significantly Lot, following the literary example of the host at Gibeah in Judges 19, offers the townsmen his daughters, a fact that implies their bisexuality. This view, rather than the one which Bailey and Boswell have argued, that the Sodomites were punished for inhospitality, although it too was a component of the iridescent myth, circulated as early as the First Common-wealth and was reinforced by the antagonism between Judaic and Hellenic sexual mores. The reworking in the Hellenistic period of the homosexual aspect of the episode into the legend that the Sodomites were one and all similarly and specifically depraved–making the city's destruction the aition of the taboo on homosexuality–did not obliterate other mythopoetic elements. The later meaning stemmed from the equation of the Sodomites with satyrs, beings allegedly endowed with insatiable, and what we should now call “polymorphous perverse” sexual appetites. The Biblical prohibitions (Leviticus 18:22-23) concern only two categories of offender: males who have intercourse with other males, and males and females who copulate with animals. Both were excluded from the sacral community of Israel, as were subsequently all sodomites–in the wider definition–from the Christian Church.

The Christian concept of the sodomita, and then of sodomia (which appears in Medieval Latin about 1175, possibly in the Iberian peninsula on the model of Arabic liwat < luti “sodomite”), has as its ideological substratum the mythical archetype of the satyr2. Satyrs embody male sexual desire by virtue of their enormous virile members and more or less permanent erections, but they are unsuccessful in their pursuit of women. For this reason they prefer to assault sleeping women or boys who are taken unawares, but frustrated in their search for pleasure they often turn to one another or even to animals. “A red-figure cup in Berlin from the wider circle of the Nikosthenes painter ... shows both of these activities: one satyr is having his anus penetrated, while another without a partner is attempting to importune a sphinx ... The Berlin cup shows anal rather than intercrural copulation, a further indication, possibly, of the satyrs' lack of inhibition and lack of any need to retain respectability.... Satyrs also abandon any claim to propriety in their eagerness to penetrate animals. Bestiality is a rare activity for men, from the evidence of the illustrations, but more common for satyrs”3. This assumption serves to explain the manifest expansion of the Biblical tradition and the multiplicity of referents of the term sodomy. The legal definition, it is true, may often be a narrower one, restricted to anal intercourse with man or woman or vaginal penetration of an animal. But the psychological understanding, the moral reprobation, rests upon the implicit belief in an uninhibited sexual appetite.

The second aspect of satyrs' behavior that shaped the Christian definition of the sodomite is sacrilege. “Satyrs mostly act piously, or mock and tease, but do on occasion commit sacrilege. This last option reveals a hitherto unexpected and apparently serious antipathy towards religion. ... They occasionally stepped over the accepted limit...in the region of religious activities more than any other”4. While sacralizing heterosexual activity within marriage, Christianity demonized all other forms of sexual expression, even condemning as sacrilege violation by a religious of the vow of chastity, this part of the mythopoetic legacy of the ancients completed the negative image of the sodomite as one who has placed himself outside the pale of Christian belief and practice. In a sense this hypothesis also gives the rationale for classifying as sodomy intercourse with Jews and Saracens5, or even, in a case from rural Poland in the eighteenth century, of so labeling a liaison between the daughter of a noble family and a serf boy trained as a musician6. The sodomite is driven by lusts so bestial, demonic and blasphemous as to make him trample upon every law of God and man in quest of pleasure.

Another term that came into use in the twelfth century, but gained ground notably after 1235, is Bulg_rus “Bulgarian,” whence French bougre and English bugger (from which the nouns of action bougrerie and buggery were subsequently derived). It was the merit of a heresy hunter surnamed Robert le Bougre to have confounded all the heretical sects under one name7, which became synonymous with “heretic” and then “sodomite” and “usurer.” The adherents of the dualist sects were accused by Catholic inquisitors of practicing the detestable vice of sodomy, in part because of the unconventional views which these unorthodox Christians championed on sexual morality. The term buggery in English is not, however, unambiguously attested in the sexual sense until the penal law of Henry VIII in 1533; it is nowhere found in Middle English. This term is the semantic reflex of the equation sodomite = heretic in Latin Christendom in the late Middle Ages, paralleled by such phrases as Ketzer nach dem Fleisch alongside Ketzer nach dem Glauben.

A question that must be addressed here, if only because John Boswell has so persistently raised it, is: Was the homosexuality of the Middle Ages pederastic or androphile? The homosexua-lity of the ancient world was predominantly age-asymmetrical. Sexual interplay normally was between an active (adult) male partner and a (passive) adolescent between the ages of 12 and 17. Theorists praised erotic relationships that strengthened male bonding and led to civic virtue and courage on the battlefield, though some maintained that these should not lead to penetration. On the other hand, they interpreted effeminacy–gender-inappropriate behavior in the eyes of Hellenes and Romans–as want of male strength of character and as indicative of cowardice and baseness. However, the opposition heterosexual/homosexual even if latent was usually without meaning because the Judeo-Christian taboo on sexual relations on persons having the genitalia of the same sex was un-known to Hellenic culture. The phenomena which the modern mind collects under the rubric of homo-sexua-li-ty there fell into distinct and more or less watertight compartments. Before the advent of Christianity the Greeks knew nothing and cared nothing about the legends of Genesis and the statutes of Leviticus; and however sacred these texts may have been to medieval Christians and be to contemporary fundamentalists, despite all that critical scholarship has since learned about their real date and authorship, they should not influence even indirectly the medievalist's approach to the question that we have posed.

A further obstacle to the reduction of homosexuality to a single category was the pederastic mindset, a psyche aroused not so much by the masculine as by the androgynous quality of the male adolescent. This crucial difference between the pederast and the androphile homosexual is lost on nearly all modern com-mentators, since their self-righteousness would not allow them to have contact with contemporary boy-lovers in the flesh, so that they prefer to dismiss the pederast as unworthy of understanding or toleration. But it is clearly revealed in the fondness of Greek artists for androgynous adolescents, and also the assimilation of the eunuch to the adolescent as passive partner in the sexual mores particularly of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The institu-tion-alized form of homosexuality in Ancient Greece belonged to the initiatory-ped-ago-gical variant of the phenomenon–which possesses cultural value because it serves to transmit the legacy of the culture from one age-cohort to the next. Androphile homosexuality and gynecophile lesbianism possess no such utility, and the apologists for them, who now increasingly advocate “gay marriage,” might be embarrassed by the contrast with the classical phenomenon. All that those who are today defined as homosexual had in common or have now is a “propensity to sin”–the urge to violate a prohibition of the law of Moses–a Sollen and not a Sein. “Homo-sexua-lity” is thus an umbrella concept that covers a multitude of constitutional and personality types, but no one owns the umbrella. The census of those standing under it has varied through the centuries–for reasons that have still to be elucidated. Plausibly the homosexuality of antiquity was nine-tenths pederastic and one-tenth androphile, while that of modern America is nine-tenths androphile and one-tenth pederastic, with the ensuing “dialectical transformation of quantity into quality.” What the predominant type was in medieval society need not have been the same during all centuries or in all areas, but the evidence from Florence in the second quarter of the fifteenth century indicates that the classical, age-asymmetrical variant remained normative. The modern form may have originated in areas with Germanic or Celtic populations, but this position needs investigation and empirical confirmation.

Thus defined by Christian theology as “sinful behavior,” all homosexual activity could only be the object of mounting condemnation and repression by the Church and the civil authorities in the Latin West. To what extent does the Church as an institution bear the responsibility for this intolerance? A pioneering work in this field, Canon Derrick Sherwin Bailey's Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955), pleaded from beginning to end that “the prejudiced defenders of the invert” had “mischievously cast slurs on the Church,” which he would have reduced almost to an innocent bystander. Since as gay scholars we oppose the defenders of the Christian denominations, this is as good a time as any to set forth our objections to those–including self-styled “gay Marxists”–who opt to evade the religious issue. Some who opt for this position maintain that “sexism” and “prejudice against otherness” objectively exist and in fact served as an underlying biological cause of the stance adopted by the primitive and inherited by the medieval Church.

We do not deny that these two phenomena, however social psychologists may define or explain them, may well have played a role in the genesis of medieval intolerance. From the standpoint now of the political scientist, what we focus upon is the question of responsibility. Living as they do in a society governed by law, both natural and juridical persons are morally and legally responsible for their actions. Whatever motives, conscious or unconscious, overt or covert, may have determined their behavior, they cannot evade or disown that responsibility.

Abstractions like “sexism” and “prejudice against otherness,” by contrast, cannot be held responsible for anything. We would point out that “racism” and “totalitarianism” did not sit in the defendants' box at Nuremberg or in Tokyo, rather the heads of the ministries and organizations that conceived and executed the criminal policies of the Third Reich and the Japanese Empire. It is useless to wail that the abstractions were responsible and that the persons and institutions were “innocent bystanders, powerless to prevent the wrong which they saw and deplored”–as many Germans and representatives of nations that collaborated with them have hypocritically done since 1945. In the same way, if the police or the FBI apprehend a gang of bank robbers, it is not “greed” or “covetousness” that go on trial, but the culprits themselves. Whatever genetic predisposition or circumstances of early life may have determined their conduct, they cannot escape a verdict of guilty on any ground other than legal insanity–not likely to be proven given the premeditated and purposeful character of their crimes.

In the same way, those who would exonerate the medieval Church by indicting the aforementioned abstractions have sadly missed the point. It is not as if the theologians and priests secretly detested the condemnation of sodomy but had it forced on them by an intolerant hierarchy; they created the “sodomy delusion” and inculcated it so effectively that more than two centuries after the American and French Revolutions the gay rights movement is still struggling, often vainly, against it. There are no innocent bystanders in history, and even if there were, the Church was never of them. Religious institutions and authorities were implicated in every policy-making process of medieval society. When the Church was not the instigator, it was the accomplice; when it was not the accomplice, it was the beneficiary. Those gay Christians who want to pretend that the “true Church” was guiltless of the terrible wrongs which resulted from that involvement are simply deceiving themselves. They understand the logic of neither legal nor historical responsibility.

The logic of causality is not the logic of the law. This is a matter which the layman often cannot grasp because he has received no training in criminal or tort law. Responsibility of natural and juridical persons as a necessity of the legal order exists precisely to the extent that it is prescribed and defined by law. When the law specifically exempts certain persons from responsibility (for example, an airline for any loss or inconvenience passengers may suffer from failure of flights to arrive on time), then liability is abolished, even when it clearly occurs in the real world. The law operates not with the logic of everyday life, but with a set of necessary fictions (Sollen in the Kantian sense) which jurists have elaborated over the centuries. No evidence will ever make the Church an “innocent bystander” in regard to the intolerance of homosexuality. From the very start homosexual acts were sinful; in the later Roman Empire after its conversion, and again in the early part of the High Middle Ages they became criminal and infamous as well.

The sources of Christian intolerance were manifold. First, there was the legacy of paganism. Greco-Roman (and primitive Germanic) culture strongly reproved homosexual activity that was perceived as gender-discordant. The passive-effeminate male, designated as cinaedus in Latin and argr in Old Norse, bore the brunt of overpowering contempt and hostility, but only social–not legal–sanctions. Ironically enough, to call another male an argr was itself an offense under Lombard law.

The Judaic contribution was the legal one: the explicit prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, alongside Deuteronomy 22:5 and 23:18, expressly forbade male homosexuality and cultic cross-dressing and prostitution. Furthermore, the account of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19 gave quasi-historical example and sanction to the death penalty prescribed in the Priestly Code. All these texts, read in the West first in the Vetus Latina and then in St. Jerome's translations, gave divine sanction to intolerance. To this day they remain the inevitable and ineluctable “bottom line” in the arguments of the foes of the gay rights movement, cited by the Supreme Court in Bowers v. Hardwick. Even if at the outset the scope and purpose of these provisions of the Mosaic Law was narrower than the blanket condemnation that later became normative, the Judaic tradition was unambiguous; in Hellenistic Judaism, perhaps as an abreaction to Greek paiderasteia, male homosexuality was made tantamount in gravity to murder. Palestinian Judaism did not lag behind: the Talmud (b.Sanhedrin 73a) went so far as to ordain that one had the right to kill another male to prevent his committing the crime.

The sexual morality of Hellenistic Judaism was adopted and ratified by the nascent Christian Church. Such passages in the New Testament as Romans 1:18-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9 merely reiterate the Judaic rejection and condemnation of love for one's one sex. In addition, from Gnostic speculation on the role of sexuality in the cosmic process Christianity acquired a profound malaise with sexual dimorphism as an imperfect human condition and the ideal of an asexual humanity. From this standpoint even heterosexual intercourse for reproduction within Christian marriage could be little more than a necessary evil; homosexual intercourse of any kind a wholly unnecessary one.

The Christian emperors added their share to the weight of condemnation, beginning with the sons of Constantine the Great in 341. The decree of Theodosius the Great in 390, followed by Justinian's novellae 77 and 141 in the sixth century, inscribed legal penalties for the “sin against nature” into Roman law. Moreover, Justinian initiated a long tradition of making tabooed sexuality the scapegoat for the ills of society when he asserted that because of such crimes plagues, famines and earthquakes8 are sent by God to punish mankind for its depravity. Hence at the outset of the Middle Ages a fully developed system of theological and legal condemnation was already in place. How that system and the means of enforcing it evolved over the following ten centuries is subject matter for the medieval historian.

The initial criminalization of homosexual activity in Roman law became unenforceable simply because the barbarian invasions caused the Roman Empire in the West to collapse. Roman law was replaced by the codes of the Germanic tribes that overran the northwestern provinces in the fifth and sixth centuries and created their own jurisdictions. The Germanic laws, with slight exceptions, primarily in Visigothic Spain, do not refer to the crime against nature because they are not concerned with sacral offenses. Where the subject occurs, its source in Christian doctrine is evident. But at a time when the legal order and society itself were fast disintegrating, gratified (or ungratified) sexual urges little interested the new, still barbarian rulers of Western Europe.

The pontificate of Gregory the Great was a turning point in history. He conceived and inau-gurated the missionary campaign to convert the Germanic peoples to Christianity. In the following four centuries his epoch-making initiative bore fruit. The Germanic and Celtic races of northwestern Europe were brought into the fold of Latin Christendom, and this process completed the evolution from the Mediterranean civilization of antiquity to the European Christian civilization of the Middle Ages. The coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 marked the culmination of this movement.

While the Church had always condemned the sin against nature, the modes of enforcing its reprobation varied. On the westernmost periphery of Christendom, in the territories newly won for the faith, this role fell to the penitentials. These were manuals whose purpose was to aid the priest in giving spiritual guidance to the Christian laity by enumerating the various categories of sin and prescribing appropriate penances. Long recognized as precious sources for the study of the social, legal and moral institutions of the early Middle Ages, the penitentials are striking for their broad and detailed treatment of human sexual behavior. All have at least one canon condemning sin against nature, and many offer a relatively extended analysis of the subject. The various offenses are weighted consistently. Typically, a penance of ten to fifteen years is imposed for sexual relations between males in general, from seven to twenty for sins specifically ascribed to Sodom, from three to seven years for oral-genital contacts, three years for anal intercourse, one to three years for intercrural relations, and a mere 30 days to two years for masturbation. Monks were often disci-plined more lightly, at least in practice. Lesbian relations are scarcely mentioned, though a text from Hincmar of Reims asserts that “They are reputed to use certain instruments of diabolic func-tion to excite desire.” Even in later centuries, only the use of a dildo (single or double) warran-ted the intervention of the authorities. At this stage in the Christianization of the West, none of the penitentials states or implies that the culprits should be denounced to the secular arm for prosecution and punishment.

About 1051 Saint Peter Damian, a member of the circle of papal reformers, in a long treatise, the Liber Gomorrhianus, bitterly denounced male homosexuality, particularly among the clergy. He charged that such sins were not only common, but escaped attention because those guilty of them confessed only to others equally compromised. The sexual abnormality of the clergy is a topic in and of itself, one that has been the object of sectarian or anti-clerical polemics rather than of dispassionate study. Judaism had bequeathed to Christianity the model of the Levitical clergy, which was heterosexual but not abstinent. Never in all of its 2500-year history has Judaism had celibate priests or virginal priestesses, never any other ideal for its religious elite or for its laity than marriage and fatherhood. From Magna Mater religions of Asia Minor Christianity had adopted a different tradition, one that deferred to the Jewish prohibition of self-castration but still embodied an androgynous norm into which those oriented toward their own sex conveniently fitted. That so many individuals with unconventional sexual preferences should have over the centuries served a religion that uncompromisingly forbade their self-indulgence is in retrospect a political as well as a psychological problem. But the response of Pope (later Saint) Leo IX was no more than a polite acknowledgement that Damian had shown himself a foe of carnal pollution, the ardent reformer had not convinced the pontiff that sweeping reforms were necessary. Leo was quite willing to let the moral status quo in the Church remain what it was, perhaps sensing that a campaign to identify and oust the transgressors would only amount to a self-inflicted wound.

A new phase in the evolution of attitudes toward sexuality in general began with Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085). He set in motion the intensified emphasis upon asceticism and clerical celibacy that was to be a hallmark of Roman Catholic morality ever after. Thanks to him the duty of the priest in regard to sexual abstinence was never afterwards in doubt for Latin Christianity and the rest of the papal reformers. From his time forward, condemnation of “unnatural vice” inevitably became more strident and imperative. Canon law developed apace from Burchard of Worms to Ivo of Chartres (Brundage), then to Gratian and Gregory IX.

Footnotes to Part One

  • 1The further elaboration of the geographical tradition in the Middle Ages was traced by the crypto-homosexual President of Cornell University An-drew Dickson White in A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1896), vol. 2, pp. 221-235: “Mediæval Growth of the Dead Sea Legends.”
  • 2François Lissarague, “De la sexualité des satyres”, Mêtis, 2/1 (1987): 63-79; Anna Collinge, “The Case of Satyrs”, Images of Authority: Papers pre-sented to Joyce Reynolds on the occasion of her seventieth birthday, ed. Mary Margaret Mackenzie and Charlotte Roueché (Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1989), pp. 82-103. A. J. van Windekens has proposed a convincing etymology for sátyros < *s_ro-tyros “seizing the female genitalia”, Diction-naire étymologique complémentaire de la langue grecque: Nouvelles contribu-tions à l'interprétation historique et comparée du vocabulaire (Louvain: Pee-ters, 1986), pp. 203-204.
  • 3 Collinge, op. cit., p. 83.
  • 4 Collinge, op. cit., p. 90.
  • 5 Joost de Damhoudere, Praxis rerum criminalium (Antwerp: apud Petrum Bellerum, 1646), caput XCVIII, who does not, however, regard this departure from the Christian ideal as true sodomy.
  • 6Bohdan Baranowski, Sprawy obyczajowe w s_downictwie wiejskim w Polsce wieku XVII i XVIII [Morals Cases in the Rural Judiciary in Poland of the 17th and 18th Centuries] (_ód_: Zak_ad im. Ossoli_skich we Wroc_awiu, 1955) [= Prace Wydzia_u II, No. 16], p. 64, citing Jan Duklan Ochocki, Pami_tniki..., z pozosta_ych po nim r_kopismów przepisane i wydane przez J. I. Kraszewskiego [Memoirs, transcribed from his extant manuscripts and published by J. I. Kra-szewski] (Vilnius: 1857), pp. 117-118.
  • 7 Robert le Bougre, a member of the Ordo Praedicatorum, as recorded by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora ed. Luard, III, 520: “Moreover he called them by the vulgar name of bougres, whether they were Patarines, or Jovini-ans, or Albigensians, or defiled by other heresies.” The high point of his activity evidently fell in the years 1236-1238.
  • 8In the long debate over Justinian's novellae 77 and 141 it has been conveniently forgotten that the ancients possessed the rudiments of a science of seismology and that the Emperor's pious indictment of those guilty of the sin of Sodom, so far from being a scientific possibility, was the nadir of superstition. See Ernst Darmstaedter, “Anthemios und sein ‘künstliches Erdbeben’ in Byzanz,” Philologus, 88: 477-482 (1933).

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