Medieval Latin Poetry

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The classical tradition of pederastic poetry may never have completely died out despiteChristian homophobia, though no examples in Latin survive from the fifth through the eighth century. But then little was written in the so-called Dark Ages (476-1000), and less survives. If the last survivingpagan homoerotic poems in Latin by Nemesianus in his fourth Bucolic were made in the reign of Numerian (283-284), Christian Latin pederastic verses appeared some two centuries later, best exemplified by Ausonius (d. ca. 395). Ausonius' library contained homosexual literature that scandalized Romans and he translated from Greek into Latin Strato's riddle about three men simultaneously enjoying four sexual postures. Saint Paulinus of Nola expressed his love for Ausonius: "As long as I am held in this confining, limping body. . . , I will hold you, intermingled in my very sinews." (Stehling, p. 5). Production of pederastic poetry, as indeed of most other Latin literature, declined and almost ceased after 476. Whatever forms of sexuality the Merovingian kings (420-751) practiced–especially the degenerate, drunken later ones, the Rois Fainbants, with their long golden locks–shocked observers.

Elements of Continuity. A tradition of tolerance for sodomy can be traced from Ausonius through Sidonius Apollinarius to the monks of the central Middle Ages with their taste for "particular friendships." A North Italian among poets of the ninth century who rescued classical traditions wrote: "Hard marrow from mother's bones/Created men from thrown stones;/ Of which one is this young boy,/Who can ignore tearful sobs./When I am heartbroken, my mind will rejoice. I shall weep as the doe whose fawn has fled." ("O admirabile Veneris ydolum.") So much of the classical tradition had survived that poems of love or intimate friendship for other men could be written by bishops and men of learning without incurring scorn or censure as would have happened in nineteenth- century Europe. The masters of Latin literature, having written in their own spoken tongue, wererevered as models by authors composing in a learned, artificial speech, not their own vernacular, and celebrated in their writing their affection for other men, and especially the passion which as adult males they felt for boys. The whole homoerotic tradition of Mediterranean culture, made this inevitable. And the contrasts and antagonisms–the boy who scorns his lovers, the loverwho is interested only in a boy's looks and not his mind and character–are commonplaces in the Latin literature of pederasty.

From the Carolingians to the Later Middle Ages. In the revival of learning during the Carolingian era (late eighth and ninth centuries), a distinctly erotic element can be perceived in the circle of clerics over which Alcuin, the "friend of Charlemagne," presided. The direction of the passion, however, was largely from Alcuin to his pupils; he went so far as to bestow upon a favorite student a "pet name" from one of Vergil's Eclogues. The affection of Walafrid Strabo for his friend Liutger took on more specifically Christian terms, anticipating Elizabethan love sonnets. His friend Gottschalk while in exile wrote a tender poem to a young monk, probably at Reichenau.

After the restoration of order imposed by counts and kings during the central Middle Ages (1000-1300) literature once again flourished in Western Europe, gushing forth in the vernaculars, as well as in Latin during the "Renaissance of the twelfth century," and pederastic poems were part of this new wave. Marbod of Rennes (ca. 1035-1123), master of the school of Chartres, who wrote mainly on religious themes, became involved in a frustrating triangle with a boy whom he loved, but who loved a very beautiful girl herself in love with Marbod. Baudri of Bourgueil (l046-l130), his disciple, exemplifies the transition to the more baldly erotic poetry of the new era. Some of his poems address the moral qualities of the addressee, others extol merely his physical charms. Hildebert of Lavardin (ca. 1055-1133) repeats standard moralizing objections to the "plague of Sodom," suggesting that the hated practices were common enough in his time. Another poem of his boldly asserts that calling male love a sin is an error and that "heaven's council" was at fault in so doing.

Medieval allegorical poetry was less favorable to love for one's own sex. Alan of Lille composed a didactic poem entitled De Planctu Naturae (On the Complaint of Nature; ca. 1170), in which mankind is indicted for having invented monstrous forms of love and perverted her laws. In his continuation of the Roman de la Rose (ca. 1270], Jean de Meun has nature's genius liken those engaging in nonprocreative sex to plowmen who till stony ground, and other metaphors convey the message that if such practices are not halted, the human race will die out in two more generations.

A German manuscript of the twelfth or thirteenth century contains two anonymous lesbian love letters. Anonymous likewiseis the Dispute of Ganymede and Helen in rhyming Latin verse, which is a contest over the merits of love for boys against love for women, in which a not exactly unprejudiced jury opts for heterosexuality.

When homophobic repression by clerical and secular authorities mounted during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, pederastic verse disappeared until the Italian Renaissance, when interest in classical antiquity gave it a rebirth.

John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980; Ramsay MacMullin, "Roman Attitudes to Greek Love," Historia, 31 (1982), 484-502; Thomas Stehling, trans., Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship, New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.
William A. Percy

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