My lecture is gratefully indebted to Vern L. Bullough, James A. Brundage, Warren Johansson, William A. Percy, and Jacqueline Murray. References to their fine works may be found below in the bibliography.
This lecture will be concerned with the concepts of homosexuality, lesbianism, and cross-dressing during the Middle Ages. All three topics are controversial subjects, with important scholars differing on the degree to which the Catholic Church prohibited such practices, as well as the degree to which it persecuted and prosecuted them.
A well-regarded scholar, John Boswell, wrote an important and controversial book in 1980, titled Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. His well-researched volume claimed that the early Catholic Church was not as intolerant of same sex relations between people as had been previously assumed. I shall be discussing the cogent rebuttals of his position by other prominent scholars.
There is no serious question of whether or not the Catholic Church, from its very beginnings, disapproved of homosexuality. Same sex sexual activity by either gender was considered a sin.
Disagreements on the issue have stemmed from the fact that the most important theologians, called the church fathers, often comingled what they designated the “unmentionable vice” with other “sins,” such as heterosexual sodomy, sex with animals and so on. The second major difficulty is that homosexuality was often charged along with heresy. There are not a great number of medieval trials of people charged solely with the practice of homosexuality on the record.
But we do have a generous amount of written material available from manuals or handbooks called penitentials. There is also a later body of work to be used for confessional purposes. Such works went under the general rubric of summae confessorum, or summas for confessors. The penitentials were manuals or handbooks for priests which catalogued the various types of sins recognized by the church. The priests would be helped in identifying the sin confessed and in assigning penances to the guilty party. The penalty would generally be a private penance.
Since sexual concerns were prevalent in the penitentials, they have been mined by researchers for important sexual information about the Middle Ages. Some care must be exercised, however, because many later penitentials seem to have copied earlier ones to a great extent. Researchers have raised the issue that such copying might reflect earlier concerns about certain sexual matters that would not be true for a later era.
It would seem, however, that later copyists would have omitted no-longer used catalogues of sins and penances rather than keeping them in updated versions of the handbooks. There is the other concern that penitentials might not reveal the ordinary practices of people in everyday situations.
That is true, but such lacunae between doctrine and practice always exists in every era. The general scholarly approach is to peruse all the penitentials available in translations. When taken as a group, the handbooks provide a kind of chronological “overview” of offenses and the penances suggested for them without focusing on any particular penitential.
The later summas were a transition from the older penitentials. Summas were a narrow range of writings meant to educate the clergy in the concept of confession and the administration of it in the confessionals. According to Andrew McCall’s volume, The Medieval Underworld, confession of sin was most often made in public during the first few centuries of church history. Such confessions were generally made only once, so people waited until they were close to death. If they were physically able, they knelt down before the Christian congregation and asked it to hear his/her “supplication before god.”
As the list of sins grew longer and longer, the concept of one simple, all-encompassing confession transitioned into the idea of repeated confessions. The important Fourth Lateran Council, which crystallized much church doctrine, stipulated in 1215 that every Christian must make a confession at least once a year. Public confession yielded to the practice of a private rite, during which the penitent confessed privately to a priest, who then absolved him or her.
Summas instructed priests on the nature of such confessions and how to conduct them. In this manner, the type of confessions laid down by the church theologians was balanced with practical instructions.
Every summa dealt with the active administration of each confession, how the confessors should conduct themselves and the penances that should be meted out. Both penitentials and summas contain large sections on sexual matters. It is necessary to know the contents of both groups of work, as they are an important source of beliefs about sexual matters during the Middle Ages.
Contemporary researchers of medieval same sex practices have met with a number of difficulties. The first problem is the question of whether the word “gay” should be used to describe people who engaged in homosexual sex in that era. “Gay” is a modern term. The word, homosexual, was invented by a writer who first used it in an anonymous pamphlet in 1869. The word, “gay”, used as a designation for homosexuality, was derived from American slang. It first appeared in The Oxford English Dictionary 2, 1935 edition. In the present day, many people prefer to designate same sex persons as “gay” rather than “homosexual.” But people with a same sex sexual orientation were not thought of as “gay,” “homosexual,” or “queer” in the Middle Ages.
Michel Foucault (1926-1984), the postmodern philosopher, considered the idea that people’s sexual identity was constructed by society and its psychologists, sociologists and other “experts.” I believe that while Foucault made some important points about sexual construction, today many people embrace the concept that same sex orientation is not a choice. In the Middle Ages, however, homosexuality was not an identity, but rather, it was thought of primarily as a practice. For most church thinkers, if not all, it was believed to be a sinful practice, for which the offenders deserved penance, incarceration, or death.
There are additional complications with the medieval definition of what was called, “the sin against nature,” or sodomy.
Warren Johansson and William L. Percy state that Latin Christians classified homosexual behavior under that of the deadly sin, luxuria, “lust,” or “lechery,” and assigned it to the worse form, the aforementioned “sin against nature.” There were three divisions of that category, which were “by reason of species”, which was sex with animals, “by reason of sex”, sex with a person who had the same genitalia, and “by reason of manner,” which was sex with a person of the opposite sex, but in the wrong orifice. The wrong orifice was any orifice that would not include the possibility of procreation of children. The medieval era believed that the sole legitimate reason for sexual activity was procreation.
Now that the lecture has glanced at some of the difficulties encountered by researchers of medieval homosexuality, it is also necessary to consider some of the sources for the medieval notion of sodomy. There is general agreement that the most important source was the scriptural tale in Genesis 19, a well known story about the town of Sodom. The so-called “Sodomites” were the men of that town who clamored to “know,” or in other words, to have sex with two male strangers visiting Lot. The strangers were apparently angels. Women were held in such low esteem that Lot offered his virginal daughters in place of his male visitors. Lot told the presumably bisexual Sodomites that they could do whatever they wanted with the young women. God soon destroyed the city because of its wickedness.
John Boswell’s apologetic book claimed that “to know” was not necessarily a sexual term. He argued the Sodomites were punished for inhospitality.
But the medieval church’s interpretation of the story was similar to our modern one- that the tale was about same sex issues. Many people in the present day continue to believe that the Biblical myth of the city’s destruction is an important source of the taboo on homosexuality.
Less open to controversial interpretation is the Old Testament prohibition issued in Leviticus 18:22-23. That passage concerns two types of offenders- males who have intercourse with other men and men and women who have sex with animals. Both categories of offenders were excluded from the Israeli community. Leviticus 20:13 called for the death penalty for male on male sexual activity.
Johansson and Percy have added another source for the Christian prohibition and condemnation of homosexuality. They maintain that the church borrowed material from the archetypal pagan myth of the satyrs, whose huge virile penises were in almost constant erection. However, their unsuccessful pursuit of women forced satyrs to assault sleeping women or boys. They quite often turned to other male satyrs or animals for satisfaction.
The two authors go on to argue that the legal definition of sodomy as “anal intercourse with a man or woman, or vaginal penetration of an animal,” was somewhat narrow. There was in actuality a wider understanding of sodomy in the medieval era. It was believed that sodomy was the practice of uninhibited sexual activity. Sodomy also comprised committing sacrilege and/or entering in marriage with Jews and Saracens. The word itself might have come from some Arabic roots from the Iberian Peninsula which emerged in Medieval Latin around 1175.
There was another term that appeared in the 12th Century and became more used with time. The word was Bulgarus, “Bulgarian”, and from there came the French “bougre” and the English word, “bugger.” The term also referred to the heresy searcher, Robert le Bougre, who decided to put all the heretical sects so frightening to the church under the one umbrella term of heresy. Eventually the word, heretic, began to designate sodomites and usurers as well. There were Catholic inquisitors who focused on some of the heretical sects’ unconventional views on sexual morality. Such inquisitors had little trouble accusing members of those sects of engaging in homosexuality. But the English term, “buggery” was not unambiguously attested to in the sexual sense until the penal law of Henry the VIII in 1533. It is nowhere found in Middle English, which was the prevalent dialect before the 15th Century.
The lecture has glanced at the definitions and mythological origins of the church taboo on homosexuality. I would now like to turn to the way homosexuality was received in ancient society and the dramatic change that came about with the hegemony of Christianity. In ancient Greece, homosexuality between active adult males and passive adolescent males of about 12 to 13 years of age until 17 or 18 years old was permitted with qualifications. . The partners’ relationships were supposed to further courage on the battlefield and promote community bonds. Effeminacy was censured and denigrated in Greek society. Rome’s males had unlimited access to slaves and prostitutes of both sexes. They were enjoined to be the penetrators in those sexual encounters. To be penetrated sexually was forbidden to male Roman citizens.
(Please see my lecture at AtheistScholar.org, titled “The Bible, Slavery, and Christianity” for a fuller discussion of sexuality in the ancient world.)
Christian opposition to same sex practices came with the genesis of the religion. The lecture will glance at the laws, writings and philosophical opinions that crystallized the Catholic Church’s doctrines about sex and sexual practices. Christian culture has been termed a sex-negative religion as opposed to Judaism and Islam. Both Judaism and Islam accepted sexual pleasure in heterosexual unions, even while abjuring other forms of sexual expression outside of marriage. Christianity was opposed to any sexual expression, even in marriage, that did not lead to the procreation of children. The Christian religion’s view of sexuality was highly negative and all expressions of non procreative sexuality were forbidden.
By the early Middle Ages, “sins against nature” were practices the church had decidedly condemned. The church based its opposition to such practices on Scripture and on certain philosophical or theological assumptions of the age. But the opposition to homosexual activity was present at the genesis of the nascent religion. Here is part of the quotation from Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans.” Keep in mind that Paul was the putative founder of the Christian religion. In Romans, he spoke about god having given up on some pagans who had dishonored their own bodies with lust.
Paul continued: “… for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature, likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of woman, burned in their lust toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was mete.”Modern biblical scholars disagree about Paul’s meaning. Did “unnatural use” mean marital sex that was anal, coitus interruptus, or homosexual practice in general?
The likely answer is that Paul meant all three practices, as well as others he had neglected to delineate.
With the coming of the Roman Emperors who embraced Christianity came the draconian laws against homosexuality. The 4th Century Christian Emperors, Constantine and Constans, prescribed “exquisite punishment” for men who “marry in the manner of a woman.” In 390 CE, the Christian emperors, (Please see “Christianity’s Damnation of Sex” at AtheistScholar.org) Theodosius, Valentinian III, and Arcadius II prescribed burning as the punishment for all those men who undertook sexual intercourse in the manner of a woman. The 6th Century Christian Emperor, Justinian, inveighed against lust contrary to nature and blamed the destruction of cities on such acts. That the lusts contrary to nature were homosexual ones is demonstrated by the enactment of a law that prescribed punishment for defilement of males in 544 CE. Early Christian prohibitions against homosexuality became more draconian with time.
Present day researchers find it difficult to determine how often homosexuals were charged and prosecuted in court. This was because of the legal combination of heresy and homosexual acts.
But while there is no clear evidence to fix the number of prosecutions for homosexuality in the Middle Ages, it is certain that homosexuality was considered a serious sin, a mortal sin. It was deemed one of the worst transgressions in the hierarchal order of sins enumerated by the Catholic Church.
The penitentials provide important information about the condemnation of homosexuality. All of them that survive condemn sodomy at least once and prescribe a penance of seven to twenty years for specifically Sodom-inspired acts, three to seven years for oral-genital contacts, three to fifteen years for anal intercourse, one to three years for intercrural relations and thirty days to two years for masturbation.
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, was an important Church theologian. Augustine (354-430 CE) condemned the acts that he maintained had been committed in Sodom, which “… ought everywhere and always to be detested and punished. If all nations were to do such things, they would (equally) be held guilty of the same crime by the law of God which has not made men so that they should use one another in this way.” He typically never defined those acts. Christians had difficulty speaking about or defining what was termed the “unspeakable crime,” and that predicament needs to be kept in mind when studying medieval statements and laws against homosexuality.
As the Germanic tribes began to take over various areas in Europe, there was a transition in the types of laws relating to sexual practices. Many of the tribes were Christians or gradually converted to Christianity. Their earliest recorded regulations were laws forbidding adultery, which the Germans considered a crime against property.
Later Visigothic laws from 7th Century Spain make mention of the crime of “males who lie with other males.” With time, the phrase “against nature” was added to those laws. By Charlemagne’s reign (742-814 CE), prohibitive laws against transgressions titled as “sins against nature” were written to include all forms of sex not leading to procreation.
The various writings from some of the early penitentials and the works of the church fathers would eventually assist in the culmination of the church’s complete rejection and savage persecution of homosexuality. The 547 CE Synod of the Grove of Victory was the penitential that went into the greatest detail about sodomy. The author of that work delineated specific acts and assigned different penances for varied offenses. Anal intercourse was a four year penance. Sexual activity by hand was a two years penance. The Grove of Victory, however, made no distinctions between homosexual and heterosexual partners. Saint Columban’s (543-615 CE) penitential urged that clerics engaging in sodomy should receive a ten year penance, but laymen doing the same, just seven years.
If you recall from my lecture on Christian sadomasochism, Peter Damian (1007-1072 CE) was a zealous monastery reformer. He advocated flagellation as a regular practice in monasteries. But when perusing historical studies of medieval sex, one also finds his name mentioned there as well. He was apparently enraged by the contradictions in the types and lengths of penances prescribed by the various penitentials and tried to bring some order to the categorizations when he wrote his own. In that work, he tried to place sexual sins into a kind of ascending sinful order.
Damian started with masturbation, then mutual masturbation, then interfemoral connection, and ended with sodomy, which he defined as anal coitus. He believed that such acts were all sins against nature, but that sodomy was the worst because it was lust for lust’s sake alone. He argued that when the biblical sodomites took up sodomy, it led to their performing vile acts on themselves and others.
Pope Leo IX (1049-1054 CE) accepted Damian’s dedication of the penitential to him but demurred about rushing to judgment against people accused of sodomy. He told Damian that hardened clerics who persisted in such acts were the only ones who deserved the maximum penalty.
Albertus Magnus (1206-1280 CE) defined many types of sexual sins. He believed that sodomy was the worst one. He provided a definition of sodomy, stating that sodomy was male with male or female with female sexual activity. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), arguably the Church’s greatest theologian, differed somewhat from the view of Magnus, his former teacher.
Aquinas believed that lust was a vice because it exceeded order and reason. He classified sexual acts into categories, as had other theologians and church fathers. Aquinas stated that bestiality, or sex with animals, was the worst form of vice, with sodomy just under that sin. Sodomy was defined as sex between male and male or female and female. Interestingly, he did not believe that touches, kisses, and caresses between two people of the same sex were sinful as long as their intent was innocent. But he stated that if the motive was to receive hidden pleasure, such activities were not only lustful but highly sinful.
In 1978, Warren Johansson coined an important phrase to describe the church’s stance on homosexual sex in the later Middle Ages. He called it the “sodomy delusion.” John Boswell agreed that around 1281 or so, the church entered into a period of highly phobic and persecutory behavior against sodomy. Boswell erroneously claimed that there had been early church tolerance rather than persecution for same sex practices. But even such an apologist could not avoid admitting that by the late 13th Century, the church began to engage in draconian and savage persecution of homosexuality.
I would like to turn again to John Boswell, the brilliant historian who died of AIDS in 1994. He wrote the important work mentioned earlier, titled Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Many of Boswell’s statements about the church vis-à-vis homosexuality fall into the category of apologetics. According to Warren Johansson, who refutes many of Boswell’s claims, there are three allegations made by Boswell that are the most interesting.
(1) One of Boswell’s most important discoveries is the body of homosexual literature from the central period of the Middle Ages, which was partly inspired by the heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity. Unlike some of his other research, this portion of his work is not in dispute. (2) Boswell claimed there was a long period of relative church toleration of homosexuality, from the time of the barbarian invasions down to the second half of the 13th Century. That claim is in dispute and not accepted by most scholars. The lecture has cited some of the laws passed against homosexual practices during that time period.
(3) Boswell did agree that the period of greatest church intolerance toward homosexuality was during the late Medieval and post-Medieval eras. His volume ended with the close of the 13th Century, after which the criminalization of homosexuality increased incrementally. Johansson maintains that the church’s delusional system lasted from 1281 to about 1763, when “its primary rationalizations went unchallenged in the theological school and laws courts of Europe.” Absurd fantasies and hysterical condemnations of every kind were attached to the notion of sodomy.
I am quoting Warren Johansson in this portion of the lecture, as his analysis of the “sodomy delusion” demonstrates the paranoia and hysteria “… invented and inculcated by the church, some of which lingers into the present day. In addition to condemning all non-procreative sex in general, and sex acts between males in particular, there was a widespread belief that sodomy was practiced by individuals whose souls had been enslaved by demonic powers. The church claimed that everyone is heterosexually oriented but everyone is susceptible of the demonic temptation to commit sodomy, and potentially guilty of the crime. Everyone regards the crime with loathing and disgust, but it is extremely contagious. If one yields to the temptation and experiences sodomitic pleasure, one will retain a life-long craving for it. Only a handful of depraved people commit sodomy, but if unchecked by the harshest of penalties, it would become so rampant as to occasion the suicide of the human race.”
“It is not only a source of eternal damnation to the individual sinner who indulges in it, but it is so hateful to god as to provoke his retaliation in the form of catastrophes that can befall a community for the unpunished crime of a single individual in its midst. For its own preservation, every Christian community must be eternally vigilant against its occurrence and spread, and the parties guilty of such abominable practices should be punished with the utmost severity. If not put to death for the crime of sodomy, guilty parties should at least be completely excluded from the Christian community. (Please see Johnasson’s article referenced in the Bibliography for a more extended discussion of the “sodomy delusion.”)
The delusion lasted until the 18th Century Enlightenment. The lengthy persistence of the fantasy has assured that it can be studied from the documents of that era, which are more easily mined for the dynamics and social forces that contributed to it than the yellowing documents of the 16th Century.”
Many scholars share the belief that Boswell was engaged in an attempt to change some of the mores of the present-day Catholic Church by harking back to a pre-persecutory era of the Christian religion. Perhaps he hoped to establish that the early church possessed a tolerant attitude toward same sex practices. If facts could be excavated to support such claims, he might have hoped that a way might be opened for the modern church to change its doctrinal position on homosexuality. Boswell was both gay and a Catholic convert. But many of his so-called facts are not correct. Some of the controversies involve the translation of sexual terms and others involve some disingenuous statements.
He has made claims that early gay marriages were allowed by the church. Boswell has stated: “In 342, gay marriages, which had hitherto been legal (at least de facto), and well known, were outlawed in a curiously phrased statute which some authors have regarded as entirely facetious. The law stated that “those guilty of such infamous crimes, either now or in the future, may be subjected to exquisite penalties.”
First of all, as John Lauritsen argues, the verb nubere does mean “to marry,” but in vulgar usage, it can simply mean to “have sex with.” Boswell has made no mention of that fact. In addition, such a statute as the one quoted above was a serious anti-homosexuality law which probably carried the death penalty for violation.
The Catholic Orthodox Church may have authorized some so-called “same sex unions,” but any such unions were not considered marriages, but bonds of friendship. The partners, just as in chaste marriages, were expected to be celibate. Even worse, there is no proof that such unions ever existed. (Please see Lauritsen’s article referenced in the Bibliography for a thorough discussion of some of Boswell’s claims.)
Professor Boswell also tried to claim that the Apostle Paul had condemned gay acts only when they were committed by heterosexual persons. To further his shaky argument, Boswell used anachronisms, such as “gay” and “gay people.” He argued that people “… who were conscious of erotic inclinations toward their own gender” were “gay.” But the word,“gay”, was not used until the 20th Century. In the Middle Ages, people were not persecuted for having a so-called gay identity, but for the same sex practices they engaged in.
By such slippery means, which are quite misleading, Boswell has attempted to exonerate the church from its systematic intolerance toward homosexuals. But the church’s persecution of people who engaged in same sex practices is in the historical records and those records reveal a savage and delusional system of condemnation and punishment of homosexuality.
Placed under the designation of “crimes against nature”, the “sodomy delusion” that began in the late 13th Century swelled to what Johansson calls “the object of a thousand fantasies.” He states that sodomy was removed from the annals of the past, not mentioned in the present and even forbidden in some imaginary future. Trial records of such cases were burnt with their victims.
What emerged during that period was not church tolerance, but a gay subculture, a criminalized one, from which gays were able to function to some extent. Excluded from the Christian dominant culture, they formed a culture of their own. The authorities gradually came to realize they could not stamp out gay culture. It was not practical to execute every gay offender, so many times the authorities chose to acquit defendants. There were periodic round-ups of gay offenders in droves who then were punished with mutilation, fines, exile, death or lesser sentences. There were waves of trials for sodomy from the 15th to the 18th Century. Nazi Germany did the same in the 1940’s.
While some Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were very likely gay, and philosophers like Mirandola (1463-1494 CE), wrote on love between males, homosexuality was definitively outlawed. Johansson and Percy state that they cannot find “… a single Church Father,
Penitentialist, Scholastic or Canonist, Protestant Reformer or Catholic Counter-Reformer or even any Orthodox, Coptic or Nestorian whoever wrote even a neutral, much less a kind, word about sodomites.” The record on Christianity being against gays stands and speaks for itself.
Most of the historical studies of same sex attractions and practices have focused on the term, “homosexuality,” which has often denoted male homosexuality and is not inclusive of lesbians. Many scholars believe that of all medieval groups, lesbians have been the most ignored by researchers. But in the present day, more studies and research are being undertaken about same sex practices between women in the Middle Ages. Excavating facts about medieval lesbians is very difficult. The majority of writers of the medieval period were men; women, whether wives, heads of convents, mothers, workers or lesbians, were virtually ignored.
But there are sources that provide consistent evidence about lesbians in medieval society. Such evidence is to be found in canon law and theology. Those sources provide proof of the persistent condemnation of not only male same sex practices, but also of lesbian relationships and behaviors. I would like to refer to Paul’s “Epistle to the Romans,” which I quoted earlier in the lecture. Paul said: “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural…”
According to Jacqueline Murray’s article, “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible,” this letter of Paul’s is the sole discussion of lesbian activity found in “either Jewish or Christian scripture.” There is some disagreement about whether Paul was referring to female homosexuality or to women engaging in what would have been viewed as “heterosexual perversions”.
Christianity condemned any sexual expression that did not lead to procreation. However, most scholars agree that Paul’s reference was to lesbian behavior.
During Paul’s era, the 1st Century CE, the dominant Roman society also condemned lesbian sexual practices as an attempt to usurp men’s hierarchal position. Paul is often quoted by Christians and misogynists for his statements about women’s place and their subordination to men. His opinions about women and the necessity for them to remain silent and passive before their husbands are consistent with his condemnation of female to female sexual behavior. Such lesbian women would have been viewed as trying to take an active and autonomous role like a man, as opposed to the appropriate passive and subordinate role of a woman.
John Boswell has argued that in Romans, 1:26, Paul was not condemning “gay” people but heterosexuals who engaged in homosexual activity. Boswell stated: “It cannot be inferred from this that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice morally reprehensible.” It is obvious that he had a very generous and non-judgmental approach to Paul that underlines Boswell’s apologetic stance on the church condemnation of homosexuality and lesbianism. Fortunately most scholars do not agree and Boswell’s approach has remained marginal. Most experts agree that Paul’s Romans I condemned male homosexuality and most likely lesbianism as well.
Condemning female to female sex practices continued beyond Paul, from the patristic church theologians to Thomas Aquinas and beyond.
The Church Father, John Chrysostom, stated in his “Commentary on Romans, I: 26,” “…it is even more shameful that the women should seek this type of intercourse, since they ought to have more modesty than men.”
Here is the eminent Bishop of Hippo and church theologian, Augustine, on the topic. “The love between you, however, ought not to be earthly but spiritual, for the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided not only by widows and chaste handmaids of Christ, living under the holy rule of life, but also entirely by married women and maidens destined for marriage.’
Augustine’s statement emphasizes the fact that many writers of the period were aware of the dangers of sexual attraction between nuns in the same convents, in an exclusively female environment. Here is Donatus from the 7th Century on the topic: “That none take the hand of another or call one another, “little girl.” “It is forbidden lest any take the hand of another for delight or stand or walk around or sit together. She who does so, will be improved with twelve blows. And any who is called “little girl, or who calls another, “little girl,” forty blows if they so transgress. Donatus laid out specific and detailed rules as to the sleeping arrangements of nuns. The wording leads us to believe the regulations were formulated to lessen any so-called occasion for sin. Along with other rules, Donatus prescribed that lights should be on all night and that the nuns should sleep clothed. When they awakened in the morning, he recommended they should go quickly to work and not linger.
The penitentials are another important source of knowledge about female to female sexual attraction and practices during the medieval era. One penitential differed from another, and lesbianism was often “subsumed” under the general category of homosexuality. But three canons from “The Penitential of Theodore” (602-690 CE) make certain specific mention of female same sex activity. Theodore stated that: “If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.” He went on: “The penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication.”
As Jacqueline Murray points out: “It is the absence of the male partner that conceptually unites masturbation and lesbian sexual activity.” Theodore did not recommend severe penance or punishment for lesbian relations. There was some slight severity suggested for married women who engaged in same sex relations. Theodore was more lenient to single girls and widows because it would be understood they did not have a legitimate sexual outlet.
What has emerged from a few penitentials and other writings by male theologians reveals differing attitudes toward certain types of lesbian activities. The theologians differentiated between mutual rubbing or masturbation and the use of devices during sexual relations between women. The Penitential of Bede discussed both lesbian relations between lay women and lesbian relations between nuns. Bede (d. 736 CE) laid down a penance of seven years for nuns who engaged in same sex relations while using an instrument.
Although it is not completely clear if he wanted to penalize the nuns because they were religious women or because they used an instrument, it is known that in general, using objects such as dildos was considered more sinful.
During the 8th and 9th Centuries Carolingian Era, Hincmar of Rheims fulminated against the use of an “unnatural member” between women having sexual relations with other women. He said that such women had been reported to “… use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire.”The phallocentric nature of sexual relations during the medieval era is underscored by such writings.
To employ an instrument such as a dildo for forbidden sexual relations between women was considered a serious sin. The use of the dildo not only usurped the sexual organ of the man, but his more active role during sexual relations. Some penitentials specifically described the positions that were allowed between married heterosexuals. There was a general understanding that a woman should be on her back, not in a more dominant, on-top position. Therefore, to try to usurp the male organ’s activities was considered wicked indeed. Lesbian sex was considered a less serious offense than male homosexual relations unless it threatened the so-called “natural” hierarchy between the sexes.
The monastery reformer, Peter Damian, wrote the 1051 Book of Gomorrah in condemnation of male homosexuality but did not once mention lesbian activity. During the 7th Century Gregorian era, the penitentials merely repeated the condemnation of lesbian activity from older versions. 12th Century theologians did not contribute any new thoughts on the issue either, and echoed the older assumptions and prohibitions.
Peter Abelard (1079- 1142) stated that nature had created women’s genitals for the use of men.
Hildegard of Bingen, (1098-1179) whose insights into human sexuality were so often perspicacious, concurred with the condemnation of lesbians and their activity. She wrote: “And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight… they impudently usurped a right that was not theirs.” However, Bruce Holsinger has analyzed Hildegard’s writings and her music. He argues that she “… elaborated female homosocial desire… and (demonstrates) the radical irrelevance of the phallus.”
Guido Ruggiero has studied and surveyed sex crimes in the 14th and 15th Century Venetian Courts. He has concluded that secular courts did not, despite the official church and state condemnation of lesbianism, persecute lesbians. He states that lesbianism was likely tolerated or ignored because it was a type of sexuality “… that did not threaten the family with the birth of illegitimate children or with dissolution- as there was virtually no opportunity for women to withdraw from traditional marriage to form female pairs- which made it a non-crime.”
Nevertheless, proof can be found from court documents of the time that women, from the fields to the gentry, formed close emotional and sexual bonds with one another. Sometimes when they were discovered, punishment could be swift and harsh. A lawyer from Seville, Spain reported that lesbian women in prison made artificial male genitalia, and in addition, “used the same hard language as men of the underworld.” Women found with such devices could be given up to 200 lashes and be exiled from Seville.
The few surviving trial documents from that era seem to focus on the use of devices by lesbians. It was considered a criminal act if lesbian women usurped the man’s active sexual role by using dildos or tying artificial leather penises to their bodies. In Spain, two nuns were burned for what was called “using material instruments.” In France, a woman passed herself off as a man and married, but when her artificial phallus was discovered, she was burned. The usurping of the male phallus and the man’s active role was considered a very serious crime and threat to the social order. Women who had been the passive partners were viewed as dupes of the dominant women and often received lighter sentences.
Lesbian activity was coupled and tried with heresy charges, just as was male same sex activity. Women who were lesbians were often accused and found guilty of witchcraft and/or heresy. Jacqueline Murray states: “The conceptual link between sexual deviance and spiritual deviance is clear: both are conceived as deliberate and willful challenges to the natural order established by god and nature.”
But even at law, women’s lesbianism was often silenced. In 1568 Geneva, a woman was drowned because she was found guilty of a lesbian relationship. However the court was advised not to read out her full sentence publicly when she was executed. The court was told to say the convicted woman was guilty of such a horrible and unnatural crime it could not be named. Women were so silenced in medieval theocratic society that it is difficult for scholars to excavate their histories, sexual or otherwise. It is fortunate that there are the penitentials, the summas and a few trial records that reveal some facts about their sexual activity.
The famous case of Benedetta Carlini, a nun in 17th Century Italy, is better known. She claimed she was possessed by an angel who used her body to have sexual relations with another nun. Carlini was accused of employing her mystical vision to gain power over her convent and community. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, but it is unclear if her punishment was because of her sexual proclivities or because she had tried to usurp the authority which was the possession of the male clergy.
Most of the works concerning lesbian activity were written by men. An early 13th Century female troubadour, however, used the courtly love lyrics of the time to address another woman. Apparently her poem is the only vernacular example of lesbian poetry that has survived. It is very difficult to ascertain the exact relations between medieval women who formed strong emotional bonds with one another. Contemporary scholars have slowly begun to piece together the complex emotional and/or sexual relationships and identities of medieval women.
Medieval art is yet another area of research that is yielding more insight into the sexuality of that era. For example, the artistic images of weasels and hyenas have yet to be properly deciphered even though we know that in medieval iconography, they were symbols of homosexuality. There are also pictures of same-sex couples that need more study. A medieval book of morality from Vienna contains a discussion of the serpent’s temptation of Eve. A picture of an outdoor scene that accompanies the text depicts two couples, one female and one male, lying down and embracing. Devils appear to be urging them on in their activity. The images are unmistakably erotic, leaving no doubt that the figures are in homosexual embrace. But there is need for deeper analysis of such art and what it meant in medieval society.
Lesbian sexuality, rendered virtually invisible by medieval theologians and historians, is becoming more visible, and more understood in all of its complexity. The church was less interested in it because it did not pose a direct threat to societal order. It cannot be repeated enough that when lesbian activity threatened to challenge phallocentric hierarchal roles by the use of a dildo and/or energetic sexual behavior, it was swiftly and severely punished. Aggressive sexual behavior on the part of women seems to have been condemned because of its social transgression and its theological trespass.
Cross-dressing and transgender issues are topics currently much talked about, written about and studied by researchers. But cross-dressing has a history that goes back to classical antiquity. The attitudes of the church toward cross-dressing men and women were quite different. The lecture will attempt to sort out some of the reasons for the early church’s approval of women who attempted to leave their gender behind.
It is necessary to look into the history of cross-dressing to understand what it entailed in the Middle Ages and why. According to Vern L. Bullough: “The first description in the professional literature describing a difference between biological sex and gender behavior was by the psychiatrist, Carl Westphal, in 1869, who thought he was describing two cases of what came to be called “homosexuality.” “The one case was a woman who was a lesbian but wanted to be a man. The second case was a man who was not homosexual but a transvestite and possibly a transsexual.”
The psychiatrist, Krafft-Ebing, was the most important writer on sexuality in the 19th century, but his work was somewhat misleading, and influenced medically oriented professionals to place cross-dressing under the single classification of one aspect of homosexuality or fetishism. This muddle lasted until about the middle of the 20th Century.
The physician and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld, coined the term, “transvestite,” in 1910. However, the writer, Havelock Ellis, felt that such a descriptive term was too narrow. He perceptively discerned that the emphasis was being placed on clothes and did not take into consideration that cross-dressing was a challenge to gender stereotypes. The term, transvestite, was used until the 1980’s. Ellis tried to call cross-dressing, Eonism, but the term never achieved popularity. Ellis’s word was based on the case of the French Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont (1728-1810.) The Chevalier lived as a woman most of his life. His/her biological sex was discovered after death.
The sexologist, John Money, and his colleagues made great strides forward when they reworked the idea of gender in the middle 1900’s. They explained that male and female were biological designations, but that gender behavior was largely a social construct. The question of how much gender behavior is based on biology is a question that continues to be researched and disputed in the present day.
Feminists since the 1980’s have come to use the term, gender, to clearly delineate behavioral characteristics from anatomical or biological sex. The designation, transsexual, is a newer category because it only became possible to change anatomical sex with the success of surgical intervention at the beginning of the 1950’s. People who wish to carry out such a surgical change generally undergo psychiatric evaluation, making transsexuals a fairly well-studied category in the present day. Sex reassignment surgery, or SRS, is not a necessity for those who wish to assume a different gender. Many transgender people do not have surgery but live satisfied lives with the gender they have chosen.
Pagan mythology was replete with tales of cross-dressing by men and women. Male heroes such as Aeneas and Hercules were said to have lived some time dressed as girls or women. According to Bullough: “Cross-dressing was part of the religious ceremonies of many of the pagan cults such as Aphrodite’s.” Some of the church’s hostility to cross-dressing might have been its desire to differentiate itself from rival religions.
The newer Christian religion was influenced by Jewish scripture when it decided to forbid certain behaviors. In the case of cross-dressing, the source of hostility was Deuteronomy (22.5). The verse said: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man; neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy god.” There are modern biblical scholars who argue that Deuteronomy was quoted to criticize the rival pagan religions that cross dressed as part of their religious rites. Such apologetic scholars claim that there was no universal Christian prohibition of cross-dressing. They are not correct. But as the medieval era progressed, some church fathers began to approve of pious women’s attempts to assume male identities. Studying medieval cross-dressing tells us a great deal about gender roles. That is why it is so important to examine the practice.
Female cross-dressing in the Middle Ages was not only tolerated but sometimes encouraged because it was believed women were trying to become better people by striving to become more masculine. However, medieval writers showed a very different attitude toward male cross dressers. Most people of the time, including the theologians, assumed that a man who dressed as a woman was trying to gain sexual access to females.
Medieval beliefs about male and female differences and gender attributes can be traced to the ancient Greeks, especially to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle (365 – 362 BCE). His translated works were highly regarded by church theologians in the late 13th century. He was a favorite of Aquinas. Aristotle claimed a woman was an incomplete male because of the following so-called facts. He stated that the active force in the “seed” created a likeness, a perfect one, in the masculine sex, but that a defect in the active force or some other problem produced a girl.
Aristotle thought women were physically, intellectually and morally lesser than men. Therefore he believed it was the will of nature for women to be dominated by men. He maintained that the generative power of the man was the force that fashioned the fetus. After Aristotle came a plethora of famous writers who believed women were inferior, such as Pliny, Galen and the Jewish neo-Platonist, Philo.
Thomas Aquinas did not agree with Aristotle, stating that the female could not be some misbegotten object because god had intentionally created her. But Aquinas did not believe women were equal to men and wrote that “good order” resulted in man’s domination of women.
The church fathers helped disseminate such notions. They were primarily celibate and women appeared to be a danger to them. St. Jerome famously said: “… as long as woman is for birth and children, she is as different from man as body is from soul. But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.” St. Ambrose stated that a woman “who believes progresses to perfect manhood.” Many important theologians were of the same opinion.
Medieval thinkers believed that men had greater intellects and higher social status than women. They also assumed that men might be spiritually superior. A woman who impersonated a man was thought to be trying to become more rational and holy, but a man that cross dressed was accused of making himself effeminate. St. Cyprian thought such men should be forced to desist from wearing female dress or making feminine gestures.
There were numerous medieval tales of holy women who entered monasteries or lived in the desert as men. It was said that many of the pious, crossd-ressing women were so believable as men that they were sometimes accused of sexual misbehavior with a woman. To escape the censure of their order, they would retreat to the desert. After their deaths, when it was discovered that they were actually women, they were vindicated by their chastened monasteries. (Those who wish to peruse this avenue of research may find the most famous tales and references in Vern L. Bullough’s and James A. Brundage’s Handbook of Medieval Sexuality and Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Both books are referenced in the bibliography at the end of this written lecture at AtheistScholar.org.)
It is apparent that a small number of medieval women chose cross-dressing as a means of avoiding the inequalities of being a woman. They gained status in society and were able to engage in numerous activities not allowed to women. Those who succeeded in their disguise for a long period of time gained the admiration of both men and women. Some of them might as well have been trying to avoid the domination of a husband and the fearful risks of bearing children during that era.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that the heroic Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was sentenced to burning, and while her execution was politically motivated, two of the charges against her involved her cross-dressing and male behavior. There were other, less famous cross-dressing women who did not go unpunished, so going too far in seizing male prerogatives was often dangerous behavior for women to engage in.
Despite the suspicion with which male cross-dressing was viewed, it was openly allowed under certain conditions and on certain occasions. Usually male cross-dressing was accepted, and even sometimes approved, when it was clear that the man was merely creating an illusion of a woman and that everyone knew he was really a man. There were also occasions when the man in drag was performing some task or action that society desired, but which it had deemed women should not do.
There are reports, for example, of Cypriot knights fighting as women in the 13th Century tournaments. Sometimes they would fight all the way to the end in women’s clothing. However, the usual practice was to fight the lesser battles as a woman for its comedy value and finish the most important battles dressed as a man.
The practice is suspected to have been more widespread than our written sources provide us. The comedy value was great, and there were stories of other knights who were not Cypriots that engaged in cross-dressing and jousting. While considered a little peculiar, the cross-dressing of knights was far from being regarded as alarming. Notice the conditions- it was amusing and permitted as long as the knight won as a real man, and that people knew from the outset that he was a man.
Men, particularly young men, were allowed to act on the stage as female impersonators. Medieval drama began in the church, so the actors were drawn from the clergy. The tradition of men taking women’s roles lasted long after the Medieval Era had passed. It is known from the written chronicles of the time that females were sometimes allowed on the stage, but such appearances were very rare. Women played a minor role in the actual church. They had no active part at all in the services and rites, so they would not be considered for larger roles in the church plays. It was also believed that it was not proper for women to display themselves publicly.
As the European mystery and miracle plays developed, they became very popular. Since women’s roles were small and had few lines, it was relatively easy for boys to imitate females and play the parts. By the 14th century, men continued to act the enlarged roles of women in the English mystery plays. Noah’s scolding, shrewish wife was a popular character and there were other female characters whose depiction demanded skillful actors.
When theatres developed into more permanent structures with buildings and at the same time became less religious, they were still not considered a place for women.
The theatre was a rough, jostling, crowded place, dirty and with many diseases in circulation. At the end of the 16th Century, when women were allowed on stage in England, they were regarded as prostitutes.
Festivals and carnivals were other occasions when it was permitted for both men and women to publicly cross dress. The Morris Dance in England and the Nuremberg Festivals were popular functions. The Mardi Gras Festival in New Orleans and the various Halloween functions around the world still feature a great deal of cross-dressing. In contemporary society, drag queen entertainments and contests have become very popular.
Bullough and Brundage point out that the growing incidence of male cross-dressing shows that the role of women in our Western culture has changed. A significant amount of men want to cross-dress and act like women without burlesquing them. Some of those men desire to be women. The two authors argue: “It seems fairly clear that the men of today find the feminine gender role more attractive than did their medieval predecessors, and this probably indicates there has been a radical change in the role of women and in male attitudes toward them.” A revolution in gender attitudes is surely beginning to take place in contemporary society.
Scholars maintain that the church inadvertently helped the homosexual community forge a gay consciousness that was able to survive theological condemnation. It is the ultimate irony that the consciousness and identity which materialized from religious persecution and violence asserted itself in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Gay activism has declared its rights and those rights are being won every day in many countries.
As of this writing, the United States has legalized gay marriage. The Catholic Church still refuses to accept gays that lead a full sexual life and regards adoption of children by gay couples as anathema. Its position flies in the face of many excellent studies that show children growing up in homes of gay parents are just as well-adjusted as those with heterosexual parents.
I do not believe the secular community should be lulled by the practiced deception of the Catholic Church which claims to love and accept gay people. The Catholic religion and other religions have persecuted gays in the past, and now seek to change gay identities and deny them their right to love, to marry, to have children, and to gain equality in the present day.
I would like to close with the words of Warren Johansson, an advocate for gay rights and a fine scholar. He states: “…if [apologists] deny the responsibility of the Church for the soul murder that it has committed upon homosexuals, individually and collectively, through eons of intimidation and oppression, then they are acting as the accomplices of a criminal psychopath, and when the magnitude of the crime that institutional Christianity had perpetrated is revealed to the world, they—and the Church—will suffer unparalleled dishonor.”
I hope and believe the secular community will stand together and turn its back on the infamies perpetrated by Christianity, Islam, and other religions on gays, on women, and on non-believers. Never forget, never trust, never believe religion’s lies. We have a new world to win, and we are at the forefront of the struggle. Let us stand together with all the victims of religious oppression and secure a free and open world for our future generations.
Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Brown, Judith. “Lesbian Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.” In Eds. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus and George Chauncy, Jr. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: Meridian Books, 1989. 67-75.
Bullough, Vern L. “Cross Dressing and Gender Role Change in the Middle Ages.” In Eds. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 223-243.
Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2000.
____________________________. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982.
Bullough, Vern L. “The Sin Against Nature and Homosexuality.” Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 55-72.
___________. “Transvestism in the Middle Ages.” Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1982. 43-53.
Goodich, Michael. The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period. New York: Dorset Press, 1979.
Johansson, Warren, Wayne Dynes and John Lauritsen. Homosexuality, Intolerance and Christianity. Lennox Hill, New York: The Scholarship Committee, Gay Academic Union, 1981.
Johansson, Warren and William A. Percy. “Homosexuality.” In Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 155-191.
Lacquer, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1990.
McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. Gloucestershire, Great Britain: J.H. Haynes and Co., Ltd. 2004.
Murray, Jacqueline. “Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible.” In Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 191-223.
Payer, Pierre, J. “Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages.” In Bullough, Vern L. and James A. Brundage, Eds. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 3-33.