Orienting Oneself In The Middle Ages

An assertion made about the Middle Ages by people who know what they are talking about that draws much sound and fury from those who do not know what they are talking about is that you cannot apply the term “gay” to medievals. Anyone saying such a thing on Teh Intertoobes will immediately be abused as a homophobe. His semi-literate excoriators simply assume that denying that “gay” is a meaningful concept to apply to medievals means denying that medieval men ever had sex with one another. Of course they did; but it does not help to reiterate that fact, because in modern minds men having sex with men and men being “gay” is the same thing. However, being “a gay man” is not in fact the same thing as being a man who has sex with men, not even now; there are subcultures in which men can have sex with men without considering themselves “gay,” such as prisons, whole national cultures where male buddies can have sex occasionally, and other national cultures that are primarily interested in whether you stick it in, not into whom or what.

The modern concept of gay orientation classifies human sexuality as homosexual or heterosexual, depending on the object of desire. This is certainly one way of slicing and dicing brute reality, but by no means the only one. The Ancient world sliced and diced at right-angles to this classification: not by the gender of the object but on the “role” played, active or passive. Now, back when our own culture was legally repressive of homosexuality, no one cared which role the man took – his crime was considered to be any kind of sexual dealings with or desire for his own sex. The Romans, however, divided the male sex not into heterosexual (good) and homosexual (bad) but into active partners (good) and catamites (bad). They would have understood “orientation” solely in terms of whether one liked to be penetrated or to penetrate (whether woman, boy or goat). And this was the same thing as social status; for the superior buggered the subordinate, by definition, or else the subordinate sucked the superior off.

The Middle Ages were not precisely like the Romans in this, but they did not slice and dice sexual behaviour quite as we do today either. In canon law, for a man to have sex with another man was a serious sin, but so were a lot of other things – in fact practically everything done in bed, with anyone. Doing it with your wife doggy-style, or doing it on a Friday, were also serious sins. With the Middle Ages, especially after Aquinas, we get the beginnings of the idea that it is only the nature and object of the desire that counts: no longer superior and subordinate but “natural” and “unnatural”. John Boswell’s central thesis, that, while the Church regarded sex with other men as a bad thing, until the thirteenth century it did not consider it to be the uniquely horrifying Worst Thing In The World, is nevertheless probably sound.

So, if Richard the Lionheart had indeed poked his troubadour friend Blondel, churchmen would have convicted him of sin and given him a penance, but without on those grounds regarding him as a different sort of human being. What they were interested in was specific acts (and the money they could make from pardoning them), not in what we call an “orientation”. If Richard had made a habit of defiantly having sex with other men, the churchmen would have regarded him as a very bad man, but not as a fundamentally different kind of very bad man than a man who slept with female blood relatives, withheld tithes or looted church property.

What did the laity think? We know a lot less about this than we know about ecclesiastical attitudes. The fabliaux point to much the same outlook as in Rome, whereby social power was shown by who-fucked-whom. It is thus possible to say that Richard Lionheart may well have had sex with men but at the same time that he was not “a gay man” in the sense of someone who considers himself to be, by birth or conviction or both, a member of “the gay community”.

Posted on May 22, 2011 at 14:49 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches

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