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“In their reckless lust they forget their sex” – LGBT history in the Middle Ages

by Tim Wingard – @Physiololgus

Tim is a graduate of the University of York’s Centre for Medieval Studies. His research interests include issues of historical sexuality, the latin bestiary, and medieval travel writing.

There is a tendency in popular histories and in the teaching of the subject at school to assume that the Middle Ages were an inherently heterosexual era. The stereotype of medieval life involves hyper-masculine knights fighting each other for the affection of damsels, according to a code of chivalry that set strict boundaries for relations between the sexes. LGBT identities are generally regarded as a ‘modern’ phenomenon, something that simply did not exist in this premodern world. In fact, some of the most exciting research in medieval scholarship since the 1980s has been done on unearthing the ‘secret history’ of diverse medieval sexualities.

Of course, there is a need to be wary of anachronism. The terms ‘homosexuality’ or ‘heterosexuality’ did not appear until the nineteenth century, and no-one in fifteenth-century England would have referred to themselves or others as ‘straight’, ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, ‘bisexual’ or ‘transgender’. The study of sexuality and LGBT history in the Middle Ages requires one to engage with how medieval people understood sex and gender on their own terms. Although there was not a clear conception of homosexual identity in the same way that there is today, men who had sex with other men were persecuted and condemned. For the sake of brevity, this post will focus specifically on the depiction of ‘gay’ men; its conclusions cannot necessarily be applied in the same way to the experiences of other groups under the LGBT banner such as lesbians or transgender individuals. These topics merit their own separate discussions.

Bestiary manuscripts are among the most famous and colourful of medieval sources. They were made up of individual entries on a variety of animals with each entry containing a variety of information often accompanied by an illustration and have thus been likened to modern encyclopaedias. In content and purpose, however, they share more common ground with Aesop’s Fables than with the Encyclopedia Britannica. Animals are used as models of good or bad behaviour and the audience is instructed to learn moral lessons from their examples. They illustrate what moral values medieval people ascribed to particular sexual behaviours and forms of gender presentation.

One of the most curious examples is that of the partridge. The Aberdeen Bestiary (c.1200) records:

“The partridge […] is a cunning and unclean bird. For one male mounts another and in their reckless lust they forget their sex. […] The males fight over their choice of mate, and believe they can use the losers for sex in place of the females.”

This passage demonstrates two important things. Firstly, medieval people regarded sex between men as a transgression of gender roles. During intercourse, the partridges ‘forget their sex’, and the ‘losing’ bird adopts a ‘female’ role. This partridge is no longer seen as fully male because it has adopted a receptive (hence ‘submissive’) position. The medieval conception of ‘homosexuality’ was based much more on the nature of the sex acts performed rather than on the nature of the relationship of the partners.

Secondly, the description of the partridge as ‘unclean’ demonstrates the other important aspect of medieval conception of sexuality. According to contemporary ethics, there were two kinds of sexual activity: procreative sex which held the possibility of pregnancy; and non-procreative sex where conception was not possible, known as ‘sodomy’. The former was regarded as virtuous and a necessary component of a healthy Christian marriage. The latter, however, was seen as sinful and spiritually dangerous. The twelfth-century author Peter the Chanter asserted that people who engaged in sodomy (‘sodomites’) were corrupting the work of God who had created two sexes for the purpose of childbirth.

The medieval category of ‘sodomites’ was broader and more inclusive than our modern definition of ‘homosexuality’: ‘heterosexual’ couples could engage in sodomy and be classed as sodomites if, for instance, they engaged in oral or anal sex. Thus, although men who slept with men were criminalised (in medieval England their punishment usually took the form of penances and Church fines rather than the death penalty which was more widespread in continental Europe), this was as part of a wider condemnation of non-procreative sexuality rather than a specific targeting of one sexual minority.

The moral example of the partridge shows how medieval society regarded sex between men. It was perceived as corrupting and unclean because it transgressed established gender norms and because it couldn’t result in pregnancy. The bird’s symbolic association with sodomy extended far beyond its origins in bestiary lore: Nicholas Upton recorded in De Studio Militari (1447) that the Duke of Salisbury gifted three partridges to a rival in order to signify that he was “a gret lyar or a sodomyte”.

One could be justified in taking from this a rather grim view of LGBT history in the Middle Ages as a time of homophobia and repression. However, by recognising the persecution of people of non-heterosexual identities, we acknowledge their presence in the historical record. In doing so we can begin to piece together a history of their experiences.

Further reading

Joan Cadden. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Debra Hassig. Medieval Bestiaries: Text, Image, Ideology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Debra Hassig. “Sex in the Bestiaries.” In The Mark of the Beast, edited by Debra Hassig, 71-93. London: Routledge, 1999.

Ruth Mazo Karras. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. London: Routledge, 2005.

Robert Mills. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

University of Aberdeen. “The Aberdeen Bestiary”. https://www.abdn.ac.uk/bestiary/.

(Image courtesy of the Copenhagen Royal Library)

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