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English Literature: Medieval  
page: 1  2  3  

To demarcate these boundaries, late Middle English texts treating sodomy condemn it either explicitly or through opprobrious allusions and attempt to discourage homosexual love and sexual practices by invoking theological or social prohibitions that consider such desires and relations as transgressive.

Like several other medieval texts, John Gower's Confessio Amantis, a long poem in which a lover's confession of his sins is used as a tool for supplying advice to readers, interprets the myth of Narcissus as a warning against homosexual love. Mistaking his image as female (disrupting gender categories) and falling in love with himself (a male falling in love with another male who is taken as a woman), Narcissus' desire, Gower tells his readers, is contrary to nature.

Similar ideas emerge in the anonymous poem Cleanness, which, in its retelling of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, discusses homosexual activity as a violation of proper masculine behavior, a turning away from natural law, and a pollution of the male body as God's vessel. The poem's disapproval is made clear on a thematic and linguistic level: In one passage, the choice of words describing sodomy imitate the act of spitting.

And William Dunbar's Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins graphically singles out homosexual behavior as the kind of lecherous sin that will send mortals to hell: Each ugly and stinking man leads another man by the penis, which is later to be inserted into another male's anus.

Since these texts situate their condemnation in contexts pointing out the ultimate destructive outcome of the "unnatural vice," they all play on the fear of punishment and suffering to control homosexual desire.

Though certainly not as explicitly condemnatory, some selections from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales could be included in this list as well.


For the most part, the history and texts of medieval English literature, though stunning in many ways, are not ones in which same-sex erotic behavior and desire--apart from their use for representing homosocial bonds--find much sympathy or affirmation.

But for modern gay readers trying to understand the different cultural forces at the root of modern day homophobia and oppression, these writings are an invaluable starting point, for they underscore the way that earlier literature does not always question but rather frequently participates in policing cultural and theological sexual norms.

And for lesbians attempting to understand why they have been silenced for much of the English tradition, it is with the silence of medieval English texts that they should begin.

David Lorenzo Boyd

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literature >> Chaucer, Geoffrey

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses homosexual relations and desires as a means to cast moral judgments on characters and to satirize them.


Alan of Lille. The Plaint of Nature. Trans. James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980.

Amis and Amiloun. MacEdward Leach, ed. Early English Text Society, O.S. 203. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1937.

Beowulf. Trans. E. Talbot Donaldson. New York: Norton, 1966.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Boyd, David Lorenzo. Sodomy, Silence, and Social Control in Middle English Literature (forthcoming).

Bullough, Vern L. and James Brundage, eds. Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1982.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales, in The Riverside Chaucer. Larry D. Benson, ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Cleanness, in The Owl and the Nightingale; Cleanness; St. Erkenwald. Trans. Brian Stone. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

Cormier, Raymond J. One Heart One Mind: The Rebirth of Virgil's Hero in Medieval France. Biloxi, Miss.: University of Mississippi Press, 1973.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-Modern. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Dunbar, William. "Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins," Middle English Lyrics. Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman, eds. New York: Norton, 1974. 147-150.

Eneas. Trans. John A. Yunck. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Genesis. Trans. Lawrence Mason. New York: Henry Holt, 1915.

Goodich, Michael. The Unmentionable Vice. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erickson, 1979.

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. Russell A. Peck, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, in association with the Medieval Academy of America, 1980.

Greenberg, David. R. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. Trans. Thomas Stehling. New York: Garland, 1984.

Pearsall, Derek. Old and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Ziolkowski, Jan. Alan of Lille's Grammar of Sex. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1985.


    Citation Information
    Author: Boyd, David Lorenzo  
    Entry Title: English Literature: Medieval  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 29, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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