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English Literature: Medieval  
 
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Although it occasionally celebrates bonding, surviving medieval English literature is condemnatory of homosexual behavior.

The medieval English period covers almost a thousand years, stretching roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth century and witnessing the rise and fall of several different cultures. After the Romans withdrew their troops from Britain in the fifth century, aggressive tribes threatened the Celts, who had lived there under Roman rule. To protect themselves, the Celts invited Germanic troops to aid them against the onslaught.

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Not only did these troops secure Celtic lands, but they also decided to remain, and a Germanic onslaught began. Eventually these invaders overpowered the Celts (later known as the Welsh), and the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon or Old English) period began, lasting until the eleventh century when the Anglo-Saxons were in turn conquered by the Norman French (who themselves had a Germanic background).

It is from this Anglo-Norman culture that Middle English society developed, reaching its height in the late fourteenth century and gradually giving way to the Early Modern period over the next hundred years. Hence medieval English literature varies culturally and linguistically, for it includes not only Old and Middle English texts but French, Welsh, and Latin ones as well.

To make clear the relationship between these writings and their representation of issues pertinent to gay and lesbian literary history (especially gay history since female homosexual issues do not appear explicitly in medieval English literature), it is helpful to know something about medieval European culture's "sexology."

Medieval Attitudes toward Homosexuality

The Middle Ages placed a high value on homosocial bonding (intense emotional relationships between people of the same sex) and inherited much literature from the classical past. But it generally frowned on homosexual practices and, for a complicated variety of reasons, censured such activities, especially passive homosexual anal intercourse, thought to disrupt gender difference by placing a man in a "female" role.

Attitudes, informed in part by the Catholic Church, concerning the cause of same-sex varied widely: Some thinkers felt that homosexual desire was innate in specific people; others that it stemmed from an excess of general sexual desire and was therefore simply behavior in which anyone could potentially engage.

Although it is difficult to know the extent to which the attitudes of dominant religious and social ideologies governed the actual sexual experience of common men and women, both these positions on sodomy ultimately condemned this "unmentionable vice." Still, the intensity of medieval waxed and waned throughout the period.

Such proscription does not mean, however, that homosexual activity was understood by everyone to be a transgressive act: It has been argued that in twelfth-century intellectual circles, there occurred a resurgence of homoerotic values even though the idea of something akin to a modern "gay" subculture and subjective identity does not seem to have developed fully.

Since all the different cultures inhabiting England had been Christianized during the medieval period--the Anglo-Saxons not until the late sixth century--their official view of homosexual desire and practice was heavily influenced by these disapproving attitudes. Hence, when sodomy and sodomites are found in medieval English literature, they are with few exceptions represented negatively and used to reinforce approved teachings on sexual behavior.

Anglo-Saxon Literature

Though Celtic literature seems to be fairly silent on these issues, Anglo-Saxon vernacular and Latin writings do offer a few examples and contrast the value and strength of male bonding to homosexual activity. In Beowulf, for example, the love of the older Lord Hrothgar for the young warrior Beowulf is represented in terms that we would consider homoerotic today.

After Beowulf destroys both the monstrous Grendel and Grendel's mother and prepares to return to his home, the poet describes Hrothgar's longing for the young man as a desire burning powerfully in the old warrior's blood. Even though it is possible that there is an erotic subtext to this description, its context is one of masculine social affection and friendship and is approved by the Christian narrator telling this story from the ancient past.

This representation of such affection is not uncommon: In many texts, in fact, such a highly charged bond between a warrior and his lord is thought to be so powerful that its imagery is invoked frequently to describe heterosexual love.

But such same-sex affection contrasts markedly with the homosexual expression of such love. For example, in the description of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Anglo-Saxon poem Genesis, based on the biblical book of the same name, there is a clear denunciation of the Sodomites' desire to have sexual intercourse with two male angels as shameful and indecent.

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