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social sciences

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Europe: Medieval  
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Compared with more richly documented times and places, such as fifteenth-century Florence and Venice, eighteenth-century London and Paris, twentieth-century Berlin and New York, the historical information about homosexuality we can find in surviving medieval sources is thin.

We do learn that homosexual behavior was observable in many areas of Europe in every century of the long period we call the Middle Ages, something about the shapes it took, and a great deal about attitudes towards it.

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The dossier of sources from the early Middle Ages, commonly understood to extend from the sixth century to the middle of the eleventh century, is comprised of monastic rules, canons of church councils, diocesan statutes, legislation of secular rulers, and--by far the richest in candid sexual detail--the penitential handbooks of the clergy, aides-mémoire for priests hearing confession, with lists of sins and suggested penances.

In the period from the middle of the eleventh century to the end of the thirteenth, relevant source material is more varied, including scores of poems, romances, philosophical and moral textbooks, medical works, histories and chronicles, sermons, saints lives, a new genre of handbook to help confessors (the summa confessorum), and two informative treatises devoted to the denunciation of homosexuality, Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah (1049) and Alan of Lille's Complaint of Nature (ca 1165).

With the rarest of exceptions, these sources are hostile in context and intent. The problem for historians of the Middle Ages is that they must construct a history of homosexuality from sources and without the testimony of real men and women of same-sex preference speaking their own truth.


To discuss same-sex eros, medieval people used a new family of words, derived from the place-name Sodom and evocative of that city's incendiary punishment. Males imagined or known to have sex with other males were called "sodomites" (sodomitae), said to fornicate in the manner of their biblical namesakes (more sodomitico), that is, they practiced anal intercourse. This, deemed very sinful, was eventually recognized as the core action denoted by the class noun "" (sodomia).

Under the influence of Paul's epistle to the Romans (1:26-27), where women are pictured in unnatural pursuit of women and males burn with lust for each other, theorists more closely defined sodomy as same-sex intercourse--for males anal penetration by a human penis, for females penetration by a dildo or an enlarged clitoris. Emphasis on the same-sex principle widened the idea of sodomy to include male-male acts other than anal intercourse and narrowed it by classifying cross-sex anal intercourse, not as sodomy, but as an irregularity of heterosexual intercourse.


The evidence for the frequency of sodomy in Europe is anecdotal and impossible to quantify. It usually occurs in warnings made urgent by metaphors of contagion, disease, and plague: sodomy is said to be spreading rapidly and publicly; strong measures are needed to contain it.

The Sixteenth Council of Toledo (693) asserts as well-known fact that "many men" are infected with "the sodomitical evil" and the Second Synod of Aachen (860) asserts as fact the ubiquity of male same-sex copulation. Peter Damian justified his letter to the pope attacking sodomitical practices by reporting that "a certain abominable vice has grown up in our region." Priests copulate with each other, then absolve each other in confession. They have sex with males they have baptized, with priests they have ordained, and with their male parishioners, clerical and lay.

In the mid twelfth century, Bernard of Cluny reports that sodomites are as plentiful "as barley in a field, oysters in the sea, sand on the shore, islands in the Adriatic, incense in India, and reeds along the Tiber." Sodomitical leprosy clings to every class; castle, town, and church are awash with this filthy plague. In the mid thirteenth century, Albert the Great claimed to be equally well informed: "Even today the same filth spills into the courts of kings and the rulers of the world, pollutes the holy dwellings of bishops and priests, and fills with iniquity the paradise of the religious [that is, the monasteries]." Some of these statements may reflect fragments of accurate observation. Taken together, they leave more the impression of hostile alarmists alert to the imaginary threat of an uncertain number of real sodomites.

The Ages of the Participants

The ages of the two parties in many same-sex relationships suggest continuity with ancient taste and practice. In monastic communities, three male-male relationships appear to have been more common than those among adults: between boys of roughly the same age who engaged in what the older brothers called sexual "play"; between an older adolescent and a younger boy (the penitentials are full of references to very young boys "oppressed," that is, seduced or abused by older boys and youths; and between adults--of undisclosed age--and boys, adolescents, or youths--the oldest of whom seem rarely to have been over twenty.

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A medieval representation of Peter Damian, author of Book of Gomorrah.
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