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The Biblical inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah had long been notorious for their lack of hospitality, arrogance, idolatry, injustice, oppression, and neglect of the poor. The one sex-specific sin attributed to the Sodomites in Genesis was to threaten strangers with anal rape. God was so angry he rained down fire and brimstone, annihilating the city, its inhabitants, and all the vegetation on the ground.

It is only much later, in the works of the Jewish philosopher Philo (first century C. E.), then in those of the Latin church fathers, that the Sodomites' sin and God's fiery punishment begin to be understood as a well-deserved general condemnation of homosexual tastes and behaviors.

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The earliest surviving use of the word "" in a sexual sense may be an exchange of letters in 395 C. E. between Saint Jerome and a priest named Amandus, who asks for advice on how to deal with a woman who has left her husband because he was "an adulterer and a sodomite." Neither correspondent mentions how or with whom the husband has sinned.

The Penitentials

Penitentials are lists of sins that priests used in confession to question their parishioners, coupled with a tariff of suggested penances. It is in these handbooks, the oldest of which date from the middle of the sixth century, that a sexual terminology derived from the name of the city of Sodom first abundantly appears. The noun "sodomite" (sodomita), in both its geographical and sexual meanings, appears often, as does the adjective "sodomitical" (sodomiticus).

The class noun "sodomy" (sodomia) was invented later, probably by a monk in one of the great Carolingian abbeys--inconclusive evidence points to the monastery of Bobbio, north of Genoa, early in the ninth century.

There would be no verb before variations of "sodomize" begin to appear in the civil legislation of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. To express what sodomites did, early medieval people had to make do with euphemisms such as "to behave like a Sodomite" or "to fornicate in the sodomitical manner."

But Burchard, bishop of Worms (d. 1025), author of a widely diffused penitential popularly known as the Medicus or Corrector, tells us plainly how the ancient Sodomites fornicated: "Have you inserted your rod (virga) in the rear (posteriora) and anus of a male (in masculi terga) and in this way had intercourse with him like a Sodomite (more sodomitico)?" The action of male-male penetration has remained throughout its history the core meaning of the family of words derived from the Sodom story.

Sodomita denoted the active party. The male who took the receptive role was termed a mollis. There is a good example of the distinction in the early eighth-century penitential of Theodore of Tarsus, archbishop of Canterbury: "Sodomites shall do penance for seven years and the passive party the [same] penance as an adulteress" (this was also seven years), a canon that luminously captures the contrasting sexual and gender roles of the two parties, actively masculine and receptively feminine. Like the priestly authors of Leviticus, Theodore penalized the partners equally.

It was obvious to some that if sodomy is anal intercourse, men and boys could as easily commit it with women and girls as with each other. Early in the tenth century, Regino of Prüm distinguished vaginal intercourse from the rear from anal penetration: "If any man has intercourse with his wife [vaginally] from behind (retro), he shall do penance for forty days; but if he has intercourse with her anally (in terga), he shall do penance for three years, for this is the sodomitical crime (sodomiticum scelus)."

Modern canon lawyers continue to distinguish "perfect" sodomy (male-male) from "imperfect" (male-female). Until a recent United States Supreme Court ruling, heterosexual as well as homosexual anal intercourse was criminalized in the statutes of some American states.

The Scholastic Theologians

Theologians and legal scholars of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries fit sodomy into a comprehensive taxonomy of sexual sin. Under the umbrella category of "lust" (luxuria), which they defined as an unbridled appetite for sexual pleasure, they divided sexual sins into two groups, "natural" and "unnatural." Natural copulations are adultery, fornication, the deflowering of a virgin, incest, and rape. They are natural because intercourse takes place between a man and a woman in the right vessel (in debito vase), making them potentially procreative acts (actus generativae potentiae).

A sin against nature occurs "when a man spills his semen outside the place designed by nature to receive it"--a formula easily remembered and frequently repeated. The four sexual acts commonly labeled "against nature" are: (1) masturbation, (2) heterosexual anal intercourse (as well as intercourse in postures believed to hinder procreation), (3) sodomy, and (4) bestiality.

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A painting (ca 1400) of Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas by Gentile da Fabriano.
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