The elimination of the medieval gay

In my somewhat random search for material on the origins of courtly love I’ve started looking through C. Stephen Jaeger’s Ennobling love, but been distracted by a particularly blatant bit of Boswell bashing. John Boswell, for anyone who has not come across him, was a pioneering author on medieval homosexuality. He got a lot of things wrong in his book: Christianity, social tolerance and homosexuality: gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century (1980), but he still made a lot of important points and his arguments need to be engaged with.

In many ways, Stephen Jaeger does this: his main argument is that the much of the medieval behaviour which Boswell identified as homoerotic was actually a culturally acceptable form of male-male friendship that had no sodomitical overtones to observers. Philip Augustus and Richard the Lionheart may have shared a bed but this was a symbolic demonstration of a love that was political, but not sexual. The same language of love was used by Alcuin and a host of other monks, without it meaning what a modern sexualised view thinks it implies.

The problem is that Jaeger pushes what is a reasonable argument too hard. In particular, he claims that he will not discuss

the question of whether Aelred [of Rivaulx], Anselm [of Bec], and others who loved men were homosexuals. It is a bit like asking whether they were liberals, Jacobites or Unitarians. the category did not exist and using it thrusts an alien set of values onto a sensibility which is delicate and wants reconstruction on its own terms.

Jaeger argues, taking Foucault’s line, that the ‘homosexual’ was invented in the nineteenth century and therefore is an anachronistic category to use. The problem is that in claiming this, he obscures (perhaps deliberately) Boswell’s position.

Firstly, the suggestion that one shouldn’t use anachronistic categories is in many ways ridiculous. If you discuss proto-Indo-European, the Roman upper classes, the Carolingian economy, medieval anti-semitism or whether King Alfred had Crohn’s disease, you’re using an anachronistic category, in the sense of a concept that didn’t exist at the historical period under discussion. The question is whether a modern category is actually useful for a discussion of a particular historical period, whether it can be defined in a way that makes sense. I think it may be true that ‘homosexual’ is not a useful category for dealing with the Middle Ages, but that isn’t the main category that Boswell actually used. What Boswell talked about was ‘gays’, and he had a simple definition of them: people with an erotic preference for their own sex. (In CSTH he made this ‘conscious preference’, but later removed the qualifier).

Now this seems to me an entirely reasonable definition in one sense, in that it is suitable for use in any culture. It is difficult to imagine a historical period or culture which does not contain gays, as defined in this way. (And note that this is irrespective of what you believe is the cause of ‘homosexuality’, whether this is biological (genes/foetal environment), psychological, or chosen depravity. Under almost any circumstances, it is difficult to argue that there are cultures that have no-one with an erotic preference for their own sex. Claims of a pre-colonial Africa that was 100% straight are simple fantasies).

What this means is that it is a perfectly reasonable, non-anachronistic question to ask whether Aelred was gay. The problem for Boswell is that though you can ask this question, it’s almost impossible to give a convincing answer either way. We know very little about the erotic preferences of most medieval people and what counts as ‘erotic’ is pretty much in the eye of the beholder anyhow. Jaeger is probably right to decide that it’s not a question that he wants to discuss: what is more dubious is his implication that it’s not a question anyone should discuss. The refusal of the terms ‘homosexuality’ and ‘heterosexuality’ for the Middle Ages can sometimes be useful in clarifying ideas. (Although it’s impossible to claim that there is intrinsically no such thing as a sexual identity in the Middle Ages. As several people, particularly Ruth Mazo Karras have pointed out, what is virginity, but a sexual identity?) But such a refusal needs to be handled very carefully, because it’s not symmetric. If you say there are no ‘heterosexuals’ in the Middle Ages, everyone will realise you’re making a particular theoretical point, not talking about actual desires. If you say there are no ‘homosexuals’, it all too easily implies that there were no gays (in Boswell’s sense). When Jaeger talks about sexual desire and sexual intercourse ‘infiltrating’ the discourse of male-male love, I am left with the faintly queasy sense that he’d really rather that both medieval and modern gays go away and leave him to his pre-sexual early medieval paradise.


3 thoughts on “The elimination of the medieval gay

  1. Hello!

    Firstly, thank you for a very interesting article!

    Secondly, a more complicated comment… this article came to my attention via tumblr, where someone had commented: ‘Reblogging both for historical homosexuality and for the discussion about the necessity of using modern concepts/categories when dealing with history.’

    Now, when I was an undergraduate, I was introduced to the concept of ‘flintstonization.’

    Great name, I know. Cathilda Jetha and Christopher Ryan used it in ‘Sex at Dawn’ (which I think is a fantastic read for anyone interested in the history of sexuality) to refer to the the way that many historians, and others, tend to believe that all people in all times and all places are essentially the same, and have developed ideas and culture that are basically similar. This means that dramatic differences between groups of people across time and geography can be erased.

    One of the ways that this is done is through the application of modern, Western language and terminology to these other groups of people.

    So, as you may be able to tell by now, I’m writing because that comment on tumblr is really bugging me. Now. I’m a historian, focusing on the long eighteenth century (the Baroque and Enlightenment periods specifically), so I’m no medievalist. I can’t speak to anything about that period of history, or to anything that John Boswell or Stephen Jaeger have written. And I agree that the way we talk about male-male or female-female relationships and feelings is incredibly important, and how we use language to discuss those things can either illuminate or erase those relationships, feelings, ideas, concepts, structures, etc. And indeed, the way many historians have written has erased male-male and female-female feelings, relationships, and constructs that supported them.

    But I don’t think the answer is not to use modern terminology. To me, that means erasing other ways of constructing gender and sexuality simply to make it easier for modern minds to understand.

    Now, to take the term ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’… obviously, same-sex attraction has existed in certainly every culture I’ve ever studied. But I don’t like using the term ‘homosexuality’ to talk about same-sex attraction before the Enlightenment.


    Again, because I think that to do so is to impose one’s own culture on another. To do so is to erase the way these people saw themselves, the way those people understood themselves, the way they understood gender or sexuality, and themselves within those ideas. To do so is to oversimplify in the same of making it easier for one to understand.

    Now, I’m not interested in eliminating and erasing all structures of gender and sexuality besides my own. So I’m having a really hard time with the idea of ‘the necessity of using modern concepts/categories when dealing with history.’

    Please forgive me if I’m reacting rather emotionally, or defensively, or not really understanding what is being said. But I’m curious about your reaction to that comment is, especially if I’m misunderstanding any part of what they, or you, have said. (I’ll probably learn something very important!)

    Thank you.


    • I would disagree quite strongly with the Tumblr comment. I’m not arguing for the necessity of using modern concepts/categories when dealing with history; I’m arguing for the option of doing so. And to illustrate that, I’m going to talk briefly about my current project, which is not concerned with sexuality.

      I’m part of a project producing a database of information derived from early medieval charters (legal documents). This includes details of the places in them, and we have a number of ways to search and browse them. One of these will be being able to locate places in specific areas of Europe, e.g. you could look for charters from the department of Aisne.

      Now this is, of course, completely anachronistic; the department of Aisne was created in 1790, nearly 1000 years after these documents were written. But it reflects what (some) users are likely to be interested in: looking at charters that discuss the history of their locality or a locality they’re particularly interested in. However, some of the charters also mention medieval regions; we’re structured the database so that users will also be able to retrieve all places that are mentioned as being in a particular medieval region and thus be able to study how space was perceived by Carolingian scribes.

      These are both valid research interests, which is why we’re trying to cater for both of them. But they require us to categorize data in different ways. One is to use a modern framework of regions, which is arbitrary, but allows comparisons over long periods. The other is more attentive to early medieval understandings, but is less comprehensive and creates confusion if applied to longer periods. Notoriously, Burgundia/Burgundy has been applied to all kinds of regions and territorial units over the years.

      In the same way, I think using modern categories of sexuality is a valid option if you are interested in some specific historical topics and especially if you are interested in long-term continuity and change. For example, Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London, 1982) was looking at the period from 1500 to 1800 and arguing for a genuine change in understanding there (very roughly speaking, between “sodomites” and “mollies”), but he could only do that if he had a wider framework of “homosexuality” to work within that implied that “sodomites” and “mollies” had something to do with one another (that is that they were both concerned with men sleeping with men).

      It’s also possible to switch between such perspectives according to what you’re trying to achieve. When I wrote about Carolingian moral attitudes to sex in my book, I used the category “unnatural sex”, because that is what my sources mostly used; I also used the category “marital sex”, because so many of my sources distinguished between heterosexual practices on that basis. But the book itself is framed by the modern concepts of masculinity and gender, because I wanted to be able to make comparisons with other periods and also with our own. I could only argue that masculinity was not in crisis in the Carolingian period (unlike some other periods) because talking about Carolingian masculinity as well as Carolingian virilitas seemed to me feasible.
      Because I think that switching between medieval and modern concepts is feasible even within the same piece of work, I’m very wary of any argument that says that only a single conceptual framework for sexuality is ever permissible, which is what Jaeger seemed to me to be saying. I want to keep the option of using modern terminology as well, depending on what I’m talking about.

      I also think we inevitably need some modern terminology: aren’t “same-sex attraction” (or MSM) also modern terms, i.e. ones not used in our sources? I used “homosexual” as an adjective in my book at times, mainly because “same-sex sexual activity” seemed so clumsy; in the Middle Ages, because a lot of the evidence we have comes from (theoretically) celibate men, it’s useful to try and distinguish between those with same-sex erotic thoughts and those who were actually carrying out physical acts with same-sex content.

      I also want to respond to your idea that we’re “erasing the way people saw themselves” by using modern terminology. For the medieval period, we’re not doing that when we talk about same-sex issues: what we’re largely “erasing” is hostile attitudes to the same-sex Other. The standard high medieval term for gay men is “sodomite”; we don’t know what terms, if any, they used to characterise themselves. To use “sodomite” as your standard terminology now, unless you’re writing a book unpacking the term (as Mark Jordan did) is implicitly to position yourself on one (wrong) side of a current debate. And to remain political, some Christians opposed to equal marriage are now using the acknowledged fact that “homosexuality” as a concept was invented in the nineteenth century to claim that gay people’s sexuality is a modern invention and thus an invalid choice by them.

      What I want, in the end, isn’t hard and fast rules about whether historians must use historical or modern terms for sexuality and sexual behaviour. I want historians to think more carefully about why they’re using particular terminology/framing in any specific piece of work (including the political implications of those terms) and then decide whether they’re the most appropriate ones to use for the purposes of that piece of research, and that audience. Historical research is of no use unless it’s communicating its ideas and there are different good ways of doing that: I just get aggrieved when I see bad examples of doing it by eminent historians.


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