In my somewhat random search for material on the origins of courtly love Ive started looking through C. Stephen Jaegers 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 Foucaults 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) Boswells position.
Firstly, the suggestion that one shouldnt 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 Crohns disease, youre using an anachronistic category, in the sense of a concept that didnt 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 isnt 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, its 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 its not a question that he wants to discuss: what is more dubious is his implication that its 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 its 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 its not symmetric. If you say there are no heterosexuals in the Middle Ages, everyone will realise youre 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 Boswells 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 hed really rather that both medieval and modern gays go away and leave him to his pre-sexual early medieval paradise.