The invention of sodomy as a political weapon

Matthew Kuefler, “Male Friendship and the Suspicion of Sodomy in Twelfth-Century France”, in Matthew Kuefler (ed), The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (Chicago UP, 2005) asks an important question about changing attitudes to homosexuality after the Gregorian Reformation and then proceeds to give a daft answer. The important question he asks is why did persecution of gays and allegations of sodomy become prominent then, when they hadn’t been in the earlier Middle Ages? His answer is that ecclesiastics and royal supporters were trying to undermine the male bonds of the warrior class ‘which undercut their loyalty to the church and the state’, by making friendships between men seem problematic.

I don’t know why, in quite a lot of otherwise cutting-edge medieval research, when it comes to socio-political history, we’re back to the crudest old stereotypes of king v nobles or church v nobles. (This isn’t just in studies of gender: the same thing is visible in Regine Le Jan’s accounts of changes in incest regulations). Kuefler’s is a particularly stupid suggestion, because if what the king wants is a closer bond of nobles/warriors to himself, what does that involve except the male-male bonds he’s apparently just set out to wreck?

If we try and start constructing a sensible answer to why the eleventh and twelfth century, then R.I. Moore on the rise of the persecuting society is an obvious start. Kuefler acknowledges Moore’s point about society defining itself via social exclusion, but comments ‘it does not explain why male homoeroticism should be listed among the categories for exclusion’. However, if you start thinking about what you need in a scapegoat class, then male homosexuality looks like one of the obvious bets. Firstly, you need a relatively tiny number of people within the group (as with Jews, lepers and heretics), but not so few that you can’t find some handy to persecute (like Muslims in most of Europe or necrophiliacs). You then need a readily available discourse of how these people are evil and threaten society. (It’s for this reason that I think persecution of ‘Sodomites’ won out over persecution of those committing bestiality. The Bible condemns bestiality, but it hasn’t got a graphic story about their destruction). That combination in itself is enough to produce an out-group, but I think in persecuting sodomites there are two additional advantages. One, paradoxically, is the ‘invisibility’ of gays as compared to Jews and lepers, an invisibility that they share with heretics. This means that you can never run out of them as a target (whereas you can with Jews, as in England after 1290). When anything goes wrong in society, you can always blame the lurking heretics and/or sodomites who are hidden among the normal and who must therefore be rooted out and punished. It’s the perfect make work scheme for persecutors.

The other useful thing when you’re deciding to persecute someone is to do it for something you’re never likely to want to do yourself. Judging very roughly from modern statistics (and admitting all the problems with these), only about 2% of men are pretty definitely gay (they can’t live happily just being straight), but there is a larger minority (maybe about 10-15%) who have had some gay encounters. What this means is that a large majority of men can pick on gays without concern they’ll end up in the firing line, while the 10% who have some attraction to homosexual sex but aren’t exclusively gay can show they’re not like that by persecuting sodomites who are less discreet.

But the texts Kuefler are looking at are mainly not about persecution (which is normally directed towards groups which are already socially marginal), but about sodomy as a weapon against political opponents, either general social groups or specific individuals. Why does this kind of generalised or specific allegation only appear in the High Middle Ages?

One possible answer is that this kind of allegation was made in the earlier medieval period, and the evidence just doesn’t survive. But for the Carolingian period, at least, we have got a fair amount of political propaganda, and homosexual sodomy never gets mentioned in this, although heterosexual anal intercourse does once and claims of adultery with the queen are a frequent way of attacking opponents. My suspicion is that sodomy accusations against political opponents were a classical rhetorical tool (politicians in Republican Rome were keen on this kind of abuse) that temporarily lost their meaning outside a culture with a long literary tradition celebrating but also condemning pederasty.

Sodomy as a political attack weapon had to be deliberately reinvented: the question is, how and why was it reinvented? Logically, it makes sense that generalised accusations about social groups precede specific allegations. Sodomy accusations, which are intrinsically hard to prove unless commercial/organised activity is involved (rent boys, cruising areas, molly-houses etc), have their main purpose in a general blackening of someone’s character when they’re also being accused of something else (see e.g. the Templars or Roger Casement). But to get the full effect, there already needs to be a moral panic about sodomy (just as false accusations of Barack Obama being a Muslim need Muslims predefined as being an awful thing to be). It’s also easier to make such allegations fit against a group who the target audience doesn’t know particularly well, rather than their close acquaintances: you can believe strange slurs more easily about someone you’ve hardly ever met than your next-door neighbour, however suspicious your neighbour’s behaviour may be. If the public audience for political propaganda was a group of Carolingian nobles who knew each other well (going on campaigns together, marrying into each other’s families), sodomy accusations might well have seemed implausible (whereas there was a broadened ‘public opinion’ by the time of the Trial of the Templars).

The first medieval examples I know of politically-motivated allegations of sodomy are tenth-century. Firstly, there are the various texts discussing the martyrdom of Pelagius by the Muslim Caliph of Cordoba, which Mark Jordan has discussed in Chapter 1 of The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology(Chicago UP, 1997). Secondly, there is the complaint by Rather of Verona in 968 that north Italian clerics alleged any man who did not keep a woman must be committing ‘that foulest sin’ (which from the context, is sodomy). That sounds to me suspiciously like married clerics trying to retaliate for reforming clerics’ demands for celibacy.

What this suggests is that tenth century authors with a political purpose simply had more need for sodomy than previous centuries had. There was more need and desire to demonise Muslims than there had been in the Carolingian period. Meanwhile, married clerics had to come up with a sin committed by the reformers worse than theirs. Both reached into the ragbag of Christian sins and came up with one that seemed both particularly heinous and to fit in with pre-existing sexual stereotypes.

Once sodomy as accusation had revealed its effectiveness, of course, it could be picked up and used for other political purposes. Hugh of Langres in 1049 was accused of simony, homicide, sodomy and torture, while Peter Damian insisted that it was the opponents of the Gregorian reformers who were sodomites. Celibate monks could claim that secular courts were full of sodomites, probably in an attempt to turn finger-pointing away from their own monasteries (as Kuefler points out). And so on, and so on. My impression is that from the eleventh century there is a continuous tradition of such accusations down to the present day (although people better informed on the eighteenth and nineteenth century than me might be able to correct me on this). The lack of such accusations in the centuries immediately before the tenth, however, suggests their historical specificity, rather than gender stereotypes as being invariable.


4 thoughts on “The invention of sodomy as a political weapon

  1. I find that very convincing – especially the reminder that once a tool is created it can be used for new purposes! also, the suggestion that the Carolingian nobility was simply smaller and tighter, making it difficult to make this sort of claim, makes good sense.


    • Thanks for the reference – I’d missed this article and need to have a look at it. My immediate response is that I wouldn’t count Odo as Carolingian, but that depends on your definition of Carolingian. I was thinking c 750-900, rather than tenth century. And I think there are other signs that Odo is not thinking about sex/gender in the same way as ninth-century Frankish authors were. Alessandro Barbero, for example, compares his vita of Gerald of Aurillac and the Vita Gangulfi to show him creating a saint whose role as a layman is more problematic than in Carolingian hagiography (‘Santi laici e guerrieri. Le trasformazioni di un modello nell’agiografia altomedievale’, in Modelli di santità e modelli di comportamento. Contrasti, intersezioni, complementarità, Torino 1994, (ed G. Barone et al) pp. 125-140.


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