Gay monk fantasies

There has been a lot of interesting work recently on medieval male sexuality that takes into account the existence of gay men in the past, and has started discussing medieval texts from a rather broader viewpoint. I’ve recently come across the work of Albrecht Diem, for example, who is looking at how understandings of male chastity changed in the sixth century West, building on Mayke de Jong’s studies of oblates (Mayke was Diem’s PhD supervisor). Diem’s ideas about how chastity was institutionalised (e.g. via common dormitories) and made into a collective more than an individual enterprise has an impact on wider issues of early medieval masculinity.

However, I’ve also read several recent studies which, despite all their new framework of gender and power, still seem to show some strangely old-fashioned attitudes about men. Take for example, Mark Masterson, ‘Impossible translation: Antony and Paul the Simple in the Historia Monachorum’. In The Boswell thesis: essays on Christianity, social tolerance and homosexuality, edited by M. Kuefler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2006), 215-235, who starts his discussion about the male-only deserts of the desert fathers with the comment (p. 215): ‘Of interest, then, is the sensible assertion that homosocial environments increase the incidence of homosexual desire.’ He adds (p. 215-216): ‘Much of what we have in the literature from the desert is depiction of self-denial not at all invested in telling what I imagine to be a truth about the reality of sexual desire in the desert and the probable effects of homosociality.’

The same views are even more prominent in Christopher A. Jones, ‘Monastic identity and sodomitic danger in the Occupatio by Odo of Cluny’. Speculum 82 (2007):1-53. He approvingly quotes (p. 1) another author claiming that monasticism ‘almost against its will created the most fertile field imaginable in which same-sex desire might grow, while proscribing and punishing its physical expression.’ Why do we not hear more from the sources? Jones claims (p. 50): ‘it is equally likely that the greater part of such tradition [discussions about sodomitical sin] was maintained “off the books” in more senses than one.’ He goes even further a little later (p. 53):

Whatever similarities appear between Odo’s precise expressions of antisodomy and Peter Damian’s, the historically more significant connection was probably an institutional undercurrent of discourses broadly manifested. Two volcanoes rising far apart from what appear dissimilar landscapes may both owe their volatility to the same magma churning below. The analogy, if crude, captures some essential features of a monastic tradition of antisodomy being postulated here. Seething more or less constantly beneath Carolingian monasticism – at times so far beneath as to seem absent to us, and possibly to the monks themselves – its eruptions now visible occurred along these grating subduction zones where “reformed” and “unreformed” identities collided, one gradually overthrusting the other.

When you strip away the over-ripe prose here, you get to the same argument as Masterson: there was a lot of gay eroticism in male monasticism, it’s just that the sources rarely mention it. But we know it went on, because, well, because it must have done, it’s obvious. Underlying this is the old myth of male sexual insatiability. Protestant scholars fifty years ago thought that men couldn’t be celibate, and therefore medieval monks and clerics spent their time misbehaving with women. These modern scholars think men can’t be celibate and therefore medieval monks spent their time misbehaving with men, or at least fantasising about doing so.

This view ignores the actual medieval evidence. There are some very harsh criticisms of sodomitical monks in the Middle Ages, but not many; there are far more allegations about heterosexually active monks. The many critics of monasticism (from the twelfth century down to the Dissolution of the Monasteries and beyond) rarely used allegations of widespread homosexual behaviour, despite its usefulness (as Philip IV proved against the Templars). The type of hysterical concern about monastic sodomy seen in Peter Damian and Odo of Cluny was rare and didn’t get a favourable reaction.

Can we simply assume, meanwhile, that ‘homosocial environments increase the incidence of homosexual desire’? It’s noticeable that the literature Masterson cites is from modern historical studies, and most of the obvious analogies are also modern: boys’ schools, the navy, prisons. The difference between them and monasteries is that none of the other institutions train their members in the reduction and control of their bodily appetites, whereas monasteries did.

Here is where we get to another modern view about sex: that sexual desire cannot be successfully repressed. The more that monasteries tried to control desire, the more it broke out. Yet if you apply this rule to other desires and passions, the inevitability of overwhelming sexual desire seems less plausible. Someone who trains their body to fast, or to get up several times in the middle of the night to attend services, or to perform hard manual labour can effectively reduce the impact of normal human urges, such as hunger or fatigue on themselves. Why is it implausible that men can trace themselves to reduce their erotic urges?

This isn’t to say that there were no gay thoughts or actions in medieval monasteries: the penitentials, for example, cover homosexual misdemeanours in some detail. But the irrepressible gayness that some modern scholars see in the medieval monastery seems to me possibly to reflect our experience of the modern world more than those of religious men of the time.


12 thoughts on “Gay monk fantasies

  1. And how old is the myth of male sexual insatiability? More of the medieval and Renaissance conduct manuals I’ve read have suggested that women were the sexually insatiable ones and that, without them around, men were able to focus better on the things that were truly important, i.e. worship and scholarship.

    I’m not nay-saying same-sex desire and relationships in the Middle Ages, but I am suspect of anyone whose argument largely rests on the “well they must have done this because of what we know of human nature.”


  2. A better modern analogy would be the St-Pölten seminary scandal in 2004. Does the homoeroticism evidenced there demonstrate that homosocial environments do increase the chance of homoerotic desire, or simply that it’s a result of bad ecclesiastical leadership?


  3. “The difference between [prisons and schools] and monasteries is that none of the other institutions train their members in the reduction and control of their bodily appetites, whereas monasteries did.”

    Sure, but monasteries differed from those other types of institution in one important way.

    Schools, prisons, naval ships, etc. were all to some extent filled with unwilling participants drawn from the general population. Monasteries were, on the other hand, at least partially filled with young men who VOLUNTEERED to spend most of their time not having sex with women and pondering quasi-erotic crucifixes. I know there were young men who had to go into the monkhood because of primogeniture, etc., but still… Shouldn’t the largely self-selected nature of the group enter into the discussion? In other words, (and I know this isn’t compelling evidence, just something to think about) wouldn’t a monastery have drawn gay men like moths to a flame?

    Also, it’s a bit much to refer to male sexual insatiability as a “myth”. Our culture might overemphasize the role of sex and peoples’ ability to control themselves, but it’s quite a leap to go from that to saying that men aren’t sexually insatiable. All of human history is filled with examples of male sexual insatiability. It’s pretty much the cornerstone of human society. How many wives did King Solomon have? 700? He was a typical man given a lot of power. Things haven’t changed. The degree to which society attempts to train its members to control that insatiability does change, however, which is what I think you might have meant.


  4. Alex, how about the idea that most of these men were monks because they were, well, devoted to their religion? Should that be part of the discussion? That very idea seems to be missing in a lot of the literature today. Also, Many, if not most, of Solomon’s wives were political matches, thus, not very reflective of an insatiable sexual appetite on his part. This, of course, is not to say that he did not take advantage of his (lucky?) situation, but it does not prove he was some sexual monster. You might have better luck citing (somehow) the Song of Solomon. Or Chaucer…


  5. Well, many of the monks in Odo’s care wouldn’t have volunteered in our sense of the term: they’d have been oblates who were given to the monastery by their parents when they were children and grew up inside the community. Their experience would have been very different from, say, aristocratic widowers who retired to a monastery after an active secular life.

    Given the wide variety of people who would have been monks, it becomes extremely difficult, arguably foolish, to generalise about their sexual desires or, for that matter, devotion to ‘their religion’ (however you want to define that!).


  6. Thanks for all your comments: here are some attempts at replying.

    Theo is right to make a distinction for the early medieval period (roughly 600-1100) in which the majority of monks were oblates, not volunteers, but given to the monasteries as young children by their parents. It’s very hard to know exactly how that would have affected their sexuality. The nearest parallels I know about are from Robin Fox, The red lamp of incest: an enquiry into the origins of mind and society (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983). He suggests that taboos about sibling incest tend to develop quite naturally from being brought up from infancy together (and cites evidence from kibbutzim and child marriages where boys and girls brought up together are less sexually attracted to one another than typical). If the same effect was seen in oblate groups (and we’ve got no way of knowing), then there might not be much desire within particular age cohorts, and the main concern might be about relationships between age-disparate monks (which certainly get mentioned by the early medieval sources).

    As for those who enter religious life as men (the majority before 600 and after 1100), Alex, in assuming that gay men would flock to such institutions, seems to me to be making assumptions that need to be thought about more carefully. Firstly, I think it would be a lot harder to recognise that you were ‘gay’ (or a ‘sodomite’ or a ‘Ganymede’ or a ‘molly’ or whatever the current term was) in cultures that suppress the idea that such people exist or suggest any who do exist are monsters. Even in the twentieth century, many gay men have taken a long time not only to come out, but even to realize consciously themselves that they are sexually attracted to men.

    Secondly, I don’t think even a medieval man who had realised his sexual desires were same-sex and who wanted to have opportunities to fulfil these desires would have therefore chosen a monastery. There’s a very interesting book: Alan Bray, Homosexuality in Renaissance England (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1982), which, among other things, shows how often homosexual actions took place within quite intimate ‘domestic’ settings in the sixteenth century. For example, two servants would be sharing a bed (as was quite normal practice), and would be having intercourse, while another servant slept elsewhere in the same (very dark) room. This kind of behaviour relied crucially both on the normal intimacy of male life until recently and on the fact that sodomites were thought of as some strange monsters. So if your two friends or acquaintances were doing something odd together, it couldn’t possibly be sodomy, because they weren’t depraved men but upright citizens. (In that way only, it was equivalent to the modern belief that the man next door to you can’t really be a wife-beater or a paedophile, because he seems so nice). When you add in the rural possibilities of sneaking off into the hay together etc, a gay man actually had a number of opportunities in the secular world. Bray uses criminal trials to show how long men could engage in homosexual activity before coming to official attention.

    In contrast, monasteries tended to be set up to prevent private contacts between men (common dormitories with lights etc), not just as anti-sodomy measures, but also because close friendships themselves were discouraged. When you add to that a culture of confession, I’d say that overall, your chances of detection in same-sex activity would be considerably higher in the cloister than out of it. Which didn’t mean such activity didn’t go on, just that even a rational choice medieval gay probably shouldn’t become a monk for those reasons.

    Another area where assuming the past is the same as the present may be misleading is thinking that gay men have always been disproportionately attracted to the (Catholic) priesthood. Certainly, the proportion of Catholic priests who are gay is now anecdotally pretty high. But I suspect (though I don’t know how you’d find any evidence) that what has happened is that most heterosexual men no longer want to become Catholic priests. And one obvious reason for that is that the power and prestige of the priesthood has declined relative to that of lay Catholics. Is it worth giving up sexual activity for increased power? Some men, at least, have considered this worthwhile over the centuries, just as men have sacrificed other pleasures to obtain high status. If the priesthood becomes less attractive, however, then heterosexual men are going to be more likely to decide that priesthood isn’t worth the sacrifice than gay Catholic men (who are supposed to be celibate whether they’re priests or not).

    As for the myth of male sexual insatiability, if you want to claim this is true, you need to show more than the existence of some men who are extremely lustful. You need to show that almost all (or at least most) men are, and that’s far harder to demonstrate. Take the common modern claim that men are more lustful, on average, than women. This would have been dismissed as ‘unscientific’ for the vast majority of the last 2000 years: most intellectuals believed that women were ‘naturally’ more lustful than men, as Janice correctly points out. (The flip-over of views seems to have come very roughly around the eighteenth century).

    How do you ‘prove’ the modern assertion that men are naturally more lustful? For obvious reasons, involvement in heterosexual intercourse is split roughly 50-50 between the sexes, so you’re left with asking people about their desires. And most people are going to say what they think they ought to, which in our culture means that men are more prone to stress their desires and women to underplay them. My personal guess is that any average difference between the sexes is much smaller than differences within the sexes, but I don’t see any effective way of testing that (especially when the strength of sexual desires is so much affected by other factors, such as age, health and stress).


  7. Thanks for noticing my essay. “Impossible Translation…”! You make some good points (especially about the overarching missions of institutions– and the difference that monasteries have from more modern same-sex analogues). Just off the top of my head, I would like to say that my motivation in writing as I did came from concerns about what I regard (and therein hangs a tale of course!) as a lack of representation of same-sex desire in texts from late antiquity. Also, I don’t think I made a claim that men are more lustful and besides is not your notion of sublimation being able to be accomplished as much a transcultural claim as mine that same-sex desire will exist? In addition, I did not ground all my claims by reference to modern comparanda– I did discuss at length changes that Rufinus made to the Latin text and this was a primary support to what I was saying. But really, and this is the important thing, thanks for engaging with my work.


  8. It is interesting to note that the Rule of St. Benedict, which was the standard of conduct that almost all monastic orders followed to one degree or another, specifically states that monks should always sleep in separate beds. Sleeping alone in the Middle Ages was a rare luxury, so one is tempted to wonder if this rule went beyond just helping monks to sleep well.

    Many of the larger monasteries had multi-seated toilet blocks (reredorters) attached to the dormitories where the monks slept. Frequently, Monks used the reredorters in groups, and the rules called for them to keep themselves completely covered while doing so.

    I do have to wonder… why all this emphasis on modesty among men alone?


  9. I should have said changes Rufinus made when he translated the Greek text into Latin… also, I think RogerV makes some good points— there is recognition of desires here and this is something that we should understand as being recognized then. I think this is different from imagining/positing that men are uncontrollably lusty or something like that. Prohibition on desire does not extinguish it and the rules provide some evidence that this was recognized at the time.


  10. Let me try and clarify my position, so we can see on what we agree and disagree. Firstly, I accept that in every society there have always been gay people (in John Boswell’s sense of those with an erotic preference for their own sex). I would add that most gay men have this preference fixed, so that they can’t cease to be gay. I would therfeore expect there to be gay monks. And I would also agree with Roger that this is recognised by monastic authorities and measures put in place to repress homosexual acts and homoerotic opportunities – in fact Albrecht Diem’s work, which I mentioned in the original post, is largely about how these measures were developed.

    What I disagree with Mark about is the effect of asceticism and repression (using asceticism for practices applied by the individual to control their physical and mental urges, and repression for such practices applied by external forces). I think there is historical evidence that both asceticism and repression are effective to some extent.

    Taking asceticism first, it is hard to think of a society which hasn’t had some form of asceticism within it, even if it hasn’t gone by that name. Endurance rituals for men training as warriors, fasting, sports training that influences both body and mind. (I’ve just been watching the Winter Olympics, so I’m conscious of how much mental as well as physical discipline it takes to keep going when you’re exhausted, or overcome normal, sensible fears about doing dangerous activities). People can learn to control their actions, even such basic instincts as breathing. They can learn to be less affected by hunger and fatigue, not to feel frightened in battle, to concentrate on hitting a ball and not be distracted by 10,000 screaming people around them. Not everyone can manage all forms of such training, but a lot of people can manage it to some extent. (You can’t get a PhD without an ascetic streak, for example).

    I also think there is a lot of evidence that repression of actions and desires, especially repression applied either to volunteers (those who have chosen to undergo a repressive regime) or those who have been repressed from childhood (such as oblates) is effective in the narrow sense of preventing such actions and desires. Not completely effective, but more effective than not making such attempts. If you know that you will be beaten if you break a school rule, you are more likely to keep that rule than if you will not be punished. If as a woman you will be stigmatised for bearing a child outside marriage, this will affect both your willingness to engage in premarital sex and your subsequent actions if you do become pregnant. I don’t deny that such repression may well have extremely nasty side-effects on the body and the mind of those repressed, but that’s a seperate matter.

    As I’ve already said, I think asceticism and repression are effective, but not totally effective. As a result, there have been a number of theories arguing that repression, in particular, is ineffective. There’s the ‘hydraulic theory’ of emotions/desires that’s lurking in Freud (and some Social Darwinism), that emotions/desires cannot be repressed without bursting out in other directions. There’s Foucault’s idea of control regimes as creative, producing what they are trying to prevent. There is some truth to such ideas, but they go a lot too far in denying the effectiveness of repression. (While Mark’s article doesn’t specifically refer to such theories, ‘sublimation’, which he does use, is a very Freudian term).

    (There is also a personal/political aspect here: if you see some forms of repression and asceticism as bad, as most of us do, it’s tempting to argue that such methods are automatically ineffective. If, like me, you are slightly overweight, you don’t really want to hear that some methods of dieting are effective, because that implies it’s your own fault for failing to be slim. It’s more comforting to believe that such methods never or almost never work. If you think that some drugs should be legalised, it’s difficult to admit that legalisation might mean more drug use. If you are a gay man, faced with opponents who want you to supress your own sexual desires, while not demanding the same of straight men, an obvious response is to say that such desires cannot be suppressed).

    But suppose we move this away from the charged area of sexual desire for the monent and consider food. You have a monastic situation where food is restricted (external repression) and the monks have been trained in techniques for controlling their hunger (asceticism). Wouldn’t you expect those monks to eat less than non-monks, but also to be less bothered by hunger than non-monks in a similar situation? If a monastery can have this effect on desire for food, why is it not able to have such an effect on libido, by a combination of repressing the chances of actions and promoting techniques to repress sexual desire? I take it as a biological fact that (male) libido is affected by outside forces. The entire point of pornography/erotica is to increase libido. Conversely, there’s good evidence that factors such as tiredness and stress, among others, decrease libido. If monastic routine or ascetic practice kept monks in a state where they were permanently slightly tired, for example, that in itself would probably reduce their sexual desires.

    That’s why I think overall monasteries/monastic settings were probably anaphrodisiac rather than erotic. But to go back to Mark’s original article, I’m prepared to admit the possibility of a monk for whom neither repression nor ascetic practice has worked, whose thoughts are still full of homoeroticism, and who might read the Historia Monachorum as being about male desire. There still seem to me to be some problems with the essay. Firstly, there’s the use of the text by Porphyry on honey. Is there any evidence that the readers of the Historia Monachorum would also be reading that – it seems unlikely to me? I’d like some more definite evidence that honey was a common symbol of male sexual desire. I’m also unhappy with the slippage from the possible homoerotic-prone reader to the claim (p. 222) that ‘any reader envisioning his or her life in the desert will see it as a place surely infused with desire’. A homoerotic reading of the story is possible for a late antique reader, but it’s by no means inevitable.

    That’s also the problem I find with the section on Rufinus. The argument that his rewriting must be aimed at removing the homoerotic elements of the story depends crucially on the idea that a homoerotic reading of the original story is the only one possible. I want to suggest an alternative way in which Rufinus may have read the original story which would also account for the changes. As Mark points out, the changes he make remove the miraculous from the story; they also show Paul the Simple as not running immediately away from his adulterous wife to Antony, but instead wandering in confusion in the desert and meeting Antony by chance. I think it is possible that Rufinus saw the story as symbolising how the soul/Paul comes to God/Antony after abandoning a false love. Then it may have seemed more psychologically ‘realistic’ to Rufinus that the soul whose love for something of this world has been betrayed does not immediately turn to God, but instead wanders in the wilderness till it recognises, as if by chance, its need for God. In that reading, it would also make sense for Rufinus to tone down the impossibility of the demands, and instead stress the way in which Antony, as a symbol of God, prepares Paul to endure in the Christian life.

    This is only a possible reading, as is Mark’s, and we may just have to disagree on which each of us finds more plausible. I’m not denying the existence of gay monks, or monks reading queerly, but I think it’s going to be very tricky to find hard evidence of them.


  11. I was a Catholic seminarian for 12 years and never was I attracted to a fellow seminarian. Based from my personal experience, homosocial environment does not make one develop a homosexual feeling, unless probably one is already a homosexual or has homosexual tendencies before entering seminary formation. Some of my classmates in the seminary were probably homosexuals but were highly motivated to live chaste lives and were able to sublimate or channel their sexual energies through other non-sexual constructive activities. Also being celibate, we were taught in the seminary, does not mean we could not develop non-sexual friendships with the opposite sex. There could be dangers and we should learn how to maintain boundaries to grow as celibates. Many saints, such as St. Francis and St. Clare, St Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, developed deep friendships which did not involve sex. Many modern humans think that having deep relationships always involve sex.


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