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.