I dont consider myself primarily as a historian of sexuality, although Ive touched on the topic in my work on masculinity. To the extent that I have researched sexuality, moreover, its largely been looking at early medieval laity and heterosexuality. And yet I somehow seem to have acquired a reputation for discussing gay monks, on the basis of a couple of posts. Rather than running away from this reputation, however, given that its still (just) LGBT history month, its time to point out why other historians ought perhaps to try considering gay monks sometimes. And that is because they’re good to think with.
First of all, they’re good to think with because they encapsulate a lot of issues about ahistorical versus historically contingent human factors. As far as we know, every society has had some proportion of people who are sexually attracted predominantly to their own sex, rather than the opposite sex. Yet although gay people exist in every society, there are many societies without monasticism, or any comparable institution. History does show change as well as continuity.
The existence of gay monks also reveals historical change in other ways. One is how social attitudes can alter, quite abruptly. Nowadays what would probably appal most British people, what would seem really socially transgressive, is not being gay, but being in a religious order. Celibacy is now a sexual identity that’s really outré. For the majority of the twentieth century, meanwhile, no-one would have considered that studying history might involve discussing homosexuality: there’s almost no work by medievalists discussing sexuality in any form before the 1970s. In contrast, it’s professionally now possible for a historian to write about gay monks without losing their academic credibility although they may still face prejudice as a result.
Gay monks are also very interesting as a historical problem because they raise two of the most basic problems of analysis. How do we categorise and label particular forms of social groupings or behaviour, and how do we find evidence for them? The problems of drawing boundaries between social groups has been a continual issue within monasticism. Who is really a monk, and how can they be distinguished from those in other forms of the religious life, or from those still in the world? In that sense, modern historians’ debate about the category of ‘monk’ has more than a millennium of precedent.
What is far more recent is an increasing awareness that categorising aspects of human behaviour, even at the most basic biological level, is still difficult and subjective. There have always been people with particular kinds of sexual preference, but that does not mean that they were categorised by other societies in the same way. Classical Greece and Rome, for example, focused on the difference between active and passive sexual acts. Michel Foucault talked about the invention of the ‘homosexual’, as a particular type of person, someone fundamentally defined, identified, by their sexual preferences. A monk who never acts on his sexual impulses may be gay, but he is not a sodomite; conversely, ‘sodomitical intercourse’ could be used by medieval authors to refer to various kinds of heterosexual activities. There is no obvious right or wrong choice as to how sexual practices or preferences are lumped together or split: there are still arguments about how much transsexual people have in common with gay, lesbian and bisexual people, for example.
Finding evidence about gay monks is also fraught. What can usefully be deduced from the scanty normative sources and the even rarer cases? Charlemagne had heard rumours of sodomitical monks in 802, and was greatly disturbed. We have no known accusations of homosexual acts from the Carolingian period, and yet there have been a number of discussions as to whether such figures as Alcuin or Gottschalk may have been gay, and how seriously to take the homoerotic tone of some of their writings. Should we expand the types of evidence we accept, and look for ‘lesbian-like’ women, or will this just prove misleading?
Finally, gay monks are good to think with because they remind us of two important dimensions of life within most societies, and their changing interaction: religion and gender. Gay monks have almost always been regarded differently from lesbian nuns, and from those not in religious orders. Most attention in the Middle Ages is on gay men: Jacqueline Murray once wrote a book chapter on medieval lesbians called ‘Twice marginal and twice invisible’. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, meanwhile, saw anti-Catholic writers singling out convents as corrupt institutions, and writing titillating fiction about them. (See Elizabeth Wahl, Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment, p. 174). The Catholic Church’s attitudes, too, have changed over time: when Pope Benedict writes about’ homosexual tendencies’ in priests and those in religious orders, he’s using a reference framework that would be entirely alien to the world before the nineteenth century.
Most historians, especially those studying the pre-modern world, are not going to end up researching LGBT history, or even teaching it. There are simply too few sources to make it a major field of study. But even those who aren’t particularly interested in the history of either sexuality or religion may find it useful occasionally to freshen up their historical analysis via a bit of theoretical contemplation of gay monks.