Homerotic Christianity: The Medieval Flowering

In the modern popular imagination, the middle ages have generally had a bad press, compared unfavourably with the classical civilizations which preceded it, the Renaissance flowering which followed it – or even the Islamic and Byzantine centres of scholarship and learning alongside medieval Europe. However, the thousand or so years between the fall of Rome and the high Renaissance cover a wide range of conditions. In the midst of this period, at the start of the second millenium, lies a period which deserves greater attention from anyone interested in the history of the church, or of homosexuality, or (most particularly) of the intersection of the two. This was a period of the most visible, most public “gay” sub-culture in Europe before the late twentieth century. It was also a great age of church reform – and despite strong pressure from vocal opponents, the church reformers generally ignored it.

 


This coinciding of Church reform and homosexual tolerance is important: Classical writers observed that in Greece, those cities where male love was most common, were also those with “good laws”. (A superficial look at the modern countries and US states which have approved gay marriage or civil unions certainly matches my perception of those with “good”, i.e. democratic, laws. Does the same principle apply to the Christian church?) Because it is important, let me spell out the evidence.The abuses of the papacy and bishops before the Reformation are well known. However, there are specific periods that stand in stark contrast to these. The period I am looking at here, the opening of the second millenium, is described by Eamonn Duffy in his history of the papacy, as the great “age of reform”, featuring among many notable reformers, the reign of Gregory the Great.

Now note also, that this same period is seen, from the prism of modern teaching, as a key point in the development of anti-gay theology. In “The Invention of Sodomy” Mark D Jordan shows how Saint Peter Damian’s hostility to homoerotic relationships is central to modern homophobic theology. Now, here’s the fascinating thing: the clear homophobia expressed by Peter Damian, central to modern approved thinking, is the one part of Damian’s proposals that was REJECTED by the popes and other churchmen of his time. Although the official line at the time was that same sex relationships were sinful, this was not taken very seriously. Instead, the evidence from actual practice, was that such relationships were at worst tolerated, at best celebrated. Let’s look at some “for instances”.

From literature, we have the example of bishops and other clergy writing verse with frankly homoerotic themes: Marbod of Rennes, Baudri of Bourgueil,and Hildebert of Lavardin wrote poems which, while superficially orthodox, also treat frankly homoerotic themes with remarkable frankness and authenticity. All three of these later were consecrated bishops. (Much earlier, two other bishops had written homoerotic verse, which may be read today in the Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse. St Paulinus of Nola wrote erotic love poems to his male lover, while St Vergilius Fortunatus wrote verse with a clearly homoerotic flavour.) Alcuin of Tours also wrote gay love letters, such as one to Arno the bishop at Salzburg:

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,

And is ever rekindled with new warmth.

Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest, nor even the Alps

Can stand in its way or hinder it

From always licking at your inmost parts, good father…

(Read the full letter, and also one by Marbod of Rennes, at Gay Love Letters through the centuries: Medieval clerics)


Another notoriously (and promiscuously) gay bishop was John of Orleans, whose lovers included two archbishops of Tours, and the French king. Yet when widespread opposition to his consecration was presented to the Pope, it was not on the basis of his orientation or promiscuity, but on the grounds of his youth. Even so, the objections were ignored, and the consecration of an openly and promiscuously gay bishop went ahead.

At much the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm, was presented with a decree by the council of London calling for harsher penalties against “sodomites”. But he refused to publish the decree, noting that the practice was widespread, and that ordinary people did not even know it was wrong. St Anselm himself was notable for the intensity of his (chaste) relationships with this predecessor at Canterbury, and a succession of his pupils. (Read some of his letters to a pupil at “Gay Love Letters through the centuries: Anselm“). He also undid centuries of earlier monastic practice, by recommending, not prohibiting, close friendships among men in monasteries. Across the channel in France, another famous Monastic saint was in a similar position. St Aelred of Rievaulx was another celibate, chaste priest who nevertheless penned letters containing extraordinarily clear, frankly homoerotic sentiments to his pupils.

 

Sadly this medieval flowering of a gay sub-culture, described as the most open and visible in Europe until the 1970’s, was all too brief. Not long after attitudes changed, and saw active persecution by the church and state which was horrifying in its severity. That too is a period in gay church history which deserves to be remembered, for exactly opposite reasons. For now, though, let us simply reflect on the thought that at one important time in church history, church reform and “good laws” did indeed co-incide with homosexual tolerance.

 

Sources:

John Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality

Eamonn Duffy: Saints & Sinners

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