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A Gay Subculture in the 12th century?

Wednesday, December 25, 2019 - 08:00

This section of Boswell's work points up some of the structural flaws of his study, in my opinion. "Structural flaws" does not necessarily mean "incorrect data and evidence" but rather that the large-scale conclusions are shaped by the ways in which that evidence is interpreted. And in his quest to find evidence for the existence of a postive gay subculture, there are times when he is deliberately credulous (such as taking politically-motivated accusations of sodomy as descriptive fact) or fails to consider the meaning of the asymmetries in the data. (If you find few examples of women writing texts expressing same-sex love in a clerical context, does that mean that there was no culture of same-sex love among women? Or does it mean that structural gender inequities affected how and by whom that love was expressed? Or perhaps how those expressions were filtered out of the historic record?). It is inescapable that Boswell simply wasn't very interested in women. And yet rather than presenting his conclusions as being restricted to men, he adds in just enough female examples to pretend that his conclusions are universal.

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Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4

Part III: Shifting Fortunes

Part III: Shifting Fortunes

Chapter 7: The Early Middle Ages

The loss of classical traditions and records with positive expressions of gay sexuality (including due to deliberate filtering) meant these were not available to later ages. But the breakdown of government structures with the decline of the Empire meant that oppressive laws were hard to enforce. Gay people were not commonly the subject of repressive legislation in an earlier era, but this was changing. Justinian (6th century) placed same-sex relations under the category of adultery (which had a death penalty, in theory) but it’s unclear that this was enforced except in politically-motivated cases.

This pattern held through the middle ages: the few laws against homosexual behavior were under civil law, while church law had either mild or no penalty for such behavior. [Note: Boswell glosses over the ways in which secular and clerical law were intertwined and influenced each other.] Laws tended to reflect the culture of the ruling elite, which--in this age of migrations and conquest--might have an entirely different culture than the people they ruled.

In most law codes of the early middle ages, homosexuality was absent from the lists of sexual crimes. Specific edicts might disparage homosexuality but rarely punished it. The penitential manuals included extensive details of penance for specific homosexual acts, but they had a similar level of detail for a vast number of ordinary activities that had little public stigma.

Monastic institutions--necessarily same-sex--took pains to discourage “special friendships” and sexual activity, but this cannot necessarily be seen as hostility to homosexuality specifically as the single-sex environment precluded a similar concern for heterosexuality. But these monastic contexts also produced erotic poetry inspired by the close emotional bonds in the institutions (which, again, are necessarily same-sex) between colleagues and teacher-student pairs. Such bonds might be discouraged if they led to public ridiule, but there is no through-line of condemnation for emotional same-sex bonds in general.

Islamic Spain openly celebrated (male) same-sex love in both emotional and sexual terms. This reflected Islamic openness to male same-sex relations in general. Negative Christian reactions to the Muslum presence in that era do not invoke sodomy as a specific charge even though it was recorded as a regular practice.

As the medieval period progressed, framings of same-sex acts as “against nature” fell out of use and the term “sodomy” was used generally for non-procreative activity. [Note: Boswell appears to be suggesting that “sodomy” changed from originally denoting same-sex activity and then was generalized to non-procreative sex, but either I’m misreading his argument or he’s simply wrong here.] Homosexuality came to be treated as simply another type of fornication, possibly even less serious than heterosexual fornication. [Note: “fornication” basically meant any sex outside of authorized heterosexual marriage.]

This section concludes with evidence suggesting that attitudes toward homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant from the late Empire to the early middle ages.

Chapter 8: The Urban Revival

In the 10th-14th century, Europe once again acquired an urban culture due to a variety of social and economic shifts. Cities have an association with democracy, self-government, and personal freedom. Boswell identifies the re-emergence of a “distinct gay subculture” with this re-urbanization in southern Europe. [Note: and, of course, he’s only talking about a “distinct gay male subculture.”]

Also during this era, erotic passion returned as a topic and preoccupation of literature and society, from religious ecstasy to courtly love to chivalric romances. Another feature of the era was the reform and revitalization of the church. Learning flourished such that the “12th century renaissance” is a accepted concept.

With all this came a re-connection with homoerotic themes of the past. Two movements emerged in the church: an anti-gay sentiment that elevated homosexuality as an important sin, and a movement that used homoerotic themes and imagery as a positive force to frame relations between churchmen. Initially, the first movement gained little ground.

Peter Damian (11th c) represents the anti-gay position, but his call to sweep men with same-sex relations out of the clergy was rebuffed initially by Rome. There is a detailed discussion of charges of homosexual relations among prominent churchmen and nobility (which Boswell appears to take at face value even when there were clear political motivations for slander).

By the 12th century, various regions were implementing warnings and prohibitions against same-sex relations which had little apparent effect. In parallel, there was increased concern about enforcing clerical celibacy in general. (Married or partnered clergy were commonplace in this era.) The popular association of clergy with sodomy is supported by an outpouring of homoerotic literature (of varying tones) from churchmen.

We are offered a very brief glimpse of a female equivalent to this literature in two 12th century erotic letter-poems between nuns. Aelred of Rievaulx is presented as the archetype for the homoerotic side (with many textual examples).

Several significant 12th century works on Christian morals took a lenient or even an indifferent approach to same-sex relations. We see how various prominent secular figures who were criticized for shameful, immoral, or luxurious lives only later had those descriptions re-interpreted as indicating homosexuality, suggesting that those associations were not made at the time.

Scandinavian examples are brought in to suggest that the commonness of insults involving effeminacy and passive homosexuality indicate that homosexuality was a familiar practice in those cultures. [Note: Once again, I feell that Boswell is taking things too much at face value. A culture that considers "passive homosexuality" to be the worst thing you can accuse a man of does not automatically indicate a culture in which homosexuality was a common practice. Consider all the schoolyards in which homosexual slurs have been tossed around by people who had no conscious familiarity with gay people or any realistic understanding of what being gay meant. As with the politically-charged accusations of sodomy, I think a more complex and nuanced analysis is required. Consider as a comparison if we substitute into the preceding statement, "the commonness of insults involving [popular slur against Jews] indicate that [slur] was a familliar practice." It simply doesn't track directly like that.]

There is an extended discussion of the use of the term and image of Ganymede for the younger/passive partner in a male-male relationship, in both positive and negative contexts, which leads in to the next chapter.

Chapter 9: The Triumph of Ganymede

In the period from 1050 to 1150 Boswell sees the first evidence for a “gay subculture” since the fall of Rome. Many examples are given, plus discussion of coded terminology used for sex and desire.

Women do not figure at all in this chapter.