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Same-sex Sexuality in Medieval England

Monday, October 2, 2017 - 07:00

In last week's post, I lamented that I'm increasingly finding less new material in general medieval works such as this. But I was able to extract three new publications to track down from this book: two on pairs of women buried together with a common memorial (where it's clear they aren't family members), and one on the source of an anecdote I've been seeing references to for many years. This last is a description of a group of women showing up at a tournament dressed as men to take part in the activities. While women cross-dressing in the context of chivalric culture is a not uncommon literary motif, I've been a bit skeptical of how solid the evidence for this event was in the third and fourth-hand references I'd seen of it previously. Now I have a publication to track down and plans for a podcast topic on gender-transgressive women in tournament contexts.

It's been delightful to see some of the more recent research and discoveries on the history of homoeroticism (by "recent" I mean generally post-1980 or so!) being published as general studies such as this one and the text on sexuality in general by Karras that I covered last week. I recently had a request from a friend for research materials on male homosexuality in medieval England for a historic novel she's working on and was able to enthusiastically lend her Karras, the present volume, and Mills' book Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. I'm always delighted to know that people are using the results of this project for their fiction.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Linkinen, Tom. 2015. Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam. ISBN 978-90-8964-629-3

Publication summary: 

Pretty much exactly what it says on the label.

Introduction

As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.

[For this reason, I’ve largely passed over the sections discussing generic texts. Most of them were created by men, for a male readership, and with the assumption that male sexuality was the only topic worth writing about. So I have strong doubts that they can be taken as providing relevant information for female study. The chapters that focus exclusively on men have very short summaries.]

This study looks not only at the nature of medieval same-sex sexuality and attitudes toward same-sex relationships, but also how accusations of sodomy were used to stigmatize men for political reasons. The final section of the book takes a more positive look at how the omissions and silences in the historic record suggest “implicit possibilities for love and desire” both in spite of and because of medieval attitudes toward the topic.

The book is primarily taken from written sources (descriptive, moralistic, literary) but also some visual art.

Chapter 1: Framing condemnations

This is a general discussion of the concept of sodomy in the general sense of sex “against nature”. Some texts discussing sodomy specifically include women having sex together, but more often there is no explicit inclusion. Even texts clearly discussing woman-woman sex don’t necessarily use the term “sodomy”. Despite the title of Helmut Puff’s paper on the 14th century trial of Katherine Hetzeldorfer, the trial records and interviews never use the term “sodomy” for what she was accused of. Or any specific categorical label at all.

Theologian Peter Abelard, in reference to Saint Paul’s famous text, suggests that the sin in woman-woman sex was that women’s genitals were intended for the use of men “not so women could co-habit with women.” That is, women’s homoerotic activity was not a sin in itself, but a sin against masculine prerogative, access, and authority.

Medieval versions of Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, e.g., Gower’s, focus on the transformation of “unnatural” female/female love to “natural” male/female activity via a miraculous bodily sex change. Female/female love, though portrayed as real and genuine, is still treated as “vain” and a state in need of correction.

Much of the anxiety around same-sex sexuality was an extension of general concern with transgressing gender boundaries and roles. The central sin in sodomy (other than being non-procreative) was a man “turning himself into a woman” in taking what was considered a passive role in the act. Women need not be thought to be having “unnatural” sex to be condemned for claiming masculine roles. A story is given from Knighton’s Chronicle of women dressing as men to take part in tournaments in Berwick (on the Scottish border) in 1348. [This is a reference I’ve been trying to track down a good citation for, since it provides a fascinating historic rather than literary precedent for women openly cross-dressing in the medieval period.] “A rumor arose and great excitement concerning some armed women taking part in the tournament. They were all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom’s better sort.” And “neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint” and seemed to have been punished by nothing worse than bad weather which was held to be God’s punishment on them. Their offense was claiming a masculine presentation and taking part in masculine activities, but it was an offense against gender, not sexuality.

The vague references in penitentials to “a woman sinning with a woman” may have had broader concerns than penetrative sex. The French court records concerning Jehanne and Lawrence are discussed (where the activity appears to have been tribadism). In general, though female same-sex acts are virtually absent from the legal record. There are essentially no English examples up through 1500.

Chapter 2: Silencing the Unmentionable Vice

What do the silences in the written record mean? In primary sources, it can mean the simple absence of data, but in secondary sources it can mean that historians aren’t asking the questions that would lead them to find the existing data. For women’s same-sex activities, that silence is even deeper, not only the silence around same-sex sexuality but the silence around women in general. The author briefly discusses this as an observation but doesn’t really dissect the reasons why.

In primary sources, even the avoidance of topics can provide clues. Moral instructions and penitential manuals often specifically recommend against “giving people ideas” by being too specific in questioning them regarding their activities. In this context Ancrene Wisse (a manual for anchoresses--lay women devoted to pious seclusion, but living in the community and with regular social contacts) notes several contexts for the possibility of sexual sin and warns “Anchoresses have been tempted by their own sisters.” [Please note: this is not a suggestion of incest, but rather the use of “sister” to refer to fellow anchoresses.]

Chapter 3: Stigmatizing with Same-sex Sexuality

Close personal relationships among the powerful, especially those that suggested political corruption, often attracted accusations of sodomy. (Much discussion of King Edward II.) This chapter is concerned exclusively with relations between men, as women were far less often in a position with that type of authority and similarly less likely to have an opportunity to extend benefits to close same-sex friends. [A couple of notes: Recall that this work focuses specifically on medieval England. Accusations against powerful women that their close personal friendships might be tainted with same-sex desire occurred, for example in Iberia, and in later centuries in England, see e.g., Queen Anne.]

Chapter 4: Sharing Disgust and Fear

This chapter discusses the public performance of disgust and fear around (men’s) same-sex activities as a means of communicating and enforcing social standards.

Chapter 5: Sharing Laughter

When same-sex relationships were a topic of humor, it was usually mean-spirited mockery, but that label could apply to entire genres of medieval humor, especially when sexual or scatological or involving gender reversals (which were either punished, or appeared as punishment for some other transgression). Like expressions of disgust, humor was a means of expressing anxiety as well as communicating cultural attitudes. Examples of material covered here are fabliaux, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which are often borrowed from fabliaux), satirical songs and poems. Visual humor of a sexual or scatological type is often found in marginal manuscript art.

Chapter 6: Framing Possibilities

The author ventures into controversial territory in this chapter by asking, “Where are the possibilities within the evidence for non-condemnatory attitudes towards same-sex relations?” He focuses primarily on attitudes towards same-sex friendship and love (rather than sex) but with the question of whether these institutions might have allowed for expressions of desire as well, even though the accepted medieval discourse about the love of friends considered the two to be incompatible. (He notes that the vocabulary used by defendants in medieval sodomy trials came from the realm of sex and sin, not love and affection.)

Silence around same-sex desires and acts allowed for the possibility of their unremarked presence. The inability to name--or avoidance of naming--same-sex sins allowed for individuals to express same-sex desire secretly and without condemnation. English law lacked explicit statutes against same-sex activity until the 16th century (and then only against men), and social privilege could protect the participants from consequences and scrutiny.

The silence is even deeper around women’s sexuality, leaving even more possibility for women’s same-sex relations to go unremarked and thus uncondemned. The avoidance of naming specifics, e.g., in Lollard anti-clerical polemics referencing acts “shameful to speak of” and the “most horrible sin possible” or women “having sex with themselves...or inanimate objects” made it possible to be ignorant of what was meant. [It occurs to me to wonder whether in the original language it would be possible to distinguish between “themselves” as reflexive or mutual.]

Women’s activities were typically considered of concern only as they affected men. If their same-sex activities were considered irrelevant to the lives of men, would they have been mentioned in the literature at all? One gendered activity that does come in for regular negative attention is gossip, and women’s close friendships regularly came under male suspicion in this context.

Anchoresses are warned against the temptations of lust, noting it can come “in the eye, or with the mouth, or with the hand...and many unseemly and unnatural things.” This passage is closely followed by the abovementioned acknowledgment that an anchoress might be tempted by “sisters”, i.e., by other anchoresses or religious women. Concerns about religious women sinning with men were usually described explicitly, so the lack of specificity in these passages seems to exclude a male presence. These sensual temptations are presented in parallel with ordinary, everyday concerns, as if they are both expected and of no special moment. The text Hali Meidenhad (Holy maidenhood) similarly suggests sensory temptations: that lechery may come through sight, speech, kisses, and feeling by the hands.

Instructions to confessors for soliciting details of sins in confession (and this is specifically in a context concerned with sexual sins) suggested that prompts for details should begin with vagueness and then suggest the penitent offer details. If there were a partner she is prompted to explain it was “this sort of man...a married man, or an innocent thing, or a woman as I am.”

One same-sex context the author suggests [that I have some skepticism about] is that as “lust” was personified in these Latin texts as linguistically female. So while discussions of men's temptation were linguistically heterosexual, this usage could lead to discussions in which a female Lust tempted a female virgin, which might have presented ideas to a previously ignorant reader. [I’m not discounting the potential for arbitrarily gendered words to both reflect and shape cultural concepts, I’m just skeptical.]

Continental records of this era, including penitentials and medical manuals, are more explicit about sexual activity between women using manual stimulation or dildos. Some medical manuals even recommend that midwives use stimulation to orgasm in some cases to promote female health.

The literary imagination offered female same-sex relations in works such as John Gower’s version of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe.

The final part of the chapter is focused on the romantic implications of elevated “noble friendships” and is centered almost entirely on men. The discourse around friendship at the time (written entirely by men, of course) considered friendship only possible between equals, and thus impossible between those of the same gender.

After a discussion of male friendships being celebrated on joint grave memorials, there is a brief mention of two examples of female pairs on joint grave memorials. A funeral brass of two women in the mid 15th century commemorates Elizabeth Etchingham and Anne Oxenbridge, two unmarried women of local aristocratic families who were buried and memorialized together, despite 30 years separating their deaths. Another case of female co-burial in 15th century London provides no information about the women other than their names: Joan Isham and Margery Nicoll.

The chapter ends with a discussion of how these close loving friendships were understood at the time. Andreas Capellanus (The Art of Courtly Love) presents the apparently contradictory positions that the love of men for each other (in friendship) is elevated over what they feel for women, but elsewhere he explicitly excludes the possibility that courtly love can exist between people of the same sex. This is not contradictory if you understand “courtly love” to be sublimated sex, but reintroduces ambiguity in analyses that point out that courtly love relationships were often ways for men to create transitive bonds with other men (i.e., with the husband of the woman they are paying court to).

Conclusions

No new information is introduced in the conclusion.

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