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Medieval Sodomites: I know you are, but what am I?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 - 07:00

One tricky problem in trying to identify homoerotic practices in the pre-modern West is the rhetorical layer in which accusations of sodomy (or, at times, tribadry) were used as a generic insult or strategic accusation in contexts where actual specific sexual practices may have been irrelevant. Thus, in a context where two groups (Lollards and orthodox writers) simultaneously charge each other with sodomy, are we to look for shades of meaning and context in which both charges might be literally true? Or do we treat it similarly to a modern schoolyard insult in which an agreed on disparagement of homosexuality is communicated but the practice of it by specific individuals is not the point?

One thing that we can glean from the Lollards' detailed explanation of why they were concerned with clerical sodomy are the distinctions they make between men and women in the accusation. In addition to a belief that "idolatry" (as the Lollards conceived it) led to sodomy, or that it was a consequence of "foreign" influence, they expressed a concern that the gender-segregation inherent in the priesthood, and present in monastic houses, would result in same-sex erotics due to a need to fulfil the sex drive. But while they asserted that “men who are averse to relations with women” (with an implication that they are not at all averse to relations with men) might be specifically drawn to a religious life, the framing of women's desires is entirely about "making do" when men are not available. There is no acknowledgement that women might be attracted to the convent specifically because they were "averse to relations with men."

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Full citation: 

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2365-6

Chapter 1: Lollards, Sodomites, and Their Accusers

When the Lollards posted their manifesto on the doors of Westminster in 1395, one of the themes was railing against sodomites, especially in the clergy. Given that sodomy was traditionally charged against heretics (such as the Lollards), was this intended as a literal accusation or only a sort of general defaming? The intersection of these motifs--Lollards and sodomites--is the topic of this chapter.

The Lollards, though of diverse nature, were concerned with church reform, especially of clerical privilege and misbehavior. Sodomy is reference in their accusations as a consequence of the requirement for clerical celibacy. (That is, the believed that enforced celibacy resulted in practicing sodomy.) But among the practices they objected to were the concept of the priesthood itself, transubstantiation (i.e., conversion of the Host to the body of Christ), pilgrimages, and prayers for the dead.

Lollards identified themselves as “we poor men” and presented themselves as a community concerned with secular as well as sacred ills. Among their concern, accusations of sodomy are persistent, if not as numerous as concerns with simony and idolatry. There is also a strain of nationalism in Lollard rhetoric that frames sodomy (among other things) as a foreign practice (by ethnic or racial “others”)  and as something that could (and should) be eliminated by rejecting foreigners.

Idolatry and sodomy were causally linked in their arguments via Paul’s letter to the Romans, where idolatry is presented as the cause of God “giving them up to same-sex relations.” By similar logical connections, sodomy is linked to murder, simony, leprosy, and heresy.

But opponents of the Lollards, in turn, included sodomy in accusations against them, though it was not a common or universal accusation and may have simply come from a general conflation of heresy and sodomy. In this specific instance, sodomy may be no more than a mocking echo of the Lollards own accusations against the clergy. This sort of “I know you are, but what am I?” rhetoric drains the word of specificity and shifts it to a generalized insult.

The Lollards argumentation is that the requirement for clerical celibacy results in gender-segregated institutions which result in same sex activity due to the need to resolve sexual desire. But they also noted that men who are averse to relations with women (implying that such a--possibly innate--preference existed) are thus drawn to clerical life. But these supposedly logical arguments only raise more complicated questions about the nature of desire and sexuality.

(The chapter moves into discussion of other Lollard concerns such as transubstantiation.)

The Lollard objection to celibacy was not restricted to men, but anxiety about women’s vows takes a different form. Again, the basic concern is that if women do not have a heterosexual sexual outlet, they will turn to having sex with themselves (either in the sense of masturbation, or in the sense of with other women) or with irrational beasts, or with inanimate objects. This is contrasted as being even worse than other female-coded, sexually-related sins such as infanticide and contraception. But the worst such sin is the sort of lechery they “will not name..for it might do harm to clean hearts.” I.e., naming it might give women ideas. For both men and women, lechery was thought to be caused by an imbalance of humors due to indulgence in rich foods, so the urge toward sexual sins was tied up with general railing against “luxury.”

The idea of exactly how women might engage in sex without men is fuzzy. It assumes the need for a penis-substitute and for an “active” partner. For women, the Lollard recommendation to resolve this is to provide a heterosexual alternative (e.g., marrying off widows and nuns). There is no suggestion of a parallel to the “men who are averse to relations with women”, i.e., that some women might be drawn to a cloistered life due to antipathy toward men in general.

Stepping back, the Lollard concerns around sexuality are little different from orthodox ones, differing perhaps only in the suggested remedy. From the point of view of sexual “deviants,” dissent and orthodoxy look very much alike.

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