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LHMP #138e Mills 2015 Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages Chapter 4 The Sex Lives of Monks

Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

This is an in-depth study of the visual cues and visual representations of the concept of “sodomy” in medieval manuscripts and art, using the definition of that concept at the time, not the more specific modern sense. Mills looks at how gender and sexuality interact and challenges the perception that there was no coherent framework for understanding gender and sexual dissidence in the middle ages. The topics covered include images associated with the label “sodomite”, gender transformations and sex changes (especially in Ovid), and sexual relations in closed communities (such as religious houses). The analysis includes a consideration of the relevance of modern categories to the study of medieval culture.

Chapter 4 The Sex Lives of Monks

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Because monasticism is assumed to preclude sex, historians often work to desexualize passionate language used by medieval monastic writers, for example, in the context of writing about friendship. Language and actions that could be interpreted erotically are depicted as purely conventional, for example, possible interpretations of kissing on the mouth. Historians may claim that the erotic implications of the texts are “projected” by modern minds onto a “less erotically pre-occupied society.” The “passionate” aspect of passionate friendship is treated as conventional expressions of the genre and not as genuine emotion.

Mills agrees that we shouldn’t view the language as arising out of a heterosexual/homosexual binary, but neither was the division between word and act necessarily that clear cut. He suggests we shouldn’t privilege genital activity as the only form of erotic desire that “counts as sexuality.” [Note: This is a concern I raised repeatedly when covering Faderman 1981.]

Both anti-clerical satires and internal church auditors attributed active sexuality to monks. The 11th century saw programs of “moral and religious revitalization” (e.g., the Gregorian reforms) that, among other things, attempted to restore original ideals of clerical celibacy. This included rules against marriage and concubinage among the clergy and monastics (of both genders). Close (passionate) friendships were also considered suspect. Mills examines these movements, not in terms of physical intimacy, but of a struggle between maintaining and failing to maintain chastity.

Saints’ lives that focused on erotic elements could produce a “counter-erotic” rather than a non-erotic response in readers. That is, an intensification of desire through the denial of that desire. Rather than ignoring the potential for pleasure (erotic or non-erotic), the stories display a pursuit of the pleasures of frustration, refusal, and pain. That is: asceticism is a type of sensual gratification on its own. (Mills has a lot of fun with word play in this chapter, e.g., coming up with the term “cloistrophobia”.)

Ascetic practices were often seen as a response to, and control of, the experience of erotic desire. They often contributed to clerical misogyny by framing temptation as female. That is, temptation is personified as an assertive and sexually voracious woman. But at the same time, other writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux presented physical love as a “translation” exercise for understanding divine love, as in the Song of Songs. Mills compares this with Boswell’s discussion of how medieval writers used Classical models of friendship to discuss same-sex (male) desire in a way that could bypass moral stigma. This type of “translation” provided a context for representing and examining same-sex desire in a monastic context.

The next part of the chapter discusses a series of sculptures at the monastic church of Vézeley in France, added when it was rebuilt in the 1220-1230s. Local legend rumored it to be the burial site of Mary Magdalene, a symbol of change and penitence. This story may have been useful to the church in attracting visits from pilgrims on the road to Compostela. [Note: I find this claim a bit odd given how far Vézeley is from Spain, but I haven't double-checked against the regular pilgrim routes coming, e.g., from Germany.]

Despite the association with Mary Magdalene, the only female saint represented in the series of sculptures on the capitals in the nave is Eugenia, one of the genre of “transvestite saints”. [As a brief background: there are a number of legends of female saints set in the early Christian period in which a woman disguises herself as a man to take up a monastic life, sometimes enduring accusations of (male) unchastity, sometimes only revealed after death. See the "transvestite saint" tag for more entries on this topic.]

Eugenia is said to have lived in the 2nd century in Alexandria and disguised herself as a man in order to enter a monastery to live a religious life, against the wishes of her father, a local judge. As a monk, she attracted the desire of a wealthy widow who came to Eugenia for healing. Spurned, the widow accused Eugenia of rape and brought her to trial before Eugenia’s father. During the trial, Eugenia revealed her gender as proof of her innocence. This action inspired others to convert to Christianity.

Attitudes toward cross-dressing could be mixed. The transvestite saints often began their disguise in one of the contexts where writers such as Hildegard of Bingen (reluctantly) condoned it, e.g., to escape danger or preserve chastity. When done in the service of chastity, cross-dressing wasn’t considered transgressive. (In many of the transvestite saint legends, the initial disguise is to escape an unwanted suitor/marriage.)

Images of Eugenia rarely focus on the cross-dressing aspects, but those that do may show a tonsured figure baring a breast. The sculpture at Vézeley is one such rare case. It shows a short-haired, tonsured figure in the act of being about to open the top of their robe, positioned between the figures of the judge and the accuser, who are depicted with clear signifiers of male and female gender respectively. In this case, we have only the potential for Eugenia to show a bare breast. Other female sculptures at Vézeley do show bare breasts: a depiction of Eve, a woman being molested by a demon, and a figure representing Lust. So elsewhere we see bared breasts associated with sin and lust, while Eugenia is shown just before the exposure, possibly representing her rejection of desire and embrace of chastity.

As noted earlier, in men, effeminacy could be seen as representing carnality and worldliness, whereas women are seen as more “perfect” and virtuous the more they reject female roles of wife and mother. Faith and virtue and even chastity are depicted as inherently “virile” characteristics. Women must “become men” to achieve spiritual perfection. In the story of Eugenia, the widow Melantia represents inappropriate desire, not only in desiring at all, but (as an older woman) in desiring a person whom she believes to be a youth, and in desiring a monk at all, but also in desiring someone who in reality is a woman. In representing Melantia as having these inappropriate desire, the monks viewing the sculpture may have been intended to turn away from not only the superficial form of the desire (male/female) but the substance of the object (someone appearing to be a young male monk).

The depiction on another nave capital at Vézeley of the abduction of Ganymede by an eagle (Zeus) is less obviously of Christian significance, although medieval depictions of this episode are not uncommon. [Mills has an extended discussion of the context in which young boys entered monasteries, and of examples of homoerotic poetry written by monks. I skip over it only because of the lack of relevance to the current project.] Mills compares the sequence and arrangement of the Vézeley capitals to the sequential illustrations of the Bibles Moralisés, particularly in how the eye is led to make multiple comparisons and connections between them. The chapter concludes with further discussion of age-difference erotics both in the monastic and secular realms in the middle ages, and how the theme of clerical pederasty has continued as both a preoccupation and a reality though the centuries into modern times.

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