Homosexuality in the Middle Ages

Same-sex couples encouraged by devils, from a Bible moralisée (moral Bible) of the 1220s. (Codex Vindobonensis 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna)

In Chivalry & Sorcery 5th Edition we referred briefly to medieval attitudes towards homosexuality and to an active gay scene in the 11th and 12th centuries. This article explores homosexuality in the Middle Ages in more detail. This is a long post, for which I make no apology, and at times contains some frank discussion of sex acts, and of punishments for them. Consider this a content warning.

Sources: how we know

The great French historian Marc Bloch compared the process of finding historical evidence to a hunter looking for tracks. [1] While the tracks left by gay men and women are not necessarily well known to the casual historical reader, they are fairly clear, and since the 1970s there has been a good deal of academic research that has brought them into much sharper focus. This post has extensive footnotes for those who want to follow the tracks themselves.

Primary sources are mostly theological or secular. Theological sources, including moral treatises, theological debates, condemnatory sermons and tracts, advisory letters and penitentials, address sex and sexuality from the perspective of sin and virtue, and frequently discuss same-sex activities (which are always sinful). Secular sources are predominantly legal, either the promulgation of laws or the records of court cases.

In addition, some literary sources survive, primarily poems from Christian, Muslim and Jewish writers. Some are vague, requiring interpretation that may be disputed. But there is a body of poems celebrating same-sex romance and lust which are very clear, and at times positively graphic.

Visual representations are rarer but there are examples in both sculpture and in illustrations from illuminated manuscripts. Since these are usually presented in religious context, they are usually condemnatory.

Medieval views of sexuality

Medieval people – or at least the clerics – regarded sex as something one person did to another, rather than something two people did together. They considered one person was active, the other passive. The active role was masculine, the passive role feminine.

Role reversal was sinful in the eyes of theologians. Perhaps the clearest example of this the discussion of hermaphrodites by French theologian Peter Cantor (died 1197) in his De vitio sodomitico (On the sin of Sodomy):

[T]he church allows a hermaphrodite—that is, someone with the organs of both sexes, capable of either active or passive functions—to use the organ by which (s)he is most aroused or the one to which (s)he is more susceptible.
If (s)he is more active [literally, “lustful”], (s)he may wed as a man, but if (s)he is more passive, (s)he may marry as a woman. If, however, (s)he should fail with one organ, the use of the other can never be permitted, but (s)he must be perpetually celibate to avoid any similarity to the role inversion of sodomy, which is detested by God. [2]

Cantor, writing in Latin, uses neutral pronouns

To a strict theologian, semen was unclean, and the only permissible outlet for it was nocturnal emissions (over which the conscious mind had no control) and procreative sex – and even procreative sex was less praiseworthy than abstinence and chastity.

Despite the emphasis on procreation, the process of human reproduction was utterly misunderstood. Some medieval writers, following the theories of Aristotle, the Old Testament and St Augustine, believed the essential essence of procreation came from men; women were but vessels who held male seed. Another school of thought, following the schools of thought of the classical physicians Hippocrates and Galen, believed both male and female sperm contributed to procreation. Female sperm was released through physical pleasure. [3]

Unnatural acts and the sin of Sodom

The medieval period had no notion equivalent to the modern ideas of homosexuality, of gay men, lesbians or bisexuals. What counted to medieval people was sexual activity, not inclination or sexual identity.

Medieval writers often couched their references to sexual nonconformity in euphemism, and one problem for modern historians is that the meaning of these euphemisms changed over time.

Unnatural acts and the sin of Sodom at times referred to same-sex activities, particularly among men, but at other times referred more broadly to sexual activities that could not end in pregnancy, including solo activities and activities between men and women. Later it came to refer to refer primarily to same sex penetrative acts, but never exclusively so.

At times, role-reversal (a woman taking the active role, such as by being on top), was considered sodomy. William Paraldus (1190-1271) in Summa de Vitiis (Summary on the Vices), classified both heterosexual vaginal intercourse in an unusual position and heterosexual sex involving ejaculation other than in the vagina to be unnatural sex. [4]

Same-sex penetration, therefore, is usually a subset of the sin of Sodom rather than the sin itself.

Homosexual acts were never condoned or approved of by the Church, but at times – notably in the 11th and 12th centuries – they seem to have been regarded as minor sins.

The Early Middle Ages (c. 500–1000 CE)

The early Middle Ages saw a shift away from the social tolerance of the Western Roman Empire – or at least, its cities; the rural population seems to have been much more conservative. Boswell argues that the growing intolerance of same-sex activities was largely driven by secular authorities rather than religious authorities – in other words, that the church was following rather than leading attitudes to same-sex acts. This is disputed by other historians.

Secular views

While the church may have considered them a sin, same-sex acts weren’t criminal in the Roman Empire until the 5th century. Though male prostitution was made illegal in the Western Empire in the 3rd century CE, other forms of male same-sex activity remained legal. Male prostitution remained legal and was taxed in the Eastern Empire until the 6th century.

The Codex Theodosianus of 439, which was enacted in both Eastern and Western Empires, called for those “condemning a man’s body, acting the part of a woman” to be cleansed in “avenging flames” in the sight of the people. [5] It isn’t clear to what extent this was enforced.

However, in the 6th century Justinian enacted laws against homosexuality, calling for strict enforcement of the Theodosian law. Though Justinian (and his successors) cited theological reasons for criminalising homosexuality, blaming homosexual acts for recent earthquakes and famines, there’s no evidence the church instigated, promoted or supported such laws. Nor did the populace.

But they were enforced. At least two bishops were prosecuted under these laws – Isaiah of Rhodes and Alexander, bishop of Diospolis. Johannes Malalus notes in Chronographia that many were convicted under Justinian’s laws, and were castrated. Many died, and those who experienced homosexual desire lived in terror. [6]

In Spain, the Visigoth king Kundasvinth passed a law in 650 ordering those found guilty of male same-sex acts be castrated and handed over to the Church. The Church did not cooperate for 40 years. [7]

No secular laws condemning female homosexual acts were passed during this period. [8]

Religious views

The early (pre-Medieval) Church was somewhat conflicted over what the “sin of Sodom” represented. Early interpretations focused on the Sodomites’ inhospitality towards the angels visiting Lot. But slowly the idea took hold that the sin of Sodom was sexual and, in Aristotelian terms, “unnatural”. This did not necessarily only mean sex between males. St Augustine, in the Confessions (397-400AD) noted that “Sins against nature, therefore, like the sin of Sodom, are abominable and deserve punishment wherever and whenever they are committed.” [9] However his contemporary John Chrystostom, who considered homosexuality worse than other forms of fornication, made no reference to Sodom in his condemnation of sex between males. [10]

Early Christianity considered homosexuality sinful, as with other forms of non-procreational sex, but wasn’t particularly singled out. Leviticus, of course, orders man shall not lie with man as with woman, but early Christian converts didn’t follow Jewish ritual law.[11]

The Penitential of Theodore of Tarsus (Archbishop of Canterbury 668-690) classes all same-sex acts as fornication, along with bestiality, incest and adultery.

2. He judged that he who often commits fornication with a man or with a beast should do penance for ten years.
3. Another judgment is that he who is joined to beasts shall do penance for fifteen years.
4. He who after his twentieth year defiles himself with a male shall do penance for fifteen years.
5. A male who commits fornication with a male shall do penance for ten years.
6. Sodomites shall do penance for seven years, and the effeminate man as an adulteress. [12]

It is not clear from the penitential exactly what Theodore difference saw between ‘fornication between men’ and ‘sodomy’, but it is interesting that sodomy is treated less seriously. Age, as the quoted passage shows, played a factor in the gravity of the sin and later Theodore recommends that boys indulging in same-sex activities need not do penance but should be whipped. Interfemoral sex (rubbing the penis between the thighs) is also treated relatively lightly, with one year’s penance.

For a woman, same-sex activity was considered on a par with masturbation.

12. If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years.
13. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.
14. The penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication. [13]

Theodore considered the worst form of fornication to be ejaculating into another person’s mouth, and he did not care which sex performed oral sex.

15. He who ejaculates into the mouth of another shall do penance for seven years; this is the worst of evils. Elsewhere it was his judgment that both [participants in the offence] shall do penance to the end of life; or twelve years, or as above seven. [14]

The influential Carolingian theologian Hincmar (806-882), friend and advisor of Charles the Bald and Archbishop of Reims from 845, relaxed church attitudes further. While he still considered same-sex acts to be sinful, he explicitly considered sodomy to be akin to all forms of non-procreational sex.

“Therefore let no one claim he has not committed sodomy if he has acted contrary to nature with either man or woman or has deliberately and consciously defiled himself by rubbing, touching, or other improper actions.” [15]

While he was clearly not condoning same-sex acts, his position may have had the inadvertent effect of normalising them to some extent. Hincmar is clear that homosexual acts are merely one of the sins of the Sodomites, and that St Paul’s epistle to the Romans condemns all illicit sexual activity, not just homosexual acts.

Hincmar was also one of the few medieval writers, outside penitentials and court cases, to address lesbian acts.

“They do not put flesh to flesh in the sense of the genital organ of one within the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of the member in question into an unnatural one, in that they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire. Thus they sin nonetheless by committing fornication against their own bodies.” [16]

Those ‘instruments of diabolical operation’ would come to be significant when intolerance arose in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Burchard, bishop of Wurms (c.950-1025), regarded all forms on non-procreational sex as fornication. Unlike Hincmar, he regarded male same-sex acts as less serious than heterosexual fornication – in some cases no more serious than having sex with one’s wife within two weeks of confession. Burchard’s view was significant: he published a twenty-book collection of canon law, the Decretum, which formed the basis of much canon law throughout Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries. [17]

Burchard considered the gravest form of same-sex activity to be anal sex with a married man but recommended a lesser penance for habitual offenders than for a single instance of heterosexual adultery. Burchard’s recommended penances all seem to apply to married men engaging in same-sex activities; same-sex fornication between single men goes unmentioned. [18]

The writings of these two influential churchmen indicate a considerable relaxation of attitudes towards homosexuality in the 9th and 10th centuries which set the stage for a flourishing, if underground, gay scene for the next 150 years.

Ganymede Unbound: the 11th and 12th centuries

In 1051 Peter Damian published the Book of Gomorrah, dedicated to Pope Leo IX, in which he unleashed a vehement condemnation of sodomy – by which he clearly meant same-sex acts, in particular same-sex acts among the clergy.

“Therefore, whether one pollutes only himself, or another by fondling him with his hands, or copulating between the thighs, or even violating him in the rear, regardless of such distinctions he is without a doubt guilty of having committed a sodomitic offense. For we do not read that those residents of Sodom only fell into the rear ends of others, but rather it is to be believed that, following the impulse of unrestrained lust, they carried out their indecencies in various ways on themselves or on others.” [19]

Though Damian was made a cardinal in 1057 (and was canonised after his death), his condemnations appear to have gained little traction with the Papacy. Pope Leo IX acknowledged Damian’s work in the letter Nos humanius agentes (We more humanely) assuring Damian that he was considered an enemy of carnal pollution, but politely declining to follow Damian’s demand that any cleric guilty of homosexual acts be removed from office. [20]

Damian’s vehemence towards same-sex activity among the clergy appears to have been driven by a concern that an underground movement of priests were aspiring to high church office to form what might today be called a “gay mafia”. [21]

He may have had some grounds for this belief. Same-sex acts were particularly associated with clerics throughout the Middle Ages. And in 1098 – three years after he preached the First Crusade – Pope Urban II was asked to consider the promotion of one John as bishop of Orleans. John was known to be the lover of Archbishop Ralph of Tour. Despite an open campaign against the appointment by Ivo of Chartres, including approaching the pope himself, Urban approved John as bishop. The Clunaic reformer Urban, Boswell suggests, was not a man to ignore something about which he felt any outrage. [22]

The case is put even more clearly in the anonymous 12th century poem Helen and Ganymede, a debate between the mythical pair over whether sex with women or sex with men is preferable. In one of his verses extolling the virtues of sex between males, Ganymede proclaims,

We know this activity is accounted worthy by those worthy to be counted;
The people with power and position in the world—
The very censors who decide what is sin and what is allowed—
These men are not immune to the soft thighs of a boy. [23]

The 11th and 12th centuries were a time of growing urbanisation in medieval Europe. Trade increased, and with trade, wealth, allowing the development of urban elites. In this atmosphere of increasing urbanisation and church indifference, a male homosexual subculture developed with enough impact to leave its own words in the historical record.

Some historians have pointed to William Rufus (reigned 1087-1100) and Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) as examples of gay kings of England. Rufus never married; his court was criticised for effeminacy by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis. Roger of Howden famously wrote that Lionheart shared a bed with Philip Augustus of France while they were princes, and the two professed their love for each other. But effeminacy is not homosexuality, and Orderic’s condemnation reads more like a rant about the fashion of the day; and bed sharing was common, and expressions of affection and love between men, particularly those representing noble houses, were frequent and platonic. Any evidence of Rufus’ or Lionheart’s homosexuality is circumstantial, and open to interpretation.

But there is clear evidence of a growing gay subculture in other records. The period saw a flowering of poetry extolling the virtues of youths as objects of desire. These poems were written in both Hebrew and Arabic in Andalusian Spain, and in Latin and vernacular languages in the Christian West.

Whether the youths in question were those we would now consider underage or the term represented young men is disputed. Roth believes the Andalusian poems reflect exactly what they purport: paedophilia. [24] Boswell disagrees, noting that Alcuin of York and St Aelred refer to contemporaries as boys, and the influential Marbod, Bishop of Rennes – clearly an adult – refers to himself as a boy in his poetry. [25]

Nevertheless, the picture of adult men pursuing youths, possibly in their late teens or early 20s, seems to be a common one. In the slang of the time, in keeping with a resurgence of classical literature among the educated classes, these youths are Ganymedes, named for Zeus’ beautiful cup-bearer, or sometimes Frix, possibly after Phrixos, who flew across the Hellespont on the Golden Ram, and occasionally Adonis, the beautiful youth loved by Persephone and Aphrodite. The adult men are Joves. Cruising is referred to as hunting; hunting terminology is widely used. Ludus, the Game, is also used – it may refer to the gay scene in general. The meanings of Wood and Mule are obscure. [26]

Romanesque column capital from the 1120s showing the abduction of Ganyemede by Zeus in the form of an eagle, from the nave of the Basilica of Vezelay, France.

Much of the poetry is romantic:

This vision of a face, radiant and full of beauty,
Kindled with the torch of love the heart of whoever beheld him.
But this boy, so lovely and appealing,
A torment to all who looked upon him,
Was made by nature so cruel and unyielding
That he would die rather than yield to love.

Marbod, Bishop of Rennes, The Unyielding Youth

Other poems are much more direct.

Venus kindles all fires, but the greatest heat
Is in sex with males; whoever has tried it knows it.

Anonymous 12th or 13th century manuscript

The anonymous poem quoted above even has a verse directed at what we’d now call closeted homophobes.

Many you will find for whom the boyish sin is execrable in words
But who do not dislike the deed.
The more they detest it with their words
—to hide what they love and freely do—
The more they indulge it in their acts.

Anonymous 12th or 13th century manuscript

Male prostitution – aimed at men – flourished in several cities. One 12th-century poem condemning homosexuality names several French cities which had male brothels.

Let Chartres and Sens perish, where Adonis sells himself
According to the law of the brothel, where males are prostituted.
A noble city, a unique city infected with these evils,
Paris rejoices to wed a young master.
You are more depraved than all of these, Orléans;
You perish holding the title for this crime.

All of the poems quoted are taken from Boswell (see footnotes)

The poems extolling the praises of youths and the joys of sex between males are rich in classical allusions – by literate, educated men, often churchmen, often wealthy – and give the impression of a cultured gay elite. Did poorer, less educated men, not given to expressing their thoughts in rhyme, also frequent such male brothels? It seems very unlikely they could survive in business without regular custom, and court records of a century or two later include defendants form the lower orders.

While some of the poets do seem to have been exclusively gay (in modern terms) others may have been bisexual. There is little doubt that the revulsion for woman Ganymede professes in Helen and Ganymede marks him as exclusively gay, though he is a literary invention:

“It is not a monstrous thing, if we avoid the monster:
The yawning cave and the sticky bush,
The hole whose stink is worse than anything else in the world,
The cavern which neither pole nor oar should approach.” [27]

Lesbian activities

Embracing women joined together by a devil, from a 14th century Bible moralisee. (Bibliotheque Nationale MS Francais 9561)

The early-13th-century female troubadour Bieiris de Romans, a small Rhone city, wrote a poem in Provencal professing her love for an otherwise unkown woman named Maria. After praising her crush’s intelligence, beauty and charm, Brieisis continues:

Thus I pray you, if it please you that true love
and celebration and sweet hunility
should bring me such relief with you,
if it please you, lovely woman, then give me
that which most hope and joy promises
for you to lie in my desire and in my heart
and from you stems all my happiness,
and because of you I’m often sighing.

And because merit and beauty raise you high
above all others (for none surpasses you),
I pray you, please, by this which does you honour
don’t grant your love to a deceitful suitor.

Lovely woman, whom joy and noble speech uplift,
and merit, to you my stanzas go,
for in you are gaiety and happiness,
and all good things one could ask of a woman.

Bieiris de Romans [28]

Karras mentions other poems between women of a more romantic, rather than explicit, nature. [29] For clearer evidence we are therefore forced to examine lesbian acts through the eyes of male authors, generally those of disapproving religious or secular authorities. This is clearly not ideal.

We mentioned Hincmar’s 9th century reference to lesbian acts, and the use of ‘instruments of diabolical operation’ earlier. The use of dildos appears to have aroused ire among the moralists. While other acts between women were treated relatively lightly in penitentials, and mocked in poetry, a woman using a dildo on her lover was assuming the role of a man, and this was classed as sodomy.

Karras notes that between 10% and 15% of women in Northern Europe never married (the figure was lower elsewhere). While some were nuns, and others may have been spinsters through circumstances rather than choice, a large number simple chose not to marry, though it is impossible to say whether they simply preferred to remain outside a husband’s control or whether they preferred women. Even women who lived together may have been friends or housemates, rather than lovers. [30]

Only 12 court cases of sex between women have so far been discovered. [31] Karras suggests this may have been because men did not regard non-penetrative sex as really sex, and quotes a mocking poem by Etienne de Fougeres, chaplain to King Henry II of England and later Bishop of Rennes, who died in 1178:

These ladies have made up a game:
with two bits of nonsense they make nothing;
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker stir up their fire.
They don’t play at “poke in the paunch,”
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They have no concern for a beam in their scales,
nor a handle in their mold.
Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.

Some women did enjoy a pestle in their mortar. One anonymous medieval writer said the wives of Italian merchants used dildos on each other while their husbands were away to avoid pregnancy. But when dildos were involved, authorities regarded the matter much more seriously. A woman named Katherina Hetzeldorfer was put to death in the Rhineland town of Speyer in 1477. Women testified that she wished to “have her manly way” with them, “exactly like a man with a woman”. Hetzeldorfer herself admitted that she used a piece of wood she held between her legs, and had made a leather instrument, stuffed with cotton and stiffened by a piece of wood. [32]

In some of the cases, the women condemned for using dildos also dressed as men. This was also taboo role-reversal, though women’s cross-dressing need not be sexual – Karras notes women might dress as men to avoid sexual violence while travelling, or to gain access to male institutions, such as the woman who disguised herself as a man to study at a university in Krakow in the 15th century, or the many female saints who entered monasteries disguised as men. [33]

The one instance in which female same-sex activity was condoned was in medical procedures. Under the Galenist school of thought, both man and women produced sperm, but women’s sperm was dangerous, and a build-up of it could cause anxiety, fainting fits and in extreme cases death. Since women’s sperm was released only through physical pleasure, the 14th century Oxford physician John of Gaddesden recommended women unable to have sex, and for whom foreign travel or vigorous exercise had failed to relieve the symptoms, be stimulated by a midwife. [34]

If she has a fainting fit, the midwife should insert a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb and move it vigorously about.

However, medical procedures, no matter how salacious they seem, remain medical procedures.

Brother-making: same-sex union?

The Eastern Orthodox church had a rite called adelphopoiesis, or brother-making, from the Greek adelphos, brother, and poieth, I make, which was practised from at least the 9th century and into the early 20th century. A similar rite was practised in the Roman Catholic church up to the 14th century.

The rite united two people of the same sex, usually but not always men, marking them as spiritual brothers. Several saints were known to have undergone this rite, forming ‘sacred pairs’ including Saints Sergios and Bacchus, and Saints Cosmos and Damian.

Boswell, in his 1994 book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, argued that brother-making would be better translated as ‘same-sex union’, that the rite was equivalent to marriage, and held a romantic nature, and “probably, sometimes” became sexual, though he noted this was difficult to prove.

This interpretation is controversial, and while it has had some support, Brundage, another expert in the field of medieval sexuality, noted “the mainstream reaction was that he raised interesting questions but failed to prove his case.” [35]

While adolphopoiesis may not have been church-sanctioned same-sex union, there was a non-religious contract, affrerement (also brother-making) in late medieval Mediterranean France which joined the two parties for life, allowing them to hold land and raise families together.

Non-nuclear households constituted more than half the population of late medieval and early modern Mediterranean Europe. Affrerement bound the parties to live together, sharing “one bread, one wine and one purse” in a formally notarised contract. While married couples often entered such agreements to form extended families, the parties were sometimes unrelated, single and under 25. Such a contract would give “plausible deniability” for sexual union. Similar contracts were known in Spain, and in Italy, where it may have originated and where it was known as affratellamento. [36]

Affrerement contracts, which did not occur in Northern France or England, could be limited by time (a 16th century document notes the contract would last six years). Such contracts were documented as early as 11th century Spain and 12th century Mediterranean France, becoming more common in the later medieval period, from the mid-14th century, possibly as a result of the upheavals of the Black Death, and into the 16th and 17th centuries. [37]

Church authorities and the majority of historians do not consider that the rite of adelphopoiesis was gay marriage, but used to cement alliances or, as one historian puts it, were like “ritualised agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other ‘men of honour’ in our own time.” [38]

It seems unlikely that the church would have sanctioned same-sex sexual unions. Sodomy remained a sin throughout the period, and even if the church at times turned a blind eye to it, this is far from blessing such unions in church. Affrerement, however, which was relatively common in Mediterranean Europe, may have served as a cover for sexual unions, or even polyamory, since it sometimes covered large households, including married couples.

The rise of intolerance

In the late 12th century, Peter Cantor, chanter at Notre Dame in Paris, compared sodomy with murder – two sins, he wrote in De vitio sodomitica (The Sin of Sodomy), that made Earth cry out to Heaven. In the same tract, he also interpreted Romans 1:25–26 as referring to homosexuality. He made it clear that he considered “sodomy” to refer to gay sex.

Around the same time the Third Lateran Council (1179) passed strictures against sodomy. Canon 11 finally acceded to Peter Damian’s demand of a century earlier that clerics who committed “unnatural vice” be expelled from church orders or confined in monasteries to do penance, and that laypersons should be excommunicated. [39]

The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 did not specifically mention sodomy, but passed a stricture against clerical indulgence in “every vice involving lust”, ordering that any prelate, such as a bishop or abbot, who supported such sinners was to suffer the same punishment as the sinner. [40]

Medieval society was becoming less tolerant of non-conformity in general, not only of sexual non-conformists. Religious fanaticism raised by the Crusades saw Jews massacred and ostracised and (with Fourth Lateran) barred from offices and forced to wear distinctive clothing. Muslims were also forced to wear distinctive clothing. Heresy became a major concern for the Church, and lepers, formerly pitied and feared, became reviled as the disease became considered an outward representation of sin. [41]

Frequently such reviled non-conformism became conflated – Jews were reported to conspire with lepers to poison water; heresy and sex between men were often closely associated in the later medieval mind. Indeed, our word “bugger” derives from Bulgar – Bulgaria was home the Manichean heresy, whose adherents were widely rumoured to participate in male sex acts.

The sin of sodomy became regarded more seriously – no longer simple fornication, but punished with penances equating to bestiality, incest and murder.

Alongside religious restrictions, secular authorities passed laws against sodomy and same-sex activity. In many cases, it was punishable by death at the stake. The first such laws were passed in the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century, with other Western kingdoms following suit in the 13th century. [42]

It’s difficult to say how many sodomy prosecutions took place in later medieval Europe. For the early modern period, Tulchin believes laws were “relatively unenforced” in the later 16th and 17th centuries, noting fewer than 10 prosecutions a year in Aragon, a kingdom of around one million people where the Inquisition was scrupulous in its interrogations and record-keeping, and one or two a year in Paris between 1564 and 1639. Nor was the death penalty often applied – 10 per cent of convicts were sentenced to death in Aragon, with another 30 per cent sentenced to the galleys. [43]

Nevertheless, the tide had turned. Prosecutions did take place, and death sentences were sometimes imposed. City authorities passed laws against male brothels, and gay poems disappear from the record.

By 1307 Phillip le Bel of France could use accusations of homosexuality and heresy as an excuse to bring down one of the most powerful organisations of the medieval West: the Knights Templar. A few years later, in 1311, King James II of Aragon used a charge of sodomy to bring to heel a fractious noble, Count Pons Hugh of Ampurias, and seize his lands. [44]

In both cases the cases were led by political interests and did not initially have the support of the church until the charges of sodomy resulted on loss of papal support.

Nevertheless, same-sex activity continued. Florence became renowned for its gay subculture in the 14th and 15th centuries, prompting the late medieval German slang “floretzen” for sexual intercourse between men, and prompting a series of fiery condemnations from St Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), who considered sins against nature the worst of all forms of sin, saying the mere thought of sodomy filled his soul with the horrible stench. He wrote that sodomy was so common as to be an epidemic. [45]

Muslim attitudes

The Quran and the hadith are clear in condemning adultery, which is defined very specifically as vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman who is neither his wife nor his concubine. But though both male and female same-sex acts are sinful in Islam, the Quran and Hadith (the sayings of the Phrophet Mohammed, PBUH) do not indicate a particular punishment, meaning the attitudes of Muslim societies to homosexuality are reflective of that particular society rather than of religion. attitudes were rather more relaxed in the Middle Ages; the sin was considered minor and some same-sex relationships – particuarly lesbian relationships – were praised by poets and chroniclers. [46]

In fact, Muslim attitudes in the medieval period were so tolerant that they were cited as evidence of the morality superiority of Christianity by Christian theologians. [47] Muslim writers did not view sex as shameful or only for procreation, as the Christian writers did, but as a healthy, licit and desirable activity. [48]

The most eminent medieval Muslim to enjoy same-sex activity was the Abbasid Caliph Al-Amin (Abu Musa Muhammad ibn Harun al-Rashid), who ruled from 809-813. Al-Amin was known for his sexual interest in court enunuchs, which his mother Zubayda attempted to divert by having short-haired, androgynous young slave girls dressed in turbans and male clothing. Asa result, ghulamiyyat (cross-dressed slave girls) became fashionably popular in 9th-century Baghdad. [49]

There is a rich trove of erotic Arabic love-poems by male poets addressed to young men or boys. Mutual attraction between men was considered normal and natural, and no laws forbade expressing same-sex sentiment, even if they forbade same-sex acts act. [50]

If male homosexuality was tolerated, lesbianism was accepted, even lauded. The 14th-century writer Ibn Falita, author of Rushd al-labib Ha mu Kasharat (An Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Art of Coition), wrote, “Know that lesbianism insures against social disgrace, coition is forbidden except through marriage.” [51]

Lesbian couples were known and praised in epci poems. Medeival Muslims believed the first lesbian couple was Hind bint Al-Nu’man, the Christian daughter of a 7th-century king of Hira, and Hind bint Al-Kuss Al-Iyadiyyah, known as Al-Zarqa’, from Yamama, Arabia. Their enduring love was praised. After al-Zarqa’s death, bint Al-Nu’man founded a monastery named after her lover, and stayed at its gate until her own death. The 10th-century writer Al-Nadim lists 12 named lesbian couples, including and Al-Zarqa’ and Bint Al Nu’man, in Al-Fihrist (The Catalogue). [52]

Arab medical writers – male writers, of course – believed lesbianism was due a hot itch in the genitals that could only be cured by rubbing clitoris to clitoris (heterosexual sex was ineffective, as “heat connot be overcome by heat”, whereas lesbian sex produced a cold orgasm). The 13th-century Tunisian poet Shihab Al-Din Ahmad Al-Tifashi offers a detailed description of the positions two women must assume to perform what he dubbed the “saffron massage” – what we’d now call tribbing or scissoring. Al-Tifashi also wrote about a community of lesbians headed by a woman named Rose. A 15th-century traveller, Leo Africanus, wrote about another lesbian community in Fez; though he wrote in Latin, he uses the medieval Arabic term for lesbians, suhaqiyat (rubbers). [53]


The evidence for same-sex activities before, during and after the Middle Ages is incontrovertible. While such activity was always considered a sin, it was not always regarded as a very serious sin, nor was it always actively investigated.

The general view that homosexuality wasn’t tolerated in the Middle Ages applies primarily to the later Middle Ages, from the 13th century onwards; this was something of a backlash to the more permissive urban life of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Even during the permissive centuries, however, same-sex acts were best pursued with some discretion.


[1] Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft, trans. Peter Putnam (1954, reprinted Manchester University Press, 1992), p. 48.
[2] John Boswell, 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, 1980, anniversary edition 2015), p. 375.
[3] William Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity and the Law in Medieval Literature: France and England 1050-1230 (Cambridge University Press, 2004, Kindle Edition), loc. 538.
[4] Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (Routledge, third edition, 2017), p. 185.
[5] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (Hamish Hamilton, 1979, reprinted Sutton, 2004) p. 200.
[6] Boswell, op. cit., p. 172.
[7] McCall, op. cit., p. 203.
[8] McCall, op. cit. p. 203.
[9] St. Augustine, Confessions, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin Classics, 1965), p. 65.
[10] McCall, op. cit., p. 200.
[11] Boswell, op. cit., p. 102
[12] Quoted from Patrick J. Geary (ed), Readings in Medieval History (University of Toronto Press, 5th edition, 2016), p. 216.
[13] Ibid, p. 217.
[14] Ibid, p. 217.
[15] Boswell, op. cit., p203.
[16] Boswell, op.cit., p204.
[17] Boswell, op.cit., p205.
[18] Boswell, op.cit., p205.
[19] Peter Damian, The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption, trans. Matthew Cullinan Hoffman (Ite ad Thomam Books and Media, 2015), pp. 141-142.
[20] Boswell, op.cit., p. 211, with full translation of Nos humanius agentes pp. 364-366.
[21] Burgwinkle, op. cit., loc. 836.
[22] Boswell, op.cit., p. 214.
[23] Boswell, op. cit., p. 385.
[24] Norman Roth, “The Fawn of My Delights”: Boy-Love in Hebrew and Arabic Verse, published in Joyce E. Salisbury (ed). Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays (Garland, 1991), p 162.
[25] Boswell, op. cit., p30.
[26] Boswell, op. cit., pp252-253.
[27] Boswell, op. cit., pp. 387.
[28] Meg Bogin, The Female Troubadours (WW Norton & Co, 1980) pp. 132-133.
[29] Karras, op. cit.. p. 149.
[30] Karras, op. cit. p. 148.
[31] Karras, op. cit., p. 151.
[32] Karras, op. cit., pp. 152 &154.
[33] Karras, op. cit., p. 152.
[34] Henrietta Leyser, Medieval Women: Social History Of Women In England 450-1500 (Orion, 1995, Kindle Edition 2013), loc. 1663.
[35] David W. Dunlap, John E. Boswell, 47, Historian Of Medieval Gay Culture, Dies, (New York Times, obituary, Dec 25 1994), NYT online archive.
[36] Allan A. Tulchin, Same-Sex Couples Creating Households in Old Regime France: The Uses of the Affrerement (Journal of Modern History, September 2007), archived at Academia.edu.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Dunlap, op. cit.
[39] The Third Lateran Council, at Papal Encyclicals Online.
[40] The Fourth Lateran Council, at Papal Encyclicals Online.
[41] RI Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950–1250 (Blackwell, second edition, 2007).
[42] Boswell, op. cit. p 281.
[43] Tulchin, op. cit., p. 642.
[44] James A. Brundage, Politics of Sodomy: Rex v. Pons Hugh de Ampurias (1311), published in Joyce E. Salisbury (ed). Sex in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays (Garland, 1991)
[45] Karras, op. cit., p. 190.
[46] Sahar Amer, Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 (May 2009), pp. 215-236
[47] Sabine Schmidtke, Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Islam: A Review Article, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999)
[48] Amer, op. cit. p. 222.
[49] Amer, op. cit. p. 227.
[50] Schmidtke, op. cit. p. 260.
[51] Amer, op. cit.
[52] Amer, op. cit. pp. 218-219.
[53] Amer, op. cit. pp. 216-217, 220-221.

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