Episode 23: Pride and Medieval Sexuality
Updated: Nov 26, 2021
We’re stepping away from our usual texts this week in order to celebrate Pride month and to take a look at the lives of queer individuals in the Middle Ages. Because homosexuality and queerness were marginalized and prosecuted, there are few records of queer individuals during the medieval period.
Nota Bene: trigger warning and explicit warning for uncomfortable and specific discussion surrounding medieval sexuality, prosecution, and pederasty.
This week, we’re discussing four case studies of queerness during the Middle Ages. Before diving into the texts, however, we’d like to note that Queer Studies is a relatively new field and neither Mac nor Zoe are experts on the topic.
Further, queerness is not relegated solely to sexuality, particularly in the Middle Ages. Because terms like “lesbian” and “transgender” did not exist, it can be difficult for scholars to properly identify queerness or understand how queer individuals self-identified. Given these complications, we will strive to respectfully and properly understand these individuals and their lives.
Additionally, it is important to understand that “homosexuality” as a word was not used in the Bible until the RSV edition first published in 1946. The words replaced by the term “homosexuality” originally referred to practices of grooming, rape, and pederasty. None of them refer to healthy, consensual same-sex relations. Despite this context, Christian authorities continued to condemn homosexuality because of its associations with Greek and Roman pederastic practices.
With this context in mind, let’s look at our first case study of homosexual expression: a lesbian love poem. Entitled “Among the Trobairitz,” this poem was written by Bieiris de Romans (i.e. Beatrice of Romans). We used Samantha Pious’ beautiful translation, which you can read for yourself in our references below.
As Pious notes, the expressions of love and details of admirable traits make up the “perfect love” which troubadours sought to convey. While some scholars argue that Bieiris was simply taking on the role of a man writing a love poem to a woman, this argument is simply an assertion without much backing from the text itself. Likewise, others argue that the text is religious in nature, since the beloved in the poem is Maria. These other scholars assert that Bieiris is writing a religious poem addressed to the Virgin Mary. This, too, is an assertion with little backing to the text. We suggest that readers consider their impressions if a male had written the poem: would you read it as a love poem or a religious poem?
Diminishing the possibility of a lesbian relationship during the Middle Ages is not uncommon; in fact, some medievals did not even consider lesbianism possible! The scholars and theologians who considered homosexuality were almost exclusively heterosexual males, and many could not fathom why a woman would want to be with another woman sexually.
As Brown notes in her study of medieval lesbianism, sex was largely phallocentric. Thus, lesbian sexual relations were largely considered akin to masturbation, unless an “instrument” was used. Further, the woman who took on the “topping” or “masculine” role of the relationship would be more harshly punished than her bottoming partner, who retained her “female” role in the relationship. Any infringement upon the “natural order” was therefore punished.
Such punishment was not confined to female relationships, as Dante’s Inferno illustrates. In Canto 15, Dante visits a circle of hell where sinners are punished for “violence.” The sodomites are here for their “violence against nature,” and Dante includes his own mentor among them. Despite being fond of his mentor, Dante acknowledges that his sodomy results in his punishment in Hell. Dante also goes on to ask who else is here for sodomy that he knows, and his mentor replies that there would be far too many to name, especially those men of letters and clerks.
This observation fits with later Medieval and Renaissance conceptions of homosexuality. During this time, classical sources were rediscovered, which also resulted in an increase in pederastic practice. These relationships privileged older, wealthy males who could take advantage of their younger proteges. Once again due to the phallocentric view of sex during the Middle Ages, the “topping” partner (almost always the older man) did not demean himself as much as the “bottoming” partner, who took the more effeminate role, and was often younger.
However, not all homosexual relationships at this time were pederastic. Some were consensual, healthy, and loving relationships; however, these cases were not often recorded since pederasty, while fairly common, remained illegal and was therefore more often prosecuted.
Our final two cases involve genderqueer individuals who identified as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. The first case study is the legal prosecution of John/Eleanor Rykener, who was arrested for prostitution while dressed as a woman and addressing themselves as Eleanor. The case describes a variety of relationships wherein Rykener appeared to pass as both male and female, though more often female. While the case condemns both prostitution and sodomy, it appears that the court was altogether flummoxed about the manner of Rykener’s crimes - was it homosexual, just sodomy, or some combination thereof? The case is unclear, and the original translator of the record passed it over without referencing any queerness whatsoever. This case study serves as an excellent example of why primary source documents and accounts from queer individuals are so important to history.
The other case comes from the Lives of Saints, and is that of Saint Mary, who chose to call herself Marinos. When her father chose to take on holy orders, Mary opted to join him in the monastery. At this time, there were no joint monasteries, so Mary cut her hair, dressed as a monk, and chose the name Marinos. As a monk, Marinos was incredibly devout and blessed with the gift of healing. To explain their high voice and lack of facial hair, Marinos explained they were a eunuch. While out one day gathering groceries, Marinos stayed at an inn where the innkeeper’s daughter was “deflowered” by a soldier in the inn. The girl blamed Marinos for her pregnancy, and her father stormed to the monastery to curse Marinos as a false Christian.
The Father Superior questioned Marinos, and when Marinos chose to falsely confess, rather than reveal their hidden sex, the Father expelled Marinos from the order. Marinos lived outside the monastery walls, and when the daughter gave birth, the innkeeper cast the child to Marinos. Marinos raised the child and was eventually brought back into the monastery. When Marinos died unexpectedly, the other monks realized Marinos’ sex and called the Father Superior, who confessed that he had falsely cast Marinos from the order. Marinos was entombed as Mary despite their choice to live devoutly as a monk, rather than a nun.
These cases reveal that the suppression of sexual and gender identity not only limit the acceptance of individuals but also limit their expression and personal freedom. Without the language to identify themselves, these individuals carved an identity for themselves in and incredibly black-and-white world that refused to honor how they lived and identified. Queerness and homosexuality became “the unmentionable vice” due to legal, religious, and social pressures that often conflated immoral practices with homosexual relationships. These views still exist in our world today, and we hope that by exploring these texts, we bring to light the misunderstandings and maladaptions that have plagued Western social practice for millennia.
Due to the serious nature of this topic, we are not giving this episode a rating.
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Project Gutenburg, 1997. Link.
Bieiris de Romans, Among the Trobairitz. Trans. Samantha Pious. Lunch Ticket. Link.
Constas, Nicholas, translator. "Life of St. Mary/Marinos." Holy Women of Byzantium: Ten Saints' Lives in English Translation, edited by Alice-Mary Talbot, Dumbarton Oaks, 1996, pp.1-12.
Boyd, David Lorenzo, and Karras, Ruth Mazo. “The Interrogation of a Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London.” GLQ, vol. 1, no. 4, 1995, pp. 459–465.
Brown, Judith C. "Lesbian Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Europe." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New American Library, 1989. pp. 67-75.
Goodrich, Michael "Sodomy in Medieval Secular Law." Journal of Homosexuality,1:3, 1976. pp. 295-302. Link.
Hollywood, Amy. “The Normal, the Queer, and the Middle Ages.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 10, no. 2, 2001, pp. 173–179. Link.
Linkinen, Tom. “Silencing the Unmentionable Vice.” Same-Sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2015, pp. 85–110. Link.
Saslow, James M. "Homosexuality in the Renaissance: Behavior, Identity, and Artistic Expression." Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New American Library, 1989. pp. 90-105.
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