Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5
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.
Introduction: Jerome in a Dress
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Around 1408 the Limbourg brothers (who created some of the most fabulous illuminated manuscripts of the 15th century) created a Book of Hours for the Duc de Berry. In the section covering the life of Saint Jerome, it includes a depiction of a “practical joke” where Jerome was tricked into putting on a woman’s dress without realizing it. The illustration shows Jerome being mocked for wearing women’s clothes, highlighting the incongruity by the visual contrast of the dress with Jerome’s prominent beard. In the first image, we see Jerome dressing for prayers with the garment lying easily to hand. In the second image, he prays, while two monks in the background are whispering together while looking at him.
How, Mills asks, are we to interpret the interaction of text, picture, and the portrayed reaction? What did this inadvertent gender transgression mean to the book’s owner or to the clerical culture depicted in the paintings? And how does this relate to the concept of--and reactions to--sodomy?
Treatments of sodomy cross gender as well as sexual lines. Women’s same-sex relationships were often treated differently from men's. Penitential manuals, among others, often avoided specifying what was meant by “sodomy”. It is often assumed that it covered male homosexuality and, in particular, anal intercourse, but there was a broader category of activities “contrary to nature”. In this era and earlier, the more general use could mean “any act that wastes semen.” Penitential texts frequently used circumlocutions such as “the vice that should not be named,” which makes specific acts hard to identify. The vagueness of the term made it a useful accusation against political enemies.
The 11th century monk Peter Damian, in a letter to the Pope asking for stronger condemnation of sodomy, specified four acts in order of ascending severity:
Note that this text was aimed only at male activities. Gender comes into consideration as Peter alleges that these activities “feminize” men, making no distinction between “active” and “passive” partners. This feminization of the concept of sodomy appears in art where Sodomia is portrayed as a sexually voracious woman. Other writers echo this implication that sodomy turns men into women.
Getting back to Saint Jerome, we can’t assume the reverse, i.e., that a feminized man is perceived by others as a sodomite. The Golden Legend provides more context for these images. Jerome was being considered for the Papacy, but was opposed by monks that he had condemned for living “lascivious lives”. Those monks set a trap for him by planting a woman’s dress in his room, meaning to imply that he had a female visitor (who presumably had taken her clothing off there). I.e., the intent was to accuse him of heterosexual misconduct. But Jerome is so fixated on getting up to pray, he obliviously puts the dress on and goes out into the church in women’s clothing. The issue here is not sodomy, but chastity. The lesson Mills intends by starting with the Jerome episode is to warn against jumping to conclusions about what message a depiction intends to convey.
Depictions or descriptions of male effeminacy could be used to signal courtliness or excess libido, not necessarily homosexuality. In parallel with this, depictions or descriptions of female masculinity could represent (masculine) virtue and could be meant as positive signifiers, as in the case of cross-dressing saints. In some genres, e.g., courtly love literature, ideals of beauty and desirability are not sexually dimorphic. There is a common physical ideal for both men and women. Attraction is expected to arise, not on the basis of "opposites attract", but inspired by that courtly ideal. Thus, same-sex attraction is not necessarily framed as transgressive in the way a modern reader might expect.
Images of men cross-dressing as women are less common than the converse, due to status differences between the sexes. Another example with a different context than Jerome is that of a 14th century English mystic who wanted to wear women’s garments, possibly in connection with the symbolism of becoming a “bride of Christ” as expressed in the Song of Songs. But when he actually wears the dress, his sister declares him mad.
The Duc de Berry (patron of the S. Jerome illustration) himself was accused of sodomitical desires, especially in one anonymous poem that uses explicit language. He clearly had male favorites, but it is impossible to untangle political motivations for the accusations from whatever his sexual interests may have been. The Limbourg brothers also illustrated a Bible Moralisée for de Berry. This genre of text (which will be the focus of the next chapter) often includes illustrations of types of “sins against nature”. In de Berry’s book, the corresponding set of images includes a cleric and layman embracing but also heterosexual couples. And the cleric-layman pair also brings in issues relating to clerical categories. The question remains: how do you know a sodomite when you see one?
Mills spends some time discussing Foucault and Lochrie's views about how to interpret medieval concepts of “sodomy”, and whether the category is hopelessly confused or overly specific. Concepts of gender also come into the discussion. Many consider a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation to be very recent. The 19th century saw an erosion of the association between cross-dressing and sexual dissidence. If homoerotic desire is understood as “wanting to be the other sex” (as it is commonly portrayed in medieval literature) then there is no distinct category of “homosexual orientation” but only conflicts of gender identity. In some ways, only with a focus on transgender identities has a distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation been clearly distinguished. Mills uses a transgender framing as a way of looking at medieval concepts of gender inversion. He considers when and where a distinction between gender transgression and homoerotics was recognized and when it was conflated.
Understanding the category of “sodomy” requires an understanding of the Christian framework for the evolution of ideas about “nature” and the Fall. The broadest definition of sodomy was any sort of sexual activity that was “against nature”.
[Jumping a bit in topic.] In other images of the Limbourg’s Jerome, the saint is troubled by dreams of “choirs of girls.” The image shows two girls dancing, with their attention focused on each other, but not actively on Jerome. So how are they inspiring lust to torment him? The girls don’t register visually as “sodomitic” and conform to feminine ideals.
[Another topic jump.] The theme of friendship complicates studies of sodomy. Physical expressions of same-sex intimacy were “ennobling” between friends. But even so, they can be reframed as transgressive for political purposes. Intimate friendships between women were less problematic due to their lesser political importance. Chapter 5 will examine an exception to this lesser concern when it involved cloistered women.
Mills spends some time acknowledging the difficulty of studying male and female homoeroticism in parallel. A false equivalence tends to erase female presence by the sheer weight and volume of available material. He notes recent work (e.g., by Traub and Amer) on the cultural transmission of constructions of desire between women.
Mills approaches much of his analysis from a framework of “translation”--how concepts are translated between text and image, and between the medieval and the modern. In this context, he deliberately embraces anachronistic terms such as “transgender”, “butch/femme”, etc. as acknowledging that translation process. He uses the term “queer” very carefully due to its instability of meaning and its focus on modern reception, plus the tendency for it to simply replace more meaningful terms. He still feels it has utility, though.
The introduction concludes with a summary of the contents of the book. Chapter 1 looks at images in 13-15th century Bibles moralisées produced for the French court. Chapter 2 examines images of transgressive sexuality through a transgender lens. Chapter 3 looks at the figure of Orpheus as the “first sodomite”. Chapter 4 looks at the figure of Ganymede and the sexuality of monks. [Note: it’s likely that I’ll gloss over these two chapters fairly briefly if they contain little material relevant to women.] Chapter 5 considers depictions of sexual orientation in terms of literal “turning” (orienting), especially involving women.