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.
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.
In Paris, ca. 1200, there was an increased focus on anti-sodomy literature. One writer considered it equivalent to murder because both “interfere with the multiplication of men.” Sodomy also relates to gender categories because non-procreative sex blurs distinctions and suggest androgyny. Androgynous people, according to this position, must pick a binary identity based on the nature of who they find arousing within an imposed heterosexual framework. The focus in this anti-sodomy literature is not generally on gender ambiguity, but specifically on preserving “active” male sexuality. Not only are “passive” partners despised, but the “active” partner who uses them becomes corrupted thereby. Sodomy is generally linked to luxury and effeminacy.
Anti-sodomy authors are generally associated with the cathedral schools (and naturally are churchmen) and are obsessed with the idea that “unnatural crimes” are being treated too leniently by the authorities. To address this, penitential manuals included detailed interrogation scripts that focused on details of the status and nature of the partners of the person confessing. Notably, these interrogation scripts not only omit details of the sex acts that are under scrutiny, but the confessor is instructed not to discuss them, to avoid giving people ideas. They are directed to speak only of acts “against nature” or of sex performed “in an unusual way.”
“Against nature” could include masturbation, incest, or other “seed wasting” activities. The details were often obscured as being “too terrible to name.” Sodomy was also othered and exoticised with references to unspeakable sins being practiced openly in other parts of the world. [Note: this comes back later in the chapter as a connection between sodomy and heresy or non-Christian practices.] Although “unspeakable” in text, the medieval understanding of the specific nature of these activities can be seen in how they are depicted in art, and specifically in the Bibles Moralisées. This chapter focuses on those works and images.
This genre of manuscript first appears in Paris in the 1220s-1230s. These were not “popular” books but were a restricted genre produced for royal and noble patrons. [Note: I’ll include a catalog summarizing the full manuscript references and descriptions of the relevant images at the end of this entry. For now, I’ll be using the shorthand manuscript references that Mills uses.]
The Bibles Moralisées follow a conventional layout (and there is a clear continuity of content and visual imagery across multiple examples, which makes some of the shifts and re-interpretations more obvious). A series of eight images is presented in roundels of similar artistic frames, two columns of four each, and are bracketed by two narrow columns of text at the right and left margins. The text is broken up into a total of eight boxes, aligned with and corresponding to the roundels. It is clear from the text layout that the images are primary and the text has been added, often badly fitting into the available space. This stands in sharp contrast to the usual text-centered approach to Biblical commentary. In general, within a set of four roundels, the upper left image will directly represent a biblical scene, with the images to its right and below extrapolating and commenting on it in some way, and the lower right image providing commentary and interpretation for the contemporary context. This layout allows for--in fact encourages--multiple viewing paths and ways of constructing context for the images. [I'll include a brief description of each manuscript image when it becomes relevant to the discussion, as in the following.]
Vienna MS 2554, the earliest example of the genre, created in the 1220s in Paris - Context is Adam and Eve in the garden, with subsequent images of the temptation of Eve and the marriage of Christ and the Church. The roundel of interest shows two embracing couples, one male and one female, being tormented by devils. Both couples are lying on bedding and are oriented diagonally on the page. The women are kissing and one woman is holding the other’s face in a conventionalized “chin chuck” gesture [see note]. One member of the male couple has a tonsure indicating a monk and the other wears a style of round cap that elsewhere is associated with Jews or heretics.
Note: The "chin-chuck gesture" is a conventional artistic trope that is always associated with erotic love. It involves one person holding the other's chin, with their thumb on one side and the other fingers (sometimes curled into a loose fist, sometimes straight) on the other. Due to its symbolic significance, I'll be noting for each image whether it is or is not present.
If sodomy is not to be named, why is it being depicted in detail for a royal audience? And for people who are closely associated with the authors of the anti-sodomy polemics? Mills compares this to the myth of Victorian repression, i.e., that a surge of interest in sodomy spawned both the textual response and the interest in depicting the acts. Stepping back for a moment from the focus on homosexuality in particular, Mills views the set of images in Vienna 2554 as a “translation” of acceptable sexuality, i.e., as portraying various types of “imitation” of the central approved/moral behavior, which is considered “moral” because it is “natural.”
In the set of Eden images, the primary image is of an upright Adam and Eve invited into Eden by God (interpreted in the text as a marriage). This theme is reflected to the right by the temptation, with a female-torsoed serpent taking the central position from God, and Eve taking over the active role, in offering the apple to Adam. Below the primary image, the “marriage” of Adam and Eve is reflected in a scene of Christ marrying Ecclesia (the church). And then in the fourth position, we have the above described pairs of female and male lovers. Mills discusses how these illustrate a variety of parallels, contrasts, and reversals of meaning. The “sodomites” represent chaos, contrast, and corruption in the same way that the temptation is contrasted to the “marriage” of Adam and Eve by God in the first panel. The images do not “speak” directly of specific sexual acts (the image only shows embracing, kissing, and caressing) but rather of this symbolic violation of order and hierarchy. In the same way, Eve “unnaturally” takes the lead in the scene of the temptation, overturning “natural” gender hierarchies.
These reflections and contrasts continue in the lower four roundels. In the primary position, we see God confronting Adam and Eve, with Adam blaming Eve for his temptation. Then to the right, the expulsion from Eden, below the primary image a scene of sinners excusing themselves to God at judgment day, and in the fourth position, Christ leading sinners to hell.
Although this layout of images carries over across multiple examples of the genre, the depiction of transgressive sexual desire is not always illustrated by female and male pairs. Other representations include a tonsured man embracing a woman. But there is an entire sequence of images (some clearly related by direct transmission or imitation) that involve a female and a male couple.
Vienna 1179 (produced in Paris, the Vienna label has to do with its current ownership) 1220s - Image occurs in the context of Adam and Eve and the Fall. In the “sodomites” image, there is a female and a male couple, oriented diagonally. Pillows are visible behind them, but not necessarily full bed-clothes. The women are embracing and one women holds the other’s face in a chin-chuck gesture. Their faces are close to each other, but not actively kissing. Mills interprets the scene as showing the chin-holder’s legs inserted between the other woman’s and the other woman’s skirt as being somewhat hiked up. [I’m not sure I see that clearly.] The male couple are embracing and kissing. The man reclining on his back has his tunic open in front with his underclothes showing.
Paris Bibliotheque nationale de France MS français 9561, mid 14th cntury - This book contains a similar image of a female couple and a male couple, embracing and kissing, lying diagonally across the page and being tormented by devils. The layout is strongly connected to the previous examples, though somewhat simpler in execution. But rather than being presented in the context of the expulsion from Eden, it is located in the story of Lot and Sodom.
In Paris 9561, the accompanying text focuses on the disruption of “natural” order due to bodily desire, and not on the specifically same-sex aspect. Although the image is homoerotic, the textual message is broader and more diffuse. The presence of devils ties in with the textual claims that unnatural lust (or simply lust in general) is due to demonic possession. Demons are often depicted as violent sodomists (in the sense of anal intercourse). While texts can conceal the presence and specificity of same-sex acts, art must over-particularize them, converting a general focus on “unnatural lust” into a narrow indictment of homosexuality.
Mills next looks at images that accompany text that specifically identifies “sodomites” (regardless of the nature of the images). How is the concept of “sodomite” translated into the specificity of visual representation? The Bibles Moralisées had the purpose of moralizing about contemporary times, using Biblical motifs, often modified from their original context. One example is how the serpent in Eden is embodied as female (thus tempting Eve in a same-sex context) where the Biblical text doesn’t specify gender. Other textual interpretations of this scene suggest the sexual implication is not homoerotic but narcissistic, though these are often conflated.
The “translation” of one scene to another context is seen in the Vienna 2554 illustration for Judges 20:47. This is an episode that thematically parallels the Lot/Sodom story but rather than the demanding neighbors being residents of Sodom, they are members of the Benjaminite tribe. The image used to illustrate the episode focuses on the host’s unfortunate concubine who is handed over for sexual abuse and murder (in substitution for the guests that had been demanded). There is no reference to same-sex erotics in the art except for an isolated image within a crowd scene of two men embracing with a chin-chuck gesture. But the text accompanying the scene specifically identifies the attackers as “sodomites”, rather than Benjaminites. Some scholars have viewed this “bad translation” between the image and text as simply due to ignorance and error. Mills sees it instead as a sophisticated manipulation of the imagery in service of a teleological moral truth in which Biblical textuality is subservient to that lesson.
There are other examples of parallel imagery that comes, not from the original Biblical text, but from visual connections. For example, in a depiction of the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is shown kissing Abel before taking him off to kill him, and this is paired with an image of Judas kissing Christ.
Later editions of the Bible Moralisée genre sometimes attempted to restore a more accurate text, but this could result in visual incoherence, which point out the hazards in interpreting the visual parallels in these later texts, as in the following.
Bibliotheque Nationale de France MS Fr 166, early 15th century - A depiction of the story of Ruth and Naomi has shifted the depiction from earlier versions. The earlier examples set up a parallel between how Ruth stayed with Naomi (representing those who are faithful to the church) while Orpha separates from her (representing those who leave the church). But in this 15th century text, a depiction of Ruth and Orpha embracing before parting from each other is juxtaposed with an image of a lustful couple embracing (as an example of turning away from chastity to embrace sensual temptation), creating a false visual equation of Ruth with sin.
Another example of the drift and change of visual symbolism is how the earlier images of female same-sex couples used as a negative symbol in parallel with the male couples, are replaced within the same visual composition by a heterosexual couple. There is a parallel erasure of the feminine characteristics of the serpent, removing the homoerotic potential from Eve’s temptation. For example, Paris 166 does not include any lustful images of female couples.
Illustrations associated with the term “sodomites” and the story of Lot shifted by the 14th century from a relatively narrow range of behaviors in the Bibles Moralisées (specifically, violence and inhospitality) to a focus on non-procreative sexual acts, including but not exclusively between male couples. The earliest pictorial connection between this story and sexual transgressions is in Toledo MS 1 (1230s, created in Paris).
Toledo tesoro de Catedral MS 1, 1230s, created in Paris - In the context of the story of Lot and Sodom, a scene of two same-sex couples embracing, one female, one male. The male couple consists of a cowled monk embracing a youth of indeterminate gender (beardless and wearing a long garment). The female couple both have long hair and long garments, and one holds the other’s head but without a chin-chuck gesture.
Bodley MS 270b (the first volume of the three-part Oxford/Paris/London Bible) ca. 1230, created in Paris - In the context of the Lot/Sodom story, depiction of two embracing couples. The couple on the left: a bearded man wearing a round cap sits in a chair and embraces a monk (with tonsure and cowl). The couple on the right: both figures wear long garments and are bare-headed and beardless. The one on the left has long hair (clearly signifying female gender). The hair length of the one on the right is not visible, however the overall artistic similarity and lack of unmistakably masculine signifiers suggests interpretation as a woman. They are embracing and the long-haired figure is holding the other’s head in her hands, though there is no chin-chuck gesture.
British Library Additional MS 18719, ca. 1260, probably London or Westminster origin - The art in this book is much more simple that the earlier works, line drawings rather than fully colored paintings, and more primitive in style. The nature and positioning of the figures indicates that it’s clearly copied from Bodley MS 270b or from a common source. On the left two men embrace, standing beside a chair. One is bearded and wears a round cap, the other is a monk with tonsure and cowl. On the right, reclining toward a slope formed by a hell-mouth, are two embracing figures. Both wear long garments, and are bare-headed and beardless, though the length of the hair is not visible for either. The left-hand figure is holding the other’s head in her(?) hands but there is no chin-chuck gesture.
Paris Bibliotheque Nationale de France, MS français 166, ca. 1402, produced in Paris - The physical arrangement of the characters is the same as for the preceding works, but the artistic style is elaborate and sophisticated. On the left is an embracing pair consisting of a monk and a youth. On the right a heterosexual couple embraces and kisses. They are wearing high-fashion garments that are clearly differentiated by gender.
In the preceding sequence, we see how the ambiguity of feminine representation, and a reanalysis of an androgynous ideal of beauty allows for the reframing of a female same-sex couple as heterosexual, thus erasing the representation of female homoerotic possibility.
I’ll skip over a section focused solely on male depictions that discusses the association of sodomy with Saracens and heretics.
The question remains, why did this particular genre of illustration arise in this particular time and place? The original center of production of Bibles Moralisées was Paris, which had a reputation for the prevalence of sodomy, though this was a reputation shared by urban centers in general. And the imagery in these bibles is urban rather than rural. Whether or not urban centers were hotbeds of male homoerotic activity, they did provide a fertile intellectual and moral context for anti-sodomy rhetoric. The temporal context was also one where the fuzzy idea of sodomy as anything “against nature” was being particularized as a specific set of gender and sexual transgressions. The depictions in these bibles often focus on aspects of the social context, e.g., same-sex pairings, age differences, active/passive contrasts, clerical with secular figures, Christian with non-Christian, rather than focusing on the physical act of genital sex. The physical interactions that are depicted are embraces, kisses, chin-chuck gestures, and the displacement of clothing.
From another angle, why are these moralizing illustrations confined only to the Bibles Moralisées? Several factors may be relevant. These works were typically commissioned by or for royalty and their readership was tightly restricted, moreover it was restricted to a set of people who had close clerical oversight in their lives. So perhaps there was less “danger” in allowing this set of readers a more explicit understanding of what activities were forbidden (rather than worrying about “giving them ideas”). Female patronage for several of the earliest examples may have influenced the prominence of female same-sex couples in the depictions of sodomy. In turn, this very restricted readership may explain why these images were not generalized as part of the artistic vocabulary of medieval art.
In reference to this last observation, Mills notes several isolated examples of male same-sex embraces or sexualized interactions in other manuscripts, but in those cases they are not tied to specific passages in the text.
Another correlation with the era when these works evolved was the rise of capital punishment for homosexuality in the laws of Castile and France (in the 13th century) as well as increased legal concern with heresy.
Catalog of images
It seems pointless to discuss an analysis of visual imagery without having those images available. I tried to see if I could find online sources to link to, but have only succeeded at this point in the case of Vienna 2554. Ethics (as well as legality) prevents me from taking images directly from the book, so instead I have provided simplified re-drawings of the human figures in the relevant illustrations. (One of the major elements I've omitted are the tormenting devils, but other background details have been left out as well.) I make no claims for artistic merit here, and some of the subtleties of gesture, clothing, and hairstyles are not well reproduced.
Vienna 2554 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 2554, fol. 2r), the earliest example of the genre, 1220s - Context is Adam and Eve in the garden, with subsequent images of the temptation of Eve and the marriage of Christ and the Church. The roundel of interest shows two embracing couples, one male and one female, being tormented by devils. Both couples are lying on bedding and are oriented diagonally on the page. The women are kissing and one woman is holding the other’s face in a conventionalized “chin chuck” gesture [see note]. One member of the male couple has a tonsure indicating a monk and the other wears a style of round cap that elsewhere is associated with Jews or heretics.
Vienna 1179 (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1179, fol. 4r) (produced in Paris, the Vienna label has to do with its current ownership) 1220s - Image occurs in the context of Adam and Eve and the Fall. In the “sodomites” image, there is a female and a male couple, oriented diagonally. Pillows are visible behind them, but not necessarily full bed-clothes. The women are embracing and one women holds the other’s face in a chin-chck gesture. Their faces are close to each other, but not actively kissing. Mills interprets the scene as showing the chin-holder’s legs inserted between the other woman’s and the other woman’s skirt as being somewhat hiked up. [I’m not sure I see that clearly.] The male couple are embracing and kissing. The man reclining on his back has his tunic open in front with his underclothes showing.
Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 9561, fol. 8v, mid 14th cntury - This book contains a similar image of a female couple and a male couple, embracing and kissing, lying diagonally across the page and being tormented by devils. But rather than being presented in the context of the expulsion from Eden, it is located in the story of Lot and Sodom.
Toledo tesoro de Catedral MS 1, vol. 1, fol. 14r, 1230s, created in Paris - In the context of the story of Lot and Sodom, a scene of two same-sex couples embracing, one female, one male. The male couple consists of a cowled monk embracing a youth of indeterminate gender (beardless and wearing a long garment). The female couple both have long hair and long garments, and one holds the other’s head but without a chin-chuck gesture.
Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 270b, fol. 14r (the first volume of the three-part Oxford/Paris/London Bible) ca. 1230, created in Paris - In the context of the Lot/Sodom story, depiction of two embracing couples. The couple on the left: a bearded man wearing a round cap sits in a chair and embraces a monk (with tonsure and cowl). The couple on the right: both figures wear long garments and are bare-headed and beardless. The one on the left has long hair (clearly signifying female gender). The hair length of the one on the right is not visible, however the overall artistic similarity and lack of unmistakably masculine signifiers suggests interpretation as a woman. They are embracing and the long-haired figure is holding the other’s head in her hands, though there is no chin-chuck gesture.
British Library Additional MS 18719, fol. 7v, ca. 1260, probably London or Westminster origin - The art in this book is much more simply that the earlier works, line drawings rather than fully colored paintings, and more primative in style. The nature and positioning of the figures indicates that it’s clearly copied from Bodley MS 270b or from a common source. On the left two men embrace, standing beside a chair. One is bearded and wears a round cap, the other is a monk with tonsure and cowl. On the right, reclining toward a slope formed by a hell-mouth, are two embracing figures. Both wear long garments, and are bare-headed and beardless, though the length of the hair is not visible for either. The left-hand figure is holding the other’s head in her(?) hands but there is no chin-chuck gesture.
Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS français 166, fol. 7r, ca. 1402, produced in Paris - The physical arrangement of the characters is the same as for the preceding works, but the artistic style is elaborate and sophisticated. On the left is an embracing pair consisting of a monk and a youth. On the right a heterosexual couple embraces and kisses. They are wearing high-fashion garments that are clearly differentiated by gender.
Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).
One of the anxieties around persons categorized as “sodomites” was that they might alternate their performative gender. Not only behavior, but fashion might be targeted as gender-disruptive. Sodomitical identity could be signled by gender performance rather than by sexual activity. Or that performance might itself be a symptom of a underlying vice. Homosexuality, per se, was not required to be a sodomite.
There was, however, an association in the medieval mind between cross-gender performance and homosexual acts, for example in the trial of John/Eleanor Rykener who engaged in prostitution “as a woman”. (The implication is that he engaged in prostitution with both men and women, performing the opposite gender from his client of the moment.) In 15th century Florence, only “passive” partners in m/m sex were associated with performance of feminine gender. Similarly, f/f couples primarily came to legal attention only when one partner performed masculinity, either by cross-dressing or by employing a penis substitute for sexual activity. Literary examples of “female masculinity” included women with an assertive sex drive, or women (such as Amazons) engaged in governance, who were considered sodomitical due to the inversion of assumed gender roles.
Mills uses a transgender framework to discuss these, while acknowledging how medieval topics and attitudes don’t align with the modern use of the terminology and concepts. Modern ideas of “choice” of gender expression don’t apply in the middle ages when options were limited both in terms of modification (i.e., surgery) and expression. Not until the early modern period were there identifiable subcultures such as the 18th century “mollies.”
Use of the term “transgender” risks becoming a normalizing approach rather than a disruptive one. Mills says he considered using a meta-term such as “transgender-like” in parallel to Bennett’s “lesbian-like”, or to the way Traub italicizes her use of “lesbian” to mark a distinction from modern use, but he says he discarded that approach because of the risk that it would imply an “undeveloped” version of transgender, rather than what he intended.
Mills discusses how to approach categories such as transgender where modern concepts don’t align with historic categories, e.g., the impossibility of aligning classical pederasty with modern concepts of homosexual orientation. Per Halperin, under modern homosexuality, the significance of gender and gender roles for categorizing sexual interactions disappears in favor of the choice of sexual partner.
Mills contrasts the concepts of friendship, pederasty, and gender-variance, all of which could be linked to sodomy. He then considers that modern categories of orientation and gender aren’t as clear or stable as they’re often treated. [Note by HRJ: Although Mills doesn’t cite it as an example, the phenomenon of people who had previously identified as butch lesbians coming to understand themselves as trans men might be pertinent here. Medieval people aren’t the only ones whose understanding of their identity is shaped by the concepts that society presents to them.] Also, the historic conceptual frameworks that apply to men don’t necessarily fit women well or at all. Butler’s concept of “gender as performance” can imply that all conformance to gender binaries is dispensable and artificial. Transgender can represent a “proto-homosexuality” imagined as inversion. But it also can represent an ideal of flexibility and liberation from gender binaries.
In medieval texts, the relative priority of gender over sexuality is because sexual sins are understood as a “bad imitation” of approved forms of sex. When sex between nuns is condemned by writers such as Hildegard of Bingen, it is as “fornication” rather than narrowly as homosexuality, although there are also concerns about using “artificial means”. Is sex between nuns simply a violation of celibacy or something more? Gender distinctions mean that women cannot aspire to priestly celibacy, as such. Hildegard notes that cross-dressing is not universally sinful, as such, but could be condoned if, for example a man’s life or a woman’s chastity [note the distinction!] were in danger. “[A woman] should not take on a masculine role, either in her hair or her attire.” Female cross-dressing simply out of “boldness” is not acceptable.
The requirement is that bodily sex and gender role must align and conform to a binary. Anything else is seen as “turning away from God.” Hildegard calls homosexuality “a strange and perverse adultery” whereas Peter Damian calls it “sodomy”. The emphasis is not on specific sexual practices but on having the appropriate partner. But there are distinctions in how the categories are applied to men and women. Circumlocutions about male sodomy often focus on the implication of anal intercourse, while polemics against female sodomy focus on a women usurping a (masculine) active role.
Hildegard’s arguments aren’t entirely coherent, for example in how cross-dressing is judged by purpose rather than by the act itself. And there’s an interesting contrast between Hildegard’s prohibitions on sexual activity between women and her own passionate/romantic attachments with women, recorded in convent records and correspondence. In Hildegard’s hierarchy of sin, women who usurp a masculine gender role are distinct from, and worse than, those who simply have a female sexual partner. And the latter doesn’t distinguish active and passive roles.
Mills now digresses for a discussion of the structures of 1940s-50s butch-femme performance. The medieval gender/sex hierarchy argues against attributing the modern category of “lesbian”, which prioritizes the same-sex aspect over the gender transgression aspect. It also deflects from the medieval focus on transsexual frameworks. The category “lesbian” makes invisible the medieval priority on transgender aspects of sodomy, while the category “transgender” makes invisible the “femme partner” in sex, whom medieval attitudes considered equally culpable.
Mills emphasizes that his use of the terms “lesbian” and “transgender” about medieval examples is not a way of defining or claiming them, but of identifying gaps in the medieval logic and shedding light on how the concepts combined differently in the medieval view.
The focus of this next section is Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, and medieval interpretations and extrapolations from it. The story has enjoyed recent interpretation as depicting lesbian/same-sex desire via a cross-gender framework. How does it illuminate the medieval world view to consider it instead in a transgender framework?
In Ovid’s story, Iphis was raised by her mother as a boy to protect her from her father's vow to kill girl children. She is betrothed to Ianthe (the literal girl next door) and they fall mutually in love. Iphis laments the “impossibility” of her desire. The conflict is resolved when the goddess Isis miraculously turns Iphis into a man. Iphis dwells on the “non-natural” nature of her desire, listing various animals and claiming that they don’t experience same-sex desire. Included is a reference to the story of Pasiphaë and the bull (in which Pasiphaë concealed herself in a model of a cow in order to have sex with a bull, thereby giving birth to the Minotaur), which Iphis see as less “mad” than her own desire, because at least it involved male and female. Despite all the human pressures to encourage the marriage between Iphis and Ianthe (including the desire of the two women themselves), “nature” is assumed to triumph and make it impossible.
Like many classical stories, this one was picked up and reinterpreted many times in medieval literature, including the several variants of the story in the Yde and Olive group. But Mills looks specifically at French and English version from the 14-15th century in “Ovid moralisé” manuscripts. Like the moralized bibles, these used visual interpretations of the text to comment on and create moral lessons based on the original story. In the process, they often changed the nature of the story to better illustrate the intended moral. This is a loose group of texts, centering around a French verse translation of Ovid from ca. 1328, which had the goal of claiming Ovid as a sort of proto-Christian philosopher by extracting Christianized lessons from the pagan text. The text group also includes two 15th century secular abridgements of the 14th century verse translation that discarded the moralizing commentary but kept the revised story lines. Mills also mentions other related, but not necessarily derivative, versions of the text.
These different versions had different approaches to how the “translation” of the story and the moralizing could diverge. For example, Caxton’s text contradicts Ovid’s claim that the name “Iphis” could be used by either gender--a reason given in the original for Iphis’s mother choosing it. Caxton’s text calls the name inherently masculine, implying that the use of the name is an active gender deceit, rather than a deliberate attempt to avoid making false gender claims in use of the name. Earlier translations followed Ovid in creating a passive allowance of an assumption of (male) gender, and specifically note that it was not a “lie”. Thus Caxton introduces the common trope of transgender status as inherently deceptive.
Conversely, in contrast to Ovid’s version, Caxton’s language attributes masculinity to Iphis before the physical transformation. Ovid emphasizes a “similarity” model of attractiveness and attraction, describing characteristics that are not implied to be inherently gendered. But when the language requires specificity, Ovid’s text identifies Iphis (pre-transformation) as female. Medieval texts often alternate pronouns more by context [HRJ note: see also this protean use of pronoun gender in the medieval romance Silence], and are more likely to discuss physical characteristics as specifically masculine or feminine. Caxton portrays Iphis as masculine even before the introduction of the theme of sexual desire for Ianthe. That is, Caxton’s Iphis is male in an essential way, just not quite male enough to marry a woman. This inherent masculinity is implied to be the basis for Iphis’s desire for Ianthe, but is not sufficient to enable consummation.
Ovid’s text frames Iphis’s desire as “new” and “monstrous”, while Caxton introduces the theme of Iphis being ashamed of desiring someone she isn’t worthy of (because of this monstrosity). In the context of this story, to desire a woman is to desire “as a male”. Caxton’s Iphis contemplates changing gender “by artifice” (like Daedalus) but considers that act impossible. This interpretation echoes Hildegard of Bingen’s opinion that the error is for a woman to desire “as a man”. It cannot be revolved by “nature”--rather the change of sex is miraculous as opposed to natural.
In Ovid, the transformation is narratively signaled by performance: Iphis is described as now having a masculine stride and features, short hair, masculine vigor.
A comparison is made to another Ovidian tale, that of Tiresias who underwent several transformations of sex due to divine action. Tiresias is implied to have experienced sexual desire both as a man and a woman, but the object of Tiresias’s desire was always determined by heterosexual imperative: as a man he desired women, as a woman she desired men. Thus Tiresias’s experience was “natural”.
As another comparison, the trial of John/Eleanor Rykener focused on the transgressive nature of mutable gender performance, even though always in a heterosexual framework. That is, John had sex with women as a man, while Eleanor had sex with men as a woman. In the medieval framework, the changeability was more significant than the specific transgender performance.
Classical sources believed in the occurance of spontaneous female-to-male transformation. These occur in histories, travelers’ tales, and other anecdotes. Pliny claims that some animals can change sex, even repeatedly. The concept of hermaphroditism in part had roots in philosopy and myth, but may also have been an attempt to create a framework for understanding intersex people. There were varying opinions on whether hermaphrodites had a “divinely” double nature (i.e., that it was a natural non-binary state) or fell more in the sodomite category. Some considered a “third sex” concept, where a individual was considered to have both male and female sexual organs, but the conclusion was that one should stick to a single performative gender role.
The version of Iphis and Ianthe in Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1390) includes a framing that is ambivalent about sex between women rather than entirely negative. It describes how, when the two girls lie together in bed as “playmates”, they “use a thing [i.e., object] unknown to them” in a way that is against nature. This version of the story at least implies the possibility of sexual activity between women, as contrasted with other versions that stop at the claim that it’s totally impossible. (Mills now spends a while in meditations on queerness and interpretive theory.)
Whatever the “thing” is in Gower’s text (possibly a dildo?), it can disrupt the definitions of sex, gender, and sexuality in the moralized Ovid. Mills offers a summary of descriptions from the medieval historic record of dildos used in sex between women, such as the legal cases of Bertolina and Katherina Hetzeldorfer. But the interpretation of Gower’s reference as a dildo is far from certain. It could simply be a reference to the female organ (clitoris). Similar language is used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, which she refers to the genitalia of both sexes as “small things”.
Mills now goes into a discussion of the “discovery” of the clitoris in 16th century medical treatises, and the popular theory at that time of a causal connection between an enlarged clitoris and sexual activity between women. But this 16th century “discovery” is not entirely accurate. William of Saliceto (13th c. Italy) clearly described the clitoris and echoes the claim s that women use it for sexual activity with other women.
In the “moralized Ovid” the general mapping of the story to Christian concepts goes as follows:
Thus we have the mapping:
But this equation in the verse Ovid Moralisé is preceded by a portrayal of Iphis as using an “artificial member” on the advice of a procuress to accomplish sex with Ianthe “against law and against nature.” This dildo is identified in French as a “chose” (the word also used by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath), which allows her to pay her “marital debt” by deceit. As in the tale of the Wife of Bath, male privilege is treated as a mobile and transferable object that can be appropriated. F/f eroticism is visible, but mediated by an object, rather than treated as an impossibility.
Mills presents a discussion of penitential manuals that mention “diabolical instruments” (machina) used between women for sex. This theme dates back as far as Hincmar of Rheims (9th c) and Burchard of Worms (10th c).
The verse Ovid Moralisé follows this obsession with dildos. Rather than the original “miraculous” transformation, we get artificial devices used for “deceptive” homosexual activity. Here we have a clearer parallel to the story of Pasiphaë with her artificial cow. The motif of the transferable penis touches back on the original tradition of the goddess Isis, where she creates an artificial penis for Osiris when reconstructing his dismembered body. But note that this tradition may not have been available to the medieval translators who inserted dildos in the story of Iphis.
When the moralized Ovid was abridged to remove the moralizing text, the earliest version removed the “instrument” scene, but other versions kept it and spun it differently. In 15th c. Bruges, where one version was published, there are records of multiple trials and executions of women for sodomy (although the specific acts are not indicated, so we don’t know if “instruments” were involved). The translator uses similar language to these trials in condemning Iphis’s dildo, though the specific word "sodomy" is not used. Similarly, this version retains a non-Ovidian ending where Iphis flees into exile, similar to the typical non-capital punishment for women convicted of sodomy in 15th c. Flanders.
Caxton’s version of the story eliminates the spiritual interpretation of the moralized texts entirely in favor of a misogynistic condemnation of a woman performing “as a man” in bed. His version depicts cross-dressed desire as leading to love, and then to marriage and sex, but when Iphis’s underlying gender is discovered, the result is shame and exile.
The moralized Ovid added illustrations early in the manuscript tradition, which provide additional interpretative information. One version prioritizes illustating the miraculous sex-change, but another features depictions of homoerotic potential. The oldest surviving illustrated version (from the first quarter of the 14th century: Rouen O.4) has the most extensive set of images. There are three illustrations of the Iphis story, plus two illustrations for the moral context.
In the Paris Bibliotheque Arsenal 5069 ms, dated a few years later, there are some images that correspond to the Rouen manuscript, but most are different:
One theme of these texts is that they position female same-sex desire in “ancient time” while excluding the possibility from the present and future.In a consideration of the “chronology” of gender inversion tropes, the Ovid Moralisé situates Iphis’s sex change in a vanished past. Mills compares this with current scholarship that considers the concept of “sexual inversion” to be an obsolete model (i.e., situated in the past).
Another example of sex-change imagery from this period is Christine de Pizan’s (1403) “Book of Fortune’s Transformation.” The narrative voice of the poem represents a female author who, after the death of her husband, is transformed by “Fortune” into “a natural man”. The poem tells the story of how this happened. It includes a discussion of the story of Iphis. The narrator describes having been born female but feeling gender dysphoria and having always identified with their father, who wanted a son. There is a list of “miracles” of gender transformation from Ovid, but the focus in citing Iphis is on the mother’s regret for raising Iphis as a boy and so creating the context for same-sex desire. The poem presents Fortune as a “second mother” who re-births the narrator as a man, in grief for the husband’s death. The work creates no context for homoeroticism and focuses only on gender identity.
The driving force for the gender change of Christine’s narrator is not sexual, there is no mention of a penis (after transformation) or of desire. As the transformation is miraculous and independent of desire, there are no allusions to potential mechanics of sex between female bodies. This text erases the motif of “femme desire”, unlike in some other versions of Iphis and Ianthe, such as Caxton’s, in which Ianthe too is a desiring participant.
Another parallel is the collection of variants of the Yde and Olive tale. In these, Olive takes a strongly desiring role toward the cross-dressed Yde, desiring sexual consummation and continuing faithful to Yde even after Yde’s physiological sex is revealed. Olive’s father, on the other hand, when contemplating the possibility that he daughter is in a same-sex relationship refers to it as “buggery” and calls for penalties assigned to sodomites.
Mills finishes the chapter with a discussion of modern fictional interpretations of the Iphis and Ianthe story in a contemporary setting with a gender-fluid Iphis.
Another story appearing in the “moralized Ovid” manuscripts is that of Orpheus. Orpheus is relevant to the topic of the book via a version of the story in which, after losing Eurydice, he turns away from women to love boys. [As a brief summary for those not familiar with Orpheus: after his girlfriend Eurydice dies, he goes down to the underworld to plead for her return and his singing is so sweet and powerful that Hades agrees, provided he leads her out of the underworld without looking back at her. Just as they’re about to emerge into the mortal world, he looks back and she is lost to him forever. Later he takes up with maenads--rampaging wild women--who eventually tear him to pieces.]
Medieval imagery of Orpheus with his lyre (or harp) was often confused and conflated him with David (also symbolized with a harp) and with Christ. In the moralized Ovid, Orpheus’s turning away from women is equated with turning away from sin. Peculiarly enough, this means that his love of boys maps to a love of God, hence the imagery lacks some of the expected negative framing. But there are other symbolic resonances that led to viewing Orpheus as a sodomite. Music and poetry could be considered “unmanly” activities, and Orpheus’s ability to tame wild beasts was considered “against nature.”
The act of turning back (to look at Eurydice) is sometimes connected with Lot’s wife turning back to look at Sodom (leading to her conversion to a pillar of salt). Symbolically this turning/looking back is considered to represent a return to an unsaved state. The next chapter looks more at this motif of “turning”.
In the mean time, the discussion of Orpheus in the illustrated moralized texts offers a lot of examples of depictions of erotic affection between men.
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.
This chapter focuses on the image of “turning” away from right behaviors and objects and toward wrong actions and objects. In both text and image, there is a concept of wrong behavior being “turning in circles” and therefore being unable to follow/enter the desired path or gate. Vocabulary related to this include: deviation, conversion, translation, orientation.
Mills compares this to the Foucaultian idea of the “modernity of the concept of ‘having’ a sexual orientation”, that is, of sexual orientation being a mode of being as opposed to defining sodomy as a “category of acts.” But for older “orientation” expressions, compare Brooten et. al. who identify Classical and later analogs to “sexual orientation” as a life-long innate predisposition. Mills discusses several examples of scholars who work very hard to dismiss or define away pre-modern descriptions that are analogous to a lifelong sexual orientation. Mills suggests another angle: that the idea of a fixed, lifelong orientation fails to adequately describe even the modern experience, and that it, too, is only an approximation to the reality of individual experience.
[HRJ note: Perhaps this is a useful reminder that in any age, our understanding of our own sexuality is strongly shaped by the models that society offers us. That menu of models changes slowly over time, and not all people in any give age have access to the same menu. But there’s no reason to consider the late 20th century’s “inborn, fixed, life-long sexual orientation” to have any more inherent truth value than the medieval model of “your gender identity is determined by the nature of the object of your desire.” It is a model that has utility in the current socio-political climate and that fits into current medical and cultural thinking, which explains its popularity. But that doesn't mean that it's more true than other models.]
This chapter begins by examining deliberate virginity as a type of “sexual orientation,” especially in the context of female anchorites, who seemed unusually suspect with regard to the risk of “unnatural desires.” The chapter will also look at the narrowing down of the concept of “sodomy” into the specific act of anal penetration by one man of another.
The biography of Christina of Markyate presents a prototype for the anchorite as vocation. [HRJ: very briefly, an anchorite dedicated herself to a solitary religious life, rather than being part of a convent.] She showed early signs of a strong devotion to God. Her story reads much in parallel to those of early Christian martyrs, as her (Christian) parents and community try to force her into the default paradigm of heterosexual marriage. After many acts of resistance, she convinces them to let her remain a virgin. The parallels between Christina’s experience and that of the “inborn orientation” model include that her desires were determined and fixed before her birth, that they included repeated choices to “orient” herself toward symbols of God and away from worldly marriage. This eventually included running away from her family (“translatio”).
Christina does not simply deny or suppress her worldly desires, but converts them into a desire for God. When she runs away to both escape marriage and seek union with God, she disguises herself as a man (again echoing early legends of transvestite saints) and this is framed as deliberately “becoming a man for God.” This framing echoes other misogynistic literature that equates femininity wiht a lack of self-control or with unruly lust. The orientation/purpose of cross-dressing determined whether it was sinful (unruly) or virtuous. Virginity as a profession offered some women a chance to “opt out” of performing femaleness. Mills’ point is that Christina is framed as having an inherent and unchanging disposition/orientation towards virginity, in parallel with how sexuality is (modernly) understood.
In general, women were less susceptible to accusations of sodomy. Their same-sex kisses and embraces were seen as less inherently carnal, and women’s cross-dressing provoked less outrage and gender anxiety than men’s cross-dressing (as long as no overt sexual activity were involved). See, for example, illustrated versions of Alan of Lille’s De Planctu Naturae, which depicts female-personified allegories in passionate physical embraces/kisses that carry only positive implications. These actions may even be described as a “nuptial embrace” when female-personified pairs are involved, while the same texts elsewhere condemn same-sex male relations. This contrast could be a difference in how same-sex bonds were interpreted, or it may be because the text’s target audience was male, and therefore warnings against male-male erotic activity was a practical matter, while concerns about female-female erotic activity were not immediately relevant.
A very common context for depicting physical expressions of same-sex friendship between women was the “visitation” between Mary and Elizabeth. Another conventional context was depictions of the “four daughters of God: mercy, truth, justice, peace” shown kissing and embracing each other. Mills points these out as demonstrating that depictions of female same-sex kisses and embraces cannot be assumed to imply erotics, even though the same gestures, when depicted in the Bibles Moralisés, are explicitly labeled as sexual. These positive images correspond to Traub’s category of “chaste femme love” which is assumed to be non-erotic, unlike the same physical actions between women in cross-dressing scenarios.
Shifting gears back to illustrated medieval editions of Ovid, the story of Diana and Callisto provides another context for depicting female same-sex eroticism. Here’s the basic story. Jupiter lusts after Callisto, one of Diana’s chaste nymphs. He disguises himself as Diana and persuades Callisto of the acceptability of erotics between women. His success at this becomes apparent when Callisto becomes pregnant, which is discovered by Diana and the other nymphs while bathing--providing an opportunity for artistic depictions of nudity. The bathing/discovery scene is the usual artistic focus of the Ovid moralisé manuscripts, but some also include depictions of the erotic encounter (kissing, embracing, the chin-chuck gesture) with Jupiter in disguise as Diana. Sometimes Jupiter’s true identity is signified by details of dress, posture, or stature that distinguish the false Diana from the true one, undermining the homoerotic context. As in other homoerotic encounters that are enabled by cross-dressing, these depictions of same-sex erotics must in some way reference a male/female encounter.
Mills asks whether texts about virginity address the homoerotic potential of all-female communities and concludes that they both contain and erase it by bringing it intermittently into view. (As in the Callisto story, which highlights the possibility of same-sex erotics but erases it by making the actual encounter heterosexual.)
Early modernists tend to date the eroticization of same-sex friendship to the early modern period. But at least for men, there are examples as early as the 12th century of suspicion of too-close male friendships. There have been a number of studies of this phenomenon among monks and male clergy, but no similar studies examine the overlap of love, friendship, and eroticism among nuns. Two arguments are offered for this lack of attention and concern. Firstly, that the medieval textual sources are primarily concerned with men. Second, that female same-sex friendship did not have the same public significance or power, and thus created less anxiety. Traub, for example, argues that depictions of “femme-femme love” (i.e., erotic expressions between feminine-coded figures) were not viewed as erotic because all participants are traditionally feminine.
[HRJ: Other studies argue a different framing--that the potential for anxiety came, not from female same-sex erotics, but from women intruding on male prerogatives. So the transgression in a cross-dressing homoerotic scenario came from the act of cross-dressing, not from the fact that two women were involved. Mills hints at this obliquely, but doesn’t seem to make the point directly.]
Anchorites were women who had a significant cultural/social role that challenged male dominance. Mills suggests that this is why their same-sex relationships (or their relationship to their own bodies) was policed with regard to erotic implications. Texts offering guidance for religious solitaries of both sexes address the question of sexual temptation, either with the self (masturbation) or with others. Aelred of Rievaulx, for example, warned against same-sex passion among both men and women. The 12th century Latin original of his text addresses this explicitly, but an English translation of the 14th century leans more toward “sin that must not be named” language. Other instructional texts suggest that masturbation could lead to same-sex activity.
In late 14th century England, in addition to internal rules for behavior, religious solitaries contended with accusations by critics of the church, such as the Lollards, who accused religious women of a variety of auto- and homoerotic sins, perhaps including the implication of dildo use. (The language is vague.) The general theory at the time was that any of the carnal sins could lead to other carnal sins. E.g., indulging in either lust or gluttony would lead to the other as well. This is why we find writers like Heloise expressing the opinion that fine dining and rich hospitality to convent guests would lead to the temptation of same-sex desire among nuns. This connection between the sins of sloth, gluttony, lust, and pride are often brought into descriptions of the “sins of Sodom.”
The 13th century English instructional manual for anchorites Ancrene Wisse also targets mixing with secular friends and family and entertaining them, and warns against specifics such as “playing games of tickle” and gossiping with their maidservants. The relevant passage follows the convention of saying, “I dare not be specific for fear of giving people ideas” but the context is the danger to an anchorite’s chastity of relationships with other women.
These texts aimed at anchorites (and often at a relatively small and highly specific population) explicitly identifies them as a community with a collective identity and orientation. “You...anchorites...according to one rule...all pull as one, all turned one way, and none away from the other...for each is turned toward the other in one way of living.” (Note that this doesn’t refer to living together as a physical community, as anchorites were by definition solitary.) Versions of Ancrene Wisse were later produced in altered form either for mixed audiences, including lay people, or even for male audiences, as signaled by a shift in pronouns and gendered references. These versions were less likely to include references to same-sex erotic potential or to masturbation, but rather focused on the genitals as the “entrance for lechery” unless used within marriage. Thus the source of sin continues to be be feminized, but rather than female persons, it is shifted to female genitalia.
Though it may seem odd to have this focus on potential erotic partners when addressing anchorites, Cristina of Markyate’s life included cohabitation with various spiritual partners, both male and female. And there is other evidence that female anchorites might live in pairs, as well as reference to female servants. Some other historians have noted that the anchoritic lifestyle may have created a space in which erotic possibilities between women could be explored.
There follows a brief discussion of viewing “queerness” as a resistance to normative ways of being, as opposed to being defined by specific orientations. But Mills seems to lean towards viewing chastity as a separate “orientation” apart from homosexuality and heterosexuality. It is “queer” in the sense of turning away from normative heterosexuality, but not necessarily because of any homosexual implications. But in the specific context of anchorites, because they were rooted on a boundary between secular and monastic lives, they could become an ambiguous fault line for the division between friendship and sodomy. The anchorhold was a “closet-like” space both in containing and concealing questionable behaviors. Both a private space and one with public visibility. There are a few pieces of legal evidence of times when this fault line cracked open, as in the 1444 trial of a religious recluse in Rottweil, Germany, who was accused of the “vice against nature which is called sodomy” with an unnamed laywoman.
The remaining portion of this chapter is devoted to the contexts and processes in which the concept of “sodomy” became equated specifically with anal penetration between men. A number of depictions from manuscript marginalia are offered. As this section isn’t relevant to the theme of this project, I haven’t summarized it in detail.
Mills continues his word-play, contrasting the “enclosed virgin” who is trying not to turn away from chastity, with the doomed sodomite, depicted as turning in hell on the spit that impales him in mockery of his sin. The anchorite turns away from temptation and toward God, while the sodomite turns pointlessly in place.
The comparison of male and female sexualities, as well as comparing treatments of gender and sexual orientation, shows that medieval thought did not see sodomy and related concepts as being in binary opposition to heterosexuality, at least under the modern understanding of the concept. The opposite of “straight” was not always homosexual, and gender deviance was interpreted independently of sexuality.
Mills cites Lochrie in pointing out that female sexualities often existed apart from concepts of sodomy, and an investigative focus on the latter may help erase them. He reiterates the usefulness of examining medieval concepts through admittedly anachronistic frameworks such as transgender.
A focus on sodomy can privilege male experience, whereas a focus on concepts such as virginity can find an intersection of male and female concerns. Mills also notes that some of the apparent chaos around representations of sodomy makes sense when actions and representations of them are interpreted according to ends rather than means. Thus depictions of Orpheus in erotic encounters with young boys are not treated as sodomy when the story is understood as symbolizing a turning from sin (women) to God (boys). This focus on interpretative purpose can also help explain apparently incoherent attitudes toward female-female eroticism, especially around butch-femme and lesbian-transgender contrasts that fail to align with modern expectations. The category of sodomy is (per Foucault) “utterly confused” primarily when filtered through a modern hetero/homo-sexual binary and is less confused when explored on its own terms.
Mills considers that neither a strict philological approach (that sticks to using the language and terminology of the text) nor an anachronistic approach (that uses modern category labels) will work universally. Historians must always negotiate between these positions and recognize the inherent ambiguity of “translating” the past for the present.