Bullough , Vern L. and James Brundage eds. 1982 Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X
Vern L. Bullough wrote a number of articles in the 1970s through 1990s on topics relating to crossdressing and “transvestism” in the middle ages. They are all thoroughly outdated, especially with respect to contextualizing gender presentation as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation. I’m going to summarize the article using more current terminology (that would not have been available to Bullough at the time this was written).
This article operates within a Freudian worldview but tries to challenge a purely psychological approach to understanding historic attitudes towards crossdressing by examining the differential attitudes towards masculine and feminine presentations and how they related to assumed status differences between the sexes.
Bullough does not reject the Freudian view of transgender presentation, but rather discusses variation in the reception to the phenomenon depending on the assigned gender of the person in question and the context in which the transgender presentation occurred.
For example, transmasculine presentation by AFAB (assigned female at birth) persons could be tolerated and even encouraged because masculinity was more highly valued and it was considered admirable for a woman to aspire to it. In contrast, the negative value assigned to femininity made it difficult for medieval societies to understand why an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person would perform femininity--and thus a decrease in status--unless for some ulterior purpose such as illicit sexual access to women.
Temporary cross-gender performance was tolerated in the context of specific events such as carnival or Halloween, or as part of overt masquerades. The Biblical reference cited for opposition to cross-dressing (“The women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment”) does not explain this situational allowance or the differential attitude towards masculine and feminine presentation.
Bullough explores how these differential attitudes played out in the biographies of “transvestite saints”. Women who “became male for Christ,” by setting aside not only their female presentation but their sexuality were viewed as praiseworthy, though it’s uncertain to what extent actual women were accepted and praised for doing so (as opposed to the safely legendary saints). But there are no legends of male transvestite saints (that is AMAB saints presenting as female), not only because this would be a loss of status, but also because trans-femininity was viewed as inherently associated with eroticism. The handful of anecdotes about AMAB persons living in convents as women invariably involved the suspicion or fact of heterosexual fornication.
An assortment of the most archytypal “transvestite saint” biographies are presented and discussed, including several more plausibly historic anecdotes from the medieval period proper, plus mention of Joan of Arc and the legend of Pope Joan.
This is followed by contexts where male crossdressing (i.e., AMAB persons with female presentation) were permitted, such as dramatic performance in contexts where all performers were male, or during Carnival, which in some regions was strongly associated with cross-gender performance.
Bullough concludes that Western hostility to cross-gender performance is far more rooted in issues of change of social status than in Biblical prohibition.
This is an overview of treatments of human sexuality as indicated in the title. Only a very small amount of material pertains to same-sex sexuality, so this summary will be brief. The subject matter is medical, astrological, and philosophical treatises of the 12-15th centuries, either written in or translated into Latin.
In general, medical texts treated sexuality with a matter-of-fact approach and did not reflect moral judgments on their topics even when they noted social attitudes towrads them. Astrological texts also avoided moral judgments although in this case the attitude may be attributed to the deterministic approach of the field itself. If the heavens determined one’s sexuality, what was there to condemn?
Astrological evidence regarding a woman’s virginity might seem a strange place to find discussion of sexual practices, but the discussion notes that the loss of virginity is a complicated question. A woman might technically lose her virginity without having intercourse with a man by means of stimulation by her own hands or someone else’s which brought her to orgasm. (Although the text does not specifically mention same-sex activity, it touches on sexual techniquest that don’t involve a penis.)
Astrological texts recognized a large array of sexual orientations, in the sense of the types of sexual partners and preferences in sexual activites that a person prefers. The postion that a person’s sexual response will be determined at birth is in contrast to the competing medieval theory that “sodomy” was a moral failing and was something any person might fall into.
Astrological texts are unusually forthcoming in recognizing the potential for female same-sex desire, although it is typically framed in heteronormative terms. A particular stellar configuration “increases the virility of their souls and makes them lustful for unnatural congresses, when they act as if their female friends were their wives. ... they may perform these acts either secretly or openly.” Another text elaborates that “act as if their female friends were their wives’ means “they rub one another as if they were men.” One Italian tract suggests that planetary conjunctions can also cause a change of physiological sex later in life.
In medical literature, William of Saliceto was one of the first writers to advance the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire, though his version involves what appears to be a prolapsed uterus rather than the clitoris.