Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

by Robert Mills

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During the Middle Ages in Europe, some sexual and gendered behaviors were labeled “sodomitical” or evoked the use of ambiguous phrases such as the “unmentionable vice” or the “sin against nature.” How, though, did these categories enter the field of vision? How do you know a sodomite when you see one?
In Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills explores the relationship between sodomy and motifs of vision and visibility in medieval culture, on the one hand, and those categories we today call gender and sexuality, on the other. Challenging the view that ideas about sexual and gender dissidence were too confused to congeal into a coherent form in the Middle Ages, Mills demonstrates that sodomy had a rich, multimedia presence in the period—and that a flexible approach to questions of terminology sheds new light on the many forms this presence took. Among the topics that Mills covers are depictions of the practices of sodomites in illuminated Bibles; motifs of gender transformation and sex change as envisioned by medieval artists and commentators on Ovid; sexual relations in religious houses and other enclosed spaces; and the applicability of modern categories such as “transgender,” “butch” and “femme,” or “sexual orientation” to medieval culture.
Taking in a multitude of images, texts, and methodologies, this book will be of interest to all scholars, regardless of discipline, who engage with gender and sexuality in their work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226169262
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/27/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 34 MB
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About the Author

Robert Mills is a reader in medieval art at University College London. He is the author of Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture and coeditor of Rethinking Medieval Translation: Ethics, Politics, Theory. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

By Robert Mills

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16926-2


Translating Sodom

Paris, in the decades around 1200, proved to be an especially vibrant location for the production of antisodomy discourse. Toward the end of the twelfth century, the Parisian scholar Peter the Chanter (d. 1197) devoted a lengthy chapter in his Verbum adbreviatum —a practical moral guide for the Paris clergy—to the Sodomitic vice (uicio sodomitico). Peter puts the practice on a par with murder, the only other sin he says "cries out" to heaven from earth. Whereas according to the scriptures God "created male and female for the multiplication of men" (paraphrasing Genesis 1:27–28), Sodomites, like murderers, destroy humanity by undermining this work (opus). The moralist pays particular attention to the effects of the practice on gender identity, arguing that since woman was fashioned from man's side in Eden—a reference to the account of creation in Genesis 2:21—God henceforth decreed that there would be intercourse only between men and women, lest any should think them androgynes (androgeos). In other words, precisely because there is a risk that differences between male and female may be blurred, stemming from the fact that female is effectively derived from male, sexual relations need to maintain a commitment henceforth to sexual dimorphism. Androgynous individuals should take care to conform to only one sexual role, dictated by the organ (instrumentum) by which she or he is most aroused (calescit) or the one by which she or he is most weakened (infirmus). And if this is not possible she or he must remain perpetually celibate, because "alteration/inversion [alternitatis] is a sign of Sodomitic vice [uicii sodomitici], which is detested by God."

Defined, with reference to Romans 1.26–27, as a variety of uncleanness in which women "changed the natural use into that which is unnatural" and "males, abandoning the natural use of the female, burned in their lusts, males doing evil with males," the vice in question is characterized by Peter as having devastating effects on the laws of nature, as attested by both the scriptures and historical example:

Such men, passive and feeble [patici et enervati], who change themselves from males to females [se masculos conuertunt in feminas], abusing feminine coitus [coitu femineo], are kept as women by the pharaoh for his pleasure. They are inciters [irritatores] of Sardanapalus, a man who was more corrupt than any woman. Jeremiah also, at the end of Lamentations, adds to his long lament and sorrow over the ruin and captivity of the city a complaint and groan about Sodomitic vice [uicio sodomitico], saying, "They abused the young men indecently, and boys have perished on wood." Such men were struck not only dumb but blind knocking on Lot's door at noon, so that seeing, they did not see [ut uidentes non uideant].

In this passage, the theologian compresses together ideas that will be encountered repeatedly throughout this book. First, sodomy—at least in its male form—is imagined as a mode of coitus that has gendered consequences for its practitioners. It mirrors corruption in general, embodied by the references to pharaoh and to the legendary last ruler of Assyria, Sardanapalus, whose downfall, according to the ancient Greek historian Ctesias, was attributable to the king's taste for luxurious living and effeminacy. Also it echoes female embodiment specifically, since male sodomites engage in intercourse in "feminine" fashion. Second, the vice is rooted in a well-known but ambiguous biblical narrative, the story of the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19, via a quotation from another biblical text, Lamentations 5:13, which is interpreted by Peter as referring to the abuse of male youths by the city's inhabitants. This reference highlights the significance of another category, age, in the vice's definition, while retaining a sense of vagueness about the precise practices involved. Third, the sin of Sodom is depicted as a variety of moral blindness, a mode of "seeing" that literally fails to see. This formulation, which is a citation from Luke 8:10, follows the reference in Genesis 19:9–11 to the Sodomites' punishment by blindness. Sodomy's status as a crime of corrupt looking is further underscored by the Chanter's reference, immediately prior to this passage, to the moment when Lot's wife looks back at the city, as she escapes its destruction with her family, and is turned into a pillar of salt. Interpreting the wife's fate as a sign that God wishes to remove all memory of this crime, all "trace of its enormity," he portrays Sodom's punishment explicitly as a transition from visibility to invisibility.

Responses to the problems identified by Peter the Chanter in his chapter on sodomy in the Verbum adbreviatum were legion in subsequent decades, as several documents emanating from Parisian schools in the early thirteenth century attest. One member of the Chanter's circle, Peter of Roissy (d. ca.1213), who toward the end of his life became head of the cathedral school at Chartres, touched upon the issue in several chapters of his Manuale de mysteriis ecclesiae (ca. 1208/11), where he pays particular attention to the perceived lenience with which unnatural crimes were being treated by church authorities at the time. The roughly contemporary Liber poenitentialis (Penitential Book) of Robert of Flamborough (d. 1224), a manual of penance intended for the use of confessors, which was compiled in Paris and drew on work by other twelfth-century thinkers such as Alan of Lille (who himself probably spent time in the city), sets out a precise code of practice regarding the investigation of sins against nature. Presented as a sample interview between a priest and a sinner, Robert's text recommends a manner of questioning by the confessor that gathers all the necessary information from the penitent without giving the game away to those who might otherwise be corrupted by an awareness of previously unheard-of practices. What's important, as far as Robert's model interviewer is concerned, is the status of the penitent's partners in crime—whether they are men or women, cleric or lay, married or unmarried—and the length of time over which the crime was committed; the corruption of "innocents" is also singled out for attention. But we are not afforded a glimpse of the sexual activities themselves, for as Robert is quick to point out in his reflections on the sample dialogue he has provided, this might itself subsequently become a source of corruption. Reflecting on how afterward the penitent may be asked if he has sinned against nature (contra naturam) or had sex in an unusual way (extraordinarie), Robert adds that if asked what is meant by "unusual," he would not answer for the sinner would know (non respondebo ei; ipse viderit): "I never make mention of anything that might become an occasion for sinning, but rather speak of generalities [generalibus] that everyone knows are sins." Robert thus follows the Chanter's lead in imagining sodomy as a crime of imitation, one that can be approached only obliquely through encounters with alternative categories. Putting a stop to sins against nature requires that they be rendered unspeakable, invisible; but this means approaching them via other, more knowable varieties of vice.

The Parisian intellectual obsession with sodomy culminated in the work of the master of theology at the University of Paris, William of Auvergne (ca. 1180–1249), who was appointed as the city's bishop in 1228. William's own penitential manual, the Summa de poenitentia, treats sins against nature (which include, in his definition, masturbation, incest, and other behaviors that cause men to waste their seed outside the proper vessel) as a crime so terrible that the air itself is corrupted by its very mention. This motif of unspeakability, which William attributes to Gregory the Great, is embodied by the inhabitants of Sodom themselves, who the author declares became mute in their confessions before God. Corruptions of nature such as androgyny, itself one of the symptoms of luxuria or disorderly desire, are compared by William with the errors of pagans and idolaters; sodomites are depicted as "imitators" of nature, who destroy humanity with their debased forms of worship. In some parts of the world, unspecified by the author, the sin is practiced openly; but preachers themselves refuse to give it a name, describing it instead as the unmentionable vice (crimen nefandum).

But what about when transgressions of the laws of nature such as this are represented not in speech or text but in art? This chapter focuses on a set of manuscripts, emanating from Paris at precisely the time when the city's scholars and clerics were devoting so much attention to the issue, that attempted to do just that. The earliestBibles moralisées or "moralized Bibles," as they are now known, were produced in Paris in the 1220s and 1230s in a royal setting. Collectively they contain within their richly decorated pages what is arguably one of the largest collections of images visualizing "sodomitical" couplings in medieval western European art. The best known of these images (fig. 3 and plate 3) appears in the earliest example of the genre, Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 2554 (hereafter Vienna 2554). In keeping with the overall aim of these books to moralize episodes from the Bible visually and textually, Vienna 2554 juxtaposes the temptation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:6 with a scene portraying two couples—one a pair of males, the other a pair of women or girls—embracing tightly, looking into one another's eyes, and, in the case of the female couple, engaging in an act of kissing. This pair of miniatures has been reproduced in several publications in recent years, including two prominent surveys of the history of homosexuality. One, James Saslow's Pictures and Passions (1999), an exploration of homosexuality in the visual arts from the ancient world to the present, argues that the moralizing scene "spotlights male and female homosexual couples equally," by showing how, just as Adam and Eve sinned through the mouth by eating from the tree of knowledge, "the kissing sodomites lying on their beds below take in the forbidden fruit of another's body." The other, a world history of gay life and culture edited by Robert Aldrich (2006), uses the same moralization miniature to illustrate medieval social and religious attitudes to homosexuality. Camille also discusses the miniature in two of his books, describing how the scene produces an "explicit" representation of homosexual sex, including a rare image of "lesbian" desire.

The most "unmentionable" of crimes, which should not, according to Peter the Chanter and his followers, even be named, let alone visualized, enters into visibility in Paris at precisely the time when the reins were supposedly tightening regarding its knowability. Additionally the sinners in this particular scene have acquired a role, in contemporary scholarship, as the poster boys and girls of medieval homosexuality. Although they stand in for the great unknowable, the assumption is that we basically know what we're seeing when confronted with these images. Added to this is the fact that some of the most vigorous condemnations of unnatural sin in medieval Paris at this time were produced by William of Auvergne, the city's bishop, who was also, as it happens, the personal confessor to the woman for whom the earliest Bible moralisée was probably made. Blanche of Castile (d. 1252), wife and after 1226 widow of Louis VIII of France, has been identified as the patron behind at least one and possibly all four of the early thirteenth-century Bibles moralisées. The oldest surviving volume, Vienna 2554, which contains texts in Old French, is likely to have been produced for the queen herself in the 1220s; a much-expanded Latin version (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 1179, hereafter Vienna 1179) may well have been a gift from Blanche to her husband, King Louis, a few years later; the massive, three-volume set known as the Bible of Saint Louis (Toledo, Tesoro de Catedral MS 1) and its twin (comprising Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 270b, hereafter Bodley 270b; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS latin 11560; London, British Library, Harley MSS 1526 and 1527) were possibly commissioned by Blanche again, in the 1230s, as gifts for her son Louis—the future Louis IX—and the prince's own wife, Marguerite of Provence. Each manuscript contains a series of images portraying homoerotic behavior, as well as depictions of other activities characterized as sodomitical. William of Auvergne's advice that crimes of this sort not even be named fails to apply in these instances, because the remarks are incorporated into a manual of penance. As such they do not extend to the regulation of visual images. It is nonetheless striking that members of the French royal family are being confronted with depictions of sodomitic behavior in such a context. Why were books made for, and probably commissioned by, one of William's own confessing subjects the place in which the unmentionable vice suddenly became representable?

One answer to this question would be to make a comparison with Foucault's evaluation of what he calls the "repressive hypothesis." Although Foucault's main concern, in the first volume of his History of Sexuality, is with the period between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, his argument also applies to medieval visual encounters with sodomy. The widely held idea among twentieth-century Westerners that in the nineteenth century sexuality was repressed and thereby rendered unspeakable is, Foucault submits, illusory; in actuality discourse on sexuality proliferated in the Victorian era usually associated with "repressive" attitudes. Similarly, for all its supposed unmentionability, sodomy was far from absent or unimagined in the Middle Ages. The images and texts discussed in this book, and indeed the critical literature that has built up around them, could not exist without a rich, multimedia presence for sodomy in European cultures before modernity. Likewise my argument in this chapter is that the Bibles moralisées need to be viewed in light of a surge of interest in the topic of sodomy in thirteenth-century Paris, a discursive explosion generating visual as well as verbal responses.

To understand why homoeroticism enters the field of vision at this juncture, we also need to understand what the owners of these manuscripts saw when they encountered such depictions within their pages. Beginning with the miniature moralizing the fall in Vienna 2554, this chapter will seek to complicate interpretations that view it simply through the lens of homosexuality, defined as a minoritarian identity category. I open with a detailed analysis of this scene, before discussing treatments of the fall and its commentaries in subsequent examples of the genre. Turning, in the section that follows, to the structures of dissemination themselves, I view the books' sodomitic imaginary specifically through the lens of translation. Sodomy is always conceived, in the Bibles moralisées, via derivative structures: its visibility depends on its status as an imitation or bad copy of an originary ideal. This ideal, according to the moral universe of the books' makers, conforms ultimately to the law of nature. Caught between the visible and the invisible, sodomy, as a corruption of natural law, is established as an experience in translation.

First Things First: Moralizing the Fall

If, according to John's gospel, "in the beginning was the Word," then the attitude adopted by the makers of the Bibles moralisées is at odds with such a line of thinking. Unusually for illuminated manuscripts in this period, these thirteenth-century volumes have texts that likely were added by scribes only after the images had been completed by artists. This conclusion is partly based on the fact that certain pictures spill out of the medallion frame into the area normally occupied by the texts; texts have been carefully written around these zones of pictorial overspill (fig. 4). Taking account of this special status accorded to images, which disrupts the hierarchy traditionally understood between word and image, this investigation of the Vienna 2554 rendition of the fall will begin with the miniatures themselves. In Vienna 2554, more than any of the other Bibles moralisées, images take the lead.

Among the seven principal surviving models, Vienna 2554 is unique in that each page consists of two narrow columns of text, to the left and right, split into eight boxes; these eight captions correspond to the eight medallions in the central zone, which are arranged so that a scene illustrating a text from the Bible appears above a corresponding scene that comments on and offers a moralized interpretation of the biblical image (plate 3). This unique page layout yields multiple interpretations: images connect to texts, texts to images, texts to texts, and images to images, without a single dominant reading and viewing pattern. Users of the manuscript are confronted with a complex web of scanning possibilities; texts cannot be read sequentially without intermittently browsing the intervening images. The implications of this interactive viewing process are potentially far-reaching. If, as demonstrated here, the miniature moralizing the fall in Vienna 2554 is embedded in a relational structure, one that determines how individual scenes can be read and viewed, then analysis cannot be restricted to a single image-text combination. We also need to pan out, as it were, to gain a perspective on the Bible's overall mise-en-page.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Jerome in a Dress

1 Translating Sodom
First Things First: Moralizing the Fall
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bibles moralisées and Translation
Sodomitry, Rats, and Hemorrhoids
For Your Eyes Only: Reception, Audience, Impact

2 Transgender Time
How to Do the History of Transgender
“A Strange and Perverse Adultery”: Sequence and Imitation in Hildegard’s Scivias
Ovid in Other Words: Iphis and Ianthe, and Their Transformations
How to Do Queer with Things
Imag(in)ing Transgender: Illustrated Ovide moralisé
Presenting Transgender: Christine de Pizan’s Le livre de la mutacion de Fortune
Lesbian Futures: Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy

3 The First Sodomite
Sidestepping Orphic Pederasty in the Middle Ages
Unnatural Unions and “Masculine” Love in the Ovide moralisé
Other Medieval Responses to Orpheus: Gender Inversion and “Un-love”
Orpheus, “First Sodomite,” in Art
Orpheus with Lot’s Wife: Retro-vision and Gender
Looking/Feeling Backward

4 The Sex Lives of Monks
Vézelay, Mary Magdalene, and Translatio
Eugenia, Temptation, and Transformation
Ganymede in Hell
Benedictine Regulations of Sex
Ganymede Revisited: Ambivalence, Translatio, Divine Love
The Sex Crimes of Priests

5 Orientations
Holding it Straight: Virginity as a Sexual Orientation
“Sodom Thy Sister”: Friendship, Sodomy, and the Anchorhold
Phenomenology of the Anus
The Sodomites of San Gimignano


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