Welcome back to Queer History 101!
This week, I sat down with Professor Ruth Karras to discuss queerness in the Medieval Ages. Ruth is a Professor of Medieval Women, Gender and Sexuality at Trinity College Dublin. She has published several books, but I discovered her through an article in Speculum: The Journal of Medieval Studies. Its title? “The Regulation of Sodomy in the Latin East and West.”
It raises the question: how did Ruth become interested in the medieval regulation of sodomy? According to Ruth, we can thank John Boswell for inspiring her while she was an undergraduate at Yale. Boswell was a celebrated medieval historian whose books––Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe and Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality––are considered seminal texts by most modern queer scholars.
Tragically, Boswell died of AIDS in 1994, but his work remains as important as ever. “Boswell’s big, revolutionary thesis was that the Roman church was not always hostile to, as he put it, gay people, although now we would say same-sex relationships and unions,” Ruth explained. “He argued that this is a development of the 13th century. Up through the 12th century, things were a lot more open and accepting.”
Though his research was a ground-breaking step forward for queer scholarship at the time, Boswell’s argument was also subject to criticism. “This came from pro and anti-church factions,” Ruth explained, “Conservative Catholics who said, ‘No, no, we know, we never accepted that,’ and from gay rights activists, who said, ‘no, no, the church never accepted that.’”
“Personally, I think he probably went a little too far,” Ruth added. “There wasn't state violence against people who engaged in same-sex activity until the 13th century, but it's not like there was total acceptance before that, either.”
At this point, most queer scholars generally agree with his thesis that the church was relatively lenient towards queer love in its early days. In fact, the notion of “sodomy” didn’t seem to exist until the 11th century, when it appeared in a text called The Book of Gomorrah by St. Peter Damien. “This was really nasty stuff,” Ruth explained, “About how polluting it is, and all that. He sent it to the Pope, who basically ignored it.”
Penalties against sodomy didn’t come until about 150 years later. So what caused the Church to change its stance?
“Boswell suggested that this was due to the Scholastic focus on nature and the unnatural and that anything unnatural was really bad,” Ruth explained.
But Karras has another explanation. “What I suggest is that there may be another factor and that is the sort of almost coincidental connection of have same-sex activity with Islam. To put it in very modern terms––that are not applicable in the Middle Ages and come with a lot of caveats––Islamophobia sort of brought homophobia along with it.”
The link between sexual deviancy and religious minorities had been around for a while. “There's a long tradition of anybody who is religiously deviant also being accused of being sexually deviant,” Ruth continued, “If you're accused of one kind of deviance, you're likely to be accused of another kind of deviance.”
Ruth recounted how Muslims, in the era of the Crusades, were often accused of “sodomy” or other deviant behaviors, like worshipping of idols (a false claim, given that idol worship was diametrically opposed to their theology). “I think a large part of this was to throw some stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” explained Ruth. “And [sodomy] was something that stuck.
I asked Ruth why the Church made these accusations. “It was a recruitment thing,” she answered. “You know, ‘We want people to go and fight.’ But they're not going to fight just because the Pope says this would be a good thing to do. They're going to go fight, because ‘look at all the terrible things that are being done to your fellow Christians.’”
This intersectionality of the persecution of marginalized identities is an unfortunate part of our queer history. However, the medieval ages still had several positive representations of queerness. In her most recent book, Thou Art the Man, Ruth explores several of these examples, including the re-telling of the undeniably queer biblical story of David and Jonathan.
Queer love can also be found in medieval monastic communities. “There's a lot of love poetry, written by monks to each other or nuns to each other,” Ruth told me. Several historians push back against this interpretation, however, insisting these are examples of ‘brotherly or sisterly love’.
“It’s a linguistic double standard,” Ruth explained, “If we see a man writing that kind of language to a woman, we assume that either they're having sex or he wants to. And if you see a man writing like that to another man, then you say, ‘Oh, see, he's, he's using this to express his spiritual and brotherly love.’ I'm not gonna say it definitely means they're sleeping together, but it's definitely queer love.”
This touch of optimism seems to be a rare but important part of Ruth’s work. “In terms of history, I'm generally someone who sees the glass half empty, and I tend to be a historian of the negative parts,” she said, “but sometimes I try and see the glass half full.”
Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, third edition (Routledge 2017)
Unmarriages: Women, Men, and Sexual Unions in Medieval Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).
Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England, (Oxford University Press, 1996).
Slavery and Society in Medieval Scandinavia (Yale University Press, 1988). Chapter reprinted in Critical Readings on Global Slavery, ed. Damian Alan Pargas and Felicia Roşu (Brill, 2017), 699-711.