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LHMP #138d Mills 2015 Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages Chapter 3 The First Sodomite

Full citation: 

Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5

Publication summary: 

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.

Chapter 3 The First Sodomite

Several chapters in this book focus, such as this one, fairly exclusively on male-related topics. I haven't summarized them in nearly as much detail as the ones relevant to women.

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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.



That's a really interesting view of Orpheus -- not at all what I would have expected, as you say.

Yes, and I think that's his point. That modern logic often fails when trying to understand what medieval art is "saying."

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