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.
Chapter 5 Orientations
I tend to turn up my skepti-meter when reading chapters like this one that overtly filter their interpretation through some sort of gimmick. In this case, the gimmick is the concept of “turning”, connecting the apparently diverse topics falling under the sodomy umbrella as being “turning” away from right behavior and toward wrong objects and actions. “Turning,” of course, is semantically connected with “orientation.” With that in mind...
* * *
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.
Add new comment