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LHMP #138g Mills 2015 Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages Conclusions

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.


This finishes up Mills' study of visual depictions of "sodomy" in medieval art, in all it's various meanings. A fascinating study that demonstrates how much more information on the history of sexuality is still out there to be investigated and presented!

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Mills continues his word-play, contrasting the “enclosed virgin” who is trying not to turn away from chastity, with the doomed sodomite, depicted as turning in hell on the spit that impales him in mockery of his sin. The anchorite turns away from temptation and toward God, while the sodomite turns pointlessly in place.

The comparison of male and female sexualities, as well as comparing treatments of gender and sexual orientation, shows that medieval thought did not see sodomy and related concepts as being in binary opposition to heterosexuality, at least under the modern understanding of the concept. The opposite of “straight” was not always homosexual, and gender deviance was interpreted independently of sexuality.

Mills cites Lochrie in pointing out that female sexualities often existed apart from concepts of sodomy, and an investigative focus on the latter may help erase them. He reiterates the usefulness of examining medieval concepts through admittedly anachronistic frameworks such as transgender.

A focus on sodomy can privilege male experience, whereas a focus on concepts such as virginity can find an intersection of male and female concerns. Mills also notes that some of the apparent chaos around representations of sodomy makes sense when actions and representations of them are interpreted according to ends rather than means. Thus depictions of Orpheus in erotic encounters with young boys are not treated as sodomy when the story is understood as symbolizing a turning from sin (women) to God (boys). This focus on interpretative purpose can also help explain apparently incoherent attitudes toward female-female eroticism, especially around butch-femme and lesbian-transgender contrasts that fail to align with modern expectations. The category of sodomy is (per Foucault) “utterly confused” primarily when filtered through a modern hetero/homo-sexual binary and is less confused when explored on its own terms.

Mills considers that neither a strict philological approach (that sticks to using the language and terminology of the text) nor an anachronistic approach (that uses modern category labels) will work universally. Historians must always negotiate between these positions and recognize the inherent ambiguity of “translating” the past for the present.

Time period: 

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