Saints and Sinners – Homosexuality in the Middle Ages in Europe

Homosexuality in the Middle Ages was punished with death.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on April 9th, 2019

When the Holy Roman Empire, founded on the pillars of the church, was in its full blossom around the 1100s to the 1300s, homosexuality experienced its darkest hour. Same-sex couples and sexual acts were considered a crime against God and nature and punished hard, mostly with burning the convicted, as the punishment was set in the council of Jerusalem in 1120. One of the accusations against the Knights Templar was sodomy, a foul crime, if not the most severe blasphemy, for the French kingship and church at that time. 

Saints and Sinners – Homosexuality in the Middle Ages in Europe

It was the age of crusades and chivalry, and the most influential religious scholars to determine the philosophic landscape of Europe for centuries. But the High Middle Ages were also an era of lively-colored poetry. If one searches for traces of an LGBT in the underground, it can be found in poems and novels of that era, although this has to be enjoyed with caution as medieval literature is highly allegoric and its characters symbols for discourses at that time. Whereas a knight can kiss another knight in a fictional work, it doesn’t necessarily mean a same-sax relationship between those two. General interpretation sees such scenes mostly as descriptions of peace treaties, relationships between countries or different ideas of manhood and chivalry. But of course, authors can also transport hidden meanings with these pictures. 

A good example is the “Roman de la Rose,” written ion the 13thcentury. In its first part, called Guillaume de Lorris, a nameless protagonist joins a festivity in the garden of Déduit (joy, pleasure). He spots a beautiful rose mirrored in Narcissus’ fountain. Hit by Amor’s arrows, he falls in love with that rose and searches for it in the garden while allegories of “Fear”, “Shame,” or “Reason” instruct him about love. Of course, medieval literature still heavily borrows from Ancient Greek or Roman storytelling, and therefore adopts certain homoerotically connoted images. In this example, it’s no other than Narcissus who owns the fountain; the one who fell in love with his own self mirrored in the waters of a lake, and who searched for someone that is “just like himself” and therefore a man. Plus, the image of the rose is described as a phallic one, using references otherwise linked to the anal part of the body. Or more blatantly speaking; the rose is described as a butthole with which the protagonist falls in love with. 

Saints and Sinners – Homosexuality in the Middle Ages in Europe

And then, there were many historical figures who could be identified as homosexual today, when reading their biographies. One of those might be the famous Richard Lionheart who was rumored to have an affaire with Philip II Augustus, the king of France: 

“Richard, [then] duke of Aquitaine, the son of the king of England, remained with Philip, the King of France, who so honored him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the king of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the king of England was absolutely astonished and the passionate love between them and marveled at it.“[1]

Saints and Sinners – Homosexuality in the Middle Ages in Europe

Again, it is not clear how the translations of medieval texts are to be understood. The description of a close relationship between the two kings was commonly used as an indicator of their political allegiance. But then, in a world where same-sex love was punished with death, why use these strong connotations and images between two males after all? 

Well, declaring homosexuality (sodomy) as a crime against nature and God doesn’t mean it ceased to exist. People were born gay nevertheless, and as often in harsh times, literature was one of the escapes and safe passages to express ones secret desires, not only about peace in a time tortured by crusades and war. Hidden in deeply symbolic texts may lie the tiniest bits of an LGBT community oppressed but still brave enough to their very own understanding of ars amatoria (The Art of Love). 

[1]     John Boswell: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, Chicago 1980. 

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