Gay Relationships Through History: Twelfth-Century Europe

With so many sweeping changes in the sociopolitical landscape this past election, 2012 has proven to be a pivotal year for the LGBT community. Yet the debate for equality continues to rage on, and even these days, it’s not uncommon to hear some opponents of same-sex rights attribute their antigay stance to a firm grasp of Christian values and devotion to the traditional family.  The country stands at a serious turning point in the fight for LGBT rights, and it seems apropos to take this discussion one step further and consider the role these notions play in the national LGBT conversation, which begs the question: how did gay become associated with nontraditional values?

Tracing the relationship between homosexuality and Christianity back about a thousand years actually shows that, prior to the twelfth century, non-Christian and even early Christian societies throughout Europe often (though admittedly not always) regarded homosexual activities with relative indifference, particularly in Mediterranean areas that emphasized a patriarchal social order. But by the time the twelfth century rolled around, corruption of the Church was on the rise in the holiest cities from England to Rome, and top theologians, from Sts. Peter Damian and Ivo of Chartres to Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury, were calling for reform. Alongside other institutional problems, limitations on clerical marriage and the subsequent repression of heterosexual urges had apparently led to an increase in same-sex relations within the clergy, and as society’s intolerance for nonconformity continued to grow, reformers began to get more aggressive in reasserting the moral authority of the Church.

At their insistence, King Henry I called into session the Council of London (1102), whose task it was to debate and initiate clerical reform in response to moral decay within the Church. It was in this precise moment in history, in the presence of the ecclesiastical dignitaries and the leading men of the kingdom, that homosexuality was officially declared a sin by the Roman Catholic Church. The full list of the council’s decreed ordinances can be found here, but interestingly enough, as independent scholar James Neill and Fordham professor John Boswell have both noted, this enactment against homosexuality was, it seems, never actually published. Boswell suggests this may have been in deference to a couple of things:

One, that there was a hesitation to go against the reformist Pope Leo IX, who forbade extreme measures to be taken against identified homosexuals in the clergy. Or two, that Anselm of Canterbury—who himself urged King Henry I to call the council—was gay. There are other theories as well, but at any rate, the public controversies stirred by attacks on homosexuality during that period were often considered exaggerated or politically grounded since it was not until the Third Lateran Council in Rome (1179) that the decree was issued to punish homosexuals by way of excommunication.

While much of the discussion surrounding medieval sexuality does focus on the impact of the Church, the truth of the matter is that it was in no way uncommon for actual members of the laity—as well as the clergy—to engage in sexual practices deemed unnatural by the Church, and in some cases, condemning homosexuality was as much a function of bypassing and managing the inheritance laws of a feudal society as it was one of repressing same-sex marriage. Moreover, it was not singly male-male relationships that were condemned; all sexual behavior was in some way vilified, with the exception of a marriage in which sex was only intended for procreation. Then again, the only sanctioned position was missionary.

To a large degree, though, much of the controversy we continue to experience is as much a consequence of the early Christian impulse to order as it was an attempt to control sexual behaviors, although one side effect is that, without a twelfth-century feudal economy to justify that system, we are left with the traces of an ascetic culture that characterized virtue, at least in part, by repression of sexuality in all its forms. The tension in that disjuncture is evident today, for example in the recent controversy involving the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), whose mission involves “collaborating in Catholic church and societal efforts that influence systemic change, studying significant trends and issues within the church and society, [and] utilizing our corporate voice in solidarity with people who experience any form of violence or oppression.”  As part of that mission, the sisters at LCWR have been openly accepting of homosexuality. A recent investigation by the Holy See, however, concluded that the LCWR’s “radical feminism” and departure from Catholic teachings on sexuality distort and undermine Church doctrine. While the LCWR risks decertification by the Vatican office for their stance and talks are ongoing, the nuns continue to advocate for LGBT acceptance and rights, and the sheer volume of support they have received both within and outside of the Church indicates a shift in cultural norms that have lately been cause for discussion on the national (and international) level. While looking at the foundation of these norms may not lead to doctrinal modifications or otherwise change the minds of antigay lobbyists, unraveling the history of sexuality may at least serve to make the discourse of homosexuality—and LGBT equality itself—more accessible for everyone.

By Stephanie Shea, Staff Contributor


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