People in medieval Europe did not have the concept of the homosexual or the heterosexual. Instead they distinguished between whether or not one was chaste or sexually active and whether or not one engaged in reproductive sex, the penetration of a vagina by a penis, or non-reproductive sex, such as anal or oral sex, regardless of the gender of those involved. They did not think in terms of sexual orientation, but rather in terms of the different kinds of sex acts that a person could perform or have performed on them. (Karras 2012, 8-9) Unfortunately, we do not know what homosexuals in medieval Europe thought about themselves. Instead we are generally forced to view the homosexual of medieval Europe through the words of authors concerned with the morality of Christian society, such as homophobic priests. (Karras, 172-3)
The authors of medieval Europe did not understand sex as a shared activity engaged in by two or more people of any gender. Sex was not something that people did together. It was something that one person did to another. Specifically, a man penetrating a women’s vagina with their penis. A medieval English text on the sinfulness of lust, for example, explains that the sin belongs to both parties: “the man that doth and the woman that suffreth.” While a 1395 summary of the interrogation of a male transvestite prostitute in London states that a priest “lay with him as with a woman” but that the prostitute also “lay as a man with many nuns.” (Karras, 3) Within this framework the man did and so was active while the women received and so was passive.
This way of thinking about sex would have grave implications for homosexual sex. A man penetrating another man was a perversion of how sex should be since a man’s role was to be active and penetrate, rather than to be passive and be penetrated. The 12th Century poet Alain of Lille wrote in his poem ‘The Plaint of Nature’ that “The active sex shudders in disgrace as it sees itself degenerate into the passive sex. A man turned woman blackens the fair name of his sex . . . He is subject and predicate; one and the same term is given a double application.” Nature as personified in the poem remarks that “the human race, fallen from its high estate, adopts a highly irregular (grammatical) change when it inverts the rules of Venus by introducing barbarisms in its arrangement of genders.” (Quoted in Karras, 3-4)
This way of thinking can be seen in the fact that the phrase “sin against nature” was often used as a synonym for sodomy. In medieval Europe the term sodomy was used in two senses. It either meant any sex that was not procreative intercourse, such as anal sex between two men, a man ejaculating their semen into any area other than a vagina, a man having anal sex with a women and so on or it referred specifically to anal sex between two men (Karras, 173) Sodomy in the sense of anal sex between two men was outlawed by the Church from the 12th century onward. The Third Lateran Council in 1179 stated that clerics who committed “that incontinence, which is against nature, because of which ‘God’s wrath came upon the sons of disobedience’ and consumed five cities with fire,” should be expelled from the clergy or do penance in a monastery, while lay people should be excommunicated. While secular jurisdictions, such as Castile, Portugal, several Italian towns and French counties, came to prescribe the death penalty for male same-sex relations during the course of the 13th century. Although we do not have surviving court records of this punishment being enforced until the 14th and 15th century. (Karras, 176)
Medieval authors do not frame a man who was anally penetrated by another man as having a sexual preference for men. Instead because they were penetrated and so played the passive role in sex it was thought that they had a preference for being a woman since to be a woman was to be penetrated. (Karras, 167) The idea that there was something feminine about being the passive partner can be seen in the sermons of Bernadino of Siena in the 15th century. Bernadino was so homophobic that he praised Venice for burning sodomites at the stake and found that the mere thought of sodomy filled his soul with “a horrible stench”. In his mind sodomy was an older man penetrating a passive teenage boy who invited sexual attention by wearing effeminate and elaborate clothing. (Karras, 178)
In part due to the sermons of Bernadino the city of Florence established an ‘Office of the Night’ in 1452. This city body had the task of placing boxes around Florence which people could deposit anonymous accusations of sodomy in. These accusations could in turn lead to prosecution and death. From the records of the ‘Office of the Night’ we know that 82.5% of active partners were 19 or older and that passive partners tended to be aged between 12 and 20, with 84% aged between 13 and 18. Only 3% of passive partners were over 20. Men would often begin their sexual encounters with other men as a passive partner before becoming an active partner as they aged and grew into an adult. There were of course exceptions to this rule. The 63 year old sodomite Salvi Panuzzi was condemned to death in 1496 but had his sentence commuted to a fine and life on bread and water. This was done because Panuzzi was a passive partner and the publicity of his execution would bring embarrassment to the city since it was much more improper for an older man to be acting like a woman than a young boy. (Karras, 179-80)
The medieval framing of sex as an active man penetrating a passive woman not only effected homosexual men. In the case of lesbians it was thought that since, in the absence of a dildo, no penetration with a phallic object happened it followed that lesbians were not even having sex, let alone perverting it. (Karras, 4) This viewpoint can be seen in a poem from 1178. It reads,
“These ladies have made up a game:
with two bits of nonsense they make nothing;
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker stir up their fire.
They don’t play at “poke in the paunch,”
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They have no concern for a beam in their scales,
nor a handle in their mold.
Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.” (Quoted Karras, 142)
An extreme case of the extent to which lesbian sex was not considered sex is that medieval medical writers recommended that women who lacked a legitimate sexual partner, such as virgins or widows, should have their genitalia stimulated by a midwife. This was advocated because it was thought that the regular emission of seed was necessary for a healthy life and that women, like men, emitted seeds through orgasm. Such a practice was not considered a sex act by medical writers. It was merely one woman, a medical practitioner, doing their professional duty in order to secure the good health of another woman.
The fact that lesbian sex was not considered sex is part of why it was subject to far less legal persecution than male homosexual sex. Historians have so far only found twelve prosecutions of lesbian sex in the entire medieval period. This is not because only a tiny number of women had sex with other women in medieval Europe. Rather it is because courts and judges were not in a position to understand what offence two women committed together unless they mirrored the penetrator-penetrated dichotomy of heterosexual sex. (Karras, 141) As a result of this, lesbian sex only became sex-like and so subject to prosecution when a dildo was involved. That dildo’s were used we know from such sources as a medical text from 1504. It tells us that wives of Italian merchants used dildos with each other while their husbands were away on business and thereby avoided the risk of pregnancy that a male lover brought. For a women to use a dildo on another women was to violate gender norms by being an active penetrator who acted like a man, rather than as a passive women who was penetrated. In such instances, like with male homosexual sex, it was considered a disturbance of the natural order. (Karras, 144)
An indication of the extent to which lesbian sex with a dildo was subject to greater disdain can be seen in the Penitential of Bede which assigns three years of penance for “a woman fornicating with a woman,” and seven for “nuns with a nun by means of an instrument.” Although the key factor here may be that the sexual transgression was performed by nuns, and so subject to greater punishment, rather than because the nuns used an “instrument”. (Karras, 141) A startling example of the risks that came with dildo use is the 1477 execution of the lesbian Katherina Hetzeldorfer in Speyer. Women testified that she wanted to “have her manly will” with them and “behaved exactly like a man with women.” Hetzeldorfer herself confessed that she used a “piece of wood that she held between her legs” and “that she made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it.” (Karras, 142) For the use of this home-made strap on dildo Hetzeldorfer was killed and traditional gender norms surrounding sex were re-enforced.
How medieval people thought about both homosexual men and lesbians provides a startling example of the extent to which homophobia and patriarchy are inter-twinned. The maintenance of patriarchy rested on a sexual division of labour whereby the man was the penetrator and the woman was the penetrated. Any deviation from this norm was sinful and a crime against God and nature. The medieval objection to homosexuality was not that there was something wrong with finding a member of the same sex attractive. Rather it was that to engage in homosexual sex was for a man to treat another man like a woman, for a man to act like a woman, or for a woman to act like a man. The price of subverting these gender roles through sex was in many parts of medieval Europe death. Just like today patriarchy in medieval Europe reproduced itself not only through violence against women but also through violence against any who challenged, subverted or violated the gender binary.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2012. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 2nd Edition. Routledge