Of sodomists, sex and sin the Middle Ages – not as clearcut as one thinks
Today, I have invited Charlene Newcomb to visit with me. We originally met over Facebook, but came face to face with each other at the latest HNS Conference which, I believe, has reinforced our friendship. Once you’ve hugged someone for real, they’re sort of more permanently engraved in your heart.
Anyway, one of the things Charlene and I discussed when we met, was her excellent book, Men of the Cross. As you can guess from the cover, this is a book about the crusades – specifically the Third Crusade, the one led by Richard Lionheart, including such unforgettable incidents as the siege of Acre, the mass-slaughter of Muslim prisoners, the horrific heat, rain, mud, and snow (I know! But yes, snow…) on the march to Jerusalem, and finally, King Richard’s capture in Bavaria after he had departed the Holy Land.
Many people write about the Crusades. Charlene’s book, however, is the first one I’ve read which features a love story between two men. I recall being somewhat taken aback when I realised just what sort of feelings Stephan harbours for young Henry, and one part of me was thinking “hang on: did they do guy-guy love & sex back then?”
Charlene: Well of course they did! Why else would the Church have had a whole list of penances ready to dispense if it wasn’t happening? (More about that later!) Can I assume you realised where the story was headed, and then questioned my sanity?
Anna: Your sanity? Nope. But it was an unusual element, one that I found intriguing. Plus, I couldn’t help feeling a bit sorry for your protagonists. The rainbow parade wasn’t exactly around at the time, was it?
Charlene: The book is about conflict on so many different levels. If the reader feels for the characters, I’m going my job, right? And you are correct – no rainbow parades, no public displays of affection, other than what might have been a normal greeting kiss. However, there were places where same-sex unions were sanctioned by the clergy in the Middle Ages, though I don’t deal with that directly.
Anna: Wait, wait: same-sex unions sanctioned by medieval clergy?
Charlene: Yep. In the 12th or early 13th century, the chronicler Gerald of Wales describes an Irish ceremony where two men enter a church, celebrate Mass, and with “the prayers of priests, they are permanently united as if in some marriage.” Liturgical documents have been identified that describe the “Office of Same Sex Union” (10th & 11th centuries) and “The Order for Uniting Two Men” (11th & 12th Century). These and other instances are cited in research by John Boswell, a 20th century scholar who identified texts from numerous European (including Vatican) archives. Boswell identifies medieval same-sex unions that included many of the trimmings of heterosexual unions of those times. His work is controversial, but there are other historians who corroborate his findings.
Anna: Wow – nothing new under the sun, hey? I am somewhat stunned – just as I was surprised when reading your book, as rarely do novels set in those times have gay protagonists.
Charlene: This quote is an inspiration to me: “Be bold. Take risks. Surprise them.” I did. Mainstream historical fiction may not explore this path, but there is a sub-genre of historical fiction that is LGBTQ. Some of those stories take place in medieval times; and there are historicals that have a gay character, but the few I know of generally don’t include a romantic relationship.
Anna: These days, we’re mostly comfortable with the fact that there are some people who prefer same-gender relationships, just as we’re pretty relaxed about sex. The Middle Ages, however, had an anything but permissive approach to sex in general – and definitely not when we’re talking about what the Church so sweepingly covered as “sodomy”.
Charlene: You’re right: “sodomy” covered a spectrum of sex-related sins – not only restricted to sex between two people of the same gender. Getting into that medieval mind-set to understand the Church’s view on sodomy helped me frame Stephan and Henry’s characters and attitudes.
Anna: Back then, the general approach to relationships was that sex was essentially always a sin – unless it happened between man and wife for pro-creational purposes.
Charlene: Exactly. Not just a sin, but mortal sin. Still, the threat of eternal hellfire and damnation did not stop people from sinning. Shall we go through that litany?
Anna: Why not? “Spilling your seed” – e.g. having sex without actively “planting” a child (or trying to) – was considered a terrible sin. Masturbation was a sin, doggy style was a sin, loving your pregnant wife was a sin, sleeping with a whore was a sin, and – it goes without saying – man sleeping with man was a sin. Not much worse than the others, though…
Charlene: Sleeping with anyone who was not your spouse was a sin. Sex – even with your spouse – was also a sin on certain days of the year. One scholar noted that if you marked off all the days when sex was forbidden, that would leave about 40 days in the year when a man and wife could have sex. Bummer, eh?
Anna: Yeah, but somehow I think people then were as people are now – we all need love and intimacy, and if indulging led to extra penance after the next confession, so be it.
Charlene: AMEN to that!
Anna: Getting back to the subject: In principle, when a medieval person spoke of sodomy – or was accused of engaging in it – this could be any type of sexual activity outside of marital sex, whether you did it alone or with “a friend”. It is also important to understand that the desire to pigeonhole people based on their sexual inclinations is a very modern invention. Medieval people had no need to label anyone as being straight or gay or whatever. Lust was a mortal sin, a desire to be fought tooth and nail, and whether your “baser instincts” led you to sleeping with your wife on a forbidden day, or your young handsome squire, well, who cared? You’d sinned, full stop.
We can see from medieval depictions of the Last Judgement that men who had indulged in homo-erotic pleasures were in for a tough time once they were in hell, but so were the usurers and the gluttons – who, interestingly enough, were also considered as sodomites. (I guess combining food and sex would have been amajor, major no no) And yet, given the fact that there are so many explicit depictions of eternal punishment, one must assume men did love men, just as women loved women. Interestingly enough, medieval society rarely consider two women capable of engaging in sexual acts. Sex was an act of penetration, and women had nothing with which to penetrate.
Charlene: Ah, but there was the dildo (or its equivalent) – even back in medieval times! Penitentials, or Church rules, listed sins and their appropriate penances. Would you be surprised to learn that penances were usually harsher for female/female relationships than for male/male dependent on the circumstances? Men who used artificial aids to stimulate themselves might receive 40 days of penance; a woman who used a dildo: 1 year if used alone, 3 years if used with another woman!
Anna: Seriously? 3 years?
Anna: So how do Henry and Stephan deal with their relationship? How do the Church’s teachings on sex during their 12th century lifetimes impact them?
Charlene: They are in denial for a long time. Henry had never considered that he could be attracted to another man. Stephan wants Henry, but he respects Henry’s wishes. He won’t jeopardize their friendship. It’s a profound change for him. Stephan has had a string of sexual encounters since his teens, and for him, it had been about the physical act. He didn’t believe men like him could have love. Then he meets Henry. Hello, confusion. How could he be falling in love with another man?
Anna: So Stephan could accept the physical aspects of his attraction to other men, but not the emotional consequences?
Charlene: Stephan never had that emotional tie to the men he had sex with. He accepted that it wasn’t part of the deal. There were no ‘relationships.’ He didn’t expect anything but a good roll in the hay. Henry comes along and changes that for him.
Anna: Complicated man…but it wasn’t easier for Henry, was it?
Charlene: No. Henry has a girl back home waiting for him. The good ol’ arranged marriage, common for people of his class. Though he likes her well enough, she stirs no passion in him, but Henry will do his duty and marry because that is what society expects.
As the knights’ friendship deepens, Henry questions his feelings for Stephan. He’s been taught from a very early age that Hell awaits those who commit this “unnatural” act. He struggles to keep thoughts of loving Stephan away. He prays to God for guidance, but finds the answer in himself. As Stephan says, “How can loving another person be a sin?”
Anna: Interesting. I’m dealing with a similar issue in my new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, as one of the indirect protagonists is Edward II, accused of having intimate relationships with his male favourites. For a medieval king, admitting to a love-affair with a man must have been very difficult – and dangerous. On the other hand, a medieval king was powerful enough to bend the rules a bit – if not much.
Charlene: True. Laws and punishment varied across Europe in the Middle Ages. Canon law might have been very clear on the matter, but in the late 12th century of Men of the Cross, England had no secular laws regarding punishment for this “crime.” Laws were enacted in the second half of the 13th century, so your Edward II would have been well aware of the consequences.
Anna: Well, sodomy had the benefit (from the accused’s perspective) of being difficult to prove unless your partner in sin decided to confess – not about to happen when it came to royal favourites, who had everything to gain from staying on Edward’s good side.
Charlene: Mid-twentieth century historians cited incidents to accuse Richard the Lionheart of being gay, but there is no definitive proof in the historical record and I haven’t suggested it in Men of the Cross. Aren’t historians on the fence about Edward’s homosexuality? What is your approach in the series?
Anna: In my series, Edward does have an amorous relationship with Hugh Despenser. To some extent, this is because I want to portray Hugh with some good qualities – as the story is told from the POV of people firmly in the other camp, Despenser is mostly lean, mean and dangerous – but also because I believe Edward was open to sexual and emotional relationships with men as well as women. Whether he acted on these impulses, we will never know, but seeing as Edward comes across as a rather unhappy person – a square peg forced into a round hole, just because he was born to inherit a crown – I do hope he did find some happiness, however short-lived. Other than one very tender scene in the next book, I never invite the reader to come along to the king’s bed – mostly because he’s a secondary character. In your books, however, the protagonists are gay. How have you handled that?
Charlene: There are sex scenes in Men of the Cross, but they aren’t overly graphic. I’d call them tender, sensual, and occasionally steamy – and necessary for character development. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being erotica, I’d say the scenes are about a 2 to 2.5.
Anna: I’d agree.
Charlene: So Edward’s scene with Hugh is tender – where does that fall?
Anna: A 2, I think.
Anna: Yup. I enjoy writing sex scenes. But for me, the emotional context is fundamental. My characters enjoy steamy hay-rolling sex because they love each other. Sex in my books strengthens the bonds, reinforces just how dependent my protagonists are on each other – after all, sex is an integral part of most loving relationships. This is the romantic me coming to the fore, I guess, but I genuinely believe great sex goes hand in hand with an emotional commitment. Or maybe I’m just naïve and inexperienced…*laughs*
Charlene: You said that so much better than I could! I don’t think any of the scenes between Henry and Stephan come close to the heat levels of Alex(andra) and Matthew in the Graham Saga. I had to decide what I was comfortable with writing sex-wise when I wanted my book to appeal to a broad audience. I figure most readers – even heterosexual ones – know the logistics of gay sex. I don’t need to give them a play-by-play. But, is there a comfort level for readers who will read a very hot het romance but will cringe at the idea of a tender love scene between two men?
Anna: Some will – perhaps. But if the characters are well-developed, I think most readers will see beyond the gender to the relationship. Besides, I’d say that neither you nor I write formulaic romance – we write books set in the past that depict human beings muddling through their lives as well as they can, taking comfort where it is offered. IMO, love – and sometimes sex – are just some of many ingredients required to build a multi-faceted story.
Charlene: Multi-faceted? You can say that again! I’m writing military history and bloody battles, complete with renowned warrior heroes, that might appeal to a mostly male audience. I’ve added in a romance, which probably has little appeal to most men. And OMG – it’s a love story between two men!
Anna: Except, of course, that I would argue many men enjoy a romantic element, even if they don’t always own up to it. After all, men need love just as much as women do.
Charlene: You’re right: every human has the capacity to love. Some just happen to love someone of the same sex. And this has been true throughout history, it’s part of the human condition. It’s only natural that historical fiction should recognize this – at least now and then.
Anna: I couldn’t agree more! I’ll look forward to reading the sequel to Men of the Cross.
Charlene: For King and Country will be out in early 2016.
Anna: Wonderful! On that note, I’d like to thank you for stopping by.
Charlene: It’s been my pleasure to chat with you, Anna.
For those of you who want to read more about Charlene’s thoughts on the subject, please go here, http://charlenenewcomb.com/2014/11/17/medieval-man-sex-and-mortal-sin-in-men-of-the-cross/.
Should you want to buy & read her book (warmly recommended) it can be found here!
Other interesting posts on the subject are MJ Logue’s post about her female cross-dressing 17th century trooper, http://uncivilwars.blogspot.com/2015/10/fifty-shades-of-gender-bias-and.html and Hunter S Jones who asks the question “How should sexuality be portrayed in fiction?” http://expatspost.com/creative/articles/boys-and-girls-keep-swinging/.