The generally accepted belief that any kind of self-aware homosexual identity did not exist until the late 19th century was invented by heterosexuals who sought to ensure their dominance over society. This belief stands on shaky ground and deserves to be blown away and replaced by awareness of the many centuries in which gay love was able to blossom and thrive around the world.
The Middle Ages in Europe saw a flowering of gay love that was arguably a cultural peak with roots going back into pre-history, but which underwent the most severe repression possible for most of the last millennium. Historian John Boswell writes that in the 13th century “the voice of Europe’s gay minority was stilled, not to be heard again for centuries”.
That voice was finding its expression in poetry, art and love letters since the earliest recorded writings. The oldest story in the world, Gilgamesh from the Sumerian civilisation of the 2nd millennium BCE, is a passionate story of love between two men, of heartbreak, loss and the search for the meaning of life.
The mythology of ancient Greece is abundant in same sex love, both among Gods and heroes. Zeus falls in love with the beautiful young Ganymede, Apollo with Hyacinth, Hymen (god of marriage) and, according to Pseudo-Apollodorus was with Thracian singer Thamyris in the first man-on-man relationship in history. Virgin Goddess Artemis was known for her affairs with female nymphs. Greek historian Plutarch said the male lovers of the hero Hercules were beyond numbering, meanwhile Achilles was lover with his sidekick Patroclus.
In Plato’s Symposium Aristophanes proclaims:
“Those who love men and rejoice to lie with, be embraced by men, are also the finest bys and young men, being naturally the most manly. The people who accuse them of shamelessness lie; they do this not from shamelessness but from courage, manliness and virility, embracing what is like them.”
Plato argued that pairs of lovers would make the best soldiers, and this was put into practise by the Sacred Band of Thebes in the 4th century BCE. Note the emphasis on the virility and strength of the male same sex lovers, both mythological heroes and among living men. Also in the 4th century BCE Alexander the Great, known for his great love of his companion Hephaestion, led the Greek Empire to its greatest victories, and in the 1st Julius Caesar, great warrior and empire builder of the Romans, was bisexual, and commonly called “every Man’s husband, every man’s wife”.
Of the first 14 emperors who led Rome after Caesar, 13 of them were bisexual or exclusively homosexual, including famously Hadrian, whose young lover Antinous died tragically while in Egypt and was raised to the status of a God – within a decade statues and temples dedicated to him spread across the Empire, presenting an attempt to revive the very sex-positive and gay-positive ancient pagan religion, making Antinous a serious competitor with the new young God on the scene, Jesus Christ.
Polybius recorded in the 3rd century CE that back at the height of the Republic, pre Empire, moderation in sexual matters was almost impossible for young men, who engaged in love affairs with both courtesans and other young men. John Boswell argues that in Roman society it was almost unanimously assumed that adult males were capable of having sexual relations with both sexes. We know from the poet Marshall that same sex marriages took place in first century Rome, that early Christian writers considered same sex love to be “held in high esteem by the Romans” (Tatian the Syrian, C2), even“the Roman religion” (Marcus Minucius Felix writing in a dialogue called Octavian in the 3rd century). Male prostitution was taxed under the Empire, and continued to be under the Christian emperors for two centuries.
A dialogue called “Affairs of the Heart” from the early 4th century, like others at the time, debated the pleasures of gay versus straight love affairs, starting from a equanimous place that viewed “women at their fairest and young men in the flower of manhood” as two sides of the same coin, but concluding that the love of boys is preferable! This work heralds same sex love as having “a hallowed and lawful heritage”. It argues that:
“Marriages are devised as a means of ensuring succession, which was necessary, but only the love of men is a noble undertaking of the philosopher’s soul” and that “Human wisdom coupled with knowledge has after frequent experiments chosen what is best, and has formed the opinion that male-male love is the most stable of loves”.
However, times were already changing – the author of Affairs of the Heart describes lovers of the same gender as“strangers cut off in a foreign land”, but declares:
“We shall not, all the same, be overcome by fear and betray the truth”.
From the fourth century same sex love was under attack from Christians who were opposed to all sexual activities except those necessary to maintain the species. Writers such as Jerome and Origen hated all the hedonistic sexuality of the pagan past. Augustine, who recorded the suffering he underwent after lust had entered his friendship with another male, also proclaimed “There is nothing which degrades the manly spirit more than the attractiveness of females and contact with their bodies”. But not all Christians were on the same page – John Chrysostom recorded that gay sex was rampant in the Christian society of 4th century Antioch (in modern Turkey):
“There is some danger that womenkind will become unnecessary in the future with young men instead fulfilling all the needs women used to… No-one is ashamed, no one blushes, but rather they take pride in their little game”.
Unlike Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Nola, St Paulinus, was not troubled by his same sex attraction. He wrote passionate letters to the poet Ausonius:
“Through all that life may allot
Or assign to mortals,
As long as I am held within this prison body,
In whatever world I am found,
I shall hold you fast,
Grafted onto my being,
Not divided by distant shores or suns.
Everywhere you shall be with me,
I will see with my heart
And embrace you with my loving spirit.”
It took until the 13th century for Augustine’s pleasure-denying outlook to finally gain the upper hand in the Christian Church and for homosexuality to become viewed as such a terrible sin. The ongoing struggles of the religion against Christian heresies and traditional religions, in both of which sex was viewed much more liberally, plus the reports coming back from the Crusades of the relaxed sexuality in the Muslim lands, served to strengthen the Church’s anti-sex stance.
However, although known as the Dark Ages, from the minimal records we do have we can tell that the European early Middle Ages had been a very gay time indeed, as it seems likely Europe had been for thousands of years already….
When writers from the Roman Empire visited the northern European Celtic and Germanic peoples they recorded their surprise that, as common as same sex relationships were in the Empire (within certain bounds), in the pre-literate cultures to the north they were accepted as completely normal. Aristotle had coined a word for the Celtic love between males much earlier in the 4th century BCE – synousia, meaning passionate friendship, with sexual overtones, and there was plenty of it about in the first millennium, to the shock of some writers. The early modern Europeans were in for the same shock as they took to their ships and explored the world over a millennium later.
Greek philosopher Posidonius, 1ST century BC, traveled into Gaul to investigate the truth of the stories told about the Celtic tribes, and put it very simply: “The Gaulish men prefer to have sex with each other.”
Diodorus Sicilus wrote in the 1st century CE, –
“Although they have good-looking women, they pay very little attention to them, but are really crazy about having sex with men. They are accustomed to sleeping on the ground on animal skins and roll around naked with male bed-mates on both sides. Heedless of their own dignity, they abandon without qualm the bloom of their bodies to others. And the most incredible thing is that they do not find this shameful. When they proposition someone, they consider it dishonourable if he doesn’t accept the offer!”
Bardaisan of Edessa wrote (2nd century CE) that “In the countries of the north — in the lands of the Germans and those of their neighbors, handsome [noble] young men assume the role of wives [women] towards other men, and they celebrate marriage feasts.”
Eusebius of Caesarea, wrote that “Among the Gauls, the young men marry each other (gamountai) with complete freedom. In doing this, they do not incur any reproach or blame, since this is done according to custom amongst them.” (4th century CE)
Jumping forwards to the next millennium:
Jesuit leader Francis Xavier, in the mid 16th century complained that the Buddhist bonzes of Japan: “.. are inclined to sins, abhorred by nature. They even confess it and don’t deny it. It is visible and public to all, including men and women, young and old, none of whom think much of it nor despise it as it seems to be a common habit indeed.”
Father Pero Correia 1551 letter from Sao Vicente, Brazil related that female homosexuality:
“as in Africa, is most common”… the women “carry weapons like men and marry other women. Being called ‘women’ was perceived as a major insult.”
Bernal Diaz del Castillo 1605, one of many authors commenting on sodomy in the New World:
“Most of them moreover were sodomites, especially those who lived in the coastal and warm areas. Boys walked about dressed like women and engaging in this diabolic and abominable activity.”
Portuguese Jesuit Joao dos Santos wrote in 1625 that the chibados of southwestern Africa were: “attyred like women, and behave themselves womanly, ashamed to be called men; are also married to men, and esteeme that unnaturale damnation an honor.
Antonio Cardonega, C17, mentioned that sodomy was:
“rampant among the people of Angola. They pursue their impudent and filthy practices dressed as women.”
He also stated that the sodomites often served as powerful shamans, were highly esteemed among most Angolan tribes and commonly called “quimbanda.”
As recently as the early 20th century among the Ila people of Zambia there are records of the mwammi, translated as prophets:
“dressed always as women,did women’s work such as plaiting baskets, and lived and slept among, but not with, the women”.
The repression of same sex love that continues to be such an issue in Christian circles today, has its roots in the late Roman Empire, but did not take hold until the 13th century. The first Roman legislation directly outlawing homosexual behaviour came in 533, two centuries after Christianity had become the state religion of the Empire. Emperor Justinian, who may have been the first person in history to blame natural disasters on gay people (“because of such crimes there are famines ,earthquakes and pestilence”) gave gay sex the same punishment as for adultery – death. This law seems however to have only been used against bishops, suggesting the emperor found it a useful tool against his enemies, and that the general population had little interest in it – a parallel with the Sodomy Law of Henry VIII of England in the 16th century, which was at first only used against the monastic community.
When the Visigothic kingdom in Spain adopted Catholicism in 589 CE there was a drive to establish conformity that included legislation against gays and jewish people, but when Arabs invaded the peninsular in the 8th century laws against gay sex disappeared, it being regarded as entirely normal. John Boswell says that gays flourished in Spain in the 9th-10th centuries, and most of the Islamic poetry from Hispano-Arab Iberia, written by all ranks of society, has gay imagery, which was also standard in the writings of Islamic mystics for hundreds of years. The 11th century King of Seville, al-Mutamid, wrote of his page-boy:
“I made him my slave, but the coyness of his glance has made me his prisoner, so that we are both at once slave and master to each other”.
Some Muslim sources of the time criticise Christian clergy for their addiction to sodomy, and indeed there may have been a lot of same sex action going on, both in the Church and in society at large. Boswell’s study of punishments set by the Catholic Church against sexual activities among the clergy “suggests that despite considerable local variation, attitudes towards homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant throughout the early Middle Ages”. Homosex was regarded as one of many forms of illicit fornication, often seen as less serious than having ‘unnatural’ sex with women.
In 1051 in ‘The Book of Gomorrah’ Saint Peter Damian railed against the evils of sex between males, especially clergy, which he said were extemely common. However, Pope Leo declined his demand that all clergy guilty of homosexual relations should be removed from office. In 1102 the Council of London proposed to make sure the public knew how serious a sin sodomy is by having it condemned from every pulpit on every Sunday. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm wrote in a letter prohibiting the publication of the Council’s decree:
“This sin has hitherto been so public that hardly anyone is embarrassed by it, and many have therefore fallen into it because they were unaware of its seriousness”.
Love and sex between people of the same gender probably enjoyed a relatively tolerant atmosphere in the 12th century. Satirical literature of that time includes references to priests who were more likely “to love gods than goddesses” (Walther of Chatillon).
An anonymous manuscript from Zurich writes of the local Bishop:
“The man who holds this seat is Ganymedier than Ganymede,
Consider why he excludes the married from the clergy:
He does not care for the pleasures of a wife”.
In medieval monasteries there was a flowering of (celibate of not) love between the monks, as evidenced by their letters and the literature they created, such as ‘On Spiritual Friendship’ by Yorkshire abbot Aelred of Rievaulx. Benedictine monk Bernard of Cluny in France wrote that same sex lovers “are as numerous as grains of barley, as many as the shells of the sea, or the sand of the shore”, complaining that cities were “awash” with gay sexuality – the terms he used were Sodomes and Ganymedes.
John Boswell called the High Middle Ages the time of the ‘Triumph of Ganymede’ and finds evidence for a “reappearance for the first time since the decline of Rome of … what might be called a gay subculture” between 1050-1150 which completely disappears by 1300. Baudri of Bourgeuil, an abbot then later archbishop, wrote many affectionate verses, such as to Ralph the Monk whom he called his “Other self, or myself, if two spirits may be one, And if two bodies may actually become one”. But he was aware of the dangers:
“What we are is a crime, if it is a crime to love,
For the God who made me live made me love”.
Marbod of Rennes, a master of the Church at Chartres, wrote many gay love poems that were copied in manuscripts across Europe, and even used as teaching material. Hilary the Englishman wrote verses praising the beauty of English young men, while complaining of their aloofness (“Oh how I wish you wanted money!”) The Carmina Burana contains a poem that is a debate between two male lovers, who are clerics – one is sick and offers to God that he will join a monastery if God makes him well. On eventually working out this would mean not seeing his lover again, he decides against the monastic life.
Ganymede became a prominent character in medieval literature, sometimes appearing in debates about gay vs hetero love that revived a subject and style once common in Greek literature. Ganymede was used to replace the term sodomite, which was widely used before and after this period. One of the most popular poems of the time was the ‘Debate between Ganymede and Helen‘, which survives in manuscripts from England to Italy. Unlike with the older Greek debates, the fertility of heterosexuality wins out over the gay “waste of seed”, but we learn from the poem that gayness was very common amongst important, influential people, that the very people who call it a sin also are involved in it. “Some are drawn by Helen, others by Ganymede” says the poem, revealing an open minded medieval mind-set.
A similar debate between Ganymede and Hebe claims that the boy’s beauty eclipses Hebe “as the sun outshines the moon”. Ganymede’s lines in the poem strongly suggest that gay people of the time saw their sexual and romantic preferences as innate and natural. A copy of this debate from Leiden has these words written into it:
“The indiscriminate Venus grasps at any remedy,
But the wise one rejoices with the tender Ganymede.
I have heard it said that he plays Venus more than she,
But Venus is happy, since he stuffs only boys…
Venus kindles all fires, but the greatest heat
Is in sex with males, whoever has tried it knows it”.
The same manuscript has verses added attacking gay love and sex, and names Chartres, Sens, Orleans and Paris as preeminent centres of gay subculture and prositution:
“Let Chartres and Sens perish, where Adonis sells himself
According to the law of the brothel, where males are prostituted.
A noble city, a unique city infected with these evils,
Paris rejoices to wed a young master.
You are more depraved than all of these, Orleans;
You perish holding the title for this crime…
The men of Orleans are preeminent – if you think well
Of the manners of this type – at sleeping with boys.”
A very similar debate to Ganymede and Helen appears in the collection of stories from the Islamic world of the 12-13th centuries known as the Arabian Nights. Richard Burton translated the 419th Night, ‘The Dispute between the Man and the Learned Woman from Baghdad concerning the Relative Excellence of Girls and Boys’, in which the female disputant is presented as the intellectual equal of the male. In another tale a young woman dresses as a man to convince her husband that same sex activity is the only fashionable form of love.
In his 1980 work, ‘Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality’ John Boswell details the evidence for what he considers an “extraordinary efflorescence of gay subculture, with a highly developed literature, its own argot and artistic conventions, its own low life, its elaborate responses to critics”. But this subculture disappears entirely early in the 13th century, and by the start of the 14th the death penalty had been put in place for sodomitcal acts in most of Europe. Persecution of homosexuals was added to the remit of the Inquisition in the 15th century. England caught up with mainland Europe in the 16th, with Henry VIII’s Buggery Act, and although punishments under this act were at first directed against the monastic community, over the following centuries many men fell foul to its terms, with the last being executed in 1835. In contrast, in 1830s Africa, King Mwanga II of Buganda was openly gay, and actively opposing Christianity and colonialism.
Why did Europe become so obsessed with an anti-gay outlook? Fostered in religious circles, from the 14th to the 20th centuries the political state has considered itself the arbiter of society’s morals, imposing strict punishments on same sex lovers. It is striking that heterosexual love, so long applauded for its ‘normality’ requires such stringent rules in order to maintain its cultural hegemony.
Seeking reasons, Boswell idenfiies that the 13-14th century in Europe saw a rise of absolutist governments; there was a quest for intellectual and institutional conformity; a strengthening of ecclesiastical and civil adminstrative machinery and power to exert their authority (there was an astronomical increase in legislation in the C13); theology was forced into systematic formulas and the Inquisition was formed to eliminate theological loose ends and differences of opinion. Pope Gregory IX sent Dominican friars to root out homosexuality in Germany which he considered “so ridden with the unnatural vice”. The Black Death spread through Europe, in the 14th, decimating the population, who sought scapegoats to blame for the suffering, and minorities came in for attack. Jewish people were expelled from England and France, lepers were accused of poisoning wells in France, gays and wtiches all came under suspicicion. The openly gay monarch of England, Edward II, was deposed and murdered, and the Knights Templar orders were accused of sorcery and deviant sexuality, and dissolved.
Law codes of the time start to pinpoint sodomy for severe punishments, often quoting the fashionable accusation of gay love being ‘contrary to nature’ which became sealed as a Christian belief thanks to the work of St Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) who “promoted (homo acts) to a position of unique enormity” and argued that semen was intended only for producing children.
In the 15-16th centuries a gay subculture would begin to re-emerge, especially in Renaissance Florence and Elizabethan England, but would be constantly in conflict with the legal and religious authorities. London of the 18th century had its molly houses and gay brothels, and while these are often seen as the precursors of the modern gay movement and gay identity they might be viewed differently once the long ancient history of queer people is better known. (Mollis was a Latin word for a ‘soft man’, one of many queer-related words in the language). The illegality of gay sex was overthrown by the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, but after centuries of effort to poison the minds of the population against gay people, being queer in France retained risks, but made the country a safer haven for persecuted queers such as Oscar Wilde in the late 19th.
In the 20th century we were told to believe that gay identity was a modern thing, though of course In Europe and north America it continued to be regarded as a sickness, a problem, a crime, for much of the century. Some Churches, and non-Christian faiths, continue to virulently believe that gay sex is a sin into the 21st. In fact it would likely be fair to say that for most of human history men have been regarded as sexual beings who were naturally inclined to have sex with each other as well as with women. Only imposed societal taboos makes affection between men difficult, and these include 20th century statistical bias from surveys such as the Kinsey Report: most people know that his famous American report suggested the number of 1 in 10 for homosexuals – more recent studies have suggested it is much less – but do you know that the report also showed that ONE THIRD of men had had some kind of homosexual experience. Taboos on love and sexual activity between men are entirely man-made, based on fear and on efforts to control others and society in general.
GAY LOVE IS AS OLD AS HUMANITY
AS NATURAL AS NATURE HERSELF
far from being a crime, a sin, a sickness
same-sex love is a powerful source of personal and collective well-being and health.