By Paul Halsall
Published Online (1988)
Introduction: Homosexual sex was widespread in the Middle Ages and there is abundant information on what church writers and secular legislators thought about it. Shoddy or partisan scholarship and a distinctly modern disdain of homosexuals by scholars until recently marked much of the discussion of the history of this medieval homosexuality. Since 1955, and especially since 1975, much work has been done that is of reasonable quality. The concentration has tended to be on the Church’s, or society’s, attitude to homosexuality. This paper takes a different tack and looks at the personal experience in the Middle Ages of those we would now call homosexuals and the structures in which they were able to experience their sexuality. Their experience fits in with the wider experience of sexuality in Middle Ages and this also will be considered. Naturally, we can say little about what sexuality felt like for individuals, but a possible framework for their experience can be reconstructed from existing sources. This will be, necessarily, a framework for the experience of homosexual males for significant information exists only about men and boys.
The main focus of the present paper will be on the experience of homosexuality for individuals and on what can be gleaned about the subcultures or other kinds of social networks homosexuals belonged to in diverse medieval periods. There are theoretical issues to face in this inquiry, about the concept of homosexual and homosexuality, and the overall place of homosexuality in the study of medieval sexuality. Only after looking at these will we move to a consideration of sources and the uses that can be made of them. A examination of the often ignored issue of why people engaged in homosexual activities will help us to focus better on the core of this paper which will be to consider those medieval societies in which we have knowledge of homosexuality and to see if they fit into any typology. The typologies looked at are of the types of homosexuality we can see present and at the social contexts in which this sexuality was expressed.