By V. A. Kolve
Speculum, Vol. 73 No. 4 (1998)
Introduction: Whereas feminist theory has revitalized our understanding of the culture of medieval Europe, gay theory has only recently begun to review and rewrite that period of our past. Simon Gaunt, writing in 1992, offered several explanations for this state of affairs – including the homophobia of many educational institutions and a notable lack of visible gay scholars in the field. But the following explanation, I think, goes deepest, and is historically the most intractable. However much medieval women may have differed from modern women, he reminds us, they are “clearly and prominently visible within [medieval] systems of representation.” Though we need to reconstruct their experience with care, since most of the records were produced by men, there is nonetheless no shortage of material. Not so for men whose desire was stirred by other men: “one of the prime difficulties in conducting research on the experience of gay people in the Middle Ages is simply lack of data. With whose experience do we identify?”
It is a real problem. The codifications of canon law, like the punishments measured out in penitential manuals, offer only unfriendly witness, and that in the briefest of terms. There is not even a satisfactory word to name the subject of our search. “Homosexuality,” as an abstract noun, first appears in a German pamphlet written in 1869 discussing Homosexualitdt as part of a proposed penal code for the North German Federation. By the time it first appears in English, just prior to the 1890s, it has already become bound up with certain explanatory ideas – medical, pathological, psychiatric – unknown some two or three decades before. Because premodern societies, in contrast, seem to have focused on deeds rather than doers, David Halperin, in an influential essay, suggested we restrict the term “homosexuality” to same-sex desire as it has been experienced and represented in the past century only. Before then, he argues, sex between men was judged variously – accepted and even idealized in classical Greece, tolerated in classical Rome, stigmatized in the Christian Middle Ages – but it was thought of as an activity any man might engage in, not the expression of a certain kind of personality limited to homosexuals alone.