The issue of the nature of sexuality in the past is hotly contested. Presented here are a number of texts which have been discussed in regard to homosexual activity in the Medieval Europe. The are largely presented with little comment. The advent of obscenity laws and uneducated minds on the Internet, however, compels me to point out that the words "boy" and "lad" used in the some of the texts do not refer to sex with children. Although the a common ideal of homoerotic relationships, derived from classical Greek literature, was of that of an older with a younger man, the younger man was understood to be post-pubescent. The texts are give in more or less chronological order.
from The Passion of St. Sergius and Bacchus martyred early 4th century
Meanwhile the blessed Serge, deeply distressed and heartsick over the loss of Bacchus, wept and cried out, "No longer, brother and fellow soldier, will we chant together, 'Behold, how good an pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!' You have been unyoked from me and gone up to heaven, leaving me alone on earth, bereft, without comfort." After he uttered these things, the same night the blessed Bacchus suddenly appeared to him with a face as radiant as an angel's, wearing an officer's uniform, and spoke to him. "Why do you grieve and mourn, brother? If I have been taken up from you in body, I am still with you in the bond of union, chanting and reciting, "I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou hast enlarged my heart.' Hurry up then, yourself, brother, through beautiful and perfect confession to pursue and obtain me, when finishing the course. For the crown of justice for me is with you."
Paulinus of Nola, bishop, 353-431, and Ausonius
Paulinus of Nola was an important figure in the Christian Roman Empire. He was passionately in love with his fellow Christian and writer, Ausonius. There is an element of copying classical homosexual poetry in these verses, but they clearly indicate a relationship distinct and more erotic than "friendship". Later in life Paulinus distanced himself from Ausonius, a victim perhaps of a narrowing view of sexual ethics.
I, through all chances that are given to mortals,
And through all fates that be,
So long as this close prison shall contain me,
Yea, though a world shall sunder me and thee,
Thee shall I hold, in every fibre woven,
Not with dumb lips, nor with averted face
Shall I behold thee, in my mind embrace thee,
Instant and present, thou, in every place.
Yea, when the prison of this flesh is broken,
And from the earth I shall have gone my way,
Wheresoe'er in the wide universe I stay me,
There shall I bear thee, as I do today.
Think not the end, that from my body frees me,
Breaks and unshackles from my love to thee;
Triumphs the soul above its house in ruin,
Deathless, begot of immortality.
Still must she keep her senses and affections,
Hold them as dear as life itself to be,
Could she choose death, then might she choose forgetting:
Living, remembering, to eternity.
trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, ed. Stephan Coote, Stephen, (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1983)
An Epigram by Ausonius c. 310-390
Epigram No 62
Glad youth had come they sixteenth year to crown,
To soft encircle they dear cheeks with down
And part the mingled beauties of thy face,
When death too quickly comes to snatch your grace.
But thou'll not herd with ghostly common fools,
Nor piteous, waft the Stygian pools;
Rather with blithe Adonis shalt thou rove
And play Ganymede to highest Jove.
[in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse]
Augustine of Hippos: from the Confessions
[from electronic text archives at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU]
Here describing his relationship with a man
Book 3: 1: For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be
scraped by the touch of objects of sense. Yet if these had not a soul, they would not be objects of love. To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved, I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness; and thus foul and unseemly, I would fan, through exceeding vanity, be fine and courtly. I fell headlong then into the love wherein I longed to be ensnared. My God, my Mercy, with
how much gall didst Thou out of Thy great goodness besprinkle for me that sweetness? For I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was with joy fettered with sorrow-bringing bonds, that I might be scourged with the iron burning rods of jealousy, and suspicions, and fears, and angers, and quarrels.
Book 4: 6-8 In those years when I first began to teach rhetoric in my native town, I had made one my friend, but too dear to me, from a community of pursuits, of mine own age, and, as myself, in the first opening flower of youth. He had grown up as a child with me, and we had been both school-fellows and play-fellows. But he was not yet my friend as afterwards, nor even then, as true friendship is; for true it cannot be, unless in such as Thou cementest together, cleaving unto Thee, by that love which is shed
abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given unto us. Yet was it but too sweet, ripened by the warmth of kindred studies: for, from the true faith (which he as a youth had not soundly and thoroughly imbibed), I had warped him also to those superstitious and pernicious fables, for which my mother bewailed me. With me he now erred in mind, nor could my soul be without him. But behold Thou wert close on the steps of Thy fugitives, at once God of vengeance, and Fountain of mercies, turning us to Thyself by wonderful means; Thou tookest that man out of this life, when he had scarce filled up one whole year of my friendship, sweet to me above all sweetness of that my life.
Who can recount all Thy praises, which he hath felt in his one self? What diddest Thou then, my God, and how unsearchable is the abyss of Thy judgments? For long, sore sick of a fever, he lay senseless in a death-sweat; and his recovery being despaired of, he was baptized, unknowing; myself meanwhile little regarding, and presuming that his soul would retain rather what it had received of me, not what was wrought on his unconscious body. But it proved far otherwise: for he was refreshed, and restored. Forthwith, as soon as I could speak with him (and I could, so soon as he was able, for I never left him, and we hung but too much upon each other), I essayed to jest with him, as though he would jest with me at that baptism which he had received, when utterly absent in mind and feeling, but had now understood that he had received. But he so shrunk from me, as from an enemy; and with a wonderful and sudden freedom
bade me, as I would continue his friend, forbear such language to him. I, all astonished and amazed, suppressed all my emotions till he should grow well, and his health were strong enough for me to deal with him as I would. But he was taken away from my frenzy, that with Thee he might be preserved for my comfort; a few days after in my absence, he was attacked again by the fever, and so departed. At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment
to me, and my father's house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him every where, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places, for that they had not him; nor could they now tell me, "he is coming," as when he was alive and absent. I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me. And if I said, Trust in God, she very rightly
obeyed me not; because that most dear friend, whom she had lost, was, being man, both truer and better than that phantasm she was bid to trust in. Only tears were sweet to me, for they succeeded my friend, in the dearest of my affections.
Book 4: 10 ...Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them. So was it then with me; I wept most bitterly, and found my repose in bitterness. Thus was I wretched, and that wretched life I held dearer than my friend. For though I would willingly have changed it, yet was I more unwilling to part with it than with him; yea, I know not whether I would have parted
with it even for him, as is related (if not feigned) of Pylades and Orestes, that they would gladly have died for each other or together, not to live together being to them worse than death. But in me there had arisen some unexplained feeling, too contrary to this, for at once I loathed exceedingly to live and feared to die. I suppose, the more I loved him, the more did I hate, and fear (as a most cruel enemy) death, which had bereaved me of him: and I imagined it would speedily make an end of all men, since it had power over him. Thus was it with me, I remember. Behold my heart, O my God, behold and see into me; for well I
remember it, O my Hope, who cleansest me from the impurity of such affections, directing mine eyes towards Thee, and plucking my feet out of the snare. For I wondered that others, subject to death, did
live, since he whom I loved, as if he should never die, was dead; and I wondered yet more that myself, who was to him a second self, could live, he being dead. Well said one of his friend, "Thou half
of my soul"; for I felt that my soul and his soul were "one soul in two bodies": and therefore was my life a horror to me, because I would not live halved. And therefore perchance I feared to die, lest he whom I had much loved should die wholly.
Venantius Fortunatus, bishop, c.530-c.603
Venantius Fortunatus was a poet, born c. 530 in Treviso, near Ravenna in Italy. He spent his time as court poet to the Merovingians. After visiting the tomb of St. Martin of tours at St. Hilary at Poitiers, he decided to enter a monastery. He continued to write poetry, some of which have a permanent place in Catholic hymnody, for instance the Easter season hymns Vexilla Regis and the Pange Lingua (Sing, O my tongue, of the battle). Three of four years before he died he was made bishop of Poitiers.
Written on an Island off the Breton Coast
You at God's altar stand, His minister
And Paris lies about you and the Seine:
Around this Breton isle the Ocean swells,
Deep water and one love between us twain.
Wild is the wind, but still thy name is spoken;
Rough is the sea: it sweeps not o'er they face.
Still runs my lover for shelter to its dwelling,
Hither, O heart, to thine abiding place.
Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking
Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,
So to my heart crowd memories awaking,
So dark, O love, my spirit without thee
trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, ed. Stephan Coote, Stephen, (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1983), 112
Alcuin of Tours, c. 735- 804
Alcuin was a leading figure in the Carolingian renaissance of the late 7th and early 8th centuries. The poet, who was a teacher also, knew his students by pet names such as "Cuckoo". It is sometimes asserted that Alcuin's writings reflect classical models, and were exercises rather than representations of his own thought. What must be noted is that there were many possible classical models to imitate - it is why a writer chooses some and not others that is interesting.
John Boswell, in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, (Chicago: 1980), writes
A distinctly erotic element...is notable in the circle of friends presided over by Alcuin at the court of
Charlemagne. This group included some of the most brilliant scholars of the day (Theodule of Orleans, Anglibert, Einhard, et al,), but the erotic element subsisted principally between Alcuin and his pupils. Intimates of this circle of masculine friendship were known to each other by pet names, most of them derived from classical allusions, many from Vergil's eclogues... A particularly famous poem is addressed to a pupil whom Alcuin calls "Daphnis" and laments the departure of another young student, "Dodo", who is referred to in the poem as their "cuckoo"....The prominence of love in Alcuin's writings, all of which are addressed to other males, is striking...
One expects hyperbole in poetry, but even in Alcuin's prose correspondence there is an element which can scarcely be called anything but passionate. He wrote to a friend (a bishop...):-
"I think of your love and friendship with such sweet
memories, reverend bishop, that I long for that lovely
time when I may be able to clutch the neck of your
sweetness with the fingers of my desires. Alas, if only
it were granted to me, as it was to Habakkuk [Dan.
14:32-38], to be transported to you, how I would sink
into your embraces,...how much would I cover, with
tightly pressed lips, not only your eyes, ears and
mouth, but also your every finger and toe, not once but
many a time."
Lament for a Cuckoo
O cuckoo that sang to us and art fled,
Where'er thou wanderest, on whatever shore
Thou lingerest now, all men bewail thee dead,
They say our cuckoo will return no more.
Ah, let him come again, he must not die,
Let him return with the returning spring,
And waken all the songs he used to sing.
but will he come again? I know not, I.
I fear the dark see breaks above his head,
Caught in the whirlpool, dead beneath the waves,
Sorrow for me, if that ill god of wine
Hath drowned him deep where young things find their graves.
But if he lives yet, surely he will come,
Back to the kindly nest, from fierce crows.
Cuckoo, what took you from the nesting place?
But will he come again? That no man knows.
If you love sings, cuckoo, then come again,
Come again, come again, quick, pray you come.
Cuckoo, delay not, hasten thee home again,
Daphnis who loveth thee longs for his own.
Now spring is here again, wake from thy sleeping.
Alcuin the old man thinks long for thee.
Through the green meadows go the oxen grazing;
Only the cuckoo is not. Where is her?
Wail for the cuckoo, every where bewail him,
Joyous he left us: shall he grieving come?
let him come grieving, if he will but come again,
Yea, we shall weep with him, moan for his moan.
Unless a rock begat thee, thou wilt weep with us.
How canst thou not, thyself remembering?
Shall not the father weep the son he lost him,
Brother for brother still be sorrowing?
Once were we three, with but one heart among us.
Scare are we two, now that the third is fled.
Fled is he, fled is he, but the grief remaineth;
Bitter the weeping, for so dear a head.
Send a song after him, send a song of sorrow,
Songs bring the cuckoo home, or so they tell
Yet be thou happy, wheresoe'er thou wanderest
Sometimes remember us, Love, fare you well.
trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, ed. Stephan Coote, Stephen, (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1983), 112-114
Ninth Century Veronese Cleric
This is a song by a clericus to a boy who a rival had taken from him
O admirabile Veneris ydolum
Cuius materiae nichil est frivolum
Archos te protegat, qui stellas et solum.
Furis ingenio non sentias dolum;
Cloto te diligat, quae baiulat colum.
Saluto puerum no per ypothesim,
Sed firma pectore deprecor Lachesim
Sororem Atropos, ne curet habeas et Thetim,
Cum vectus fueris per fluvium Athesim.
Quo fugis amabo, cum te dilexerim?
Miser quid faciam. Cum te non viderum
Dura materies ex matris ossibus
Creavit homines iactis lapidibus.
Ex quibus unus est iste puerulus
Qui lacrimabilis non curat gemitus
Cum tristis fuero, gaudebit emulus:
Ut cerva rugio, cun fugit hinnulus
O thou eidolon of Venus adorable
Perfect thy body and nowhere deplorable!
The sun and the starts and the see and the firmament
Theses are like thee, and the Lord made them permanent
Treacherous death shall not injure on hair of thee,
Clotho the thread spinner, she shall take care of thee.
Heartily, lad, I implore her and prayerfully
Ask that Lachesis shall treasure thee carefully,
Sister of Atropos - let her love cover thee,
Neptune companion, and Thetis watch over thee.
When on the rive thou sailest forgetting me!
How cants thou fly without ever regretting me?
Me that for sight of my lover and fretting me?
Stones from the substance of hard earth maternal, he
Thre o'er his shoulder who made man supernally;
One of these stones is that boy who disdainfully
Scorns the sntreaties I utter, ah, painfully!
Joy that was mine is my rival's tomorrow.
While I for my fawn like a striken deer sorrow!
from P.S. Allen, The Romanesque Lyris, trans by Howard Mumford Jones. The poem was first published in 1829 by G.B. Niehbur, who ascribed it to late antiquity. Gregorovius saw it as a lament of a Romam bidding farewll to his favorite statute. - Re-edited, with commentary by Ludwig Traube in O Roma Nobilis, (1891), 301. Ff. Reprinted in E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 114-115
Twelfth Century Authors
There is a substantial amount of verse by 12th century writers with homoerotic themes. Some authors have suggested that these may constitute imitations of classical models rather than any expression of actual feeling: Ovid after all, the pattern of many later writers, had written that the subject of his poetry was
Aut puer aut longas compta puellacomas
This whole question of mimesis is a difficult one. It is always worth asking, however, why a later writer was imitating this aspect of the literary heritage and not some other aspect.
(Either a lad or a else a long tressed maid)
Baudril of Meung sur Loire (1046-1130),
abbot of Bourgueil, and later archbishop of Dol
Obicunt etiam, juvenum cur more locutus
Virginibus scripsi quaedam quae compliectuntur amorem;
Carminibusquae meis sexus uterque placet
This their reproach: that wantoning in youth,
I wrote to maid and wrote to lads no less
Some things I wrote, 'tis true, which treat of love
And songs of mine have pleased both he's and she's.
Marbod, Bishop of Rennes, (ca. 1035-1123)
Errabat mea mens fervore libidinis amens...
Quid quod pupilla mihi carior ille vel illa?
Ergo maneto foris, puer aliger, auctor amoris!
Nullus in aede mea tibi sit locus, o Cytherea!
Displicet amplexus utriusque quidem mihi sexus
My mind did stray, loving with hot desire
Was not he or she dearer tome than sight?
But now, O winged boy, love's sire, I lock thee out!
Nor in my house is room for thee, O Cythera!
Distasteful to me now is the embrace of either sex>)
Hilary [fl. c. 1125]
Crinis flavus, os decorum cervixque candidula
Sermo blandus et suavis; sed quid laudem singula?
Totus pulcher et decorus, nec est in te macula,
Sed vacare castitati talis nequit formula...
Crede mihi, si redirent prisca Jovis secula
Ganimedes iam non foret ipsius vernacula,
Sed to, raptus in supernis, grata luce pocula
Gratiora quiedem nocte Jovis dares oscula
Hair of Gold and face all beauty, neck of slender white,
Speech to ear and mind delightful - why, though, praise for thee?
For in every part's perfection, not a fault hast thou,
Save - protesting chastity jars with forms so fair...
Ah, believe me, were the Golden age to come again,
Ganymede should no longer slave to highest Jove.
Thou to heaven ravished, shouldest by day his cup refill,
Thou by night shouldst give him kisses, nectar far more sweet
all from E.R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, (New York: Pantheon, 1953), 115-116. Hilary's writing may be found in L.B. Fuller, ed, Hilarius versus et ludi, (New York: 1929)
Medieval Spanish Jewish Poetry
There was much homoerotic poetry in both Arabic and Hebrew writing in Muslim Spain The basic texts of the Hebrew poets are discussed in Norman Roth, `"Deal Gently with the young mna": Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Spain", Speculum 57:1 (1982), 20-51. It is a brilliant article and one from which Ican give only a couple of examples.
Yishaq ben Mar-Saul (Lucena, 11th century)
Yishaq ben Mar-Saul was apparently the first Hebrew poet to have written in this genre. It should be noted that in both Hebrew and Arabic poetry of the period, "gazelle" (sevi) is a metaphore for a young male.
Roth, p. 31.
Gazelle desired in Spain
Given rule and dominion
over every living thing.
Lovely of form like the moon
with beautiful stature
Curls of purple
upon shining temple.
Like Joseph in his form
like Adoniah his hair
Lovely of eyes like David,
he has slain me like Uriah
He has enflamed my passions
and consumed my heart with fire.
Because of him I have been left
without understanding and wisdom.
Weep with me every ostrich
and every hawk and falcon!
The beloved of my soul has slain me --
is this a just sentence
Because of him my soul is sick,
perplexed and yearning.
His speech upon my heart
is like dew upon a parches land.
Draw me from the pit of destruction
that I go down to Hell
Isaac Ibn Abraham (12th century)
Roth's article only goes up the 12th century, although sevi poetry was written by later poets such as Judah al-Hazari and Todros Abulafia. The last example Roth gives is also one of the best.
The secret of love, how can it be contained
The heart and the tear are talebearers.
The heart is restrained from what it seeks,
Shut up and be passion of him besieged,
Unable to obtain its desire.
If it presumes to attain to the stars,
Its pride is brought down, laid low.
Beloved like a hart, with heart of a panther,
If you desire to slay,
My heart is in your hand as clay.
But do not summon wanderings upon it.
For in its midst your name is sheltered.
Beloved, like a scarlet cord his lips,
Burining like fire for they are his censer,
And in them is the work of his signs.
Live by them, for it waits for them --
A heart long suffering because of them.
How my fate has hardened its spirit.
A while and separation will cause it to be odious
To my friends who knew its thoughts.
If wandering has separated us,
It has increased love.
I will watch for the gazelle
To leave in the garden my pleasures,
Although my rebuker stands to accuse me.
This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
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(c)Paul Halsall Jan, April 1996