Ruth Mazo Karras

John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is a magisterial work that broke new ground in what became a vibrant field of study.  (Disclaimer: Boswell was my most important mentor, as an undergraduate and PhD student.) Much has been said elsewhere about the essentialism implicit in speaking of “gay people” in the Middle Ages; I think he might well use different terminology were he writing or rewriting now, but this by no means undercuts his analysis of particular texts. I want to focus here on another aspect of the book that has also been much criticized: the omission or occlusion of women.


Throughout the book, Boswell was always careful to use “he or she,” and indeed his choice of “gay people” was a deliberate attempt to include women:  “’homosexual’ has come to be associated with males more than females.  The phrase ‘lesbians and homosexuals’ now appears frequently in print, and the use of ‘gay people’ in this study is more clearly inclusive.”  How 1980 of him!  But even if he had used the phrase “lesbians and gay men” or the more recent “LGBT” it would not change the fact that most of the texts and examples he used in the book deal with relationships between men. The two Tegernsee poems are an exception. “’Courtly love’ occurred between women and between men just as between women and men”, but he does not give us any of the poems addressed by trobairitz to other women.  Material about love and/or sexual relations between women may have been more difficult to find—it is “twice marginal and twice invisible,” in Jacqueline Murray’s phrase—but it is there: Bernadette Brooten deeply nuances what Boswell had to say about early Christianity; Ann Matter finds plenty of evidence for erotic relations among religious women; Karma Lochrie finds concern about them in Abbess Heloise’s Paraclete; Helmut Puff finds German court cases about women’s sexual relations; Sahar Amer finds women’s love in French and Arabic literature; and Judith Bennett finds examples of women living together in a “lesbian-like” manner.

More important than the examples that Boswell did or did not use, however, is the question of whether the experiences of medieval men and women were similar enough that they could be lumped together.  Twenty-five years ago I probably would have answered in the negative.  The language of sodomy and its related filth was used primarily of men; whatever women did seemed to be less important, unless it was reproductive, or unless they imitated masculinity by cross-dressing or using dildoes. Medieval thinking about sexuality involved object choice (same-sex vs opposite-sex) less than it did gender role (masculine/active vs feminine/passive).  All male-male sex, as medieval people understood it, involved placing a man in a feminized position, whereas it is much less clear that all female/female relations involved one of the women being masculinized.

Two medieval ladies and their maid. (British Library)

Why, then, would I answer the question any differently now?  It’s that letter “Q.”  To the extent that “queer” can today include people who do not identify as lesbian or gay, but who reject dominant norms of sexuality, it can also be a useful term for the Middle Ages as well.  And for the Middle Ages we need to remember that the dominant norms were clerical.  Most of Boswell’s examples come from the clergy, because that is largely who wrote.  The church prescribed marital sex for the laity and celibacy for the clergy.  Of course not all clergy could or chose to remain chaste; many of them had female domestic partners, and it is not at all surprising that many of them loved other men.  But the experiences of monks, nuns, and priests were not the same as those of the laity.  Many lay men and women rejected or were unable to participate in the church’s prescribed marriage scheme; they lived in opposite-sex couples with various degrees of permanence, or in a variety of same-sex situations.  It is likely that some people who chose not to marry (and some who were forced to marry) were what Boswell calls “persons who [we]re conscious of erotic inclination toward their own gender.” That consciousness would have been quite different for men and women, as would the way they understood the acts to which that inclination led them, and the way the authorities dealt with those acts.  Nevertheless “queer” is a capacious category, including people across time and space who are not the same in what they do or the terminology they use to describe themselves, but who are similar in the way their actions, desires, or mere existence challenge the dominant sexual paradigm.  To this extent, a book largely about queer expression (and repression) by men can also speak to medieval women’s experience.

karras-headshotRuth Mazo Karras is Professor of History at the University of Minnesota.  She is the author of Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (3rd ed forthcoming Routledge 2017), Unmarriages: Men, Women, and Sexual Unions in Medieval Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press 2012), Common Women:  Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (Oxford University Press 1996), and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook on Women and Gender in Medieval Europe (2013). She tweets from @rmkarras

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