Y’know, there ought to be nothing I enjoy more than watching some scholar poke holes in John Boswell. It’s just fun, and Boswell’s work is kind of a sitting duck. Rows of sitting ducks.1 I understand the desire to find and defend the people-like-me of the past – note my thing for bossyboots lady characters – but, without even getting into the critical dangers of that approach,2 if we’re going to play identity politics then I feel obnoxiously inclined to jam myself into any given argument about whether or not a historical personage is homosexual, and insist that on their obvious bisexuality.3
M. J. Ailes, in an article entitled ‘The Medieval Male Couple and the Language of Homosociality’, concludes with someone else’s words:
In such matters, we must be careful not to project on to a less erotically preoccupied society the artificially stimulated and commercially exploited eroticism of our own sex-ridden age. (Dom Jean Leclerq, Monks and Love)
I get the concern, although I’m not convinced that the past is any more or less ‘erotically preoccupied’ than the present. Ailes’ article, which I’d been hoping would advance some interesting arguments about the way male friendship was framed, is instead devoted to proving that assorted pairs of men, fictional and otherwise, were ‘just friends’. The article starts with Roland and Charlemagne (employing that oft-seen trick of queer erasure, starting with the far-less-likely-to-be-erotically involved pair and conflating arguments about them with arguments about another possibly-erotic couple) and moves on through various fictional characters to historical, ending up with Ælred of Rievaulx. Some of the arguments I completely support (Richard I/Phillip II, for example), others not so much (Ami et Amile, for instance).
But. But. Your chances of proving that anyone, real or fictional, engaged in a lot of same-sex sex, are pretty slim. Even if you’ve got sodomy trial records, you could probably put up a good argument for the formulaic use of that charge. Assuming some kind of consistency in attraction,4 you’d expect roughly 10% of the population to be same-sex attracted (but perhaps not all of those to act on it; it’s also possible that some people engaging in same-sex activity might not really be attracted to same-sex partners, I suppose).
Case in point: the entertainingly detailed passages in the Processus Contra Templarios in which assorted Templars confess to committing assorted sexual acts with assorted other Templars do not prove that:
- The Templars conducted homosexual sex publicly as a form of group bonding, or that
- The Templars were particularly prone to male/male sex, or that
- Any of these particular knights ever engaged in male/male sex.
Rather, the passages in question tell us a lot about the sorts of accusations which people put to and would believe of homosocial groups who were held in suspicion. That’s about all. However, you’d have to be barking mad to try and tell me no Templar knight ever banged another Templar knight. I’m gonna assume that Templars banged other Templars at roughly the same rate as soldiers banged other soldiers, whatever that was. We have an absence of (reliable) evidence for homosexual sex among the Templars, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Remember when I spun you a facetious story about lady!Chrétien de Troyes? About how I have this bee in my bonnet, and that bee gets rather upset about the fact that, although it’s improbable that a woman wrote any given text, that instance-by-instance assessment leaves us with the weird notion that Anonymous was never a woman? Yeah. Something like that’s going on here.
M.J. Ailes tells us that Hilary the Englishman, Baudri of Bourgeuil, Peter Abelard, Richard I, and Aelred of Rievaulx were not having sex mano-a-mano5 nor particularly wanting to. Ailes produces reasonable reasons to assert that the churchmen were all using stock tropes of erotic poetry and ‘passionate friendship’; that Richard I was making a political stance by sharing a bed with Phillip of France; that the sexual sins which Ælred laments could as easily be heterosexual as homosexual sins. The reasons, in my view, hold up better for some of his examples than others.
That’s not what bothers me, so much. It’s that Ailes seems to think by carefully going down the list of “most likely to be queer” historical figures and ticking them all off as “not queer”, one can write the homosexual completely out of the history of homosociality.
You can’t. You just can’t. In order for there to be a trope, there has to be an idea that someone might do it. The category of ‘sodomy’ was certainly, at various times, a broad one which included many kinds of sex acts aside from male/male penetrative sex, but it also included male/male penetrative sex. As one of my college friends used to say, of the laws against goat-fucking in Leviticus, if there’s a law against it, someone must have been doing it. Humans are endlessly inventive: they were probably doing it, and any number of other things, up against the barn wall and out the back of the alehouse and in the landries and… you get the idea.
The same goes for formulaic insults, which Ailes touches on, using the falsity of the accusation (Eneas clearly loved Dido, Lanval has a fairy mistress, etc) as if that were evidence that no heroes of medieval romance are ever engaged in homoerotic wossnames. This is silly. If there’s an insult for it, then there must be an agreed-upon-category of ‘people who prefer to fuck other men’.
But that’s not what Ailes is trying to argue. Ailes is not trying to tell us that there was no male/male sex happening in the middle ages. The article doesn’t go very much into the evidence for ideas about or practice of sodomy. It doesn’t really talk about medieval sexuality.
What Ailes wants to prove is not that homosexuality didn’t happen. It’s that none of these people had homosexual sex. It’s that homoeroticism is separate from the canon of medieval literature. It’s that none of the writers we know and respect possibly wanted to bang other dudes.
Whither all the sodomites, then? Does Ailes think no same-sex attracted monks wrote about it? That if they wrote, such writing would disappear from the historical record? I don’t know, and I suspect Ailes doesn’t much care: this article wants to convince me that there’s nothing to see, and, moreover, no point looking.
Besides, if Ælred of Rievaulx’s sexual sins could have been heterosexual as easily as homosexual, why not both? Let’s not limit the poor dead chap’s options, now.
1. Although I must say, The Marriage of Likeness has been pretty useful to me in unexpected ways! I have rather ill-formed thoughts on his main argument re: liturgical ceremonies of brotherhood, but the background work in that book is very useful to many pet projects of mine, including the ever-popular Why C.S. Lewis Was Wrong.
2. Incidentally, I read James A. Schultz’ ‘Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies’ and some of Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncracies, and, well, got myself into an existential tangle. From which I think I have extracted myself, now. I found it a bit… annoying, though, that one of them (Schultz, I think) had no trouble criticising ‘queer’ scholars (and it seemed like, if he wasn’t talking about the scholar’s personal sex lives, he certainly saw queer-theorist as an identity category) for ‘needing’ the construct of heterosexuality in order to justify themselves. Which… while I get the point, we all post-date the construct of homo/heterosexuality, it’s not like anyone can come at the idea without a personal bias. Unless certain scholars have transcended notions of sexual identity altogether, personally and professionally, a claim which I haven’t yet seen anyone try to make. I’m not sure – and know nothing of the personal lives of anyone in the field, save Boswell – but it felt in places a bit like “don’t trust the queers, they’re recruiting reading themselves into the past,” a sin of which many heterosexual scholars and scholars of (hetero)sexuality have surely also been guilty.
3. If we’re going to get personal about it, one nice thing about fiction-based queer theory is that because most medieval romances have got a heterosexual plot written pretty clearly into it, you rarely find scholars trying to prove that, say Lancelot and Galehaut are totally doin’ it by proving that Lancelot isn’t into Guinevere. Homo- and hetero-eroticism kind of have to co-exist in most texts, if the former is going to be there at all. Also a nice up-side of the social-constructionist arguments that the homo/heterosexual binary didn’t exist before the 19th century is, or ought to be, that evidence of one doesn’t rule out the other. Ought to be, I tell you.
4. Iffy, I know. It’s not really possible to do multi-century longitudinal studies of attraction patterns in large populations. This is getting well out of my field, too, but my understanding is that research at the moment suggests that sexual identity categories are fairly fluid for individuals over time, but basic attraction patterns are fairly stable (Consider this Utah study, Was It A Phase, a 5-year study of attraction patterns among non-heterosexually-identified women). I’m supposing that the same may apply to humans in general: that ways of conceptualising sexual identity might change a lot, but attraction patterns (homo/hetero/mixed/none) across the population might stay fairly consistent. I’m not sure how anyone could prove it doesn’t, although the reverse is also true.
5. Certainly not together. That would be one interesting party.