Medieval times, also called the Middle Ages, describe the period after the fall of the Western Roman Empire (around 500 CE) and before the Renaissance (1500s).
Since there was no unified government or state, the Catholic church became the main source of authority in Europe. Later, homosexuality was largely viewed and upheld by society as a sin.
The Medieval Church and Sex
The connection between sexual deviancy and homosexuality by the church wasn’t really pushed until the later, or “High”, Middle Ages.
Individual cases of homosexuality were often overlooked in day-to-day life in the earlier Middle Ages. In fact, the distinction was not really between gay and straight but between reproductive and non-reproductive sex. The medieval church only sanctified exclusive and procreative marriages, meaning “opposite-sex” activity that was not for reproduction was also not considered acceptable. However, as the church began facing criticism from scholars, they became increasingly concerned with preventing scandals that could diminish their authority. There was the theologian Peter Damian, who coined the term “sodomy” in the 1000s in relation to clerical homosexual relationships. (However, this term was used for any non-procreative sexual acts.) He wrote an entire book addressed to Pope Leo IX about the “corruptions” (including homosexual relations) within the church and monastery, calling for a reformation. Pope Leo IX responded by promising action against those who committed what he called “crimes against nature.” Another theologian Thomas Aquinas also used the discourse of “nature” to cast any non-reproductive sex as sinful. So, the church eventually began targeting homosexuality and enforcing stricter discipline in monasteries.
Medieval Laws on Homosexual Relations
These reform movements led to the development of specific laws towards homosexuality, therefore expressing “authoritative” views toward it.
There was a large increase in municipal (city) laws regarding homosexuality. The actual prosecution of same-sex activity often wasn’t in royal or ecclesiastical (church) courts but in urban cities. Many towns, especially in Italy, legislated about homosexual acts. These called for various punishments including maiming, death, fines, or exile. The cities Lucca, Venice, and Florence even created special legal structures in the 1400s to manage sodomy accusations. Still, there weren’t many actual prosecutions for same-sex activity.
Medieval Female Homosexuality
There is even less recorded evidence of female homosexuality in Medieval Europe than in Ancient Europe.
Some historians theorize that this is because their homosexuality did not prevent them from bearing children to legal husbands and also because of the general misogyny of the times.
Medieval Homosexuality Sources
It’s important to note that we don’t have many surviving sources to reconstruct the experience of medieval homosexuals.
Homosexual images in medieval texts and artifacts are few and far between. Most texts dealing with homosexuality are related to clerics and/or are found in homophobic contexts, often in the form of legislation. Therefore, what little we know about homosexuality in the Middle Ages is very broad and often with a negative connotation.
Cheng, D. (2017) Homosexuality in High Medieval Europe: Reformist Thought and its Effect on Queer Subculture, JUST, Vol. V, No. 1.
Damien, P. (1982). Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices. (P. Payer, Trans. And Intro.). (Original work published 1051.)
Karras, R. M. (2012). Sexuality in Medieval Europe: doing unto others. Routledge.
Karras, R.M. (2020) The Regulation of “Sodomy” in the Latin East and West, Journal of The Medieval Academy of America: Speculum: Vol. 95: Iss. 4. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/710639
Lacopo, F.P. (2016) Medieval Europe and the Culture of Contempt in the Age of the Lateran Councils, Grand Valley Journal of History: Vol. 4: No. 2, Article 1. https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/gvjh/vol4/iss2/1