It’s easy to imagine that diversity of sexuality and gender expression is a modern phenomenon, framed as it is by modern terminology, norms, and ways of defining identity, but such diversity has always existed. Folk of ancient cultures would not recognise the ways we define such identities today, but 'Queerness' in its broadest sense (see notes on terminology, below) has always been with us, often accompanied by familiar challenges in navigating a largely heteronormative world, and in finding acceptance, which many of us would recognise and can identify with today.
Notable, oft-cited examples include the well-documented homoromantic relationships of Roman Emperors or certain later medieval kings, the gender-transcending priests of Cybele and Attis, or widespread, celebrated homosexuality in Ancient Greece. Sandwiched between the better-documented Classical and later Medieval period though, the Migration / Early Medieval period which we often cautiously refer to here as the 'Anglo-Saxon Period' is rarely mentioned in the context of historical 'queer' themes and figures. This risks creating the impression that natural diversity in sexuality and gender expression did not exist among the 'Anglo-Saxons', 'Vikings' and related cultures, enabling those hostile to such diversity to falsely identify with and appropriate these cultures, or rather, a mythical and distorted version of them, and to use their example to promote prejudice.
To whatever extent there is a lack of evidence for (broadest sense) 'queerness' in early medieval history this largely reflects a lack of documentary evidence which addresses matters of sexuality at all. The High Medieval blossoming of art and literature celebrating romantic love in NW Europe, for example, had not yet occurred, and aside from bawdy riddles, discussion of sexuality in surviving Anglo-Saxon literature is largely confined to the more or less guarded writings of clerics whose public status as celibate underpinned their acceptance in society as outside dynastic struggles and rivalries, and whose faith celebrated abstinence. That said, there are certainly figures from the period who, were they alive today might be considered 'queer'. To these can be added other exceptional figures who defied gender expectations and norms; trailblazers involved in the huge societal changes of the period, redefining what it meant to be a man or woman, facing challenges which LGBT+ / ‘queer’ people today would identify with. In discussing and remembering these individuals, we also remember the countless people who suffered and died from persecution targeting aspects of sexuality and gender expression in the period and throughout history.
With this in mind, here are some Early Medieval 'queeroes' from Europe; those who today could be thought of as LGBT+ / ‘queer’, and other historical figures from whose lives LGBT+ people might identify with.
In most cases we cannot truly know how any of these people felt about themselves. For this reason, in this article, assignment of precise identity terms to individuals is generally avoided where possible, with the unified theme here being 'queerness', inclusive of 'gender-queerness'.
'Queer' is used here to mean any variation in human sexuality and/or gender expression which is beyond or outside of hetrosexuality and cisgender identity as understood in the modern day. For the purposes of this article the constructive ambiguity and inclusiveness of 'queer' is helpful. Nevertheless we acknowledge it has historically been used pejoratively as a slur against LGBTQ+ people, and although generations have worked to reclaim it, and many consider it indispensable, others strongly feel it remains a hurtful slur best left in the past. Our use of the term here should not be taken as endorsing one position or other in this debate. We have settled on 'queer' as the least-worst option for approaching this topic respectfully, sensitively and accurately while acknowledging its problems, and beg the pardon, patience and understanding of readers who may find the term offensive.
Isaiah of Rhodes & Alexander of Diospolis
(and countless other victims of late Roman & Byzantine persecutions)
Most of the foundations of what we see in early medieval Europe were laid by the Roman Empire, which at its height influenced almost all corners of the continent. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, much of its culture and social influence was preserved, and continued, via the two greatest superpowers of the period; the Eastern / Byzantine Empire and the Church.
Like among the Ancient Greeks, there was a great deal of diversity tolerated in sexual behaviour within the Roman Republic and early Empire. Both heterosexual and homosexual partnerships, love, and sex were commonplace and considered unremarkable. Whilst marriage was transactional and regulated by strict laws, outside this institution, commercial sex work (both genders) was widespread, enslaved people of both genders were sexually exploited, and children were not considered off-limits.
Surviving love poetry of the time (written by men) was as likely to be written for male lovers as female. Likewise, whilst sex scandals and legal cases often concerned both heterosexual and homosexual affairs, it was the conduct, participants’ status, and issues of consent which formed the matter of concern. Homosexuality was not scandalous in and of itself. In equivalent adultery cases, same-sex affairs were not punished any differently than heterosexual ones. Various Roman Emperors engaged extensively in homosexual sex, romance, and even marriage. Female homosexuality is also documented, though more scarcely.
From the 3rd century, however, this permissiveness declined, likely due to a massive expansion of citizenship status among the men who lived within Roman territory. With almost all men now legally citizens, few could avoid difficult sociolegal stigmatisation if seen to be sexually 'conquered', leading in turn to further restrictiveness in social liberties, particularly in terms of curbing free male sex workers’ ability to do business. Sexual exploitation and abuse of the weak by the powerful affected both sexes, but (as in Ancient Greece) relations between older citizens and citizen-class boys (pederasty) was highly visible, and as citizenship expanded and sex work declined, this particular dynamic attracted condemnation (for example, at the Christian council of Ancyra in 314 CE).
For centuries, the legal attempts to curtail pederasty from the 3rd century onward have been mistranslated and misinterpreted as broader attacks on homosexuality itself, but although these laws (and the laws against male sex work) were used to socially police which men could have sex with each other and in what way, explicit proscription against 'sodomy' did not occur in Roman law until the 5th century. Certainly, from that point on, if not before, the persecutions were brutal, and growing hostility to homosexuality seems to have been connected with the dwindling of socially acceptable options for status dynamics within same-sex pairings. By the fall of the Western Roman Empire there are records of men accused of homosexual acts being burned at the stake ‒ a policy picked up and continued by both the Goths and the Byzantine/Eastern Empire well into the 6th century.
The escalating campaign of violent persecution of participants in homosexual activities in the late Empire was one facet of a wider campaign of intolerance against other 'heresies' (philosophical schools, practices, religions). This movement blamed diversity for the various crises faced by the declining Empire. It is impossible to know the full reach, or the number of victims, of the persecutions which the centuries-long, paranoid death-throes of the Western Roman Empire unleashed on Europe. In the Eastern / Byzantine Empire, this phenomenon probably peaked during the reign of Justinian I and Theodora.
Justianian’s Novellae Constitutiones specifically linked homosexuality to the crimes of the biblical Soddam and Gomorrah, justifying criminalisation by asserting it threatened the Empire with divine punishment in the form of disasters. The law mandated arrest and extreme punishment for suspects, which, according to other sources, included judicial amputations including castration, torture and execution. Procopius 'The Secret History' gives an account of the sheer scale of Justinian’s persecutions, mostly politically motivated and/or used as a means to seize assets for the imperial treasury. Political and religious rivals were targeted as well as homosexual men.
Many victims’ names and stories do not survive, but the Byzantine Chronicle of John Malalas (late 6th century) tells us the fate of two bishops caught up in Justianian’s purges.
'AD 528 - In that year some of the bishops from various provinces were accused of living immorally in matters of the flesh and of homosexual practices. Amongst them was Isaiah, bishop of Rhodes, an ex praefectus vigilium at Constantinople, and likewise the bishop from Diospolis, in Thrace named Alexander. In accordance with a sacred ordinance they were brought to Constantinople and were examined and condemned by Victor the city prefect, who punished them: he tortured Isaiah severely and exiled him and he amputated Alexander's genitals and paraded him around on a litter. The emperor [Justinian I] immediately decreed that those detected in pederasty should have their genitals amputated. At that time many homosexuals were arrested and died after having their genitals amputated. From then on there was fear amongst those afflicted with homosexual lust.' John Malalas, The Chronicle. (Translation by Jeffreys et. al. 1986)
It is unclear whether the charges against these bishops were based on any evidence at all, but they represent just two of an unknowable number who suffered at the hands of centuries of purges in the late Roman and Byzantine Empires that used homophobic ideology as an opportunistic pretext or a justification. In many countries across the world LGBT+ people and others associated with them sadly continue to be subjected to criminalisation and state violence in exactly this way.
Alcuin of York (705 - 834 CE)
Alcuin was born, probably to a noble family, in Northumbria at the start of the 8th century. At a young age he began an education in the Church at the thriving cathedral church of York. Thanks to the leadership of Archbishop Ecgbert, along with royal patronage, the example and works of the Venerable Bede, and growing access to religious and scholarly texts from across Europe, York was flourishing as a seat of learning. Whilst Alcuin never took monastic vows, he first became a teacher, then ascended to become head of the York School.
In 781 Elfwald, the King of Northumbria, sent Alcuin to Rome to secure papal confirmation of York’s status as an archbishopric. Alcuin met the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne in Parma on the return journey. Charlemagne was convening a council of leading thinkers from across Europe in his court, and persuaded Alcuin to join them. In 782 Alcuin became master of Charlemagne’s Palace School in Aachen, and personally tutored Charlemagne and his sons through the next decade. This college had an informal and intimate atmosphere, with much affection and use of nicknames between its members, up to and including Charlemagne himself. Many of these nicknames were borrowed directly from Classical romantic poetry or the Bible. Alcuin greatly promoted learning of the Liberal Arts, wrote theological treatises, and helped develop the hugely influential Carolingian Minuscule script (which centuries later informed our typesetting today).
In his career under Charlemagne, Alcuin enjoyed immense influence within the Frankish Empire, and more remotely advised kings of various other countries, such as his native Northumbria. Alcuin travelled to attend significant religious councils, and bounced between the various schools which he had either founded or was affiliated with. On the move, Alcuin kept up correspondence with his various colleagues, proteges and friends throughout, before he ultimately settled down at Marmoutier Abbey at Tours, where he died in 804. He left a legacy of written works rivalled only by Bede in terms of size and scope, including over 310 letters which provide invaluable insight into Alcuin’s mind, life, and personality, as well as his times.
Though not a monk, Alcuin appears officially to have lived his entire life in a state of clerical celibacy; he never married or had children, nor is there any evidence he was ever romantically involved with women. This being said, it is extremely clear that Alcuin’s relationships with his male scholarly colleagues and students were by far the most important of his life and went well beyond mere friendship.
The ideals of passionate Christian friendship (‘amicitia’) that permeated the early Church (drawing on the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, along with notions of equality in the eyes of God) allowed a kind of same-sex union to become acceptable, typified by unselfconscious emotional intimacy. The relationship between Saint Sergius and Bacchus (see above) was recorded in this way, and in the 6-11th centuries this became a focus of theological work for clerical scholars who tried to reconcile Classical Latin and Greek romantic literature (which, being expressions of love between human beings and therefore the love of God, could not be easily dismissed) with their vows of celibacy. Officially, the closest analogues to romantic love for those leading a monastic life were the affections between teachers and tutors, and the intense friendships which grew from years or decades spent living in close quarters with others of the same gender. The corpus of love poems and letters written between early medieval (usually male) clerics represents the overwhelming majority of ‘romantic’ literature of the age, and its interpretation is controversial.
On the one hand we cannot assume that any individual poem or letter represented anything more than an expression of intense friendship, but neither can it be assumed it did not. Across the corpus of such literature, anything from mere literary experiment, to expression of idealised friendship, to chaste expressions of homoromantic desire, to correspondence between secret actively gay lovers, are all valid interpretations. We certainly should not imagine that early medieval monasteries were hotbeds of homosexual activity, or that most monks did not take their vows seriously, but Anglo-Saxon penitentials (codes stipulating the penance required for monks to atone for different sins) list just about every homosexual act imaginable. So physical relations within monasteries did certainly occur, and the church was aware of it.
Penalties in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials for homosexual acts were no more severe than for heterosexual ones, and often, less so. This makes a certain amount of sense, in that homosexual acts do not bring the risk of pregnancy, which would have damaged the position of monasticism as a non-dynastic institution within wider society. Homosexuality among monks was considered a problem not because it was ‘homo-’, but because its was ‘sexual’ ‒ a deviation from the monastic ascetic (self-denying) ideal. Other activities deemed unseemly for monks brought similar penances (Boswell, 1980). The penalty for participating in hunting, for example, was greater than for 'going the whole way' with a fellow monk! This makes sense when non-reproductive sexual activity within the walls is viewed as an internal matter, versus the challenge to clerical/secular distinctions that hunting could represent.
Alcuin himself was not, strictly speaking, bound to celibacy, and among the whole corpus of early medieval 'amicitia' literature, his writings to friends within the circle at Charlemagne’s court are widely noted to be especially passionate.
Pectus amor nostrum penetravit flamma….
Atque calore novo semper inardet amor.
Nec mare, nec tellus, montes nec silva vel alpes
Huic obstare queunt aut inhibere viam,
Quo minus, alme pater, semper tua viscera lingat,
Vel lacramis lavet pectus, amate, tuum.
…Omnia tristifico mutantur guadia lucu,
Nil est perpetuum, cuncta perire queunt.
Te modo quapropter fugiamus pectore toto,
Tuque et nos mundus iam periture, fugis….
‘Love has pierced my heart with its flame [missing word],
And love always burns with fresh fire.
Neither land nor sea, hills nor woods nor mountains
Can impede or block the path to him,
Loving father, who ever licks your breast
And who washes, beloved,your chest with his tears.
….All joys are changed into sad mournings,
Nothing is permanent, everything will pass.
Let me therefore flee to you with my whole heart,
And do you flee to me from the vanishing world… (Translation from Boswell, 1980)
Alcuin’s writings are heavy with Biblical and Classical literary allusions which to some extent distort their meaning (for alternative interpretations see Garrison, 1995). Nevertheless, they certainly communicate a level of emotional, if not physical intimacy. Severe longing for his companions whenever he was separated from them is a recurring theme.
It would seem that intimate physical acts of some sort did happen among Alcuin’s circle. One of his followers appears to been outed, and was admonished by Alcuin (Ep 294), not really for the act itself but, it seems, primarily on the grounds that the young man, 'sweetest son, brother and friend', had been indiscreet in his activities, leading to people 'giggling in public' about the matter and bringing them all into disrepute. Perhaps Alcuin feared further sexual activities being exposed, or alternatively he was simply unimpressed with the frivolity of the gossip. It is hard to be certain about what really went on, because our evidence comes from letters that have survived the edit of time through centuries of different attitudes, and which would have been unsealed and able to be read by anyone in transit, encouraging guardedness in any case. Alcuin seems to have been in favour of such discretion!
Whatever Alcuin got up to with his colleagues, late in his life he petitioned the Pope to forgive both 'sins of his youth' and 'the very same sins' committed by his colleague Angilbert (Alcuin’s Ep. 94), perhaps alluding to times he physically expressed some of the passion he put in his poetry, breaking his informal commitment to celibacy. Of course Alcuin would have known he was in good company delaying his confession to the very end so as to enjoy himself beforehand. To quote Saint Augustine of Hippo 'Lord, make me chaste - but not yet!'.
Alcuin was one of the greatest scholars of the age, or indeed, of any age, and his writings - even the controversial ones - have been treasured, preserved, and carefully re-copied for centuries. This raises interesting questions about how his letters and poems have been interpreted by readers over the centuries, managing to avoid censorship during times with less accepting attitudes. In Frankia in particular it seems that all Alcuin's writings were prized due to his reputation as an architect of the Carolingian state's social structure, wherein the church and the lifestyle it offered provided an important means of dynastic stabilisation. The promotion of examples like Alcuin to secular students provided a means to gently encourage homosexually-inclined heirs toward the church, leaving secular property and title inheritance in the hands of heterosexual siblings more likely to sire heirs, and reduce the rate of succession disputes.
Saint Marina/Marinos the Monk (C5th CE)
Marina / Marinos the Monk is probably the most mysterious figure on this list. Their story occurs in medieval hagiographies in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, Ethiopian, Armenian, German, French and Spanish, from which we can infer that veneration of this saint was widespread across much of medieval Europe, though precisely when and where they lived is debated. They likely came from somewhere in the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire and lived between the 5th and 8th centuries.
Marina the Monk (variously otherwise known as Mary of Alexandria, Marinos and Pelagia) was the child of a wealthy Christian widower called Eugenius who intended to retire to a monastery (the Monastery of Qannoubine in the Kadisha Valley in Lebanon) as soon as they reached adulthood. Unhappy with the prospect of being married off and separated from their father Marina declared that they would go to the monastery and live as a monk with him, going on to shave their head and change into mens’ clothes, and adopt the name 'Marinos'.
Later, while away on business for the abbot, Marinos and three other monks spent the night at an inn where a soldier was also lodging. The innkeeper’s daughter subsequently fell pregnant and accused Marinos of having fathered the child, which was, of course, impossible. Rather than exposing the lie Marinos begged the forgiveness of the abbot for their sinfulness (without explicitly confessing which sin they were confessing to) and they were banished from the monastery.
Marinos became a beggar, and went on to raise their alleged love child outside the monastery for 10 years before being allowed to return and do penance, which they did, later dying from illness at the age of 40. It was only at Marinos’ death that the monks saw their naked body, while preparing it for burial. The monks and abbot were distraught at discovering that they had wrongly punished the monk for all these years, and informed the innkeeper. The innkeeper, his daughter, and the true father of the child all visited and prayed for forgiveness at Marinos’ tomb, where various miracles subsequently are alleged to have occurred.
The story of Marinos/Marina the Monk is interesting on a number of levels. Firstly, it is clear that Saint Marina / Marinos, at least in the form their story is preserved, was a gender nonconforming figure who today would certainly fall under the wide umbrella of ‘trans’. Beyond this most general bracketing, we know little, and even working out the appropriate pronouns with which to tell this story respectfully is a challenge (we have chosen ‘they’ here, owing to the fluidity of later references).
Though Marinos’ adoption of a male identity is alleged to have begun as a ruse to enter the monastery, even taking that action depended on being keen to commit to living a whole life as the opposite gender, which is a non-trivial action. This is demonstrated because Marinos maintained their male identity even after their father’s death and their rejection from the monastery (that is, after the removal of the two motivations not related to an inward desire for gender expression). At that point Marinos had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by renouncing their male identity and exposing the lie that they had fathered a child. Marinos chose to live with the consequences of modest non-disclosure (non-exposure) of their anatomy, no matter how unfair those consequences were. Medieval Christians clearly found much to admire in this example of selflessness, ‘turning the other cheek’, and commitment to live according to vows taken.
Secondly, the popularity and widespread veneration of this obscure, possibly mythical figure raises interesting questions about attitudes to 'transness' in early medieval Europe; that Marinos lived most of their lives, until death, as a different gender to that which they had been assigned at birth does not seem to have gained the slightest hint of disapproval from medieval Christians. Indeed, far from disapproving of Marinos’ ‘transness’ worshippers seem to have celebrated the saint for the instructive displays of modesty, selflessness and tenacity which the situation they faced enabled, with distinctions of gender possibly trivialized by an assertion of equality of the holy under God.
Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians (870 - 918 CE)
In recent years Æthelflæd has rightly become one of the most familiar figures of the Anglo-Saxon Age; eldest daughter of Ælfred the Great, a remarkably successful diplomat, military leader and tactician who rebuilt the war-ravaged Midlands, did more than any other to enable the political integration of Mercia into a united England and played an instrumental role in the long struggle to drive back the Vikings. Æthelflæd stands out from other Anglo-Saxon leaders, in that she was a woman in a culture where Christian female political and military leadership was unprecedented.
Æthelflæd was born and raised during the most desperate years of the war with the Great Heathen Army, and these experiences were no doubt formative in her development as a military leader. Nevertheless her initial usefulness to the House of Wessex was in filling the traditional, feminine role of any Anglo-Saxon noblewoman - that of ‘peace weaver’ - being made a diplomatic bride for the leader of the Kingdom of Mercia - Ealdorman Æthelred, then ruling under West Saxon overlordship.
In the years that followed, Æthelflæd was heavily involved in the business of governing and rebuilding Mercia, investing in monasteries and churches, witnessing charters, and overseeing the fortification of Worcester, while her husband was away campaigning against the Vikings in the east with King Ælfred. The couple had only one daughter, Ælfwyn, after the birth of whom Lady Æthelflæd is understood to have chosen to be celibate.
Later, around 800 CE King Ælfred died, succeeded by his son (Æthelflæd’s younger brother) Edward, and around the same time it seems that Æthelflæd’s husband began to suffer from declining health. Increasingly Æthelflæd carried responsibility for running the kingdom in her husband’s stead, while also raising the King’s son - future king Æthelstan - who had been fostered with her. Her husband died in 910 - the same year that a Viking army invaded Mercia and was defeated spectacularly by a joint Mercian-West-Saxon army, at the Battle of Tettenhall. The Chronicles do not recall who led this army to victory but historians believe it was very likely Lady Æthelflæd who stepped into her ailing husband’s military boots and organised the defence of Mercia herself.
Æthelflæd then succeeded her husband, ruling from 911 to 918 as Myrcna hlædige, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, involving herself not just in statecraft but the hitherto exclusively male business of waging war. In her short solo reign she fortified a dozen ‘burhs’ across the West Midlands to improve the defensibility of the territory. She retook and fortified Tamworth before pressing on to the spectacular capture of Derby in 917, then negotiating the surrender of Leicester in early 918, and finally and most impressively, having the Vikings of York (and by extension, Northumbria) offer to surrender to her personally. Unfortunately she died suddenly that same summer and the surrender never took place - it’s capture instead left to her protégé King Æthelstan years later. Her daughter was briefly made the next 'Lady of Mercia' but was immediately removed by King Edward who wished to rule the kingdom directly.
Æthelflæd was a female leader, and a successful military general, at a time when female leadership - especially military leadership, was effectively unprecedented. She is certainly one of the most impressive figures on this list but her inclusion in a list of 'Queer Heroes' is probably the most surprising. In recent times she has more generally been thought of as a feminist icon who 'broke the glass ceiling' and defied the rigid gender norms of the time, but in what way was she queer?
This analysis depends on an understanding of the ways in which the Anglo-Saxons understood gender. To them ‘mann’ meant person of any gender (as in the modern word ‘mankind’); a woman was a ‘wīfmann’ (wife-person) while a man was a ‘werman’ - ‘were’ (preserved in ‘werewolf’) relating to the Old English verb to protect and/or the bear weapons - werian. Thus, warfare and the bearing of weapons was the defining attribute of manhood (cf. the inclusion of weapons as the defining grave-goods early Anglo-Saxon male graves). In this context, especially when no precedent existed which was familiar to the folk of the time, Æthelflæd’s involvement in military affairs and leading armies (if not the bearing of weapons, and direct, physical involvement in fighting) was not just the act of an ambitious woman defying the limits placed on her by patriarchal society (feminism) but was actually crossing the line of what it meant to be a man or woman in that society and transcending the gender binary.
It is worth making a historiographical note that as Æthelflæd has become more famous in recent years it has become increasingly common (regardless of the evidence) for modern representations to depict her as a warrior, decked out in armour and wielding weapons - all overwhelmingly masculine accoutrement within the context of her time. Whether the artists and writers responsible are aware of it or not, there is therefore an inherent 'gender queerness' in these modern representations. The growing myth of Mercia’s sword-waving warrior queen is very much a woman in masculine dress.
Fascinatingly there is a clue in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B (the Abingdon Chronicle) that hints that they were thinking of Æthelflæd very much in these terms, and reflecting on whether it is right for a woman to enter the masculine sphere.
Her Æþelflæd Myrcna hlæfdige [...] gefor .xii. nihtum ær middan sumera binnan Tamanweorðe þy eahtoþan geare þæs þe heo Myrcna anwald mid riht hlaforddome healdende wæs
Here Æthelflæd Lady of Mercia [...] died 12 nights before midsummer at Tamworth in the eighth year of her sole rulership of Mercia and rightful her lordship holding was.
We have no reason to think that Æthelflæd set out deliberately to defy gender norms. She was devoted to the church and her first instincts were likely to live according to her assigned role within the established social order, which the church at that time, more or less, taught was God’s will. Yet out of necessity she stepped into a masculine role in a time of crisis, and was so enormously successful that not only could no-one argue God disapproved, but Chroniclers were also provoked to reflect on the principle of women stepping into masculine roles or even being ruler.
Mubārak & Muẓaffar al-Saqlabi (C10 - 11th CE)
The Visigoths of the Iberian Peninsula from the 5th to 8th centuries are notable for the seriousness with which they enforced religious and social conformity to maintain order. This included perhaps the early Medieval period’s most severe campaign of persecution against heretics, including purges directed at Jewish people, minority Christian sects and homosexual activity.
Attitudes, however, shifted drastically with the Muslim Umayyad Conquests of the early 8th century. The Qur’an more or less ignores homosexuality; and many early Muslim cultures accepted, if not celebrated, homosexuality, selecting early Islamic texts that supported rather than challenged this tolerance. Celebration of homosexual courtship and love became a staple of the flourishing Andalus literary tradition with the overwhelming majority of Hispano-Arabic poetry concerning same-sex romance. The Andalus Muslims are documented to have taken Islamic law especially seriously (Boswell, 1980), and their tolerant views about homosexuality were fully in accordance with their theology.
The widespread and open homosexuality seen in Umayyad Spain attracted some negative attention of foreign writers (finding its way into the writings of 10th century German Hroswitha who described the martyrdom of Pelagius for rebuffing the sexual advances of Umayyad king Abderrman III) but curiously went without comment among Christians within and around Muslim Spain. Christians within the Hispano-Arabic sphere of influence appear to have found widespread and celebrated homosexuality as perfectly normal - perhaps a restoration of Classical attitudes. Many of the notable relationships celebrated in the texts concern unions between Muslim and Christian male lovers, and, indeed, the bulk of love poetry is written in an Arabic-Romance hybrid dialect - a shared language suggesting this tradition of poetry developed with the participation of both populations. (The history of this dialect has a long life after this period, as it fed into Mediterranean Lingua Franca, from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth, and formed the core of the underground slang Polari in Europe. Polari was a gay living language until decriminalisation of homosexuality in European countries in the twentieth century lessened the need for a secret code).
All this is not to say that homosexual relations, including between Islamic rulers and Christian subjects or enslaved people was unproblematic; as in Ancient Rome before, such relations were very often between people of unequal power. Under the patriarchal structures and mores of the time the same must also be said of heterosexual relationships. In Umayyad Spain, however, writers promoted the ideal of relationships which flip such a power dynamic, with the recurring theme of the more powerful partner being subjugated through the power of love. To quote al-Mutamid (11th century king of Seville) describing his partner;
‘They named him Sword; two other swords: his eyes! Both he and those two are ready to slay me! Would not one slaying by sword have quite sufficed? Yet by his eyebrows two further blows were dealt! I made him captive~ his charming eyes in turn made me his captive: now we both are masters, both slaves! Oh Sword, be kind toward a captive of love, Who asks not, as a favor, to be freed by you! Al-Mutamid, king of Seville from 1069–1091. (Translation from Boswell, 1980)
One of the most interesting and celebrated same-sex couples from early medieval Muslim Spain were the 10th century rulers of the taifa of Valencia, Mubārak al-Saqlabi and Muẓaffar al-Saqlabi. Saqlabi literally means ‘of the Slavs’ - a medieval Arabic term for enslaved north Europeans; Mubarak and Muzaffar had been captured and enslaved as children, ending up in the service of Mufaris (also a 'Saqlabi') chief of police at Almanzor’s fortified palace of az-Zahira on the outskirts of Cordoba. Working their way up from servants to civil servants posted to Valencia, they then staged a local coup and became celebrated co-rulers. Although glossed in most English-language resources variously as 'eunuchs' and 'brothers', the love between Mubarak and Muzaffar was much celebrated in Andalus romantic poetry, for example described in glowing terms by Ibn Darraj al-Qastalli, Ibn Darray al Qastalli, at-Takurunni, Ibn Muhlab, and Ibn Talut.
Boswell (1980) noted that 'their joint rule was characterized by admiring Muslim historians as a relationship of complete trust and mutual devotion, without any trace of competition or jealousy, and their love for each other was celebrated in verse by poets attracted to their courts from all over Spain.' They ruled Valencia from 1010 to 1018, when Mubarak reportedly died in a riding accident. According to some sources Muzaffar was then killed in an uprising, possibly instigated by the fellow Saqlabi manumitted slave Labib, who became the next taifa of Valencia.
Saint Anselm of Canterbury & Bec (1030 - 1109 CE)
Anselm was born to a noble family in Aosta (in the Piedmont region of Lombardy) around 1033. He received an excellent education and likely gained renown as a scholar even before embarking on his career in the church. After leaving Aosta he travelled widely en-route to the Benedictine monastery at Bec (Northern France) where he arrived in1057 to study under Lanfranc in 1057. He took monastic vows in 1060 and ascended to be prior of Bec only three years later.
During his time at Bec, Aneselm wrote many influential theological and philosophical treatises including his ‘Monologion’, which attempted to demonstrate the existence and attributes of God through appeals to reason rather than just through faith or reference to ancient authority. His ‘Proslogion’ / ‘Fides quaerens intellectum’, for the first time, laid out the ontological argument for the existence of God. This was the proposition that that the existence of the very idea of an almighty being - which even ‘fools’ have a concept of - implies that such a thing must exist. These works were foundational in the development of “scholasticism” - an intellectual movement within the church which used Classical / Aristotelian logic to examine and understand theology.
The Monastery at Bec grew substantially as a centre of learning thanks both to Anselm, and the sponsorship of their benefactor William, Duke of Normandy.
Following the Norman Conquest of England, the now King William I (the Conqueror) granted substantial tracts of land in both England and Normandy to the monastery at Bec. As abbot of Bec (from 1078), Anselm was responsible for visiting and supervising these land-holdings, and so became familiar with the Norman-held kingdom of England.
During his years at Bec, Anselm wrote a number of letters to colleagues and friends expressing deep love and longing for them, often using the phrase ‘dilecto dilectori’ (‘beloved lover’) in a manner clearly reflecting the same tradition of Christian same-sex 'passionate friendship' ('amicitia') typified by unselfconcious emotional intimacy which is preserved in the writings of other figures including, two centuries earlier, Alcuin of York. These letters are generally much more verbose than the equivalent writings of Alcuin, and less physical, though no less passionate in the feelings expressed.
Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved lover
...sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness, but they cannot begin to console my desolate heart for its want of your love. Even if you sent every scent of perfume, every glitter of metal, every precious gem, every texture of cloth, still it could not make up to my soul for this separation unless it returned the separated other half.
The anguish of my heart just thinking about this bears witness, as do the tears dimming my eyes and wetting my face and the fingers writing this.
You recognized, as I do now, my love for you, but I did not. Our separation from each other has shown me how much I loved you; a man does not in fact have knowledge of good and evil unless he has experienced both. Not having experienced your absence, I did not realize how sweet it was to be with you and how bitter to be without you.
But you have gained from our very separation the company of someone else, whom you love no less – or even more – than me; while I have lost you, and there is no one to take your place. You are thus enjoying your consolation, while nothing is left to me but heartbreak.
(Epistle I.75; PL, 158:1144-45 Translation from Boswell (1980).
Unlike Alcuin in his early years, there does not seem to be much reason to think that Anselm’s feelings for his “dilecto dilectori” ever found physical expression. He was known to be extremely committed to his monastic vows, and later in his career would seek to promote and strengthen the expectation of celibacy among the priesthood. It has been suggested that contemporaries considered Anselm’s ‘passionate friendships’ not to compromise his spirituality, but rather, to enhance it. “From these friendships, and the discussions which cemented them, came the theological treatises” (Southern, 1970). Sadly there are no such letters from his later years, where he seems to have had a lonelier existence, often making more enemies than friends.
Nevertheless, perhaps resulting from his own inclinations, or the memories of the relationships which were so important to him earlier in life and which (he believed) had brought him closer to an understanding of God, Anselm made an impressive and important intervention on behalf of the rights of others who shared similar feelings towards the end of his career.
Whilst Anselm was at Chester founding a priory in 1089, he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest religious office in England, by King William II . Anselm strongly believed both in structural reform, and in the authority of the Pope and Church over and above secular power. He refused to accept the appointment to the archbishopric unless William restored its lands (which had previously been taken by the crown) and officially acknowledged the ‘rightful’ pope, Urban II. Although William II did this, a long and bitter three way power-struggle then erupted between King William II, Anselm and Urban II. This was a battleground of the wider “Investiture Controversy”, in which Anselm refused to pay a huge tax to fund King William’s war in Normandy (which could be seen as “buying” his archbishopric). William blocked Anselm’s journey to Rome to receive the pallium (symbolising papal approval of his appointment as archbishop) as he did not want this to be seen as England’s official endorsement of Urban II. This led Anselm to argue that the king was exceeding his authority and imposing his own power over the affairs of the Church in Rome. Anselm did eventually receive his pallium, indirectly; but bitter power-struggles with the King, embroiling other lords and bishops, eventually led to his exile in 1097. The king once again seized the lands of Canterbury.
From 1097-1100 Anselm worked on other important theological treatises, travelled widely, and was an important advisor and agent of the Pope, embarking on a number of important missions on his behalf. He was invited to return as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1100 following the death of William II, to support the succession of Henry I, though would end up having many more conflicts with the new king, foreshadowing the infamous power-struggle which would plague his immediate successor as Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. Nevertheless, no longer blocked by Henry I, he convened the hugely important general church Council of London in 1102 which made substantial Gregorian reforms to canon law in England.
Important outcomes of this council were prohibitions on simony (the buying/selling of church offices), drunkenness, concubinage and marriage among the clergy, reaffirming and strengthening the convention of clerical celibacy. Declarations which affected secular folk included prohibitions on incestuous marriages, and a rule forbidding the selling “of men, like beasts, as had hitherto been done in England”. This Act, proposed by Anselm, is widely considered to have been the first law in England to explicitly prohibit slavery, albeit in a limited way.
However, it was also at this Council of London that specific prohibitions against “sodomy” came close to entering canon law in England for the first time. The proposal would have seen it defined specifically as a sin (rather than merely an impropriety, or, among priests, a violation of celibacy) with offending laymen imprisoned, and clergy anathematised, where previously it had only been a matter for confession and voluntary penance. Anselm personally prevented it being brought in, commenting in a letter to archdeacon William that “this sin has hitherto been so public that hardly anyone is embarrassed by it, and many have therefore fallen into it because they were unaware of its seriousness” (Boswell, 1980). This provides a rare insight into the attitude of ordinary lay-folk of the 11-12th century towards homosexuality, shows that the church in England had not been specifically teaching against homosexuality among lay people prior to this, but also represents a rare case of clerical defence, coming from, of all people, an archbishop otherwise considered a doctinral hard-liner. Anselm’s opposition to the measure may have been informed by his awareness of a decree from Pope Leo IX (1049-54) forbidding extreme punishment of homosexuality among the clergy, but perhaps also by his own experiences, and fear of the chilling effect an anti-gay inquisition (and the associated inevitable false, non-disprovable allegations, or fear of attracting false accusations) might have on “amicitia” / loving friendships within the priesthood.
Anselm’s well-publicised veto of this attempt at “sodomy law” appears to have killed off the idea for almost two centuries. Subsequent councils made no attempt to revive it, with it being conspicuously absent from the laws of the Council of Westminster in 1108; the next specific legal proscription against homosexuality appears to be a clause of the English common law ‘Fleta’ treatise of 1290.
In 1103, the 70-year-old Anselm found himself once again caught in a power struggle between the King of England and the Pope in Rome (over whether the king had a right to unilaterally invest new bishops) and was exiled for a second time. Threatening him with excommunication, Anselm forced King Henry I to return to negotiations and make concessions to the pope, but he still refused to return to his post in Canterbury, staying instead at his spiritual home of Bec, on strike, until he could be confident that the balance of power had been settled once and for all. Henry traveled to Bec himself in 1106 to beg Anselm to return, and was forced to make yet more concessions, including full restoration of the lands and privileges of the archbishopric of Canterbury.
Anselm is rightly remembered as the father of scholasticism (the harmonisation with, and examination of theology through Classical logic) and as one of the most significant religious figures of the medieval period. However, he might also rightly be remembered as someone who experienced same-sex love in his early life, and later used his position of influence to protect those with similar feelings from legal persecution.
From the same-sex love of certain early medieval Christian clerics and the romantic poetry of Al Andalus, to saints and warrior queens who crossed gender boundaries, it's clear that (broadest sense) 'queer' people existed in the early medieval period in Europe, as they have existed in all human societies throughout history. As today, they often faced challenges, and made huge contributions to historical events, learning and culture. Their stories and identities are often harder to uncover than similar figures from adjacent eras, and have at times in the more recent past been deliberately obscured or ignored. The short list of well-documented individuals discussed here represent yet many more whose lives are less well documented, or whose nature is left more ambiguous. As these stories are joined by others gradually being uncovered through careful historical research we can build a more rounded view of early medieval societies - how they navigated issues of diversity, identity and tolerance - and recognise the diversity of individuals who lived in, and shaped them.
Finally we wish to recognise and remember medieval philologist, historian and professor at Yale University John Boswell , whose groundbreaking magnum opus "Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality" was one of the first major works of modern scholarship to assemble and reinterpret the stories of queer people in late antiquity and the medieval period which had hitherto been misunderstood, deliberately mistranslated / censored, ignored or confined to footnotes. Although some of its analyses have since been criticised, Boswell's work remains a cornerstone of the study of deeper LGBT+ history in Europe, and provided an important starting-point for the author's challenging journey through this topic. Pursued fearlessly at a time when this topic was still taboo, Boswell's pioneering research continued into the 1990s. Tragically, like too many towering figures of the late 20th century gay community, his life and important work was sadly cut short by the AIDS pandemic in 1992. He is remembered for helping to reunite LGBT+ people with their history and revealing a forgotten historical basis for social tolerance in the modern world.
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