Warning: this article contains primary source material that readers may find upsetting. I have included it in the belief that, if we are to build as honest an understanding of how the past has shaped the present, then we should not shy away from uncomfortable history.
Ask people what springs to mind on the topic of early LGBTQ+ history, and classicists might point to heady days of Ancient Greece, when homosexuality was arguably more normalised in European society than at any time subsequently until the 21st century. Some might warmly refer specifically to the homoerotic verses of 6th century BC poet Sappho from the island of Lesbos.
Others might recall late medieval/early modern British monarchs whose preferences were revealed by their same-sex favourites at court. That would certainly be a starting point for me, having, as an undergraduate, picked up a copy of James Graham’s “The Homosexual Kings of England”, which delved into the available intimate evidence of the private lives of William Rufus, Richard I, Edward II, Richard II, James I and William III. The narratives relating to these kings – certainly with respect to their sexuality – has generally been negative. Notably the brutal death of Edward II, who was murdered when a red-hot poker was thrust into his rectum, is a clear allusion to his sexual preference and contemporaries’ intolerance of it.
What happened between these two periods? As always, any evidence from early medieval times is patchy. Take, for example, Patrick Higgins’ seminal “A Queer Reader”, in which he edits together source materials to tell the story of male homosexuality from the time of the Greeks onwards. Higgins skips briskly from a range of 1st/2nd century (AD) Roman evidence through to the 11th century. In the intervening millennium, his only reference is an oblique extract from a poem by Ennodius (c.473-521 AD), Bishop of Pavia (in modern-day Italy),:
“There is a constant deception at play in his double sex:
He’s a woman when passive, but when active in shameful deeds, he’s a man.”