Shedding light on Medieval LGBTQ+

Ben Norman

Ask people what springs to mind on the topic of early LGBTQ+ history

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.”
Shedding light on Medieval LGBTQ+
Edward II

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Look to the societies in the early Caliphates in the Middle East, and there is clear evidence of various dimensions of LGBTQ+. For instance, prolific historian al-Tabari (839-923AD), citing earlier historians, relates how Umayyad Caliph Hisham (724-743AD) “went on a pilgrimage. Al-Abrash [Hisham’s Secretary] took along some ‘mukhannaths’ [defined as neither entirely male or female] who had guitars with them. Hisham said: ‘Imprison them and sell their possessions…and put the proceeds in the treasury. If they mend their ways, return the money to them.’ ” A far more chillingly homophobic episode occurred during the reign of Abbasid Caliph Musa al-Hadi (764-786AD). Citing earlier historian Ali b. Mohammed, Tabari points to how Al-Hadi was “in the company of his companions … and had with him a eunuch carrying a dish covered over with a napkin. … He said to the eunuch, ‘Take off the napkin’…and behold, the dish held the heads of two slave girls. … We found this a horrific sight. … The Caliph said ‘We received information that they were in love with each other, and had got together for an immoral purpose. So I set this eunuch to watch over them … . He informed me that they had got together, so I went and found them under a single coverlet committing an immoral act. I thereupon killed them.’ ” These episodes – the double execution especially – make for deeply uncomfortable reading. Could the horror recorded among Caliph al-Hadi’s companions imply that broader society was more inclusive? What is clear is that even if there was extreme intolerance from the Caliph himself, individuals in society were not dissuaded from expressing and acting upon their sexuality. Certainly, there is evidence of Sufi mystics at the time singing homoerotic lyrics – “gazing upon a beardless youth”. And the poet Abu Nuwas (c.756-814AD) was quite comfortable describing his love of young (male) chancery secretaries and monastic novices in his verses. Indeed, this was not an uncommon practice in 9th century Abbasid society – including among married men. Albeit that status mattered in these relationships: there was definitely a stigma attached to those regarded as the socially inferior homosexual partners. It is clear, then, that anyone who identifies as LGBTQ+ nowadays would have faced a hostile environment in medieval Europe and the Middle East. And yet the very fact that there is this evidence at all is indicative of a surreptitiously thriving medieval LGBTQ+ scene.
Ancestry UK
Shedding light on Medieval LGBTQ+

Ben Norman

Ben originally studied history. He now works in public policy supporting low-income countries in their development.
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