From Rome to the Middle Ages
The early Middle Ages were once known as the “Dark Ages”, a disparaging term, which nevertheless is descriptive of the murky information we have about the saints: some of what is commonly believed about these saints is clearly mythical. Nevertheless, knowledge of the queer associations of saints like Patrick and Brigid of Ireland, George the dragon slayer and “Good King Wenceslas” is simple fun – and literal, historical truth or not, can provide useful material for reflection.
This period is also notable for the widespread use of specific liturgies for blessing same sex unions in Church. Even if these unions are not directly comparable with modern marriage, understanding of this recognition by the church deserves careful consideration, for the guidance it can offer the modern church on dealing with recognition for same sex relationships.
By the time of the High Middle Ages, influenced by increasing urbanization and greater familiarity with more homoerotic Muslim civilization, the earlier moderate opposition and grudging toleration of same sex love softened to a more open tolerance, with some remarkable monastic love letters with homoerotic imagery (St Anselm, St Alcuin), a celebration of same sex intimacy in St Aelred of Rielvaulx’s work on Spiritual Friendship, more erotic poetry, and acceptance of open sexual relationships even for prominent bishops (Ralph of Tours, John of Orleans; Roger de Pont L’Évêque) and abbots – especially if they had suitable royal collections. Marbod of Riennes, Baudri of Bourgeuil, a “Spanish Monk“, and other medieval clerics, like Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849), Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), Salamo (c. 860-920) were others from this period who left a legacy of homoerotic literature.
Balancing the male monastics, there were also notable religious women, such as the formidable polymath Hildegard of Bingen and the English mystic, Julian of Norwich. (If not specifically “lesbian” in any modern sense, both were very clearly of a notably queer sensibility). It was also a time of powerful women in the church, as abbesses who sometimes even had authority over their local bishops. (Hildegonde of Neuss, Saint Walpurga).
However, the increase in open sexual relationships among some monastic groups also led to a reaction, with some theologians starting to agitate for much harsher penalties against “sodomites”, especially among the clergy (St Peter Damian, Alan of Lille). Initially, these pleas for a harsher, anti-homosexual regime met with limited support – but bore fruit a couple of centuries later, with disastrous effects which were felt right through to the present day – and especially the twentieth century.