Category Archives: Pre-Reformation

Gay King Wenceslas

Kittredge atJesus in Love Blog has a Christmas treat for the followers of the queer saints that she and I both like to explore: “Gay King Wenceslas“. In a notable achievement, she is drawing on some unpublished research, and also has a great image of the famously “good” king – and his page. I don’t want to detract from Kitt’s work, so to see the picture, you will have to follow the link above and read it for yourself. Just for starters, I give you only the standard, soppy picture – and a teaser from the fascinating text:

Good King Wenceslas

There’s good reason to believe that Good King Wenceslas was gay. Yes, the king in the Christmas carol.

Saint Wenceslaus I (907–935) was duke of Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). The carol is based on a legend about Wenceslaus and his loyal page Podiven. According to the story, it was a bitterly cold night when they went out to give alms to the poor on the Feast of St. Stephen, Dec. 26. Podiven could not walk any farther on his bare, frozen feet, so Wenceslas urged him to follow in his footsteps. His footprints in the snow stayed miraculously warm, allowing the pair to continue safely together.

Many details in the Christmas carol are pious fiction, but the king and his page are both grounded in historical truth. Dennis O’Neill, author of “Passionate Holiness,” shared with this blog his unpublished research about the loving relationship between Wenceslaus and Podiven.

Or, for a summary of the full story, see this report from the British paper, the Morning Star:

Despite the Vatican’s rabid homophobia today, with persecution of gay priests and bishops as well as its campaigning against same-sex unions and marriage, the church actually has a rich history of gay players in its colourful history.

As it’s Christmas let’s start with Good King Wenceslas, who as everyone knows went out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

This Czech saint was declared king of Bohemia after a domestic coup.

He didn’t rule for long before he was killed by his jealous brother Boleslas. Wenceslas asked for forgiveness for his murderer as his dying wish. A saintly act indeed.

So what’s the story in the famous carol? The king went out on a frosty night with his page to collect logs.

His page Podiven had no shoes but the saintly king simply commanded him to walk in his royal footprints.

Miraculously the footprints proved hot and the page’s feet stayed warm and toasty “where the saint had treaded.”

Podiven, church history relates, was the most trustworthy and closest of all the king’s many young pages. But it seems he was bit special in the king’s affections.

The earliest accounts of Wenceslas’s life mention this close relationship with the page, who is described as a chamber valet to the king.

Wenceslas, it seems, used to wake his page in the middle of the night to join him in doing “charitable works.”

After the king’s murder Podiven was certainly overcome by grief.

Eventually Wenceslas’s brother had Podiven killed to stop him from spreading stories of the saintly Wenceslas and the page’s undying love for him.

Podiven’s slaughtered body, legend has it, remained incorrupt despite being hung outdoors on a gibbet for over three years.

Both Wenceslas and his beloved Podiven are buried side by side at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague.

Eugenia /Eugenios of Alexandria, 24th December


24th December is the day the Eastern Orthodox Church remembers St Eugenia / Eugenios of Alexandria, another of the group of female saints in the early church who dressed as men to be admitted to all-male monasteries.

Holy Virgin and Martyr Eugenia and her companions (~190)

“This Martyr was the daughter of most distinguished and noble parents named Philip and Claudia. Philip, a Prefect of Rome, moved to Alexandria with his family. In Alexandria, Eugenia had the occasion to learn the Christian Faith, in particular when she encountered the Epistles of Saint Paul, the reading of which filled her with compunction and showed her clearly the vanity of the world. Secretly taking two of her servants, Protas and Hyacinth, she departed from Alexandria by night. Disguised as a man, she called herself Eugene [Eugenios -ed.] while pretending to be a eunuch, and departed with her servants and took up the monastic life in a monastery of men. Her parents mourned for her, but could not find her. After Saint Eugenia had laboured for some time in the monastic life, a certain woman named Melanthia, thinking Eugene to be a monk, conceived lust and constrained Eugenia to comply with her desire; when Eugenia refused, Melanthia slandered Eugenia to the Prefect as having done insult to her honour. Eugenia was brought before the Prefect, her own father Philip, and revealed to him both that she was innocent of the accusations, and that she was his own daughter. Through this, Philip became a Christian; he was afterwards beheaded at Alexandria. Eugenia was taken back to Rome with Protas and Hyacinth. All three of them ended their life in martyrdom in the years of Commodus, who reigned from 180 to 192.” (Great Horologion)


(For some general observation on the full group, have a look at “Transvestite Saints?”

See also:

Anson, J., “The Female Transvestite in Early Monasticism: the Origin and Development of a Motif”, Viator 5 (1974), 1-32
Bennasser, Khalifa Abubakr: Gender and Sanctity in Early Byzantine Monasticism: A Study of the Phenomenon of Female Ascetics in Male Monastic Habit with a Translation of the Life of St. Matrona, [Rutgers Ph.D Dissertation 1984; UMI 8424085]

 

Delcourt, Marie: “Le complexe de Diane dans l’hagiographie chretienne”, Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 153 (January-March 1958), 1-33

 

Patlagean, Evelyne: “L’histoire de la femme déguise en moine et l’evolution de la sainteté feminine à Byzance”, Studi Medievali ser. 3 17 (1976), 597-625, repr. in Structure sociale, famille, chretienté à Byzance IVe-XIe siècle, (London: Variorum, 1981), XI

 

Marina Warner, St. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism, (London: 1981, pb. Penguin, 1985), esp 149-63

 

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St John of the Cross,14th Dec (NRC), 24th Nov (ORC),

St John of the Cross (1542-1591) is usually remembered on December 14th (in the new Roman calendar, and also in the CoE calendar), but the old Roman calendar had him on November 24th.

St. John, like other mystics such as St. Theresa of Avila, used the language of courtly love to describe his relationship with Christ. He also discussed, with rare candor, the sexual stimulation of prayer, the fact that mystics experience sexual arousal during prayer. With the male Christ of course, this amounts to a homoeroticism of prayer.

An extract from the Dark Night quite clearly draws on homoerotic imagery, and has a valuable place in spiritual practice for gay men:

“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined
Beloved with lover,

Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping,

and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;

With his gentle hand
He caressed my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion;

My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

Select bibliography

Catholic Encyclopedia – entry on John of the Cross (available online)
St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, trans. E. Allison Peers, 3rd ed. (Garden City NY: Image/Doubleday, 1959)
Rougement, Denis de, Love in the Western World, trans. Montgomery Belgion, rev. ed. (New York: Pantheon, 1956; pb New York: Harper, 1956), 159-64

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Trans Saints? Cross-Dressing Monks

The “LGBT Catholic Handbook lists an intriguing group of transvestite saints – women who took on men’s clothing in order to live as monks. The Handbook lists some scholarly references in support, but the Advent Catholic Encyclopaedia however, dismisses the tales as ‘hagiographic fiction.’ The stories and motives of these women are remote from our time, and ‘transvestite’ is not to be confused with ‘transgendered’. Still, whatever the full historic truth, it seems to me these are useful stories to hold on to as reminders of the important place of the transgendered, and differently gendered, in our midst. Many of us will remember how difficult and challenging was the process of recognising, and then confronting, our identities as lesbian or gay, particularly in the context of a hostile church. However difficult and challenging we may have found the process of honestly confronting our sexual identities, consider how much more challenging must be the process of confronting and negotiating honestly a full gender identity crisis.
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“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
  • St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
  • St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
  • St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
  • St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
  • St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
  • St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
  • St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
  • St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
  • St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
  • St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
  • St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
  • St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
  • St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
  • St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
  • St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.
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