The Overlooked Queer History of Medieval ChristianityRoundup
tags: Christianity, medieval history, LGBTQ history
Roland Betancourt is author of Byzantine Intersectionality: Sexuality, Gender, and Race in the Middle Ages available now from Princeton University Press.
Today, it would be easy to assume that same-gender desire, particularly among men, is at odds with the history of Christianity. After all, many elements of modern conservative evangelical Christianity, from the infamous campaigns of the Westboro Baptist Church to faith-based pushes for anti-LGBTQ policy, give the impression that the religion is fundamentally opposed to the LGBTQ community.
The division, however, is not as rigid as one might imagine. Historical evidence speaks to a rich tradition of continuity in literature, philosophy and culture that runs from antiquity all the way to medieval Christianity, where same-gender intimacies were able to flourish.
In fact, we can find across the medieval world the potent glimmers of queer community and the role it played in formulating a language for Christian subjects as marginalized and persecuted peoples. Many stories of how queer figures maneuvered across various secular and religious spaces of the medieval world share a jaw-dropping candidness about same-gender intimacies and sexuality, and can provide important evidence about how medieval writers thought about the intersections of gender and sexual desire.
While same-gender relations were not accepted within medieval Christianity the way they are by many today, they also did not elicit the intense disdain that we find within the modern Christian right. Despite evidence of great diversity in sexual practices, same-gender intimacies hardly are the focus of concern for most early-Christian and medieval writers. In fact, prohibitions against same-gender intercourse happened selectively, often motivated by political factors more so than religious ones. For example, in the sixth-century, Emperor Justinian’s historian, Prokopios, tells us that Justinian passed legislation against same-sex relations only so that he could persecute certain political enemies whose sexual histories were known to him.
In addition, across the medieval Mediterranean, we find a series of saints’ lives that tell the stories of individuals who had been assigned female at birth, but became monks in all-male monastic communities. In the story of Saint Eugenia, who briefly lived her life as the male monk Eugenios, the saint is sexually harassed by a woman by the name of Melania. The text is quite clear that Melania is drawn to the monk’s male appearance. This story is important, because it demonstrates to us the need to treat these monks as men and not to misgender them as women. Rich and complex in their own right, these figures allowed medieval authors to tackle difficult questions about community, gender, sexuality and piety.
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