One Hundred Years of Sodomy: Courtliness and the Deployment of Sodomy in Twelfth-Century Histories of Britain–By William Christopher Brown

Introduction: Sodomy—from Acts to Identities

One of the difficulties in discussing same-sex desire in the Middle Ages is the inapplicability of contemporary terms, such as “homosexual” or “homosexuality.” Homosexuality, as Michel Foucault famously notes in The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, “appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”[1]In Foucault’s terms, the key distinction between sodomy and homosexuality is that “sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their perpetrator was nothing more than the juridical subject of them”; homosexuality is an identity that pervades a person’s entire life.[2] Vis-à-vis identity, Foucault observes that in the nineteenth-century, the homosexual was defined as “a personage [with] a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology.”[3]Foucault’s distinction between acts and identities has been valuable because it provides queer theorists with a tool for analyzing the constructedness of both homosexual and heterosexual identity categories. As Foucault notes, the distinction between acts and identities is not as simple as one would hope because of the “uncertain status of sodomy.”[4]”Sodomy” was part of a list of “grave sins” that deserved “an equal measure of condemnation.”[5]These grave sins included “adultery, rape, spiritual or carnal incest,” “marriage without parental consent, [and] bestiality.”[6]

Mark Jordan, in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, has questioned Foucault’s assertion that the “sodomite was a temporary aberration” rather than an identity category. Jordan observes that, first and foremost, “sodomita” (sodomite) is a geographical reference to the inhabitants of Sodom.[7] “Sodomy” is a term that was invented by Peter Damian, an eleventh-century theologian and author of The Book of Gomorra (c. 1049), a tract criticizing and “censuring clerical abuses.”[8] Damian coined the term “as an analogy to blasphemy,” “the sin of denying God.”[9] For example, Jordan quotes Damian, “If blasphemy is the worst sin, I do not know in what way Sodomy is any better.”[10] Here, as Jordan notes, “Sodomy” is an abstract noun and the

abstraction of an essential sin. To assert that there is an essence, “Sodomy,” is to imply that there is one intelligible formula that captures a previously unspecified range of human acts, activities, or dispositions. Remember that this abstraction, this essentializing remains linked to a category of personal identity—the identity of the “Sodomite.” “Sodomy” is an essence abstracted from an identity, which has itself been generalized out of the narration of a historical event.[11]

As I will develop later, Damian’s essentializing impulse toward the sodomite was not received uncritically by his contemporaries. For example, according to James A. Brundage in Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, Damian’s views did not have the support of the pope, who tried to suppress Damian’s book. Pope Alexander II asked Damian to lend him the book, so that he could copy it. He then locked it away and temporarily “refused to return it to the author.”[12]

Brundage’s anecdote calls attention to the fact that the real-world effect of this sort of essentializing language is a process of accretion. The coining of a word takes time to permeate the culture(s) of the language in which it resides. This accretion and permeation is not as organic as these terms suggest. Tracing etymologies in the way that Jordan does calls for a sensitivity to the “innumerable interpretations [that] are concealed” in any word’s history.[13] He compares his study of how sodomy was interpreted over the course of the Middle Ages to reading a novel or watching a play. One learns the character (i.e., traits and features) of a protagonist (in Jordan’s case, “sodomy”) by “watching its actions in the performance,” and like the protagonist in a novel or play, character changes over time.[14] The “status of sodomy” as it relates to the burgeoning influence of courtliness in the twelfth century is the subject of this essay. I will address the ways in which the term “sodomy” is deployed in the composition of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin Historia Regum Britanniæ in the first half of the twelfth-century (c. 1136), Wace’s French translation of it in the middle of the century (c. 1155), and Lawman’s translation of Wace into English at the turn of the century (c. 1185–1216).

I have chosen a passage from each work that centers on an ostensibly sodomitical British king named, respectively, Malgo (Geoffrey and Wace) and Malgus (Lawman). According to the legend created by Geoffrey and translated by Wace and Lawman, Malgo/Malgus was the fourth king after Arthur’s death. I have chosen this particular “protagonist,” if I may use the term, to illustrate the changes that are wrought upon his character according to each author’s understanding of the term “sodomy.” Writing before the advent of chivalry, Geoffrey’s representation of sodomy accords closely with Foucault’s acts/identities division. Malgo’s inclinations toward nonspecific sodomy are presented as actions that mar his brief biography but do not otherwise detract from Geoffrey’s estimation of his greatness. Wace translates Geoffrey’s Latin prose Historia into French vernacular poetry. Influenced by the newly created genre the romance, Wace imagines Malgo in chivalric terms. In Wace’s translation, Geoffrey’s emphasis on the deeds of the king begins to shift to Malgo’s physical attributes and courtly comportment. At this point in Malgo’s textual history, Wace’s references to the body as a key signifier of chivalric valor remain distinct from Malgo’s still vague and indistinct act of sodomy. By the time Lawman translates Wace, however, Malgus’s sodomy, although unnamed as such, defines a fundamental part of who he is and delineates a strict opposition of men against women. Although there is no explicit description of the specific act that Malgo commits, Lawman is clear that the king has committed the “sin” of same-sex desire. What is significant in these three interpretations of a sodomite king is that they illustrate the process by which abstract ideas affect the world. Specifically, these passages illustrate the way in which acts can coalesce into identities over the passage of time.

I. Geoffrey of Monmouth: Sodomy before Chivalry

Geoffrey’s reference to the king as a sodomite is framed in terms that recall Foucault’s assertion that the sodomite is a “temporary aberration.” Because of the brevity of the passage devoted to Malgo, I will include it in its entirety:

Cui successit malgo. omnium fere ducum britannie pulcherrimus. multorum tirannorum depulsor. robustus armis. largior ceteris. & ultra modum probitate preclarus. nisi sodomitana peste uoluntarius sese deo inuisum exhibuisset. Hic etiam totam insulam optinuit. & sex comprouinciales occeani insulas. hyberniam uidelicet atque yslandiam. gotlandiam. orchades. norguegiam. daciam. subiecit dirissimis preliis potestati sue.[15]

[Malgo came next. He was the most handsome of almost all the leaders of Britain and he strove hard to do away with those who ruled the people harshly. He was a man brave in battle, more generous than his predecessors and greatly renowned for his courage. Unfortunately he made himself hateful to God, for he was given to the vice of homosexuality. He became ruler of the entire island; and then in a series of bloodthirsty wars he subjected to his authority the six neighboring Islands of the Ocean: that is, Ireland, Iceland, Gotland, the Orkneys, Norway and Denmark.][16]

Geoffrey’s presentation of Malgo reflects the confusion surrounding the term “sodomite,” or in Geoffrey’s Latin, “sodomitana.” For instance, Lewis Thorpe, working with the Acton Griscom edition quoted above, interprets “sodomitana” to mean “the vice of homosexuality” even though Geoffrey later presents Malgo as having fathered two sons. In a conversation with Salomon, Cadwallo refers to their common ancestor, Malgo: “Malgo namque summus ille rex britannie qui post arturum quartus regnauerat duos generauit filios. quorum unus ennianus. alter uero run uocabatur”[17] [“for Malgo, that mighty King of Britain who reigned fourth after Arthur, begat two sons, one of them called Ennianus and the other Run”].[18] In choosing to refer to homosexuality as a “vice,” Thorpe mutes the “essentializing” impulse of many understandings of homosexuality. There is no proof that the sodomy Malgo committed is male-to-male sex. Although the Church advocated chastity, Foucault observes that in the Middle Ages if there was a norm in sexuality, it lay in procreation within the confines of marriage.[19] Unlike today’s binary terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality, sodomy, no matter how it was defined, was not considered the opposite of heterosexual sex.[20]

To return to the issues that Jordan raises, Geoffrey’s use of the term “sodomitana” (sodomite), an identity, and its distinction from “sodomia” (sodomy), an act, is important. According to Peter Damian, and in accord with Foucault, sodomy, or “unnatural acts,” include “masturbation, femoral intercourse, anal intercourse, [and] bestiality.”[21] William Burgwinkle agrees with Jordan that Peter Damian essentializes the sodomite’s identity: “sodomites are sodomites” for Damian, “even after the acts have been completed, during confession, and when they associate with others of their kind.”[22] The threat of sodomites is that unless they are caught or confess, there is no physical sign on their bodies that marks them to the rest of the community.[23] With paranoia, Damian imagines sodomites as recognizing one another but invisible to everyone else.[24] The implication of invisible sodomites is that they “easily dissolve within the larger community and infiltrate even the highest echelons of power.”[25] For Peter Damian, sodomites with power are “like Satan [in that] they seek to insinuate themselves through illicit entry into the body of Christ” and to pollute Him with their corruption.[26] The physical penetration explicit in some sodomitic acts becomes the metaphorical penetration into the body of the Christ and the literal penetration into the body of the Church. In all instances, corruption and damnation are predicted to follow.

Ultimately, the problem with Peter Damian’s conception of sodomy is that sodomy is a sin that cannot be repented.[27] Damian’s hard-line view of sodomy, which implies that the spirit is less powerful than the body, contradicts the “fundamental Christian teaching about sins of the flesh, namely, that they are always repentable.”[28] The prevailing religious discourse at this time among reformers is not about sodomy per se but about curbing clerical expressions of sexuality. For instance, the First (1123) and Second (1139) Lateran Councils passed the decrees that priests were not to marry, which means they could not procreate.[29] R. I. Moore observes that legal codes “prescribing death, usually preceded by torture, dismemberment, or castration” provided the “real impetus for the attack on” sodomitical acts.[30] He provides a caveat, however, that these legal codes were not necessarily strictly enforced all of the time, which implies that perhaps political expediency motivated the naming and punishing of the act, whatever it may have been. Comparing the context of the original essentializing connotations of the term “sodomita” as Jordan describes it in Peter Damian with its non-essentializing usage in Geoffrey reminds us of the instability of the term sodomy as a term of opprobrium. Malgo’s sodomy in Geoffrey’s Historia does not follow Peter Damian’s dire forecast of total social pollution. Whatever Malgo did, it was distinguished from the few parts of his public life that are mentioned. Geoffrey emphasizes the king’s effective leadership over and above the non-specified “unnatural acts” that Malgo committed. For Geoffrey, a king’s importance as a ruler lies in his service to the idea of the nation. Malgo’s rule is positive because he conquered other kings, he added land to Britain in the form of the six islands that he subdued, he lined his coffers with tributes paid by the conquered islands, and he did his patrilineal duty as king by fathering two sons. Geoffrey characterizes Malgo by courage, strength, and ferocity rather than by effeminacy or passivity.

II. Wace: The Court of the Sodomite

When Wace translated Geoffrey’s Historia into French for the Normans, he tailored it for his audience, emphasizing courtliness over battle. Once again, to help illustrate the changes in how sodomy is “deployed” (to use Foucauldian terminology) with the advent of chivalry, I will quote Wace’s translation of Geoffrey in its entirety:

Malgo . . . fud reis aprés,
Ki ama mult chevalerie
E mult l’usa tute sa vie.
Les idles envirun conquist
E les humages des reis prist;
De bealté e de bones murs
Surmunta tuz ses anceisurs.
Forment fud bels, forment fud genz,
Forment ama tuz ses parenz,
Larges fud mult a desmesure,
Unques d’aveir tenir n’ot cure.
Malgo se tint a escharni,
A deshonuré, a huni,
Que il le jor n’ot tant duné
Dunt qui que seit li seűst gré.
Une sule teche aveit male
Dunt li Sodomite sunt pale;
Ne sout l’em en lui altre vice
Ne ne feseit altre malice.[31]

[Malgo . . . was king next, [and] was very fond of knightly deeds and performed them throughout his life. He conquered the surrounding islands and took homage from their kings. In beauty and good manners he surpassed all his ancestors. He was very handsome, very noble and very affectionate to all his kin; he was immoderately generous and never cared about keeping his possessions. Malgo considered himself derided, dishonoured and shamed if on any day he did not give so much that anyone whatever was grateful to him. He had only one bad flaw, that which distinguishes the Sodomites; no other vice was known of him, nor did he commit any other wickedness.][32]

Like Geoffrey, Wace also refers to Malgo as a “sodomite” without explaining what “unnatural act” is being committed. Neither Wace nor Lawman include any reference to Malgo as the father of children. At this point in the twelfth century, the “essentialized” sodomy that Jordan recognizes has not yet attached itself to an identity as it will in Lawman’s subsequent translation. For Wace, like Geoffrey, “dunt li Sodomite sunt pale” (“that which distinguishes the Sodomites”) is merely “une sule teche aveit male” (“one bad flaw”) in an otherwise remarkable life. A hint of courtliness is introduced into the narrative as Wace refers to the example of courtesy and generosity that Malgo sets for the other members of the court. As J. D. Burnley notes in Courtliness and Literature in Medieval England, the new emphasis on the king’s physical attractiveness reflects the newly popular ideals of mid-twelfth-century courtliness: “the ideal qualities of the courtier . . . include not only those of his moral character, but his acquired accomplishments, and his physical attractiveness.”[33] Whereas Geoffrey emphasizes the fact that Malgo won back the lands that previous kings had lost, Wace focuses on the king’s body: “de bealté e de bones murs / Surmunta tuz ses anceisurs” (“in beauty and good manners he surpassed all his ancestors”). The principal differences between Wace and his source are a re-imagining of the signification of Malgo’s body: in Geoffrey, Malgo was brave, generous, and courageous; but in Wace, Malgo becomes “bels” (“handsome”), “genz” (“noble”), and “ama” (“affectionate”) to “tuz ses parenz” (“all his kin”). In Geoffrey, he is a conqueror; in Wace, he is “ama mult chevalerie” (“fond of knightly deeds”). He feels “se tint a escharni, / A deshonuré, a huni” (“derided, dishonoured, and shamed”) if he does not give generously to his court. Courtliness marks his body in such a way that if he transgresses the courtly ideal, his response is visceral.

III. Lawman: Men Loving Men

As I have already suggested, Lawman’s translation of Wace builds on the courtly model and implies sodomy without naming it as such:

And seoððen nom þas riche Malgus þe reзe;
þat was þe faireste mon wiðouten Adam and Absolon
swa alse þe boc us suggeð þa æuere iboren weore.
Þes lette his hired dihte al wið ohte cnihten:
þuhten alle þes sweines swulche heo weoren þeines;
haueden alle his hired-cnafe ælches godes sweines laзe;
ne durste nauere nan vnhende mon þas kinges hus isechen.
He biwun þa londes alle þa stoden him an honde;
þa wes al þas Bruttene afeolled mid blisse:
þa bleden uorð comen зeond al þis kinedomen.
þe king ne rohte of æhte, ah al he hit зaf his cnihten.
No mihte no mon sugge of wundere namare
þene wes mid þan kinge buten of ane þinge;
he luuede þane sunne þe lað is ure Drihtene—
þa wifmen heo forsoken, to mare sunne heo token,
wapmon luuede wapmon; wifmen heom laðe weoren
swa þat monie þusende wenden of þissen lond,
wifmen swiðe feire, ferden to oðere þeoden,
for muchel scome heom þuhte þat wepmen heom ne rohte.
Þurhut alle cunnes þinge þis ilke wes a god kinge,
buten of þere sunne þat ich iseid habbe.[34]

[And then Malgus the fierce took over this realm;

He was the most handsome man, apart from Adam and Absolom,

Who has ever been born (or so the books tell us!)

This man had his court filled entirely with brave knights,

All the simple squires seemed exactly like great leaders,

All his court attendants had the demeanour of good squires;

No man without true courtesy dared ever visit this king’s court.

He won back all the lands which should be in his possession;

Then all this land of Britain was filled with sheer delight:

The blossoms were opening all over this kingdom;

The king was not concerned for money, but gave it all to his knights;

One could not devise any more fine delights

Than there were with the king—save for just one bad thing:

He loved that same sin which is hateful to Our Lord

By which men avoided women and to a greater sin adhered:

The male loved the male; the female they found hateful,

So that many thousands emigrated from this land:

Really beautiful women went to other nations,

Thinking it a huge insult that men cared nothing for them.

In every kind of respect this was a good monarch,

Except for that sin which I have just mentioned.][35]

As in Wace, the physical attractiveness of Malgus’s body is emphasized: Malgus “was þe faireste mon wiðouten Adam and Absolon / swa alse þe boc us suggeð þa æuere iboren weore” [“was the most handsome man, apart from Adam and Absolom, / Who has ever been born (or so the books tell us)”]. J. D. Burnley observes that at the end of the twelfth century, beauty shifted from not only personal appearance but “the richness and sensuous appeal of the settings in which [the characters of romance] move, as well as the elegance with which they move through them.”[36] The principal differences between Lawman and Wace are the explicit references to courtliness and women as well as the disappearance of the term “sodomite” in favor of the phrase, “wapmon luuede wapmon” (“the male loved the male”).

Geoffrey and Wace delimit sodomy as an exception in an otherwise impressive rule. Neither of their respective renditions of the deeds of King Malgo connotes the essentializing discourse of Peter Damian that I discussed earlier. Lawman follows his predecessors’ patterns in that he also delimits male-male love as the exception in an otherwise impressive rule: Malgus’s loving of other men was “buten of ane þinge” (“[the] one bad thing”) that marred his reign. What is striking, then, is that in each case the act is distinct from the individual’s identity, but the line between act and identity has become blurred as the relatively open term “sodomitana” of Geoffrey has evolved into the relatively specific description of “wapmon luuede wapmon.” Paradoxically, it is the introduction of the “wifmen” in opposition to the “wapmon” that reveals the homosocial nature of the court that Lawman describes. The essentializing potential that Jordan identifies in Peter Damian’s coining of the word “sodomita” becomes most pronounced in Lawman’s concomitant omission of that term. As I will suggest, Lawman refuses to use the term “sodomite” because of its negative connotation in the context of homosocial relationships. Writing after chivalry had become a cultural norm, the attendant homosocial relationships among men in Lawman become threatening in a way that is absent in Geoffrey’s and Wace’s historical contexts. Implicit in Lawman’s mild critique of Malgus is the fact that if “wifmen” “wenden of þissen lond” (“emigrate from this land”), then problems will arise in inheritance. In Lawman’s chivalric context, the sodomite becomes an identity that is anathema to the community because the emotionally charged relationships between men have economic consequences. If Lawman is to praise Malgus, however, the term “sodomite” must be expunged from his translation.

IV. The Homosocial Court: Men Policing Men

Wace’s description of Malgo’s court begins to evoke a particular type of homosocial atmosphere. In “Sodomy and Social Control in the Grail Legends,” William Burgwinkle suggests that the homosocial atmosphere of courtliness, the condition of “depend[ing] upon the unswerving devotion of one man to the other to whom he owes his privilege,” requires a corresponding homophobia to control that same devotion.[37] The homosocial atmosphere of knighthood is dangerous because it creates an environment that is based on “absolute distinctions between” what is constituted as masculine and feminine.[38] Burgwinkle observes that “it was in the period 1190–1220,” the time when Lawman’s Brut was being composed, that “new models of Christian knighthood, monasticism, revelation, masculinity, and heroism emerged from the generic and ideological friction that marked both the composition and reception of this tradition.”[39] Burgwinkle sees in courtly literature and culture “some of the complex of practices and desires we know today as heterosexuality (or heterosexuality before ‘heterosexuality’ in James Schultz’s astute formulation).”[40] In this liminal environment, the anxiety caused by the threat of sodomy becomes more prominent than in prechivalric contexts.[41] This prominence is not because of a new awareness of sexual possibility but because the discourses on knighthood and courtliness are in the process of reshaping the intellectual and moral environment.[42] The modifications over the course of the long twelfth century to Malgo/Malgus’s sodomy reflect these models of knighthood and courtliness.

The absolute distinctions that are highlighted between masculine and feminine in courtliness are best seen in clerical criticism of how knights, who are supposed to be warriors, behave during peacetime. In a volume on The Origins of Courtliness, C. Stephen Jaeger recounts, “Since the earliest Middle Ages writers had regarded peace as a potential threat to the morality of the European nobles, whose duty it was to fight. During long periods of peace the knights grew lazy, flabby, and dissolute.”[43] Jaeger’s famous example is the opening of Shakespeare’s Richard III in which Richard complains that his deformity renders him only fit for war with and among men. He has no place for capering with women at the court because women’s “sensual allurements corrupt the fighting spirit.”[44] In this line of reasoning, knights in peacetime are under siege by the influence of pernicious women. Sodomy, that vague indicator of transgression, serves as the policing principle for the homosocial orders of knighthood. Sodomy regulates the body by instigating a “compulsive heterosexuality” while it simultaneously stigmatizes women.

In Lawman, Wace’s term “sodomy” is narrowed in interpretation from “masturbation, femoral intercourse, anal intercourse, bestiality,” and oral sex to the sin of the “male lov[ing] the male” for the purpose of controlling the intense emotional relationships that can potentially “blossom” (to echo Rosamund Allen’s fortuitous translation) between men. Lawman’s translation illustrates the vicissitudes of this type of cultural policing. On the one hand, Lawman is obligated to write that the departure of the women from England mars an otherwise impressive reign. On the other hand, in their absence is “blisse” (“sheer delight”); “þa bleden uorð comen зeond al þis kinedomen” (“the blossoms were opening all over this kingdom”), and “no mihte no mon sugge of wundere namare / þene wes mid þan kinge” (“one could not devise any more fine delights / Than there were with the king” and his male retinue). The increased attention to the aesthetics of the world represented in Lawman’s Brut “encompasses,” to quote Burnley, “the appreciation of those concrete artifacts by which [the characters] are surrounded.”[45] To reiterate, in this context courtliness seems to be the factor that blurs the boundary between act and identity. Although sodomy is not explicitly named, it seems implicit given the previous incarnations of the history as well as Lawman’s repeated assertion that men loving men is a sin.

The distinction between the portrayals of Geoffrey’s and Wace’s King Malgo versus Lawman’s King Malgus lies in the representation of the relation between the king’s body and the body politic. For instance, in an article on “Sexuality, Corruption, and the Body Politic,” Christopher J. Crosbie compares Geoffrey’s portrayal of Arthur and an Elizabethan retelling of that story.[46] Unlike the Early Modern version, it is noted that throughout his Historia, Geoffrey does not bother to “rhetorically connect” the “sexual corruption” of sins of the flesh with the body politic.[47] The reference to Malgo’s sodomy is only referred to in passing between praise of his prowess as a warrior and the enumeration of his many conquests. King Malgus’s relation to the body politic in Lawman’s Brut is more complicated than Geoffrey’s, but Malgus’s kingly body is not entirely a synecdoche for the body politic. On the one hand, Lawman emphasizes Malgus’s appearance and implies that his court is a reflection of his standards. His “sweines swulche heo weoren þeines” (“simple squires seemed like great leaders”) and his “hired-cnafe ælches godes sweines laзe” (“court attendants had the demeanour of good squires”). It is implicit, then, that this handsome model of courtesy, King Malgus, sees his reflection in the knights, squires, and attendants whom he loves with a presumed narcissism. Like Geoffrey’s Malgo, the sin to which he adheres is distinct from his status as a good monarch. On the other hand, part of the population, “monie þusende” (“many thousands”) of the “wifmen swiðe feire ferden to oðere þeoden” (“really beautiful women went to other nations”). The ambivalence between the “sheer delight” of “men lov[ing] men” and the mass immigration of the women to other nations suggests an imbalance that supersedes the theological emphasis on sin.

V. The Politics of Sex: Sodomy, Incest, and the Social Order

In “Paradigms of Evil: Gender and Crime in Laзamon’s Brut,” Françoise Le Saux detects a larger pattern in the poem for “secular crime” to supersede sin in importance.[48] In the case of Malgus, sodomy is not named in Lawman because of the king’s overall ability to rule effectively. Malgus’s actions do not condemn him because his service to the men of the nation is benign and overrules the offense taken by the “wifmen swiðe feire” (“really beautiful women”). This larger pattern of social expedience over theological rigor is evident when King Malgus is compared to King Conan. Conan’s crime is incest and Lawman’s portrayal of the sin is striking for its unflinching condemnation:

Seoððen wes Conan ihouen her to kinge
þat wes þe forcuðeste mon þet sunne here scean on.
Costantines suster sune his æm he biswac to deðe
for he hefde rihte to þissere kineriche.
Conan mid attere his æmes sune aqualde;
he bigon unfri&eth —is men him fuhten wið—
and he gon sechien & to his twam susteren.
Alc burh i þan londe ferde al to sconde;
astured wes al þas þeode strongliche swiðe.
Six зere ilaste þas særinesse on londe.
Þa veol þe king of horse and fæi-sið makede;
Wel wes al þis folke for his fæie-siðe! [49]

[Conan was created the king here:

He was the most accursed man whom the sun here ever shone on!

He was Constantine’s sister’s son: he betrayed his uncle to his death

Because he was entitled to rule in this realm.

By using poison Conan murdered the sons of his uncle;

He caused insurrection: his own people fought against him,

And he proceeded to seduce his own two sisters.

Each town in the land fell into utter scandal,

This entire nation was most severely disrupted.

For six years this sad state lasted in the land,

Then the king fell off his horse, his last fatal journey:

All the folk were relieved about his fatal injury!][50]

In comparing Conan to Malgus, we have two distinct sins (incest and sodomy) and two strikingly different presentations of the sinners themselves. Despite the fact that the Church perceived sodomy as a sexual offense worse than incest, Lawman presents the unnamed sin of sodomy in almost utopian terms while he presents incest in the direst terms.[51] The distinction between the two kings lies in the effect of their sins on the larger community. During Malgus’s reign, “þa wes al þas Bruttene afeolled mid blisse” (“all this land of Britain was filled with sheer delight”); during Conan’s, “astured wes al þas þeode strongliche swiðe” (“this entire nation was most severely disrupted”). Malgus is superior as a leader because he is able to instill courtesy in his court; Conan is inferior because his reign is characterized by “insurrection.” Lawman’s refusal to name Malgus’s sin as “sodomy” calls attention to the political utility of that term. As Jonathan Goldberg observes in Sodometries, “Accusations of the performance [of sodomy] emerge into visibility only when those who are said to have done them also can be called traitors, heretics, or the like.”[52] Despite the statement that Malgus “luuede þane sunne þe lað is ure Drihtene” (“loved that same sin which is hateful to Our Lord”), Lawman’s king escapes the epithet “sodomite” and all of the negative connotations of that word because his reign benefits the body of men who comprise the nation.

As I alluded earlier in this essay, Foucault sees procreation as the norm of sexuality in the Middle Ages. In Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing unto Others, Ruth Mazo Karras asserts a similar point but offers some interesting complications that are relevant to the passages I have discussed above. One medieval criticism against sodomy is that it inverts gender roles. Sex acts were defined by their active (male) and passive (female) roles.[53] It was not only the desire of a man for a man that was abominable but the desire of a man “for being a woman.”[54] In the passages I have analyzed, this anxiety about masculine effeminacy is not apparent. The chivalric turn in Wace focuses much more on the body than Geoffrey’s brief description does, but Wace does not feminize the king either. Like Geoffrey’s portrayal of Malgo as “pulcherrimus” (“handsome”), Wace’s interpretation of Malgo’s “bealté” (“beauty”) is in no way effeminate. Likewise, Lawman’s description refers to Malgus as the “faireste mon” (“most handsome man”), yet there is, again, no correlation between beauty and effeminacy. Rather, Lawman’s interpretation of Malgus reminds us about medieval conceptions of sexuality, including sodomy: sexuality is directly related to the social order and sodomy is a disruption of the sexual order.[55] For medieval people, sexuality was not a private matter: “One’s choice of sex partner affected one’s family and the inheritance of property.”[56] In cultures where a wife is not the “focus of a husband’s emotional life,” the anxiety about sodomy is part of a larger anxiety about male friendship.[57] Lawman’s interpretation of Malgus’s love life reflects this anxiety about sodomitical male friendships when the women immigrate to other lands because of the men’s indifference to them. If the “wifmen swiðe feire” (“really beautiful women”) emigrate, there is the implication that “oðere þeoden” (“other nations”) will benefit from the women’s reproductive capabilities. Lawman associates “blisse” with Malgus’s reign, but if the “bleden” (“blossoms”) wither without reproducing, the flowers of this particular chivalric garden will die with it.

VI. Orderic Vitalis: Economy and the Delights of the Flesh

To help illustrate the significance of the confluence of community, economy, and sexuality in these discussions of sodomy in Geoffrey’s and his translators’ versions of King Malgo/Malgus, I will turn from British histories to an ecclesiastical history. The Anglo-Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis (1075–c. 1142), a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote the bulk of his Ecclesiastical History at Saint-Évroul between 1123 and 1137.[58] In this history, Orderic includes a brief section that addresses sodomy, economy, and social order. Orderic’s interpretation of sodomy, also written before the advent of chivalry, underscores the economic factors that are deemphasized in Geoffrey, Wace, and Lawman. Like Geoffrey, Orderic does not mention specific sex acts at all when he refers to Sodom and the endowments to his monastery Saint-Évroul. Instead, Orderic’s explicit purpose in discussing the story of Abraham and Sodom is to praise or condemn, by analogy, people who assist or refuse to provide endowments to Saint-Évroul.

In the story of Abraham, Lot, and the King of Sodom, Orderic explicitly links sexuality with economy. Orderic associates Abraham with “perfecti uiri designantur” (“those men of perfection”) who battle successfully against “lenocinia carnis” (“vices [or enticements] of the flesh”).[59] These men “omnia mundana pro cœlesti desiderio spernunt” (“reject all worldly things for the love of heavenly things”).[60] Conversely, Orderic associates Lot with people who are “in Sodomis id est delectabilibus flagitiis illaqueatur” (“ensnared in Sodom, that is, in sinful delights”), which include material goods.[61] It is important to note, however, that Orderic emphasizes that Lot was “uiuaci uirtute spiritualis patrui nobiliter ereptum” (“nobly delivered by the enduring valor of his spiritual uncle”).[62] “Rex Sodomorum” (“the king of Sodom”) “diabolum figurat” (“signifies the devil”).[63] The king of Sodom is a threat because he “animas solummodo in baratrum perditionis secum pertrahat” (“draws souls with him into the pit of damnation”).[64] The devil, in his guise as the king of Sodom, “omnia mundi delectamenta diuitiasque uel honores ad hoc callide sumministrat” (“cunningly employ[s] all the delights of the world, all riches and honours”) to tempt laypeople away from contributing to the Church.[65] For Orderic, the ideal standing of human beings in the eyes of God rests on individuals’ willingness to renounce worldly things in favor of the Church. In his discussion of sodomy and the economy, however, he recognizes that laypeople (such as Lot who was “ensnared” in Sodom’s delights, riches, and honors) are susceptible to sin even in their “dæmones uiriliter pugnantibus” (“manly battles [against] demons”).[66]

Orderic’s juxtaposition of economy and delights is so closely associated in order to emphasize the selfishness that both pleasures represent and to illustrate how they each inform one another. Orderic associates the two specifically for the purpose of ensuring that laypeople with money feel guilty about “fragile . . . seculum non relinquunt” (“not abandon[ing] the transient world”).[67] Orderic makes it clear that sodomy is not just a private act but an action that affects the entire community:

Nam ea quæ pro delectatione carnis prodige distrahunt, seu pro mundialis inani splendore felicitatis inutiliter diffundunt. sine dubio uelut aqua defluens irremeabiliter transeunt. Alii uero qui hæredibus suis ingentes gazas augent et reseruant. proh dolor augmentum maliciæ miseriæque sibi multoties accumulant, natosque suos ad multorum detrimenta sollerter educant.

[For it cannot be doubted that what they recklessly dissipate for the delights of the flesh, or throw away to no purpose on the empty splendor of worldly felicity, passes away like flowing water and is gone for ever [sic]. Others indeed who amass and hoard huge treasures for their heirs, sad to tell, accumulate for themselves only greater evil and wretchedness, and by their pains bring up their children to be the scourge of others.][68]

Even though laypeople “legali coniugio deseruiunt legis transgressionibus Deum in multis offendunt, elemosinis tamen peccata sua secundum Danihelis consilium redimunt” [“accept lawful wedlock and give offence to God by many transgressions of his law, [they] nevertheless redeem their sins with their alms, as Daniel counsels”].[69] In other words, these sinful laymen are able to allay some of their guilt for succumbing to the weakness of the flesh and redeem themselves by granting money to the sick or to people who aid the sick, such as the “holy men” of Saint-Évroul. The vice of sodomy is ultimately a problem for Orderic because it signifies a waste of resources that could be used for the improvement of humanity that only the Church can provide. Orderic’s exemplum is intended to warn people away from the king of Sodom and turn them toward Abraham. This ability to turn people away from sodomy implies that once a prince, or even a layman, is no longer committing sodomy, he is no longer a sodomite. Orderic’s diagnosis of the perils of sodomy is just as dire as Peter Damian’s, but like Geoffrey, the Anglo-Norman chronicler does not essentialize the sodomite in his discussion of sins of the flesh.

As I have suggested above, Lawman, in particular, emphasizes an idealized chivalric world that is under threat because of the refusal of Malgus and his knights to reproduce with women. Implicit in Lawman’s critique of the same-sex desire of Malgus’s court is the practical concern of who will be given the money that Malgus distributes so freely if there are no women to reproduce. Explicit in Orderic’s critique of sodomy as economic dissolution is the role of money in reproducing a social order. In both Geoffrey and Orderic, the category of sodomy is “confused” from the standpoint of acts that are being committed. Geoffrey provides no clue for the type of sodomy Malgo commits, and Orderic only refers broadly to “delectatione carnis” (“delights of the flesh”). The harshness of Orderic’s judgment against sodomy lies in its perceived relation to the economy rather than to specific acts that could be committed by men upon one another. Geoffrey is able to render sodomy an exception in an otherwise impressive life, while Orderic takes a longer view and associates sodomy with “alii uero qui hæredibus suis ingentes gazas augent et reseruant” (“others who amass and hoard huge treasures for their heirs”). In other words, money contributed to Saint-Évroul will bear the fruit of spiritual sustenance, but money spent on the delights of the flesh can only bear “blossoms” of evil.

I should emphasize that it has not been my purpose to pit Foucault against Mark Jordan in an acts-versus-identities divide. This confusion surrounding the term sodomy in the British (and ecclesiastical) histories suggests that “identities may be constituted by acts . . . but acts are not themselves fully self-identical or self-apparent.”[70] What these three British histories and one ecclesiastical history from the long twelfth century remind us is that (sexual) identities are equally not “self-apparent.” In Getting Medieval, Carolyn Dinshaw reminds us in her assessment of the reception of Foucault’s acts/identities divide that some medieval “men who engaged in acts of male-male sex were thought to be visibly marked, known at least to others if not to themselves, grouped with others of the same kind, and defined by sexual desire.”[71] At the same time, Dinshaw casts doubt on absolute interpretations of premodern sodomy as just an act or just an identity in her discussion of female sodomy in the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards.[72] In the three tales of Malgo/Malgus analyzed above, it is not until the advent of chivalry that sodomy bears the essentializing fruit that Peter Damian’s unforgiving tract imagined. The essentializing concept “sodomy” seems to need something tangible, such as money and its concomitant privileges, before it can be deployed successfully as an object of (punishing) juridical notice.

Conclusion: Demobilizing Sodomy?

To close this essay, I would like to return to the distinctions between sodomy and homosexuality to which I referred in the introduction for the purpose of looking more closely at the differences in the twelfth and twenty-first centuries. The anxiety caused by sodomy in relation to reproduction in the twelfth century is in stark contrast to modern conceptions of sexuality because contraception renders even “heterosexual acts” as “non-reproductive.”[73] Heterosexuality as an identity has a kind of taxonomic monopoly on reproduction despite the importance of contraception to heterosexual acts. In Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy, Karma Lochrie discusses the perils of projecting modern heterosexual and heteronormative attitudes into discussions of medieval sexuality. Because of the importance of reproduction to medieval theorists of sexuality (i.e., clerics), ostensibly “heterosexual” and “homosexual” acts in the Middle Ages were blurred to the point that “the operative categories of desire, lechery, concupiscence, and pleasure placed what we think of as heterosexual acts in the same category as sodomy,” i.e., as sins.[74] As I have alluded above, the eroticism explicit in sodomy, however, was also expressed implicitly in other forms of male friendship.

The deployment of sodomy in these three histories of the kings of Britain provides a useful index for how acts and identities can be made to coalesce. Mark Jordan observes that sodomy has “proved . . . useful as an ideological or polemical term, that is, as a mask for violent exercise of power. From the beginning, ‘Sodomy’ has meant whatever anyone [in power] wanted it to mean.”[75] The transformation of King Malgus over the course of approximately one hundred years, as attitudes toward sodomy became increasingly hostile, gives the twenty-first-century reader an opportunity to reflect on the relatively recent (2003) overturning of sodomy laws in the United States. Sodomy laws have been instrumental for controlling members of the community who are potentially subversive. At the same time, these methods of control have created the subversives who need to be controlled. Jordan writes, “the invention of the homosexual may well have relied on the already familiar category of the Sodomite” (164).[76] If, as Jordan suggests, sodomy was coined by Peter Damian as a term of prohibition, what happens when sodomy no longer prohibits? If the identity categories of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” depend in some way on the illegality of an act named “sodomy,” then it seems that disavowing the legal term “sodomy” destabilizes a key guarantor of the categories that are used to identify and categorize people. In Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the 14th Century, Richard E. Zeikowitz examines the intense emotional bonds knights have with one another and how they “still have sexual intercourse with women.”[77] In the homoeroticism explicit in kissing, protestations of mutual love, and bonds in chivalric relationships between men, Zeikowitz sees a plurality of eroticism.[78] The implication of this plurality of homoeroticism functioning alongside the threat of sodomy is that modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality, like twelfth-century conceptions of sodomy, also contain a plurality of eroticisms that belie the absolute division of these taxonomic categories.

A few notes of thanks: I would like to thank Karma Lochrie for numerous conversations that were of great assistance in the initial drafting phase of this essay. An early version of this paper was given at the 2006 Midwestern Conference on Literature, Language, & Media (MCLLM) at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. In particular, I would like to thank Karley Adney, Christine Brovelli, and Matt Yarusso for collegiality and encouragement. Finally, I would like to thank the editors and anonymous readers of Hortulus for providing such insightful and challenging criticism during the final processes of revision. All of these critical engagements have been to the benefit of this paper and to me as well.

William Christopher Brown is working on a Ph.D. at Indiana University, Bloomington. He received a master’s from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. His dissertation looks at medieval English chroniclers as organic intellectuals. His areas of interest are medieval English literature, particularly chronicles and medieval intellectuals. His minor is literary theory. Theoretical interests include Gramsci, Foucault, Marx, postcolonial theory, queer theory, post-structuralism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis

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One Hundred Years of Sodomy: Courtliness and the Deployment of Sodomy in Twelfth-Century Histories of Britain by William Christopher Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1976), p. 43.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., p. 37.
  5. Ibid., p. 38.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 6.
  8. Pierre J. Payer, introduction to The Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise against Clerical Homosexual Practices, by Peter Damian (Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1982), p. 13.
  9. Jordan, Invention of Sodomy, p. 29.
  10. Ibid., p. 161.
  11. Ibid.
  12. James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 212.
  13. Jordan, Invention of Sodomy, p. 4.
  14. Ibid., p. 5.
  15. Acton Griscom, ed., The Historia Regum Britanniæ of Geoffrey of Monmouth, trans. Robert Ellis Jones (New York: Longmans, 1929), p. 504.
  16. Lewis Thorpe, trans., The History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York: Penguin, 1966), p. 263.
  17. Griscom, Historia Regum Britanniæ, p. 521.
  18. Thorpe, History of the Kings, p. 274.
  19. Foucault, History of Sexuality, pp. 36–37.
  20. Karma Lochrie, Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 201.
  21. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, p. 212.
  22. William E. Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050–1230 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 59.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Jordan, Invention of Sodomy, p. 66.
  28. Ibid.
  29. The Third Lateran Council of 1179, immediately preceding the composition of Lawman’s Brut, “became the first general council of the Church to legislate on it.” The penance for sodomitical clerks was deprivation of their clerical office or confinement “to a monastery for penance”; laymen were excommunicated. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, however, actually reduced those penalties. See R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecution Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950–1250 (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 92–93.
  30. Ibid., p. 93.
  31. Wace, Roman De Brut: A History of the British, lines 13,356–374, trans. Judith Weiss (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999), pp. 334, 336.
  32. Ibid., pp. 335, 337.
  33. J. D. Burnley, Courtliness and Literature in Medieval England (New York: Longman, 1998), p. 42.
  34. Lawman, Brut, or Hystoria Brutonum, lines 14,379–399, ed. W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg (New York: Longman, 1995), p. 740.
  35. Rosamund Allen, trans., Brut, by Lawman, lines 14,379–399 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), pp. 367–68.
  36. Burnley, Courtliness and Literature, p. 50.
  37. William E. Burgwinkle, “Sodomy and Social Control in the Grail Legends,” Romance Languages Annual 9 (1998), 31.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid., p. 27.
  40. Burgwinkle, Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law, p. 5.
  41. In The Formation of a Persecuting Society, R. I. Moore remarks, “Boswell argues that the peculiar horror which has been associated with male homosexuality in Western culture and the corresponding violent condemnation of it were products of the twelfth century.” See Moore, Persecution Society, p. 92.
  42. Burgwinkle, “Sodomy and Social Control,” p. 31.
  43. C. Stephen Jaeger, The Origins of Courtliness: Civilizing Trends and the Formation of Courtly Ideals 939–1210 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), p. 177.
  44. Ibid.
  45. Burnley, Courtliness and Literature, p. 50.
  46. Christopher J. Crosbie, “Sexuality, Corruption, and the Body Politic: The Paradoxical Tribute of The Misfortunes of Arthur to Elizabeth I,” Arthuriana 9.3 (1999), 68.
  47. Ibid., p. 75.
  48. Françoise H. M. Le Saux, “Paradigms of Evil: Gender and Crime in Laзamon’s Brut,” in The Text and Tradition of Laзamon’s Brut, ed. Françoise H. M. Le Saux (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1994), p. 195.
  49. Lawman, Brut, lines 14,357–368, p. 738.
  50. Allen, Brut, lines 14,357–368, p. 367.
  51. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, p. 399.
  52. Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 19.
  53. Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 129.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., p. 123.
  56. Ibid., p. 22.
  57. Ibid., p. 23.
  58. Marjorie Chibnall, The World of Orderic Vitalis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 37.
  59. Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, Volume III: Books V and VI, trans. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 260–61.
  60. Ibid., pp. 262–63.
  61. Ibid., pp. 260–61.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Ibid., pp. 262–63.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.
  66. Ibid., pp. 260–61.
  67. Ibid.
  68. Ibid., pp. 262–63.
  69. Ibid., pp. 260–63.
  70. Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), p. 204.
  71. Ibid., p. 195.
  72. Ibid.
  73. Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p. 23.
  74. Lochrie, Covert Operations, p. 201.
  75. Jordan, Invention of Sodomy, p. 163.
  76. Ibid., p. 163–64.
  77. Richard E. Zeikowitz, Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the 14th Century (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), p. 151.
  78. Ibid.


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