The word 'homosexuality' is a relatively modern invention1, but the practice itself is ancient. What we today would class as homosexual activities were par for the course in Ancient Greece and not unheard of in other classical civilisations by any stretch of the imagination. They also existed in the middle ages.
As mentioned above, the word 'homosexuality' did not exist in the middle ages. Instead, medieval writers used the term 'sodomy' to cover a multitude of what were considered to be 'sins'. The word generally had a much broader definition than the one we use today. For example, it could include heterosexual anal intercourse and oral sex as well as various homosexual acts. Other terms used included euphemisms such as 'sins against nature' or 'contrary to nature'.
One reason male homosexual sex was condemned as contrary to nature was because it meant that one of the men must take the passive sexual role – that which is most commonly performed by women in heterosexual sex. This was seen as unnatural and womanly, and therefore not acceptable for men. For the same reason, heterosexual sex with the woman on top was condemned, though part of this feeling may also have been due to a perceived lack of control during sex.
These euphemisms were used because sodomy (whether homosexual or heterosexual) prevented conception from occurring and was therefore seen as unnatural and against God. This is one of the main reasons why homosexuality and sodomy were so vilified by the Church2 - sodomy of all kinds (including homosexuality) was considered to be a sin.
In the late 13th Century, sodomites began to be viewed, even by the general public, as being in league with devils and demons. Homosexuality and sodomy are also condemned in the Bible, including Leviticus 18:22: 'Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind it is abomination', providing another strong reason for the opposition of the Church. Non-homosexuals would have followed the Church's belief that such actions were against God.
Religious attitudes to homosexuality
The Church was very much against homosexuality. This can be readily seen in penitentials - religious documents written to guide confessors on the penances to be imposed on their parishioners who admitted during confession to engaging in various sins. Several dozen of these books survive and between 4-8% of the penances listed are for homosexual 'crimes'. Virtually all of the penitentials involve long periods of penance and so clearly consider homosexuality to be a major sin. Interestingly, though, some of the early medieval penitentials suggest the same period of punishment for homosexual sins as for heterosexual sins such as adultery.
However, while the Church was very much against homosexuality and sodomy, the same cannot be said of some of its members, at least in terms of their actions and their personal sexuality. Churchmen were widely suspected of homosexuality – Papal reformer Peter Damian tried unsuccessfully to convince the Pope that homosexuality was rife amongst priests. He considered that priests having homosexual relationships with their male parishioners was more serious than having heterosexual relationships with female parishioners, saying it 'violates the law of nature'. Historians have even suggested that some priests may have begun relationships with women to avoid the accusation of being homosexual. Priests took a vow of chastity yet many people in the middle ages were of the opinion, whether conscious or unconscious, that any man who was not in a relationship with a woman was either considerably less masculine or actually homosexual.
Religious figures of more importance may also have been homosexual - the poems of several bishops survive in which they praise young men in a homoerotic manner. It is quite possible, though, that homosexual priests (and they must have existed, even if not in the numbers suspected by some of their contemporaries) still believed that homosexuality was wrong and against God, but were unable to stop themselves.
Legal attitudes to homosexuality and sodomy
As the middle ages progressed, homosexuality and sodomy began to be considered as more of a secular and judicial problem than a religious one. Accordingly, there were laws against homosexual acts and sodomy, with associated punishments. These varied depending on where in Europe the offences occurred and whether it was habitual or not. For example, from about 1250, death was the punishment for male homosexuality in much of Spain, France and many of the Italian cities. It usually followed torture or castration. After 1300, male homosexuality was a capital crime in more places than not.
The first documented execution in Western Europe for sodomy or homosexuality was in 1277. In Bologna in the late 14th Century the punishment for sodomy or homosexuality was being burned to death; this also happened to a man in Ghent in 1292. However, in England such matters did not generally lead to prosecution but tended to be dealt with in the confessional by the imposition of penances.
Notwithstanding the potential punishments, in continental Europe cases were rarely tried and in fact, records show that no one was convicted during the reigns of French Kings Louis IX (died 1270) or Phillip IV (died 1314). If the accused was found guilty and sentenced to death by burning, records of trials were often burned with them (assuming that they were found guilty and that the punishment was death by burning). Interestingly, it was thought that any man was capable of performing a homosexual act, a view very different to the idea of innate sexuality that we tend to think today.
Accusations of sodomy and homosexuality were also frequently used in conjunction with charges of heresy, including by the Inquisition, as a convenient excuse to charge political opponents of rulers and powerful men. Similarly, Dante placed sodomites in the seventh circle of hell in his The Divine Comedy and many of those he mentions were his political rivals - though he is not trying to charge them with anything, simply to discredit and insult them.
The most famous example of such accusations for political reasons is the dissolution and trial of the Order of the Knights Templar. King Philip IV of France was deeply in debt to the Order, and used the accusation of rampant sodomy among the Templars to arrest the vast majority of the Order in 1307. Several hundred Templars confessed that they had heard that homosexuality was permitted but that they had not engaged in it themselves. Undoubtedly Phillip's strategy was both a convenient and potent way to dissolve the Order, make his debts irrelevant, and a dramatic way to destroy the power of the Order – they had great influence.
The accusation of homosexuality was also used effectively against King Edward II of England by his enemies. Edward had given great power and wealth to two 'favourites' (almost certainly lovers) over the course of his reign – first Piers Gaveston then Hugh Despenser. This was one of the factors leading to his eventual deposition.
Virtually all of the surviving sources deal with male homosexuality and male or heterosexual sodomy and accordingly historians have paid female homosexuality little attention. Very few of the sources, including the penitentials, discuss female homosexuality at all. Peter Damian, for example, wrote an entire book condemning male homosexuality (in his Book of Gomorrah or Liber Gomorrhianus), but he does not mention lesbianism once in the work.
There seems to have been generally less concern over lesbianism than male homosexuality, perhaps because it may have been perceived to be less common or because the authors of the works were men and so were naturally both more aware of and more troubled by male homosexuality. It is also true that lesbianism is not mentioned in the Bible, and therefore is not explicitly banned by the Bible. It has been suggested that people in the middle ages did not take seriously the idea that sex could occur without men - a penis was required. Medieval lesbianism was not totally unrecorded though – for instance, there was French case involving a sixteen year-old married woman, Laurence, and a woman named Jehanne who worked in the fields nearby. Both were imprisoned.