Sodomy, Masculinity and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050–1230

A study of the views that medieval French and English authors held concerning the relationship between law, gender roles, and persons who engaged in sexual relations with others of the same sex during the Middle Ages could potentially take any of a variety of forms. Mr. Burgwinkle, who is a Fellow of King’s College and a lecturer in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages in the University of Cambridge, approaches the topic as a problem in postmodern literary analysis. Some readers of this journal may find this approach intellectually stimulating and insightful, while others will no doubt appreciate it somewhat less.

Burgwinkle posits at the outset of his book that sodomy is a literary construct that includes any thought or behavior that “disrupts established law, systems of classification, religious, ethnic, and gender boundaries” (1). He further asserts that sodomy in this sense first appeared in the mid-twelfth century and that it was created by Law.

Burgwinkle almost invariably capitalizes “Law” throughout his book, a practice that hints that his notion of law may turn out to be somewhat different from the one that many legal historians hold. Law in Mr. Burgwinkle’s vocabulary includes “not only any sort of regulation by which communities establish standards and norms, but also the internalized laws of exchange, prohibition, and development by which subjectivity, gender, and status are determined. Thus Law can be a publicly disseminated set of rules, a notion of the ordered society, or a set of unexpressed assumptions, the mastery of which determines the extent to which one belongs or is excluded from full participation in a community” (3). This expansive meaning of “law,” while familiar enough in the literature of anthropology and ethnography, is perhaps not the one that first springs to mind among legal historians.

The book comprises two parts. In the first of these (19–85) Burgwinkle seeks to ground his definition of sodomy in the treatments of disruptive behaviors that he finds in a broad variety of medieval writers. He draws upon the evidence of a galaxy of theological, pastoral, penitential, and devotional writers, such as Jacobus da Voragine, Hugh of St. Cher, Guibert de Nogent, Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Bernard of Clairvaux, and St. Anselm of Canterbury, among a host of others. Peter Damian, the author of the Liber Gomorrhianus, not unexpectedly plays a starring role with a full ten pages all to himself. Writers on biology, anatomy, and medicine also enter into Burgwinkle’s argument, as do historians (e.g., William of Malmesbury, Ordericus Vitalis), while that all-around man of letters, John of Salisbury, like Peter Damian, receives extended attention. Burgwinkle’s evident intention is to show that these witnesses agreed that sexual attraction between persons of the same gender created disorder in Christian society and that this was the basis for his sources’ condemnation of sodomy. At the same time, he argues that they also constructed an image of hegemonic masculinity that they believed embodied the behavioral and affective norm to which “real men” in their society were bound to conform.

In the second and much longer section his book (89–199) Burgwinkle sharpens his focus to concentrate on three sets of important literary texts: stories concerning Perceval, the Lais of Marie de France, and the De planctu naturae of Alain de Lille. He provides a close reading of each of these texts in which he relies heavily upon insights drawn from the work of Michel Foucault and the psychoanalytic writings of Jacques Lacan. In the process he attempts to show how failures by the fictional persons described in these texts to conform to the norms of heroic masculinity described in the first section of his book led to their ostracism, social exclusion, or even forcible elimination from the Christian society that had produced them.

In a brief final chapter (200–202) Burgwinkle concludes that “[R]igid ties between acts, desires, and gender roles are nothing more than the last refuge of Law.” The three works that he analyzed in detail show, he maintains, that even beneath their overt rejection of “queer” behavior we can hear the voice of the “sodomite” talking back.

By William E. Burgwinkle

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