In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Queer Medieval

  • General Overviews
  • Queer Studies within the Context of the History of Sexuality
  • Friendship and Homosocial Bonding
  • Homosexuality and Queer Studies
  • Anthologies and Monographs
  • The Critical Debate at Present
  • The Legal and Theological Discourse
  • Literary-Historical Investigations
  • Queerness within the Judicial Context
  • Literature and Queer Studies: Focused Approaches

Literary and Critical Theory Queer Medieval
Albrecht Classen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0111

General Overviews

Following increasing popularity in the study the history of gender and sexuality in the Middle Ages since the middle of the 20th century, recent interest has also turned to the issue of homosexuality, or same-sex love, which is now generally called “queer love” and which implies the general questioning of normative heterosexuality, or the traditional binary system. Research faces, however, a considerable dilemma in its efforts to detect and trace concrete examples confirming the existence of this type of shifting sexual identity, because both the Church and the worldly authorities pursued all cases of “sodomy,” or of the “unmentionable sin,” with utmost cruelty, in clear contrast to Roman law in Antiquity or the condition in ancient Greece. A major change can be identified, for instance, in the law of Justinian (538/539 and again 559), which formulated a strict ban on homosexual acts (“abominable lust with men”). In the subsequent centuries, the legal authors repeatedly formulated the same harsh warnings against the “sins against nature,” obviously because they were afraid that they could not eradicate it and needed to build the legal wall higher and higher against a tide they could not stem. By the late 12th century, Peter the Chanter, for instance, voiced great concerns, denouncing sodomy, and he was followed by scholars such as Stephen of Tournai and Joannes Faventinus. In fact, it would be impossible to identify any significant medieval author of legal, philosophical, and theoretical writings who would not have argued strictly against the so-called unmentionable sin, namely, homosexuality, if there was an occasion to address the fundamental norms of sexual identity in the first place. In the Late Middle Ages, urban legalizations intensified the treatment of sodomy as a severe sin, probably because the authors were afraid of God’s punishment afflicting the entire community if homosexuality were tolerated within their walls. Queer studies, however, does not argue simply that medieval society was aware of, or even embraced, homosexuality. Instead, since the 1990s, research has increasingly observed that medieval society at large was involved in various discourses on sexual identity and explored the meaning of traditional concepts of heterosexuality. Close readings of many different types of medieval texts and visual documents have demonstrated the considerable degree of sexual nonconformity in existence, although often expressed in veiled language. The realization that the social dimension of sexuality is the result of discourses, and that normative heterosexuality has always been the outcome of constructions, has led to much innovative research of the Middle Ages. We discover queerness both in the fields of philosophy and theology and in those of literature and the arts. At the same time, queer theory is still in the process of establishing itself more solidly, trying to avoid common pitfalls in the analysis of texts where there seem to be contained references to homosexual or lesbian love, when those have to be explained much more specifically as performative elements of a highly political nature. Most queer studies draw from a wide variety of sources and can thus not be cleanly categorized as dealing with literary, historical, legal, or theological texts. The entire field is still contested, but it has already produced true landmarks of seminal research that can withstand the test of time.

Research on Queer Medieval Studies

The decades since the 1980s have witnessed a considerable growth in medieval queer studies, which have solidly confirmed that the premodern period had its solid share of non-normative homosexuality. One of the problems for research, however, continues to be the tracing of concrete evidence, specific examples, and firm documents because the Church and the secular authorities regularly persecuted and executed homosexuals and other non-normative individuals.

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