We are all sodomites

Gillian Kenny takes a look and discovers there's sodomy for everyone in the audience

What do you think about when you think of sodomy?

You think of penetrative anal sex, don’t you? To be more specific you probably think of gay penetrative anal sex. 

You likely can’t think of anything else now after that can you? 

Well, that’s all well and good but that’s not exactly the full story of sodomy. Let’s begin our journey into sodomy by looking at the origin of the word itself, which comes from the Biblical story of when God said he would spare the ‘wicked’ city of Sodom if he could find 10 righteous men in it. 

He sends two angels to Sodom to investigate and they stay with Lot but when the townsmen find out they demand that Lot allow them to rape his angelic visitors. Lot saves the outraged angels, then escapes, and the town is destroyed along with Gomorrah. Incidentally Lot then goes on to have sex with his own daughters and because it’s the Bible the girls are blamed for it so he’s not exactly the hero archetype either. Anyway, Sodom became associated with same sex sexual activity and thus a way of oppressing other people was made holy and right.  

Angels under attack in Sodom

But the meaning of sodomy has changed over the centuries since and has altered from being defined as gay sex to any type of sexual activity which was not engaged in for procreative purposes. So, basically, any person who engages in sexual acts not designed to produce babies is engaging in sodomitic practices. 

Let’s go back a bit though and allow me to bring you on a journey to uncover the full meaning of sodomy. It starts, as many of these journeys do, in the middle ages at a time when the Church was very interested in (obsessed with) regulating people’s sex lives for God. 

For a long time, people did just associate sodomy with gay sex. The tenth century Bishop Burchard of Worms was quite explicit in his definition of sodomy when instructing his priests. They were to interrogate their confessing sinners as follows:

 “Did you commit fornication as the sodomites did, so that you put your penis in the back of a man and in the rear parts so that you copulate with him in the Sodomitic manner?”

Burchard was obviously a man who loved both a precise definition and a description of penetration. 

Bishop Burchard possibly pointing at sodomites…

Some of the best sources which deal with sodomy in the middle ages are known as the penitentials.  These were basically rule books which clerics used to assign penances for all sorts of sins and not just penetrative sex. They can be found all over Europe. For example, there are references to various sexual acts in Anglo-Saxon and Frankish penitentials. Like the Anglo-Saxon Canons of Theodore for example which states

“Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives”. 

And people think the middle ages was just face to face missionary and lots of praying after. I am here to tell you that sexual diversity was as much a thing then as it is now. 

Irish men of the Church knew this and wrote spectacularly detailed penitentials about the punishments to be handed out to those who happened to enjoy the odd BJ or dry humping session. It will thus come as no surprise that the Irish ones were really popular and were much consulted outside of Ireland. They were written early on in the Irish Church in the sixth and seventh centuries CE. Essentially, a group of Irish men, flush with their new(ish) religion spent most of their waking lives thinking about sexual sin and how to punish it. For Irish readers, this is very much on brand with the Church they know. These men were also particularly interested in the sexual sins of other clerics. You will not be surprised to learn that, after lots of feverish thinking on sex, they condemned a wide variety of sexual activities. Because if they weren’t having it (for God) then no-one else was. 

Irish monks (probably up to no good)

So, it’s a big no from Irish churchmen to activities like oral sex, femoral sex, anal sex, nocturnal emissions, kissing and homosexuality and so on. The thing is though, would they have had to put pen to paper to condemn such acts if people weren’t doing them?  I mean, some of it could have been speculative (there’s a fair amount of references to mother-son incest for example which I don’t think was a terrible issue at the time) but I think the likelier explanation is that they lived in a time and place when privacy was almost impossible to find so sexual activity and the different types of sex that people engaged in could quickly become known and talked about. 

Frankly, if people weren’t doing it, talking about it, and confessing it then they wouldn’t have needed punishments for it. Interestingly the sin of sodomy (seen in these early documents as being very much a male sexual activity) is worried about as the habit of religious men and boys and thus a threat to their souls. The danger of sodomy was also acknowledged by the secular powers in Ireland. Gaelic (Brehon) laws stated that a woman could divorce her husband if he was homosexual as that denied her the right to a child.

 In the Irish penitential of Columban which dates from around 600CE the following punishment is assigned to those who fornicate like a Sodomite:

 “But if one commits fornication as the Sodomites did, he shall do penance for ten years, the first three on bread and water; but in the other seven years he shall abstain from wine and meat, and [he shall] not be housed with another person forever.”

Columban, being heavy handed with penances

There is a gradation of blame for sins depending on one’s age and whether a man was a priest or a layman across Europe. Generally, priests got longer sentences. The Anglo-Saxon penitential of Egbert signifies the seriousness of sexual sinning by men of the Church when it lists the necessary punishments, 

The penitentialists seem to have assumed that men without access to women were more likely to sleep with other men and enacted penances accordingly. 

“For the sodomites, if they have been in the habit, for a Bishop fourteen years, a presbyter twelve, a deacon ten, a subdeacon nine, a cleric seven and a layman five.”

The Irish penitentials are pretty much obsessed with all the sex going on in monasteries.  There really are lots of different types too – the seventh century penitential of Cuimeann refers to penances for mutual masturbation  (twenty to forty days), interfemoral intercourse (one year) and anal sex (two years if the perpetrators are boys and three years if they were men). Monks were believed to have sought and found comfort in sexual activity with other men.  

Medieval illustrated manuscript depicting same-sex love, 1220-30 From Bible Moralisée, collection of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Mind you, redemption was possible. Finnian’s penitential in the late sixth century said that sinners (either clerics or monks) could regain his or her virginity (as a status) after seven years of penance, including three on bread and water 

This general view of sodomy as engaged in by men with each other (sometimes with some bestiality thrown in for good measure) changes around the eleventh century though when a monk called Peter Damian essentially redefined it and decided that it was not simply a term but rather an entire category of wrongdoing. He saw sodomy as continuum of sin, stretching out from masturbation and on into anything you can think of that doesn’t involve a penis entering a vagina to eject sperm. Following Damian and other thinkers – like Thomas Aquinas who was also interested in the sin of sodomy and who was also particularly exercised by lesbianism – there is a hardening in attitudes towards what were seen as deviant types of sex. 

Eventually, ‘sodomy’ came to encompass a much wider scope of activity, not necessarily homosexual. It became an umbrella term for any act which did not serve the purposes of procreation so that included: homosexual sex, acts of bestiality, paedophilia and intercourse in positions that did not encourage conception. Masturbation was also seen as a sodomitic act and was first officially condemned by Pope Leo IX in 1054. According to the Church the missionary position between a man and a woman was the only permissible way to have sex. Woman on top or sex from behind were condemned as they subverted accepted gender roles. People could also only have missionary, procreative sex on permitted days too.

Here is a handy illustration (made by a very eminent medieval historian called James Brundage) of when you could have all of that vanilla, heterosexual sex in the middle ages if you slavishly followed what the Church allowed. 

From the twelfth century, for the first time, several jurisdictions across Europe assigned a death sentence to those engaging in sodomy. These sentences were not always carried out but the penances and fasting of previous eras was about to be overtaken by the threat of death and torture. In practice, people used their personal judgment and were influenced by their own cultural worldview as much as they are today when it came to these ‘crimes’. For example, Florence set up what was called the Office of the Night to hunt for sodomites but in reality it did not simply deal out death sentences to everyone. In 1496 after 243 young Florentine boys confessed their participation in homosexual intercourse all of them actually received fines. Although homosexual men were sometimes executed it was by no means a blanket rule.

However, sometimes the threat was actually carried out against people whose sexual practices had been portrayed as so vile and so deviant to contemporaries that death was the only possible ending for them. A woman named Katherina Hetzeldorfer became the first ever woman executed (they did it via legal drowning) for female homosexuality/sodomy, after she was put on trial in 1477 in Germany. It was alleged that she posed as a man and had sex with women using a fake penis. During her trial, it was explained that:

She made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through and tied it round.”

Her perceived overthrow of gender roles would have been seen as particularly heinous back then. 

The use of gossip and the accusation of sodomy also became a quick and easy way to destroy people’s reputations rather than have to drag them through the courts (where they may have been exonerated).

This was done by the French king Philip IV against the Templars and also when he made the charge against the dead Pope Boniface VIII. 

Accusations happened at much lower social levels too. In 1552 in Bruges a woman accused her son-in-law of committing the detestable crime of sodomy with his wife, Marie. The mother said he had forced her daughter into anal sex. This resulted in a criminal conviction for him and an order that he be burnt at the stake. However, a delayed executioner meant that the truth had time to come out. His mother-in-law had tried for years to have him murdered as his wife had a lover and she wanted rid of him. This conspiracy went so far that it meant his wife had to ‘torment herself with a stick in the bottom’ in order to produce physical evidence for her accusation. Eventually the man was released, the mother-in-law was burned at the stake and the wife and her lover were hanged. There are numerous examples of people using gossip to defame others – a very popular one was accusing men of being sodomites for having sex with farm animals too. Gossip was the lifeblood of the medieval town and city and an accusation of sodomy was a useful tool to destroy a reputation. 

So, sodomy is really an all-encompassing term. When you think about it, you’re probably a sodomite (unless the only time you have sex is in the missionary position and to make babies and, if so, I am sorry). Definitions change, the power of language both increases and decreases as we make our way through time. From early medieval Irishmen increasingly concerned at the extent and type of sex being had in monasteries to an unlucky lesbian looking for love with a strap-on, the meaning of sodomy has changed. The reason that a word such as ‘sodomy’ still matters and that we need to understand all of its meanings is because it is still a word which is being used to exclude and punish people. Because of this it is still an important, if negative word. By exploring its wider meaning though the power to exclude with it is taken away. For instance, those who wish to use Christian thinking in order to oppress anyone based on sodomy should consider the fact that they are also sodomitic sinners too.

There are still, unfortunately many crazy people who are still hanging on to the idea that sodomy is about gay sex.  Not so, for we are all sodomites together now and have been for a very long time!    

Dr Gillian Kenny is a specialist in the history of women in Ireland and Britain during the later medieval and early modern period. Her book, Anglo-Irish and Gaelic women in Ireland c1170-1540, traces Gaelic and English women’s lives during that period. She is a Research Associate at the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin. She has made many appearances as an expert guest and consultant on various history programmes on BBC TV and radio, RTÉ, Channel 5, National Geographic and the Smithsonian Channel. 

Find her on Twitter: @medievalgill 

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