Medieval Queerness

It’s June! If you’re part of the LGBTQ+ community (and maybe even if you aren’t), you know what that means: it’s pride month! 

Seeing as 2022 has been a terrible year for trans rights (and will almost certainly get worse), I’ve decided that this month (and perhaps longer) I will write about aspects of medieval queer culture. I will cover primarily European medieval queer history as that is what I am most knowledgeable about. (If you know good sources for other areas of the world, please let me know! I want to broaden my knowledge.) 

Before I go further, if you aren’t familiar with terms like “cisgender” or why I choose to use the word “queer,” I recommend that you read my article “Queer Saints: An Important Preface.” I wrote it back in 2020, so there’s some statements I’ve changed my mind on, but it’s still a good little introduction to anyone new to queer history. 

And if you are new to history, it may surprise you to discover queerness was prevalent in European medieval culture. Contrary to popular belief, being not straight/gender non-conforming was not invented in the 1960s. 

While the words heterosexual and homosexual were invented in the 1890s, and the word transgender was invented in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean everyone was straight or subscribed to traditional gender roles. They either didn’t have the words we do now, or called themselves something different.

I’ve complied a list of the queer medieval things I know about. Obviously as I learn more, I will add on to this list. Certain topics I will write about further in the future (or have already written about). Today’s list will simply name the item and provide a very brief description of it. The depictions vary from positive to negative. 

The items are divided into categories to make it easier for readers to find specifically what they are interested in. The categories are art, anecdotes, literature, people, poetry, and theology. Each category will include a brief explanation about it. 

Queer Medieval Anecdotes

Anecdotes include miracle stories, exempla, excerpts from chronicles, letters, memoirs, etc. Basically, any sort of story medieval audiences were told really happened or they were supposed to pretend it really happened. Some anecdotes here may seem fantastical to my modern audience, but I’m not going to argue the validity of each story. 

Dialogue on Miracles

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s two volume collection of miracle stories, Dialogus miraculorum, (AKA The Dialogue on Miracles) is filled with tales about people who do not conform to traditional gender roles and sexualities. The depictions vary from somewhat positive to negative. 

There are over 700 stories in the work, so I will list a few notable examples for brevity’s sake. More will be added in the future.

Gender Non-Conforming Demons

The Dialogue on Miracles is filled with stories about demons who switch between masculine and feminine forms to seduce and tempt humans. There are so many examples in the text it would take too long to list them all. 

Brother Joseph: Volume I, Book I, Chapter 40

After being orphaned on the way home from a Jerusalem pilgrimage, a young trans man experiences many shenanigans and near death experiences before finally becoming a monk. The shenanigans and near death experiences include transporting secret messages, accidentally helping a thief, being hanged and saved by an angel, and dealing with a bunch of horny monks. 

Queer Medieval Art 

Art is pretty explainable. Any motifs/subjects in medieval visual mediums. This does have some overlap with theology.  

Jesus Christ’s Side Wound

It’s not a vagina. It’s a side wound, I swear.

MPreg Jesus

Yes, you read that right. There are depictions of Jesus giving birth. It’s from His side wound and He’s giving birth to the Church, but it’s still a depiction of childbirth nonetheless. 

Satan Birthing Sinners

Yup, Mpreg Satan is also a thing. However, in the artistic depictions of this, he’s also eating the sinners before birthing them. (Arguably you could interpret it as Satan defecating the sinners but the way it’s portrayed looks more like childbirth.)

Queer Medieval Literature

In contrast to the previous category, Queer Medieval Anecdotes, Literature lists stories that are intended to be fictional/have an over arching narrative tale to tell. Some of these items are technically poetry, but they tell a narrative story with fictional characters, so I’ve put them here.

Le Roman de Saint Fanuel

Saint Fanuel, a cis gender man, accidentally gets pregnant from a magic apple. He gives birth to Saint Anne. (The Virgin Mary’s mother.) It’s not biblically canon, but someone wrote it.

The Monk’s Ordeal

A German story about a naive cis gender monk who thinks he’s pregnant after misinterpreting how sex works. 

Yde and Olive

A poem about a princess who turns into a man.

Queer Medieval Miscellaneous

This category includes things like social norms, words, laws, etc. They all go in miscellaneous as I don’t want this list to get too overly complicated. Plus a lot of concepts here have a lot of overlap.

Ergi

An Old Norse slur for being the passive partner during sex between two men. Quite literally fighting words as if you called someone else this, they were in their legal right to fight/kill you. And if the person called this didn’t do anything about it, they could be outlawed.

Hares

Hares symbolized sodomy in the Middle Ages. (At least, it was one thing hares symbolized.) But why were hares associated with sodomy? Well, animal folklore was a popular genre in medieval European literature. However, folklore was misconstrued as scientific fact. And a crucial piece of hares’ folklore was that each year they were alive they grew, well, another bottom (to put it politely). Comparing someone to a hare meant that you were implying they participated in sodomy.

Queer Medieval People

Personally, I don’t like giving real historical people labels as I don’t know exactly what they would call themselves if they were alive today. However, based on observable behaviors, we can safely guess that some people certainly would not call themselves straight or cisgender. Depending on the historical figure and primary sources available, they may have already told us how they identify. 

Aelred of Rievaulx

A Cistercian abbot who wrote about the love he felt for other men. Lots of homoerotic language in his work “Spiritual Friendship.”

Eleanor Rykener

A 14th century trans woman who worked as an embroideress and sex worker in southern England. Unlike others on this list, the only reason she wasn’t lost to time is because of the surviving court records regarding her arrest for sodomy. 

Joan of Arc

While she did refer to herself as “Joan the Maid” she’s on this list as she is famous for her gender non-conforming style of dress. 

Marinos the Monk

A trans man who became a monk with his father. He was known to perform miracles and was accused of fathering a child with a local woman. I’ve written about him in detail as part of my Queer Saints series

Queer Medieval Poetry

While some of the queer medieval literature is in a poetical form, they are fictional stories with characters. Here, I have put poems that don’t necessarily have a fictional narrative, per se. Rather, they are poems that discuss the author’s personal thoughts. There is some overlap with Literature. 

Monastic Love Poetry

Monks wrote a lot of love poetry to other men, including their fellow monks. Some poems are rather tame and arguably are for a best friend. Other poems not so much.

Prayer for Transformation, an Excerpt from “Evan Bohan” by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Kalonymus ben Meir

This section is part of a larger poem by the Jewish philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus. In it, Kalonymus laments being born a man instead of a woman. In the past, this excerpt was interpreted to be satire and “humorous.” 

However, as any trans person could tell you, the poem is a heart wrenching depiction of extreme gender dysphoria. Prayer for Transformation is distressingly relatable for anyone gender non-conforming. 

Queer Medieval Theology 

I’ll mostly be discussing Christianity as that is what I am most familiar with culturally. I don’t know enough about other faiths to speak with any sort of confidence about their religious practices or beliefs. 

However, if you aren’t Christian and there’s queerness in your faith dating back to the medieval era, feel free to reach out!

Jesus as Mother

This relates back to Jesus’s side wound and giving birth. 

Sources:

Abbouchi, Mounawar. “Yde and Olive.”  Medieval Feminist Forum. Subsidia Series no. 8. Medieval Texts in Translation 5. (2018). https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/mff/vol53/iss4/1/

(transcription), Aharon N. Varady, Aharon N. Varady (translation), Nir Krakauer (translation), Isaac Gantwerk Mayer (translation), Steven Greenberg, and Ḳalonymus ben Ḳalonymus ben Meir. “תפילה להפך – מאבן בֹחן: Prayer for Transformation, from the Poem ‘Even Boḥan’ by Rabbi Ḳalonymus Ben Ḳalonymus Ben Meir (1322 C.E.) • The Open Siddur Project ✍ פְּרוֺיֶּקט הַסִּדּוּר הַפָּתוּחַ.” the Open Siddur Project . the Open Siddur Project, August 31, 2020. https://opensiddur.org/prayers/civic-calendar/international/transgender-day-of-visibility/prayer-of-kalonymus-from-sefer-even-bohan-1322/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Joan of Arc and the Lord Have an Understanding: She’s on a Mission from God.” The Mediaeval Monk, June 4, 2022. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2022/06/04/joan-of-arc-and-the-lord-have-an-understanding-shes-on-a-mission-from-god/.

Athelstan, Viktor. “Queer Saints: Marinos the Monk, a Transgender Saint.” The Mediaeval Monk, April 25, 2021. https://themediaevalmonk.com/2020/09/12/queer-saints-marinos-the-monk-a-transgender-saint/.

Baltimore, The Walters Art Museum, MS W.218 Book of Hours (Cistercian) fol. 28v: https://www.thedigitalwalters.org/Data/WaltersManuscripts/html/W218/description.html

Boswell, John. Christianity, Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006. 

“Caesarius of Heisterbach.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, September 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caesarius_of_Heisterbach.

“Ergi.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, March 27, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergi

Frick, Peter, and of Rievaulx Staff Aelred. Aelred of Rievaulx : Spiritual Friendship, edited by Marsha L. Dutton, Liturgical Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Gutt, B. (2019). Medieval trans lives in anamorphosis: Looking back and seeing differently (Pregnant men and backward birth). Medieval Feminist Forum, 55 (1), 174-206. https://ir.uiowa.edu/mff/vol55/iss1/7/

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of heterosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/heterosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of homosexual,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/homosexual.

Harper Douglas, “Etymology of transgender,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed June 2, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/transgender.

Halsall, Paul. “Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of John Rykener, a Male Cross-Dressing Prostitute, 1395.” Internet History Sourcebooks Project. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1395rykener.asp.

Heisterbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n4/mode/2up.

“John/Eleanor Rykener.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, May 16, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John/Eleanor_Rykener.

“Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, April 18, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalonymus_ben_Kalonymus.

M.W. Bychowski, M.W. “Eleanor Rykener.” The Lone Medievalist. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://lonemedievalist.hcommons.org/women-of-the-middle-ages/eleanor-rykener/.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Bodl. 270b, fols. 6r: https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/4cf7e9d2-c06e-4029-a3b1-152736320897/

“Poetry 101: Learn about Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices with Examples – 2022.” MasterClass. Accessed June 4, 2022. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/poetry-101-learn-about-poetry-different-types-of-poems-and-poetic-devices-with-examples#15-types-of-poetic-forms.

Stehling, Thomas. Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship. Garland Pub., 1984. 

Swan, Emily. “Jesus’s Vagina: A Medieval Meditation.” Medium. Solus Jesus, November 8, 2019. https://medium.com/solus-jesus/jesuss-vagina-a-medieval-meditation-ef78367ac2af.

“The Monk’s Ordeal by Der Zwickauer.” Short Story. In German Verse-Couplet Tales from the Thirteenth to the Fifteenth Centuries. S.l.: SCHWABE AG, 2020. 

Tova Rosen. “Circumcised Cinderella: The Fantasies of a Fourteenth-Century Jewish Author.” Prooftexts 20, no. 1–2 (2000): 87–110. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/prooftexts.20.1-2.0087.