16.03.08, Linkinen, Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture

Main Article Content

Paul Halsall

The Medieval Review 16.03.08

Linkinen, Tom. Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture. Crossing Boundaries: Turku Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015. pp. 334. ISBN: 978-90-8964-629-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Halsall
Internet History Sourcebooks Project at Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University

Tom Linkinen's Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture is a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of the very limited evidence--mostly textual, some visual--about same-sex-sexuality in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. Linkinen's approach is to take the limited number of texts and to examine them under a series of six topic headings, or "frames," aimed at bringing out their significance. One result of this method is a certain amount of repetition within and between chapters but Linkinen achieves his goal of an exhaustive overview.

Given the vast amount of textual material that has survived from late medieval England, the pickings available that allude to same-sex sexuality are meagre. There is precisely one, if very interesting, law case for example--that of the cross-dressing prostitute John/Eleanor Rykener. The texts Linkinen has to consider are a variety of theological, penitential, and spiritual texts (not all English) (The Book of Vices and Virtues, John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, Ancrene Wisse), a small number of contemporary histories/chronicles (Adam of Usk, Thomas Walsingham, the Life of Edward II), and literary texts by Chaucer, the author of Cleanness, William Langland, John Gower, and the romance Amis and Amiloun. Although the book's publicity mentions pictorial evidence, in practice this amounts to a few carvings at Lincoln Cathedral, Beverley Minister, various misericords, and a few manuscript illustrations (Luttrell Psalter). For a two-hundred-year period this is a very limited amount of material as Linkinen acknowledges (25). Lack of evidence is quite common in medieval studies of course but I think we should be a bit more explicit about the problem. It is always salutary for a medieval specialist to read scholarship on sexuality in later periods. For his work on early nineteenth-century newspaper reports on court cases, for example, Charles Upchurch had over one thousand examples to work with, along with ancillary literary and prospographical evidence, and still reached only tentative solutions. Linkinen covers the evidence comprehensively but as he acknowledges the result is still a very fractured picture.

Linkinen has clearly been very much influenced by the work of Ruth Mazo Karras, who was reader for the dissertation on which this book is based, but he has comprehensively surveyed all the modern English and European specialist work on his subject (Brundage, Goodich, Boswell, Bray) and the requisite continental theory (Foucault especially). Although his book stands as a survey without any need of modern theory, he is very much influenced by the approach not least in his determination to avoid the word "homosexuality" as an anachronism even though it is very much homosexual acts, affections, and concepts that are his main concern. Foucault and Halperin both get their due although Linkinen confesses that it was John Boswell's work on medieval homosexuality which was his inspiration (29). Linkinen assesses the "queer studies" approach to this material by scholars such as Carolyn Dinshaw, Karma Lochrie, and Robert Mills, but while accepting their rejection of "heteronormativity" states that he is consciously refraining from any "queer studies" methodology. He sees himself as a historian rather than a critic and aims to stick to historical methods. He wants, insofar as it is possible, to make sense of same-sex sexuality in his period as it really was (31).

Linkinen's approach to this limited material is to establish six topic headings, or frames of reference, within which to consider the evidence. The first chapter evaluates the evidence within perhaps the most obvious frame, that of the condemned sin of sodomy and of "crime against nature." The texts available univocally consider same-sex sexual activity as a sin and the salient term is "sodomy." Although Mark Jordan has established that sodomy only becomes a unified concept in the eleventh century, that concept was fairly stable by the time of Linkinen's texts and he is clear that its main referent is sexual activity between men. Those texts also show, however, that same-sex behavior between women was clearly understood as part of the same type of sin (for example in Peter the Chanter's De vitio sodomitico) (38). I note in passing that, since male and female same-sex sexual activity were classified together, Linkinen's deliberate avoidance of the term "homosexuality" really becomes an unnecessary piety to an older generation of scholars' overemphasis on "social construction." In England the dominant discourse about sodomy was exclusively a religious one. In theological texts such as sermons and confessors' handbooks sodomy was clearly defined (40). A secondary but real concern was with effeminacy and gender boundaries. What is remarkable however is that while concern with sodomy certainly could lead to legal woes--the case of John Rykener in 1395 is relevant here--there was no actual criminalization by custom or statute of same-sex sexual activity in England until 1518. Extensive records of court cases confirm that while the church might condemn, the law virtually never intervened (75). At York Minister, for example, almost four hundred sexual offences were dealt with from 1399-1489, but not one concerned same-sex sexual activity (79). Thus, although there was a clear and hostile discourse among the clergy about same-sex sexuality in late medieval England, Linkinen concludes that there were virtually no structures of enforcement.

This leads naturally to Linkinen's next major frame for understanding the texts, that of enforced silencing. Linkinen goes beyond the silence of the law, and examines the explicitly proposed silence about sodomy insisted upon by penitential material. His main sources here are the penitential literature (John Mirk's Instructions for Parish Priests, Robert Flamborough's Liber poenitentialis), which repeatedly warns confessors not to mention the sin that is unmentionable among men. Such a prohibition was not new in the late medieval period. St. Augustine never explicitly mentioned same-sex sexual activity (88) and his ancient example was important both because of his authority and because manuscripts of his works were among the most widely available to medieval writers. Linkinen deems John Gower "explicitly silent" on same-sex activity (90) as if he "forgot to write about it" (91). And despite the longstanding importance of the Pardoner in Canterbury Tales in scholarship on sexuality, Chaucer never explicitly discusses same-sex sexuality. Linkinen sees here a systematic silence as a cultural norm and argues that the silence itself was a form of shared cultural knowledge (106).

Despite the silencing that Linkinen sees as the norm for dealing with same-sex sexuality, there was not a complete silence. His third frame is the use of the implications/accusations of same-sex activity as a "stigmatizing discourse." His cases are the accusations made during his lifetime, and long after, about the sexual activity of Edward II, and on a more limited scale against Richard II during his lifetime. A number of poems and chronicles (the "On the Evil Times of Edward II," the Chronicle of Meaux) used stigmatization with sodomy as a technique of defamation (although this was not new in the late Middle Ages: Richard I had similar treatment at the hands of chroniclers). The case of Edward II is a little more complicated than Linkinen allows. He rightly notes that later scholars have rebutted Pierre Chaplais's 1984 attempt to deny that Edward II was homosexual, but does not seem to know or think relevant, whatever certain chroniclers might have written, that Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral became the focus of popular healing cult after his death and Richard II had even pressed Edward's case for canonization in Rome. The two kings, however, are virtually the only named individuals to whom Linkinen can attach the technique of stigmatization. On the other hand he is able to show the use of charges of sodomy in the accusation that Lollards made against the clergy of the period and the counteraccusations made against the Lollards (129). There is no doubt that such charges could be used to stigmatize in this period, but the evidence is not overwhelming that this was common. We have an insight into how same-sex sexuality might be used to stigmatize but on the evidence presented no way to know if such insults were widely used.

Perhaps the most original and materialist chapter concerns the function of same-sex sexuality as the focus for cultural disgust and fear--Linkinen's fourth frame. I initially thought that Linkinen's use of "stinking" in reference to sodomy might be an example of a diction error, but a skillful exegesis of the texts makes clear the importance of the word. Same-sex sexual activity was primarily assumed to concern penetrative anal sex and, to be blunt, sexual contact with and marking by excrement (151). When medieval writers stated that sodomy was "stinking" they were not being metaphorical. Linkinen is able to show that sensual disgust along with purity concerns formed a central part of the discourse on sodomy (e.g. in Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne). Disgust also went along with fear, a fear focused on the implications of sin in one's own nature, and it is in this light that he considers the example of Chaucer's Pardoner. Linkinen associates such fear with accounts of nightmares and what he calls "landscapes of horror" (172), or a concern that same-sex sexuality connects directly to hell. It is here that he is able to use his few visual examples, for instance the various carvings which show sodomites being buggered by the devil.

In a not entirely unwelcome transition, Linkinen's fifth framing of his material is to examine same-sex sexuality as a focus for shared laughter and derision. Once again the same texts come up--Chaucer's Pardoner is considered again along with illustrations from the Luttrell Psalter. Evidence is so limited here though that Linkinen needs to bring in non-English examples such as Boccaccio's Decameron (5th Day, 10th Novel) and poems by the Scottish poet William Dunbar. His salient point here is to establish that not only was Chaucer laughing at the Pardoner but that Chaucer could expect his audience to get the joke. Linkinen concludes that it could and that given the vast dispersion of Chaucer's works in manuscripts and early printed editions that this does enable us to see a culture of laughter about same-sex activity or about people marked as sodomites. Same-sex sexuality, Linkinen argues, was simultaneously not talked about but also available to the culture as a font of stigma and occasion for derision.

Until his final chapter, Linkinen's entire project has been concerned with establishing "frames" within which the wider culture considered same-sex sexuality. There has been no discussion of the actual people who might be so marked, no assessment of "homosexuals." In chapter six he explicitly acknowledges that he has some personal interest in trying to discern actual people who engaged in sex with each other or who loved each other, in other words to look for "homosexuals" and "non-condemnatory" possibilities (233). He thinks there were. The evidence of same-sex love in the lives of the various named kings he takes as evidence of real possibilities for other individuals even if surviving evidence does not allow us to say much about anyone lower down the social structure (255). Still, Linkinen is prepared to speculate that the silence of the law and the suppression of discussion by the church allowed some people to experience such activity without problematizing it. (This is basically a Foucauldian suggestion, or perhaps connected to Alan Bray's suggestion in Homosexuality in Renaissance England, that the discourse of sodomy was so extreme that many men engaging in sex simply did not see how that discourse might apply to them). There were also some, glimpsed, possibilities. The single relevant law case--the 1395 Rykener case--is hardly probative but it did involve nineteen people and Rykener does not seem to have had problems finding customers. Linkinen, taking up suggestions brought up by John Boswell in Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe and by Alan Bray in The Friend, is also prepared to argue that same-sex sexuality can legitimately be discerned in accounts of chivalric friendship--above all in the story of Amis and Amiloun--and in the by now much-discussed institution of publically sworn spiritual brotherhood. For example he considers the cases of Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Neville, whose 1391 tomb, marked as that of an "English Couple," is now on display in the Archeological Museum in Istanbul and whose public devotion and relationship were referred to in a series of contemporary texts; and that of John Bloxam and John Whytton who are memorialized in Merton College Chapel, Oxford.

Linkinen is clear that the public presentation of such same-sex relationships avoided any connection with sexual activity, but argues that these institutions did allow some possible space for same-sex eros (277). I tend to agree, while being struck again by the extremely sparse evidence. Linkinen does not really expand on the wider issues and assumptions here and I think he missed an opportunity. On the one hand, evidence of same-sex sexual activity is indeed rare, and for the medieval period always condemnatory if actual sex is the focus. Still, even the limited discussion of such issues shows that late medieval society was not one in which homosexuality--and I will use the word--was beyond all conception. Experience and evidence from other, later and better documented, societies demonstrates that there may be an irreducible number of individuals who (and we need not be absolute about this) experience primarily and perhaps exclusively homosexual erotic desires. If we assume that such people did exist, and we have an interest in locating them, then Linkinen's approach in this last chapter is viable and worthwhile: we can look at the silencing, the misnaming by stigma, and cultural repression and note that this still allowed some room for people with homoerotic feelings to act on them.

Linkinen's book is comprehensive and he exhausts the relatively small number of texts, their actual statements, and their identifiable silences, and gets a lot out of them through his methodology of multiple frames. I'm not sure how much of this is new, although his discussion of the materiality of "stinking" sin seems an advance on previous discussion. While the methodology is inherently repetitive, I felt that some repetitions within chapters, sometimes in consecutive paragraphs, could have been avoided. There is throughout some infelicity in diction (he often misses le mot juste). Overall, though, this is a valuable and comprehensive analysis of the available evidence about what I wish he had just called "homosexuality" in later medieval English culture.

Article Details