IMC 2013: Sessions

Session 512: Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Carnal Pleasures in Early Medieval Europe

Tuesday 2 July 2013, 09.00-10.30

Moderator/Chair:Barbara H. Rosenwein, Department of History, Loyola University Chicago
Paper 512-aManufacturing Queer Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England: The Penitential of Theodore, Bædlings, and the Discourse of Shame
(Language: English)
Christopher Vaccaro, Department of English, University of Vermont
Index terms: Gender Studies, Sexuality
Paper 512-bBeat the Boys?: Variations and Commonalities in Insular Penitential Treatment of Sexual Activity between Young Males
(Language: English)
Christopher Monk, Department of English & American Studies, University of Manchester
Index terms: Language and Literature - Old English, Language and Literature - Latin, Religious Life, Sexuality

Paper -a:
How do we begin to piece together early medieval attitudes towards non-normative sexual behavior and homosexuality specifically? Allen Frantzen (Before the Closet, 1998) found answers in the Latin, Irish, and Anglo-Saxon penitentials of the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries and their broader socio-historical context, and delivered the insightful challenge that subsequent investigations would need to, ‘concentrate on describing and analyzing the primary evidence … Rather than applying poststructuralist or Foucauldian terminology to it’ (172). With David Clark’s more theoretical investigation into intimate same-sex friendships and desire (Between Medieval Men, 2009), it is timely to reexamine the primary and secondary material regarding the Anglo-Saxon penitentials and law books. This essay [part of a larger book-length project] briefly reexamines the canons of the most often treated Penitential, Poenitentiale Theodori, that lead Frantzen and Clark to agree to the existence of the ‘bædling’, a category indicating an effeminate man that often had sex with other men.

Informed by feminist and queer theory this essay then contemplates the experience of the bædling. Would or could individuals in A.D. 900 defiantly claim such an identity as sodomite, molles, or bædling? Would individuals who were seen or saw themselves in this way [as a species] have sought each other out and come together? Could such individuals find themselves in any literary representations outside of the sodomitic references either in literary types or historical figures? Would/could an individual find a type of pleasure in reading penitentials, in their erotic and ambiguous descriptions, in the ways they manufacture transgression and queer pleasure? A pleasure instead of a shame? A pleasure out of the shame? Would a ‘discourse of shame’ such as that in which the penitentials participated have been as effective in the milieu of a germanic Christianity touched as it was by folklore and pagan stereotypes as it was in the later Middle Ages or has been in the past century? The answers are as we would expect complex and rewarding and uncover the multiple capillaries of cultural influences involved in the act of becoming a bædling.

Paper -b:
Beating is invariably associated with the sins of youth within the Anglo-Saxon penitential tradition. According to Poenitentiale Theodori, for example, ‘boys who fornicate between themselves, he [Theodore] judged that they should be beaten’; and the later, vernacular adaptation of Theodore’s penitential, known as Canons of Theodore, preserves this, stating that: ‘Cnihtas þa ðe hæmað heom betweonan, hit is demed þæt hy man swinge’ (Boys/youths who have sex between themselves, it is judged that one should beat them). Another Anglo-Saxon vernacular penitential, Scriftboc, which draws on various sources, repeats this prescription, with one manuscript witness including the imperative to ‘beat them severely’.

It is rather intriguing, then, that earlier, Hiberno-Latin penitentials, including those of Finnian and Cummean, do not impose a beating for younger males who engage in inter-male sex but, instead, prescribe fasting. Moreover, the vernacular Old Irish Penitential, which uses Theodore’s Latin text as one of its sources, also only prescribes fasting for acts involving boys. It would appear therefore that in the insular world Theodore was the instigator of beating for sexual sins involving boys, and that the later English vernacular penitentials preserved his method of correction, and on occasion amplified it with the specification of brutality. Nevertheless, though there is divergence in the methods of penance, there is an ideological commonality between Irish and Anglo-Saxon penitential treatment of youthful inter-male sex. The inclusion, for example, in the Penitential of Cummean of a discrete section of canons addressing ‘the sinful playing of boys’ links meaningfully to later Anglo-Saxon vernacular construction of male juvenile sexuality.

This paper examines the rationale behind the penitential treatment of same-sex activity in young males, and relates this especially to the Anglo-Saxon context. Read alongside Alcuin’s letter to a monastic student, in which he opines ‘the filthy practices of boys’, and in conjunction with the dramatic monastic skits of Ælfric Bata, with their bawdy euphemisms associated with ‘the unseemly chattering’ of youths, this paper proposes that early medieval penitential literature shared in a cultural construction of boys as sexually malleable and prone to sexual ‘deviance’.

This position is further enhanced by the paper’s examination of those penitential canons – both Irish and Anglo-Saxon – that prescribe fasting and admonishment for even the innocent victim of male rape. Acknowledging Allen Frantzen’s argument (1998) that within such canons boys are represented as figures of temptation for older men and, consequently, as accountable for their effects on them, this essay advances a concomitant motive behind the treatment of boy victims. In reading the prescription of penance as the ecclesiastical presumption that a sexual assault awakens within young boys a proclivity towards sexual incontinence, the argument is made that the sexual development of boys was perceived as something requiring careful moulding. Despite the penitential representation of inter-male sex as ‘unnatural’ and ‘irrational’, the treatment of juvenile male sexual behaviour suggests a prevailing ideology that saw boys as prone to deviancy, and that their base sexual urges needed to be inculcated out of them.