Modern Gayness and Medieval Friends: Homoeroticism
Paul Halsall, 3/27/96
What qualifies as "gay history"?
The issue is reasonably clear for the past hundred years. But
before that there are complications. This is especially the case
for Medieval studies.
Some commentators, both avowedly gay and otherwise, wish to distinguish
sharply between historical evidence about same-sex sexual activity
in the past and other evidence about same-sex relationships. In
other words they wish to argue, as I take it, that while the evidence
about sexual relationships may indeed relate to a history of homosexuality,
other non-sexual affective relationships must be subsumed under
the sign of "friendship". Often, but not always, there
seems to be a belief that while sexuality is complex and constructed
in particular ways, "friendship" is an unproblematic
category. Some commentators, religious ones in particular, seek
to see "friendship" as in some sense "purer"
and cleaner than sexual relationships.
When looking at same-sex relationships in the past, use of the
sex/friendship dichotomy induces problems. We very rarely know
that two people had sexual relations. For discussion of same-sexual
activity, we are often thrown to legal codes, penitentials, denunciatory
sermons and so forth. We very rarely have, before the late middle
ages when court records begin to survive in number, any real idea
of how laws were applied. Careful analysis of Byzantine documents
- but not court records - from the 12th century on, for instance, seems to indicate that the provisions against sodomy of
the Justinianic code were not applied; and yet such laws are frequently
taken as indicators of social attitudes centuries after they were
legislated. They are no more compelling, than for instance, the
argument that anti-sodomy statutes in the US stop heterosexuals
having oral sex.
On the other hand we have a huge amount of material on same-sex
emotional relationships: poems, letters, sometimes even sermons.
We also have quite certain evidence that such relationships were,
in various times and places, publically celebrated. (This is the
minimal interpretation of the Greek adelphopoiia relationships:
but has also been attempted, by Pierre Chaplais for instance,
as an explanation of Edward II's relationship with Piers Gaveston;
similar interpretations have been given to medieval accounts of
men sleeping in the same bed - for instance Philip Augustus and
Richard the Lionheart.) Such relationships, it is asserted, were
not "sexual" and reflect a variety of other forms of
Let us, for a moment, accept such a point of view - that is that
all the socially affirmed same-sex relationships we see in the
past eschewed sexual activity: that David and Jonathan, Alexander
and Hephaestion, Hercules and Hylas, Patroclus and Achilles, Tully
and Octavius, Socrates and Alciabides - that all were never understood
in the past to have had sexual relationships. What would such
a point of view say about our own western society? We would have
to note that a very narrow range of same-sex relationships are
in fact possible. The intense emotional and affective relationships
described in the past as "non-sexual" cannot be said
to exist today: modern heterosexual men can be buddies, but unless
drunk they cannot touch each other, or regularly sleep together.
They cannot affirm that an emotional affective relationship with
another man is the centrally important relationship in their lives.
It is not going to far, is it, to claim that friendship - if used
to translate Greek philia or Latin amicita - hardly
exists among heterosexual men in modern Western society. Indeed
we use the word "friendship" today to describe human
relationships so different from those indicated in the ancient
and medieval texts that to apply the word "friendship"
to those past relationships seems, to me at least, to be actively
misleading. I wish to acknowledge that this may indicate a serious
failing in modern society, and to admit that I may simply not
understand modern friendship.
Turning out attention to modern "gayness" we find a
number of interesting points, points that affect how we understand
the relationships of the past, and the texts which refer to and
refract those relationships.
I use "gayness", because to seems to me that altogether
too many commentators have been willing to reduce "gayness"
to sexual activity. In some parts of the world this may be true
(leaders of the Egyptian gay community in New York have specifically
claimed to me that same-sex sexuality in Egypt is "purely
sexual": whether this claim is true or not, I am in no position
to judge). But in the modern West, "gayness" or its
predecessors, have not been understood by gay writers in this
way. From the mid 19th century on writer such as Karl Ulrichs
in Germany, Edward Carpenter in England, and Walt Whitman in the
US have claimed that same-sex relationships are much more than
sex. Specific claims about "Uranian" (or "heavenly"
love, a reference to Plato), or "homophile" love were
made. Famously, the early gay male organizations in the US and
Britain made use of the concept of "homophilia" to describe
what they were concerned with.
Now it is true, gay leaders in the 1970s rejected the term "homophile"
as conformist, and as a deliberate elision of sexuality. I think,
for historical consideration at least, it may be time to resurrect
this terminology. "Homophilia" points to a very important
aspect of modern gayness - its support of a wide array of same-sex
emotional relationships, with a an equally wide degree of sexual
expression. Because of AIDS there are now many fairly well formed
psychosocial studies of the gay male communities of large cities.
I am most familiar with the Martin-Dean study conducted from Columbia
Presbyterian School of Public Health in New York City. What these
studies have found is that homophilia is a central aspect of modern
gayness, in relationships between men whether sexually expressed
or not. Some gay men form couples in which sex plays little or
nor part. Many other gay men form "families", often
of other gay men (some of whom may be former sexual partners)
and sympathetic heterosexual women, families in which a high degree
of emotional and personal closeness is achieved in a specifically
"gay" context but where sex is not central.
Given that human beings in the past do not "belong"
to anyone modern group, I would still argue that "gay history",
as an aspect of "the history of human relationships"
is specifically one focused on same-sex relationships. Since "gay"
in modern use covers "homophilia" as well as "homosexuality",
I wish to continue to claim that placing the study of philia and amicita in the past exclusively under the sign of "friendship"
and excluding from the sign of "gayness" is not only
unnecessary but misleading.