“Don’t Say Gay” rules and book bans could have felt familiar in medieval Europe – but queer themes in literature continued nonetheless

Americans have challenged books at an unprecedented pace. According to the American Library Association People have requested greater than 4,200 titles be faraway from public and faculty libraries in 2023 highest number in a single 12 months because the ALA began tracking it greater than 20 years ago.

These challenges are further exacerbated by recent and proposed laws in lots of states. Florida Parental Rights in Education ActFor example, schools ban many grade levels from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, while a 2022 Missouri law makes sharing “explicit sexual material” in schools a misdemeanor. Such mandates have prompted librarians to achieve this Pull materials from shelves.

Material written by or about LGBTQ+ people is often at the middle of book challenges and laws.

“We're seeing more and more challenges that simply say: This book has a gay character or: This book deals with LGBTQ themes even if it doesn't contain sexuality,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the New York Times in April 2024.

As a scholar of medieval literature and religionI used to be struck by the resonances between modern and medieval censorship of queer texts. Both are characterised by a sort of ““Don’t Say Gay” mentality: an assumption that even seeing or speaking about LGBTQ+ issues poses a threat to children and society, no matter the way it happens.

“Unmentionable” acts

Beginning across the eleventh century, European theologians and writers classified homosexual desire and sex as “sodomy,” an ethical sin. Unlike more modern definitions of sodomy, the medieval category was broad. It has been particularly related to sexual or gender-based sins “against nature” and also known as “heinous crime,” the unspeakable vice.

theologians, preacher And Authors of courtly travel guides expressed outrage at people's continued “discovery” of sodomy and stressed the importance of suppressing any mention of “deviant” sexuality.

This censorship was taken up within the comprehensive ecclesiastical and episcopal reforms the eleventh and Twelfth centuries, even though it went far beyond that. In these reform movements, sodomy was often portrayed as a threat to social stability since it disrupted gender hierarchies. Close relationships between male clergy were believed to encourage corruption. Gay sex was viewed as dangerous since it inverted strict gender expectations: passive sexual and social positions for girls and energetic ones for men.

From celebration to silence

The Fear of sodomy manifested itself within the suppression of homoerotic and homosexual content. Scholars debate the extent to which texts accused of “sodomy” were destroyed solely for his or her sexual content because such accusations were continuously used to justify the destruction of books Authorities desired to censor.

The more common and insidious type of censorship was deletion and alteration, which took various forms. In adapting and commenting on material from Greek and Roman history, medieval authors specifically chosen It must not contain any material depicting homosexual intimacy and sexual activity.

A medieval painting of people in courtly clothing standing in front of a man on a throne while another man and a woman kneel before him.
“Bagoas pleads on behalf of Nabarzanes,” a Persian general, in a Fifteenth-century painting. Bagoas is portrayed as a noble woman.
Getty Center/Wikimedia Commons

The stories of Alexander the Great modified his eunuch lover Bagoas into a girl, Bagoe. Stories about queer relationships within the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses were reframed, Turning romantic endings into cautionary tales.

One of Ovid's stories describes how Iphis, assigned female at birth but raised as a boy, falls in love with a fantastic young woman named Ianthe and finds happiness in her. In “The moralized Ovid“, a medieval version, the commentator ties in with a story that describes how such gender-specific “tricks” are at all times discovered and punished.

The same pattern may be present in original texts by medieval authors. Some stories clearly highlighted what people today would consider queer narratives: Kissing games between men or young knights battling their gender identity. These stories might even have a good time homoerotic relationships and gender transitions for tons of of lines, only to finish in an abrupt ending that “corrects” them.

A very shocking example is the “Romance of silence” describes the adventures of the heroic knight Silence, who was assigned female at birth but lived most of his life as a person. At the tip of the poem, Silence must surrender his knighthood, marry a king, and is forced into a lifetime of quiet passivity.

Condemn or remain silent?

The “unspeakable vice” was so provocative that folks refused to deal with these issues in medieval texts and teachings, even to criticize them.

Typically, priests advise their congregation about specific sins and tips on how to avoid them. In “Instructions for PastorsHowever, the 14th-century English preacher and author John Mirk identified that priests mustn’t talk about “sins against sin” or nature: “You shall teach nothing to your congregation, neither shall you preach of this sin.”

Other texts were more explicit of their condemnation, equivalent to “De planctu naturae” by the Twelfth-century poet and theologian Alain de Lille or “Nature's Complaint.” The poem launches a violent attack, using metaphors that simultaneously describe, condemn and obscure homosexual desire – for example: “He hits an anvil that admits no seeds.”

By controlling access to information, these medieval theologians and writers believed they may end “deviant” sexualities and gendered behavior. By this logic, never talking about sodomy—not even condemning it—meant nobody would ever learn about it and never engage in it.

Records in sight

The truth is that records about queer people and their lives date back to the Middle Ages are more plentiful than many individuals are aware of.

A black and white illustration of some people standing around a woman in bed, including a person in a dress holding her hand.
Iphis lies in bed because the goddess Isis takes her hand and transforms her right into a young man in order that she will marry Ianthe.
Rijksmuseum/Wikimedia Commons

Some historians previously neglected or even intentionally hidden Evidence of medieval queer history, literature and art. Court records medieval sex staff equivalent to Eleanor Rykener Talk in regards to the ways people have transcended categories of gender and sexuality, often without evidence of criminal punishment. The lives of the saints bear the records of holy men and ladies who selected to live their lives based on their religious calling moderately than the gender assigned to them at birth. Works of mystical theology, equivalent to Julian of Norwich's “Showings“described visionary experiences wherein God appeared as each female and male, husband and wife, mother and father. Many religious devotional texts Depicted were monks tenderly embracing one another and pictures of Christ giving birth to the church through his wounds of crucifixion.

Nevertheless, there have been efforts to silence the varied spectrum of medieval thought and experienceStories that tested the boundaries of gender, sex and desire increased.

image credit : theconversation.com