Despite the risks, devotional relationships between men were common in Europe [during the Middle Ages], at least among the literate, and many of these affairs must have included sex at some point. Knights, aristocrats, and especially clerics left expansive evidence of their intense passions for male lovers, relationships that often ended in side-by-side burials. A letter from a respected monk–scholar in Charlemagne’s court named Alcuin (circa 735–804) to a beloved bishop shows how thick those relations sometimes became:
I think of your love and friendship with such sweet memories, reverend bishop, that I long for that lovely time when I may be able to clutch the neck of your sweetness with the fingers of my desires. Alas, if only it were granted to me, as it was to Habakkuk, to be transported to you, how would I sink into your embraces . . . how would I cover, with tightly pressed lips, not only your eyes, ears, and mouth but also your every finger and your toes, not once but many a time.
While this epistle is unusually erotic, it reflects the intimacies that existed among men everywhere. Assuming, as we must, that at least some of these men’s sexual longings were fulfilled, the next question is the extent to which intimate homosexual relationships were tolerated. Love was one thing, sodomy another. If male hustlers on the Rialto were burned to death and other European sodomites were being cut to ribbons, could long-term, loving relationships among men ever be permitted?
The answer, paradoxically, is yes. In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male bonding ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as ever more severe sodomy laws were put into place.
Such same-sex unions—sometimes called “spiritual brotherhoods”—forged irrevocable bonds between the men involved. Often they involved missionaries about to set off on foreign voyages, but lay male couples also entered into them. Other than the gender of the participants, it was difficult to distinguish the ceremonies from typical marriages. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions, for example, involved the pair joining their right hands at the altar, the recital of marriage prayers, and a ceremonial kiss.
Same-sex unions were denied to monks to the same extent that men in monastic orders were forbidden to marry women, but other clerics who were allowed to marry took part. One thirteenth-century Ukrainian story tells of the deacon Evagrius and the priest Tit, whose “great and sincere” love for each other led them to a same-sex union. Unfortunately, that love found its limits, and the men had a bitter falling out. When Tit later fell ill, some monks brought Evagrius to his sickbed to help the couple reconcile before the end. Evagrius refused and was struck dead, and Tit recovered. Even had Tit and Evagrius made up and lived happily ever after, they would never have produced natural offspring, which was the main difference between same-sex unions and traditional marriages. Yet the couple’s barrenness did not impede sanctification of their relationship by the church. One version of the liturgy had the priest recite:
O Almighty Lord, You have given to man to be made from the first in Your Image and Likeness by the gift of immortal life. You have willed to bind as brothers not only by nature but by bonds of the spirit . . . Bless Your Servants united also that, not bound by nature, [they be] joined with bonds of love.
It is difficult to believe that these rituals did not contemplate erotic contact. In fact, it was the sex between the men involved that later caused same-sex unions to be banned.
With the widespread criminalization of homosexual relations starting in the thirteenth century, the marriages of men in church could not last. The Byzantine emperor Andronicus II decreed in 1306 that, along with incest and sorcery, sex between men was prohibited. He added: “If some wish to enter into ceremonies of same-sex union, we should prohibit them, for they are not recognized by the church.” No Latin versions of the ceremonies survive—presumably they were destroyed—and several of the surviving Greek texts appear to have been defaced over time by disapproving churchmen. By the sixteenth century, Montaigne would write of a “strange brotherhood” in which Portuguese men in Rome “married one another, male to male, at Mass, with the same ceremonies with which we perform our marriages, read the same marriage gospel service and then went to bed and lived together.” They were burned to death.
Given that men could no longer marry in a church without risking punishment, and that long-term love between men was not going away, something less inflammatory had to take the place of matrimony. In England and many Mediterranean societies (especially southern France), the new institution for same-sex unions was the affrerement (“brotherment”) contract. Affrerement was not designed specifically to accommodate same-sex love relationships; it was adapted to permit such couples to live together in peace. An affrerement was a written agreement between two people to form one household and share un pain, un vin, et une bourse (“one bread, one wine, and one purse”). In Italy, the contracts used a similar phrase: a une pane e uno vino. The reference to sharing the same bread and wine was meant to signify that the people would share all their property in the years to come.
Eric Berkowitz’s new book Sex And Punishment, out today from Counterpoint, is a fascinating survey of how legal systems over the millenia have attempted to regulate and police sex. In this excerpt, a discussion of the once-wide acceptance of same-sex unions between men in Europe of the Middle Ages.
Eric Berkowitz is a writer, lawyer and journalist. He has a degree in print journalism from University of Southern California and has published in The Los Angeles Times and The Los Angeles Weekly, and for the Associated Press. He was an editor of the West Coast’s premier daily legal publication, The Los Angeles Daily Journal. He lives in San Francisco.