Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Best Beloved Brother

The Gay Love Letters of Saint Anselm

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

St Anselm Anselm was born in Italy in 1033 and joined the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy in 1056. He became its prior in 1063 and then its abbot in 1078. In 1093 he became Archbishop of Canterbury, where he died and was buried in 1109. In 1494 he was canonized. Most of the following letters were written during his early residence at Bec, though he was already becoming noted for his scholarship and philosophy, infectious enthusiasm, and spiky personality (his high principles would eventually create friction with his English rulers, William II and Henry I. There is little reason to doubt the purity of Anselm's theological concept of friendship, or even his celibacy, but neither can we deny the erotic force behind his yearning and frustrated desire, his heartbreak and even jealousy. The intensity of his emotional experience with his pupils and the `beloved lover' (dilecto dilectori) to whom he addresses his epistles makes clear his gay sensibility. Gundulf (c. 10241108) was Anselm's immediate superior at Bec; at the time of the letters quoted, Anselm feared for Gundulf's participation in the crusades, but Anselm successfully persuaded Gundulf to go with him to Canterbury in 1070; he became Bishop of Rochester in 1077. Gilbert Crispin also moved from Bec to Canterbury, and became Abbot of Westminster in 1085. Little is known of Brother William, a young monk at La Chaise-Dieu, near St-Etienne. The Council of London in 1102 wanted to enact ecclesiastical legislation which declared – for the first time in English history that homosexual behaviour was a sin, and they recommended that offending laymen be imprisoned and clergymen be anathematized. But Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the publication of their decree, advising the Council that homosexuality was widespread and few men were embarrassed by it or had even been aware it was a serious matter; he felt that although sodomites should not be admitted to the priesthood, confessors should take into account mitigating factors such as age and marital status before prescribing penance, and he advised counselling rather than punishment. St Anselm's letters appeared during the last flowering of homosexual love before fanatical anti-gay prejudice swept across Europe in the twelfth century, as documented by John Boswell in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980).


[c. 1071]

Greeting from brother Anselm to his honoured master, best beloved brother and most attached friend, Master Gundulf.
            Though I desire to write to thee, soul most beloved of my soul, though I intend to write to thee, I know not how best to begin my address. For whatever I know about thee is sweet and joyous to my spirit: whatever I desire for thee is the best which my mind can conceive. For I saw thee such that I loved thee as thou knowest; I hear thee to be such that I yearn after thee, God knoweth how much: whence it cometh that whithersoever thou goest, my love follows thee; and wherever I remain, my longing embraces thee. And since thou dost eagerly ask me by thy messengers, exhort me by thy letters, and urge me by thy gifts, to have thee in remembrance: "Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth" if I have not held Gundulf first among my friends. I do not here mean Gundulf the layman, my father [his natural father by kinship], but my friend, Gundulf the monk. Now how could I forget thee? How could he fade from my memory who is impressed upon my heart as is a seal upon wax? Also, why dost thou, as I hear, complain with so much sadness that thou never receivest a letter of mine, and why dost thou ask so affectionately to have one frequently, when in the spirit thou hast me always with thee? When therefore thou art silent, I know thou carest for me; and when I make no sign, "thou knowest that I love thee." Thou art a sharer in my existence, for I have no doubts of thee; and I am witness to thee that thou art sure of me. Since therefore we are mutually sharers in each other's consciousness, it only remains that we should tell each the other what concerns us, that we may alike either rejoice or be anxious for each other. But as to my affairs, and the reasons why I would have thee rejoice or be anxious with me, thou wilt better learn from the bearer of this missive than from the writer of the letter. Greet Master Lanfranc, the young nephew of our revered lord and master, Lanfranc the archbishop, and present to him my faithful desire to do him service. For since he is so near and dear to him whom so I venerate with affection and love with veneration as that I would love what he loves; and since I hear that he is of an amiable character: if he deign to allow it, I both offer him my service and ask for his friendship. Salute Master Osbern who is with you for my dear dead Osbern; for I would impress on thee and on all my friends in as few words as I know how, and with the greatest earnestness I can, that wherever Osbern is, his soul is my soul. I therefore while alive would receive for him whatever if dead I might hope from your friendship, lest you be negligent when I am dead.
            Farewell, farewell, my beloved [mi charissime]; and, to repay thee according to thine importunity, I pray and pray and pray, remember me, and forget not the soul of Osbern my beloved. If I seem to burden thee too heavily, forget me, and remember him.



[not later than 1077]

His own to his own, friend to friend, Anselm to Gundulf, wishes through love of bliss perseverance in holiness, and for the reward of holiness an eternity of blessedness.
            And now, this Gundulf and Anselm is witness that I and thou are never so in want of each other as that we must needs prove our mutual affection by letters. For since thy spirit and mine can never bear to be absent from each other, but unceasingly are intertwined; we mutually need nothing from each other, save that we are not together in bodily presence. But why should I depict to thee on paper my affection, since thou dost carefully keep its exact image in the cell of thy heart? For what is thy love for me but the image of mine for thee? Therefore thy known wish induces me to write somewhat to thee on account of our bodily separation; but since we are known to each other by the presence together of our spirits, I know not what to say to thee, save – may God do with thee as He knoweth shall please him, and be profitable to thee. Farewell.



[c. 1074/75]

Brother Anselm, called Abbot of Bec, to his loved and longed-for (would it were loving and longing) William: despise dangerous and miserable vanities, and seek the secure and blessed verity.
            So completely, oh my beloved whom I yearn after, has Almighty God filled my soul (by His grace, not through my own merits) with love of thee, that, agitated between the longing for thy salvation and the fear of thy peril, being excited day and night by anxiety for thee, it cannot rest; blessed be God for His gifts, and would that He might take away from thee thy hatred for thine own soul even as He has given unto me the yearning for thy salvation. Bear with me, dear friend, and endure him who loveth thee, should I appear to thee importunate, and speak to thee more sternly than thou wouldst wish. For the love of thy soul compelleth mine, nor alloweth it to suffer that thou shouldst hate that which it loveth with an ever-present love. Receive, therefore, most dear one, with a love which I pray God to impart to thee, the sayings of him who loveth thee. Thou, dearly beloved, art what love sayeth with pain, and grief sayeth lovingly, who (which may God put away from thee) hast hated that soul of thine beloved of mine; for "whoso loveth iniquity hateth his own soul" (Ps. xi, 6). Iniquity of a truth, and many iniquities are they with which thou dost so eagerly make thyself happy, oh my beloved. Iniquity, and many iniquities are they whither the force of worldly things, rushing to ruin, impels thee, my loved one. For the bloody confusion of war is iniquity. The ambition of worldly vanity is iniquity. The insatiable desire for false advantages and false riches is iniquity. Towards these, alas! I see him whom I so long to keep back by loving him, drawn by the subtle enemy deceiving his heart. Oh God, friend and deliverer of man, let not the enemy draw Thy servant away!
            Thou tellest me, beloved brother: "I do not love these things, but I love my brother who is entangled in them: and therefore I hasten to be involved therein with him, that I may help and guard him." Alas! wretched grief from the miserable error of the sons of Adam! ... Answer me, brother: who shall help and guard thee helping and guarding him? God, whom thou carest less to follow than that brother of thine! Christ, who calleth thee, thou scornest to follow in peace and in thine own country and among thy relations and friends that as "heir of God" and "joint-heir with Him" thou mayest possess the kingdom of heaven; and by such and so many difficult rugged ways, through rough seas and stormy tempests thou hastenest to thy brother amid the confusion of war, that thou mayest see him (to suppose something great) bearing rule over the Greeks ...
            Delay not thy so great good, and fulfil my yearning for thee, that I may have thee for my companion in following Christ; and that we may strive together so that as thou seest me, so I may see thee a companion in Christ's inheritance, which He gives. ... Fear not to become the soldier of so great a King, for the King Himself will be beside thee in every danger. Delay no longer to enter in this life on the road which thou hast chosen ... I advise, counsel, pray, adjure, enjoin thee as one most dear to abandon that Jerusalem which now is no vision of peace, but of tribulation, where with bloody hands men contend for the treasures of Constantinople and Babylon: and to enter upon the road to the heavenly Jerusalem, which is the vision of peace, where thou shalt find a treasure only to be received by those who despise the others.
            I end this long letter unwillingly, since out of the abundance of the heart my mouth desireth to speak much to thee. ... God direct thy heart according to His will, and gratify my desire of thee according to His mercy. Amen.



[c. 1077/78]

Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved lover
            ... sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness, but they cannot begin to console my desolate heart for its want of your love. Even if you sent every scent of perfume, every glitter of metal, every precious gem, every texture of cloth, still it could not make up to my soul for this separation unless it returned the separated other half.
          The anguish of my heart just thinking about this bears witness, as do the tears dimming my eyes and wetting my face and the fingers writing this.
          You recognized, as I do now, my love for you, but I did not. Our separation from each other has shown me how much I loved you; a man does not in fact have knowledge of good and evil unless he has experienced both. Not having experienced your absence, I did not realize how sweet it was to be with you and how bitter to be without you.
          But you have gained from our very separation the company of someone else, whom you love no less or even more than me; while I have lost you, and there is no one to take your place. You are thus enjoying your consolation, while nothing is left to me but heartbreak.


SOURCE: To Gondulph and William, from St Anselm, Cur deus homo (London: The Ancient & Modern Library of Theological Literature, [1889], prefatory Life signed R. C., probably Richard William Church, Dean of St Paul's). To Gilbert, trans. John Boswell, <>i>Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1980).

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