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


The Gay Love Letters of Baudri of Bourgeuil

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.

Many medieval monks gave vent to suppressed homoerotic desires in love lyrics and love letters couched in the language of spiritual friendship, derived from Cicero's De Amicitia and the Epistles of St Jerome. Egbert would write to Saint Boniface (71620) with feelings more passionate than caritas: "I avow the bond of your love; when I tasted it in my inmost being a fragrance as of honeyed sweetness entered into my veins. ... believe me, the tempest-tossed sailor does not long for his haven, the thirty fields for their rain, the anxious mother waiting at the bend of the shore for her son, as much as I long to delight in seeing you." The last sentence is taken practically verbatim from a published letter from St Jerome to Rufinus, which influenced most of the letters expressing the longing of Christian amicitia. The degree to which such documents may provide evidence of gay love rather than passionate friendship frankly depends upon the sexual sympathies of the interpreter. Most medieval scholars start with the male heterosexual prejudice against homosexuality that blinds them to the evidence. Indeed, John Boswell in his ground-breaking study of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) has documented many cases of censorship, suppression and deliberate distortion by such scholars. Critics are slowly adopting the view that the medieval gay sensibility is not an accident of literary imitation, but that the literary artifice (allusion to both pagan and biblical sources) was a vehicle for legitimizing such love. The abbot Alcuin (c. 735804), head of Charlemagne's school at Aachen, gave his pupils nicknames derived from Virgil's Eclogues, and wrote to Arno, Bishop of Salzburg (c. 750821), "abduct me with your prayers [precibus rape me]." Is this allusion to the rape of Ganymede just an awkward poetic convention? Few can reject the genuine and homoerotic feelings behind the beginning of his letter to Arno: "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" (trans. John Boswell). Vast numbers – literally thousands – of medieval gay love poems remain untranslated. Dozens of gay verse epistles are now fairly well known, in addition to those by Saint Anselm in the previous selection, most notaby those by Walafrid Strabo (c. 808849), Notker Balbulus (c.840912), Salomo (c.860920) and Waldo, and Marbod of Rennes (c.10351123). Less well known (in English) until fairly recently are hundreds of love poems and letters by abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil (10461130), who studied under Marbod at the cathedral school of Angers. In 1097 Baudri lost the bishopric of Orleans to John, nicknamed "Flora", the lover of the archbishop of Tours. But in 1107 he became archbishop of Dol near Mont St Michel, though he spent most of his time in Normandy. Baudri cherished a friend named Walter: "If you wish to take up lodging with me, I will divide my hert and breast with you. I will share with you anything of mine that can be divided; If you command it, I will share my very soul." Baudri's poems and letters show that he was obviously relaxed about mere carnal indulgence; to an absent friend he says he wishes he himself were the letter held in his friend's hand, so that he could gaze upon his friend as he read the letter, and do more than just gaze: "That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough. The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods. For God is readier than man to grant indulgence."


[c. 1110]

I have owed you a reply for a long time, and now in return
For your many verses I write you these skimpy ones.
You know that responsibility for a long task detained me
And that stormy weather made my journey home difficult.
The journey was so difficult I could not write back to you;
It did not, however, make me forget you.
You were always friend and companion of my labor,
And it seemed to me that you shared in my journey.
Never did my soul forget you, neither while traveling
Nor while taking care of other things.
If I could do nothing else, I would daydream of you;
Many dreams created for me images of you.
Even when I was with counsellors, I was never far from you;
So strongly does love unite you to me.
It was as if some good thing touched us to each other
Or as if the charm of your conversation revived me.
Among my worries was always the weight of a heavier concern,
Heavier, but one I loved more than others:
I longed for my return; I would think about it panting
And wonder whether you could someday be restored to me.
And now I have returned; I visit you again through my letters.
I greet you and rejoice if you are well.
If you are well, so am I. Command of me what I command of you:
Quickly arrange to see me so that you can revive me.
O let us be restored to one another at last
So at least this feeble letter-writing may stop, for a long while.



May an exchange of letters always unite us while we are apart,
And may this letter now bring me into your presence.
Let my letter now greet you, repeat my greetings,
And repeat them a third time to please you even more.
Lately I received a sweet poem from Walter
Whih, since you wrote it, has touched your hand.
I received it with the honor it deserves
And immediately called you to iind with my love.
Now my poem gladly returns your visit,
And I pray that you cherish me with your love.
If you wish to take up lodging with me,
I will divide my hert and breast with you.
I will share with you anyting of mine that can be divided;
If you command it, I will share my very soul.
You will be lodged completely within my breast
And will continue as the greatest part of my soul.
Meanwhile I will humbly pray for good fortune
Until conversation revive us.
A different garment – if you haven't considered it – would bring that about:
The name of monk would make such conversation endure forever.
So that you could long enjoy our true love,
Another life would change your visits,
Whether the love of God or fear of punishment or both
Commend monastic life to you.
In case you decide to come to us as such,
I have ordered our men to accompany you.
And if rmor has told you that I am about to visit you,
That hangs in doubt it might be possible or it miight not.
For now, therefore, hurry; "Procrastination harms the ready."
Anticipate tomorrow; do what you should today.



O would that I had been my own messenger
Or been that letter which your hand softly touched;
And tht I had had then the same power to feel I have now,
And that you could ot recognize me until I wanted you to.
Then I would have explored your face and spirit as you read,
That is, if I could have restrained myself long enough.
The rest we would have left to nature and the gracious gods.
For God is readier than man to grant indulgence.

SOURCE: Trans. Thomas Stehling, Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984).

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