The Gay Love Letters of Baudri of Bourgeuil
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton
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 (716–20) 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. 735–804), head of Charlemagne's school at Aachen, gave his pupils nicknames derived from Virgil's Eclogues, and wrote to Arno, Bishop of Salzburg (c. 750–821), "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. 808–849), Notker Balbulus (c.840–912), Salomo (c.860–920) and Waldo, and Marbod of Rennes (c.1035–1123). Less well known (in English) until fairly recently are hundreds of love poems and letters by abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil (1046–1130), 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."
BAUDRI OF BOURGEUIL TO A FRIEND
I have owed you a reply for a long time, and now in return
TO A CERTAIN WALTER
May an exchange of letters always unite us while we are apart,
TO A FRIEND TO WHOM HE HAD SENT A LETTER
O would that I had been my own messenger
SOURCE: Trans. Thomas Stehling, Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship (New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984).
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