Image of two men kissingA History of Homophobia

Essays by Rictor Norton on the Historical Roots of Homophobia from Ancient Israel to the End of the Middle Ages

4 Gay Heretics and Witches

Buggery in Bulgaria

Throughout its early development, the Christian Church was under constant threat by the religious teachings of Mani, born in Persia in AD 216. His system, now called Manichaeism, held that evil was as powerful as goodness, contrary to the Christian view that the God of goodness was all-powerful, and it acquired an immense number of believers, no doubt because common sense tells us that evil is indeed a power to be reckoned with in the real world. During the early Middle Ages cults of this religion spread throughout Egypt, Asia Minor, Byzantium, northern Italy, southern France, the Balkans and Bulgaria.

Of greatest importance to us is the fact that many of these Manichaean groups permitted homosexual intercourse. They not only tolerated homosexuality, but went so far as to advocate its superiority over heterosexuality, on the grounds that the latter enslaved humanity in a chain of procreation which bound us to the earth and hence to Evil. They thus held in varying degrees of esteem all the non-procreative sex that the Christian Church condemned: masturbation, male and female homosexuality, anal and oral sex between men and women, and group sex-play that wasn't designed to produce offspring. The Church's condemnation of members of these cults as homosexuals as well as heretics was not only inevitable, but to a large extent accurate.

Nevertheless the condemnation still had more to do with church politics than with morality. Most of these heretical groups, the Albigensians, Paulicians, Patarenes, Bogomiles, Cathars, etc., were rather puritanical in non-sexual areas and appealed not only to the common people, but to wealthy burghers and the nobility. The Cathars (a term meaning "the pure") were openly supported in France by the counts of Toulouse, Foix and Bezier, and the king of Aragon, and the princes seized Church property on the "religious" authority of the Cathars. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Church branded these people as heretics, and used the homosexual charge as an effective weapon in its crusade against them. Any defeat of heresy meant the confiscation of more property for the Church.

When Manichaeism entered France by way of Bulgarian immigrants in the eleventh century, the word bougre, meaning "Bulgarian," became synonymous with both "heretic" and "sodomite" — and survives in the English language today as "bugger." Nor is it insignificant that the Inquisition's official term for heresy was "heretical pravity," having much the same meaning as "depravity" and "sexual depravity."

The Knights Templars

The first explicit allegation of homosexuality against the heretics was made in 1116, concerning the Henricians. From that time onward we hear more and more frequently that the heretics copulated vir cum viris (man with man) and femina cum feminis (woman with woman). In 1209 Pope Innocent authorized the Crusade against the Albigensians in France, a policy which resulted in nearly total genocide throughout the southern part of the country, and by the time the Inquisition would finish its work in the seventeenth century, several million heretics and homosexuals had been burned at the stake. But let us pause for a moment and look at the first well-organized persecution, that against the Knights Templars.

The Order was founded in 1118 by Hughes de Paynes and eight French knights, followers of Godefroy de Bouillon. Their religious function was to defend the Holy Sepulcher, and to safeguard pilgrims to it. But due to the constant intermingling of cultures in that area, they quickly became adherents to the great heresy; just as quickly took up the sexual practices tolerated in the East, including homosexuality; and at the same time acquired vast wealth and property as traders and bankers. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Order comprised 15,500 Knights, an appropriate number of squires and lay brethren, more than 150,000 gold florins and over 10,000 manors, plus a few fortresses and Temples in every major city in Europe (including London, on the site now occupied by The Temple on the Embankment).

In other words, the Knights Templars were almost as powerful as the Holy Roman Church. Recognizing a threat when he saw one, Pope Clement V persuaded King Philip le Bel in 1307 to issue an arrest order, accusing the Knights Templars of sodomy, heresy, general abominations and criminal acts. Philip himself was homosexual, but he stood to gain much wealth by outlawing the "heretics." On October 13 of that year, Jacques de Molay, Grand Master of the Order, was arrested along with 140 Knights. They were hideously tortured, and confessed to heresy, sodomy, cannibalism and a host of other crimes. More than a hundred of them were then burned to death, and 51 more were cremated in 1311.

Jacques de Molay burned at the stake The Order was formally abolished by the Pope in 1312, and on March 18, 1314, Jacques de Molay and his friend Guy D'Auvergne were burned at the stake. Just before dying, Molay ordered his persecutors to join him within the year "at the tribunal of God". Both Pope Clement and King Philip accordingly died before the year was over. But before their deaths they had totally eradicated the Knights Templars.

There is a great scholarly controversy over whether or not the Knights Templars actually were homosexual. It is impossible here to sum up the evidence for either side of the argument. I can only note the tendency in much recent scholarship to conclude that they were not cannibals etc., but that they were indeed "heretics" as defined by the Church, and that they did indeed engage in homosexual sex. Their initiation ceremony is well documented and has the ring of truth in spite of being extracted by torture. It involved such things as stripping oneself naked, kissing the high priest or leader on the mouth, anus and penis as a sign of fealty, and engaging in homosexual group sex as a symbol of brotherhood. Like the other heresies, they were theologically opposed to marriage and procreation, and taught that erotic tensions were better relieved with one's brothers than with women.

Fires and Faggots

Such ideas were intolerable to the Christian Church (particularly dangerous because of its own practice of celibacy), and the commonly-held view (whether true or not) that the Templars were homosexual strengthened the Church's already deeply ingrained prejudice against homosexuals. This charge became a major weapon in the arsenal of the Crusades and the Inquisition. As mentioned, in 1209 Pope Innocent began the Crusade against the heretical and sodomitical Albigensians in France. It was a wholesale slaughter. In Beziers alone nearly 20,000 heretics perished by the sword. Several thousand heretics who had fled for refuge to the Church of Mary Magdalene were massacred after the Crusaders had amused themselves by gouging out their eyes. Within twenty years a million heretics were exterminated. The Cathar movement was similarly expunged.

It is against this political background in which heresy and homosexuality were so closely aligned as to be virtually identical, that the great Church Father St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) formulated his Christian sexual ethics: "right reason declares the appointed end of sexual acts is procreation," and declared that homosexuality was one of the gravest of the peccata contra naturam or "sins against nature," which is still the official view of most Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant Christian Churches.

Faggots used to burn men at the stake(Some commentators believe that the term "faggot" as applied to homosexuals is derived from the bundles of sticks or "faggots" that were used to burn the heretics. The heretics were easily identified with the fuel used to burn them, for symbolic faggots were in fact embroidered on the garments of those who refused to recant: hence the phrase "to fry a faggot." However, this etymology is probably not correct, because "faggot" as a slang term for a homosexual only occurs in English, and in England homosexuals were never burned at the stake, but hanged, so it is difficult to see how the metaphorical meaning could have arisen. The term is more likely derived from the French and Italian term baggage meaning "slut, whore.")

For nearly a century "heretical pravity" included only the cults of the Manichaean heresy, but in 1320 Pope John XXII gave his permission to the Inquisitors of Carcassone and Toulouse to prosecute witches. Whereas the Manichaean heresy was an Eastern religious import, witchcraft was native to Western Europe and the survival of a pagan cult. The heretics often came from the upper middle classes in urban centers, while the witches often came from the lower classes in rural areas relatively untouched by new-fangled religions, either Christian or heretical. Nevertheless the very widespread witch cult was a stumbling block to the enlargement of Christendom, and had to be similarly destroyed once the more powerful heresy groups had been disposed of. The Margaret Murray school of anthropological study argues that the witchcraft persecutions were primarily the result of a class war, or a new Christian culture stamping out a witchcraft culture. Many scholars believe that "witchcraft" may have existed as a kind of folk or pagan religion, and is not entirely a figment of a hysterical Christian imagination.

The Kiss of Shame

The important point for us to note is that the witches, like the heretics, either in fact or at least in popular conception, seem to have often approved of all forms of non-procreative sex, partly because they were not prejudiced against any form of erotic pleasure, and partly because the production of offspring was inimical to a peasant population which could not afford more mouths to feed or further divisions of limited agricultural areas through inheritance.

Homosexuality was often an important feature of the witches' real or alleged initiation rituals and the communion we now mistakenly refer to as the Black Mass. We have some well-documented evidence, freely given instead of extracted by torture, concerning the practice of one rite sometimes called the osculum infame, the "shameful" act of kissing the arse of the "Devil" or leader of the coven. It is first recorded in 1303 regarding the Bishop of Coventry, and is especially found in the records of the sixteenth century, for example: "le besa de derrier" (1563); "chacun de l'assemblee luy va baiser le derrier" (1567); "puis un chacun luy baisoit le derrier" (1574); "the deuel . . . caused all the company to com and kis his ers" (1590); "They kiss'd his Backside" (1594); "he wold hold up his taill untill we wold kiss his arce" (1662); "Satan offers his back-parts to be kissed of his vassal" (1617); and sometimes his genitals as well as his back parts: "que le Diable lui faisoit baiser son visage, puis le nombril, puis le membre viril, puis son derrier" (1609). Today the contemptuous phrase "kiss my arse" indicates a kind of humiliation, but in the heretical rites it was an act of humility and fealty, in much the same way that in an earlier era ritual prostitution was an act of humility and subservience to Cybele. This "kiss of shame" is still found in primitive initiation rituals today, and even in college fagging.

After everyone in the coven had kissed the Devil's or Leader's arse, and sometimes his penis, they would have sex with one another without regard to gender. Then followed the Black Mass, which in the most authentic accounts is merely a Feast of Communion that is more hearty and friendly than demonic.

My main argument is not that the Christian Church was justified in persecuting heretics and witches, but that to some degree it was justified in believing that the heretics and witches approved of and engaged in homosexual sex. Today so much sentimentality and polemic has obscured the witchcraft persecutions that we can barely credit the existence of witches; that we believe that all witches were women when in fact very many of them were men; and that we think the fertility rites were heterosexual when in fact they often contained a substantial element of homosexuality, e.g. in the form of mutual masturbation which celebrates virility if not fertility. The detailed investigation of homosexuality among heretical and witch cults has not been adequately studied even today, just as contemporary compilers at the trials would give only a few details "as a warning to all Christians to take no part in these abominations," and then would draw a prudent veil over the rest, "and God forbid that curiosity should lead anybody to explore them."

In the book Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 a 1324, based on records taken during a heresy investigation in a village in southwest France from 1319 to 1324 (now deposited in the Vatican), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, one of the most distinguished French historians, establishes that homosexuality was "far from uncommon," and that the medieval villagers were very "permissive" regarding sex outside marriage. One of the "false priests," and a homosexual as well, was Arnold of Verniolle, who in 1323 confessed to frequent homosexual affairs with students, some of them long-term relationships, and to picking up men in the latrines and in bathhouses. At his trial in 1324 he defended his natural homosexual inclinations, saying "the bishop would have enough on his hands if he were to apprehend everyone in Pamiers who had been infected with that crime because there were more than three thousand persons."


Little purpose will be served by reviewing the slaughter of the witches throughout Europe and the torture of the Inquisition. Once Pope Innocent VIII issued his Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus on December 5, 1484, giving the Inquisition full power to seek out and destroy witches, the sickening note in the margin of the court records is always the same: Conuicta et combusta — "Convicted and burned." The tale may be as horrifying as that of the Nazi concentration camps, and the death toll as high. The story has been told many times, making us aware how thoroughly and perhaps irredeemably the Christian Church disgraced itself, how amply Christians made recompense for their own persecution under the Roman emperors centuries earlier.

What began primarily as a straightforward political ruse to wrest economic power from the Knights Templars and the heretical cults, eventually became a mania so immense as to challenge our powers of comprehension. A number of things can be explained in simple economic terms. For example, female witches were vehemently opposed by the medieval medical profession who were their economic rivals in herb-lore and midwifery. What is more difficult to understand is what some historians refer to as the "anal obsession of the Middle Ages." For nearly half a millennium the Christians of Western Europe were obsessed with a fear of everything associated with the anus. Luther defined the Devil as a giant anus, and in much iconography we see Evil and Sin personified by farting, shitting, and sodomy. There is no satisfactory explanation for this anal phobia, though no doubt it had something to do with what we now call the "anal-retentive" personality of authoritarian types. All we know for certain is that this variety of homophobia wreaked havoc on all things "sodomitical." Very strong pressures — such as the stake and thumbscrew — were brought to bear to "properly align" the husband's penis with the wife's vagina, which meant not only the suppression of homosexuality, but the enforcement of gender-defined clothing (witches were often persecuted for transvestism, for which specific "crime" Joan of Arc died), strictly-controlled marital groups as opposed to the brotherhood and coven groups of the heretics and witches, and a gender-defined labour force. In other words, both homophobia and sexism became even more rigidly entrenched than in earlier periods.

[ concluded in Part 5 ]

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.
CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, A History of Homophobia, "4 Gay Heretics and Witches" 15 April 2002, updated 18 February 2011 <>.

Return to Gay History and Literature