Take up Riper Practices

The Gay Love Letters of Some Medieval Clerics

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 (716-720) 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 thirsty 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 copied 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 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 Salszburg (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).

Dozens of gay verse letters are now fairly well known, most notably those by Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849), Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), Salamo (c. 860-920) and Waldo.


Alcuin (c. 735804), born in England, studied at the Cathedral school of York. He headed Charlemagne's school at Aache from 782 to 796, after which he retired as abbot of the monastery at Tours until his death. The follow letter is believed to have been addressed to Arno, Bishop of Salzburg (c. 750821). Arno was attached to one Paulinus of Aquileia (c. 750802), and Alcuin wrote a joint epitaph for both men, thugh Arno survived Paulinus by nineteen years, and Alcuin expressed the wish to be commemorated as the third sharer in their relationship.

ALCUIN TO ARNO OF SALZBURG

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,
And is ever rekindled with new warmth.
Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest, nor even the Alps
Can stand in its way or hinder it
From always licking at your inmost parts, good father,
Or from bathing your heart, my beloved, with tears.
Sweet love, why do you inspire bitter tears,
Why do bitter draughts flow from devotion's honey:
If now your sweetness, world, is mixed with bittrness,
All prosperity will alternate rapidly with misfortune,
All joys be canged to sad lamentation;
Nothing lasts, anything can perish.
Therefore, world, let us flee from you with all our hearts,
As you, ready even now to perish, flee from us.
Let us seek the delights and ever-enduring realms
Of heaven with ur whole heaat, mind, and hand.
The blessed hall of heaven never separtes friends;
A heart warmed by love always has what it loves.
Therefore, father, abduct me with your prayers, I beg you; [precibus rape me]
Then our love will never be estranged.
Look with joy and with a gladdening heart, I pray,
At these little offerings which great love sends you,
For our gentle Master praised the two copper coins
The needy widow put into the temple's treasury.
Sacred love is better than any gift,
And so is steadfast faithfulness which flourishes and endures.
May divine gifts follow you, dearest father
And at the same time precede you. Always and everywhere farewell.


Walafrid (c. 808849)was born into a poor Swabian family and educated at Reichenau. He studied at Fulda under Rabanus Maurus, a student of Alcuin's. He became abbot of Reichenau.

WALAFRID STRABO TO THE CLERIC LIUTGER

My dear, you come suddenly, and suddenly too you leave;
I hear, I do not see. Yet I do see inwardly, and inwardly
I embrace you even as you flee from me in body but not in faithfulness.
For just as I have been sure, so am I now, and so will I always be
That I am cherished in your heart, and you in mind.
          May passing time
Never persuade me or you of anything else.
If you can visit me, it will be enough to see my dear one.
But at other times, write me, write me anything; I have known your sorrows
And reflect on them with grief; grief is the world's province.
The things you consider bright and happy flee all the faster into clouds
And sad shadows. Like a bird that hovers above the world,
Now climbing, now fallilng, so is the wheel of the world in its turning.


Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123) was born at Angers in France, where he was first a student, then a teacher, and finally c. 1067, master at the cathedral school. In 1096 he became bishop of Rennes in Brittany.

MARBOD OF RENNES TO A YOUNG LOVER

Horace composed an ode about a certain boy
Who could easily enough have been a pretty girl.
Over his ivory neck flowed hair
Brighter than yellow gold, the kind I have always loved.
His forehead was white as snow, his luminous eyes black as pitch
His unfledged cheeks full of pleasing sweetness
When they gleamed bright white and red.
His now was straight, lips blazing, teeth lovely,
Chin shaped after a perfectly proportioned model.
Anyone wondering about the body which lay hidden under his clothes
Would be gratified, for the boy's body matched his face.
The sight of his face, radiant and full of beauty,
Kindled the observer's heart with the torch of love.
But this boy – so beautiful, so extraordinary,
An enticement to anyone catching sight of him –
Nature had molded wild and stern:
He would sooner die than consent to love.
Rough and thankless, like a tiger cub,
He only laughed at the gentlest words of a suitor,
Laughed at a sighing lover's tears,
He mocked those he himself caused to die.
Wicked indeed, this one, and as cruel as wicked,
Who with this vice in his character keeps his body from being his glory.
A handsome face demands a good mind, and a yielding one,
Not puffed up but ready for anything.
The little flower of youth is fleeting and too brief;
It soon witherws, falls, and knows not how to revive.
This flesh is now so smooth, so milky, so unblemished,
So good, so handsome, so slipper, so tender.
Yet the time will come when it will become ugly and rough,
When this flesh, dear boyish flesh, will become worthless.
Therefore, while you flower, take up riper practices.
While you are in demand and able, be not slow to yield to an eager lover.
For this you will be prized, not made lsss of.
These words of my reques, most beloved,
Are sent to you alone; do not show them to many others.


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