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
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. 735–804), 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. 750–821). Arno was attached to one Paulinus of Aquileia (c. 750–802), 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,
Walafrid (c. 808–849)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;
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
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