Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

On All Men's Lips

A review of The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period by Michael Goodich (Clio Press, 1979)

Homicide, incest, sacrilege, perjury, adultery, apostasy, fornication, heresy and homosexuality were the bugbears of medieval culture. Homosexuality was strangely considered to be the worst of these crimes and therefore to merit the severest of punishments, both religious and secular. So much we know, but it has been Michael Goodich's task to map out in great detail precisely how this anti-homosexual attitude was developed and refined in canonical, conciliar and secular legislation, particularly with reference to the zeal of the Gregorian reformers, and, later, the Dominican order centred in Bologna, a city whose charming porticos and high student population no doubt facilitated the prace of the "vice" which was mentioned so often as to make its epithet – "unmentionable" – seem ludicrous.

This is an exhaustive and systematic study and there probably remains very little to do for future researchers. By "the field" I mean the area of legal history, for this is essentially a study of official documents – penitential manuals, papal decrees, canon law, scriptural commentary and eventually secular statutes – and we rarely get a glimpse of homosexual people or their subcultures. The great enigma remains: why is there virtually no evidence to suggest that these laws were ever applied? One answer is quite simple: trial records have not yet been adequately researched. The other answere, occasionally suggested byi Goodich, is that practice and theory were at odds, that such sexual sins were usually overlooked unless an accusation of sodomy proved politically or financially useful and that priests generally absolved such sins, or at least mitigated the penance after confession.

The most fascinating part of the study is its appendix, a translation of the trial of Arnold Verniolle before the Inquisition in 1323. According to the testimony and Arnold's own confession, he seldom met with any resistance to his solicitation for favours from numerous young men and he estimated that there were some three thousand homsexuals in the small French town of Montaillou. Arnold was sentenced to be bound in chains and fed on bread and water for life. Goodich says that the Inquisition's records are full of such trials (always connected with heresy, of course) and there would seem to be still a great deal worth uncovering. (It must be remembered that the Church could impose varying degrees of "claustration", up to life imprisonment in a monastery, without getting the approval of the secular authorities.)

A study of the laws reveals valuable and interesting facts, such as the relatively lenient attitudes in Germany and Northern Spain as opposed to the barbarity of laws in Italy and France. But a more thorough study of the application of the laws could reveal even more interesting things, such as the existence and precise location of homosexual red-light districts, the practice of homosexual marriage and, above all, the attitudes and words of the homosexuals themselves rather than those who despised them. I don't wish to underestimate the importance of Goodich's intellectual history, but soon it will be time to attempt the more tedious task of reading court records rather than scholastic summae

Rictor Norton


(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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