Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

The Genus Sodomitorum

Sodom and Gomorrah: On the everyday reality and persecution of homosexuals in the Middle Ages
by Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller
(Free Association Books)

A day in the life of the ordinary sodomite during the Middle Ages entailed making a pick-up in the public latrine. As Jakob the Dandy testified in 1500: "as I was sitting there having a shit, Kruysgin came in and measured his penis against mine and Kruysgin’s penis was bigger" — and one thing led to another.

At the core of this important and fascinating collection of research into medieval gay life north of the Alps are documents resulting from a special investigation by the Council of Cologne in 1484 which revealed a widespread network of sodomites in the city. One of the richest men in town regularly picked men up in the public latrine and took them to a special house on the Rhine where he conducted his homosexual affairs. Wealthy merchants earned good profits by renting houses as homosexual meeting places at the central markets, where sodomites regularly congregated and had their own system of communication and sexual slang including female nicknames. One priest estimated there were 200 members of this "rotten company", who were recognised as a distinct social group whose gestures and mannerisms distinguished them from others.

Earlier archives in Venice similarly document the existence of everyday homosexual life, where men of a unified genus sodomitorum met one another at apothecaries’ and barbers’ shops for social as well as sexual purposes. By the late Middle Ages homosexual men recognised themselves not as sinners or criminals, but as "normal sodomites" following their natural inclinations for men. Hergemöller concludes that these "preliminary and early forms of everyday homosexual culture and life . . . show surprising analogies and parallels to the homosexual subculture of later epochs" and they demonstrate the historical continuity of sexual practices (rather than Foucaultian ruptures and newly invented forms of sexuality). In terms of the debate between the constructionists and the essentialists, Hergemöller gives due weight to each argument and tries to effect a compromise, but he basically comes down in favour of the essentialist position, as do almost all historians who actually deal with the empirical work of history: "With each finding of a new source the basis of 'essentialist' facts expands."

Unfortunately the author has been badly served by his publisher. The book has no notes or bibliography (the original German edition had 30 pages of documentation), and is further flawed by a poor translation and typographical errors. Frustration turns to hilarity when the reader encounters infelicities such as the phrase "two men of the same sex" (I should hope so!). Though the book is clearly based on sound scholarship, an opportunity has been missed to provide a useful course text for LGBT studies.

(This is a slightly expanded version of a review that was originally published in Gay Times (London), October 2001, p. 87. 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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