DANCE OF STONE can’t claim the record gestation of Cimorene Ross’s THE EAGLE’S WING, but I do recall that I bought the first book for research purposes in the late 1980s. It had to be a book, for even in university libraries the internet was unheard-of. I researched for six happy months or more, and then Ken Follett published Pillars of the Earth, his (unreadable, at least by me) novel of mediaeval cathedral-building, and stopped me in my tracks.
Finishing the unfinished, so many years later, there have been revelations: how much information is online; how a book planned to be 50,000 words long can explode to twice its length under the pressure of history; how medieval studies have changed since I was an undergraduate (1980-1983, for the record).
Books, of course, are still indispensable. One arrived too late, or I would definitely have borrowed from it: Medieval obscenities, editor Nicola McDonald. Who knew that there were spoof pilgrim badges depicting a prick on legs? And how about the cover?
One sentence in the Introduction struck me: “For all of the famed restrictions of Christian doctrine and medieval modes of social conduct, the Middle Ages was, perhaps paradoxically, a period that seems to have accommodated, in ways our liberal society does not or seems not to, what we might broadly call the rude, bawdy or obscene.”
And, if obscenity, why not homosexuality? Could the Middle Ages have accommodated it in a way later European society didn’t? And if so, why do we know so little about that?
But first, a reminder:
- The Church had nothing against men loving one another – in the spiritual sense.
- When it came to the fleshly sense, even the heterosexual population was perilously and perennially on the verge of committing the deadly sin of Lechery.
There are fifty shades of everything…
So, researching “Homosexuality in the Middle Ages”. Questions: Did it actually happen? Can I research something for which there is so little record? And – homosexuality?
Last question first: the word “homosexuality” is first recorded (not in English) in 1869. One could dive very deep into queer theory, and drown in arguments. Was there a male/male relationship culture at any period in history, or simply the act of men making love and/or having sex with other men? Whether or no: did the change between “then” and “now” happen in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or the Regency or … when? And what exactly is meant by sodomy? (quite a lot: anal sex with a woman; heterosexual intercourse with a pagan; with a Jew; with a Muslim… )
Middle question. Yes, research is easy with the internet. Accurate research is another matter. Objectivity, for example: a clerk’s Latin poem can be interpreted as an expression of platonic love or of forbidden desire (although there seems little room for doubt when a monk writes of sex “between the slippery thighs of boys” being better than sex with a woman). In the context of DANCE OF STONE, what about the Lionheart? We’ve all seen that episode with Richard and Philip in The Lion in Winter, haven’t we?
*sigh* It seems to depend on the researcher’s sexuality; and on whether said researcher likes the person in question. One gay historian includes Richard I as a homosexual because of the word “bedfellow”; another gay historian excludes (in another case) James I, because the word “bedfellow” doesn’t necessarily have that meaning. Take your pick.
Then there is the problem of what was recorded, and whether the record survived. The late twelfth century just preceded the great record-keeping mania of Henry III’s reign and onwards. Adam Lock is recorded as master mason at Wells from the 1190s to 1230. Of his predecessor there is no trace; but in the gap between the unknown and the recorded, imagination has room to play. That predecessor could have been Hugh de Barham.
First question last: Did male/male sex happen? Of course it did: as a behaviour, it’s surely as old as human desire. And there are records, of a sort: the penitentials allocate scales of penance for men confessing – one wonders how many didn’t confess! – to sex with another man. And why have a penance for something that doesn’t happen?
But, remarkably – despite all the penitentials, despite the thunderings concerning “love against nature”, despite the threat of damnation – genuine accusations, trials, convictions for sodomy, are few. Vanishingly few.
Theory a) The threats and penitence were deterrent enough, and it didn’t happen…
Hmm… seems unlikely.
Theory b) People were not actually that bothered by it to the point of bringing it to trial.
Could be. In England common law still had priority over canon (church) law, as Thomas Becket found when at loggerheads with Henry II. Sodomy was a moral, therefore a church, offence, not a civil crime – unless rape was involved, and even then it was almost impossible to secure a conviction unless the person attacked was under age.
Theory c) It happened, and it was kept secret.
I have played with this theory in DANCE OF STONE, based on the wisps of evidence that can be dug from the sources; the “half-world” that Hugh encounters in The Swan might be the evolutionary ancestor of the molly-houses and male brothels of later centuries.
One last thing made Hugh’s story possible: the time when he lived. Medieval Christianity was not as monolithic and inflexible as popular prejudice has it: there were opinions and counter-opinions and factions and even atheists, in other words a constant to-and-fro of ideas with a certain amount of give-and-take. England, in fact, was considered remarkable for housing people who held all sorts of dissident opinions while not subscribing to any organised heresy.
This all changed when the anti-Cathar, Albigensian Crusade swept bloodily across the south of France, not long after the ending of DANCE OF STONE. Faced with external threats, the Church began to draw in upon itself, to become the Us against the Other; after 1214 sodomy was perceived as a sign of, indeed part and parcel of, heresy. This perception held firm in England until 1562; quite unintentionally, I had set Hugh and his story in the last decade for centuries when he would be safe from the worst excesses of the law, if not from the prejudices of his fellow men and women.
When I began it, DANCE OF STONE was intended to be a straight – in every sense of the word – historical novel. Then Fiona asked if I would write something medieval for Manifold Press, and I planned an M/M romance with a medieval setting. Researching to the depth I needed has, however, changed the book I meant to write, and now it is – I hope – a serious historical novel, featuring two men whose just happen to desire other men, whether in love or lust. I hope you enjoy reading it!