(Also spelt Hildegund) She was born at Neuss, near Cologne. After the death of her mother, at age 12, she went with her father, a knight, on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. For her safety, during the trip, she was dressed as a boy and called “Joseph” for her protection.
While returning from the Holy Land Hildegund’s father died, but she was able to make her own way home and maintained her disguise first as a boy and then as a man. Later, she made a pilgrimage to Rome, during which she had several adventures.On one of them, she was condemned to be hanged as a robber and escaped only when a friend of the real robber cut her down from the gallows.After that, she returned to Germany and was accepted into the Cistercian monastery at Shönau, near Heidelberg, concealing her gender, and to her death she was believed to be a man. Her true sex went undiscovered until her death in 1188.A few years later, abbot Engelhartof Langheim wrote her biography. She is considered saint, even though her cult is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church.
For Ash Wednesday, I reminded readers here that the season of Lent is also a “joyful” season, an aspect that should not be ignored. We should never forget though, that it is also a solemn time, above all a time for repentance and renewal, individually and collectively. So, it was entirely appropriate and welcome ten years ago, that at the start of the season Pope John Paul spoke of the horrors that had been perpetrated by the church in the past, apologised for the evils it had done to Jews and Muslims, and asked for forgiveness. This was important and welcome: I do not wish to belittle it in any way. However, there is an important category of offence which was omitted from the list, for which he did not apologise, and for which there has never been any apology: the persecution of “sodomites”.
For the first thousand years of its history, the Church was disapproving of homoerotic relationships, as it was of all sexual expression, but showed varying degrees of tolerance, culminating in what John Boswell described as a flowering of a gay sub-culture in the high medieval period. During the 11th century, Burchard, the Bishop of Worms in Germany,
“classified homosexuality as a variety of fornication less serious than heterosexual adultery. He assigned penance for homosexual acts only to married men. In civil legislation regulating family life in the diocese of Worms there is no mention of homosexual behaviour”
In 1059, the Lateran synod accepted all of the reforms for the church proposed by St Peter Damian – except for his proposal for harsher penalties against monks engaged in homosexual affairs.
All that changed within a few decades. In 1120, the Church Council of Nablus specified burning at the stake for homosexual acts. Although this penalty may not immediately have been applied, other harsh condemnations followed rapidly. In 1212, the death penalty for sodomy was specified in in France. Before long the execution of supposed “sodomites”, often by burning at the stake, but also by other harsh means, had become regular practice in many areas.
Historical research to date has been patchy, and in many places the records have not survived. Even so, the evidence from the modest research we do have is horrifying. In the largest scale, and best known, single incident, over 400 hundred Knights Templar were burned in the early 14th century. This is usually discussed in terms of trials for “heresy”, but in fact the charges were of both heresy and sodomy. (These terms were often associated and confused at the time, but much of the evidence in the Templar trials made it clear that specifically sexual offences were meant).
To modern researchers, it is clear that the trials were deeply flawed, with the procedures seriously stacked against the accused. In marking the 700th anniversary of the trials in 2007, the Vatican explicitly cleared those killed of the charges of heresy – but said never a word about the charges of sodomy.
Elsewhere, the trials and punishments were of individuals, or of small groups – but with equally flawed judicial procedures. (Typically, the prosecutor was also judge; torture was widely used to extract confessions; and church and state benefited by sharing the property of those convicted). These were sometimes under the auspices of the Inquisition, sometimes of the state – but always inspired by church preaching against the “sodomites”.
The severity of the pursuit and punishments varied from place to place. Venice was one of the harshest, with several hundred executions from 1422, until the persecution finally ended. In Spain, it was calculated that in total there were more burnings for homosexuality than for heresy. Executions also applied in the New World – in both North America (where some of the colonists were accused and convicted) and South (where it was the indigenous locals who suffered for the Spanish prejudices) . Altogether, it is likely that executions in Southern Europe, either by or with the collaboration of the Church, amounted to several thousand men.
After the Reformation, the practice of burning homosexuals spread to Northern Europe and some of the new Protestant territories, where the practice was sometimes use as a pretext to attack Catholic clergy: in Belgium, several Franciscans were burnt for sodomy, as was a Jesuit in Antwerp (in 1601).
The persecution finally began to ease from the late 17th century, when some “softening” became evident by the Inquisition in Spain. Nevertheless, some executions continued throughout the eighteenth century, to as late as 1816 in England. The statutory provision for the death penalty was not removed in England until 1861.
Obviously, the Catholic Church cannot be held directly responsible for the judicial sentences handed down by secular authorities in Protestant countries. It can, however, be held responsible for it part in fanning the flames of bigotry and hatred in the early part of the persecution, using the cloak of religion to provide cover for what was in reality based not on Scripture or the teaching of the early Church, but on simple intolerance and greed.
It is important as gay men lesbians and transgendered that we remember the examples of the many who have in earlier times been honoured by the Church as saints or martyrs for the faith. It is also important that we remember the example of the many thousands who have been martyred by the churches – Catholic and other.
- Crompton, Louis: Homosexuality and Civilization
- Greenberg, : The Construction of Homosexuality
- Naphy, William: Born to be Gay: A History of Homosexuality
- Len Evans, Gay Chronicles from the Beginning of time to the End of World War II
- “The Last Judgement”, and the Homoerotic Spirituality of Michaelangelo. (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Gay Popes: Sixtus IV (r. 1471-1484) (queerhistory.blogspot.com)
- Nov 1st: All (Gay) Saints (queering-the-church.com)
- Celibacy, Homosexuality, Jeffrey John and Cardinal Newman (queertheology.blogspot.com)
“On the second or third night of the conference,” according to Mr. Bond-Upson, “after dinner, Jim got up to speak. He told us that he’d been doing a lot of hard thinking that summer. Jim told us he could no longer live a lie. He’d been hiding his nature — his true self — from everyone except his closest friends. ‘If the revolution we’re in means anything,’ he said, ‘it means we have the right to be ourselves, without shame or fear.’
“Then he told us he was gay, and had always been gay, and it wasn’t a choice, and he wasn’t ashamed anymore and that he wasn’t going to hide it anymore, and from now on he was going to be himself in public. After he concluded, there was a dead silence, then a couple of the young women went up and hugged him, followed by general congratulations. The few who did not approve kept their peace.” ’
He was not a Catholic, but in Catholic tradition today would be considered his “die natalis”, or day of new birth in Christ. Remember him.
Ever since I began writing for the Queer Church, one of the key themes I have been exploring has been that of the place of LGBT men and women in Christian history – recognized and unrecognised saints, martyrs for the church, some who have been martyred by the church directly or indirectly, and those who have achieved remarkable high office in the church, as popes, bishops or abbots in spite of clear homoerotic interests and activities.
As I have explored individuals and notable groups, I have been seeing the outline of a narrative thread underlying them, which I have been using to draw them together into what I hope will become a book for publication. The outline for the book I have previously published, as a synopsis, and as a reflection of the feast of All (Gay) Saints. I have now expanded this synopsis one level, which I will be posting in instalments over the coming week, under six main divisions. For a preview of these posts and the work in progress, follow the links to my “Queer Saints and Martyrs” pages here at Queering the Church, and from them to the detailed posts on individuals and groups at my satellite site, “Queer Saints and Martyrs – and others”.
Same sex relationships in other religions, in the stories of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and in the Gospels (before the disciples of Christ came to be known as “Christians”)
From both the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, a wide range of men (and fewer women). These include pairs of lovers, martyrs for the church, bishops who wrote homoerotic verse, and cross-dressing women.
Boswell has been criticized by more recent academics for his assertion that the Middle Ages represented a great flowering of a gay sub-culture. However, even if he overstated his case and the term “gay” for this period is subject to misinterpretation, there is no doubt that there were numerous recognized saints and other senior clergy who freely used homoerotic imagery in their spiritual writing, and others who are notable for achieving high office as popes or bishops, in spite of well-known erotic relationships with men.
The prevalence of such relationships among the clergy prompted the most important of the calls for strong penalties against “sodomy”, by Alain de Lille and St Peter Damian in particular. For a long time though, these calls were rejected by the leaders of the Church.
The figure of Saint Joan is of central importance to queer Christians, as a cross-dressing queer saint who was first martyred by the church, and later canonized. As the Middle Ages passed into the Early Renaissance, many thousands more alleged sodomites were tried and condemned to death by the church, either directly by the Inquisition or by secular authorities at its instigation.
Ecclesiastical involvement in these trials later gave way to purely secular proceedings, but the initial pseudo-religious motivation for declaring same-sex love a capital offence remained an important factor in the retention of the death penalty in many European countries right up to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and for the export of state-sanctioned persecution by the colonial powers to societies which had previously tolerated or even celebrated sexual minorities.
As secular authorities relaxed or withdrew criminal sanctions though, religious authorities applied a form of figurative martyrdom to gay or lesbian identified people in the church, attempting to censor the writing of theologians who dissented from the orthodox prohibitions, or excluding from ministry those who were seen to be gay or lesbian.
In the early church, it was said that the growth of the faith was fed by the blood of the martyrs. Much the same thing appeared to be happening at the close of the twentieth century and start of the twenty first. “Martyr” means one who gives witness, and the witness of the LGBT identified men and women who refused to be silenced by the Church authorities has inspired many more. Over the last few decades there has been a great flowering of writing on faith and spirituality from a queer perspective, and of explicitly queer ministry.
“Sainthood” in Christian theology is not simply a matter of those few who have been formally recognised and canonized by the Catholic Church, but is a state to which we are all called.