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)
Ordered to be executed, he was tied naked to a column and shot with arrows. Widely represented in art, it was not this, however, that killed him. He was left for dead, but was nursed back to life. After recovering, he intercepted the Emperor and denounced him for his cruelty to Christians. Enraged, the Emperor once again ordered his execution. This time, he was beaten to death, on 20th January 288. How many others have achieved martyrdom twice in one lifetime?
The image shows Sebastian pierced by arrows but “not dead yet”, confronting the Emperor Maximilian after the first attempted execution.
Following the example of Sebastian, the challenge facing us to do more than simply mope about our pain, satisfied with mere survival. We too, must return to the church, showing them with the evidence of our pain-then negotiate with them a process of reconciliation.
Boisvert, Donald : Sanctity And Male Desire: A Gay Reading Of Saints
Boisvert, Donald : Out on Holy Ground: Meditations on Gay Men’s Spirituality
Boswell, John: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Cleaver, Richard: Know My Name – A Gay Liberation Theology
Jordan, Mark D:The Silence of Sodom: Homosexuality in Modern Catholicism
Related articles at Queering the Church, and at Queer Saints and Martyrs:
- The Queer Family in the Book of Ruth
- The Transformation of Christian Response to Homoerotic Love
- The Queer Passion, in Art: The Crucifixion
- Same Sex Lovers in Church History
- The Spiritual Gifts of Gay Sexuality
- The Homoerotic Catholic Church
- St John of the Cross: 14th December
- November 1st: All (Gay) Saints
- The Story of the Queer Saints and Martyrs (Synopsis)
- Calendar of Queer Saints and Martyrs
- Catholic Queer Families: SS Bernard of Clairvaux and Malachy
- Some Gods of Homosexual Love
- Sergius and Bacchus, Patron Saints of Gay Marriage
Protus and Hyacinthus were the eunuch slaves who were the companions of St. Eugenia of Alexandria. They served as her two teachers who accompanied her on a somewhat romantic journey, and at the end were martyred with her.
Dukakis, Megas Synaxaristes, translated in various volumes by Holy Apostles Convent, (Buena Vista, Colorado,
various dates ), sub. Eugenia
Szarmach, Paul E., “Aelfric’s Women Saints: Eugenia”, in Helen Damico and Alexandria Hennessey Olsen, eds., New
Readings on Women in Old English Literature, (Bloomington IN: Indiana UP, 1990), 146-157
Among all the multitude of queer saints, Joan of Arc is one of the most important. In her notorious martyrdom for heresy (a charge which in historical context included reference to her cross-dressing and defiance of socially approved gender roles), she is a reminder of the great persecution of sexual and gender minorities by the Inquisition, directly or at their instigation. In LGBT Christian history, “martyrs” applies not only to those martyred by the church, but also to those martyred by the church. In her rehabilitation and canonization, she is a reminder that the leaders and theologians of the church, those who were responsible for her prosecution and conviction, can be wrong, can be pronounced to be wrong, and can in time have their judgements overturned.(This is not just a personal view. Pope Benedict has made some very pointed remarks of his own to this effect, while speaking about Joan of Arc). In the same way, it is entirely possible (I believe likely) that the current dogmatic verdict of Vatican orthodoxy which condemns our relationships will also in time be rejected. We may even come to see some of the pioneers of gay theology, who have in effect endured a kind of professional martyrdom for their honesty and courage, rehabilitated and honoured by the Church, just as St Joan has been.
|Joan of Arc: Interrogation by the Bishop of Winchester (Paul Delaroche, 1797 -1856)|
Joan of Arc is the best known cross-dresser in history, defying gender expectations to lead an army, and lead it to victory in the service of her country. This much is well known, and immediately qualifies her as a trans hero (or heroine. Take your pick.) What of the ret of us? Well, remember her story in the church as well as the battlefield: she was burned as a heretic, before her later rehabilitation and eventual canonization. Now recall the association of heresy and “sodomy”.
John Boswell has clearly shown that the religious opposition to homoerotic relationships was not based in scripture, nor was it deeply entrenched in the early church. Instead, the opposition of the church followed, not led, popular intolerance that grew with the decline in urbanisation after the sack of Rome. This growth in intolerance was not only directed at homosexuals, but also at other social outsiders – jews, gypsies and “heretics”. Writers such as Mark D Jordan and Allan Bray have since shown how the very word “sodomite”, now widely used as a pejorative epithet against gay males, was a late medieval coinage which was originally used far more loosely and indiscriminately, often including ay other form of sexual non-conformism – or heresy.
So what was the crime of “heresy” of which she was accused? Well, nominally it was based on her claim to have seen “visions” which inspired her to follow her path of resistance to the foreign invaders. But note the nationality of her accusers: it was not the French Church which tried and judged her, but the English Bishops: countrymen of the army she had opposed and defeated. Was her crime to have experienced visions, or was it to have opposed the English?
Consider that which has made her most famous, iconic as an historic figure: the cross-dressing. This was a clear violation of her expected gender role, and may have been described by some as “sodomy” – which was closely related to heresy. I have recently seen a claim (sadly, I have no link) that the real reason for her trial and execution was this cross-dressing. If so, she is the first Christian martyr we know of who was executed not just executed and was gay, but executed because of her gender expression. However, there is of course a happy ending: she was later rehabilitated, and canonized. Now consider the obvious moral for us as GLBT Christians today.
Joan had a “vision”, an apparition of Mary. There are also other kinds of vision, some more mundane, more political, of the Martin Luther King “I have a dream”. In this sense, many of us too have a vision, a dream, of proper inclusion and acceptance in the Christian churches, where we belong with everybody else, on the strength of the promises of Christ.
Joan was persecuted by the church authorities, condemned and executed. We are not (directly) executed by the church today, but we are certainly condemned and persecuted, labelled as “fundamentally disordered”, and told that if we simply live truthfully in our god-given sexuality,we are committing “grave sin”. Worse, by the clear failure to take a strong stand against civil laws and proscriptions, as for example the failure to sign the UN resolution on the decriminalisation of homosexuality early this year, the Church is indirectly giving support to some forces that do actively seek our death.
But in the end, she was vindicated. We have not yet seen that development, but I am certain it will come. It is required by the Gospel of inclusion and social justice, it is also required by the internal logic of theology. James Alison has recently noted that theology will in time be forced to face up to the plain finings of science that same sex relationships are not unnatural, just uncommon. They have occurred throughout history, in many societies, and across the animal kingdom. Theologians will be slow to catch up, but they will, and we too will be vindicated.
St Joan of Arc and the queer community: we have a lot in common.
Related articles at QTC:
- Pope Benedict, On the Queer Lessons in the Church’s Martyrdom of St Joan.
- Trans in Faith: Some Cross-Dressing Saints & Martyrs.
- Lest We Forget: The Ashes of Our Martyrs
Related articles elsewhere:
- “Conscience is the Highest Norm” (The Wild Reed)
“Polyeuctus and Nearchus were fellow-officers and close friends, serving in the Roman army at Miletene in Armenia. Nearchus was a Christian. Polyeuctus, though abundant in virtues, was still imprisoned in idol- worship. When the Emperor Decius’ persecution broke out (239-251), an edict was issued requiring all soldiers to show their loyalty by making public sacrifice to the gods. Nearchus sadly told Polyeuctus that because of the decree they would soon be parted. But Polyeuctus, who had learned about the Christian faith from his friend, answered that Christ had appeared to him in a vision, exchanging his military uniform for a shining garment and giving him a winged horse. Polyeuctus took the vision as a sign that he was to embrace the Faith, and that he, with Nearchus, would soon be lifted up to heaven. Almost immediately, he first tore down the Emperor’s edict in front of a startled crowd, then smashed the idols being carried in a pagan procession. He was quickly arrested and subjected to beating and scourging for sacrilege, but he only proclaimed more forcefully that he was a Christian. When the persecutors saw that Polyeuctus’ patient endurance was bringing other idolaters to the faith, they condemned him to death.”
“I have treated these saints as a group as their stories are often similar. These are the large number of saints who were famous for their holy cross-dressing. All of these were women, and the stories, largely but not exclusively fictional, generally have them escaping marriage or some other dreaded end by dressing as monks. This is no short term ploy, however. The women then live their lives as men (in direct contradiction to the Levitical Law which calls cross-dressing an “abomination”), some of them becoming abbots of monasteries. In such positions it is hard to imagine that they would not perform roles such as confessor. Their biological sex is only discovered after they die. It is sometimes argued that these transvestite saints did not cross-dress because they wanted to but because they had to, and so calling them “transvestites” is wrong. It is true that we know nothing of the psychology of these women, but when they dressed as man for 20 years and became abbots of monasteries, it is hard to know in what way they were being “forced” to cross-dress. These women chose to live their Christian lives as members of the opposite biological sex – it is fair to see them as “transgendered”. There are no male saints, it seems, who dressed as women (with the possible exception of Sergius and Bacchus, who were forcibly paraded through the streets in women’s clothes). At work here is an old notion that women are saved in so far as they have “male souls”, a repeated term of praise in lives of female saints. These women’s lives do show that the Levitical Law was not determinative in Christian estimations of holiness, and that modern rigid gender categories had much less role in earlier epochs of Christianity than nowadays. These saints found a place in both Orthodox and Roman calendars.
- St. Anastasia the Patrician (or “of Constantinople”) March 10th ORC/ORTH
- St. Anna/Euphemianos of Constantinople Oct 29 ORTH
- St. Apollinaria/Dorotheos Jan 5, 6 ORTH
- St. Athanasia of Antioch Oct 9 ORTH
- St. Eugenia/Eugenios of Alexandria Dec 24th ORTH
- St. Euphrosyne/Smaragdus Feb 11th ORC (Sept 25 ORTH)
- St. Marina of Sicily July 20th ORTH
- St. Marina/Marinos of Antioch July 17th ORTH (July 20th ORC – as St. Margaret)
- St. Mary/Marinos of Alexandria Feb 12th ORTH
- St. Matrona/Babylas of Perge Nov 9 ORTH
- St. Pelagia/Pelagios June 9 ORC (Oct 8 ORTH)
- St. Theodora/Theodorus of Alexandria Sept 11 ORTH
- St. Thekla of Iconium Sept 23 ORC (Sept 24 ORTH) See also
- St. Hildegonde of Neuss near Cologne April 20th ORC d. 1188 OE: A nun who lived under the name “Brother Joseph” in the Cistercian monastery of Schoenau near Heidelberg.
- St. Uncumber [or ] July 20th ORC A bearded woman saint, also known as St. Liverade (France), Liberata (Italy), Liberada (Spain), Debarras (Beauvais), Ohnkummer (Germany), and Ontcommere (Flanders) She was represented as a bearded women on a cross.