Medieval Attitudes



In the second volume of my RASHI’S DAUGHTERS trilogy of historical novels, which take place in the 11th-century household of the great Jewish Talmud scholar, I chose to include the story of a Talmud student who struggles with an increasingly carnal attraction to his study partner. There are at least 4 other ‘queer’ characters in BOOK II: MIRIAM, Jewish and Christian, so along with all my research in the lives of medieval Jewish women, I also explored medieval attitudes towards same-sex love. Surprised and impressed by what I discovered in my research, I was determined to show how different the 11th century’s attitudes were from today’s.

The 12th Century Renaissance, in addition to great intellectual advances, also saw a surprising amount of tolerance, both religious and sexual. Anti-Semitism and the Inquisition would not rear their ugly heads for centuries, and the society that was tolerant towards Jews and learned women also tolerated Ganymedes, the name medieval used to describe men who were sexually attracted to other men []. Homophobia did not exist. Sex between men was a sin, although judging from Church penance books of the time not a particularly serious one, but it was not a perversion.

Not only is the word ‘homosexuality’ of recent origin, but the very concept is recent as well. During this time, as in ancient Greece and Rome, it was accepted that men would be sexually attracted to both lovely maidens and handsome youths. Hebrew and Arab poems [] from this time praise the beautiful ‘fawn’ and detail the poet’s infatuation with him. Lusty young men were assumed to have sex with each other, and society accepted this as a means to keep young women chaste.

Sex with other men, known as ‘playing the game,’ was prohibited, but the desire for it was not abnormal. For example, a traveling merchant could find the local ‘gay’ tavern in a strange town by looking for a place named something like Giuseppe’s Grotto, Rudolph’s Cave, Henri’s Hole. Sexual relations between men were sinful, but love between them was not. It was clear from songs and jokes of this time that monks were believed to be especially prone to these feelings, and we have many love letters written by medieval clergy to each other that confirm this belief.”

Jews were not immune to same-sex attraction, and those who felt this way were not condemned. In one poignant account from the First Crusade, we learn of a group of Jews from Cologne who had taken refuge in a fortified town situated on the Rhine. When the crusading hordes came to the town, many Jews jumped into the river and drowned. Two young men climbed to a tower overlooking the water.

“Samuel the bridegroom ben Gedaliah and Yehiel ben Shmuel, a comely young man, as majestic as the Lebanon, were cherished in life – for they loved each other exceedingly and would not be parted in death. When they decided to throw themselves off the tower and into the water, they kissed one another and held one another by the shoulders and wept.”

Neither could bear to see the other die first, so clasped in each other’s arms, they leaped from the tower together into the river below. The report concludes,

“They [other Jews from the town] found there the two good friends, totally saintly, embraced together … thus these pious ones sanctified the Holy Name.”

As with monks in monasteries, love between Jewish men in yeshivot [Talmud academies] happened, and the need to keep such relationships from become carnal was well-known and constant. Not that this problem was unique to medieval times. Let’s face it – if one wanted to invent a place where Jewish young men would fall in love with each other, one couldn’t do better than the yeshiva [Talmud academy]. Here the teenagers and young adults at the height of their hormonal surges are separated from women, studying exciting and fascinating texts in intimate study-partner relationships, and until modern times, they slept naked together in the same bed.

I wanted to show the conflicts a religious young man would have in such a situation, and the angst he [and his wife] would suffer. I outlined all 3 volumes of RASHI’S DAUGHTERS in 1997, and l was sure that broaching this subject would bring down the wrath of my readers. But by 2007, when BOOK II: MIRIAM came out [pardon the pun], gay clergy were on the front page of US newspapers and I got far more praise for my compassionate depiction of this character’s conflict than complaints.

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

One commenter will win a copy of RASHI’S DAUGHTER: BOOK II – MIRIAM.

8 Responses

  1. This sounds utterly fascinating and a part of history I hadn’t considered before – great article!


  2. Sex between men was a sin, although judging from Church penance books of the time not a particularly serious one, but it was not a perversion.

    Isn’t it interesting that so many things that must have been considered equally sinful at the time are now common practice, whereas sex between men somehow achieved the status of an abomination?

    By “interesting”, of course, I mean absolutely shameful.

  3. I found the same thing, Maggie, when reading through some 12th century accounts. Walter Map is especially hilarious with his collection of tales, as he shows the greatest disdain for heterosexual sex and while not actually celebrating homosexual sex, he clearly considers it the preferable option – and much less troublesome than heterosexual sex. Coming from a cleric who became an archdeacon, that’s particularly telling!

  4. And here Maggie presents a fine antidote to my Dec. 2 screed against romance.

    By the way, my prize only has four limerick writing claimants to decide between. Any more in the offing before Dec. 24?

  5. As a Jewish woman myself, I’ve always been very pleased with how tolerant our synagogue is towards the gay men we have.
    As a teacher, I’ve seen a few boys grow into confident gay men and I think it’s helped to know that their religion supports them.

    • I am so thrilled that Maggie Anton contributed to the advent calendar.
      Earlier this year, she graciously sent me a list of the references she used for her stories and I’m slowly working my way through them.
      Great post.

  6. I read something very similar in the book “Homoeroticism in the Biblical World” by Martti Nissinen. If you haven’t read this book, you totally should. It has the best of information and Nissinen goes into the scriptures of the bible, Torah, and Talmud to translate the scriptures- and he knows his shit- and when he does translate he points out the errors of interpretation and semantics, etc. He also writes on Greek and Roman male love and sexuality.

  7. Great post! Thank you so much for the wonderful information. Happy Holidays!

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