Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Winter 1991-1992

Sex, Dissidence and Damnation: Minority Groups in the Middle Ages, by Jeffrey Richards

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

A specialist in the medieval period, and Professor of Cultural History at Lancaster University, Jeffrey Richards has already produced several important works in his field. His latest book is a delight: at once scholarly and readable, erudite and entertaining. Though it is an avowed work of synthesis, drawing on the researches of numerous other scholars, its author has succeeded in cramming vast amounts of information into a flowing continuous narrative without resorting to distracting footnotes. His theme is the ways identifiable minority groups and “deviant” behaviour were dealt with by civic and ecclesiastical authorities in the Middle Ages. There is an introductory chapter setting the medieval context, and another on contemporary attitudes to sex. Then we have individual chapters on heretics, witches, Jews, prostitutes, homosexuals and lepers forming the bulk of the book. 34 well-chosen and nicely reproduced black and white plates complement this handsome volume, and there is a good bibliography.

The first paragraph of the Preface bears quoting in full:

“At a time when society seems to be growing more intolerant of minority groups and when every day a rabid, unrestrained tabloid press stirs up racism, sexism, jingoism and homophobia, it is perhaps timely to examine the ways in which previous eras viewed and treated the minority groups in their midsts. I seek to make no direct comparisons and will leave it to the reader to draw what conclusions there are to be drawn about the ways in which modern society differs from its medieval counterpart in this area. What can be hazarded is an explanation of the nature, roots, scope and effects of medieval society’s treatment of its minority groups.”

Though almost all the systematic persecution in the Middle Ages was in the hands of the Church and its agents, and Dr Richards does not hesitate to describe its enormities, I think him a little naive to claim that: “Tolerance is perhaps the chief hallmark of a truly Christian society; tolerance and forgiveness: hating the sin but loving the sinner” (p. 14). This sort of judgement is just a variant of what Antony Flew (in Thinking about Thinking, Fontana, 1975) calls the “No-True-Scotsman Move”, and springs from a questionable readiness to accord to idealised entities (a “truly Christian society”) virtues (like “tolerance”) not possessed by actual entities (like the Christian Church).

As far as I am concerned, Christianity is as Christianity does. Intolerance and persecution have always been weapons in its armoury, and it has not hesitated to employ them whenever it had the power to do so. The Churches have never been slow to respond to any perceived challenges to their authority, and have always assumed themselves to have a divine right to impose whatever norms they have thought fit on a population seen as recalcitrant and potentially rebellious (in theological terms, “sinful”).

This quibble apart, I greatly enjoyed Richard’s book, and I particularly valued his demolition of John Boswell’s case, so beloved of gay Christians, that their religion was not and is not fundamentally hostile to homosexuality. Though Boswell’s seminal work, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), is rightly praised as a “brilliant, detailed and indispensable work”, Richards is surely right to argue that it “seriously ... overstate[s] its case and at times positively ... mislead[s]” (p. 132). Richards concludes the relevant chapter with these words (Richard Kirker, take note!):

“What changed in the Middle Ages was not a move from tolerance to intolerance for reasons not intrinsic to Christian belief but an alteration in the means of dealing with [homosexuality]. In the early Middle Ages the punishment was penance; in the later Middle Ages, burning. But there was never any question of homosexuals being allowed to carry on with homosexual activity unpunished. They were obliged to give it up or risk damnation.” (p. 149)

While the subject matter precludes this book being a laugh a page, there are many moments of wry humour, and even the occasional belly-laugh. This is my favourite:

“There was gossip about what went on in monasteries and Walter Map preserves an authentic medieval ‘saloon-bar’ joke. Hearing a story of St Bernard throwing himself on a dead boy and praying over him but failing to revive him, Walter quipped: ‘Then he was the most unlucky of monks. I have never heard before now of a monk throwing himself upon a boy but always when the monk got up, the boy promptly got up too’.” (p. 138)

If £25 is more than you are able or willing to pay for this relatively slim volume, my advice would be: at least borrow it from a library. It is a work sure to inform, enlighten and entertain both specialists and general readers.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-06-01 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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