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Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern
By Carolyn Dinshaw
Duke University Press Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
It Takes One to Know One: Lollards, Sodomites, and Their Accusers
It was necessary for there to be heresy, so that something would be written that had no reason to be.
Jacques Rancière, The Names of History
At the end of the brash and polemical manifesto known as the Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, posted on the doors of Westminster Hall during the 1395 Parliament session and (according to other sources) on the doors of Saint Paul's as well, there appeared a short poem in Latin.
Plangant Anglorum gentes crimen Sodomorum;
Paulus fert, horum sunt idola causa malorum.
Surgunt ingrati Giazitae, Simone nati,
Nomine praelati, hoc defensare parati.
Qui reges estis, populis quicunque praeestis,
Qualiter hiis gestis gladiis prohibere potestis?
The English people bewail the crime of Sodom.
Paul says that idols are the cause of these ills.
The ingrate Giezites, born of Simon, rise up,
Prelates by name, ready to defend this crime.
You who are kings, and whosoever preside over the people,
How might you be able to prevent such goings-on with force?
We don't know much for sure about the Twelve Conclusions themselves, since (for one thing) they come down to us in mediated form: they are extant only because orthodox opponents of these heretics collected and preserved them. Thus we do not even know, for example, the original language of the document: were the Conclusions originally composed in Latin or in English? It is hard to tell from the extant versions. We know even less, however, about the poem. It is not mentioned by the Dominican friar Roger Dymmok in his immense formal reply to the Conclusions —a response that notes that a text was posted at Parliament, repeats the Conclusions in both English and Latin, and proceeds to address each conclusion at great length in scholastic Latin. Was the poem indeed, as sources claim, posted along with the manifesto? Perhaps the verses were simply beneath the Dominican Dymmok's notice, so he did not reproduce them—or perhaps they were not posted along with the Conclusions at all, but were linked by chroniclers of the events of that Parliament session: Thomas Walsingham, the monastic chronicler at Saint Albans who was no friend of the Lollard cause, includes a paragraph in his Annales Ricardi Secundi that very explicitly connects the contents of the two documents. John Bale, one and a half centuries later and on the side of the heretics—who were seen by this time as heroic proto-Protestants—prints the Latin verses, provides an English translation, and suggests that the poem was used in a sort of Lollard guerilla action against particularly egregious clerical offenders, once the Conclusions themselves had failed to provoke reform: "[W]hen the Conclusions themselves would not help towards any reformation, but were laughed to scorn of the bishops, then were these verses copied out by divers men, and set upon their windows, gates, and doors, which were then known for obstinate hypocrites and fleshly livers, and this made the prelates mad." Supposedly posted at Westminster, maybe plastered on suspected sodomites' doors—how are we to take this poem? Is its charge of sodomy serious—the charge is allegedly made by a group of heretics, and heretics, after all, were the ones usually so accused—or is it just a standard, needling insult of clerics, an irritating but minor smear?
The shifting politics of this poem and of response to it is precisely the preoccupation of this chapter. The six Lollard lines might have been preserved by the orthodox not only because they seemed pointedly to sum things up but also because they offered something useful in orthodox efforts to discredit these heretics—who were proving tenacious, ubiquitous, and bold, as this aggressive action of publicizing their manifesto startlingly demonstrated. The verses, I argue, do not just sling empty insults; they bring forward a concern that is both explicit in and a persistent shadow of Lollard discourse and of its orthodox opposition. That tenebrous element blurs any conviction that reform is in fact possible, darkens any clear opposition between catholic and heretic, makes the "other" hard to pin down—and frustrates any desires we might have to identify simply with these dissenters.
Not all Lollards thought alike—they were a heterogeneous lot, from a wide range of society at least at the beginning, and the term "the Lollards" might itself mislead us into a reductive view. Granted this caveat, there "is a coherence in the Lollard creed despite differences of emphasis and of declared inclusiveness," as Anne Hudson maintains, and the Twelve Conclusions provide a good guide to such a creed. The Lollard vision, outlined there, of "þe reformaciun of holi chirche of Yngelond" (Hudson, Selections, 24) would eliminate clerical privilege and hypocrisy, which Lollards claimed were overburdening and oppressing the English people; the Conclusions in their entirety detail a number of complex and multifarious charges against the "blynde and leprouse" church. Just to mention the topics here: the twelve Conclusions oppose church endowments and the church's spiritually deathly practice of "appropriation" that frequently leaves parishioners without pastoral care (First Conclusion); the entire earthly priesthood itself, which is not ordained by Christ (Second); required vows of clerical celibacy, since such vows brought sodomy into the church (Third); transubstantiation, which conduces to idolatry—worshiping a piece of bread (Fourth); exorcisms and false blessings, which are really necromancy and not theologically sound (Fifth); the holding of secular office by spiritual leaders, which effects an improper mixing or double estate rather like a hermaphrodite or person who takes payment from both sides (Sixth); special prayers for dead men's souls, which are motivated by gifts and therefore not far from simony (Seventh); pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings to images and crosses, which, again, are akin to idolatry (Eighth); auricular confession, since with the feigned power of absolution it enhances priests' pride and gives them opportunity for secret dalliances (Ninth); manslaughter in battle or punishment, which is expressly contrary to the New Testament (Tenth); vows of celibacy for nuns and widows, since they might be performing nonprocreative sex acts as a result (Eleventh); and arts such as goldsmithy, armoury, and other crafts that are deemed unnecessary and thus sinfully wasteful, curious, and engaged with ornamentation (Twelfth). This list witnesses the theological, social, and political range of Lollard reformist commitments. From the voice of the Conclusions it seems clear that Lollard groups conceived of themselves as communities and sought to remedy the ills of secular as well as ecclesiastical society: "We pore men" denounce the proud prelacy and private religion "þe qwich is multiplied to a gret charge and onerous [to] puple her in Yngelonde" ("which is multiplied into a heavy burden and onerous to people here in England").
The six Latin hexametric lines that conclude the manifesto in several sources allude to key issues that had come to be associated with followers of Wyclif by the mid-1390s and that are treated in the Conclusions themselves. In fact, John Bale called the verses "a brefe conclusyon sommarye of the unyversall contentes therof." The poetic lines are animated by a well-established Lollard disgust with corrupt clergy, especially those who engage in the buying and selling of spiritual things. The Lollard desire for accessibility of the Holy Scriptures to all believers, further, is perhaps hinted at in the direct reference to "Paulus." Lollard opposition to images is audible as idolatry is cited as the cause of clerical ills. And that call to secular leaders for reform in the last lines links up with ambitions for the nation indicated in the first line: these Lollards are the true Englishmen, seeking to (re)create and reform a true national church. The argument here implies an energetic antihierocratic view of lay monarchy and supports the nation-reforming aspirations of the Lollards.
But why is sodomy used in the poem, first and foremost, to characterize the rift between the reforming true Christian Englishmen and false, hypocritical prelates? What is it about the vice, mentioned by name in one conclusion and probably alluded to in another, that might make it a likely choice for a concluding riff on all the Conclusions? Lollard complaints against simony and idolatry are common; in comparison, their accusations of sodomy are not all that frequent. But if relatively infrequent, they are nonetheless persistent, as we shall see, and such persistency itself argues that these attacks are deeply significant in some way. If the Lollards are trying to reform the national community, as the first line suggests, their desired goal is a nation without sodomy: "Anglorum gentes" bewail this "crimen Sodomorum." As Steven F. Kruger puts it, in the very naming of this sex act there might be "an attempt to make sexual difference ethnic or racial, to fortify the casting out of sexual 'perversity' by conflation with a morally charged geopolitical differentiation." Thus this term lends itself to a group trying to reform a nation by extirpating other kinds of people—ironically, since many anti-Lollard polemics and statutes call for the extirpation of Lollardy. And if a call for the elimination of sodomy signals the possibility of peace and even a kind of protodemocracy in the reformed nation, we must nonetheless attend to the first line's echoing rhyme of "Anglorum" in "Sodomorum": sodomy, as we will see, is not so easy to eradicate.
"Crimen Sodomorum" in fact specifically engages two areas of acute Lollard concern, and I want to turn to these areas to see how the term might provide a powerful rhetorical condensation or means of articulating and controlling a complex polemical field. First, idolatry, identified as the general form of sinfulness in a long discussion in the General Prologue to the Wycliffite Bible (written at about the time of the Conclusions). Most Lollards persistently refused to swear any oaths by created things, and resistance to swearing had come to characterize Lollards by the 1390s: think of Chaucer's Parson, who bristles at Harry Bailley's oaths in the epilogue to the Man of Law s Tale and whom Harry taunts as a Lollard. This refusal to swear by created things is explained in the Lollard treatise TheLanterne of LiƷt in terms of idolatry: he who swears on a created thing makes a false god. Idolatry is explicated at length in the Conclusions themselves in relation to the Eucharist—the charge is that innocent people are led into worshiping a little bread as God's body—and in relation to pilgrimages, prayers, and offerings "to blynde rodys and to deue ymages of tre and of ston" ("to blind crosses and to deaf images of wood and of stone" [Hudson, Selections, 27]). An idolater, in the Augustinian scheme that informs both Lollard and orthodox theologies, enjoys something that he should rather use in order ultimately to enjoy the Creator, the only entity that should be enjoyed in himself.
I shall explore the relationship in particular between the Eucharist and idolatry later in this chapter, and will as well get to the persistent carnal desire that poses a general problem for this Augustinian scheme. But at the moment I want to highlight the fact that the reference to idolatry cited by the Latin poem is quite specific: Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans explains that because the gentiles worshiped idols instead of the incorruptible God he delivered them up to their own uncleanness. Idolatry has led to relations "aƷens kynde," as the Lollard Bible renders Paul's words; it has led to homosexual relations between females and between males:
And thei chaungiden the glorie of God vncorruptible in to the licnesse of an ymage of a deedli [mortal] man, and of briddis [birds], and of foure footid beestis, and of serpentis. For which thing God bitook hem in to the desiris of her herte, in to vnclennesse, that thei punysche with wrongis her [their] bodies in hem silf [themselves]. The whiche chaungiden the treuthe of God in to leesyng [lying], and herieden and serueden [praised and served] a creature rathere than to the creatoure, that is blessid in to worldis of worldis. Amen. Therfor God bitook hem in to passiouns of schenschipe [ignominious passions]. For the wymmen of hem chaungiden the kyndli vss [use] in to that vss that is aƷens kynde. Also the men forsoken the kyndli vss of womman, and brenneden [burned] in her desiris togidere, and men in to men wrouƷten filthehed, and resseyueden in to hem silf the meede that bihofte of her errour [received in themselves the fit recompense of their error].
The Latin Lollard poem follows Paul in blaming idolatry for the very negative "crimen Sodomorum," same-sex sexual relations. Sodomy itself can be seen as an idolatrous practice that is the result of idolatry, the fitting wage paid in their bodies for this sin: sodomites are idolaters because (to use that Augustinian formulation) they enjoy bodies that should rather be used in procreating, in increasing and multiplying the faithful.
So the first two lines of the Lollard poem bewail same-sex sexual acts—most likely among male clergy and among male private religious, since "prelates" in the next lines are said to be defenders of this sin. And they lament sodomy in a way that links it to a specific doctrinal concern: idolatry. In the next lines there is a shift toward what Wyclif called spiritual sodomy: simony, the sin of trading in spiritual things. This is the second area of Lollard concern, and it is a broad one. A specific—and quite peculiar—genealogy is constructed in lines 3 and 4 of the poem, as the "crimen Sodomorum" is linked with Gehazi and Simon Magus, the prototypical seller of church offices and the buyer in such transactions: prelates are said in the poem to be ingrate Giezites, born of Simon, rising up and ready to defend this crime of sodomy. Gehazi, we recall from 2 Kings 5, is the servant of the prophet Elisha, who cured the Aramaean army commander Naaman of leprosy; when his master Elisha refused any token of gratitude from the cured man, Gehazi ran after Naaman and asked him for two talents of silver and two changes of clothing—which he received and promptly hid for himself. (The prophet Elisha was aware of this transaction and stated to Gehazi that Naaman's leprosy would fasten onto him and his descendants forever; the servant indeed left the prophet's presence covered with disease.) While Gehazi became the symbol of the seller, Simon Magus became the enduring symbol of the buyer of spiritual things: Simon was the magician who in Acts 8 saw that the apostles imparted the Holy Spirit by a laying-on of hands, and wanted to purchase this power for himself.
Those perennial objects of Lollard attack, friars, were often imaged by these figures. Distinguishing the two biblical characters, Jan Hus explains in a 1408 letter that Simon is the exemplar of those who demand money before the sacrament is performed, and Gehazi those who take money after. Both, however, deserve the epithet "simoniac," Hus insists, quoting Peter Lombard, and such reasoning might explain the poem's strange genealogy, might be the reason the Giezites (descendants of the far earlier Old Testament figure) are said in this poem to be born of Simon.
In Wyclif's De simonia the concept of simony "extended far beyond the usual bounds," as Williell R. Thomson comments; "it served him as a vehicle for assaulting almost every perceived excess in the church." The crux of the matter for Wyclif was that the church had no fundamental right to possess property, so that it was entirely inevitable that ecclesiastical officials would be simoniacs. But simony is related in specific ways, too, to the perversion that is sodomy. Wyclif, following William Peraldus, explains the relationship between these sins.
Sicut enim in corporali sodomia contra naturam semen perditur, ex quo Individuum humani generis formaretur, sic in ilia sodomia semen verbi dei deicitur, per quod in Christo Jesu spiritualis generacio crearetur. Et sicut sodomia fuit tempore legis nature contra ipsam naturam unum de peccatis gravissimis, sic symonia est tempore legis gracie contra ipsam graciam gravissimum peccatorum. Et cum gravius peccant membra diaboli tempore legis gracie, quam tempore legis nature peccaverant, signanter dicit Christus symoniacis Matth. 10, quod tollerabilius erit terre Sodomorum in die iudicii quam populo eicienti dignos prepositos.
Excerpted from Getting Medieval by Carolyn Dinshaw. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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