Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, by Robert Mills

A sensitive study of transgression breaks new ground for queer theory, says Rachel Moss

March 19, 2015

In the nave of the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano in Tuscany is a vividly painted vision of Hell. This densely illustrated fresco (c.1393–1413) depicts imaginatively cruel punishments for sinners. In one, a man is laid on his back, feet bound, his anus penetrated by a rod held by a bewhiskered demon. Underneath his head, a banner proclaims him a sodomite. It is not unique; medieval representations of men threatened with or receiving anal penetration are found in the margins of manuscripts, in friezes and in verse.

Several such images are reproduced in Robert Mills’ lavishly illustrated book. Yet his discussion of the act now most commonly associated with the word “sodomy” does not come until the last section of the last chapter of this meticulous work. As Mills demonstrates, the “unspeakable vice” encompassed far more than one particular sex act; practices condemned as sodomitic by medieval moralists could include homosexual intercourse, heterosexual sex that was in any way illicit – and relations between man and beast. Traces of this approach to defining sodomy remain today, for example in the 12 US states that have not formally struck down sodomy laws that place bestiality, anal sex and oral sex in the same forbidden category. Mills’ reading of sodomy goes further than sex practices, however: he uses it to break down binary categories of gender and sexual behaviour.

In the same way that sodomy was a capacious medieval category that resisted strict definition, Seeing Sodomy resists either a heteronormative reading of medieval gender and sexuality, or a supposedly “queer” reading of sodomy that has “an overriding emphasis on male experiences”. David Halperin termed queer as “whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant”, and Mills’ masterful work provides access into multiple medieval queer worlds. He uses the concept of sodomy as a sharp needle through which to stitch meticulous analyses of visual, literary and historical sources into a rich tapestry that depicts lives and experiences that breached medieval social norms.

These did not just include what would now be termed gay and lesbian lives; in the book’s most groundbreaking chapter, Mills turns his attention to transgender experience. Rather than folding behaviours termed sodomitical because of their breaching of gender norms into the category of homosexual, as has been typical of medieval scholarship thus far, Mills considers ways in which sodomy could identify “a broad range of cross-gendered behaviors and experience” that may reflect “modes of identification” rather than necessarily “sexual object choice”. He provides lengthy analysis of the Ovidian legend of Iphis and Ianthe, where Iphis’ frustrated desire for Ianthe is relieved by her transformation into a man. Mills denies neither the lesbian nor transgender potential of the story, but instead explores how medieval variations provide different emphases for Iphis’ transgressive “sodomy”: in some, her homoerotic desire, and in others, his realisation of his true gendered self.

Densely written and packed with complex case studies, this is not a book to be dipped into. Nevertheless, this sensitive, imaginative work is bound to become a classic among studies of pre-modern gender and sexuality.

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

By Robert Mills
University of Chicago Press, 400pp, £38.50
ISBN 9780226169125 and 9262 (e-book)
Published 11 March 2015

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