Episode 2: Cloistered Queers

This week, we talked a lot about medieval views of sex and sexuality, including the practice of brother-making that very likely had a romantic component to it, if not a sexual one as well. It was a pretty context heavy episode, but all that set the stage our large cast of love poem/love letter writing, highly suggestive mystical vision having monks and nuns: Alcuin, St. Anselm of Canterbury, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Baudri of Bourgeuil, Aelred of Rievaulx, Benedetta Carlini, and other monks and nuns with 'special friendships' with each other. Tender words caressing little breasts making you want to die? Licking inmost parts? Quoting gay Greek mythology in love letters? Arm-sized dildos? Visions of the wound in Jesus' side that sound remarkably like a vulva? Jesus and John being married? These monks and nuns were definitely not as straight as people think.  

How do we know about these folks?

As we mentioned in the episode, a lot of our information about the individual people comes from love letters and poems written from one monk or nun to another. While some have been lost due to history or religious purges, we still have some pretty awesome letters lying around. We quoted from a few in our episode, but there are so many more and they're too good and too gay not to share in full.

Oh, and make sure you check out Humon's Tumblr comic about monastic views of sex and sexuality. It's accurate and adorable.

Alcuin to Arno of Salzberg (c. late 700s)

 Carolingian manuscript, c. 831 with Rabanus Maurus (left) and Alcuin (middle), dedicating his work to Archbishop Odgar of Mainz (right).

Carolingian manuscript, c. 831 with Rabanus Maurus (left) and Alcuin (middle), dedicating his work to Archbishop Odgar of Mainz (right).

Love has penetrated my heart with its flame,
And is ever rekindled with new warmth.
Neither sea nor land, hills nor forest, nor even the Alps
Can stand in its way or hinder it
From always licking at your inmost parts, good father,
Or from bathing your heart, my beloved, with tears.
Sweet love, why do you inspire bitter tears,
Why do bitter draughts flow from devotion's honey:
If now your sweetness, world, is mixed with bitterness,
All prosperity will alternate rapidly with misfortune,
All joys be changed to sad lamentation;
Nothing lasts, anything can perish.
Therefore, world, let us flee from you with all our hearts,
As you, ready even now to perish, flee from us.
Let us seek the delights and ever-enduring realms
Of heaven with your whole heart, mind, and hand.
The blessed hall of heaven never separates friends;
A heart warmed by love always has what it loves.
Therefore, father, abduct me with your prayers, I beg you;
Then our love will never be estranged.
Look with joy and with a gladdening heart, I pray,
At these little offerings which great love sends you,
For our gentle Master praised the two copper coins
The needy widow put into the temple's treasury.
Sacred love is better than any gift,
And so is steadfast faithfulness which flourishes and endures.
May divine gifts follow you, dearest father
And at the same time precede you. Always and everywhere farewell.

(Source, includes other love letters)

Anselm, to Gilbert (c. 1077/78)

 Illumination of Anselm from his manuscript of  meditations

Illumination of Anselm from his manuscript of meditations

 

Brother Anselm to Dom Gilbert, brother, friend, beloved lover

            . . . sweet to me, sweetest friend, are the gifts of your sweetness, but they cannot begin to console my desolate heart for its want of your love. Even if you sent every scent of perfume, every glitter of metal, every precious gem, every texture of cloth, still it could not make up to my soul for this separation unless it returned the separated other half.

          The anguish of my heart just thinking about this bears witness, as do the tears dimming my eyes and wetting my face and the fingers writing this.

          You recognized, as I do now, my love for you, but I did not. Our separation from each other has shown me how much I loved you; a man does not in fact have knowledge of good and evil unless he has experienced both. Not having experienced your absence, I did not realize how sweet it was to be with you and how bitter to be without you.

          But you have gained from our very separation the company of someone else, whom you love no less – or even more – than me; while I have lost you, and there is no one to take your place. You are thus enjoying your consolation, while nothing is left to me but heartbreak.

(Source, including more of Anselm's love letters)

Boudri of Bourgeuil to Walter (c. early 1100s)

May an exchange of letters always unite us while we are apart,
And may this letter now bring me into your presence.
Let my letter now greet you, repeat my greetings,
And repeat them a third time to please you even more.

Lately I received a sweet poem from Walter
Which, since you wrote it, has touched your hand.
I received it with the
honor it deserves
And immediately called you to mind with my love.
Now my poem gladly returns your visit,
And I pray that you cherish me with your love.
If you wish to take up lodging with me,
I will divide my heart and breast with you.
I will share with you anything of mine that can be divided;
If you command it, I will share my very soul.
You will be lodged completely within my breast
And will continue
as the greatest part of my soul.
Meanwhile I will humbly pray for good fortune
Until conversation
revive us.
A different garment – if you haven't considered it – would bring that about:
The name of monk would make such conversation endure forever.
So that you could long enjoy our true love,
Another life would change your visits,
Whether the love of God or fear of punishment or both
Commend monastic life to you.
In case you decide to come to us as such,
I have ordered our men to accompany you.
And if
rumor has told you that I am about to visit you,
That hangs in doubt – it might be possible or it might not.
For now, therefore, hurry; "Procrastination harms the ready."
Anticipate tomorrow; do what you should today.

(Source, includes other love poems)

Bavarian Nun Love Poems (c. 1100s)

The first letter, which we read in the episode:

I am weighed down with grief,
For I find nothing
I would compare to your love,
Which was sweeter than milk and honey,
And by
comparison to which the gleam of gold and silver seems tawdry….it is you alone I have chosen for my heart...
I love you above all else,
You alone are my love and desire…
Like a turtledove who has lost her mate
And stands forever on the barren branch,
So I grieve ceaselessly
Until I enjoy your love again

And the second letter, in its full, entirely gay entirety:

To G., her singular rose,
From A.---the bonds of precious love.
What is my strength, that I should bear it,
That I should have patience in your absence?
Is my strength the strength of stones,
That I should await your return?
I, who grieve ceaselessly day and night
Like someone who has lost a hand or a foot?
Everything pleasant and delightful
Without you seems like mud underfoot.
I shed tears as I used to smile,
And my heart is never glad.
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you.
What can I, so wretched, do?
Where can I, so miserable, turn?
If only my body could be entrusted to the earth
Until your longed-for return;
Or if passage could be granted to me as it was to Habakkuk,
So that I might come there just once
To gaze on my beloved’s face--
Then I should not care if it were the hour of death
For no one has been born into the world
So lovely and full of grace,
Or who so honestly
And with such deep affection loves me.
I shall therefore not cease to grieve
Until I deserve to see you again
Well has a wise man said that it is a great sorrow for a man to be without
            that
Without which he cannot live.
As long as the world stands
You shall never be removed from the core
of  my being.
What more can I say?
Come home, sweet love!
Prolong your trip no longer;
Know that I can bear your absence no longer.
Farewell.
Remember me.

(From John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality)

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (c. late 1600s)

 Sor Juana's book  A Celebration of and Posthumous Works by the phoenix of Mexico and Tenth Muse, the Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz

Sor Juana's book A Celebration of and Posthumous Works by the phoenix of Mexico and Tenth Muse, the Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz

A luminary Mexican nun who was an early champion for women's rights to education, her letters to Vicereine Maria Luisa de la Paredes of New Spain: 

But, [Maria Luisa], why go on?
For yourself alone I love you.
Considering your merits,
what more is there to say?
That you’re a woman far away
 is no hindrance to my love:
 for the soul, as you well know,
 distance and sex don’t count

 Can you wonder my love sought you out?
 Why need I stress that I’m true,
 when every one of your features
 betokens my enslavement?

Another poem, entitled "My Lady": 

I love you with so much passion,
neither rudeness nor neglect
can explain why I tied my tongue,
yet left my heart unchecked.

The matter for me was simple;
love for you was so strong,
I could see you in my soul
and talk to you all day long.

How unwisely my ardent love,
which your glorious sun inflamed,
sought to feed upon your brightness,
though the risk of your fire was plain!

Let my love be ever doomed
if guilty
in its intent,
for loving you is a crime
of which I will never repent.


And yet another, "Don't Go, My Darling", in what seems like the most dramatic post-breakup "fuck you wait no don't leave me" to exist:

Don’t go, my darling, I don’t want this to end yet.
This sweet fiction is all I have.
Hold me so I’ll die happy,
thankful for your lies.

My breasts answer yours
magnet to magnet
Why make love to me, then leave?
Why mock me?

Dont brag about your conquest--
I’m not your trophy.
Go ahead: reject these arms.

That wrapped you in sumptuous silk.
Try to escape my arms, my breasts--
I’ll keep you prisoner in my poem.

(Source, from Leila J. Rupp's Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women)

Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1179)

 St. Hildegard of Bingen and Her Assistant Richardis” by Lewis Williams

St. Hildegard of Bingen and Her Assistant Richardis” by Lewis Williams

 

 German nun, mystic, poet, healer, and scientist who fell in love with her sister nun, Richardis von Sade, wrote in homoerotic ecstacy about the Virgin Mary, and in a case of "she who doth protests too much", wrote a series of morality plays arguing against the love between women, yet FULL OF THEM and waxing poetic on the divine nature of femininity. SHRUG. 

From one of Hildegard's letters to Richardis, begging her to return to be with her instead of her position as an abbess at a far-away convent:

Now, again I say: Woe is me, mother, woe is me, daughter, “Why have you forsaken me” (Ps 21.2; Matt 27.46; Mark 15.34) like an orphan?  I so loved the nobility of your character, your wisdom, your chastity, your spirit, and indeed every aspect of your life that many people have said to me: What are you doing?

Now, let all who have grief like mine mourn with me, all who, in the love of God, have had such great love in their hearts and minds for a person- as I had for you- but who was snatched away from them in an instant, as you were from me.  But, all the same, may the angel of God go before you, may the Son of God protect you, and may his mother watch over you.  Be mindful of your poor desolate mother, Hildegard, so that your happiness may not fade.

(From Selected Writings of Hildegard of Bingen)

From her writings on the marriage to God as a union between souls alike two lovers:

Creation looks on its Creator like the beloved looks on the lover.
The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.
With interior yearning, grace and blessing are bestowed.
It is a yearning to take on God’s gentle yoke,
It is a yearning to give one’s self to God’s Way.

She also wrote "Symphonia", a collection of songs devoted to the Virgin Mary, extoling her love and passion for the holy mother, calling her "the greenest twig" and praising her womb as the creator of all things. 

 "The Universe" by hildegard of bingen. uh huh okay hildegard that doesn't look like anything we've seen before sure

"The Universe" by hildegard of bingen. uh huh okay hildegard that doesn't look like anything we've seen before sure

She was also fascinated by women's health, and her medical writings were perhaps the first to ever describe the female orgasm: 

When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract, and all the parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.

HOLY WOW, HILDEGARD. 

Some other images of our cast of queerios:

Aelred of Rievaulx - 1110-1167, Cistercian monk and abbot of Rievaulx

 Illumination of Aelred from his manuscript, "The MIrror of Charity."

Illumination of Aelred from his manuscript, "The MIrror of Charity."

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz - c. 1651-1695, Hieronymite nun, poet, philosopher, and self-taught scholar

 Portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera, c. 1750.

Portrait of Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera, c. 1750.

Jesus' Side Wound, aka That Sweet Side Pussy

 Jesus' wound and Jesus as 'man of sorrows' in manuscript from france c. 1375.

Jesus' wound and Jesus as 'man of sorrows' in manuscript from france c. 1375.

 Wound of Christ in Psalter and Prayer book of Bonne de Luxembourg, 1345.

Wound of Christ in Psalter and Prayer book of Bonne de Luxembourg, 1345.

 Side Wound from a Book of Hours from England and the Netherlands, 1410.

Side Wound from a Book of Hours from England and the Netherlands, 1410.

 From a nun's prayer book made in Southern France between 1275 and 1300, Christ displaying the wound in his side to a nun in prayer, historiating the initial D(omine) of the Hours of the Passion (  D omine labia mea aperies , O Lord open thou my lips). 

From a nun's prayer book made in Southern France between 1275 and 1300, Christ displaying the wound in his side to a nun in prayer, historiating the initial D(omine) of the Hours of the Passion (Domine labia mea aperies, O Lord open thou my lips). 

Interestingly enough, the discussion regarding the erotic nature and treatment of Christ's side-wound extends even to some of our monk friends, including Aelred of Rievaulx, of whom we spoke! His meditation for his sister on what she should do in thinking of the moment Christ received the wound from the spear piercing his side: 

Then one of the soldiers opened his side with a lance and there came forth blood and water. Hasten, linger not, eat the honeycomb with your honey, drink your wine with your milk. The blood is changed into wine to gladden you, the water into milk to nourish you. From the rock streams have flowed for you, wounds have been made in his limbs, holes in the wall of his body, in which, like a dove, you may hide while you kiss them one by one. Your lips, stained with his blood, will become like a scarlet ribbon and your word sweet.

In this, he is referencing The Song of Songs, one of the most erotic spiritual texts in which a groom says to his bride:

My dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hollow places of the wall, show me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face comely...  (2:14)
Thy lips are
as a scarlet ribbon: and thy speech sweet... (4:3)
Thou hast wounded my heart, my sister, my bride, thou hast wounded my heart with one of thy eyes... (4:9)
Thy lips, my bride, are as a dropping honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue... (4:11)
I am come into my garden, O my sister, my bride, I have gathered my myrrh with my
aromatical spices: I have eaten the honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk... (5:1) 

Who's the bride and who's the groom when it comes to Aelred speaking to his sister of Christ? Hmm?

Other folks we didn't get a chance to dive into during the episode due to time constraints but you should look up (part 2, anyone?):

"Gay" Monks & love letters:

Walafrid Strabo (c. 808-849)
Marbod of Rennes (c. 1035-1123)
Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912)
Salamo III, bishop of Constance (c. 860-920) and Waldo
Egbert and St. Boniface (letters c. 716-20)
Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux (c.1090-1153) and his friend Archbishop Malacy of Armagh)

Mystic/religious women & homoeroticism in medieval texts:

Hadewijch (d. 1248),  who wrote poems to her beguine sister Sara and wrote on God as the female personification of love
Bieris de Romans
Julie D'Aubigny (c.1673-1707, who will get her own episode!)

If you want to learn more about these folks, as well as the history of medieval sex, sexuality, and cloistered communities, check out our full list of sources and further reading below!

Online Articles:

Books:

  • Boswell, John. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
  • Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
  • Brown, Judith. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy
  • Krueger, Derek. “Between Monks: Tales of Monastic Companionship in Early Byzantium” in Journal of the HIstory of Sexuality #20 (2011): 28-61.
  • Rupp, Leila J. Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women
  • Rictor Norton, My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (Full Text available online)
  • Hildegard of Bingen, Selected Writings

If you like cloistered queers, you might also like...

  • Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel Sor Juana’s Second Dream, which was then adapted into a play, “The Nun and the Countess” by Odalys Nanin
  • 1990 film, I, the Worst of All (Yo, la peor de todas), won Argentina’s Academy Award entry for Best Foreign Language Film. 
  • Netflix series “Juana Ines”, 2016 produced in Mexico
  • 2009 film from German feminist director Margarethe von Trotta called Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen
  • Lesbian playwright Carolyn Gage's play "Artemisia and Hildegard"
 Illumination from the Passional of Abbess kunigunde of bohemia. 

Illumination from the Passional of Abbess kunigunde of bohemia. 

Until next time, stay queer and stay curious!