Intimacy of the Manly Kind


pederastyIntimacy in its purest form can be shared in many types of relationships. Whether it be families, marriages, liaisons, or fellowships- a deeper connection is beneficial for both men and women. The most complex and interesting group among these however tends to be the stereotypical manly men. Especially in the medieval ages when chivalry and the warrior codes were in full effect. These men used the codes to set boundaries in their lives to separate them from the savage others that did not play by any rules. The Warrior code embraced a total dependence and loyalty toward a liege (or king), and the king in return took care of his men with gifts, women, and other mean of prosperity. Chivalry was more about honoring a man when he has thrown in the towel, and not allowing anger or lust for vengeance take over one’s psyche. These moral codes were uniquely intertwined into the man’s religious beliefs, and allowed them to still be seen as honorable through the sight of the holy sector. Professor French from the Naval Academy ethics class remarked in her book The Code of the Warrior that “these codes have not always been written down or literally codified into a set of explicit rules. A code can be hidden in the lines of epic poems or implied by the description of mythic heroes.”(French)

But how did these men balance being alone for months and even years on end with no one to connect with except each other? What did they do when the flesh took over and their thirst for intimacy grew too strong? The closest glimpse of this intimate exchange in such a strong bond can only be captured and speculated in the rare works of art and literature that modern day society has at its grasp. Any deviance from the perceived norm would not have been spoken about freely, although the close knit alliances that most warriors lived for nurtured an environment for what today’s society would call homosexual, or at the least bisexual tendencies. This analysis will chronicle how intimate messages can be transcribed in complex pieces such as The Old English poem The Wanderer, Marie de France’s Lanval, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , and other ancient works of art where more than one definitive answer can make its mark on the consciousness of the audience who reads into the plot.

The first piece up for analysis is the Wanderer. Written in Old English, it is one of the few surviving works of literature from the 10th century and earlier that is categorized as Anglo Saxon poetry. It can best be summarized as the grief of a warrior who has outlived his fellow men with whom he shared trials and tribulations in his younger years. The glory of the day has long gone and he wonders if it was all worth the sacrifice of not having a family and choosing instead the life of a fighter. It is a prime representation of how deep of a connection these men had for one another.

In the first stanza the poet speaks to the audience, saying “Often the lone-dweller longs for relief, the Almighty’s mercy, though melancholy, his hands turning time and again the ocean’s currents, the ice-cold seas, following paths of exile.  Fate is firmly set.” (The Wanderer) He is then interrupted by the ‘earth dweller’ (Wanderer) who laments “Often alone, always at daybreak I must lament my cares, not one remains alive to whom I could utter the thoughts in my heart, tell him my sorrows. In truth, I know that for any eorl an excellent virtue is to lock tight the treasure chest within one’s heart, howsoever he may think…So I must hold in the thoughts of my heart—though often wretched, bereft of my homeland, far from kinfolks-..longing for a hall and lord of rings, where near or far I might find one in the mead-hall remembering me and my kin, or else show favor to a friendless man, requite me with comfort.” (The Wanderer)

In these first few stanzas it becomes evident what is near and dear to this man’s heart. First, religion is a part of a warrior’s creed. Second, communing with his fellow mates is what his heart longs for. Thirdly, to receive instruction and praise at his lord’s side was what a warrior, or knight, lived for. This is captured in this next excerpt: “He recalls tablemates and treasures distributed, how from the first his friend and lord helped him to the feast. That happy time is no more. ‘This, indeed, anyone forced to forgo for long the beloved counsel of his lord knows well. Often when sorrow and sleep together bind the poor lone-dweller in their embrace, he dreams he clasps and that he kisses his liege-lord again, lays head and hands on the lord’s knees as he did long ago, enjoying the gift-giving in days gone by.” (The Wanderer)

At first glance this could bring about images of Jesus and the Last Supper. There is definitely innocence in the scene of a person who sits at the bosom of the one who teaches them. But, when you think about that the man is longing to kiss another man then you have to take into consideration the history of men in war up to this point in time. This is when the ambiguity begins. Before delving into the other possibilities of what this text may mean the differences in cultures must be addressed.

Up until recently the term ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ has been used to define the engaging of gratification between humans of the same gender. This community was not in existence back in medieval times or earlier, so the same actions was not discussed in such a matter. In fact, men were considered elite if they in fact did the penetration of other men. It was looked down upon only when the man was at the receiving end. One of the most explicit works of literature to come from ancient times is that of Gaius Valerias Catullas. In his work he proclaims:

Line Latin text English translation[20][21][22][23]
1 Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo, I will sodomize you and face-fuck you,
2 Aureli pathice et cinaede Furi, bottom Aurelius and catamite Furius,
3 qui me ex versiculis meis putastis, you who think, because my poems
4 quod sunt molliculi, parum pudicum. are sensitive, that I have no shame.
5 Nam castum esse decet pium poetam For it’s proper for a devoted poet to be moral
6 ipsum, versiculos nihil necessest; himself, [but] in no way is it necessary for his poems.
7 qui tum denique habent salem ac leporem, In point of fact, these have wit and charm,
8 si sunt molliculi ac parum pudici if they are sensitive and a little shameless,
9 et quod pruriat incitare possunt, and can arouse an itch,
10 non dico pueris, sed his pilosis and I don’t mean in boys, but in those hairy old men
11 qui duros nequeunt movere lumbos. who can’t get it up.[24]
12 Vos, quod milia multa basiorum Because you’ve read my countless kisses,[25]
13 legistis, male me marem putatis? you think less of me as a man?
14 Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo. I will sodomize you and face-fuck you.


(Catullas 16)

This piece is rare because it openly spoke of sodomy and was written by a young man who died at the age of 30, about fifty years before the birth of Christ. He was not a warrior by trade, but his works could have been read and admired by those who were less inclined to declare their actions on paper. Unfortunately, there are just not many other works during this time that can easily be deciphered as to the content and nature of the intimacy involved.

Let us then continue on to other well documented and accepted same- sex intimate roles, such as the ancient Greek Athenian practice of pederasty. It was a common and accepted practice for a young man to take under his wings a younger boy for companionship. At least until the boy reached a certain age, and then the process started again. It was believed to be the right of passage that all men went through, especially in training warriors. The boys were taken under the wing of their elders and for years one mentored the other and lavished themselves. J.K Dover, the author of Greek Homosexuality wrote in his book about the hundreds of art pieces of the time that “ depict older males conversing with younger males, offering them gifts, cajoling, or entreating them, titillating or embracing them.

A high proportion of these pictures are of such a kind that if a representative sample survived from some alien culture of which we knew little there would be no good grounds for interpreting them as depictions of homosexual relationships. One may, after all, talk to a boy or offer him a present without being motivated by lust; one may embrace one’s own son or nephew, and one may lay restraining hands on a thief or a runaway. In the case of Greek pictures, however, even if we take into account no evidence other than the totality of pictures themselves, every point on a scale of intimacy is represented. At one end of the scale, apparently relaxed and thoughtful conversation; at the other end, a man thrusting his erect penis between the thighs of a youth; at intermediate points, a boy refusing the offer of a present, or a man putting out his hands to touch the genitals of a youth.” (Dover, 4-5)

This process of taking boys didn’t only flourish in Greece, but also in the Roman empire and other places as well such as Germany, so it is probably safe to believe that this rite of passage found its way into the Medieval English culture. Well known modern day authors such as Oscar Wilde considered the relationship noble, and many societies adopted the act “on the grounds that love was the best foundation for teaching courage as well as civic and cultural values, and that homoerotic love between males was superior to other forms of love” (Pederasty)

One such poem that hints at pederasty tendencies in Medieval England is Marie de France’s lai Lanval. In this a man falls for an elf woman who promises him riches and rewards that his liege, King Arthur has denied him. She only requests that he keep their love a secret. He does so until he is insulted by Queen Guinevere who suggests that he is a homosexual after she tries to seduce him and he rejects her.

This allegation of ‘trangression’ in the eyes of the Church, leads him to angrily denounce the queen by declaring his love for the elf. With this boast he compromises his relationship and the story continues until the elf shows herself to the public to save his life.

What would make a man risk his happiness for an empty accusation? Lets decipher the text to see:

“The queen got angry; in her wrath, she insulted him: ‘Lanval,’ she said,’I am sure you don’t care for such pleasure; people have often told me that you have no interest in women. You have fine-looking boys with whom you enjoy yourself. Base coward, lousy cripple, my lord made a bad mistake when he let you stay with him. For all I know, he’ll lose God because of it.’”(Marie, 160)

What would the queen be speaking in regards to if not pederasty among the warrior culture, as Lanval was a knight in King Arthur’s court. She went after his religion and his bond with his lord by trying to seduce him. Lanval denies any such activity that he participates in, but this proposition of hers is enough to confirm that this act did have relevance within the Anglo Saxon and later warrior communities.

Furthermore, with her connecting Arthur’s loss of God with Lanval’s perceived act of sodomy, it solidifies that he is a threat to his liege. Stefan Jurasinsky noted, of the queen’s actions, “ in linking Lanval’s alleged offense to treason, Marie’s Guinevere merely echoes the statement of biblical and legal texts that viewed homoerotic behaviors as an act of treason, whether against mankind, the State, or the laws of God.”(Jurasinsky, 299) This sort of allegation would be heart wrenching for a man who lived solely for the purpose of protecting his lord, especially if he had intimate experiences with him that women couldn’t understand.

The bonding of these men during war time created the same mono sex society that Michelle Sauer speaks of in her analysis of the lifestyle of anchorites and hermits of the middle ages. She quotes author Aaron Betsky as calling this “‘queer space’ in at least two senses of the word: because it sought to be unusual and separate and because it created a same sex society built upon love and interdependence.”(Sauer,135) Sauer continues to confirm that despite the connotation there was no set standard at the time for the categorization of heterosexuality and homosexuality. At least not until the late 1800’s, and any same sex act was considered just that, an act; and not a defining identity marker.

If monks and anchorites in their desire to live free of sin still was tempted in these circles, what more laymen of the brute nature. These men were made to live together, in harmony, which would have bred any number of desires and deep feelings toward each other. Not all of these feelings, however, had to evolve into something sexual. This is what makes the uniqueness of the medieval age and earlier same sex unities in relation to today’s standards. In a review, Michael Towey juxtaposes the tweaked definition of term ‘gay’ solidified by Allen Frantzen in Before the Closet, to the modern day notion of the term. He states “To Frantzen ‘relations’ means social as well as sexual intercourse. ‘If same sex relations are not restricted to sexual intercourse but are broadened to include a range of expressions and affections and social gestures that bring two or more of the same sex into intimate proximity, the shadow of the queer-becomes more visible.’(Twomey,174)

The analysis continues on to point out the male affection of kissing and hugging within both Anglo Saxon warrior poems Beowulf and The Wanderer. It is safe to state that since the act of sodomy, which was the term used mostly during medieval ages, was not connected with any stereotype of homosexuality, men more than likely participated in the act due to social norms and didn’t consider it deviant, especially if no penetration was involved.

The matter of deviance came within the realm of the Church doctrine, and the penance for it was sometimes harsh and sometimes lenient. The problem with doctrine at this time was that the term ‘sodomy’ used to denote homosexual acts were grouped with a plethora of other sex categories such as anal- with either male or female partners-, masturbation, bestiality, and many other situations that may not have had anything to do with intercourse with another man. In his analysis of the medieval poem Cleanness, Allen J. Frantzen discloses that “the priest’s work of detection was frustrated by penitential manuals that mixed sexual and nonsexual sins together in the category of sodomy and that added to the confusion by forbidding the priest to ask for clarifying details. (Frantzen) If the clergy was restricted from speaking on such acts, what more of the laity? This could be a possible reason for the misrepresentation of same sex acts that prodded some historians to believe that “there were no homosexuality in England before the Norman Court introduced it” (Twomey, 176)

Some believe that the intolerance for same sex acts showed up in the 13th century, but Twomey discloses that the studies done to come up with this fact exclusively leave out the era in which Beowulf and The Wanderer was made. If one used the definition coined by Frantzen though, it becomes evident that same sex relations existed and even had derogatory names such as ergi and argr used in Latin and Anglo Saxon for those who passively participated in the acts.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is another warrior poem that is laced with homoerotic suggestions of passivity. At face value it is a story about a well-respected knight of Arthur’s courts, who shows valor by saving Queen Guinevere from the Green Knight in an attempt to scare her lifeless. The story unfolds as he strikes the large knight with an axe and as promised, a year later he makes his way to a designated location to receive the same blow from the knight, who was beheaded but didn’t die. In the end it is a test of wits and everyone remains alive. It could be seen as a test of knighthood, but it does have underlying homosexual suggestions.

Take for instance the seating arrangement that first introduced Sir Gawain into the tale: “Within Camelot’s castle tis was the custom, and at feasts and festivals when the fellowship would meet. With features proud and fine he stood there tall and straight, a king at Christmastime amid great merriment. And still he stands there just being himself, chatting away charmingly, exchanging views. Good Sir Gawin is seated by Guinevere, and at Arthur’s other side sits Agravian the Hard Hand, both nephews of the king and notable knights. At the head of the board sat Bishop Baldwin, with Ywain, son of Urien, to eat beside him.” (Sir Gawain) This seating arrangement is interesting because it places Gawain on the same side as Guinevere, possibly signifying him as a potential submissive player in sodomy. On the other side are more masculine knights as symbolized by the term hard hand.

Of course there is the liege involved and the religious aspect of the warrior’s code of ethics, the Bishop Baldwin. It may not be as evident until one reads further into the tale of when Sir Gawain tries to make it to the designated spot to fight the Green Knight and he is welcomed by Lord Bertilak, the alter ego of the Green Knight, who invites him into his home. The scene is set with the text “ There was pleasure aplenty in their private talk, the lord delighting in such lively language, like man who might well be losing his mind. Then speaking to Gawain, he suddenly shouted: ‘You have sworn to serve me, whatever I instruct. Will you hold to that oath right here and now?’ ‘You may trust my tongue,’ said Gawain, in truth, ‘for within these walls I am servant to your will.’ The lord said warmly, ‘You were weary and worn, hollow with hunger, harrowed by tiredness, yet joined in my reveling right royally every night. You relax as you like, lie in your bed until mass tomorrow, then go to your meal where my wife will be waiting; she will sit at your side to accompany and comfort you in my absence from court. So lounge: at dawn I’ll rise and ride to hunt with horse and hound.’ The gracious knight agreed and, bending low, he bowed. ‘Furthermore,’ said the master, ‘let’s make a pact. Here’s a wager: what I win in the woods will be yours, and what you gain while I’m gone you will give to me. Young sir, let’s swap, and strike a bond, let a bargain be a bargain, for better or worse.’ ‘By God,’ said Gawain, ‘I agree to the terms, and I find it pleasing that you favor such fun.’ (Sir Gawain) There is a lot of sexual tension built up in this small section of the poem. With the word choices one can easily see Gawain becoming submissive with his lounging and bending low and bowing. Even the lord’s name is changed to master when he suggests the pact.

The tale continues with, at the prodding of Lord Bertilak, Lady Bertilak trying to seduce Gawain. But in an attempt he keeps his code of ethics and only kisses her and takes her girdle. In the end the Green Knight confesses his scheme of testing Arthur’s knights, and the men part ways after Gawain receives a blow that only nips his throat. Arthur Boyd sums up the underlying messages nicely with his analysis of the exchange request made by Sir Bertilak. He states that “while such a possibility might seem troubling to modern readers for whom homosexual sodomy would not be a true exchange but rather a substitution of one dissimilar orifice for another, we should recall that medieval gender and sexuality are as much about positionality-active/passive/top/bottom-as they are about genitality per se.  Sir Gawain cleverly sets up the possibility of such a substitutive exchange as easily fulfilling the game’s requirements. While the verb Bertilak uses to govern his exchange to Gawain {woþez}indicates that the older man’s winnings will indeed become the younger’s, the verb used for the exchange from Gawain to Bertilak {chaunge} also carries the potential meaning ‘to substitute’. Hence Gawain gives to Bertilak an equivalent substitute (ie himself as receptacle) in place of what he received from the Lady. After all, this is exactly what he does throughout the first two exchanges: the hugs and kisses he receives from the Lady and later gives to Bertilak each night are not her original kisses but rather his own that mimick, replace, and substitute for them. That a similar scenario would take place with the outcome of the potential sexual act between Gawain and the Lady simply follows the text’s logic.”(Boyd)

It can further be speculated that the gift of the girdle could have symbolized full submission to the dominant man, although in the tale Gawain remained blemish free as he did not speak of the gift to Bertilak. This could have been seen as the code of secrecy earlier agreed upon in the bedchamber. A warrior or knight reading this would understand the need for discretion to continue steadfast as being the prime example of an honorable oath taker.

In conclusion, whether or not it could be spoken of freely, intimate and sexual relationships did transpire between Anglo Saxon men, especially in the confinements of warrior communities. With this knowledge it opens up the ability to read between the lines in some of our world’s most revered epic poems of the time, finding deeper meaning in hidden codes in the same way that some of the men who were living the tales experienced them.










Works Cited

Boyd, David L.. “Sodomy, Misogyny, and Displacement: Occluding Queer Desire in “sir Gawain and the Green Knight””. Arthuriana 8.2 (1998): 77–113. Web.

“Catullas 16”. Catullas, Gaius.Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.,   3 February 2016. Web. 28 February 2016. 

Dover, Kenneth James. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press,         1989.Web. 28 February 2016.

Jurasinski, Stefan. “Treason and the Charge of Sodomy in the Lai De Lanval.”Romance   Quarterly 54.4 (2007): 290-302. ProQuest. Web. 25 Feb. 2016.

Frantzen, Allen J.. “The Disclosure of Sodomy in Cleanness”. PMLA 111.3 (1996): 451–464.

Web. 28 February 2016.

French, Shannon E. The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present.          Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2003. Amazon. Web. 27 February           2016.

Marie de France. Lanval. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Volume A. Ninth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.Print

“Pederasty”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 10 February          2016.Web. 28 February 2016

Sauer, Michelle M.. “Uncovering Difference: Encoded Homoerotic Anxiety Within the Christian             Eremitic Tradition in Medieval England”. Journal of the History of Sexuality 19.1 (2010):            133–152. Web. 26 February 2016.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. David, Alfred and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology of   English Literature. Volume A. Ninth   Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company,     2012. Print

The Wanderer. David, Alfred and James Simpson. The Norton Anthology of English Literature.   Volume A. Ninth Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012. 120-122.  Print

Twomey, Michael W. Review of Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from “Beowulf” to “Angels in             America” Speculum 77.1 (2002): 174–176. Web 26 February 2016.

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