The Middle Ages conjure an image of darkness, stagnation and regressive attitudes – but a resurfaced queer medieval story has proved this is far from the full picture.
A recently resurfaced tale from 12th century Ireland is forcing many people to re-evaluate their perception of the Middle Ages as being a time of stagnation after going viral on Twitter.
Medieval literature scholar Erik Wade came across the extraordinary tale in John Boswell’s 1994 book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. In the story, which is set in the eighth century, a woman goes to the Irish king Niall Frosach “carrying a boy-child”, and asks for his help with an unusual problem.
“For your kingship and your sovereignty,” she pleads, “find out for me through your ruler’s truth who the carnal father of this boy is, for I do not know myself. For I swear by your ruler’s truth, and by the king who governs every created thing that I have not known guilt with a man for many years now.”
The king, after a moment of silence, asks the woman: “Have you had playful mating with another woman?” He tells her to “not conceal” any same-sex romance.
“I will not conceal it. I have,” she replies.
In a remarkable sequence of events, the king tells her: “That woman had mated with a man just before, and the semen which he left with her, she put it into your womb in the tumbling, so that it was begotten in your womb.
“That man is the father of your child, and let it be found out who he is.”
Here’s a AMAZING 12th-century Middle Irish story about lesbians accidentally having a baby. A woman asked the king to determine her baby’s father, bc she hadn’t sex with a man in a long time. The king asked if she’d had sex with a woman. The woman said yes. #MedievalTwitter pic.twitter.com/YbUK314AnR
— Erik Wade (@erik_kaars) August 22, 2020
The queer medieval story has shocked many, with some surprised LGBT+ identities were so openly discussed hundreds of years ago.
But according to Wade, this wasn’t totally unusual. In fact, there are allusions to LGBT+ identities throughout medieval literature — but many are not well-known because modern-day translators have tended to stay away from them.
Wade says that some scholars have written about this particular story, but it has been “largely ignored”. He has managed to track down other versions of the story from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries since he first stumbled across it.
The last of these versions appeared in a poem called “Labhram ar Iongnaibh Éireann”, believed to be written by a poet called Tuileagna Ó Mhaoil Chonaire. Sadly, when that poem was translated in 1938, the story about the lesbian lovers was cut — presumably because of its reference to queer sex — and the story faded into obscurity as a result.
It was finally translated and printed in 2008 by Damian McManus.
Queer love story from 12th century Ireland shows that LGBT+ identities were not as taboo as people might think.
“There are at least four surviving versions, spread over several hundred years, suggesting (to me at least) that this story may even have been semi-popular,” Wade told PinkNews.
Other queer stories from this time may have had some level of popularity too — and Wade explains that medieval stories with LGBT+ characters were “not as uncommon as you might think”.
“In western medieval Europe, the pressure of the church probably meant some repression of the stories, but there are plenty of examples,” he said.
“Hilary the Englishman wrote love poems to young men in the 12th century, while anonymous love letters between women have turned up in a German manuscript from the same period. The love letters may even have been taught as examples of good writing in schools.”
One anonymous poem from the 12th century sees a man and a woman debating which is better – same-sex or opposite-sex love.
“The debate poem was copied all over Europe, so it was clearly pretty popular,” Wade notes, adding that trans people also existed in medieval literature.
“Stories of trans people also exist, from Arthurian knights who were assigned female at birth to saints who were assigned female at birth but lived their lives as monks.”
I think stories like these show us that queer and trans people didn’t all live in fear or in hiding.
Sadly, many medieval scholars have “dismissed, ignored, or refused to translate” queer stories from this period – meaning many have gone unnoticed.
“I’m a scholar of medieval sexuality, but I’m constantly stumbling across stories like this Irish one that I never heard about,” Wade says. “So it’s hard to say how common queer stories were: not just because of medieval people who disapproved, but modern people’s disapproval.”
This “disapproval” means that Wade and other queer scholars have struggled to track down LGBT+ stories from the medieval period.
“That sort of difficulty and obscurity wouldn’t happen with a lot of other kinds of medieval literature. Most of the scholarship about [this story] focuses on the king’s miraculous judgment and sort of brushes past the women having sex.”
Most people would assume that queer identities were not accepted in the Middle Ages — but stories like these paint a different picture altogether.
“The Middle Ages were as complicated as today. There were lots of conflicting ideas about what we now call homosexuality, different levels of disapproval or approval, and so on. You’ll never get one clear answer, anymore than you can say whether all 21st century is (or is not) welcoming or accepting of queer identity.”
There is more work to be done to unearth queer stories from the Middle Ages, Wade says, and stagnant attitudes within academia pose challenges. Scholars who focus on queer stories are often accused of being “anachronistic” or of “reading into them” by other academics. These same accusations crop up when scholars discuss race and gender in the Middle Ages.
It is ‘vital’ that LGBT+ stories from the Middle Ages are unearthed.
“Scholars who discuss those subjects online can also be attacked by angry people who want to imagine that the Middle Ages were a time of ‘traditional values’ in terms of gender and sexuality, and that medieval Europe was all-white,” he says.
“I’ve gotten plenty of attacks online for suggesting queerness in medieval history, and my colleagues of colour receive even worse abuse.”
But for Wade and others, these stories are “vital”.
“They tell queer and trans people that they have a history, that they’ve always been there, even if they weren’t always known by the labels they are today.
“I’ve had queer students tell me that they’ve avoided taking classes about the Middle Ages because they thought the medieval people was just a history of oppression. That’s not true, and I think stories like these show us that queer and trans people didn’t all live in fear or in hiding.”
He continues: “I did not know these stories until I went to graduate school, even though I took lots of medieval courses as an undergraduate. As a young queer person, I was looking for them too, but they were difficult to find, which is a huge problem. Stories of queer people, trans people, women, and people of colour in the past shouldn’t be only known to scholars.
“These stories can save lives.”