The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology.
What in the world could it mean to say that sodomy was "invented"? Did a task force of theologians work hard in an ecclesiastical Menlo Park in order to come up with this term? The title provokes the reader, but Mark Jordan, professor at Notre Dame's Medieval Institute explains that the title is "a double pun" (1). "Invention" can mean both "building something new" and, in the ancient rhetorical tradition, the art of finding just the right thing to say.
And the title turns out to be absolutely accurate. Jordan's book is an attempt - successful, I believe - to see how the concept of sodomy began in Christian theology, and how it first functioned in Christian discourse. His method is to offer a respectful reading of the earliest texts in which the word (and thus the concept) appears. As he traces the Latin word sodomia from its novel and rare use in Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah on through that of St. Thomas Aquinas several hundred years later, we begin to see just how odd the word really was - and remains, for it is the medieval tradition which did the heavy lifting in defining sodomy, not just for theology, but for secular society as well.
Jordan's readings of his medieval texts are not intended to debunk them, to show how stupid or ignorant the mind of the medievals was. Only giving oneself over to these texts will help us to understand their uses of this particular abstraction, and (thus) to understand later uses.
Although The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology is a worthy scholarly effort, readers not expert in medieval literature should not be frightened off; the texts which Jordan reads with us are interesting and relevant. There is the story of the ninth-century martyr Pelagius, a boy whose beauty so aroused 'Abd-al-Rahman III, the caliph of Cordoba, that he wished to enjoy its delights. The boy's refusal led to torture and death. Within decades of the boy's martyrdom narratives circulated and he began to be honored as a saint, whose cult included a Mozarabic text for Vespers, Matins, and Mass. While the stories cited by Jordan served an obvious polemical purpose for European Christians in their demonizing of the Muslims, who are pictured as prone to same-sex desire, there is more in these texts than that. "As it begins to act out its own worship of the boy-saint, the Christian community seems as much bothered by his beauty as was the caliph" (28). For "... the flattery of his beauty that is sung by male choirs ..." (27) does unavoidably bring up questions of the point of such God-bestowed male beauty, so dangerous to its bearer and to its observers, including (perhaps?) the monks chanting Pelagius's praises.
By beginning with this account, Jordan can show us how the word "Sodomitic" (not yet "Sodomy") is used, in the poem of the nun Hrotswitha on the life of Pelagius, to begin to place the sin of the caliph in some theological context. He can also show us how confused and (in his word) "unstable" the notion of same-sex desire is at this stage. Linked with foreigners and infidels, it is strange and exotic; and yet it is apparently caused by the luxury of the Muslim ruler's court, and thus could potentially tempt us all. Underneath the strangeness of this vice is the suspicion that it is indeed not so strange at all, but a "natural" reaction to abundance - and beauty. The linkage of same-sex desire with exoticism, pride, self-indulgence, and opposition to true religion, along with a secret fear of - and titillation by - it, is thus at least as old as the story of Pelagius and as familiar as a Hollywood biblical epic.
However, it is not until Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah in the eleventh century that we start to see a pastoral-theological analysis of the newly minted word, sodomia, apparently patterned on another abstract noun, blasphemia. Peter seeks to alert the church of his day to the threat posed by "a church of Sodom within the church of God" (50). Addressed to Pope Leo IX, the book seeks to convince him of the need to weed out Sodomites from the ranks of the clergy, though at times he seems to suggest that it might be too late. Who are these Sodomites? For Peter, the vice of sodomy includes any use of sexuality other than heterosexual intercourse open to procreation, with the first type of sodomy being "self-pollution." The city of Sodom includes many citizens! One of the interesting tensions in Peter's thought about Sodomites is the difficulty of repentance. Once they are exposed or confess, they must be stripped of their offices; but there seems to be no regime of ascesis or therapy which would "cure" them. "[Peter] seems to conceive sodomy as sin that cannot be repented" (66).
In the texts which Jordan investigates, we find the theme of sodomy's uniqueness among sins. Other sins harm the neighbor; sodomy is a sin against nature and hence against God Himself. Thus it is a particularly grievous sin, worse, indeed, Aquinas says, than rape, adultery, or incest with one's mother (144). Of course, it is impossible to understand any of these categorizations of sexuality without realizing that our contemporary understanding of sexuality as ideally related to love and what we now call intimacy would mystify the medievals. For them, sexuality is about procreation. Further, sexuality itself, at least in its present condition, is a sign of the Fall, with Christian marriage itself barely keeping it within permissible bounds for the sake of procreation. Nor was there any doubt that perfection in this life required perfect chastity. Thus, one explanation for the amazing depictions of the evils of sodomy is rather simple:
To invent Sodomy was to invent a pure essence of the erotic without connection to reproduction. It was to isolate the erotic in its pure state, where it could be described in frightening colors and condemned without concession.(176)
Mark Jordan's book, by uncovering the semantic history of a word, provides a signal service for contemporary moral theology.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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