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Homosexuality in Renaissance: A Fable of Freedom

Many of us know about male homosexuality in the Rennaisance, inspired by the classical joie de vivre of Greek and Roman ancient culture. But, can we speak about queerness during the Renaissance? What did sexualities look like back then and what did they understand by homosexuality or heterosexuality? And even more importantly; what lessons can we learn from it?

When I decided to look into homosexuality in Renaissance, I was surprised to see so many records about male homosexuality. I assumed that the Church would condemn the matter relegating it to a taboo subject that was neither to be spoken about nor to be put in official records even for legislation purposes. As it turns out, male same-sex relations were a concealed affair, apparently known by everybody. Homosexual behaviours in Renaissance were similar to what recreational drugs are for us today: it is punished by the law and technically frowned upon, but we all know somebody who has done it or we have done it ourselves at some point in our life and is somewhat accepted and integrated into society, even when it remains at the margins of the law.

Medieval Sexualities: Nobody Expects the Sexual Inquisition

Before getting into the topic of sexualities and sexual orientation let’s get the bigger picture of medieval attitudes toward men and women. As you can imagine, they were blatantly unequal. Women had to remain virgins until marriage, and be chaste throughout their lives. When engaging in sexual relations, they must be passive and receptive. This passiveness translates into reproduction too. Biologically, women were not considered a big part of the conception: the male had the semen, and the semen carried the “seed of life” which then was put into the body of a woman to create a baby. Women didn’t have a seed, and so they were not big contributors to the creation of human life. They were a sort of easy-bake oven in which the baby would cook for nine months. They hosted life, but they didn’t create life.

On top of that, the Church was involved in everyone’s lives, often giving mixed signals. Women were supposed to be chaste, but at the same time they had bigger sexual appetites than men – this probably comes from the Scriptures, as Eve was the temptress who handed Adam the apple –. To protect their chastity, parents married their daughters early, when they were between 15 and 18 years old. Until then, women from a higher social rank would live isolated in their homes with almost no contact with men outside their family. The roles changed for lower classes, where women could not afford to spend all their time at home, and so they were freer to experience contact with the opposite sex.

Men lived very different lives than their female counterparts. They married in their late twenties or early thirties, and so they spent the peak of their sexual lives single and ready to mingle. They were still economically dependent on their families and couldn’t gain access to governing roles, reserved for older citizens. This combination of leisure and sexual appetite was influential in their use of prostitution, but it also contributed to homosexual behaviour.

Renaissance was interesting in terms of sexuality. On one hand, there was a revival of Greek and Roman classicism, a period in which sexuality was more open and free, and considered a time of excess. On the other, the strong involvement of the Church, which attempted to regulate all aspects of everyday life, including sexual and marital relations.

Church’s involvement was also constant throughout the Middle Ages. Ask the philosopher Thomas Aquinas. In the thirteenth century, he was working on a chart for sexually sinful activities, church-approved. Aquinas is one of the most prominent medieval philosophers, studied in Spanish high schools along with Augustine of Hippo. They were both profoundly religious, but just to get a better grasp of who I am talking about: In an American teen movie Augustine of Hippo would be the bad boy wearing a leather jacket and riding a bike, while Thomas Aquinas would be the virgin in the homecoming dance decoration committee. And what a virgin: when Aquinas was 19 years old, he decided to become a priest and join the Dominican order. Story has it that his brothers send him a prostitute to tempt him so he wouldn’t be able to join the order. He wielded a fire iron to drove her away.

Fig. 1

(Fig. 1: Aquinas reading about the evils of sexual appetites)

Aquinas had a particular classification of sinful acts in the bedroom. To engage in any sexual act, Aquinas said, we need to act according to reason and nature. Acting according to reason would be having sexual relations with your spouse. You picked a partner for reproduction, married them, and then having sex is an act performed for a reason. Acting according to nature is to engage only in the type of sexual activities that lead to procreation. And Thomas Aquinas used these two categories; reason and nature, to rank the properness of any sexual conduct. This sounds all so well up until now, very appropriate to the times and such. But of course there is a twist. Looking into this ranking that Aquinas put together, it turns out that rape is preferable than masturbation or oral sex. Excuse moi? Sure enough, if you run the situation under Aquinas’ logic, rape might produce a baby while the other two cannot. Onanism is selfishness. That’s why I always hated logic when I was an undergrad.

In the last post I encouraged the reader to relate to the Renaissance characters that we encountered, the artist and his intentions. Now I advise you to proceed with caution. I still stand for considering them full of human drive and appetites. However, I am telling you now, beware of the anachronisms. In the same way that you wouldn’t see a fifteenth-century woman wearing a watch, you won’t see any notions of heterosexuality or homosexuality in the Rennaissance. So before we get into that, let us look at male same-sex relations.

Sodomy: One Sex, Two Gender Roles

Same-sex relations between men are not new for a person already familiarised with Rennaissance culture. Very much like their Greek counterparts, homosexual tendencies were a well-known fact in Renaissance Italy. These relationships helped defined the concept of masculinity at the time, but not in the same way as you might think.

For what we know, sodomy – what same-sex male relations were called back in the day – was considered a rite of passage of sorts for the educated youth. Sodomy was, however, illegal, and criminalised by the law. When you get the records of offenders and do the maths, it turns out that two out of three Florentine men in the sixteenth century were implicated in some form of offence regarding sodomy. For most men, casual relations with other males did not interfere in their heterosexual relationships and prospective marriages.

The pattern is the following: the oldest male takes an active role. This man is in his twenties or early thirties. The passive role is adopted bu the younger one, a boy who is between thirteen and twenty years old. Ant the relation between those two is clearly marked by gender roles. Yes, gender roles even if they are both the same gender. Do you know how ignorants like to insult gay man by comparing them to women? In the Renaissance, these comparisons were directed only to the youngest male of the same-sex couple. If somebody wanted to insult the youngster, they would call him puttana (whore), any other derogative term commonly used for women, or they would simply treat him as a woman. This is not because the boy looks feminine or behaves as such, but because he adopts the passive role in sex, which was traditionally associated with the woman.

Fig. 2

(Fig. 2: Donatello's David, Bronze. Donatello represents David as the perfect example of the passive youngster. Boyish face, rounded shapes, arm akimbo and perky ass)

The older man was not considered to be doing anything wrong or shameful. He was assuming the same sexual role that he would with a woman, he was the penetrator. If anything, dominating another man was a show of strength and fortitude, like some sort of a triumph. The boy, on the other side, was in the weakest position, being penetrated like a woman. But his inexperience granted him a social pardon. He is, after all, in his way of becoming a man and these sort of behaviours are the mishaps of youth. Youngsters were even less harshly punished when caught. On the opposite extreme, when an older man was known to take the passive role, the punishment was outrageous; public floggings, excessive fines and even exile.

What do we make of this?: The Dangers of the Historian

All these facts are very interesting, but now we need to understand how we can interpret them, make sense of them and figure out which lessons we can take from them. And to do that, we need to be aware of the mistakes that we may be making, or the things that we might be taking for granted. I want us to travel to the past again.

As a beginner historian, I live in constant fear to make two mistakes. The first one already made and I tell you all about it here. I tend to put oceans in between historical facts and real humans. For me, it’s difficult to imagine fifteenth-century people as more than mere shadows aside for their legacies. So what I do is I try to ask myself questions so I can imagine the little things. Were they cold in their houses? How often the painters painted? Did Leonardo da Vinci felt like his art was transcendent? Did slippers exist in the fifteenth century? Questions like those usually do the trick and get me into the proper headspace. In retrospective, my main conflict with studying this period was to understand how a person could walk the line of a society that is profoundly dominated by the church and at the same time displays such overwhelming sensuality and appetites.

If I was so detached from Renaissance society is because I was trying with all my heart not to make the opposite but equally dangerous mistake: anachronism. In the Holy Penis, I invited you to get close, but now I warn caution and a little distance. For an academic, think how enormously tempting is to research homosexuality in Renaissance. It makes for a great title and grabs people’s interest. And these relations existed, so the easiest thing is to extrapolate our knowledge of homosexuality today and situate it six centuries too early. But it doesn’t work like that.

Today homosexuality is a preference that marks your sexual habits and affectivities: a sexual orientation. In the Renaissance, however, there was no such thing as sexual orientation. Being gay wasn’t considered a preference, and same-sex relations were not thought of as a lifestyle. Concepts of heterosexuality didn’t exist either, because sexual habits were not officially a matter of sexual orientation, but a matter of procreation. If creating life was the main goal, heterosexuality was not so much a preference or a lifestyle as it was the proper way to make babies. Practising oral sex or sodomy, even with your “heterosexual” partner was equally sinful. Once you deviate from conception, you were already sinning so it didn’t make much of a difference.

And in the case of male same-sex relations, it seems that these sexual behaviours were a formative experience. More often than not, the younger, dominated male would grow up and become the penetrator. This sexual position defined his age, ranked and position in the constellation that we call masculinity. From being associated with females in their youth, as a sodomized sexual partner, they grew up to become fully realised men and the active partners in the bed.

So, for society in the Renaissance, there was no modern notion of heterosexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality. An example of this can be found in the commentary that the humanist Bocaccio writes concerning Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the poem, the protagonist, Dante, is guided through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. When they arrive at Hell, Dante sees the circle of sodomites suffering divine punishment and Priscian, a teacher, is among them.

Priscian is not only a character in the poem, but he was also a historical personality and a real educator of his time. In the commentary, Bocaccio claims to be unaware that Priscian was ever a sodomite, and so Bocaccio postulates that Dante is using this character to show the common temptations for a teacher. As Bocaccio puts it, the position of the student makes them accessible and open to their teacher, granting every one of his requests, even when the requests are not decorous. Historian James Schultz translates this not so much as a homosexual inclination, as it is simply a person succumbing to temptation and sin. Temptation is presented to us in different ways. Perhaps under different circumstances, Priscian would have been an adulterer or any other sin than sodomy. This, of course doesn’t mean that Priscian didn’t in fact prefer the company of other men, it means that he wouldn’t consider these preferences as caused by sexual orientation.

Some men were known to prefer homosexual relations and did not care for being with a woman. This is closer to the modern notion of homosexuality, even if they didn’t acknowledge it at the time. But the homosexual behaviours as described before, in their dynamics of younger vs older companion, were not based on a preference that would affect their sexual habits throughout their lives, but rather, an enjoyable activity that wouldn’t alter the course of them eventually marrying a woman and having children.

At the end of the day, we mustn’t forget the effect that religion had in behaviour. Some sins were worse than others, but they were all sins. Homosexual behaviour was at fault here, but so was adultery or bestiality (engaging in sexual conducts with animals). That doesn’t mean a lasting preference, but rather a momentary lapse caused by temptation. Since sinning was a temporary deviation from the right path, that deviation needed correction. Today we know that a person’s sexual orientation is not a “momentary lapse”, but a way of life. Imagine living in such a time. A time in which the Church permeated every moment of intimacy, even to the point of regulating the positions to be adopted during sex (True story). You may avoid those rules, move around them, or break them, but those rules extended too far to think homosexuality as an identity.

Žižek and the Fable of Freedom

What I take away from all this brings to mind a story loved by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. For all of you who don’t know him, Žižek is one of the most well-known active philosophers nowadays. He is communist and controversial, half philosopher, half showmen, called a “celebrity philosopher”. Can’t resist to link him here explaining the purpose of philosophy from his bed. Taps aff.

Fig. 3

(Fig. 3: And this is his archive pic. I also write most of this from my bed. I'm a fan.)

Žižek likes to tell an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic:

A German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let’s establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing unavailable is red ink.”

Žižek uses this story to illustrate our current situation. We have all the freedom one might want, except for the red ink. We feel free because we lack the language to articulate our lack of freedom. This is such a powerful idea. Then Žižek takes it down a different path, but for this topic, I just want to retain the idea of the articulation of freedom. A Renaissance man might be homosexual in the current sense of the word – that is, attracted to other men – However, back then they didn’t have the language to articulate sexual freedom, even less sexual orientation. What they had it was a list of sins, and sodomy was one of them, so easier to attribute the homosexual desire to a repeated sin caused by unremitting temptation, instead of thinking of it as a way of life.

This is not about the anecdotes, or about the quirky facts. For me, is all about the lessons that we take away. Now is very clear to us (perhaps not so clear for some) that homosexuality is not a sin, but simply a preference that marks your affective conduct: because we have the red ink. The lesson that I take from this is to be alert to detect all kinds of red ink we might be lacking in our present times, because if we figure it out today, perhaps we won’t need another five hundred years to learn from our mistakes.


  • Schultz, James A. “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol, 15, 1. (Jan 2006): 14-29.

  • Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

  • Rocke, Michael “Gender and Sexual Culture in Renaissance Italy” in Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy, edited by Judith Brown and Robert Davis. London, New York: Routledge, 2014.

  • Žižek, Slavoj. Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Capitalism. London: Penguin, 2014.


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