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Goodich, Michael: 'The Unmentionable Vice'

Michael Goodich
The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period
Ross-Erikson, 1979
ISBN: 0-87436-300-4

Review by Hubert Kennedy

In two articles in the Journal of Homosexuality in 1976, Michael Goodich briefly sketched the close connection between heresy and sodomy in 13th-century secular and ecclesiastical law. Now, in The Unmentionabie Vice, he has elaborated that sketch into a full-scale study of homosexuality in Europe, from the 11th to the early 14th century. The result is a masterfully researched and fascinating picture of the period during which the Catholic Church consolidated its consequent moral condemnation of homosexual acts.

Although the Council ot Ancyra had treated sodomy as a crime as early as 314 A.D., at the beginning of the 11th century there was no uniform legislation on the subject.

Indeed, it seems to have been regarded as primarily a non-Christian vice. Thereafter, more and more attention was given to sexual onconformity. While less concern was shown in remote areas, “urbanized Europe . . . seems to have been populated by a throng of religious puritans on the lockout for sexual deviance.”

With the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “a more militant, aggressive phase opened in the history of the Catholic Church.” The penalties for conviction of sodomy continued to be strengthened, and the Inquisition was developed as a means of hunting down heretics and sodomites. The Dominican Order was largely instrumental here, the Fathers acting as inquisitors as well as founding lay confraternities with the twofold purpose of worshipping the Virgin and of exterminating heresy and that “evil filth” (sodomy).

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the lengthy appendix giving the verbatim report of the trial for heresy and sodomy of Arnold of Verniolle in 1323. By his own confession, Arnold committed sodomy with several young men, whose testimony is also included. The distance between theoretical views and actual practice is shown by the 11 apparent ease with which he met his partners, despite the severe legal penalties. (Arnold was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment in chains, on a diet of bread and water.)

Nor does Goodich neglect to place these attitudes within the economic and social structures of the times, and there are forceful parallels with the history of more recent times. “The kind of social ferment prevalent in the 13th century was as likely to breed the same kind of repressive mass movements so common to the 20th century that direct much of their energies toward the eradication of aberrant life-styles.”

In his introduction, Goodich briefly discusses the rise of the modern homosexual emancipation movement in 19th-century Germany. Here, relying on a secondary source, he incorrectly identifies the pseudonymous Numa Praetorius as Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (who used the similar pseudonym Numa Numantius); but in treating the medieval period, Goodich displays a firsthand knowledge of his sources, to which he gives full and precise references. I hope other scholars will join him in this investigation, for “a mass of such material remains still in manuscript.”

We will remain grateful to Goodich for his scholarly and pioneering work. It is an invaluable contribution to the recovery and understanding of gay history.

Added:  Sunday, November 05, 2006
Reviewer:  editor
hits: 5835