The Last Judgement. British Library, Stowe 944 (Winchester, c.1031), folio 7r: lower register, an angel locks the door of Hell, while the damned are dragged off into a hell-mouth. This image is in the public domain.
What was the worst sin you could commit in Anglo-Saxon England? Surely murder, you're thinking. Perhaps, in particular, murdering your own child? But there was something even worse. And to be guilty of it, you needed to be a married man and of a certain age ...
This post was prompted by one of my blessed readers, Char, who read my post on theft and Anglo-Saxon laws, and wanted to know if homosexuality is mentioned in the earliest of those laws, Æthelberht’s Code.
Well, it isn’t.And it’s not actually referred to in any secular law in the Anglo-Saxon period.
So you might be thinking that the Anglo-Saxons were ahead of their time and tolerated, or approved of, same-sex acts or relationships. But you’d be wrong, well at least from the perspective of the Anglo-Saxon Church.
I’m not saying that there weren’t different or opposing views on same-sex behaviours in England at that time (I'm thinking c.600- c.1100).
The absence of legal punishment for male or female homosexuality may imply an absence of disapprobation within society for those things, or at least give us a sense that homosexual acts per se were not considered as damaging to society as, say, heterosexual adultery, for which there were numerous legal penalties within Anglo-Saxon laws.
It’s difficult though to argue from a position of absence.When something was not mentioned in law, does that really tell us what people generally thought?
On the other hand, the Church always had plenty to say about sin, and particularly about sexual sin.
That doesn’t mean everyone agreed with the Church.It’s very difficult to know what ordinary folk thought about ecclesiastical regulations on sex, or even if people were fully aware of the restrictions on sex.
Priests were required to teach from handbooks of confession, which treated sexual sins, including homosexuality, in a frank manner, but how they actually went about turning this material into instruction for the laity is difficult to determine.
They may have used the confessional dialogue (the conversation between priest and penitent) as the vehicle for teaching about sexual misdemeanours, though care would have been taken to avoid introducing fresh ideas about sin!
It was obviously a careful balancing act between winkling out the details of a person's sin and protecting them from even worse deeds.
General preaching in church was an obvious way of educating people about the expected sexual standards.
Surviving homilies, or sermons, contain general warnings against sexual sins, and on occasion touch on homosexuality.
There are homilies that refer to biblical examples of 'forbidden love' and even the 'madness' of men lusting after other men.
How often people actually went to church to hear these things is, again, something difficult to determine.
We do have evidence (in the form of a grumbling sermon from an abbot) that general attendance at church was a bit haphazard in late Anglo-Saxon England. So it’s quite possible that not everyone was up to date with the dos and don’ts of sex.
Of course, as the dutiful Anglo-Saxon Monk, I’m fully apprised of all things sexual.It’s my specialism!
So the following three passages are provided for you to compare.I’ve given you one on murder, one on murdering your own child, and one on homosexuality.
Now rest assured that I am not encouraging you to have a go at any of these activities. I just thought you might like to know a little bit more about them.
(N.B. I’m using ‘homosexuality’ to mean sexual acts between persons of the same biological sex, and not in the sense of the modern ideas of ‘gay’ identities, something likely foreign to those in the Anglo-Saxon world.)
But first a little background:
The passages below are taken from various vernacular handbooks for confession, referred to above. We now call these books penitentials, though an Anglo-Saxon priest would have called his book a scriftboc.
In the earlier part of the Anglo-Saxon period (around the eighth century), penitentials were written in Latin, but later (during the tenth and eleventh centuries) new penitentials were adapted into the vernacular (Old English).
So, here we go ...
‘If a lay person slays another without fault, he is to fast 7 years on bread and water and then 4 years as his confessor instructs him, and after that 7 years of repentance; he is to repent his misdeeds diligently, to the extent that he may; for it is unknown how acceptable his penance was to God.’(The Old English Handbook, translation by Allen J. Frantzen)
Slaying your own child:
‘If a woman kills her child as a murderer, she must fast for 15 years and never change that except on Sunday.’ (The Canons of Theodore, translation by Allen J, Frantzen)
Homosexuality (and bestiality):
‘The person who pollutes himself with an animal, or a male with another male, by means of an irrational thing, if he is a person of 20 years, so that he can understand that he has done that shameful and wicked thing, he should desist and confess and fast 15 years. And if the man should have his spouse and he is forty years old and he does such a thing, he should desist and fast the rest of his life, and should not presume that he will receive the Lord’s body [i.e. the bread of communion] before his days’ end [i.e. his death].Young men and the witless fool who do such a thing shall be beaten severely.’(The Old English Penitential, my own translation)
As you can see, based on the amount of fasting one had to do, both murder and, specifically, a mother murdering her own childwere considered very serious sins.By the way, fathers got off more lightly: just 7 years, according to one penitential. It has to be said that the secular law may have meant you lost your life for committing such terrible crimes.The inference of the penitentials is that it was possible for you to have your life spared for some reason, but even so, you had to show remorse and repentance by undergoing severe penance.
(Can you imagine, by the way, surviving on bread and water five or six days a week for fifteen years?You probably were spared full fasting at weekends, or on Sunday, though you probably weren’t allowed to eat meat then.)
Now, when it came to a man having sex with another man (that’s what ‘pollutes himself’ means), or indeed with a beast (God forbid!), the seriousness of the sin really becomes marked.
True, if you were young or the local village idiot, then you got away with a severe beating (short, sharp shock tactics). But if you were considered old enough to understand what you were doing, i.e. 20 years old, then your fasting matched that of the murdering mother.
And for the mature man, forty years of age (the age may be read as a typical example of maturity) it was even more serious.
It’s not simply that he had to fast for the rest of his life (which, of course, might not have been that long back then) but, more significantly, that he couldn’t rely on getting absolution for his sins, not even on his deathbed.
So that meant he could be eternally damned, as if he had committed an unforgiveable sin.
We should notice that he was told to ‘desist’ from his sin, which may imply he was in the habit of having sex with another man or an animal, even perhaps that he was in a regular sexual relationship with someone (human, presumably!).
The penitential also represents homosexuality, as well as bestiality, as 'an irrational thing'. Elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon texts, males having sex with males is described as 'madness', as mentioned above.
Such irrationality was particularly relevant when it was performed by a mature married man. The logic seems to be that unlike a youth, or a 'witless fool', this man should have known better.
Moreover, he was married and therefore had a wife for sex. It's as if the penitential is saying there is no possible reason why this man would do such a thing; it is totally perverse!
Now, there are other sins that meet with similar treatment in the penitentials: specifically, the committing of ‘many evil deeds in murder and fornication’, for which a man had to enter a monastery and fast for the rest of his days; and suicide, for which a person was not to be buried in a Christian grave, nor receive the singing of mass, which probably indicated that that one was eternally damned.
But the sin of practicing homosexuality as a mature, married man seems to me to have been considered at least as, if not even more, serious than both those.
Now, where did I put my own scriftboc? I need to gem up on sexual sins for monks ...
If you want to read more on the penitentials, here's a link to Allen J. Frantzen's electronic edition. This will take you to 'Homicide', but if you follow the 'Cultural Index' tab, top right, you will see lots of other goodies available. Actually, I meant 'baddies'... sin is bad, I keep telling you that!
The Anglo-Saxon Monk would be delighted to hear your thoughts on this post, so go on ... have your say and leave a comment below.
Homosexuality is not referred to in any of the surviving Anglo-Saxon laws (c.600-c.1025)
The Anglo-Saxon Church had plenty to say about sin, and especially sexual sin!
The Anglo-Saxons probably didn't think of homosexuality in the way we do today, with the sense of 'gay' identities.
The Anglo-Saxon penitentials handed out 15 years for a mother killing her son and the same for a twenty-year-old male having sex with another man or an animal.
If young or the village idiot, then you got away with a severe beating if you had sex with another male or a beast.
A forty-year-old married man having sex with another man risked committing an unforgiveable sin and being damned forever!
The Life of Guthlac. British Library, Harley Roll Y.6 (England, possibly Crowland, late 12th- or early 13th-century), roundel 7: Bartholomew (left) appears to a tumbling Guthlac (looks a bit drafty there!). Note the damned inside the hell-mouth. This image is in the public domain.
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