Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 9020
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Nugent , Christopher G.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Violence and Vernacularity: The Sodom Story in Anglo-Saxon England [Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, October 14-16, 1999, Session 30: "Queer Theory and Medieval Studies: Past, Present, Future."]
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000):
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Sexuality in Literature Sodom Sodomy in Literature
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 8- 9- 10- 11
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  • Abstract: In the late Anglo-Saxon period, a viable, stable sense of English national identity was beginning to emerge. Alfred the Great's educational policies paved the way for the secular elite reading the vernacular. The Benedictine Reform movement ran a parallel course in the upper reaches of the monastic and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Church and Crown each worked to create and strengthen an English state. Their interests, though, while often overlapping, were not identical. The treatment of the Sodom story and sodomy in Latin and vernacular texts demonstrates the fissures and contradictions within the newly emerging English nationalist ideology. In late Anglo-Saxon texts, Sodom is set up as a potential counter-model for the English nation. Neither Latin nor vernacular writers validate this model, but they distance themselves from it in distinctly different ways depending upon the intended audience. As a rule, the sexual content of a text is more explicit the closer its intended audience comes to the center of religious power. The Church sought to make its canons of sexual purity integral to the English national identity. It could not, however, countenance widespread dissemination of precise depictions of sodomitical behavior without risking encouraging the sin. Thus, even within the penitential manuals, there is a split. Latin versions read by the elite reforming clergy give detailed anatomical descriptions of sodomitical acts, whereas English versions used by the lower clergy are much vaguer. Although the penitential manuals do not re-tell the story of Sodom, it takes a prominent place in Genesis A, and Alfred's translation of Orosius devotes a chapter to the incident. The poem clearly establishes that the sin of the Sodomites involves male-male sexual behavior, which the men deliberately choose in place of male-female sex acts. That decision is castigated, and the destruction of the Cities of the Plain described in lurid detail. The sex act in question, though, is nowhere identified. Instead, the poem offers contrasting choices implicitly asking the English audience not to identify with an alien and damned folk. Alfred’s Orosium seems to be even less concerned with sex. Sodom here is most clearly a geographical and historical place which thus poses a more direct political rather than moral threat. The nation in real time might look to the Church for guidance, but it is ultimately grounded in a very different sense of history. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
  • Author's Affiliation: University of Rochester
  • Conference Info: - , -
  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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