During the suppression of the Templar order in the early 1300s, the oft repeated charge against the knights was that of ‘sodomy‘. The trial documents didn’t spare any blushes in detailing the crime describing the act of kissing the body of initiates in various places including the base of the spine.
The act of anal sex had not been a taboo in Europe before the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire. Indeed the Greeks seemed to be particular fans and tolerant of bisexuality in the upper classes. The issue for pagan Romans was whether a man of senatorial rank allowed himself to be the submissive partner, especially if he played bottom to somebody of inferior social rank – that was a no-no.
But Christianity – inheriting the Judaic opposition to homosexuality – gave us an outright ban on same gender sex. That of course did not stop it happening, especially in monasteries where men were grouped together in celibate conditions. I think it’s reasonable to assume that many gay men in the Middle Ages might have made a beeline for their local monastery – thus avoiding the pressure to get married to a woman and being round the clock in the company of men.
Sodomy was an accusation calculated to damn anybody. It’s still used in religious countries to discredit political opponents today. To get an idea of how the legal system viewed anal sex, you can access at no charge the archive of Britain’s Central Criminal Court with cases going back three hundred years – a fantastic resource and hours of fun.
Many of the accusations of sodomy in the centuries covered by this archive (18th and 19th centuries mainly) led to acquittal. Punishments were severe and juries needed to be convinced beyond a doubt. Thomas Poddy for example was accused of ‘assault with sodomitical intent’ but acquitted.
George Duffus was less lucky having gone drinking with a stranger who he then asked to stay with as his home was far away. While sharing a bed, Duffus “thrust his Tongue in his Mouth, called him his dear Friend, and got on his Back”. He then attempted to leave an “Emissio Seminis in his Body”. Needless to say the judge directed the jury to find him guilty.
Duffus was “Fin’d 20 Marks, a Months Imprisonment, and to stand upon the Pillory near Old Gravel Lane”. A Mark was a British accounting unit, his imprisonment would have been in a shared cell and the choice of pillory was near to the pub he had picked up the other man. The pillory was a wooden structure which held your hands and head in place in a standing position while passers by mocked or even pelted you with objects – people were known to die in the pillory from their injuries.
William Griffin who was accused of sodomy in 1726 was, like many before him, sentenced to death. Very near where I live in south London there used to be a gallows where local historians can confirm that two men were hung together for being lovers in the eighteenth century. Ironically, the area now has a thriving gay scene.
In the Middle Ages, the punishment for sodomy – which covered all acts of anal sex even with women – could lead in some parts of Europe to castration and then death. France, the Spanish kingdoms and the Italian cities seemed to be particularly harsh in their legal attitude towards the act. Bologna saw those accused of sodomy burnt to death and an early recorded case of capital punishment for sodomy in the Middle Ages is from Ghent where a man was burnt at the stake in 1292.
England, it’s believed, was more likely to allow leeway for acts of penance and rehabilitation – though ironically the king who oversaw the seizure of Templar property, Edward II, would come to be accused himself of sodomy by his political enemies. I’ve posted on this before. One of his accusers was a bishop who had been prominent in the Templar trials – in other words, accusing people of sodomy seems to have been a regular tactic of his.
Repeatedly, we see heretics throughout the medieval period accused of sodomy with the Templars suffering the same indignity. Question – were they indeed sodomites? Well, if they were like many monks and knights of the time – and indeed all men throughout human history – we can assume that some Templars were gay and indulged their passions. But they would have been aware of the biblical prohibition on the act.
However, the idea that sodomy was a part of their initiation and thereby practised by the entire order is far fetched and smacks of a campaign of spin by the Catholic church and French monarchy.
- Great Templar adventure you can download on iTunes (thetemplarknight.com)
- Burial place of Templar Grand Masters (thetemplarknight.com)
- History of the Skull & Crossbones Symbol Used in Poison Warning Signs and Labels (mysafetysign.com)