Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination

Christopher Monk

Rounded Globe



The Sin of Sodom

Lot and the men of Sodom: Genesis 19:1–13:1

1. And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of the city. And seeing them, he rose up and went to meet them: and worshipped prostrate to the ground.

2. And said: I beseech you, my lords, turn in to the house of your servant, and lodge there: wash your feet, and in the morning you shall go on your way. And they said: No, but we will abide in the street.

3. He pressed them very much to turn in unto him: and when they were come into his house, he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate:

4. But before they went to bed, the men of the city beset the house, both young and old, all the people together.

5. And they called Lot, and said to him: Where are the men that came in to thee at night? bring them out hither, that we may know them:

6. Lot went out to them, and shut the door after him, and said:

7. Do not so, I beseech you, my brethren, do not commit this evil.

8. I have two daughters who, as yet, have not known man; I will bring them out to you, and abuse you them as it shall please you, so that you do no evil to these men, because they are come in under the shadow of my roof.

9. But they said: Get thee back thither. And again: Thou camest in, said they, as a stranger, was it to be a judge? therefore we will afflict thee more than them. And they pressed very violently upon Lot: and they were even at the point of breaking open the doors.

10. And behold the men put out their hand, and drew in Lot unto them, and shut the door.

11. And them, that were without, they struck with blindness from the least to the greatest, so that they could not find the door.

12. And they said to Lot: Hast thou here any of thine? son in law, or sons, or daughters, all that are thine bring them out of this city:

13. For we will destroy this place, because their cry is grown loud before the Lord, who hath sent us to destroy them.

For many people familiar with the Old Testament, one of its most disquieting narratives is the story of Lot and the men of Sodom. Whether it be the riotous mob demanding to have sex with Lot’s angelic guests, or Lot’s bargaining for the angels’ safety with his offer of his daughters, for many the story is troubled by the dubious morals of Lot and disturbing for its portrayal of same-sex desire.

The biblical account of the men of Sodom has provoked a great deal of debate, especially relating to the Bible’s position on homosexuality. Much of this has centred on defining the sin of Sodom, specifically whether sex between men is the particular reason God destroys Sodom in a torrent of fire and brimstone, the rather violent culmination to the story, or whether the Sodomites were the target of divine wrath because of their inhospitality.2 Google ‘sin of Sodom’ and you will have enough pages of impassioned commentary, quite often framed as Christian argument on both sides, to keep you busy for several months.3

This extended essay is not about that modern debate. It might be said, however, that its content does relate to the debate historically, for it addresses early medieval conceptions of the story of Sodom in England, and some of those conceptions, or the way they are expressed, may in essence be recognisable today among advocates of anti-homosexual discourse. Some will not. More pertinently, by narrowing the analysis to the Anglo-Saxon conceptualisation of the sin of Sodom, my study contributes to a more expansive understanding of the medieval history of male homosexuality. There have been times when the face of early medieval England has been cast into the shadows by investigations addressing the Middle Ages that tended to spotlight the later medieval period, though recent studies have redressed this; and my own research aims to make further progress.

Allen J. Frantzen’s Before the Closet is a core work that has done much to shed light on the Anglo-Saxon period.4 This book is in fact a good place to start when seeking an overview of key medieval histories of male homosexuality written during the twentieth-century, such as those by Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Vern Bullough and Mark Jordon.5 Frantzen’s detailed study in his book of Anglo-Saxon texts that address the story of Sodom is something to which my own is directly indebted, as it is to David Clark’s more recent work Between Medieval Men, which offers a thoughtful analysis of the treatment of the Sodomites in Anglo-Saxon literature.6

It is important to continue to illuminate early medieval views of homosexuality. This is probably best illustrated when we consider the best known and most influential study on the topic of medieval homosexuality in the last sixty years or so, John Boswell’s 1980 publication, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. This book gained a wide circulation both within and outside of academia and it is still influential today. Boswell emphasizes what he terms the ‘positive evidence’ for the tolerance of homosexual practices in early medieval sources, arguing that oppression of homosexual acts due to social and political change developed late in the Middle Ages. However, as Frantzen’s own study of ‘same-sex love’ demonstrates, this is a flawed representation of the early medieval period (by which I mean roughly up to the eleventh century), for Boswell seriously underestimates the early medieval Church’s disapprobation of same-sex acts.7

As indicated above, the objective of this study is not to provide a definitive answer to the question of the nature of the sin of Sodom. Neither does it offer a single, uncomplicated Anglo-Saxon understanding of this question. Rather it explores a variety of perspectives as it addresses in detail those Anglo-Saxons whom we know gave thought to it: those who pondered the story of Sodom, or imagined it, and who in one form or another expressed that imagination. To do this, it is necessary to examine not only what theologians and writers of the period had to say about the men of Sodom and their sin, but also to explore the treatment of this troubling story in Anglo-Saxon art.

Chapter one of this study is my analysis of the literature, including poetry, personal letters, biblical commentary and translation, homilies and penitentials. I look closely at the language of both Latin and Old English works by well-known Anglo-Saxon writers such as Bede, Alcuin and Ælfric, but also examine certain anonymous works, such as the poem known as Genesis A, and less familiar texts, such as the Penitential of Theodore. Thus we manage to explore literature from across several centuries of the Anglo-Saxon period, covering writers from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.8

My discussion of Bede’s commentary on Genesis, which among Anglo-Saxon texts offers the most comprehensive treatment of the men of Sodom, is particularly important. It opens up a more detailed analysis than has been offered in the past and clarifies that this most influential of Anglo-Saxon theologians held an unambiguously negative view of the sexual mores of the Sodomites. And yet there is little within Bede’s work, or indeed in most of the other writings we will explore, that could be considered as a truly explicit definition of the sin of Sodom.

Though modern English translations are provided in the main body of this study for all of the texts examined (the original Latin or Old English is placed in the notes), I do also take the opportunity to explore specific phrases or words from the original languages (incorporated into the translation in parentheses). I politely invite the non-specialist to bear with me. I have tried my best to avoid unnecessary jargon that might obscure rather than clarify (the occasional technical discussion is reserved for the notes), but I assume an understanding of simple grammatical terms. It is a challenge to draw out the significance of language or vocabulary choices and make it accessible to those unfamiliar with Old English or Latin, but I believe in attempting to do this, I have contributed to an improved understanding of the intent of the various Anglo-Saxon writers.

Perhaps the most original contribution in this study is chapter two’s examination in depth of the Sodom narrative from the perspective of Anglo-Saxon manuscript art, something that has only previously been dealt with rather superficially. It is important to emphasize that writers do not stand alone as interpreters of biblical narrative. Exegesis, the art of interpreting biblical texts, is a skill shared by artists, too. Artists can impart meaning, amplify and illuminate.

In the context of the Sodomites and Anglo-Saxon England, we must look to the artist of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch.9 Produced in Canterbury around 1020–40, the Hexateuch brings together vernacular translations from Latin of the first six books of the Bible; these are incorporated into, what to the modern eye looks like, an extensive comic strip which visually tells the stories of these biblical texts.

The artist’s storytelling intersects and interacts not only with the Old English text but also with the source text of which the vernacular is a translation, that is, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Bible, and indeed with some of the prevailing interpretations and adaptations of the biblical stories at the time the Hexateuch was produced.

These are the dynamics at play which contribute to a very particular Anglo-Saxon perspective of the men of Sodom. Indeed, we should resist thinking of the pictures in the Hexateuch as purely the illustration of text, or indeed as subordinate to the text. Moreover, when we consider the subject of Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon imagination, we must be aware of ways in which both visual and textual discourses are interconnected.

Chapter One

Writing the Unspeakable Sin

In his recent study, Between Medieval Men, David Clark argues that Anglo-Saxon writers do not exclusively, or even principally, associate Sodom with inter-male sex. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that Anglo-Saxon uses and interpretations of the Sodom story are complex, varied, and occasionally unclear. Allusion rather than directness is the order of the day. That said, some of the writers and the texts examined below do unequivocally associate the men of Sodom with same-sex practices; moreover, some emphasize this association when dealing with the rationale behind God’s destruction of Sodom.

Aldhelm and the ‘crime of Sodom’

Aldhelm (c.639/640–c.709/710), who has been described as ‘the first English man of letters’,10 was also most probably the first Anglo-Saxon writer to mention the sin of Sodom. He does so briefly in his poetic work Carmen de Virginitate (‘Song of Virginity’).11 Aldhelm’s reference to the sin forms part of his discussion of the vice of gluttony, in the context of the pitfalls of drunkenness.12 When highlighting drunkenness as the cause of Lot’s incest with his two grown daughters, which takes place after the family has fled Sodom,13 Aldhelm mentions the destruction of that city:

[D]ark thunderbolts with sulphuric flashes set afire the fornicators [Latin, ‘scortatores’] and sodomites [Latin, ‘cinaedos’], softened by baseness, who were committing vile deeds [Latin, ‘facinus’] of Sodom in a heinous fashion [Latin, ‘more nefando’].14

We should first note that the translation above, by Michael Lapidge and James Rosier, uses ‘sodomites’ to translate ‘cinaedos’ – a plural form of cinaedus, a term I address below – and so Aldhelm does not actually refer to the Sodomites by name. However, he does provide the name of their city in the phrase translated here as ‘vile deeds of Sodom’, though more correctly as ‘the vile deed [singular] of Sodom’. In using the singular form, Aldhelm posits a particular outrage: the deed, or crime, of Sodom. Though he is not explicit in defining it, he does say it was carried out in a ‘heinous fashion’ or, more literally, in an ‘unspeakable manner’.15 As we shall see, the idea of the ‘unspeakable sin’ in connection with the Sodomites is pursued by other Anglo-Saxon writers.

What is intriguing in this description of the crime of Sodom is Aldhelm’s juxtaposition of the ‘fornicators’ and the cinaedi. The translation above, with its reference to multiple ‘vile deeds’, encourages the interpretation that these ones were engaging in different sexual sins. Clark takes this position, arguing that ‘Aldhelm clearly sees “the vile deeds of Sodom” as including both other-sex and same-sex acts’.16 It is, however, far from clear that this is how Aldhelm sees the matter.

By using ‘scortatores’, derived from the noun scortum, meaning ‘prostitute’ – either female or male – Aldhelm may be specifically indicating ‘whoremongers’,17 or those who consort with prostitutes,18 thus adding a layer of meaning not immediately apparent from the translators’ choice of ‘fornicators’. We might reasonably ask if these whoremongers should therefore be understood as directly involved with Aldhelm’s cinaedi. The Latin word cinaedus (borrowed from Greek kinaidos), is used in Roman literature as an insult and refers to a ‘gender-deviant’ male who, amongst other disreputable things, chooses to be sexually penetrated by a man. According to Craig Williams, who has made an exhaustive survey of Latin texts using cinaedus, ‘he was a “non-man” who broke the rules of masculine comportment and whose effeminate disorder might be embodied in the particular symptom of seeking to be penetrated’.19

Aldhelm’s view of the cinaedi appears to draw upon this Roman literary tradition. He observes that they are ‘softened by baseness’, or sordidness. In other Anglo-Saxon texts, softness is associated with effeminate males, including the ‘gender-deviant’ bædling of vernacular penitential literature who is said to have sex with other men.20 In view of the foregoing, Aldhelm’s juxtaposition of ‘whoremongers’ and cinaedi may be an allusion to ‘active’ and ‘passive’ males, or, to put it more accurately, males who carry out the ‘insertive role’ and those who carry out the ‘receptive role’ in penetrative (anal) sex.21 Since the grammar of the passage clearly allows for ‘the sin of Sodom’ to be something that was being committed by both, the possibility exists that Aldhelm saw the whoremongers and cinaedi as working this same sin together. The ‘unspeakable’ crime of Sodom may thus be understood by Aldhelm as males penetrating other males as if they were whores. In other words, the whoremongers found what they were looking for in the form of other men. We cannot state categorically that anal intercourse between the men of Sodom is the exact meaning of Aldhelm’s rather inexplicit phrasing, but the insinuation is strong, especially when we appreciate the subtleties within his choice of vocabulary. What we can say for sure is that Aldhelm viewed the crime of Sodom as something sordid and hence something not to be expressed explicitly.

Boniface: ‘after the fashion of the Sodomite people’

Boniface (c.672–754), an Anglo-Saxon missionary active in the Frankish empire, briefly mentions the Sodomites in his letter to King Æthelbald of Mercia. He offers no clarity concerning the specific nature of the sin of Sodom, but rather uses the Sodomites as a warning example against a variety of sexual sins.

Boniface’s objective in writing to Æthelbald was to reprove the English monarch over numerous failings as a Christian king, including his failure to take a lawful wife and, reportedly, for falling into the crime of fornication with nuns. He also aimed to encourage the king to root out all unlawful sexual unions amongst his people. The letter (c.746-747) has been used to argue for the widespread practice of homosexuality among the English at that time, because of its reference to the people of Sodom. Read in context, there is no real basis for interpreting it that way, for the letter is at best oblique in its allusions to inter-male sex, even when referring to the Sodomite people.22

When addressing accusations against the English made across Europe, Boniface states to Æthelbald:

If indeed the English people [...] have lived a foul life – lawful marriage having been spurned by defiling [Latin, ‘adulterando’] and luxuriating [Latin, ‘luxoriando’] after the fashion of the people of Sodom – from such a mingling of harlots it shall be reckoned that degenerate peoples, ignoble and mad with lust, will be produced.23

For Boniface, the Sodomites are the archetypes of a foul or loathsome manner of living, and are thus his exemplum for communicating his concern over the seriousness of the sins attributed to the English. ‘In the fashion of’ or ‘likeness of’ the Sodomites is rather vague, deliberately so, and is most likely intended to indicate that English immorality, sexual and otherwise, is reportedly as excessive as that of the people of Sodom. The allusion to the people’s luxuria, the Latin word which incorporates the idea of sexual licentiousness but more broadly that of extravagance and lack of restraint, would tend to supports this. Thus we might say that for Boniface, Sodom is a byword for excess. That he is not specifically alluding to homosexual practices among the English can be seen from the fact that he refers to the inevitability of degenerate people being produced as a consequence of the mingling of harlots, the latter implying intercourse with female prostitutes. Unless Boniface is not speaking literally of procreation – it might be argued that the production of degenerates is a metaphor for social decline – then this mention of sexual reproduction somewhat negates any association with homosexual practices.24

We should take care at arriving at our understanding of Boniface’s choice of the Latin word ‘adulterando’ (literally, ‘by adulterating’). It should not be understood as an explicit reference to heterosexual acts of adultery on the part of the Sodomites, for it carries the broad sense of ‘by polluting’ or ‘by defiling’.25 However, it is also clear that Boniface is not specifying inter-male sex as the sin of either the English or the Sodomites. What we need to appreciate is that Boniface is not creating an exact parallel of sexual behaviours or acts, but rather he sees the Sodomites’ lifestyle as analogous to the depraved choices of the English. A key aim in using Sodom as a point of reference is to strike the fear of God into the king and his people. The correspondence between the English and the Sodomites does not need to be exact for Boniface’s warning to be effective. This is shown in his letter, written around the same time, to Archbishop Ecgberht of York, where in referring to the Sodomites he moves beyond a like-for-like parallel and actually stresses that the English are even worse in their depravity:

It is an evil unheard of in times past and, as servants of God here versed in the Scriptures say, three or four times worse than the corruption of Sodom, if a Christian people should turn against lawful marriage contrary to the practice of the whole world – nay, to the divine command – and should give itself over to incest, lust, and adultery, and the seduction of veiled and consecrated women.26

Boniface is here employing hyperbole. He is not stating that the English people were literally three or four times more corrupt than the people of Sodom, who according to Scripture – in which he is well versed – were eternally damned.27 Neither is he saying that the sexual sins of the English and the Sodomites were identical (there were no nuns in Sodom!). Rather, his point is that the English are a ‘Christian people’ who not only have before them the general example of the world on marriage, but the very commands of God as their guide. Their sins, by this assessment, are therefore worse than those of Sodom.

Boniface’s letters are important sources for understanding some of the subtlety within the Anglo-Saxon discourse of the sin of Sodom. They demonstrate that he was not explicit in defining that sin, for that was not his intent. Indeed, he saw the story of Sodom, of which he felt no compunction to amplify either to King Æthelbald or Archbishop Ecgberht, as a vehicle for warning against illicit sexual practices in broad terms.

Bede and the ‘unspeakable sin’

The Venerable Bede (c.672–735), renowned monastic scholar and historian, refers directly to the men of Sodom, or ‘the Sodomites’, on numerous occasions in his Latin commentary on Genesis. Though at times his language is rather circumlocutory, Bede’s amplifications on the Sodom narrative are frequently original, and hence particularly pertinent in addressing how the Anglo-Saxons imagined the sin of Sodom.28

Bede first mentions the Sodomites not when discussing their attempted rape of the angelic men but, surprisingly, in a passage concerning the drunkenness of Noah. In this story, Noah exposes himself, and his son Ham views his nakedness. On sobering up, and realising what has happened, he curses not Ham but Ham’s son, and his grandson, Canaan.29 Bede addresses the issue of why Canaan rather than Ham is cursed, something about which the biblical account is silent. His words at this point have no known source in patristic writings (older commentaries by the Church Fathers, early Christian theologians), and hence are the more striking for their innovation in connecting Canaan and Ham to the Sodomites:

And according to the literal sense it should be noted also that, although Ham sinned, there is a reason why not he but his son Canaan is cursed [...]. For at the same time it was foreseen on the spiritual level that the offspring of Canaan were going to sin much more than the other offspring of the sons of Ham, and therefore that they would deserve either to perish by the curse or to groan under the slavery to which they were subjugated. That this was revealed about the Sodomites in particular, who came from the race of Canaan, is shown both by their unspeakable sin [Latin, ‘scelere nefando’] and by the horrible vengeance that was taken upon them.30

Though Bede fails here to explain properly why Ham was not cursed, he does nevertheless make explicit a perceived genealogical link between Canaan and the Sodomites. In doing this, he indirectly associates the ‘unspeakable sin’ of the Sodomites with the sin of Canaan’s father Ham, who, pertinently, is represented by later Anglo-Saxon artists as betraying illicit sexual desire when contemplating Noah’s naked body (see figure 1).31

figure 1. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, folio 17v.
Detail showing Ham lingering over the naked body of Noah, his father

The excessiveness of the sin of the offspring of Canaan is said to be ‘revealed about the Sodomites in particular’. This emphasis marks the beginning of Bede’s segregation of the Sodomites for special condemnation. That he is alluding to the males of Sodom in this particular passage – rather than the whole nation of Sodom – becomes clearer as we progress through Bede’s commentary and understand how he uses the concept of the ‘unspeakable sin’ in a very precise way.

A second reference to this unutterable sin is found in Bede’s discussion of Genesis 13:13, which declares: ‘And the men of Sodom were very wicked and sinners before the face of the Lord beyond measure’.32 In explaining the sins of Sodom in broad terms, Bede refers the reader to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who actually does not mention explicitly any sexual sin in connection with Sodom, though his words, quoted by Bede, do state that ‘abominations’ were committed, which may be a vague allusion to the attempted rape of the angelic men.33 However, it should not escape our notice that in rehearsing Ezekiel’s list of the sins of Sodom – pride, gluttony, materialism, idleness, and neglect of the needy – Bede himself makes it clear that there is one particular sin more readily brought to mind. When introducing the passage from Ezekiel, Bede states: ‘And by what sins the men of Sodom were subjugated, aside from the one unspeakable sin which Scripture mentions in the sequel, the prophet Ezekiel sufficiently explains’.34 Here, Bede effectively separates the general sins of the Sodomite nation from that sin which is ‘unspeakable’.35 In stating that the latter is mentioned later in the scriptural sequel (that is, Genesis chapter 19), Bede also presupposes the readers’ knowledge of that sin. The overall sense and tone is that there is an obvious sin of Sodom: the unspeakable one.36 Bede later reveals more about this sin, associating it specifically with the males of Sodom, as I discuss below.

It is important at this juncture to stress the point that if we omit or ignore Bede’s initial allusion to the unspeakable sin of Sodom, then we end up skewing his emphasis. We make it appear as if he understood the sins of Sodom as being solely their selfish, prideful and inhospitable natures. Clearly, in marking out the ‘unspeakable sin’ Bede is not subsuming it in a list of more general vices.37

It is also noteworthy that on opening his commentary on Genesis 13:13, Bede explains that the Bible ‘calls attention to the impiety of the inhabitants [of Sodom], in order that they may be understood to be deserving of greater condemnation, because they turned the greatest gifts of God not to the fruit of piety but to the increase of licentiousness’.38 Here, Bede builds upon his earlier association of Sodom with excessive sinfulness. The people of Sodom, he argues, should be understood as deserving of particular censure: they not only failed to produce the fruits of piety, as his subsequent use of Ezekiel shows, but they perpetrated an increase of their debauchery. Though not stated explicitly, the ‘unspeakable sin’ of the Sodomites was a key element of that increase.

Bede continues to expound the excessiveness of the sins of the Sodomites in a passage that addresses a scene from Genesis that is given no particular meaning in the Bible in connection with Sodom’s iniquity, and indeed is not commented on by any of Bede’s sources. The passage concerned, Genesis 14, recounts the battle of several kings against the king of Sodom, who is defeated and captured along with Lot and his family. Though the point of this narrative is to show the excellence of Abraham and the might of God – for Abraham rescues with a small army both his nephew Lot and the king of Sodom – Bede chooses to offer a further level of meaning, which is worth examining in detail:

But it should not be overlooked that there is another very important reason why the battle of these kings was written down, as well as first the flight and afterwards the rescue of the Sodomites, who we know were completely destroyed by divine wrath in the days to come. Indeed, seeing their crimes, God first attacked them with slaughter and captivity by their enemies; but soon by means of his faithful servant he rescued them from that same captivity with everything that had been taken. This was done for the sake of the blessed Lot, who among them served God faithfully, so that, aided by such a special gift of divine protection and delivered from evil, they might abandon their errors and learn to serve God and follow the precedent for good works that he set, by whom and through whom they had been saved by the grace of God. But since they were unwilling to be reformed from their wickedness either by him, or by divine censures, or by gifts, but instead heaped up daily the crimes of their former depravity with new outrages [Latin, ‘flagitiis’], it remained for them to be damned forever by heavenly wrath.39

This is a remarkable piece of biblical exegesis. Uniquely, Bede sees the capturing of the Sodomites as a precursor to God’s complete destruction of Sodom, and their rescue by Abraham as a manifestation of ‘the grace of God’, who intended to demonstrate to the Sodomites that they must reform their wicked ways.40

We can also appreciate here, as elsewhere, that Bede has an agenda in connection with Lot: it is important to him, and therefore to his audience, to defend Lot’s ‘blessed’ state and his faithfulness. It would seem that there is no better way for him to do this than by contrasting Lot’s righteousness with the excessive sinfulness of the Sodomites. This is something that becomes particularly important to Bede in his subsequent explication of Lot’s incest with his two daughters, where he is at great pains to lessen the guilt of Lot, even suggesting that Lot ‘endured’ rather than ‘committed’ the acts and is therefore ‘excusable’. Whereas Bede, in the passage above, has no desire to allude to Lot’s failing, specifically to what he later describes as ‘so great a crime as incest’, he does not fail to take the opportunity to turn a victory and salvation narrative into a condemnation of the outrages of Sodom.41

Bede’s emphatic language in his commentary on Genesis 14 is significant not only for the way it chimes with his earlier discussion of ‘the unspeakable sin’ but, more concretely, because it creates a clear semantic link to his following depiction of the Sodomites’ attempted rape of Lot and his angelic guests. In commenting on Genesis 19:23–25, Bede repeats both the use of Latin flagitium, which as well as ‘outrage’ carries the sense of ‘scandal’ or a ‘shameful act’, and deploys the same phrasing of ‘heaping up’ crimes. Thus the two passages correspond semantically. Furthermore, in the second of these, Bede continues carefully to construct his representation of the Sodomites and their sin by offering a justification of God’s destruction of Sodom. After describing the Lord, at the rising of the sun, raining down sulphur and fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah, he states:

It indeed happened rightly by the judgement of God that those who tried to ensnare in their shameful crimes [Latin, ‘flagitiis’] the blessed Lot, as he was labouring hard in the dark of the night to resist, at the sudden advent of day, seeing that he was saved, straightway perished themselves. And those who themselves had burned in the dark with the filthy pleasures of the flesh, at the sudden appearance of morning were consumed in sulphur and fire [...].

Likewise it should be noted that in one and the same night Lot took delight in having the Lord as his guest and was protected from his enemies, and the Sodomites laboured to heap up their crimes, even disgracing Lot himself with his guests. But at sunrise he was freed for the sake of his righteousness, while they were damned on account of their wickedness.42

Here, in referring to both Lot’s labours of resistance ‘in the dark’ and the burning of fleshly pleasures ‘in the dark’, Bede is clearly alluding to the confrontation between the Sodomite males and Lot outside the doors of his home, which takes place, according to Genesis, ‘at night’. The subsequent expansion, that the Sodomites’ behaviour disgraced or insulted both Lot and ‘his guests’, confirms the allusion.

We should note how the repetition of the Latin word ‘flagitiis’, used earlier to describe the fresh outrages being heaped up by the Sodomites, is now directly associated with the shameful acts through which the Sodomite males attempt to ensnare Lot: acts of forced inter-male sex. The verbal echoes continue between the two passages with the description of these disgraces as also being heaped up.43 Thus Bede’s earlier thinking is illuminated: his general description of the irredeemable Sodomites links semantically with the particular, scandalous behaviour of the males of Sodom at Lot’s home. Both passages – the earlier by allusion, the later more explicitly – can therefore be seen to form a correlation between the divine wrath against Sodom and Sodom’s outrage of attempted homosexual rape.

We should not overlook Bede’s argument in support of the righteousness of God’s destruction of Sodom in the first light of day because of these particular ‘shameful crimes’ enacted the very night before. It is, Bede is pointing out, a most appropriate judgement; and in making this observation he underscores his own view that the catalyst for Sodom’s destruction was the behaviour of the men of Sodom towards Lot and the angels on that eventful night.

Even before Bede explains the rationale behind God’s judgement of Sodom, he does already, in fact, amplify the nature of the Sodomites’ sin, through his commentary on Genesis 19:4–5. When dealing directly with the demand of ‘the men of the city’44 to ‘know’ the men who had gone into Lot’s home,45 Bede dares to be more explicit and consequently comes close to speaking the unspeakable. He illuminates the vices of the Sodomites by referring to an ongoing practice specific to the males of Sodom. Whilst making an analogy between the openness of the sins of the Israelites at the time of the prophet Isaiah and the shamelessness of the Sodomites, he observes:

Indeed, they [the Israelites] proclaimed abroad their sin as Sodomites, and did not hide it, when all males from childhood to old age used to engage shamelessly in indecent practices with males, so much so that they did not try to hide their crimes even from strangers and foreigners, but rather by using force they strove to make them like themselves in their wicked deeds and to involve them in their crimes.46

This is Bede’s most explicit reference to the ‘unspeakable’ sin of Sodom, and it is important to note that in this discussion he chooses to conflate the incident at Lot’s home and the more general sexual habits of the Sodomites. His allusion to the attempted rape of both the angelic men and Lot is clear enough, through his reference to the use of force against strangers and foreigners; indeed, Genesis 19:9 shows that Lot was seen by the Sodomites as a foreigner in their land.

It is Bede’s definition of the sin of the Sodomites, however, that is particularly revealing, as he argues that all the males of Sodom, of all ages, were in the habit of performing ‘indecent practices’. This is important, for the biblical account does not corroborate this. The only reference to sexual indecency is the attempted rape of Lot and his angelic guests. Bede’s augmentation here appears to be drawing upon one of his sources, Augustine of Hippo, who in The City of God (c. 412) describes Sodom as a place ‘where sexual intercourse between males had become so commonplace that it received the license usually extended by the law to other practices’.47

Bede’s choice of vocabulary is crucial for understanding what is meant by ‘indecent practices’. The Latin term he deploys, translated here by Calvin Kendall as ‘males ... with males’, is ‘masculi in masculos’, which more directly means ‘males into males’. We might therefore translate the Sodomites’ behaviour with the phrase ‘they were accustomed to work male-in-male indecency’ or ‘male-on-male indecency’.48 Evidently, ‘masculi in masculos’ conveys the depravity Bede saw in the practices of the Sodomites without providing gratuitous detail; his inference, however, is that all the males of Sodom from boyhood to old age engaged habitually in penetrative sexual intercourse with each other. Thus Bede’s description elucidates the far more euphemistic ‘to know’ of the Vulgate Bible.

Pertinently, the sexual nature of ‘to know’ is made clear by Bede in the very next section of his commentary, in which he reiterates Augustine’s view of Lot’s offering of his daughters, who had ‘not known man’. He states that ‘Lot was willing to prostitute his daughters [...] that the men who were his guests would suffer no such abuse from the Sodomites’.49 Clearly, there is no need to question Bede’s understanding of the events of Genesis 19. He perceived that the males of the city were demanding sex with the ‘men’ inside Lot’s home, and his commentary strongly suggests that he read this as a demand for anal intercourse.

It has been argued, however, that it is not the same-sex nature of the Sodomites’ behaviour per se that horrifies Bede, but rather that it was practiced openly, and that an attempt was made to force their practices upon Lot’s guests.50 Without doubt, the audacity of the Sodomites is a factor in Bede’s commentary, just as it is later in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis, as we shall see. However, more importantly, Bede uses the account of the outrageous attempt of inter-male rape as a vehicle for explaining and condemning more generally the prevailing sexual habits of the Sodomite males. Though these, like the attempted rape, are also perpetrated ‘shamelessly’, we should not lose sight of the explicit condemnation of the sin itself: it is the male-into-male practices that are seen as acts of indecency. Committing any sin or crime openly does not by itself make that deed unspeakable; it is the very acts of ‘males into males’ which are unmentionable, not the openness of their performance. Bede’s final words on this passage, identifying the Sodomites as ‘those men who were raging to carry out such an outrageous crime’,51 thus captures both the sense of shamelessness and the very shame, or outrage, of the ‘indecent practices with males’.

This analysis of Bede is not meant to ignore the fact that he understood the destruction of Sodom by fire in broader terms, too; indeed, he uses the story as a general warning to Christians to avoid ‘the flames of the vices’ – all vices.52 He actually writes, ‘In a general sense, certainly, the fire and destruction of Sodom, from which Lot escaped, signifies the punishment of the Last Judgement’;53 and he refers both to Christ’s words and the New Testament writing of Jude to support this statement.54 We must nevertheless recognize the way Bede structures his discourse on Sodom, and how his language constructs the sins of the Sodomites. Whilst alluding to general sins of the nation as a whole, his emphasis is specifically directed. He progressively reveals and underscores the ‘outrages’ of inter-male sex, which are epitomized in the Sodomites’ attempted male rape. This particular outrage is, moreover, perceived by Bede as a manifestation of the Sodomite’s ingrained pattern of male-into-male sexual vice.

Further, it is important to realise that the biblical account itself uses the Sodomites’ attempted rape as a narrative peak from which the subsequent destruction of the city is the logical – and immediate – outcome. Indeed, it is the questioning of God by faithful Abraham, with his appeal that God withhold destruction if only ten good men in Sodom are found, that acts as the prequel to the story of the angels’ visitation, which is in the first instance a mission to determine the extent of sin in the city.55 Once the most outrageous of all Sodom’s sins becomes apparent, God needs no further evidence, we might say, and there is no longer any case for holding back the fires of judgement and destruction. ‘And the Sodomites perish from the punishment they deserve for their sins,’ is Bede’s resounding conclusion, ‘for since they led their life in the putrefaction of lust and the heat of desire, they are deservedly punished by the flames of the fires and the stench of sulphur [...] to be damned forever.’56

Alcuin: ‘the sin against nature’

Alcuin of York (c.735–804), celebrated English scholar and teacher of Charlemagne, discusses the nature of the sin of Sodom in his Interrogationes Sigewulfi in Genesin (‘Sigewulf’s questions on Genesis’) (c.792–6), a Latin text that puts forward questions about Genesis which Alcuin received from his beloved pupil, the presbyter Sigewulf. In answering the question, ‘Why in the days of Noah were the world’s sins avenged by water, but those of the Sodomites were punished by fire?’, he contrasts ‘the natural sin of desire with women’, associated with sinners destroyed at the Flood, with ‘the sin, against nature, of desire with men’, associated with the Sodomites.57 Alcuin’s logic is that men desiring women, even if that desire is illicit, is at least in accord with nature, and hence a ‘lighter’ element was used for punishment (one allowing the earth to regenerate); whereas the desire for men by men required the ‘sharper’ element of fire, as it was ‘contra naturam’ – opposed to nature – and hence its proponents were worthy of eternal damnation, just as the land of Sodom met with ‘eternal barrenness’.58 As Clark points out, Alcuin’s comparison of the Flood and the destruction of Sodom has no known source,59 and so rather than just reiterating what patristic authors may have said before, the construction of his argument emphasizes Alcuin’s wish to accentuate the extreme seriousness of the ‘sin against nature’ associated with Sodom.

Unlike Bede, Alcuin is direct in defining the sin of Sodom, and he makes no statement that it is ‘unspeakable’. His use of the Latin word libido, meaning ‘desire’ or ‘lust’, demonstrates that for him the sin of the men of Sodom was, plainly, their lust for other men, and it was this sin that was the cause of God’s destruction of the Sodomites. Importantly, though the biblical account makes it clear that the Sodomites’ attempted sexual assault was directed in the first instance against angels (though in fact they were perceived as men), the nature of the desire of the Sodomites is described by Alcuin as ‘with men’. This may be because he perceived this desire not as the one-off crime of attempted male rape but rather as a pattern of behaviour. If that is so, it would align Alcuin’s view with Bede’s (and Augustine’s) explanation of the Sodomites’ indecent practices as long established.

Alcuin makes one other reference to Sodom. In a personal letter to a male student (c. 796–804,) he uses ‘the flames of Sodom’ as a warning to the young man that he must give up sexual uncleanness associated with boys:

What is this, son, that I hear about you? Not, whither it pleases, from a single person whispering in a corner, but from many recounting publicly with laughter that even now you are devoted to the dirtiness of boys. Where is the noblest part of your education? Where is the brightest part of your diligence in sacred scripture? Where the excellence of morals? Where the fortitude of spirit? Where the fear of Gehenna? Where the hope of glory? How do you perpetrate these things and not tremble at what you ought to forbid others? Turn aside, I pray, in your soul, and say with the prophet, ‘Oh, that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I may lament day and night’. This is not burning the soul in the fire of Jerusalem or Babylon, but in the flames of Sodom. [...] What then will you answer your fairest judge, if now you do not correct your filthiest deeds?60

Alcuin is not explicit concerning the nature of ‘the dirtiness of boys’, though the fact that he states that others were laughing because the student was still devoted to it may, as Clark argues, suggest masturbation, which was treated less seriously, in terms of penance, than same-sex intercourse.61 However, in invoking the fiery judgement of Sodom, it is clear Alcuin’s concern for the student was deeply felt. It is possible Alcuin grouped masturbation along with other sexual sins associated with boys in a monastic setting, such as mutual masturbation, inter-femoral intercourse, and anal intercourse, seeing all these as ‘the filthy practices of boys’.62 He may have seen the lesser sin of solitary masturbation as something that might lead the beloved student to a more serious sin, one that would indeed lead to the judgement of the ‘flames of Sodom’. Alcuin’s letter probably reflects the Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical view that boys were predisposed to sexual impropriety, and thus his invocation of Sodom’s fiery end was to him the most effective way of reproving this young man still devoted to boyhood filth.63

Translations of Gregory and Orosius: ‘forbidden love’ and ‘fiery lust’

Gregory the Great (c.540–604), born a Roman, was the pope ‘thought of by the English as their apostle’.64 Two of his Latin works, translated into the vernacular after his death, have a bearing on Anglo-Saxon views of the sin of Sodom, though they are far from explicit in defining that sin. The first of these, his Liber regulae pastoralis, better known as the Pastoral Care, was commissioned for translation in the late ninth-century, during the reign of King Alfred (871–99).65 An influential work throughout the medieval period, its purpose was to provide the confessor-priest with guidance on advising penitents. The Old English translation of the Pastoral Care twice uses Sodom as an example, in the first instance as an allegory about sexual restraint in marriage, and in the second as a warning against shameless sinning. In the allegory, the text refers to the ‘forbidden heat of our body’ from which all should flee,66 just as Lot fled from Sodom. Frantzen explains the allegory, reading the city of Zoar, to which Lot and his family initially escape, as ‘the midpoint between the marsh of Sodom and the mountain of continence, between sinful and procreative sex’.67 The mountain to which Lot eventually flees is described in the vernacular text as ‘the cleanness of restraint’,68 meaning the purity of sexual continence within marriage, and thus, as Frantzen continues, ‘Gregory’s chief concern was not homosexual unions [...] but excessive sexual lust within marriage.’69 Clark concurs, observing that there appears to be no sense that inter-male sex was on the mind of either Gregory or his translator.70

Later in the Pastoral Care (3.31), the shamelessness of the Sodomites is the focus. Quoting Isaiah, as Bede does in his commentary, Gregory’s translator is perhaps more emphatic than Bede, capturing the sense of the sheer audacity of the Sodomites’ sinning, which is evident in Gregory’s original Latin. The Sodomites, he observes, ‘completely let loose the bridles of dread, and then they cared not when sinning whether it was day or night’.71 Again, there is no explicit reference to inter-male sex, but the allusion to the abandonment of restraint is consistent with the biblical account of the attempted rape of the angels and Lot.

The translation of the fourth of Gregory’s Dialogues alludes more closely to a connection between the events of the destruction of Sodom and its sin. The translator refers specifically to ‘the book of Genesis’, reminding the reader of the original source of the subsequent allusion, and to the Lord sending ‘fire and sulphur over the people of Sodom’. Creating a correspondence between the nature of their sin and its punishment, the text continues: ‘Because they burned in the forbidden love of the perishable body, they also together went to destruction in that burning and foul stench, so that they understood by their own torment that they had already given themselves, with their sinful lusts, to the eternal death in that foulness.’72 Though not explicit, the allusion to the inter-male lust of the men of Sodom is definite, particularly so when we appreciate how closely the sense parallels that of Bede, discussed above, who saw in the fiery destruction of Sodom a most appropriate mode of death for the men who had burned with desire for Lot and the angels the very night before. Gregory and his translator thus also tap into the same logic, reading the Genesis story of Sodom as an example of like-for-like retribution: a fiery torment for forbidden fiery lusts.

Another vernacular work commissioned by King Alfred, The Old English Orosius, is fascinating for its omission of its source’s quite explicit reference to Sodom’s inter-male lust. Based upon Paulus Orosius’ Latin text, the late fifth-century Seven Books of History against the Pagans, it refers to the peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding region of the Jordan, and to their excessive enjoyment of that land’s prosperity, before commenting on ‘the great fiery lust’ which ‘grew within them’, and how because of that ‘fiery lust [God] burned up the whole of the land with sulphurous fire’.73 As with other Anglo-Saxon texts we have looked at, allusion to burning lust is as explicit as the writer wishes to be. It is indeed remarkable, however, that the translator omits the detail of the original source, which defines the Sodomites and their ‘shameful passions’ as men who ‘rushed to commit vile practices upon their own sex without even taking into consideration place, condition, or age’.74

Homilies: the madness of Sodom

The mention of the sin of Sodom in vernacular sermons is not especially prominent in Anglo-Saxon England. Ælfric’s homilies, discussed briefly below in the section on this author, refer to Sodom in quite vague terms. Other collections of anonymous homilies are often even more inexplicit.75 The Blickling Homilies, for example, written around the end of the tenth century, use Sodom – along with other examples from the Old Testament – simply as a general warning to unrepentant sinners.76 However, one of the Vercelli Homilies, written probably in the second half of the tenth century, does link Sodom to inter-male sex in order to illustrate both the folly of a life of luxury and the consequences for those who live in such a self-absorbed manner:

Remember also those who perished in Sodom because of their forbidden desires, and those who were in the days of Noah. Certainly, concerning those who lived the easy life in Sodom it was said that they flow in the fullness of bread. When the fullness of bread works unrighteousness, what is to be said concerning those abundant delicacies? Remember how Esau spent his days in hostility, and how those who before, in the time of the sons of God, were, through the contemplation of incomparable women, captive to fiery lusts, sunken in hell. Remember also how those perished who with madness of purpose sought out sex with males, and all the kings of Babylon and Egypt, all of whom ended their lives very miserably and are now in eternal torment. Moreover, those same torments are ready for those persons who now live such lives as they lived.77

It is pertinent that the homilist introduces the pairing of Sodom and the Flood, familiar from Alcuin. The ‘forbidden desires’ of Sodom are thus potentially relatable to the sin ‘against nature’, ‘men with men’, referred to by Alcuin. The homilist builds on the idea of Sodom’s particular ‘forbidden desires’ by introducing the metaphor of the Sodomites flowing in ‘the fullness of bread’.78 The consequence of this unseemly glut is, he states, the working of ‘unrighteousness’, and the manifestation of this comes in the form of ‘abundant [or, ‘manifold’] delicacies’, the latter continuing the food imagery but also hinting at the excessiveness of Sodom’s own particular ‘forbidden desires’.

In answering his own question of what is to be said concerning these ‘abundant delicacies’, the homilist makes plain Sodom’s link to inter-male sex but also draws upon other examples of excess from the Old Testament to amplify further the idea of forbidden or unlawful desires. He first mentions Esau who gave up his birthright just to satisfy his stomach,79 but who subsequently lived a life of persecution. He then elaborates upon his first injunction to remember not only those destroyed in Sodom but those destroyed in Noah’s day. He alludes to the latter by referring to those ‘before’ Esau, ‘in the time of the sons of God’, who fell prey to their fiery passion for beautiful women. This is clearly a reference to Genesis 6:4, which describes how before the Flood ‘the sons of God’, on seeing the beauty of ‘the daughters of men’, took wives from among them, whomever they desired, but in doing so angered God.80 This is immediately followed by a comparable example of lust, a description of those who ‘with madness’ sought out sex with men, an evident amplification of the ‘forbidden desires’ of Sodom. In addition, the homilist lists all the kings of Babylon and Egypt, which appears to be a vague allusion to various rulers in the Old Testament who, evidently full of pride and self-satisfaction, met with a miserable end.81

Surprisingly, Clark rebuffs the idea that the ‘madness’ of inter-male sex alludes to the aforementioned ‘forbidden desires’ of the Sodomites.82 Granted, the order of the sinners given by the homilist does not spell out this association, just as it does not explicitly link those in Noah’s day and those desiring the women. The audience, however, has already been asked to remember both groups and how they perished, and so what follows should be understood as a basic amplification of those narratives. Furthermore, the passage as a whole demonstrates that the homilist expected the audience to grasp all his references. We should note that neither the story of Esau nor those of the kings of Babylon and Egypt are expanded upon, and so it is quite clear that the homilist anticipates a pre-existing store of biblical knowledge from which the listeners, at least some of them, may draw. All the examples given refer to the Old Testament, and all are given as a reminder of the ‘eternal torments’ awaiting people who imitate the lives of these sinners. Since there is no other example in the Old Testament of men seeking out men for sex other than the narrative of the Sodomites, it would seem remarkably obtuse of the homilist were he asking his audience to consider an unheard of account of men desiring men. On the contrary, the fact that the Sodomites do not even have to be mentioned by name at this moment of the homily is strong evidence that the audience was expected to know the key elements of the story of the Sodomites and Lot; not only to know it, but also to perceive its association with the ‘madness’ of men having sex with men. It should be added, too, that the concept of sexual madness informs the treatment of inter-male sex in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials – priests’ guidebooks on confession – where such behaviours are explicitly linked with the abandonment of reason and irrationality of the mind.83

Ælfric: inference and euphemism

In his Old English version of Alcuin’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi, which he wrote around 1000, the abbot and prolific vernacular writer Ælfric of Eynsham (c.955–c.1010) rehearses Alcuin’s model of natural versus unnatural.84 He, too, contrasts those in Noah’s day who ‘sinned with women’85 with ‘the Sodomites’86 who ‘sinned disgracefully against nature’;87 and he adds that the latter ‘who sinned shamefully against nature are eternally condemned’.88 He also uses the phrase ‘against nature’ in his Old English translation of Genesis, probably written before his version of Alcuin’s questions of Genesis.89 In an interpolated passage that serves as a substitution for the account from the Vulgate Bible (Genesis 19:4–11), he cuts out the description of the Sodomites’ attempted gang rape, and instead offers his own condemnation:

The nation was so disgraceful that they wished to satisfy their lust foully against nature, not with women, but so foully that it shames us to say it openly; and that was their outcry, that they perpetrated their filth openly.90

As with Bede, we get the sense that for Ælfric there was a need for circumspection in defining the sin of the men of Sodom: it is that unspeakable thing. He may even have used his interruption of the biblical narrative as a decoy, to draw away the lay reader from questioning the morals of Lot for volunteering his daughters as victims of gang rape.91 What is clear is that, despite his censorship, Ælfric, like Bede, does actually speak about the unspeakable sin, even if he does so through inference and euphemism.

In his vernacular reworking of Interrogationes Sigewulfi, Ælfric obfuscates where Alcuin illuminates; he preserves only Alcuin’s use of ‘against nature’ whilst choosing not to specify ‘desire with men’. The omission, it may be argued, leaves open the possibility that Ælfric read the Sodomites’ sin as the unnatural desire for angels rather than men – and hence ‘against nature’ because it transgressed a natural inter-species barrier for human sexuality. Arguably, too, his interpolation in the Old English Genesis may indicate that he read the sin as lust for angels, for again he does not specify ‘with men’. However, from the context this seems very unlikely in both cases. It is important that we observe his use of the phrase ‘and that was their outcry [Old English, ‘hream’]’ in relation to the ‘filth’ openly practiced by the Sodomites. Here, Ælfric is harking back to the earlier passage in his translation that forms the prequel to the angelic visitation of Lot’s home, in which the same word, ‘outcry’, is used to explain God’s motivation for investigating the degree of Sodom’s sin.92 In other words, Ælfric is defining that ‘outcry’ which God had been hearing for some time. Thus the foul lust against nature that Ælfric condemns is not simply an allusion to the attempted rape of the angels, but rather it refers to an ongoing perpetration of lust. In echoing the use of ‘outcry’, then, Ælfric demonstrates that he understands that the nation of Sodom was well and truly mired in its foul lust ‘against nature’.

It is intriguing that Ælfric refuses to translate the eight verses of Genesis (19:4–11) that detail the attempted male rape; we are left wondering if he believed an open account of the story would expose his readers to moral danger.93 Certainly, Ælfric avoids in his homilies any direct reference to inter-male sex when discussing the story of Sodom’s destruction, preferring to use the story as a vehicle for warning all Christians against unrepentant sinning. Though he repeatedly reiterates the idea of Sodom’s foulness, and on one occasion refers to its ‘shameful deeds’, he appears uneasy in exposing the laity to a more frank description of the sin of Sodom.94 That said, his homiletic outburst within his translation of Genesis is, on a certain level, more explicit about the nature of the Sodomites’ sin than the Vulgate Bible is itself. He defines it as ‘lust’ and ‘filth’, whereas the Latin simply exploits the euphemism ‘to know’. Moreover, his incorporation of the overtly gendered ‘not with women’ would serve most readers as a pointer to the opposite: ‘but with men’. It seems deliberate, allowing the audience to make an obvious mental association whilst at the same time allowing Ælfric to safeguard the sensibilities of all those not wishing a more frank statement of the Sodomites’ sin.

How should we summarise Ælfric’s position on the sin of Sodom? Though he is reluctant to be explicit about its nature, this is not the same as arguing that Ælfric – or indeed his audience – held only a vague idea of what constituted ‘unnatural’ sex in this context. Clearly, in following Alcuin, he agreed that God destroyed Sodom because of the sin ‘against nature’: non-heterosexual intercourse. He saw that sin as the ‘outcry’ for which Sodom was destroyed. However, in writing vernacular texts, texts accessible to the laity, Ælfric displayed consummate skill in deploying euphemism in order to avoid causing offence. To him it was not always necessary to delineate sexual sins openly; indeed, even his use of ‘sinned with women’ is euphemistic; but he gives enough for his audience to understand by inference.95

The ‘Sodomites’ and the ‘sodomitic’ in penitentials

Penitential of Theodore I, 2.5–2.7:96

5. If a male fornicates with a male, he shall do penance 10 years. 6. Sodomites should do penance 7 years; and the effeminate one [Latin, ‘molles’] as an adulteress. 7. Also: Let the one committing this manly crime once do penance 4 years; if he is in the habit of doing it, then let him do penance as Basil orders. If enduring it, and he is less than 15 years of age – he is as a woman – a single year. If a youth, and the first time, 2 years; if repeated, 4.97

Old English Canons of Theodore, Text B, 6–8:98

6. He who has sex with a ‘bædling’, or with another male, or with a beast, should fast ten years. 7. In another source it says: he who has sex with a beast should fast fifteen years, and the sodomitic [Old English, ‘sodomisce’] shall fast seven years.99

The Anglo-Saxon penitentials, though they do not retell the story of Lot and the Sodomites, do introduce the idea of contemporaneous ‘Sodomites’, or ‘sodomitic’ persons, committing particular sins, and are thus very useful in helping us understand how the sin of Sodom was understood in the context of confession.

Written in both Latin and the vernacular Old English, the penitentials were handbooks for confession used by priests.100 Priests, as confessors, were exhorted to teach from their scriftbec, their ‘books of penance’,101 and Christians were urged to live the life the confessor directed.102 It has been theorised that these works collectively represent an intersection of text and actual practice, that the penitentials reflect, in a reduced form, the real life events of confession.103 They are not, then, lifeless lists of sins and corresponding tariffs of fasting and other penances; they do not, in the case of sexual sins, reflect only an unseemly ecclesiastical obsession with the taxonomy of sin.104

The association of ‘Sodomites’ or the ‘sodomitic’ with inter-male sex is clear in the penitentials, as can be deduced from the excerpts above, where alternative lengths of penance for related sins are grouped together, having been drawn from various sources by the compilers of the texts.105 Two further Latin penitentials prescribe penance for the ‘Sodomite’ and also provide for habitual Sodomites.106 All of these texts demonstrate that a person could be identified with one of the Sodomites because of the type of sex in which he engaged. The use in Latin of the nouns ‘Sodomites’ and ‘Sodomite’ and in Old English the adjective ‘sodomitic’ presupposes a prevailing understanding, at least within the Church, that the sinner’s behaviour corresponded to that of one of the biblical Sodomites. Indeed, R. D. Fulk defines the penitential Sodomite as ‘[one who behaves like a] resident of Sodom’.107

The Latin text of the Penitential of Theodore is of particular interest as it suggests something rather specific about the sexual behaviour of contemporaneous Sodomites, though it should be acknowledged that it is, in part, difficult to translate into modern English, and as a consequence, perhaps, difficult to interpret exactly.108 However, there are certain things that nobody argues about: the canons, or rules, relate to inter-male sex, and they represent alternative lengths of penance for such. This is not unusual, for other types of sin are treated similarly, and it is important to know that priests were encouraged to show discretion in dealing with penitents, moderating the severity of a penance, where appropriate, according to penitents’ circumstances.109

Two important things to note about the passage are: ‘Sodomites’ and ‘effeminate ones’ (Latin, ‘molles’ [from mollis, ‘soft’]) are mentioned discretely in the same canon; and reference is made to ‘this manly crime’ (Latin, ‘hoc virile [from virilis] scelus’) in the subsequent canon.110 We may deduce from this two things. First, we might be seeing here something similar to Aldhelm’s juxtaposition of ‘whoremongers’ and cinaedi when referring to the destruction of Sodom, as discussed above. As with Aldhelm, the penitential may be creating a division between a penetrator and one who is penetrated; the sexual behaviour of an Anglo-Saxon ‘Sodomite’ may thus, specifically, refer to anal intercourse with an effeminate male. Second, we should note the unusualness of the term ‘this manly crime’. The Latin adjective virilis is employed to draw a distinction – it would be pointless otherwise to use this modifier. It most obviously contrasts with the use of mollis (‘soft’) which can mean ‘unmanly’ or ‘effeminate’. Moreover, the use of virilis in the context of inter-male sex would certainly suggest the intent to signify the apparently more ‘manly’, or indeed ‘virile’, act of penetrating another. Fulk explains how the term ‘manly crime’ was used in an earlier British penance document, upon which Theodore’s compiler was evidently drawing. The relevant statement there is: ‘He who does the manly crime as a Sodomite: 4 years’.111 Fulk argues that this shows that ‘this manly crime’ in the Penitential of Theodore is referring back to the actions of the Sodomite.112 This would reinforce the idea that in the penitentials Sodomites are those males who sexually penetrate other, effeminate males.

The contrast between penetrators and those who are penetrated is further supported when we consider the subsequent statement that the one who is ‘less than fifteen’ (Latin, ‘sine XV’), that is a boy under the age of fifteen,113 and who is said to be ‘putting up with’ or ‘enduring’ (Latin, ‘sustinens’) the ‘manly crime’ is considered ‘as a woman’ (Latin, ‘ut mulier’). The Latin at this point is notoriously difficult to translate. I have translated it above according to what I judge to be the sense of the passage, that the boy less than fifteen years of age and who is putting up with being penetrated is himself ‘as a woman’.114 If this is correct, then the act of enduring penetrative anal sex is perhaps being seen as something akin to general female passivity in intercourse (as perceived by the author of the penitential); and thus, in putting up with anal sex, the sinner is reproachfully labelled a woman, with the sense of being effeminate.115 This interpretation also complements the idea in the prior canon that ‘the effeminate one’ should receive penance ‘as an adulteress’. The association of effeminacy and passivity in sex is, as Fulk pertinently discusses, something observed by Alcuin in his definition of the word ‘molles’. In his De divinis officiis (‘Concerning Divine Offices’), Alcuin states, ‘Molles are effeminate (or ‘womanish’) [...] who endure the fornication of another’.116

One final point on the matter of sexual passivity: the association of youth with those enduring the ‘manly crime’ may possibly be drawing upon prevailing views of the story of the Sodomite men in Genesis. It is pertinent that the Vulgate does not refer to the perceived age of the visiting angels but the notion of their youthfulness is introduced both by the poet who wrote Genesis A, who observes that Lot saw them as ‘young men’, and by the later artist of the Hexateuch, who portrays the angels as beardless youths.117 This suggests that in Anglo-Saxon England some of those who interpreted the Sodom story imagined the recipients of anal intercourse to be typically young males.118 It seems quite probable that this nuance of the Sodom narrative informed the Church’s perspective and proscription of inter-male sex in the penitentials.

To sum up, we can see that the Penitential of Theodore clearly associates the inter-male sex of contemporaneous men with the name ‘Sodomites’; and, what is more, it may also be linking the behaviour of both Anglo-Saxon ‘Sodomites’ and their original namesakes to the specific act of the ‘manly crime’, that is, penetrative anal sex of effeminate men or boys.

The Sodomites in vernacular poetry

Genesis A, lines 2453b-2484a:119

The inhabitants of Sodom came, young and old, unloved by God, a great throng to demand the strangers; they surrounded them, Lot and his guests, with the might of an army. They commanded the holy messengers to be led out from the high hall, the men into their power. They proclaimed with words that they would shamelessly have sex with the heroes: they had no regard for honour. Then quickly he arose, he who often knew counsel, Lot in the house. He went out at once. Then the son of Haran spoke above all the multitude of noblemen,120 mindful of wisdom:

“Here inside are my two spotless daughters. Do as I bid you – they do not yet know, either of these women, the presence of men through sex [literally ‘bed-ship’]121 – and give up this sin. I give you them both, before you commit this shame against your natures, this pointless evil against humanity. Take these women. Let free my guests whom I, for God’s sake, if I may, will protect from you.”

Then the crowd, dishonourable race, through common accord answered him:

“It seems fitting and most right that you should now depart from this neighbourhood! You who in the footsteps of an exile, bereft of friends, sought from afar this tribe of men in your neediness. Will you here, if you may, be our supreme judge, the teacher of the people?”

The author of Genesis A, a poem written in Old English, probably in the eighth-century but surviving in the late-tenth-century manuscript known as Junius 11, builds up a picture of the Sodomites as a prosperous but haughty nation full of sin.122 When Lot departed from Abraham and saw the land that surrounded Sodom, he viewed the ‘green earth ... moist with waters and covered with fruit, bright with streams, and like the paradise of God’.123 This verdure, however, is emphasized in order to contrast it with the dark sins of Sodom, for the land was only paradisiacal ‘until the Saviour God, because of the sins of men [Old English, ‘for wera synnum’], gave over Sodom and Gomorrah to a wave of black flames’.124 Indeed, Sodom was ‘beautiful’ but the people were ‘dishonourable, hated by the Lord’; the ‘Sodomites were brazen in sin, perverse in deeds, and worked their own eternal folly’.125

It is noteworthy that the poet chooses the Old English noun wer (‘male person’), rather than mann (‘person of either sex’) when describing the sins that led to God’s annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah, as he also does later in his expansive treatment of the fiery destruction itself, which I discuss in chapter two.126 The implication is that the boldness of sin, the perversity of deeds and the working of eternal folly were particularly tied to the males of the city.

On the matter of ‘folly’,127 it is interesting that Lot, when confronting the men of Sodom, pleads with them to abandon their ‘ungifre evil’, which I have translated as ‘pointless evil’. Literally, ungifre means ‘un-useful’, and it is perhaps particularly pertinent, in view of the contrast provided by the imagery of a fruitful and verdant earth, that the sin of sex with men be described as a ‘pointless’ or ‘useless’ crime. It would seem, then, that the unfruitfulness of inter-male sex, in reproductive terms, may well be emphasized by the poet’s language. Alternatively, A. N. Doane offers ‘very greedy’ for ‘ungifre’, which would be appropriate too, considering the fact that Lot offers his daughters to the Sodomite men, as if sex with women would be a more reasonable and moderate alternative.128

Turning to the demand of the men itself, we should note that the poet does not circumvent its unpleasantness with euphemism.129 The Sodomites declare ‘that they would shamelessly have sex [Old English, ‘hæman’] with the heroes [or, ‘men’]’. The verb hæman has the primary meaning ‘to have sex’.130 Its use here suggests the poet may well have been familiar with the Old Latin Bible, the Vetus Latina,131 which is more explicit than the Vulgate, giving: ‘Bring them out to us that we may have [sexual] intercourse with them’.132 The poet, similar to Bede and Ælfric, emphasizes the wanton openness of the Sodomites. Their intent is to ‘shamelessly’ have sex with the angels. And their infamy is underscored in the formulaic phrase ‘wordum cwædon’ – ‘spoke in words’ – which in its tautology emphasizes the brazen proclamation of the men of Sodom.

It is, however, far more than the openness of the Sodomites’ demands that the poet chooses to emphasize. Expanding significantly on the biblical narrative, Lot’s appeal to the males of Sodom accentuates the perceived aberration of inter-male sex. Lot attempts to convince them that their sin would be ‘wið gesceapu’, which I have translated as ‘against [their] natures’. This translation does not, however, capture the full sense of the Old English, which is actually playing on the idea that the men of Sodom, in having sex with other men, would be sinning against their own created bodies, their natural male form. The word gesceap may connote ‘a created thing’, and more literally it can be understood as ‘shape’. It is used in Old English literature as a euphemism for the genitals, particularly male genitals.133 Thus the use of gesceap in this passage emphasizes that the Sodomites’ intended behaviour is an attack on the divine order of creation, literally on the shaping of their own bodies, and even an assault on the nature of their genitals. As Frantzen observes, ‘[w]hen Lot tells the Sodomites that homosexual intercourse is against their “natures,” he could also be telling them that this act is “against their genitals,” contrary to the natural use of their sex organs.’134

It would be wrong to imply that Genesis A unequivocally links God’s decision to destroy Sodom with the sexual sins of its male inhabitants. Clark observes that when God speaks to Abraham concerning Sodom, his description gives no clear sense ‘that their sins involve sexual misdemeanours’,135 but rather the emphasis is on their drunken and verbalized arrogance. However, even here there are hints at their licentiousness:

“In this city I hear a noise, the outcry of sinners, very loud, the boast of the ale-wanton: the people under the walls have spoken evil. Therefore, the crimes of the people, of oath-breakers, are heavy indeed. I will now determine, man of the Hebrews, just what the people are doing, if they commit sins as great in habit and thought as the treachery and evil they speak of in their perverseness [Old English, ‘þweorh’].”136

Clark draws attention to the use of the Old English ‘on þweorh’, meaning ‘in crookedness’ or ‘in perverseness’, suggesting that the term gives ‘a somewhat unnatural slant to the deeds God fears the Sodomites may be committing’.137 Moreover, we should note the expression ‘ealogalra gylp’, which I have translated as ‘the boast of the ale-wanton’. The ‘-gal-’ element may suggest ‘lust’ or ‘wantoness’; in fact, Doane gives ‘lecherous because of ale’ for the adjective ealogal;138 and this therefore hints at, as well as anticipates, the sexual demands that God’s messengers meet with as they carry out his work of finding out the extent of the Sodomites’ crimes.

It is important for a moment to contemplate the significance of the representation of the sin of the Sodomites in Genesis A in relation to other texts we have examined in this chapter. Here we have a poem from the eighth-century, written in the common tongue of the people, and being preserved in a late tenth-century illustrated book, a manuscript that was probably intended for a lay audience. These things suggest a continuity and accessibility of the complete Sodom story throughout much of the Anglo-Saxon period. Genesis A demonstrates that it was not just the theologians – Bede, Alcuin and Ælfric – who understood the sexual specifics of the story. In short, the poem’s detailed and amplified version of the biblical Sodom narrative is a good argument for accepting that the sexual desire and demands of the Sodomites, as well as Lot’s attempt to dissuade them by offering his own daughters as substitute rape victims, were biblical events known both inside and outside of monastic scriptoria by the turn of the eleventh century.

Indeed, consciousness of this knowledge may have been a motivating factor behind the attempts of Ælfric to censor the story in his vernacular prose translation of Genesis. As we have seen, Ælfric is purposely vague about the sexual sins of the Sodomite males. His inclination is to contain rather than expound. Through his act of elision, the potential for a lay person to be troubled by Lot’s decision to offer his daughters is cancelled out, and at the same time the reader is dissuaded from contemplating the gratuitous details of the apparent sexual proclivities of the Sodomite males.

Ælfric, however, was a translator of text by text. He was not, as far as it is known, directly involved with the medium of visual storytelling. The decision after Ælfric’s death to compile and then illustrate the translation of the first six books of the Old Testament in the form of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch would provide an alternative discourse on the dangerous matters therein. The drawings and paintings of the Hexateuch would, in effect, reopen that which Ælfric attempted to close down, or conceal.

It is worth reminding ourselves that though Ælfric protests at the shamefulness of speaking ‘openly’ of the Sodomites’ wantonness, he does state that ‘they practised their filth openly.’ It is this declaration of the Sodomites openness, I suggest, that prompted the artist of the Hexateuch to reveal more about the men of Sodom than Ælfric would have wished.

Chapter Two

Framing the Men of Sodom in Anglo-Saxon Art139

figure 2. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 23v.
Abraham and Lot part company and Lot moves to Sodom

The men of Sodom are depicted in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, a manuscript likely produced at St Augustine’s in Canterbury around the second quarter of the eleventh century.140 The Hexateuch integrates an extensive, though uncompleted, visual narrative of the first six books of the Old Testament alongside an Old English version of the Latin Vulgate text. The vernacular text is a compilation of translations and paraphrases by Ælfric and a body of anonymous writers, evidently assembled during the second decade of the eleventh century.141 As Benjamin C. Withers cogently argues, the most probable intended use of the Hexateuch was for the spiritual education of lay men and women.142 It is through an examination of the relationship between pictures and words in the Hexateuch that we gain insight into the way its artist mediated the story of Sodom for a lay audience.

As we shall see, the Hexateuch does not incorporate the scene of the Sodomites’ attempted rape, primarily because the drawings follow the order of the textual narrative and thus preserve its omission in Ælfric’s text.143 Despite the absence of the attempted rape scene in the Hexateuch, the nature of the sin of the Sodomites is nevertheless conveyed in other parts of its visual story of Sodom. In a complex and intelligently constructed pictorial narrative, lewdness and same-sex desire come to the fore.

From both the perspectives of art history and biblical exegesis, it is vital to appreciate that the Hexateuch artist augments the story of Sodom. Whilst following the basic progression of Ælfric’s text, he directly amplifies the Old English prose and indirectly expands upon Ælfric’s source, the Vulgate’s Genesis.144 Though he omits the Sodomites’ demand for sex, it is evident from the way he develops the story that he must have made a conscious decision to reveal more than Ælfric was prepared to do. It is also apparent that this decision was influenced by the artist’s knowledge of the story beyond the Hexateuch text.

The men of Sodom are introduced visually on the verso side of folio 23 (23v), just after the people of Sodom are first mentioned in the text (see figure 2). In the upper and middle scenes of this folio, we see, respectively, Lot and Abraham dwelling in tents, followed in the lower scene by a depiction of Lot dwelling in a house in the city of Sodom. It is here that the men of Sodom are shown, outside Lot’s home (see figure 2a). It is helpful to explain this narrative sequence in a little more detail, before proceeding to interpret the portrayal of the Sodomite men.

figure 2a. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 23v.
Detail showing Lot and the men of Sodom

figure 2b. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 23v.
Detail showing two Sodomite men kissing, and the tear in the vellum incorporated into the drawing of the tunic of the Sodomite, front right

Lot and his uncle Abraham have agreed to part ways after dwelling nomadically together for some time. This is because the land they had been sharing could no longer support their expanding households. Both are shown at the entrance of their own tent viewing their own land and grazing sheep. The reader has just been informed, on the recto side of folio 23 (23r), that Lot viewed the well-watered country about the Jordan ‘before God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah’.145 Now, in the upper scene of 23v, we see the result of this, namely that ‘Lot then chose for himself the country about the Jordan’.146 In the middle, as Abraham also looks across his land, the reader is told that he ‘dwelt then in the land of Canaan’.147 Importantly, the artist indicates that both men receive God’s blessing, even though this is not stated in either the Old English text or the Vulgate. Divine approval is signified by the Manus Dei motif – the Hand of God – which appears from the top of each frame, directly above the heads of both.

It is after the parting of the two kinsmen that the reader is informed of Lot’s decision to take up dwelling in the city of Sodom itself. At this point, the reader is provided with an anticipatory, though indistinct, allusion to the sinfulness of the Sodomites, through the proclamation that ‘the Sodomite people were most infamous and very sinful before God’.148 We should carefully note that it is not the males of Sodom who are singled out; rather the Sodomite ‘people’ in general are ascribed this infamy and sinfulness.149 This perspective is not, however, maintained by the artist. Appearing immediately after the description of the Sodomite people, the scene of the city of Sodom contains not a single woman: all six figures have uncovered heads, and hence are male. This is important, for in shifting the reader-viewer away from the textual narrative’s ‘Sodomite people’, the artist suggests that he has a particular male-focused understanding of these ‘infamous’ Sodomites. In other words, the Sodomite people become the Sodomite men. And it is to the men of Sodom that I now turn in detail.

Coding the Sodomites’ lewdness

A hinged door is situated to the right of Lot’s home, directing the viewer outside into the street where the group of men stands in a rather intimate huddle. One of these Sodomites, front left, curls his left hand in a gesture of speech, whilst at the same time he points downwards towards his groin with the rather elongated index finger of his right hand. Another man, facing him, hides both his hands underneath his short cloak. Leaning slightly forward whilst appearing to stride out, he moves towards the gesturing figure. In the middle of this cluster of men, the face of the gesturing Sodomite touches another man’s face in a cheek-to-cheek kiss. A winged devil with an ugly snout appears out of the upper corner of the scene’s frame.150 This demon carries a scroll which he uses to encircle or frame the Sodomites, whilst simultaneously pointing upwards with its right index finger towards the text on the page.

Before I offer a detailed reading of the scene, it is again important to emphasize that the pictorial narrative emphatically enlarges the story of Ælfric’s Old English text; and through this amplification the artist endeavours to elucidate the nature of the Sodomites’ infamy. What we witness here is an artist’s response to a translator’s censorship. Though Ælfric’s removal of key verses from the Vulgate, along with his interjection against the unspeakable sin of Sodom, just a few folios later, was a blatant attempt to close down the story, the artist pre-empts the effect of this by deliberately opening it up.

It is particularly relevant that a scroll-bearing winged devil is incorporated into the scene, which inverts the visual motif of the divine scroll as divine communication, used extensively in medieval illumination in connection with angelic messengers. This motif is employed by the artist later in the Sodom narrative, on folio 31r, where the two angels who are about to meet Lot at Sodom’s gates are in the first instance shown bearing scrolls from heaven, indicating they carry a divine warning. A winged angel is also shown with a scroll in the story of Hagar in the wilderness, depicted on folio 28r (see figure 3). There are close visual similarities between this latter angel and the winged devil.151 Both appear from the top right corner of the frame, with just their upper bodies shown. However, whereas the text explains that the angel has a divine message for Hagar, there is no indication in the textual narrative that the Sodomite men receive a communication from the darker side of the spirit world. Nevertheless, someone other than the main scribe, perhaps the artist, wished to make it clear that the scroll has an author, and thus has annotated the scroll with the Latin word ‘diabolus’ (‘devil’).152 So we are prompted to ask if this winged devil does indeed carry a message and, if so, to whom the message belongs.

figure 3. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 28r.
Detail showing Hagar and an angel bearing a scroll

In commenting on the use of the divine scroll in another, slightly later, Canterbury manuscript, a gospel book housed in the Pierpont Morgan Library,153 Jane Rosenthal and Patrick McGurk observe that ‘scrolls signify the divine truth to be inscribed by the Evangelists’.154 In this later manuscript, the four evangelist symbols (man, ox, lion and eagle), each with a nimbus (halo) hold out a scroll over the head and shoulders of their corresponding evangelists, reminding us of the way the devil deploys its scroll over the heads of the Sodomites in the Hexateuch. Interestingly, on folio 2v, the symbol of the man who holds the scroll around Matthew points to the text that Matthew is writing down in his codex, indicating the importance of the gospel message to all those who read it. The devil of the Hexateuch likewise points to text, in thiscase (if we follow the angle of its index finger), directly to the words above the Sodomites which declare their infamy and sinfulness. Thus in appropriating the divine scroll motif, the Hexateuch artist uses the winged devil to deliver a written message about the wickedness of the Sodomite men to the readers of the Hexateuch. The use of an ugly, snout-faced demon, rather than an angel, accentuates that message, and prepares the reader-viewer for something evil.

A further allusion to words or, more precisely, speech may also be linked to the devil’s scroll. When we examine the men that it surrounds, it is evident that the gesturing figure is talking. Speech or conversation is represented throughout the manuscript by hand gestures, and this Sodomite adopts the commonplace for adlocutio (address), namely the crooking of one or two fingers whilst addressing another.155

We should ask ourselves why the artist chose to indicate that a conversation was taking place. It is possible that he was responding to the elided biblical account of the angels’ visitation, in which the dialogue between the Sodomites and Lot is crucial to the narrative.156 More pertinently, perhaps, there is the potential to read this depiction of the Sodomites conversing as a response to the language of Genesis A which, as we have seen, portrays the people as boasters, as speakers of evil and perverseness, and describes the males of Sodom as proclaiming ‘with words’ their shameless desire to have sex with Lot’s guests. Knowledge of this earlier poetic version of the Sodom story may, then, have influenced the artist.

Furthermore, discussion of the Sodom story in the New Testament may have had an impact on the artist’s choices. The nature of the Sodomites’ behaviour is touched upon in 2 Peter 2:6-7. Peter states that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and in doing this he ‘delivered just Lot, oppressed by the injustice and lewd conversation of the wicked [Lat. ‘et justum Lot oppressum a nefandorum injuria, ac luxuriosa conversatione eripuit’].’

The Latin ‘luxuriosa conversatione’, translated in the Douay-Rheims English as ‘lewd conversation’, carries the meaning of wanton, foul or excessive behaviour, implying a familiar intimacy (not specifically a ‘conversation’ in the modern sense of the word) among the impious Sodomites that was deeply offensive. Lot is said to be oppressed by this as well as the ‘injustice’ of the Sodomites. (The ‘injustice’ may well hark back to their attempted rape of Lot and the angels, since Latin injuria can connote violence and injury.)157 What we witness in the Hexateuch drawing is indeed a familiarity marked by wantonness. The gesturing Sodomite captures this perfectly, indicating to us what it is that he is talking about to the Sodomite man facing him. Amplifying the adlocutio gesture of his left hand, he simultaneously points downwards with his right hand towards his genital area: ‘lewd conversation’, indeed! Pointing is commonplace in the Hexateuch, and is used to direct the focus of the viewer. Evidently the artist here wished the viewer to note specifically the obscenity of this huddle of Sodomite men.158 In summary, the artist’s use of a devil with a scroll operates as a visual cue to the nature of the words and behaviour of the Sodomites.

A further feature of the vellum itself may also add to a strong association of lewdness in this scene, and it may have been specifically used by the artist to impute effeminacy to one of the depicted Sodomites. We should note that the man front right has a vertical tear running down his tunic in the area of his groin (see figure 2b). The possibility exists that it is where it is because it was incorporated deliberately into the drawing as a ‘vulva’ in order to suggest the Sodomite’s effeminate nature. The thin tear is 6mm in length and is an original flaw in the vellum.159 The artist may have realized its potential to create something sexually suggestive. After all, he draws the figure around the tear in the velum; it is no accident, we might say, that the hole rests provocatively on the Sodomite’s body. If the hole is being used to represent female genitalia, the artist was perhaps attempting to represent this Sodomite’s effeminacy by suggesting his sexual responsiveness to the lewd, priapic gesture of the Sodomite facing him.

This interpretation is supported when we compare the appearance of the tear on both sides of the folio: on the recto side, the hole shows very little sign of discolouration, whereas the Sodomite’s ‘vulva’ is considerably discoloured, and shows clear signs of repeated touching or rubbing, comparable to those found on images that have either been touched devotionally or defaced. Examples of erasure of genitals in other medieval books serve as an interesting comparison here. In both the Murthy Hours, a thirteenth-century English manuscript, and a Bible picture book of fourteenth-century Italy, the depictions of the genitalia of drunken Noah provoked responses from certain individuals, resulting in the complete erasure of the offending details.160 In the Hexateuch’s incorporation of the hole on the Sodomite’s body as a ‘vulva’, we are not confronted by erasure as such, but something similar. What we witness, I suggest, is a provoked tactile response, or series of responses, from medieval viewers (and perhaps others later) who actually comprehended the visual clues to the sexualization of the Sodomite in this scene.

Another sexualized element appears in the scene, further underscoring the artistic intent to allude to the inter-male activity of the Sodomites. This is the Sodomites’ kiss (see figure 2b). Two of the men’s faces meet cheek-to-cheek: the left cheek of the gesturing man fully touches the right cheek of a disembodied face to the right. This specific form of facial contact would have been understood by medieval viewers as representing a kiss;161 indeed it is surprising how often it appears in medieval manuscript artwork. And here with the two Sodomites, it is not a mistake by the artist, or simply incidental. The touching of cheeks, with participants looking into each other’s eyes, is always elsewhere in the Hexateuch deliberate. It is generally employed to signify a familial kiss, as in the example of the brothers Esau and Jacob on folio 51r. It is, however, also used to represent a sexually charged kiss, as can be understood from the scene on folio 12v, where one of the antediluvian ‘sons of God’ notices the beauty of one of the ‘daughters of men’, and kisses her to signify his taking of her as his wife (see figure 4).162 God’s fierce disapproval of these liaisons – a contributing factor in his decision to destroy the world by the Flood – adds an element of deviancy to the depiction of this kiss, a deviancy that is echoed in the Sodomites’ kiss.

figure 4. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 12v.
Detail showing the ‘sons of God’ noticing the beauty of the ‘daughters of men’; far right, the faces of one of the couples meet in a cheek-to-cheek kiss

I think it is possible to refine the mechanics of the kiss in the Sodom scene. It seems to me that the artist is deploying a form of continuous narrative motion, so what we actually see is the man on the right, with his hands hidden in his cloak, moving into the man on the left as a response to the latter’s address and gesturing. We do not see three men to the right of the gesturing figure, but rather three faces of the same man.163 The artist’s depiction of two of the heads as disembodied reinforces the effect, making us focus on the process of the kiss. My idea that the artist intended to show continuous motion here is further supported when we consider that he has linked the tops of the three heads by over-drawing a thick line, thus emphasizing their interconnectedness.164

In isolation, the kissing faces of folio 23v may be read as a greeting between two men, nothing more. However, in the context of the Sodomites being announced by a winged devil as ‘forcuðostan’ – most foul or infamous – and in view of the priapic gesture of one of the kissers and a corresponding ‘vulva’ on the other’s tunic, it is appropriate to see this kiss as part of a composite narrative strategy in which the inter-male, sexualized behaviour of the Sodomites is intentionally signified.

When we consider these particular artistic choices, it is highly probable that the artist was familiar with the Vulgate’s account of the Sodomites’ demands for sex with Lot’s male guests. Moreover, he was possibly influenced too by prevailing interpretations of the habitual nature of the Sodomite men. If the monk artist responsible for the Hexateuch knew his Bede, then he may have wished to indicate in his scene that inter-male sex was the particular manifestation of the Sodomites’ wickedness.

Revealing Lot’s character, contrasting the Sodomites

We have already seen that Lot is blessed by God, as indicated by the Manus Dei in the upper register of 23v. Other particulars, too, contribute to this understanding of Lot as righteous. Specifically, details in the depiction of Lot’s home are important for the construction of Lot’s character and position in relation to the Sodomites.

Architectural features are significant for the way they echo aspects of the censored biblical narrative. In discussing the Hexateuch’s architecture generally, Withers explains how it forms ‘a theatrical backdrop for the figures’ actions in space and time while helping to define the character of that action’.165 In the Sodom scene, two features, the roof and the door, are particularly noteworthy.

In the Vulgate, when Lot appeals to the Sodomite men, he states that his guests have entered under ‘the shadow of [his] roof’, thus indicating that they are beneficiaries of his hospitality and protection.166 The roof on folio 23v is noticeably ornate and covers the entire home of Lot, making it visually important, and thus providing a literal echo of the biblical metaphor.

The door in the drawing is also relevant in terms of narrative development. In the Vulgate’s account, doors are referred to no less than four times: Lot went out to the baying men and ‘shut the door after him’; the mob is ‘at the point of breaking open the doors’; the angels rescue Lot and ‘shut the door’; and the angels blind the men ‘so that they could not find the door’.167 The door is hence used in multiple ways. It acts as the physical barrier of safety between Lot and the Sodomites, and between God’s messengers and the Sodomites; it is a narrative vehicle through which Lot’s actions are performed; and it also acts as a metaphor for moral differentiation and the preservation of sexual cleanness. In the Hexateuch scene, the depiction of a hinged door, apparently open, is correspondingly significant, and is deliberately placed.168 As well as echoing the biblical version of the story, it acts as an inside-outside motif, serving as a signifier of Lot’s separateness from the Sodomites, whilst also anticipating his impending confrontation with them.169 Lot is distinctly within, while the men of Sodom stand outside in a public space, devising their filth. Thus the door becomes part of a larger visual discourse of separateness, acting as a further reminder of the perverse nature of the Sodomites outside.

The depiction of curtains is also relevant to the artist’s strategy of signifying moral polarity. A pair of elegant and full curtains is draped around the architectural columns, attached to ornately scrolled canopy finials. Ornamentation demonstrates Lot’s domestic prosperity. The curtains, however, do far more than that: they also reveal.170 It is not merely Lot’s physical presence that is revealed, however; rather, the viewer is encouraged to see the revelation of his inner domestic space as corresponding to that of the inner man. This revealing thus works as a metaphor for Lot’s blessed spiritual state. That this is so is indicated by the reappearance of the Manus Dei from the roof: the hand shows the gesture of blessing as it hovers over Lot’s head occupying a space amidst the elegant finials.

Lot is also framed by two internal columns and is depicted sitting on a rather grand seat complete with animal-head finials – one a lion’s head, the other an eagle’s. Thus the patriarch is shown not only as blessed but also as a figure of authority, as can be appreciated when we compare him with other seated figures in the Hexateuch, such as Pharaoh at folio 22v, and Laban at folio 43r, who blesses Jacob whilst sitting on a splendid seat with claws of a giant bird. This representation of Lot links rather well with what is shown by the scene as a whole. As we read the visual narrative, we move from the metaphorical space of Lot’s inner, spiritual state out into the open space of the disreputable Sodomites, who are seen shamelessly perpetrating their lewdness. In effect, Lot sits in judgment on these men. The artist thus demonstrates his understanding of the uncensored story, specifically the element of the Sodomites’ dialogue through which they indicate their perception and resentment of Lot as ‘judge’ of their behaviour.171

That the Sodomites are shown out in the open may well be the artist’s response to Ælfric’s later condemnation of them. As stated above, though Ælfric protests at the shamefulness of speaking ‘openly’ of the Sodomites’ behaviour, he observes that ‘they practised their filth openly’. Such candidness, or shamelessness, may be further suggested through the depiction of the figures back-left and back-right within the huddle of men. It is possible to read them compositely as a single man moving from left to right behind the men in the foreground, in effect creating a passer-by. If so, this would underscore the public openness in which the foulness of the Sodomites is devised. Even if one discounts this detail as a representation of continuous motion, the multiple male figures outside the home of the solitary Lot nevertheless create a striking contrast to Lot’s private inner space. As a consequence, the flagrant openness of the Sodomite men is accentuated.

To summarize the narrative strategy of the artist, we can see that he uses theatricality to trigger a series of interpretations. The parted curtains reveal the blessedness of Lot, his inner righteousness, which in turn is contrasted starkly with the defiled state of the Sodomites, who metaphorically stand outside of Lot’s blessed state, and are visualized as openly performing their lewdness for all to witness. Their perceived deviance as perpetrators of male-on-male sexual behaviour is skilfully coded by the artist’s inclusion of lewd gestures and kissing, the use of the inversion of a divine scroll, and the underscoring of difference and openness through architectural features.

Ironically, the infamy and ‘filth’ that the text will not openly delineate is through visual means ‘performed openly’, both in the sense that sexualized behaviour (kissing, intimacy and lewdness) is depicted as public and, more pointedly, in the sense that the artist uncovers that which Ælfric’s censorship seeks to conceal.

The destruction of the Sodomites

Genesis 19:23-25, Vulgate:172

23. The sun was risen upon the earth, and Lot entered into Segor.

24. And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrha brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.

25. And he destroyed these cities, and all the country about, all the inhabitants of the cities, and all things that spring from the earth.

Ælfric’s translation in the Hexateuch:173

Lot came then to Segor when the sun was up. And God sent to all the cities a burning rain-shower mixed with sulphur, and destroyed the shame-bearers. God then threw down with fury the cities, and all the land likewise he overthrew. And all the inhabitants he burned up together; and all that was growing was obliterated.

Genesis A, lines 2542-2562a:174

Then, I have heard, the Prince of the Sky sent sulphur from heaven, and black flame as punishment to men [Old English, ‘werum’], surging fire, for they for a long time had provoked the Lord in days gone by. Thus the Ruler of Spirits paid them back with retribution. Extreme affliction gripped the heathen race. Uproar occurred in the city, a sound most appalling at the onset of destruction of the loathsome race. All that it found green, flame consumed; in the golden city, and also roundabout there, no little part of the broad land was covered in burning and terror. Forests, the fruits of the earth, became as ashes and cinders, even as far as the onrush of punishment stretched out cruelly over the broad land of men [Old English, ‘wera’]. Ravaging fire, rushing forth, swallowed the high and wide all together, all which the men of the city of Sodom, and of Gomorrah, owned. All that God destroyed: the Lord against the people.

Unlike the expansive treatment of the destruction of Sodom by the Genesis A poet, the Vulgate, its source, is rather lukewarm in its language despite its inherent dramatic possibilities. In Genesis A we have devastation and utmost terror, screams of tumult, shame and divine retribution, and the swelling, devouring flames consuming all before them. In the Vulgate we are given a rather basic cause-and-effect narration: God sends brimstone and fire, and thus Sodom and the surrounding land are destroyed. Having just provided the reader with a tense story of violent sexual confrontation, the Vulgate’s narration conforms to the somewhat typical, almost matter-of-fact tenor that can often be observed in much of the Old Testament. It is, however, notable that Ælfric amplifies the Vulgate account by not only imputing ‘fury’ to God, but also by inserting the descriptor ‘the shame-bearers’ (Old English, ‘ða sceambearan’). He thus reminds the reader of the reviled state of Sodom, and, significantly, he takes our thoughts back to his earlier assertion that the foul lust of the Sodomites ‘shames us to say it openly’.

The Genesis A poet’s amplifications are far more extensive than Ælfric’s, and it is noteworthy that the passage quoted above pays special attention to the retributive aspect of God’s punishment. The art of repetition through variation, central to Anglo-Saxon poetry, is exploited: God’s black flames and sulphur are sent ‘as punishment’; ‘the Ruler of Spirits paid them back with retribution [or, ironically, ‘a reward’]’; and ‘the onrush of punishment stretched out cruelly over the broad land of men’. What is more, it is the males of Sodom who are singled out here: wer, the Old English word for ‘male person’, is once again used, as it was earlier in the poem.175 Thus the men of the land become the focus of retribution, complementing Bede’s view that the fires of destruction in the morning light are the just recompense for the attempted male rape of the previous dark night.

The artist of the Hexateuch exploits the same association, since in his depiction of God’s fiery retribution, found on folio 32v (see figure 5), men dominate the composition. The scene acts as a continuation of the artist’s earlier interpretive shift from the ‘people of Sodom’ to the men of Sodom, discussed above. Further, the artist continues to signal the sexual shame of these men, once more illuminating where Ælfric’s treatment obfuscates.

figure 5. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 32v.
The destruction of Sodom

The Sodomites are arranged in various poses as the rains of fire fall down from the sky, which is represented as a layer of blue swirls above and, menacingly, one of fiery red beneath. The artist picks up on some, but not all, of the details of the textual narrative. The city – its complex of elegant, architectural facades – is about to be overthrown; the roof of each building is aflame. There is, however, no representation of the obliteration of ‘all that was growing’. Rather, the artist foregrounds the annihilation of the human inhabitants of Sodom.

It is striking how the males, in terms of both ratio and movement, dominate the scene. There are eleven men: six younger, beardless males and five older with beards, reminding us of the Vulgate’s statement that ‘both young and old’ beset Lot’s house.176 There are, however, only five women (each is typically veiled), all of whom are relatively diminutive and particularly static. By contrast, the men are shown in far more dynamic poses (see figure 5a), grabbing various body parts of other men – arms, a leg and a hip – interconnecting them literally and figuratively, and echoing the scene of their intimacy on folio 23v. None of the women is shown either grabbing or being grabbed; they are thus, in a sense, isolated from the men, even though they share the same space of destruction. This gender distinction appropriately hints at the inter-male sexuality of the men of Sodom.

figure 5a. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 32v.
Detail showing the men of Sodom grabbing each other

The Hexateuch scene has been described as a ‘restrained interpretation’ of the destruction.177 There may be more colourful and perhaps more disturbing images of Sodom’s destruction in medieval art,178 but the emphasis of the Hexateuch artist is not horror. The stylistic qualities and features of composition are, on the contrary, in keeping with the artwork as a whole, which invariably forces the viewer to engage with the movement and gestures of the figures as they perform the story. Indeed, overall the visual storytelling of the Hexateuch works as a fluid series of stage-like scenes: its figures are often framed by architectural ‘scenery’; and they gesture like actors on a Roman stage.179 What the hands of the Sodomites are doing – or not doing, in the case of the women – is thus very important for understanding the artist’s emphasis. This particular detail is actually a key feature of his exegesis, his reimagining of the story of the destruction. He does, of course, provide sufficient detail to illustrate the text, but he does far more. He does indicate the nature of the destruction: the fire from heaven streaks down (rather like an insistent English rain, we might add); and imminent death is clearly indicated, as the eyes of the victims are closed; but the men’s grasping hands are the key to understanding the artist’s commentary. The Sodomite men not only hold on for dear life to the columned structures of the city, which action may figuratively signify their resistance to repentance, but also to one another: literally to each other’s body and symbolically to their inter-male sexual intimacy, their ‘foul lust’ – ‘not with women’ – about which Ælfric refused to be explicit.

The coding of inter-male sex by the Hexateuch artist is arguably quite subtle, though perhaps any apparent subtlety is a result of our own modern-day inadequacies in reading visual narrative in medieval manuscripts. Nevertheless, we can appreciate that in showing precision through detail he pays attention to creating his own intertextual narrative. His representation of the Sodomites as an obsessively intimate group of lewd, shameless men connects the viewer to texts beyond his immediate text, and thus forms a dialogue within the larger Anglo-Saxon discourse of Sodom.


The discourse of Sodom in Anglo-Saxon England

At the outset of chapter one, I suggested that the discourse of Sodom’s sin was complex in Anglo-Saxon England, often being more about allusion than clear explication. The subsequent analysis of both text and image has in many ways confirmed this. My very first subject of discussion, Aldhelm’s description of Sodom, exemplifies well this complexity. Aldhelm’s avoidance of an explicit definition of the sin of Sodom is apparent but at the same time he chooses vocabulary that strongly hints at something very specific, namely, that anal penetration of effeminate men by other males was the sin of Sodom.

Notwithstanding my affirmation here of the intricacies of this discourse, I think it appropriate to ask whether there is a particular emphasis within what we might call the Anglo-Saxon imagination when it comes to the nature of the sin of Sodom, and whether there is a continuity of thought and sentiment across the range of literature and artwork we have explored.

Two of the three major Anglo-Saxon commentaries on Genesis – Bede’s and Alcuin’s – show a clear association between inter-male sex and the Sodomites, as does the poem Genesis A, which has the men of Sodom explicitly demanding sex with Lot’s male guests. Bede links the destruction of Sodom to these practices, explicitly foregrounding the sordid events of the fateful night of Genesis 19 as the very height of Sodom’s heaped-up outrages, and consequently as the logical reason for God bringing a fiery destruction the very next morning.

Bede provides the most complex and detailed treatment of Sodom’s sin, and although initially claiming that the Sodomites had an ‘unspeakable sin’ – which he presents as the obvious one of all their sins – he nevertheless comes close to actually declaring it, showing that the men and boys of Sodom had long practiced the sin of ‘males in males’. Alcuin, similarly, directly links the destruction of Sodom to the unnatural desire of men for men, contrasting this with, as he perceived, the more understandable sexual desire of men for women which was evident before the Flood. Ælfric, in translating Alcuin, muddied his predecessor’s clarity, preserving the sense of the unnatural sin of Sodom, but preferring not to spit it out, so to speak.

Not all the texts we have looked at emphasize – or even plainly refer to – the sexual proclivities of the Sodomites when discussing Sodom. The majority of homilies, as well as other works, such as the translations of Gregory’s writings, present the Sodomites as a more general exemplum against unrepentant and flagrant sin, Pastoral Care even using the flight of Lot from Sodom as an allegory for marital sexual restraint. Only the Vercelli Homilies alert the reader to the ‘madness’ of inter-male sex in Sodom.

The penitentials, or handbooks for confession, show an unequivocal link between Sodom and inter-male sex. The fact that these texts construct what are, in essence, Anglo-Saxon ‘Sodomites’ is striking, for this illustrates how, in the setting of confession, the story of Sodom had taken on a very singular association, that of men having sex with men, perhaps even narrowly defining the Anglo-Saxon ‘Sodomite’ as one who sexually penetrates a boy or an effeminate man.

Arguably, the most intriguing of all aspects of the discourse of Sodom is the artistic commentary within the illustrated Hexateuch. Working with a textual narrative that incorporates Ælfric’s anxiety-ridden, homiletic intrusion into the Word of God – an interpolation that stirs up the murk of obfuscation – the artist nevertheless manages to illuminate. His choice to re-introduce elements original to the Vulgate Bible, which for the mere purpose of illustrating his text did not require the details he provides, demonstrates how Anglo-Saxon art is as equally discursive – exegetical, in fact – as the writings of the great theologians of the period. The coding of the Sodomites’ inter-male behaviour and speech as not only diabolical but sexual and lewd is remarkable. The continuation of that coding in the destruction scene underscores the artist’s consistent take on the Sodom story. What is more, it demonstrates that the artist wanted to be heard or, at least, wanted the narrative of the men of Sodom to be heard more clearly than the text permitted, even if this relied upon the capacity of his audience to grasp the visual clues.

Therein, perhaps, lies the nub of this discourse of Sodom. Whereas today there is no shortage of explicit, often inflammatory, commentary from groups and individuals concerning the specifics of the sin of Sodom, the coding, inference and suggestion of the Hexateuch’s artist characterise the subtlety of the Anglo-Saxon imagining of Sodom. Though there are continuities across the Anglo-Saxon period – though, indeed, inter-male sex is never far away from the discourse of Sodom and, where it is clearly there, is always represented pejoratively – the Anglo-Saxons nevertheless preferred to avoid absolute explicitness, choosing instead, I would argue, to leave something to the imagination.

A broader context

It might be said that the subtlety and inference evident in the discourse of Sodom reflect the prevalent attitude towards sexual matters more broadly in Anglo-Saxon culture, an attitude that may be characterised as restrained. To illustrate this, we might consider the general lack of sexually explicit material in both texts and art of the period.

It is not within the scope of this conclusion to offer an exhaustive account of all Anglo-Saxon literature that touches upon matters of sex. What is pertinent, in broad terms, is that there is only one genre of text in which graphic amplification of sexual acts occurs: the penitentials, which were priests’ handbooks for confession. Even in the laws of the Anglo-Saxon kings, which have numerous references to ‘illicit sexual unions’ – though none, remarkably, to same-sex acts or behaviours – there is a heavy reliance, in descriptions of sexual crimes, on euphemisms, such as ‘lie with’, rather than anything that we might term graphic.180 The grabbing of the breast of a nun, found in Alfred’s law code, is perhaps the nearest we get to explicit detail.181

If we ponder a little more on the penitential texts, it is clear that it is the very particular religious and social context of confession that determines the necessity for augmenting sexual details. For an Anglo-Saxon confessor, the enumeration and amplification of sexual behaviours made sense, for he was tasked by the Church with the job of administering penance correctly. He had to align the quantity and, hence, severity of his assignment of penance with the gravity of any sexual sin under scrutiny. He would have seen himself as accountable to God in this matter.182 So for priest – and sinner – it was important to know, for example, if a man having sex with his wife had sinned by having ‘sex in her rectum’ or merely ‘from behind’, both requiring penance, but the former as much as ten years of fasting, whilst the latter just forty days.183 Here, detail mattered.

The sexual explicitness of Anglo-Saxon penitentials thus can be understood in cultural terms as justified on grounds of spiritual necessity. Such explicitness is not, however, the norm for Anglo-Saxon literature. Furthermore, when we consider the example of the penitentials alongside the written discourse of Sodom, we may find an explanation for the relative restraint in the latter. Aside from the few passages in the penitentials that deal directly with contemporaneous ‘Sodomites’, it is fair to say that Sodom narratives do not fit neatly into a penitential context, and so it would seem it was broadly deemed inappropriate to magnify what we might call the lurid details of the sin of Sodom when a vaguer condemnation of that sin was all that was needed.

I do not wish to imply the Anglo-Saxons were excessively prudish. On the contrary, we may be able to infer, from the collection of vernacular riddles that have survived, that the Anglo-Saxons, even the more religious amongst them, were not averse to laughing and joking about sex. The use of double entendre in the form of penis and intercourse riddles of the Exeter Book, written down by monastic scribes, supports this assertion.184 However, even when the riddle tradition exploits sexual matters, there is a certain prerequisite reserve in place, for penises are never articulated openly, and the identification of body parts or sexual play is always suspended for the sake of a more ‘correct’ solution to the riddle. Thus the ‘boneless thing’ which ‘grows, swells and protrudes’ and is grabbed on to by a young woman who covers ‘the swelling thing with a garment’ is readily identifiable as nothing more alarming than rising dough.185

For the question of sexual restraint within art, we have before us a large corpus of Anglo-Saxon material from which we may judge the matter, covering manuscript illumination, sculpture and metalwork; and we might add to that embroidery, if we include the Bayeux Tapestry as an example of Anglo-Saxon cultural production, even though it sits just outside the official Anglo-Saxon period (ending 1066).186 The use of sexual imagery within the corpus, though not absent, is still quite rare, even though there are numerous depictions of naked human and humanoid figures, particularly in manuscript art.

It is helpful to consider examples from visual media where sexual intercourse is obviously the subject of a scene. For this, we may once more look to the Hexateuch. When the artist is directly illustrating sexual intercourse, as he does in the case of Abraham and Hagar, and in the scene of Lot and his daughters, he does not represent exposed flesh; rather, static bodies are wrapped tightly in bedclothes, with only heads showing (see figures 6, 7 and 7a).187 Further, when we observe the sordid tale of Tamar ‘playing the harlot’ to Judah, her father-in-law, in order to get pregnant by him, the gesture of Judah passing his staff through his torc, or bracelet, which then touches her belly, is all that is needed to symbolise their act of reproductive sex (see figure 8).188 So though sexual behaviour in these biblical scenes is not passed over by the Hexateuch artist, there is obvious restraint in representing it. Yet we may ask if the sexual in art is always restrained or coded in some way.

figure 6. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 27v.
Detail showing Abraham sleeping with Hagar to get her pregnant

figure 7. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 33v, upper register.
Lot is plied with alcohol by his daughters and then he has sex with the first daughter

figure 7a. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 33v, lower register.
Lot is again plied with alcohol by his daughters and then he has sex with the second daughter

figure 8. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, 56r.
Detail of Judah getting Tamar pregnant as she ‘plays the harlot’

To answer this we should consider how certain naked figures may be read as deliberately sexualized by their artists, since there is no overt mention, in the texts which they illustrate, of anything sexual. The hybrid monsters, or marvellous races, of the two Anglo-Saxon Wonders of the East texts are most relevant here.189 Some of them are shown with their genitals emphasized, such as the Donestre, who in the Beowulf Manuscript is shown devouring a woman and with his right arm raised to reveal stylized, though anatomically fulsome, genitals (see figure 9); and likewise in an illustrated miscellany with his genitals painted red and his naked buttocks arching provocatively over his male victim.190 I have demonstrated elsewhere that biblical tradition and exegesis inform the artwork here. The monstrous races were perceived as a product of miscegenation, of the illicit sexual unions between ‘the sons of God’ and the ‘daughters of men’ of the pre-Flood world of Genesis 6. The sexualization of monster bodies is therefore purposeful, not casual in any sense, as it acts as a visual allusion to their origins.191 The amplification of the sexual in these cases is not gratuitous and thus fits in with the idea of Anglo-Saxon restraint.

figure 9. © The British Library Board. London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, folio 103v.
Detail showing the naked Donestre devouring a woman

Other uses of naked bodies in art may also be interpreted as sexual. The Junius 11 manuscript shows a drunken Noah uncovering his genitals, observed by his son Ham.192 This is the closest we get to sexually explicit material in Anglo-Saxon manuscript art; as Madeline Caviness puts it, this illustration ‘demonstrates that unedited nudity was not always censored by Anglo-Saxon artists’.193 I have argued elsewhere that the viewer is meant to understand Noah’s uncovered genitals as his erection,194 since the artist is probably tapping into a tradition that associates Ham with unseemly misconduct toward his sexually vulnerable father,195 as is hinted at by Bede in his explication of the genealogical connection of the Sodomites to Ham. What we see, however, may still be regarded as another example of coded and even restrained sexuality. Even whilst the artist pushes the viewer towards contemplating male genitals in a state of arousal, the composition arguably contains the explicitness. Just as Ham raises his arms in a gesture of alarm, and his brothers rush to cover over their father’s nakedness, so viewers of the scene must follow suit, contextualise what they witness, position it as a representation of overt sexuality, and conclude that what is signified, though not actually observed, is indeed unseemly or inappropriate behaviour.

More explicit than the Noah scene is the mini-narrative in the lower border of the Bayeux Tapestry, where we are confronted by a naked ‘Adam and Eve’ about to have sex. A bare breasted Eve covers her genitals and face in shame as an aroused Adam, complete with serpentine erection, approaches her.196 This may be seen as coarse humour. It is certainly provocative. However, there is a non-sexual meaning coded in what we observe. Adam’s genitals are deployed, as with other naked genitals in the Tapestry, as a visual metonym for overt masculinity. Such machismo is witnessed throughout the Tapestry’s main narrative which, in essence, is the story of the battle for the English throne between the ultimately defeated King Harold and his conqueror, William of Normandy. The ashamed Eve thus speaks to the vanquished Harold, while the pressing Adam, in all his glory, becomes the dominant and successful William.197 We might say, then, that even though we see sex in the Bayeux Tapestry, we do not see sex for the sake of sex. Moreover, there is, I would suggest, a remarkable correspondence here between the sexuality of Adam and Eve and that of the penis and coitus allusions in the Anglo-Saxon riddles. We can imagine (see or hear) the erect penis – sex is arguably visible or recognizable – but we are meant to look beyond the obvious or the base in order to observe something more sober or profound.

The position that the Anglo-Saxons completely avoided sexual explicitness of any kind in their art and literature cannot be defended, but sexual explicitness was not the order of the day. In the case of visual media, as we have seen, sexual matters can, on occasion, be depicted vividly, perhaps more so than we generally witness in Anglo-Saxon texts, where, with the exception of the authors of penitentials, writers tend to hold back from offering graphic detail on matters of sex, whether in the context of light-hearted entertainment or deeply serious biblical commentary.

This is then one aspect of a broader cultural context in which we can place the Anglo-Saxon discourse of Sodom. We might refer to it as the context of a public or observable imagination of the sexual. It is a collection of internalised concepts and images that we can only deduce, in the examples we have addressed, from surviving art and literature. Whether it be the broader view of sex or specifically the sexual associations of the story of Sodom, we will never know fully what went on in the minds of everyone in Anglo-Saxon England, nor even of those who have left their mark on Anglo-Saxon discourse. What we can say, I would assert, is that this observable faculty of the mind generally chose not to contemplate explicit details of sexual acts. There is, for those Anglo-Saxons for whom we have surviving testimony, a world of difference between suggesting the sexual content of a biblical scene and spelling out, in words or visually, the exact nature of that sexual behaviour. Therefore, for anyone wishing to comprehend how the Sodom narrative was conceived in the Anglo-Saxon imagination, it is necessary to drop any expectation that there is somehow a cleanly cut key that will unlock an unambiguous definition of the sin of that infamous city.


1. ‘1. Veneruntque duo angeli Sodomam vespere, et sedente Lot in foribus civitatis. Qui cum vidisset eos, surrexit, et ivit obviam eis: adoravitque pronus in terram, 2. et dixit: Obsecro, domini, declinate in domum pueri vestri, et manete ibi: lavate pedes vestros, et mane proficiscemini in viam vestram. Qui dixerunt: Minime, sed in platea manebimus. 3. Compulit illos oppido ut diverterent ad eum: ingressisque domum illius fecit convivium, et coxit azyma, et comederunt. 4. Prius autem quam irent cubitum, viri civitatis vallaverunt domum a puero usque ad senem, omnis populus simul. 5. Vocaveruntque Lot, et dixerunt ei: Ubi sunt viri qui introierunt ad te nocte? educ illos huc, ut cognoscamus eos. 6. Egressus ad eos Lot, post tergum occludens ostium, ait: 7. Nolite, quaeso, fratres mei, nolite malum hoc facere. 8. Habeo duas filias, quae necdum cognoverunt virum: educam eas ad vos, et abutimini eis sicut vobis placuerit, dummodo viris istis nihil mali faciatis, quia ingressi sunt sub umbra culminis mei. 9. At illi dixerunt: Recede illuc. Et rursus: Ingressus es, inquiunt, ut advena; numquid ut judices? te ergo ipsum magis quam hos affligemus. Vimque faciebant Lot vehementissime: jamque prope erat ut effringerent fores. 10. Et ecce miserunt manum viri, et introduxerunt ad se Lot, clauseruntque ostium: 11. et eos, qui foris erant, percusserunt caecitate a minimo usque ad maximum, ita ut ostium invenire non possent. 12. Dixerunt autem ad Lot: Habes hic quempiam tuorum? generum, aut filios, aut filias, omnes, qui tui sunt, educ de urbe hac: 13. delebimus enim locum istum, eo quod increverit clamor eorum coram Domino, qui misit nos ut perdamus illos.’ The Latin text and Douay-Rheims English translation of Jerome’s Vulgate used throughout this study are from the readily accessible online edition at: (accessed 20.07.2016). The standard scholarly edition of the Vulgate is Biblia Sacra iuxta vulgatam versionem, ed. Robert Weber and Roger Gryson, fifth edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007).

2. Genesis 19:24–5: ‘24. And the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven. 25. And he destroyed these cities, and all the country about, all the inhabitants of the cities, and all things that spring from the earth.’ Latin text: ‘24. Igitur Dominus pluit super Sodomam et Gomorrham sulphur et ignem a Domino de caelo: 25. et subvertit civitates has, et omnem circa regionem, universos habitatores urbium, et cuncta terrae virentia.’

3. For a concise and scholarly overview of the way the biblical language has contributed to the polarity within the debate, see M. R. Godden, ‘The trouble with Sodom: literary responses to biblical sexuality’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 77 (1995), 97–119 at 97–99.

4. Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1998).

5. Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955; reprint, Hamden, CT: Archon, 1975); Vern L. Bullough, Sexual Variance in Society and History (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976); Mark D. Jordan, The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). These and other works concerning the history of homosexuality are reviewed by Frantzen in chapter three of his Before the Closet.

6. David Clark, Between Medieval Men: Male Friendship and Desire in Early Medieval English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). For the Sodom narrative, see especially chapters 4 and 5.

7. John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980). For Frantzen’s critique of Boswell’s study, see chapter three in his Before the Closet. Also on the criticism of Boswell’s viewpoint, see Pierre Payer, Sex and the Penitentials: The Development of a Sexual Code 550–1150 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), p. 135. See also Mathew Keufler’s edited collection on the impact of Boswell’s study, which brings together essays from leading scholars in the field of the history of sexuality: The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

8. The corpus of works is addressed chronologically – from approximately the turn of the eighth century (Aldhelm) to the turn of the eleventh (Ælfric) – up to the section about the penitentials, which covers texts from more than one century. This is followed by an analysis of Genesis A, an eighth-century poem preserved in a late tenth-century manuscript, and this forms the conclusion to the chapter. The rationale behind this deviation from strict chronological order was my desire to offer a contextual ‘segue’ into chapter two.

9. The Hexateuch is located in the British Library: London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B.iv. The library has made a ‘zoomable’ facsimile available online: go to and type ‘Hexateuch’ into the Keyword search box. A black-and-white, hardcopy facsimile with commentary is also available: C. R. Dodwell and Peter Clemoes (ed.), The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B. IV, Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18 (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1974). Two relatively recent and important studies of the Hexateuch are: Benjamin C. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England (London: British Library; and Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2007), which has an accompanying CD-ROM with full colour facsimile images; and Rebecca Barnhouse and Benjamin C. Withers (ed.), The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University Press, 2000).

10. Michael Lapidge and Michael Herren (trans.), Aldhelm: The Prose Works (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1979), p. 1; repeated in Michael Lapidge and James Rosier (trans.), Aldhelm: The Poetic Works (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), p. 1.

11. It is difficult to date the poem, though it is likely to have been written before Aldhelm’s bishopric (c.705/706–c.709/710): see Lapidge and Rosier, Aldhelm: Poetic Works, pp. 12–14.

12. Lapidge and Rosier, Aldhelm: Poetic Works, pp. 157–9.

13. Genesis 19:30–38.

14. Lapidge and Rosier, Aldhelm: Poetic Works, p. 158. Latin text: ‘Cum scortatores, et molles sorde cinædos / Qui Sodomæ facinus patrabant more nefando, / Cærula sulphureis torrerant flumina flammis’: Sancti Aldhelmi ... Opera quæ extant, ed. J. A. Giles (Oxford: J. H. Parker, 1844), p. 205. See also the edition: Aldhelmi Opera, ed. Rudolf Ehwald, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Auctorum Antiquissimorum XV (Berlin: Weidmann, 1919), p. 45.

15. nefandus: ‘lit. not to be mentioned, unmentionable’: Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary (online word search:; hereafter, Lewis and Short, with all entries accessed 15.09.2016).

16. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 75.

17. Lewis and Short, scortator, I: ‘a whoremonger, fornicator’. On scortum as a neuter noun indicating both a male and a female prostitute, and the use of scortum as such in Roman literature, see Craig A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 40–50.

18. scortator: ‘one who consorts with prostitutes, fornicator’: Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (DMLBS) (online word search:; accessed 14.07.2016).

19. Williams, Roman Homosexuality, p. 178. William’s systematic and complete definition of cinaedus (given on pp. 175–78) demonstrably refines and updates those found in standard dictionaries. Contrast, for example, the definition in Lewis and Short: ‘He who practises unnatural lust, a sodomite, catamite’.

20. A bædling, a rare term in the Old English corpus, probably referred to a male person who was perceived in terms of gender as distinct from a ‘normal’ man. For further discussion see Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 58–67; Frantzen, Before the Closet, pp. 163–75, and ‘Between the lines: queer theory, the history of homosexuality, and Anglo-Saxon penitentials’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, 26:2 (Spring 1996), 16–29; R. D. Fulk and Stefan Jurasinski (ed.), The Old English Canons of Theodore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 66–7; R. D. Fulk, ‘Male homoeroticism in the Old English Canons of Theodore’, in Sex and Sexuality in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Carol Braun Pasternack and Lisa M. C. Weston (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004), pp. 1–34; and Christopher Monk, ‘Framing sex: sexual discourse in text and image in Anglo-Saxon England’ (Unpublished PhD, The University of Manchester, 2012), pp. 127–40. See also below, in the section on penitentials, the discussion of ‘molles’, meaning ‘effeminate ones’ or, literally, ‘soft ones’.

21. I am here following William’s lead in qualifying the problematic terms ‘active’ and ‘passive’: see Williams, Roman Homosexuality, pp. 18 and 309, n. 16.

22. Clark, Between Medieval Men. pp. 76–8.

23. My own translation. ‘Si enim gens Anglorum [...] spretis legalibus conubiis adulterando et luxoriando ad instar Sodomitana gentis foedam vitam vixerit de tali commixtione meretricum aestimandum est degeneres populos et ignobiles et furentes libidine fore procreandos.’ Bonifatius-Briefe 73, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae I, (1916), p. 151. An accessible translation of the whole of the letter by Edward Kylie is provided at: (accessed 14.07.2016). See also Ephraim Emerton (trans.), The Letters of Saint Boniface (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

24. See also Godden’s similar interpretation: ‘The trouble with Sodom’, 99.

25. Clark, however, does not read it this way: ‘Boniface is clearly not thinking at all here of same-sex acts, but rather associates Sodom with adultery, the sin for which he is rebuking King Ethelbald.’ Between Medieval Men, p. 77.

26. Translation by Ephraim Emerton, but my own emphasis: The Letters of Saint Boniface (New York: Octagon Books, 1973), p. 133. Latin text: ‘Inauditum enim malum est preteritis seculis et, ut hic servi Dei gnari scripturarum dicunt, in triplo vel in quadruplo Sodomitanam luxoriam vincens, ut gens christiana contra morem universe terrae, immo contra perceptum Dei despiciat legitima matrimonia et adhereat incestis luxoriis adulteriis et nefanda stupra consecratarum et velatarum feminarum sequatur.’ Bonifatius-Briefe 75, Epistolae Selectae I, p. 158.

27. Jude 1:7. Also, see the discussions below of Bede, Alcuin and Ælfric.

28. Modern English quotations of Bede’s commentary are taken from Calvin Kendall (trans.), On Genesis: Bede (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008). The Latin text is from Charles W. Jones, Libri quatuor in principium Genesis usque ad nativitatem Isaac et eiectionem Ismahelis adnotationem, in Bedæ Venerabilis Opera, Pars II, Opera Exegetica, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 118A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1967); hereafter, Jones, In Genesis.

29. Genesis 9:20–27.

30. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 213. Latin text: ‘Notandum autem etiam iuxta sensum litterae quod non frustra Cham peccante non ipse sed filius eius Chanaan maledicitur[.] [...] Praeuidebat enim pariter in spiritu quod progenies Chanaan amplius multo quam cetera stirps filiorum Cham esset peccatura, ideoque digna futura quae uel maledictione periret uel seruitio subacta gemeret. Quod Sodomorum maxime qui de genere Chanaan exiere uel scelere nefando uel horrenda ultione probatum est ostensum’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 139, lines 2385–2395.

31. Both the Hexateuch (figure 1) and Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11 (dated to c.960 – c.980) depict Ham gazing at his father’s nakedness; the latter, on p. 78, shows Noah’s exposed genitals, which can be read as representing an erection, on which see Christopher J. Monk, ‘Behind the curtains, under the covers, inside the tent: textile items and narrative strategies in Anglo-Saxon Old Testament art’, Medieval Clothing and Textiles 10 (2014), 1–24, at 15–24. The Junius 11 image is available at:,-Exodu?sort=Shelfmark%2CFolio_Page&qvq=w4s:/what/MS.%20Junius%2011;q:junius%2B11;sort:Shelfmark%2CFolio_Page;lc:ODLodl~1~1&mi=85&trs=103

32. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 256. Latin text: ‘Homines autem Sodomitae pessimi erant et peccatores coram Domino nimis’. Jones, In Genesis, p. 178, lines 1303–4.

33. Ezekiel 16:49–50; Kendall, On Genesis, p. 256. Latin: ‘abominationes’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 179, line 1317.

34. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 256; my own emphasis. Latin text: ‘Quibus autem peccatis Sodomitae fuerint subiugati, excepto illo infando quod in sequentibus scriptura commemorat. Iezechiel propheta sufficienter exponit’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 179, lines 1311-1314.

35. The Latin ‘illo infando’, literally ‘that unspeakable’, employs an adjectival substantive, which in the context of the passage carries the sense of an ‘unspeakable sin’, as Kendall’s translation makes clear.

36. Frantzen suggests that Bede’s use of the ‘unspeakable sin’ may have been partly from a sense of decorum and partly because he believed his audience ‘did not need elaboration’: Before the Closet, p. 194.

37. Compare with Richard Kay, Dante’s Swift and Strong: Essays on Inferno XV (Lawrence, KS: Regents Press of Kansas, 1978), p. 231; see also Frantzen’s discussion of Bede’s words which includes an appraisal of Kay’s opinion: Before the Closet, pp. 194–5.

38. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 256; my own emphases. Latin text: ‘incolarum notat impietatem, ut eo maiori damnatione digni esse intellegantur, quod maxima Dei munera non ad fructum pietatis sed ad incrementum uertere luxuriae’: Jones, In Genesis, pp. 178–9, lines 1305–8.

39. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 260. Latin text: ‘Sed et alia permagna neque ullatenus praetereunda causa est, quorum pugna regum et Sodomorum primo fuga ac post ereptio scriberetur, quos etiam in sequentibus celesti ira penitus constat esse subuersos. Videns quippe eorum scelera, Deus primo haec caede hostili et captiuitate corripuit; sed mox per fidelem suum famulum ab eadem eos captiuitate cum omnibus quae erant capta eripuit. Et hoc ob gratiam beati Loth, qui inter eos fideliter Deo seruiuit, ut tali dono diuinae protectionis adiuti ac liberati de malis, discerent et ipsi relictis erroribus Deo seruire eiusque ad bona opera sequeretur exemplum a quo et per quem Dei sunt gratia saluati. Verum quia nec ipsi, nec correptionibus diuinis, nec donis a sua iniquitate uoluere corrigi, quin potius priscae scelera prauitatis recentibus cotidie accumulauerunt flagitiis, restabat ut ira celesti perpetuo damnarentur.’ Jones, In Genesis, p. 183, lines 1445–60.

40. See Kay’s discussion, Dante’s Swift and Strong, pp. 230–1.

41. See Kendall, On Genesis, pp. 307–8.

42. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 304; my own emphases. Latin text: ‘Et recte utique Dei iudicio factum est ut qui beatum Loth in tenebris noctis multum laborantem ac renitentem suis flagitiis inretiri temptauerunt, adueniente subito die, hunc ereptum cernentes, ipsi prorsus interirent. Quique ipsi foedis uoluptatibus carnis in tenebris arserant. Apparente subito mane, sulphure consumerentur et igne, quia et omnes qui in cecitate mentis occulte uitiis inseruiunt, in cognitone sui sceleris palam a districto iudice feriuntur. Item notandum quod una eademque nocte et Loth hospite Domino gaudebat et defendebatur ab hostibus; et Sodomitae sua scelera accumulare, etiam, ipso Loth cum hospitibus suis foedato, laborabant. Orto autem sole, hic liberatus pro sua iustitia, illi pro sua impietate damnati’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 226, lines1148–1160.

43. The same Latin verb, accumulare, is used in both passages.

44. Latin: ‘uiri ciuitatis’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 221, line 997.

45. Latin: ‘ut cognoscamus eos’ (‘that we may know them’): Jones, In Genesis, p. 221, line 1001. Here, as elsewhere in the Old Testament, ‘to know’ is being used euphemistically for ‘to have sex’, as is made clear from the context. See the discussion of ‘to know’ below. Compare Genesis 4:1: ‘And Adam knew Eve his wife: who conceived and brought forth Cain’.

46. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 300; my own emphasis. Latin text: ‘Peccatum quippe suum sicut Sodomitae praedicauerunt nec absconderunt, cum absque respectu pudoris alicuius omnes a puerili aetate usque ad ultimam senectutem masculi in masculos turpitudinem operari solebant, adeo ut ne hospitibus quidem ac peregrinis sua scelera abscondere, sed et hos uim inferendo suis similes facere sceleribus atque suis facinoribus implicare contenderent.’ Jones, In Genesis, p. 222, lines 1004–10.

47. Augustine, The City of God, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 16.30, p. 743.

48. I would suggest that the word order of the Latin passage – ‘masculi in masculos turpitudinem operari solebant’ (‘they were accustomed to work male-in-male indecency’) – more directly equates the indecency of the Sodomites with inter-male sex than does Kendall’s translation, which distances the two occurrences of the adjectival ‘males’.

49. Kendall, On Genesis, pp. 300–1. Latin text: ‘Quoniam prostituere uolebat filias suas hac compensatione, ut uiri hospites eius nihil a Sodomitis tale paterentur’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 222, lines 1015-16. See Augustine, Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, ed. Johannes Fraipont and D. De Bruyne, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 33 (1958), 17: 1.42.

50. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 74. Clark is following Kay’s view on this: Dante’s Swift and Strong, p. 231.

51. Latin text: ‘Quod uero furentibus eis in tale flagitium patrandum’: Jones, in Genesis, p. 222, lines 1010–11. We should note the use again of flagitium to describe the sin.

52. Latin: ‘flammas uitiorum’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 224, line 1087. See generally Bede’s discussion of the warning inherent in the story of Lot’s wife looking back at the burning of Sodom: Kendall, On Genesis, pp. 301–3.

53. Kendall, On Genesis pp. 301–2. Latin text: ‘Generaliter quidem incendium et perditio Sodomorum, de qua ereptus est Loth, poenam ultimae districtionis designat’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 223, lines 1055–7.

54. Bede quotes Luke 17:28–30 and Jude 7.

55. Genesis 18:21–33.

56. Kendall, On Genesis, p. 305. Latin text: ‘Condigna autem suis sceleribus poena Sodomitae pereunt; nam quia in putredine luxuriae et ardore libidinis uitam duxerunt impiam, merito cum flammis ignium etiam fetore sulphuris puniuntur. Nec dubitandum quia tali poena non solum ad praesens damnati, sed etiam sunt perpetuo damnandi’: Jones, In Genesis, p. 226, lines 1168–73.

57. The full Latin text of the passage reads: ‘Quare diebus Noe peccatum mundi aqua ulciscitur, hoc vero Sodomitarum igne punitur? Quia illud naturale libidinis cum feminis peccatum quasi leviori elemento damnatur: hoc vero contra naturam libidinis peccatum cum viris, acrioris elementi vindicatur incendio: et illic terra aquis abluta revirescit; hic flammis cremata æterna sterilitate arescit.’ Alcuin, Interrogationes et Responsiones in Genesin, Patrologia Latina 100, cols. 515–66, at 543, Inter. 191. Translation is my own.

58. See Godden’s discussion of Alcuin’s perspective: ‘The trouble with Sodom’, 99–101.

59. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 83.

60. My own translation. Latin text: ‘Quid est, fili, quod de te audio, non uno quolibet in angulo susurrante, sed plurimus publice cum risu narrantibus: quod adhuc puerilibus deservias inmunditiis, et quae numquam facere debuisses, numquam dimittere voluisses. Ubi est nobilissima eruditio tua? Ubi est clarissima in scripturis sacris industria tua? Ubi morum excellentia? Ubi animi fortitudo? Ubi timor gehennae? Ubi spes gloriae? Quomodo illa perpetrare non horrescis, quae aliis prohibere debuisses? Converte, obsecro, in te animum tuum, et dic cum propheta: ‘Quis dabit capiti meo aquam et fontem lacrimarum oculis meis, ut plangam die ac nocte’ non Ierusalem Babilonio igne usturam, sed animam Sodomitanis flammis arsuram. Per singula momenta properat dirus exactor, quem nullus vitare potest. Quid respondebis tunc aequissimo iudici tuo, si nunc non corrigis foedissima facta tua?’ Alcuini Epistolae 294, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolarum Tomus IV, Epistolae Karolini Aevi II (1895), pp. 451–2. Stephen Allott’s partial translation of the letter omits the reference to ‘the flames of Sodom’: Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters (York: William Sessions, 1974), §127, p. 134.

61. Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 81–2. Frantzen considers ‘the filthy practices of boys’ as a reference to ‘same-sex intercourse’: Before the Closet, p. 199; Boswell reads the passage as referring to ‘a homosexual indiscretion’: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, p. 191.

62. Allott’s translation of ‘puerilibus … inmunditiis’.

63. Monk, ‘Framing sex’, pp. 119–27.

64. Ian Wood, ‘Gregory the Great’, in The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Michael Lapidge et al (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp. 220–21.

65. Henry Sweet (ed. and trans.), King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, Early English Text Society, Original Series 45 (London: Oxford University Press, 1871).

66. Old English: ‘ðone unliefedan byrne ures lichoman’. Sweet, Pastoral Care, p. 397; translations of passages from Pastoral Care are my own, though note Sweet’s translation: ‘we are to flee from the unlawful heat of our bodies’, p. 396. Gregory’s allegory is found on pp. 396–9 of Sweet’s edition.

67. Frantzen, Before the Closet, p. 201. Bede also engages with the allegorical significance of Zoar in relation to marital sexuality and sexual abstinence; see Kendall, On Genesis, pp. 303–4.

68. Old English: ‘ða clænnesse ðære forhæfdnesse’. Sweet, Pastoral Care, p. 399. Sweet: ‘purity of continence’, p. 398.

69. Frantzen, Before the Closet, p. 202.

70. Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 94–5.

71. Old English: ‘hi forleton eallinga ðone bridels ðæs eges, ða hi ne scrifon hwæðer hit wære ðe dæg ðe niht, ðonne ðonne hi syngodan’. Sweet, Pastoral Care, pp. 426–7. See Frantzen’s discussion, Before the Closet, p. 203.

72. The Old English passage reads: ‘Soðlice eac we leornodon in Genese þære bec, þæt drihten sende fyr ⁊ swefl samod ofer Sodoma folc, to þon þæt þæt fyr hi forbærnde, ⁊ se fula stenc þæs swefles hi acwealde. forþon þe hi burnon on þære unalyfdan lufe þæs gebrosniendan lichaman, hi forþon eac samod to lore wurdon in þam bryne ⁊ fulan stence, þæt hi ongæton on heora sylfra wite, þæt hi sealdon ær hi sylfe mid heora synlustum to þam ecan deaþe þære fulnesse.’ Hans Hecht (ed.), Bischofs Wærferth von Worcester Übersetzung der Dialoge Gregors des Grossen, Bibliothek der Angelsächsischen Prosa 5 (Leipzig: Wigand, 1900), p. 323.

73. Old English: ‘Þa wæs þæt folc þæs micclan welan ungemetlice brucende, oð ðæt him on se miccla firenlust oninnan aweox. ⁊ him com of þæm firenluste Godes wraco, þæt he eal þæt land mid sweflenum fyre forbærnde.’ Janet M. Bately (ed.), The Old English Orosius, Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series 6 (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), I. iii, pp. 22–3.

74. Irving Woodworth Raymond (trans.), Seven Books of History against the Pagans: The Apology of Paulus Orosius (New York: Colombia University Press, 1936), p. 51. See Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 95–7.

75. Frantzen gives a good overview of these: Before the Closet, pp. 205–8.

76. See Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 90–92.

77. My own translation. Old English: ‘Geþenceað eac þara þe in Sodome for hira unalyfedum gewilnungum forwurdon, ⁊ þara þe on Noes dagum wæron. Witodlice be ðam þe ðam yðan life lyfedon on Sodome hit wæs gecweden ðætte on hlafes fylnesse flowen. Þonne sio fylnes ðæs hlafes unriht wyrceð, hwæt is to cweðanne be ðam mænigfealdum smeamettum? Gemunað hu Esaw his dagas on ehtnesse lædde, ⁊ hu ða ðe ær in ryne Godes bearn wæron þurh ænlicra wifa sceawunga to fyrenlustum gehæfte on helle gehruron. Gemunað eac hu þa forwurdon þe mid wodheartnesse willan to wæpnedmannum hæmed sohton, ⁊ eallra Babilone ⁊ Egypta cyninga ealle hie swiðe ungesæliglice hira lif geendedon ⁊ nu syndon on ecum witum. Eac swylce þa ilcan witu syndon gearuwe þam mannum þe nu swylcum lifum lifiað swylce hie lyfedon.’ D. G. Scragg (ed.), The Vercelli Homilies and Related Texts, Early English Text Society 300 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 135.

78. The homilist is alluding to Ezekiel 16:49: ‘Behold this was the iniquity of Sodom thy sister, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance, and the idleness of her, and of her daughters: and they did not put forth their hand to the needy, and to the poor.’

79. Genesis 25:27–34.

80. The contemporary, orthodox interpretation of Genesis 6:4 was that ‘the sons of God’ were the kin of Seth and ‘the daughters of men’ were the kin of Cain, and that these sexual unions were forbidden by God. See Christopher Monk, ‘A context for the sexualization of monsters in The Wonders of the East’, Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2013), 79–99, at 90–96. I note that Clark translates ‘in ryne Godes bearn’ as ‘in the age of God’s son’, stating that this refers to ‘the men of Christ’s time’: Between Medieval Men, p. 98. This seems to be a misunderstanding. ‘Godes bearn’ may be translated in the plural as ‘God’s sons’; and since the passage refers to a time before (‘ær’) Esau, it makes no sense to understand it as Clark does. Frantzen’s slightly awkward translation and his subsequent commentary also do not make explicit the association with the time before the Flood: Before the Closet, pp. 206–7.

81. One might think, for example, of the Pharaoh who desired Sarah and subsequently met with plagues sent by God: Genesis 12:14–20.

82. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 98: ‘the Sodomites are not the people chosen to exemplify this mad way of life’. Frantzen has no qualms in making the association between the Sodomites and same-sex desire: Before the Closet, pp. 206–7.

83. See Monk, ‘Framing sex’, pp. 110–18.

84. G. E. Maclean (ed.), Ælfric’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Alcuini Interrogationes Sigewulfi in Genesin, Anglia 6 (1883), 425–73 and Anglia 7 (1884), 1–59, at 7 and 48. Maclean’s text for this passage is provided conveniently, and discussed, in Frantzen, Before the Closet, pp. 208–9 and Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 86–8. All translations that follow are my own.

85. Old English: ‘syngodon mid wifum’.

86. Old English: ‘þa sodomitiscan’.

87. Old English: ‘syngodon bysmorlice ongean gecynd’.

88. Old English: ‘þe ongean gecynd sceamlice syngodon [...] synd ecelice fordemede’.

89. Peter Clemoes, ‘The chronology of Ælfric’s works’, in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of Their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickens, ed. Clemoes (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1959), pp. 212–47, at p. 225.

90. ‘Se leodscipe wæs swa bysmorfull þæt hig woldon fullice ongean gecynd heora galnysse gefyllan, na mid wimmannum ac swa fullice þæt us sceamað hyt openlice to secgenne, and þæt wæs heora hream þæt hig openlice heora fylþe gefremedon.’ Richard Marsden, The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus veteri testamento et nova, vol. 1: Introduction and Text (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the Early English Text Society, 2008), p. 42; hereafter, Heptateuch.

91. Rebecca Barnhouse, ‘Shaping the Hexateuch text for an Anglo-Saxon audience’, in The Old English Hexateuch, ed. Barnhouse and Withers, pp. 91–108, at p. 98.

92. Genesis 18:20–21. The Old English word hream, meaning ‘outcry’ or ‘clamour’, corresponds to the Latin word clamor, which is translated in the Douay-Rheims as ‘cry’.

93. On Ælfric’s anxiety over the laity’s reading of scripture, see Melinda J. Menzer, ‘The preface as admonition: Ælfric’s preface to Genesis’, in The Old English Hexateuch, ed. Barnhouse and Withers, pp. 15–39.

94. See Clark’s discussion of Ælfric’s Prayer of Moses, his In Letania maiore, his Sermo De Die Judicii, and his Letter to Sigeweard: Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 87, 89 and 93–94.

95. Clark argues that ‘there remains a question over how far his lay audiences would have been able to make any ready association of Sodom or its inhabitants or phrases such as ongean gecynd with same-sex acts’ (p. 88), and suggests that some other sexual sin such as masturbation or bestiality may be referred to, or that the sin against nature can be read as a ‘more generalized sexual debauchery in which same-sex activity is included but [is] not the exclusive component’ (p. 101). To take this position, I would suggest, assumes an unlikely inability for literate laypersons to understand euphemism and inference. It is also worth underscoring the observations of Vern L. Bullough, pioneer of the history of sexuality, that early medieval texts were quite specific in associating ‘the sin against nature’ with inter-male sex, and that it was only later in the medieval period that the term became a catch-all for all forms of non-procreative sex: ‘The sin against nature and homosexuality’, in Vern L. Bullough and J. A. Brundage, Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1982), pp. 55–71, at p. 59.

96. Though the penitential bears the name of Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury (died 690), Theodore did not compose the work himself. Rather Eoda, a subordinate of Theodore, compiled a collection of Theodore’s pronouncements, and these were subsequently organized into the penitential by an unnamed scribe, probably in the early eighth century, who refers to himself as discipulus Umbrensium.

97. ‘5. Si masculus cum masculo fornicat X ann. peniteat. 6. Sodomitae VII annos peniteant et molles sicut adultera. 7. Item hoc virile scelus semel faciens IV annis peniteat; si in consuetudine fuerit, ut Basilius dicit; si sine XV sustinens annum unum ut mulier; si puer sit primo II annos; si iterat IV.’ Text from R. D. Fulk and Stefan Jurasinski (ed.), The Old English Canons of Theodore, Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series 25 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 68; but see also Arthur West Haddan and William Stubbs (ed.), Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1869-78), vol. 3, p. 178. The translation is my own.

98. The new critical edition of the text is Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore. Canons of Theodore is an Old English translation-adaptation of the Penitential of Theodore, and was written before the end of the tenth century, possibly much earlier. See the editors’ discussion on dating at pp. xxxvi–xlii.

99. Old English: ‘6. Se þe mid bædlinge hæme, oþþe mid oþrum wæpnedmen, oþþe mid nytene, fæste tyn winter. 7. On oþre stowe hit cwyð, se þe mid nytene hæme, fæste fiftyne winter, and sodomisce seofon gear fæston.’ Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, p. 15.

100. The pioneering study on the penitentials in Anglo-Saxon England is Allen J. Frantzen, The Literature of Penance in Anglo-Saxon England (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983). For historical evidence of the use of penitentials in late Anglo-Saxon England, see Catherine Cubitt, ‘Bishops, Priests and Penance in Late Saxon England’, Early Medieval Europe 14, 2006 (I), 41–63. For Latin penitentials and sex, see Pierre J. Payer, Sex and the Penitentials: The Development of a Sexual Code, 550–1150 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1984).

101. R. Morris (ed.), The Blickling Homilies with a Translation and Index of Words together with the Blickling Glosses, Early English Text Society, Original Series 58, 63 and 73 (1874–1880; Oxford: Oxford University Press,1967), p. 43.

102. See Wulfstan’s homily Semo ad populum: Dorothy Bethurum (ed.), The Homilies of Wulfstan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957; reprinted with corrections, 1971), p. 229. Compare with Joyce Tally Lionarons’s editions of each manuscript version of Sermo ad Populum in her ‘Textural identity, homiletic reception, and Wulfstan’s Sermo ad populum’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, 55. 219 (2004), 157–82, at 176–82.

103. See the Introduction in Allen J. Frantzen, La littérature de la pénitence dans l’Angleterre anglo-saxonne, trans. Michel Lejeune (Fribourg by Éditions Universitaires, 1991). See the discussion of Frantzen’s English version of this introduction (‘The “Literariness” of the penitentials’) in Christopher J. Monk, ‘Defending rihthæmed: the normalizing of marital sexuality in the Anglo-Saxon penitentials’, Revista de la Sociedad Española de Lengua y Literatura Inglesa Medieval (SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Mediaeval English Language and Literature), 18 (2012), 7–48, at 11–14.

104. Note Nora Chadwick’s comment on the Irish Penitentials, that they ‘form an abstract compendium of suppositious crimes and unnatural sins, thought up [...] by the tortuous intellect of the clerical scribe’: The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 149.

105. Thus differences between the lengths of penance should not necessarily be read as contradictions, but rather as differently sourced canons on related sins.

106. The penitentials are the so-called Penitential of Bede, and the Penitential of Ecgberht: Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Documents, vol. 3: pp. 326–34 (see canons 3.19–3.20); and pp. 416–31 (see canons 1–2.2).

107. Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, p. 67. The square brackets are part of the quotation.

108. The best discussion of the difficulties of translating this passage is Fulk’s: see Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, pp. 66–70.

109. See Monk, ‘Framing sex’, Appendix 1, pp. 252–3.

110. Clark argues that ‘and molles as an adulteress’ is a rephrasing of ‘Sodomites should do penance 7 years’. I find this unlikely, and note that Clark does not engage with the subsequent mention of ‘this manly crime’: Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 61–2.

111. ‘Qui facit scelus uirile ut Sodomite, .iii. annis’: Ludwig Bieler (ed.), The Irish Penitentials (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1963), p. 68. My own emphasis.

112. Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, p. 69.

113. See Fulk’s explanation of the Latin of this passage: Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, p. 70.

114. Grammatically, ‘mulier’ is in the nominative case, and it is being used as a complement of the subject, though the subject is implied, i.e. the subject is the one ‘enduring’ the ‘manly crime’. It is therefore the boy who is ‘as a woman’. I would like to thank both Robert Fulk and Alex Rumble for sharing their thoughts with me on this passage, though the conclusions I have reached here are my own, and therefore any error of understanding is mine.

115. Compare the Satyrica of Pretonius (c. 27–66) where Encolpius insults Ascyltos to his face with ‘muliebris patientiae scortum’ (‘you whore, submissive as a woman’): see Gottskálk Jensson, The Recollections of Encolpius: The Satyrica of Petronius as Milesian Fiction (Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing and Groningen University Library, 2004), p. 79. My thanks to one of Rounded Globe’s anonymous readers for bringing the Petronius reference to my attention. Compare also Lewis and Short, mulier: II: Transf., as a term of reproach, a woman, i.e. a coward, poltroon’.

116. ‘Molles sunt effeminate [...] sive qui alterius fornicationem sustinent’: Alcuin, De divinis officiis, Patrologia Latina ci, 1195; Fulk and Jurasinski, Canons of Theodore, p. 70. My own translation.

117. Genesis A, lines 2428–2431a: ‘Hie þa æt burhgeate beorn gemitton / sylfne sittan sunu arones / þæt þam gleawan were geonge þuhton men for his eagum.’ ‘Then at the city gate they met the noble, the son of Aron sitting by himself, so that to that wise man they seemed before his eyes as young men.’ The Old English text of Genesis A throughout this study is based on the edition in A. N. Doane, Genesis A: A New Edition, Revised (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013); the translation throughout is my own, unless otherwise stated. See folios 31r–32r of the Hexateuch. On 31r, top register, the two angels are contrasted with the older bearded figure who represents God. They are also shown earlier with God when visiting Abraham: see folios 29v–30v. They also are beardless here. Interestingly, the two angels are portrayed as young, beautiful and ‘berdles’ (‘beardless’) men in the later Middle English poem Cleanness: Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (ed.)The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, Fourth Edition (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2002); see especially lines 783, 788–792.

118. Compare Peter Damian’s Book of Gomorrah (c.1048–54) which ascribes to Basil (330–379), referred to in the Penitential of Theodore, the creation of a ceremony of degradation for ‘[a] cleric or monk who seduces youths or young boys’. The ceremony involved public flogging, shaving of the head, spitting on the face and being bound in chains. Peter Damian, The Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise against Clerical Homosexual Practices, trans. Pierre J. Payer (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1982), 15, p. 61. For a discussion of the views on homosexuality of Damian, an Italian Benedictine monk, see Louis Crompton, Homosexuality and Civilization (Cambridge MA and London: 2003), pp. 175–77.

119. Lines 2453b–2484a: ‘comon sodomware / geonge and ealde, gode unleofe/ corðrum miclum cuman ascian / þæt hie behæfdon herges mægne / loth mid giestum. heton lædan ut / of þam hean hofe halige aras, / weras to gewealde. wordum cwædon / þæt mid þam hæleðum hæman wolden / unscomlice, arna ne gymden. / þa aras hraðe se ðe oft ræd ongeat, / loth on recede, eode lungre ut, / spræc þa ofer ealle æðelinga gedriht / sunu arones, snytra gemyndig: / “Her sundon inne unwemme twa / dohtor mine. doð swa ic eow bidde / – ne can þara idesa owðer gieta / þurh gebedscipe beorna neawest – / and geswicað þære synne. ic eow sylle þa / ær ge sceonde wið gesceapu fremmen, / ungifre yfel ylda bearnum. / Onfoð þæm fæmnum. lætað frið agon / gistas mine þa ic for gode wille / gemundbyrdan gif ic mot for eow.” / Him þa seo mænigeo þurh gemæne word, / arlease cyn, andswarode: / “þis þinceð gerisne and riht micel / þæt þu ðe aferige of þisse folcsceare. / þu þas werðeode wræccan laste, / freonda feasceaft, feorran gesohtest / þine þearfende. wilt ðu gif þu most / wesan usser her aldordema, / leodum lareow?”

120. Line 2464b: ‘noblemen’, translating what seems to be an ironic use of æðeling, normally meaning ‘prince’ or ‘nobleman’.

121. Line 2469a: ‘gebedscipe’.

122. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11. Leslie Lockett dates the manuscript to c. 960–c. 980: ‘An integrated re-examination of the dating of Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 11’, Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002), 141–73. For dating of Genesis A, see Doane, Genesis A, pp. 51–55.

123. Lines 1920–1924a: ‘him þa loth gewat land sceawigan / be iordane, grene eorðan. / seo wæs wætrum weaht and wæstmum þeaht, / lagostreamum leoht and gelic godes / neorxnawange’.

124. Lines 1924b–1926: ‘oð þæt nergend god / for wera synnum wylme gesealde / sodoman and gomorran, sweartan lige’.

125. Lines 1933–1937a. ‘þær folcstede fægre wæron, / men arlease, metode laðe. / wæron sodomisc cynn synnum þriste, dædum gedwolene, drugon heora selfra / ecne unræd’.

126. Lines 2542–2544a: ‘Þa ic sendan gefrægn swegles aldor / swefl of heofnum and sweartne lig / werum to wite’. ‘Then I heard that the Prince of the Sky sent sulphur from heaven and black flame as punishment to the men’.

127. Charles Kennedy also translates ‘unræd’ in line 1937a as ‘folly’, though ‘evil counsel’ is an alternative. See Charles W. Kennedy (ed.), The Cædmon Poems (New York: Routledge, 1916), p. 66.

128. Doane, Genesis A, p. 382: 2472a, ungifre: ‘Representing either -gīfre “greedy” or -gifre “useful”; the latter would mean “unuseful,” “harmful”; ungīfre is best explained as having an intensive prefix, “very greedy”’.

129. See Godden’s discussion of this: ‘The trouble with Sodom’, 110-11.

130. Monk, ‘Defending Rihthæmed’, 20–21. For a detailed linguistic analysis of hæman, see Andreas Fischer, Engagement, Wedding and Marriage in Old English (Heidelberg: Winter, 1986), pp. 63–68.

131. The Vetus Latina is the collective name given to versions of the Latin Bible that are older than Jerome’s Vulgate, and which continued to circulate for some time after his ‘authorized’ version.

132. Doane, Genesis A, p. 254: 19.5 ‘V.L. [Vetus Latina]: educ illos ad nos ut coitum facianus cum eis’; see also p. 382: 2460. See also Frantzen, Before the Closet, pp. 220–21. For evidence that the Genesis A poet may have had access to Old Latin translations of Genesis, see Paul G. Remley, ‘The Latin textual basis of Genesis A’, Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1998), 163–89; and Doane, Genesis A, pp. 77–87.

133. Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (online word search), ge-sceap: ‘I. a creature, created being’ and ‘III. the privy members: vĕrenda, pŭdenda’:; compare scippan: ‘I. to shape, form’,; all accessed 21.07.2016. Elsewhere in Genesis A, gesceap is used to refer to the genital nakedness of Adam and Eve at the Fall (line 1573b); for a discussion of this, see Clark, Between Medieval Men, pp. 126–7. It is also used in the prose Genesis account of Noah’s exposed nakedness, where it translates verenda, the Latin word for external genitalia: Heptateuch, pp. 24–5.

134. Frantzen, Before the Closet, p. 221; see also Clark’s discussion of Genesis A’s use of gesceap: Between Medieval Men, pp. 126–8.

135. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 113; see also Godden, ‘The trouble with Sodom’, pp. 109-10.

136. Lines 2408–2416a: ‘“Ic on þisse byrig bearhtm gehyre, / synnigra cyrm swiðe hludne, / ealogalra gylp, yfele spræce / werod under weallum habban. forþon wærlogona sint / folce firena hefige. ic wille fandigan nu, /mago ebrea, hwæt þa men don, / gif hie swa swiðe synna fremmað / þeawum and geþancum swa hie on þweorh sprecað / facen and inwit.”’

137. Clark, Between Medieval Men, p. 113.

138. Doane, Genesis A, p. 416: ealogal.

139. The following discussion of the Hexateuch’s treatment of the Sodom narrative is a significant expansion and revision of material that appears in Monk, ‘Framing Sex’, pp. 155–62, and Monk, ‘Textile items and narrative strategies’, 12–15.

140. For a careful and comprehensive evaluation of the evidence for the Hexateuch’s date and origin, see chapter two of Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, pp. 53–85.

141. See Richard Marsden, ‘Translation by committee? The “anonymous” text of the Old English Hexateuch’, in The Old English Hexateuch, ed. Barnhouse and Withers, pp. 41–85.

142. Withers, The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, pp. 159–182.

143. By contrast it has been shown that a detailed sequence of the story was planned as part of the unfinished Genesis cycle in the earlier Junius 11 manuscript (c.960-980), which we looked at in the first chapter in connection with the poem Genesis A. As evidence, there are a series of blank spaces in Junius 11 where it would have been appropriate for the whole story to have been illustrated. Catherine E. Karkov, following G. Henderson, suggests the story of the Sodomites attacking Lot’s house would have been included in detail in the spaces across pp. 112–114 of the manuscript: see Catherine E. Karkov, Text and Picture in Anglo-Saxon England: Narrative Strategies in the Junius 11 Manuscript (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 205. For Henderson’s projections for missing illustrations, see his ‘The programme of illustrations in Bodleian MS Junius XI’, in G. Henderson, Studies in English Bible Illustration, Vol. 1 (London: Pindar, 1985), pp. 138–83.

144. That the artist was male is fairly certain as the Hexateuch was produced in a male monastic house.

145. Old English: ‘ær þan þe God towende þa burga Sodoma and Gomorran’. When dealing specifically with the Old English of the Hexateuch, I quote directly from the manuscript, rather than use the edition of the Heptateuch by Marsden, which is based on several manuscripts and not solely the Hexateuch. Manuscript punctuation has been modernized, abbreviations silently expanded, and any scribal stress marks ignored. Compare with Genesis 13:10; Heptateuch, p. 33.

146. Old English: ‘Loth ða geceas him þone eard wið iordanen’. Compare with Genesis 13:11; Heptateuch, p. 33.

147. Old English: ‘eardode ða on þam lande chanaan’. Compare with Genesis 13:12; Heptateuch, p. 33.

148. Old English: ‘Þa sodomitiscan men wæron forcuðostan and swyðe synfulle ætforan gode’. Compare with Genesis 13: 13; Heptateuch, p. 33.

149. The text uses the plural form of Old English mann, which means a person of either sex, not simply ‘man’.

150. One of the fallen angels at the beginning of the Hexateuch (f. 2r) is depicted with a similar ugly snout. Devils with grotesque features are quite common in Anglo-Saxon art, appearing regularly, for example, in the Harley Psalter, roughly contemporary with the Hexateuch. A good example showing two ugly snouted demons is found on f. 3v. British Library MS Harley 603 (Canterbury, first half of the 11th century); a digitised facsimile is available at: (accessed 03.10.2016).

151. Several angels bear scrolls on folio 29r, where God appears before Abraham. On folio 31r, lower register, the two angels that visit Lot are first shown flying down from the heavens bearing a scroll – a pronouncement of judgement, no doubt, against the city of Sodom. Scroll-bearing angels also appear on folio 36r.

152. About three hundred Latin notes and over thirty Old English ones were added after 1180 to the Hexateuch as commentary. The ‘diabolus’ annotation is, however, earlier than these, written by an eleventh-century hand. See A. N. Doane and William P. Stoneman, Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B. iv) (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011); on ‘diabolus’, see p. 53, n. 212.

153. New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M.709 (Canterbury, c. 1065). Images from the book can be found at: (accessed 22.07.2016).

154. Jane Rosenthal and Patrick McGurk, ‘Author, symbol, and word: the inspired Evangelists in Judith of Flanders’s Anglo-Saxon gospel books’, Tributes to Jonathan J. G. Alexander: The Making and Meaning of Illuminated Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts, Art and Architecture, ed. Susan L’Engle and Gerald B. Guest (London, Turnout: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2006), pp. 185–202, at p. 188. See also Richard Gameson, The Role of Art in the Late Anglo-Saxon Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 103, n. 184.

155. For gestures in Anglo-Saxon art generally, see C. R. Dodwell, Anglo-Saxon Gestures and the Roman Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Dodwell describes the adlocutio gesture on p. 35.

156. Genesis 19:5, 9.

157. Note Lewis and Short, injuria: ‘I. any thing that is done contrary to justice and equity, injury, wrong, violence’.

158. The text that appears underneath the drawing of the Sodomites is not the focus of the pointing gesture, for it is a later annotation and thus not part of the original work.

159. My thanks to Julian Harrison, Curator of Pre-1600 Manuscripts at the British Library, for measuring the tear and noting that it is original.

160. The manuscripts: Murthy Hours, Edinburgh, National Library, MS 21000 (England, c.1260–80), fol. 3r; and Bible picture book, Rovigo, biblioteca dell’Accademia dei Concordi, MS Silv. 212 (North Italy, late 14th-century), fol. 6r. For a detailed discussion of Noah’s nakedness in these and other medieval illustrations, see Madeline H. Caviness, ‘A son’s gaze on Noah: case or cause of viriliphobia?’, in The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art, ed. Sherry C. M. Lindquist (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 103–48. I would like to thank Michelle Brown for discussing with me my observations on the tear in the vellum. Particularly helpful was her analogy about rubbing and marking of images in a context of devotion or damnatio memoriae (‘condemnation of memory’).

161. See Jane E. Rosenthal, ‘An unprecedented image of love and devotion: the Crucifixion in Judith of Flanders’s Gospel Book’, in Tributes to Lucy Freeman Sandler: Studies in Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. Kathryn A. Smith and Carol H. Krinsky (London and Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2007), pp. 21–36, at p. 30.

162. Genesis 6:2; Heptateuch, p. 18.

163. Something similar is witnessed in other Anglo-Saxon illustrations. For example, a scene of the Fall from the Junius 11 cycle (p. 28), in which the devil tempts Adam and Eve, shows three apples, representing the forbidden fruit of temptation, when only one is meant. Eve is shown eating one of the apples whilst simultaneously placing the second apple into the hands of the devil who is also shown simultaneously holding out the third apple to Adam. There is no need to think the artist was indicating the existence of three forbidden fruits; rather, he is deploying a kind of continuous narrative motion to illustrate that Eve was tempted first, followed by Adam. See also the continuous motion of Satan’s messenger on p. 36 of Junius 11, who is seen twice in the same scene, simultaneously diving into Hell and addressing Satan who is imprisoned there.

164. I would like to thank Gale Owen-Crocker for originally observing to me in person the use of an emphatic line connecting the three heads. It is clearly discernible when using the zoom feature of the British Library online facsimile.

165. Withers, Hexateuch, p. 40.

166. Genesis 19:9.

167. Genesis 19:6, 9–11.

168. My thanks to Gale Owen-Crocker who observed to me in person that the hinged door is likely an open door, as the blank door on folio 8r, which bars Adam and Eve from re-entering Paradise, must be a closed door.

169. In the Hexateuch, doors appear quite frequently in city walls, notably on folio 19r in the depiction of the building of the Tower of Babel. They also appear on Noah’s ark across folios 14r to 15v. In scenes showing individual homes, however, there are only two occurrences other than the Sodom scene where a door is shown. The first of these, a hinged door, is found in the lower scene of folio 27v, in which the departure of Hagar, about to be driven out of Abraham’s household by Sarah, is anticipated. The other example, again a door with hinges, is in the lower register of folio 35v, where we see Sarah, while inside the home, addressing Abraham about her concerns over Isaac and Ishmael, who are seen beyond the door playing together outside. As with the Sodom scene, here an ‘inside-outside’ motif is employed, though it appears to be less metaphorical in this example.

170. The idea of the ‘revealing curtain’ in the Hexateuch is explored more fully in Monk, ‘Textile items and narrative strategies’, 2–12. For an art-historical perspective on the theatricality of curtains, see also Açalya Allmer, ‘In-between stage life and everyday life: curtains and their pictorial representations’, Textiles 6.1 (2008), 18–31.

171. Compare with Genesis 19:9.

172. Latin text: ‘23. Sol egressus est super terram, et Lot ingressus est Segor. 24. Igitur Dominus pluit super Sodomam et Gomorrham sulphur et ignem a Domino de caelo: 25. et subvertit civitates has, et omnem circa regionem, universos habitatores urbium, et cuncta terrae virentia’.

173. ‘Loð com þa to segor þa ða sunne upp eode. ⁊ god sende to þam burgum eal byrnendne ren scur mid swefle gemencged, ⁊ ða sceambearan fordyde. God towearp ða swa mid graman ða burhga, ⁊ ealne ðone eard endemes towende. ⁊ ealle þa burhwara forbærnde ætgædere; ⁊ eall ðæt growende wæs wearð adylegod’.

174. Þa ic sendan gefrægn swegles aldor / swefl of heofnum and sweartne lig / werum to wite, weallende fyr / þæs hie on ærdagum drihten tyndon / lange þrage. him þæs lean forgeald / gasta waldend. grap heahþrea / on hæðencynn. hlynn wearð on ceastrum, / cirm arleasra, cwealmes on ore / laðan cynnes. lig eall fornam / þæt he grenes fond goldburgum in / swylce þær ymbutan unlytel dæl / sidre foldan geondsended wæs / bryne and brogan. bearwas wurdon / to axan and to yslan, eorðan wæstma, / efne swa wide swa þa witelac / reðe geræhton rum land wera. / strudende fyr steapes and geapes / swogende for, swealh eall eador / þæt on sodoma byrig secgas ahton / and on gomorra. eall þæt god spilde, / frea mid þy folce.

175. We should note that in this particular passage, the second use of wer is not triggered by the requirement for alliteration, and therefore represents a ‘free’ and specific choice by the author. It could be argued that the first use of wer in this passage may have been triggered by the need to alliterate with wite; and in the earlier passage (line 2459) by weald and word. My thanks go to one of the anonymous readers of the initial draft of this script for pointing this out.

176. Genesis 19:4.

177. Frantzen, Before the Closet, pp. 191-2.

178. As an example, the scene of Sodom’s destruction in the thirteenth-century Bible Historiée (John Rylands MS Latin 5), a veritable patchwork of gold-leaf and multi-coloured paints, depicts red tongues of fire from heaven, and tumbling masonry bludgeoning the heads of each of Sodom’s victims. A ‘turn-the-pages’ facsimile of this book is found at: (accessed 20.07.2016).

179. See generally Dodwell’s Anglo-Saxon Gestures, which pays particular attention to gesturing in the Hexateuch as part of his comparative study of Anglo-Saxon manuscript and Roman stage gestures. On dramatic gestures in art generally, see Clifford Davison (ed.), Gesture in Medieval Drama and Art (Kalamazoo MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University Press, 2001).

180. Editions and some translations of the Anglo-Saxon laws are available online at: (accessed 16.02.17); a translation of many of the laws is provided in Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), English Historical Documents c. 500–1042 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955).

181. Law 18: see Whitelock, English Historical Documents, pp. 372–80.

182. See Monk, ‘Framing sex’, pp. 251–253.

183. From the penitential known as Scriftboc: ‘Man gif he hindan hæme mid his wife, fæste XL nihta; gif he on hire bæcþerm hæme, fæste X winter’ (‘A man, if he should have sex with his wife from behind, he should fast 40 nights; if he should have sex in her rectum [literally, ‘back-gut’], he should fast 10 years’); see Monk, ‘Framing Sex’, pp. 76–77; and ‘Defending rihthæmed’, pp. 36–7.

184. See Glenn Davis, ‘The Exeter Book riddles and the place of sexual idiom in Old English literature’, in Medieval Obscenities, ed. Nicola McDonald (Woodbridge and Rochester, NY: York Medieval Press in association with The Boydell Press, 2006), pp. 39–54.

185. See Davis, ‘The Exeter Book riddles and sexual idiom’, p. 47.

186. The majority of scholars understand the Tapestry as an English product of the late eleventh century. It has often been linked to St Augustine’s abbey at Canterbury, based upon its artistic ‘borrowing’ from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts produced there. For a recent in depth discussion of this connection, and especially of the argument that it was the monks at St Augustine’s who were responsible for the Tapestry’s design and production, see Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Stephen D. White, The Bayeux Tapestry and Its Contexts: a Reassessment (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2014).

187. Monk, ‘Textile items and narrative strategies’, pp. 5-10; for a discussion of Lot and his daughters, see Monk, ‘Framing sex’, pp. 188–95.

188. Monk, ‘Framing sex’, pp.183–7; Jonathan Wilcox notes the ‘sexual charge’ in this illustration: ‘A place to weep: Joseph in the beer room and Anglo-Saxon gestures of emotion’, in Saints and Scholars: New Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture, ed. Stuart McWilliams (Cambridge: Brewer, 2012), pp. 14–32, at p. 21.

189. The Wonders of the East is found in the Beowulf-manuscript, London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, 98v–106v, dated to c.1000, and in the eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon illustrated miscellany, London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.v, 78v–87r. The Donestre is shown on folio 103v of the former and 83v of the latter.

190. On the Donestre, see Susan M. Kim, ‘The Donestre and the Person of Both Sexes’, in Naked Before God: Uncovering the Body in Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Benjamin C. Withers and Jonathan Wilcox (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2003), pp. 162–180; also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), p. 2.

191. See Christopher Monk, ‘A context for the sexualization of monsters in The Wonders of the East’, Anglo-Saxon England 41 (2013), 79–99. See also Asa Simon Mittman and Susan M. Kim, Inconceivable Beasts: The Wonders of the East in the Beowulf Manuscript (Tempe, AZ: Arizona Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013).

192. For this image, see above at n. 31.

193. Madeline H. Caviness, ‘A son’s gaze on Noah: case or cause of viriliphobia?’, in The Meanings of Nudity in Medieval Art, ed. Sherry C. M. Lindquist, pp. 103–148, at p. 110.

194. Monk, ‘Textile items and narrative strategies’, pp. 21–24.

195. Monk, ‘Textile items and narrative strategies’, p. 16, n. 45.

196. A digitized version of the image is available at: (accessed 03.03.17).

197. See Christopher J. Monk, ‘Figuring out nakedness in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry’, in Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings, ed. Anna C. Henderson with Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), pp. 54–74, at pp. 58–66.

About the Author

Chris(topher) was born in Derby, England in 1966. As a young adult he moved to Leicester, another Midlands city, before finding his way to Manchester, in the North West of the country.

Having left school at 15 with just a basic education, and now in his mid-30s, he decided Manchester was the place to get a ‘proper’ education, and so he embarked on a long-running career as a mature student, ultimately ending up with a PhD from the University of Manchester.

Whilst at Manchester, both during and after his studies, he taught medieval literature and culture for four years and continued to develop his academic credentials publishing interdisciplinary articles in leading international journals.

In 2013, he went solo, and set up his own consultancy business, providing research and development services for the creative industries and heritage sector, most notably as the ‘medieval expert’ for Rochester Cathedral’s ‘Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expressions’ project, funded by the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund.

When not collaborating on creating multi-media outputs, Chris maintains his academic profile as an independent scholar. Sodom in the Anglo-Saxon Imagination is his first eBook.

Chris is the proud owner of his alter ego, The Anglo-Saxon Monk, whose blog attracts around 20,000 views each month:


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