Please support First Things by turning your adblocker off. Thanks!

Sometime during the second half of the year 1049, Peter Damian, prior of the hermitage of Fonte Avellana in what is now the Italian region of Marche near the Umbrian border, wrote a lengthy letter to newly installed Pope Leo IX. The letter concerned “the befouling cancer of sodomy,” which Peter ­Damian declared was “in fact, spreading so through the clergy or rather, like a savage beast, is raging with such shameless abandon through the flock of Christ.”

In Peter Damian’s definition—a common one during the Middle Ages—the sin of “sodomy” encompassed “four classes of unnatural vice,” each described by him with startling explicitness and deemed more serious than the last, starting with masturbation and culminating with anal intercourse, the worst offense of all. All were forms of male homosexual activity (the other two consisted of the carnal touching of others’ private parts and intercourse between the thighs of someone of one’s own sex). Peter Damian was outraged, particularly because the superiors of clerics who committed such sins were, in effect, giving them a pass: exacting penances for monks and priests found to have committed the first three offenses but expelling from holy orders only those who had engaged in the fourth, anal intercourse.

Some of the offenders, Peter ­Damian said, had even chosen fellow homosexual offenders as their confessors so as to obtain slap-on-the-wrist treatment. “Listen, you do-nothing superiors of clerics and priests. Listen, and even though you feel sure of yourselves, tremble at the thought that you are partners in the guilt of others; those, I mean, who wink at the sins of their subjects that need correction and who by ill-considered silence allow them license to sin.” He reserved his harshest condemnation for bishops who abused their underlings by engaging in homosexual acts with them: “What a vile deed, deserving a flood of bitter tears! If they who approve of these evildoers deserve to die, what condign punishment can be imagined for those who commit these absolutely damnable acts with their spiritual sons?” Damian was not without pity for those sinners, however, begging them to throw themselves onto God’s mercy and reform their ways, but he asked Leo to expel from holy orders those who had committed any of the four categories of sodomy.

Scholars have debated whether homosexual activity among clerics was quite such a widespread “festering disease” during the eleventh century. It is indisputable, however, that the tenth and eleventh centuries were the most scandal-plagued that the Western Church had endured, and that the moral and sexual integrity of the clergy was at the heart of the issue. Hildebrand, the Tuscan Benedictine monk who became Pope Gregory VII in 1073, had to institute the “­Gregorian Reform” movement attacking simony (the buying and selling of holy offices), lay investiture (the control of bishoprics by powerful secular lords), and gross violations of the Western Church’s longtime requirement of priestly celibacy. That rule had been in place since at least the early fourth century, but by the eleventh, priests and even bishops all over Western Europe were living openly with wives and children, often passing down their churches by inheritance to their priest-sons. Some took concubines.

Pope Benedict IX (ca. 1012–­ca. 1056) was, if reports compiled by his many enemies are true, one of the worst popes ever to occupy the Chair of Peter. He was made pope three times, starting in 1032 when he was still a layman in his twenties. His personal life was right out of Suetonius, marked by allegations of rape, murder, bribery, adultery, and sodomy. In 1044, Romans disgusted by ­Benedict’s loose living forced him out, and a new pope, Sylvester III, was elected. Benedict promptly excommunicated Sylvester, returned to Rome, and resumed the papacy in March 1045. Two months later, he abdicated (some said out of a desire to marry) and sold the papal throne to his godfather, who became Pope Gregory VI. There were now three men with claims to be the Vicar of Christ: Benedict, Sylvester, and ­Gregory. The then-Holy Roman Emperor Henry III decided to get rid of all three of them and installed yet another pope, ­Clement II. But ­Clement lived for only nine months, and ­Benedict managed to bribe his way, it was said, into a third stab at the papacy in November 1047. He didn’t last long. At Henry’s behest, Benedict was again ejected from the papacy in July 1048, and a new pope, ­Damasus II, installed in his stead. Leo IX, who had been bishop of Toul in northeastern France, was Damasus’s ­immediate successor.

Peter Damian might have had Benedict IX in mind when he wrote his letter to Leo IX, but other popes nearly as scandal-plagued, though indubitably heterosexual, had preceded him. During the tenth century, Pope ­Sergius III (ca. 860–911), an aristocratic Roman who had assumed the papacy in 904, took as his mistress the fifteen-year-old Marozia, daughter of a Roman senator’s wife, ­Theodora, whose own lupine sexual mores earned her the sobriquet “shameless whore” in the work of one chronicler. Marozia reputedly bore a son by Sergius who ­later became Pope John XI (ca. 910–ca. 936). She was said to have arranged the murder of another pope, John X (d. 928), in order to pave the way for her new love interest, Pope Leo VI (d. 929). Edward Gibbon wrote that no fewer than three descendants of Marozia—a son, grandson, and great-grandson—occupied the ­papal throne during the tenth century, which became known as the “Rule of the Harlots” among Protestant ­theologians.

Peter Damian and Hildebrand were close friends, and Hildebrand was equally close to Leo IX, with whom he traveled to Rome when Leo assumed the papacy in ­February 1049 after Damasus’s death. Indeed, the Gregorian Reform really began with Leo. That very Easter, just months after he became pope, Leo convened a synod that renewed the ban on ­marriage for those in holy orders all the way down to the rank of subdeacon and also condemned every kind of simony. It served as a prelude to the sanctions that Gregory laid down upon married clergy when he became pope.

According to his saint’s legend, Peter Damian was born into a noble but poor family in Ravenna. An orphan at an early age, he was ill-treated by an elder brother, who put him to work as a swineherd. (His farmhand employment might have come to mind when he wrote in his letter to Leo IX about a lack of same-sex attraction between animals: “Never has a bull wantonly desired to mate with another bull, never has an ass brayed longingly for intercourse with another ass.”) Finally, another brother named Damian rescued the overworked young Peter, who gratefully added that name to his own. Elder brother Damian subsidized an extensive education for his sibling in theology and canon law, and ­Peter Damian by age twenty-five had become a renowned teacher at the ­universities of Ravenna and Parma. (He was made a doctor of the Church in 1828.)

In 1035, he retreated to Fonte Avellana, where he led a life of extreme asceticism (he was famous for his self-flagellation) but also leadership, becoming prior in 1043 and remaining so until his death in 1072—although Pope Stephen IX, who assumed the papacy in 1057, forced a cardinal’s hat upon him and made him bishop of Ostia as well. He was known for his compassionate sermons, numerous treatises and hymns, devotion to the Virgin Mary (he wrote an office in her honor), and indefatigable letter-writing; some 180 of his epistles survive. He was never formally canonized, but he quickly acquired a saint’s cult and a feast day after his death. Dante placed him, in his Paradiso, in the “heaven of the contemplatives,” still inveighing against a corrupt earthly clergy.

Peter Damian derived the four classes of unnatural vice outlined in his letter to Leo IX from a Decretum, or compendium of canon law, compiled earlier in the century by ­Burchard, bishop of Worms from 1000 to 1025. Burchard had devoted an entire book of his Decretum, titled De Fornicatione, to sexual sins ranging from adultery and incest to not only sodomy in its various forms but a huge array of additional pleasuring practices. Another book, De Paenitentia, prescribed penances (quite strict ones) for priests hearing confession to mete out for those sins.

The letter to Leo IX acquired a life of its own, and also its own separate title as it was copied: the Liber Gomorrhianus, after Sodom’s biblical sister-city. But Peter Damian’s graphic language with respect to homosexual activities seemed to prove too much for many churchmen, who preferred more oblique terminology. For many years, the only copy of the Liber Gomorrhianus’s Latin text that was readily accessible to scholars was a bowdlerized seventeenth-century print edition. It was not until 1983 that a modern critical edition of Peter Damian’s letters appeared. In 1990, Owen J. Blum, O.F.M., then a history professor at Quincy University in ­Illinois, produced an English translation of the letter to Pope Leo based on the 1983 critical edition, together with a bibliography and scholarly apparatus. It is Blum’s translation that I have quoted in this article.

Meanwhile, the letter to Leo—and Peter Damian himself—became what might be called “John Boswell-ized.” Boswell, an openly gay medieval historian at Yale who died of AIDS complications in 1994, published a book in 1980 titled Christianity, Social ­Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. The book became an instant bestseller and won the National Book Award. Boswell’s thesis was that the Christian Church’s ­condemnations of homosexual ­activity did not date from its earliest years as most people thought. Instead, the Church’s attitudes ebbed and flowed as the sexual mores and tolerance levels of the secular social culture outside the Church changed over the ­centuries.

At first, Boswell argued, Christians, with the exception of a few hardliners such as John Chrysostom, generally adopted the live-and-let-live attitudes of the ancient Romans toward every form of human sexual expression, with the result that “gay sexuality was absolutely rampant” in the large Christianized cities of late antiquity. Things tightened up around the sixth century as cities declined, but Boswell insisted that most of the new strictures came from civil, not ecclesiastical, authorities. Then, with the rise of wealthy new centers of urban commerce in Western Europe after the turn of the millennium, a kind of golden age of homosexuality ensued, with churchmen ignoring activities that were technically condemned as sin, and poets celebrating same-sex love in chansons, romances, lays, and literary debates “in an outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world.” Then came the thirteenth century, when the curtain abruptly fell, marked by the Inquisition, secular laws mandating the death penalty for “crimes against nature,” and the dominance of such philosophical figures as Thomas Aquinas, who “promoted” homosexual acts “to a position of unique enormity unparalleled since the time of Chrysostom,” Boswell wrote.

Boswell’s gay-centric versions of medieval history and literature interpret every same-sex embrace, every same-sex expression of affection, every longing to save the soul of someone of one’s own sex in either real life or literature as a manifestation of “gay love.” Even the early Christian martyrs Felicitas and Perpetua, described as clinging to each other as they faced wild animals in the arena, got somehow turned into lesbians in ­Boswell’s book. He makes much of Peter ­Abelard but never mentions ­Heloise. Still, it is hard to ­underestimate the effect that Boswell’s book had upon secular intellectuals and liberal Christians. Nearly every liberal Christian now believes, as Boswell argued, that the Church’s strictures against homosexual behavior simply reflected prevailing secular attitudes and can change as those attitudes change.

Boswell dismissed Peter Damian as a crank, one of a “small, vociferous group of ascetics” on a “crusade to change both public and theological opinion on the subject” of homosexuality. Accordingly, Boswell wrote, Leo brushed Peter Damian off, penning “a polite acknowledgement” suggesting that “his own feelings were not necessarily identical with those of his correspondent.” Boswell pointed out that the Lateran Synod of 1059 a few years later put into effect much of Peter Damian’s agenda for clerical reform, with the exception of “homosexuality.” Boswell also maintained that a subsequent reforming pope, Alexander II (r. 1061–1073), had gone so far as to lock up the Liber Gomorrhianus in his office so that no one could read it—an assertion disputed by other scholars.

Boswell made his own translation of Leo IX’s Latin reply to ­Peter ­Damian, which prefaces Peter ­Damian’s letter in many manuscripts. When you place Boswell’s translation side by side with Blum’s, though, it is hard to believe that the two were translating the same text (in all fairness, Boswell was working from the inferior seventeenth-century printed version, preserved in the nineteenth-century compendium the Patrologia Latina). Blum’s translation indicates that Leo in fact gave Peter Damian nearly all that he asked for. He declared that not only should clerics who engaged in the fourth and worst form of sodomy, anal intercourse, continue to be permanently ejected from holy orders as they had been, but so should those who had engaged in any of the three lesser forms “for a long time, or for even a short period or with many.” Only those whose infractions were minimal—“not done so for any length of time, nor with many others” (Latin: “et non longo usu nec cum pluribus”)—could hope to be admitted or readmitted to clerical status after reforming their lives and doing suitable penance. That represented a considerable tightening of standards over what had prevailed for the first three classes of sodomites, who had been routinely let back into holy orders after performing their ­penances.

The ecclesiastical corruption of the tenth and eleventh centuries that Peter Damian had documented in his irascible style culminated in an intensive program of reform engineered by Leo IX, Gregory VII, and other popes among his contemporaries. That reform itself culminated in a resurgence of religious vitality as the eleventh century rolled to a close: new forms of male and female monasticism, together with a flowering of devotional literature devoured by religious and lay people alike as literacy became more widespread along with prosperity. We might hope that the current clerical scandal in the Catholic Church, centered upon the very same misconduct, will generate its own reform. 

Charlotte Allen taught medieval history and literature at the Catholic University of America.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.