Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Homosexualization of History

Baldwin I is crowned King of Jerusalem
Yesterday, as I was doing some research for my current work in progress (Road from the West: A Novel of the First Crusade), I spent some time studying the life of Baldwin I, the man who succeeded his brother Godfrey of Bouillon as King of Jerusalem. I came across an article that claimed that Baldwin was a homosexual, citing as proof the fact that he had no children by any of his three successive wives and that in one place the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre says he "struggled in vain against the lustful sins of the flesh." Conclusive evidence, no?

This was yet another example of a historical fallacy that I've seen surfacing time and time again in popular history books. This fallacy goes something like this: "Person X had no biological children. Homosexuals have no biological children. Therefore, Person X was a homosexual." This makes just about as much sense as saying, "Monks do not marry. Elizabeth I did not marry. Therefore, Elizabeth I was a monk." Are there no other reasons besides homosexuality that a man does not procreate children? And are the only lustful sins of the flesh homosexual ones?

Richard the Lionhearted is one example of a historical figure who has been trampled on (probably undeservedly) by this historical fallacy. Until the middle of the twentieth century, no one seriously mooted the idea that he was a homosexual. Now, this portrayal of him shows up in nearly every biography and historical novel set during that time period. As I understand it, the case for Richard's homosexuality lies in the fact that he had no children (except for possibly one illegitimate son), didn't seem very interested in getting married (deserting his wife Berengaria right after they tied the knot), and in his early days had a very close relationship with Philip Augustus of France.

One of the primary source quotes used to "prove" that Richard and Philip had a homosexual relationship is this:

Et post pacem illam Ricardus comes Pictaviae remansit cum rege Franciae contra voluntatem patris sui; quem rex Franciae in tantum honorabat, quod singulis diebus in una mensa ad unum cantinum manducabant, ed in noctibus non separabat eos lectus. Et propter illum vehementum amorem qui inter illos esse videbatur, rex Angliae nimio stuporo arreptus, mirabatur quid hoc esset, et praecavens sibi in futurum, frequenter misit nuncios suos in Franciam ad revocandum Ricardum filium suum....
Which in translation says something roughly like this:

And after this peace, Richard the Count of Poitou remained with the king of France against the will of his father; and the king of France was honoring him in such a way that each day they would eat together at one table from one dish, and in the night their bed did not separate them. And because of this exceeding love which appeared between them, the king of England [Henry II] was struck with much astonishment and marveled at this, and being on his guard for himself in the future, sent his messengers frequently to France to recall his son Richard....
Now, I know that my husband or my brother would strongly object to sharing a bed with another man, probably on grounds that it was "gay." But does this text give a homosexual connotation to Richard and Philip sharing a bed? Not really. It seems just another way that Philip was honoring Richard, and we must remember that in the Middle Ages, men (yes, heterosexual men) shared beds all the time.

Some have read into this text that Richard's father Henry is upset about the strange relationship developing between his son Richard and Philip, the King of France. Yes, he is upset, but I don't think that a fear of homosexual activity has anything to do with it. His son Richard is befriending the longtime enemy of England, and Henry is trying to stop them from allying against him.

Judging this quote by the standards of the time it was written in, I think it is fair to say that the author is making no implications of homosexuality between Richard and Philip. The circumstantial evidence of Richard having no children (standing by itself) is a foolish fallacy to build an argument on. There are several clear cases of homosexual figures in history--take Edward II or James I, for example--but those are cases supported by the testimonies of contemporary historians not created by the speculations of modern scandal-mongers. Historians run the risk of rank revisionism when they make an argument for homosexuality based on the absence of children or anachronistic readings of primary sources.


  1. Thank you! I get so sick of this modern tendency to slander historical persons. I wish Otto Scott had written more.

    Oh, and I was just you realize you have NAKED BABY PICTURES on your blog?! Seriously undermines the legitimacy of your arguments against my Grammy pics. Just saying. ;)

  2. Amy,
    Yes, Otto Scott's books are great. I particularly like his biography of James I.

    What? Naked baby pictures on my blog? How did those get there? :-)

  3. Interesting perspective. The mysteries of history, if only we had a time machine. Of course its the not knowing that leads to interesting conversation of interpretation.

  4. Thank you for this post. Not being a history buff, but having run across the "Richard the Lion Heart was most certainly gay" assumption in various historical fiction type books, I wasn't sure if it was an accepted fact, or merely a guess made by modern academia... now I know! :-)

  5. Very well said.

    The total lack of logic that so many writers display these days makes one wonder about the quality of modern education; and of publishers and editors. Books should help advance knowledge, not encourage delusions.

  6. Roseanne, I was very interested in your blog. I've spent several years now researching Richard I for my novel Devil's Brood and the one I'm working on now, Lionheart. Many things about the real Richard, as opposed to the legendary Richard, came as a surprise to me. And one of them was what is offered as "evidence" that Richard preferred men to women as bedmates. I think this idea took root, as you indicate, because of an ignorance of medieval life; certainly the passage in Roger de Hoveden that relates Richard's sharing a bedchamber with Philippe has been interpreted through a thoroughly modern lens, one that bears little relationship to how medievals would have viewed this episode. I don't think human nature has changed much over the centuries, but our beliefs, customs, and superstitians certainly have! Thanks for pointing this out. Sharon K Penman

  7. Sharon,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm looking forward to reading Lionheart when it comes out!

  8. I have always recond that to b,e on same lines as the shareing a cup a high table.
    Maybe i'm wrong? thats what i thought it meant.


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