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Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, some sexual and gendered behaviors were labeled “sodomitical” or evoked the use of ambiguous phrases such as the “unmentionable vice” or the “sin against nature.” How, though, did these categories enter the field of vision? How do you know a sodomite when you see one?
In Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages, Robert Mills explores the relationship between sodomy and motifs of vision and visibility in medieval culture, on the one hand, and those categories we today call gender and sexuality, on the other. Challenging the view that ideas about sexual and gender dissidence were too confused to congeal into a coherent form in the Middle Ages, Mills demonstrates that sodomy had a rich, multimedia presence in the period—and that a flexible approach to questions of terminology sheds new light on the many forms this presence took. Among the topics that Mills covers are depictions of the practices of sodomites in illuminated Bibles; motifs of gender transformation and sex change as envisioned by medieval artists and commentators on Ovid; sexual relations in religious houses and other enclosed spaces; and the applicability of modern categories such as “transgender,” “butch” and “femme,” or “sexual orientation” to medieval culture.
Taking in a multitude of images, texts, and methodologies, this book will be of interest to all scholars, regardless of discipline, who engage with gender and sexuality in their work.

400 pages | 11 color plates, 78 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2014

Art: European Art

Gay and Lesbian Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: European History

Medieval Studies


"Masterful. . . . Mills uses the concept of sodomy as a sharp needle through which to stitch meticulous analyses of visual, literary, and historical sources into a rich tapestry that depicts lives and experiences that breached medieval social norms. . . . This sensitive, imaginative work is bound to become a classic among studies of premodern gender and sexuality."

Rachel Moss | Times Higher Education

"A fascinating glimpse into the visual record for gender and sexual variance in the Middle Ages and a sophisticated analysis of its meanings. Mills sets images--mostly manuscript illuminations, but also some sculpture and frescoes and a few woodcuts--alongside medieval literary evidence, including the stories that many of these images illustrated. To these he adds modern modes of interpretation from cultural studies. The result is new light shed on a field that has enjoyed considerable scholarly attention."

Matthew Kuefler, San Diego State University | Medieval Review

“Impressive. . . . Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a clear-sighted and well-written intervention into the historiography of sex and gender in the Middle Ages, which should also be of use to theorists of sexuality and gender across historical periods.”


“Wide-ranging and brilliant. . . . [Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages] advances a capacious and theoretically nuanced understanding of sodomy and brings new archives to the study of medieval sodomy, as well as new prisms for thinking gender and sexuality together, and in this sense, it extends a challenge to our own habits of seeing as queer and gender scholars.”

Karma Lochrie | Journal of Gender Studies

“Nothing short of splendid. . . . Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a milestone in the historiography on sexuality, queer studies, and medievalism, and in the history of art—for all interested readers to see for themselves.”

GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies

“A brilliant and timely study. . . It should be widely read and discussed by all scholars interested in both pre- and postmodern understandings of gender transformation and desire.”

American Historical Review

"Robert Mills’s Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a brave and important book that future studies of sexuality and gender will need to contend with . . . . Indeed, this is the first major work addressing the history of sodomy that examines both visual and verbal sources with comparable attention and care. Mills’s mastery of intersecting fields is indisputable, and his notes and bibliography are a good starting point for anyone interested in investigating gender and
sexuality in the Middle Ages.Mills has produced a body of work that makes compelling syntheses and draws unexpected conclusions about delicate, difficult, and urgent issues. Seeing Sodomy, sparkling with erudition, open-ended questioning, and keen analyses, offers new interpretive models, inspires new understanding, and lays the foundation for myriad future scholarly endeavors."

“Mills’ is a complex, methodologically adventurous book whose fearless theorisations are borne out by meticulous research. The questions Mills formulates are purposefully fraught, at times anachronistic, but the answers to them are sought out carefully and convincingly in a staggering assortment of sources. . . . Mills’ writing is lively and clever, and his bibliography is a feast: art history, literary criticism, queer theory, gender studies, scholarship on sexuality, and a true plethora of primary sources. . . . [A] marvelous volume: complex, cross-disciplinary, groundbreaking, intrepid.”

Oxford Art Journal

“Mills deploys numerous methodologies simultaneously: he is deeply committed, in this book and others, to queer theory; he deploys trans* as both a conceptual category and a methodology; and he also marshals and takes seriously historical categories such as sodomy and hermaphroditism. By choosing a series of lenses rather than just one, he allows the complexity and difficulty of the historian’s task to emerge, and also invites his medieval texts and images to trouble modern sexual and identity categories as much as the other way around. . . . Brilliant.”


“Mills’s Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is a tour de force of erudition, critical insight, and balanced judgment. Not since John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality has a single scholar working in gender and sexuality studies taken on such a vast array of data, genres, and languages and treated it with such wisdom and care. Mills is uniquely suited to the task: an art historian, a literary scholar, and a theoretical wizard, he combines like no one else in these three fields of expertise materials that he sees as complementary and essential to one another. The result is a re-visioning of medieval material in the light of twenty-first century thinking and the interaction between the visual and the textual.”

William Burgwinkle, University of Cambridge

Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages is an ambitious reexamination of the categories of sexuality and gender and the implications of the multiple ways in which they are linked both in the Middle Ages and today. This book single-handedly brings the discourse to a new level of maturity. This extremely stimulating meditation on the role of the visual in meditating about sodomy as a set of acts, ideas, and emotions overflows with productive rethinking; further, it models and encourages what has been too often lacking in this field, subtlety of thought and tolerance of ambiguity. Mills addresses directly and thoughtfully the challenges of working in a discourse the very terms of which are unstable in the present and makes his own brilliant and significant contribution. Mills’s study makes an extremely substantive and highly timely contribution to a major field within both medieval studies and contemporary discourse.”

Pamela Sheingorn, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Emerita

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: Jerome in a Dress

1 Translating Sodom
First Things First: Moralizing the Fall
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bibles moralisées and Translation
Sodomitry, Rats, and Hemorrhoids
For Your Eyes Only: Reception, Audience, Impact

2 Transgender Time
How to Do the History of Transgender
“A Strange and Perverse Adultery”: Sequence and Imitation in Hildegard’s Scivias
Ovid in Other Words: Iphis and Ianthe, and Their Transformations
How to Do Queer with Things
Imag(in)ing Transgender: Illustrated Ovide moralisé
Presenting Transgender: Christine de Pizan’s Le livre de la mutacion de Fortune
Lesbian Futures: Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy

3 The First Sodomite
Sidestepping Orphic Pederasty in the Middle Ages
Unnatural Unions and “Masculine” Love in the Ovide moralisé
Other Medieval Responses to Orpheus: Gender Inversion and “Un-love”
Orpheus, “First Sodomite,” in Art
Orpheus with Lot’s Wife: Retro-vision and Gender
Looking/Feeling Backward

4 The Sex Lives of Monks
Vézelay, Mary Magdalene, and Translatio
Eugenia, Temptation, and Transformation
Ganymede in Hell
Benedictine Regulations of Sex
Ganymede Revisited: Ambivalence, Translatio, Divine Love
The Sex Crimes of Priests

5 Orientations
Holding it Straight: Virginity as a Sexual Orientation
“Sodom Thy Sister”: Friendship, Sodomy, and the Anchorhold
Phenomenology of the Anus
The Sodomites of San Gimignano



Society for French Studies: R. Gapper Book Prize

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