Abstract: In Marie de France’s Lanval was Lanval truly a homosexual and alluded to in the following verses, and what were the punishments for homosexuality in the Middle Ages?
“That women are not what you prefer”.
But you have many little boys,
With whom you take your joys” (lines 278-280).
In Lanval, by Marie de France, Lanval is accused of being a homosexual by Queen Guinevere after Lanval refuses to accept Guinevere’s advances. Although Lanval explains to Guinevere that he had saved himself for his fair lady and is loyal to his king, it seems as if Guinevere thinks that Lanval is lying and accuses him of being a homosexual. She then puts him on trial for turning down her advances even though he had done so out of love and his loyalty to the king. This paper will seek to research the medieval outlook on homosexuality and common punishments that were handed out from being found to be a homosexual in medieval times and the social ramifications of being accused or found guilty.
First, in medieval times there was an ecumenical council that condemned homosexual couplings. This council was established in 1179 and was called Lateren III (Blogged.the-protagonist.net). This council was attended by 302 bishops and presided over by Pope Alexander III. This council also dealt with other social stigmas such as heresy and sodomy. The church took allegations of homosexuality very serious and the condemned could have faced beheading or being burnt at the stake. There were specific torture devices used on a condemned homosexual. One such device was called the Pear of Anguish. It had the shape of a pear and, as the handle was turned, the spoon shaped lobes flowered open causing major damage to the intestines of the victim when inserted into the anus. This apparatus was rarely washed so that the victim would surely succumb to infection if he managed to live through the intestine damage. This device was used widespread as punishment for a plethora of crimes, one of them being homosexuality.
Being found guilty of homosexuality in the Middle Ages for a person of noble status could bring forth excommunication from the church and exile from the kingdom. Although it was not a death sentence, being exiled could be far worse than death. Being cut off from one’s land and court could be a fate worse than death for nobility. The exiled would be subjected to loss of status, land holdings, and any wealth that was accumulated through wills. This punishment of exile leaves the accused alone and far from familiar surrounds and people.
Next, one could argue that the queen’s ego was bruised so badly that she had no recourse but to accuse Lanval of homosexuality. Lanval was bound by secrecy not to reveal his lover’s name for fear that he would lose the hand of his beloved. Guinevere was so offended by her pass being discarded by Lanval that she took him to trial. Offending nobility was often a death sentence in itself. Taking Lanval to trial was a way to expose what she had perhaps heard others say about his sexual behavior. The line “But you have many little boys” (line 279) (de France) could not only insinuate homosexuality, but pedophilia as well. It is often overlooked that the reason that Lanval is put on trial to begin with is from the Queen’s improper advancements. It was her improprieties and Lanval’s refusal to betray his love and King that ends him up on trial. The Queen was the one that threw herself at Lanval and it was Lanval that refused. This is never brought up in open count; perhaps Lanval is so noble that he still wants to protect the honor of the Queen. However, this protection could very well cost Lanval dearly –either his life, exile, or his love. Perhaps it is Lanval’s devotion to the King and his refusal to smear the name of the royal family and mark it with infidelity that makes Lanval endure the court proceedings.
Lastly, Lanval was put in an awkward situation by being bound by secrecy by his lover. The one thing that could exonerate Lanval from the charges of homosexuality is disclosing his relations with his beloved. Instead, he has to endure the stress of trial at the hand of the Queen. It is only at the last moment that he is saved from judgment being passed on to him by his beloved. His beloved could have, at any time, made her way to the Queen’s court and exonerated Lanval. Her testimony of their sordid times in her tent would have quickly dissolved any thoughts of homosexuality from anyone that had an audience with the King and Queen at the court proceedings. Instead she waits until the last moment to save Lanval; letting him deal with the accusations and stress from the court proceedings with no way to exonerate himself without breaking his oath to his lover. This oath of secrecy does not help his case and Lanval’s refusal to give up his lover’s name for his innocence shows his passion towards her. The King’s court, and the Queen, could view him as a homosexual that is making up lies of heterosexual intimate escapades to try and cover up the fact that he is truly a homosexual. In the end Lanval’s lover came to his aid and it seemed as if there was no stigma put on him at the end of the poem. It is slightly ironic that throughout this whole story, even at the end where he is exonerated, the Queen is not brought forth before her King, and husband, to answer for her role in this whole ordeal.
In conclusion, homosexuality has been prevalent since ancient Roman and Greek times. These acts weren’t punished as harshly back in ancient times as they had been since the conversion to Christianity in the Middle Ages. The act of homosexuality was brought against Lanval by Queen Guinevere although no first hand evidence is brought against him except the refusal of Guinevere’s advances by Lanval. It is hearsay and a bruised ego that leads Lanval to stand trial. Whether the trial was truly based on the Queen thinking that Lanval was a homosexual, and thus going against God’s will, is never really openly discussed other than the aforementioned quote and the beginning of this text. It is more reasonable to assume that the Queen was furious out of her own vanity and lack of rejection coping skills that made Lanval a target for homosexual accusations to cover up her own improprieties. This argument stirs questions within the author of this paper as to how many people were put to death, or exiled out of vanity or the inability to cope with rejection throughout the ages.
De France, Marie, “Lanval.” The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Eighth Edition. Vol. One. New York, NY: W.W Norton and Company, 2006. 142-157. Print.
Homosexuality: The Queer Fight for Equality. 1 Dec. 2005. Blogged. 2 Nov. 2010 < http://blogged.the-protagonist.net/2005/01/25/homosexuality-the-queer-fight-for-equality/ >.