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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8.3 (2002) 389-423

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Ovidian Homoerotics in Twelfth-century Paris
The Letters Of Leoninus, Poet And Polyphone

Bruce Holsinger and David Townsend

For historians of sexuality in the premodern West, the "long twelfth century" represents something of a watershed. The epoch is framed at one end by the writings of the French archbishop Baudri of Bourgueil (1046-1130), whom John Boswell highlighted for his "baldly erotic poetry" written to both men and women, and, at the other, by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which Michel Foucault credited with a foundational role in the invention of the confessional subject and Christianity's initial deployment of a scientia sexualis. 1 In the elite, Latinate literary spheres of cathedral and abbey, the twelfth century sees an explosive appropriation of the amatory works of Ovid as part of a more general and quite self- conscious renaissance of ancient learning. Apparent in such works as the Carmina Burana, Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae, and the Latin dramatic tradition based in the Loire valley is a new appreciation for the sexual malleability of Latin in all its many rhetorical colors. 2 In the domain of vernacular letters, the twelfth century witnesses the invention of the language of fin'amor in the songs of the troubadours and trouvères; the rise of a romance poetic tradition centered on seduction, erotic adulation, and adultery; and the cultivation of new, often antiprocreative models of masculinity and femininity. It is no mistake that Jacques Lacan devoted significant portions of his seventh seminar, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, to excavating the psychic fantasies structuring the "courtly love" dynamic and its crucial historical role in the formation of the desiring subject in the West. 3

For Boswell, the twelfth century held pride of place in what he called the [End Page 389] "history of gay people" because of its newly celebratory attitude toward same-sex love. The indifference of the early church gave way in these years, he argued, to an often appreciative stance toward homoerotic expression, an attitude inextricable from the renaissance in classical learning that enabled it: "Renewed and intensified contact with the achievements and attitudes of the ancient world contributed greatly to tolerance, if not admiration, of gay people and their sexuality. Wherever Ovid was enjoyed, Vergil quoted, Plato read, there gay passions and sentiments were known and studied and often respected." Even while the rise of gay "subcultures" in urban centers led to a renewed intolerance on the part of some church officials, others sponsored, promoted, or participated in what Boswell described, in a widely cited phrase that encapsulated the recuperative spirit of his book, as "an outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world." 4

The readership of GLQ will hardly require a rehearsal of the many critiques, rejections, revampings, and recuperations that Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality has suffered and enjoyed over the last twenty years. From the Gay Academic Union's immediate denunciation of Boswell's alleged softness toward the Catholic Church to Allen J. Frantzen's dismissal of his "grossly exaggerated" claims about tolerance to Carolyn Dinshaw's examination of the political and theoretical implications of the book's initial reception, these two decades have witnessed a plethora of challenges to Boswell's motivations, methods, and fundamental sense of what the particular object of gay history should be. 5 What is remarkable, however, given the years of criticism the book has endured, is that the historical core of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality—the two long chapters on the twelfth century—has received hardly a dent. Even as scholars have challenged the book's interpretations of biblical and patristic passages, its treatment of tolerance and intolerance in the early church, its suppression of primary sources relevant to its subject, and, most of all, its so-called essentialist positing of a history of "gay people," Boswell's reconstruction of a male homoerotic literary tradition...