Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe

Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe

Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe

Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe

Synopsis

In his Problemata, Aristotle provided medieval thinkers with the occasion to inquire into the natural causes of the sexual desires of men to act upon or be acted upon by other men, thus bringing human sexuality into the purview of natural philosophers, whose aim it was to explain the causes of objects and events in nature. With this philosophical justification, some late medieval intellectuals asked whether such dispositions might arise from anatomy or from the psychological processes of habit formation. As the fourteenth-century philosopher Walter Burley observed, "Nothing natural is shameful." The authors, scribes, and readers willing to "contemplate base things" never argued that they were not vile, but most did share the conviction that they could be explained.

From the evidence that has survived in manuscripts of and related to the Problemata, two narratives emerge: a chronicle of the earnest attempts of medieval medical theorists and natural philosophers to understand the cause of homosexual desires and pleasures in terms of natural processes, and an ongoing debate as to whether the sciences were equipped or permitted to deal with such subjects at all. Mining hundreds of texts and deciphering commentaries, indices, abbreviations, and marginalia, Joan Cadden shows how European scholars deployed a standard set of philosophical tools and a variety of rhetorical strategies to produce scientific approaches to sodomy.

Excerpt

As he prepared to discuss a series of questions about sexual desires and pleasures, the fourteenth-century natural philosopher Walter Burley issued this “apology to the reader for the indecency of the subject”: “Nothing natural is shameful but all things [that] exist in the world [are] clean. For contemplating base things should not be spurned, since in anything, no matter how base, something wonderful and divine is contained, according to the Philosopher [Aristotle], On Animals, Book 13. We are not made base by contemplating base things but by doing or willing them, [according to his] Ethics.” It is the spirit behind Burley’s declaration that makes this book about sodomy and science in the Middle Ages possible. the inclusion of sexual subjects within the ambit of the natural made them, by definition, the proper domain of natural philosophers, whose role it was to explain the causes of objects and events in nature. Burley’s outspoken confidence was not typical, but he was not alone in his willingness to address questions ranging from the causes of erections to the reasons it is difficult have sex in the water. and among the phenomena Burley and others were challenged to explain was the existence of men susceptible to anal sexual stimulation, that is, the existence of what some of them called “sodomites.”

That challenge came from an Aristotelian text. Without it these medieval scholars might not have chosen to address such a subject— and even so some demurred. Aristotle provided the occasion for scientific discussions of men construed as sexually “passive” by inquiring into what causes them, in a work known as the Problems (Problemata), which Burley was summarizing. And, as his citation of two other Aristotelian works suggests, the revered ancient thinker also provided a philosophical justification, a moral shield, and . . .

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