Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Cities of the Plain: The Rhetoric of Sodomy in Peter Damian's "Book of Gomorrah."

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Cities of the Plain: The Rhetoric of Sodomy in Peter Damian's "Book of Gomorrah."

Article excerpt

Sodomy is named for a city.(1) Reversing the familiar scenario where the body supplies a set of metaphors for the body social, "sodomy" and its cognates invoke a civic community to represent a set of bodily acts.(2) The logic of the etymology, of course, is that the men of Sodom as described in Genesis 19 were indeed sodomites. When viewed from a distance, however, the story of Sodom appears neither to confirm nor to deny this conjecture: instead, the story functions as the point of departure in the process of naming sodomy, whereby both Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities of the plain, become "by-words" for moral and in particular sexual iniquity.(3) The fable of Sodom thus reveals more about the genealogy of moral language than about the physical behavior of its citizens.

As recent discussions of the metaphorical properties of sodomy have shown, there is much to be gained from referring the term back to the communities of discourse in which it has been used.(4) "Reclaiming Sodom"(5) from sodomy affords not only a different view of the bodies and pleasures hitherto stigamatized, but also a reintroduction to the city itself. This essay is a preliminary attempt to describe the rhetorical institution of sodomy in the eleventh century, a decisive moment also in the institution, materially and rhetorically, of the city in western Europe.

Many historians now see the urban revolution of the eleventh-century West as equivalent in scale and importance to that which took place in the ancient Near East over three millennia previously.(6) In both cases, what made possible the founding of cities was the mobilization by a ruling elite of an agricultural surplus sufficient to support their needs and expanding ambitions. A new degree of social differentiation among this elite was both cause and consequence of the forcible organization of peasant labor -- in particular the sharp definition of a class of religious specialists. The priesthood so constituted often found themselves in an ambivalent ethical position, acting as both the guardians and the critics of the new social order. It is, perhaps, in the context of such priestly uncertainty over the moral status of the city that we should seek to understand the emergence of a discourse on sodomy in the eleventh century. What modern scholars may celebrate as "the urban revival" or the "transformation of the year one thousand",(7) a contemporary cleric was inclined to describe as the resurrection of Sodom, the "rebuilding of the defenses of that were razed by fire".(8) In his view, calling forth the memory of the Sodomites appeared -- deceptively as it turned out -- to offer a timely analysis and solution to social and moral tensions arising among the diversifying elite in an unfamiliar urban landscape.

Our text is the Book of Gomorrah, a violent condemnation of sodomitical behaviour among the clergy composed in the latter half of 1049 by the Italian ascetic Peter Damian. Writing to Pope Leo IX, Damian sought to attract papal attention to this new and urgent danger:

In our region a certain abominable and most shameful vice has

developed.... The befouling cancer of sodomy is, in fact, spreading

so through the clergy or rather like a savage beast, is raging

with such shameless abandon through the flock of Christ that for

many of them it would be more salutary to be burdened with service

to the world than, under the pretext of religion, to be enslaved

so easily under the iron rule of satanic tyranny.(9)

Much of the treatise is couched in this strongly figurative language. Thus Damian depicts the despotism of "Queen Sodom" over her knights, "stripped of the armour of virtue", and her slaves, "defiled in secret and dishonored in public".(10) Near the start of his discussion, however, Damian does enumerate exactly what he means by sodomy and how it is being committed. "There appear to be four varieties of this criminal vice", namely masturbation, mutual masturbation, interfemoral intercourse, and anal intercourse. …

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