Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In the thirteenth century, a combination of religious and political factors led to the criminalization of homosexual behavior and the enactment of the death penalty for those engaging in practices labeled as sodomy.

Summary of Event

The criminalization of homosexuality developed in Europe gradually and cumulatively through the centuries, then spread to the New World. The prohibition first found expression in the Church, which led to the harsh attitudes adopted by secular institutions. Purported admonitions from the Old and New Testaments provided the basis for the prohibition of homosexuality. In addition, the writings of such figures as the church reformer Peter Damian Damian, Peter , the canonical scholar Thomas Aquinas Thomas Aquinas , and other clerics furnished justification for laws decreeing, in the thirteenth century, that homosexual acts be punishable by death. [kw]Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty (1250-1300) [kw]Death Penalty, Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to (1250-1300) Homosexuality Europe (general);1250-1300: Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty[2430] Cultural and intellectual history;1250-1300: Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty[2430] Laws, acts, and legal history;1250-1300: Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty[2430] Religion;1250-1300: Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty[2430] Social reform;1250-1300: Homosexuality Criminalized and Subject to Death Penalty[2430] Thomas Aquinas Albertus Magnus, Saint Alain de Lille Damian, Peter

Religious scholars through the ages cite two significant passages from Leviticus: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination,” and “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death” (18:22 and 20:13). Biblical scholars also interpreted the cautionary tale describing the destruction of Sodom as a warning against the dire consequences of homosexual behavior. When the men of Sodom expressed their desire to rape two angels who had appeared as male visitors, their city was destroyed (Genesis 19:1-25). Early in the Christian era, church and civic officials took this account literally and blamed natural disasters on homosexual conduct.

The devastated city of Sodom also provided a name for this grievous sin. In the broadest sense, sodomy is defined as any nonprocreative sexual act. While this meaning was generally accepted, a narrower definition took precedence among many moralists: that is, the anal penetration of one male by another. Both the general and the specific definition are still commonly applied in the twenty-first century.

In the eleventh century, the zealous reformer Damian denounced homosexuality as a sin comparable to blasphemy. He objected especially to sodomy among the clergy, a practice he saw as rampant. While he considered anal intercourse the most unclean act of all, he also listed solitary and mutual masturbation as sodomitical sins. He cited the death penalty that Leviticus invokes and urged that all sodomites be beaten, spat upon, chained, imprisoned, and starved. Although Pope Leo IX (1048-1054) did not sanction or institute such harsh plans for punishing homosexuals, Damian’s claim that sodomy outranked all sexual sins gradually found acceptance in canon law. Leo IX (pope)

In the next century, French philosopher and theologian Alain de Lille Alain de Lille linked sodomy with murder and labeled the two acts as the most serious of all crimes. Taking up the same theme one hundred years later, Albertus Magnus Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) described anal intercourse between two men as a detestable act, as a sin against nature, as an action marked by foulness and unbridled excitement, and as a contagious practice bound to infect the whole world.

Thomas Aquinas, who studied under Albert of Cologne, issued the decisive canonical declaration against sodomy and defined the word broadly. According to Thomas Aquinas, nature serves as the standard for Christian sexual ethics; therefore, carnal pleasure undermines natural harmony, which dictates that the only outcome of sex is procreation. He argued that while adultery, fornication, rape, and incest may cause harm, they are not as serious as sodomy because they can result in reproduction. Thomas Aquinas named four sexual acts that contradict nature: sex with animals, anal penetration, fellatio, and masturbation.

By the thirteenth century, the ecclesiastical obsession with homosexuality had spread to civil society as well. People outside the Church had long denounced sodomites and, given the opportunity, incorporated willingly into civil law the canonical censure of what were described as unnatural acts. During this era church and state were closely intertwined. As a result of such an alliance, the Church’s campaign to cleanse the clergy of sodomites easily led to comparable tactics by civil authorities. Although acting under the guise of morality, rulers often accused political enemies, rebels, and other troublesome citizens of sodomitic acts. Whether true or not, such allegations served as convenient tools for maintaining political power. By this time, the Church had broadened its suppression of clerical homosexuality to include laypeople accused of heresy, witchcraft, and sorcery, especially after Pope Gregory IX established the Inquisition in 1233. Heresy;death penalty for

In the thirteenth century, the means of punishment for sodomy varied from country to country, but burning the guilty ones at the stake emerged as the favored form. Torture devices that slowly penetrated the anus also came into vogue. In one part of Italy banishment was prescribed for the first offense, followed by amputation of limbs for the second offense, then burning at the stake for habitual offenders. England, France, and Spain also took action against sodomites. In France, a man first proven to be a sodomite lost his testicles; convicted again, he lost his penis; and found guilty the third time, he met death by burning. A Spanish law decreed public castration for homosexual partners, who would then be hung by their legs until dead, their bodies left dangling in public permanently. English legal treatises recommended that sodomites be buried alive, or burned at the stake, or drawn and quartered.


Although it has been some time since a person accused of homosexual acts was burned at the stake, the arguments promulgated by early religious zealots carry a familiar ring. Through the centuries the story of Sodom’s destruction has been taken literally as an example of what will happen if homosexuality goes unchecked. The biblical admonitions, especially those from Leviticus, are still repeated, even though many biblical scholars point out that Leviticus contains numerous strictures that are impossible to follow or to enforce in contemporary society. Other scholars question the account of Sodom as presented in Genesis, noting that homosexual behavior is never mentioned specifically.

During the nineteenth century, the polite term “homosexuality” first came into use as a replacement for the more disparaging term “sodomy.” Homosexuality continues to bedevil much of Christianity. The impact of moralistic teachings that date back centuries retain their unholy significance. The seeds that were planted early in Christian history grew to full fruition in the thirteenth century. Although the branches have been pruned through the centuries, the historical attitude toward homosexual behavior as an abomination that defies scriptural teachings still flourishes in the conservative Christian church and tradition-bound secular society.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980. An oft-cited study of Christianity and homosexuality in the period up to and including the Middle Ages in Western Europe, and a classic in the history of sexuality and in gay and lesbian studies. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2003. A comprehensive history of homosexuality, homophobia, and tolerance from 900 b.c.e. through 1868 c.e. Includes three sections on medieval Europe, as well as discussions of homosexuality in China and Japan during the same time period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. A concerted attempt to place the past in dialogue with the present, this text looks at issues of sexual identity and community in the late fourteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fone, Byrne. Homophobia: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000. Chronicles the evolution of homophobia from the ancient world to contemporary society. Considers homophobia to be the last acceptable prejudice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodich, Michael. The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period. New York: Dorset Press, 1979. Examines the varying attitudes toward homosexuality in the later Middle Ages, showing the gap between official Church dogma and the actual sexual behavior of the people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hergemöller, Bernd-Ulrich. Sodom and Gomorrah: On the Everyday Reality and Persecution of Homosexuals in the Middle Ages. Translated by John Phillips. 2d ed. New York: Free Association Books, 2001. An introductory text exploring the day-to-day lives of homosexual men in the Middle Ages. Includes chapters on the question of terminology, criminal law, everyday life, couplehood, religion, and more. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keiser, Elizabeth B. Courtly Desire and Medieval Homophobia: The Legitimation of Sexual Pleasure in “Cleanness” and Its Contexts. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Engages in an extended study of medieval homophobia to create a context for reading a fourteenth-century religious poem.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeill, John J. The Church and the Homosexual. Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1976. A Jesuit analyzes the historical and scriptural positions of the Roman Catholic Church toward homosexuality and sets out to create a revised and compassionate view of homosexuals and their relationship to spirituality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norton, Rictor. “The Historical Roots of Homophobia: From Ancient Israel to the End of the Middle Ages.” In Gay Roots: An Anthology of Gay History, Sex, Politics and Culture. Vol. 2. Edited by Leyland Winston. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1993. A comprehensive survey of the way homophobia developed and the way it continues to flourish.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Spencer, Colin. Homosexuality in History. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1995. An overview of homosexual behavior over the centuries that stresses its acceptance at various points in history as well as its rejection.

Categories: History