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Gender in the Merovingian World

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Graves and Sexuality: Multiple readings


[I was inspired by a critical discussion by Karl Steel here, of an attempt to project same-sex marriage into the past, to post my (I think only) discussion of sexuality and queer readings of archaeology, for your thoughts/comments, especially form those of you who are more literate in theory than I am.  The quote comes from pp.347-9 of Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul, in a chapter (9) which contains other thoughts about archaeologists' and historians' fear of including same-sex love/emotional attraction within their range of interpretive options.]

Ennery (Lorraine) 'Graves' 6 and 8
Finally in this section I should like to draw attention to the double burials of young males that are known in Merovingian archaeology.  In the cemeteries in Lorraine which I studied the best examples were ‘graves’ 6 and 8 at Ennery (dating to the sixth century), and grave 103 at Audun-le-Tiche, from about a century later.  Logically, the subjects of the graves must have succumbed close in time.  What seem at first sight to be linked arms are on closer inspection no such thing; the arms of the subjects of the Ennery double grave simply lie on top of each other.  This might have been deliberate or it might not.[1]  There is a wide range of possibilities behind these double graves.  They might be those of relatives, perhaps most plausibly those of brothers.  There were a number of other social ties in Merovingian society that might equally have led the community to join two young males in death.  For instance, the male child of the foster father or god-parent of another young man would be regarded as that young man’s brother.  The son of one family, serving as an apprentice in another might have been regarded as, effectively, kin – a surrogate brother – to the sons of that household.  Two young men serving together in a household could have been regarded as sharing a bond.  In all such cases the families of the deceased and perhaps that of the head of the household might, following the interpretation of furnished burial proposed above, have come together in funerary ritual to ease the rupture in relations between the families produced by the deaths in question.  Alternatively, as will be discussed below, young males might have bonded in age groups.  The deaths of two such men might have united their families in grief and led them to create links between them through involvement in a joint funeral.  Lastly it is possible that a joint interment might have been a means of smoothing over tensions created by killing and vengeance.  Nevertheless, we probably ought not to apply a single explanation to all of the instances of such burials.  Double graves might well represent different aspects of society from those manifested by occasional triple burials, such as at Niederstotzingen.[2]

My purpose in mentioning these graves in this chapter is simply to consider a further issue raised by the possibility that the occupants of such graves were united other than by close kinship.  The close homosocial bonds between young men serving together in various contexts (from the monastic to the military) are well known throughout history, as is the frequency with which these bonds encompass homosexual love and sex.  In spite of this, as in other periods of history, accusations of anal sex with men were nevertheless regarded as serious slurs on a man’s standing or honour.  Interestingly, the other bases for insult were cowardice and unreliability in battle.[3]  As has been long debated, such homosexual love is usually not commensurate with a self-consciously gay identity, seen as different from or antagonistic to normative heterosexuality: this seems to be the product of more modern sexual classifications.  It is nevertheless surely a mistake either to deny that such emotional and sexual relations existed (in the latter case – sexual relations – the concern of monastic regulators and authors of penitentials with sodomy ought to be proof enough to the contrary[4]) or that the classifications of sexual behaviour and the views of male homosexual relationships held by medieval people were automatically similar to those of modern observers.  This matters because it presents two possibilities (they are not more than that) to the reading of double burials like Ennery 6 and 8 or Audun-le-Tiche 103.  One is that such emotional bonds were given sufficient recognition to result in shared inhumation.  The other, possibly the more interesting, perhaps the more likely, takes us to the issue of the polysemy of burial display.[5]  The ‘dominant’ reading intended by the creators of a funerary monument like this might to have been to stress the social relations between the two families, or to have valorised the comradeship, trust and fidelity of shared military service, traditionally ‘honourable’ within masculine culture.  Other readings open to contemporaries at the graveside, however, might have dwelt on different issues, such as real or suspected sexual or emotional relationships between the two men.  These might have involved no particular value judgement, simply being alternative.  They might also have been subversive, and they might have been derogatory (as in the insults referred to above).  The latter could be open to members of rival families or to those men barred from participation in what was becoming the normative, military form of masculinity, as discussed in the next chapter.


[1] See below, pp.357-60

[2] R. Christlein, Die Alamannen: Archäologie eines lebendigen Volkes (3rd edition, Stuttgart, 1991), p.89.

[3] PLS [Pactus Legis Salicae] 30, using the translation I proposed in W&S [Warfare and Society], p.11.

[4] Although what, precisely, was meant by the term sodomy is usually vague; many non-procreative forms of sexual encounter could be bracketed under the heading.  Nevertheless, in the context of penitentials I assume it means some form of sexual, physical contact between males.

[5] BW ['Burial Writes'], pp.64-65 (above, pp.219-20).

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