Medieval man, sex, and mortal sin in Men of the Cross

A friend recently asked, “Why did you choose to write this story?” It’s a common question for writers. Many writers pen what they’d like to read. There is something inside our brains that drives an idea that we must bring to life.

Of course, I knew what my friend really meant: Why did I decide to write a novel about two men – Henry de Grey and Stephan l’Aigle – who find friendship, and ultimately love, when homosexuality in the 12th century was considered a mortal sin?

In an upcoming interview I tell novelist and historian Helena Schrader:

The story relates the human angle, recognizing homosexuality as part of the human condition. Certainly, “forbidden” love provides tremendous conflict… Men of the Cross lets me dive into Henry’s inner turmoil as he questions his beliefs. Stephan readily admits his preference for men, but has never known or expected love. It is self-discovery for both men as their friendship deepens.

Let me be clear – Men of the Cross is not erotica. As one reviewer wrote, “there isn’t much sex in this book. If that’s all you are looking for, find another book.” Men of the Cross is about the relationship, not the sex. Like many novels, there is sexual tension and attraction. Yes, there are a few sex scenes. I’d call them emotionally charged. A friend called one “steamy.” There are tender and passionate touches and kisses without being too graphic. There are naked bodies – barely (no pun intended). I’m a big believer in “fade-to-black.” The readers’ imagination can fill in the details.

I don’t want readers to lose sight of other aspects of Men of the Cross. It is more than a romance. It is about the horrors of war. It deals with war’s impact on a young knight – post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

Sex in the Middle Ages
It is important to remember that any sex outside of marriage was sinful: adultery, homosexuality, rape, incest, bestiality – all were mortal sins, whether of the male/female, male/male, or female/female varieties. Given the number of illegitimate children born to the nobility and to the clergy there was plenty of sinning going on! One step further: certain sexual acts inside marriage were mortal sins. According to the Church, sex was strictly for procreation and only sin-free if done in the missionary position. The Church had a running list of what days or times of year sex was permissible. One scholar noted that averaged about 4 days per month (Berkowitz, 2012). Any sex that violated these “rules” would damn your soul unless you were absolved.

Absolution for sodomy (as homosexuality was called in the Middle Ages) varied from place to place and was usually dictated by local attitudes. In many instances prior to 1300, the penance was no more severe than for any other sexual sins. It might be prayer or fasting for a specified time or a small fine when, under secular law, being convicted of killing a deer in the king’s Forest often meant certain death (Brown, 2012). And it is true that capital punishment for homosexuality existed in some countries well before the 12th century.  Secular laws in England against homosexual behavior did not appear until the second half of the 13th century (Boswell, 1981).¹ By 1300, secular laws against this “crime” existed almost universally (Berkowitz, 2012).

As for Church laws, Boswell notes “the approach to sexuality adopted by twelfth century theologians effectively ‘decriminalized’ homosexual relations altogether.”² Penitentials – the guidelines priests used to assign penances for specific sins – are telling. In the 8th century, a penance of 1 year was designated for male homosexuals, but for a priest going hunting it was 3 years. (Monk notes more severe penances in Anglo-Saxon times.)  At the turn of the 12th century, ecclesiastical legislation was introduced by the Council of London set to inform the general public of the “impropriety of such acts and insisted… ‘sodomy’ be confessed as a sin” (Boswell, 1981). However, the decree was not officially adopted, though priests continued to remind the Faithful to resist temptation and to confess so their mortal souls were not damned. One impetus of the proposed legislation of 1102 had been to admonish the clergy themselves after complaints were brought forth from within the Church about illicit behaviors. In ensuing centuries, the accusation of sodomy oftentimes was a political move to “blacken the name of an enemy” (Karras, 2005). One example of that: Philip IV of France, deeply indebted to the Knights Templar, used it against them in the 14th century.

Same-sex unions
Scholars Boswell, Berkowitz, and others write that same-sex relationships were tolerated or ignored. Same-sex unions – blessed in religious ceremonies – are recorded in many countries well into the 14th century. There is evidence in the historical record showing these unions were performed by the clergy (McGinnes, 2012). Should these all be defined as a spiritual or blood brotherhood? Can we truly know?

There are numerous cited incidences of actual or rumored male/male relationships in the Middle Ages. Many involved people high in the Church or who attained sainthood (e.g., the abbot Aelred of Rievaulx’s erotic writings of deep friendships with fellow monks; St. Sergius and St. Bacchus) or men of noble blood (e.g., William Rufus; Edward II). A Welsh chronicler named Gerald noted sanctioned unions in 12th and 13th century Ireland. Other “marriages” were reported in a number of European countries (Karras, 2012; Boswell, 1981).

Was King Richard I gay?
I was familiar with 20th century historians’ arguments that Richard the Lionheart was a homosexual. And as much as I love the incredible film The Lion in Winter, its writers may have cemented that idea in many individuals’ minds. More recent scholarship has refuted the interpretation of the evidence:

  1. On Richard lying with Philip Capet (the king of France): “at night their beds did not separate them.”
    – Men often shared beds in medieval times, but if these kings were intimate, would there not be more reports of their activities?
  2. Richard and his wife Berengaria of Navarre had no children
    – Richard had an illegitimate son
  3. A hermit visits Richard and tells him to “be mindful of the destruction of Sodom and abstain from what is unlawful.”
    – What is unlawful, also referred to as unnatural acts by the Church, could have referred to adulterous behavior. There is ample proof in the historical record of Richard’s sex life with women, but none about encounters with men. (And the lives of the famous were reported on, then, as now.)
    – When Richard was afflicted by illness, he confessed “the guiltiness of his life.” He received absolution, took back his wife, “and putting away all illicit intercourse, he remained constant to his wife.” Again, this may refer to his adulterous behavior.
    – The Biblical Sodom was a place of excess, gluttony, and sloth, not just sexual sins, so interpreting the hermit’s words must be done in the context of the times and with an understanding of events in Sodom.

(Items in quotes above are from de Hoveden.)

Medieval attitudes
Karras does agree a variety and complexity of medieval attitudes about sexuality existed. For every citation regarding toleration or overlooking of homosexual behavior in the Middle Ages, there are dozens more pointing to inhumane punishment dating back centuries earlier. However, she notes:

“The most striking feature of male same-sex relationships during the Middle Ages seems to have been that medieval society celebrated a type of deep, passionate friendship between men that modern society does not have. Men today who expressed their feelings for each other in the same way medieval men did would be universally believed to be sexually involved with each other. Medieval people either did not believe they were, or did not think it noteworthy if they were, because there is no comment about it.”

Back to Men of the Cross

Spoilers ahead…
Beyond the battles of the Third Crusade, conflict in Men of the Cross is centered on the characters’ inner turmoil rather than conflict directly with the Church. I did not need a priest to remind Henry what was considered “right” vs. “wrong.” He beat himself up with that dogma throughout a good part of the novel. That did not mean he (or other knights) looked down on men like Stephan, which appears to fit with Boswell’s and Karras’ description of society’s views. Henry and the knights with whom he served judged fellow soldiers on their loyalty and skills, not on their sexual preferences. And while Stephan is straightforward with Henry about his feelings on the Church and about who he is, he realizes very early on that Henry will not be amongst his “conquests.” (I use “conquests” in quotes – it is obvious in the novel that Stephan has been involved in consensual relationships.) Stephan begins to see how alone he has been, how he has covered those feelings behind lustful adventures and the blood-boiling effects of combat. He sees Henry’s naivete of battle and becomes concerned as a friend. And if friendship is all he can have with the younger knight, then so be it. Of course, life doesn’t always follow the road one expects.

“Forbidden” love
Did I ever consider other “forbidden” love for Henry? Why not a story where Henry fell in love with a Muslim, a princess, a laundress, or a whore?

These ideas seemed more like “fiction” than “reality” based on what I knew of Richard I’s army and the crusade. There may have been camp whores during the siege of Acre, but the army headed south within weeks of the siege’s end. Henry wouldn’t have had much opportunity to fall in love with one of them. The crusade chroniclers report that laundresses were the only women allowed by King Richard to accompany the army on the march towards Jerusalem. A laundress, like a prostitute, would have been below Henry’s class. Certainly that might happen in real life. A Muslim love? Again, this could have happened while Henry was in Acre and would have been frowned upon, though Richard did offer his sister’s hand to Saladin’s brother – an offer that was rejected by the way. And though Henry and Richard’s sister, Queen Joanna, develop a sweet, lovely friendship, I knew what history had in store for Joanna and chose not to invent a tryst. Sorry. Those ideas didn’t speak to me. Henry falling in love with a woman just wasn’t in the cards.

Arranged marriages
A further complication in the novel is the tradition of arranged marriages. Henry is the son of a minor baron – he needs a legitimate heir, hence marriage is a given. Henry accepts this (early on), but he is not enthused about arranged marriages. He is betrothed, but the girl back home does not stir him. He is no stranger to sex, and he doesn’t deny he enjoyed a tumble with one of the servant girls back home, but the feelings he begins to develop for Stephan confuse him.

Male bonding
Men at war engage in male bonding. For most that means a strong friendship:  they must rely on each other and share the common experiences of battle. “The bonds of friendship and brotherhood with those who you serve are greater than almost any known in the human experience. Shared danger, suffering and trauma bind soldiers together” (Padre Steve, 2009). What I depict in Men of the Cross is a growing deep, abiding trust and friendship between Henry and Stephan. Both men try to deny their feelings, but over time, they realize love is possible. Theirs is not a lustful or casual encounter (as Stephan’s earlier sex life was), but a loving, caring relationship. The “celebration” described by Karras was my intent in writing the knights’ story (though I didn’t discover Karras’ work until late last year). Henry and Stephan’s feelings and actions are not overt. In an army of 15,000-20,000 men, only their closest friends know.

It is not unrealistic to imagine that amongst 15,000-20,000 soldiers some may have preferred male companionship of a sexual nature. That men did love each other. They are human after all.

“How can loving another person be a sin?”
–Stephan l’Aigle to Henry de Grey,
Men of the Cross

¹ Update: After seeing a post (and listening to the reading & translation) about AEthelberht’s Code, a law code written about 600 in Anglo-Saxon England, I was curious about whether my statement about secular laws in England was correct. I contacted scholar and academic research consultant Dr. Christopher Monk and he confirmed that neither the “Code nor any other Anglo-Saxon secular law contain a direct reference to same-sex acts. The Anglo-Saxon penitentials on the other hand have numerous references to various same-sex acts, both male and female. Boswell, quite frankly, is very misleading in his evaluation of homosexuality in the early medieval period. The Church in England did not tolerate it.” (You can read our back and forth comments on the linked post.)

² Boswell’s interpretation may relate to priests being told to tread very lightly when discussing this “unnatural behavior.” They shouldn’t be putting ideas in young men’s minds, so the subject was often avoided in the confessional.


Berkowitz, E. Sex and punishment: four thousand years of judging desire. Berkeley, CA : Counterpoint, 2012.

Berkowitz, E. “When a medieval knight could marry another medieval knight.” The Awl. 2012.

Boswell, J. 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, 1981.

Brown, D. “Monarchy – The Normans, William Rufus and Henry I.” on English Historical Fiction Authors. 2012. 

De Hoveden, R.  The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn, 1853. Original work published 1201?

Karras, R.M. Sexuality in Medieval Europe. New York: Routledge, 2005.

McGinnes, J. “Civil partnership, medieval style: in the days when same-sex marriage was a Christian rite.” 2012.

Monk, C. “A heavy price for light fingers.” The Anglo-Saxon Monk. 2014.

“Same-Sex Relations in the Middle Ages.”  2011. (This is a bibiliography of works on the topic.)


My novel, Men of the Cross, was designated a B.R.A.G. medallion honoree in November 2014. Get it in print and for Kindle on Amazon sites worldwide.

  1. Jen FitzGerald Avatar
    Jen FitzGerald

    Great post, Char.

    1. Char Avatar

      Thank you, Jen.

  2. Willie Rayburn Avatar

    Enough already! Back to writin our boys! 😀 No seriously, very thoughtful read and well researched.

    1. Char Avatar

      Thanks, Willie!

  3. Catherine Hedge Avatar

    This is excellent, Char! It really resonates with me as Kansas finally is allowed to perform marriages for all. You really back up your heroes with frankness and historical honesty.

    1. Char Avatar

      Thank you, Cathy! And thank you for all your support and feedback through the writing process. 🙂

  4. Melia Erin Avatar

    This is really great, Char! I must admit it’s the most history I’ve read in a long time… I think your discussion of the way of life during the timeframe is really enlightening and sets the mood for your novel.

    Side note (because I don’t have enough of a history lesson yet this morning lol): what is the opinion and laws of the time regarding woman/woman relationships?

    1. Char Avatar

      Thanks for your comment, Melia. Regarding the f/f relationships, Berkowitz notes that the penitentials were usually harsher than for m/m dependent on the circumstances. Men who used artificial aids to stimulate themselves might receive 40 days of penance; a woman who used a dildo: 1 year if used alone, 3 years if used with another woman! As secular laws were put into place post 1270 in Europe and England, harsh punishment for both men and women were inflicted, usually burning at the stake or hanging. However, during the Inquisition, women could not be charged unless “artificial instruments” had been used.

  5. Matthew Harffy (@MatthewHarffy) Avatar

    Great, detailed (and very long!), blog post!

    1. Char Avatar

      LOL! I know – I’ve spoiled you with my short posts! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

  6. […] beliefs about love and war. Henry struggles with his growing feelings for Stephan knowing that sodomy was a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church. Political intrigue abounds as Richard’s allies […]

  7. […] then obviously there was some sinning going on. (See a broader discussion of this in a post on my blog.) Henry and Stephan weren’t alone. But this isn’t something one flaunts. Enemies might […]

  8. […] Medieval Man, Sex, and Mortal Sin in Men of the Cross Medieval man, sex, and mortal sin in Men of the Cross […]

  9. […] beliefs about love and war. Henry struggles with his growing feelings for Stephan knowing that sodomy was a mortal sin in the eyes of the Church. Political intrigue abounds as Richard’s allies become […]

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