3. Aelred of Rievaulx
SHP Reblogs: earlier posts from the vault! New posts coming late May 2014.
Did you know that LGBTQ+ people have a patron saint?
Meet Aelred of Rievaulx, 12th century abbott, promoter of gender equality, believer in the power of love in all its forms, and all-around general nice person.
Aelred was born in Northumbria in 1110, and studied at the court of David I of Scotland (whom he admired very much) before joining the abbey at Rievaulx in Yorkshire at about the age of twenty-four. All throughout his life, he wrote historical and spiritual treatises, and gave King Henry II advice on how to be a good king. Shortly after his death another monk, Walter Daniel, wrote a biography of him, which is how we know about many of his actions.
And as for his spiritual writing… well, it might be a little different to what you’d expect to hear from the early medieval church. Here’s Aelred on the issue of equality between men and women:
… when God created man, in order to commend more highly the good of society, he said: ‘It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a helper like unto himself.’ It was from no similar, nor even from the same, material that divine Might formed this help mate, but as a clearer inspiration to charity and friendship he produced the woman from the very substance of the man. How beautiful it is that the second human being was taken from the side of the first, so that nature might teach that human beings are equal and, as it were, collateral, and that there is in human affairs neither a superior nor an inferior, a characteristic of true friendship.
(from De Spirtuali Amicitia, trans. M.E. Laker, 1977)
In other words… Dear twenty-first century Christian Right Wing: a twelfth-century monk called, and he thinks your gender politics are out-dated too.
ETA: As with the LGBT stuff (see below) it doesn’t make much sense to try to put Aelred in a framework of 20th/21st-century feminist thought… but as imperfect as we might find him (show me someone whose gender politics are 100% perfect, even today!), it’s heartening to know that ‘[male and female] human beings are equal’ was a thought that was around even eight hundred and fifty years ago.
Rievaulx Abbey, ruled by Aelred from 1147-1167
The question of Aelred’s sexuality is one that, for my money, we’ll probably never get to the bottom of. In 1980, historian John Boswell wrote that ‘There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life’ (Boswell p.222). He bases this in part on a line from Aelred’s De Spirtuali Amicitia:
While I was still a schoolboy, the charm of my friends greatly captivated me, so that among the foibles and failings with which that age is fraught, my mind surrendered itself completely to emotion and devoted itself to love. Nothing seemed sweeter or nicer or more worthwhile than to love and be loved.
Boswell also cites Aelred’s reference to a time in his early life when ‘a cloud of desire arose from the lower drives of the flesh and the gushing spring of adolescence’ and ‘the sweetness of love and the impurity of lust combined to take advantage of the inexperience of youth’ (De Institutione Inclusarum 32). In writing to his sister, Aelred also refers to this period in his life as a time when she ‘held onto her virtue and he lost his’ (Boswell 222). Boswell suggests that Aelred eventually forsook these desires, including what he refers to as ‘one particular friendship, sweeter to me than all the sweet things of my life’ (De Speculo Caritatas 1.28), ‘not because they were less good or satisfying, but because they could not last forever, whereas his relationship with God could’ (Boswell 223).
Queer history can be so difficult sometimes. I don’t think it’s really possible to say for certain what these relationships with ‘friends’ might actually have constituted for a person who had no concept of ‘being gay’ as we understand it in the twenty-first century. Boswell’s reading been questioned by later scholars and critics – there’s no explicit mention of sex in Aelred’s accounts of his early life: Ruth Mazo Karras argues that ‘it is clear from [Aelred’s writing] that he was not physically involved’ with the friends that he alludes to (Karras 17). We do know that later in life, Aelred worked very hard to maintain his chastity, believing it to be part of what he needed to do in order to live a godly life. Could we think about him, at least in the latter part of his life, in terms of homoromanticism as well as, or instead of, homosexuality?
We could also, of course, just think about him as an example of how awesome a non-hateful Christian can be…
Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aelred_of_Rievaulx
'Queering the Church' blog post with extensive quotations from Aelred: http://queering-the-church.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/12th-january-st-aelred-of-rievaulx.html
Catholic Encyclopedia entry: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01172b.htm
Google Books: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Cenutry http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=v-MR5_AdG68C&dq=aelred+of+rievaulx+boswell&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Google Books: Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=HZXHn5DzeMYC&dq=aelred+of+rievaulx+boswell&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Google Books: Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England edited by Sarah Salihcontains mentions of Aelred: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=C8Z4zRlnBLgC&dq=aelred+of+rievaulx+boswell&source=gbs_navlinks_s
Integrity USA is an Episcopal group working to improve access to religious organisations for LGBT+ people. Their patron saint is Aelred! http://www.integrityusa.org