Alan of Lille c. 1128–1203

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Alan of Lille
c. 1128–1203

The theologian, preacher, and poet Alan of Lille, who it is thought was born in the Flemish city of Lille, was one of the major thinkers associated with the School of Chartres. Alan was the author of many influential works of speculative, theoretical, and practical theology, including one of the earliest dictionaries of scriptural terminology, a systematic exposition of The Rules of Theology, an Art of Preaching, and a tract defending the Catholic faith against heretics, Jews, and "Mohammedans." He is best known, however, for his works of allegorical poetry: The Plaint of Nature (1168–1170) and Anticlaudianus (1182–1183). Those works enthralled later vernacular writers, including Jean de Meun, Dante, and Chaucer. Alan died at the Abbey of Cîteaux in France.


Alan's theories of sex and gender are elaborated most fully in The Plaint of Nature. Although it is a work of imaginative literature, the Plaint is also a compendium of contemporary knowledge about the natural world, the liberal arts, and poetics. Its primary concern, however, is sexual deviance, specifically the vices Alan understands as contra naturam (against nature).

The poem opens with an elegy in which the poet laments the fact that men openly flout Nature's decrees. Nature personified soon appears, wearing a dress and diadem adorned with flora, fauna, the elements, and the celestial bodies. The poet, suddenly stricken with delirium, is revived by Nature, who reveals her identity ("the deputy of God" and man's "foster-mother") (p. 117) and the purpose of her visit (to reprove man for his vices). She declares that "all things by the law of their origin are held subject to my laws" and "obey my edicts as a general rule" (p. 131). Man, however, "denature[s] the natural things of nature" (p. 131) through his monstrous desires. Nature explains that if desire is bridled by reason, it will not lead to vice but instead will allow for the lawful propagation of species. However, when desire is allowed to escape rational control, it degenerates morals and alienates man from his Creator.

As God's vicar, Nature is concerned particularly with denouncing the crimes of effeminacy and male homosexuality, though she also provides a standard catalogue of all vices, including many nonsexual ones. To fight the army of the Vices, she calls forth the Virtues and her consort Genius, who will lead the charge. Genius is a tutelary figure linked to procreation (genius, from gignere, "to beget") and also a priest armed with a "pastoral staff" (p. 206) and the "punitive rod of excommunication" (p. 208). Adhering closely to the Catholic rite of excommunication, Genius pronounces an anathema in which he calls for all those who violate the laws of Nature to be "set apart from the harmonious council of the things of Nature" (p. 220).


Although a number of scholars have argued that the question of sexual sin is incidental in the Plaint, there is considerable evidence to suggest that medieval readers felt otherwise. Several manuscripts of the Plaint have a colophon that reads "Let the profane sodomite perish," possibly suggesting an ad hominem attack on homosexuals. The Dominican theologian Robert Holcot praised the Plaint as a particularly effective tool in the campaign against sodomy, "the most unspeakable vice." Walter de Burgh added three verses on sodomy, including an ad hominem attack on an enemy, to another poem attributed to Alan and explained that his verses were inspired by "the plaint of Nature against a sodomite prelate." Finally, though the evidence is circumstantial, scholars have speculated that Alan's Plaint may have influenced the Third Lateran Council (1179), which prohibited the "sin against nature" for the first time. Alan is known to have attended the council, and there are remarkable similarities between Genius's anathema and Canon 11 of the Third Lateran, which calls for laymen accused of unnatural crimes to be excommunicated.

The moral value of the Plaint is complicated, however, by its tendency toward rhetorical excess and ambiguity. Although many of the moral teachings in the Plaint are rigorously orthodox, those teachings often are formulated in language that is morally uncertain. The poet describes Nature as a "mirror for mortals" and a "light-bearer for the world" (p. 128), yet Nature admits that she is incapable of comprehending ultimate truths. Indeed, like many of his contemporaries, Alan was ambivalent about the natural world as a moral guide. As Mark Jordan (1997) argues, the "Plaint of Nature is not only a complaint against sexual sins, it is a complaint against Nature's failure to speak satisfactorily about those sins" (Jordan 1997, p. 87). Similarly, although Genius embodies the righteous authority of the priesthood, he too is not above suspicion. At the end of the Plaint, Genius appears holding a pen and writing alternately with his right hand and his left. The right hand produces orthography (actual species perpetuated through lawful intercourse), and the left produces pseudography (shadowy, perverse images that lack substantial being). These writings are received either by Truth (a dutiful, chastely conceived daughter) or by Falsehood (a misshapen, misbegotten hag who disfigures Genius's script). Thus, even orthography can be turned to falsehood, since it is liable to misappropriation. Alexandre Leupin (1989) argues that Alan ultimately leaves the reader to imagine that all writing "origi-nate[s] in the left hand, the hand sinfully brimming with phantasmal images" (p. 78).

A "queer" reading of the Plaint reveals that many of the metaphors the poet and Nature employ are so ambiguous as to compromise the moral integrity of the text as a whole. For example, in his opening elegy the poet laments the fact that emasculated men have failed to harvest the "crop" of women's kisses from their willing lips, yet the metaphor takes on a life of its own: "Why do so many kisses lie fallow on maidens' lips while no one wishes to harvest a crop of them? If these kisses were but once planted on me, they would grow honey-sweet with moisture, and grown honey-sweet, they would form a honeycomb in my mouth" (p. 71). As Jordan observes, "Kissing takes two, and the kisses lying on virgins' lips are the kisses of their otherwise preoccupied male lovers" (Jordan 1997, p. 73). One may wonder, then, "whose kisses … our narrator mean[s] to harvest," men's or women's. Moreover, it would appear that "the effect of harvesting the kisses is to impregnate not the maidens, but the narrator himself. In him they grow into honeycomb" (Jordan 1997, p. 73). The narrator emasculates himself even as he denounces the monstrous Venus who unmans man; metaphorically, he contravenes nature by imagining male parturition.


Are these ambiguities intentional or unintentional? More importantly, do they compromise the ideological effectiveness of the Plaint? Françoise Hudry (1995) believes, on the basis of a set of personal letters she attributes to Alan of Lille, that early on in his life Alan was accused of unnatural crimes and was compelled to do penance at a remote abbey in Wearmouth, England. Hudry hypothesizes that Alan wrote the Plaint while there and that the moral zeal of the text is a reaction to his castigation. Although Hudry does not say so, this would explain the recurrence of homoerotic themes in a text that deplores homosexuality. Alan's repressed desires return in the very text that is meant as an act of contrition.

There is, however, another way of approaching this problem without resorting to biographical speculation. Larry Scanlon (1995) argues that the ideological value of Nature and Genius lies precisely in their semantic and moral indeterminacy. If these allegories are not wholly reliable as sources of moral truth, their ambiguity requires a compensatory gesture: not sexual renunciation but a new form of pleasure linked to penitential discipline. If the Plaint demonstrates how even the most orthodox moral language can lapse into immorality, it also provides a model for reinvesting libidinal desire in the punitive practices of the Church. Genius's anathema does not force the libido into quiescence; instead, it demonstrates how the castigation of sexual sins can be an ideologically useful form of pleasure. In short, the ambiguities of Alan's allegory thus work to sustain rather than diminish the authority of the clergy to regulate sexual morality.

see also Allegory; Catholicism; Christianity, Early and Medieval.


Alan of Lille. 1980. The Plaint of Nature, trans. James J. Sheridan. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.

Burgwinkle, William E. 2004. Sodomy, Masculinity, and Law in Medieval Literature: France and England, 1050–1230. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Guynn, Noah D. 2007. Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hudry, Françoise. 1995. "Introduction," in Alain de Lille, Règles de théologie, trans. Hudry. Paris: Cerf.

Jordan, Mark D. 1997. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Leupin, Alexandre. 1989. Barbarolexis: Medieval Writing and Sexuality, trans. Kate M. Cooper. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, Larry. 1995. "Unspeakable Pleasures: Alain de Lille, Sexual Regulation and the Priesthood of Genius," Romanic Review 86(2): 213-242.

Solére, Jean-Luc; Anca Vasiliu; and Alain Galonnier, eds. 2005. Alain de Lille, le Docteur Universel: Philosophie, théologie et littérature au XIIe siécle. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.

                                                Noah D. Guynn