Damian, Peter c. 1007–1072

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Damian, Peter
c. 1007–1072

Born into a noble but poor family in or around 1007 in Ravenna, Italy, Peter Damian became an influential figure in the Catholic Church at a time when it was marked by scandals, corruption, and schism. Orphaned at an early age, he was eventually cared for by an older brother who then facilitated his education. Damian excelled in his studies first at Ravenna, then Faenza and Parma, and became a renowned teacher of rhetoric by the age of twenty-five. Rejecting the distractions and scandals associated with university life, around 1035 he joined the monastery at Fonte Avellana, where he became prior in 1043, leading the monastery into a new prosperity. This office he held until his death in 1072 in Faenza. Though he had retreated from the world, Peter kept close watch on the Church, and served frequently as papal legate. He was eventually named Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia—over his protest—in 1057. By the time of his death in 1072, he had earned a reputation as a reformer, opposed to simony and clerical marriage, and as a zealous combatant of sodomy.

While the act of sodomy had been criticized as early as Tertullian (c. 160–c. 230), and same-sex relations condemned both in church councils, such as the Council of Elvira (305–306), and in penitentials, as John Boswell claimed, an argument could be put forth for a certain tolerance of homosexual behaviors through the twelfth century. However, Damian's Liber Gomorrhianus (c. 1049), addressed to Pope Leo IX (r. 1049–1054), sharply condemns any attitude of leniency, and especially any papal leniency, in cases of "sins against nature." In the Liber Gomorrhianus, through a preface and twenty-six chapters, Damian categorizes and condemns homosexual acts without mincing words. He elaborates a typology of four categories of "sins against nature": masturbation, mutual masturbation, interfemoral intercourse, and anal intercourse, with the latter being the most serious. Citing earlier ecclesiastic sources, he argues that males guilty of such acts should not be clerics. Following the same logic, he criticizes mutual confession by priests engaging in same-sex activities. Clerics who were sodomites should repent and remove themselves from the clergy. He denounces the inconsistencies and the laxness of the penitentials on this subject and rails against the morally corrupting influence of homosexuality. Mark D. Jordan (1997) credits Damian with moving sodomy into the category of sin, by likening it to blasphemy.

By invoking Gomorrah, Damian's polemic suggests a parallel between the moral state of the Church, corrupted by practicing sodomites, and the fate of the inhabitants of that city. The threat of destruction looms on the horizon. While Damian's text may then read as a classic example of European medieval homophobia, David Lorenzo Boyd (1995) has pointed out that Damian's argument can also be seen as expressing the fragility of the heteronormative model and the instability of the dominant. Derived from a gendered vision of behavior and located in the male body, the effect of the "unmanned man" and the "effeminate man" goes beyond the boundaries of the Church and disrupts the binary power system that structures medieval society.

Although Pope Leo IX recognized the value of Damian's intentions, he was critical of the excessive nature of the text and rejected Damien's call for executing those unnatural practitioners. Thus the immediate effect of Damian's text was less than he hoped for. Nonetheless, Liber Gomorrhianus reveals the anxieties of the medieval clergy in relation to sexuality and must inform any discussion of sodomy in the Middle Ages.

see also Alan of Lille; Aquinas, Thomas; Body, Theories of; Catholicism; Effeminacy; Homosexuality, Male, History of; Lesbianism; Middle Ages; Sodomy, Repression of.


Boswell, John. 1980. 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.

Boyd, David Lorenzo. 1995. "Disrupting the Norm: Sodomy, Culture, and the Male Body in Peter Damian's Liber Gomorrhianus." Essays in Medieval Studies 11: 63-73.

Burgwinkle, William. 2004. "Visible and Invisible Bodies and Subjects in Peter Damian." In Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Text and Image, ed. Emma Campbell and Robert Mills. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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

Payer, Pierre J. 1982. Book of Gomorrah: An Eleventh-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

                                                   Edith Benkov