views updated


Nefandum is the nominal form of nefandus (also infandus), which is derived from the Latin ne ("not") and fari ("to speak"). It is understood in the literal sense as "not to be mentioned" or "unmentionable," hence the phrase vitium nefandum, "the unmentionable vice." In classical usage nefandus has the more figurative meaning of impious, lawless, or abominable. Jerome follows this usage in the Vulgate when he describes the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah as nefandi, that is, acting against God's precepts (2 Peter 2.7).


The association of nefandus with what would come to be known as sodomy gained currency as later Christian authors moved toward decidedly sexual readings of the "sin of Sodom." The sixth-century emperor Justinian imposed the death penalty not only on adulterers, as per earlier Roman legislation, but also on those who "carry out their abominable desire (infandam libidinem) with [other] men" (Institutiones 4.18.4), alleging that such sins, if left unchecked, gave God cause to visit humankind with pestilence and natural disasters. The Venerable Bede's eighth-century commentary on Genesis speaks in broad strokes of the Sodomites' sinfulness, reserving the term infandus for the sin of theirs that was specifically sexual (Frantzen 1998) By the eleventh century nefandus had become an almost inevitable catchword in discussions of the crimen contra naturam (crime against nature), which was understood to be any sexual act that circumvented God's procreative plan (hence per vas nefandum [by means of the improper vessel], that is, anal penetration). Peter Damian makes use of the term in his Liber Gomorrhianus to decry rampant sodomitic practice among the clergy, calling it a nefandum vitium (abominable vice) (Boyd 1994). Albert the Great echoes this formula two centuries later when he digresses from his commentary on the Gospel of Luke to preach against sodomy (Jordan 1997).

Despite its seemingly reductive usage in texts such as these, the vitium or crimen nefandum functioned for much of the premodern period as sodomy at its most discursively flexible or, rather, as the category within which sodomy was conflated most readily with a host of other infractions, including concubinage, heresy, and lèse-majesté (Chiffoleau 1990). Late medieval sources apply the term nefandus equally to sodomy and host profanation, both of which were considered sins so egregious that their mere mention was believed to call down vengeance from heaven. Recourse to the term nefandus (understood in its root sense as "not to be mentioned") effectively excused the speaker from naming the sin, just as it legislated silence as the only acceptable response. The impulse to silence persisted well into the modern period, reaching extremes in the eighteenth-century Netherlands, where punishment for the crimen nefandum—invariably the "Catholic vice" of sodomy—was meted out in secret to safeguard the public well-being (Van der Meer 1997).


In its turn as "the unmentionable vice," the vitium nefandum almost surely gave rise to Lord Alfred Douglas's felicitous turn of phrase formulation "the love that dares not speak its name." So too has nefandum (nefandus in its nominal form) come to be used as a synonym for sodomy in contemporary discussions of the history of (homo)sexuality. Crimen nefandum nonetheless retains in Catholic theology the broader meaning of any egregious act against God, including abortion and infanticide (condemned as crimina nefanda in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes, issued by the Second Vatican Council in 1965). In both historical and contemporary contexts, crimen nefandum is probably best understood in its generic sense, as an expansive category of egregious crime or sin within which sodomy invariably finds a place; only exceptionally does it assume the reductive meaning of sodomy. Neither is nefandus the inevitable Latin term for invoking sodomy's unmentionability—no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas prefers on occasion the term innominabilis "unnameable."

see also Sodomy.


Boyd, David Lorenzo. 1994. "Disrupting the Norm: Sodomy, Culture, and the Male Body in Peter Damian's Liber Gomorrhianus." In Figures of Speech: The Body in Medieval Art, History, and Literature, ed. Allen J. Frantzen and David A. Robinson. Essays in Medieval Studies 11: 63-73.

Chiffoleau, Jacques. 1990. "Dire l'indicible: Remarques sur la catégorie du nefandum du XIIe au XVe siècle." Annales ESC 45(2): 289-324.

Frantzen, Allen J. 1998. Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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

Van der Meer, T. 1997. "Sodom's Seed in the Netherlands: The Emergence of Homosexuality in the Early Modern Period." Journal of Homosexuality 34(1): 1-16.

                                     Gregory S. Hutcheson