Sin Contra Naturam

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Sin Contra Naturam

In theological, philosophical, scientific, legal, and literary texts from the medieval and early modern periods, the term contra naturam (against nature) was applied to a range of nonprocreative sexual acts (masturbation, oral sex, same-sex relations, bestiality). From the eleventh century on, the sin against nature was frequently conflated with sodomy, but the meaning of the two terms was never precise or fixed—indeed, it was often deliberately vague; their valence was dependent to a great extent on the immediate context in which they were deployed. Whereas sodomy was an invention of medieval theology, the idea of an act or sin against nature was part of Christianity's inheritance from the ancient world as elaborated in a broad range of writings. A further factor contributing to the slipperiness of the two terms is that only rarely were they applied in the same manner to both men and women.

The idea of an act against nature was inseparable from conceptualizations of the natural, and ancient Greek authors typically recognized the existence of same-sex sexuality as an observable phenomenon in both nature and society. In both Aristotelian and Platonic thought, the natural world was gendered—that is, possessing a male, or dominant, principle that naturally dominated its female, or passive, counterpart. Any deviation from such arrangements was, by definition, against nature. In ancient Greek and Roman society, free males could thus enjoy sexual relations with women, slaves, or boys as long as they played the active role, whereas homoeroticism between women, though well attested, tended to be viewed by male authors as unnatural because neither partner could assume the dominant role without transgressively assuming the role that properly belonged to the male. In his History of Animals, Aristotle (384 bce–322 bce) noted same-sex behavior among animals (Brooten 1996) and apparently also considered it natural among humans (Boswell 1980) In Plato (428 bce–348 bce), however, one sees the tension between differing formulations of acts defined as against nature. In his Symposium, Aristophanes's (448 bce–380 bce) myth of the androgynes represents sexual attraction between people of the same sex as a naturally occurring phenomenon in nature. However, in the Laws Plato labels same-sex relations as para physin (against nature), ascribing them to a lack of self-control (Brooten 1996).

The ancients' conception of a naturally gendered universe was shared by St. Paul (died c. 66 ce), whose condemnation of unnatural intercourse was to be the authoritative foundation of all subsequent Christian writing on the subject. In Romans 1:26-27, one of several passages traditionally viewed as condemning same-sex relations, immediately after the condemnation of the idolatrous worshipping of false gods, Paul writes: "For this reason, God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error." What Paul meant by unnatural intercourse (rendered in the Vulgate as usum contra naturam) is a matter of considerable scholarly debate. Arguing that contra naturam should be taken to mean beyond nature, that is, extraordinary or peculiar, John Boswell reads the passage as a condemnation of acts (not sexual identities in the modern sense) that show a willful rejection of knowledge of the natural order of God's creation (Boswell 1980). However, Bernadette Brooten emphasizes that Paul, in condemning same-sex love, condemns above all "sin against the social order established by God at creation" (1996, p. 264). She also argues that his denunciation of same-sex love was not specifically formulated as an argument in favor of procreation. Affirming that what Paul meant by against nature in Romans can only be elucidated through an intertextual approach including other Roman-period writings, Brooten concludes that despite the apparent gender symmetry of Paul's condemnation, his culture did not view dominant or submissive women within a same-sex relationship as it viewed such relations between men, and that the woman playing the role of the man was particularly shocking to Paul's world view.

As with his contemporary St. Paul, Philo of Alexandria (20 bce–40 ce), a Hellenized Jewish philosopher whose work influenced Christian authors, condemns male-male sexual relations (specifically but not exclusively those between a man and a boy) as para physin and sees such relations as contributing to the disease of effeminacy (Boswell 1980). Philo's definition of acts against nature has procreation as a central concern, for he also considers sexual relations between different species (including bestiality) and between a man and a woman during her menstrual period to be against nature. He does not concern himself with sexual relations between women but displays a specific concern with pederasty, which he says had become widespread in his day (Greenberg 1988). He views the pederast as pursuing an unnatural pleasure resulting in the corruption of the boy and judges both parties worthy of death (Brooten 1996).

Moralists of this period also refer to the animal world when they address same-sex sexuality. The second-century Christian Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) was the most influential Hellenistic writer on this subject. Drawing on both Plato and Paul, among many others, Clement holds that same-sex relations, both between males and between females, are unnatural. As does his close contemporary and fellow Christian Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–225), he specifically condemns female-female marriage as para physin (Brooten 1996) and is among the first theologians to articulate the Alexandrian rule, to the effect that all sexual intercourse must be directed toward procreation (Boswell 1996). In his enormously influential Physiologus, a collection of anecdotes about the animal world, he condemns the supposed ambiguous sexuality of the hare (said to grow a new anus each year) and the hyena (held to be male or female in alternate years). The Mosaic injunction against consuming the flesh of the hare is interpreted by Clement as a rejection of pederasty.

By the early third century of the Christian era, a considerable body of writings, both Christian and non-Christian, with an array of interpretations, supported the condemnation of same-sex sexuality as being against nature. Theologians such as St. John Chrysostom (347–407) in the Asia and St. Augustine (354–430) in Europe drew on this tradition. In his homily on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, Chrysostom decries all passions as dishonorable but singles out the sins against nature as the most abominable, denying that any pleasure can be derived from them, as real pleasure can in his view only be in accordance with nature. He holds that the sin against nature is even more shameful between women, who are supposed to be naturally more modest than men, and that ultimate depravity prevails when men, supposed to be the teachers of women, practice this vice. Nature knows her own boundaries, he opines, and homoeroticism is unnatural and lawless for breaking down the boundaries between the sexes and sex roles. For Augustine, human sexuality in general is foremost an impediment to salvation. He only allows sex for the purpose of procreation, and he therefore condemned, for example, anal intercourse between man and wife as unnatural and grossly wicked (Brooten 1996). Augustine's treatment of the sin of the Sodomites would prove to be particularly influential on later theologians, for, unlike St. Jerome (c. 345–420), the translator of the Vulgate who interpreted the sin of Sodom as pride, for Augustine, it is specifically, if not exclusively, the sin contra naturam of male same-sex copulation.

Whereas the sin against nature thus has its roots in ancient writings, sodomy is a more recent invention of medieval theology, specifically of Peter Damian in his tract the Liber Gomorrhianus (c. 1049). Damian's concern was to reform what he viewed as the rampant moral corruption of the church. He casts sodomy as an especially pernicious variant of incest, for he alleges that bishops and abbots engage in unnatural acts with their spiritual sons, whom they have brought into the church or monastery. From its inception the sin of sodomy thus appears ambiguous, assimilated to incest but also to hierarchical and generational transgression. Subsequent taxonomies of sin, either theological or pastoral, were no more able to provide a coherent account of sodomy or the sin against nature.

In Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologiae (c. 1265–1274), sodomy is the last of the six species of the capital sin of luxuria, subdivided in turn into four types: masturbation, bestiality, same-sex coupling (with reference to Romans 1:27), and otherwise improper coupling (e.g., using an instrument or an improper orifice) (2-2.154). Of these, bestiality is the most serious, solitary masturbation the least. But, as Mark Jordan (1997) argues, one would be mistaken to conclude that sodomy is merely a middling vice, for the sodomitic vice is a pleasure with no end in the order of nature and thus a sin against God in his creation. In an earlier text, the Scripta super libros Sententiarum (c. 1256), Thomas says that the sin of luxuria against nature is, quite simply, unnamable. This incoherence is perhaps most clearly marked in pastoral literature, such as confessors' manuals. On the one hand they atomize sins, their aggravating or mitigating circumstances, and the relative weighting of penance. On the other confessors were warned against naming the sin against nature for fear that the innocent be tempted to commit it and thus be corrupted. Thus, the sin against nature, falling outside of the order of creation, ultimately falls outside the discursive order as well as unmentionable and unrepresentable, the sin that dare not speak its name.

Any attempt to cloak the sodomitic vice in silence was, however, doomed to failure, as theologians, moralists, and natural philosophers continued to delve into the causes, effects, and etiology of the sin against nature. Scientific texts, such as Peter of Abano's commentary on the pseudo-Aristotelian Problems (1310), sought to give a naturalistic explanation of why some men were given to indulge in anal intercourse. Peter does not blame such men but distinguishes them from "sodomites," who indulge in this habit through depravity (Cadden 1993). Moralists writing after Damian are anything but silent about the sin against nature, denouncing the supposed corruption of their particular social environment. Etienne de Fougères in his Livre des Manières (c. 1174–1178) rails against the court culture of Henry II (r. 1154–1189), ascribing the sin against nature specifically to the ladies at court and, as with St. Paul, advocating death for transgressors. However, it is impossible to know if any of the vices he attributes to the court were practiced there. At a later date the sermons in which Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444) attacks sodomy from the pulpit in Florence and Siena in the 1420s are but one source documenting a rich culture of same-sex erotic and affective ties among men that flourished in the urban centers of fifteenth-century Italy. Civil authorities in Florence were alarmed enough to establish the Office of the Night (Ufficiali di notte), the earliest judicial institution whose purpose was to counter same-sex sexual practices (Rocke 1996).

As these final examples indicate, the sin against nature was a highly unstable construct that readily lent itself to a broad array of strategies of containment in both prescriptive and descriptive texts. As such the imputation of sodomy against perceived enemies of the church or the state was a formidable tool. The unorthodox, such as the Albigensians or Cathars, were regularly accused of being sodomites, and the confusion of categories in this instance operated on a lexical level as well. Thus, the Old French bougre (bugger) (q.v. bugger, buggery) was applied to heretics and erite (heretic) to supposed sodomites. In the late medieval and early modern period, accusations of sodomy were also deployed in court politics, as in the case of Piers Gaveston (c. 1284–1312), the favorite of Edward II (r. 1307–1327). The intersection of politics and sodomy operates as an important theme in Christopher Marlowe's (1564–1593) Edward II (c. 1592) and other contemporary literary works. However, with the exception of Renaissance Italy, there is a dearth of documents for the medieval and early modern periods that would make it possible to gage the prevalence of same-sex sexuality at any given time and place. Remaining documents are of interest primarily for their myriad representations of sodomy and the sin against nature.

see also Alan of Lille; Boswell, John; Bugger, Buggery; Catholicism; Damian, Peter; Effeminacy; Nefandum; Sodomy; Sodomy Laws; 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.

Bray, Alan. 1995. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. 2nd edition. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooten, Bernadette J. 1996. Love between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brundage, James A. 1987. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cadden, Joan. 1993. Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldberg, Jonathan. 1992. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Greenberg, David F. 1988. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Rocke, Michael. 1996. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Bruce R. 1991. Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England: A Cultural Poetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                           Robert L. A. Clark