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England in the medieval period was a far less literate society than today, and the majority of sources that survive are religious or legal in nature. This means that research into the lives of LGBTQ+ people from the period is very difficult, as documents are not only scarce but also written through the lens of the dominant power structures of the age. Theologians and Philosophers of the medieval period were greatly concerned with the idea of Natural Order. The prevalent belief was that God had designed the universe with a specific order or function for each thing, and that divergence from this order was sinful and led to chaos. When it came to sexuality, the idea was that the only purpose of intercourse was the production of children, and so any sexual acts that could not result in pregnancy were deemed sinful.

Homosexuality was not technically illegal, in the way we might understand that term today. Any acts that were considered offences against morality rather than common law were instead pursued in ecclesiastical courts, which were run by the Church. If found guilty, these courts often prescribed acts of penance such as fasting and pilgrimage, though these courts did have the power to condemn people to harsher punishments, including mutilation and death. Though the documentary evidence tells us of brutal persecution, cases such as that of John/Eleanor Rykener in 1394 give us a tiny insight into the lives of LGBTQ+ people of the medieval period. Additionally, and somewhat controversially, some modern historians have suggested the medieval religious tradition of Adelphopoiesis, also known as affrèrement or ‘brother-making’ may have provided a safe-haven for same sex couples to live in unity. Unfortunately, the nature of the evidence available and the bias of the chroniclers at the time make it difficult to draw any solid conclusions.

Explore more about the LGBTQ+ Community in York

Anne Lister ‘The First Modern Lesbian’
Anne Lister in York
Molly Houses
John Brown / Barbra Hill
Gender Roles in Viking Culture
John / Eleanor Rykener