St Anselm


Anselm of Canterbury

Saint Anselm

St Anselm is remembered by the Church as a notable Archbishop of Canterbury.  He is also remembered for some passionate love letters  to some of his pupils, with whom he had intense (but celibate) emotional relationships.

Anselm was born in Italy in 1033 and joined the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy in 1056. He became its prior in 1063 and then its abbot in 1078. In 1093 he became Archbishop of Canterbury, where he died and was buried in 1109. In 1494 he was canonized.

Most of the following letters were written during his early residence at Bec, though he was already becoming noted for his scholarship and philosophy, infectious enthusiasm, and spiky personality (his high principles would eventually create friction with his English rulers, William II and Henry I. There is little reason to doubt the purity of Anselm’s theological concept of friendship, or even his celibacy, but neither can we deny the erotic force behind his yearning and frustrated desire, his heartbreak and even jealousy. The intensity of his emotional experience with his pupils and the `beloved lover’ (dilecto dilectori) to whom he addresses his epistles makes clear his gay sensibility.

The Council of London in 1102 wanted to enact ecclesiastical legislation which declared – for the first time in English history – that homosexual behaviour was a sin, and they recommended that offending laymen be imprisoned and clergymen be anathematized. But Anselm as Archbishop of Canterbury prohibited the publication of their decree, advising the Council that homosexuality was widespread and few men were embarrassed by it or had even been aware it was a serious matter; he felt that although sodomites should not be admitted to the priesthood, confessors should take into account mitigating factors such as age and marital status before prescribing penance, and he advised counselling rather than punishment. St Anselm’s letters appeared during the last flowering of homosexual love before fanatical anti-gay prejudice swept across Europe in the twelfth century, as documented by John Boswell in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980).

(From Rictor Norton, Gay Love Letters, where you can also read some of these love letters.)

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