LSU Honors 2004
Spring Semester
Medieval European Civilization

John Protevi
LSU French Studies
Class use only. Do not cite w/o permission

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship. Trans. Mary Eugenia Laker. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1977.

1. Aelred’s life and historical context.

From line of married priests in north of England in late 11th century. Thus affected by Gregorian reform and by the Norman Conquest (William traded support for reform for papal blessing). Adolescence in court of Scottish king. Accepted monastic calling at 26. Cistercian order expansion; cf. Bernard of Clairvaux. Series of offices, culminating in abbot.

2. “Particular friendship” in the monastic tradition.

Benedict and others cautioned against particular friendships in monasteries, fearing factionalism, disputes, and homosexuality. Sleeping arrangements in Benedict’s Rule can be read in this regard. Their ideal was a perfect harmony directed to God, which could only be disrupted by special friendships between monks. Aelred’s defense of particular friendship will thus have to deal with these objections.

3. The question of the history of sexuality.

Michel Foucault’s 3-volume History of Sexuality (Intro 1976, vols 2 and 3 1984) sparked intense interest. Two of the Intro’s theses in particular attracted a lot of follow up work. 1) In general, that the focus on sexuality as the primary moral or psychological category is a modern phenomenon, slowly being disengaged from a general concern with all bodily functions. This
focus intensifies in the Counter-Reformation and really come to the fore in the 19th century, due to sexuality’s position at the nexus of government interest in individual bodies (discipline and health) and in the national population (size, reproduction rates, etc). 2) In particular, that “homosexuality” is a 19th century category and (hence, by implication) that the reactions of prior
ages to same-sex behaviors need to be stated in historically-specific terms.

From this historical perspective, sexuality is a nexus of relations through which societies organize themselves, and moral and legal codes are the reflection of such organizing forces, the way they represent themselves. Thus, like any history, but with more care, the history of sexuality must be amoral: it must treat moral codes as objects to be  studied, not as lenses through which to judge.

Consider the history of warfare as an analogy: we have to study the various moral and legal codes in which warfare is represented (for example the Crusades as Christian adventure as represented in Urban II’s sermon at Clermont calling for the 1st Crusade, or in Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons about the 2nd Crusade) as part of the object of study (that is, as amplifying or focusing the social forces that “really” produce wars: in this case, one of them being overpopulation of landless Norman knights due to conflict of Roman primogeniture [giving land to first son] and Viking equality [“you think you’re better than me?” says the second son to the first]) rather than judging which forms of warfare we prefer (the Crusades as “justified” or not).

Now such amoral objectivity is especially difficult for the history of sexuality, since according to thesis #1, sexuality is the point of highest intensity for our age’s concerns; but precisely because of this intensity, amoral objectivity is all the more necessary if we are to have a history of sexuality, rather than a forum for moralizing.

Some of the most noteworthy books contributing to a history of sexuality for our course’s interests are: John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 1980); Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988); and Allen Frantzen, Before the Closet: Same-Sex Love from Beowulf to Angels in America (University of Chicago Press, 1999). The major online resource is maintained by Paul Halsall at Fordham University:

The issues involved are complex and controversial. Boswell’s thesis is that the attitudes prevalent in the 12th century renaissance (he specifically mentions Anselm and Aelred) toward male same-sex behaviors were more open and tolerant than later medieval attitudes. Others such as Frantzen disagree. Some of the questions: is the history of Church practices and attitudes toward same-sex behavior one of continuous official condemnation or one in which there were periods of more or less tolerance? Was that tolerance simply a lapse, was it a matter of practicality (some officials in some times had more important issues to deal with) or did it reflect pressure for a new doctrine?

I’m not going to go into these details regarding Aelred, as to do so would require more preparation than we have time for. In particular, taking Foucault’s lead, we’d have to ask three questions we couldn’t possibly answer without a lot of work: 1) whether we had the right categories for the analysis (“gay” vs “homosexual” vs “same-sex behavior”); 2) how much of our
interest was a reflection of our age’s concerns (what about other monastic moral concerns such as gluttony or drunkenness: are we focusing on sexuality to the exclusion of issues the monks themselves thought equally important? Or at least very important? Shouldn’t we ask about sexuality in the context of a general theory of body practices?); 3) whether we had a good theory
of sublimation (the move from carnal to spiritual) and hence a theory of the difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality? To do that we’d need a general theory of love (charity, agape, eros, philia, etc.) and in particular, group love, especially in all-male groups: fighting bands, armies, aristocratic courts, monasteries, boarding schools, ships at sea, fraternities, (medieval) universities, military academies, and so forth. Does one need to go through a period of physical same-sex behavior (Aelred at the Scottish court) in order to ascend to spiritual friendship? Should we then tolerate youthful same-sex behavior and only punish it in adults? SF 3.87 might lead us to think so, if we accept Boswell’s criticism of the translation of inhonestas by “dishonorable” instead of “dishonesty”: thus the question is not sex, but truth: “And yet this [carnal] friendship, except for trifles and deceptions, if nothing inhonestas enters into it, is to be tolerated in the hope of more abundant grace, as the beginnings, so to say, of a holier friendship.” Certain readings of the Symposium would also assert that to ascend the sublimation ladder from physical to spiritual mean you have to physically love before you can ascend.

4) Aelred’s theory of the desire

Rather than this, let’s tackle the question of models of desire. Aelred has a natural sufficiency, intensity, and community model rather than a lack, (illusory) fulfillment, and hierarchy model. In other words, for Aelred – at least on the reading I propose, for the “singers of the song of lack, the crooners of castration” would have their own reading – desire is the desire for increased
intensity in a community of equals based on an already sufficient nature rather than the desire to make up a lack in oneself, a desire doomed to fail which chases images of fulfillment and thereby creates a social hierarchy of those with better, more alluring, images. Aelred’s intensity vs Augustine’s lack  then: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Consider his treatment of the genesis of carnal friendship in I.39: “To enjoy these [images of beautiful bodies] as he pleases the carnal man thinks is blessedness, but to enjoy them without an associate he considers less delightful.” Here the issue is more or less intensity of enjoyment. The sole man is not incomplete, but less intense. His images give him real pleasure, not an illusory
compensation for lack. Friendship is thus a means of increasing intensity, not making up for a lack: “Then by gesture, nod, words, compliance, spirit is captivated by spirit, and one is inflamed by the other ...” Similar quotes abound: “Friendship therefore heightens the joys of prosperity” (II.13). Most telling is the following from II.15, put into the mouth of Walter: “I believe that I am not even alive as long as I am deprived of the manifold benefits of this great good.” Death is here zero intensity, not incompleteness; life is increased intensity, not chasing after an always incomplete and illusory fulfillment.

We also see the intensity model in Aelred’s insistence that spiritual friendship has no goal outside itself: “its fruition and reward is nothing other than itself” (I.45). No external telos implies no arche of lack. See also II.60. Compare Aristophanes’ myth in the Symposium in which desire is nostalgic desire to compensate for a lost unity. This unity is the telos outside Platonic friendship just as lack is the arche of it.

Nor is Aelred’s formula in Books II and III that friendship is a way of making one out of many a formula of lack: the one so formed is one of increased intensity, not one that makes up for a lack. “What therefore is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one?” (II.11): the question is more pleasure, not compensation for lack. Thus for Aelred solitude is not lack but rather low intensity, approaching zero; the solitary person is dead rather than incomplete. Thus the more individuals in the one, the community of friendship, the more happiness; this increase is not arithmetic, but geometric: “shall we not consider ourselves happier in proportion as more individuals of this type abound for us?” (III.82).

Everything in Aelred is about intensity. Thus the complaint against carnal friendship is not that it is not positive pleasure in itself, that its pleasure is somehow false or illusory (an insufficient way to make up lack), but that its pleasure is not intense enough! “Such great joy is experienced in friendship which either lust defiles, avarice dishonors, or luxury pollutes, we may infer how much sweetness that friendship possesses which, in proportion as it is nobler, is the more secure, purer, it is the more pleasing, freer, it is the more happy” (I.36). The problem with carnal friendship is not that it is illusory, but that it is insecure because irrationally promiscuous: “through the violence of affection is carried through divers paths ... goaded on, as if by furies, it is consumed by its own self, or is dissolved with the same levity with which it was originally fashioned.”

The key to Aelred’s intensity model is natural sufficiency, as revealed in the account of the natural origin of friendship at I.51 ff. “Nature itself  impressed upon the human soul a desire for friendship ...” For Aelred, God is the “sufficiency of all things,” and “all creatures obtain from him, who is supremely and purely one, some trace of that unity.” This is extremely important: creatures receive a trace of unity from God, not a mark of lack. Thus the natural impulse to sociality found in all creatures (even in rocks!) is a drive to higher intensity of already complete, “sufficient” beings, not a compensation for natural lack.

Lack, which certainly does exist, is social and artificial, a consequence of original sin, which for Aelred is a temporal event occurring after a period of natural sufficiency rather than an atemporal logical structure marking lack in man’s nature (I.58): “After the fall of the first man, when with the cooling of charity concupiscence made secret inroads and caused private good to take precedence over the common weal, it corrupted the splendor of friendship and charity through avarice and envy ...” Everything hangs on this distinction in the doctrine of original sin between temporal event and logical structure. As a temporal event, the fall creates artificial lack and hierarchy; the natural “law of friendship” repairs the fall and makes equals, teaching us to “despise and esteem as nothing and as vanity what is but an addition to nature” (that is, lack and hierarchy) (III.90).

Another way to put it: were Adam and Eve humans before the fall? Or is the fall only the myth expressing the structure of lack which is constitutive of humanity? Lack theories say yes, thus positing a sharp break between humanity and nature or animality and thereby claiming that prelapsarian natural human sufficiency such as Aelred invokes is only an illusion created by lack-
induced nostalgia. Or in still other words: does original sin come after the fact to affect a sufficient human nature (Aelred’s position), or is it itself constitutive of the break between human nature as lack and animal nature as sufficiency?

5. Political and economic resonances
As is always the case in medieval culture, these theological writings have crucial political and economic resonances. Aelred’s natural sufficiency and intensity model, coupled with the interpretation of original sin as a temporal event, offer a model of human community in which hierarchy is not the model of divinely-ordained nature, but the mark of the fall: Eve’s birth from
Adam shows that “nature might teach us that human beings are equal and as it were collateral, and that there is in human affairs neither a superior nor an inferior, a characteristic of true friendship” (I.57). Christ, as the model of love, offers us a way out of artificial, temporally subsequent sinful hierarchy toward loving and graceful equality that recapitulates natural sufficiency. The community of love is not arithmetic or zero-sum, but intense, filled with social goods that increase with increased membership: “Would you not think yourself happier in proportion to the number of such companions ... the happiness of each individually is the happiness of all, and the universality of all happiness is the possession of each individual” (I.78- 79). Aelred sums up his political theology in a formula he knows is “unusual”: “God is friendship” (I.69).

The economic resonances of the natural sufficiency, intensity, and community of equals model vs the lack, fulfillment and hierarchy models are important too. If lack or scarcity is not natural, but artificial and historical, then the problem of economy is how to arrange the distribution of surplus, how to waste excess, rather than how to overcome scarcity. Thus the whole question of work has to be turned around: work is not organized to overcome a natural scarcity, but to reinforce a socially imposed lack that produces and funnels excess to protect an artificial hierarchy. Thus in adopting Aelred’s natural sufficiency and intensity model the moral justification of work has to be reversed: in a society of overwhelming excess one should have to justify working rather than not working. And the alleged benefits of hierarchy as spurring production would have to re-examined as well. Thus Aelred is criticizing a society that keeps poor people poor to force them to work to overcome an artificial lack and allows some to be rich as a lure to spur even more production.