Book of Gomorrah: An 11th-Century Treatise Against Clerical Homosexual Practices (Peter Damian, 1049)

NOTE: The following article is the first four chapters of Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah):

Book of Gomorrah

Peter Damian’s Liber Gomorrhians (Book of Gomorrah) is one of the most notable medieval pronouncements on the subject of homosexual practices. In fact, the work is unique in the medieval Christian literature of the West since it is the only continuous prose treatment of the various forms of homosexuality, the circumstances of clerical offences, and the proposed measures against such behavior.

Most of the penitentials from the 6th century to the 10th century have at least one canon concerning homosexuality, but more often than not they have several canons censuring the various forms of homosexual behaviour which are outlined by Damian in his first chapter. The Book of Gomorrah is precise and clear, tactfully introducing the required nuances without being vulgar or obscene.

The Book of Gomorrah is the first of Peter Damian’s works censuring clerical sexual abuses. The fact that the work was sent to Leo dates it to 1048-1054, the period of Leo IX’s papacy. The most commonly accepted date seems to be 1049—five years before the Great Schism. Although the tract is addressed to Leo IX, the structure of the work suggests that it was also meant to be read by those clerics who were actually engaged in homosexual practices. There is a canonical section (Preface, chs. 1-16, 26), which is addressed to the Pope, and a pastoral section (chs. 17-25), addressed to the offenders. The main purpose of the Book of Gomorrah is clear. Peter Damian, who is in doubt whether clerical offenders should be punished with deposition from their ecclesiastical rank for engaging in homosexual behaviour, wrote to the Pope requesting answers to several specific questions (ch. 26)

In the first chapter, Damian outlines three forms of homosexual activity (in addition to masturbation which he seems to put in the same class of acts against nature), but he is not always clear as to the agents and circumstances of the activities. He is alarmed by the spread of homosexual behavior among the clergy (Preface) but does not specify whether he means secular clergy, monastic clergy, or both. The two circumstances he does describe both involve confessors.

In the one case he condemns priests who, after engaging in homosexual acts together, confess to one another (ch. 7); in the other, he censures confessors who engage in such behavior with their male penitents (ch. 9). He also attacks the lower clergy in an impassioned argument against those “sodomists” who attempt to break into sacred orders (ch. 5). There is an ambiguous phrase in Damian which mentions falling “with eight or even ten other equally sordid men” (ch. 2). It is not clear whether this is a reference to promiscuous sequential acts with several different men or group activity. Pope Leo’s reply, which uses the phrase “with several,” is equally vague.

Damian’s reference to “spiritual sons” in chapter 8 is a reference to the male penitents with whom confessors were having sexual relations.

The two specific abuses, then, which Peter Damian singles out for particular mention are priests who confess to each other after sinning together, and priests who sin with their male penitents. He also wants to bar homosexual offenders from becoming priests.

Peter Damian received a reply from the Pope to his question in regard to the ecclesiastical censure of clerics engaged in homosexual practices. The Book of Gomorrah did not succeed in convincing the Pope to follow through on Damian’s call for the indiscriminate deposition of such clerics. Peter Damian never returned to an extended discussion of the theme again.

Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.
Peter Damian is not an Orthodox saint. The Catholic Church commemorates him February 21.


Peter, the lowliest servant of monks, to the most Blessed Pope Leo, the homage of due respect:

Since it is known from the very mouth of Truth that the Apostolic See is the mother of all the churches, it is proper that, should a doubt arise from any source whatever which seems to pertain to the care of souls, we have recourse to her as to the teacher and font of heavenly wisdom. Then from this one head of ecclesiastical discipline a light will shine to dissipate the darkness of doubt and to illumine the whole body of the Church with the glittering brightness of truth.

A certain abominable and terribly shameful vice has grown up in our region. Unless the hand of severe punishment resists as soon as possible, there is certainly a danger that the sword of divine anger will be used savagely against it to the ruin of many. Alas! It is shameful to speak of, shameful to suggest such foul disgrace to sacred ears! But if the doctor shrinks in horror from infected wounds, who will take the trouble to apply the cauter? If the one who is to heal becomes nauseated, who will lead the sick hearts back to health? Vice against nature creeps in like a cancer and even touches the order of consecrated men. Sometimes it rages like a bloodthirsty beast in the midst of the sheepfold of Christ with such bold freedom that it would have been much healthier for many to have been oppressed under the yoke of a secular army than to be freely delivered over to the iron rule of diabolical tyranny under the cover of religion, particularly when this is accompanied by scandal to others. For Truth says, “Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6).

Unless the strength of the Apostolic See intervenes as soon as possible, there is no doubt but that this unbridled wickedness, even though it should wish to be restrained, will be unable to stop on its headlong course.

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Four types of this form of criminal wickedness can be distinguished in an effort to show you the totality of the whole matter in an orderly way: some sin with themselves alone; some commit mutual masturbation; some commit femoral fornication; and finally, others commit the complete act against nature.1 The ascending gradation among these is such that the last mentioned are judged to be more serious than the preceding. Indeed, a greater penance is imposed on those who fall with others than on those who defile only themselves; and those who complete the act are to be judged more severely than those who are defiled through femoral fornication. The devil’s artful fraud devises these degrees of falling into ruin such that the higher the level the unfortunate soul reaches in them, the deeper it sinks in the depths of bell’s pit.



It is true that those liable to this ruin frequently come to their senses through the generosity of divine mercy, make satisfaction, and even piously receive the burden of penance no matter how heavy; but they are utterly terrified of losing their ecclesiastical status (lit. “order”). And some rectors of churches who are perhaps more humane in regard to this vice than is expedient absolutely decree that no one ought to be deposed from his order on account of three of the grades which were enumerated above. They maintain that only those should be graded who have clearly fallen into the ultimate act. Consequently, when someone is known to have fallen into this wickedness with eight or even ten other equally sordid men, we see him still remaining in his ecclesiastical position.

Surely this impious impiety does not cut off the wound but adds to the fire. It does not prevent the bitterness of this illicit act when committed, but rather makes way for it to be committed freely. In fact, a carnal man in any order fears and is more terrified of being despised in the sight of men than of being condemned at the bar of the supreme Judge. And so he prefers bearing the hardship of any strict penance at any price to being subject to the risk of losing his rank. While he is not afraid of losing the state of his honour through indiscreet discretion, he is encouraged to presume on the untried and to remain for a long time in what he presumed against his will. I would say that as long as he is not borne away to where he will suffer more severely, he continues to wallow voluptuously in the pigsty of foul obscenity into which he had fallen earlier.



It seems utterly preposterous to us that those who are habitually defiled with this festering contagion would dare either to be promoted to orders or to remain in their rank if already promoted since it is proved to be contrary to reason and against the canonical decrees of the fathers. However, I do not make this claim as though I were offering a definitively decisive judgment in the presence of your majesty, but simply in order to make my own opinion known.

In fact, this shameful act is not improperly believed to be worse than all other crimes since, indeed, we read that almighty God always dealt with this detested evil in one way. Even before he had placed the bridle of legal precept on the other vices, he was already censuring it with the punishment of a severe penalty. There is no need to mention that he destroyed the two famous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their surrounding regions by sulphur and fire from heaven (See Genesis 19). Scripture attests that he struck down Onan, the son of Judah, with premature death for this nefarious crime, “Onan knew that the descendants would not be counted as his, so whenever he had relations with his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order that children not be born in the name of his brother. And for this the Lord killed him, because he had done a detestable thing” (Gen. 38:9-10).2 It is also written in the Law, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have done evil and shall be put to death; their blood will be upon them” (Lev. 20:13).

Moreover, blessed Pope Gregory testifies to the fact that a man who has fallen into that crime which the Old Law commands to be condemned by death must not be promoted to ecclesiastical orders. In his letters he writes to Bishop Passivus, saying:

“Your fraternity has known well for how long a time Aprutium has been without pastoral care while we searched unsuccessfully for someone worthy of ordination, but because Importunus is reported to me as having conducted his life consistent with his moral principles and is praised for his zeal in psalm-singing and his love of prayer, we wish that your fraternity have this man present himself to you, and that you discover from [an examination of] his soul how far he has advanced in good deeds. And if no faults are found in him which stand in the way as items punishable by death under the rule of sacred Law, let him be ordained by you as either a monk or subdeacon. After a further period of time, if it please God, let him be promoted to the pastoral care.”3

So from this we clearly gather that any male who falls into sin with a male—into that crime, as we showed above, which is surely to be with the zeal of psalm-singing, and is distinguished in his love of prayer, and leads a full religious life under a witness of approved reputation, can indeed receive full pardon for his offence, but he is never permitted to aspire to ecclesiastical orders. For even though that venerable man Importunus—marked with the badge of such a religious and upright life and decorated with the glories of the virtues—is first extolled with so much fervent praise, afterwards it is said of him, “If no crimes which are punishable by death under the rule of sacred Law stand in the way, he is to be ordained.”

Surely it is clear that a person who has been degraded by a crime deserving death is not reformed so as to receive an order of ecclesiastical rank by any sort of subsequent religious life. Nor can one who has certainly fallen into the pit of a mortal fault rise to receive the highest of honours. Consequently, it is clearer than light that whoever is convicted of having fallen in the aforesaid manner—which undoubtedly is a mortal crime—that person is promoted to an ecclesiastical rank entirely against the norm of sacred Law and the rule of divine authority.



But perhaps someone will say, “There is an imminent necessity and there is no to perform a sacred function in the church. The judgment which was first based on the pronouncement of divine justice is reasonably modified by the proposed necessity of the situation.”

To this I reply briefly. Did not the necessity also weigh heavily when the Papal See lacked a shepherd? Will a judgment be owed in favour of one man which, if upheld, will result for the benefit of an immense multitude be violated for the benefit of a single person? But now let the great preacher himself also come forward and let what he thinks of this vice be more expressly known. He says in the Epistle to the Ephesians, “Make no mistake about this: no fornicator, no unclean or covetous person has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5). Consequently, if an unclean man has no inheritance at all in heaven, by what presumption, by what rash pride should he continue to possess a dignity in the Church which is no less the Kingdom of God? Surely, one who disregards the divine law by falling into sin will not dare to defy it by ascending even to the office of ecclesiastical dignity. Furthermore, he saves nothing for himself, because he is not afraid of defying God in everything.

Indeed, this Law was enacted particularly for those who violated it as Paul attests when writing to Timothy, saying, “The Law is not made for the just, but for the unjust, for the irreligious and the sinful, for criminals and the defiled, for those who kill their fathers and their mothers, for murderers, for fornicators, for male bed-companions, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and those who in other ways flout sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:9-10). Since it is clear that the Law was passed for male bed-companions so that they would not dare desecrate the sacred orders, by whom, I ask, will the law be kept if it is defied particularly by those for whom it was enacted?

Even if a person is perhaps said to be useful, it is right that the care with which he obeys the authentically sanctioned commands should be in proportion to the prudence he shows in living up to his natural talents. The better anyone’s knowledge is, the worse is his sin, since the person who could have prudently avoided sin if he wished will inevitably merit punishment. As blessed James says, “When a man knows the right thing to do and does not do it, he sins” (James 4:17). And Truth says, “When more has been given a man, more will be required of him” (Luke 12:48). If the right order of ecclesiastical discipline is confused in learned man, it is a wonder it is kept by the ignorant. If one of the learned is admitted improperly to an ecclesiastical order, he seems, as it were, to offer his followers and, I might say, to the more simple, the path of error which he himself approached to tread with the swollen foot of pride (see Ps. 36:12). Nor must he be judged solely because he sinned, but also because he invited others to emulate the sinning by the example of his own presumption.

Illumination from Liber Gomorrhianus


1 This division is a summary of the detailed descriptions in Burchard’s “Interrogatory for Confessors,” Decretum 19.5. The expressions “mutual masturbation” and “femoral fornication” are used to render what are literally “some by the hands of others” and “others between the thighs” respectively. See the very old (ca. AD 550) division in the Synod of the Grove of Victory, canon 8 in Irish Penitentials, 69, which reads, “Whoever commits the male crime as the Sodomites [shall do penance] for four years; whoever in the thighs, three years; whoever by the hand of another or his own, two years.”

2 The point here seems to be that Onan’s contraceptive act was as “unnatural” as homosexual acts since both were punished with death.

3 John the Deacon, Life of Gregory (PL 75, 137B).


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