May 05, 2008

Medieval Lesbians

Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you every hour at every moment, like a hungry little bird... as the turtle-dove, having lost its mate, perches forever on its little dried up branch, so I lament endlessly... you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart.

That text is from a 12th Century letter from a woman to another lamenting their separation. What it bears testimony to is the reality of lesbian relationships going back into the medieval period. It is hard to read that text with its references to exclusivity or indeed to the mate of the turtle dove without thinking that it is, in some sense, a love letter. But it is not alone- Lesbian literature in some form was around during the entire Middle Ages- of course as Lesbianism was prohibited and women were the silent sex during the period, there isn't that much of it but individual examples are there which illustrate what may be a greater silent trend.

The canon lawyers definitely thought that that was true. As Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe, and as its believers became more literate they developed penitentials and other legalistic codes to describe sin and administer penitence. The Penitential of Theodore reccomended that a woman who indulged in vice with another women did penance for three years- more if she were married. The Penitential of Bede stated that a woman who used an instrument in sex with another woman should do an extra four years penitence. Hildegard of Bingen argued that Lesbians usurped the male role, both in sex and in general, Etiene de Fougeres suggested that Lesbians sometimes play the cock, sometimes the hen. The fear of Lesbians was the fear of mannish women.

On the other hand, Lesbianism did not get the attention that either male homosexuality or heterosexual adultery got. Perhaps it was less common. Perhaps as well it threatened the family unit less: adultery could end in a confusion about the legitimacy of children, crucial in a society like that of medieval Europe based around lines of descent. Furthermore contemporaries couldn't quite believe in sex without penetration- women were the passive receivers of sexual attention and aggression, not the instigators of it. Indeed one medieval text argued that a mannish woman turned in either of two ways- if filled with lust she became an active seductress, if totally bereft of human feeling, she became a Lesbian.

Women though were punished for being Lesbians- and practical steps were taken to dissuade Lesbianism. In 1568, a woman was drowned in Geneva for a 'detestable and unnatural' relationship that she had with another woman. In 1405 a French woman called Laurence appealed against a conviction for Lesbianism, insisting that her partner, Jehanne, had been the instigator of the crime. A lawyer in Seville in the 16th Century witnessed the flogging of several female prisoners convicted for making artificial sexual instruments to indulge with each other. In general the courts tended to leave Lesbianism alone though- for the reasons I gave above. Yet in other parts of medieval society we find that practical measures were taken against Lesbianism- with nunneries having strict rules about communal sleeping arrangements, prohibiting nuns (particularly old and young nuns) sharing beds and maintaining a light on at all times in the dormitory.

Such a description shouldn't lead us to think that medieval Lesbianism was in any way similar to modern Lesbianism- the letter I quoted from at the beggining is phrased within the conventions of courtly love poetry. To go further, medieval individuals often thought of themselves in wildly different ways to modern individuals. Take the case of Bernadetta Carlini, an Italian nun, who claimed to have visions and to be possessed by an angelic spirit. Carlini's spirit used her body to have sexual relations with another nun in her convent- she was sentenced to imprisonment. Historians like to quarrell over whether Carlini was what we would think of as a Lesbian- she said at her trial that she had no memory of her sexual escapades- in truth its a false question. The real answer is that she like many medieval men and women thought differently about their lives than we do- instead of as historians like to do, forcing them into modern straight jackets, its worth considering what they experienced.

The difficulty in this field though is that that isn't always that easy. Carlini's case is only there because she was tried and we have the transcript, we don't have much evidence to go on here. Much of what I have written comes from an article by Jacqueline Murray (within this collection), Murray attempts to make up with theory what she lacks with evidence, a parlous proposition for history which is an empirical approach to the world. Having said that, there definitely seem to have been medieval Lesbians- and looking at the way that both the Church and courts approached them reveals the deeply sexist orientation of medieval society. Women just couldn't be evil because they were recipients, not aggressors, in the world.

What it also reveals I think is that something about the subject of human nature- lesbianism is natural to human beings- but the forms, particularly the emotional forms it takes, change with societal change. That movement is a movement between artificial constructs to express a natural reality- Carlini's experience of Lesbianism was a different expression of an underlying emotion that she shares with Jodie Foster. They might say different things and feel different things- but the underlying thing they share is an attraction to women.


jmb said...

What a really interesting article, especially highlighting the penances for Lesbian acts. There is nothing new under the sun.

James Higham said...

That comment was deleted because a paragraph was misplaced. Here is the text:

The great difficulty is that the style of language used by Paul was far harsher than that used by Jesus.

Where Paul wrote [showing the thing had great antiquity indeed]:

for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another

... I suspect Jesus Himself would have couched it in terms more fatherly.

This has been unfortunate, the Paulian example and so many of a like nature, sternly disapproving, have set the image of the Christian as a gauche red neck.

I'm sure the Good Lord would not wish to be advertised in this manner but rather as an all-seeing father figure - as many children remember their own fathers whom they adored.

The evidence that he can zap out a city with a thunderbolt does not kill that love - it would make a child feel more secure somehow.

The parallel is striking and it is far from your "why does the view of the tyrant in the sky make any difference" comment.

We can all be selective of text and construct an image from fragments but is that image all inclusive - i.e. inclusive of all aspects of that Person available for consideration?

Even a consideration of Adolph Hitler takes into account his social reconstruction in Germany.

There is a humanistic tradition though to ascribe only the worst features to G-d and to deftly sidestep or skip over the groundwork of altruism, the love of mankind which is also apparent from the available data.

I suggest that true scholarship takes not only this into account but also the metaphysical world as well as that of the rationalist philosophers.

All of it exists out there.

Coming back to "unnatural", I define this as different to that which was biologically determined. Where does a homosexual stand in this?

There is a vast gulf between private individuals and a Rainbow Army, as there surely is between the average Muslim and Al Qaeda/Iran.

In this respect religion and politics should not mix - the former is a private matter. Similarly, homosexuality is a private matter between you and your Maker.

On the question of the rejection of the concept of Maker - that's another post.


Gracchi said...

Cheers JMB.

James I suggest we keep the discussion of God and morality on your blog- because otherwise I won't know who has said what where!

As to your point about natural emotions- I am not sure what else natural means save for naturally or spontaneously occurring. Lesbianism for me is just somewhere people start from- its a place from which people are moral. As you rightly say, the greatest claim of Christianity is that morality is love- what I have never understood is why that love is only the love of a man for a woman- and not a woman for a woman or a man for a man, or to put another way why a Lesbian love could not illuminate the lives of those who live with it in the same way as a heterosexual love.

Gracchi said...

But anyway such theological or ethical discussions are a long way from what actually happened in the past- this post is a historical one and very tangentially concerned with that that is normative.

Unless you have a better definition of natural though, can we at least rule out the argument that lesbianism is not natural.

Anonymous said...

I feel compelled to make a few comments on the biblical and ethical debates (rather reluctantly). Jesus generally I would say uses much tougher language than Paul (nothing Pauls says really compares with “better for them he should not have lived” and makes tougher comments on sex (“any man who looks at a women with lust in his heart that man commits adultery” etc). And it’s just as compatible to find some forms of love don’t meet the fullness of love of gold for homosexual relationships as incestrious one- or are they mysteriously exempted from the fullness of love?

Great piece a few comments a) From a brief read of the piece it strikes me the former comment is not necessarily homosexual (the one it begins) lots of cultures (though not c ontemporary anglo Saxons ) have deeply emotional terms for single sex non sexual relationships. Even the turtle dove comment while suggestive does not strike me as necessarily conclusive (are there comparative comparisions with other semi-contemporary documents?). This is yet another difficult aspect of such history- it’s very easy to read the innuendos of today into the past (Or other cultures today) -this can be completely foolish and it’s very hard to tell what is what in the past.

It strikes me this area is one where history could benefit from soci-biology and particularly from cross cultural study today. This can give some guidelines for the biological roots of lesbianism (which I’m sure exist as with all human sexual behaviour) and thus to reading difficult cultural signs.

The Geneva case mentioned- the judge who heard incidentally is notorious for being very sceptical of witchcraft accusations as well as his tough line on this.

Finally I think it’s worth emphasising how much the notions of women as fundamentally passive recipients both in sexual intercourse and behaviour in general owes to Aristole and even more Aristolean science/ philosophy developed from his writings.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting indeed...what is the source for the quote at the beginning? I'm researching a book about the Middle Ages, and I'd find it really helpful to be able to follow up on it! Many thanks, CEF.

Gracchi said...

Anon- sorry for not replying earlier. The source is the article concerned in the Handbook of Medieval sexuality. Unfortunatley I can't lay my hands on my copy- when I do I promise to put the actual cite underneath this article or you can email me (the email address is in the blog description) and I'll send it to you.