ADDRESSING THE ISSUE OF LESBIANISM IN A GENERAL COURSE ON WOMEN IN THE MIDDLE AGES
Medieval Feminist Newsletter, Volume 13, Issue 1 (1992) Spring 1992
I taught “Women in the Middle Ages” as an advanced seminar, available for credit towards an undergraduate minor or a graduate concentration in Women’s Studies. The course was divided into three sections: love, marriage, and divorce; women in the Church; and witchcraft and heresy. I decided to address the question of homosexuality most directly in the context of the third section, although naturally it also came up during the other two parts of the course.
Finding materials, especially materials accessible to students without foreign language skills or background in medieval studies, was the biggest problem. I finally decided to use Judith Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford, 1986). Even though it is not about the Middle Ages, it does offer some historical background about medieval attitudes toward homoerotic relations between women, citing literary texts, legal codes, and other evidence; and it provides a text from which to raise the whole question of how to define “lesbianism” in the context of medieval society, what to look for in the historical record, and so on.