By Catherine Tideswell
There are countless practical issues surrounding the study of women and their sexuality during the Middle Ages. An unfortunate fact is that the majority of contemporary sources available from this period were written, compiled or transcribed by men. It can, as such, be incredibly difficult to detect the medieval women’s voice. A more appropriate question therefore might be how far the clerical men who authored these texts recognised lesbianism in medieval society? When orchestrating such research, there is the ever imminent danger of answering other questions altogether, such as ‘Were there lesbians in medieval society?’ Applying “lesbian”, a modern term and a modern identity, with many connotations relevant only to this period, is committing an anachronism. It is, arguably, not entirely scholarly and is rather counterproductive. With for instance, “sodomy” being such a complex term during the Middle Ages, it is dangerous to make any assumptions about labelled sexual identities, or to be candid in the use of modern terminologies. The term ‘lesbian-like’ coined and developed by Judith Bennett, or the category ‘female sodomy’ used by Helmut Puff, offer perhaps, more encompassing more valuable alternatives for the purpose of this investigation.
The primary objective of this essay is not to debate or provide discourse on whether or not women who today might be labelled lesbians existed in the Middle Ages. It will instead provide an analysis of medieval religious writing and secular legislation, as well as art, in an attempt to determine the degree to which same sex relations or “lesbian-like” behaviours were acknowledged within these sources. This essay will also discuss the nature of these sources and whether they provide a realistic reflection of medieval society.
James Brundage correctly states, “Christian authorities from the beginning of the church’s history have been concerned about the sexual conduct of its members”. In particular these authorities have been concerned with the issue of perceived sexual transgressions. The Bible as well as other various religious scriptures clearly recognised male same sex relations, and considered them illicit , “Leviticus 11:22 and 20:12, alongside Deuteronomy 22:5 and 23:18, expressly forbade male homosexuality, cultic cross-dressing and prostitution”.  There are far fewer religious sources from this period that deal with “female sodomy”.
A penitential was a catalogue like collection of sins or transgressions, with details of the tariff that should be imposed in the ecclesiastical administration of penance. Penitentials are often explicit for which reason they were edited in the past or disregarded as sources by some historians. Arguably, the motivation behind the explicit nature of penitentials was that they were intended to account for most sexual crimes conceivable. The majority of penitentials deal with sexual crimes such as sodomy or adultery. However, both the penitential of Theodore and the penitential of Bede refer, unusually, to female same sex relations.
In the penitential of Theodore a woman “who ‘practices vice with a woman’ is assigned three years of penance, as opposed to four years for a man who has sex with a married woman or ten years for a man who has sex with a man”. It is clear from this that although included, female same sex relations were not deemed as serious a sin as adultery or even male same sex relations. The penitential of Bede stipulates, three years [penance] for a married man who has sex with a married woman, four years for “sodomy” (undefined), three years for “ a woman fornicating with a woman,” and seven years for “ nuns with a nun by means of an instrument”.  It is interesting that the penitential stipulates a “married man” having sex with “a married woman” rather than the reverse. This might be seen to highlight the perception of woman as passive in sexual relations and suggests why any deviance from this type of female behaviour was considered abnormal. Bede’s penitential offers an insight into concerns surrounding female sexual transgression. Firstly, the transgressors position within society, their social standing, for example as “nuns”. Who the females were in the community seems to have made a difference to the perceived seriousness of the crime, while a differing social status of women led to prosecution. Furthermore, here as well as in secular trials the use of an “instrument” seems crucial to the seriousness of the crime. The two penitentials shown, demonstrate to a certain extent that female same sex relations were recognised as a theoretical possibility. To have been deemed worthy of an allocation of penance there must have been some belief it might one day be required. Penitentials reflected feared sins, but it is difficult to know whether the men who authored these texts had first-hand experience of there occurrence.
Documented trials and secular legislation can prove useful in the study of persecuted or marginalised members of society. Record of the arrest, or trials of women for same sex relations are very rare especially when compared to the number of trails for male sodomy. Only 12 cases of female same sex relations have been found by historians “for the entire medieval period”. However, the cases that remain make for an interesting study into the recognition given to female same sex relations. Until the Constituto Criminalis Carolina there does not appear to be any secular European legislation acknowledging or forbidding female same sex relations, this did not prevent the prosecution of several women.  One trial in 1477, in the imperial city of Speyer, was that of Katherina Hetzeldorfer’s.  It is a very interesting case through which to study the recognition of female same sex relations in this period. Her trial, as historians have noted, “is given no name in the proceedings”. The crime being nameless “indicates that there was no established legal discourse in the vernacular for same-sex activities [between women]”.  Alternatively, it could be indicative of a desire not to give female same sex relations legislative recognition.
Karras claims that the medieval understanding of sex was something “that one person did to another, by penetrating him or her”. This perhaps is why Hetzeldorfer’s case received notice from authorities. Katherina was accused of using an instrument, “and at last with the piece of wood that she held between her legs to the extent”.  Therefore her behaviour might have been recognised as sex. The act would have thus been considered a subversion of gender roles, “their investigation focused almost entirely on how Katherina Hetzeldorfer was able to embody a masculine role…”.  The trial accounts reference to Katherina as “having her manly way”. Katherina’s blatant deviation in behaviour from that of social convention is possibly why she was executed.
The court records from this trial offer dialogue which is multidimensional, in so much that there are statements from the witness.  The witness Else pleads ignorance to knowledge of Katherina being a woman. Thus it could be argued that this case demonstrates a lack of recognition for female same sex relations, from a female. There is clearly an acknowledgement of the use of an instrument between two women but with one adopting the male role, a recognition of female eroticism on male terms. If nothing else cases such as Katherina’s, as Puff would say caused “female homoeroticism to penetrate the male sphere”.
Art can be overlooked as a historical source. It is a very different medium through which to engage with medieval society, compared to administrative records such as trials. Figure 1, shows a fascinating and rare example of female intimacy depicted in art and appears in a moralized Bible.  The feature of a moralized Bible which differentiates it from others, is that each illuminated scene from the Bible is coupled with another giving [the scenes] moral meaning”.
The illumination in figure 1, is partnered with the “temptation of Eve by the serpent”.  The moralized scene involves devils encouraging two same gendered couples to kiss.
Figure 1 
This moralization represents sins of the mouth. Karras observes neither couple is in bed, however, she did not note the fabric like aura surrounding both couples and that in the background which appears to be being held up by devil like characters. It emphasizes the couples as being separate from each other and might suggest a need for privacy. In addition, the male couple features in the foreground and the female behind. This composition reiterates the subordination of women, even to sinful men. However, it is worth observing that although both couples embrace, it appears that the female couple is the only couple actively engaging in kissing. Despite this however, unlike the male figures there is negative space between their bodies. Perhaps this was the artist’s attempt at reflecting female intimacy without over sexualisation. Alternatively, it might have been a deliberate way to emphasise the femininity of their bodies.
This artwork depicts female intimacy but does not necessarily reflect an acknowledgement of female sex relations in medieval society. It is a reflection that its creator, wished to show that male and female same sex relations were a sin of the mouth. It appears, given where it is featured, it might be a demonstration of a theoretical concern rather than a practical reflection of society.
The memorial brass below, signifys an acknoledgement by three parties within medieval society of a female same sex relationship, and is truly fascinating. The brass was laid in the fifteenth century and features Elizabeth Etchingham on the lefthandside and Agnus Oxenbridge on the right. Etchingham died in 1452 preceding Oxenbridge, who died in 1480.  The brass which measures only two feet in height is situated in Elizabeth Etchingham’s church. This initself is interesting as for Oxenbridge to have a memorial in Etchinghams church, would have required the permision of both womens brothers. The fact both parties evidently agreed, demonstrates an acknowledgement of their relationship by both of the womens brothers. Perhaps surprising given quite so many years had passed before Oxenbride died. The diffence in the ages of the diseased might be the reason for the difference in height and hairstyle. They are dressed in identical attire, perhaps a way signifying the closeness of their relationship. Furthermore, the woman are depicted turning facing towards each other in semi profile, something memorials of married couples did not do and adding a level of intimacy. The London workshop which created this brass may have had some motivation for the womens composition but this is not certain.
What is clear is that this brass demonstrates a regognision of a “lesbian-like” relationship. It is as such an important source on female same sex relations in the Middle Ages. The brass was, importantly, a public acknowledgement and is significant even without knowing irrefutably whether or not their relationship was a sexual one.
In conclusion, the sources discussed demonstrate different and varying degrees of recognition of female same sex relationships during the medieval period. Religious writings and imagery acknowledge the theoretical possibility of a more sexualised type of “lesbian-like” behaviour. Secular legislation demonstrates to a point, recognition of females engaging in “lesbian-like” behaviours which subverted gender roles. Lastly, two families demonstrated recognition of a female same sex relationship, which could be considered “lesbian- like”. However, it is difficult to assess whether society en masse recognised “lesbian-like” females, as sources written or created by members of the peasantry and non-elite groups do not survive. Historians cannot know for certain how these groups regarded and interpreted these women. Unfortunately, sources that exist are, dominantly, from a male perspective and the perspective of the medieval female on this subject is sadly lacking.
 An example of a male transcription of what was reportedly a women’s dictation, is the ‘Trotula’.
 “One of the problems of studying homosexuality in the Middle Ages is the question of whether homosexuals (or gay people) existed then.” Percy, W and Johansson W ‘Homosexuality’ In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 1996, p.8.
 “No medieval term can be translated as lesbian without a string of caveats.” Karras, Ruth Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2012, p.139.
 Sodomy in the Middle Ages constituted anything from masturbation and anal sex to having sex in a position other than what we might be called missionary. “…heterosexual fellatio, cunnilingus, or anal intercourse for example might be classed as sodomy…” Brundage, J ‘Sex and Canon Law.’ In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor &Francis Group, 1996, p.43.
 For Bennett, “lesbian-like” includes women who have the opportunity for same sex love (such as nuns) and women who resisted convention (such as single women)”. J. Bennett, “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnus Oxenbridge.” In: Giffrey, N Saver, M and Watt, D eds. Lesbian Pre-modern. London: Palgrave, 2011, p.140.
 Brundage, J ‘Sex and Canon Law.’ In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. p.33.
 Percy, W and Johansson, W ‘Homosexuality’ In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. p.160.
 Payer, P ‘Confessions and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages.’ In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Abingdon: Routledge Taylor &Francis Group, 1996, p.4.
 This was due to certain historian’s sensibilities about commenting on medieval sexual activities.
 Provision was made for which penance to proscribe if ever faced with such sexual transgressions. However, the very extensive nature of penitentials has led some to question its usefulness as a source for uncovering everyday life and to know whether they a truly representative of medieval society.
 “The Rheims Penitential has sixteen canons against male homosexuality….”. Prayer, “Confessions”. In: Bullough, V Brundage, J ed. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, p.8.
 Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.140.
 Adultery was a serious issue as in an inheritance based society no one could afford questions over paternity.
 Interestingly we are not told what constituted fornication and it may be a mistake to assume this was overtly sexual contact rather than embracing or kissing. Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.141.
 Katherina Güildin case. Puff, H ‘Localizing Sodomy: The ‘Priest and the Sodomite in Pre-Reformation Germany and Switzerland’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol.8 (October 1997), p. 50.
 “There are almost none in Southern Europe – at the same time there were thousands of accusations of sodomy involving men- and just a handful in the cites of Northern Europe.” Chojnacka, Monica and Wiesner- Hanks, M Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: Sources in European Social History 1400-1750. London: Pearson Education, 2002, p.64.
 Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.141.
 “Article 116 of the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina from 1532, the empress criminal law code for centuries to come was one of the few codes to criminalize impurity among me and women.” Puff, H ‘Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477) ’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Vol.30 (Winter 2000), pp.41-61.
 Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.42.
 Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.42.
 It is important to note the term sodomy is not used. Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.46.
 Indeed, “Etienne de Fougѐres (d. 1178), in his’ Livre des Maniѐres’, depicts sex between women as more ridiculous that sinful because of the lack of the phallus”. Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.141.
 Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.46.
 Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.46.
 Interestingly Else, who engaged in relations with Katherina was exiled unlike Katherina who was drowned.
Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.46. This may be due to Else maintaining passivity during the trial coupled with her attempt to appear naïve to the situation. She would not, therefore, have been as threating to male society. It is also interesting to note that Katherina was drowned, an execution method usually reserved for women as it was considered degrading.
 A female Else.
 It is impossible to know whether this is true.
 Puff ‘Female Sodomy, ’ p.46.
 Karras does note that sometimes it is difficult to be positive on the gender of those featured in medieval art.
 Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.139.
 Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.139.
 Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.139.
 “Moralised Bible Osterneische Nationalbibliothek, codex Vindbonesis, 2554, fol. 2 detail. From “1220- 30.” Karras Sexuality in Medieval Europe, p.139.
 Eve sinned with her mouth by eating the forbidden fruit and the female their lips to kiss and engage in what was deemed sinful behaviour and the male couple seem as though they will do so to.
 The devil-like figures are enabling and encouraging this intimacy by veiling the couples.
 Karras does not comment on the fact that one of the male figures has a tonsure and would certainly to a modern, or even perhaps to a medieval observer, appear to be a monk. This also seems a possibility due to his dress. It would be interesting to know whether the female couple’s attire might be considered similar to that of certain medieval female orders.
 Possibly a reiteration of female weakness compared to males as it is supposed to reflect Eve’s temptation. Therefore, it would be make sense for the female couple to succumb before the male.
 This might be because sodomy amongst men was far more acknowledged than “female sodomy”.
 Bennett, “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnus Oxenbridge.” In : Giffrey, N Saver, M and Watt, D eds. Lesbian Pre-modern. p.133.
 “In the Church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas in Etchingham.” J. Bennett, “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnus Oxenbridge.” In Giffrey, N Saver, M and Watt, D eds. Lesbian Pre-modern. London: Palgrave, 2011, p.131.
 Their hair is significant also in that both have “uncovered heads”, usually symbolic of maidens not married women. Bennett, “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnus Oxenbridge.” In : Giffrey, N Saver, M and Watt, D eds. Lesbian Pre-modern. p.133.
 Maybe it was to show a difference between their relationship and that of a married couple.
 Bennett, “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnus Oxenbridge.” In: Giffrey, N Saver, M and Watt, D eds. Lesbian Pre-modern. p.134
 An example of this being cross-dressing.
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