Fourteenth-century courtly society may have been more intolerant of ‘sodomitical acts’ than earlier in the Middle Ages, with sodomites, traitors and heretics now bracketed together as deadly sinners. By contrast, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a unique tradition of passionate Christian friendship developed in clerical writing. Friendship was seen as the highest form of human relationship, helping you to learn how to know and love God. And these friendships could have a consciously erotic element to them.
The twelfth-century nun St Hildegard of Bingen is best known today for her intellectual talents: as a visionary and mystic, as a theologian and Biblical exegete, as a musical composer and scientific writer, and even as a popular public preacher and respected papal correspondent, in an age when women were ordered, as St Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 14. 34, to ‘keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak’. For around a decade, Hildegard had an extremely close friendship with another woman in her convent, Richardis of Stade. Its exact nature continues to puzzle her biographers. Erotic love and spiritual desire can be very difficult to separate in a medieval context, especially in a medieval monastery whose inhabitants were all dedicated to spiritual service, love and prayer.
In his famous study, 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, 1981), John Boswell highlights the erotic verse letters written from one woman to another found in a twelfth-century manuscript from Tegernsee in Bavaria. The writer declares:
I love you above all else,
You alone are my love and desire;
Another letter begins:
To G., her singular rose,
From A.-the bonds of precious love.
What is my strength, that I should bear it?
That I should have patience in your absence?
Would these women have seen their desires as a transgression of their vows of celibacy? Or would they be seen as an expression of spiritual love?
Same-sex female sexual activity was not discussed in detail by medieval manuals of sin and penitence, although such acts were still classed as sodomitical sins contra naturam. The seventh-century archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, prescribed three years of penance for women fornicating with other women. An Italian legist in the early fourteenth century, Cino da Pistoia, puts his finger on exactly why lesbianism was considered an offence to the social order. He interpreted the ancient imperial Roman edict of lex foedissimam (‘laws of wickedness’) as a condemnation of ‘women who exercise their lust on other women and pursue them like men [italics added]’.
For Cino, just like the critics of Edward II and his friendships, the problem was men and women who acted ‘out of kind’, ignoring or undermining the natural boundaries that God had set for human relations.
Edith Benkov has discussed the legal implications of this idea in a recent essay. In 1405, the king of France granted a royal pardon to a married peasant woman named Laurence. Laurence had been imprisoned following the exposure of her affair with another married woman, Jehane. As Laurence describes it, Jehane had asked Laurence to be her sweetheart (‘mie’). Laurence did not see anything evil (‘mal’) in the request, a defence that would be used again by women accused of homosexual relations. After her surprise at Jehane’s sexual advances, the two would regularly meet, with Jehane doing ‘what a man does to a woman’. After Laurence sought to end the relationship, Jehane attacked her with a knife.
Laurence’s appeal may have been successful because it is Jehane (in this telling of the story) who took on the ‘male’, active and dominant role in the relationship. It is Jehane, not Laurence, who truly transgressed against the supposed natural order of things. We don’t actually know what happened to Jehane, or even why the case originally came to court and on what charges. But this record, possibly the earliest known criminal trial for lesbianism in Europe, shows us that female love did exist, even if it was rarely spoken about. In the Romance of the Rose, Guillaume de Lorris describes:
‘Two very charming maidens with their hair in a single braid and dressed only in their tunics […] but I need not say how beautifully they danced: one would approach the other very elegantly, and when they were close together, their lips would touch in such a way that you might have thought they were kissing one another’s faces. They knew well how to sway in the dance. I cannot describe it to you […]’
‘I need not say’. ‘I cannot describe it’. If male homosexuality was ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ in the Middle Ages, lesbianism may have been the love that others didn’t dare speak about. Especially at court.
Edith Benkov, ‘The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe’ in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn, ed. Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (Palagrave Macmillan, New York, 2001), pp.101-122.
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, Chicago, 1981)
Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn, ‘Introduction: Charting the Field’ in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn, ed. Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (Palagrave Macmillan, New York, 2001), pp.1-48.