As we in the UK approach next month’s 50th anniversary of the partial discrimination of male homosexuality it is easy to forget that in other countries female homosexuality was a crime as well. Ever since King Henry VIII forced through the 1533 Buggery Act there has been no official condemnation of lesbian activity in England and Wales. The same cannot be said of other nations during the same period.
There have been a number
of academic studies of female sexuality and court cases involving accusations
of lesbianism in recent years. Unfortunately, there is less detailed
information of many of these cases because of different attitudes towards
female sexuality generally over time and across Europe. Records also show a
wide variety of punishments given to convicted female sodomites, as lesbians
are referred to in these records.
Many studies centre on the
late medieval and early modern period, roughly corresponding to the early years
of the Reformation and the expansion of Protestantism. Before we go further it
should be pointed out that the laws and punishments were given out by the civil
authorities not the church, either Catholic or Protestant. As with today’s
legislation it is the politicians not the clergy that make laws. That’s not to
say that the church had no influence, but there is little if no evidence that
the Church punished male or female sodomy during the period we are looking at.
If they were it was because they were found guilty of heresy not sodomy. Their
power to punish was gradually removed by the civil authorities until they were
Medieval Catholic prelates
and philosophers had always written about same-sex activity but had
concentrated on what men do. Relatively little was written about what women do.
This is partly to do with the medieval attitude to women in general. The world
was much more male-dominated than we think it is today. Sex was considered as
an action a man has with a woman or another man. It was a phallocentric world
where women were the objects of sexual activity, on the receiving end of sex.
After all, medieval men reasoned, women didn’t have the necessary physical
appendage for sex!
What is remarkable,
however, is that some medieval writers mention the existence of what we would
now term intersex females, though these writers seem to regard these as
belonging to “foreign” or “exotic” nations, not European.
Although such religious
luminaries as St. Paul, the Venerable Bede and St. Thomas Aquinas included
female same-sex activity in their definitions of sodomy there were few actual
laws against it, unlike male sodomy. It was, however, covered quite
comprehensively in the rules of female enclosed religious orders – convents,
nunneries, and so on. In the 13th century several Catholic Councils issued some
principals that were intended to prevent female same-sex activities in these
orders. These principals included prohibiting nuns from sharing beds, not
visiting each other’s cells at night, and having lamps lit throughout the night
in dormitories. The only punishments seems to have been penance before the
altar. For women outside religious communities the civic authorities imposed
In places like Orléans
(France), Treviso (Venetian Republic) and Bamberg (Germany) laws against female
sodomy were passed. In Portugal from 1499 and the Holy Roman Empire from 1532
female sodomy was punishable by death. Among the very few women recorded to
have been executed for same-sex activity were Katherina Hetfeldorfer in Speyer
(a Free Imperial City) in 1477, and Françoise Morel in Geneva in 1568.
The area of present
Benelux, the Low Countries, was the most vigorous in arresting and punishing
sodomites of all genders during the 15th and 16th centuries. Almost 300 people
were tried in the civil courts of which 25 were women. Of those 25 women 15
were executed. In several cities as many as 5 or 6 women were executed on the
One explanation put
forward as to why the medieval Low Countries were so keen to punish sodomites
was the relative freedom its female citizens enjoyed compared to the rest of
Europe. Women had access to the same education as men, and the same employment
opportunities. Many women joined trade guilds and had independent incomes. As a
result they had no need to find a husband in their teenage years to provide
stability. They could marry later, in their 20s, and in the Low Countries many
women did just that. This meant there were fewer women available for young men
to marry, and fewer opportunities for sex. What else could either gender do but
be celibate into their 20s or have situational sex with someone of their own
gender? It’s an interesting theory.
The case of medieval Low
Countries is an exception in the history of the persecution of female same-sex
activity. The idea that women “don’t do that sort of thing” prevailed until
well into the early 20th century. People often say that lgbt heritage is hidden
history. The records of lesbians and female same-sex attraction is even more so
and those studies looking at the court cases of medieval women helps to bring
them into the open.