Wouldn’t it be nice of historians agreed on everything? Sadly, politics, prejudice and (quite often) personalities get in the way. This has been the case since the down of historiography. Queer interpretations are often open to criticism, as illustrated when I’ve written about historical people being outed.
A historical figure to be given a queer identity recently is a little-known saint from a little-known (though not insignificant, with almost 36 million worshippers) Christian church. The saint lived in 17th century Ethiopia but her hagiography (saint biography) wasn’t widely available until it was first translated and published in 1912.
The saint is called Walatta Petros (1592-1642). This is an English transliteration of her name in her native Ge’ez language and means “Daughter of Peter” (St. Peter). She was born into an aristocratic, land-owning family. Her family were courtiers of the Negusa Nagast (or King of Kings, I’ll use the title emperor) of Ethiopia. Walatta Petros was briefly married as a young girl to a man who was killed by the emperor. Shortly after 1607 she was married again to one of the imperial counsellors and they had three children. Sadly, all three children died in infancy, and afterwards Walatta Petros decided to become a nun.
|Portrait of Walatta Petros from a manuscript located in one of her monasteries, 1716-21.|
Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian nations in Africa, adhering to the Coptic faith founded in the 3rd century. Over the centuries, as with other beliefs, factions and sects broke away from the main church. The church to which Walatta Petros worshipped is now called the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which was granted separate status from the Coptic Church in the 4th century at about the same time that the Roman Empire became Christian.
Portuguese Jesuit missionaries of the Roman Catholic Church went to Ethiopia in the 15th century to convert the country to Catholicism. The emperor was converted but there was unrest in the country as he attempted to ban and persecute the Coptic and Orthodox churches and Walatta Petros’s husband was sent to fight the “rebels”. Tewahedo priests helped Walatta Petros to leave her husband and join them in their monastery.
Shortly afterwards her husband led an attack on “rebels” in the town surrounding the monastery. Walatta Petros refused to return to her husband to stop the attack. She did, however, return to her home, only to find that her husband supported the murder of the Tewahedo patriarch (archbishop). That was the final straw, and she devoted the rest of her life to her faith from 1617.
Walatta Petros and the Tewahedo clergy protested against their persecution. She was summoned before the emperor twice charged with preaching orthodoxy and treason. Her family persuaded the emperor not to execute her and she was banished for three years.
From 1621 Walatta Petros founded several communities for Tewahedo worshippers who wanted to get away from the Catholic persecution. She became their spiritual leader and abbess. The emperor eventually accepted religious diversity and restored Orthodoxy as the national faith. He then abdicated.
Walatta Patros died at the age of 50 in 1642. She became one of the few female worshippers to be regarded as a saint in the Tewahedo Orthodox Church.
So, where does the controversy over her life come in? It’s all due to what a Tewahedo monk wrote in her hagiography in 1672. Most obviously, there’s a section which recounts a scene from Walatta Petros’s life in which she accidentally encounters a group of nuns having sex. She is very angry at seeing this. This has been a focus for debate ever since the hagiography was first published. Some historians and religious figures have taken the words literally while others have taken them metaphorically.
Medieval hagiographies often had allegorical and metaphorical stories of saints fighting against various temptations, whether in the form of monsters or people. In the case of Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” it is accepted that it was a real event in her life. But a more recent debate/controversy puts the lustful nuns into the shadows.
In 2005, an authority on Ethiopian Christian Orthodoxy, Sevir Černecov, in the last article published in his lifetime, became the first to suggest a non-gender-conforming nature to Walatta Petros’s life. This was picked up by several American historians, in particular Dr. Wendy Belcher of Princeton University who gave a series of lectures in 2014 which went further to suggest that Walatts Petros had a romantic, non-sexual relationship with her companion, a fellow nun called Ehata Kristos.
You can imagine the criticism from the Tewahedo and other Orthodox churches. Historians, too, expressed disagreement, as they often do with queer history, as much as any priest. One historian took a particularly critical view of Wendy Belcher’s lectures and her subsequent publication about the Walatta Petros hagiography. Dr. Belcher makes it clear in the lengthy introduction to her book that interpretations of past events and the words used when translating foreign languages, such as the Ge’ez language that the original hagiography is written in, is challenging.
Last year Dr. Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes of Curtin University, Australia, and an authority on Ethiopian history, published an article (at 90 pages long it’s more of a mini thesis) in which he criticised Wendy Belcher and her collaborator Michael Kleiner for not attempting to understand the Ge’ez language, or at least not knowing the language well enough to translate and interpret the original hagiography properly. He also accused them of deliberate racist and sexualisation of Walatta Petros’s life.
Belcher and Kleiner both wrote responses to Woldeyes’ attack on them, for that’s how his criticism reads. Their responses are both published on Dr. Belcher’s website here and here and go into more detail about the relationship between Walatta Petros and Ehata Kristos.
The relationship between the two women has never identified as a sexual one by Dr. Belcher, despite claims by Dr. Woldeyes. History is full of non-sexual romantic same-sex partnerships. The most well-known version is the Boston Marriage, a term used to describe female companions who lived together, so-called because there were several such romantic female couples living in and around Boston, USA, in the 19th century. Within historical monastic communities, whether male or female, non-sexual partnerships are known (St. Francis of Assisi, for example). Encounters like Walatta Petros and the “lustful nuns” are relatively rare.
The fact that Walatta Petros fell in love with another woman and remained celibate seems difficult for some in the sex-obsessed world of modern lgbt culture to understand. The lgbt community, people of faith, and critics of religion should stop equating love with sex – the medieval Christian Church did, why can’t they?