The unfortunate fact is that one of the best sources of detailed information on pre-modern same-sex eroticism comes from legal records when those relationships came under scrutiny either by religious or secular authorities. This not only means that those case histories often are accompanied by tragic fates or at least unhappy ends, but it means that we can get an image of the participants as viewing their own experiences negatively.
Marina de San Miguel was eventually bullied into labeling her erotic experiences as sin and heresy, the result of having been misled and tempted by the devil. But if we read past and beyond the text on the page, we get a glimpse of a religious community that considered "free love"--including homosexual relationships--to lie outside of the question of sin or innocence. The Alumbrados were certainly not the first or only religious sect to take this view. I wouldn't hold up the Alumbrados as any sort of enlightened philosophy--it had its deeply peculiar aspects as much as any other religious philosophy--but beliefs such as theirs provide an interesting counterpoint to the common belief that homosexuality was universally condemned by those considering themselves Christians.
Holler, Jacqueline. 1999. “’More Sins than the Queen of England’: Marina de San Miguel before the Mexican Inquisition” in Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World, ed. Mary E. Giles. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-5931-X pp.209-28
In 1599 in Mexico City, a 54 year old Dominican “beata” concluded her confession to the Inquisition by indicating she had nothing more to say “even though she might have more sins than the queen of England”. Marina de San Miguel was accused of heresy (specifically the “alumbrado” heresy) but also that she was considered a “holy woman” by her neighbors, known for her visions and raptures, that she acted as a prophet and mystic, and that she had engaged in sexual misconduct, “so abominable and lewd that even the devil himself would be offended by [her actions]”--a charge that Marina’s own testimony supported.
[Note: The connection between heresy and sexual transgressions had a long history at this point. One need only point out that the word “bugger” in its sexual sense was a corruption of “Bulgar” in reference to a heresy attributed to Bulgaria.]
The connection of these three themes is not coincidental. For the Inquisition, they presented a seamless and coherent case. Rapturous visions were strongly associated with the alumbrado heresy, as was sexual license. But these features also demonstrate both the potential advantages and delicate balance of the life of a beata. Because of her reputation for holiness, Marina enjoyed an important position in her community and held authority among her religious peers. Her position also gave her a context for enjoying her sensual desires. But those benefits only existed so long as the legal authorities took no notice.
The article gives a detailed history and context for the Inquisition in New Spain, which I won’t summarize. In general, Inquisitors were concerned narrowly with inhabitants of European origin, not those of native ethnicity, and covered an enormous geographic scope. Due to the temporal scope of the Inquisition in the New World, they were more concerned with intra-Catholic religious doctrine than with the pursuit of crypto-Jews or outright heretics, although those were concerns as well. Investigations of heresy were far less common than trials for bigamy, blasphemy, superstition, and witchcraft. But beginning in 1598, there was a concerted action against an organized, clandestine cell of alumbrado heretics in New Spain, which included Marina de San Miguel.
Marina was born in Spain to a reasonably well-off middle-class family, some of whom had New World connections, and her biography is typical of Spanish immigrants to New Spain. As a child, her father moved the family there for the financial opportunities. Having earned “something to live on” they returned to Spain and squandered the money. Marina was more interested in spiritual matters and at 16 took a vow of chastity in the convent of La Merced in Seville. That is, she became a beata, but not a nun. She had more freedom of choice in where she lived and the nature of her vows, as well as how she might earn her living. But she had committed not to marry and was expected to engage in a spiritual life. These freedoms also involved hazards if one were considered to have gone astray.
Due to financial considerations, Marina’s family returned to Mexico. Her mother died and her father wanted her out of the way so he could re-marry. Mexico City had few options for cloistered nuns, which required a substantial dowry for entrance, but life as a beata was an option, just as it was in Spain. Marina was sent to the Colegio de las Niñas (College of the Girls) which was not quite a convent, but at least was a placement outside the home, but this was no longer an option after her father killed his wife’s lover and fled to Peru. Marina went to live with a tradeswoman and then later took a house with her sister where they earned a living sewing and teaching girls. After that they took lodgings with a wealthy patron who became Marina’s spiritual advisor. Their father died and Marina used her inheritance to buy a house in that same wealthy neighborhood, where she took in lodgers. At the time of Marina’s inquisition, she testified that she had been living there for thirteen years.
Marina was well-educated and religiously observant. She had achieved financial independence. So why did she come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition?
The role of the beata in the community had a lot of latitude. Marina’s personal reputation came in part from being a sort of spiritual social worker, providing counseling to neighbors with medical or psychiatric concerns. But Marina’s own life included visions, trances, and episodes involving physical manifestations of religious experiences. This seems to have enhanced her reputation as a holy woman in her community, though there were occasional concerns that she profited from the “gifts” given her in exchange for her services.
Relations between men and women in the context of mysticism fell into some regular patterns. Female mystics might enjoy guidance, support, and protection from male patrons while those patrons gained access to an “exciting realm of direct revelation.” Such relations were not necessarily suspect with regard to sexuality.
The alumbrado heresy was not a coherent belief system, but more of a mystical tradition. [Note: This article assumes familiarity with the topic, but Wikipedia linked above supplies the information that it involved belief in the ability to perfect the soul such that it could comprehend the essence of God without need for mediation. Those in this state had no need of sacraments and were incapable of sin. They could fulfill any desires, including sexual ones, without risk to their souls.] The late 16th century alumbrado group in Mexico involved both men and women in roughly equal numbers. Marina was, perhaps, typical in her experience. She felt she had a direct link to God which enabled her to prophesize and dispense God’s favor.
But Marina was not an oblivious innocent in dealing with the Inquisition. She was very cautious in what she confessed, and admitted to next to nothing that would condemn her. She did indicate that she received “gifts” and visions during her trances but initially seemed to rely on her questioners accepting her sanctity. However, two months after her initial questioning, she requested an audience and reported that she felt the need to make confession of her sins.
She had experienced a temptation of the flesh, she said, and had performed “dishonest acts with her own hands in her shameful parts” at the urging of the devil who had come to her in the form of an angel and in the form of Christ. In this, she echoed the testimony of other religious women with ecstatic sexual experiences, including Bendetta Carlini. Marina also testified that her relationship with her spiritual sponsor had been carnal as well, including tongue-kissing, fondling of the breasts and genitals, though not intercourse. And they would discuss these experiences as being part of God’s will.
She had engaged in hugging and kissing with another man who lived with her, and recalled feeling desire for him to touch her breasts, but had not done that with him. And she recounted an erotic relationship with another beata, deceased by that time, with whom she had engaged in kissing, hugging, fondling of the breasts, and with whom “she came to pollution ten or twelve times, twice in the church.” [Note: “come to pollution” is a way of describing orgasm.] Marina described using a mirror to examine her own genitalia while masturbating, saying that she had done these things “not to delight in them” but as a way of giving thanks to God for the wonder of his creation.
Through it all, Marina asserted that she had never believed she was sinning at the time. That “to the clean, all things are clean” (part of the alumbrado heresy). So why confess them as sins now? Holler considers that it may have been a deliberate strategy to distract the Inquisitors from the accusations of heresy by offering them lurid sexual details to pursue instead. But this approach would be unlikely to succeed, given that her account scarcely paints her as a passive, innocent victim. Another possibility is that her time in prison genuinely gave her visions of hell, as she claimed, and that her psychological trauma now seemed to her to be retroactive proof that she had sinned.
Marina’s stubborn insistence that she had not considered her actions to be sin at the time she was engaging in them presented a problem for her accusers. Penitence required an acknowledgement of willful wrong-doing not simply an admission that one had been mistaken. The trial transcript shows the inquisitor’s frustration and impatience with Marina’s attitude through extensive questioning until he managed to frame the questions in such a way she was led to accept the official framing of her actions, with the sole exception that she would not admit to faking her visions, but that they had been a true experience. After that, Marina proclaimed that she had nothing more to say “even though she might have more sins than the queen of England”--a symbolic touch-point, as the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I must have been something of an icon of heresy to Spanish Catholics.
This confession made conviction and sentencing finally possible. Marina received possibly the harshest penalty of her alumbrado community--being paraded naked to the waist while her crimes were read out, public confession, one hundred lashes, a fine, and then ten years public service in a hospital. She appears in the records again, shortly afterward, being urgently summoned to give testimony against her mentor because she was “very ill and at risk of dying” after which she is not mentioned again.
A number of familiar themes thread through Marina’s story: the close conflation of heresy and sexual transgression, the precarious social position of women who gained a reputation for sanctity, especially outside of formal church structures, and the differential treatment of men’s and women’s sexual activity. What makes her of interest to this Project is that the “free love” embraced by the alumbrados seems to have encompassed some rather modern-feeling openness toward same-sex love and sex-positivity, along with the mysticism.