When I was putting together my main podcast essay for this month, on details of lesbian sexual techniques as given in sources like penitential manuals, I realized that I already owned this book but had never blogged it. I was somewhat disappointed to discover how heavily excerpted it was, making it rather less useful for my purposes than I thought, particularly in relation to the podcast. That means that at some point I should track down the full texts of some of the penitential manuals that I know have relevant information. Still, it was on the list and now it's been done.
Penitential manuals were designed not only as guidance for acceptable behavior in monastic institutions and for the clergy, but later as guidelines for confessors to sort out exactly what was and was not considered a sin, and to standardize penances to some extent. Although my summary here is only concerned with same-sex sexual sins, I found some of the early Irish material fascinating in how it pointed out some of the social fractures of the time (especially between different branches of the church).
Penitentials are, of course, theoretical sources. They discuss what sorts of activities people are considered at risk for doing. And they only cover activitites that the church was actively concerned about. So while they aren't exactly useless as evidence for what women were doing together, neither are they a reliable guide to the details. And in the case of this publication, there's the further filter that we see only those sections of the books that the translators/editors considered to be of historical interest.
McNeill, John T. & Helena M. Gamer. 1990. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales.Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-09629-1 (reprint of 1938 edition)
A collection of excerpts in translation from early medieval books of pennance. The significant editing means that the material is less useful for tracing the details of how penitential manuals handled same-sex sexual activity.
Penitential manuals began being produced in the early Christian era (at least by the 5th century) as a guide for confessors or those in charge of monastic institutions to, in some ways, standardize and regularize what actions were considered sins, and what the penance for different degrees of sin should be. This focus can make them valuable for the discussion of matters that might otherwise not be discussed in historic sources. Although penitential manuals covered a wide range of behaviors and aspects of life, this blog is specifically interested in what they have to say about sexual relations between women. So mostly I’ll be extracting the specific passages that speak to this topic. For a more general discussion of penitential manuals, follow the related tags.
As this book and its translations were initially published in 1938, don’t expect a nuanced and broad-minded treatment of homosexuality. The inclusion or omission of activities from these manuals often reflects the degree of concern that the church had about them at the time, rather than the presence or absence of those activities in society. Note also that general references to “fornication” may have been understood to cover same-sex situations, but have not been included in these notes unless they explicitly do. Furthermore, this edition does not reproduce the penitential texts in full, and in some cases I know from other sources that material specifically addressing female homosexuality is present but hasn’t been included.
The following early medieval Irish material is meant for the guidance of male monastics and priests, therefore it is not surprising that women’s same-sex activity isn’t addressed as it doesn’t fall within the scope of interest.
Misc. early Welsh penitentials (6th century) - A vague reference to “anyone who sins with a woman or with a man”. The assumed audience is male, but there is only an implication that the sin is sexual. Specific reference to “he who is guilty of sodomy in its various forms.”
Penitential of Theodore (7th century, Anglo Saxon) - In contrast to the previous documents which primarily addressed an audience of male monastics, this one has a broader audience. The section on fornication has an elaborate set of distinctions for sexual acts between men, and addresses women’s same-sex activity explicitly: "If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.” That is, for women, masturbation and lesbian sex were considered equivalent in severity. The penance is less severe than for sex between men, though the proliferation of distinctions for male participants makes it hard to know which to compare to. But male masturbation appears to be treated much more lightly.
Penitential of Columban (7th century, St. Columban was Irish but this text was compiled on the continent where he founded monasteries) - A reference to monks committing sodomy, to laymen committing sodomy (in a context where the audience is clearly male). Even though women are covered by other sex-related penances, there is no reference to same-sex activity between women.
Judgment of Clement (8th century, Frankish) - The audience for these rules is general, not clerical. Nothing specifically addressing sexual activity is included.
Burgundian Penitential (8th century, Frankish) - The implied audience is male except in some very specific cases. There is reference to committing “fornication as the Sodomites did”.
Saint Hubert Penitential (9th century, Frankish) - There is a fascinating item on cross-dressing that seems to have to do more with prohibitions on pagan practices than gender transgression. “Of dancing -- Anyone who performs dances in front of the churches of saints or anyone who disguises his appearance in the guise of a woman or of beasts, or a woman [who appears] in the garb of a man--on promise of amendment he [or she] shall do penance for three years.” No references to same-sex fornication.
Penitential of Halitgar (9th century, Frankish) - The default audience, as usual, is male, in which context we have a reference to “if anyone commits fornication as the Sodomites”. There are no references to women’s same-sex relations.
The collection also covers a number of later documents but in much abridged form, generally quoting only discussions that don’t appear in earlier documents. There is no material relating to same-sex relations in these excerpts.