There are always at least two layers of historic information about non-normative sexuality: the normative, prescriptive narratives of authorities, whether religious, medical, legal, or other; and the individual, concrete, descriptive accounts of everyday experience. It can be enlightening to see where and how these come into conflict. The cases where records acknowledge that actual human beings often fail to follow the paradigms the experts have set out. Or where we see the disconnect between the official model of how society was supposed to respond to sexual transgression, versus actual experiences and outcomes. Big picture histories too often lean entirely on the former and fail to represent the true variety of experience.
Puff, Helmut. 1997. “Localizing Sodomy: The ‘Priest and sodomite’ in Pre-Reformation Germany and Switzerland” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 8:2 165-195
As can be expected from the reference to priests in the title of this article, it focuses mostly on relations between men. But there is some information on women within the more general context of “sodomy” involving clerical personnel.
The article focuses on the church’s role in persecuting “sodomites” during a period roughly between the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Reformation (ca. 1517). Puff demonstrates that there were a variety of approaches taken, depending on context and contradicting the impression that the chuch was uniformly hostile. As a rule, church personnel didn’t participate actively in sodomy trials and there is little evidence for systematic purging of sodomites from clearical or monastic positions. The bulk of the article reviews a number of individual case histories that shed light on the everyday reality that contrasted with the more theoretical evidence of penitential literature, among other sources.
Although there had been increasing concern about sodomy in penitentials during the 5th through 11th centuries, the consolidation of institutional power in the church that increased in the 12th century and later made it possible to address a number of deprecated practices, including simony, priests keeping concubines, and the poor level of priestly education. Also at this period, we see the first introduction in law codes of a death penalty for sodomy, although there is little evidence that it was implemented.
What Puff identifies in this research is that the picture described by earlier historians of church officials acting in concert with lay courts to deliver sodomites for prosecution and execution turns out to be a myth. That picture may have been true for heretics, but although sodomy was sometime conflated with heresy, sodomites were excluded from this church-state partnership of persecution. And even when theoretically included, actual court records paint a different picture than these normative records.
The titular phrase of this article “priest and sodomite” was not an established “social type” but rather emerged from certain specific points of conflict that reflect specific local and political circumstances.
[There is a great deal of fascinating detail in this article, but most of it is irrelevant to the theme of this blog, so I’m going to jump and skim to hit the points relevant to women.]
One contributing factor to the image of the “priest and sodomite”, as well as to accusations against nuns of sexual deviancy of various types, was the popular trope of the morally corrupt clergy. Anti-clerical sentiment, and especially anti-monastic feelings, were regularly expressed in popular tales, satire, and reform propaganda. While corrupt clergy certainly existed, the motif had the attraction of transgression against the clergy/lay social boundary. And the real-life transgression of the boundary between clergy and secular persons seems to have generated a disproportionate number of the legal actions against sodomites. If such relationships remained entirely in one group or the other, they were less likely to cause notice.
While the majority of Puff’s examples involve relations between priests and laymen, one case of a religious recluse, Katharina Güldin in Rottweil in 1444 involves an accusation that she practiced the “vice against nature which is called sodomy” with an unnamed lay woman. The case was recorded because city officials lodged a complaint to the deacon of Rottweil. The outcome of the case is not recorded.
[That, alas, is the extent of the relevant information in this article.]