You might guess from the title of this episode that this one is definitely not safe for work, though you’re going to get far more technical details than racy erotica. But be aware that we’re going to talk about sex today. A lot.
At first thought, it might seem silly to ask, “how did medieval European lesbians have sex?” I mean, you just do what comes naturally, right? I’ve noticed in my interviews with authors of historic lesbian fiction that when it comes to what characters do in bed together, most people shrug and say, “I use my imagination.”
But especially when you move away from the tab A and slot B basics of heterosexual reproduction, sexual activity is a complex and culture-specific activity. Did you ever have the experience as an adolescent of taking a peak in a book like The Joy of Sex and thinking, “Wait...do people actually do that?” Imagination isn’t always an accurate guide.
The mechanics of sexual pleasure are not necessarily obvious, and although many people succeed in re-inventing favorite techniques on their own, there’s a large cultural component in the behavior, the logistics, and the associated equipment. To say nothing of how people thought about what they were doing. People learn sexual techniques in many ways: from lovers, from popular culture, from gossip, from jokes, from observation. Keep in mind that different ages have different concepts of personal privacy, and medieval people learned a great deal about sex from seeing it performed in front of them.
All these factors come into play even for marginalized sexual subcultures. In the early 18th century, when Catharina Linken was on trial for passing as a man, marrying a woman, and having sexual relations with her, she testified that she knew of other women who had done the same and thought there wasn’t anything wrong with it. A 17th century French manual for priests taking confession from their female parishioners told them to ask whether something lewd took place with other girls or women, and if so, who they learned it from or may have taught it to.
Although today’s podcast covers an earlier era, we can expect that there may have been similar networks of information--that women who desired women knew of others who felt the same, and so learned how to act on those desires.
But conversely, we can’t assume that specific sexual acts and techniques are either universal or obvious. When writing historical fiction about lesbian characters, it can be just as important to consider what types of sex your characters might have been familiar with as to consider what clothes they might have worn or what food they might have eaten.
So where can we find evidence on this question? After all nobody was writing sex manuals in the Middle Ages were they?
Well, perhaps they were. There were actually some interesting sex manuals written in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages, although that won’t be covered in this particular podcast.
One source of information for how people were having sex--or at least how people thought other people were having sex--are lists of what sexual activities were prohibited. Starting in the early Christian era, religious authorities began drawing up penitential manuals to help priests when taking confessions. These penitentials would provide lists of possible sins, including details of minor variations that might make the sin greater or lesser, along with the penances that should be assigned for them.
During much of the medieval period, the Catholic church was the primary institution concerned with sexual transgressions in Europe. Secular law codes only came into the picture later. But that doesn’t mean that people weren’t brought into court for reasons related to same-sex relationships, and even when the specific sex acts aren’t the charge, they may be discussed as part of the evidence.
While penitential manuals listed what was prohibited, trial records documented what people were accused of. Whether or not the specific accusations were true, they represent what the “common knowledge” was at the time. What people imagined that their neighbors might be doing. That common knowledge was just as available to women contemplating sex with each other as it was to busybodies who wanted to restrict what they were doing. In fact, as time went by, the penitential manuals started getting more and more vague, noting that a confessor should avoid giving people ideas by asking questions that were too specific.
Of course, laws and trial records distort the historic record in many ways. If an act isn’t considered to be sex unless it resembles heterosexual intercourse, then all manner of activities may fly under the radar and fail to be mentioned. Official records have a rather prurient interest in the use of penetrative sex toys and other activities that seem to mimic heterosexual sex. It’s likely that this focus reflected the activities that made male authorities most anxious, rather than the ones that were necessarily most common among women.
Beyond that, there are mentions of tribadism--of women lying on top of each other and rubbing vulvas together--as well as mentions of manual stimulation. Kissing and general references to fondling are common, but references to oral sex are rare. Not unheard-of, but rare. Does this mean that medieval European women weren’t practicing oral sex? It’s hard to say. We have clear evidence that women in Classical Rome were accused of doing so, but that doesn’t mean that it was practiced continuously.
Let’s take a look at the specific references that we can find. Although I want to focus on the medieval period in Europe, I’m going to extend coverage though the Renaissance and cut things off around 1600. It’ll be a chronological tour, though it would be just as interesting to compare different countries. I’m also focusing specifically on Christian Europe which, as we all know, had some very decided hang-ups around sex. During the same era, the Islamic world provides some interesting and more sex-positive information, which I may tackle in a future podcast.
Saint Augustine’s instructions to nuns in the 5th century acknowledged the potential for lesbian sex but in non-specific terms. “The love between you, however, ought not to be earthly but spiritual, for the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided, not only by widows and chaste handmaids of Christ, living under a holy rule of life, but also entirely by married women and maidens destined for marriage.”
A similar rule for cloistered women written by Donatus in the 7th century dances around the potential for sex acts. He addresses it via more public behaviors. He is concerned “that none take the hand of another or call each other ‘little girl’ It is forbidden lest any take the hand of another for delight or stand or walk around or sit together.” And the rules for sleeping arrangements suggest that privacy and easy access to naked bodies were considered too tempting. Nuns should each sleep in a separate bed in groups with a light burning in the chamber. They should sleep clothed, with their dresses belted.
While penitential manuals begin addressing the topic of lesbian sex as early as the 7th century, the specific acts aren’t described in detail. Theodore of Tarsus says, “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.” In context, it’s clear that vice is referring to sex, but in what form?
The 8th century English penitential of Saint Bede offers specific imagery, specifying “If nuns [have sex] with a nun, using an instrument, seven years’ penance.” Vague references to an instrument or similar language can always be understood to mean a dildo.
In the 9th century, the Frankish writer Hincmar of Reims expands on this theme, writing of such women, "They do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.”
So we see women being condemned for calling each other by endearments and walking hand in hand, and for employing dildos for sexual enjoyment. But what about something between those extremes?
Alongside religious and legal attitudes toward sex, there is a long tradition of medical writing that was often more open-minded. That open-mindedness may in some cases be directly related to standing apart from Christian religious traditions. The Persian physician Avicenna, writing in the 11th century, explained an accepted theory that women’s sexual pleasure was essential for their health, as well as being required for the successful conception of children. This idea is part of the humoral theory of medicine that was popular throughout Europe at the time. Although Avicenna noted that “rubbing among other women” was one way to address this need, he discouraged the practice. This sort of therapeutic stimulation fell out of favor in later medieval medical manuals, but appears again in the Renaissance.
The 12th century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen had her own rather passionate attachments to fellow nuns, but seems to have made a distinction between even very intense spiritual love and sexual activity. She wrote that “a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in my sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one.” Hildegard’s description reflects the active-passive model of sex that prevailed in the middle ages. In context, it might suggest penetrative sex, but it could simply frame one woman as the pursuer and the other as pursued.
How well does the penitential literature describe how nuns expressed erotic desire for each other? Not well at all if you go by a 12th century German poem addressed by one nun to her absent beloved, in which she recalls “the kisses you gave me, and how with tender words you caressed my little breasts”.
It’s possible that kisses and caresses were not typically perceived as sexual between women. The 12th century French theologian Allan of Lille wrote a treatise De Planctu Naturae “Nature’s Complaint” that personifies Nature in relation to God and specifically attacks homosexuality as against nature. And yet illustrated editions of this work depict pairs of female allegorical figures in passionate physical embraces and kisses with only positive implications. The images may even be described in the text literally as “nuptial embraces”, that is, a formal action representing marriage. So while it’s possible that these artistic images were given a pass on their passion for being mere symbols, it’s also possible that this sort of sensuality was not considered to be sexual in a forbidden sense.
Elsewhere, embraces, kisses, and formalized gestures such as one lover holding the other’s chin (a gesture called a chin-chuck or chucking under the chin), are used as clear symbols of an implied sexual relationship. An entire series of illustrated Bibles of the 13th and 14th centuries show female and male pairs of lovers (clearly labeled as “sodomites”) lying together (fully clothed), kissing, with their arms around each other, and touching each other’s chin in the chin-chuck gesture. These gestures, and in particular touching or holding the lover’s chin, were part of a formalized artistic vocabulary of erotic activity. We see such signs again in illustrated versions of Ovid’s tale of Callisto created in the same era. The nymph Callisto is being kissed and embraced and touched on the chin by Diana (who is actually Zeus in disguise) and then, later, Callisto turns up pregnant.
So it seems reasonable to add kissing and embracing to the set of activities that were recognized as directly related to sexual activity, whether or not they were categorized as sex acts in and of themselves.
The English monk Aelred of Rievalux tackled this question directly in the 12th century when contemplating distinctions between spiritual and carnal friendship. He concludes that kissing on the lips can either be a spiritual act or a sexual one. Aelred included same sex relations in this concern, for in a treatise aimed at anchorites, he warns that a woman can be inflamed with passion for another woman. Female religious recluses were warned against “playing games of tickle” with female companions, which suggests another activity that may have balanced on the edge of sexuality.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas expressed similar concern about the erotic potential of these non-genital actions, asking “May there be mortal sin in caresses and kisses?” He answers that kisses and embraces can be innocent, but if done for the sake of pleasure then they can be sinful, that is, sexual.
In this same era, changes to procedures for accusation and evidence in the courts created a greater scope for the prosecution of private sexual activity on the basis of rumor or suspicion alone. Now we begin to see a new category of evidence for women’s sexual activities: the accusations of their neighbors.
In the late 13th century, an Italian woman named Bertolina, was tried in Bologna for sodomy with other women. An anonymous accuser claimed that she was publicly known as a sodomite and that she had “conducted herself lustfully with women” using a sexual instrument made of silk to satisfy her lovers. The accusation seems to have been inspired by personal enmity, and Bertolina doesn’t seem to have made any secret of her activities. One witness, named Ugolino, told a story of how he’d heard some men serenading someone near his house, and he went out to ask if they’d serenade his own lady-love, Dolzebone. The singers said they’d been hired by Bertolina, but she said they could take the other job and went along with them to Dolzebone’s house, asking Ugolino, “Are you interested in her?” It turned out that Bertolina was another longtime suitor of the lady in question. When Ugolino scoffed at her, “How can you be interested in women?” Bertolina pulled out her silken dildo and said she knew how to satisfy them.
When lesbian sex came to the attention of the law, most commonly it involved some trespass on male prerogatives, and especially the use of a dildo or involving male disguise. But one early 15th century French couple that I discussed in the very first episode of this podcast, were described simply as “climbing on top of each other, as a man does on a woman,” suggesting that the activity may have been closer to tribadism. Their ongoing relationship was consensual and they thought there was nothing wrong in what they were doing, but when their breakup turned violent the law got involved.
The more common situation in which the law got involved is seen in cases like a Spanish couple where a woman was passing as a man and twice married women, but was later convicted of sodomy for using a dildo for sex with them.
The details in the German trial of Katherina Hetzeldorder in the later 15th century shows a woman imitating the worst of male sexual aggression, but also has one of the most detailed descriptions of sexual activity found in medieval records. One woman testified that Katherina had “deflowered her and had made love to her over two years.” Another asserted that Katherina had “grabbed her just like a man” … “with hugging and kissing she behaved exactly like a man with women.” The most detailed testimony in the trial concerned how Katherina used an artificial penis both in her gender disguise and as a sexual aid. “She made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round; and therewith she had her roguery with the two women….” Katherina’s sexual repertoire also included manual stimulation. One partner described how “she did it at first with one finger, thereafter with two, and then with three, and at last with the piece of wood that she held between her legs as she confessed before.”
So we have evidence that women were using digital stimulation for everyday pleasure as well as it being recommended as a medical treatment. Avicenna’s somewhat hesitant suggestions on that topic return in medical manuals by Italian physicians such as Antonio Guaynerio and Giovanni da Gradi, who recommended a treatment for sexual frustration under the name “suffocation of the womb.” A midwife should apply an ointment to the mouth of a woman’s vulva and rub it in using her finger in a circular motion both around and inside the vulva until the woman expelled the seed that was being retained. That is, until she came to orgasm.
It’s curious that so little of the medieval material talks about the simple act of sexual rubbing, when so much of the vocabulary for lesbians focused on this activity. Whether it’s the Greek tribade, the Latin fricatrix, the English rubster, or the Arabic suĥaqiyya, meaning “grinder,” the linguistic assumption was that lesbian sex could be defined as rubbing. In the 16th century, professional literature about sex joined the image of rubbing genitals with the medical rediscovery of the clitoris and invented the idea that lesbian desire either was caused by, or would result in, an enlarged clitoris that was capable of penetrative sex all by itself. It’s pretty clear that this medical focus on the clitoris is due to its being considered an analog of the penis. And therefore people who assumed there could be no sexual pleasure without a penis, saw it as a focus for female sexual pleasure. It was true, but the logic was wrong.
There were still harsh legal penalties for sex between women involving dildos, and we still find trial records making reference to them in Spain and France. But now we start hearing stories of women who could perform sexually as if they were men using their own anatomy. Although this possibility is within the range of natural anatomical variation, the trope of it being common was largely a male fantasy.
As England had no tradition of prosecuting women for same-sex activity, medical literature is one of the few types of sources we have for what 16th century women may have been doing there. The medical fascination with the connection between tribadism and enlargement of the clitoris by writers such as Helkiah Crooke suggests that this was considered one popular sexual activity. But as I mentioned earlier, the medical theory of humoral balance included a belief that the “emission of seed”--that is to say, orgasm--could restore health to an abstinent woman. Sexual frustration even had its own name--“green sickness”--and some doctors prescribed treatment by the hand of a skilled midwife using a medicinal ointment. Though this wouldn’t have been considered a sexual act, it may have provided women a context for pleasure with official sanction.
There may have been any number of contexts in which women found excuses or reasons for why their sexual activities with each other were acceptable, or even desirable. One of the more extreme cases was that Benedetta Carlini, the abbess of a convent at Pescia, Italy in the early 17th century--which I’m including outside my date range because of the details. Benedetta may have been emotionally disturbed--possibly including hallucinations. And the relationship she had with the nun who provided testimony definitely involves some questionable consent, although it’s also true that the nun had a strong motivation for claiming to have been unwilling and admitted to having experienced sexual satisfaction.
Benedetta made a number of outrageous claims. She claimed to have received stigmata--that is, wounds in imitation of the wounds of Christ. She claimed to have had visions of divine figures and conversations with them, and to be the embodiment of an angel named Splendidiello. Benedetta was originally being investigated for the possibility that her experiences were holy and miraculous--a topic the church took seriously and was interested in either confirming or denying. Only as the testimony came out at great length did the sexual topics appear.
The nun who reported Benedetta’s activities was originally assigned to be her companion, to sleep with her and assist her during her episodes of hallucination and self-injury. (The stigmata were eventually proven to be self-inflicted.) As the holy nature of Benedetta’s experiences began to unravel, the nun who was her companion testified in detail to a sexual relationship.
Benedetta’s relationship with the nun began with kissing and putting her face between the other woman’s breasts and kissing them. Benedetta would lie on top of her and “stir herself on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves”. Benedetta grasped the other woman’s hand and placed it on her genitals, with a finger inside her, and then “holding it there she stirred herself so much that she corrupted herself.” I should note that “corrupted herself” in this context is an unambiguous reference to orgasm. Then Benedetta would perform a similar act to bring the nun to orgasm.
Benedetta’s explanation was that the angel Splenditello was acting through her, causing her to kiss the other woman and to fondle her breasts, and perform the other actions. On other occasions, the voice speaking through her presented itself as Jesus and told the nun that what they were doing was not a sin.
Although the context of these activities can hardly be viewed as a healthy, loving romantic relationship, the details provide us with a wealth of information about what sexual techniques 16th century nuns either learned from others or came up with on their own. And given this wealth of detail, it may be meaningful that there is no description of oral sex inciuded.
There was an understanding and expectation that women in convents--who may have been sent there with no particular religious vocation--might find solace and enjoyment in close personal relationships with each other. Even as penitential manuals grew more vague in their specifics, sets of rules for convents began to address secondary behaviors that were considered to lead to “special friendships” or to provide the opportunity for sin.
Spanish convent rules in the 16th century forbade nuns to sleep in the same bed or to be alone together behind closed doors. Special scrutiny was given to nuns who were seen hugging or “joining their faces together” (one wonders why they didn’t simply say “kissing” so perhaps something more specific was meant here).
When secular female couples came under the scrutiny of the courts, the traditional concern for the use of dildos was still present and punished harshly, sometimes with death, especially if gender disguise were involved. A woman in Valencia escaped the death penalty on a technicality despite passing as a man, marrying a woman, and enjoying sexual relations with her using an artificial penis made of lambskin. “Lambskin” was sometimes the term used for a condom made from a sheep’s intestines, so it’s possible that she was using a stuffed condom as a sex toy.
A much wider range of erotic activities are discussed that received non-lethal penalties when punished. Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma enjoyed a long-term, if stormy, domestic partnership “eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed” that was public knowledge among their families and neighbors. Gossip presented at their trial included the results of eavesdropping where they were heard panting and grunting and making comments like, “Does that feel good?” as well as pillow talk. The sexual acts they admitted to included rubbing vulvas together and manual stimulation. They provided inconsistent testimony regarding the use of a dildo and there’s a sense that they may have been trying to include that item simply because the court expected them to.
The French writer Pierre de Bourdeille, better known by his title, Brantôme wrote a sensational book titled The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies that includes a number of homoerotic encounters between women, though the specifics may owe more to the male imagination than the female repertoire. Along with the usual descriptions of tribadism and the use of dildos attached using straps, he describes tongue-kissing, calling it “kissing in the manner of pigeons” that is, with the mouth open and the tongue in the mouth.
I would never treat the period from the 8th through 16th centuries as a single unified culture. The frequency with which particular techniques are mentioned varies over time, though in part this is due to changes in what the people making the records were most concerned about. There are some clear regional differences to be found in sexual behavior once you have enough data to look for them. But when you summarize the evidence for the types of sexual and erotic activities women enjoyed in Christian Europe in the middle ages and Renaissance, the same items are mentioned throughout this period and the same items are absent.
One category of activity that is notably absent is oral stimulation of the genitals, although this is a behavior that is clearly documented during Classical Roman times as well as after the Renaissance.
The activities that women did enjoy that were either considered to be sexual or that were clearly associated with erotic relationships include: kissing, in some cases including tongue-kissing, embracing, fondling of the breasts, tickling, the use of verbal endearments, hand-holding, chucking under the chin, sleeping in the same bed, lying on top of one another either clothed or naked and rubbing the genitals together, use of a dildo, manual stimulation and penetration with fingers.
Some of these activities could also be engaged in publicly without being considered sexual: including kissing, embracing, and sharing a bed.
So now you have a better idea about what your fictional medieval and Renaissance lesbians might have been up to.
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