Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 18d - (Un)Conventional Women - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/27 - listen here)
There is a long, complicated, tangled, and contradictory history in Western culture between the idea of love between women and the institution of women in cloistered religious communities. That relationship has been inspired, in part, by the dynamic of a single-sex community, populated by women who by definition are not in sanctioned relationships with men, and who have a certain amount of internal autonomy in arranging their lives. It shares this dynamic with institutions such as gender-segregated schools, especially boarding schools and colleges that form a 24/7 community, but also to a lesser degree with gendered professions, especially those that form a separate community as well as providing a livelihood.
But the second factor in the association between lesbians and convents in the popular imagination has been the shifting stereotypes about women’s sexuality, and about the psychology of women who are officially removed from the mainstream sexual economy of marriage and from easy access to and by men. With the rise of the Reformation in the 16th century, cloistered women became a target of a particularly nasty combination of anti-Catholic sentiment and misogyny that added new twists to the image of convents as a hotbed of lesbianism.
But I’d like to look at the historic evidence and motifs from a position that strives for a positive understanding of both the religious and sexual contexts. And here I’m going to take a moment to emphasize and acknowledge that people in our culture can have some strong feelings and deep prejudices both on the topic of of lesbians and on the topic of organized religion and even specifically about the Catholic church. In doing this episode, it is in no way my intent to play into prejudices or to dismiss people’s negative experiences with respect to these topics. Given the audience for this podcast, it’s fairly easy to say, “We all know that many people in the past viewed lesbians negatively and portrayed them as being deviant or sinful, but we’re going to acknowledge that as the context of our historic records and move on to find a positive history for same-sex love in spite of it.”
I can’t assume the same uniformity of attitude from my listeners to both the reality and the fiction of the history of the Catholic church and its institutions. I have close friends who are Catholic; I have close friends who have had very traumatic experiences with organized religion and in some cases with Catholic institutions specifically; and as an atheist I have a somewhat privileged position of standing outside both those dynamics.
So to everyone listening, please believe that my intent here is to treat all my listeners’ experiences and beliefs as valid and worthy of respect. And if I fail--especially if I fail through my approach of treating the subject of religion dispassionately and clinically--I am happy to have those failures pointed out to me so that I can try to do better in the future.
In considering how the intersection of lesbianism and convents have been treated in literature across the ages, it’s important to separate out the experiences of individual people and the meaning given to those experiences by the society around them. Just as today we view desire between women as just one type of expression among the whole spectrum of normal experiences, regardless of how it was framed by past societies, similarly we need to recognize that the structures and ideals of Catholic religious institutions both shaped and were shaped by the times in which they existed, and that depictions of them in historic sources are not value-neutral, both for good and ill.
From the very beginning, Christianity has encouraged an ideal of transferring the emotional bonds typically associated with romantic and sexual relationships to a relationship with God. There has also always been an ideal of asceticism and the deliberate refusal of sensual pleasures as a way of elevating the mind and spirit. And, not to put to fine a point on it, Christianity has always had a bit of a hang-up about sex in general. These themes have manifested in different ways at different times, but as an overall guiding principle, it has meant that Christian ideals have tended to treat sexual pleasure as something that distracts from religious devotion and is to be constrained to specific acceptable circumstances and modes if it is to avoid condemnation.
This hasn’t always meant celibacy--even the requirement for Catholic priests to be celibate wasn’t strictly required until reforms of the 12th century, although it had been maintained as an ideal from the beginning. But the nature of Christian monastic orders meant a de facto expectation of celibacy, and the use of gender-seregated communities, even in orders that were open to both men and women, was intended to make it easier to live up to this ideal.
The hitch, of course, was that people didn’t always enter religious communities because of a vocation. Men might become monks or members of the clergy as a career path. Women might enter a convent--or be pressured into doing so--if their culture lacked other approved lifestyles for unmarried women and marriage were not an option for whatever reason. This wasn’t the case in all Catholic cultures in all eras, but in those where it was, young women with no religious vocation at all might find themselves warehoused in convents.
Furthermore, even those who did have a positive religious vocation were not exempt from the attractions of interpersonal emotional bonds with specific individuals. This was something that convents acknowledged and tried to manage with rules addressing behavior, the appearance of favoritism, and access to privacy. The concern was not always for the possibility of erotic relationships, but also for the challenges to community cohesion and the potential disruption of management hierarchies that romantic pairings could represent.
And then there is the issue of sex drive. European cultures have had many changing attitudes towards women’s sex drives and the hazards they might pose to social order. People who are familiar only with the Victorian myth of women as sexless beings might be surprised to learn that the pop culture attitude in the middle ages in much of Europe was that women had a much stronger and more overwhelming sex drive than men did, and that the primary concern was to control and manage women’s sexual desires such that they didn’t lead men into sin.
There is a regular theme in popular literature of medieval Western Europe that cloistered women were so frustrated by lack of sexual access to men, that they would take any and all opportunities to act out their desire. This resulted in endless jokes and ribald tales of orgies in convents between nuns and their priests--the men who always had access to religious women no matter how strict the rules. The mirror image of this motif was that women who didn’t have easy access to men for sexual encounters would be so driven by their desires that they would have sexual relations with each other to make do. The medieval imagination tended to have a hard time imagining women having erotic desires for women as a first preference.
One of the large set of problems that inspired the Reformation and the establishment of various Protestant churches was a recognition that the strict rules of religious celibacy in various Catholic institutions set a vast number of people up to fail in their religious ideals. In general, Protestant institutions preferred to emphasize “continence within marriage” over the more absolute approach of the Catholic celibate ideal. But this divergence of practice around the question of celibacy also led to many Protestant movements focusing on celibate institutions within the Catholic church as being both iconic of Catholicism and inherently problematic. One focus of this animus was on the idea of convents as creating an unnatural woman-only culture that inherently led to sexual deviance between the women involved, and especially led to predatory relationships between the women in the convent power hierarchy and young novices who were portrayed as “innocent victims” not only of the convent structure but of the Catholic church in general. Victims to be treated as damsels in distress who might be rescued by bold, virile Protestant men.
But enough of the historic background to all this, how did these themes play out in the historic and literary record?
One type of data that I’ve discussed in previous episodes has been convent regulations that tried to manage and control the possibility of special emotional relationships between nuns. There were guidelines about avoiding the possibility of two nuns being private together, especially not having private time sharing the same bed. Signs of affection, such as using endearments or physical contact like hand-holding or kissing might be discouraged. The concern was not only sexual but the potential for jealousies and favoritism among the nuns, or simply for distraction from a focus on God.
But the possibility that signs of affection might signal or lead to forbidden behavior were not solely a feature of religious same-sex institutions. The 16th century Ventian “Casa della Zitelle” was a secular institution that trained at-risk girls in approved household and job skills. Among their regulations was one that said, “When it is noted that one of the zitelle is too affectionate with another girl, the two must be separated from each other and accompanied by others.” This type of policing of affectionate behavior is a recurring, though never consistent, theme in all-woman institutions, up through girls’ school of the early 20th century.
Guidelines in convent handbooks for penances acknowledged the potential for nuns to engage in sexual activity with each other, often under vague terms like “practicing vice” but sometimes specifically mentioning the use of penetrative instruments. Based on the types of penances assigned, this activity was considered less serious than heterosexual transgressions, and much less serious than homosexual activity between men.
The evidence for sexual relations between nuns also includes investigations of specific cases, not all of which appear to have been consensual, so the later stereotype of the predatory abbess is not entirely a figment of anti-Catholic sentiment. The most sensational cases, such as the early 17th century investigation records of Bendetta Carlini in Italy, may have provided fuel for rumors of convent scandals as well. Benedetta had extensive sexual contact with a nun assigned to be her companion, while claiming that she was acting under a sort of possession by an angel.
There is also plenty of evidence for close emotional bonds between nuns creating concern or being noteworthy, even when there’s no mention of sexual concerns. Correspondence between the 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and her close friend and protegée Richardis of Stade is full of passionate and even erotic language, and the conflict that arose when Richardis left to become abbess of another institution has all the air of a romantic breakup. Whatever the private nature of their relationship--and Hildegard elsewhere records disapproving opinions of women who “play a male role in coupling with another woman”--the disruption and bad feelings that fell out from their emotional relationship is a clear example of the sort of problem that convent regulations were trying to prevent.
But there are also examples of expressions of deep love and desire between nuns that are entirely positive in context. In the podcast episode I did on medieval love poetry between women, I included a 12th century poem translated from the Latin from one nun to another expressing sentiments and desires that are clearly both romantic and erotic yet show no evidence of either guilt or negative consequences. And correspondence between religious women in various centuries couch their relationships in the language of more than sisterly devotion. Although convents may have had valid concerns for the disruptive potential of romantic bonds, that doesn’t mean that romantic bonds were always disruptive or always repressed. It’s only that we’re more likely to have records of the occasions when they were.
This shows up particularly in the use of convents to warehouse young women in an environment protected from male attention, even when they weren’t intended for a religious life. This type of situation provides the occasional example of sexual hijinks between women that no doubt played into popular stereotypes. In the 17th century when the husband of Hortense Mancini, Duchess Mazarin wanted to break up her love affair with another young woman, both of them were sent to a convent to cool off. Though the tactic might have been more successful if they hadn’t both been sent to the same convent, where they played pranks on the nuns and escaped together. A similar failure of a convent to protect a young woman from female attentions features in the early life of 17th century opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny, who infiltrated the convent where her lover was being kept and set fire to the place to cover their escape together.
The concerns about romantic and sexual relationships between nuns that can be traced within Catholic institutions--and especially those found prior to the Reformation--demonstrate that the motif was not solely a product of anti-Catholic prejudice in more recent times. Consider, for example, the fictionalized story used by Erasmus, a Dutch Renaissance theologian and Catholic priest, where a girl who expresses a religious vocation is warned not to enter a convent with the allusion that “there are more there who copy Sappho’s behavior than share her talent.” There is a streak of cynicism as well as garden variety misogyny, but it tends to be aimed at individuals rather than institutions.
But the most extreme literary examples of lesbian nuns include outright pornography as well as political assaults and function to attack Catholicism as an institution, whether penned by those promoting Protestant views, or by those criticizing organized religion as a whole. Up through the Renaissance, literary depictions of lesbianism within convents mostly focused on the motif of insatiable female desire. Women were portrayed as having such strong sex drives that if men were not available, then women could fill the need.
One example of this genre is the anonymous Venus dans la Cloître, or “Venus in the Covent”, originally published in 1683 and later republished and translated in expanded editions. The work takes the form of a dialogue between two fictional teenaged nuns, Sister Agnes and Sister Angelique, in which the elder, Angelique, comes upon the newly arrived Sister Agnes in the middle of masturbating and decides to give her a more formal instruction in sexual pleasure. As is typical in this sort of “sex education” genre, the scenario is depicted as an older, sexually experienced woman initiating a younger, sexually naive one who makes a show of being reluctant or embarrassed. Angelique’s past sexual experience is not limited to women but the convent setting provides the context for the description of same-sex acts. The work has a certain air of criticizing the sexual repression encouraged by the convent structure, but primarily it is simply a work of pornography. In fact, an English translation in the early 18th century may have been the subject of the first legal conviction for obscenity in the United Kingdom.
After the Reformation, a new theme emerges: that convents are an inherently corrupting force. This more polemical and specifically anti-Catholic approach can be found in Andrew Marvell’s poem “Upon Appleton House” which frames itself as a family history of his patron, centered around the eponymous Appleton House, which began life as a convent. The family connection is made through the patron’s ancestor who--in a fictionalized incident--is depicted as pursuing marriage with a young woman who is contemplating a life of religious devotion. But the convent, it turns out, is a hotbed of same-sex erotic activity, and the suitor not only “rescues” the object of his attention from this fate, but arranges for the convent to be legally dissolved and handed over to him, thus becoming the family seat.
Written in the mid-17th century when England was rife with religious conflicts of several flavors, the descriptions play up anti-Catholic sentiment and attribute the convent’s downfall to the alleged practice of vice, when in actual fact, it was privatized as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries after his schism with Rome. But religious history aside, we see the motif of the predatory abbess, taking advantage of the innocent girls in her charge. Somewhat unusually, here it is the innocent young girl who is encouraged to imagine herself as a future abbess, and tempted with the advantages and attractions of life in the convent:
"Here live beloved, and obey'd:
Each one your Sister, each your Maid.
And, if our Rule seem strictly pend,
The Rule it self to you shall bend.
Our Abbess too, now far in Age,
Doth your succession near presage.
How soft the yoke on us would lye,
Might such fair Hands as yours it tye!
Rather than offering her a life of pure devotion, they entice her with images of “pleasure mixed with piety” using the image of infusing fruit with candied syrup.
"Nor is our Order yet so nice,
Delight to banish as a Vice.
Here Pleasure Piety doth meet;
One perfecting the other Sweet.
So through the mortal fruit we boyl
The Sugars uncorrupting Oyl:
And that which perisht while we pull,
Is thus preserved clear and full.
"For such indeed are all our Arts;
Still handling Natures finest Parts.
Flow'rs dress the Altars; for the Clothes,
The Sea-born Amber we compose;
Balms for the griv'd we draw; and pastes
We mold, as Baits for curious tastes.
What need is here of Man? unless
These as sweet Sins we should confess.
The true meaning of the candy pastes they offer is intimated by the assurance, “What need is here of man?” And if that weren’t clear enough, it is followed by a suggestion that she will enjoy the nightly companionship of other nuns:
"Each Night among us to your side
Appoint a fresh and Virgin Bride;
Whom if Our Lord at midnight find,
Yet Neither should be left behind.
Where you may lye as chast in Bed,
As Pearls together billeted.
All Night embracing Arm in Arm,
Like Chrystal pure with Cotton warm.
This isn’t the pure pornography of Venus in the Convent. The purpose is not to arouse the listener, but to lay the groundwork for the suitor’s legal assault on the convent, in language that can only be justified by the presupposition of some enormous wrong.
Oft, though he knew it was in vain,
Yet would he valiantly complain.
"Is this that Sanctity so great,
An Art by which you finly'r cheat
Hypocrite Witches, hence avant,
Who though in prison yet inchant!
Death only can such Theeves make fast,
As rob though in the Dungeon cast.
"Were there but, when this House was made,
One Stone that a just Hand had laid,
It must have fall'n upon her Head
Who first Thee from thy Faith misled.
And yet, how well soever ment,
With them 'twould soon grow fraudulent
For like themselves they alter all,
And vice infects the very Wall.
"But sure those Buildings last not long,
Founded by Folly, kept by Wrong.
I know what Fruit their Gardens yield,
When they it think by Night conceal'd.
Fly from their Vices. 'Tis thy 'state,
Not Thee, that they would consecrate.
Fly from their Ruine. How I fear
Though guiltless lest thou perish there."
This text may seem rather tame by erotic standards. But it demonstrates how the two themes of anti-Catholicism and same-sex erotica became entwined in literature. A much more explicit form of that combination can be found in Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse or The Nun, published in 1760. Again we have the motif of the expreienced, predatory, older authority figure taking advantage of a rather improbably naive religious novice.
Susan, the object of the predatory Mother Superior’s attention, goes beyond all believability in maintaining her ignorance of the sexual nature of those attentions. At the same time, her seducer seems bent on inducing some recognition or response from Susan, not merely taking advantage of her position for her own gratification. When Susan is accused of having a “suspicious intimacy” with another nun and of enjoying improper desires, she protests that she doesn’t even understand what they could be talking about. It is after that incident (which primes the reader for the topic) that she comes under the authority of the predatory Mother Superior who immediately fastens on Susan as her new favorite, giving her compliments and caresses and undressing her.
Susan’s protestations of innocence and ignorance are somewhat undermined by the way she uses her influence over the Mother Superior to win concessions and favors for others, by offering and allowing her kisses and caresses. There are two scenes where a shared erotic encounter involving kissing bosoms and “squeezing all over the body” results in orgasmic swooning of both parties…which Susan still fails to recognize as sexual in nature.
It isn’t until the Mother Superior is pressuring Susan to admit her own erotic awareness that Susan finally recognizes their encounter together in bed as something that falls in the category of sin. There follows much angst and finally self-realization, at which point Susan flees the convent and immediately comes to a bad end.
Here is an excerpt that gives a sense of the depiction.
[Mother Superior] shed tears and then said: “Ah Sister Suzanne, you don't love me!"
"I don't love you, dear Mother?"
“Tell me what I must do to prove it to you.”
"That you will have to guess."
“I am trying, but I cannot think of anything."
By now she had raised her collar and put one of my hands on her bosom. She fell silent, and so did I. She seemed to be experiencing the most exquisite pleasure. She invited me to kiss her forehead, cheeks, eyes and mouth, and I obeyed. I don't think there was any harm in that, but her pleasure increased, and as I was only too glad to add to her happiness in any innocent way, I kissed her again on forehead, cheeks, eyes and lips. The hand she had rested on my knee wandered all over my clothing from my feet to my girdle, pressing here and there, and she gasped as she urged me in a strange, low voice to redouble my caresses, which I did. Eventually a moment came, whether of pleasure or of pain I cannot say, when she went as pale as death, closed her eyes, and her whole body tautened violently, her lips were first pressed together and moistened with a sort of foam, then they parted and she seemed to expire with a deep sigh. I jumped up, thinking she had fainted, and was about to go and call for help. She half opened her eyes and said in a failing voice: "You innocent girl! it isn't anything. What are you doing? Stop..." I looked at her, wild-eyed and uncertain whether I should stay or go. She opened her eyes again; she had lost her power of speech, and made signs that I should come back and sit on her lap again. I don't know what was going on inside me, I was afraid, my heart was thumping and I breathed with difficulty, I was upset, oppressed, shocked and frightened, my strength seemed to have left me and I was about to swoon. And yet I cannot say it was pain I was feeling. I went over to her and she once again motioned me to sit on her lap, which I did; she was half dead and I felt as though I were dying myself. We remained in that peculiar state for some time.
It should be acknowleged here that this genre of literature typically is not portraying entirely consensual sex. There is generally a context of coercion or at least abuse of authority involved. And the interpretation of the scenarios as having anti-Catholic motivations must also be considered in the historic context of actual sexual abuse within hierarchical religious institutions--just as such abuse has existed within secular hierarchical institutions. In the same way, within a more general context, the fact that accusations of lesbian activity have historically been thrown at women who held positions of power--especially those, such as women within the convent hierarchy, who had some independence from male authorities--it did not mean that all accusations of lesbian activity within convents was motivated by animus. Here I’m focusing not on the truth or falsehood of the motifs, but on why they became part of popular literary culture.
One might expect the motif of lesbian nuns to figure more heavily in the French decadent literature of the 19th century, given the hostility of those writers to conventional morality and virtue, but I haven’t run across any obvious examples to share. The single-sex environment of convent schools was occasionally employed as a shorthand for implying lesbian desires. In the novel Mademoiselle Giraud, My Wife, Adolphe Belot attributes his character’s fatal lesbian obsession to a relationship begun in a convent school.
Although it doesn’t fit within the historic theme, I think no discussion of the complex history of lesbians and nuns would be complete without noting the 1985 book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence, by Rosemary Curb and originally published by Naiad Press, that shared the lives and experiences of modern women dealing with the intersection of religious vocation and desire for women.
It brings us around again to a recognition that the ways in which these two themes have intersected or been played off against each other across the ages has been a function of social attitudes and assumptions about the nature of women’s lives in religious orders, and contrasting attitudes and assumptions about the nature of same-sex desire. As those attitudes have shifted across the ages, women’s desire for each other within the convent has been seen as a binding force, as a disruptive distraction, as a sign of human frailty, as an emotional relief valve, as an inevitable consequence of repression, as a subject of voyeuristic speculation, and as a weapon of political accusation. Each interpretation reflected the anxieties and preoccupations of its own era, with consequences for the actual women who found themselves targetted at that intersection.