Let’s start this series with some ordinary women. Nobody special: they weren’t scandalous aristocrats or dashing adventurers or women who set out to transgress the rules of society. All they did was love each other. Perhaps not wisely, perhaps not always well.
In southern Germany, almost on the border with Switzerland, there is a town called Mösskirch. It has relatively few claims to fame: a composer, a philosopher, a painter whose name hasn’t actually survived, a few talented brewers. In the 16th century, it was the residence of the Counts of Zimmern. But we aren’t concerned with any of them. We’re interested in a different 16th century resident, a servant-girl named Greta, who came to the attention of history in 1514 because she kept falling in love with girls.
Much of the solid historic evidence we have from medieval Europe about women who loved women is rather depressing, because the authorities only tended to pay attention to them when they’d stepped so far outside acceptable behavior that drastic penalties were invoked. And, well, we’ll talk about them some other time. But Greta’s story--as much as we know of it--is happier.
It is recorded that she loved young women and pursued them romantically as if she were behaving like a man. There’s no mention that Greta was masculine in any other way than falling in love with women--no indication that she dressed as a man, or tried to take on a masculine occupation, or that she made love to them using, as they called it, an “artificial device”. Those were the sorts of things that could draw harsh consequences. In fact, the only concern her neighbors seem to have had was to make sure that she actually was a woman.
The concern wasn’t that she might have been a man disguising himself as a woman--that would have been a roundabout way to court girls at the time! No, the problem was that her neighbors thought she might have been a hermaphrodite--something halfway between man and woman--and that this might be the reason why she felt erotic desires for women.
The idea of hermaphrodites as understood in that era is one of those odd social inventions. It probably derived in part from trying to understand intersex persons, who might have anatomy that seemed to be part male and part female. But it also derived from an inability to imagine anything other than heterosexual desire. So, as the thinking went, if a person who appeared female fell in love with or desired a woman, then that person must actually be a man in some fashion.
The idea of hermaphrodites also overlaps with transgender history. Some historic individuals used the social belief in hermaphrodites as a legal tool to gain recognition as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth. Some even succeeded. We’ll talk about that in another episode.
But all that is a side-note to Greta’s story. The midwives of Mösskirch, who were given the responsibility of examining Greta medically, proclaimed that she was “a true proper woman”. And as far as we know, that was an end of it. There is no mention of any legal charge against her. No mention of any consequences or punishment. And so we are free to imagine Greta von Mösskirch flirting with other girls at the market fair, perhaps saving her money to buy a hair ribbon as a gift in hopes of being thanked with a kiss, and living her life fairly happily.
Now, the second example I want to tell you about has a bit of a less happy end, though it’s likely that the women in question only came to the attention of the authorities because they got involved in a domestic dispute.
Our story happens at the very beginning of the 15th century in France. To set the stage, this is about a decade before the birth of Joan of Arc. In fact we’re concerned with a different French peasant woman named Jehanne. This Jehanne was married, as one was at the time, but it seems that at some point she had discovered the entirely different joys of making love to women. She was friends with another married woman named Laurence. One day they were walking out to the fields together when Jehanne ventured a proposition. She whispered in Laurence’s ear, “If you will be my sweetheart, I will do you much good.”
Laurence may have been a bit naive, or perhaps she’d never had the occasion to consider the question of whether enjoying a roll in the hay with a woman would be a sin--a literal roll in the hay, as the testimony indicates. She told people later that she didn’t think that there was anything evil in it, and presumably Jehanne’s offer sounded like a bit of fun. They made their way to a convenient haystack and Jehanne lay on top of her and made love to her, rubbing against her “as a man does to a woman”. The end results were satisfying enough for the both of them that the two continued to meet for erotic encounters: sometimes at Laurence’s house, sometimes in the vineyards outside the village, or sometimes even near the village fountain.
But eventually things turned sour. We don’t know whether Laurence started to get nervous about what they were doing, or if one of their husbands started asking questions, or perhaps it was just one of those things.
So one night, when Jehanne came to Laurence’s house, Laurence told her she didn’t desire her any more. Jehanne, let us say, took the breakup rather badly. She attacked Laurence with a knife and then ran away.
Although the records don’t say so in as many words, it’s likely that this attack and the consequences of it are the only reason their relationship came to the attention of the authorities. In fact, the record skips entirely over any original accusation or trial and brings us in to the story when Laurence is appealing for a pardon on the basis that the relationship was all Jehanne’s fault.
People are people, no matter what the century. And if society and the law imagines that forbidden sexual relationships to involve an aggressor and a naive victim, then there will always be a temptation to throw one’s partner under the bus when push comes to shove. Laurence’s appeal was successful and she was pardoned. This is no small matter, given that the original sentence might well have been execution. It happened that way to other women. There is no word in the record about Jehanne’s fate. It would be nice to fantasize that she ran away entirely, changed her name, got ahold of her anger management issues, and found happiness in some other woman’s arms eventually. It probably isn’t the way to bet, but we’re free to dream.
* * * End of transcript * * *