Skip to content Skip to navigation

Un/Conventional Desires in Early Modern Spain

Sunday, August 13, 2017 - 20:30

The image of Spanish convent life in the age of colonial expansion often overlooks the social consequences of convents being the sole alternative to marriage for women of good birth and good reputation. That meant that a lot of the nuns were educated, sophisticated, and relatively lacking in religious vocation. Convent rules tried to find a middle gound between the ideals of exclusive devotion to God and the recognition that they were dealing with a lot of young women who were lonely and desperate for affection. While the dynamics discussed in this chapter are inspired by a consideration of lesbian desire in convents, a great deal of the material is less about sex and more about trying to manage that sort of hot-house emotional environment.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 5: Special Friendships in the Convent

Concerns about same-sex relations in convents date back at least to the time of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. Those concerns covered even trivial actions like hand-holding and terms of endearment, showing that some of the concern was for the particularity of the friendship, not specifically the possibility of sex. Activities that were a cause for concern could be discouraged with corporal punishment as well as lesser penances.

Co-sleeping was a special concern, and care was taken that two women would not have private sleeping arrangements together. Sleeping arrangements in convents might involve single-person cells or communal dormitories, generally with rules against two people having privacy together. The forbidden activities that were specified included “talking together late at night” and thus breaking the rule of silence.

The rules against developing “special friendships” often mentioned a purpose of preserving harmony in the convent and avoiding favoritism. These concerns were not limited to same-sex interactions--there were similar concerns about relations between the nuns and the priests that attended to the spiritual needs of the institution, or visiting male relatives--but of course the demongraphics made female same-sex interactions the greatest temptation.

Visiting priests were sometimes instructed, in essence, to spy on the prioress to ensure that she herself didn’t have favorites (since she was supposed to prevent it in others). There’s an acknowledgement that the prioress may reasonably spend more attention on nuns “who are more discreet and intelligent” and thus might be assisting in administrative duties. In addition to the cautions and rules, there are regular loopholes, such as this type, that created the potential for a variety of approaches and responses. The visiting priests were also advised not to make a big deal out of unimportant behavioral infractions, lest the convent’s reputation be damaged. But visiting priests were not always on the enforcement side, witness an 1819 Inquestion investigation of a (male) confessor who urged the nuns in his care to engage in same-sex activity for his gratification.

Saint Teresa of Avila, in her instructions for convents, laid out the potential consequences of allowing particular friendships. They could cause jealousy between nuns, but also interfered with focusing one’s love on God. Even as instructions like this provided lists of detailed prohibiltions, they normalized the expectation that “particular friendships” woud occur in ordinary circumstances. And there was a contradictory expectation that nuns should show love and affection for each other--just not too much, and not too specifically.

Saint Boniface listed seven potential signs of forbidden carnal love between nuns. (Note that “carnal” is contrasted with “spiritual” and doesn’t necessarily imply “sexual”.) 1: Conversation that includes jokes and laughter, 2: looks of affection and accompanying each other everywhere, 3: experiencing worry and anxiety, 4: jealousy, 5: anger between the two women when they fight, 6: exchanging gifts and favors, 7: defending each other or covering up for each other.

Why was the primary focus on non-sexual behaviors? Were sexual activities considered less important, or was there concern that if sex were specifically mentioned it would “give women ideas”? Recall that lesbianism was called peccatum mutum “the silent sin” because it often was not mentioned in specific terms.

These concerns about favoritism played out in Saint Teresa’s own life and her special friendships with two protegés who laid claim to continuing her legacy. The description of Teresa’s relationship with Ana de San Bartolomé reads like a template for forbidden “particular friendships”. They shared a cell, talked together regularly, and were inseparable. After Teresa’s death, Ana had other particular friendships with nuns, resulting in jealousy and protestations of exclusive love, as recorded in her letters. Letters are a fertile ground for data on the actual emotional relationships between nuns that express particular love and longing and a desire for affirmation. Convent records of the 17th century record numerous investigations of passionate friendships, all of which are recorded as having successful reform as a conclusion, often with supernatural elements in how the issue was discovered.

The text digresses somewhat curiously into a Chilean folktale that is clearly based on the medieval tale of Yde and Olive. A woman takes on male disguise to escape her father’s incestuous advances, had adventures, and eventually marries a princess who is delighted to discover that her “husband” is actually a woman. When this secret is betrayed and they are near discovery, the disguised woman is granted a miraculous sex-change. The connection with the rest of the chapter is that, like one of the convent investigations, there is a magical flying crucifix involved. [I included the reference here to keep track of the Yde & Olive variant.]

Not all same-sex relations in convents were consensual. An early 18th century Colombian nun recourts unwanted sexual advances from other nuns and becoming a cause of jealousy between other women.

There is a discussion of theatrical performances in convents, including nuns performing as actors. This was not considered a sin if done only for entertainment. Topics of the plays could include passionate friendships between nuns, as well as similar allegorical themes. This is another indication of the normalization of these relationships.

Another source of potential concern, espeically in Spanish colonial areas, was relations between (upper class) nuns and the lay serving women who lived with them. This pattern seems to have been less prevalent in Spain itself.

Time period: 
Event / person: