Using the records of court cases to research lesbian lives in history is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, they often present a wealth of detail not found in any other type of record unless--by miraculous luck--a personal diary or set of candid correspondence is unearthed. But conversely, court cases, by their nature, present a skewed view of people's lives. They show people in conflict and distress. They arise when relationships go bad, or were never particularly good in the first place. They are typcially the records of only those classes of people who aren't able to conceal their activities through priviledge, or to evade legal penalties if concealment is impossible. It would be all too easy, when looking at the trials of criminal lesbians, to conclude that lesbianism inherently leads to criminality. (Consider as a parallel how early psychiatrists studying homosexuality in their patients--patients who had come to them for help with severe problems--concluded that homosexuality was an inherently deranged condition. Because, after all, all the homosexuals they knew were people with serious emotional problems!) With that caveat, the court records studied here provide a rich and extensive (sometimes very extensive) record of the details of how some women lived together in romantic and sexual partnerships. Of what some of their sexual practices were. And how their relationships were sometimes viewed by the neighbors and family members who were aware of them.
One interesting take-away is that these romantic relationships between women were sometimes public knowledge in their communities, and sometimes apparently accepted by their families. (At least, that's the implication when they are living as a couple in a family member's house.) And although the cases that came before the law demonstrate that any sort of sexual activity between women was considered worthy of punishment, the severity of that punishment depended strongly on the specific sex acts involved. Reading between the lines, there seems to be plenty of scope to imagine lesbian relationships that never came to the interest of the law for the simple fact that they never turned sour enough to disrupt the community, and where the women lived openly as a couple with at least tolerance from family and neighbors.
Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
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 3: Criminal Lesbians
This chapter looks at evidence regarding lesbian activity that can be found in specific court cases, as well as perceptions of the role of lesbian relations in criminal activities and contexts. The point here is not that lesbians were inherently criminal in early modern Spain (though some official opinions were that one type of deviant behavior was expected to lead to other types), but that the nature of legal records can provide a wealth of detail that is not available for other contexts.
The conflicting professional opinions on female sodomy in Spain played out in criminal prosecutions. The outcome of trials could depend both on the specific nature of the behavior and situation as well as on how successful the accused woman was in contesting the charges. The summary of this chapter will largely be brief outlines of the cases.
Ca. 1400 a woman dressed as a man served as a judicial official and married two women (presumably sequentially). She was convicted of sodomy because she used a penetrative instrument for sex, but recognition of her government service resulted in leniency. Specifically, she was hanged rather than the prescribed sentence of being burnt to death. The accusation had come from her second wife.
In 1502 in Valencia a woman passed as a man and married a woman, using an artificial penis made of lambskin for sex. She had also had sex in that way with other women. Her gender was discovered in the context of an accusation of theft. She was sentenced to hang but was pardoned on the basis of a legal technicality with regard to how the trial was handled. In a number of these cases, it is an open question whether the “femme” partner was truly ignorant of the sex of the passing woman or whether she was relying on the legal tendency to focus on gender transgressions rather than the sexual relationship per se.
In 1503, two women--Catalina de Belunçe and Matiche de Oyarzún--were accused of having sex “like a man and a woman”. No other specifics of the offence were given and there was no mention of the use of an instrument. Only one of the pair was sentenced to banishment and confiscation of her belongings, but with capital punishment if she returned from banishment. But rather than accepting this leniency, she appealed to the royal court, claiming innocence and that no evidence had been offered. The charge had been based on “public reputation” of her activities. She impugned the witness and accused the prosecutor (the local mayor) of a profit motive in pursuing the case. She was pardoned, the sentence reversed, and her possessions were returned to her. The true story behind the case is hard to decipher. Why was her partner not also accused (given that there doesn’t appear to have been a “butch-femme” dynamic in the accused behavior)? Who was the witness?
In 1560, the Inquisition in Aragon debated whether a case involving several women fell under the category of sodomy as no sexual instrument had been used, though there was genital contact (which was described in heterocentric terms). They ended up not prosecuting.
In 1656, the Inquisition in Aragon judged a case against a 28 year old widow Ana Aler and a 22 year old laundress Mariana López who were accused of sodomy by nosy neighbors (two men and three women). The specific behaviors involved were hugging, kissing, putting a hand under the skirt to touch the genitals, expressions of jealousy followed by protestations of loyalty and pledges of love. The women were said to follow each other around. It was claimed that Ana boasted of having sex with “the best woman in Zaragoza” who was willing to pay her for it, but it’s unclear if this was an actual reference to female same-sex prostitution or just boasting. The neighbors testified they overheard the sounds of passion and sex talk , “Give it to me, I can’t wait any longer!” as well as to seeing the women lying on top of each other and evidence of “emission of semen” (i.e., orgasm). Although there was no evidence of a penetrative instrument being used, the verdict was still labeled “sodomy” but the sentence was limited to whipping and exile and the women were forbidden to live in the same location in the future.
Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested in 1603 in Salamanca as “bujarronas” (female sodomites). They had previous sodomy convictions in Valladolid. A complex background story emerged from the trial. Inés had at one point claimed to be a nun and was soliciting donations and assembling a group of “wayward” young women to take them to a convent (the implication being a house of penitence for reformed prostitutes). The suspicion was that instead she was recruiting for the sex trade. The sexual accusations against Inés and Catalina included use of a penetrative instrument and they were given a death sentence which was appealed and reduced to whipping and banishment.
Among the details of the testimony it emerged that the two women had enjoyed a long term domestic partnership “eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed.” Their love for each other was public knowledge. Catalina had left her husband to live with Inés. Among the witnesses was a maid from Catalina’s father’s house where the two lived for a time. The detailed testimony reveals the witnesses’ fantasies as well as facts. The existence of sexual activity was assumed from overheard activity including panting and grunting and comments like, “Does that feel good?” as well as love talk.
The defendants admitted to the sex but each tried to frame her own role as less culpable based on minor technicalities such as who was lying on top. The sexual acts they admitted to included rubbing vulvas together and manual stimulation. They were inconsistent with regard to the use of an instrument. (Witnesses said they had used an instrument made of cane, but Inés described one made of leather that they stopped using because it was painful.)
During one temporary separation, they may have had sex with other women and there was reported discussion of the advantages of lesbian sex: no pregnancy, it was more pleasurable than heterosexual sex, they found men repulsive. In this context, Catalina reported on knowing of other female couples in the convent where she stayed for a time. Much of the evidence may have come out during fights between the women. Catalina felt that Inés was stalking and harassing her to renew the relationship, though witnesses said their relationship ran hot and cold and was not one-sided. Inés seems to have been the more jealous and controlling. Neighbors described them as being so close a couple “like man and woman” that all attempts to break them up failed. All this happened over an extended period of time during which their relationship was public knowledge. The neighbors would insult them (and they each other) with terms like bujarronas (female sodomites), puta bellaca (cheating whore), somética (fem. sodomite), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wielding scoundrel). Velasco compares their reported behavior to modern patterns of domestic violence among lesbians. Inés was significantly older, more economically stable, and was the more aggressive and controlling. The trial was instigated when Catalina went to the authorities to complain about Inés’s violent behavior.
Despite the admitted use of a penetrating instrument, they were not given the death penalty and had received similarly lenient treatment in a previous trial. Velaso notes that these trial records contradict the idea that sexual relationships between women were invisible but also contradict the idea that they were tolerated or considered insignificant.
In 1745 in Colombia, two mestiza seamstresses named Margarita Valenzuela and Gregoria Franco had a long-term public romance that was disrupted by the reappearance of the father of Margarita’s child. This resulted in a conflict that came to the attention of the law. Gregoria was banished for a short term and warned not to reinitiate the relationship on penalty of permanent banishment.
In 1597, the Inquisition in Mallorca found a 30 year old single woman Esperanza de Rojas guilty of various offences, including practicing love magic to re-attract the passion of two women she’d been sexually involved with while all three were at a home for fallen women. She was sentenced to whipping and exile with the mitigating factor that she had acted in anger. The major concern was the accusation of demonic magic and the recorded testimony included specifics of the rituals. These included claims that she used Jewish and Muslim prayers as well as using a demonic statuette as a focus. The nature of the rituals was consistent with descriptions of heterosexual love magic at the time. Esperanza claimed she had learned the rituals from another woman while traveling to Rome and Naples.
Further investigations by the Inquisition at the institution where the three women had lived that took place in 1597-8 turned up other accusations of same-sex activity. Catalina Lebrés was accused of “illicit relations with other female residents.”
Velasco spends some time discussing the nature and context of female penitential institutions in early modern Spain. Their general purpose was to control women who were not successfully under patriarchal authority. There were concerns about women’s misbehavior inside the institutions, but that concern might either focus on, or be oblivious to, the possibility of lesbian sex. Overcrowding was a regular concern, as well as the potential for women to learn new forms of criminality from the other inmates.
Concerns regarding the potential for sexual relations between women were shared by religious penitential institutions and regular convents. Convent rules often proscribed sleeping together or forbade two nuns to be alone together behind closed doors. The code word for the concern was “special friendships”. Specific behaviors that were considered a sign of danger were talking together at night, sleeping together, hugging, “joining their faces together.”
Another intersection of concern is the long historic association between lesbianism and prostitution, dating as early as Roman times (Lucian, Alciphron). Velasco notes the contrast laid out in a 16th century Italian text on women’s friendships by Firenzuola, that contrasts the “chaste” love between Laudomia Forteguerra and Duchess Margaret of Austria with the lascivious love of Sappho and of “the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana.” But within the same century, Brantôme in France imputed a more sexual relationship to Margaret and Laudomia, and grouped them with a noted Spanish prostitute in Rome, Isabella de Luna, who kept a mistress. Moving our attention back to Spain, there were conflicting opinions whether the existence of legal brothels successfully kept men away from sodomy (by making women available) or whether one sin would breed other sins and thus men who frequented brothels were more likely to move on to sodomy.
The intersection of prostitution, love magic, and “medical” manual stimulation, as well as the possibilities of sex between women appear in Fernando de Rojas’ La Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea more commonly known as La Celestina. Velasco spends some time reviewing the details and implications of this work.
There was an association of witchcraft and lesbian desire, along with aspects of heresy. Several authors repeat a description from Leo Africanus of North African sahacat witches, who seduce or pleasure other women under the guise of medical treatment. (It isn’t clear whether the repetition of this motif is in reference to Africa or gives the appearance of generalizing it to Spain. Note that sahacat is from the Arabic root sahq with the same general meaning of rubbing as fricatrix.)
The chapter concludes with one last case study in Mexico of an accusation of lesbian seduction (or predation) by a female couple of their female boarder, who then used witchcraft to try to take revenge on the couple.