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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #2 – Puff 2000 "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)"

Full citation: 

Puff, Helmut. 2000. "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)" in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies: 30:1, 41-61.

The first entry was an intriguing story about an adventurous but well-behaved woman with no overt lesbian connection. This second one is pretty much the opposite. I would have a hard time writing Katherina Hetzeldorfer as an entirely sympathetic character (though certainly not deserving of her ultimate fate). But the wealth of detail regarding her exploits and methods is invaluable.

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For sheer soap-opera fascination, the trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer in 1477 in Speier explodes a number of potential myths about lesbian activity in medieval Europe -- whether that there was none, or that it was given no official or legal notice.

Katherina was passing, at least nominally, as a man and had arrived in town with a female companion, initially presented as her “sister” but with whom she eventually confessed to a sexual relationship. (The court records suggest that at some point Katherina described herself to others as the woman’s “husband”.) Although there were some suspicions regarding this relationship, what brought Katherina to the attention of the law was a serious of sexually aggressive adventures, including offering women money for sex and entering women’s houses at night for the purpose of sexual assault. The trial focused on her transgression of gender boundaries in her appearance, but the testimony includes extensive evidence of her sexual behavior. Some aspects of the testimony must be suspect as her partners must have felt the need to present themselves as victims of a gender hoax rather than as willing participants. Katherina’s original companion testified that Katherina had “deflowered her and had made love to her during two years.” Another woman asserted that Katherina had “grabbed her just like a man” … “with hugging and kissing she behaved exactly like a man with women.” And the most detailed testimony concerned how Katherina used an artificial penis both as 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 repertoire also included manual stimulation, with one partner describing, “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.”

The details come from notes and transcripts of the court case in which she was condemned and afterwards executed by drowning.

The author includes passing references and citations of other legal cases involving sexual activity between women.

A German case in 1514 in Mösskirch concerns a servant girl Greta who "did not take any man or young apprentice … but loved the young daughters and went after them … and she also used all the bearings and manners, as if she had a masculine affect.” There was never any mention that she used an instrument, and her activities don't seem to have been popularly condemned, but she was investigated on suspicion of being a hermaphrodite, though doctors determined that she was “a true, proper woman”. (hat sie die jungen döchter geliept, denen nachgangen … auch alle geperden und maieren ob sie als ain mannlichen affect hat … ain wahr, rechts weib gesehen worden.

Another German case in Rottweil in 1444 involving a religious woman Katharina Güldin who practiced the “vice against nature which is called sodomy” with an unnamed lay woman. In this and the previous case there is no indication that the women were trying to pass as men, although their behavior (with women) was labeled “masculine”.

The article includes transcripts of the original records of Hetzeldorfer’s trial, along with a full translation. The notes and bibliography are useful for tracking down details of other similar cases, although Puff seems to have included all the relevant summaries. Much of the discussion of this record concerns how the courts discussed and labelled sexual activity between women, often having no clear term for it at all.

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