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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #50 - Matter 1989 “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity”

Full citation: 

Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.

I tend to look very critically at discussions of lesbian activity among cloistered women. In historic sources, it was a common slur against the institutions by those who either considered specific institutions to be corrupt or by those who were anti-Catholic in general. Among modern historians, there has been a fashion for seeking out erotic imagery in medieval Christian mysticism and interpreting that imagery in creative ways. (Probably the best example of what I'm thinking about is the interpretations of Christ's wound as a yonic symbol and that therefore devotion by women focusing on it is inherently homoerotic.)

For the purposes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, two types of evidence in this field seem most useful. The first is documentation of what the culture believed was possible as behavior among women -- conveniently concentrated in all-female communities. This includes penitential literature with its often highly-specific descriptions of problematic behavior, as well as products of the popular imagination about what cloistered women might be getting up to with each other. The second, much less common, type of evidence is the records of the women themselves -- correspondence, poetry, meditations -- that express their feelings about their female communities, and often about very specific members, in language charged with desire and eroticism. There have been those who argued that this is a matter of literary convention or the poetic imagery of platonic friendship, but what would it mean for it to be a literary convention for women to address each other with language indistinguishable from that used by heterosexual lovers?

* * *

This article looks at the language of personal love and affection between medieval cloistered women. This social context provides an interesting window expressions of female same-sex desire due to three intersecting factors: the gender-segregated nature of their communities, the relative autonomy (economic and intellectual) women enjoyed within these communities, and the high degree of literacy among cloistered women (allowing us glimpses into their lives via their own words).

The religious ideal (as expressed in any number of monastic rules) was to avoid personal emotional attachments, and especially to discourage physical expressions of desire between nuns, however surviving writings suggest a more realistic view of what could be felt and expressed on an individual basis.

Particularly striking in their physicality are the verses surviving in a 12th century manuscript at Tegernsee (Bavaria) addressed by a 12th century nun “To G., her singular rose”, expressing longing for her physical presence as well as recalling “the kisses you gave me, and how with tender word you caressed my little breasts”. Another poem between women in the same manuscript is more discreet, noting “I love you more than any, you alone are my love and longing” and similar sentiments. The language is similar to that of courtly love poetry, traditionally viewed as conventional expressions of heterosexual desire.

A 13th century Flemish Beguine (a member of a non-cloistered women’s religious community) leave writings that use strongly sensual language to express her love both for Christ and for specific fellow community members, using the romantically-loaded term “Minne” (love), though she seems to feel her love is not returned as strongly. “Greet Sara also in my behalf, whether I am anything to her or nothing. Could I be fully all that in my love I wish to be for her, I would gladly do so; and I shall do so fully, however she may treat me.” And in the same letter to another woman named Emma, “both of you [i.e., Sara and Emma] turn too little to Love, who has so fearfully subdued me in the commotion of unappeased love. My heart, soul, and senses have not a moment’s rest, day or night; the flame burns constantly in the very marrow of my soul.” For similar language between women in a secular context, see the discussion of Bieiris de Romans (Rieger 1989, Bogin 1976) [covered previously].

To contextualize these expressions, the author reviews the coverage of same-sex sexual sins noted in penitential manuals [covered in previous entries, such as Bullough & Brundage 1996, Benkov 2001, Murray 1996] which provide support for concern about (and likely the reality of) sexual activity among cloistered women, but notes that the penance for women was generally lighter than for similar activity between men unless male roles were directly challenged, as with the use of “instruments”.

The article concludes by reviewing two cases of judicial action against women with proven sexual activity where religious issues were also involved. One is the early 17th century case of the nun Benedetta Carlini [which is covered in detail in Brown 1986 Immodest Acts which will be covered by this project in a future entry] and the other concerns the early 18th c. case of Catherina Linck [mentioned briefly in Dekker & van de Pol 1989]. Though Catherina’s case seems far afield from the situation of medieval nuns, as this article contains more details than other citations, it may be worth going into more detail.

In 1721, Catherina Margaretha Linck was put on trial (and condemned to death) in Halberstadt, Germany for a variety of transgressions including masquerading as a man, both in military and civilian life, marrying a woman (somewhat confusingly, another Catherina Margaretha, this one surnamed Mühlhahn) and engaging in sexual relations with her using “a penis of stuffed leather with two stuffed testicles made from pig’s bladder attached to it”. But in addition to this last, a key element in the severity of her sentence may have been her tendency to profess Catholicism and Lutheranism alternately, depending on the prevalent sect in the two she was living in (and, in fact, had married her wife twice, once under each faith).

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