Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #115 Brown 1984 “Lesbian Sexuality in Renaissance Italy: The Case of Sister Benedetta Carlini”

Full citation: 

Brown, Judith C. 1984. “Lesbian Sexuality in Renaissance Italy: The Case of Sister Benedetta Carlini” in Signs 9 (1984): 751-58. (reprinted in: Freedman, Esteele B., Barbara C. Gelpi, Susan L. Johnson & Kathleen M. Weston. 1985. The Lesbian Issue: Essays from Signs. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-2256-26151-4)

Publication summary: 

The journal <em>Signs</em> published several early studies on lesbian-like women in European legal records. A number of articles on lesbian topics were collected in a separate publication in 1985, although only a few are relevant to the Project.

Brown, Judith C. “Lesbian Sexuality in Renaissance Italy: The Case of Sister Benedetta Carlini”


I debated whether to include this one because it's basically a teaser for Brown's book about the Benedetta Carlini case. But I've kept this article as well in the interests of completeness (ok, exhaustiveness) since it isn't simply a straightforward excerpt.

* * *

This is Brown's initial discussion of the material published two years later as:

Brown, Judith, C.  1986.  Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.  Oxford University Press, New York.  ISBN 0-19-504225-5

Brown notes this as possibly the earliest detailed account of a sexual relationship between two nuns. Benedetta Carlini was brought to the convent at Pescia (Italy) in 1599 at the age of nine, having been dedicated to the convent at birth. By the time of the inquest regarding her behavior (1619-23) she had become abbess. She was highly literate, intelligent, and articulate, which explains her unusually rapid rise in the convent hierarchy. She was also prone to mystical experiences, which is what brought her to the attention of the authorities. It was during this inquest regarding her unusual mystical claims that her sexual relations with women came to light.

Although the middle ages and Renaissance see many legal cases regarding male homosexuality, or concerning heterosexual activity by nuns, there are extremely few such cases involving women that have been identified in the records. And given the nature of legal records, when cases do occur, the details may be suspect, given the motivation for witnesses to present the story that the male judges expect to hear, or the one that will minimize the testifier’s own culpability. So, for example, Benedetta’s sexual partner presents testimony in which she is an unwilling partner, either forced or bullied into cooperating, and ashamed to bring the experience to light. This may or may not be accurate (given the other nun's subordinate position) but is certainly the least risky framing for her.

Even in the absense of specific testimony, it is certainly plausible that women in convents enjoyed sexual relations with each other. Depending on the time and place, up to 10% of the adult female population might be in religious orders, for reasons unrelated to a sincere vocation. Penitential manuals recognized various sexual sins that women might commit together, and described them in varying levels of explicitness. Current historical scholarship takes the position that these activites were, for the most part, ignored. Or at least, that behaviors that could be excluded from the category of “sexual activity” were ignored. The behaviors that fell afoul of the law (whether secular or religious) tended to be those that usurped male roles, including the use of dildoes, so the record is largely silent on the question of what sexual behaviors women enjoyed with each other that were considered less transgressive. This is the topic on which Benedetta’s trial records shed useful light.

The article spends some time discussing the problem of labels, categories, and identity, particularly in a historic context where the question of sexual orientation is problematic. Labels aside, Benedetta has an identifiable preference for engaging in sexual activity with women in a context where it would have been relatively easy to have sex with men if she wanted to. However she seemed unable to frame her desires in terms of female-female attraction, and the sexual activity was channeled through a masculine persona in the form of the angel Splendidiello.


The article concludes with a transcript (in translation) of the sexually relevant parts of the legal record, describing how she would kiss her partner and “stir herself on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves” and she “put her face between the other’s breasts and kissed them” and “grabbed her companion’s hand by force and putting it under herself, she would have her put her finger in her genitals, and holding it there she stirred herself so much that she corrupted herself.” The description continues with other details of manual stimulation and kissing and fondling of the breasts. Through all this, she claimed to be acting on behalf of the angel Splendidiello.

Time period: 
Event / person: 

Add new comment