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LHMP #117 Lansing 2005 “Donna con Donna? A 1295 Inquest into Female Sodomy”

Full citation: 

Lansing, Carol. 2005. “Donna con Donna? A 1295 Inquest into Female Sodomy” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History: Sexuality and Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Third Series vol. II: 109-122.

One of the frustrations of researching sexuality in legal records--not the theoretical treatises such as penitential manuals, but records of actual accusations and trials--is that an absence of evidence is highly ambiguous. Does it mean that the practice in question wasn't regarded as a crime? Or that it didn't occur? Previous articles on the subject, such as Puff's "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)" and Crompton's "The myth of lesbian impunity: Capital laws from 1270 to 1791" have addressed this question focusing on cases with dire consequences. This more recent publication covers a much earlier case where the legal authorities and even the key witness seem to have been reluctant to view admitted lesbian sexual activity too harshly, and where personal animus by a third party may have been the only reason the accusation was considered at all.

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“In June 1295, a woman named Bertolina, nicknamed Guercia, was accused in the Bolognese civic court of sodomy with other women.” Given that previous surveys of legal accusations of sex between women had not turned up any European examples earlier than the 15th century, this Italian case is a reminder of how much data may still be out there to be found in archives and records that have not yet been studied (or not studied by people for whom this topic would be of interest). Lansing’s article reviews not only the substance of the charges against Guercia, but the context of why the charge may have been made, and why there appears to have been no clear resolution.

In addition to the relatively early date, the case is interesting in that Guercia seems not to have particularly concealed her sexual interest in women--the most specific accusations come from a casual conversation reported between her and a male neighbor in which she discusses the matter quite openly. Conversely, the fact that such an accusation was brought to a court at all undermines the notion that such cases are rare because no one cared what women got up to, in the absence of exacerbating factors such as gender disguise.

The case began with an anonymous notification to the podestà’s court[1] that “Bertolina, who is called Guercia, daughter of the late Francesco of the parish of Santa Cecilia, is and long has been, especially for the last six months, a public and well known sodomite, using a certain mancipium[2] with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women. This is unutterable and horrible, in opprobrium of God and the world and against human nature. She does this in the stipa[3] which is next to the town ditch in the parish of San Vitale.”

[1] A sort of circuit court with rotating and non-local administration.

[2] There is at least one other Bolognese case of similar date using this word to indicate a sexual instrument.

[3] “Strip”, the narrow region next to the old city walls.

The substance of the accusation--especially the focus on the use of an instrument, in imitation of heterosexual intercourse--may be the simple truth, or may be a result of the limitations of the court’s imagination. In addition to the sexual charges, Guercia was accused of love magic and fortune-telling. Charges of this sort were often levelled against women believed to be prostitutes, and the text of the accusation suggests that they were based on her own boasted abilities: “she is a public and well known magician and diviner, deceiving the men and women of the city of Bologna, extorting money from them, saying that she was able to make people greatly and entirely love her, and make others hate, in the manner of a magician and idolator.”

Four of Guercia’s neighbors were questioned by the court and in response to hearing the accusations said that they didn’t know anything of the sort, whether by voice (vox) or reputation (fama). This was evidently a pretty typical response and may have been true, or may have been simply a matter of not wanting to get involved. Only when Guercia’s accuser came public and supplied his own witnesses did the court get any confirmation.

The accuser, Gulielmo, in contrast to the neighbors, seems to have had powerful connections, and those connections also stood as guarrantors for the two witnesses he produced. Only one of these gave a direct account that was included in the court records. In brief, on an occasion perhaps a year or two previous, this man, Ugolino Martini, heard some men serenading someone near his house and went out to ask if they’d serenade his lady. But the singers said they were hired by Guercia (who was present) and could only take his job with her consent. She agreed and the whole group trooped off to Lady Dolzebone’s house.

As the singers serenaded Dolzebone, Guercia quized Ugolino on his interest in her, “Are you interested in this widow?” and when he replied in the affirmative, Guercia said she’d been interested in Dolzebone for the last two years. Ugolino replied, “Unlucky you, how can you be interested in women?” at which Guercia produced her silk virilia (dildo) and explained that she used it for sexual purposes. Ugolino, however, noted under oath that he never saw her use it, and was only reporting what she said.

Per procedure, the court sent to summon Guercia to testify, but she had disappeared and after the stipulated time to appear, she was banned from the commune of Bologna in lieu of paying a fine. Due to the nature of this type of court, it’s clear that the legal action was driven entirely by the accuastion rather than being the concern of the court officials themselves, although the court did have responsibility for inquests regarding “infamous” people. And at least one other legal mention considers the possibility of female sodomy falling in this category. The legal commentator Cino da Postoia glossed the statute covering women who has lost sexual honor as including same-sex relations, noting, “there are certain women, inclined to foul wickedness, who exercise their lust on other women and pursue them like men.” Ordinarily the term “sodomy” was assumed to refer only to male behavior. However in contrast to the usual penalty for men convicted of sodomy (execution by burning) the fine levied against Guercia--though exhorbitant--was far more lenient. 

Lansing’s analysis of the case concludes that the accusation was motivated by personal animus, and was tailored to play into popular ideas of the ties between love magic, fortune-telling, and sexual transgression. Some other cases with similar accuations (though without the same-sex aspect) are clearly strong-arm legal tactics by the accuser to silence or coerce the accused. But the records suggest that accusations of magic generally were paid little attention by the courts. It may also be noteworthy that the court showed little interest in soliciting the testimony of the lovely Dolzebone--a telling absence given the implication that Guercia had enjoyed a sexual relationship with her. Ugolino’s language shows little malice against Guercia and placed the discussion in the context of romance, desire, and courtship, not of sin and transgression. And though it seems not to have previously occurred to him that a woman could consumate a sexual attraction to another woman, neither does he seem either outraged or disbelieving to have it explained to him.

This case may, therefore, provide a relatively even-handed glimpse into a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual relations between women being similar and parallel to those between men and women. Like extra-marital heterosexual relations, they might provide an excuse for the exercise of malice for other reasons. But at least in the case of women, the courts didn’t appear to consider the matter of significant concern.

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