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LHMP #149b Velasco 2011 Lesbians in Early Modern Spain Chapter 2

Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

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 2: Legal, Medical, and Religious Approaches to Lesbians in Early Modern Spain

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This chapter looks at the context of non-normative sexuality as discussed in “professional” texts (legal, medical, theological). They show the variety of practices considered to be present and of concern. A great deal of this chapter is something of a “review of the field” and concerns not only texts specific to early modern Spain, but ones that would have formed part of the background understanding of the time.

Religious prohibitions included interpretations of Romans 1:26 that more clearly positioned the text as referring to “female with female” vice, as in Aquinas. Some texts straddle the divide between law and theology, such as Cino da Pistoia’s interpretation of 3rd century Roman law as condemning both “active” and “passive” participants in sex between women, or the recommendation by Bartholomaeus de Saliceto in the 15th century of the death penalty for female sodomy.

Spanish law saw an increase in intolerance for unorthodox sex in the 16-17th centuries. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the recommended punishment for male sodomites increased from castration to death by burning, as for heretics. The increasing association of sodomy with heresy motivated transferring jurisdiction for sodomy cases to the Inquisition beginning in the early 16th century. But there was an active debate regarding whether what women could do together could be classified as “sodomy”. A 1532 edict by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V explicitly included women under sodomy laws. This interpretation was also confirmed by a 1555 opinion discussing the medieval law code Las siete partidas. But competing legal opinions held that sex between women was inherently less of a transgression than male sodomy and recommended leniency on this basis. Technical decisions often focused on whether a dildo had been used. This question could feature in testimony against specific defendants and affect the resulting sentence.

The chapter offers a brief summary of classical medieval theories of lesbian desire, including Islamic and Jewish writers such as Avicenna and Maimonides. These sources, while disapproving of sex between women, did not necessarily prescribe legal penalties. Arabic sexual texts discuss a variety of sexual practices between women, or generally on non-heterosexual practices that focused on women’s sexual fulfilment. There is a brief discussion of theories of physiognomy and astrology regarding sexual orientation. Pseudo-medical theories about innate sexual orientation include humoral theories or attribute it to the results of prenatal (maternal) experiences. These approaches tend to be strongly gender-essentialist, seeing lesbian desire as a type of masculinity.

Velasco reviews literature on the Renaissance “rediscovery of the clitoris” and theories of the relationship between lesbianism and an enlarged clitoris. There is a medical acceptance of the possibility of spontaneous sex change from female to male, situated within a general fascination for “monstrosity”. A detailed Spanish case history of such a transformation in mid life is offered. (Note: I’m once again disappointed that the author omits any discussion of the possibility of intersex interpretations of this topic.) In 1700, the medical writer Sinistrari puts forth the opinion that women cannot commit sodomy, apparently defining sodomy narrowly in terms of penetration by a natural organ and the “transmission of seed”, but he makes a possible allowance for women with an enlarged clitoris and considers this phenomenon to be the basis of “spontaneous sex change” stories. The discussion notes the racist strain in discussions of the “enlarged clitoris” phenomenon. Clitoridectomy is noted as a treatment for an enlarged clitoris, though Sinistrari deprecates it due to the risk of fatal consequences.

Thus lesbianism could be seen as a medical issue due to abnormal anatomy, rather than a legal or moral one. But if two women were known to have lain together and one was found to have what was considered to be an enlarged clitoris, then the law considered that sodomy could be presumed to have happened.

Theological sources of information include guidelines for confessors, listing possible questions to elicit details of sins. These, like many of the other “professional” texts discussed in this chapter have a heterocentric bias, assuming that sex between women will be an imitation of heterosexual (penetrative) sex.

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