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female sodomy

Entire articles have been written on how historic writers interpreted “sodomy” in the context of women. As used, it could mean any non-procreative sexual activity (including heterosexual activities). In general, I’ve only used this tag when the phrase is used to indicate sex between women of any type.

LHMP entry

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In Paris, ca. 1200, there was an increased focus on anti-sodomy literature. One writer considered it equivalent to murder because both “interfere with the multiplication of men.” Sodomy also relates to gender categories because non-procreative sex blurs distinctions and suggest androgyny. Androgynous people, according to this position, must pick a binary identity based on the nature of who they find arousing within an imposed heterosexual framework. The focus in this anti-sodomy literature is not generally on gender ambiguity, but specifically on preserving “active” male sexuality.

This is a translation of an 1891 publication of the summary of German trial records from1721. The 1891 publication is by Dr. F. C. Müller, a sexologist who added his own commentary from the point of view of sexual psychopathology. Eriksson’s translation omits this commentary and includes only the original trial summary. The summary was put together after the conclusion of the trial when the sentence was being sent to a higher authority for review.

Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.

The paper opens with a consideration of the use of the term “queer” in modern academia, combined with a more literal meaning indicating deviance from the norm. But then it dives into a somewhat unusual use of the word in the diaries of Anne Lister (1791-1840) who appears to use “queer” as a name for female genitalia—a use that doesn’t seem to have a clear origin or parallels.

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

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.

The author is looking through 18th century civic records from Hamburg, Germany for data about same-sex relationships, primarily in legal contexts. The majority of the article covers male topics, but one particular example involving women is explored in some depth. The case of Ilsabe Bunck and Maria Cäcilia Jürgens initially appears in legal contexts, but later became sensationalized and is often treated in a moralizing or voyeuristic way.

The category of acts understood under the label “sodomy” in the Middle Ages is confusing and difficult to define. The difficulty of definition is not helped by a tendency among medievalists to ignore entirely how the category might relate to women and to activities that women participated in. The medieval textual evidence adds the further confusion of whether “sodomy” did not apply to women, or whether it did but nobody cared about what they were doing.

I’ve been hoping to track down this article since it first came to my attention, and the historic individual documented here is even more intersectionally mind-blowing than I knew. If I had to sum up the story in click-bait style, it would be: “Sixteenth-century Spanish bi-racial ex-slave transman becomes classically trained surgeon and marries happily.” Alas, the ending isn’t quite as happy, though far from tragic.

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