Skip to content Skip to navigation

monastic communities


Monastic communities are a special case of homosocial (single-gender) environment. They were often a focus of anxiety around the potential for close same-sex emotional bonds, both within the community and from those hostile to it.

LHMP entry

This chapter focuses on the image of “turning” away from right behaviors and objects and toward wrong actions and objects. In both text and image, there is a concept of wrong behavior being “turning in circles” and therefore being unable to follow/enter the desired path or gate. Vocabulary related to this include: deviation, conversion, translation, orientation.

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 this chapter, Faderman moves on from 16-18th c male ideas of what lesbian sex might consist of, to the stock “lesbian narratives” in which those ideas appeared, and to the social and political motivations behind how lesbian sex was used as a literary tool or weapon. She uses Mathieu François Mairobert’s L’Espion Anglois (1777-8) as a prototype of pornographic treatments of lesbian sex in the 18th c and later.

Male and anonymous authors continue to focus on lesbians in male-gaze pornography and crude sexual satire. The female authors in this group are instead writing of their own lives, whether the continuing poems on the theme of intensely romantic friendship, or the somewhat banal diaries of the most famous female romantic couple of the age, or the somewhat more transgressive (and likely sensationalized) memoirs of the cross-dressing/genderqueer Charlotte Charke.

There are no identifiably female authors in this set. Several works are anonymous, but unlikely to be by female authors. Sappho continues to be a theme, with approaches that range from a positive interpretation of her homoerotic themes to a satirical portrayal of her invention of lesbianism. Out and out pornography is well represented, presenting sex between women for the male gaze, in one case disguised as condemnation. And we have a couple examples of the blurring of gender categories in ways that could be interpreted as homoerotic (among other interpretations).

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise.

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

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

Like Schibanoff, Weston looks at the framing of religious devotions in same-sex imagery associated with the convent of saint Radegund. An episode in Radegund's Vita in which she encounters Christ as Bridegroom is turned around and echoed more strongly in Radegund’s relationship to the female community she founded, which is expressed in the language of desire and relationship. Within the female-authored part of her Vita, Radegund becomes conflated with Christ the Bridegroom in her relationship to the Brides/nuns who venerate her.

Schibanoff’s article explores the close emotional relations between 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade, a younger noblewoman who became a nun under her. Their relationship led to conflict when Richardis left to become abbess at a different institution and Hildegard went to great lengths to try to arrange for her return.


Subscribe to monastic communities