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Full citation: 

Bullough, Vern L. & James A. Brundage. 1996. Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Garland Publishing, New York. ISBN 0-8153-3662-4 [see also the following, only these articles covered]

Publication summary: 

The 1996 collection Handbook of Medieval Sexuality should be viewed in light of its chronology in the emerging field of the history of historic gender and sexuality studies. There are weaknesses both in the starting assumptions of some authors and in the available groundwork.

Contents summary: 

Sexual Norms

Payer, Pierre J. – “Confession and the Study of Sex in the Middle Ages” - Reviews the usefulness of penitential manuals for the study of sexual activity and attitudes thereto. This article talks about issues and problems of this genre as a source but does not go into detail on content. (Content relating to female same-sex activity has been discussed in other LHMP entries.) There is an extensive bibliography of both primary and secondary sources on penitentials

Brundage, James A. – “Sex and Canon Law” - Discusses the philosophical and cultural background for the Christian church’s interest in the sexual activity of its members.

Cadden, Joan – “Western Medicine and Natural Philosophy” - A general survey of medieval European medical literature, including the topics most relevant to gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Brief discussion of “sexual frustration” as a medical condition, including prescriptions for masturbation as a treatment, which comes to include sexual activity between women. But in general dismissal of woman-woman sexual activity as a topic of medical concern.

Salisbury, Joyce E. – “Gendered Sexuality” - Medieval attitudes toward differences in male and female sexuality. Notes classical and medieval beliefs that women had a higher sex drive than men. [Note: this is particularly relevant in countering the image of lesbian sexuality being constrained by the view of women being more sexually passive.] Significant discussion of sex and humoral theory.

McGlynn, Margaret & Richard J. Moll – “Chaste Marriage in the Middle Ages: ‘It were to hire a greet merite’” - Discussion of the Christian ascetic ideal of abstaining from sex entirely, even within marriage. Not really relevant to the project.

Murray, Jacqueline – “Hiding Behind the Universal Man: Male Sexuality in the Middle Ages” - Not relevant.

Variance from Norms

Johansson, Warren & William A. Percy – “Homosexuality” - This is, alas, one of those articles that confirms the rule of them that if a male academic writes a work with the words “homosexual” or “gay” in the title, it’s safe to assume that women aren’t even on the radar.

Karras, Ruth Mazo – “Prostitution in Medieval Europe” - Not relevant.

Riddle, John M. – “Contraception and Early Abortion in the Middle Ages” - Not relevant.

Kuefler, Mathew S. – “Castration and Eunuchism in the Middle Ages” - Not relevant. (Although several of the articles on the motif of “women cross-dressing to enter monasteries” note that the social recognition of eunuchs created a physical category of men that was relatively easier for women to carry off.)

Cultural Issues

Roth, Norman – “A Note on Research into Jewish Sexuality in the Medieval Period” - No relevant material.

Roth, Norman – “A Research Note on Sexuality and Muslim Civilization” - Survey of medieval Arabic literature relating to love and sex. There is one brief reference to the 11th c. female poet Wallada, in al-Andalus, who had both male and female lovers.

Levin, Eve – “Eastern Orthodox Christianity” - No relevant material. Brief reference to attitudes towards acts “against nature” but appears to cover men only.

Finke, Laurie – “Sexuality in Medieval French Literature: ‘Separés, on est Ensemble’” - No relevant material. Very theory-centered.

Jochens, Jenny – “Old Norse Sexuality: Men, Women, and Beasts” - Interesting details on how attraction, affection, and sex are depicted in Old Norse literature, but nothing directly relevant to the current project.

Lampe, David – “Sex Roles and the Role of Sex in Medieval English Literature” - No relevant material.

Contents summary: 

As a a methodology article, Murray begins with the usual discussion of the problems of data on this topic, in particular the double-whammy by which women's history sidelines homosexuality, and the history of homosexuality sidelines women. Having gotten past the problems of definitions and theory, the article presents a survey of types of historic data on women's affectional, erotic, and sexual relations with each other. The material contrasts with Bennett's survey article (Bennett 2000) in that it focuses more broadly on literature and legal theory rather than specific individuals. So it's more about what people thought or could conceive about lesbians, as opposed to documented persons and acts. The coverage is wide-ranging from the earliest Christian philosophers to well into the 17th century, though shifts in thought and approach within that scope are discussed. The material falls in seven categories: Biblical commentary, monastic rules, penitentials, medical treatises, legal cases, secular literature, and art. The following are summaries only (with a few specifics) while the article is more detailed.

Biblical commentary - Discussion whether medieval commenters considered Paul's "unnatural relations" to indicate lesbianism. Conclusions unclear.

Monastic rules - The texts illustrate expectations and concerns about sexual activity between cloistered women, reflected in prescribed solo sleeping arrangements and discouragement of affectionate exchanges indicating "particular friendships". It was clear that the writers considered sexual activity between them women to be expected in the absence of regulations and practices to prevent it. Augustine (ca. 423) "the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided, not only by widows and chaste handmaids of Christ, living under a holy rule of life, but also entirely by married women and maidens destined for marriage." Donatus (7th c.) "It is forbidden lest any take the hand of another for delight or stand or walk around or sit together ... any who is called 'little girl' or who call one another 'little girl'…"

Penitentials - Differential penalties give information on practices, and distinguish spiritual and earthly love. The descriptions acknowledge sexual activity with and without "devices" with the latter considered worse. Both parties are considered culpable. Some texts treat married women more harshly (perhaps on the premise that they have a lawful sexual outlet available). Authors could simultaneously praise close emotional bonds between women even when expressed in passionate terms, yet condemn any physical expression. In later penitential writings that aim for a more systematic approach, lesbianism gets grouped with male homosexuality with consequent erasure. Penitential of Theodore (7th c.) "If a woman practices vice with a woman ... if she practices solitary vice ... the penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication." Penitential of Rabanus Maurus (9th c.) "A woman who joins herself to another woman after the manner of fornication …." The Penitential of Bede (8th c.) "If nuns with a nun, using an instrument …." Hincmar of Reims (9th c.) "they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire." Hildegard of Bingen (12th c.) "And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in my sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one…."

Medical/astrological treatises - Original sources tend to be relatively less judgmental than later evolutions. A 9th c. treatise attributed to Galen lists both "drugs which make women detest lesbianism even if they madly lust for it" and "drugs that make lesbianism so desirable to women that they would keep busy with it and passionately lust for it forgetting all about their work." One 12th c. Arabic treatise describes a category of women who surpass others in intelligence and are sexually aggressive, noting that they don't submit to men for sex and are drawn to lesbianism.

Legal cases and punishments - Law codes rarely touch overtly on lesbian activity and evidence for prosecutions is even scantier. Typically cases were recorded when a woman also was passing as male, or when other legal issues were present. (The usual collection of 15th c. prosecutions is discussed, but as I'll be covering these in their original publications, I'll skip the details.)

Secular literature and correspondence - Aside from some characters and episodes in medieval romances which could be read as lesbian or lesbian-like, the topic rarely appears in medieval secular literature. One rare exception is a song by the female troubadour Bieiris de Romans addressed to a woman named Maria which is clearly erotic in content. Another, less positive, mention is a satirical poem that runs through a list of visual metaphors for sex between women, including "they don't play at jousting but join shield to shield without a lance", "they don't bother with a pestle in their mortar nor a fulcrum for their see-saw", and "they do their jousting act in couples and go at if at full tilt at the game of thigh-fencing." There are a few surviving letters sent between women that express a strong and personal emotional connection that is couched in passionate or even erotic language, such as, "Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you every hour, at every moment ... you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart." (12th c.)

Art - Portrayals of female interactions that are clearly sexual in nature rather than simply affectionate can be hard to distinguish. One unmistakable one from an illustrated Bible moralisée from Vienna shows a female couple and a male couple entwined in erotic embraces while devils look on. (13th c.) (See the user pic for this series for a clip from this image.)

Contents summary: 

The article begins with a survey of the discussion of, and attitudes toward distinguishing biological sex and gender behaviour in professional literature. Especially in distinguishing transvestism, transexualism, gender non-conformity, and more situational uses of cross-gender behavior. This article focuses more on those situational uses rather than cross-dressing as a feature of gender or sexual identity.

Cross-dressing as part of religious ritual in pre-Christian times is noted, as well as the influence of those practices on Jewish and Christian attitudes towards cross-dressing. And as a starting basis for the differential attitudes towards male and female cross-dressing, there is a discussion of how beliefs about gender inequities resulted in framing men cross-dressing as “lowering” and therefore being suspect (e.g., for easier access to women’s spaces) while women cross-dressing were seen as “elevating” themselves. There is significant discussion and review of medieval theories of sex difference and resulting misogynistic attitudes.

The motif of cross-dressing saints is noted, with many of the same examples seen in Anson 1974, Bullough 1974, Hotchkiss 1996, as well as reference to the 4th century Coucil of Gangra condemnation of the practice of women disguising themselves as men to join monastic communities. The similiar 12th c. story of Saint Hildegund is mentioned, as well as the legend of Pope Joan, as well as the non-disguise cross-dressing of Joan of Arc. (See the entry for Hotchkiss 1996 for details.) Other examples listed here that are covered in other entries include Le Roman de Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999),

Examples not already covered in other entries include:

A mid-16th c. Spanish woman Elena (Eleno) de Desopedes who has a long complicated story in which she passed as a man for an extended period (including passing physical examination) and married a woman before eventually being unmasked.

The character of the amazon Bradamante in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso who is taken for a man by a princess who falls in love with her (to be saved by a convenient twin brother), and similar romantic confusion due to cross-dressing amazons in Spenser’s Faerie Queen (specifically the character of Britomart). The author notes “numerous other examples” citing Sir Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia and studies such as Melveena McKendrick’s Women and Society in Spanish Drama of the Golden Age and Dekker and van de Pol’s The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe (which will be covered extensively in its own entry).

The remainder of the article covers men cross-dressing, especially in theatrical-type contexts.