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No one expects...the jokes write themselves

Monday, January 28, 2019 - 07:00

As I mention in the discussion below, given how very little information this article has relating to women's same-sex relations, one might wonder why I bothered to include it. And the answer is, because often negative information is as important to understanding the context of people's lives in history as the positive information is. We often have an impression that women in sexual relationships were in constant danger of persecution and repression. That they must have lived in constant fear of discovery and the consequences thereof. But once you sift through the data in this article (and it's packed full of numbers and pie charts and trend graphs), the take-home message is that in the entire kingdom of Aragon in Spain, for the century and a half when the Spanish Inquisition was most fixated on the sexual lives of ordinary people, only one (1) female couple is recorded as being tried by the Inquisition for the offense of sodomy. And they were punished by exile and being forbidden to live together, not by death or even imprisonment. (Though exile was nothing to sneeze at.) While this data doesn't address how this compared with attention from the secular courts, and while it doesn't give us a baseline for how many women engaged in acts that might have been considered sodomy, we can make some reasonable extrapolations and suggest that legal prosecution of women solely for engaging in same-sex acts was not a major risk factor.

So when you're imagining the lives of your fictional characters and thinking of setting them in 16-17th century Spain, maybe--just maybe--the Inquisition isn't something that needs to be a constant threat looming over their lives. In fact, coming to the notice of the Inquisition must might be more historically inaccurate than otherwise.

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Full citation: 

Fernandez, André. 1997. “The Repression of Sexual Behavior by the Aragonese Inquisition between 1560 and 1700” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 7:4 pp.469-501

This is a data-heavy examination of cases under the Spanish Inquisition for sexual-related offenses during a critical period from the mid 16th century to the end of the 17th century. There is very little in the article that speaks directly to sexual activity between women, but it provides a context for attitudes and risks during that period.

The question being addressed is why there was a significant increase in the prosecution of sexual offenses in the Kingdom of Aragon beginning around 1560, and how and why that focus tapered off over the course of the 17th century. The official focus of the Inquisition was on eradicating heresy, but in the mid 16th century that focus expanded to overlap with the jurisdiction of episcopal and royal courts with regard to four categories of sexual offense that were considered to represent not simply moral offenses, but offenses against the natural order or against the sacraments. These four categories were solicitation, bigamy, sodomy, and bestiality.

The documentary record shows the court working its way through the process of categorizing offenses under these headings, and determining their relative gravity and appropriate penalties. Simple fornication (i.e., extramarital sex between a man and a woman) was a moral and legal offense but did not come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition under ordinary circumstances and so is not included in this data (although far more common).

A great deal of the article is taken up with detailed discussions of data trends, categories, and statistics, of which I’ll only hit the highlights. Overall, this increased focus on sexual offenses ran from 1560 through around 1620, then tapered off  steadily until the end of the 17th century when the Inquisition functionally lost interest in the topic.

Of the four categories, the only one of relevance to the LHMP is sodomy, and even there the overwhelming majority of the cases involve relations between men. Out of 1829 cases included in the data overall, 691 (38%) fell in the category of sodomy. But of those, only 8 cases involved women, with 7 of them concerning sodomy in the context of a male-female relationship. Only one case (keep in mind, this is in the entire kingdom or Aragon in the course of nearly a century and a half) involved a female couple. The case occurred in 1656, the women were unmarried, and (if I’m reading the article correctly) the sentence was banishment from their home city for 8 years and being forbidden from cohabiting.

While this may seem like a small tidbit on which to include this article in the Project, it provides a context for other previous mentions of the prosecution of female couples within the authority of the Spanish Inquisition. Clearly the overall risk of coming to their attention, or of receiving a significant punishment, was low, despite the fearsome reputation of the organization.

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