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Passions and Devotions in Medieval German Writing

Monday, May 14, 2018 - 07:00

The field of medieval "queer studies" has included a fascination with possible erotic and sexual interpretations of religious imagery and language. Some of the interpretations, I confess, have always felt a bit far-fetched to me. But here we look at the writings of one particular religious woman, Hadewijch of Brabant, whose language is undeniably erotic and passionate, addressing the image of "Lady Minne", whose name reflects erotic rather than platonic love. And there is just enough confusion and ambiguity in how the figure of Minne is intertwined with Christ and with Hadewijch's disciples and students, that one gets a clear impression of using ecstatic religious language as a medium for expressing romantic desire between women. This provides a different angle on the idea of women's religious networks and communities as creating the opportunity for same-sex love. Rather than images of sex-starved nuns seeking erotic fulfillment, or concerns about "special friendships" developing into inappropriate closeness, what if some religious women considered their same-sex attractions to be a positive embodiment of the devotion they also felt for God?

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Full citation: 

Wiethaus, Ulrike. 2003. “Female Homoerotic Discourse and Religion in Medieval Germanic Culture” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4

The author looks at texts that can be read as homoerotic  addressed between religious women in medieval Germany. She specifically rejects the approach of treating women’s homoerotic experiences as equivalent to, or subsumed under, men’s experiences. After examining this type of literature in general, she applies that understanding to the writings of a specific woman who helped develop the concept of Christian bridal mysticism: Hadewijch of Brabant (early 13th century).

In a medieval religious context, a search for texts that fit a contemporary model of homoeroticism will turn up very little. Instead one must examine the social relations and power structures within which the texts are created to identify constraints on how women are able to express homoeroticism and how these feelings can be encoded in acceptable forms both as expression and resistance.

Hildegard of Bingen’s writings about homoeroticism demonstrate this conflict. On the one hand, she repeats the official condemnatory views prevalent in theological texts of the time, while her liturgical songs and personal correspondence, which were aimed at an exclusively female audience, express strong same-sex attachments and a homoerotic aesthetic.

Elite male writings set out the accepted views and opinions on female homoeroticism that could be expressed in standard theological texts. But genres that were predominantly composed by and for women found ways to explore more positive expressions of homoerotic experience. At the same time, these texts represent only a small fraction of the more elite educated female religious community and it is difficult to tell whether they reflect the experiences of less privileged women.

These woman-centered texts supply evidence for same-sex attachments within German women’s religious communities, expressed within creative and imaginative spiritual expressions that were often wrapped in layers of metaphor. Wiethaus cautions that we have no direct evidence whether the women who created these textual expressions also engaged in homoerotic sexual acts. For that matter, we can’t always know what types of acts they would have considered to be sexual.

Much of the homoerotic expression focuses on imagined spiritual figures including the Virgin Mary and Minne or “Lady Love”, a personification of divine ecstatic love which Hadewijch used regularly in her writing. This use of a female personification of a spiritual abstraction can make it difficult to determine whether Hadewijch’s writings express a spiritual experience or passionate attraction for a fellow religious woman. The female personification of Minne is also mapped onto the figure of Christ in some contexts, resulting in the bridal language associated with Christ being transformed into expressions of one woman courting and marrying one another.

Hadewijch’s writings were primarily pedagogical, exhorting her students regarding forms of spiritual experience. In format and meter, her writing draws heavily on secular love lyrics. Manuscripts of her verses and letters were circulated widely among religious houses in northern Germany and the Low Countries, indicating her fame as an authority and teacher.

Wiethaus reviews the official Christian theological opinions about gender and sex, and how attitudes toward female same-sex eroticism were driven by patriarchal principles and a focus on condemnation of usurping male roles and prerogatives. Homoeroticism (female and male) could only be envisioned within a heteronormative structure, where one partner was identified as the active “male” role and the other as the passive “female” role. Because gender hierarchy (male above female) was viewed as a theological principle, violations of that hierarchy in the context of homoeroticism were treated as religious crimes.

The most common rationale for condemning homosexuality was that it was “against nature”--a category that also covered a variety of other sex acts. But some authors called out specific acts and behavior, either as examples or as arguments. Hincmar of Reims (9th century) cited women’s use of “certain instruments” for sexual activity. Peter Abelard (12th century) argued that sex between women was sinful because God had created women’s genitals for the “use of men”. Although the details of penances often differentiated between male and female homosexuality, writers such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas placed them in the same conceptual category.  Homosexuality became associated with religious heresy by various means, and vocabulary shifted between the two senses.

Despite the theoretical equivalence of male and female homosexuals, penitential literature often specified lighter penalties for women, with unmarried girls or widows being punished less harshly than married women, but acts involving an artificial penis were considered the most serious. Specific references to female homosexuality in penitentials can be found in Theodore (ca. 670) and Bede (ca. 734).

Due to the association of homosexuality with heresy, capital penalties often specified death by burning, though some of the rare recorded cases involving women were carried out by drowning, as for Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477).

Secular literature tended to be less explicit on homoerotic topics. Although courtly literature includes many intense same-sex friendships between women, including visions of all-female utopias, even the idea that these relationships could involve sexual activity was avoided, in contrast to the detailed descriptions of trial records from a somewhat later date.

Moving from texts produced by male hierarchies (both clerical and secular) to texts authored by women, we find that discussions of physical same-sex attraction focus on kissing and caressing, not on the genital activity that gets the focus in male-authored works. Expressions of strong emotional attraction are common, while appreciation of physical attributes is more rare. The celibacy required of religious women might be one pressure against genital imagery, but spiritual writing was rife with heterosexual erotic imagery focused on the image of Christ as lover. When female religious authors touched on male homosexuality, then followed the party line in condemning sodomy.

The texts that most clearly express homoerotic sentiment between religious women are two (possibly three) rhymed love letters apparently written by and to nuns, dating to the 12th century. In form, they follow the conventions of love lyrics, lamenting the absence of the beloved and making references to physical attributes and suggestions of physical intimacy.

Wiethaus cautions that the letters may not literally indicate actual relationships (as opposed to being literary exercises) but neither should that interpretation be rejected. Even within some marginal theories that the poems were written by men in a female voice, there is an acknowledgement that they depict female same-sex love in a positive fashion.

The genres that women writers used most effectively to communicate with female audiences were letters, visionary writings, and devotional texts. These texts, as exemplified by the writings of Hadewijch, show a spectrum of women’s relationships, some featuring an exclusivity that is highlighted as suspicious in instructional manuals for nuns. But it is a recurring theme among elite female religious leaders to have a chosen confidante and companion whose chief attributes were faithfulness and a desire to be in close proximity to her friend. Within this context, there are blurred lines between mutual affection and same-sex desire.

Correspondence either between such confidantes or describing these relationships to others use heightened emotional language: “I would gladly have died for her”, “I never looked at her without experiencing true joy”, “I always went to her as if she were God Himself.”

Comparing these texts with the descriptions of female homoeroticism in male-authored literature, the conception of same-sex desire is radically different. Men discussed it in terms of abstract categories and genital acts, while women emphasize intense emotional experiences and attachments to a specific beloved individual.

The article concludes with an in-depth analysis of how Hadewijch’s writings develop an entirely new framework for expressing eroticized desire between women, adapting the bridal imagery of mysticism and blending explicit eroticism with spiritual imagery. Her life also illustrates a relationship-type seen for other religious women: the merging of an age-differentiated mentor-student bond into one involving an intense and eroticized bond.

One of the features of Hadewijch’s writings is the use of the allegorical figure of “Minne” (the word indicates romantic love--as in “Minnesinger”, the German equivalent of a troubadour--as contrasted with spiritual love). The figure of Minne appears in three roles: as a spiritual guide, as a symbol of love used to express female desire for another woman, and as an idealized alter ego for Hadewijch herself.

Hadewijch also employed heterosexual bridal imagery focused on Christ that was strongly erotic, and which sometimes shifts sideways into a more gender-ambiguous image, especially when emphasizing the equivalence and identity of the two lovers (worshipper and Christ). But “Lady Minne” is mentioned more often in Hadewijch’s writings than Christ and God combined, depicted as provoking an overwhelming and ecstatic emotion that was to be pursued and reveled in.

“...lightning is the light of order to show who Minne is and how she can receive and give--in the sweetness of clasping, in the fond embrace, in the sweet kiss, and in the heratfelt experience when Minne actually speaks. ‘I am the one who holds you in my embrace!’”  (There are many extensive quotations which continue this theme.)

Hadewijch’s letters to her female students provide evidence for certain specific attachments in language that evokes that of romantic love, in particular a woman named Sara. She exhorts them to “do everything with reliance on Minne” and expresses jealousy that they might turn away to other mentors. The blending of religious and personal emotions allowed Hadewijch to express same-sex desire “hidden in plain sight.” Sometimes shifts and ambiguity in reference blend Minne with her students, lending plausible deniability to passionate expressions:

I greet what I love
With my heart’s blood.
My senses wither
In the madness of Minne...
O dearly loved maiden
That I say so many things to you
Comes to me from fresh fidelity,
Under the deep touch of Minne...
I suffer, I strive after the height,
I suckle with my blood...
I tremble, I cling, I give...
Beloved, if I love a beloved,
Be you, Minne, my Beloved;
You gave yourself as Minne for your loved one’s sake...
O Minne, for Minne’s sake, grant that I,
Having become Minne, may know Minne wholly as Minne!

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