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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #88 Lochrie 1999 “Presumptive Sodomy and its Exclusions”


Full citation: 

Lochrie, Karma. 1999. “Presumptive Sodomy and its Exclusions” in Textual Practice 13:2, 295-310.

Some of the most specific evidence for an awareness of female homoerotic activity in the early medieval period is penitential literature and the category of "sodomy" for a wide variety of condemned sexual practices. This article is part of a growing awareness among modern historians of the ways in which that category was used and defined, and the ways in which shifting understandings of "sodomy" helped to erase discussions of the diversity of women's sexual practices. More recent work on this field has--as Lochrie recommends--focused on the use of "sodomy" to define a natural/unnatural distinction, rather than defaulting to the more modern application of the word to define a homosexual/heterosexual contrast.

This ends my "early articles" week. Next week's articles all focus on relatively modern women (especially 19th century) and revolve around marriage.

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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. The “presumptive sodomy” of the article’s title is the oft-unexamined assumption by scholars that the medieval category of sodomy referred narrowly and specifically to anal sex between men--a definition that oversimplifies the evidence and in some ways recapitulates the misogyny of the medieval texts themselves.

This focus and definition ignores the historic textual evidence referring to women practicing sodomy, and therefore fails to incorporate their acts into an understanding of the term. Attempts to explain away this omission often stumble into contradiction: medieval writers found lesbianism to be more shocking than male homosexuality and therefore avoided mentioning or describing it, but also considered lesbianism to be a trivial issue and no serious threat to social order.

Lochrie argues that the silence around female sodomy comes from modern scholars and not from medieval society. Further, that the concept of sodomy was defined by gendered issues before it came to be associated with specific sexual acts. The texts themselves give a far broader definition, as in Chaucer where a character notes, “Men and women do this cursedness with diverse intentions and in diverse ways” (negating both the restriction to men and the restriction to a specific sexual practice).

Further, medieval texts that describe sodomy tend to do so in contrast to a highly specific sexual scenario (between a man and a woman, with the man on top, for the purpose of procreation), such that the possible combinations and activities falling under the category are something of a catchall “everything else”. This means that women practicing sodomy cannot be assumed to be engaged in lesbianism. For example, John Chrysostom defines sodomy in women as consisting of “exorbitant desire”. However some texts, such as penitentials and commentaries on St. Paul explicitly make reference to sexual acts between women as being among forbidden acts.

Lochrie concludes that a “truly radical” study of sodomy would focus not on its association with homosexuality but on the natural/unnatural framing--an axis that is independent of a homosexual/heterosexual axis.

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