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LHMP #225 Van der Meer 1991 Tribades on Trial: Female Same-Sex Offenders in Late Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam

Full citation: 

Van der Meer, Theo. 1991. “Tribades on Trial: Female Same-Sex Offenders in Late Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 1:3 424-445.

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Van der Meer presents the details and circumstances of trial records from several late 18th century cases in Amsterdam, Netherlands of women arrested for events involving sexual activity with women. Sodomy trials of men were not uncommon in this context, often occurring in “waves” when some particularly eager administration pursued the cases. But the conviction and exile in 1792 of Bets Wiebes for lying upon another woman “in the way a man is used to do when he has carnal conversation with his wife” appears to be the first case of that type known from records.

The trial of Bets Wiebes falls just before one of the periods of prosecutions for sodomy, and given that there were also three other trials for “tribadism” in the following years, they seem to have been part of a general uptick in pursuing moral offenses. One of the judges involved in the cases kept a private journal in which he describes the accused of engaging in “caresses and filthy things”, “sodomitical filthiness” or “evil malignities”.

In all, Van der Meer identified cases involving 12 women, out of a total of about 600 total people prosecuted for same-sex offenses in the Netherlands in the 18th century. Such prosecutions ended in 1811 with the introduction of the French penal code in Holland, which did not criminalize same-sex acts.

Prior to the 1792 prosecution of Wiebes, there were certainly references to women having sex with women, as in the following observation from 1750 by the former landlady of two Amsterdam women (age 50 and 60). They were “living as if they were man and wife...feeling and touching one another under their skirts and at their bosoms....yes, she had even seen how in broad daylight while committing several brutalities Mooije Marijtje lay down on Dirkje Vis, having both of them lifted their skirts and their front bodies being completely naked, Marijtje made movements as if she were a male person having to do with a female.”

Van der Meer also refers the reader to the cases involving both cross-dressing and same-sex acts in Dekker and van de Pol 1989. In particular, the famous case of Hendrikje Verschuur “the heroine of Breda” who joined the army as a man and took part in the siege of Breda in 1637. Hendrikje had sexual relations with several women, including Trijntje Barends about whom it was said “they had been so besotted with one another that they would have liked to marry if it had been possible.”

But the 18th c. cases described in the present article did not involve cross-dressing and the women involved were prosecuted specifically for sexual activity, though in some cases it came to light in the context of a different charge. As in the trial records of male sodomites, the sexual acts are recorded in explicit detail (providing a type of data that is otherwise rare for women). In general, reports of women’s same-sex activities come from popular literature or pornography and focus on the motif of unusually large clitorises or the use of dildoes.

The following are summaries of the trial evidence and background. In circumstances, the cases were all fairly different from each other apart from the sexual accusations. Although physical acts were discussed, the emotional relationships between the women were generally not noted unless used as leverage to persuade testimony.

Bets Wiebes & Martha Schuurman

Bets Wiebes was involved in a romantic and sexual triangle with two other women: Catharina de Haan and Bartha Schuurman. Wiebes and Schuurman lived together and had a sexual relationship, but Wiebes had begun a separate covert relationship with de Haan. Schuurman, in a jealous rage, murdered de Haan.  Initially Schuurman accused Wiebes of the murder (and so was released) at which Wiebes went into hiding dressed as a man and with cropped hair in order to avoid testifying against Schuurman. When finally arrested, Wiebes claimed she was too drunk to remember what happened on the night in question, but Schuurman was arrested again for further interrogation and three months later Wiebes changed her testimony to accuse Schuurman, after which Schuurman confessed. (There were various threats of torture involved in these interrogations and confessions but torture was never actually used.) When asked about her shifting testimony, Wiebes indicated she was trying to protect Schuurman who had a child to care for.

Schuurman testified that she had been jealous of de Haan because of the “dirty lusts” that Wiebes had engaged in with both of them. She described how “during the time they had lived together, Bets Wiebes many a time had lain upon her in the way a man is used to do withen he had carnal conversation with this wife and that they had known one another in this way.” Wiebes denied the sexual relationship, even when neighbors testified that “she used to caress Schuurman’s breasts and put her head in her lap.”

Schuurman was executed (for the murder) and Wiebes was exiled from the city for 6 years (for the sexual offense).

There is more information about the backstory of these women. Wiebes seems to have had long-term behavioral problems. Her mother had her committed to a workhouse for habitual drunkenness and theft. On her release, her mother had re-married, so Wiebes needed a new place to live. Schuurman offered her lodgings, and when Schuurman’s husband died at sea, the two relocated to a cheaper place together and set up in business selling news broadsides.

Wiebes had met de Haan in the workhouse and paid her regular visits after they both got out, which made Schuurman jealous. Schuurman burst into de Haan’s house to find the two of them drinking together and began quarreling. The upset continued for several days, with Schuurman shouting that she’d “make short work of this.” Schuurman again showed up at de Haan’s house when Weibes was there, but in a more friendly mood, which made the other two suspicious. But Weibes left them together. Later, Weibes returned to the home she shared with Schuurman only to find both Schuurman and de Haan there. At the moment of her entrance, Schuurman stabbed de Haan to death.

A possible complication? The coroner later described de Haan as being naked from the waist up. And why was de Haan at Schuurman’s place at all? Might the final side of the “triangle” have been completed?

The extent to which Weibes was willing to protect Schuurman, even to her own peril, suggests a strong emotional attachment.

Gesina Dekker, Willemijntje van der Steen, Pietertje Groenhof, Engeltje Blauwpaard

These four women, who apparently shared a house, were arrested in 1796 but the circumstances of their accusation were unclear. The house was rumored to be “a place where disreputable people gathered” possibly a brothel. The house was said to be one where women came to caress and kiss one another and feel under each other’s skirts. Gesina Dekker admitted that she lay on the floor with Engeltje Blauwpaard who performed digital stimulation in her vagina. Groenhof admitted to taking part in the caressing “after having been seduced with coffee and alcohol”.  Blauwpaard, though she denied the accusations, was said to be very jealous over Dekker.

Other authors have interpreted these events as possibly indicating that the house was a known meeting place for women to have sex with each other.

Anna Grabou

Arrested in 1979 after her neighbors complained about verbal aggression. Grabou seems to have been generally bad-tempered, but also prone to making indecent proposals to her female neighbors. To one she suggested that they should hook up for sex when Grabou’s husband was away from home, with additional comments that she wanted to see her naked. To another she made comments about what she looked like “below your skirt.” To a third, she said, “you have something in your being that attracts both male and female” and expressed her love. To a fourth, Grabou boasted that she had sex every morning with her maid and that the maid preferred her to a man.

Christina Knip

Arrested in 1797 for raping a 14-year-old girl with a dildo. She invited the girl into her home, threw her on the bed, and forcibly penetrated her with a dildo tied around her body.

Anna Schreuder, Anna de Reus, Catrina Mantels, Anna Schierboom, Maria Smit

Arrested in 1798 for their own protection from a mob. Neighbors had suspected Schreuder and Smit of unspecified activities for some time and spied on them through a hole from a neighboring room while they were engaging in sex. The neighbors later testified that the two had lain together with their lower bodies naked, had kissed and caressed each other “like a man is used to do to a woman”, had moved up and down on each other, and finally that one had lifted her leg over the other’s shoulder who had then performed oral sex on her.

Evidently the peeping went on for several hours, with other neighbors being invited to watch, until finally one of the watchers yelled accusations at them. Schreuder and Smit left the room but the neighbors assembled a mob outside the house until the constables came and took all five women to the police station. Schreuer at first confessed to the neighbors’ accusations but later recanted claiming the police had threatened her with mutilation. The neighbors also accused the women of singing banned political songs but this does not appear to have been converted into a legal charge.

A regular theme across the trials appears to have been requests from the prosecution to be allowed to torture the women for confessions, which permission was never granted. Few of the women confessed to anything and most were released with a warning.

Susanna Marrevelt

This case never went to trial, but in a deposition, her husband’s uncle said he’d found Marrevelt and her maid embracing each other with “unnatural movements”, and one of the uncle’s servants said she’d seen Marrevelt and her maid touching each other’s genitals. Marrevelt's maid was also accused of fondling the other servant against her will, and took exception to this and pushed the other woman down the stairs, injuring her.

General observations

Many of the women in these accusations were married (as were many of the men prosecuted as sodomites) and in some cases had children. Most of them were impoverished, with marginal jobs, if any. Several had spent time in a workhouse for drunkenness or anti-social behavior. Some had worked as prostitutes, and in some cases their eventual sentence was for heterosexual sex work rather than homosexual acts. Unlike the men prosecuted for sodomy, the women don’t seem to have had a pattern of participating in a homosexual network, or having other behavioral characteristics suggesting a sexuality-related identity. The exception being van der Steen’s house, which may have been a regular meeting place for lesbian encounters.

Looking at the timeline of prosecutions of sodomites (including women), when the first wave occurred in 1730 there was a lack of public interest in the issue. People didn’t perceive sodomy as criminal and weren’t eager to turn their neighbors in to the authorities for it, even when they’d been aware of their habits for years. Generally the law was invoked when there was also verbal or physical aggression. But in some cases extra-legal punishments were committed by those same neighbors.

The women involved in these cases were often considered a bit crazy by their neighbors, though examples given of this may seem sane to us, as when Knip’s neighbor asked why she hadn’t married and her response was, “Just to fuck? I can do that myself.” The mob peeping at Schreuder and her partner may not have intended to involve the authorities at all, but that became unavoidable when a riot broke out.  When Susanna Marrevelt’s husband was complained to by his uncle, he replied it was none of the uncle's business.

But that doesn’t mean that the women’s sexual activities were treated as of no consequence by their families. While Gersina Dekker was in prison, her husband began separation proceedings. Anna Grabou’s husband used the trial evidence to initiate a divorce. Overall, though, sex between women was treated less severely than sex between men with sentences being about half the length and often reduced further.

But as the century progressed, both law and religion began to develop a framing of sodomy as being part of an expected progression of moral failing. Once one had fallen into drunkenness, gambling, swearing, etc., sodomy was sure to follow. It represented “the world turned upside down” and in the last quarter of the century, stereotypical ideas of “manliness” became equated with the health of the state. This made sodomites a social hazard. Sex between women was not viewed as presenting this same social hazard.

There is a review of vocabulary associated with sex between women (including the mistaken claim that the word “lesbian” didn’t exist in the 18th century). In addition to the usual Latin terms (tribades, fricatrices, subigatrices) that were generally restricted to legal or theological contexts, the court records discussed here used vernacular terms translated as “tribadism”, “evil malignities”, “sodomitical filthiness” and two Dutch terms are mentioned: sodomieterije (sodomy) only once used in reference to a woman, and terms derived from the verb lollen (to foul) which the article notes as “no longer existing” evidently meaning in the modern language.

The verb stem lol- appears in a number of sex-related compounds with a sense of disapproval: lolhoeren (foul whores), lolder (sodomite, but apparently only for men?), lolhuis (literally “foul house”, brothel). Possibly by the 19th century, certainly in the 20th, the compound lollepot was used for lesbians and in contemporary word pot is used similarly to “dyke”. (Van der Meer suggests that like the origin of “bugger” in a reference to a specific religious heresy, lollen may have its roots from the medieval Lollard heretical sect.) While references to male sodomites tended to treat them as an identifiable behavior-based category, tribadism was viewed as part of a general pattern of female misbehavior associated with drunkenness and prostitution.

Although Dutch laws of the 18th century did not specifically include women under the topic of sodomy, commentary on the law indicated that individuals prosecutors considered that sex between women was covered. But although the prescribed penalty for sodomy was death, this was rarely the sentence unless anal intercourse was involved, which may explain why the women’s sentences were fairly lenient. Furthermore, all the cases that went to trial involved some sort of public nuisance beyond simple sexual behavior. There may also have been personal discretion on the part of individual prosecutors whether they chose to pursue women under the sodomy statute. After the French invasion of 1795 there was a period of increased prosecution of same-sex acts which seems to have been driven by the zeal of a specific official. Another aspect of the distribution of prosecutions was the large proportion of women’s charges that were for moral offenses, with a substantial increase in the last decade of the 18th century. These were frequently driven by the request of family or community that a person be confined for “immoral behavior” that was felt to be disruptive.

This increased focus on the role of individual morality in the context of social welfare and good citizenship was occurring throughout western Europe at the end of the 18th century. For men, the pressure was to avoid the appearance of effeminacy, for women, to avoid any association with prostitution. Because of the popular association of tribadism with prostitution, it came in for scrutiny as a general marker of immorality.

Lesbian Identity?

The final part of the article considers whether any of the court cases provide evidence for the existence of something recognizable as a “lesbian identity” in the modern sense, proposing a genealogy rooted separately in the traditions of romantic friendship and female transvestism that then developed a stage of butch/femme roles in the 19th century and eventually produced the modern lesbian identity. [Note: I’m going to go ahead and say that I think this is a flawed question to begin with and assumes a linear and teleological development of modern identity.]

The romantic friendship tradition in the Netherlands is represented by authors Betje Wolff and Aagje Deken who lived together in the last quarter of the 18th century and also courted other women both before and during their cohabitation. They were not perceived as having a sexual relationship or having any conceptual connection to the sort of women being prosecuted for tribadism. (The zealous prosecutor of the 1790s was a personal friend of theirs.)

The article also points to the long tradition of female cross-dressers documented by Dekker and van de Pol. But van der Meer accepts the claim of those authors that cross-dressing women who engaged in relationships with other women would necessarily have perceived themselves to be “male” and that this could only be considered a precursor to the development of a concept of lesbianism, rather than a type of lesbian identity itself. [Note: Van der Meer doesn't seem to consider the parallel question of the development of a concept of transgender identity.]

But the women being prosecuted in the 18th century don’t fit neatly into either the romantic friendship tradition nor the cross-dressing tradition. Van der Meer suggests that this third tradition should be considered: one organized around generalized lewd behavior and association with prostitution. He compares the interpretations of Faderman and Trumbach with regard to the various factors at play around 1800, and with regard to women’s sexual identities, and leans toward a suggestion that if the sexual component of lesbian identity is considered the most important, above romantic bonds or butch/femme-type partnerships, then his “third category” may be the actual true precursor for modern lesbian identity. [Note: there are so many flaws in this line of reasoning I hardly know where to start, so I’ll just end.]

Time period: 

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