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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Contents summary: 

The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.

Representations of female homoeroticism in this era range from the publicly notorious, such as Catalina de Erauso and Queen Christina of Sweden [*], to those treated as criminal, as with Inés and Catalina Ledesma. That range of representations is the topic of this study.

[*] It may seem odd to treat Queen Christina of Sweden as relevant to a discussion of Spain, but she had strong ties to several Spanish individuals, especially in the context of her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, and was consequently a figure of interest there.

The historic texts under study here often focus on the presence or absence of specific acts. But the picture that emerges is not a simple “acts vs. identity” dichotomy, as Foucault would have it. Velasco chooses to use the word “lesbian” in this book, not only because of evidence for a concept of specific romantic/erotic interests, but because it is less anachronistic than “homosexual” or “homoerotic”. In 16th century France, Brantôme was using “lesbian” in a homoerotic sense, just as Chorier was in the 17th century. When playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote a play based on the life of Queen Christina, he named her lady in waiting “Lesbia” with a wink and nod to Christina’s reputation, and included a motif of proposed same-sex marriage. Velasco spends a couple of pages rehearsing the usual debate over terminology in books on this history of gender and sexuality, and points out the markedness with which only non-heterosexual concepts have their terminology hedged about and policed.

Within historic documents, the absence of mention of lesbian-related topics can itself suggest meaning, as when writers such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and María de Zayas omit mention of Sappho as a literary antecedent in contexts where such an omission is notable. The absence suggests the possibility that they were anxious about how their own same-sex relations with friends and mentors were viewed.

Even when the topic of lesbianism is danced around with vagueness, the texts being studied here have no lack of language to convey female homoerotic activities. Velasco list the following: somética (sodomite), bujarrona (female sodomite), cañita (little cane), donna con donna (woman with woman), marimacho (butch), medio hombre y mujer (half man-half woman), incuba (partner who lies on top), succuba (partner who lies underneath), subigatrice (dominator, one who bounces up and down), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wearing scoundrel), terms equivalent to “tribade”, “fricatrice”, “rubster”, “Sahacat” (originally from Arabic), “Lesbian”, as well as more allusive phrases such as amistades particulares (particular friendships), “fruitless love”, “love without reward”, “not the marrying type”, “like man and woman”, “[women] making themselves into roosters”, and so forth. One somewhat telling term was the Latin peccatum mutum “silent sin”, specifically highlighting the approach of erasure by un-naming.

Velasco’s work seeks to demonstrate that representations both of romantic and erotic love between women were visible and accessible to all types of women in early modern Spain. These works not only discussed specific acts, but assumed a “type” of woman who participated in them, whether in fictional works or real life. Early modern Spanish legal writers were considered to be the “experts” in Europe on female homoerotic activity. The evidence suggests that this expertise was not merely a theoretical exercise but existed within a culture with an open interest in the topic.

Examples of this interest can be seen in the 16th century novel La Celestina in which lesbian acts are seen as part of the initiation of a prostitute, works that include erotic encounters between women, such as the pastoral novel La Diana and the chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc, or the novellas of María de Zayas. Popular plays went beyond the erotic implications of cross-dressed women to include female homoerotic desire outside that context. And real life “celebrity” could be conferred by individuals who challenged categories of gender and sexuality, such as Catalina de Erauso “the Lieutenant Nun” and the physician Elena/Eleno de Céspedes who was charged with sodomy and bigamy after marrying while living as a man. Saint Teresa of Avila warned of the erotic potential of “particular friendships” in convents, and the truth of this concern can be found in correspondence between nuns as well as personal memoirs of convent life. Court records of prosecutions reflect a complex understanding of lesbian potentials that went beyond a simple division between legal and illegal acts.

Within all this, there is often an ignorance demonstrated by male writers of “what women can do together” apart from a vague understanding of mutual masturbation or an assumption of the imitation of heterosexual penetrative sex. It isn’t always clear whether this is genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of specifics to avoid “giving women ideas” (an avoidance that is sometimes explicit in penitential manuals). But clearly the absence of such detail shouldn’t be presumed to imply an absence of activity.

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the topics covered in the remaining chapters.

Contents summary: 

This chapter looks at the context of non-normative sexuality as discussed in “professional” texts (legal, medical, theological). They show the variety of practices considered to be present and of concern. A great deal of this chapter is something of a “review of the field” and concerns not only texts specific to early modern Spain, but ones that would have formed part of the background understanding of the time.

Religious prohibitions included interpretations of Romans 1:26 that more clearly positioned the text as referring to “female with female” vice, as in Aquinas. Some texts straddle the divide between law and theology, such as Cino da Pistoia’s interpretation of 3rd century Roman law as condemning both “active” and “passive” participants in sex between women, or the recommendation by Bartholomaeus de Saliceto in the 15th century of the death penalty for female sodomy.

Spanish law saw an increase in intolerance for unorthodox sex in the 16-17th centuries. Under Ferdinand and Isabella, the recommended punishment for male sodomites increased from castration to death by burning, as for heretics. The increasing association of sodomy with heresy motivated transferring jurisdiction for sodomy cases to the Inquisition beginning in the early 16th century. But there was an active debate regarding whether what women could do together could be classified as “sodomy”. A 1532 edict by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V explicitly included women under sodomy laws. This interpretation was also confirmed by a 1555 opinion discussing the medieval law code Las siete partidas. But competing legal opinions held that sex between women was inherently less of a transgression than male sodomy and recommended leniency on this basis. Technical decisions often focused on whether a dildo had been used. This question could feature in testimony against specific defendants and affect the resulting sentence.

The chapter offers a brief summary of classical medieval theories of lesbian desire, including Islamic and Jewish writers such as Avicenna and Maimonides. These sources, while disapproving of sex between women, did not necessarily prescribe legal penalties. Arabic sexual texts discuss a variety of sexual practices between women, or generally on non-heterosexual practices that focused on women’s sexual fulfilment. There is a brief discussion of theories of physiognomy and astrology regarding sexual orientation. Pseudo-medical theories about innate sexual orientation include humoral theories or attribute it to the results of prenatal (maternal) experiences. These approaches tend to be strongly gender-essentialist, seeing lesbian desire as a type of masculinity.

Velasco reviews literature on the Renaissance “rediscovery of the clitoris” and theories of the relationship between lesbianism and an enlarged clitoris. There is a medical acceptance of the possibility of spontaneous sex change from female to male, situated within a general fascination for “monstrosity”. A detailed Spanish case history of such a transformation in mid life is offered. (Note: I’m once again disappointed that the author omits any discussion of the possibility of intersex interpretations of this topic.) In 1700, the medical writer Sinistrari puts forth the opinion that women cannot commit sodomy, apparently defining sodomy narrowly in terms of penetration by a natural organ and the “transmission of seed”, but he makes a possible allowance for women with an enlarged clitoris and considers this phenomenon to be the basis of “spontaneous sex change” stories. The discussion notes the racist strain in discussions of the “enlarged clitoris” phenomenon. Clitoridectomy is noted as a treatment for an enlarged clitoris, though Sinistrari deprecates it due to the risk of fatal consequences.

Thus lesbianism could be seen as a medical issue due to abnormal anatomy, rather than a legal or moral one. But if two women were known to have lain together and one was found to have what was considered to be an enlarged clitoris, then the law considered that sodomy could be presumed to have happened.

Theological sources of information include guidelines for confessors, listing possible questions to elicit details of sins. These, like many of the other “professional” texts discussed in this chapter have a heterocentric bias, assuming that sex between women will be an imitation of heterosexual (penetrative) sex.

Contents summary: 

This chapter looks at evidence regarding lesbian activity that can be found in specific court cases, as well as perceptions of the role of lesbian relations in criminal activities and contexts. The point here is not that lesbians were inherently criminal in early modern Spain (though some official opinions were that one type of deviant behavior was expected to lead to other types), but that the nature of legal records can provide a wealth of detail that is not available for other contexts.

The conflicting professional opinions on female sodomy in Spain played out in criminal prosecutions. The outcome of trials could depend both on the specific nature of the behavior and situation as well as on how successful the accused woman was in contesting the charges. The summary of this chapter will largely be brief outlines of the cases.

Ca. 1400 a woman dressed as a man served as a judicial official and married two women (presumably sequentially). She was convicted of sodomy because she used a penetrative instrument for sex, but recognition of her government service resulted in leniency. Specifically, she was hanged rather than the prescribed sentence of being burnt to death. The accusation had come from her second wife.

In 1502 in Valencia a woman passed as a man and married a woman, using an artificial penis made of lambskin for sex. She had also had sex in that way with other women. Her gender was discovered in the context of an accusation of theft. She was sentenced to hang but was pardoned on the basis of a legal technicality with regard to how the trial was handled. In a number of these cases, it is an open question whether the “femme” partner was truly ignorant of the sex of the passing woman or whether she was relying on the legal tendency to focus on gender transgressions rather than the sexual relationship per se.

In 1503, two women--Catalina de Belunçe and Matiche de Oyarzún--were accused of having sex “like a man and a woman”. No other specifics of the offence were given and there was no mention of the use of an instrument. Only one of the pair was sentenced to banishment and confiscation of her belongings, but with capital punishment if she returned from banishment. But rather than accepting this leniency, she appealed to the royal court, claiming innocence and that no evidence had been offered. The charge had been based on “public reputation” of her activities. She impugned the witness and accused the prosecutor (the local mayor) of a profit motive in pursuing the case. She was pardoned, the sentence reversed, and her possessions were returned to her. The true story behind the case is hard to decipher. Why was her partner not also accused (given that there doesn’t appear to have been a “butch-femme” dynamic in the accused behavior)? Who was the witness?

In 1560, the Inquisition in Aragon debated whether a case involving several women fell under the category of sodomy as no sexual instrument had been used, though there was genital contact (which was described in heterocentric terms). They ended up not prosecuting.

In 1656, the Inquisition in Aragon judged a case against a 28 year old widow Ana Aler and a 22 year old laundress Mariana López who were accused of sodomy by nosy neighbors (two men and three women). The specific behaviors involved were hugging, kissing, putting a hand under the skirt to touch the genitals, expressions of jealousy followed by protestations of loyalty and pledges of love. The women were said to follow each other around. It was claimed that Ana boasted of having sex with “the best woman in Zaragoza” who was willing to pay her for it, but it’s unclear if this was an actual reference to female same-sex prostitution or just boasting. The neighbors testified they overheard the sounds of passion and sex talk , “Give it to me, I can’t wait any longer!” as well as to seeing the women lying on top of each other and evidence of “emission of semen” (i.e., orgasm). Although there was no evidence of a penetrative instrument being used, the verdict was still labeled “sodomy” but the sentence was limited to whipping and exile and the women were forbidden to live in the same location in the future.

Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested in 1603 in Salamanca as “bujarronas” (female sodomites). They had previous sodomy convictions in Valladolid. A complex background story emerged from the trial. Inés had at one point claimed to be a nun and was soliciting donations and assembling a group of “wayward” young women to take them to a convent (the implication being a house of penitence for reformed prostitutes). The suspicion was that instead she was recruiting for the sex trade. The sexual accusations against Inés and Catalina included use of a penetrative instrument and they were given a death sentence which was appealed and reduced to whipping and banishment.

Among the details of the testimony it emerged that the two women had enjoyed a long term domestic partnership “eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed.” Their love for each other was public knowledge. Catalina had left her husband to live with Inés. Among the witnesses was a maid from Catalina’s father’s house where the two lived for a time. The detailed testimony reveals the witnesses’ fantasies as well as facts. The existence of sexual activity was assumed from overheard activity including panting and grunting and comments like, “Does that feel good?” as well as love talk.

The defendants admitted to the sex but each tried to frame her own role as less culpable based on minor technicalities such as who was lying on top. The sexual acts they admitted to included rubbing vulvas together and manual stimulation. They were inconsistent with regard to the use of an instrument. (Witnesses said they had used an instrument made of cane, but Inés described one made of leather that they stopped using because it was painful.)

During one temporary separation, they may have had sex with other women and there was reported discussion of the advantages of lesbian sex: no pregnancy, it was more pleasurable than heterosexual sex, they found men repulsive. In this context, Catalina reported on knowing of other female couples in the convent where she stayed for a time. Much of the evidence may have come out during fights between the women. Catalina felt that Inés was stalking and harassing her to renew the relationship, though witnesses said their relationship ran hot and cold and was not one-sided. Inés seems to have been the more jealous and controlling. Neighbors described them as being so close a couple “like man and woman” that all attempts to break them up failed. All this happened over an extended period of time during which their relationship was public knowledge. The neighbors would insult them (and they each other) with terms like bujarronas (female sodomites), puta bellaca (cheating whore), somética (fem. sodomite), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wielding scoundrel). Velasco compares their reported behavior to modern patterns of domestic violence among lesbians. Inés was significantly older, more economically stable, and was the more aggressive and controlling. The trial was instigated when Catalina went to the authorities to complain about Inés’s violent behavior.

Despite the admitted use of a penetrating instrument, they were not given the death penalty and had received similarly lenient treatment in a previous trial. Velaso notes that these trial records contradict the idea that sexual relationships between women were invisible but also contradict the idea that they were tolerated or considered insignificant.

In 1745 in Colombia, two mestiza seamstresses named Margarita Valenzuela and Gregoria Franco had a long-term public romance that was disrupted by the reappearance of the father of Margarita’s child. This resulted in a conflict that came to the attention of the law. Gregoria was banished for a short term and warned not to reinitiate the relationship on penalty of permanent banishment.

In 1597, the Inquisition in Mallorca found a 30 year old single woman Esperanza de Rojas guilty of various offences, including practicing love magic to re-attract the passion of two women she’d been sexually involved with while all three were at a home for fallen women. She was sentenced to whipping and exile with the mitigating factor that she had acted in anger. The major concern was the accusation of demonic magic and the recorded testimony included specifics of the rituals. These included claims that she used Jewish and Muslim prayers as well as using a demonic statuette as a focus. The nature of the rituals was consistent with descriptions of heterosexual love magic at the time. Esperanza claimed she had learned the rituals from another woman while traveling to Rome and Naples.

Further investigations by the Inquisition at the institution where the three women had lived that took place in 1597-8 turned up other accusations of same-sex activity. Catalina Lebrés was accused of “illicit relations with other female residents.”

Velasco spends some time discussing the nature and context of female penitential institutions in early modern Spain. Their general purpose was to control women who were not successfully under patriarchal authority. There were concerns about women’s misbehavior inside the institutions, but that concern might either focus on, or be oblivious to, the possibility of lesbian sex. Overcrowding was a regular concern, as well as the potential for women to learn new forms of criminality from the other inmates.

Concerns regarding the potential for sexual relations between women were shared by religious penitential institutions and regular convents. Convent rules often proscribed sleeping together or forbade two nuns to be alone together behind closed doors. The code word for the concern was “special friendships”. Specific behaviors that were considered a sign of danger were talking together at night, sleeping together, hugging, “joining their faces together.”

Another intersection of concern is the long historic association between lesbianism and prostitution, dating as early as Roman times (Lucian, Alciphron). Velasco notes the contrast laid out in a 16th century Italian text on women’s friendships by Firenzuola, that contrasts the “chaste” love between Laudomia Forteguerra and Duchess Margaret of Austria with the lascivious love of Sappho and of “the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana.” But within the same century, Brantôme in France imputed a more sexual relationship to Margaret and Laudomia, and grouped them with a noted Spanish prostitute in Rome, Isabella de Luna, who kept a mistress. Moving our attention back to Spain, there were conflicting opinions whether the existence of legal brothels successfully kept men away from sodomy (by making women available) or whether one sin would breed other sins and thus men who frequented brothels were more likely to move on to sodomy.

The intersection of prostitution, love magic, and “medical” manual stimulation, as well as the possibilities of sex between women appear in Fernando de Rojas’ La Tragicomedia de Calisto y Melibea more commonly known as La Celestina. Velasco spends some time reviewing the details and implications of this work.

There was an association of witchcraft and lesbian desire, along with aspects of heresy. Several authors repeat a description from Leo Africanus of North African sahacat witches, who seduce or pleasure other women under the guise of medical treatment. (It isn’t clear whether the repetition of this motif is in reference to Africa or gives the appearance of generalizing it to Spain. Note that sahacat is from the Arabic root sahq with the same general meaning of rubbing as fricatrix.)

The chapter concludes with one last case study in Mexico of an accusation of lesbian seduction (or predation) by a female couple of their female boarder, who then used witchcraft to try to take revenge on the couple.

Contents summary: 

This chapter focuses on three specific individuals whose gender and sexuality brought them celebrity status in 16-17th century Spain: Catalina de Erauso, Queen Christina of Sweden, and Elena/Eleno de Céspedes. In comparing them, we can see the influence of race and class on how gender transgression was received.

Catalina de Erauso ran away from a convent in Spain at age 15 before taking final vows, began living as a man, and had a violent and turbulent career in the Spanish colonies of the New World before deciding to tell her history publicly. She returned to Spain where she was greeted as a celebrity and successfully petitioned the crown for a pension, went to Rome where she received dispensation from the Pope to continue wearing male clothing, wrote her memoirs, and eventually returned to the New World where she lived in relative obscurity working as a mule driver for twenty years until her death. [I’ve abbreviated her background due to its more detailed coverage in Steptoe & Steptoe 1996 and Velasco 2000.]

Elena/Eleno de Céspedes was a black enslaved person in 16th century Spain who, after a failed marriage and giving birth to a child, began living as a man and eventually embarked on a successful career as a surgeon. Eleno testified that he had undergone a spontaneous physical change of sex and, after obtaining testimony supporting this claim was given persmission to marry a woman. This assessment was later challenged and a second examination did not support the claim of male physiology. Following that, Eleno was tried for sodomy and “consorting with demons” along with “contempt for the sacrament of marriage”. The eventual conviction, somewhat confusingly, was for bigamy. That is, Eleno had failed to provide documentation of the death of Elena’s husband prior to Eleno marrying a woman. Eleno was sentence to whipping and to serving a sort of community service providing medical care in a hospital for indigents, whose administrator later complained of the crowds of curious people who came to see the celebrity. [For more details, see Burshatin 1996.]

Queen Christina of Sweden may seem an odd person to become a celebrity in Spain, particularly as she never actually traveled there. Spanish connections were a major influence on Christina’s decision to covert to Catholicism (necessitating her abdication from the Swedish throne). Christina had a lifelong habit of crossdressing and her romantic interest in women, including specific members of her household, was open knowledge. But these issues that Spanish culture, in theory, disapproved of, were overlooked due to her social rank and the high-level approval of her in Spain because of the coup her conversion was considered.

These three people had three very different receptions by the Spanish authorities. Eleno was a person of color whose life as a man included marriage to a woman and (at least the accusation of) performing sex with an artificial penis. Eleno went to significant lengths to establish an official male identity in the face of physical signs of female sex. An interesting contrast to Eleno is the situation of the nun María Muñoz, who developed male physical characteristics (possibly as a result of an intersex condition) but manufactured signs of femaleness (such as apparent evidence of menstruation) in order to conceal the issue and continue to be accepted as a woman.

Eleno’s transgression (in addition to being non-white) was laying claim to male priviledge despite anatomy. In contrast, although Catalina (white and upper class) didn’t dispute the judgment of female status once her story was told, even in the context of requesting permission to continue performing as male. Catalina never tried to marry a woman. There were several situations where the possibility of marriage was raised and Catalina deceived the potential brides for her own gain, but in all cases these women were mestizas and this may have contributed to a lack of concern over their experience.

Christina’s interest in converting from Lutherinism to Catholicism motivated positive reactions to her from Spanish authorities, despite regular comments in the Spanish diplomatic correspondence on her masculine appearance and rumors of her affairs with women. These were sometimes coded in phrases like “not being the marrying type.” After Christina’s abdication, Spain was excitedly preparing for a visit from her in 1656 when everything fell apart at the last minute due her choice to support Spain’s enemy France in certain concerns. Spanish rhetoric about her made an abrupt change from praise to satire, focusing specifically on romors of heterosexual affairs, including a fictitious illicit pregnancy, but curiously avoiding mention of her relations with women.

This omission of the lesbian rumors was not universal. There was a thinly veiled depiction of Christina as the character Cristerna de Suevia in the play Afectos de Odo y amor, which portrays her using the stock character of a mujer esquiva, a woman averse to love and marriage, and to men in general. The character in the play is defending her right to rule as a woman, in conflict with the antagonist/romantic lead Casimiro. The play toys with implications of same-sex desire in giving Cristerna a lady-in-waiting named Lesbia, and setting up a bait-and-switch marriage plot in wich Cristerna agrees to marry Casimiro’s sister (that is, within the play this is overtly a same-sex marriage plan). When Cristerna has committed to the marriage, the sister substitutes in her brother Caisimiro and Cristerna inexplicably capitulates all her feminist positions and declares that women should be men’s vassals. 

Contents summary: 

Concerns about same-sex relations in convents date back at least to the time of Saint Augustine in the 5th century. Those concerns covered even trivial actions like hand-holding and terms of endearment, showing that some of the concern was for the particularity of the friendship, not specifically the possibility of sex. Activities that were a cause for concern could be discouraged with corporal punishment as well as lesser penances.

Co-sleeping was a special concern, and care was taken that two women would not have private sleeping arrangements together. Sleeping arrangements in convents might involve single-person cells or communal dormitories, generally with rules against two people having privacy together. The forbidden activities that were specified included “talking together late at night” and thus breaking the rule of silence.

The rules against developing “special friendships” often mentioned a purpose of preserving harmony in the convent and avoiding favoritism. These concerns were not limited to same-sex interactions--there were similar concerns about relations between the nuns and the priests that attended to the spiritual needs of the institution, or visiting male relatives--but of course the demongraphics made female same-sex interactions the greatest temptation.

Visiting priests were sometimes instructed, in essence, to spy on the prioress to ensure that she herself didn’t have favorites (since she was supposed to prevent it in others). There’s an acknowledgement that the prioress may reasonably spend more attention on nuns “who are more discreet and intelligent” and thus might be assisting in administrative duties. In addition to the cautions and rules, there are regular loopholes, such as this type, that created the potential for a variety of approaches and responses. The visiting priests were also advised not to make a big deal out of unimportant behavioral infractions, lest the convent’s reputation be damaged. But visiting priests were not always on the enforcement side, witness an 1819 Inquestion investigation of a (male) confessor who urged the nuns in his care to engage in same-sex activity for his gratification.

Saint Teresa of Avila, in her instructions for convents, laid out the potential consequences of allowing particular friendships. They could cause jealousy between nuns, but also interfered with focusing one’s love on God. Even as instructions like this provided lists of detailed prohibiltions, they normalized the expectation that “particular friendships” woud occur in ordinary circumstances. And there was a contradictory expectation that nuns should show love and affection for each other--just not too much, and not too specifically.

Saint Boniface listed seven potential signs of forbidden carnal love between nuns. (Note that “carnal” is contrasted with “spiritual” and doesn’t necessarily imply “sexual”.) 1: Conversation that includes jokes and laughter, 2: looks of affection and accompanying each other everywhere, 3: experiencing worry and anxiety, 4: jealousy, 5: anger between the two women when they fight, 6: exchanging gifts and favors, 7: defending each other or covering up for each other.

Why was the primary focus on non-sexual behaviors? Were sexual activities considered less important, or was there concern that if sex were specifically mentioned it would “give women ideas”? Recall that lesbianism was called peccatum mutum “the silent sin” because it often was not mentioned in specific terms.

These concerns about favoritism played out in Saint Teresa’s own life and her special friendships with two protegés who laid claim to continuing her legacy. The description of Teresa’s relationship with Ana de San Bartolomé reads like a template for forbidden “particular friendships”. They shared a cell, talked together regularly, and were inseparable. After Teresa’s death, Ana had other particular friendships with nuns, resulting in jealousy and protestations of exclusive love, as recorded in her letters. Letters are a fertile ground for data on the actual emotional relationships between nuns that express particular love and longing and a desire for affirmation. Convent records of the 17th century record numerous investigations of passionate friendships, all of which are recorded as having successful reform as a conclusion, often with supernatural elements in how the issue was discovered.

The text digresses somewhat curiously into a Chilean folktale that is clearly based on the medieval tale of Yde and Olive. A woman takes on male disguise to escape her father’s incestuous advances, had adventures, and eventually marries a princess who is delighted to discover that her “husband” is actually a woman. When this secret is betrayed and they are near discovery, the disguised woman is granted a miraculous sex-change. The connection with the rest of the chapter is that, like one of the convent investigations, there is a magical flying crucifix involved. [I included the reference here to keep track of the Yde & Olive variant.]

Not all same-sex relations in convents were consensual. An early 18th century Colombian nun recourts unwanted sexual advances from other nuns and becoming a cause of jealousy between other women.

There is a discussion of theatrical performances in convents, including nuns performing as actors. This was not considered a sin if done only for entertainment. Topics of the plays could include passionate friendships between nuns, as well as similar allegorical themes. This is another indication of the normalization of these relationships.

Another source of potential concern, espeically in Spanish colonial areas, was relations between (upper class) nuns and the lay serving women who lived with them. This pattern seems to have been less prevalent in Spain itself.

Contents summary: 

Female same-sex flirtation is a regular feature in popular Spanish drama of the early modern era. Erotic attraction to cross-dressed actrresses was cited in moral warnings. Velasco discusses the “meaning” of same-sex flirtation in cross-dressing scenarios, based on the several layers of “real” versus “apparent” gender, and considering different audiences. If female attraction to cross-dressed actresses isn’t quite all-out lesbian desire, it at least acknowledges its possibility. In-play dialogues about the attractiveness of the cross-dressed characters is coded in ambiguously androgynous terms.

Another context for dramatic ambiguity is the use of female actors for roles where a male character takes on a female disguise (within the story), as in the legend of Achilles. While this may have avoided having an actual male actor cross-dress as a woman on stage, it created the potential for female same-sex desire within the layered “woman playing a man playing a woman” scenario.

Moralists of the 17th century warned parents that their innocent daughters would be corrupted by consuming plays and novels. The expressions of concern are not specifically focused on homoeroticism, but the general idea is that young girls will “get ideas” from popular culture.

There is an extensive discussion of Cubillo de Aragón’s play Añasco el de Talavera (ca. 1637) which depicts lesbian desire without the mechanism of male disguise. The “manly woman” Dionisia’s desire for her female friend Leonor is an open topic of discussion within the play. Dionisia complains about the restrictiveness of female gender roles and has a serious case of “not like other girls”. She specifically expresses the desire to be touched (implied: sexually) by Leonor and say she loves her. Leonor demurs about the concept, but Dionisia presents her argument in terms of platonic love, and argues for the supremacy of (same-sex) platonic love over heterosexual desire. The dialogue acknowledges that women may “sin” together, i.e., that activity counting as forbidden sex is possible between women.

Leonor, alas, is irredeemably heterosexual, and the play ends up shoehorning Dionisia into a heterosexual resolution. But the resolution implies that Dionisia is still controling the situation driven by desire for Leonor. Dionisia marries the man who is mutually in love with Leonor (thus interfering with their competing relationship) and leaves Leonor to marry the man who has been vainly attempting to woo Dionisia.

Velasco considers the effect of homoerotic art and literature on female viewers. For example, homoerotic scenes of Diana and her nymphs may have been intended for male voyeurism, but had female viewers as well. Literary depictions of Diana were viewed as potentially corrupting and parents of daughters were specifically warned against Jorge de Montemayer’s 1559 work Las siete libros de la Diana (known more typically as La Diana). The same-sex love depicted in this work has traditionally been dismissed as neo-Platonic friendship, but it is expressed in terms of physical affection and verbal flirtation.

Two characters, Ysmenia and Selvagia, enjoy a passionate interlude, then Ysmenia falsely convinces Selvagia that she is a man in disguise and that Selvagia has been tricked into a heterosexual liaison. Selvagia remains steadfast in her love for Ysmenia, despite this apparent trick. Enter Ysmenia’s Convenient Twin Cousin (male) who takes advantage of the situation to take over Ysmenia’s affair with Selvagia. The story can be compared with other pastoral romances, most of which involve some type of gender disguise. But La Diana is unusual in showing Selvagia’s love beginning when she believes that love to be homoerotic. The steadfastness of Selvagia’s love regardless of the (believed) gender of the object supports the image of same-sex love being equivalent to heterosexual love.

In other similar works, there is more often uneasiness expressed about apparent or real same-sex desire, which is resolved by either the reality or a fantasy of a magical sex-change to permit a heterosexual resolution. These may include sexual interludes that could be interpreted as lesbian and involving an artificial penis. There is often a phallocentric assumption that only a penis can provide a woman with pleasure and that real female same-sex relations must remain unfulfilled.

In the romance Tirant lo Blanc there is an episode of a woman engaging in sex play with another woman supposedly for the voyeuristic benefit of an observing man. Later, the sex play continues in the dark and the man substitutes in (unknown to his partner). The woman in this interaction is shown protesting that the supposed same-sex act is against nature, but she does not deny its possibility. The in-story implication is that sex between women is permited as long as it’s really a performance for the male gaze or for the reader. But the fact that both La Diana and Tirant lo Blanc were popular among female audiences suggests other possibilities. Heterosexual resolutions kept the text “safe” while allowing transgression between the covers (of the book).

The rest of the chapter takes a close examination of the novels of María de Zayas, which interrogate heterosexual relations and support the concept of female community and marriage resistance (although in the form of the convent). The themes send conflicting messages about heteronormativity and female same-sex love.

“Love for the Sake of Conquest” uses a male-to-female disguise plot to assert the superiority of love between women, though the arguments are put in the mouth of the male character (disguised as a woman) who it turns out is making those arguments purely for the sake of getting the other protagonist in bed. This creates a context for articulating the attractions of same-sex love and desire without the transgression of enacting it. After the male character reveals his identity and succeeds in initiating a sexual relationship, he loses interest and moves on, while the female protagonist is then murdered by her father for her (heterosexual) sexual transgression, whereas her apparent attraction to another woman was considered odd but not equivalent to fornication.

In “Aminta Deceived and Honor’s Revenge” a woman expresses romantic attraction to another woman without the artifice of a disguies plot, and her attention is found flattering. But it turns out the first woman was acting out of ulterior motives in order to further her relationship with a man and to deceive the supposed female object of her affection.


The third story considered, “Marriage Abroad: Portent of Doom”, includes a rather hostile depiction of male homoerotic relations, raising the question of whether this indicates that Zayas judged male and female relations entirely differently, or whether it’s evidence that she didn’t intend her female couples to be read as having physical relations.

Overall, although Zayas' novels include themes of the superiority of love between women, the actual plots undermine this message, showing deception and falsehood. Only in the framing story for the novels does the messge of that superiority prevail in truth.

Contents summary: 

This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate. Accusations against specific women assumed general knowledge of homoerotic possibilities and expectations regarding types of homoerotic activity.

Probable intersex cases tested the understanding and judgement of same-sex activity. Beliefs about the possibility of spontaneous physical sex change problematized investigations into potential transgressive relations when physical sex was ambiguous or did not match gender performance. Medical opinions presumed that people had an innate sexual orientation, though they differed on the underlying cause.

When same-sex relationships were performed in public (for example, when the specifics of relationships came out in public arguments or lawsuits) the evidence suggests that individual fear of punishment for sexual transgression was not an absolute deterrent for entering those relationships. [Note: when has it ever been?] Within all this, what was the public expectation for being able to identify lesbians from their appearance? How could you know you were looking at one?

Catalina de Erauso was depicted in a portrait from life by Francisco Pacheco, and that portrait was further publicized by engravings based on it. Her features were interpreted differently depending on how people perceived her gender. Physiognomy--the pseudo-science of identifying innate characteristics based on facial features and physiology--was not only applied to Catalina during her lifetime, but was taken up by psychologists and sexologists in the early 20th century to “diagnose” her in terms of supposed psychological and medical abnormality.

Simple economics meant that homoerotic scenes of women in art were typically designed to cater to the male gaze for the purposes of titillation. One exception was depictions of lesbian erotics in genre scenes of witchcraft that often drew on male anxiety about powerful and dangerous women, conflating lesbian sexuality with anti-male magical activity. (That is, the scenes may still have been created for the male gaze, but not likely for titillation.)

In religious art, images of close emotional bonds betwen women were often depicted using physical gestures to indicate spiritual connections and conferral of authority. This appears in art showing Saint Teresa and her rival spiritual heirs in a sort of religious propaganda art staking claims to her legacy using imagery of closeness and inseparability.

Velasco includes a discussion of visual art associated with Nicholas Chorier’s pornographic Satyra Sotadica showing a frontispiece with a group of upper class Spanish women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as in a butcher’s shop. This seems to be included on the basis that Chorier’s work was alleged to be a translation of a dialogue by the 16th century Spanish poet and humanist Luisa Sigea. Sigea did write dialogues between women expressing passionate friendship. [Note: Velasco seems at first to treat the connection to Sigea as solidly evidenced but then appears to agree with other sources that the connection with Sigea is entirely fictitious and was, in part, intended to imply a genuine female authorship for Chorier’s female-voice dialogue.]

Beliefs in gender essentialism with regard to sexuality led to an emphasis in descriptions of women with same-sex desires as being masculine in appearance (or at least unfeminine). Contemporaries of María de Zayas suggest she may have been viewed as “manly” in appearance as well as in literary talent. Other writers compared her poetic talent to Sappho, possibly intending implications about her sexuality. Zayas herself excluded Sappho from her list of dedicatory “foremothers” possibly suggesting that she herself was anxious about what people would read into the comparison. There is some evidence that Zayas lived with a fellow female poet, Ana Caro, but the nature of their relationshp must be entirely speculative.

The Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (later 17th century) wrote poems to multiple women (including her patroness) that used amorous language and imagery, such as, “I love you with so much passion...My love for you was so strong I could see you in my soul and talk to you all day long...Let my love be ever doomed if guilty in its intent, for loving you is a crime of which I will never repent.” And in another work, “I aspire that your love and my good wine will draw you hither, and to tumble you to bed I can conspire.” Historians writing of Sor Juana and other examples of suggestive evidence between nuns often dismiss the possibility of same-sex desire out of hand on a presumption that they would have needed to learn about homoerotic love before being able to experience it, and that they were “too young” to understand the implication of such desires. [Some things never change.]