Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #18 – Murray 1996 "Twice marginal and twice invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages"

Full citation: 

Murray, Jacqueline. 1996. "Twice marginal and twice invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages" in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, Garland Publishing,. pp. 191-222

Publication summary: 

The 1996 collection Handbook of Medieval Sexuality should be viewed in light of its chronology in the emerging field of the history of historic gender and sexuality studies. There are weaknesses both in the starting assumptions of some authors and in the available groundwork.

Murray, Jacqueline. 1996. "Twice marginal and twice invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages"

As long as I'm presenting some of the foundational articles of current lesbian historic research, I though I'd include this one. As with Bennett's later article, a fair amount of the article concerns questions of methodology and the place of lesbian history in the contexts of women's history and the history of homosexuality. But while Bennett's survey focused on examples of data concerning the everyday lives of historic individuals, Murray leans more toward evidence drawn from literature, law, and philosophy to examine attitudes toward and understandings of sexual relations between women. As with the specific citations in Bennett, I will be following up on all the references here in order to include the original studies in this project. If there are any particular items you're deeply interested in, I can put them on a priority list to cover.

* * *

As a a methodology article, Murray begins with the usual discussion of the problems of data on this topic, in particular the double-whammy by which women's history sidelines homosexuality, and the history of homosexuality sidelines women. Having gotten past the problems of definitions and theory, the article presents a survey of types of historic data on women's affectional, erotic, and sexual relations with each other. The material contrasts with Bennett's survey article (Bennett 2000) in that it focuses more broadly on literature and legal theory rather than specific individuals. So it's more about what people thought or could conceive about lesbians, as opposed to documented persons and acts. The coverage is wide-ranging from the earliest Christian philosophers to well into the 17th century, though shifts in thought and approach within that scope are discussed. The material falls in seven categories: Biblical commentary, monastic rules, penitentials, medical treatises, legal cases, secular literature, and art. The following are summaries only (with a few specifics) while the article is more detailed.

Biblical commentary - Discussion whether medieval commenters considered Paul's "unnatural relations" to indicate lesbianism. Conclusions unclear.

Monastic rules - The texts illustrate expectations and concerns about sexual activity between cloistered women, reflected in prescribed solo sleeping arrangements and discouragement of affectionate exchanges indicating "particular friendships". It was clear that the writers considered sexual activity between them women to be expected in the absence of regulations and practices to prevent it. Augustine (ca. 423) "the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided, not only by widows and chaste handmaids of Christ, living under a holy rule of life, but also entirely by married women and maidens destined for marriage." Donatus (7th c.) "It is forbidden lest any take the hand of another for delight or stand or walk around or sit together ... any who is called 'little girl' or who call one another 'little girl'…"

Penitentials - Differential penalties give information on practices, and distinguish spiritual and earthly love. The descriptions acknowledge sexual activity with and without "devices" with the latter considered worse. Both parties are considered culpable. Some texts treat married women more harshly (perhaps on the premise that they have a lawful sexual outlet available). Authors could simultaneously praise close emotional bonds between women even when expressed in passionate terms, yet condemn any physical expression. In later penitential writings that aim for a more systematic approach, lesbianism gets grouped with male homosexuality with consequent erasure. Penitential of Theodore (7th c.) "If a woman practices vice with a woman ... if she practices solitary vice ... the penance of a widow and of a girl is the same. She who has a husband deserves a greater penalty if she commits fornication." Penitential of Rabanus Maurus (9th c.) "A woman who joins herself to another woman after the manner of fornication …." The Penitential of Bede (8th c.) "If nuns with a nun, using an instrument …." Hincmar of Reims (9th c.) "they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire." Hildegard of Bingen (12th c.) "And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in my sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one…."

Medical/astrological treatises - Original sources tend to be relatively less judgmental than later evolutions. A 9th c. treatise attributed to Galen lists both "drugs which make women detest lesbianism even if they madly lust for it" and "drugs that make lesbianism so desirable to women that they would keep busy with it and passionately lust for it forgetting all about their work." One 12th c. Arabic treatise describes a category of women who surpass others in intelligence and are sexually aggressive, noting that they don't submit to men for sex and are drawn to lesbianism.

Legal cases and punishments - Law codes rarely touch overtly on lesbian activity and evidence for prosecutions is even scantier. Typically cases were recorded when a woman also was passing as male, or when other legal issues were present. (The usual collection of 15th c. prosecutions is discussed, but as I'll be covering these in their original publications, I'll skip the details.)

Secular literature and correspondence - Aside from some characters and episodes in medieval romances which could be read as lesbian or lesbian-like, the topic rarely appears in medieval secular literature. One rare exception is a song by the female troubadour Bieiris de Romans addressed to a woman named Maria which is clearly erotic in content. Another, less positive, mention is a satirical poem that runs through a list of visual metaphors for sex between women, including "they don't play at jousting but join shield to shield without a lance", "they don't bother with a pestle in their mortar nor a fulcrum for their see-saw", and "they do their jousting act in couples and go at if at full tilt at the game of thigh-fencing." There are a few surviving letters sent between women that express a strong and personal emotional connection that is couched in passionate or even erotic language, such as, "Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you every hour, at every moment ... you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart." (12th c.)

Art - Portrayals of female interactions that are clearly sexual in nature rather than simply affectionate can be hard to distinguish. One unmistakable one from an illustrated Bible moralisée from Vienna shows a female couple and a male couple entwined in erotic embraces while devils look on. (13th c.) (See the user pic for this series for a clip from this image.)

Add new comment