Lesbianism in the Medieval period

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John Martin Destruction Sodom and Gomorrah

Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin

The British Isles

In the Middle Ages, the Christian Church of Europe had a stricter view of the relationship between same-sex women. The Celtic monks in Ireland had developed confession manuals . These unofficial guides became particularly popular on the British Isles. They mentioned the crimes and fines that had to be done for it. For example: “… he who commits the male crime of the Sodomites will pay for four years”.

The different versions of the Paenitentiale Theodori , attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, make special references to being lesbian.

De Paenitentiale states: “If a woman practices vice with a woman, she will pay a fine for three years”.

The European continent

These confession manuals quickly spread to mainland Europe. Most do not mention explicitly lesbian activities or treat them as less sinful than male homosexuality.


Old-French legal treatise Li Livres de jostice et de flet (c. 1260) is the earliest reference to legal punishments for lesbian behavior similar to that for male homosexuality. It wrote breakup for the first two offenses and death by burning for the third: an almost exact parallel with the punishment for a man, although what “dissolution” could mean for a medieval woman is unknown.

South Europe

In Spain, Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women fell under “unnatural acts” that had to be burned by death, although this rarely happened.

From 1500

In the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V, a law on sexual offenses specifically prohibited sexual acts between women.

Reports from about a dozen women involved in lesbian sex date from the medieval period. Which means “same-sex genital contact” as Judith Bennett defined it as. All have had to deal with the court and have been imprisoned or executed.

An early example of a woman executed for homosexual acts took place in 1477, when a girl in Speier, Germany, was drowned.

However, not all women were punished so hard. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, a French woman, Laurence, wife of Colin Poitevin, was imprisoned for her affair with another woman, Jehanne. She argued for leniency on the grounds that Jehanne had been the instigator and regretted her sins and was free to return home after six months in prison.

A later example, from Pescia in Italy, concerned an abbess, Sister Benedetta Carlini, who was documented in investigations between 1619 and 1623 committing serious crimes including a passionately erotic love affair with another nun when possessed by a divine male spirit called “Splenditello”. She was declared the victim of a “diabolical obsession” and spent the last 35 years of her life in the prison of the monastery.

Lesbianism in the Medieval Arab World

In the medieval Arab world, lesbianism is thought to be caused by heat generated in the labia of a woman, which could be relieved by friction against the genitals of another woman. Medieval Arabic medical texts considered lesbianism to be innate: for example, Masawaiyh wrote that a girl became a lesbian when her nurse ate specific food such as celery and rocket. The earliest story about lesbianism in Arabic literature comes from the Encyclopedia of Pleasure and tells the story of the love between a Christian and an Arabic woman, and we know of the Fihrist, a tenth-century catalog of works in Arabic, of writings about twelve other lesbian couples who did not survive.

Lesbianism in medieval Jewish history

A Jewish rabbi named Maimonides assembled his masterpiece the Mishneh Torah in the late 12th century. Concerning lesbian practices, this requires a prohibition for women to be mesollelot (= rub the genitals against each other). This was the practice of Egypt against which warnings existed in Leviticus. The sages rejected the marriage between men, including that between women and between two men with one woman. Although forbidden you were not flogged for it as for a Torah ban. Indeed, there is no specific prohibition and there is no real community either. It does not prevent you from becoming a priest because of fornication when you commit it. And a man cannot forbid his wife because it is not fornication. But it was appropriate to administer scourges of the same kind as those data when violating a rabbinic ban because they had done something that was forbidden. A man in relation to his wife had to be strict about this and prevent women from happening.

Lesbianism in English literature in the Renaissance

In the Renaissance, homo-eroticism became so common in English literature and theater that historians suggest that this was a fashion phenomenon.


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