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Swords, Satan and Sexuality: Queer Nuns of the Past

Outside of special interest pornography, we don’t really associate nuns with queerness but historically speaking we probably should. It’s actually fairly obvious if you think about it; released from the threat of marriage and living in an all female community, a nunnery must have seemed like paradise to queer noble women. Without the burden of a husband, nuns were often free to pursue their own interests (as long as they were of noble birth of course), whether that was music, medicine or subverting the patriarchy through directly channeling Jesus and starting a lesbian sex cult in their abbey. Add to that a general disbelief that women were capable of having sex with each other, despite some vague and wishy washy regulations about unnatural acts, and joining a nunnery begins to sound more and more like going to Smith.

While we don’t have many examples of queer nuns because of the aforementioned “sex requires a cis* man” cultural obsession, here are a handful of the most prominent and badly behaved nuns from the late middle ages and Renaissance.

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen

To be fair all we have on the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen is speculation. But then that’s all we have on anyone who didn’t do something so outrageous that the church forgot its “lesbians don’t exist” policy in order to punish them. With that in mind, if you look at her life and work, there’s a great deal of evidence suggesting some not-very-platonic feelings about ladies.

When not experiencing visions, cheeking the pope and bossing around the Holy Roman Emperor, Hildegard wrote everything from music to plays to a piece of theology actively condemning women who fornicated with each other. I know that seems counterintuitive, but bear with me. Remember that this was a period where the official position was that this was something women could not actually do. For Hildegard to even be aware of it as a possibility suggests she was thinking about it, and may even be a case where “the lady doth protest too much.”

Hildegard also wrote a groundbreaking medical text that relied more on Galen than Aristotle. Radical for suggesting that the birth parent might actually contribute genetic material (“matter”) to their offspring instead of being merely an incubator, Hildegard’s book was rather more sensible than the average text of the time. She still included such terrible advice as regular bleeding or blistering to relieve the body of ill humours (think toxins), but on the whole her advice was less likely to kill you than much of contemporary Western medicine. Oh, and she also included a lovingly detailed categorization of what it was that made women sexy or not according to their humours.

Sanguine Women: Some women are plump by nature. They have soft and delightful flesh… are lovable in the embrace of love.” – Hildegard of Bingen On Natural Philosophy and Medicine

Hildegard clearly had a type. It’s of note here that while she also described the four humeric types of men, a matching commentary on their relative sex appeal is conspicuously absent. It’s theoretically possible that this disparity came about because of a head-on collision of purity culture and lesbian erasure, but either way the obvious sensual appeal women held for her is undeniable. This is made even more obvious when you delve into her personal life and the management of her nunnery. Hildegard liked to have her nuns regularly perform the morality plays and music that she wrote, which was unusual but not spectacularly weird. What was unique to her establishment was that she had them wear the finest clothing possible for these performances on the flimsy excuse that as brides of Jesus it was their duty to dress up for him. This opinion was both technically heretical and explicitly against the rules of her monastic order but the woman was politically powerful enough that she was allowed to get away with it.

The final compelling bit of evidence that Hildegard was not very heterosexual at all is that she had a special friend in her secretary and second in command Richardis. The two had a close and passionate relationship, and, when she eventually moved on to lead a nunnery of her own, Hildegard sent her a series of letters that read exactly like the angry-sad post breakup letters of the most codependent modern U-hauler. While we have no evidence that they perceived their relationship to be anything more than platonic, let alone acted on it, the emotions are there, raw and real.

Abbess Benedetta Carlini

Someone whose sexual proclivities we do have an abundance of evidence on was the Abbess Benedetta Carlini, whose story is in many ways the dark mirror of Hildegard’s. Like her, she was given over to the religious life at a young age, became an abbess and experienced extraordinary visions. Unlike Hildegard her visions were explicitly erotic and involved the direct channeling of both Jesus and an angelic being known as Splenditello.

Benedetta’s visions started out violent, featuring men trying to kill her, and she and the other nuns were afraid that she was beset by demons. They confined her to a cell and had another nun, Bartolomea, room with her to keep an eye on her. The visions then changed in nature to ecstatic religious ones wherein she was told that Jesus had chosen her to be his wife and the “empress of all nuns.” She manifested stigmata on her body and seems to have possessed some talent for mass hypnosis or inducing group hysteria; the nuns reported that when Jesus or the angels spoke through her her facial features changed to those of a handsome boy.

Initially, as with Hildegard and her visions, the local church authorities were delighted at the potential of having a saint in their midst. However Benedetta’s behaviour started to escalate in ways that transgressed even the fairly loose limits imposed on ecstatic visionaries. Not only did she report experiencing a death and resurrection, she then went on to stage a marriage between herself and Jesus where he spoke through her, granting her a great deal of temporal and spiritual authority. In the wake of this, a team of investigators was sent to find out if her visions were genuine, satanic or simple fraud.

Though the initial findings declared her genuine, a confession from Bartolomea led to them performing an about turn, declaring her to have been deceived by Satan instead. According to Bartolomea, Jesus would come to Benedetta in the night, seeking, as a normal husband, to have congress with her. Benedetta, as a dutiful bride would let him, but because he had no physical body, a stand in needed to be found. Bartolomea was to provide that stand in. Additionally, when the angel Splenditello possessed her, he would have intercourse with Bartolomea whom he loved.

Its fairly clear that Bartolomea was conflicted about this at best and not at all in a position to give meaningful consent. She describes how Benedetta would throw her onto the bed and get on top of her while using only passive language to describe herself during these encounters and it’s very obvious that she was uncomfortable with it throughout. There’s a tendency among queer and feminist writers to overlook this and depict Benedetta as a delightful character who was victimised by the church, and to a degree this is understandable. We have so few verified historical figures that a lesbian nun carrying out a mystic affair with her lover sounds exciting and brilliant and fun. For her to be just another cult leader using her spiritual authority to compel sex from her followers is incredibly disappointing. We have a duty, though, not to sugarcoat even the most unsavory parts of our history and a part of this is recognising that Benedetta coerced and manipulated Bartolomea into their relationship.

It took the investigative team quite a while to work out what to do with her simply because no penetration had taken place. If penetration of some kind had been involved then they would have been able to convict her of sodomy, a crime usually reserved for men but sometimes applied to women who had used a dildo on each other. However they were unable to prove that penetration had occurred and, because Benedetta maintained that she had believed her visions to be true but was willing to accept that they were instead demonic in nature they were unable to execute her for heresy. Eventually it was decided that she’d committed mere fornication, something that normally carried a light penalty. However, the nuns of her order, presumably rightfully angry (among other things Benedetta had restricted their diet and encouraged self flagellation), decided to condemn her to hermitage instead. Hermitage, sometimes entered into voluntarily, meant being walled into a tiny cell for the rest of your life. An opening was left to allow food and waste to be passed in and out, so it wasn’t quite the same as being buried alive, but people usually didn’t live long like that anyway. Benedetta on the other hand surprised everyone once again by living for another thirty five years in her cell, dying in 1661.

Julie D’Aubigny

Julie D’Aubigny, by contrast, is just an all-around treat. Born to a fencing master and inveterate gambler, he taught her swordsmanship and card sharping from a young age — two things she was incredibly good at. He also had her dressing like a boy because why not? Some accounts claim her father killed any male lover she took and this is why she took to sleeping with women, which apparently he didn’t mind. However considering that at fourteen she was ensconced as the mistress of her father’s boss, as well as in possession of a courtesy husband who had been sent away immediately after the wedding night, this seems doubtful. It seems like the sort of invention men who are threatened by the idea of women sleeping with each other instead of them might create in order to reassure themselves of the potency of their own penis. This is going to be a recurring theme in Julie’s story.

Apparently finding being a rich man’s mistress boring (or possibly bored of the rich man), Julie ran off with another fencing master fairly quickly, and then proceeded to tour the country with him giving public demonstrations of their swordsmanship. On one occasion, when no one would believe she could possibly be a woman and that good with a sword, she straight up took her top off to prove the point. Julie had no fucks to give about anything.

They supplemented their income by singing in taverns and by the time the two of them made it to Marseille Julie had developed her talent enough to join the Marseille opera. While there, she embarked on a career of bedding as many of the other singers as possible before falling in love with a merchant’s daughter whose name we don’t know. The merchant and his wife were less than pleased that their daughter was having an affair with a female opera singer and so had their daughter placed in a nunnery. Normally this was enough to deter unsuitable lovers, but not Julie.

Somehow convincing the convent that she genuinely wanted to take holy orders, Julie entered the nunnery with her girlfriend. Around a month in, an elder nun died of natural causes and the two of them saw their chance; putting the dead nun in the girlfriend’s bed they set the nunnery on fire and ran off into the night. Unfortunately for them their cunning plan didn’t actually work, and after a month of living together in hiding, the girl returned to the nunnery and Julie was tried in absentia. Convicted of kidnapping, arson, body snatching and failing to appear before the tribunal, she was sentenced to death by fire. Fortunately for Julie, however, fragile masculinity was to save her life. It was far too embarrassing to admit that a woman had done all of this and so, instead of trying the actual person of Julie D’Aubigny, they tried a fictional genderswapped version instead, meaning that even if they’d managed to catch her the sentence could not have been carried out.

Understandably wary anyway, Julie made for Paris where she was hoping her first lover would use his influence to make the charges go away. Along the road she picked up a new boyfriend through an encounter that sounds like something from a bad piece of fanfic; the young Count d’Albert insulted her, so she challenged him to a duel and stabbed him. The next day, feeling a bit sorry for him, she went to check on how he was doing where, properly chastened, he won her over. Keeping her company all the way to Paris, d’Albert was to be yet another useful noble friend for the rest of her life.

Acquiring the pardon she was after, Julie joined the prestigious Paris opera where she proceeded to sleep her way through half the company and beat the holy crap out of the rest. In particular any young man who was less than polite or respectful to the women of the opera, whether he was cast himself or a member of the audience, wound up either losing humiliatingly in a duel or being beaten up and robbed in a back alley (on one occasion she took the offending man’s pocket watch as a trophy). Her career was interrupted after she attended a matchmaking ball of the upper classes, danced with all of the women and kissed one of them in full public view. Three young men immediately challenged her to a duel and she won all three only to discover that the king had banned dueling in the city of Paris (presumably no one cared when it was just opera singers doing it) and that once again she needed to leave somewhere in a hurry.

After a brief stay in Brussels where she performed on the stage and had an affair with the Elector of Bavaria, she moved on to Madrid, where she worked as a maid before handing in her resignation with style. While dressing her employers hair for a ball she hung a number of radishes in it that were visible to everyone but the unfortunate woman wearing them; by the time her employer was back from the ball she was halfway to Paris where a pardon awaited her.

Once back in the city she rejoined the opera, becoming famous for performing androgynous and masculine parts and going right back to defending her colleagues from lecherous noblemen and having high-profile affairs with noble ladies. Finally, after attempting suicide, brawling on stage and threatening murder, she found the love of her life in Madame la Marquise de Florensac, the most beautiful woman in France. The two women lived together, blissfully happy, until de Florensac died unexpectedly from a fever two years later. Julie was inconsolable and entered a nunnery once again, only to die herself a year later from —according to her biographer — an innate tendency to sin.

Admittedly a depressing end, but even so, you can’t deny that Julie D’Aubigny had an awful lot of fun in her life. And other than the girl whose parents put her into a convent, none of her lovers seem to have faced any punishment. And just think — if Julie could get away with all of that in public, imagine what the women of France must have been getting away with out of sight.


*I am aware the middle ages didn’t have a concept of trans or cis. But we do now and I’m specifying cis so as not to erase and alienate trans people in the now by conflating masculinity with possessing a penis.