Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Were medieval nuns "lesbian-like"?

This post is building on the ongoing conversation about Judith Bennett's History Matters. See part 1, part 2, and part 3. Thanks to Notorious for starting this up--great idea!

First off, I think this is a great book, immensely thought-provoking. I should also clarify that I read the book a year or two ago, and now can't find my copy, so I haven't fully refreshed my memory.

But, as I remarked in the comments to Tenured Radical's post, I have some concerns about the use of "lesbian-like" to describe medieval women, particularly medieval nuns. I can see the attraction to the term: nuns did, after all, live in primarily-female communities, and so often had their closest relationships with other women. Bennett's discussion of the term also reminds me of the need to avoid heteronormativity, which can be easy to slip into.

Nonetheless, I have some qualms. One is that I've encountered a number of people who were already eager to assume that medieval nunneries were hotbeds of women having sex with each other. Many of them were undergraduates, true, but not all; I fear that introducing "lesbian-like" only reinforces some of the more titillating notions about medieval nuns. That alone wouldn't put me off, though.

Second qualm is that women's monasteries in the Middle Ages were, in fact, not always, or even typically, female-exclusive communities. Nuns had male chaplains, confessors, and other priests on hand; some nunneries had attached communities of lay brothers; lay men did construction, farming, or other manual labor around nunneries. So, at many communities, men went in and out quite regularly. Plus, while many nuns, perhaps even most nuns, did have their primary emotional relationships with other women, there must have been many nuns who viewed men as their primary friends and emotional supports. Hildegard of Bingen's male secretary, Volmar, seems to have been a trusted aide and confidant; Elisabeth of Schonau was very close with her brother; numerous later medieval nuns had strong emotional ties to their confessors. So even on the level of emotional, rather than sexual, intimacy, many medieval nuns had important relationships with men.

Even beyond that, nuns were supposed to direct their energies--emotional, sexual, and spiritual--toward God. Much spiritual literature aimed at nuns invoked the image of a nun as Christ's bride. As I've discussed before, this was not just metaphor, but literalized. Many people, including a great many nuns and their spiritual advisors, viewed nuns as the literal brides of Jesus, the heavenly bridegroom. Nuns' relationship with Jesus could be somewhat eroticized as well as emotionally affecting and intimate. (A digression: what would that have been like for a nun whose sexual desires were for women? would she have found the bearded Jesus on the cross alienating rather than fulfilling? might she have fixed on more feminized aspects of Jesus in her personal spiritual journey?) The generally masculine figure of God was, then, theoretically at the center of nuns' existence, which perhaps makes them seem not so lesbian-like after all.

In the area of sexuality, I think a case can be made that, in the Middle Ages, virginity was a sexual identity. Whereas modern secular culture tends to view virginity as a temporary phase of life, to be moved past in one's youth, for medieval people it was a state to aspire toward, to protect vigilantly, to be constantly aware of. The preservation of virginity (or chastity) was a vital part of nuns' identity. How would this affect any sexual orientation on the part of nuns? If a nun had taken vows as a young girl, to what extent was she even aware of her other sexual preferences?

As discussed by Bennett, the term "lesbian-like" does raise some important issues of interpretation and things to think about. But for all the above reasons, I think it's too easy to apply to medieval nuns, and doesn't do enough to reflect the real complexities of nuns' daily lives.


Anastasia said...

are we also assuming that lesbians never have close relationships with men? That being a lesbian is about eschewing contact with males? I get the idea that lesbians form their most intimate relationships with women, but it seems a bit much to suggest that they dwell in a world of (nearly all) women. In which case, the concept "lesbian-like" and the objections you raise all collapse in a heap for me.

What I really wanted to say is that I don't perceive any shortage of conversation about same-sex eroticism in medieval spirituality in my own discipline, although I think the conversation is more robust around men's spirituality, since they are relating (often with a kind of spiritual eroticism) to Jesus, who is male. And yet, sometimes construed as female, by male and female religious. Jesus, despite human maleness, and God, despite the image of father, have a kind of androgyny that makes me wonder whether any of this is *actually* about sex at all.

clio's disciple said...

True enough; and maybe I'm misconstruing Bennett's usage of the term. My recollection is that she suggests "lesbian-like" to refer to women who are primarily connected to other women, thus can be considered as "like lesbians" regardless of whether they're having sex with other women.

clio's disciple said...

Your point about God's androgyny is well taken. I need to think about these issues some more.

Ann said...

Clio's disciple--thanks for your thoughts on this. I am writing about a group of nuns in the 17th and 18th centuries, so this is an issue that I need to grapple with in my own work.

I thought that Bennett's suggestion that we look for "lesbian-like" behavior was provocative, and meant to be so. I liked Tenured Radical's tweaking of "lesbian" to "queer," too. I think you make great points here about the permeability of the cloister--that there were men there, and that religious women often had important relationships with their confessors and bishops, for example.

That said, I think I'm with Anastasia when she suggests that "lesbian-like" doesn't mean women-only, not now and not in even the "distant" past. "Heterosexual" and "lesbian" are clearly two too-severe poles to describe even the world we live in, let alone the world you write about, which priviledged virginity and celibacy. This is why "queer" works better, I think--it's more flexible and it's less obviously about sexsexsex in the way that "hetero/homosexual/lesbian" are not. (At least, that's how I take it--but perhaps those who haven't read gender and queer theory will read it differently.)


Anastasia said...

Just popping back in...I really like queer in this context. need to think about it some more.

Evie said...

You raise some very good points about the dangers of assuming medieval nunneries were 'all women - all the time', and this is one aspect of Bennett's concept of 'lesbian-like' which bothered me. I tend to think of medieval nuns (those that were nuns from a true vocation rather than being in a nunnery for family or other reasons) as having their primary emotional relationship with a Jesus. In the spiritual/mystical writings by medieval religious women that I have read, a marriage and/or mothering relationship with a masculine Jesus takes centre stage.

It seems to me dangerous to assume that just because religious women were increasingly excluded and enclosed (by male clerics) in all-women communities, that this was a positive choice. For many, the loss of mixed (male and female) communities was a negative development (I am thinking here of the mixed communities such as the Gilbertines, which flourished in the 10th - 11th centuries, but were victims of the Gregorian reform).

I think Bennett makes a valuable argument for the need to question and shake up heteronormative assumptions, but for me, applying the concept of 'lesbian like' to medieval communities of religious women risks replacing one set of simplistic generalisations with another.

I am also pleased you raised the point about virginity being a distinct and active sexual identity - perhaps even a 'third sex' - in the middle ages. This is not adequately captured by either 'heteronormative' or 'lesbian-like', and is a concept that deserves more, and more nuanced, exploration.

clio's disciple said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone... I still have a lot to think about here.

Eva said...

Thank you for the article! I wonder if female homosexual acts were somehow named in monastic rules. Were there any registered expulsions from nunneries or other punishments for lesbian relations?
P. S. English is not my native language. Sorry for mistakes.

clio's disciple said...

Hi, Eva! I missed your comment until recently, since this is an older post.
Off the top of my head, I can't recall monastic rules which deal with female homosexuality specifically. However, many monastic rules were originally written for men and applied to women's communities on an ad-hoc basis. Female homosexuality is mentioned in the penitentials, but without as much detail as male homosexuality.
I'd recommend Judith Brown's Immodest Acts as an introduction to the subject, though it deals with a later period.