Female homosexuality in the Middle Ages was a heavily guarded taboo regardless of social rank. Women, who were expected to be subservient, obedient, and loyal to their husbands were actively put into denial of their sexualities. If a woman did not adhere to these strict guidelines, then she would be deemed a harlot or outcast from society. The only way for women to express themselves was through acts of scandalous behavior such as cross-dressing or engaging in illicit heterosexual behaviors with the opposite gender while married. Medieval religious authorities and the society at large denounced female homosexuality and believed that women, whether widowed or married, did not experience sexual desire, and viewed any same-sex acts between women as the result of coercion or manipulation by a man.
Religious authorities and society in the middle ages condemned female homosexuality because women who were accused of being homosexual or lesbian disgraced their families. It was believed that they did not conform to the societal norms of proper women (Alvarez). Homosexuality was generally not considered to be a distinct orientation from heterosexuality or bisexuality, but instead, it was seen as a form of impurity (MacLean 577). For example, in the eleventh century, the French writer Guibert of Nogent wrote that homosexuality was against nature because it did not lead to procreation. A woman who had sex with another woman would be seen as an adulterer, or a prostitute (Karras 315). In the middle ages, a woman’s sexuality was controlled by men and society. It was not until around the Renaissance that women began to explore their sexual desires on their terms.
Additionally, the majority of women who were accused of homosexuality in the Middle Ages were either widows or married women. When a female committed an act of homosexual behavior, her husband could divorce her and this would save him from a loss of social standing within their community (MacLean 581). On rare occasions, a married woman could also be accused of lesbianism. There were no specific laws against lesbianism in medieval, but many people believed that women’s sexuality was determined, or drastically influenced by their husbands and the social status they belonged (MacLean 581). The daughter of a bride would lose her inheritance after a divorce, and any other property she received from her father (Sivakumaran 1755). Also, the daughter would no longer have a claim to any future property. Since women were viewed as property, they were not afforded equal rights to men when it came to their marriages.
Furthermore, there was an idea in the middle ages that women couldn’t experience sexual desire since they did not have any visible signs of arousal. Since women were not accused of committing homosexual acts with men, they were not given the same guilt or shame that was placed upon those who had committed homosexual acts with women (Alvarez). This means that a woman who was accused of being lesbian would not be immediately banished from society. Instead, she would be labeled as an outcast and ostracized from her community until she was able to prove her heterosexuality to the satisfaction of the religious authorities. Women who were accused of being lesbian or homosexual in the Middle Ages were deprived of sexual pleasure and denied their sexuality. They did not have dominion over their bodies, and they could easily be put into a situation where they could not defend themselves either.
Also, the widespread belief in homosexuality among women in the middle ages can be attributed to the socially constructed notion that women’s sexuality was under some sort of control by men. Women were never given the freedom to explore their sexual desires because they had to comply with their husband’s wishes and social positions to survive (Sivakumaran 1751). A woman’s sexuality was controlled by the male figures in their lives such as their fathers, brothers, and husbands (Karras 322). Women were denied the right to choose or explore what they wanted out of life. This idea played a role in women’s sexuality because it was one more obstacle for women in the middle ages to overcome. Many religious authorities also thought that women did not experience sexual desire and that their lesbian acts were forced upon them (Alvarez). They believed that women whose husbands were away fighting in a war would resort to homosexual behavior to fill the void of their absent husbands (Karras 321). Women who were accused of being lesbians sometimes defended themselves by saying that they had no idea why they engaged in same-sex activities, and they claimed they were manipulated into it.
According to medieval religious authorities, women were believed to be subservient and controlled by men to preserve their family’s honor and societal status. Even though there were no real laws against lesbianism in feudal society, a woman was still accused of being a harlot or an outcast from society because she engaged in a same-sex relationship. If a woman engaged in sexual activities with another woman, she would be seen as a prostitute and as an outcast from her community. Also, women were seen as property and could not make their own choices throughout their life. A woman could be put into bondage by her fathers, brothers, or husbands and could never express her sexuality without the permission of a man.
Alvarez, Sandra. “How Far Did Medieval Society Recognise Lesbianism in This Period?” Medievalists.net, 16 Feb. 2014.
Karras, Ruth Mazo. “Sexuality in the middle ages.” The Medieval World. Routledge, 2018. 313-328.
MacLean, Sarah, et al. “Middle-aged same-sex attracted women and the social practice of drinking.” Critical Public Health 29.5 (2019): 572-583.
Sivakumaran, Gajan, and Rachel Margolis. “Self-rated health by sexual orientation among middle-aged and older adults in Canada.” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B 75.8 (2020): 1747-1757.