Representing the Negative: Positing the Lesbian Void in Medieval English Anchoritism
Michelle M. Sauer

Winner of the 2005-6 LGBT Religious History Award
from the LGBT Religious Archives Network

While the growth of gender studies has resulted in a proliferation of works on the queering of texts, moments, and readings, relatively few of these studies focus on early representations of woman-woman eroticism. Even fewer address woman-woman eroticism in the Middle Ages. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero touch on the complexity of this issue: "we have had at our disposal the resonant notion that the history of the 'premodern' [...] might, when viewed from the standpoints of the 'othered,' take on some uncanny shapes" (xviii). This view is, in turn, echoed by Francesca Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn, who state that "Writing about female same-sex desire in the Middle Ages requires [radical] acts of interpretation [...]" (34). I propose one such radical interpretation in my reading of the texts and architecture of medieval anchoritism. Anchoresses were women, either vowed or non-vowed, who desired to dwell in solitude in order to devote their entire life to contemplative prayer.[1] Yet, theirs was a mediated solitude that allowed, and, to some extent, encouraged interaction with other women within the confines of the anchorhold. It is within this liminal space that I suggest investigating the queer possibilities of medieval English anchoritism. The foundational paradoxes of the anchoritic lifestyle foreground these possibilities - the anchoress was simultaneously dead and alive; the cell was both secular and sacred; the life was both mundane and glorious. Thus, I posit that in the early Middle Ages, both the regulations for and the structure of the anchoritic cell could provide the necessary space and conditions to create a "lesbian void," in which the anchoress could explore woman-woman erotic possibilities. Further, this void was supported not only by the cell's configuration, but also through the religious Rule for anchoresses as well as by medieval theological concepts about "lesbian" acts.[2]

Conceptually, medieval notions of lesbianism are dependent upon a great deal of reconstructionist work. As noted by Jacqueline Murray, "[w]hile women in general have attracted increasing attention from medievalists, lesbians remain ignored as subjects. Thus medieval lesbians have been twice marginalized" (193). Therefore, those of us who work on representations of woman-woman eroticism and the Middle Ages are often forced to work backwards from studies about later centuries, particularly the early modern era (in British literature, 1485-1660 CE). The concept of the "lesbian void" was developed by Theodora A. Jankowski in her article "…in the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare's Plays." Initially, Jankowski refers to the metaphorical space of invisibility where Hermione of The Winter's Tale exists - a space that allows her to be both dead and available for resurrection, and also a space that she shares only with another woman, Paulina. Jankowski goes on to frame the lesbian void in two distinct ways: "each a kind of 'female realm,' where erotic relationships between women could occur: within the newly created private spaces of the early modern aristocratic home and within the mistress-servant relationship" (301). She illustrates these options not only through an examination of The Winter's Tale, but also by looking at the relationship between Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice, Cleopatra's female-only inner sanctum in Antony & Cleopatra, as well as several other Shakespearean situations. Both the physical and the metaphorically constructed spaces are related to the increasing cultural value of privacy seen developing throughout early modern society. Jankowski points to two specific architectural constructs - the closet and the banquet - that allowed for increased privacy, and thus potentially for a "lesbian void." Jankowski's use of the term "void" is also an interesting choice in that "void" often carries with it negative connotations. Yet, instead of signifying a lack of some sort, in this case, "void" means simply "empty," and "empty," in turn, implies a greater degree of privacy, and thus a greater degree of erotic possibilities.[3] While the banquet, a hall reserved specifically for important feasts, was a particular development of the early modern period, the closet, which was a private withdrawing chamber controlled by the "owner," can be compared to the anchoritic cell. Both men and women had closets, and both men and women had anchorholds; each space became gendered by its association with an occupant. Anchorholds were small, private, regulated, and empty - all scarce commodities in the Middle Ages, and all defining features of the closet.

During the early modern period in England, the population as a whole gained a great deal of privacy, making Jankowski's lesbian void more feasible. My focus is on the thirteenth century, the height of the Middle Ages, when entire families spent their lives in close proximity to one another, often residing together in single-room dwellings. No matter what social class they belonged to, medieval people had few to no expectations of privacy. Every function of daily life - including sexual relations - was, at least in some sense, a shared experience. Raymond Ritter succinctly captures the modern reader's sense of discomfort about the glaring lack of privacy, stating that "by the late twelfth century the greatest feudal lords had just begun to discover how terribly sad [...] were the dwellings in which family and servants lived crowded together in the most peculiar promiscuity" (in Barthélemy 406). To some extent this "promiscuity" was ameliorated by large hanging tapestries and massive pieces of furniture; however, these mobile objects could not take the place of walls. Furthermore, "hall and chamber were not strictly opposed spaces in a feudal residence, as bedroom and living room are in a modern home" (Barthélemy 418). If we consider the idea that "the bed both embellishes the room and serves as a couch for conversation" (Barthélemy 422), even functional privacy is removed as the potential for "promiscuity" is significantly increased. While aristocratic households might enjoy at least a modicum of private space, the peasant household had even fewer options for solitude. According to Philippe Contamine, the size of a peasant house was dependent both upon its environmental setting (isolated, urban, farm, mill, etc.) and upon its inhabitants (widow, nuclear family, extended family, animals, etc.).[4] Overall, however, the public/private division seems to have been made mostly between the public space of eating and entertainment, and the private family area used for sleeping, dressing, and sexual relations. The lower classes would have had even fewer opportunities for unobserved amorous dalliances with any sex within the household confines than the nobility.[5]

Even if the household had a private chamber, it was rare that a woman would have had control over access to it. Young marriageable noblewomen in particular were rarely, if ever, left to their own devices, and were generally enclosed in a separate area of the household. Georges Duby notes the cultural constructions of gender at work here:

women, being the weaker sex and more prone to sin, had to be held in check. [...] Since females were dangerous, patriarchal power over them was reinforced. They were kept under lock and key in the most isolated part of the house: the chambre des dames was not a place for seduction or amusement but a kind of prison, in which women were incarcerated because men feared them. (77)

The commonly held belief was that women, if left unguarded, would indulge their natural weaknesses, and give in to the various temptations of the flesh, including lust, greed, and discord. Duby further clarifies the parameters of this enclosure: "Men caught only brief glimpses of the gynaecium" (78). This limited surveillance, though arranged for the moral well-being of both sexes, did little to ease male anxiety about the inherent immorality all women possessed:

What, men asked, do women do together when they are alone, locked up in the chamber? The answer was: Nothing good. [...] The moralists were obsessed with thoughts of the guilty pleasures which, they had no doubt, women enjoyed in the gynaecium either alone or in conjunction with other women and young children. [...] [W]omen, particularly young women, are constantly vulnerable to the pricks of desire, against which there is no defense, and that they usually satisfy these desires through homosexuality (suspicion of which was encouraged by the common practice of having several members of the same sex share one bed). (79-80)

Enclosure was a double-edged sword - female isolation was necessary to preserve masculine power, but it was also feared because it could lead to challenging the necessity of the male wielding that power - or to challenging the necessity of the (male) penis.

It would seem that religious occupation could be presumed to ease some of these concerns, whether it was group prayer led by an aristocratic lady or daily service led by an abbess. Yet, this was not entirely the case. Roberta Gilchrist examines the impact that medieval architecture had upon the concepts of gender and sexuality among religious women:

when medieval nuns embraced celibacy theirs was more closely linked to a concept of chastity shared with secular women of the upper classes. [...] Both secular and monastic women demonstrated constructions of female sexuality which centred on monogamy and chastity facilitated by spatial segregation. [...] The strict, perpetual enclosure of medieval nuns may be seen as an extension of the segregation of aristocratic and gentry women within a domestic domain. (19; 169)

In fact, medieval religious women were just as subject to the strictures about "too much" privacy as were laywomen. Though the convent was ostensibly an all female world, it was still regulated by men and men's fears about rampant female sexuality. Gilchrist reports that unlike even the poorest male monasteries, which boasted separate abbot's quarters, few female monastic communities had detached prioress' lodges; in fact, "prioresses were admonished to keep common dormitory with their nuns" (125). It was believed that excessive physical solitude allowed women to be subject to increased temptation. Women needed help to preserve their chastity: "The perfect virgin," points out Joyce E. Salisbury, was "not to enclose herself completely with Christ and her prayers; she was to live in a community with other similar women, dedicated virgins" (34, original emphasis). Chastity required constant vigilance, both from herself and from others.[6]

This patristic view held sway for several centuries until the height of the Middle Ages saw a dramatic rise in the number of women who were drawn to the comparative "freedom" of the anchoritic lifestyle. In the otherwise communal medieval world, the anchoress' cell was a rarity in that it offered almost complete privacy. Privacy was the most necessary condition for a potential lesbian void. Though they varied somewhat in size, most anchoritic cells were relatively small, single-cell dwellings attached to churches.[7] An anchoress lived inside this chamber, never leaving it during her life. A few noblewomen became anchoresses, and the vocation was not prohibited to peasants; however, the majority of anchoresses were from the merchant class. The candidates were expected to be able to read, at least in the vernacular, to be self-supporting, and to provide for servants. Anchoresses did not subsist on charity per se. In fact, when a woman requested permission from the bishop to become a recluse, the bishop was obliged to fully investigate her finances in order to determine her fiscal stability.[8] As Ann K. Warren points out, "[w]ealthy candidates for reclusion endowed themselves. The less affluent needed a promise of support from outside sources to augment their own resources" (42). Still, these funds had to be pledged in advance of the anchoress's vows. Once built, the cell became hers, and was often willed to her servants upon her death. Moreover, not only was the cell built specifically for her and controlled by her, but it also became conceptually fused with her body. Ancrene Wisse, the most well known guide for anchoresses,[9] builds upon this idea, metaphorically linking the female body and an anchoritic cell:

Yes, you, too will go out of both your anchorhouses as he [Jesus] did, without a break, and leave them both whole. That will be when the spirit goes out in the end, without break or blemish, from its two houses. One of them is the body, the other is the outer house, which is like the outer wall around a castle. (Ancrene Wisse, Part VI, 187)

The physical anchorhold was conceived as an extension of the anchoress' body; thus unlike other medieval dwellings, an anchoress' cell became a completely female space, one that was locked from the inside, hidden from all male gazes, and would never be penetrated by a man.

Jankowski suggests that the newly developed "female realms" of the early modern period were conducive to the establishment of woman-woman erotic relationships, particularly between mistress and servant. Instead of open chambers perhaps divided by tapestries, privileged women gained personal "withdrawing chambers" that could be locked by the occupant. When these women acquired some ability to control access to their chambers, they also gained some ability to control access to their bodies. This personal jurisdiction over the spatial boundaries of the female realm would have been unusual in the medieval world, a time when, as noted earlier, aristocratic women were kept under constant surveillance. Typically, the patriarch of the household or his agents controlled access to the women's chambers. These designated individuals may have included an older, female chatelaine, but could also include younger, non-threatening men, such as musicians or dancing masters. These visitors never entered unattended, however, and only a limited number of men ever penetrated the ladies' rooms. The same held true for convents. Gilchrist relates this sharing of physical space among supposedly isolated and enclosed nuns:

Certain features [of convents] resulted from the frequent contact between nunneries and gentry society, brought about through the sharing of nunnery churches with parochial congregations, the close proximity of many nunneries to villages, and the tendency for secular women and children to visit and board within nunneries. (127)

Furthermore, besides these visitors, nuns were required to admit priests to conduct mass on the premises. So like their secular counterparts, nuns were occasionally exposed to the male gaze, as these same men penetrated their convent spaces.[10] Although the abbess held keys to all the rooms within the nunnery, even she could not completely regulate access to the convent's depths. In fact, certain spaces, such as the chapel sacristy, would have been reserved only for male religious and their functions.

Unlike the typical medieval chambers, both secular and sacred, and more like Jankowski's "closets," the anchorhold was locked from the inside, and the anchoress controlled access into its depths. Moreover, inside she was safe from any unwanted male gaze - even during mass, she could look out upon the altar, but the priest would have had difficulty looking in at her.[11] Within this private chamber, women visitors were allowed greater freedom than male guests, even being granted the privilege of staying overnight, and if the anchoress had servants, they might dwell with her: "To women and children, and especially to the 'anchoress' maidens' who come and work for you, give food to eat [...] and invite them to stay with you" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 201). This freedom would have been a significant factor in the development of a woman-woman relationship. As Jankowski argues, "the closet [private chamber] represented a secure, private place where a woman could engage in erotic interludes with another woman without arousing suspicion, [and] I would go even further and suggest that an upper-class woman could also use her closet as a space in which to engage in erotic interludes with a lady-in-waiting or a servant" (302). Building on this, Jankowski points out that often a woman servant served the same mistress for many years, allowing long-term relationships. Furthermore, the comings and goings of a servant would have hardly been noticed.

Judging from the prescriptions in the Ancrene Wisse, the anchoress's maidens served a similar function as ladies-in-waiting, primarily in that they served as a "go-between" for the anchoress and the outside world. They assisted her with the mundane tasks of living, such as dressing, cleaning, bathing, bloodletting, and dining. It is in regards to this last function, food acquisition and preparation, that the maidens were most often required to leave the anchorhold: "An anchoress who does not have food at hand must be careful to have two women, one who always stays at home and another who goes out when necessary" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 204). Despite the privacy gained within the anchorhold, the anchoress is still never to remain alone. As a weak woman, she must remain guarded. This is why the writers of most anchoritic Rules assumed the existence of at least one maid, despite the fact that anchorites were considered "dead" and sought a life of total isolation. Ancrene Wisse, which suggests keeping two servants instead of just one, bestows a semi-official status upon these women, in naming them "anchoress' maidens." Generally, these maids were considered partially enclosed as well, although there are no records of their consent for this process.[12] They are not recorded in the burying ceremonies or other anchoritic documentation, probably because they were only considered enclosed while the anchoress lived. And like the servants of the early modern era, these maidens served the anchoress for many years.

Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII: "The Outer Rule," contains specific regulations regarding the keeping of these women, the anchoress' maidens. Besides completing any manual labour the anchoress needs, the maidens may also "teach some other maiden for whom it would be dangerous to learn among men or among boys." Furthermore, they were strictly admonished to "let no man in" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 204). The servants served as buffer between men and the anchoress' inner sanctum - they guarded her reputation, and thereby preserved her chastity. For instance, if the anchorhold was damaged in some way, these women became crucial: "If some great necessity breaks your house open, while it stays broken, have a woman of pure life to stay with you in it by day and night" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 202). If the anchoress were to remain alone, her vow would be in peril, because of her own womanly weakness, the potential damage to her name, and her exposure to possible violence.

In order to keep the anchoress within the religious sphere, and to mitigate potential temptation, anchoritic cells were commonly built adjacent to the nave of a church.[13] Anchoritic cells attached to churches generally had two windows, both covered by heavy black curtains with white crosses woven into them.[14] One window opened into the nave of the church so that the anchoress could participate in Mass, as the view was usually that of the high altar. The anchoress was never to speak to anyone, including her priest, through the church window. The other window, supposedly the smaller of the two, allowed not for a view of the outside world, but rather was designed so that the anchoress could converse for limited periods with visitors. As for the other window, the anchoress was supposed to be wary of drawing the curtain for a man, though she was allowed to speak briefly through it with women. For instance, the Ancrene Wisse author explicitly states: "When your sisters' maids come to comfort you, come to them at the window, before or after noon, once or twice, and go back again soon to your spiritual occupation" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 207). Though not exactly encouraged, regulated speech was expected in the anchoress' life, and many of these discourses occurred via her window.

Window violations in general were considered the bane of anchoritism. A large portion of Ancrene Wisse, Part II: "The Outer Senses" is devoted to detailing the dangers of "peeping," that is the sins - both major and minor - involved in craving glimpses of the outside world. The most severe danger in peeping was to the anchoress' purity, both in her sending out "enticing looks," and in her exposing herself to the same. As Baldwin states, "twelfth century physicians assigned to the eyes an important role in the arousal of sexual desire" (105). Church authorities espoused a similar view: "The theologians had long been aware of the role of sight in engendering concupiscence" (Baldwin 118), a view echoed by romances and courtly love manuals.[15] The fear of the dangers and perhaps the accompanying pleasures, of sight are echoed by Ancrene Wisse: "Take note now what harm has come of peeping: not one harm or two, but all the woe that now is and ever was and ever will be - all comes from sight" (Ancrene Wisse, Part II, 67). The Rule carefully attempts to address every conceivable situation. As such, the anchoress receives instructions on how to handle men who want to see her bed, see her altar, see her clothes, see her hair, and so forth. Among these extensive directions - which are interlaced with warnings, scripture passages, and quotes from Church fathers - lurks one single, suspicious phrase: "Some have been tempted by their own sisters" (Ancrene Wisse, Part II, 71). This hints at the possibility of lesbian desire incited merely by peeping.

These hints are intensified by the arrangement and number of the windows themselves. Though two was generally considered standard, the Rules conflict on the allowed number of windows. Some insist that one is enough, especially for those anchorites who were not within direct view of the church. Ancrene Wisse allows for a third window into the servant's chamber. This additional window has interesting ramifications for this discussion. Predominately, it seems to facilitate woman-woman eroticism, in that it allows for the possibility of a lesbian gaze. According to Ancrene Wisse, one of the anchoress' responsibilities towards her maidens is watching over them. Though the two maidservants are directed to "sleep alone," they both share the same chamber, and they are both subject to the anchoress' gaze. She may draw her curtain at will, whereas the servants have no corresponding curtain. Thus the anchoress can see her servants any time she desires, while they can neither hide from her, nor look at her, without her knowledge and consent.

The anchoress' ability to see without being seen is conceptually similar to the panopticon, which was proposed as a prison model by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century, and explored by Michel Foucault in his 1975 work Discipline and Punish.[16] In the panoptic model, the jailer can see the prisoners at his [sic] discretion, and watch without warning. Though originally conceived as a way to stem corruption and to cultivate a symbiotic relationship between the observer and the observed, a sort of benevolent control scheme, the actual ramifications would have been much different, resulting in the ability to "induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power" (Foucault 201). The resultant uncertainty - the prisoner would never know if s/he were being observed or not - was itself intended to be part of the disciplinary process. No bodily function was considered too private to watch. In this way, the gaze of surveillance blurs into the eroticized gaze. Returning to the anchorhold, the anchoress watches over her charges, and would surely be able to see them throughout the day, during a variety of activities, and in various stages of undress. The servants are subject to the anchoress' watching eyes at and for her pleasure. In this instance, though she herself is subject to many regulations about being seen, she is able to use the authority to see to maintain her power within the cell. In essence, the anchoritic cell acquires panoptic qualities in that the anchoress' gaze could be at once symbiotic, disciplinary, and erotic.

The final section of Ancrene Wisse also delineates the maidservants' forbidden physical activities, which are all related to men: "They should not kiss any male friend or relation, or embrace them out of friendship, wash their hair for them, stare at any man, sport or flirt" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 205). Not only are these activities related to men, but they are also specifically sexualized activities, made dangerous through the presence of the masculine body. Similarly, encouraged spiritual activities, including kissing, are linked to the feminine: "If any strife arises between the women, the anchoress should make each say I have done wrong to the other, kneeling on the ground; let each lift up the other and finally kiss" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 205). Many depictions of kissing in the Middle Ages are illustrative of reconciliation. The kiss in this passage can be linked to ritualized kissing, which was an important part of both the feudal system, in the ritual of vassalage (osculum feodale), and the "kiss of peace," which was part of the Mass. Yet, as Michael Camille points out, "[w]omen were exempted from this feudal [both vassalage and reconciliatory] kiss 'for the sake of decency,' suggesting that there existed a clear hierarchy of kisses" (133-34). More than that, the phrase "for the sake of decency" implies that though men might kiss each other (at least ritualistically) with impunity, women would somehow sully themselves, perhaps in a sexual way, by participating in a ritual kiss with men. At the least, both passages illustrate a common theme within Ancrene Wisse - while heterosexual contact is spiritually damaging, homosocial contact (and perhaps by extension, homosexual contact?) is spiritually restorative.

In the case of strife between the maidens cited above, the anchoress serves as facilitator, as spiritual guide, and as elder. She had both power over her women and a responsibility to them. This put her in a dominant position, a position to exercise desire in the anchorhold's prospective lesbian void. As Donatus of Besançon warned in the seventh century, not only could "particular friendships" arise between enclosed women, such as nuns, but there should also be a "particular suspicion about relationships between young girls and older women" (Murray 196-97). This suspicion grew with time, and by the thirteenth century, the same time period as the height of the anchoritic movement, "monastic rules usually called for nuns to stay out of each other's cells, to leave their doors unlocked so that the abbess might check on them, and to avoid special ties of friendship within the convent" (Brown 69). The role of elder was not the only one the anchoress assumed, however; she was also the maidens' mistress in the sense of relying on them as "ladies-in-waiting." Thus, returning to Jankowski's scenario between lady and maidservant, the anchoress and her maidens appear to fit the parameters. Maidservants not only assisted their lady in dressing and grooming, but also with bathing, menstrual needs, and female maladies. As Jankowski points out, "[l]adies-in-waiting and ladies of the chamber dressed their mistresses. They were also responsible for other duties perhaps not so elegant, such as dealing with waste products" (314). Thus, the female servant had assured access to her mistress's body and its intimate secrets. For instance, when assisting her in bathing, the anchoress' servants would have has close contact with her unclothed body. They would also have emptied chamber pots and washed her hair. The maidens were indispensable to the anchoress' overall existence.

The spiritual comfort provided by the anchoress' maidens is mentioned in several places, including the window visits. But this spiritual comfort is clearly linked to physical comfort as well. Indeed, Ancrene Wisse's author found it necessary to admonish his charges about these visits, stating: "The anchoress and her maid should not play worldly games at the window, nor should they tease one another" (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 207). The loneliness and isolation of the anchoritic life would have been physically challenging, and periodic visits would surely have bolstered the anchoress, but what exactly are "worldly games"? Similarly, while outlining the need for bloodletting, the author of Ancrene Wisse advises:

When you are finished letting blood, you must do nothing that is difficult for three days, but talk to your maidens and amuse yourselves together with virtuous stories. You may do so whenever you feel heavy or are sad or sick because of some worldly thing - even though any worldly comfort is unworthy of an anchoress. (Ancrene Wisse, Part VIII, 204)

Female companionship is both allowed and encouraged. Furthermore, this passage helps us narrow the ambiguous phrase "worldly games." Since chatting and story-telling, two potential window activities, are not forbidden, they must not qualify as worldly games. The structure of the window itself prohibits many other activities, especially physically challenging ones. One possibility is gossiping, a sin to which anchoresses were thought to be particularly vulnerable. In fact, the image of the gossiping anchoress had become proverbial by the thirteenth century, to the point where an everyday saying arose: "From mill and from market, from smithy and from anchor-house one hears the news" (Dunn 20). However, there are other possibilities, including kissing and enticing glances, for these worldly games.

While the model religious woman in the Middle Ages would have retained her physical virginity, that is an unbroken hymen, it was not a requirement for living a holy life. Although virginity was the ideal, chastity was the reality. Thus, married women who kept their vows and widows who did not take lovers were as chaste as virgins who remained virgins. In fact, since definitions of chastity were based on sexual relations with a sanctioned man (or no man at all), even "unbreached" anchoresses may not have been damaged, or made unchaste, by a lesbian relationship. Another anchoritic text, Holy Maidenhood, defines virginity in this manner: "the seal that binds you both [anchoress & God] together."[17] Her hymen is the mark of the covenant and the signal of the contract. While Holy Maidenhood initially focuses more specifically on pure physical virginity, the text later upholds the need to remain chaste in general. This goal is accomplished through horrific descriptions of heterosexual activity:

Every woman who is a slave to her man lives in dung [...] they wallow in dung and rot there [...] Lechery, with the help of fleshly will, makes war on maidenhood in this way. Her first ally is sight. If you look often and pointedly at any man, lechery uses that to make war on your maidenhood. (Holy Maidenhood, 229-230)

The catalogue continues through each of the senses - women should avoid gazing upon men, which leads to speaking with them face-to-face, which leads to kissing, which in turn leads to vulgar touching, which eventually leads to the "sorry act at the end." This enumerated list offers two insights. First, only contact with men is dangerous to maidenhood. Second, it outlines the perceived progression of an erotic dalliance. Returning for a moment to our window scene, we can substitute an anchoress' maiden for a visiting male: the maid comes to the anchoress's window to speak to her face-to-face, which will/can, according to Holy Maidenhood, lead to kissing, which in turn leads to vulgar touching, which eventually leads to "the sorry act." However, this sorry act - as an act between women - still had the potential to leave the anchoress, and the servant for that matter, with intact hymens and intact chastity, and therefore with technically intact contracts. Sexual acts outside of marriage were, of course, considered wrong for a myriad of reasons: loss of honour, loss of reputation, damage to male (father/husband's) property, succumbing to lust, and breaking secular and sacred laws. Overall, adultery and fornication disrupted chastity, which was the basis for an ordered, patriarchal society. In fact, because of medieval theologians' lack of understanding about female desire, even if woman-woman erotic acts were "discovered," they might be readily dismissed simply because they weren't considered troublesome. This view is reflected in debate poetry, such as the Ragionamenth amorosi, in which the "female characters debate why it might be better for a woman to love another woman since she would thus avoid risking her chastity" (Brown 70). With chastity, and therefore male regulation of female sexuality, preserved, woman-woman eroticism lost the sting of mortal sin.

Church commentators on sexuality from the early Christian to the medieval era on the whole had a very limited conception of female homoerotic activity.[18] This oversight is of great significance because the Church's impact on medieval sexual practices and boundaries was profound both socially and legally in the system of canon law that had equal (or greater) power as secular courts. Periodically, female homosexual practices are singled out in penitential manuals, which were confessional guides designed for clerics both to elicit secrets and to assign penances. In most of these instances, the penalties are surprisingly light.[19] Standard penance included fasting on bread and water, adhering to a set of prayers, and/or mild ascetic practices. Men who engaged in homosexual activities generally were subject to harsher penances. Theodore, for example, suggested 10 years of penance. While many penitentials simply assigned longer periods of time to male homosexuals, a few suggested stronger punishments such as beatings. More civic punishment of male homosexual activity included public humiliation, severe beatings, exile, castration, torture, or even death. And often, lesbian activity is not addressed, even where male homosexual acts are extensively delineated.

In his work on Anglo Saxon penitentials, Allen J. Frantzen notes that "there is evidence from the penitentials to support the view that sexual categories were mutable in the Anglo-Saxon period. It appears that men (more so than women) could occupy various positions along a continuum of masculine-feminine behavior" (268). Men could participate in a wide variety of sexual acts, even some that edged toward feminine behaviour, without a great deal of censure. Only when a man became (or made another man into) a passive receptacle did he invite the most severe penalties, including execution. The Penitential of Theodore, presumably written by Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668-690 CE, which demands lengthy penances for male homosexual acts, simply states, "If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years" (McNeill & Gamer 185). (Interestingly, the same penance is given for a woman who "practices solitary vice.") The ambiguous phrase "practices vice," can be construed either as male ignorance about lesbian activity, or it can be more sinister in that it could encompass a wider range of acts than the more specifically detailed descriptions of male-male relations. The penitential ambiguity continues in medieval England. Bede's Penitential (eighth century) requires male "sodomites" to do penance for four years, while requiring only three years for "fornication between women," the same sentence later handed down by later canonists as well. Bede's careful wording of woman-woman erotic acts is interesting. In describing lesbian activities as "fornication," Bede essentially labelled them as sinful yet conceivable within nature. This distinction becomes clearer when examining a later passage, in which Bede adds another dimension: women who fornicate per machina, that is by means of a device, must complete seven years of penance. It is the unnaturalness of a female who penetrates (active), not is penetrated (passive), which upsets Bede's sensibilities more than the thought of lesbian activity itself.

The most severe penalties for lesbian activities were reserved for those women who resorted to "unnatural devices." Women who penetrated other women performed a masculine role, thus displacing men and appropriating masculine power. The prospect of female power, deviant already, was considered a frightening upsetting of the natural order of the universe. James Brundage confirms: "The penitentials occasionally mentioned female autoeroticism and lesbianism. They treated female masturbation in much the same way as the male act, although they were more censorious of female sexual play that involved dildos and other mechanical aids" (167).[20] Hincmar of Rheims (d. 882 CE) went one step further, describing a "hideous" lesbian encounter: "They do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire" (in Benkov 104).[21] Hincmar's statement confirms the unnaturalness not only of the sexual act between two women, but also of the appropriation of the male role, which was defined as penetrative and arousing.

The entire medieval construct of sexuality was phallocentric. According to medieval theologians, women simply could not actively participate in "natural" sexual relations, which required a passive, female recipient of a phallus; there could be no "'naturally' phallic woman" (Benkov 105). Yet it was conceded that some "unnatural" women must have resorted to the use of "unnatural" devices. As Brooten concisely frames this idea, there was a "widespread ancient view that homoerotic women imitate men: Just as men penetrate either females or males, so too do homoerotic women penetrate other women" (307). This representation of female homoeroticism was carried into medieval thought. Bernd-Ulrich Hergemoller notes:

Woman was without exception regarded as a being who was sexually intended exclusively for man. [...] If, in the view of medieval man, women enjoyed themselves with one another, they could only do this if they worked on themselves with a dummy penis they made themselves. (14-15)

Female lust could only be satisfied by penetration. If their insatiable nature led them to seek unnatural pleasure, women, it was thought, would have to resort to copying nature in order to meet their need.

It is the issue of penetration that opens up spaces for potential female homoeroticism in the anchorhold. Though dildos and other tools of penetration have been excavated and recorded in a variety of sources, most documentation of openly acknowledged woman-woman eroticism has uncovered non-penetrative forms of sexual intercourse, such as cunnilingus, tribadism, and mutual masturbation.[22] Bernadette Brooten reports that a wall painting uncovered in Pompeii, for instance, portrays the woman-woman activity as non-penetrative (mostly oral copulation), while male-male and male-female sets participate in a broader variety of pleasures (60; 152-54). Reconstructing such acts in the Middle Ages is more difficult as sources - literary, historical, and visual - are scarce. As Murray points out, there were many "terminological difficulties encountered by writers who tried to discuss activities for which no technical vocabulary existed" (198). Non-penetrative woman-woman erotic acts were rarely considered, or easily dismissed, in medieval theological constructs. This oversight was most likely due to the widespread belief, sustained by Church theological treatises, that woman-woman erotic encounters did not, and perhaps could not, involve penetration. However, the penitentials allude to mutual masturbation and rubbing, and by making a distinction between acts with and without an "instrument," we know that medieval theologians knew something non-penetrative could happen. The poem Le Livre de Manières, written by Etienne de Fougères in the late twelfth century, expresses lesbian encounters using non-penetrative images, such as two shields joining, and jousting by thigh fencing. Another rather famous depiction of woman-woman eroticism is contained in the Bible Moralisée (c. 1220 CE). The illustrated couple do not have an instrument of any sort; in fact, as Camille demonstrates:

the rare depiction of a lesbian couple [in the Bible Moralisée]… follows more closely the conventions of courtly art that we have traced, chin-chucking and kissing, whereas the male couple are more unconventionally intertwined. Even in their 'sin against nature' men who love their own sex are seen as distinct from women who do the same. The illuminator of this image was unable to imagine female to female sexual intercourse, which explains why he has presented it in the most conventional terms. (138-39)

That this Bible Moralisée illustration could be presented "so conventionally" illustrates not only a lack of imagination; I believe it also demonstrates the acknowledgement of non-penetrative possibilities. That kissing is central to the lesbian scene is also significant to the anchoritic possibilities.

Sex outside of the scope of penile-vaginal penetration (or penis-substitute-vaginal penetration) may have been acknowledged, if not understood, but was not widely seen as threatening. Non-penetrative pleasure was not technically sex; thus, the medieval view of sodomy "erases women from same-sex deviance - it is assumed they cannot perform sodomy [since no ejaculation can occur] with each other - or erases the array of techniques they may use to attain pleasure" (Sautman and Sheingorn 23). Women's practices and their desire did not greatly matter unless - and until - they co-opted the male instrument. These interpretations of woman-woman erotic acts are more concerned with preservation of existing heteronormative social structure than with potential sexual corruption. However, this power (im)balance is directly linked another main problem with female penetration: while the passive female partner retained her femininity per se, she might not retain her physical virginity, even if she technically retained her chastity. This would be most damaging in the case of a young marriageable woman. In this case, the active partner could be doubly liable. Not only was she guilty of presuming to intrude upon male roles and male power, but she also devalued her partner. Once the passive partner's hymen was ruptured, she was practically worthless on the marriage market, at least if her ruptured hymen was discovered. Medical manuals provide "remedies" for broken hymens, such as concoctions made from egg whites, alum, apples, and other plants and herbs, and some treatises give advice on fooling one's bridegroom.[23] Again, the disruption of the "natural" sexual hierarchy is the key. Penetrated women were less desirable to men, who would then possess not a pure vessel, but rather physical proof of sinful behaviour - that is that she gave into temptation, not just that she lost her virginity. Moreover, in taking on the role of penetrator, a woman would not only usurp the male sexual role, but would also gain the male subject role. Once phallic instead of regulated, a woman could be seen and heard, and could give and take pleasure.

Thus, enclosure, the most secure way to regulate female behaviour and to mitigate female disruption, needed to be codified and expanded. At no time in the medieval period was the importance of enclosure made clearer than in the infamous papal bull of 1298 CE, Periculoso. Elizabeth Makowski suggests that Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303) harboured a desire to "safeguard nuns from themselves; to diminish, if not completely remove, worldly temptations" (30). As the bull itself reads:

Wishing to provide for the dangerous and abominable situation of certain nuns, who, casting off the reins of respectability and impudently abandoning nunnish modesty and the natural bashfulness of their sex [...] we do firmly decree [...] that nuns collectively and individually, both at present and in future, of whatsoever community or order, in whatever part of the world they may be, ought henceforth to remain perpetually cloistered in their monasteries [...] so that [the nuns] be able to serve God more freely, wholly separated from the public and worldly gaze and, occasions for lasciviousness having been removed, may most diligently safeguard their hearts and bodies in complete chastity. (Makowski 135)

Though the bull specifically applied to nuns, its sentiment was meant to be reflected in every facet of female devotional expression. Ultimately, Periculoso and other such decretals proved difficult to enforce, especially in a uniform manner, and had to be issued several times. Still, some groups of women found their traditionally sanctioned mobility restricted in the wake of Periculoso's reformist zeal. Laywomen who went on pilgrimages required written permission from their husbands to be outside the home. Anchoritism was reinforced as the most holy occupation because of the extreme enclosure. Conversely, less enclosed women were looked upon with strong suspicion because of their unchecked, rampant sexuality. For instance, in England, a widespread network of female hermits had once existed, but society's misgivings about their freedom of movement caused their numbers to shrink. Continental beguines (women living together in semi-religious communities) would eventually be condemned as heretics, although the two beguinages in England escaped that fate.[24] Moreover, Periculoso's intent was already subverted by the sheer necessity of the interpenetration of convent walls by male religious as well as abbesses, patronesses, servants, and other authorized members of the community. Nuns were still subject to visits by priests, bishops, and other men, such as visiting clerics and patrons. Abbesses were still required to go outside the monastery to complete business. Hospital sisters still visited patients. Thus, in the language of Periculoso's attempt to impose greater strictures of enclosure onto religious women, gaps immediately open up that are of great interest.

Representations of medieval sexuality are often our best clues to what might have been the actual experiences of some women's lives. While prescriptive literature like Periculoso, Ancrene Wisse, and the penitentials may not be actual reflections of historical events - most likely they are reflections of what authorities wanted to happen - they are still invaluable tools in uncovering gaps within our knowledge of the Middle Ages, and it is within these openings that we can find the potentials for subversive practices and spaces like the lesbian void. According to medieval authorities, as completely enclosed women, anchoresses should have been the "safest" of all from "occasions for lasciviousness." Yet, in the anchorhold at least, the idea behind enclosure had the potential to backfire. Benkov sees the Church hierarchy's refusal to accept the possibility of non-phallic woman-woman eroticism as creating the possibility of other female homoerotic practices: "this very erasure - that is, the elision of lesbian into sodomite and the emphasis on a 'material instrument' - may well have been the mechanism that allowed female homoaffective/homoerotic relationships to flourish" (116). This invisible aperture within the prescription of the early Church carried into the medieval period this same potential. In other words, the very refusal to accept non-phallic woman-woman erotic activities produced another "lesbian void," to return to Jankowski's term, in which the anchoress and her charges could play. Thus, the solidly enclosed four walls of the anchorhold, bolstered by phallocentric notions of sexuality, provided the ideal lesbian void - a safe, private space where women who lived in close proximity could enjoy erotic woman-woman encounters with little fear of discovery.


1 The word anchorite (f. anchoress) is derived from the Greek anacwrew, meaning "I withdraw." By the Middle Ages, anchorite addressed a specific vocation that included vows, though clerical profession was unnecessary. The anchoritic vows included the following: obedience, chastity, and stability of abode. In other words, anchorites were expected to follow the directives of their bishop, to refrain from sexual activity, and remain in one location. Upon their profession, the new anchorite underwent a burying ceremony during which he/she became liturgically "dead to the world."back

2 "Lesbian" is an anachronistic term, but here its use is meant to dehistoricize it, as well as situate my discussion within current textual practices. back

3 Jankowski also discusses the specifically early modern meaning of "void": the expensive dessert course reserved for the "most important guests at the feast" (303). However, as this definition applies only to the post-medieval era, it is not as relevant to my discussion. back

4 See "Peasant Hearth to Papal Palace: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries," in A History of Private Life: Revelations of the Medieval World, ed. Georges Duby, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1988), esp. 444-460. back

5 Middle English literature has many representations of this lack of private sexual space. In numerous medieval romances, references are made to "secret niches," presumably castle turrets, spaces under rafters, unused garderobes, and so forth. In regards to the lower classes, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales records removing the husband from the house (The Miller's Tale), a tryst in a pear tree (The Merchant's Tale), and a lover hiding in a trunk (The Shipman's Tale) as just a few examples. back

6 As Jerome noted: "Now if this [the excesses of hermits caused by extended solitude] is true of men, how much more does it apply to women whose fickle and vacillating minds, if left to their own devices, soon degenerate" ("To Demetrias", in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series II, Vol. VI []). Jerome offers similar advice in "To Salvina": community living offered all the necessary restraints for women. For instance, to retain female characteristics of meekness and restraint, the virgin should submit herself to older women. back

7 In his Regula Solitariorum, Grimlaic specified a room twelve feet square. Archaeological excavations have uncovered some much smaller cells. In "An Anchorite's Cell at Letherhead Church," (Surrey Archaeological Collections 20 (1907): 223-25), Philip M. Johnston reports on a cell that was only eight feet square, with 21" windows, and in "Compton Church - The Oratory," (Surrey Archaeological Collections 51(1949): 154-55), J. H. Gibson describes a cell that was 6'8" by 4'4" that also had a tiny sleeping loft. On the large end, Clay describes a "cell" in Chester-le-Street, Durham, that had four rooms and two levels, and another two-storied one in York attached to All Saints' North Street that had windows facing the high altar on both levels (83). See Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (Methuen, 1921). back

8 This does not mean that donations were not welcome or accepted, just that they were not necessary for basic survival. For an in-depth look at anchoritic finances, see Ann K. Warren, Anchorites & Their Patrons in Medieval England (U California P, 1985).back

9 Ancrene Wisse is an early thirteenth century text, produced circa 1190-1220 CE. It survives in four manuscripts: MS Titus, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, MS Cotton Cleopatra, and MS Corpus Christi 402, though it is believed that there were originally at least nine more. For an extensive study of the backgrounds of this treatise, see E. J. Dobson, Origins of Ancrene Wisse (Clarendon, 1976). In this paper I am utilizing translations of the original Middle English and Latin sources. back

10 Screens, grilles, walls, and other devices were erected to prevent too many looks either of or by the nuns; however, at minimum, the nuns and the priest could have exchanged glances, especially during reception of communion. back

11 Anchorites viewed mass through narrowed angled "windows" chiseled into the stone wall called squints or hagioscopes. These were barely wide enough to allow a full view of the high altar, and the angles generally prevented spying on the chamber within. back

12 See Warren, Anchorites & Their Patrons, p. 26. Warren also points out that the servants were "quasi-religious" themselves. back

13 Not all cells were built in this way. Other common locations included city walls and/or gates, crossroads, bridges, and churchyards. back

14 Black symbolizes that the anchoress is "black and unworthy"; the white crosses symbolize "purity and maidenhood." See Ancrene Wisse, Part II: "The Outer Senses" (Savage & Watson 66). back

15 The most famous of these, Andreas Capellanus' The Art of Love, discusses lustful looks in some detail. For a good edition of this treatise, see Andreas Capellanus on Love, ed. P. G. Walsh (Duckworth, 1983), which contains parallel texts in Latin and English. back

16 See Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon Letters, ed. Miran Bozovic (Verso, 1995). Bentham originally published his ideas in 1787. back

17 From Canticles 4:12. Holy Maidenhood is a thirteenth century text that is found in MS Titus and MS Bodley 34. As with many medieval texts, it is difficult to date precisely. Commonly accepted scholarship places its production after 1200 CE. Overall, the work is a homiletic piece written to promote virginity. back

18 In the medieval era, theological commentaries were the highest form of scholarship, and considered to be crucial underpinnings of legal, social, and religious structures. Church teachings were particularly strong in areas of private matters such as sexuality. back

19 One exception dates to thirteenth century France. The law recorded in Li Livres de Jostice et de Plet (c. 1260; compiled by legal school of Orléans) reads as follows: "The woman who does this [homosexual practices] shall undergo mutilation (perdre membre) for the [first and second] offences (à chescune foiz), and on her third [conviction] must be burnt. And all the goods of such offenders shall be the king's." See Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (Archon, 1975), p. 142. His translation is from the version found in P.N. Rapetti, ed. Li Livres de Jostice et de Plet (Paris, 1850), 279-80. Bailey goes on to say: The death penalty is certainly prescribed, but only for a third offence [man or woman] [...] and there is no evidence that Louis IX was particularly assiduous in applying it. For instance, out of over fifteen hundred judgments pronounced in the Parlement [...] during his reign, only one makes any reference to sodomites" (143). back

20 Brundage further notes that penances for male masturbation were quite light, even if they involved "mechanical aids," whereas penances for female autoeroticism tripled if a device was used. See Law, Sex, and Christian Society, p. 167, n. 193. back

21 The physician William of Saliceto discusses, albeit briefly, "lesbianism" that stems from a protruding growth called a ragadia, which "arises from the mouth of the womb, ands flesh continues to be added until sometimes it appears outside the vagina in the form of a penis. In this case [...] women will sometimes act with other women as they [men] normally do during coitus" (in Bullough & Brundage 196). back

22 In Love Between Women, Brooten states: "Greek vase paintings depict individual women with dildoes [sic], although I know of no vase painting that shows one woman penetrating another with a dildo" (153). back

23 See Monica H. Green, ed. and trans. The Trotula: An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women's Medicine (U Pennsylvania P, 2001), esp. pp. 103-04, 110, and 173-74. back

24 For instance, the beguines would be condemned because they were purported to follow the heresy of the Free Spirit, which among other things, advocated sexual freedom without repercussions. For more background on this heresy, see Robert Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (U Notre Dame P, 1972). For information about the beguine movement, see Herbert Grundmann, Religious Movements in the Middle Ages: The Historical Links between Heresy, the Mendicant Orders, and the Women's Religious Movement in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century, with the Historical Foundations of German Mysticism, trans. Steven Rowan (U Notre Dame P, 1995), and Walter Simons, Cities of Ladies: Beguine Communities in the Medieval Low Countries, 1200-1565 (U Pennsylvania P, 2001). back


Works Cited

Ancrene Wisse. Trans. Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. Ancrene Wisse & Associated Works. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1991.

Baldwin, John W. The Language of Sex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Barthélemy, Dominique. "Civilizing the Fortress: Eleventh to Thirteenth Century." In Revelations of the Medieval World. A History of Private Life, vol.II. Ed. Georges Duby. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1988.

Benkov, Edith. "The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe." In Same Sex Love and Desire among Women in the Middle Ages. Ed. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Brooten, Bernadette J. Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Brown, Judith C. "Lesbian Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Europe." In Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Ed. Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey, and Martin Bauml Duberman. Greenwich: Meridian Books, 1990.

Brundage, James. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. New York: Abrams, 1998.

Duby, Georges. "The Aristocratic Households of France, Communal Living." In A History of Private Life. Ed. Georges Duby. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1988.

Dunn, F.I. "Hermits, Anchorites and Recluses: A Study With Reference To Medieval
Norwich." In Julian and Her Norwich: Commemorative Essays and Handbook to the Exhibition "Revelations of Divine Love." Ed. Frank Dale Sayer. Norwich, 1973.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Frantzen, Allen J. "Between the Lines: Queer Theory, the History of Homosexuality, and Anglo- Saxon Penitentials." Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 26/2 (1996): 255-96.

Fradenburg, Louise and Carla Freccero. "Caxton, Foucault, and the Pleasures of History." In Premodern Sexualities. Ed. Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero. New York & London: Routledge, 1996. xiii-xxiv.

Gilchrist, Roberta. Gender and Material Culture: The Archaeology of Religious Women. London: Routledge, 1994.

Hergemoller, Bernd-Ulrich. Sodom and Gomorrah: On the Everyday Reality and Persecution of Homosexuals in the Middle Ages. Trans. John Phillips. London: Free Association, 2001.

Holy Maidenhood. Trans. Anne Savage and Nicholas Watson. Ancrene Wisse & Associated Works. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1991.

Jankowski, Theodora. " the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare's Plays." In A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare. Ed. Dympna Callaghan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 299-319.

Makowski, Elizabeth. Canon Law and Cloistered Women: Periculoso and its Commentators, 1298-1545. Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1997.

McNeill, John T. and Helena M. Gamer, eds. Medieval Handbooks of Penance [1938]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Murray, Jacqueline. "Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages." In Handbook of Medieval Sexuality. Ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Church Fathers, Independent Virgins. London: Verso, 1991.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé and Pamela Sheingorn. "Introduction: Charting the Field." In Same Sex Love and Desire among Women in the Middle Ages. Ed. Francesca Canadé Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Warren, Ann K. Anchorites & Their Patrons in Medieval England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

© thirdspace 2001-2011