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"A Woman Like Any Other": Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism and Witchcraft in Seventeenth-Century Bruges

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Abstract

This article discusses the official and popular responses to a particular sodomy trial held at Bruges in 1618 during which two women, Mayken and Magdaleene, were accused of several sexual and moral transgressions. The interrogation records of the accused female sodomites illustrate the remarkable self-consciousness of early modern women with same-sex desires. Their attitudes collided, however, with popular mentalities towards female sodomy, which local testimonies explained away as a physical abnormality or an act of diabolical witchcraft. This article offers an in-depth analysis of these discourses in order to gain a fuller understanding of the perception of female sodomy in early modern urban society.
2017
© 2017 Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 29 No. 4, 11–34.
A Woman Like Any Other:
Female Sodomy, Hermaphroditism, and Witchcraft in
Seventeenth-Century Bruges
Jonas Roelens
This article discusses the ofcial and popular responses to a particular
sodomy trial held at Bruges in 1618 during which two women, Mayken
and Magdaleene, were accused of several sexual and moral trans-
gressions. The interrogation records of the accused female sodomites
illustrate the remarkable self-consciousness of early modern women
with same-sex desires. Their attitudes collided, however, with popular
mentalities towards female sodomy, which local testimonies explained
away as a physical abnormality or an act of diabolical witchcraft. This
article offers an in-depth analysis of these discourses in order to gain a
fuller understanding of the perception of female sodomy in early modern
urban society.
Introduction
At the end of the sixteenth century, early modern Europe became more
and more preoccupied with female same-sex acts.1 Authorities previ-
ously somewhat disregarded this crime—sodomy—due to the prevailing
attitudes towards sexuality, which dened it in terms of actual penetration.2
Law and society consequently considered sodomy a masculine form of
transgression and female sodomy attracted little attention in early modern
writings.3 A ro u nd 1 60 0 h o we v er, m ed i ca l t re a ti s es i n cr ea si ng l y co m me n te d
upon female homoeroticism. The recent “rediscovery” of the clitoris caused
an upsurge in spectacular stories about sudden sex changes and medical
studies that linked female sodomites to hermaphrodism. In the context of
the seventeenth-century witch craze, (female) sodomy was also mentioned
in the writings of several demonologists, who wondered if the devil might
have a hand in these unnatural desires.
Despite the increase in descriptions and representations of female
sodomites during this period, it remains extremely difcult to uncover
traces of actual women talking about their own same-sex experiences. A
remarkable exception to this rule is the case of Mayken and Magdaleene,
who were arrested in Bruges during 1618 because they had engaged in a
sexual relationship while wandering through the Low Countries for over
a year.4 During their trial, both women were intensely interrogated by the
Journal of Womens History12 Winter
aldermen of Bruges, who elicited many statements from Mayken and Mag-
daleene on their homoerotic feelings. Although early modern legal records
are notoriously challenging to work with and scholars should handle them
with caution, the testimonies of these women enable us to move the discus-
sion on early modern female sodomy beyond the framework of literary
representations. 5
During the trial, Mayken and Magdaleene displayed an exceptional
self-awareness regarding their sexual preferences. This attitude towards
their sexual desires may cast a new light on the debate between the so-called
“essentialists” and “constructionists” on the history of sexuality, in which
the rst claim that homosexuality is a biological rather than a historical phe-
nomenon while the latter state that homosexuality is a socially constructed
category subject to change through history.6 While I do not want to portray
Mayken and Magdaleene as “premodern lesbians,” I do want to highlight
that there have always been individuals who preferred same-sex relations
over “heterosexual” ones and were very much aware of this long before the
“homosexual as a species,” to use the theorist Michel Foucault’s resonant
phrase, came into existence.7
The self-conscious attitude of Mayken and Magdaleene sharply con-
trasts with that of the witnesses who testied during the trial. They were
deeply puzzled by the women’s accounts of female-female sexuality; some
of them even described Magdaleene as a hermaphrodite or a sorceress pos-
sessed by the devil. The questions and doubts raised by both bystanders
and authorities demonstrate the omnipresence of a phallocentric sexual
discourse and the difculties early modern society had in perceiving sex
between women without resorting to images of monstrous bodies and
demonic witchcraft. After drawing up a chronology of the trial, I focus on
the divergent responses towards female same-sex acts that were expressed
during the interrogations. A close reading of the trial records shows how
medical, theological, and demonological discourses on female sodomy
entered the social world of early modern judges and city dwellers alike,
albeit with different outcomes. Particularly striking is the fact that the
same-sex acts these women committed were not necessarily recognized as
such by many of the people involved in the 1618 sodomy trial. Although
Magdaleene provides an exceptional insight into the self-consciousness of
early modern women attracted to women, the civic community made sense
of her transgressions by portraying her as a hermaphrodite or a creature
that was both man and woman due to the devil. The case of Mayken and
Magdaleene thus shows that to fully understand the perception of female
same-sex desire in early modern Europe, historians should not only pay
attention to scholarly and literary representations of female sodomy, but
should also scrutinize public responses to those representations.
Article
Full-text available
Compared to the number of prosecutions for male sodomy in early modern Europe, few cases of same-sex acts between women in this period are known. In the Southern Netherlands however, no less than 25 women were charged for this crime between ca. 1400 and 1550, which means that nearly one out of ten accused sodomites in the region was a woman. This article argues that the exceptional repression of female same-sex acts was the result of the relative high level of liberty and visibility women enjoyed in the Southern Netherlands, compared to other European regions. The more visible women were in urban society, the more women attracted to people from their own sex were at risk of being discovered and penalized.
Article
The hermaphrodite posed a series of problems for Enlightenment philosophes and physicians, who, when confronted with the evidence of an ambiguously sexed body, were unable to say with any certainty whether the body was male or female, but yet could not quite countenance the existence of “true” hermaphrodites. This lexical and material uncertainty about the nature of the hermaphrodite was reflected in visual representations of such individuals in eighteenth-century France and England. These images represented uncertain gender, portrayed through ambiguous artistic genre. Like the hermaphrodite, caught between sexes, these images were caught between art and science.
Article
List of Illustrations Acknowledgements Introduction: Sex and Other Stories On Gods and Monsters: Defining the Early Modern Hermaphrodite Telling the Truth of Sex: The Hermaphrodite in Biology and Law Both and Neither: Rewriting Ovid's Hermaphrodite Mingle-Mangle: Masculine Women and Feminine Men Every Heteroclite Part: The Monstrous Hermaphrodite and the English Revolution Seeing and Knowing: Science, Pornography and the Hermaphrodite Epilogue: Re/covering the Early Modern Hermaphrodite Endnotes Bibliography Index