Loving Women in the Interstices of History by Heather Rose Jones

18167557Check it out, y’all! Heather Rose Jones stopped by with a little lesson about lesbians. A lesbian lesson, if you will. And really, what better way to start your Sunday that by reading about lesbians throughout recorded history? Totally made me smile!

If you want to learn more about Heather, and you really should, you can do that at her website HERE.

Loving Women in the Interstices of History
by Heather Rose Jones

A tree has roots–deep roots. But what metaphor can we use for the history of queer sexuality? A history that has only in recent centuries had the opportunity for continuity and tradition, passed down from one age to another? Perhaps a dandelion is a better image: try to eradicate them, but they grow wherever they will, in sidewalk cracks, along fences, and–despite everything–embedded in lush grass, like a scattering of golden coins.

Unlike finding dandelions, finding women who loved women in the vast expanse of history takes effort, time, and a willingness to look outside the official structures of society. Much of the evidence is tragic: the consequence of a failure of discretion or of personal betrayal. But there are stories–real human stories–to be found. These women’s lives may not be what we long for. They may have understood their own natures and desires in different ways than we would. Like the dandelion, those around them may have viewed them as unwanted intruders. And yet they lived, and loved, and in a very few cases left evidence of those lives and loves for us to try to understand.

Thanks to the tireless work of historians–the sort of researchers who will read through twenty volumes of legal case records to find one piece of data–I offer to you the following five stories of women who loved.

My Singular Rose

The 12th century was the age of courtly love: songs of courtship and admiration, tales of daring knights and worthy ladies. The courtly love tradition is thought of as quintessentially heterosexual, and yet a few works survive in which a woman addresses her sentiments to another woman, such as the lone surviving lyric of Bieiris de Romans. [Bogin 1976] And during that era, in a convent somewhere in the vicinity of Tegernsee in Bavaria (Germany), a cloistered woman longed to be reunited with a dear friend. She poured her heart out in a passionate poem, written in Latin and, by some quirk of fate, copied into a collection of writings that survived the ages. Her name is unknown–she identifies herself simply as “A” and her love only as “G”, whom she addresses as “my only/singular rose”.

To her, G’s absence is “like someone who has lost a hand or a foot” and she laments, “I want to die because I cannot see you. What can I–so wretched–do? Where can I–so miserable–turn?” Her thoughts turn to past delights: “I recall the kisses you gave me, and how with tender words you caressed my little breasts.” And yet perhaps there was more to their story. “Come home, sweet love!” she concludes. “Prolong your trip no longer. Know that I can bear your absence no longer…remember me.” Shall we not imagine that G returned to the woman who found her “so lovely and full of grace [and] who…with such deep affection loves me”? [Matter 1989]

I Will Do You Much Good

Working-class people’s love lives are less commonly recorded in history than those of the literate classes. But tucked away in a collection of legal cases is a story from 1405 of two French peasant women named Jehanne and Laurence. (For historic context, this is just one decade before the birth of another gender-transgressive French peasant woman named Jehanne, the one who became known as “The Maid of Orleans”.)

Laurence was 16 years old and married (as one was, in those days), but perhaps marriage did not bring her quite everything she could imagine desiring. One day she was out walking with her friend Jehanne (another married woman) and Jehanne turned to her and said, “If you will be my sweetheart, I will do you much good.” Laurence was intrigued and “thought there was nothing evil in it”, so the two made themselves comfortable in a haystack and Jehanne “climbed on her…and began to move her hips”. The encounter was enjoyable enough that the two women began to meet regularly for sex.

But Laurence evidently began to have second thoughts. Or perhaps the two women weren’t suited in other ways; great sex isn’t the only essential ingredient in a relationship, after all. One night Jehanne came to Laurence’s house and Laurence told her she no longer desired her. Jehanne took this news rather badly and attacked her with a knife. (Which reaction suggests that maybe Laurence had sound reasons for wanting to break it off.) It may be the attack that brought the case to the attention of the law, but the women’s sexual relationship came out in testimony. The legal record is actually an appeal of Laurence’s original conviction and she was pardoned on the argument that she was the “passive” partner and hadn’t realized that what they were doing was a sin or a crime. Jehanne’s fate, alas, is unknown. [Bennett 2000, Benkov 2001, Murray 1996]

She Had Her Roguery With Women

Before the modern era, one of the most practical dodges for a woman who wanted a continuing romantic or sexual relationship with a woman was to disguise herself to pass as a man. This can often make it difficult to guess whether a particular individual would today identify as lesbian or as transexual. In the case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer, her outrageous behavior might make both teams hesitant about claiming her.

In the 1470s, a couple arrived in Speyer, Germany claiming variously to be brother and sister or husband and wife. This, in itself, might have been enough to arouse suspicion. But what attracted the attention of the law was the testimony of several women of the town that the “husband/brother” (the name she used as a man is not recorded) had sexually assaulted them. And that the person in question was actually a woman.

Else Muter claimed that Katherina had come to her house when Else’s husband was away and that Katherina had come to her bed at night and “during many quarrels…tried to seduce her and have her manly will with her.” Katherina’s gender disguise and sexual adventures were aided by the use of a red leather strap-on that she described in detail in the court records. Else reported that when she managed to fight her off, Katherina then jumped out the window to escape.

A different Else testified that Katherina accosted her during Carnival and groped her. “With hugging and kissing she behaved exactly like a man with women.” Although Katherina’s original partner had evidently absconded before the trial, her testimony was reported through hearsay. Katherina had “deflowered her and made love to her for two years” and that she thought that was just how men were expected to behave.

The trial records are unusual in their explicit detail but all too typical in the outcome. Katherina Hetzeldorfer was executed by drowning. The court may have suspected that her two accusers in Speyer were not entirely as innocent of cooperation as they claim in testimony for they were both exiled from the city. [Benkov 2001, Puff 2000]

I Speak of My Goddess, Margaret of Austria

Laudomia Forteguerri was the epitome of an Italian Renaissance woman: beautiful, learned, and charming. She was a poet, a philosopher, the leader of an intellectual circle, an inspiration to other intellectuals, and a leader of the women of Sienna in defending against a siege of the city in 1555.

And Laudomia Forteguerri loved Duchess Margaret of Austria, the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V. We know this because a contemporary of hers said so, telling of women “who…love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria.” It is said that when they first met in 1535 (when Margaret would have been 13 and Laudomia 20), “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama, and was seen by her, suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” We know it because Laudomia wrote love sonnets addressed to Margaret.

“If I have left you a token of my heart,
In return send a portrait of yourself
Skillfully made here to me, where my eyes are”

“Alas, for my beautiful Sun will not turn
Its holy rays towards me: must I therefore
Live without my treasure? May it not please God
That I should ever live on earth without it.
Ah, cruel fortune, why do you not arrange it
For my body to go where my heart goes?”

Laudomia and Margaret were both married–as one was in those days. Laudomia apparently happily so, Margaret…well, there are doubts about Margaret. She was betrothed as a child to Alessandro de’ Medici. They married when she was 14 and he was assassinated the following year. A year later she was married again but notoriously refused to consummate the marriage for years. After relenting long enough to produce twin sons, she returned to living separated from her husband and it is perhaps relevant that as a member of a family regularly satirized for their sexual vices it was said “that men were of no interest to her as such” though at least one contemporary accused her directly of lesbianism.

Margaret wasn’t sitting around waiting for women to write poetry about her, though. At age 33, her half-brother Philip II appointed her governor of the Netherlands, just around the time that Laudomia died. Circumstances prevented her from being particularly successful in this position. Stepping down from that post a decade later, she was appointed governor of Abruzzo in Italy and she continued in various governmental roles in the Holy Roman Empire until her death at age 63. Hollywood: you’re missing out on a really great epic here. [Eisenbichler 2001]

The Heroine of Breda

In the 18th century, the Netherlands were a restless place: people moved more easily from place to place than previously, urban centers were a place you could lose…or find yourself, and for those who wanted to start a new life, the military was an ever-present and appealing option. For men. And for some women.

Maria van Antwerpen was orphaned at the age of 12 and after a decade and a half as a household servant she must have been wondering if that was all life would ever hold for her. Some women might have dreamed of a marriage that would give them a step up in life. Maria left her position, put on men’s clothing, adopted her father’s name Jan, and enlisted in the army. At the age of 28 she could pass for a boy of 16–a reasonable age to begin a military career.

A soldier’s pay was not only enough to support herself, but to contemplate supporting a companion. A year after she enlisted, she married–as one did in those days–a woman named Johanna Kramers. Her wife evidently never knew Maria’s secret until she was recognized when her troop was posted to her home town. Maria became something of a media sensation and local folk hero as “the heroine of Breda” when she returned to women’s clothing, but the local authorities were not quite so blasé and Maria was exiled from Antwerpen and went to live in Gouda.

Maria kicked around for a few years, trying to earn a living as a seamstress and accompanied by a young woman named Jansje van Ooijen whom she parted with becuase she couldn’t afford to maintain her. When this interlude came up in later court testimony, Maria was elusive on what the nature of their relationship had been.

Perhaps Maria had fond memories of the freedom of living as a man, or simply the economic advantages of that state. Perhaps she longed to have the ability to share her life with a female partner again. But when Maria returned to men’s clothing and the military, the immediate trigger was a very practical reason: Cornelia Swartsenberg, the woman she was in love with, was pregnant and unmarried and–having heard Maria’s stories about her previous adventures–convinced her to take up the role again to make her an honest woman. This time Maria took on the role of Machiel van Handtwerpen and for seven years, they lived as man and wife until Maria was once more recognized by someone who had known her as a woman. Her sentence was again banishment. She lived for another dozen years and died at 62, but it is not recorded whether she enjoyed female companionship during that time. [Dekker and van de Pol 1989]


These women’s lives are excerpted from my ongoing blog The Lesbian Historic Motif Project where I track down and summarize research on women in history who loved women, or who were thought to have done so, or who lived lives that made space for doing so. I turn that research into historic and historically-inspired fiction, such as my novel Daughter of Mystery. The sources cited above are:

Benkov, Edith. 2001. “The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, eds. Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York.

Bennett, Judith M. 2000. “‘Lesbian-Like’ and the Social History of Lesbianism” in Journal of the History of Sexuality: 9:1-24.

Bogin, Meg. 1976. The Women Troubadours. Paddington Press, Ltd., New York.

Dekker, Rudolf M. and van de Pol, Lotte C. 1989. The Tradition of Female Transvestism in Early Modern Europe. Macmillan, London.

Eisenbichler, Konrad. 1999. “Laudomia Forteguerri Loves Margaret of Austria” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, eds. Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York.

Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.

Murray, Jacqueline. 1996. “Twice marginal and twice invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, Garland Publishing. pp 191-222

Puff, Helmut. 2000. “Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)” in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies: 30:1, 41-61.



  1. Glad you enjoyed the stories! The biggest take-away I get from studying history is that the past is far more strange and wonderful in its reality than our imaginations could make it. And for that reason, it’s a strangeness and wonder that we could never enjoy if we stick to a past that “makes sense” to us.


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