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Full citation: 

Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). 1985. The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)

Publication summary: 


A collection mostly of case-studies of specific historic incidents or topics relevant to the changing understandings of homosexuality. Most of the papers address male topics. Only the three relevant to female topics are covered in this project.

Contents summary: 

Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.

Legal prohibitions against female homosexuality in western culture do not date as far back as those against men. Talmud treats the activity as mere “obscenity”. The only passage in the New Testament that has been interpreted as addressing lesbian acts is Paul’s condemnation of women who “change the natural use into that which is against nature,” which later was interpreted as referring to sex between women.

The earliest law that Crompton found unambiguously prohibiting sex between women in a French code of 1270, which, even so, does it in the context of an illogical parallelism with male sodomy. One passage states that a man proved to be a sodomite shall lose his testicles at the first offence, and his “member” (i.e., penis) at the second, with the third offense calling for burning. The following passage notes that “A woman who does this shall lose her member each time.” Crompton suggests this may refer to clitoridectomy (twice?) but it may simply be a nonsensical structural parallel. In literature, burning is the prescribed penalty for “buggery” between women in the early 14th c. French Romance Yde and Olive.

This somewhat extreme shift from indifference to execution seems to have been driven by an elevation of “natural law” by which non-procreative sex acts were considered inherently sinful, rather than (as in Jewish law) being taboo due to associations with pagan practices. And early commentaries on Paul uniformly interpreted his words as applying to lesbian acts

Penitential manuals begin addressing the topic of lesbian sex as early as 670 A.D. (Theodore of Tarsus) and, once introduced, the topic continues to be condemned via works such as Gratian’s Decretum  of 1140 which continued in use into the 20th century. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica (1267-1273) unambiguously condemns “copulation with an undue sex, male with male or female with female,” and specifically associates this with the term “sodomy”.

Classical Roman law began to be revived in medieval Europe in the 11th century via Bologna, and promulgated in particular through the works of Cino da Pistoia and Bartholomaeus of Saliceto in the 14th century. Cino interpreted a law in the Code of Justinian as referring to lesbians, although the main purpose of the law was to exclude rape victims from the category of “unchaste women”. But in noting who counts as “unchaste”, the passage “women who surrender their honor to the lusts of others” is glossed wih the note that a woman may surrender to a man or to a woman. Expanding on this, the gloss notes, “For there are certain women, inclined to foul wickedness, who exercise their lust on other women and pursue them like men.” Bartholomaeus goes further and prescribes the death penalty in this case. The influence of Roman law was such that interpretations such as this might be held to apply even when local law codes carried no similar prohibition or penalty. Roman law was being freshly incorporated into national laws as late as the 16th century in Germany and the 17th century in Scotland.

The question remains whether these laws were carried out in actual practice. Crompton assembles evidence for significant numbers of judicial burnings and hangings of men for sodomy in the 13-18th centuries. Documented prosecutions of women are much rarer. He collates the following cases which are repeated in every subsequent article on this topic:

  • Speier (Germany), 1477, a judicial drowning for lesbian acts
  • Spain, 16th c, 2 nuns burned for sex with each other using “instruments”
  • Bordeaux (France), 1533, Françoise de l’Etage and Catherine de la Manière tried and tortured for sexual acts together, but acquitted for insufficient evidence
  • Fontaines (France), 1535, a woman condemned to burn for disguising herself as a man and marrying another woman  with whom she had sex
  • Marne (France), 1580, a group of seven or eight women disguise themselves to live as men; one became engaged to a woman, then married a different woman, but was recognized by a previous acquaintaince and was condemned to be hanged. The charge included using “illicit devices” for sex.

The law code of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1532) prescribes death by burning for “anyone [who] commits impurity...a woman with a woman.”

The statutes of the Italian town of Treviso expanded on the description of male and female sodomy by noting the common terms for those who commit it: “buzerones” (for men) and “fregatores” (for women).

The standard work on medieval Spanish law, written in 1265, was glossed in 1555 in a way that suggests there was some question whether sodomy statutes applied to women. One commenter argued that lesbian acts were less serious than male ones as women could not “pollute” each other, and therefore might be punished with something less than death. This was clarified by another commenter who fastened on the distinction of whether penetration was involved and prescribed burning if they use “any material instrument”, but a lesser penalty if no instrument is involved.

Russian law of the 17th century also prescribed burning for female sodomy.

The lack of laws against lesbian acts in England was not a general feature of Protestant countries. Calvinist regions of Germany and Switzerland called for severe punishments, and an execution is noted in Geneva (Switzerland) in 1568 of a woman who admitted to sex with women.

Drafters of the first law codes in the English colonies in the New World at first included the death penalty for sodomy whether male or female, but that draft was never implemented. The rare legal cases from New England in the 17th century include a charge against “the wife of Hugh Norman and Mary Hammon” for “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed” but they were sentenced only to a public confession.

In the 18th century, the focus on “instruments” in the commission of female sodomy gave way to the new fascination with the clitoris and the possibility that it might be large enough to enable penetration. In this context, anatomy itself was considered sufficient proof of guilt, whereas “normal” anatomy was considered incompatible with the commission of sodomy. French authorities of the 18th century continued to condemn female sodomy, but no trials for it have been found in that era.

Contents summary: 

This is a translation of an 1891 publication of the summary of German trial records from1721. The 1891 publication is by Dr. F. C. Müller, a sexologist who added his own commentary from the point of view of sexual psychopathology. Eriksson’s translation omits this commentary and includes only the original trial summary. The summary was put together after the conclusion of the trial when the sentence was being sent to a higher authority for review. The history of the two defendants is long and complicated and touches on trangressions of religion, theft, and fraud, as well as the sexual allegations. There is some confusion of identity in the text, as both women are referred to as “defendant” and the descriptions sometime devolve into chains of she said/she said and she did/she did. But in general, Lincken is framed as the primary transgressor and Mühlhahn as the deceived innocent. As both women have the forenames “Catharina Margaretha” I have referred to them by their surnames.

Catharina Margaretha Lincken was 27 at the time of the trial. She was illegitimate (her mother was a widow) and she was raised in an orphanage in Halle. Her mother was aware of her whereabouts and activities, at least to some extent, and continued to be in contact with her into adulthood After leaving the orphanage, Lincken worked as a button maker and printer of cotton fabrics. During a journey, she disguised herself as a man “in order to lead a life of chastity” and attached herself to an ecstatic religious movement called “Inspirants” where she was baptized by a “so-called prophetess” Eva Lang and took on the name Anastasius Lagrantinus Rosenstengl. She had an ecstatic and somewhat violent religious experience at one of the meetings of the Inspirants after which she spent two years with them as a traveling preacher. The group believed in direct communication with God (direct confession and penance, randomly assigning the task of sharing Eucharist with no distinction of gender). The summary goes into great detail on the religious practices of this group. They are in some places refered to as “Quakers” but this seems to be a behavioral nickname rather than a specific connection with the Society of Friends (who don’t seem to have extended to Germany at this time). Lincken became dissatisfied with the results of her preaching, finding her prophecies didn’t come true and that her declarations of penances were contradicted by others. She was also experiencing hallucinations/visions during this period.

Lincken returned to Halle around 1705 and enlisted in the Hanoverian army under the name Anastasius Lagrantinus Beuerlein, or possibly Caspar Beuerlein. [It’s a bit hard to sort out in exactly which year the statement about Lincken being 27 was made, but if it were the time of her trial in 1721, then she was born in 1696 and would have been 9 years old when enlisting and even younger when traveling with the Inspirants. This seems implausible but no comment is made on it.] Three years later she deserted at Brabant (Netherlands) but was arrested near Antwerp and condemned to hang. She got off by disclosing her biological sex, with the aid of a letter from a Professor Francken in Halle. She then later re-enlisted in a Prussian company in Soerst, using the same male name as before. About a year later, Professor Franken [and one wonders exactly who he is and what his part is in this] wrote the priest of the garrison, outing her as female, and she was discharged.

She returned again to Halle and lived as a woman for part of a year, then again took on a male presentation and went to Wittenberg to join a Polish troop, under the name Peter (or Lagrantinus) Wannich. She was captured by the French during a campaign near Brussels but escaped. She served the next year with a Hessian troop in Rheinfels and got in a brawl but ran away to escape punishment. At some point during this she was also using the name Cornelius Hubsch. In addition to name changes, she alternated between presenting herself as a Catholic and as a Lutheran.

She returned again to Halle for three or four years of civilian life, working making flannel, spinning, and printing fabric. During this period she alternated between wearing female and male clothing. This resulted in some arrests, further intercession by Professor Francken, and a physical inspection at the Rathhaus to determine her physiological sex.

After this inspection, she returned to passing as a man (though not to the military) and in 1717 became employed by a stocking maker where she met Catharina Margaretha Mühlhahn. [Based on later testimony, they may have met in Halberstadt. In any event, it seems unlikely to have been in Halle since Mühlhahn had plausible deniability regarding Lincken’s biological sex.] The two became engaged and asked for the reading of the banns so they could marry. At the first reading, someone accused Lincken of having a wife and children in Halle [so presumably they’re somewhere else] but Lincken produced a letter from her mother and two witnesses to show that wasn’t the case. [Interesting that the witnesses could testify to her lack of a wife and children in Halle but weren’t aware of the gender issue. And one wonders exactly what aspect the letter from her mother addressed.]

After the wedding, Lincken used a leather strap-on dildo for sexual intercourse and there are detailed descriptions of how both of them experienced their sexual activity. In addition to penetration, they engaged in petting and fondling. Lincken testified that she had enjoyed sex previously with prostitutes when she was a soldier and “when a woman touched her, even slightly, she became so full of passion that she did not know what to do.” Also, “during intercourse, whenever she was at the height of her passion, she felt tingling in her veins, arms, and legs.” [This is by way of noting that intercourse with Mühnhahn was not simply an act for the purpose of disguise, but was driven by erotic desire.]

Mühlhahn testifies to having been somewhat less satisfied: that her genitals became very swollen and painful [from the friction of the device]. But Lincken countered that Mühnhahn had frequently held the “instrument” in her hands and inserted it into herself, and that when Mühnhahn’s mother and tried to break up the marriage, Mühlhahn had complained to her mother and returned to her spouse. [Note that none of this need be in contradiction. Domestic disputes are notoriously complicated.] But there is other evidence of conflict between them. One complained that the other wasn’t earning any money. [There is a fair amount of pronoun confusion here and both women are referred to as “the defendant”, so it isn’t entirely clear which one is accused of what.] There is a complaint that Lincken took clothing and linens belonging to Mühlhahn and sold them. Also a complaint of physical abuse, apparantly aimed at Lincken.

They went traveling, supporting themselves by begging. They separated and reunited. In Münster it seemed expeditious to be Catholic, so Lincken was rebaptized in the Jesuit church and they celebrated a Catholic marriage. But then, on traveling to Helmstadt, Lincken made a long confusing plea to a Lutheran authority, citing her early experiences with the Inspirants and requesting Lutheran instruction and baptism. Lincken seems to have been alone at this point, for she stated that she would go fetch her “spiritual sister” (i.e., her wife) from Halberstadt and bring her to Helmstedt for a Lutheran marriage. [There are some indications in the testimony that one might be paid a bounty for converting, and this was one of the charges against her: that she had fraudulently converted to take advantage of this. This makes the conversion activities make more sense, because if it were simply a matter of "fitting in" a mere statement and appropriate behavior should have been enough.]

Lincken found Mühlhahn with her mother in Halberstadt [so perhaps this is where they had originally met and married?] who both turned her away. Lincken then got into a fight with her mother-in-law, who accused her of being a woman, and in the process Lincken’s pants were ripped off and her strap-on revealed. Mühlhahn’s mother took the evidence to the law and made her accusation, resulting in the trial that is being documented.

Lincken testified that she’d first made the strap-on while in the Hanoverian regiment and had used it for sexual purposes with a number of women. She also claimed that Mühlhahn and her mother were perfectly aware that Lincken was a woman before the original marriage, and that Mühlhahn had removed the strap-on and played with it sexually at one point and that they had continued living together intimately after that and gone through their second marriage after that.

On being interrogated about how she would justify the various actions she was accused of, Lincken offered the following:

  • Yes, she wore men’s clothing, but so did other women, and she believed that cross-dressing was only prohibited for married women. [Presumably she didn't consider herself a "married woman" since she had married as a man.]
  • Yes, she had been involved in the Inspirant movement, because she considered it a holy life and wanted to be a prophet. [It appears that at some point since then the Inspirants had been outlawed.]
  • Yes, she had deserted the army several times and committed multiple perjuries, but she had already been punished for those.
  • Regarding her marriage to a woman “she thought she would be well able to answer this before God.” This statement is followed by a confusing story about her mother and the devil.
  • Yes, she’d acted as a man in having sexual relations with her wife and she hoped God would forgive her. She now realizes that she was deluded by Satan.
  • She denied that taking and selling her wife’s clothing and things was theft because the sale benefitted them both.
  • Regarding her multiple baptisms and multiple marriages in different religions, she asked God’s pardon and repented any sin and was willing to die for her error.

Mühlhahn’s testimony is more succinct. She was 22 at the time of the trial and had married Lincken in 1717 [i.e., at age 18]. On the wedding night, she had found penetration painful and despite multiple attempts it had not been successful for about a week. She became apprehensive about sex but hadn’t realized there was anything out of the ordinary going on. On one occasion in 1718, when Lincken was sleeping, she had inspected Lincken’s body and discovered the strap-on and confronted Lincken with it on waking. Lincken begged Mühlhahn not to betray her and Mühlhahn promised, but had become afraid of her. Lincken tried to convince Mühlhan that she (Mühlhahn) was pregnant, and then urged her to get pregnant by someone else. Mühlhahn testifies that she resisted participating in the various religious shenanigans, but confessed that she’d finally gone along with it in Münster and been baptized and then married as a Catholic—but that was before she learned Lincken’s true nature. [This doesn’t seem to fit the timeline, though.]

The interrogation with regard to the charge of sodomy includes a fairly detailed she-said/she-said exchange in which Mühlhahn takes the position of an extremely naïve and ignorant virgin who believed every implausible thing Lincken told her about the inconsistencies of the masculine presentation. In contrast, Lincken asserts with a number of specific incidents, that Mühlhahn was perfectly aware that Lincken was a woman.

Medical authorities are brought in to consider the hypothesis that Lincken is a hermaphrodite. On examination, they testify that there is nothing hermaphroditic, much less masculine, about Lincken’s body. They go further to assert that based on the size of Lincken’s breasts and the appearance of her genitalia, they conclude that she’s been sexually active with men. [This is nonsense on a medical basis, but it was brought in as evidence of Lincken’s morality.]

The defender representing the two women asked for nothing worse than life imprisonment for Lincken, and that Mühlhahn be released.  But the judgement was for Lincken to be executed by hanging and then to be burnt, and that Mühlhahn was to be tortured in order to ascertain the truth of her testimony.

The document then goes into a philosophical discussion of what penalties should apply and why, and an appeal is made to a higher court to decide the matter. (Including arguments as to whether decapitation, hanging, or burning is appropriate, or some combination thereof, and in what order.) One of the points of contention is whether “sodomy” can be committed with an artificial device, or whether the term only applies between when an enlarged clitoris is used for penetration (which is asserted as occurring only among Eastern and African women). There is a great deal of reference to classical and biblical texts and commentaries, as well as contemporary legal norms. The final conclusion was that Lincken was executed and Mühlhahn spent a brief period in a workhouse and then was exiled.

Contents summary: 

The majority of this article concerns accusations of sodomy between men, and looks at the numeric distribution of evidence with regard to the date, location, nature of the charge, and demographic information about the accused. The analysis is particularly interesting with regard to the interplay of religious and sexual concerns. There is a single reference to an incident involving women.

In 1568, a woman in Geneva was accused of fornication and “irritated her judges” by proclaiming her innocence, based on a claim that she was a virgin. When a midwife (who presumably examined her physically) testified otherwise, She broke down and confessed to both heterosexual fornication and a lesbian interaction four years previous with a woman who had died since then. The record of the sentence included, “it is not necessary to describe minutely the circumstances of such a case, but only to say that it is for the detestable crime of unnatural fornication. ... a detestable and unnatural crime, which is so ugly that, from horror, it is not named here.” But her death sentence focused more on the crimes of blasphemy and the heterosexual fornication. Execution was by drowning.

Given that torture seems to have been a routine part of obtaining evidence from defendants, the trial record may be considered more accurate with regard to what the court believed to be plausible than to the woman’s actual deeds.