Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith C. Brown
I have been wanting this book since I came across it randomly mentioned in another book, for obvious reasons. My lifelong obsession with religion and asceticism combined with lesbian life in the Renaissance…who could ask for more.
In any case, the book was fabulous. Brown reconstructed the tale of Benedetta Carlini from documents she found in a miscellaneous file while researching another topic in Italian history. Sister Benedetta went to the convent at age 9, which was not that unusual then, and went on to establish herself as a mystic for a time. She would have visions of Jesus and various saints who sometimes spoke through her. She claimed to have literally exchanged hearts with Christ (which was not an unusual thing for female mystics in that era) and was married to Christ in a ceremony whose decorations, guests, and components were supposedly dictated to her by Jesus himself. She received the stigmata and a pale yellow wedding ring appeared on her finger.
Several inconsistencies and unusual pieces of the visions and actions of Benedetta drew an inquiry from the Church, and it was decided that she was a fraud. The Church took the more ecclesiastic route and declared her deceived by the Devil. The most interesting information that surfaced during the investigation did not precisely have to do with the divine or diabolical nature of the visions, however. When she began having visions and trance states, Benedetta was assigned a companion nun, Bartolomea, to stay near her to assist when these things occurred. In the second inquiry, Bartolomea revealed that she had been forced to partake in “lewd” activities with Benedetta, who was supposedly being used for the purpose by Splenditello, an angel that guarded Sister Benedetta for Jesus. Splenditello told Bartolomea that he wished for her to be his beloved and that what they were doing was not sinful (ostensibly since he was an angel sent by God and Benedetta had no idea what he was doing). Benedetta denied knowledge of the many, many, many occurrences (every night and during nearly every day for years), which would fit with her insistence that she was channeling Splenditello and not doing these things herself. However, in my opinion, the way in which Bartolomea described the whole encounter leads me to believe that it was a mutual relationship, and the two of them were simply doing what they had to do to prevent being burned at the stake (the likely punishment had they been discovered to have done these things willingly). One can’t really fault them for it, given the time period.
Brown discusses the Renaissance beliefs about sexual misconduct in the introduction as well as extensively in footnotes and the epilogue. What is fascinating is that the punishments handed out to “lesbian” offenders were generally harsher and more aimed at women who defied norms of gendered living rather than the sexual act itself. For instance, in one case, a young woman lived as a man to the extent that she took on a wife, and when they were discovered, it was the one living as a man that was punished. (She chose to die by hanging rather than return to life as a girl.) As far as the records go, the wife was not blamed for any wrongdoing.
A last idea that Brown included was the separation of what has been called “holy anorexia” from modern notions of eating disorders. I understand the distinction, as food has very different meanings now as opposed to then. However, in the particular descriptions given of Benedetta’s actions, I would have to say that I think she was suffering from a medieval version of anorexia/bulimia with all the attendant obsessive features, some so noticeable to the other nuns that they made constant mention of them.