Lesbian Nuns: Still Immodest After All These Years

In 1986, Judith C. Brown published a book about Renaissance Italy called Immodest Acts. It was reviewed in the New York Times, The Nation, and the San Francisco Chronicle, not to mention many scholarly venues. Why? Perhaps because the subtitle of the book was The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.

The notion of the lesbian nun was not a new one. Denis Diderot’s 18th-century anti-Catholic piece entitled La Religieuse (The Nun) certainly portrayed what we might see as lesbian activity on the part of nuns. And, just a year prior to the publication of Immodest Acts, Naiad Press published Rosemary Curb and Nancy Manahan’s influential and controversial collection of pieces entitled, yes, Lesbian Nuns (in that case, subtitled Breaking Silence).

That the apparent oxymoron “lesbian nun” was of crucial public interest is evident in the subsequent publication of portions of the Curb and Manahan book in Ms. magazine. That the topic had a salacious history is evident both in Diderot’s frequently republished classic and in the fact that portions of the Curb and Manahan collection were also subsequently published in the men’s magazine Forum.

Though it served a role as a prop in a film entitled Damned if You Don’t as early as 1987, Immodest Acts is neither anti-Catholic, a work of contemporary advocacy, nor of salacious interest. Rather, Immodest Acts was (and is) a work of history that has itself taken a place in the history of both lesbian and gay scholarship and in the wider social changes of the past several decades. Immodest Acts is based on archival material Brown discovered in the State Archive of Florence while in pursuit of other historical questions. It reads the life of Benedetta Carlini, the trials she underwent between 1619 and 1623 and her roles as able convent administrator and for some time Abbess of the Convent of the Mother of God, recipient of visions and stigmata (or not), and as a person with a complex erotic entanglement with another nun.

Both the events of Carlini’s life and Brown’s analysis thereof stand as historical testaments to the many ways religion, history, and sexuality may be connected. It is, quite remarkably, a scholarly book with a crossover audience, still in print 25 years after its publication.

Since writing about Benedetta, author Judith C. Brown spent a dozen years at Stanford, moving on to Rice University as Dean of the School of Humanities and then Wesleyan University as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost. She speaks to us from the vantage point of her retirement from Wesleyan as Professor Emerita.

Susan Henking: As you know, I teach your 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy and am amazed that the 25th anniversary of its publication is already upon us. In some ways, given that you were writing about the 17th century, 25 years is just a moment. Yet, much has changed in our views of sex and sexuality in the intervening decades. How does your book look to you today?

Judith Brown: First, I’m delighted that you teach my book, and that it is still useful to you and your students. The fact that it appears in the syllabi of many courses in a variety of discipline is very humbling. It enhances my sense of responsibility for the insights that readers may derive from it about the experiences of women in the past and the relevance they have for the present.

When I wrote the book historians were just beginning to write about sex and sexuality. Our views were not nearly as nuanced as they are now. Many people even in the world of scholarship were concerned about establishing the terms of the discussion. In the process, they sought clear categorical definitions, what might be termed “policing the borders,” in areas of human experience and the development of identity that we now have come to see as porous, multilayered, and more complex than we thought before. I think that the narrative I told 25 years ago quite deliberately lends itself to a variety of interpretations that are not mutually exclusive and perhaps that’s part of the reason the story still resonates with readers. Readers can gain a deeper understanding of sexuality and religion as they ponder questions about the motives and self-perceptions of the participants in the story and of the social attitudes they encountered.

As you note in the book itself, the discovery of the material upon which it was based was somewhat unexpected or serendipitous. Can you describe that? If you stumbled upon the material today, how might the book be different?   

As I mentioned in the book, when I came across the file on Benedetta Carlini in 1978, I was actually working on other projects. The issue of same-sex relations in convents was not anything I had thought about until then and, from the reactions of several other scholars with whom I discussed the material after I found it, apparently neither had they. It’s hard to put ourselves back into that time and recall the depth of our lack of knowledge and lack of conceptual tools. Just a few markers: John Boswell had not yet published Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980); Rosemary Curb and Nancy Monahan’s Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence came out in 1985; and while women’s history had begun to develop as a field, “gender” as a category of historical analysis had not yet emerged (Joan Scott published her famous article in 1986).

If I were to stumble upon the file on Benedetta Carlini today, I would make use of the scholarship that has developed in recent decades. The introduction and some of the notes would have had much more extended discussions about some of the issues that they and my book raise. I would especially make use of John Boswell’s fabulous revised version of “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,” which appeared in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1989), and in which he takes issue with overly rigid views about sexual categories and efforts to ban the application of modern terminology to pre-modern societies. In that article he points out quite rightly the linguistic contortions that we would have to engage in if we couldn’t use such words as gender, class, oligarchy, etc. to societies that didn’t know those terms. Yet scholars seem to be more rigid about similar uses of language related to sex.

I would also make use of recent literature on aspiring saints and feigned sanctity, clarifying what seems to be less than obvious, that religion and sexuality are not either/or categories, but both/and.

I have seen your book in quite surprising places: in women’s bookstores and big chain stores, on syllabi in religious studies, history, and art history. And, the blurbs on the back include reviews in, for example, The Nation. Were you surprised by the wide reception of this scholarly book on the Renaissance—and that it remains in print? 

I expected a wider readership than the usual academic book but I was surprised at the extent and variety of contexts in which the book appeared. I expected the book might be read in history, religious studies, women’s studies, and sexuality studies courses. I did not expect that the book would have a wide readership outside of academic circles, so when it did, it was really gratifying. 

Among the most moving experiences I’ve had is meeting women in non-academic settings who mention the book and tell me how much it meant to them, the extent to which it was part of the recovery of the lesbian and gay past, of how it made them feel connected to women of previous centuries.

Much of the controversy and excitement about your book had to do with the juxtaposition of the words “lesbian” and “nun” in your subtitle. What did you make of that juxtaposition then? Do you think that it reads differently today? 

To some people it was quite shocking to see those terms juxtaposed. Shortly after publication I got a number of irate letters from devout believers who thought I was besmirching the Catholic Church. Needless to say, I did not think I was a slanderer but rather that I was simply providing an evidence-based interpretation of events that had occurred in the past.

In the intervening years, public perceptions have changed for a variety of reasons. Most important is the greater acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in society in general and a recognition that they are present in all walks of life, including religious institutions. A lot of credit for the latter, with reference to nuns in particular goes to Rosemary Curb, Nancy Monahan, and other former nuns who have written about their own experiences with lesbian sexuality in convents. This made the subject more understandable to lay people and, as a result, the shock value diminished. 

Their writings also made it easier for many other nuns who had not yet come to terms with their lesbian sexuality to confront their own situation. They experienced tremendous feelings of liberation, of a weight being lifted off their shoulders. They could recognize themselves in the literature that was suddenly appearing. This was incredibly exciting. 

Of course, part of that controversy and excitement had to do with conjoining religion, women sexuality, topics entangled in your book mainly in the practices of Catholicism and in what some see as the mystical experiences related in the book. Certainly the past few decades have seen both public debate and scholarly discussion of the relation of these topics. How do you think your book contributes to our understanding of these entanglements?

The writings of figures like St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and many others—not just female mystics—are saturated with erotic language. 

This is not surprising because the writings of the medieval and early modern mystics drew inspiration from the Bible, particularly the Psalms, as well as accounts of the early church fathers and the Lives of the Saints, which are also full of erotic language and images. For women mystics this language was especially well suited to a Christian God who was both transcendent and immanent, and who, by means of this language, could be brought into the sphere of domestic relationships that was the central focus of women’s lives and education, even for those who were cloistered. Many scholars, such as Daniel Bornstein and Joan Del Pozzo have written at length about this in recent years. 

My book helped to shed light on these relationships by looking at the sources for these visions and how they could be used for a variety of purposes. Some of the scholarly debates in recent years have centered on whether these types of visions and writings are spiritual, erotic, or political. As with the topic of sexual categories, I don’t think these discussions are helped by establishing either/or dichotomies. I hope that my book contributes to the idea that human experiences in certain cases can be multi-valent—spiritual, erotic, and even political—at the same time. 

Much of the controversy and excitement, of course, also had, and has, to do with the historical nature of the book; and the ways history is marshaled in contemporary social movements. What do you think the role of knowing our past contributes or contributed to the social change we’ve seen in the past few decades? Do you see your book as having had a role? What do you make of that as a historian?

I think that knowing our past is crucial to understanding the present as well as bringing about social change.

In the years immediately after my book came out I was often on the lecture circuit about it. On several occasions women in the audience approached me afterwards with tears in their eyes telling me that I had helped to give me them a past and the courage to try to change the future. I can’t express how moved I was by those conversations. 

More recently, as social activists began to work towards changing legislation about sexual orientation, sexual behavior, and marriage laws they have turned to the writing of historians to counter uninformed arguments that “this is the way sexual behavior has always been viewed” or “this has always been the definition of marriage.” It’s fabulous that historians in recent years have testified as expert witnesses in several of the major gay rights cases—George Chauncey testified in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which was critical to abolishing the sodomy laws, and he and Nancy Cott testified in California’s Proposition 8 case about same-sex marriage (2010), which is making its way to the Supreme Court.

I want to end with a question I will ask all interviewees: If you were to imagine the future, or to imagine the most hopeful future, what would the impact of your book be? And how would our world be different?

My hope is that my book and that of other historians will help to bring about a world in which history will not be misused in order to perpetuate injustice, discrimination, and prejudice. Our world would be a better place with fewer of these poisonous forces.

henking@hws.edu'

Susan Henking has been President of Shimer College since July 1, 2012. Previously she was Professor of Religious Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. In addition to her leadership in higher education, her scholarly work focuses on theories of religion as well as religion in relation to gender and sexuality. She is co-editor, with Gary David Comstock, of Que(e)rying Religion (1997) and, with William Parsons and Diane Jonte Pace, of Mourning Religion( 2008).The views shared here are, of course, neither those of Shimer College nor of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, but solely those of Susan Henking. Both these colleges and Professor Henking value the diversity of ideas and the value of open debate.