Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy is a book written by Judith C. Brown about a lesbian nun, Benedetta Carlini, who became an abbess at the age of thirty. She was born in a small town of Vellano, some forty-five miles of Florence, Italy in the year 1590. Her father vowed to offer Benedetta to the service of God when he almost lost her and her mother during a difficult birth. So at the age of nine, her father fulfilled his promise and sent Benedetta to the Theatine Convent of the Mother of God where she became an abbess and lived there until her death. She obviously didn’t make the choice, as “most girls of her day were not consulted about the major decision of their lives, whether to enter a convent or marriage (Brown 22).”
As soon as her father left her, supernatural events began to unfold. “Folk culture was being replaced by religious culture. The fairy-tale heroine was beginning to follow in the footsteps of the saints (43).” Her confessor, Father Paulo Ricordati encouraged her to develop her visions. She followed him just like how she followed her mother to take the Madonna as her mother and custodian. It was clear that she was denied parental love and protection, and so she searched and found these affections through her special companion, Bartolomea. Brown argues that women in the Renaissance were still deprived of attention and power; yet, Benedetta used her religious mystical powers to improve her standing in Renaissance Italy.
During this time, society still assumed how sex and gender should be identified, and thus lesbian sexuality was ignored or dismissed. Europeans couldn’t accept the fact that women could be attracted to the same sex. “Their view of human sexuality was phallocentric – women might be attracted to men and men might be attracted to men but there was nothing about a woman that could long sustain the sexual desires of another woman (6).” It was clear though that they were aware of the sexual relationships between women, but those who were in power did what they could to avoid it.
The councils of Paris and Rouen for example prohibited nuns from sleeping together and they were required to turn their lamps on throughout the night in dormitories. They were also required to unlock their doors so that the abbess can check on them. Additionally, they were asked to avoid special ties of friendship and that they should stay out of each other’s cells. However, Benedetta managed to challenge these prohibitions when she realized the degree of her spiritual abilities. As days passed by, she claimed that her vision increased and she began to see handsome young men who wanted to beat her to death for six to eight hours using sticks, swords, and other weapons. Their leader showed his real ugly face when Benedetta denied his marriage proposal because she said that she only wanted to marry Christ.
Brown describes that
“These cries finally alerted her superiors to the seriousness of Benedetta’s plight and they assigned her a young companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to help her in her battles with the devil. Bartolomea was to share Benedetta’s cell and to keep an eye on her at all times… The assignment of Bartolomea as Benedetta’s companion was a tacit acknowledgement of Benedetta’s assertions (55).”
Bartolomea became Benedetta’s companion for two years and was a key witness to Benedetta’s many visions and other miraculous claims.
However, some were still skeptical of Benedetta’s powers because they remained outside the sacramental structure of the Church, and women were thought to be easily tempted compared to men. “Already in the fifteenth century, the theologian Jean Gerson had warned the visions and sayings of women were “to be held suspect unless carefully examined, and much more fully than men’s… because they are easily seduced (Gerson, as cited in Brown, 51).”
Nonetheless, the Church’s doubts about Benedetta’s visions were completely dissolved when she started receiving stigmata, the holy wounds of Christ. Bartolomea proved that the miraculous event was real as she claimed, “[Benedetta] arranged herself in the form of the Cross and became as red as a glowing ember (Quaderni Storici, 1979, as cited in Brown, 1986, 58).” In the year 1619, shortly after everyone saw her red marks, she was elected as an abbess. This was obviously a rare achievement for a woman like Benedetta who came from a small town of Vellano. She received the highest position for nuns at the age of only thirty, when an abbess should be over forty years old according to the rules of the Council of Trent.
Still, women were believed to be naturally inferior to men, and that they were simply imitating men. Ever since churches were established, only priests were allowed to preach or teach in the house of God. According to St. Paul, “[Wives] are not permitted to speak…for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church (Meeks, 1983, as cited in Brown, 1986, 59).” Yet again, Benedetta couldn’t be silenced and was excluded from this very strict rule, and Father Ricordati allowed her to give sermons. She was believed to be in the state of trance when she gave sermons to the nuns while they whip themselves to display their repentance.
Furthermore, Benedetta literally took advantage of how women were viewed in the Renaissance and imitated men through Splenditello, one of the angels that she encountered. She then encouraged Bartolomea to “engage in the most immodest acts (117).” At least three times a week during the last two years, Benedetta forced Bartolomea on the bed, kissed her as if she was a man, and convinced Bartolomea that they were not sinning. The investigators were shocked by Bartolomea’s testimony and Brown reasons that
“The officials who heard Bartolomea’s story entirely lacked either intellectual or an imaginative schema that would incorporate the kind of behavior she described…The conceptual difficulties contemporaries had with lesbian sexuality is reflected in the lack of an adequate terminology. Lesbian sexuality did not exist. Neither, for that matter did lesbians (118,17).”
Ultimately, Benedetta’s monastic status, her miraculous claims, and her notoriety finally came to an end when the Church began their first investigation right after Benedetta’s public wedding ceremony with Christ. The Church didn’t want this absurdity to continue, as they believed that true mystics never desire for publicity. They had this principle that visionaries or saints should possess certain values, characters, and even a specific gender.
From the very beginning, she wasn’t really following the norm, “in being taught by her father, Benedetta resembled more the handful of learned women humanists of the Renaissance than the average middle-class women of her day (176).” Her claims such as her stigmata, the ring given by Christ, were proven to be false after the second investigation was completed. She was a threat to the established order so she was imprisoned until her death at seventy-one. This act could be considered as the Church’s way to warn others who may want to try to gain power. Though her rise was short and her fall was painful, Benedetta was successful in advancing her status in Renaissance Italy.
Brown, Judith C. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1986.