The 'Itch', and Other Ways History Explained Lesbianism

"They are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire."
February 11, 2020, 9:24am
old painting of lesbians by Jacob van Loo
Jacob van Loo, ‘Amaryllis Crowning Mirtillo’ (1660)

Lesbianism, according to Galen, a second-century Greek physician, was caused by an “ongoing and persistent itch in some women’s labia”. The good news? Relief could be had by rubbing your affected labia against that of another woman. Finding historical evidence of women who lived as lesbians is difficult, and mention of them is usually found in the context of condemnation. Or in the context of strange physical phenomena—like an itch. That’s because, for most of recorded history, same-sex female attraction meant you were defective in some way. An aberration of nature. In the Christian era, it also meant you had given in to temptation and therefore sinned. Medieval thinkers in particular had a problem with lesbianism: not only was it apparently driven solely by lust, the sex was also non-procreative, which was a serious affront to the church. The indignation can be felt in this sixth-century French poem: “You, strange mixture of the female gender, Whom driving lust makes a male, Who love to fuck with your crazed cunt. Why has pointless desire seized you… You service a cunt.” The medieval Church was very clear that sexual deviancy be addressed quick-sharp. In the seventh century, Penitential of Theodore (a penitential was essentially a handbook of transgressions, with a recommended tariff for each) suggested that a woman who “practices vice with a woman” be given three years of penance. Women found performing oral sex on each other were given even longer, according to an Irish penitential:


“Anyone who performs the fornication of the lips [i.e. cunnilingus], penance for four years if it is their first time but if it is usually their custom seven”.

Despite the religious belief that sex was just for baby-making, medieval medical theory stated that a woman could quite literally die if she didn’t get enough sex, due to what was known as “womb suffocation”. The best way to avoid this was through regular, married intercourse; failing that, physicians recommended various cures, one of which was masturbation. This was a particularly handy solution for nuns, who couldn’t marry but who also didn’t want to die. John of Gaddesden, a 14th-century English doctor, suggested that midwives might help a woman in danger of womb suffocation by “insert[ing] a finger covered with oil of lily, laurel or spikenard into her womb and move it vigorously about.” Unsurprisingly, the Church wasn’t on board—masturbation was a sin, especially when women chose to use an “instrument” (a dildo). The seventh-century Penitential of Bede (Bede was an English monk) assigned a penance of seven years for nuns who had sex with each other “by means of an instrument”. Later, the ninth-century Archbishop Hincmar of Rhcims wrote that lesbians: “… transform the use of the member in question into an unnatural one, in that they are reported to use certain instruments of diabolical operation to excite desire." It wasn’t just nuns who used dildos. A woman named Katherina Hetzeldorfer became the first ever executed (they did it via legal drowning) for female homosexuality, after she was put on trial in 1477 in Germany. It was alleged that she posed as a man and had sex with women using a fake penis. During her trial, it was explained that: “She made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through and tied it round.” The western Church’s views on women and their sex lives were, of course, influenced by its established and pervasive misogyny. As the poet and schoolmaster Marbod of Rennes said in the eleventh century: “Woman the unhappy source, evil root, and corrupt offshoot, who brings to birth every sort of outrage throughout the world”. Not all medieval societies were quite so outraged by women loving women. Parts of the medieval Arab world seemed to have a more accepting attitude towards same-sex female sexuality (in sharp contrast to today). According to the famous ninth-century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi, lesbianism was due to a vapour which, when condensed, generated heat in the labia and an itch (again), which could only be relieved through orgasm with another woman. Other physicians theorised that the mother’s ingestion of certain foods—celery, rocket, melilot leaves and the flowers of a bitter orange tree—caused their nursing baby to become a “lifelong lesbian”.

There is, in fact, quite the lesbian erotic tradition in the Arab middle ages. In the 10th century, an encyclopaedic work known as The Catalogue lists the names of 12 famous lesbian couples. And in the 13th-century collection of stories, anecdotes and poems known as A Promenade of the Hearts in What Does Not Exist in Any Book, there is reference to an actual "lesbian community"—and to “Rose”, who appears to have led it. A Promenade of the Hearts also refers to lesbian sex as the “saffron massage”, and details famous lesbian teachers who taught women the best sounds to make during sex with other women ("You should snort heartily while wiggling lasciviously.") The text goes on to describe "wheezing, panting, purring, murmurs, heartbreaking sighs".

That said, sexuality in the middle ages was phallocentric, procreative and heterosexual almost wherever in the world you were, so the era must have been a profoundly lonely place for gay women. Even the word “lesbian” as we understand it today, denoting an identity, took until the nineteenth century to enter common parlance. That some women were brave (and maybe desperate enough) to embrace their sexuality regardless is something worth celebrating. For most lesbians though, sadly their desire was indeed ultimately “pointless”.