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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000) 41-61

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Female Sodomy:
The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)

Helmut Puff *

In this essay, I will disclose rhetorical strategies used to negotiate "female sodomy" in a legal document from the pre-Reformation German Empire. By sodomy, "that utterly confused category" (to invoke Foucault's phrase), I mean the panoply of same-sex erotic activities among men and among women. 1 Female sodomy, however, is my own coinage, introduced into the terminological void to inform present-day readers about my project, whereas documents like the one edited and discussed here tend to rely on profuse description. The term is designed to resonate with medieval and Renaissance inscriptions of homoeroticism, often called sodomy from a theological or legal vantage point (although primarily applied to males). Yet by its imaginative qualification as female, female sodomy is coined to characterize a range of significations beyond the transgression of the sexual order and is meant to reach into the precarious domain of emotions, passions, and desires. There is another reason to introduce this neologism. Female sodomy illuminates precisely those highly significant moments when knowledge of female homoeroticism penetrated the male sphere. In these encounters, female homoeroticism was cast in masculine terms such as sodomy. By coining the term female sodomy, I want to call attention to the strategies used to represent women who erotically associated or were associated with their own sex, and to reveal a phenomenon which often escaped categorization in the relevant sources.

If the politics of silence in medieval and early modern Europe was severe regarding same-sex behavior among men, it was even more unyielding in the case of women. A recent contribution in the Handbook of Medieval Sexuality calls same-sex desire among women "twice marginal and twice invisible." 2 Yet, rare though they may be, there are instances where same-sex activities among women surfaced. [End Page 41]

Previous investigations by feminists, literary critics, historians, and art historians have called our attention to the overarching "(in)significance" of lesbianism in cultures and societies of early modern Europe. 3 The silence on lesbianism, once revealed, has inspired researchers to develop methodological approaches that make this silence audible or at least comprehensible. Ongoing research has brought to light a sparse but constant flow of material which has broadened our knowledge of how female sodomy was envisioned during the early modern period. 4 The court case of Katherina Hetzeldorfer will serve to unsettle even further "the myth of lesbian impunity," 5 "(in)visibility" (Patricia Simons) or "(in)significance" (Valerie Traub) and shift our attention to the various sites where, despite the politics of silence, female sodomy became legible in a multitude of ways.

One of the key locations where same-sex practices had to be articulated was the late medieval courtroom. In court records, secular authorities --that is, both city governments and territorial rulers, the main agents attempting to eliminate sodomy in the early modern period--represented verbally what was considered unspeakable. Situated at the intersection of moral, legal, and sexual discourse, trial documents provide important insights into premodern constructions of sexuality and the gradual fashioning of a vernacular discourse on sodomy. One of the earliest court cases in which a woman was charged for sexual relations with women involved Katherina Hetzeldorfer from Nuremberg. For her crime (which bears no name in the proceedings) she was drowned in the imperial city of Speyer in 1477. In my reading of the Speyer document, the polyphonous nature of court documents in general and this document in particular emerges. A multiplicity of voices--the witnesses, the accused, the judges, the fragments of street conversations--points to multilayered responses among the participants shaping this event. In court, the recovery of a narrative about what had happened was channeled, however, through the investigative apparatus of Speyer's civic authorities. Their investigation focused almost entirely on how Katherina Hetzeldorfer was able to embody a masculine role, thus casting female homoeroticism in male terms.

The three-page document of Katherina Hetzeldorfer's trial (edited with...


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pp. 41-61
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Archived 2004
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