Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Transgressive bodily desires (Bible Moralisée, Codex Vindobonensis 2554)
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    This illumination appears in the Bible Moralisée commonly referred to as Vienna 2554, produced around 1220 in Paris and written in French. It was likely commissioned by Blanche of Castille, who served as regent of France for eight years beginning in 1226. Set on a background of gold leaf, the image shows two same-sex couples embracing. The female couple, on the left side, appear at the point of kissing. As for the male couple, one, identified by his headgear, appears to be Jewish; the other’s tonsured hair style indicates he is a cleric. The demons who encourage the couples highlight the sinful nature of the scene.

    The Bibles Moralisées, English “moralized Bibles”, were extremely opulent Bibles first produced in France and Spain in the thirteenth century. Each contained the original text of the Bible accompanied by a commentary applying it to contemporary life, and the texts possessed masterful illuminations. On a given page, each biblical illumination would appear above that of its corresponding commentary, allowing viewers to directly compare biblical scenes with related contemporary ones. In total, each page contained eight medallions: four biblical and four contemporary, along with the text of the Bible and the commentary text. Due to the sheer quantity of skilled illuminations included, the Bible Moralisée was a luxury only the richest could afford. Vienna 2554 has 1,032 medallions and one full page miniature.

    The format of the Bible Moralisée suits medieval views of sin and sinful behavior well. While certain images are explicitly intended to be compared by the viewer, the eight-medallion structure leads readers to compare and associate all images on a page, and possibly across pages. Likewise, the medieval worldview tended to associate all sinful behaviors together. Overindulgence in one area, such as gluttony, might cause an imbalance leading one to overindulge sexually and engage in sodomy. Even the term sodomy, while most widely identified with male homoeroticism, could also be used to refer to forbidden heterosexual acts, female homoeroticism, or sinful acts that were not sexual at all. In this image, multiple forms of sexual misbehavior occur at once. The male couple represents both same-sex and inter-religion relations. Both couples are of the same scale and are given the same compositional weight, suggesting an equality or similarity between male and female homoeroticism.

    The perceived association of sinful behaviors is explained by medieval Christian beliefs about the Fall. This particular illumination is the complement to an illumination depicting Adam and Eve and the Fall (see below in Related Work). The accompanying commentary text links the couples’ sexual misbehavior with the Fall: "That Eve and Adam were deceived and transgressed the commandment of God through the enticement of the devil signifies those who through the desire of their bodies transgress the commandment of God, and the devil ensnares them by the neck and by the mouth and by the loins and pulls them into hell."

    At its root, homoerotic behavior was a form of disorderly, transgressive desire. Adam and Eve abstractly represent this phenomenon, which could manifest in homoeroticism, but also in gluttony (disordered desire for food), greed (disordered desire for wealth), vanity (disordered desire for oneself), et cetera. As such, the Bibles’ format grouping multiply apparently distinct scenes of sin together is a natural choice. The broad extension of the term “sodomy”, too, reflects the medieval emphasis on the root cause of unchecked or disordered desire, rather than the specifics of its physical manifestation or target. Metaphorical associations could also be drawn between sins. Homoeroticism was sometimes construed as a form of vanity, wherein loving a person of the same sex was akin to loving oneself.

    This illumination may be surprising to contemporary viewers who subscribe to the general view that lesbianism was absent or unacknowledged in the Middle Ages. Indeed, recognition of female homoeroticism as a possibility or as equally concerning as male homoeroticism was not universal. Representations like this one are rare, and became more so in the later Middle Ages. The general medieval erasure of same-sex relations between women was largely due to predominantly phallocentric views of sex. Sodomy, for example, was most widely defined as an act in which semen was spilled outside the vagina or a vessel other than the vagina was used. Under this definition, sodomy between women would have been impossible. However, if a kind of phallus was introduced into a lesbian encounter, it was generally taken more seriously. Court cases against alleged lesbian lovers record more severe punishments for cases involving dildos. Phallocentrism also manifested in scientific texts about female anatomy. Many texts warn of disorders wherein the clitoris enlarges to be penis-like, or a completely new phallic growth emerges, and consequently a woman begins to desire other women. This, too, presumes a phallus is naturally associated with or required for sex with a woman.

    Medieval thought condemned lesbian encounters primarily for their transgression against “natural” gender roles. A woman who assumed a “passive” role in same-sex affairs, or primarily received penetration instead of penetrating, would generally be given a lighter punishment. Her crime appeared to involve a lesser degree of gender transgression than her “active” partner’s. Towards the later Middle Ages, however, lesbian encounters were more harshly condemned, often punishable with burning at the stake. Still, far fewer court cases exist alleging homoerotic activity between women than among men. Phallocentrism may have allowed lesbian encounters to go unsuspected and undiscovered.

    Even as lesbian encounters were dismissed by authorities, women themselves were viewed as more at risk for committing sexual transgressions. The medieval gender binary labelled women the morally weaker sex, whose nature predisposed them to seduction by the devil. Notably, some medieval interpretations of the Fall paint Eve’s sin as caused by her seduction by the Serpent, who commonly also had characteristics of a female virgin. In these interpretations, the Fall is caused by an exaggerated spiritual weakness in Woman, which manifests specifically in a weakness for homoeroticism. As the original woman, Eve’s moral shortcomings, including her potential for homoeroticism, represent the sinful natures of all the women who came after her. Indeed, medieval thought did not link sexual behavior to identity. Moral failings or overindulgence could draw anyone to transgress the laws of nature, including through same-sex encounters; this behavior was not attributed to a specific class of people. Any woman might devolve in character and consequently engage in sexual activity with a female partner.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Bibles Homoeroticism Homosexuality Lesbians Sexuality Sins in Art Sodomy
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 1220- 1230
  • Related Work: Full page with eight historiated medallions, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis, MS 2554, fol. 2r.
    Digitized manuscript, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis, MS 2554.
  • Current Location: Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis, Ms 2554, fol. 2r
  • Original Location: France, Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Gold; Colored Inks
  • Donor: Laywoman; Queen Blanche of Castile, Wife of Louis VIII, king of France
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 34.4/26/
  • Inscription: "Ce qeve et adam sunt deceu et ont trespassei le commandement deu par antiscement del deiable senefie cels qi por la volentei de lors cors trespassent le commandement deu et deiables les enlace et par col et par boche et par rains et les trabuche en enfer"
    [That Eve and Adam were deceived and transgressed the commandment of God through the enticement of the devil signifies those who through the desire of their bodies transgress the commandment of God, and the devil ensnares them by the neck and by the mouth and by the loins and pulls them into hell.] (Mills, Speculum, 421)
  • Related Resources:

    Hamilton, Tracy Chapman. "Queenship and Kinship in the French "Bible moralisée": The Example of Blanche of Castile and Vienna ÖNB 2554." Capetian Women. Edited by Kathleen Nolan. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pages 177-208.

    Lochrie, Karma. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn't. University of Minnesota Press, 2005.

    Lowden, John. The Making of the "Bibles moralisées". 2 vols. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000. See especially Volume 1, Chapter 2 "Vienna,Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, MS 2554", pages 11-54.

    Mills, Robert. “Seeing Sodomy in the Bibles moralisées.” Speculum 87, 2 (2012): 413–468.

    Mills, Robert. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    Same Sex Love and Desire among Women in the Middle Ages. Edited by Francesca Canade´ Sautman and Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, 2001.