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Lesbianism is the sexual and romantic desire between females. There are far fewer historical mentions of lesbianism than male homosexuality, possibly due to many historical writings and records focusing primarily on men. An example of lesbianism being illegal comes from records of the late Middle Ages (1300-1500). Laws created during the Inquisition in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire specifically mention lesbianism (as well as male sodomy). England has never had any laws outlawing lesbianism, and at times (particularly the 17th-19th centuries) lesbianism has even been accepted. Several laws were proposed in the early years of the United States (as well as during the colonial times), including a very specific law proposed by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, but none were ever enacted, and in some cases, rejected altogether.

Ancient history

The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 BC) is widely considered to be the earliest known mention of lesbians in surviving historical documents. The code makes reference to women called the 'salzikrum' (literal translation: "daughter-men"), women that were allowed to marry other women.[1] The code also contains the earliest mention of a transgender person.

Early Greece (776–480 BC)


Main article: Sappho

The word "lesbian" derives from Lesbos, the island where the ancient Greek poet Sappho was born; her name is also the origin of its nowadays less common synonym "sapphic".[2][3] The narrators of many of her poems speak of infatuations and love (sometimes requited, sometimes not) men and women have for both genders.

Roman Empire and early Christianity

See also: Sexuality in ancient Rome and Homosexuality in ancient Rome

The lesbian love story between Iphis and Ianthe, in Book IX of Ovid's the Metamorphoses, is most vivid. When Iphis' mother becomes pregnant, her husband declares that he will kill the child if it is a girl. She bears a girl and attempts to conceal her sex by giving her a name that is of ambiguous gender: Iphis. When the "son" is thirteen, the father chooses a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe as the "boy's" bride. The love of the two girls is written sympathetically:

They were of equal age, they both were lovely,

Had learned the ABC from the same teachers,
And so love came to both of them together
In simple innocence, and filled their hearts

With equal longing.

However, as the marriage draws ever closer, Iphis recoils, calling her love "monstrous and unheard of". The goddess Isis hears the girl's moans and turns her into a boy.

References to love between women are sparse. Phaedrus attempted to explain lesbianism through a myth of his own making: Prometheus, coming home drunk from a party, had mistakenly exchanged the genitals of some women and some men – "Lust now enjoys perverted pleasure."[4]

It is quite clear that paiderastia and lesbianism were not held in equally good light, possibly because of the violation of strict gender roles. Seneca the Elder mentions a husband who killed his wife and her female lover and implies that their crime was worse than that of adultery between a male and female. The Babyloniaca of Iamblichus describes an Egyptian princess named Berenice who loves and marries another woman. This novelist also states that such love is "wild and lawless".

Another example of the gender-sexual worldview of the times was documented in Lucian's Dialogue of the Courtesans, in which Megilla renames herself Megillus and wears a wig to cover her shaved head. She marries Demonassa of Corinth, although Megillus is from Lesbos. Her friend Leaena comments that "They say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women, as though they themselves were men". Megillus seduces Leaena, who feels that the experience is too disgusting to describe in detail. This is far from the sophisticated aestheticism of Sappho's group.

In another dialogue ascribed to Lucian, two men debate over which is better, male love or heterosexuality. One man protested that if male affairs were legitimized, then lesbianism would soon be condoned as well, an unthinkable notion.[5]

The apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter describes the punishment of lesbians and gay men in Hell:[6]

And other men and women being cast down from a great rock fell to the bottom, and again were driven by them that were set over them, to go up upon the rock, and thence were cast down to the bottom and had no rest from this torment. And these were they that did defile their bodies behaving as women: and the women that were with them were they that lay with one another as a man with a woman.

The canonical New Testament usually mentions homosexuality in only general terms (i.e. mentioning both gays and lesbians) and both are equally convicted.[7] The only specific mention of Lesbianism is Romans 1:26, "For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature" (NKJV).

Early Middle Ages (476-1049 AD)

In the Middle Ages, the Church took a stricter view of same-sex relations between women. Penitentials, developed by Celtic Monks in Ireland, were unofficial guidebooks which became popular, especially in the British Isles. These books listed crimes and the penances that must be done for them. For example, "...he who commits the male crime of the Sodomites shall do penance for four years." The several versions of the Paenitentiale Theodori, attributed to Theodore of Tarsus, who became archbishop of Canterbury in the 7th century, make special references to lesbianism. The Paenitentiale states, "If a woman practices vice with a woman she shall do penance for three years." Penitentials soon spread from the isles to mainland Europe. From the 6th to the 11th centuries, there are thirty-one penitentials that punish male homosexuality and fourteen that punish lesbians.

The Old French legal treatise Li livres de jostice et de plet (c. 1260) is the earliest reference to legal punishment for lesbianism akin to that for male homosexuality. It prescribed dismemberment on the first two offenses and death by burning for the third: a near exact parallel to the penalty for a man, although what "dismemberment" could mean for a medieval woman is unknown.[8][9] It is possible that it refers to the cutting off of a woman's breasts.

Later Middle Ages (1050-c.1600 AD)

In Spain, Italy, and the Holy Roman Empire, sodomy between women was included in acts considered unnatural and punishable by burning to death, although few instances are recorded of this taking place. The earliest such female execution occurred in 1477 with the drowning of a girl "for lesbian love" in Speier, Germany.[9] Forty days' penance was demanded of nuns who "rode" each other or were discovered to have touched each other's breasts. In Pescia, Italy, an abbess named Sister Benedetta Carlini was documented in inquests between 1619 and 1623 as having committed grave offenses including a passionately erotic love affair with another nun when possessed by a Divine male spirit named "Splenditello"; declared the victim of a "diabolical obsession", she was placed in the convent's prison for the last 35 years of her life.[10] Female homoeroticism, however, was so common in English literature and theatre that historians suggest it was fashionable for a period during the Renaissance.

See also

  • History of lesbianism in the United States


  1. Zuffi, Stefano (2010). Love and the erotic in art, 235. 
  2. Douglas Harper (2001). Lesbian. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on 2009-02-07.
  3. Douglas Harper (2001). Sapphic. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on 2009-02-07.
  4. Sexual diversity and Catholicism: toward the development of moral theology By Patricia Beattie Jung, Joseph Andrew Coray. 
  5. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a source book of basic documents By Thomas K. Hubbard. 
  6. Wesley Center Online. Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocryphal New Testament. Clarendon Press, 1924.
  7. Homosexuality in the Bible.
  8. Boswell, John (1981). Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 289–90. ISBN 978-0226067117. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Crompton, Louis. "The Myth of Lesbian Impunity. Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791". Journal of Homosexuality 6 (1/2). The Haworth Press. 
  10. Randall, Frederika. "Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions", 19 January 1986. Retrieved on 5 February 2014. 
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