Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy 
by Judith Brown.
Oxford, 214 pp., £12.50, January 1986, 0 19 503675 1
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A few months ago, in California, I had a message that a New York Times reporter had telephoned. I conjured up a half-dozen possible reasons for the call, all of them unabashedly narcissistic, only to find, when I finally reached her, that the reporter wanted to know what I thought of a scholarly book that had just been published. Such a question from the press is highly unusual in the United States: American newspapers rarely interest themselves in scholarship, and our reporters, like our politicians, have failed to develop a public discourse that can accommodate ideas of a complexity greater than that conveyed in advertising jingles. Even papers that take themselves very seriously indeed regard cultural and intellectual life as generally beyond the pale of the ‘news’. (The exception proves the rule: when the New York Times Sunday Magazine decided recently to run an article on deconstruction, the reporter wrote as if he couldn’t believe not only the outlandishness of the intellectual movement he was purporting to chronicle but the peculiarity of writing about it at all.)

The book about which the reporter wanted to solicit my expert opinion was Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy by Judith Brown, a social historian at Stanford University. The Times was particularly interested, the reporter explained, because another book about lesbian nuns in contemporary America had recently been published and was promptly banned from sale in Massachusetts. The motto of the New York Times is ‘All the news that’s fit to print’. Was it news, the reporter wanted to know, that there was a lesbian nun in Renaissance Italy? And was it fit to print?

I tried to explain that there was something inherently misguided about the question, but I could sense the reporter’s immediate and understandable impatience. She wanted, as it were, a straight answer. And I have to admit that the subtitle of Brown’s book implies, even solicits, the assimilation of the story it tells – the story of Benedetta Carlini, abbess of a Theatine convent in Pescia, a town near Lucca in Tuscany – to a putatively long line of lesbian nuns. To be sure, evidence for ‘the line’ consists almost entirely of the denunciations of theologians, the sly insinuations of Protestant poets like Marvell, and the lubricious fantasies of pornographers, but these tenebrous and wildly unreliable witnesses are given a certain credibility by the newly discovered ‘case’ of Benedetta Carlini and by those former nuns in our own times who have spoken out about their sexual orientation and who evidently have ceased to regard their acts as immodest.

But in what sense is there any continuity between lesbian nuns in late 20th-century America and the strange, lonely figure of Benedetta Carlini? What does it do to the past to assume, first, that we can confidently identify something called lesbian sexuality (or, more generally, homosexuality); second, that this form of sexuality has always existed (largely repressed and hence mute in earlier ages, now in the 20th century explicit and manifest); and consequently, third, that it has a history? We can get a sense of what is problematic about such questions if we look briefly at the story that Judith Brown found in the archives and that she skilfully retells.

Benedetta Carlini was born to a prosperous, devout Tuscan family and placed at the age of nine in a newly established Theatine convent in Pescia. Almost from the beginning she manifested signs of an unusual relationship to the spiritual world: visions, mystical visitations, trances, diabolical temptations, excruciating pains, moments of ecstasy. Her superiors were alarmed, intrigued and moved; responding to her terrible cries in the night, they assigned her a young companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, who was to share her cell, observe her, and provide assistance if possible. When on the second Friday of Lent, 1618, in the middle of the night, Jesus Christ visited Benedetta and spoke to her, Bartolomea heard the voices and witnessed the stigmata that appeared on the visionary’s hand, feet and side.

With the gift of stigmata, Benedetta’s status in the convent and the world decisively altered. In 1619 the Theatine nuns elected her to be their abbess; during the same year, she began to deliver sermons to the other nuns while they scourged themselves with whips. Normally, women would not have been permitted to preach in the house of God, but Benedetta was not a normal woman. She spoke in a trance, or rather an angel spoke through her, exhorting the nuns to purify themselves and to be grateful for the presence in their midst of God’s beloved Benedetta. In the months that followed there were more trances and further visitations in the night: from St Catherine of Siena, from a guardian angel – a beautiful boy in a white robe – named Splenditello, and from Jesus himself. Each of these figures not only appeared but spoke from within Benedetta, at times with loving praise, at other times with admonitions and commandments, such as a prohibition from eating meat, eggs and milk products. One memorable night Jesus came to Benedetta and tore her heart from her body – a claim Bartolomea confirmed when she felt only a void in Benedetta’s chest – and then three days later returned and put his own heart in its place.

On 20 May 1619, the stakes, already high, suddenly became much higher. Jesus appeared to Benedetta and told her that he wished to marry her. Moreover, he had precise and rather elaborate ideas for the procession, the decorations in the chapel, the ceremony itself, even the list of guests. At the wedding, as the other nuns watched and listened, Benedetta claimed that the Madonna looked on benevolently while Jesus placed a gold ring upon her finger. Speaking once again through her, the Saviour then delivered an extraordinary sermon on the merits of his bride, whom he wished, he said, to be ‘empress of all the nuns’. All who did not obey, believe and cherish her would be punished. The fate of Pescia was in her hands.

‘The investigation,’ Judith Brown tersely remarks, ‘began the next day.’ At first, Benedetta’s visions appeared to be validated, but under the sustained scrutiny of the ecclesiastical authorities, her spiritual claims began to crumble. The gold wedding ring, at first invisible to all save Benedetta herself, miraculously materialised on the bride’s finger, but the ocular proof backfired when the nuns noticed yellow marks on the adjoining fingers: was it plausible that Jesus had given his beloved a cheap imitation? Two nuns who spied on Benedetta through a hole in the study door saw her renewing her stigmata with a large needle. And, most telling of all perhaps, the saintly purity manifested in her inability to eat meat was fatally compromised when Benedetta was seen secretly consuming salami and Cremonese-style mortadella.

It was in the course of investigating the Great Salami Scandal and other irregularities that the Papal interrogators stumbled on the scandalous revelations that interested the New York Times 350 years later: her special companion, Bartolomea, revealed that at night Benedetta claimed to be transformed into the beautiful angel Splenditello, who appeared as an eight or nine-year-old boy, and, as Splenditello, made love passionately and often to Bartolomea. Even during the day occasions could be found, for, ‘through the mouth and hands of Benedetta’, the angel offered to teach the illiterate Bartolomea how to read and write: ‘And the first time,’ Bartolomea testified, ‘she made her learn all the letters without forgetting them; the second, to read the whole side of a page; the second day she made her take the small book of the Madonna and read the words.’ And throughout this scene of reading – a poignant gesture of love across the gulf not only of class and status but of species – the angel kissed her, touched her breasts and called her his beloved. Bartolomea declared that she was the unwilling object of these erotic attentions – attentions that she describes in considerable detail – and seems, perhaps for this reason, to have been unpunished by the scandalised authorities. Benedetta was not so fortunate: she was, it appears, imprisoned until her death, 35 years later.

As the title and subtitle of her book make clear, Judith Brown is centrally interested in the prohibited sexual pleasures in which Benedetta indulged; Benedetta, the book implies, was a martyr to lesbian sexuality. But as she ably recounts the story and reconstructs the institutional and moral world in which it took place, Brown is compelled again and again to acknowledge that for virtually everyone actually involved in the events, the central interest lay elsewhere: in the fear of demonic possession. This fear is present from the very beginning, and it haunts all of Benedetta’s mystical experiences. No matter how alluring or convincing or ecstatic Benedetta’s mystical experiences appeared, it was always a possibility, recognised by awed observers and by Benedetta herself, that the experiences were illusions produced by the subtle enemy of humankind. The task to which both institution and individuals addressed themselves then was to distinguish between corrupt parodies and the authentic experiences of God’s special grace. But this task was immensely difficult, for as Paul had observed in the originary moments of Christianity, ‘Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.’

Possession, it should be added, was not an alternative to a rationalising explanation based upon fraud but rather a belief inseparable from intimations of deception, since the Devil was the father of lies. And he was the father too of illicit desires. Benedetta’s immodest actions at night – kissing Bartolomea’s breasts and genitals, ‘stirring’ on top of her so much that ‘both of them corrupted themselves’ – were for the investigators conclusive evidence that the angel Splenditello was in fact a demon. Brown in contrast wants these actions to serve as evidence that Benedetta was ‘a lesbian’. But the shift in terms is not so much a clarification as a transformation of worlds, a transformation that involves the imposition of a new sexuality.

Those who wrote in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance about sexual acts between a man and a man or a woman and a woman did not regard those acts as evidence of a psychological orientation, a personality disorder, a habitual object-choice, a condition of sexual ‘inversion’. Sexual pleasure was not conceived as inherently gendered, and desire moved recklessly where it would unless restrained by rational obedience to the law of nature. That law bound sexual pleasure to procreation, and all sexual practices that did not further this end were sinful and hence prohibited. If we are to understand this very different structuring of sexuality, we must learn to suspend or rather to historicise our own cultural constructions. Impressive steps toward this historicising have been taken recently by a number of scholars, including Caroline Bynum, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Christopher Craft, Thomas Laqueur, and, of course, Michel Foucault. When the implications of this work are fully absorbed, it will be more difficult to write of lesbian nuns in Renaissance Italy, but it will be easier to understand the relationship between demonic possession and illicit sexual acts and hence easier to embrace Benedetta Carlini.

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