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Love letter between nuns shows the true story of queerness in the Middle Ages

Love letter between nuns shows the true story of queerness in the Middle Ages

A love letter

A professor at the University of Bonn in Bonn, Germany recently posted a love letter between two medieval nuns on Twitter.

GSN covered the letter and how pure it was.

In looking to learn more about the two women, and their possible love story, GSN reached out to Professor Erik Wade who initially posted the letter.

Wade told us he taught the letter in his class Sex, Race, and Gender in the Medieval World.

Students read the letter in Jacqueline Murray’s article Twice Marginal and Twice Visible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages. According to Wade, there’s plenty of new research being done right now that looks into queer identities in medieval times.

What do we know about the nuns?

‘We sadly don’t know anything more about the nuns,’ Wade admits.

The letter itself appears in a twelfth century German manuscript, including a set of various love letters in Latin such as this one.

However, thanks to Wade’s own knowledge about the time, he was able to give GSN a little more context.

‘Very ornate letters like these were common, and they built on traditions of ornate Latin,’ he explaines. ‘Indeed, it’s entirely possible that this collection of love letters was used as models by students in a medieval classroom.’

Wade says scholar Peter Dronke, who wrote the book Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric, in which this letter also appears, believes the letter expresses real feelings written by real people.

Wade also provided GSN with another example of a letter between women around this time.

Another letter between two medieval women
Another letter between two medieval women | Photo: Provided

Wade personally finds the original letter ‘really beautiful and educated’.

‘These are highly literate women, writing in the most elevated style of the time,’ he describes.

‘I wonder how long the two nuns were separated and whether  it was permanent,’ he continues. ‘The writer’s plea (“I always beseech God that bitter death  may not come to me before I enjoy the dearly desired sight of you again”) suggests to me that they may have lived in separate convents and been unable to travel to each other, only communicating through letters. But that’s entirely speculation.’

Students’ reactions

‘Students really like these kinds of documents,’ he says.

‘These letters present a  side of the Middle Ages that doesn’t get taught as much: the Middle Ages wasn’t an authoritarian, religiously dominated “Dark Ages.”

‘Medieval people produced educated, beautiful poetry, letters, and stories that portrayed a whole range of different attitudes towards gender and sexuality. In my class, we’ve read narratives of all sorts of women, narratives of same-sex desire, and narratives of gender-nonconforming people from throughout the medieval world.’

In class, Wade and his students discussed nunneries’ rules preventing nuns from having sex with each other. They also examined writings from the time explaining “why” women would be attracted to one another. Further, there were satirical writings by men speculating what women could do with one another in bed.

Wade mentions one of his students drew the conclusion that the letter reminds people ‘what the male authorities didn’t discuss in their regulation of women: the possibility of  love—rather than “just” sex—between women’.

There is more history here

Wade also teaches about Egyptian love spells women used to make other women to fall in love with them. In other classes, the students look at passionate letters between monks and a French story about a knight assigned female at birth but grew up as a boy and lived as a man.

‘I think that these documents make the Middle Ages more interesting to students, and they all represent a longer history
of same-sex love and gender-nonconformity than students usually are presented with,’ he says of the importance of this research.

‘That can be really powerful for them, especially for students who are queer and/or trans, who discover this rich history that goes back millennia.’

Wade himself is trying to show a different view of the Middle Ages. He’s currently writing a book about race and sexuality in early England.

It looks at the way early England presented their sexuality as ‘moral’ while foreigners were the sexual ‘deviants’. Wade argues this is still happening in governments today.

The Middle Ages were far from being exclusively white, straight, and male. This work helps prove it.

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