Bertolina Guercia

The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast – Episode 44d with Heather Rose Jones

The story of a 13th century Italian woman who seems to have openly had sexual relationships with women.

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When we look for queer women in history, how do we know what we’re looking for? How will we know when we find them? If we go into the historic record with a preconceived idea of what queer people’s lives were like–what their hazards and joys were–will we recognize what we find?

When we start to depict queer women in historical fiction, how do we imagine their lives? What did their families, their neighbors, their lovers think about them? Were they closeted or open? Were they accepted or persecuted? Did they find like-minded community or lead solitary lives?

Attitudes and reactions around people with non-normative sexuality could be highly local and individual, even within general large patterns. And just as in current media with queer characters, the challenges they faced were not necessarily directly related to their sexuality.

Today I’d like to explore the small amount we know about a woman in 13th century Bologna named Bertolina Guercia. As is all too often the case in this era, the reason we have concrete data about her sexuality is because she ran afoul of the law. But don’t assume you know how that encounter played out.

The legal record that mentions Bertolina was studied and published by Carol Lansing in an article in 2005. The record had always been there to find, but it took someone noticing it, recognizing its significance, and considering it worth bringing it to public attention. There are a lot–and I mean a lot–of surviving historical archives with records about obscure, unimportant–dare I say, mostly boring–people. When scholars comb through these archives–most of which have never been published, or even necessarily cataloged in detail–they’re usually looking for information on a particular topic. The vast background material that they have to wade through to find that topic may be fascinating on its own, but the distraction of shiny things is the bane of academia. Any number of researchers may walk past an entry without comment because it doesn’t speak to their particular topic before one picks it up and weaves it into a larger picture.

All of this is in preface to saying that there are undoubtedly many more stories like Bertolina’s waiting to be noticed. The scholarly catalogs of evidence for women’s same-sex relations in the past are often condemned as scanty–and too often interpreted as meaning that either there is little to be found, or that queer women were, in fact, relatively scarce in the past. In addition to the value of stories like Bertolina’s for their own sake, they remind us of what is still out there to be discovered.

But let’s move on to Bertolina’s specific story. The record mentioning her is from 1295. As I noted earlier, she lived in Bologna, Italy–though keep in mind that “Italy” was mostly a vague idea at this time, not a coherent nation-state.

What was going on in Europe in 1295? King Edward I was busy building castles to support his military adventures in Wales and Scotland; this is the era of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame. The 9th Crusade finishes with the Egyptian recapture of Acre, effectively ending the Christian colonial occupation of the Holy Land. In Italy, Marco Polo has just returned to Venice from his travels in China and Dante Alighieri is hard at work on his poetry, though yet to write his greatest works. The Italian Renaissance isn’t quite a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, nor has the Black Death touched Europe yet. We’re pretty solidly in the middle of the “middle ages”.

Bologna was at that time a “commune”–an independent political entity–having escaped domination by the Holy Roman Empire a century earlier as part of the Lombard League. It was a thriving commercial and artistic center with a population in the tens of thousands, though becoming politically unstable due to squabbling among the ruling families. Infractions against the law–the context of Bertolina’s story–were judged in the civic court by appointed judges who were typically outsiders, in place for a limited term. Perhaps this was specifically to avoid having trials influenced by local squabbles and loyalties. Charges were brought, not by anything resembling a police force, but by private citizens, who might make an anonymous report of something that should be investigated, or could make a public accusation. In either case, it was the court’s responsibility to call witnesses, draw conclusions, and assign sentences or fines.

But before we come to the charges, what does the record tell us about Bertolina Guercia?

We know that her father is dead, that she lived in the parish of Santa Cecelia, next to the old city wall–an area that may have had a somewhat seedy reputation. There is no mention of a husband, nor is she identified as a widow–both of which would almost certainly be considered relevant in the legal records, so we can assume she never married. We don’t know what profession she followed, though she was comfortable enough that she could hire singers for an evening’s entertainment. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the trial records does anyone suggest that she was involved in sex work, which was commonly used as an all-purpose charge against unruly women. She is accused of being known to be a magician and fortune-teller, and said to claim that she could cause people to love or hate, and that she used these activities to extort money from people. Charges of this sort were fairly common “add-ons” to other accusations, and the court records indicate that they were rarely taken seriously or mentioned in verdicts and sentencing.

We can also guess that she had, in some way, angered a more powerful neighbor, Guilelmo of San Biagio, who had the good fortune to have friends or patrons among the nobility and whose charges were therefore taken seriously.

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This brings us to the specific charges that make Bertolina of interest to us today. The original anonymous report stated that she “is and long has been, especially for the last six months, a public and well known sodomite, using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The charge also uses some formulaic language, most likely derived from clerical writings about sodomy, calling the act “unspeakable” and contrary to human nature. And, as noted previously, the charge added that “she is a public and well known magician and diviner, deceiving the men and women of the city of Bologna, extorting money from them, saying that she was able to make people greatly and entirely love her, and make others hate, in the manner of a magician and idolator.” What did it mean for a woman to be called a sorcerer “afacuratris”? How did 13th century Bolognese people understand these alleged abilities? We don’t have examples of what Bertolina was supposed to have done, but of one of her fellow citizens of Bologna, a woman named Monna Necha, it was said she “casts spells on men and women and is a fortuneteller and…can teach how to make transfigurations of people to extort money…[who says she] can make the person you want love you at your will … [and can] bring up tempests and hailstorms so that no one could escape death”. Another woman who was labeled an “affaturatrix” like Bertolina was said to keep an image of a human figure with spines stuck in it. So the charges against Bertolina were meant to evoke the image of similar acts and abilities. But the records indicate that such charges often seem to have been made as leverage when the true dispute was unrelated, and in the above cases, the women were not convicted of the charges of magic.

The judge assigned to Bertolina’s case, a man named Lantelmo of Aliate, followed standard legal procedures and held an inquest, at which four of Bertolina’s neighbors were questioned regarding the charges. Had they heard anything by vox or fama, that is, by direct information or by public reputation, that would corroborate the accusation?

Each testified in the negative. At this point, our understanding of the case must split in two possible directions, as we shall see. Either the later, detailed, testimony was a complete fabrication–an unusually explicit and specific one–or Bertolina’s neighbors had no particular problem with a woman “conducting herself lustfully with women” and performing love magic for pay. (It is, of course, also possible that they did have a problem with it, but not enough to report it to the law themselves, and not enough to be worth the trouble of getting personally involved.)

Those denials might have put an end to the matter–and if so, would have deprived us of some of the more interesting details of the case–but Bertolina’s anonymous accuser came forward in person to pursue the case and bring his own witnesses. We can tell that this Guilelmo was a man of some standing because when you appeared in the court you had to provide references who would back you up, and his were three powerful noblemen of the city. Who was Guilelmo and what did he have against Bertolina? That we can’t tell. He wasn’t an immediate neighbor, and seems to have run in a different social stratum, but from the language of the original accusation–that Bertolina “extorted money from people through her magic”–he may have been an unsatisfied customer. Or–and here is an intriguing possibility–he may have been a romantic rival, thus the focus on Bertolina’s sexuality.

In any event, Guilelmo produced two witnesses, only one of whom directly addresses Bertolina’s actions. Bertolina was also summoned to appear, but declined. In the following testimony, the witness, Ugolino Martini, refers to Bertolina by her nickname Guercia. This is the translation Lansing provides in her article.

“One evening [I was] at supper in my house in the parish of Yeme, in the past though I don’t remember whether it was this year or last year, nor the day or month, but it was after the third bell. I heard two men singing and I went out of my house and went to where they were singing. I did not know them, nor do I know them. They were singing near the church of San Tomaso where they were making a serenade, but I don’t know to whom. When they had sung, I said to them that they should come with me and serenade my lady. They said that they did not wish to come unless it was with the agreement of Gueercia, who was present, and at whose request they said they were there. Guercia said that she did want them to come with me.

“The men and Guercia came along with me, and I led them to the house of Lady Dolzebone in the parish of San Biagio and had them sing there. Guercia said to me, ‘Are you interested in this widow?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘I have been interested in her for two years.’ I replied to her, ‘Unlucky you, how can you be interested in women?’ She said, ‘It is because I–

Here we must pause for some tricky vocabulary. The record has the verb “tifuo” which is not a known word. Lansing believes it may be either a deliberate or accidental mangling of “futuo”, that is “fuck”. The text is also about to refer to an object called a “virilia” which, from context, we can understand as a dildo. So I’ll just use both those words, with the understanding that the translation is approximate.

“She said, ‘It is because I fuck them with these dildos of silk that I have.’ I said to her, ‘May I see some of these dildos?’ She said yes and drew one from her purse and showed it to me. It was made of silk, but I do not know what kind of silk. She showed me a number of them though I don’t know how many because I did not count them, but some were great and large and some small, and I am not sure whether she showed me ten.”

Ugolino testified that he didn’t actually see her using the virilia, and that he knew nothing at all about the other charges. The magic and divination were not mentioned.

Bertolina was summoned to appear in her own defense, but declined to appear. The judge assigned an improbably large fine as an alternative to being banned from the city. There is no further mention of her in the records and she is unlikely to have been able to pay the fine, so she may have left town. Or it may be that her accuser was satisfied with the moral victory and didn’t pursue the matter further.

Although the conviction appears to have been entirely on the charge of sodomy, the outcome should not be taken as evidence that 13th century Bologna was tolerant of homosexuality in general. In that same decade there are records of men being executed for the same charge, though legal records suggest that men were most likely to be accused of sodomy if violence or an underage boy were involved. But Bolognese laws discussing sodomy are explicitly concerned only with men.

It’s noteworthy that Ugolino’s testimony–assuming we can take it at face value–suggests an atmosphere of acceptance and perhaps even sympathy for women’s same-sex relations. He tells a story about love and courtship, not about unspeakable and unnatural passions. Bertolina apparently felt no qualms about disclosing her sexual interest in Dolzebone to her rival in love, nor about boasting of how she satisfied female lovers when he suggested she was unfortunate to have fallen for a woman. We may, perhaps, guess that the target of her hired serenaders may have been another woman she was courting.

The court appears to have taken no interest in her potential partners. Dolzebone was not summoned to testify. And although the original accusation and Ugolino’s testimony show a lurid fascination with the use of an artifical penis, this doesn’t seem to have been a point of particular outrage. Ugolino–again, assuming we can take his testimony at face value–know about Bertolina’s boasting for quite some time before he was induced to provide that information to the court. He certainly hadn’t felt the need to make an accusation on his own. And Bertolina’s neighbors–who were initially interrogated and must have been aware of her proclivities if she were as open about them as it seems–were willing to cover for her by disclaiming any knowledge.

But Bertolina’s refusal to appear before the court–indeed, she appears to have gone into hiding to avoid those sent to summon her–suggests that there were limits to tolerance in the face of an outright accusation. Her accuser, Guilelmo, presumably had enough power and a sufficient grudge to make her life unpleasant regardless of the outcome in court. But all the evidence suggests that the charge of sodomy may have been a convenient dodge rather than his primary grudge.

Let us sum up the most rosy–though quite plausible–scenario here. A single woman of comfortable means, though not high social status, is open about her romantic and sexual interest in women, even to the point of discussing it with a relative stranger. She boasts of satisfying her female lovers with an artificial penis, but is not otherwise masculine in her presentation or habits. Her neighbors, though presumably aware of all this, not only make no complaint of her, but keep silent when asked to testify against her. When the court is forced to consider sexual charges against her, due to the status and persistence of her accuser, it goes through the motions, offers a very lenient (if expensive) judgment, and does not pursue either her or her lovers beyond that.

This sheds a different light on the general absence of women in medieval legal records concerning sodomy. One of the frustrations of researching sexuality in legal records–not the theoretical treatises such as penitential manuals, but records of actual accusations and trials–is that an absence of evidence is highly ambiguous. Does it mean that the practice in question wasn’t regarded as a crime? Or that it didn’t occur? Other articles on the subject, such as Puff’s “Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)” and Crompton’s “The myth of lesbian impunity: Capital laws from 1270 to 1791” have addressed this question by focusing on cases with more dire consequences. But Bertolina’s case suggests that women’s same-sex relations may have not simply flown under the radar for the most part, but been considered of trivial importance even when brought to official attention.

This case provides a relatively even-handed glimpse into a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual relations between women being similar and parallel to those between men and women. Like extra-marital heterosexual relations, they might provide an excuse for the exercise of malice for other reasons. But for every Bertolina Guercia, we can easily envision any number of Dolzebellas who evidently carried on with their girlfriends with no interference or harrassment.