Boldly going where no nun had gone before? An Irishman’s Diary about Renaissance astronomy and the strange tale of Benedetta Carlini

“Papers relating to a trial against Sister Benedetta Carlini of Vellano, abbess of the Theatine nuns of Pescia”

“Papers relating to a trial against Sister Benedetta Carlini of Vellano, abbess of the Theatine nuns of Pescia”

 

Everyone knows about the trial of Galileo for his heretical insistence that the earth moved around the sun, a belief he was forced to recant while – according to popular tradition – muttering “Eppur si muove” (“And yet it moves”) by way of recanting the recantation.

Much less famous is another ecclesiastical trial of his era, involving an Italian nun named Benedetta Carlini. She was not a scientist. On the contrary, her crimes were quasi-religious: claiming to have experienced mystical visions and the stigmata.  

Also, there were suggestions of some irregular sexual practices, although details remain vague. In any case, she was investigated by the Vatican, found guilty, and spent the rest of her life confined under guard in a Florentine convent cell.

She might now be entirely forgotten except that, back in the 1980s, a US academic researching the economic history of Florence under Cosimo de’ Medici made the intriguing discovery of: “Papers relating to a trial against Sister Benedetta Carlini of Vellano, abbess of the Theatine nuns of Pescia, who pretended to be a mystic, but was discovered to be a woman of ill-repute.”

The academic, Judith Brown, turned the story into a book with the even catchier title, Immodest Acts – The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (1986). This, I gather, is a serious, learned work: possibly to the extent of disappointing some of the readership it has attracted.   Not having a copy myself, I can’t comment.

In fact, I too chanced on the story of Sister Benedetta by a roundabout route. For as well as being International Women’s Day, today marks a major anniversary involving one of Galileo’s contemporaries. His name was Johannes Kepler and it’s 400 years since, on March 8th, 1618, he devised his so-called “third law of planetary motion”. 

It struck me that, in their own way, Carlini’s ecclesiastical investigators had something in common with the astronomers

I won’t insult the vast majority of my readers by reminding them exactly what that and the other two laws involve. Suffice to say – for the benefit of those sniggering at the back of the class – they established that planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits. In general, like Galileo’s, Kepler’s findings supported the heliocentric solar system Copernicus had proposed in 1543, but that was still controversial a century later.

Anyway, it was through the laws of planetary motion that I accidentally discovered the story of Benedetta, who shares a chapter with the Renaissance astronomers in one of my favourite history books, Europe, by Norman Davies.

Davies was using her case to illustrate a challenge facing historians: changing social norms. But it struck me that, in their own way, Carlini’s ecclesiastical investigators had something in common with the astronomers. Both were trying to make sense of findings that didn’t fit with traditional models of how the world worked.

As Alannah Hopkin noted in a 1986 review of Judith Brown’s book, moral theologians of the 17th century were very short on information about what exactly lesbianism involved. The L-word hadn’t been coined yet then, in fact: “fricatrices” was the term used to describe such activity.  

For what it might involve, however, there was a reliance on the better-documented sin of male homosexual practice.  

Hopkin quotes Brown quoting a 17th-century cleric: “All moralists discuss this ignoble vice between women and teach that a veritable sodomy is committed”. But as the cleric added helplessly: “In what way no one explains”.

In contrast with the title of the 1985 book, Benedetta’s inquisitors were obsessed with her religious beliefs, not her sexuality

We know that, after Sister Benedetta’s convulsions were deemed a danger to her safety, another nun called Bartolomea was assigned to stay with her at night. History also records that one of the personae Benedetta assumed during trances was “Splenditello”, a male angel.  

And it’s suggested that while so possessed, she engaged in “frottage”, at least, with her companion.  

For those at the back of the class who are suddenly paying attention, frottage can be described as a type of motion involving non-planetary bodies. Amontons’s laws of friction may also apply.

But we don’t know much more than that because, as Davies writes, in contrast with the title of the 1985 book, Benedetta’s inquisitors were obsessed with her religious beliefs, not her sexuality. Far from emphasising the latter, he adds, “they simply were not interested”.

He goes on to paraphrase a “disappointed reviewer” of Brown’s book as saying that “at no time before the present century [ie the 20th] were men capable of comprehending the notion of lesbianism”. 

And I don’t know if that’s true. But we do certainly seem to have come a long way this March 8th since our male ancestors first grappled with the shocking truth, overturning all traditional models of the universe, that man might not be the centre of everything.  

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