People of all sexual orientations have always been part of the human race, of course, but societal pressures made it uncommon to be publicly identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual throughout much of history, particularly within Christianity. The lesbian nun affair in 17th century Catholic Italy is a rare exception that deserves attention in modern studies of history.
Benedetta Carlini was born in the early 1600’s from a middle-class Italian family which helped her join a convent of Catholic nuns at a young age. She claimed to be gifted with experiencing spiritual visions and revelations, and this made her stand out in the convent compared to the other nuns.
With her “abilities”, Carlini was made “abess”, or leader, among the nuns at age 30, which was considered young for an abess. Her status was called into question, however, when she claimed to be having disturbing visions of men chasing her. Out of concern, the nuns assigned Sister Bartolemea to watch over her. But these two nuns would develop a bond that would become a scandalous affair in Reformation-era Catholic Italy.
Meanwhile, the Pope and the greater Catholic church took interest in Carlini and her supposed spiritual visions. The church’s stance at the time was less a matter of being impressed by Carlini, but fearful of how it would reflect on the church, and skeptical of her claims to divine communication.
When church officials questioned Sister Bartolemea, she confessed that she and Carlini were lovers, and that they would experience shared visions during erotic sexual encounters with each other.
With the lesbian affair coming to light, and her supposed egotistical manner, they found her actions to be closer associated the Devil than with God. Sister Carlini was stripped of her title and imprisoned for 35 years. She died in 1661, and her lover, Sister Bartolemea died one year earlier.
Some claim that had Carlini been born at an earlier time when the sentiments of the church were different, she might have been revered by the church and even achieved sainthood.
Nevertheless, the story of Benedetta Carlini is one that intrigues scholars, as it is not only a rare example of a recorded homosexual relationship within a convent, but one with a figure that stands out as such a unique and ambitious young woman.