In the late 1970s, the historian Judith Brown was researching the Medici family when she came upon a mysterious seventeenth-century ecclesiastical investigation. The subject was Mother Superior Benedetta Carlini, an Italian Catholic nun accused of being a heretic and of having sexual relations with another women in her convent, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli.

Looking back, Brown said she was “blown away by the stuff I was reading in the primary sources” because of “the whole idea of transgressing boundaries, it was all over the piece: the transgressive sexual acts, transgressing the role of a nun, transgressing the role of a woman.”

A few years of research resulted in Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Now, more than three decades later, she is consulting on “Blessed Virgin,” a movie adaptation of Carlini’s life directed by the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven and set for release in 2019.

When it was released, Immodest Acts incited controversy over the use of the word lesbian during a time when the concept of two women being in a romantic or sexual relationship was unfathomable. As Carlini’s life was documented by the male ecclesiastical inquisitors who built a case against her, it’s difficult to separate fiction from fact. But for Brown and others writing about the women often forgotten to history, it’s nevertheless important to open up questions of sex among women, to tell stories often left out of the historical narrative.

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Carlini was born in 1590 to a middle-class family from Vellano, a mountain village. Her birth and childhood had “a fairylike quality about them,” as Brown wrote in Immodest Acts, since she almost didn’t make it. Carlini and her mother almost died in labor. It was believed her father’s prayers saved them. She was named Benedetta—blessed—a name that signified her future religious life. This path was common, a way of avoiding expensive dowries and securing a young woman’s safety: As much as ten percent of the adult female population lived in convents.

However, the historian E. Ann Matter, who focuses on the study of Christianity in the middle ages and early modern periods, said in an interview that “the whole view of monasteries being a prison I think is really exaggerated. A monastic life was a very moderate life.”

Nuns often achieved a higher level of education than secular women, including learning to read and write. Brian Levack, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, whose research focuses on witchcraft, said this education allowed them to read about other cases of possession, which potentially influenced their own ecclesiastical experiences.

Carlini’s abilities appeared at a young age. She scared off a black dog and commanded a nightingale to stop singing (it did). When she was 9 years old, Carlini was sent to the Theatines, a new group of women in the process of receiving papal permission to form a convent. In Pescia, a nearby town with a bustling economy and an increasing population, Carlini’s abilities revealed themselves when a statue of the Virgin Mary fell toward her while she was praying.

Marian apparitions (which still happen regularly today) were often connected to saints and reflected a certain maturity as Carlini adapted to religious life. In 1613, she reported visions to the mother superior and father confessor. A young boy helped her climb the “Mountain of Perfection;” she was surrounded by wild animals, only to be saved by Jesus Christ. As Brown argued, whether mystical experiences are viewed as “psychological or divine revelations, or as psychological responses to fasting,” their content “discloses the mystic’s deepest spiritual concerns.” Carlini was clearly attempting to leave behind the comforts of the material world to reach a spiritual realm.

Levack added that one common interpretation of demoniacs is that “they are engaged in a cultural performance. They’re all following scripts that are encoded in their religious culture.” Still, given the thin line between demonic and divine interventions (as Levack put it), Carlini was careful. Women especially were considered weaker than men and hence more susceptible to evil spirits.

Visions had theological grounding and pedagogical value, but during this period of upheaval—both within the Church and without, i.e., from Protestants—religious authorities suppressed charismatic experiences and the mystics behind them. Consequently, Carlini turned to penitence and humility to avoid charges of vanity for her supposed connection with God. In fact, female saints often prayed for God’s love to show through suffering, rather than pleasure. Carlini herself began experiencing debilitating, undiagnosable pain, which anchored the spiritual anguish she was feeling in the physical world. Her visions matched: Attractive young men beat her almost to death and tried to corrupt her soul.

To help battle her demons, she was appointed an attendant, Sister Bartolomea Crivelli, who would play an important role in Carlini’s eventual undoing. The mother superior and confessor believed that Carlini would cement the convent’s credibility in the larger religious community, and the stigmata Carlini received a few months later proved her authority. Although visions weren’t unusual, receiving the holy wounds of Christ was a rarer and more significant occurrence. The first recorded case of stigmata was the famed saint Francis of Assisi, who found five marks on his body in 1224.

Carlini was elected abbess and delivered sermons, usually while the nuns were whipping themselves as part of their religious devotion. Arguably, it was only because she was in an altered state of consciousness that she was allowed this privilege. Carlini achieved recognition and gained a public forum “when there weren’t many other outlets for them to express their religious vocation,” Brown said in the interview. Visions were a form of self-expression and self-empowerment that complied with gender hierarchies and the existing social system.

However, Carlini’s visions became increasingly extravagant, pushing the boundaries of cultural acceptance. In one, Jesus placed her heart in his chest, an occurrence verified by Sister Bartolomea. Later, Christ gave her his heart, surrounded by a group of saints. Brown highlighted the concept of heart-sharing as part of popular culture, especially in the context of the “increased emphasis on the human, male Christ, which enabled to transform carnal into spiritual love.”

This led Carlini’s dedication to grow stronger. She fasted and was given a guardian angel, Splenditello, a handsome boy who punished her by striking her with thorns or praised her with the touch of flowers. Her suffering bore fruit. Jesus asked her to marry him on the day of the Holy Trinity. Mystical marriages, an earthly and spiritual phenomenon, were not uncommon: Carlini might have been inspired by her favorite saint, Catherine of Sienna.

Carlini’s marriage captivated the convent, as nuns decorated the chapel following her specific instructions. But when the day of the ceremony came, only Carlini saw Christ, who spoke through the abbess. Attendees were incredulous, especially as it was common knowledge that many female visionaries faked their visions, particularly when there was no tangible evidence.

The lack of physical signs and Christ’s overzealous praise were the impetus for the first investigation into Carlini’s religious status. She played along, leading a parade through Pescia following a vision in which Christ threatened to plague the town. The corroboration of her sisters and the appearance of what seemed to be a wedding band supported her case. After two months and 14 convent visits, the investigation was over.

“Benedetta’s attitude was appropriate for a divinely inspired visionary,” Brown wrote in Immodest Acts. “She was reticent toward her mystical experiences and she repeatedly expressed a continued desire to obey her superiors and to shun publicity.”

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Carlini continued a normal, albeit double life as an abbess and mystic maintaining the administrative and spiritual demands of the convent. Her visions took on an even more macabre quality: She died and went to Purgatory, only to be brought back to life by confessor Father Paolo Ricordati. But the tension within the Theatine convent—particularly around Carlini’s increasing power—caught the attention of a new papal nuncio in Florence, who sent officials to investigate.

In their report, investigators critiqued Carlini’s “immodest and lascivious language,” and “the great display of vanity” that was her mystical marriage. Even her fellow sisters turned on her, detailing how she faked the stigmata and wedding band. But the most damning was the confession of Bartolomea Crivelli. She described a more than two year long affair during which the women met frequently, both at night and in Carlini’s study, under the guise of teaching Crivelli to read. Carlini would start “kissing her as if she were a man, she would speak words of love to her. And she would stir on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves.”

purgatory painting
An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, by Ludovico Carracci, 1610 (via Wikimedia Commons)

This revelation was so shocking that the scribe’s handwriting became illegible. It wasn’t the concept of nuns as sexual beings. There were many examples of relations between nuns and men, particularly religious fathers. Even sex between men was understood as part of the historical literary canon. But, according to Brown, “Europeans’ view of human sexuality was phallocentric—women might be attracted to men and men might be attracted to men but there was nothing in a woman that could long sustain the sexual desires of another woman.”

When deciding how to persecute the women, investigators debated how to interpret their actions: was it mollitia (mutual masturbation) or did it reach female sodomy? Like Crivelli, the cunning Carlini blamed her visions, and transgressions, on demonic possession.

“This shift required a less drastic restructuring of self-perception and social identity than any other alternative,” Brown wrote. “Because she was deceived by the devil, she could not be fully accountable for her actions.”

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The only further documentation of Carlini is an August 1661 note in an unnamed nun’s diary stating that Carlini died at 71 of fever and colic pains after 35 years in prison. The nun added that Carlini was “always popular among the laity.” In truth, Carlini suffered a relatively minor punishment: If charged with sodomy, she and Crivelli could’ve been burned at the stake. There’s no evidence Crivelli was even imprisoned. Consequently, it was arguably Carlini’s religious and cultural clout—and less her sexuality—that influenced her punishment.

In death, Carlini was still revered. Before her burial, the church doors were barred to avoid a mob. Townspeople wished to see and touch the body, or even take a part with them, like a saint’s relic. But Carlini most likely would have been lost to history if not for Brown’s discovery.

“The story Brown recounts is unique in that it has survived; we may suspect that it was not unique in its occurrence, but we do not know,” wrote the sociologist Ruth Mazo Karras in her review of Immodest Acts in the July 1987 issue of the American Journal of Sociology. Brown agreed she was in “terra incognita,” writing about lesbians during an era when any form of female sensuality was largely unfathomable.

“What surprised me was the confusion about sexual acts and also biology,” Brown told me. “They didn’t think of people in terms of sexual identities. But certainly the sexual acts were considered sinful, against nature.”

Brown also received a range of reactions to the word “lesbian,” as the first recorded use of that label wasn’t until 1890 (by the American surgeon and librarian John Shaw Billings in the National Medical Dictionary).

Matter (the historian) said that female intercourse of the sort recorded between Carlini and Crivelli is “a long way from being what we would call today lesbian.” She added that before the nineteenth century, women wrote so few of their own narratives, “it’s very hard to know how they really felt about things, and it’s kind of dangerous to transpose on them modern ideas about sexuality.”

Others, such as Edward Muir in the June 1988 issue of The American Historical Review, argued Brown overemphasized the role of sexuality in Carlini’s life.

Brown pushed back on this “certain Puritanism about the use of the word lesbian,” adding that she used the term to separate Carlini from “the dozens of other stories of religious women who had mystical visions.” She explained that historians use “democracy” to describe places like ancient Greece where slavery was common and the definition of citizen was narrow. “And yet when it comes to women’s sexual acts, we become very strict about definitions.” She also speculated that if her book came out now, Carlini’s sexuality might be more accepted.

“I think we are more attuned to the fluidity of sexual identity,” she said. “I also think we have a more complex sense of the relationship between sexual acts and sexual identities.” Consequently, she said, historians must have a “double consciousness” in understanding the world as their subjects did. “You can’t be judging the object of your study by using the values and mores of your own time.”

This also explains why Brown is excited for Paul Verhoeven’s film, even if he takes creative liberties. Blessed Virgin will star Virginie Efira as Benedetta Carlini and Daphne Patakia as Bartolomea Crivelli. Brown joined the cast at the recent Cannes Film Festival. Although she said the movie departs from the ecclesiastical documents she found so many years ago, it touches on broader themes of religion and sexuality and will bring Carlini’s story to a large audience.

Whether saint or heretic, lesbian or not, Carlini represents the calculated performance a woman had to put on to be listened to and respected, and how quickly that fragile status could be taken away. But as Brown wrote in the final sentences of Immodest Acts: “In the end, Benedetta triumphed. She had left her mark on the world and neither imprisonment nor death could silence her.”

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Signs, Vol. 9, No. 4, The Lesbian Issue (Summer, 1984), pp. 751-758
The University of Chicago Press
American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 93, No. 1 (Jul., 1987), pp. 234-236
The University of Chicago Press
The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Jun., 1988), pp. 731-732
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association