Trigger warning: Violent sexual assault, homophobia, torture, disgusting abuses of history, lesbian wrath
When the medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw named her book Getting Medieval she was referencing the famous line from the film Pulp Fiction (1994). Specifically, this line is spoken by Marsellus Wallace in a scene with overt homophobic implications. After being raped by a man in a S/M dungeon, he tells his rapist that he is “gonna git Medieval on [his] ass” (183-185).
In the more recent film Benedetta (2021) directed by Paul Verhoeven, there is yet another dungeon and another invitation to think about what it means to get medieval on the big screen. It is rare to have historical records of women-loving-women as detailed as those available to us in the records of the trial of seventeenth-century nun Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661). These records were found, studied, and translated into a beautiful novel by Judith C. Brown in 1986. It is rare to have records like these and the film adaptation turns it into 2 hours and 11 minutes of sadomasochistic lesbian porn for the cis-het male gaze. This is perhaps not surprising from the man who brought us the homophobic, sexually violent Basic Instinct. Don’t get me wrong, I love a kinky nun, but only on consensual terms between nuns.
I had been warned about Benedetta, but would not in my worst assumptions about Verhoeven and this film have imagined the scene in the dungeon wherein getting medieval is used as an excuse to show homophobic rape at the hands of an imaginary torture device. Strictly speaking, Benedetta actually lived during the Renaissance, but this film is strictly interested in a ‘dark medievalism’ aesthetic. From the skeleton jesters, stakes, gothic buildings, paraded crucifixes, flagellating devotees, plague-ridden bodies, and torture chambers (in convent basements nonetheless) it sets a specific scene, but it’s not a historical one. The device used in the dungeon scene itself seems to be a conflation of a sixteenth-century poire d’angoisse (pear of agony) that was perhaps put by robbers into the mouths of their targets and the nineteenth-century ‘choke-pear’ both of foggy origins and largely modern fabrications. Certainly, as argued by Chris Bishop, such a device was not used for torture in a ‘medieval’ dungeon to rape a naked, soaking wet lesbian nun. Even mechanically, that’s not how these devices work, but Verhoeven was evidently disinterested in his source material. He wasn’t even interested in the woman or the book he based the film on:
- Benedetta was never tied to a burning stake
- There are no records of dramatic suicides
- Benedetta had more agency than she’s given in the film (shocking, I know) and actually initiated her relationship with Bartolomea
- There was no Virgin Mary dildo in the trial record and actually only non-penetrative sex is recorded (but gotta have that lesbian phallus, right?)
- We have absolutely no record of Bartolomea being stripped naked and raped in a medieval dungeon for her confession and the nuncio actually never came to Pescia
Verhoeven is also disinterested in the realities of lesbian sex. It isn’t that I don’t fancy a Virgin Mary dildo every once in a while, but the idea that Benedetta’s lover (Bartolomea) could not satisfy her fully because Benedetta wanted it “deeper” and her hand couldn’t fit thus leading to a need for a phallic object is like a scene from the worst lesbian porn for cis-heterosexual men I could imagine (an effect heightened by the blonde balayage and immaculately groomed pubes that Verhoeven’s Benedetta manages to acquire and maintain while running a convent in seventeenth-century Italy). I don’t know any woman who would get off on that detached penetrative scene and frankly the idea that her hand wouldn’t fit gives absolutely zero credit to the vagina as an organ. Does Verhoeven know what the vagina can do? And does he know how many women can orgasm through only penetrative sex? Evidently, research was lacking on all fronts.
I mostly needed to write this out so that I could get back to my life, but if you’ve made this far then thank you for reading and don’t go see this film (buy a lesbian a drink instead, she needs it).
Please, lesbian directors everywhere: retell this story, and for the love of sweet sapphic jesus, hire a consultant.
Bishop, Chris. “The ‘pear of Anguish’: Truth, Torture and Dark Medievalism.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 17, no. 6 (2014): 591–602.
Brown, Judith. Immodest Acts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.