Katherina Hetzeldorfer c. 1477 Germany
gouache on paper, 11 x 7 inches
In the collection of the Davis Museum at Wellesley College

Katherina Hetzeldorfer was tried, and then drowned in the Rhine, for a crime that didn’t have a name in 1477.

Hetzeldorfer had moved to the city of Speier, Germany, from Nuremberg with a woman who, during the trial, Hetzeldorfer claimed was a sister. They had lived in Speier for two years before Hetzeldorfer was arrested. The two had apparently confided in members of the community, describing the nature of their relationship as being like that of a husband and wife. After intense cross-examination, Hetzeldorfer revealed that the woman was not a sibling, but that they had had a long-standing sexual relationship. (Hetzeldorfer’s wife may have escaped, because her words are not recorded in the trial transcripts.)

Female witnesses who claimed to have been seduced by Hetzeldorfer described him/her as “being like a man in both physique and behavior, a sexually aggressive character and a potent lover.”Hetzeldorfer and these witnesses were made to describe in detail how it was that Hetzeldorfer acted like a man; their answers included the description of the use of an “instrument” and how it was made: “with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round.” It was the use of this “instrument,” combined with Hetzeldorfer’s gender transgressions, that led to death by drowning, a particularly demeaning sentence reserved for women.


Puff, Helmut.  “Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477).”  Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 30.1 (2000): 41-61. 

---.  Sodomy in Reformation Germany and Switzerland, 1400-1600.  University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Rupp, Leila J. Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women. New York University Press, 2009.