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 from Nuremberg with a woman who, during the trial, Hetzeldorfer said was a sister. They had lived in Speier for two years before Hetzeldorfer was arrested. They had apparently confided in members of the community describing the nature of their relationship like that of a husband and wife. After intense cross examination Hetzeldorfer revealed that the woman was not a sibling but that they had a long standing sexual relationship. (Hetzeldorfer’s wife may have escaped, because she was not heard from in the trial transcripts)

Hetzeldorfer was described by female witnesses who claimed to have been seduced by him/her as “being like a man in both physique and behavior, a sexually aggressive character and a potent lover.” Hetzeldorfer and witnesses were made to describe in detail how it was that Hetzeldorfer acted like a man including describing 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 lead 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.