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Beyond England, France, and Italy

Monday, July 17, 2017 - 07:00

One of the regular challenges to understanding the history of lesbians, even in as defined a scope as Europe, is the accessibility of the literature--not just the languages of the primary sources, but the languages in which research is published. I will freely confess that my own access is largely limited to material published in English, though I can work my way through a German article if need be. This means that every once in a while, I can be surprised by the wealth of information covering a topic that falls outside the usual England-France-Italy focus of English language publications, when I've previously only seen bits and cross-references that hint at what's out there.

I knew of Sherry Velasco's work on Catalina de Erauso in popular culture, but only stumbled across this title by chance when searching for something else online. This is one reason why I hunt through bibliographies to see what other publications might be out there waiting for me. (And, of course, why I spend a lot of time in the book sales room at the annual Kalamazoo medieval studies conference.) If you have an image of early modern Spain--the era of the Inquisition and the Armada and Spanish dominance throughout much of Catholic Europe--as being an unlikely place to find lesbians, this books should open your eyes as it did mine.

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Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 1: Introduction

The identification of forbidden female homoerotic activity in early modern Spain is hampered by the deliberately vague language with which it is identified. When a “miraculous” crucifix supposedly tattled on two trysting nuns in the early 17th century, the phrase put into its voice was simply that the two were “offending me.” Similarly, in 1603 when Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma were arrested for female sodomy in Salamanca, the accusations came in descriptions of the sounds of passion heard through a wall and not a declaration of specific acts.

Representations of female homoeroticism in this era range from the publicly notorious, such as Catalina de Erauso and Queen Christina of Sweden [*], to those treated as criminal, as with Inés and Catalina Ledesma. That range of representations is the topic of this study.

[*] It may seem odd to treat Queen Christina of Sweden as relevant to a discussion of Spain, but she had strong ties to several Spanish individuals, especially in the context of her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, and was consequently a figure of interest there.

The historic texts under study here often focus on the presence or absence of specific acts. But the picture that emerges is not a simple “acts vs. identity” dichotomy, as Foucault would have it. Velasco chooses to use the word “lesbian” in this book, not only because of evidence for a concept of specific romantic/erotic interests, but because it is less anachronistic than “homosexual” or “homoerotic”. In 16th century France, Brantôme was using “lesbian” in a homoerotic sense, just as Chorier was in the 17th century. When playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca wrote a play based on the life of Queen Christina, he named her lady in waiting “Lesbia” with a wink and nod to Christina’s reputation, and included a motif of proposed same-sex marriage. Velasco spends a couple of pages rehearsing the usual debate over terminology in books on this history of gender and sexuality, and points out the markedness with which only non-heterosexual concepts have their terminology hedged about and policed.

Within historic documents, the absence of mention of lesbian-related topics can itself suggest meaning, as when writers such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and María de Zayas omit mention of Sappho as a literary antecedent in contexts where such an omission is notable. The absence suggests the possibility that they were anxious about how their own same-sex relations with friends and mentors were viewed.

Even when the topic of lesbianism is danced around with vagueness, the texts being studied here have no lack of language to convey female homoerotic activities. Velasco list the following: somética (sodomite), bujarrona (female sodomite), cañita (little cane), donna con donna (woman with woman), marimacho (butch), medio hombre y mujer (half man-half woman), incuba (partner who lies on top), succuba (partner who lies underneath), subigatrice (dominator, one who bounces up and down), bellaca baldresera (dildo-wearing scoundrel), terms equivalent to “tribade”, “fricatrice”, “rubster”, “Sahacat” (originally from Arabic), “Lesbian”, as well as more allusive phrases such as amistades particulares (particular friendships), “fruitless love”, “love without reward”, “not the marrying type”, “like man and woman”, “[women] making themselves into roosters”, and so forth. One somewhat telling term was the Latin peccatum mutum “silent sin”, specifically highlighting the approach of erasure by un-naming.

Velasco’s work seeks to demonstrate that representations both of romantic and erotic love between women were visible and accessible to all types of women in early modern Spain. These works not only discussed specific acts, but assumed a “type” of woman who participated in them, whether in fictional works or real life. Early modern Spanish legal writers were considered to be the “experts” in Europe on female homoerotic activity. The evidence suggests that this expertise was not merely a theoretical exercise but existed within a culture with an open interest in the topic.

Examples of this interest can be seen in the 16th century novel La Celestina in which lesbian acts are seen as part of the initiation of a prostitute, works that include erotic encounters between women, such as the pastoral novel La Diana and the chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanc, or the novellas of María de Zayas. Popular plays went beyond the erotic implications of cross-dressed women to include female homoerotic desire outside that context. And real life “celebrity” could be conferred by individuals who challenged categories of gender and sexuality, such as Catalina de Erauso “the Lieutenant Nun” and the physician Elena/Eleno de Céspedes who was charged with sodomy and bigamy after marrying while living as a man. Saint Teresa of Avila warned of the erotic potential of “particular friendships” in convents, and the truth of this concern can be found in correspondence between nuns as well as personal memoirs of convent life. Court records of prosecutions reflect a complex understanding of lesbian potentials that went beyond a simple division between legal and illegal acts.

Within all this, there is often an ignorance demonstrated by male writers of “what women can do together” apart from a vague understanding of mutual masturbation or an assumption of the imitation of heterosexual penetrative sex. It isn’t always clear whether this is genuine ignorance or a deliberate avoidance of specifics to avoid “giving women ideas” (an avoidance that is sometimes explicit in penitential manuals). But clearly the absence of such detail shouldn’t be presumed to imply an absence of activity.

The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the topics covered in the remaining chapters.

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