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When interviewing authors of historical fiction for the podcast, one of things that come up regularly is that people have a hard time finding research on what, specifically, women in earlier ages were doing in bed together. But both sexual practices and attitudes towards them are strongly influenced by culture. Imagination alone isn't a good guide to sex any more than it is to cuisine or clothing. Today's podcast takes a look at the types of documentary evidence we have for specific sexual techniques and practices, and what they tell us about medieval European women's sexual lives.

When I was putting together my main podcast essay for this month, on details of lesbian sexual techniques as given in sources like penitential manuals, I realized that I already owned this book but had never blogged it. I was somewhat disappointed to discover how heavily excerpted it was, making it rather less useful for my purposes than I thought, particularly in relation to the podcast. That means that at some point I should track down the full texts of some of the penitential manuals that I know have relevant information. Still, it was on the list and now it's been done.

This book isn't in-depth in context or details, given the purpose for which it was put together. And it is sometimes generously inclusive in subject matter, straining the limits of solid evidence. But what better place to look for lots of portraits of women in Boston Marriages than a book on the history of lesbians and gay men in Boston? I only wish this blog could show you some of the photographs of female couples--going back to the mid-19th century--who we know to have been in romantic relationships with each other.

Can you know a lesbian when you see one? What characteristics did people in early modern Spain think a lesbian would have? And what did that say about how they conceived of sexual orientation? The concluding chapter to Velasco's book covers an assortment of loosely-connected topics having to do with visual signifiers. It's interesting how old the trope of the "masculine-looking ugly lesbian" is.

In the research I read though for this project, I regularly come across references to pieces of historic literature that come tantalizingly close to being positive queer stories. A few of them have been added to my "to write" list where I want to tweak them ever so slightly to overcome the deficiencies of the past. Aragón's play Añasco el de Talavera is one of those tantalizing near-misses, with its open homoerotic desire and the "mannish" woman who has the power to order people's lives within the story.

The image of Spanish convent life in the age of colonial expansion often overlooks the social consequences of convents being the sole alternative to marriage for women of good birth and good reputation. That meant that a lot of the nuns were educated, sophisticated, and relatively lacking in religious vocation. Convent rules tried to find a middle gound between the ideals of exclusive devotion to God and the recognition that they were dealing with a lot of young women who were lonely and desperate for affection.

The blog comes around again to Catalina de Erauso, who kicked off the current thematic grouping. It's an odd trio: Catalina the cross-dressing soldier of fortune in the New World, Eleno de Cespedes the transgender doctor who began life as a slave, and Queen Christina of Sweden who became the darling of the Spanish aristocracy (at long distance) when she decided to convert from Lutheranism to Catholicism--a decision that made them willing to overlook her long-rumored romantic relationships with women. And I am now imagining a buddy movie...

This week I'm talking with Bella Books author Genevieve Fortin about her recent release Water's Edge, involving Canadian immigrants to New England in the late 19th century. Genevieve talks about how local and family history inspired her to write this story.

Listen to the podcast here at the Lesbian Talk Show site, or subscribe through your favorite podcast aggregator, such as iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher.

I've titled the first-week-of-the-month round-up podcast "On the Shelf" as a bit of a pun. On the one hand, it's referring to what books I have "on the shelf" to be covered in the blog, or talked about with our guest author. But it was also a term in the 19th century for a woman who was still unmarried at an age when society considered her too old to be an eligible bride. And, of course, a certain number of the women who were "on the shelf" were avoiding marriage to a man very deliberately.

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