Let’s start this series with some ordinary women. Nobody special: they weren’t scandalous aristocrats or dashing adventurers or women who set out to transgress the rules of society. All they did was love each other. Perhaps not wisely, perhaps not always well.
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.
In last week's post, I lamented that I'm increasingly finding less new material in general medieval works such as this. But I was able to extract three new publications to track down from this book: two on pairs of women buried together with a common memorial (where it's clear they aren't family members), and one on the source of an anecdote I've been seeing references to for many years. This last is a description of a group of women showing up at a tournament dressed as men to take part in the activities.
I'm somewhat torn between disappointment and smug satisfaction at how very little material there is in books like this that I'm not already aware of (and, indeed, that I haven't already covered in their original publications). Disappointment, because it suggests that there are few new treasures waiting for me to find for the medieval period. Smug satisfaction, because it suggests that I've been doing a good job at tracking down all the essential publications. This is a book that I would strongly recommend for anyone wanting a basic grounding in medieval attitudes toward sex and sexuality.
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.