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French Sexual Vocabulary of the 16th Century

Monday, January 29, 2018 - 07:00

The next three LHMP entries are all taken from the collection Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, which focuses on linguistic data and analysis. I'd picked the book up back in my linguistics grad school days, so it wasn't shelved with my gender and sexuality books and I hadn't realized it had relevant articles until I saw the title in a bibliography I was mining and said, "Hey, wait, I think I own that book!" The first two of the articles definitely show some limitations from the authors not having a deep historical background. I may be being a little unfair--looking at the date of publication, a lot of the significant work on the history of sexuality that I take for granted now hadn't been published yet. This particular article has a rather intriguing glossary of terms associated with queer sexuality in French, although anyone planning to use them in historic fiction would do well to understand the more complex and non-sexual uses of the words as well.

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Conner, Randy P. 1997. “Les Molles et les chausses: Mapping the Isle of Hermaphrodites in Premodern France” in Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia & Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510471-4

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A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.

Connor, Randy P. “Les Molles et les chausses: Mapping the Isle of Hermaphrodites in Premodern France”

This paper starts with a rather poetic framing of the French language of sexuality in the 16th century as “cornucopian in abundance”. The general theme is that this is an era when popular and slang terminology for same-sex and gender-transgressive behavior reflected this sense of expansive abundance in its variability and prevalence.

There is a brief review of various myths of same-sex origins know in 16th century France, such as neo-Platonic interpretations of Plato’s “other half” myth. This is followed by a discussion of the varied and shifting meanings of “sodomite”. The article explores contexts in which “sodomite” is narrowed to cover specifically same-sex activity, including the account by Henri Estienne where he applies it to women. There is a focus on contexts where male and female same-sex activity were treated equivalently. Next there is a consideration of terms that distinguished “active” and “passive” participants, focusing primarily on men, especially the origins and uses of “bardache”.

Vocabulary used for female same-sex relations is taken from Montaigne’s journal and from Brantôme, who provides a wealth of examples including tribade, lesbienne, fricarelle, fricatrice, as well as terms for the sex act such as “donna con donna”. Brantôme specifically uses “lesbienne” for women in same-sex relationships, not only in reference to France but elsewhere in Europe as well as in Turkey. He also equates it with “fricarelle”, a derivative of Latin “fricatrix”. There is a list of historic women from classical to Renaissance times thought by the early modern French to have had lesbian relations (from authors such as Juvenal, Martial, Lucian, Brantôme, and Sappho).

There is an extensive discussion of the terminology of male same-sex relations in naval contexts, including piracy. There was a French perception that same-sex relations were introduced to France from Italy, especially by the court of Catherine de Medici. Court life was generally associated with cross-gender behavior and gender transgression. The article concludes with a list of the terminology discussed in the article with contextual definitions, although it should be understood that the sexual sense may not have been the primary meaning of the words.

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