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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 273 – Turkish Delights: The European Fascination with Lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire

Saturday, November 18, 2023 - 11:54

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 273 - Turkish Delights: The European Fascination with Lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/11/18 - listen here)


I’ve long wanted to do a show focusing on the peculiar fascination that early modern Europe had for the image of lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire. This is a topic that I’ve touched on in a number of previous shows, including episodes about lesbian stereotypes associated with racialized groups, and with lesbianism in single-sex communities, as well as other briefer references. In addition to looking at how this image developed and the historic context that gave it a deeper meaning, I’ve wanted to trace the connections between various early travelers’ descriptions that fed into this European stereotype.

This is not necessarily an episode about sexuality and sexual practices within the early modern Islamicate world, which is a different topic. But as background it can be useful to keep in mind that European attitudes toward homosexuality derive significantly from Christian attitudes toward sex, coming out of a deep-rooted asceticism that was suspicious of any erotic activity that could not be excused as procreation. In contrast, while the Islamic world included a wide variety of attitudes toward sex and pleasure, the moral and ethical frameworks that shaped them were different. There had been a long history of relatively neutral—or sometimes positive—attitudes toward female homoeroticism in the medieval Islamicate world that had no parallel in European culture. While there is a shift to more uniformly negative attitudes by the early modern period, it can be difficult to trace a clear timeline, not only due to the scarcity of documentation on the topic, but because those historic sources that do exist can be difficult for scholars to access due to current Islamic attitudes toward homosexuality among the institutions that control access to the texts.

But as I said, this is an episode about European beliefs and attitudes, and for that we need to begin with a brief overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire and its relations with Europe.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was an extensive political entity, centered around modern-day Turkey, that had its roots in the 14th century and existed in some form or another into the early 20th century. At its greatest geographic extent in the 16th and 17th centuries, it included Turkey, significant portions of the Near East including modern Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, stretching along the Mediterranean coastline as far as Algeria, and also including Greece, and areas roughly equivalent to the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine. In the early 16th century, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent—known in Europe as “the Great Turk”—made it as far as laying siege to Vienna, though he never took the city. The Ottoman Empire saw itself as the heir to the Byzantine Roman Empire, referring to its citizens collectively as “Romans” and setting its capital in Constantinople.

All this is to say that during the same period that Christian European nations saw themselves as emerging world powers in the realms of trade and colonization, they were literally next door neighbors to a vast Islamic empire whose power and influence could not be ignored or denied. European contacts in this era with other powers such as India and China played similar havoc with European illusions of cultural superiority, but those powers were not on the European doorstep.

After several centuries in which the dominant interactions were hostile, by the 16th century, European powers were coming to grips with the need to have solid diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. In this century, we have a profusion of writings by European diplomats and travelers, describing and commenting on what they saw and experienced in Constantinople and the rest of the empire. These commentaries are a mixture of admiration, curiosity, and no small admixture of smug superiority. But the writers could not dismiss Ottoman society as being insignificant, primitive, or uncultured. And this, I think, is one of the key underpinnings of European perceptions of female homoeroticism within Ottoman society generally, and especially within the culture of the harem.

Although the basics of European and Ottoman attitudes toward the place of women in society were not fundamentally different—women were in general viewed as lesser beings and were constrained as to their social freedoms and legal rights, though individual women might wield significant economic and political power—but Europeans found the superficial differences striking and noteworthy. The prevalence of polygamy among high-status men, the seclusion of women from contact with men outside their immediate family, the lack of a context in which men and women socialized freely. These factors, combined with popular beliefs about women’s sex drives and how they might be fulfilled among secluded women, led to a prurient curiosity about exactly what women might be doing together in those harems.

This would seem to be a second key factor in the fixation on Turkey as a locus of female homoeroticism. European men had no direct access to the personal lives of Ottoman women—especially high status women—and had strong preconceptions about what might predispose women to homosexual activity, especially lack of access to male company. In contrast to perceptions based on gender segregation, many Turkish women—especially those of the sultan’s household—wielded significant social and economic power within their own households and even extending beyond them. These mysteries and contradictions no doubt gave free rein to European imaginations.

Of course, given the traditionally more sex-positive attitudes in the Islamicate world, that prurient curiosity likely had substance to work with. But the result was a developing myth of rampant lesbianism in Turkish harems and bathhouses that continues to color Orientalist fantasies to the present day.

But let’s move on to exactly what those travelers and ambassadors recorded to share with their countrymen back home.

The Travelogues

I’ll split this discussion into two groups: the primary texts written by people who actually travelled to the Ottoman Empire (though there may be valid questions about whether they were recording first-hand observations), and then later texts that reflect the mythic image as it developed.

With respect to images of female homoeroticism, we’ll trace two major themes and two specific anecdotes. One theme is lesbianism among the women of the sultan’s seraglio. The “seraglio” as the term is used in the historic sources, refers to the sultan’s personal residence in its entirety, only a portion of which housed the women of the household. These women included not only the sultan’s wives and concubines, but all the female servants attending on them and a significant number of women being trained and educated to serve as resources for the sultan’s political engineering. There was a separate establishment known as the “old seraglio” that housed widowed sultanas, exiled former favorites, as well as the sultan’s sisters and daughters. Accounts often focused closely on these two households due to their association with the sultan and because they represented the ultimate in “forbidden women”. Discussions of lesbian activity within the household focus specifically on these.

The second locus of interest is the public baths. Travelers’ tales show fascination with the Turkish bath as a social institution, some comparing it to the function of coffee houses or taverns as a meeting place. Gender segregation in the baths might involve separate locations or more commonly involved designated times of day for men or women. While European observers comment on both male and female homosexuality, descriptions of the baths are more likely to mention female homosexuality than male activity.

It may be relevant that writers appear to mention one or the other of these locations, but not both. This may have to do with the specific interests of the writer: whether the court or general society.

The two specific anecdotes are, in part, what first drew my attention to the recycling of content among these accounts. One that I call the “cucumber anecdote” first appears in the account of Venetian ambassador Ottaviano Bon, and then is repeated to be rejected by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier a century later. The second anecdote that I call “the old women falls in love at the baths” is first related by Flemish traveler Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, also repeated by Tavernier a century later, and then quoted with attribution even later in the English polemical tract Satan’s Harvest Home.

As Valerie Traub notes, “These exoticizing tales, most of them written during the period when the Ottoman Empire posed a viable military and religious threat to Western Europe (and, incidentally, during the period when high ranking women of the Ottoman dynasty enjoyed a degree of political power and public prominence greater than ever before or after), enable a number of observations about the rhetorics and figures of female-female eroticism in the early modern period.”

With that introduction, let’s do a brief survey of the authors and the lesbian-related content of their accounts. For more extensive excerpts from the original texts, see the blog entries linked in the show notes.

Nicolas de Nicolay

Nicolas de Nicolay was a Frenchman who served in various diplomatic roles in the mid 16th century, including escorting the young Mary Queen of Scots to France for her marriage to the Dauphin, and accompanying the French ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople. On this journey, one of his roles was to make an extensive survey of the lands and peoples he encountered, which was published in French in 1567 as the First Four Books of Navigations, and translated into English two decades later.

Like most of the male authors, Nicolay makes a special note of his lack of direct access to the lives of the women he’s describing, including how, in order to be shown how the women of the court dressed, his contact arranged for a “public woman” (probably meaning a prostitute) to be dressed in the fine clothing for him to see.

After a very extensive description of the men’s baths (including massage practices), he describes women’s bathing practices, whether in a private bath at home or going to the public baths several times a week. He notes that women might use the baths as a cover to making less approved excursions, as they had an absolute right to leave the house for bathing. He follows this comment with the following.

[S]ometimes they do go ten or twelve of them together, and sometimes more in a company, as well Turks as Grecians, and do familiarly wash one another, whereby it cometh to pass, that amongst the women of Levan, there is very great amity proceding only thro’ the frequentation and resort to the bathes: yea and sometimes become so fervently in love the one of the other, as if it were with men, in such sort, that perceiving some maiden or woman of excellent beauty they will not cease until they have found means to bathe with them, and to handle and grope them every where at their pleasures, so full are they of luxuriousness and feminine wantonness: even as in times past were the Tribades, of the number whereof was Sapho the Lesbian, which transferred the love wherewith she pursued an hundred women or maidens, upon her only friend Phaon. And therefore, considering the reasons aforesaid, to wit, the cleansing of their bodies, health, superstition, liberty to go abroad, and lascivious voluptuousness, it is not to be marvelled at, that these baths are so accustomably frequented by the Turks.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

Next we hear from the Flemish scholar Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who was in Constantinople at roughly the same time as Nicolay. Busbecq was named an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and was in Constantinople primarily to negotiate a border treaty. But Busbecq was deeply interested in describing his experiences in an extensive correspondence with friends, which he later collected and published in Latin in a collection titled Turkish Letters in 1581. Unlike Nicolay’s account, it was nearly a century before Busbecq’s book was translated into English in 1694. (I’m focusing on English translations not only because that’s how I accessed the material, but because I’ll be talking about some specifically English resonances in the 18th century.)

Busbecq gives a relatively brief description of the women’s baths and then dives into a very detailed discussion of lesbian activity in them, including the anecdote of the “old woman who fell in love at the baths” which, I warn you, does not have a happy ending.

A Turk hates bodily Filthiness and Nastiness, worse than Soul-Defilement; and, therefore, they wash very often, and they never ease themselves, by going to Stool, but they carry Water with them for their Posteriors. But ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together; so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins.

By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them. But these Offences happen among the ordinary sort; the richer sort of Persons have Baths at home, as I told you before.

It happened one time, that at the public Baths for Women, an old Woman fell in Love with a Girl, the Daughter of a poor Man, a Citizen of Constantinople; and, when neither by wooing nor flattering her, she could obtain that of her which her mad Affection aim’d at, she attempted to perform an Exploit almost incredible; she feign’d herself to be a Man, changed her Habit, hired an House near the Maid’s Father, and pretended she was one of the Chiauxes of the Grand Seignior; and thus, by reason of his Neighbourhood, she insinuated herself into the Man’s Acquaintance, and after some time, acquaints him with the desire of his Daughter. In short, he being a Man in such a prosperous Condition, the Matter was agreed on, a Portion was settled, such as they were able to give, and a Day appointed for the Marriage; when the Ceremonies were over, and this doughty Bridegroom went into the Bride-chamber to his Spouse; after some Discourse, and plucking off her Headgeer, she was found to be a Woman. Whereupon the Maid runs out, and calls up her Parents, who soon found that they had married her, not to a Man, but a Woman: Whereupon, they carried the supposed Man, the next day, to the General of the Janizaries, who, in the Absence of the Grand Seignior, was Governor of the City. When she was brought before him, he chide her soundly for her beastly Love; what, says he, are you not asham’d, an old Beldam as you are, to attempt so notorious a Bestiality, and so filthy a Fact?

Away, Sir, says she! You do not know the Force of Love, and God grant you never may. At this absurd Reply, the Governor could scarce forbear Laughter, but commanded her, presently, to be pack’d away and drown’d in the Deep; such was the unfortunate Issue of her wild Amours. For you must know, that the Turks make no noise when secret Offences are committed by them, that they may not open the Mouths of Scandal and Reproach; but open and manifest ones they punish most severely.

Ottaviano Bon

Ottaviano Bon was a Venetian diplomat, but his time in Constantinople appears to precede his diplomatic career, perhaps in the 1580s. This visit, which may well have been something of an espionage mission, resulted in a detailed Description of the Seraglio of the Great Turk, initially written as a confidential report, but published in Italian around 1606. An English translation appeared (without attribution) in 1625 as part of an extensive multi-volume collection of travel writing.

The following excerpt concerns young women who are servants of the court, rather than the sultanas and the sultan’s concubines, and is somewhat more vague than other writers about the nature of the behavior he is describing.

Now in the Womens lodgings, they live just as the Nunnes doe in their great Monasteries; for, these Virgins have very large Roomes to live in, and their Bed-chambers will hold almost a hundred of them a piece: they sleepe upon Sofaes, which are built long wise on both sides of the Roome, so that there is a large space in the midst for to walke in. Their Beds are very course and hard, and by every ten Virgins there lies an old woman: and all the night long there are many lights burning, so that one may see very plainely throughout the whole Roome; which doth both keepe the young Wenches from wantonnesses, and serve upon any occasion which may happen in the night.

It is unlikely that the “wantonness” referenced here involves men, given the strict seclusion of the women, but it is possible that the concern is for masturbation. This caveat also applies to the following anecdote.

Now it is not lawfull for any one to bring ought in unto them, with which they may commit the deeds of beastly uncleannesse ; so that if they have a will to eate Cucumbers, Gourds, or such like meates, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the meanes of playing the wantons ; for, they all being young, lustie, and lascivious Wenches, and wanting the societie of Men (which would better instruct them) are doubtlesse of themselves inclined to that which is naught, and will be possest with unchast thoughts.

Although Bon is a bit coy on this point, we’ll see in a later version of this same anecdote that others clearly interpreted it as implying a lesbian context.

Thomas Glover

Unlike the other authors discussed in this podcast, Thomas Glover was born and raised in Constantinople. With an English father and Polish mother, he was fluent in Turkish, Greek, and Italian, as well as Polish and English. Around 1600 he served as secretary to two successive English Ambassadors to Constantinople before serving in the role himself. Despite being embedded in the culture, his attitudes toward Ottoman culture feel very similar to those of European visitors.

Glover’s description of the pubic baths, or “bannias,” somewhat confusingly mixes references to men and women, but when he gets around to describing same-sex activity, he gets more specific.

Much unnaturall and filthie lust is said to bee committed daily in the remote closets of the darkesome Bannias: yea, women with women; a thing uncredible, if former times had not given thereunto both detection and punishment.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a French gem merchant and traveller in the 17th century who went as far as India multiple times in pursuit of gemstones. He wrote extensively of the lands he visited—and some he did not—and also produced a treatise A New Relation Of The Inner-Part of The Grand Seignor’s Seraglio based on his time in Constantinople. There is some basis for questioning how much of Tavernier’s work was original observation as opposed to recycled material. He relates versions of both the cucumber anecdote and the “old woman who fell in love at the baths.” These are not exact copies of Busbecq and Bon’s accounts, and could represent stories that were in continued circulation during the half-century since those earlier writers recorded them. But they certainly aren’t original observations, and some of Tavernier’s other travel writing describes countries he never personally visited.

Tavernier offers what may be the most candid picture of the situation of male visitors to Constantinople who wanted to describe women’s lives.

There is not in all Christendome any Monastery of Religious Virgins, how regular and austere soever it may be, the entrance whereof is more strictly forbidden to men, than is that of this Appartment of the Women: insomuch that my white Eunuch, who has supply'd me with so particular a description of the inner part of the Seraglio, could give me no certain information of this Quarter of it, where the Women are lodg'd.

Tavernier clearly connects the “cucumber anecdote” with concerns about lesbian activity, but also claims that it’s a myth based on a misunderstanding of local foodways. Then he relates a version of Busbecq’s story, situating it in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent a half-century before, which matches the era when Busbecq recorded it.

[S]ome of the more ancient Maids are Mistresses over the Younger ones, and are, night and day employ'd in observing their actions, and that their unvoluntary restraint forces them to the same unseemly actions amongst themselves, as the brutish Passions of those Young Men engages them in, whenever they can find the opportunities to commit them. And this presumption has no doubt given occasion to the Fabulous Story, which is related of their being serv'd up with Cucumbers cut into pieces, and not entire, out of a ridiculous fear lest they should put them to undecent uses: they who have forg'd the Story not knowing, that it is the custome in the Levant, to cut the Fruit a-cross, into great thick slices, as I shall make it appear in the Chapter, where I treat of their Gardens. But it is not only in the Seraglio, that that abominable Vice reigns, but it is predominant also in the City of Constantinople, and in all the Provinces of the Empire, and the wicked Example of the Men, who, flighting the natural use of Woman-kind, are mutually enflam'd with a detestable love for one another, unfortunately enclines the Women to imitate them.

Of this, there was a strange instance in the time of Solyman the Magnificent. An old Woman was guilty of such an excess of extravagance, as to put on Man's Cloaths, and to give out, that she had bought a Chiaoux’s place, the better to compass her desire, of obtaining the only Daughter of a Trades-man of Constantinople, with whom she was desperately fallen in love, having made fruitless attempts, by other ways, to satisfie her infamous inclinations. The Father, not suspecting any thing of her wicked intentions, and being withal poor, grants her his Daughter, the Marriage is solemniz'd in the presence of the Cadi, and the imposture having been discover'd the very Wedding-night, the old woman was condemn'd the next day to be thrown into the Sea, there to quench the Gomorrhean Inflammations of her lewd desires. This Story is to this day related in Constantinople, and I have had it from several good hands.

These insatiable salaciousness amongst the Women, are the effects and conferences of the same inclinations in the Men; and the Turks are so much the more execrable and abominable as to this particular, the more they are permitted a plurality of Wives.

Popular Culture

We’ve seen how, from the mid 16th century through the mid 17th century, during the period when the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power, European men visiting Constantinople reported back that Turkish women, segregated socially from all men except their husbands, and mingling with other women in the literal hothouse atmosphere of the baths, nude and free from male gazes, were susceptible to the attractions of lesbian desire. These inclinations were considered to be expected, if not approved, and only in extreme cases were there negative consequences. While we can be skeptical of how much direct knowledge the reporters had of the topic, it does seem to be a reasonable conclusion that there was a factual basis for their reports.

Now let’s turn our attention to how those reports developed into a fixed motif that Turkish women could be equated with lesbianism. The earliest connection I’ve found outside a traveler’s report doesn’t specifically single out Turkey as uniquely associated with lesbianism. The French author Brantôme, writing in The Lives of Gallant Women in the late 16th century, when discussing sex between women, comments:

By what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such lesbian ladies, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places. And wherever the women are kept secluded, and have not their entire liberty, this practice doth greatly prevail. For such women, burning in their bodies, surely must, as they say, make use of this remedy to cool off a bit or else they burn all over. The Turkish women go to the baths more for this than for any other reason, and are greatly devoted thereto. Even courtesans, who have men at their disposal at all hours, yet have recourse to these fricarelles, seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard of sundry doing in Italy and in Spain.

Brantôme doesn’t localize lesbianism to any specific place, but he does call out the Turkish baths as a site for sex, and suggests that gender segregation is a contributing cause. So we see a connection but not a unique one.

But by the later 17th century the connection with Turkey has become a byword—a coded reference that both confirms to the reader that we’re talking about lesbians, and safely displaces that knowledge not only to a distant land, but to a non-Christian society. Thus it becomes legible and deniable at the same time, even when the presence of lesbians in western Europe is the subject of discussion.

We see this in William Walsh’s supposedly feminist philosophical treatise A Dialogue Concerning Women, published in 1691, where the antagonist, holding up examples of women’s perfidy, pairs Sappho with Turkish lesbianism.

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason it wou'd be expected she shou'd make some additions to a Science in which all Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, she begins Amours with her own, and teaches us a new sort of Sin, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey at this day.

The main voice of this treatise, speaking in support of women’s virtues, even as he defends Sappho’s literary talents, feels the need to acknowledge her sexual transgressions, once again bringing Turkey into the conversation, but arguing that famous Greek men of the classical era had similar reputations.

Whatever Sappho's Life and Conversation were, there is nothing in her Writings, but what represents the most tender, and delicate passion in the World. … But not a word more I beseech you of Sappho, nor her new Crime, let Lucian be forgotten for putting us in mind of it, and let it be Cloister'd up within the walls of a Turkish Seraglio;

I speak not this in behalf of the Female Sex, but of our own; for if they shou'd once hear of this Argument, and fall upon us with Socrates, Plato, and all those Heroes of Antiquity, whom Plutarch and Lucian produce in defence of a like Sin in our Sex; shou'd they mention Anacreon, Tibullus, Martial, and all those Poets who have eterniz'd their Infamy in their writings; and after that shew you what progresses this Crime has made, not only in the Turk's Dominion, but even in Spain and Italy, I am sure, Sir, you wou'd wish you had said nothing of a point, that may be so severely made use of against our selves.

Sappho has also, by this era, become an open signifier of lesbianism, so the two themes reflect back on each other, in case the reader missed one or the other of the references.

Both William Walsh’s text and a direct and acknowledged quotation of Busbecq’s writings are brought together in the somewhat peculiar treatise Satan’s Harvest Home, a cobbled-together polemic against all manner of sexual sins asserted to be running rampant in mid 18th century England—though one could be forgiven for reading it instead as tongue-in-cheek pornography. A snippet of Walsh’s text is introduced, adding to it the nickname “the game of flats”.

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason, it would be expected she should make some Additions to a Science in which Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own, and teaches the Female World a new Sort of Sin, call'd the Flats, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's Time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey, as well as at Twickenham at this Day.

In a separate section, the author lifts the entirety of Busbecq’s story of the old woman who fell in love at the baths, which I will not repeat as it’s word-for-word the same, but it’s prefaced by a text that connects the story to English habits.

I AM credibly informed, in order to render the Scheme of Iniquity still more extensive amongst us, a new and most abominable Vice has got footing among the Women of Quality, by some call'd the Game at Flats; however incredible this may appear to some People, I shall mention a Story from an Author of very great Credit, applicable to the Matter, speaking of the Turks.

So in the course of two centuries, we see the progression from Turkey being offered as an example of a place where lesbianism is known to be practiced, to the use of Turkey—alongside Sappho—as a symbol of the open practice of lesbianism.

We may see echoes of this association even in tangential comments, as in the late 18th century French pornographic text The English Spy, in which members of the lesbian-focused Anandrine Society, “take their places in pairs, reclining entwined on pillows in the Turkish style.” Is it the reclining or the pairing that is in the Turkish style? Or both?

Mary Wortley Montagu

But after all these male voices and disparaging texts, I’d like to leave you with the breath of fresh air that is the accounts of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century. She was there well after the travelers’ accounts discussed earlier, but Montagu’s account is groundbreaking in several ways. Unlike the male authors of observations on Ottoman society in the 16-17th centuries, Montagu had access to segregated women’s spaces and—as a high-status guest—social access to women of the upper classes, including a visit to the baths and invitations to private socializing. Her account does not include any salacious descriptions of overt lesbianism, though she does regularly express appreciation for the beauty and sensuality of the women she interacted with. And there’s one passage that…well, just wait for it.

During her travels, Montagu corresponded extensively with friends and relatives and these letters were collected up and published in 1763 at her death, though they were in private circulation during her lifetime. Montagu presents an entirely different image of Ottoman women’s lives—though one that was unlikely to dislodge prejudices, even had it been generally available at an earlier date.

I’ll quote two extensive passages from the letters, one about a visit to the baths and one about a private entertainment. Montagu must have stood out as an oddity at the baths as she declined to disrobe as was the standard custom.

I WAS in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; "UZELLE, PEK UZELLE," which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming.—The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,—and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.

I WAS here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough, to wish secretly, that Mr Gervais could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art, to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, 'tis the women's coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, &c.—They generally take this diversion once a-week, and stay there at least four or five hours, without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cold room, which was very surprising to me. The lady, that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty.

At one point, Montagu had the opportunity to make a social visit to the wife of the kahya, the chief assistant to the grand vizier.

SHE was dressed in a caftan of gold brocade, flowered with silver, very well fitted to her shape, and shewing to admiration the beauty of her bosom, only shaded by the thin gauze of her shift. Her drawers were pale pink, her waistcoat green and silver, her slippers white sattin, finely embroidered: her lovely arms adorned with bracelets of diamonds, and her broad girdle set round with diamonds; upon her head a rich Turkish handkerchief of pink and silver, her own fine black hair hanging a great length, in various tresses, and on one side of her head some bodkins of jewels. I am afraid you will accuse me of extravagance in this description. I think I have read somewhere, that women always speak in rapture when they speak of beauty, and I cannot imagine why they should not be allowed to do so. I rather think it a virtue to be able to admire without any mixture of desire or envy. The gravest writers have spoken with great warmth, of some celebrated pictures and statues. The workmanship of Heaven, certainly excels all our weak imitations, and, I think, has a much better claim to our praise. For my part, I am not ashamed to own, I took more pleasure in looking on the beauteous Fatima, than the finest piece of sculpture could have given me. She told me, the two girls at her feet were her daughters, though she appeared too young to be their mother. Her fair maids were ranged below the sofa, to the number of twenty, and put me in mind of the pictures of the ancient nymphs. I did not think all nature could have furnished such a scene of beauty. She made them a sign to play and dance. Four of them immediately began to play some soft airs on instruments, between a lute and a guitar, which they accompanied with their voices, while the others danced by turns. This dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artful, or more proper to raise certain ideas. The tunes so soft!—the motions so languishing!—accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! half-falling back, and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner, that I am very positive, the coldest and most rigid prude upon earth, could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

The phrase “not to be spoke of” evokes the regular theme that same-sex desire is something “unspeakable” in the sense of something one is not supposed to talk about. So I don’t think it is at all a stretch to consider this passage to be directly (if coyly) raising the question of lesbian desire and indicating that Montagu was not impervious to that desire.

Montagu was a bit of a social iconoclast. She picked up the habit of wearing Turkish trousers for comfort, and later in life left her husband to take up with a bisexual Venetian philosopher. She enjoyed traveling independently and offered vocal support for women’s independence and freedom. And if she never personally acted on those “certain ideas” that the Turkish dancers had roused in her breast, one suspects that she might have sympathized with those who did.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: