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Survey of Early Modern Lesbian Literature

Monday, June 20, 2022 - 07:00

Lanser is one of the most significant voices in the study of lesbian themes in the Renaissance and early modern period, so it's not at all surprising that she does an excellent job at surveying the literature of the period. I'm a smidge less convinced by her framing discussion, suggesting that the significance of Queen Elizabeth I of England's extended reign as a woman, and as an unmarried woman at that, created a special context for disrupting concepts of gender and increasing discourse around female homoeroticism. Co-occurrence is not causation, and one could cite many other female rulers in other eras and locations that did not co-occur with a similar shift in the discourse. But it is certainly true that in later 16th centiury England there was a special awareness of the value and potential of women, and prominant themes of praising women's virtues in human terms rather than purely feminine terms. Along with Valerie Traub, who is cited extensively in the discussion, this is an era well covered by the scholarship in analyses that do no attempt to view gender and sexuality only in reference to modern frameworks, but that explore them in their own context.

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Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2015. “’Bedfellows in Royaltie’: Early/Modern Sapphic Representations” in The Cambridge Companion to Lesbian Literature, edited by Jodie Medd. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-107-66343-5

Lanser, Susan. ’Bedfellows in Royaltie’: Early/Modern Sapphic Representations.

Lanser connects female rule over England in the wake of Henry VIII’s death with the rising debate regarding women’s nature and women’s place in society in the later 16th and 17th centuries. That is, that the undeniable fact of Elizabeth’s lengthy reign forced society to grapple with the concept of the equality of the sexes, while Elizabeth’s relationships with her female courtiers helped sanction the validity of female friendship bonds.

As documented by Valerie Traub, this era saw a significant increase in textual representations of lesbianism or its equivalent. This shift was not confined to England, either in terms of literary motifs or in terms of the growing prominence of female rulers and intellectuals. If Women could have power, independence, and value, they were capable of desiring and being desired by other women.

Male voices begin protesting that women can’t sexually satisfy each other. None of this implies a “golden age” of lesbian expression – only that lesbian possibilities were more openly recognized and expressed for good or ill. That potential becomes a site of conflict and anxiety in a variety of literature.

Lanser explores some selected text in more detail, especially drama and poetry. This chapter provides an excellent shopping list of texts for interested readers to explore in more depth.

(Note: I have not added tags for specific literary works or authors as the article is more of a catalog than an analysis.)