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Why can't a more like a woman? 17th c friendship ideals

Monday, January 4, 2021 - 07:00

I waver between thinking that each period I read about it the absolutely most fascinating one with regard to gender and sexuality, and thinking that the period immediately before the one I'm reading about is. But every time I read articles about the 17th century (especially England or France, but let's be honest: that's where the publications skew) I come back to the idea that it was a fascinatingly queer era. In contrast (and, in many ways, in opposition) to the artificially glittering world of Versailles there was the woman-centered world of the French salons, and their export of precieuse culture to England. Beside the libertine activities of the court and family politics that ensured that love and marriage were largely separate experiences, there was the chaotic gender-transgressing culture of the common people, meticulously documented by disapproving preachers who considered the dissolution of clear gender signifiers to presage the apocalypse.

This is the context in which Madeleine de Scudéry ventured to write about the ideals of friendship and to dream about a different way for men and women to relate. One shouldn't take this as an actual blueprint for behavior, but more of a critique of the status quo. But underlying it is the firm principle of 17th century social politics that women's best and most lasting relationships were not with men, but with their female friends. (Even if social conventions required them to end up with men in the end.)

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Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3

Hinds, Leonard. 2001. “Female Friendship as the Foundation of Love in Madeleine de Scudéry’s ‘Histoire de Sapho’”

This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.

But what was the context in which a 17th century French aristocrat understood the ancient poet’s life? The article looks at four questions. Why did Scudéry choose to work with Sappho as a subject? How as Sappho understood and represented in 17th century France? How did Scudéry adapt the story for French  salon culture? And how did Sappho’s sexuality influence the depiction of female friendship and heterosexual love in the work?

Hinds references DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho ( for a detailed answer to the first question. Scudéry uses Sappho as an entry to women’s role as author of heroic fiction (a newly popular genre at the time). Scudéry’s Sappho exists in a utopian space where a woman can not only claim the role of author, but can define the terms of her relationship with a man. But while the plot of the narrative accepts (a version of) the Phaon story, in which Sappho turns from the love of women to a man, the representation of sexuality and gender identity are complicated.

Taking up the second question, Hinds reviews the French translations and interpretations of Sappho available in the 17th century. Rémi Belleau’s 16th century translation of Fragment 31 (“he seems like a god”) retains the original’s female voice and female beloved, but other versions of the era substitute a male narrator, turning the triangle into two men in conflict over a woman. While many other French works allow Sappho to voice her same-sex desire, there is often a moralizing overlay, suggesting that pursuit of pleasure will be her downfall. By the late 16th century, Sappho is often depicted as a woman whose love of sensual pleasure has ruined her.

French law of the time included lesbian acts under the rubric of sodomy, and Sappho’s name comes up regularly in discussions of historic context for the laws. Though poetic texts may depict Sappho as indiscriminately licentious, legal texts focus specifically on her lesbian reputation. The application of these legal prohibitions appears to have been rare, certainly in comparison to prosecutions of male homosexuality. But several case studies, especially ones involving cross-gender presentation, appear repeatedly in medical literature of the time.

At the same time, Sappho’s role as a respected poet was being revived in the early 17th century, also including Ovid’s episode in the Heroides of the Phaon myth. The depiction of Sappho ashamedly turning from desire for women to the pursuit of Phaon resonated with French moral attitudes of the time toward same-sex desire.

Scudéry does not simply accept this interpretation of the Phaon episode, but rather models Sappho’s relationship with Phaon on female friendship bonds. Scudéry’s Sappho may be seen as a reflection of the author herself (she used Sappho as a nickname on occasion) and so we can see in the Histoire Scudéry’s vision for ideal relations between women and men, as well as her idealized understanding of female friendship.

Scudéry’s ideal friendship is steeped in the précieuse culture of propriety and decency, the use of refined language and adherence to proper behavior. Given this context, the Histoire focuses on emotion and sentiment as expressions of love, not on erotic desire, regardless of the genders of the participants. Traditionally-gendered characteristics and virtues are distributed to characters of both sexes in the word. Sappho is ascribed “male” virtues (as defined at the time) while Phaon is described in terms more conventionally reserved for women, focusing on refined physical beauty, while not being framed as effeminate.

In the Histoire, Sappho surrounds herself with women with whom she has intense platonic friendships, based on a free and equal sharing of thoughts and confidences. This alone, she asserts, is the basis for genuine love and friendship. Sappho confides to her friends that she prefers their company to a husband, who would be incapable of providing the same type of devotion.

It is Phaon’s ability to conform to these ideals of (female) friendship that allows Sappho to love him, while it is the passionate poems Sappho has written to her female companions that convince Phaon she is capable of the intense love he seeks. But Sappho recognizes that their love would be doomed within a conventional marriage and could not remain equal and true. The solution is found in a utopian land ruled by Amazons whose laws prescribe faithfulness between lovers. Phaon must swear never to ask for marriage, but also to remain always at Sappho’s side. He must become the “inseparable companion” so prized among female friends.

So Phaon wins over Sappho, and she accepts his love, only when he moves into the role of female friend, companion, and confidant, and abandons the framework of heterosexual marriage.

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