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Monday, August 28, 2017 - 07:00

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. One aspect in this regard that I don't recall seeing addressed is the extent to which "feminine beauty" as a concept is actively and deliberately created rather than being a natural and spontaneous state. Is the mythical "ugly lesbian" simply the resting bitch face of sexuality? The trope also points out that the understanding of sexuality was still very much focused on an active/passive definition. Only the "active" desiring woman risked evoking the "ugly, masculine-looking" accusation.

As we come to the end of Velasco's book, I'd like to step back and once again marvel at how much material the author found to address her topic, and what that implies for many other historic cultures that have not yet had the benefit of a knowledgeable and interested researcher. I'll reitereate one of the main lessons I've gained from this project: the assumption that information is scarce and skimpy regarding the history of women's same-sex desires derives from a history of the field that often focused on types of data that were more relevant to men, and interpretations of the data that assumed "heterosexual unless clearly proven otherwise." Historians don't find things that they aren't looking for. Once you start looking, there is a greater wealth of data than we've been led to believe.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 7: Looking Like a Lesbian

This chapter looks at the role of imagination, spectacle, and accusation in shaping understandings of female same-sex relations. These understandings, in turn, could create or enable same-sex erotic possibilities for their consumers. There is a contrast between writers who denied the possibility of desire between women and the regular use of female homoerotic imagery in popular culture. Spectacles involving female homoeroticism were meant to warn and punish, but could also inform and educate. Accusations against specific women assumed general knowledge of homoerotic possibilities and expectations regarding types of homoerotic activity.

Probable intersex cases tested the understanding and judgement of same-sex activity. Beliefs about the possibility of spontaneous physical sex change problematized investigations into potential transgressive relations when physical sex was ambiguous or did not match gender performance. Medical opinions presumed that people had an innate sexual orientation, though they differed on the underlying cause.

When same-sex relationships were performed in public (for example, when the specifics of relationships came out in public arguments or lawsuits) the evidence suggests that individual fear of punishment for sexual transgression was not an absolute deterrent for entering those relationships. [Note: when has it ever been?] Within all this, what was the public expectation for being able to identify lesbians from their appearance? How could you know you were looking at one?

Catalina de Erauso was depicted in a portrait from life by Francisco Pacheco, and that portrait was further publicized by engravings based on it. Her features were interpreted differently depending on how people perceived her gender. Physiognomy--the pseudo-science of identifying innate characteristics based on facial features and physiology--was not only applied to Catalina during her lifetime, but was taken up by psychologists and sexologists in the early 20th century to “diagnose” her in terms of supposed psychological and medical abnormality.

Simple economics meant that homoerotic scenes of women in art were typically designed to cater to the male gaze for the purposes of titillation. One exception was depictions of lesbian erotics in genre scenes of witchcraft that often drew on male anxiety about powerful and dangerous women, conflating lesbian sexuality with anti-male magical activity. (That is, the scenes may still have been created for the male gaze, but not likely for titillation.)

In religious art, images of close emotional bonds betwen women were often depicted using physical gestures to indicate spiritual connections and conferral of authority. This appears in art showing Saint Teresa and her rival spiritual heirs in a sort of religious propaganda art staking claims to her legacy using imagery of closeness and inseparability.

Velasco includes a discussion of visual art associated with Nicholas Chorier’s pornographic Satyra Sotadica showing a frontispiece with a group of upper class Spanish women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as in a butcher’s shop. This seems to be included on the basis that Chorier’s work was alleged to be a translation of a dialogue by the 16th century Spanish poet and humanist Luisa Sigea. Sigea did write dialogues between women expressing passionate friendship. [Note: Velasco seems at first to treat the connection to Sigea as solidly evidenced but then appears to agree with other sources that the connection with Sigea is entirely fictitious and was, in part, intended to imply a genuine female authorship for Chorier’s female-voice dialogue.]

Beliefs in gender essentialism with regard to sexuality led to an emphasis in descriptions of women with same-sex desires as being masculine in appearance (or at least unfeminine). Contemporaries of María de Zayas suggest she may have been viewed as “manly” in appearance as well as in literary talent. Other writers compared her poetic talent to Sappho, possibly intending implications about her sexuality. Zayas herself excluded Sappho from her list of dedicatory “foremothers” possibly suggesting that she herself was anxious about what people would read into the comparison. There is some evidence that Zayas lived with a fellow female poet, Ana Caro, but the nature of their relationshp must be entirely speculative.

The Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (later 17th century) wrote poems to multiple women (including her patroness) that used amorous language and imagery, such as, “I love you with so much passion...My love for you was so strong I could see you in my soul and talk to you all day long...Let my love be ever doomed if guilty in its intent, for loving you is a crime of which I will never repent.” And in another work, “I aspire that your love and my good wine will draw you hither, and to tumble you to bed I can conspire.” Historians writing of Sor Juana and other examples of suggestive evidence between nuns often dismiss the possibility of same-sex desire out of hand on a presumption that they would have needed to learn about homoerotic love before being able to experience it, and that they were “too young” to understand the implication of such desires. [Some things never change.]

Time period: 
Saturday, August 26, 2017 - 10:00

I'm not going to lie: I'm feeling a bit anxious about the reception of this week's podcast. The topic of how erotic desire has been handled with respect to the history of lesbians has the potential for hurtful erasure on every side. Some scholars have approached the history of sexuality from a position that erotic desire and erotic activity are how you define the presence of lesbianism. Even aside from the way in which an eagerness to "claim women for the L team" tends to erase bisexual identity, using sexual activity and sexual desire between women as the sine qua non of lesbian identity erases those for whom romantic attachment, rather than sex, is the key factor. (Although it does encompass aromantic women who enjoy erotic attraction to women.)

In this episode, I look at the patterns of history, not through the question of "how did specific women experience homoerotic and homoromantic attraction?" but through the lens of cultural archetypes. What were some of the prominent cultural archetypes that combined romantic bonds between women with an absence of the expectation of sexual activity? I'll be very curious to hear what people think.

Listen to the podcast here at the Lesbian Talk Show site, or subscribe through your favorite podcast aggregator, such as iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher.

Major category: 
LHMP
Thursday, August 24, 2017 - 01:24

I've found that museums are generally happy to let you photograph objects...but that doesn't mean you'll get good images. Today's blog title is, of course, a little pun. Having reviewed the various substations of the National Museum of Ireland online, I determined that the Archaeology Museum was the only one likely to have things I was interested in. They had a lovely large wing of Viking-era materials, although pretty much all the textile finds were kept in rooms that were dark enough you could barely read the information cards, much less see any details. Ah well, that's what publications are for. A great deal of Celtic and prehistoric material as well. I'm fairly familiar with the Celtic era finds, though there's something to be said for standing in the same room as the Tara brooch, the Ardagh chalice, and any number of other similarly exquisite pieces. And the sheer massive volume of gold objects is impressive. I was focusing my picture-taking on the Viking-era material for *ahem* future research purposes. I stuck to just the one museum in part because my right knee has been getting very grumpy, though it settles down a bit with use. I've probably timed the end of my trip just right because I could use about a week of not much walking and few stairs. Bodies. What can you do?

Liz was in town again for her gym workout, so we met up for dinner and then a long chat about books and life and whatnot in a coffee shop afterward. I've been extremely happy with the outcome of my "visiting people" tourist plan. And now I have another day to kill but not much inclination to do a lot of walking. I can stash my suitcase at a kept-luggage office here at Trinity College until I head out to the airport hotel when I figure it's time to do that. Since this is my Thursday blog, the Friday blog will cover a very very long day of travel. I may fall back on my theoretical schedule of doing a review and tell you about the play we went to Tuesday evening. I can write that up while sitting around in airports. See you on the other side of the ocean!

Major category: 
Travel
Wednesday, August 23, 2017 - 01:28

Tuesday was the whirlwind walking tour of Dublin day. I started off with the campus tour of Trinity College Dublin (where I'm staying), which gave background on the main buildings and  history of the college. The repeating theme of the tour was, "And this building was designed in [date] by [name] and then the college built it and never paid him for his designs." (Ok, so maybe it only happened for two or three of the main buildings.) The tour ended up in the Old Library which houses the several early medieval gospel books, including the Book of Kells. There's a vast an fascinating set of displays on the history, production, purpose, etc. of these early books before you get to the small room where the Kells and Durrow gospels are displayed (also one other I didn't note the name of?). Even though people were let into the room in small groups, there was no traffic control and you could easily spend half an hour there without getting close enough to see them unless you were willing to be very pushy. So I saw the books (what can I say, I'm pushy). Impressive, but other than being able to see the three-dimensionality of some of the inks and paints, you get a much better idea of the artistry from any half-decent facsimile.

The tour then leads to the "Long Room" which houses the library's older books (as well as a display of the so-called Brian Boru harp). See picture above. They have a peculiar shelving system, based on a combination of date of acquisition and shelving books in decreasing size as you go up the cases. Which, I suppose, makes sense because I'd hate to be teetering on top of a tall ladder reaching over my head to lift down a folio-sized book.

I met Liz Bourke at noon at the Campanille and after luch at her favorite soup place, we set out on a meandering tour through the most interesting Georgian and (much fewer) medieval parts of Dublin. I highly recommend Liz as a tour guide! Very knowledgeable. We hit most of the better known churches (including her favorite, Saint Audoen's, which is the oldest continuously-used church in Dublin -- see picture), Dublin castle, the old parliament building (now a bank), then a walk up the river past the Guinness plant to see Kilmainham Hospital (now an art gallery) and its formal gardens. Then back to central Dublin for a fish & chips dinner and dawdling over cider at a pub until it was time for the play: Carl Capek's "R.U.R." at the Peacock Stage (part of the Abbey Theatre complex) about which I will have more to say in a review.

Today (Wednesday...it is Wednesday, right? the days are merging together) is scheduled for the archaeology museum and recovering a bit from yesterday's walking. I've been talked into see the Viking-centered Dublinia Museum tomorrow, about which I'd had questions as it advertising made it sound a bit school-group oriented.

Major category: 
Travel
Tuesday, August 22, 2017 - 01:17

Back in '99 when I was taking enough trains around Europe that it was worth it to have a rail pass, I was regularly gobsmacked at how (at least on the Continent) they ran to-the-minute per the published schedule. Yesterday, pretty much every train I was on was delayed...which was a good thing because otherwise I would have missed a couple of connections. In one case, I ran up and over an overpass (carrying a heavy suitcase) to a train already standing at the correct platform, barely glanced at the monitor and only confirmed it was the correct train when I was on board (and had managed to catch my breath). Which brings up another observation: the British rail system must be hell on people with physical disabilities. I can't count the number of occasions where I couldn't see any obvious option for getting from point A to point B that didn't involve stairs. (Even on the spiral ramp up to the pedestrian bridge to the Durham station, the ramp had periodic steps. Not quite enough to daunt the roll-away, but certainly enough to preclude wheelchair use.) I'm still spry enough that I can break out the backpack straps on my suitcase and hike up to my 3rd floor walk-up room here at Trinity College (see picture) but I can feel the bones aching on occasion and it makes me ponder.

But on the up side, I saw lots of lovely train-side scenery yesterday, cutting accross the Pennines and then traveling along the northern edge of Wales, across the Menai Strait, and on to Holyhead where I took the ferry to Dublin. I took a bunch of "atmosphere" notes on the trip for when I return some day to my 10th century historic romance that involves Dublin and Vikings.

If you ever plan to visit Dublin in the summer and want easy access to everything downtown (and you have good knees) I can highly recommend taking advantage of the Trinity College on-campus accommodations. (I found them through Hotels.com) It's a dorm style room (there are a few with en suite facilities, which I got) and comes with a complimentary continental breakfast at The Buttery (full breakfast available if you pay more). And now I'm going to walk out of my room, across the quad, and take a campus tour that ends up putting me in front of the Book of Kells. But more on that in tomorrow's post.

Major category: 
Travel
Monday, August 21, 2017 - 07:00

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. It doesn't tempt me quite enough to add it to the list, but I'd love to read through a full translation of it some day.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0

Publication summary: 

A study of the evidence and social context for women who loved women in early modern Spain, covering generally the 16-17th centuries and including some material from colonial Spanish America.

Chapter 6: Lesbian Desire on Center Stage

Female same-sex flirtation is a regular feature in popular Spanish drama of the early modern era. Erotic attraction to cross-dressed actrresses was cited in moral warnings. Velasco discusses the “meaning” of same-sex flirtation in cross-dressing scenarios, based on the several layers of “real” versus “apparent” gender, and considering different audiences. If female attraction to cross-dressed actresses isn’t quite all-out lesbian desire, it at least acknowledges its possibility. In-play dialogues about the attractiveness of the cross-dressed characters is coded in ambiguously androgynous terms.

Another context for dramatic ambiguity is the use of female actors for roles where a male character takes on a female disguise (within the story), as in the legend of Achilles. While this may have avoided having an actual male actor cross-dress as a woman on stage, it created the potential for female same-sex desire within the layered “woman playing a man playing a woman” scenario.

Moralists of the 17th century warned parents that their innocent daughters would be corrupted by consuming plays and novels. The expressions of concern are not specifically focused on homoeroticism, but the general idea is that young girls will “get ideas” from popular culture.

There is an extensive discussion of Cubillo de Aragón’s play Añasco el de Talavera (ca. 1637) which depicts lesbian desire without the mechanism of male disguise. The “manly woman” Dionisia’s desire for her female friend Leonor is an open topic of discussion within the play. Dionisia complains about the restrictiveness of female gender roles and has a serious case of “not like other girls”. She specifically expresses the desire to be touched (implied: sexually) by Leonor and say she loves her. Leonor demurs about the concept, but Dionisia presents her argument in terms of platonic love, and argues for the supremacy of (same-sex) platonic love over heterosexual desire. The dialogue acknowledges that women may “sin” together, i.e., that activity counting as forbidden sex is possible between women.

Leonor, alas, is irredeemably heterosexual, and the play ends up shoehorning Dionisia into a heterosexual resolution. But the resolution implies that Dionisia is still controling the situation driven by desire for Leonor. Dionisia marries the man who is mutually in love with Leonor (thus interfering with their competing relationship) and leaves Leonor to marry the man who has been vainly attempting to woo Dionisia.

Velasco considers the effect of homoerotic art and literature on female viewers. For example, homoerotic scenes of Diana and her nymphs may have been intended for male voyeurism, but had female viewers as well. Literary depictions of Diana were viewed as potentially corrupting and parents of daughters were specifically warned against Jorge de Montemayer’s 1559 work Las siete libros de la Diana (known more typically as La Diana). The same-sex love depicted in this work has traditionally been dismissed as neo-Platonic friendship, but it is expressed in terms of physical affection and verbal flirtation.

Two characters, Ysmenia and Selvagia, enjoy a passionate interlude, then Ysmenia falsely convinces Selvagia that she is a man in disguise and that Selvagia has been tricked into a heterosexual liaison. Selvagia remains steadfast in her love for Ysmenia, despite this apparent trick. Enter Ysmenia’s Convenient Twin Cousin (male) who takes advantage of the situation to take over Ysmenia’s affair with Selvagia. The story can be compared with other pastoral romances, most of which involve some type of gender disguise. But La Diana is unusual in showing Selvagia’s love beginning when she believes that love to be homoerotic. The steadfastness of Selvagia’s love regardless of the (believed) gender of the object supports the image of same-sex love being equivalent to heterosexual love.

In other similar works, there is more often uneasiness expressed about apparent or real same-sex desire, which is resolved by either the reality or a fantasy of a magical sex-change to permit a heterosexual resolution. These may include sexual interludes that could be interpreted as lesbian and involving an artificial penis. There is often a phallocentric assumption that only a penis can provide a woman with pleasure and that real female same-sex relations must remain unfulfilled.

In the romance Tirant lo Blanc there is an episode of a woman engaging in sex play with another woman supposedly for the voyeuristic benefit of an observing man. Later, the sex play continues in the dark and the man substitutes in (unknown to his partner). The woman in this interaction is shown protesting that the supposed same-sex act is against nature, but she does not deny its possibility. The in-story implication is that sex between women is permited as long as it’s really a performance for the male gaze or for the reader. But the fact that both La Diana and Tirant lo Blanc were popular among female audiences suggests other possibilities. Heterosexual resolutions kept the text “safe” while allowing transgression between the covers (of the book).

The rest of the chapter takes a close examination of the novels of María de Zayas, which interrogate heterosexual relations and support the concept of female community and marriage resistance (although in the form of the convent). The themes send conflicting messages about heteronormativity and female same-sex love.

“Love for the Sake of Conquest” uses a male-to-female disguise plot to assert the superiority of love between women, though the arguments are put in the mouth of the male character (disguised as a woman) who it turns out is making those arguments purely for the sake of getting the other protagonist in bed. This creates a context for articulating the attractions of same-sex love and desire without the transgression of enacting it. After the male character reveals his identity and succeeds in initiating a sexual relationship, he loses interest and moves on, while the female protagonist is then murdered by her father for her (heterosexual) sexual transgression, whereas her apparent attraction to another woman was considered odd but not equivalent to fornication.

In “Aminta Deceived and Honor’s Revenge” a woman expresses romantic attraction to another woman without the artifice of a disguies plot, and her attention is found flattering. But it turns out the first woman was acting out of ulterior motives in order to further her relationship with a man and to deceive the supposed female object of her affection.

 

The third story considered, “Marriage Abroad: Portent of Doom”, includes a rather hostile depiction of male homoerotic relations, raising the question of whether this indicates that Zayas judged male and female relations entirely differently, or whether it’s evidence that she didn’t intend her female couples to be read as having physical relations.

Overall, although Zayas' novels include themes of the superiority of love between women, the actual plots undermine this message, showing deception and falsehood. Only in the framing story for the novels does the messge of that superiority prevail in truth.

Time period: 
Place: 
Sunday, August 20, 2017 - 02:57

Just a quick note this time. Yesterday we did a little more wandering around Durham. Checked out the stalls in the Old Market Hall looking for gifts, but didn't see anything that really grabbed me. Went off to look at Sara & Joel's new house that they're gradually getting fixed up for moving in and had serious Old House Envy. (18th century beams! 0.5 meter thick back wall (now an interior wall of the house)! Cute postage-stamp back garden with sheds!) Had lunch and a pint in the pub right around the corner from the new (old) house.

Spent the afternoon resting up for the jaunt to York today, plus doing a bunch of exporting, formatting, and annotating of my files from the Great Welsh Name Database which I'm handing over to Sara for use in the DMNES project (Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources). This is, to some extent, an acknowledgement that I'm unlikely to do more work on the database in the near future. But I've always meant to ask if she wanted the data to use and this was a chance to talk about how the current files are structured and what some of the analytic data was trying to do.

Major category: 
Travel
Saturday, August 19, 2017 - 00:00

Author Catherine Lundoff returns to the podcast to share some of her favorite lesbian historical fiction. I hope this series of segments will help people find new (or old) titles that may strike their fancy.

Listen to the podcast here at the Lesbian Talk Show site, or subscribe through your favorite podcast aggregator, such as iTunes, Podbean, or Stitcher.

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, August 18, 2017 - 07:42

Thursday was both leisurely and taken up entirely by travel. After a lazy breakfast, I could the train from Deventer at 11am. Local to Schiphol, then the Thalys to Brussels, the Eurostar to London, one train up to York, then a change for the last leg to Durham. The changes all had plenty of time to find my platform, but never really enough time to stop and look around or do more than grab something to eat later on the train. At King's Cross Station I didn't feel like there was enough time to go slip through the door at platform 9-3/4 (which would have totally screwed up my travel plans, in any event), and yet somehow today I found myself within the walls of Hogwarts in any case:

Which is, of course, actually the cloister of Durham Cathedral. Today I got a walking tour all over the cathedral, castle/university, and city center, including a few locations (like the Senior Commons Room) that came courtey of being hosted by university faculty. Central Durham is another great example of integrating older buildings with a vibrant thriving town center. One fellow passing by who heard me being given a tourist lecture told us about how great it was that the shops and buildings were occupied and open now, and that when he was younger so many of the old buildings were boarded up. When you hear people talking about the world going downhill, I think it's important to take note of all the success stories you see of urban revivial and the ability to have the best of both the past and the present. Like the way that so much of the Bailey area in Durham is a living part of the university.

We adjourned for late lunch in a cafe as my feet were beginning to flag. Keeping up with the energy of someone as young as Gwen it quite an undertaking! But the city is full of lovely walks, with wild blackberries and plums for the picking, and people lazily rowing past in boats, and the cobbled streets full of tourists and shoppers. We have a pencilled-in plan to all go to York on Sunday, since my interest was a good excuse for the whole family to do some sightseeing. Tomorrow may be a bit more leisurely.

Major category: 
Travel
Thursday, August 17, 2017 - 00:17

Wednesday was another ambling around Deventer day. Irina and I went off to various shops to pick up so specialty cheese and wurst to take to Sara & Co. on my next stop. (Also some cheese for me to take home, once I'd verified that their packaging technique would pass customs.) Then just more wandering with tour guide: tracing the old city walls (both the earthwork built against the Vikings and the medieval stone wall that can still be seen in fragments and lasted into the early 17th century (IIRC). Met the rest of the household at De Rode Kater (The Red Cat) for lunch, which was also where Irina and I returned for dinner. We also enjoyed a long pleasant evening on the rooftop patio, watching the bat go after insects and discussing books and philosophy and whatnot.

Today will be another travel day: local train back to Schiphol, Thalys high-speed rail to Brussels, Eurostar to London, the local train to Durham. The schedule is such that I actually go past to York and then backtrack to Durham. I'm idly wondering if there might be a day-trip to York possible, but I'm sticking to my plan of people-over-places so it will be as it falls out. Given that schedule, I don't anticipate (I hope!) having anything exciting to post about tomorrow.

Major category: 
Travel

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