Remember: Friday we start on publication #100 and I open (and explain) the combined promotional event for the LHMP and the upcoming release of The Mystic Marriage. Stay tuned and start thinking about what your favorite LHMP post has been.
Huot, Sylvia. 1990. "Addressing the Issue of Lesbianism in a General Course on Women in the Middle Ages" (Gay and Lesbian Concerns in Medieval Studies, special issue) Medieval Feminist Newsletter 13:10-11.
The publication covered today wasn't originally on my list of referenced articles to look up, but it was right next to another article in that issue of Medieval Feminist Newsletter and it seemed like a useful book-end comparison for the Project. Back in 1990, this article indicates the state-of-the art regarding research into lesbianism in medieval Europe. Take a look at the publication dates for most of the cumulative bibliography for this project and you'll see that it wasn't a matter of Huot overlooking anything obvious. There has been a revolution in the field in the last 25 years.
Twenty five years ago, I was just starting to think about trying to write historic fiction with lesbian characters and motifs. Some of the lesbian historic novels that I'd read at that time that made me think there might be an interest in the genre had already been published at that time, without the benefit of all the research done since then. Michelle Martin's Pembroke Park came out in 1986, Katherine Sturtevant's A Mistress Moderately Fair in 1988. I recall several novels fictionalizing the life of Sappho that I'd have to take more time to track down. I'm not saying that it was impossible to write good lesbian historic fiction without access to extensive academic references, but my experience as an amateur historian -- particularly of material culture and social history -- is that historic reality is far more nuanced and far less predictable than can be predicted from the modern experience. And the research that has been done in the last quarter century has taken the possible set of solidly-grounded inspirations for lesbian fiction and blown the field much more widely open.
This isn’t so much an article about researching lesbianism in history, but about teaching the researching of lesbianism in history. It’s probably a pretty good snapshot of what was common knowledge in the field in 1990. [Compare that to what I’ve been able to find for this blog project and you’ll get an idea of why I call the 1990s “the early years of lesbian historiography.”]
The author discusses the publications she selected for an advanced seminar (for either upper class undergrads or for graduate students) on “Women in the Middle Ages” that were intended to address the topic of lesbianism. Requirements included that the publications be physically and linguistically accessible (i.e., in print, and in English). The list includes the following (starred items have already been covered by the LHMP; those with a + are already on the list to cover):
+Brown, Judith, C. 1986. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-504225-5
*Matter, E. Ann. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989.
Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives” in Journal of Homosexuality 18: 119-31.
Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love Lyric. Oxford University Press, New York. [Specifically the love poem “To my singular rose” which has been discussed in several previously covered articles.]
Other background reading included:
+Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5:631-60.
Using these materials, the seminar discussed the question of what “identity” or “orientation” might mean in the context of culturally available options, the question of essentialism versus cultural constructionism, all-female communities such as convents and Beguinages as a potential site for discovering or enjoying same-sex romantic and erotic relations, and the problem of how cultures may construct or deny the concept of “sex” outside of heterosexual activity.
[Reviewing my current working list, I can find a few publications that might have been included, even with a narrow construction of “medieval” (she considers Brown to be a special exception with regard to time period, and so my have considered Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men to have too little pre-Renaissance coverage to be relevant) and a focus on historic rather than literary examples. The collection Hidden from History came out in 1989, but it’s possible either that the author wasn’t aware of it or omitted it for some logistical or methodological reason.]
This is it: the week we hit entry number 100 in the project! Keep your eyes peeled, because on Friday when the first installment in #100 drops, I'll kick off the celebratory give-away. I'm trying to make participation as easy and as widely available as possible.
Halperin, David. 1998. “Lesbian Historiography before the Name?” in Gay and Lesbian Quarterly 4:557-630. [A panel discussion of Brooten 1997]
David M. Halperin -- Halperin focuses specifically on the social and historic context of varieties of sexual activity in ancient Greece and takes the position that Brooten fundamentally misunderstands the nature of Greek sexual hierarchies and of the institution of pederasty (in its ancient Greek sense). Although Halperin’s work was focused entirely on male culture (and at one point he specifically notes that everything he knows about women’s sexual culture in ancient Greece comes second-hand from a colleague), he accuses Brooten of being a “scholarly tourist” in the field and doing too much projection of modern attitudes and understandings onto the material. [He’s also insufferably condescending and pompous. He actually uses the word “tendentiousness” of Brooten -- I think “condescending and pompous” may be too kind.]
Halperin appears to be a “strong Foucaultian” in holding the position that there are no objective “facts” with regard to sexual or erotic orientation, but only socially constructed roles that dictate what behaviors and understandings people are able to inhabit. This puts him in direct opposition to Brooten’s implied position that there is an objective concept and category of “lesbianism” that can be studied in the past. Having posited that one can only understand historic sexualities by studying the historic data in context, he then more or less concludes that the data about female homoeroticism is so rare and decontextualized that it’s hardly possible to study it at all. He also seems to have his nose out of joint because he feels that he and his friends weren’t given sufficient credit for some of the ideas that Brooten presents in her work. But in the end he does seem to concede Brooten’s point that the histories of male and female homoeroticism cannot be treated as related and parallel, and therefore the study of one (typically, men) cannot stand in for the study of the other.
Ann Pellegrini -- Pellegrini supports Brooten’s emphasis on understanding the history of female homoeroticism as being inseparable from the history of women’s place in (patriarchal) society and that previous studies have been flawed in tacitly assuming an equation with men’s experiences. Pellegrini’s challenge to Brooten’s work and conclusions largely revolves around a perception that Brooten has “sanitized” lesbian sexuality and constructed an idealized image of egalitarian romantic love as the organizing principle for the history of lesbianism (projected from modern ideals) in order to make her arguments for modern Christian acceptance of lesbian relationships. And furthermore, that to do so Brooten has in some ways thrown historic male homoeroticism under the bus in order to create an exaggerated distinction between “bad” hierarchic, status-driven, asymmetric relationships and the “good” egalitarian “sacredness and holiness of a woman expressing her love for another woman.” [And I have to think that she has a valid point, in retrospect.]
Ken Stone -- Stone focuses primarily on the uses of history and exegesis to argue for and against policy positions of the modern Christian church. He points out that, purely from a logistical point of view, Brooten undermines several of the prevailing counters to Paul’s Letter to the Romans (e.g., the position that he wasn’t actually talking about loving homosexual relationships at all, and certainly not about women’s sexuality in particular), substituting instead an argument that Paul actually did mean to be misogynistic and homophobic, but because these were attitudes that he inherited from pre-Christian Classical cultures, they cannot be considered intrinsically “Christian” and therefore can be discarded in favor of more liberal Christian values. (Stone, too, feels that in this context Brooten is throwing gay men under the bus.)
Natalie Boymel Kampen -- Kampen praises the scope and thoroughness of Brooten’s collection of historic sources and agrees with her conclusions regarding the sources and innovations in early Christian attitudes towards female homoeroticism. But she takes issue with the way the second part of the book (the study of Pauline texts and their context) centers and foregrounds modern Christian philosophy and politics in what is otherwise an objective study of a historical phenomenon. She notes that the book “may be problematic for non-Christian readers” for whom the arguments pleading for a re-examination of Paul as a basis for modern Christian policy are entirely irrelevant. She, too, notes that Brooten has constructed a “sanitized” version of lesbian sexuality (in contradiction to large chunks of her evidence) in support of this plea.
Dierdre Good -- Good also focuses on the Biblical exegesis aspect of Brooten’s work, though noting that she takes a firmly historical approach, in contrast to many other critiques of Paul which are more theological in approach. Good finds the latter lacking in failing to address the historic context of Paul’s writings in a way similar to Brooten. The remainder of Good’s discussion focuses on details of the Biblical context.
Bernadette J. Brooten (response) -- Perhaps the last third of the article covers Brooten’s response to the above comments. She begins by summarizing their points of agreement and the highlights of their points of difference. Subsequent sections address: whether undue attention is paid to Paul’s Letter to the Romans; whether sex between women had been overly idealized in the work; whether anachronistic interpretations have been projected on the data; whether her presentation of Classical pederasty is accurate and fair; and several other more minor topics. I won’t cover these in detail as they largely reiterate positions given in the book, as well as noting that many of the objections involve the same cherry-picking of data that they attribute to her.
Aside from the guided tour in how professionals critique each others’ historical work, this article gives a peek into the forms and nature of academic argument.