One of the more biting criticisms in this collection of the popularity of a "queer history" approach of a "lesbian history" approach is that the study of the history of male homosexuality has often rested on inherently misogynistic bodies of work--not merely the historic misogyny that skewed the historic record toward the experiences and opinions of men, but just as often the modern misogyny of historians whose desire to validate and elevate male homoerotic relationships in history relies on a denigration of the presence and valuing of women in society. Post-modern theories of history recognize that the study of the past is a subjective, biased practice, but that doesn't mean that all post-modern historical theories acknowledge and account for their own subjective and biased attitudes towards women. The desire for a unified theory of historic homosexuality cannot help but fail if it builds its theories solely on the evidence and experiences of men, and fails to recognize that women and men lived entirely different lives, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Bauer, Heike. 2011. “Lesbian Time” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Bauer, Heike. 2011. “Lesbian Time”
Bauer looks at the concept of periodization as it applies to sexuality and how the limitations on lesbian self-representation affect and are shaped by concepts of historic periodization, for example, the extensive debate around Foucault’s division of history relative to an acts/identity divide. By centering the writings and experiences of pre-modern women who loved/desired women, this collection calls the existence that divide into question, as well as calling into question the study of it. If the very concept of periodization and “modernity” rests on traditions that excluded and erased women’s lives, how can its conclusions about lesbian history be valid? Under the rubric of “lesbian time”, Bauer examines shared conceptual spaces that cut across conventional periodization to challenge the gendered concepts underlying it. These questions occur in parallel with similar challenges to racialized periodization.
Historians of male homosexuality draw on a long tradition of evidence made available and prominent by the gendered imbalance of historic records. Similar approaches to female same-sex history must first build an archive of historic data in order to establish a similar antiquity and tradition. Within this, the very existence of the organizing topic “lesbian” is contested.
The cyclic model of historic change evolves from and then is used to support a heteronormative and anachronistically modern concept of “family” as the basic structure. A temporality that rejects a generational model of history allows for the inclusion or even centering of other modes of relating. This includes a challenge to the importance of Foucault’s periodization based on the 19th century “scientification of sex” and demands consideration of structures outside that cultural scope. A consideration of “lesbian time” raises the question of how and by whom our notions of lesbian sexuality were shaped and transmitted. Bauer discusses how the other papers in the collection address this.
Bauer revisits a Victorian “proto-sexological” text, A Problem in Greek Ethics by John Addington Symonds, that examined classical Greek male same-sex desire from a social and philosophical angle to determine how it benefitted its social context. The work set a pattern for 19th century works affirming male homosexuality in arguing for male same-sex bonds as the ideal form of citizenship and the driver of all civilization and progress. He then makes the circular argument that women’s exclusion from social prominence meant that female same-sex desire could not similarly drive progress and thus why lesbian desire was not similarly sanctioned and therefore disappeared. [!] Symonds then argues that a shift from elevating male same-sex love to a “romantic cult of woman” resulted in the decline of civilization from the classical ideal. Thus, he simultaneously dismisses the relevance of the middle ages and of women as a class.
Bauer concludes by calling for attention to the way in which acceptance of current models of periodization similarly erase lesbian history and sexuality.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 18a - On the Shelf for January 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/01/06 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2018.
Fiction Submissions Open
It’s new year with a lot of exciting things to look forward to. By the time you’re listening to this, the submissions period for our new fiction series is well underway. The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be presenting original audio fiction in our occasional 5th week episode. Submissions are open duing the month of January and we’ll be buying at least two stories to produce. For more details and submission requirements, go to alpennia-dot-com and look under the LHMP tab for the call for submissions, or look for the link in the show notes.
One of the purposes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has always been to promote and encourage the writing of great lesbian historical fiction and we’re really excited to do so in this very direct fashion!
Publications on the Blog
For the last month and continuing on through January, the blog has been covering articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which combines a variety of approaches to lesbian themes in history with a consideration of the nature of historic research and analysis. The authors ask important questions about the importance of lesbian history, especially when challenged both from the directions of “what do we mean by lesbian?” and “what do we mean by history?”
I’m doubling up on the articles, since many of them are either short or addressing topics that are tangential to the focus of the Project. In December we covered thoeretical considerations from authors like Valerie Traub, Anne Laskaya, Lara Farina, and Carla Freccero. There are comparisons of how lesbians and dedicated virgins presented similar challenges to the male power structure and the ways in which women-only communities such as convents created a context for bonds between women. Several articles look at examples of non-traditional relationships that have resonances for lesbian history, such as same-sex relationships that result in pregnancy in Indian legend, and grave memorials in England that commemorate same-sex pairs using symbolism reminiscent of marriage.
Moving into January, Helmut Puff looks at how the language used to talk about same-sex desire gives us clues to the prevalence of knowledge about non-normative sexuality in early modern Europe. Heike Bauer returns to a more theoretical concern in looking at the concept of periodization in historical study and how this framework acts to center men’s experiences and erase women’s. Lillian Faderman discusses the advantages and problems with having a personal stake in the pursuit of history while Elizabeth Freeman looks at historical theories as a type of philosophical or religious practice and challenges the ways in which queer theorists have often forgotten the roots of their movement in lesbian and feminist historical studies.
The collection moves on to a series of articles summing up the topics and looking to the future. Linda Garber examines the political consequences of historical frameworks while Martha Vicinus reflects on how the life of Victorian author Vernon Lee embodies many of the problems of analysis. Robyn Wiegman addresses the ways in which movements in historic study represent chains of reaction against what came before and challenges claims that the very concept of lesbian history is anachronistic--or at least any more anachronistic than other topics covered under queer studies.
I found this collection to be dense and challenging, but not in a bad way. When I read about the debates and conflicts in academic considerations of the history of sexuality, I see regular parallels with the treatment of history in lesbian fiction. I would love to have a chance to bring authors and academics together to explore those parallels.
This month’s author guest will be Kathleen Knowles who has written a series of connected novels set in the San Francisco Bay Area around the time of the Great Quake. A bit of trivia: although Kathy and I only recently reconnected around the topic of lesbian historical fiction, we worked for the same biotech company back in the ‘80s and I was delighted to have a chance to include her in the interview series.
This month’s As Sappho question is from Nina, via the Lesbian Review facebook group, who writes, “Can anyone recommend older literature with subtle (or not so subtle) sapphic undertones? I just read Cousin Bette and really enjoyed the little lesbian romance going on between Valerie and Bette. Apparently the Victorian era had lots of these covert lesbian romance narratives, and I need more!”
For those who are interested in 19th century literature with lesbian themes, there are several books that discuss the topic and have many examples you might be interested in tracking down. Emma Donoghue’s book Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature traces several running themes in Western literature from the Renaissance through the 20th century and has an extensive list of works mentioned. Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men looks extensively at how women’s relationships are treated in fiction, especially during the 18th through 20th centuries. If you want to look at some excerpts before tracking down old novels, Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism includes many excerpts, along with a discussion of the context in which they were written. Another anthology of this type is Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian and Bisexual Literature from the 17th Century to the Present, edited by Lillian Faderman. Also useful is Jeanette H. Foster’s Sex Variant Women in Literature.
In the 19th century, there are two very different strains of literature that include sapphic undertones. Cousin Bette published in 1846 by French author Honoré de Balzac, represents the themes of lesbian desire as shocking and decadent. Either the reality or the implication of desire between women was used by these authors as the epitome of predatory evil. The supposedly innocent women who are drawn into the coils of their lesbian protagonists descended into madness, drug addiction, and death unless rescued at the last minute by the jealous and possessive love of a man. (Alternately, the women triumph leaving the male protagonist in suicidal despair.)
Novels in this strain were generally written by men and intended primarily for male audiences. Another novel by de Balzac that falls in this genre is The Girl with the Golden Eyes, published in 1833. Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire novel Carmilla published in 1872 is an example that has gained some renewed popularity. Other so-called classics in this field are Emile Zola’s Nana (1880) about lesbian relationships among the French demi-monde. A book that stops somewhat short the usual tragic or catastrophic climax is Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin published in 1835. It is inspired extremely loosely by the life of 17the century biseuxal opera singer and swordswoman Julie d’Aubigny but has turned her into something of a gender-queer rival of the protagonist in a romantic triangle.
The other genre of 19th century literature with sapphic themes comes out of the Romantic Friendship movement and is dominated by female authors, though men wrote in this field as well. Here, the sexual aspects of the relationships tend to be more sublimated and the focus is on the development of an intense emotional partnership that rivals--though not always successfully--the expectation of heterosexual marriage. In this genre we find a few rare stories that both depict women’s relationships positively and allow them a happy ending. There are many excellent examples of this genre from the 18th century, such as Sarah Scott’s utopian A Description of Millennium Hall from 1762, but I’ll focus here on a few from the 19th century.
The Rebel of the Family published by Eliza Lynn Linton in 1880 depicts relationships among a group of women involved in the early suffrage movement. It’s likely that a modern reader will view the protagonists more favorably than the author intended. And the depiction of the women forming passionate same-sex households will have different resonances today. Henry James’s The Bostonians written in 1886 covers similar themes of early feminism and the rivalry between a woman and a man for the love of the female protagonist. The man wins in the end, but the women’s love is depicted in a postive light. There is a film version of this story people might be interested in.
A much more positive outcome--at least by the standards of the audience of this podcast--comes in Florence Converse’s 1897 novel Diana Victrix. As one might guess from the title, here the women’s love is victorious against assault by a male suitor.
In a departure from my usual custom of putting buy links on the show notes, this time I decided to include links to Project Gutenberg, a site that offers free e-books of texts in the public domain. Rather annoyingly, I found that of the 9 books I mentioned, all 6 of the books with male authors were available there, while only 1 of the 3 with female authors was there. I don’t think this is random coincidence. For the last two books I’ve linked to archive.org. And because I often find that older literature is easier to manage in audio format than on the page, I’ve also linked to audiobook versions at the free crowd-sourced public domain site Librivox.org, which I highly recommend to those who enjoy both audiobooks and classic literature.
Faderman, Lillian (ed). 1994. Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian and Bisexual Literature from the 17th Century to the Present. Viking, xx. ISBN 978-0-670-84638-4 (not yet blogged in the LHMP)
Gautier, Théophile. 1835. Mademoiselle de Maupin. (ebook)
Zola, Emile. 1880. Nana. (ebook)
Novels of Romantic Friendship
Converse, Florence. 1897. Diana Victrix. (ebook)
Linton, Eliza Lynn. 1880. The Rebel of the Family. (ebook)
Scott, Sarah. 1762. A Description of Millennium Hall. (ebook)
Research into an awareness of same-sex desire in history often fixes on the use of specific vocabulary or the clear understanding of certain definable categories of behavior. But in this article, Puff looks more deeply at oblique ways in which social knowedge of same-sex desire is made evident. The case of Greta von Möskirch demonstrates that her contemporaries were clearly aware of the possibility that female-presenting individuals might desire other female-presenting individuals, but also that they had a variety of frameworks for "explaining" that phenomenon. Those frameworks included several variations on "born that way" as well as the possibility that it was personal choice (though framed as sin). The way these several possibilities are brought together in a single analysis points out the hazard of taking any one historic "explanation" as reflecting the beliefs and understandings of the times. And just because a particular historic culture didn't have a vocabulary term that corresponded to a particular "explanation" (e.g., no term that narrowly meant "a woman with a lifelong predisposition to desire women, present as a personality trait rather than a physical condition") doesn't mean that the concept wasn't possible.
Puff, Helmut. 2011. “Toward a Philology of the Premodern Lesbian” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Puff, Helmut. 2011. “Toward a Philology of the Premodern Lesbian”
Puff examines terminology for women in same-sex relations in a context of exchange and communication (that is, the question of how such terminology was shared and disseminated) using two focal texts: the Zimmern chronicle and the Colloquies of Erasmus. The Zimmern Chronicle was composed ca. 1564 by Count von Zimmern, covering the German family’s history from antiquity onward. It is a massive collection of all manner of trivia, left unfinished by the count’s death around 1566. [See Puff 2000 for a specific look at the episode in this document.]
In a chapter covering the life of one ancestor, there is a brief reference to “a poor servant-maid” named Greta who worked in the marketplace of Messkirch (or Mösskirch) who courted young women with a “masculine affect”. This activity provoked concern among the residents which resulted in a physical examination to determine if she was a “proper woman”. And that’s it: no consequences, no closure, no follow-up. The episode isn’t told in the style of a fabliau (which are featured elsewhere in the chronicle) or as a moral lesson or joke. It’s simply offered as a curious anecdote. Several frameworks for understanding were explored in the text: anatomy, astrology, ancient literature, or history
Puff argues that this is evidence that the knowledge of lesbianism in pre-modern Europe was more diverse and widely shared than is generally recognized. He posits that the presence of the woman who loved women crossed boundaries of language, genre, and knowledge systems and that understanding of this has been hampered by the silo effect of national philology studies.
The chronicle author’s confusion regarding Greta is not individual but is reflected in the various knowledge systems he brings to bear. For example, we know that Greta’s contemporaries believed that physiology might explain her behavior. Although examination contradicted that theory in Greta’s case, that knowledge didn’t put the concern to rest. A second theory was that an “unnatural constellation” at her birth might be the cause of her behavior. Any number of astrology manuals (beginning in classical times and handed down in later interpretations) discuss contexts that provoked sexual disorder. Alternately, the count turned to references to “hermaphrodites or androgynes” in ancient literature as a model for understanding. The term “hermaphrodite” also shows up in the 1405 request for pardon in the French case of Jehanne and Laurence. [See e.g., Benkov 2001 for details.] As in Greta’s case, theirs involved sexual behavior rather than visual gender transgression such as cross-dressing. The concept of the hermaphrodite staked out an unstable position between gender and sex, body and behavior, text and experience. The Count von Zimmern’s final theory was that Greta’s behavior was a sign of “the sinful times.”
Greta’s life and behavior belongs to the experiential world, but the interpretations placed on it come out of theoretical systems. Some of those systems (such as physiology) could be contradicted by experience, but the framework of morality could not. As the chronicle was meant to analyze and provide guidance on the Zimmern family’s fortunes, the question of Greta’s significance (in the section covering the author’s uncle) reflects the indeterminate status of those fortunes.
Where would the count’s knowledge about women who desired women come from? It would come from all levels of society, by both written and oral transmission. The chronicle accumulates information from a demonstrably wide range of sources. The nature of the anecdote suggests oral transmission through multiple iterations before being recorded. Oral networks involving both men and women were important for establishing and communicating standards of sexual behavior. If such informal debates were loud enough, they might be taken up by legal authorities. Legal records in south-western Germany attest to a wide variety of types of female same-sex behavior that came to the attention of authorities, and a variety of outcomes. The count’s chronicle became part of continuing those concerns at a remove from the original events.
Erasmus’ colloquies stand at another pole of communication: that of staged, formal argumentation, despite the superficial format of natural speech. [Note: “colloquy” literally means “conversation” and indicates a text in the form of a conversation between multiple parties. The purpose of a colloquy might be to make a logical argument, but the term was also used for language-learning texts intended to present vocabulary and grammar for everyday conversation.] Such texts, especially Latin ones, are less studied in the context of the “renaissance of lesbianism”, when 16th century vernacular translations of Sappho are treated as a watershed in accessibility and influence. Questions of transmission and translation are rarely addressed. Despite this glossing over of the Latin material, it is clear that knowledge of Sappho’s homoerotic reputation was in common currency before translations of her were into the vernacular were available.
Erasmus, in a colloquy of 1523, demonstrates this “common knowledge” in a passage where a young man is trying to persuade his beloved not to enter a convent. He points out with respect to the intellectual climate of the convent, “there are more who copy Sappho’s behavior than share her talent.” The young woman (who is identified in the title of the colloquy as “the girl with no interest in marriage”) is portrayed as innocently clueless to the allusion, saying, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Who, then, was the audience for this innuendo? Although the colloquy’s overt audience was young male students, the text was widely disseminated among elite readers, although it was translated from Latin to German somewhat later than his other works. “Sapphism” is only one of the hazards of convent life implied in the text, though the only one the woman claims ignorance of. Though women were denied formal schooling in Latin, they had access through family and private tutors.
Later in the colloquy, the woman leaves the convent after an unnamed encounter with clerical depravity. Did Erasmus mean to refer to Sappho the sexually voracious heterosexual, or Sappho the lesbian? The former interpretation was promulgated by the more familiar Phaon story, as opposed to the less familiar homoerotic verses. Further, even Latin translations of Sappho’s poetry weren’t yet published at the time Erasmus was writing. So was Sappho’s homoeroticism public knowledge even at that remove?
I hope that thing about "New Year's Day is a sign of what your year will be like" thing isn't true for me, because early on the 31st I started getting that throat-tickle thing that presages a cold, and sure enough I spent the next two days in bed trying to sleep off the germs. I can't control that aspect of how my year started, so here's something I can control. I made an off-hand commitment on Twitter the other day to balance out my self-pitying "what have I done all year" posts with a positivity post about nice writing-related things that have happened this year. In no particular order:
1. The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has been given a shout-out in several places online (by people who aren't personal friends of mine). And I've seen a good handful of twitter mentions go past along the lines of "OMG where has this been all my life?"
2. The LHMP blog has achieved one of its tongue-in-cheek bucket list goals by being linked on a "term papers for sale" website. They do say that plagiarism is one of the most sincere forms of flattery!
3. Several people have produced lovely pieces of Alpennia fan art and shared them with me. And I've become aware of at least one piece of Alpennia fan fiction in existence though of course I will pretend I don't know anything about it.
4. The author interview series for the podcast has emboldened me to do some moderately ambitious cold-contacts. In this case, success isn't measured by nailing down an interview, but only by having the nerve to ask for one.
5. For all that I sometimes mope about feeling like my publishing context creates a bar between me and SFF professional spaces, I continue to be regularly invited/accepted to be on programming at SFF conventions and to be given feedback that my contributions are considered interesting and valuable.
6. Keyword monitoring on twitter has indicated that people who aren't personal friends of mine are recommending the LHMP to other people who aren't personal friends of mine as a resource.
7. A rather surprising number of people signed up for my monthly author newsletter.
Well, that's surely a positive way to start the year?
The inclusion of this article in The Lesbian Premodern was what spurred me to track down Bennett's more extensive article on this memorial, and thus to create the podcast episode on joint same-sex grave memorials through the ages. Artifacts like this and the context around them always inspire me to imagine the personal stories of the women involved. Maybe my imaginings drift far afield from the lives they actually did live, but as a writer of fiction, I'm content to dream up some of the stories they could have lived. What caused Elizabeth's death at so early an age? A sudden fever? An accident? She and Agnes must have been close for their bond to be commemorated so significantly thirty years later. Was that why Agnes never married? Because her heart had already been given? But this wasn't an age when marriage was driven by romance. What reason did Agnes give her family for choosing not to marry? What pressures were brought to bear? Or did fate simply hand her that option coincidentally? Where did Agnes spend those thirty years after Elizabeth's death? Had they been together at Elizabeth's home of Etchingham and Agnes stayed on as an unofficial member of the family? Or did Agnes live out her live in her own family home, surprising them all at the end with her choice of resting place? Therein lie the seeds of so many stories!
Bennett, Judith M. 2011. “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Bennett, Judith M. 2011. “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge”
[I’ve also covered a more extensive article by Bennett on this monument that focuses more on the details of the artifact, its manufacture, and untangling the genealogy and relationships of the two families. This present article goes into more detail of the social interpretation.]
The central topic of this article is a 15th century brass memorial located in a small parish church in Sussex that shows two women turned toward each other, with an explanatory inscription. Elizabeth Etchingham (on the viewer’s left) is the smaller figure, shown with loose flowing hair. Agnes Oxenbridge (on the viewer’s right) has tightly pinned up (but uncovered) hair and is shown larger. The two are dressed identically. Elizabeth’s text identifies her as the first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, died December 3, 1452. Agnes’s text identifies her as the daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, died August 4, 1480, and asks God’s mercy on both women.
Bennett takes us on a consideration of the context of the monument, the women, and the iconography of memorial brasses to show the evidence for situating this story within a lesbian history.
The use of a brass memorial indicates a good birth, and both women came from land-owning gentry. Their families lived in the neighborhood of the church where they are buried, which belonged to the Etchingham family.
The usual pattern for young women’s lives for this time, place, and class would be to be raised at home until the beginning of adolescence and then be placed out into another household as part of their social training and to form bonds between families that would shape their later lives. It’s quite possible that the two women lived in the same household as part of this sort of arrangement. The usual expectation would be to marry in the late teens or twenties, although perhaps 5% of women (in this time/place/class) remained single life-long. Only a few of those singlewomen became nuns; others remained with their families.
Despite the lack of contemporary records for the two women (other than the memorial) we can know that neither married, based on the absence of references on the memorial to husbands, and from their depiction with uncovered hair. Both likely were born in the 1420s, with Elizabeth dying in her mid 20s and Agnes three decades later.
The Oxenbridge family mausoleum was in Brede, so the choice to bury Agnes next to Elizabeth in Etchingham with a joint memorial is unusual and indicates the joint approval and cooperation of both families, in the persons of the heads of the households: Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Etchingham and Agnes’s brother Robert Oxenbridge. But the arrangement is unlikely to have been driven by anyone other than Agnes herself as expressed in her will (which has not survived). Implementing this desire required the support and approval, not only of both families but also the workshop that made the memorial. As such, it’s unlikely that anyone involved considered whatever relationship the women had to be scandalous or unacceptable.
The design of the brass provides clues to how that relationship was viewed. There is a symbolic vocabulary for the layout of memorial brasses. Paired memorial images conventionally involved a married couple. The husband is usually placed on the viewer’s left in the more prestigious location, the place Elizabeth occupies, perhaps because the burial was done in her family’s church, but perhaps because the Etchinghams were a more prominent family than the Oxenbridges. The difference in size and hairstyle of the women most likely is intended to reflect their age difference at death. Loose, flowing hair was associated with young women, whereas Agnes’s pinned-up style is seen on mature women. The lack of a head covering is a strong symbol of unmarried status. The third aspect of visual symbolism indicates the relationship that motivated the joint memorial. Here, from among various possible arrangements of the figures, the brassmakers chose the one that represented an affectionate marriage-like bond. This is shown not simply in the joint memorial itself, but by having the women face each other, looking directly into each other’s faces. (Elizabeth’s head is tilted up slightly to gaze at the taller figure of Agnes, whose head is bowed slightly.)
The majority of joint effigies have both figures front-facing, reflecting the earlier style of sculptural effigies with reclining figures. The facing-in-profile style was relatively new at the time this brass was made. Scholars of memorial symbolism see it as a development to express “the intimacy of marriage” (as well as to better display newer fashions in headwear on the female figures--a consideration not relevant in this case). But the Elizabeth-Agnes memorial avoids two features that could undermine this impression of intimacy. The workshop that produced the brass more typically showed the facing figures leaning slightly backward, away from each other, depicting a static and immobile pose via the arrangements of the folds of skirt drapery. Instead, Agnes and Elizabeth appear to be in motion towards each other, with their skirts spread backwards and their bodies angled forward.
As brasses are not portraits and these details were unlikely to be specified by Agnes herself, they are more likely to reflect the communal understanding of their relationship by their families. Commemoration of same-sex friendships in joint memorials is widespread (though not common) but the overwhelming majority are male pairs and have later dates than the 15th century. Alan Bray’s work on the history of friendship cited no female examples before the 17th century, so the Etchingham/Oxenbridge memorial and others like it expand the scope of this data considerably. The emphasis of Bray’s study is on emotional intimacy but not necessarily sexual love. Similarly in this case, we can solidly understand Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as commemorating a close, intense, lasting emotional bond, but we have no evidence one way or the other regarding whether that bond was also erotic.
Bennett pauses to discuss why she created the concept of “lesbian-like” to discuss examples like this (Bennett 2000), without having to apply some rigid standard of evidence and definition to whether they “counted” as lesbians by modern identity-based definitions. Resistance to viewing examples like Elizabeth and Agnes via a “lesbian-like” category are often overtly driven by a horror that it “slanders” the women involved. It also leads to convoluted interpretation of the evidence, such as the counter-factual claims that Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorials were actually separate objects coincidentally placed side by side. Bennett asks why we should demand a greater stability and clarity of definition of “lesbian” in history than we have at the present time. She points out that some scholars argue that medieval European society only recognized one gender--male--with women being considered “imperfectly male”, while other historians view the evidence as showing a rigid two-gender system. Similarly, some scholars argue that the medieval world had no concept that would correspond to heterosexuality, no sense of “normal” against which to define “abnormal” sexuality. In this context, viewing the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial as “lesbian-like” doesn’t close off interpreting the women as heterosexual, if that is a category that has no validity in the medieval context in the first place.
Coming back to the theory focus of this collection, Bennett argues that viewing the memorial as lesbian-like helps break free of anachronistically modern assumptions about the women’s lives (rather than identifying them by anachronistically modern identity labels). Using the word “lesbian”, which has carried through the centuries with unstable but related senses, helps with this process, Bennett argues, more than the deliberate avoidance of the word “lesbian” does. She points out that singling out “lesbian” as problematic while using similarly unstable terms such as “housewife” [or for that matter “household”] is suspect. Identifying Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as “lesbian-like” does not claim them as “lesbian” but as exploring a related set of affinities between women. “Lesbian-like” refuses to privilege sexual relations and our knowledge of them as a definition for the borders of lesbian history. In the face of historical claims that the middle ages were hostile to medieval lesbianism--or at best indifferent to it--examples like the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial suggest other intriguing possibilities.
I’m debating whether I want to put out any New Year’s resolutions (or my more usual irresolutions) for 2018, but the end of the year is a good time to look at my post from 2016/12/29 when I laid out my resolutions for this past year and see how they played out. My one solid resolution was: “I'm going to stop doing things just to try to impress people who don’t actually care. And one of those things is blogging five days a week.”
I committed to continuing to blog on projects that gave me personal satisfaction, regardless of whether anyone else was reading them:
So how did I do? Working from my blog tracking spreadsheet, I posted 228 substantial blogs (i.e., not including administrative posts and the like), so if my goal was to post fewer than an average of 5 blogs per week, I succeeded, though not by a large margin since it comes up to about four and a half per week.
I posted 54 LHMP entries (including the tag essays at the beginning of the year that I posted while the other content was suspended for the website migration). But I upped the number of LHMP podcast-related blogs, with a total of 32 blog entries covering 29 separate podcasts, largely due to the expansion of the podcast to a weekly schedule. And I’m just beginning to get a trickle of second-hand evidence that the podcasts are getting an active specific audience as opposed simply being part of the Lesbian Talk Show feed. The show has been mentioned online at some websites and I've seen it recommended to people interested in lesbian history, both authors and not. There's still obviously a discoverability problem and a dearth of direct feedback. It isn't clear that people are successfully tracking back from the podcast to the website or that they're making the connection between the history project and my fiction output.
I posted 15 items for the LaForge Civil War diaries series, although I dropped that ball in May when travel plans and other projects intruded and haven’t picked it up again. I posted 32 reviews, mostly novels, and started participating in the Short SFF Reviews website (which doesn’t show up in my blog stats). I wrote 23 blogs about my writing (not counting minor updates and promo pieces). About a third of them were finishing up the chapter-by-chapter teasers for Mother of Souls. (Unlike The Mystic Marriage I couldn’t time the teasers to conclude with the release date.) The rest of the writing blogs were mostly sparked by reader questions. Reader questions are great because I’ll blather on about any topic that comes to me, but reader-inspired posts guaratee that someone’s actually interested in the topic.
After a great deal of dithering around, I completed my last two irresolutions by tackling Hootsuite to automate the posting of a rotating schedule of promotional material to Twitter and facebook. It’ll be a while before I can have a sense of how that’s working out, but at least it provides a consistent public presence in people’s faces that doesn’t require me to take the emotional hit of crafting it one item at a time. And I set up a monthly Alpennia newsletter to help provide a more direct line to the people who are actively interested in my writing and to provide them with some exclusive content as a reward.
So there you are. Any suggestions of what I should commit to in 2018? (No promises, but my deep dark secret is that I am willing to do all sorts of things to try to impress people who do actually care.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17e - 2017 Roundup - Transcript
(Originally aired 2017/12/30 - listen here)
It’s an extra Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast falling at the end of the year, so I thought I’d use if for some musings on the podcast and the blog. On what I’ve been doing with it, what I have planned, and where I hope to go.
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog started out as one of those cataloging projects I do for myself. For decades, I’d been collecting up research materials and bibliographic references to use in my own historic fiction projects. Originally I thought I might publish a sourcebook based on the material, but just like every soucebook idea I’ve ever had, I realized that a single finished product was neither a convenient end product nor a realistic way to motivate myself. I’ve had this happen with my catalog of surviving medieval garments and my database of medieval Welsh personal names. The project keeps expanding as I work and eventually I move on to other things.
So I knew that if my goal was to write a comprehensive sourcebook of historic materials on lesbian history, I’d never actually finish it. And so in a fit of rationality in 2014, I decided to start blogging about the materials I’d collected. I’d read each book or article, summarize it, add content tags for convenient searching, and make it available to the world. I’ve often found that success is a matter of tailoring your goals to your natural method of working. And from that point of view, the blog has been very successful.
At this point, I’ve blogged summaries of 170 books and articles for a total of about 360 blog posts. When I started this research back in the ‘80s I never would have believed there would be that much relevant content in the world--and at the time, there wasn’t. There has been an immense expansion of historic research into issues of sexuality in the last couple decades. The available resources for authors who want to research historic settings for lesbian historical fiction, while far from perfect, are so much better than they were when I first contemplated entering the field. But it’s still the case that many people who want to write these stories have only a limited amount of historic data avaliable to them.
This is the second purpose of the blog and podcast. In addition to re-familliarizing myself with the research materials I’ve collected, I wanted to share knowledge of those resources with authors who might not have the same access to academic publications that I do. In any research endeavor, the most immediate and important step is to know that the information you’re looking for actually exists. To know that there’s a hope of success. The second most important step is to have some clue where to look for it. These are the two steps where I hope to be of some use to my fellow authors of historical fiction.
The blog is far from any possibility of completion. I’ve covered 170 publications so far, but my database of references to follow up on contains 470 listings. At some point, I may stop adding new titles faster than I can possibly read them, but it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened, though, is that for my core area of interest--pre-modern Europe--I’m running across less and less new historic data that I haven’t encountered before. There are still occasional new discoveries--new either to me or to the historians writing about them. But mostly I’m finding additional discussions and analysis of the material I already know about. In part, this is because the cutting edge of historical research moves from topic to topic. In the 1990s, there was a lot of interest in medieval sexuality. In the first decade of the 21st century, there has been something of an explosion of interest in lesbian history of the 18th century. So I have high hopes of learning something new for as long as I keep the project going.
When the blog had been going for about 2 years, there was an opportunity to add the podcast, thanks to the offer of being hosted by The Lesbian Talk Show. I think Sheena and I had started talking about it maybe half a year before that. We’d kind of come up with the idea simultaneously and when I pitched it to her she was right on the verge of suggesting it to me. It took me a while to sort out exactly what sort of approach I wanted to take, and I wanted to have a few shows worth of ideas written up before committing myself. That’s something of a regular theme in my project expansions, but it’s because my time availability can be variable and I always try to have a buffer of material available.
So I started out in the podcast by taking examples of specific women from history whose stories I thought woud be inspiring and interesting to people who read lesbian fiction. Not all of them are women that we can clearly identify as lesbian, but just as with the blog, the core idea is to identify themes and people that can serve as a basis for creating fictional lesbians.
As the podcast has developed, I’ve also done programs with a theme, such as medieval love poetry between women, rather than focused on a specific person. Because of the audio nature of a podcast, I’ve tried to look for topics where I can include historic texts, such as my episode on translations of Sappho’s poetry across the centuries, or the episode on Catherine Vizzani, that included excerpts from the 18th century biography of her life.
The idea to expand the podcast from a monthly schedue to weekly was another step that took some time to prepare for. I didn’t entirely commit to the idea until I had the idea of doing a rotation of 4 weekly topics--a structure that I’d found worked well for me in my blogging. The idea of including author interviews grew out of a discussion I’d had on facebook with some other authors of lesbian historical fiction, where we were trying to brainstorm ways of encouraging readers to take a chance on our genre.
It took about half a year of setting things up from my first stabs at lining up interviews. Try to imagine what it’s like for a shy introvert to tackle the cat-herding challenge of chasing down authors for interviews! But with half a year of episodes in the bag, I think I’ve got the hang of things. From the start, I wanted to use the interviews not only to showcase authors within the lesfic community, but to expand people’s idea of lesbian historical fiction by bringing in people pubishing in the mainstream or at the intersection of history and fantasy.
The next big step for the podcast will fulfill a dream I’ve had for some time. One way to support lesbian historical fiction is to write my own, of course. But I’ve long dreamed of supporting and encouraging it as a publisher. Currently I have neither the time nor the skills to set up my own publishing house. I have a very realistic notion of what that would take, having had a chance to watch my friend Catherine Lundoff work through the process of setting up Queen of Swords Press.
But when I realized that my rotating schedule of podcast topics meant that I’d have the occasional 5th show, I started thinking about the idea of using it to publish original audio fiction. One of the models for this idea is the SFF fiction podcast group Escape Artists, which includes the fantasy show Podcastle where I’ve had two stories published. Looking at their format, and seeing how they operated, it felt like a framework that I could adapt relatively painlessly.
So as this episode come to air, I’ll be right on the verge of my first open submissions window to select two (or maybe more) stories to produce as part of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. It’s an experiment. If it doesn’t work--if I don’t get enough good submissions, or if it turns out to be more work than I can manage--I haven’t committed myself to more than I can handle. And if it works really well...well, the sky’s the limit, isn’t it? Though if it works really well, I’m going to need a more sustainable financial model!
I’m always looking for more ways to get the listeners interacting with the show. I’ve received some lovely questions for the Ask Sappho segment from the facebook groups associated with The Lesbian Review and The Lesbian Talk Show, but people can always send questions directly to me either through my website, on twitter, or through facebook. And I’m always looking for suggestions of authors to interview, especially people outside the usual lesfic circles, and very especially people writing in less common settings or with marginalized characters.
I hope you are enjoying the blog and the podcast so far and that you will enjoy the new directions coming up.
There will proably be spoilers in this review, although I'm not really going to be focusing much on plot issues--more just a jumbled collection of emotional reactions. But if you haven't seen the movie and don't want any substantial elements spoiled, don't read this.
OK, are we all still on the same page?
In a way, I guess, a jumbled collection of emotional reactions is an appropriate review for a Star Wars movie, because they have always been a jumbled collection of tropes intended to provoke emotional reactions. It's just a matter of whose reactions they're designed to provoke. When you look at the overall history of Star Wars movies, it's clear that The Last Jedi, even more so than The Force Awakens, is deliberately designed to widen and deepen the set of people whose emotional reactions the franchise cares about. And yet, on closer examination, it's still a very conservative, catch-up approach. Let's take a look at gender representation, just for a start. I've seen a lot of reactions, both positive and negative, about the "overwhelming" presence of women in The Last Jedi. Negative reactions, as in "all these girls are ruining the franchise" and positive reactions as in "yay, look at all the lovely female roles." I know, because I was part of the latter reaction.
You know that thing that’s been studied that shows that people perceive that when a group of people has around 1/3 women or when a conversation has around 1/3 female contributions that the women are over-represented?
I ran the numbers on the cast lists at imdb.com for The Last Jedi.
(Note: I find the complete absence of women from the “uncredited rest of cast” list significant. It says something about what the unmarked default remains and who is getting the bottom-of-the-ladder acting jobs that can lead to viable careers.)
Just to put it in context, let's look at female % of first 10 top billed, and % of "first billed" (all per imdb, which seems to consistently list the first 15 for "first billed") for all 9 franchise movies so far, in order of release:
This is “women taking over Star Wars”. WIth the exception of the Smurfette throwback numbers in Rogue One, there's been a slow incremental improvement. Ah, but the female characters are central and important, so the “takeover” is more obvious when you look at percent of the dialogue, right? I can’t find a dialogue-by-gender analysis for the movie yet, though this article looks at the franchise history for non-white and female representation across several factors. In A New Hope the female first-billed presence at 13% (i.e., two women) dwarfed the female dialogue presence of 6.3%. In The Force Awakens, the first-billed presence and dialogue presence were functionally identical (ca. 27%) but this only brought the dialogue presence in line with overall averages for movies that year. I have a suspicion that when the stats come out for female dialogue presence in The Last Jedi comes out, it won’t be significantly different from the first-billed representation. But at 40%, that of course means that women have successfully elbowed all men out of the franchise.
So, yes, I loved loved loved the visceral presence of women in The Last Jedi, both in terms of screen-time and story structure, but even I fell into the trap of perceiving women as dominating the movie when we're still talking about maybe one in three. And the same phenomenon carries over to the non-white presence. It's lovely, it's wonderful, it's fabulous that there were so many non-white characters driving the action on screen. But let's not see it as more than a potentially anomalous good first step that needs to be followed up across the industry on a consistent basis until perceptions match reality. If we accept the false subjective perception that 30% means "women dominate" then we'll continue to accept 20% as parity.
In terms of plot, there were a number of trope-subversions and unexpected resolutions that I really really liked. I liked that Kyle Ren stuck to his whiny, petulent emo-boy character and followed through even when we were teased with the possibility that he might be "turned away from the dark side." Because I would have been furious if we'd gotten another Darth Vader redemption-at-the-last-minute story that wiped out all the terrible things he's done both on and off screen, especially if it were driven by that really tired trope of "the love of a good woman can redeem a bad boy." That trope is one of the most pernicious ones in media throughout the ages. (Of course, there's still one movie to go in this set, so they could still fall back on it.) I'm trying to remember whose review it was that utterly tore apart the concept of the Kylo Ren redemption arc, I'd like to give credit but I'm not finding it at the moment.
I loved that there is no indication of setting Rey up for a romantic arc in any way shape or form. Yes, it's clear that Finn has a thing for her. But all her reactions and body language say "wonderful platonic friendship" and we really need more of those on the screen, especially between m/f pairs. While we're talking about romance, I'm not in the least surprised (though always disappointed) that we get not even the slightest hint that anyone in the Star Wars universe might be something other than heterosexual. And I will hate on anyone who disses Finn/Rose because they're holding out for Finn/Poe. They never were going to give you Finn/Poe. They never will give you Finn/Poe. They will toy with you in unofficial interviews and tease you and make vague meaningless promises.
"Sexuality in general is not something that's front of mind in any of these movies," writer-director Rian Johnson told BuzzFeed News. "I think [LGBT representation] is one element that we haven't done yet that we need to do."
Bullshit that "sexuality...is not something that's front...in any of these movies." Leia/Han was not about sexuality? Anakin/Padme was not about destroying the Republic because a young Jedi couldn't keep it in his pants? Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. But they will never give you that LGBT representation they're teasing you with. Because they know you'll keep crawling back like a whipped puppy whining for table scraps and being grateful that you haven't been locked out in the cold empty garage for the night. And the whole, "But this one throwaway line in a Star Wars novel can be interpreted as Admiral Holdo being bisexual"? Yeah, that's still table scraps. And when you look at the particular scrap in question, the more obvious reading is that it's talking about inter-species sex, not bisexuality. (Recall that Star Trek was perfectly accepting of interspecies sex from the get-go but peculiarly erasive of the possibility of non-heterosexuality long past the point when it was an embarrassment.)
All of which does not contradict the fact that Admiral Holdo is my emotional fave character and my heart is broken that we won't get more of her. Also: I've rarely been tempted to cosplay, but I WANT that dress. The fact that I do not have a Laura Dern body and would look awful in puce will quite probably be the deciding factor, alas.
Moving on to plot elements. I'm delighted to see the rug pulled out from under the "bad boy going off cowboying in defiance of authority and common sense" trope. A pity they had to spoil it by having Leia and Holdo have that "Isn't he so cute when he's treasonously subordinate?" moment. No. Poe Dameron isn't cute. And being a hotshot pilot on your own doesn't make up for the enormous volume of human lives and equipment he is personally responsible for throwing away. I have no confidence that he has learned any sort of lesson in the long term, or that he won't be promoted into some position of authority he is completely unsuited for. Our society is full of hotshot flyboys leaving wakes of disaster behind them and it's time we stopped framing them as the heros of the story. The Last Jedi makes a brief nod to the destructiveness of that type of character but doesn't stick the landing.
I am delighted with the implication (both by the disclosures about Rey's parentage and the closing scene with the stableboy--and of course it's the stableboy, of course it is) that we're moving away from "the Force as royal bloodline" with all the neo-monarchist garbage it promotes, and just perhaps toward showing that the salvation of the universe depends on the distributed actions of lots of "nobodies". Goodness knows, the official Resistance isn't going to save us, given that they've been whittled down to a population that can all fit on the Millennium Falcon! In the last year, people have gotten a lot of mileage from using the Star Wars Resistance as a symbol of political action for the real world. (I just might *cough* own a pink ball cap with a sequined Resistance logo on it.) But it can't be that symbol if it props up the notion that salvation will come from some official organization way off thataway in a secret rebel base. Because if that's the message we take away, then when the Resistance sends out the signal to their "supporters" throughout the empire, no one will answer.
So, as I said, a random heap of emotional reactions. I liked the movie a great deal. I liked that I didn't walk out of it with the impression that it was 80% chases, explosions, and battles, and that's pretty rare for sci fi movies these days. I would like the progressive aspects of the plot and casting if I felt they were more deeply rooted in the creative process and the deepest values of the movie industry, but we all know how tenuous such things are.
So, as always, I'll close this review with an admonition that if you want to see media that represents all genders, all sexualities, all ethnicities, and that moves beyond tired action-hero tropes, don't wait for Hollywood and other mainstream media giants to throw you the promise of future scraps. Go out and support the creative properties that are giving you that representation now, today, up front, without apology, and as an intrinsic part of their worldview.
It isn't entirely uncommon in myth and legend for a woman to become pregnant without the participation of a (human) man. It's rather less common to find stories in which pregnancy is attributed to sexual activity between women--whether, as in this case, with divine assistance, or as in the case in an early Irish text, where the sperm is leftover from one of the women's prior heterosexual activity. With all the fertility technology we have today, the idea of two women being co-genetic parents of a child is still mostly theoretical. And we're only just getting past the notion that a genetic connection (such as the one that drives this legend) is of paramount importance. There are several other stories in which the imperative for family lineage is a factor in women's same-sex relationships. One reason that the tale of Yde and Olive is "required" to have a heterosexual resolution is that it's part of a saga revolving around family lineage--the production of a genetic heir is the reason for the story's existence. But this type of narrative motivation can't simply be removed willy-nilly from the tales to leave an unadorned story of same-sex marriage-equivalent, for the lineage imperative is sometimes what drives (temporary) acceptance of the women's relationship within the story context.
Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
Vanita, Ruth. 2011. “Naming Love: The God Kama, the Goddess Ganga, and the Child of Two Women”
This article takes up the theme of women conceiving under difficult and or impossible conditions, e.g., virgins giving birth, and how the children of these conceptions are marked out as special. This theme appears in the context of multiple cultural traditions, e.g., Ruth and Naomi in the bible, and the mothers of Bhagirtha, who was explicitly engendered by sexual activity between two women with the help of the God of Love.
Vanita looks at three Indian devotional texts concerning how the god Vishnu and two co-wives of a king ensure his lineage continues, as prophecy requires. Most variants of the tale involve ordinary heterosexual procreation but in several 14th century versions, the king dies without children and his wives ask divine help to give him a son. The stories attribute various other motivations to the women’s actions, including same-sex desire, in which they engage in sex and one becomes pregnant.
Many types of miraculous births occur in Indian texts. The inclusion of female same-sex love is possibly motivated by a 14th century interest in goddess worship and the worship of Kama, a god of love, who blessed female same-sex eroticism. The goddess texts often featured her ability to produce children autonomously.
The figure of Bhagiratha is closely associated with one of the oldest goddesses, the river Ganga. The Rig Veda includes various references to rivers as pairs of co-mothers. The god Kama is depicted as a force of desire and the urge to create. His “energy” allows the sexual activity between the two women to result in pregnancy.
Vanita continues with a discussion of other symbolic themes present in the stories and a discussion of medical texts that show the early Hindu understanding of female sexual anatomy and behavior.
A vacation schedule affects one's sense of time even without the distractions I've had during this particular holiday season. (The sort that will make amusing family stories for years to come.) So I almost forgot it was LHMP day! This amusing meditation on the interpretation of fashionable female figures in medieval manuscripts that belonged to women as being a psychological equivalent of "barbie dolls" seems to fit in well on a day for toys and presents. I hope all my readers are enjoying whatever winter holidays they prefer.
Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections”
While some “queer readings” of medieval texts examine how God replaces a carnal beloved in courtly poetic forms, this article looks at an example of courtly images of women used to illustrate pious texts, and what the motivations and consequences of that might be. These manuscripts read as “queer” via the gaze of the women the texts are intended for [note: this is not speculation, we know who the original owners/patrons of the books were] and the use of female bodies of objects of desire and fantasy for a female viewer.
Like the Barbie doll, the images become private playthings for the viewer to engage with harmlessly. The “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (a collection of saints’ lives covering early ascetics) might be an unexpected text for plentiful illustrations of elegant women, even when the collection is expanded to include Desert Mothers. Here, the saints are not depicted as ascetics but as consumers and enjoyers of elegant culture. The women themselves are stylized to represent the ideal of beauty and sensuality of the day.
The article also considers manuscripts of various romances and a luxurious illustrated New Testament with commentary. The romances include Yde and Olive and the romance of the Comte d’Anjou. The illustrations create a world of women’s bonds that can be stronger than their presence in the text itself, with contexts ranging from homosocial to homoerotic.
This set of manuscripts were created in Burgundy and ended up in Turin, Italy via the ducal collections at Savoy. The article has a general description of the contents of the Lives, highlighting the presence and context of these female figures.
Regardless of the male-focused subject matter, the illustrations create a strong female presence and orientation for the books. There is a similar female presence in a manuscript of the Roman du Comte d’Anjou, with the scenes chosen for illustration skewing to those involving women.
The unique manuscript of Yde and Olive (from the Huon de Bordeaux cycle) includes an illustration of the central female couple in their marriage bed. The bed scene is the only illustration from this section of the longer Romance. The text also focuses on this marriage/bed scene, with extensive descriptions of the interaction between the women, including both verbal bonds (repeating the marriage vow) and physical interactions (kissing and hugging). The author makes a point that the text as the conclusion of the tale, which is typically interpreted as a divine sex-change, literally involves God giving Yde “all that a man has of his humanity (umanite)” which is more ambiguous regarding bodily consequences.
The author’s discussion of the illustrated Biblical commentary focuses on the sensual feel and appearance of the pages and the significant presence of noble women in the book’s provenance.