This section of Boswell's work points up some of the structural flaws of his study, in my opinion. "Structural flaws" does not necessarily mean "incorrect data and evidence" but rather that the large-scale conclusions are shaped by the ways in which that evidence is interpreted. And in his quest to find evidence for the existence of a postive gay subculture, there are times when he is deliberately credulous (such as taking politically-motivated accusations of sodomy as descriptive fact) or fails to consider the meaning of the asymmetries in the data. (If you find few examples of women writing texts expressing same-sex love in a clerical context, does that mean that there was no culture of same-sex love among women? Or does it mean that structural gender inequities affected how and by whom that love was expressed? Or perhaps how those expressions were filtered out of the historic record?). It is inescapable that Boswell simply wasn't very interested in women. And yet rather than presenting his conclusions as being restricted to men, he adds in just enough female examples to pretend that his conclusions are universal.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part III: Shifting Fortunes
Part III: Shifting Fortunes
Chapter 7: The Early Middle Ages
The loss of classical traditions and records with positive expressions of gay sexuality (including due to deliberate filtering) meant these were not available to later ages. But the breakdown of government structures with the decline of the Empire meant that oppressive laws were hard to enforce. Gay people were not commonly the subject of repressive legislation in an earlier era, but this was changing. Justinian (6th century) placed same-sex relations under the category of adultery (which had a death penalty, in theory) but it’s unclear that this was enforced except in politically-motivated cases.
This pattern held through the middle ages: the few laws against homosexual behavior were under civil law, while church law had either mild or no penalty for such behavior. [Note: Boswell glosses over the ways in which secular and clerical law were intertwined and influenced each other.] Laws tended to reflect the culture of the ruling elite, which--in this age of migrations and conquest--might have an entirely different culture than the people they ruled.
In most law codes of the early middle ages, homosexuality was absent from the lists of sexual crimes. Specific edicts might disparage homosexuality but rarely punished it. The penitential manuals included extensive details of penance for specific homosexual acts, but they had a similar level of detail for a vast number of ordinary activities that had little public stigma.
Monastic institutions--necessarily same-sex--took pains to discourage “special friendships” and sexual activity, but this cannot necessarily be seen as hostility to homosexuality specifically as the single-sex environment precluded a similar concern for heterosexuality. But these monastic contexts also produced erotic poetry inspired by the close emotional bonds in the institutions (which, again, are necessarily same-sex) between colleagues and teacher-student pairs. Such bonds might be discouraged if they led to public ridiule, but there is no through-line of condemnation for emotional same-sex bonds in general.
Islamic Spain openly celebrated (male) same-sex love in both emotional and sexual terms. This reflected Islamic openness to male same-sex relations in general. Negative Christian reactions to the Muslum presence in that era do not invoke sodomy as a specific charge even though it was recorded as a regular practice.
As the medieval period progressed, framings of same-sex acts as “against nature” fell out of use and the term “sodomy” was used generally for non-procreative activity. [Note: Boswell appears to be suggesting that “sodomy” changed from originally denoting same-sex activity and then was generalized to non-procreative sex, but either I’m misreading his argument or he’s simply wrong here.] Homosexuality came to be treated as simply another type of fornication, possibly even less serious than heterosexual fornication. [Note: “fornication” basically meant any sex outside of authorized heterosexual marriage.]
This section concludes with evidence suggesting that attitudes toward homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant from the late Empire to the early middle ages.
Chapter 8: The Urban Revival
In the 10th-14th century, Europe once again acquired an urban culture due to a variety of social and economic shifts. Cities have an association with democracy, self-government, and personal freedom. Boswell identifies the re-emergence of a “distinct gay subculture” with this re-urbanization in southern Europe. [Note: and, of course, he’s only talking about a “distinct gay male subculture.”]
Also during this era, erotic passion returned as a topic and preoccupation of literature and society, from religious ecstasy to courtly love to chivalric romances. Another feature of the era was the reform and revitalization of the church. Learning flourished such that the “12th century renaissance” is a accepted concept.
With all this came a re-connection with homoerotic themes of the past. Two movements emerged in the church: an anti-gay sentiment that elevated homosexuality as an important sin, and a movement that used homoerotic themes and imagery as a positive force to frame relations between churchmen. Initially, the first movement gained little ground.
Peter Damian (11th c) represents the anti-gay position, but his call to sweep men with same-sex relations out of the clergy was rebuffed initially by Rome. There is a detailed discussion of charges of homosexual relations among prominent churchmen and nobility (which Boswell appears to take at face value even when there were clear political motivations for slander).
By the 12th century, various regions were implementing warnings and prohibitions against same-sex relations which had little apparent effect. In parallel, there was increased concern about enforcing clerical celibacy in general. (Married or partnered clergy were commonplace in this era.) The popular association of clergy with sodomy is supported by an outpouring of homoerotic literature (of varying tones) from churchmen.
We are offered a very brief glimpse of a female equivalent to this literature in two 12th century erotic letter-poems between nuns. Aelred of Rievaulx is presented as the archetype for the homoerotic side (with many textual examples).
Several significant 12th century works on Christian morals took a lenient or even an indifferent approach to same-sex relations. We see how various prominent secular figures who were criticized for shameful, immoral, or luxurious lives only later had those descriptions re-interpreted as indicating homosexuality, suggesting that those associations were not made at the time.
Scandinavian examples are brought in to suggest that the commonness of insults involving effeminacy and passive homosexuality indicate that homosexuality was a familiar practice in those cultures. [Note: Once again, I feell that Boswell is taking things too much at face value. A culture that considers "passive homosexuality" to be the worst thing you can accuse a man of does not automatically indicate a culture in which homosexuality was a common practice. Consider all the schoolyards in which homosexual slurs have been tossed around by people who had no conscious familiarity with gay people or any realistic understanding of what being gay meant. As with the politically-charged accusations of sodomy, I think a more complex and nuanced analysis is required. Consider as a comparison if we substitute into the preceding statement, "the commonness of insults involving [popular slur against Jews] indicate that [slur] was a familliar practice." It simply doesn't track directly like that.]
There is an extended discussion of the use of the term and image of Ganymede for the younger/passive partner in a male-male relationship, in both positive and negative contexts, which leads in to the next chapter.
Chapter 9: The Triumph of Ganymede
In the period from 1050 to 1150 Boswell sees the first evidence for a “gay subculture” since the fall of Rome. Many examples are given, plus discussion of coded terminology used for sex and desire.
Women do not figure at all in this chapter.
In this section of Boswell's study of shifting attitudes toward (male) homosexuality under Christianity, he explores the question of "why should sexual behavior come in for judgment at all?" as well as the specific trains of thought that were used to support condemnation of homosexuality specifically. He points out that it wasn't a foregone conclusion that Christianity would take this path, and that some of the background set-up for the rise of intolerance was demographic and political rather than philosophical. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Prejudice and persecution are still being used as political tools to justify state (or majority) authority over people's personal lives. When you examine the long history of the rhetoric of sexual intolerance, it becomes clear that the largest scriptural bludgeons that have been used over the ages were brought into the debate after the fact. The story of Sodom was not--when you trace its uses--always and specifically about variant sexuality. Nor did the passages in Leviticus hold any special and universal scope over people's everyday actions until cherry-picked for the purpose. Boswell betrays one of his weaknesses in the work he puts into arguing the theological non-validity of anti-gay arguments. As has also been pointed out with regard to Brooten's work on female same-sex relations in the same timeframe, there is a desperate air of begging to be welcomed into the fold. Of thinking that if you only pointed out the logical errors of the last two millennia, then the institution of Christianity would suddenly cave and say, "Oh dear, you're absolutely right! We should never have persecuted you! How can we make things right?" One can either be a historian or one can be a theologian, but it is awkward to try to be both at the same time.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part II The Christian Tradition
Part II The Christian Tradition
Chapter 4: The Scriptures
There were massive changes to attitudes to same-sex relations that can be attributed to Christian influence on Eureopean culture, but that influence was complex and derived from several separate factors including scripture, social dynamics, and theology.
There is an extensive discussion of the background of the Biblical story of Sodom and how it was developed and elaborated in Christian interpretation. There is also an extended discussion of the original context of references to same-sex relations in Leviticus. Boswell argues that neither of these texts were in a position to shape early Christian thought, whatever influence they may have had later.
He picks apart the several texts associated with St. Paul that are considered to be anti-gay. There is a long discussion of the concept of “against nature.”
Chapter 5: Christians and Social Change
The Roman Empire underwent a crisis of change involving cultural shifts with demographic changes, including a shift from urban to rural background of the political elite. Personal behavior came to be seen as a matter of state interest and same-sex relations came in increasingly for control and prohibition.
Another thread of change was the rise of ascetic philosophy which focused on acts done for pleasure rather than productive purpose.
During this era, “acceptable” same-sex love tended to be expressed in terms of religious bonding rather than eros.
Chapter 6: Theological Traditions
Though early Christian ascetics were a minority, their philosophy provided justification for anti-homosexual attitudes based on four principles: animal behavior (associating specific animals with anal/oral sex and thus concluding that this behavior is “bestial”); unsavory associations (e.g., with child molestation and paganism); being “against nature” (derived from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of “essential natures”); and gender expectations (which appears to apply specifically to male pairings, as it is concerned with the receptive partner being feminized). But the ascetics also had a general hostility to eroticism in general and only considered it justified by procreation.
Boswell asserts that the falsity of many of these theological grounds (e.g., that the animal behavior models were based on myth rather than biology) make the anti-gay conclusions theologically invalid.
My discussion and criticism is mostly dispersed throughout the summaries for this work. Posting in haste because I have a podcast to record.
Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4
Part I Points of Departure
Part I Points of Departure
This summary will not be extremely detailed, and it will be highly subjective. I devoured this book completely back when it first came out...uh...nearly 40 years ago. I’ll cover the high points of Boswell’s overall thesis, plus anything specifically relevant to women (which isn’t all that much, one of the general beefs with his work as a general history of homosexuality). I also won’t try to segregate my summary from my commentary. If you want to understand the details of his evidence and arguments, there’s no substitute for simply reading the book for yourself.
Regarding the scantiness of the female-related material, he notes that his sources were primarily written by men about men. He has made an effort to correlate the findings of his male data to women’s experience, but asserts that he couldn’t offset the disproportion “without deliberate distortion.” The idea that it is “distortion” to try to adjust for the historic erasure of women from the documentary record is one of the reasons why I tend to find general works on sexuality written by men to be relatively useless. The blythe assumption that one can extrapolate from male experiences to female ones is another pitfall of this type of work.
Note: Boswell regularly uses “gay” to discuss same-sex erotic concepts and people in the past very deliberately and with awareness of it anachronistic nature. I’ve retained this in my notes, but it’s one of the points that critics have challenged.
Chapter 1 Introduction
Between the beginning of the Christian era and the end of the Middle Ages, European attitudes toward many minorities changed profoundly. The term “medieval” is considered equivalent to “intolerant” in the popular imagination, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. This study intends to provide a better understanding of the social history of (in)tolerance in the European middle ages, specifically relating to homosexuality. (And, de facto, specifically focused on male homosexuality.)
The roots of hostility to homosexuality in Christian scripture are obvious, but Christian hostility to other behaviors (e.g., hypocrisy) have not been similarly enshrined in tradition. Claims for an objective “logic” behind prejudice are inadequate as an explanation. And the claim that anti-gay prejudice relates to “unnaturalness” only raises more questions about the concept of “natural” than it answers.
Boswell compares the experience of ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast, sexual minorities are dispersed throughout the population. This dispersement and lack of a “lineage” for gay people leaves them dependent on popular attitudes for acceptance, such as the power of hostile societies to translate or edit the more tolerant attitudes of earlier eras.
Studying sexual and emotional matters in the past is difficult due to the focus on official documents on “public” matters. Public documents will focus only on certain aspects of complex lives. Also, pop culture references to out-groups will focus on stereotypes and not on typical cases, e.g., focusing on masculine or feminine presentation in the context of sexuality. One should avoid assuming that all cultures assigned binary gender roles to same-sex pairs. One shouldn’t require evidence for gay lives in the past to resemble modern gay lives any more than straight ones do.
The roots of “moral” codes for sexuality are in the dynamics of kinship systems and the needs of economies, especially a focus on loyalty to kin groups and family relationships, which are seen to be undermined by non-procreative relationships. In general there was greater sexual freedom in more urban law-based societies. But there are historic contradictions to all of these generalizations.
Chapter 2: Definitions
Boswell discusses the background of sexuality terms and how he uses them in this work, including attitudes towards love of various types and related characteristics, and types of data regarding the demographics of homosexuality.
Chapter 3: Rome: The Foundation
This is a dense overview of Roman legal and cultural references to same-sex acts. The data is used to support a claim that male homoerotic relationships were not considered problematic in themselves, though specific cases might involve other factors that cause concern.
Boswell notes prejudice against male effeminacy or the acceptance of passive sexual roles. Gender reversal was mocked, as with Lucian’s Megilla/us (though Boswell doesn’t note the intersection of misogyny in that case.) He suggests that age-related terminology (e.g., identifying a beloved as a “boy”) shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally. It might refer to youth as an esthetic ideal of beauty, or indicate generational differences without literally meaning “a child.” [Note: here I feel that Boswell is being defensive about the historic association of male homosexuality with pederasty. It’s undeniable that Roman sexual hierarchies identified certain categories of persons as not having rights over their own bodies. There’s no reason to believe that youth was not involved in those dynamics.]
There is an extremely brief tour of the Roman references to female same-sex relations. (The content of this tour can be examine in more detail in the sources I've covered that specifically focus on Roman sexuality. See the tag link for "Classical era" for titles.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41c - Things I Loved in 2019 - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/12/21 - listen here)
Calendars are arbitrary things, and yet it’s hard not to get caught up in the urge to summarize what we’ve done, what we’ve consumed, what we’ve loved when that arbitrary reference point in the Earth’s solar circumnavigation arrives.
For a number of years, I’ve done a year-end round-up on my blog titled “What Hath She Wrote” to remind myself that I’ve actually accomplished something. The title is, of course, a word-play on the famous Biblical line used to test the first Morse Code message transmitted by telegraph in 1844: “What Hath God Wrought.” I like hiding bits of word-play in titles. Have you recognized that the episode category “On the Shelf” is a take-off on the slang term for an unmarried woman common in Regency Romances?
But I digress. I do that a lot.
As I say, I’ve taken to doing a year-end round-up of my writing and blogging (and podcasting), but today’s show is something different. It’s a discussion of what I loved from the content of what I’ve been writing and blogging and podcasting about, sticking to material with historic and lesbian-relevant themes. Last year I did a combined top ten of fiction, non-fiction, and movies, but this time let’s separate them out.
This isn’t a list about things that came out in 2019, it’s a list of things I consumed in 2019, because that’s how I organize my life. Only one of the non-fiction books I picked was published this calendar year. Sometimes my non-fiction favorites are decades old by the time I read them. I’m never up-to-date with my fiction reading. And as an author who has twice had a novel published in November, I consider it totally unfair to do year-end round-ups that disadvantage books that people don’t even know exist at the time they’re deciding what was “best.”
It’s always tough to pick just five novels for a list of what I enjoyed, but here’s my best shot. I’ve organized them by the order in which I reviewed them on my blog.
First up is Life Mask by Emma Donoghue. This is a strongly biographical novel about 18th century sculptor Anne Damer, whose real life story hints very strongly at same-sex romance in her life. Donoghue has coaxed those hints and embers into a satisfying, if very slow-moving, depiction of what Damer’s interior life might have been like. This is definitely much more of a historic saga than a romance novel, though, so don’t go into it expecting sex and drama. There is a vast amount of 18th century British politics. I love this sort of thing, but it’s a specialized taste.
That said, I’m also a sucker for a specific type of vibrant throat-grabbing prose that plunges you into the middle of a story and holds your head under until you come up gasping for breath at the end. I had no clue that I was going to get that sort of experience from Benny Lawrence’s The Ghost and the Machine. It’s a difficult, hard-hitting story of abuse and psychological manipulation, set in an era when it was possible to imagine a chess-playing automaton but still far from possible to actually construct one. The historicity of the setting was gripping which was one of the aspects of the book that startled me, because none of Lawrence’s other books give a clue to this side of her writing.
The field of f/f historical fiction is unfortunately dominated by white voices and white viewpoints, even in cases where more diverse settings and characters are depicted. So I’m delighted to include two books among my favorites that avoid that problem. Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury tells an inter-racial love story embedded in a mystery-thriller set in Philadelphia just on the cusp of the American Civil War. The era and setting is depicted in fascinating detail. And although some details of the characters’ attitudes toward sexuality felt a bit too 20th century, the characters themselves pulled me in and made for a satisfying read.
This year saw a small blossoming of f/f historicals from authors who have already gained a mainstream reputation writing other types of romantic couples. Of those, the one that most grabbed my heart was Olivia Waite’s A Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics. This Regency romance braids in not only the challenges of pursuing a same-sex romance in an era that didn’t recognize them as having equal weight to straight marriages, but also the frustrations of being a female scientist at a time when people were all too willing to attribute or appropriate your work to the nearest man working in the field. Although, come to think of it, that still happens regularly. There’s a lovely plot twist at the end with regard to that aspect. But even more, I loved how deftly Waite developed a plausible romantic arc that was true both to the era and to the tropes of the genre.
Another blossoming trend these days, is the proliferation of queer characters in mainstream fantasy and science fiction. And when this trend meets the popular sub-genre of historic fantasy, there are some truly exciting books being produced. Malaysian author Zen Cho burst onto the scene with her Regency fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown, centering the presence and role of people from all the far-flung parts of the 19th century British empire. In the second, and more or less independent, book in this series, The True Queen, we have a Malaysian heroine traveling to England to rescue her sister and falling in love with a young woman studying magic along the way. But it’s a far more complex story than that, involving the politics of dragons, deep betrayals in the realm of Faerie, and trying to navigate unfamiliar social structures, while still preserving the comedy-of-manners core of the Regency novel.
Just like I did last year, I’m going to break my rules by adding an extra book at the end that doesn’t fit the historic theme. Once again, it’s an entry in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series, envisioning Holmes and Watson as queer black women in a near-future dystopia that is frighteningly believable. The Hound of Justice is a story of trust, terror, and regaining self-confidence when everything you know might end up being a lie.
For non-fiction, I chose five titles from the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog to feature. This far into the project, there’s a lot of repetition in the publications I’m reading and summarizing. There are valid reasons for that repetition. Some of the historic people or concepts that are most relevant to female same-sex history involve a lot of nuance that can be analyzed in multiple contexts. Or they are exceptional examples of some particular topic. Or they may be the only example of some particular aspect of gender or sexuality.
So rather than picking my favorites based purely on the excellence of the research or writing--though that comes into it as well--I’ve chosen favorites that present something new and different.
Two of my favorites focus strongly on the margins of gender categories, and how competing understandings of gender shed light on attitudes towards same-sex relationships. If a culture is arguing over how to define differences between the sexes, that becomes highly relevant to whether a relationship involves two people of the same sex.
Kathleen Brown’s article “’Changed...into the Fashion of a Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth-Century Anglo-American Settlement” examines the conflicting testimony around a charge of sexual misconduct in the early American colonies. The most likely understanding is that Thomas or Thomsine Hall was intersex. They were assigned a female gender at birth, but early in adulthood began situationally presenting alternately as male or female. When asked which category they belonged to, Hall replied “both.” This put the law court into a quandary whether Hall’s erotic relationship with a woman constituted the crime of fornication or of impersonating a man. In the legal arguments and testimony, two different models of gender were presented. In the model that might be labeled “performative gender”, you are how you behave. Part of this model was the belief that gendered performance was a symptom of underlying gender identity. If someone felt driven to wear male clothing and pursue male occupations and to desire women, then that was evidence that they were a man. The problem was: Hall alternated between male and female performance and felt no need to choose. The second model argued that anatomy was the ultimate determiner of true sex. But Hall’s ambiguous anatomy raised the question of where to draw the line. The detailed documentation of Hall’s life and the questions around their status is unusual, but Hall’s situation most likely was not. And Hall’s story suggests innumerable lives that might have been lived more quietly and invisibly in history, cheerfully contradicting the binaries and norms that western society was determined to enforce.
Another publication that shows how gender categories shed light on understandings of identity and sexuality is “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe” by Cary J. Nederman and Jacqui True. The term “hermaphrodite” is currently considered offensive when applied to intersex people, but the use of this term in the middle ages was more complex and covered a range of concepts that today would be considered unrelated. Medieval use of the term covered any situation where a person combined aspects that were considered to belong to different sexes or different genders. Thus, although physiologically intersex people might be categorized as “hermaphrodites”, so would people we today would consider homosexual, or gender transgressive, or simply out of step with gendered personality traits and habits. Due to the misogynistic nature of western society, calling a woman a hermaphrodite might even be considered praise if she displayed positive traits that were categorized as masculine. In the context of the 12th century’s “renaissance” of scientific and philosophical thought, questions of the nature of gender were explored within the idea of the hermaphrodite. Did hermaphrodites represent the expected ambiguous middle ground on a single polar scale of gender with male at one end and female at the other? Did they represent a portentious failure of nature to produce a clearly gendered individual? Or did they represent a third category, apart from male and female but partaking of both? For those who think questions about the nature of identity and competing models of gender are a modern phenomenon, this is an excellent survey of the wide range of thought present in the middle ages.
Not all of my favorite history publications have involved analysis and theory. One of the most fascinating genres in medieval European literature for thinking about gender and f/f sexuality are the gender-disguise romances. The Romance of Silence was published in a scholarly edition with English translation back in 1999. But the primary text of my favorite, Yde and Olive was only published in a bilingual edition last year, translated and edited by Mounawar Abbouchi. This is a medieval adaptation of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe, very loosely speaking. It has the one character living in disguise as a man for reasons involving her father, and the other falling in love with her and holding to that love even when her secret was revealed. In both, the same-sex romance is revolved by the magical transformation of the first character into a man. But in both cases, this resolution clashes with modern understandings of identity whether interpreted as a lesbian story or a transgender story, while simultaneously having attractions for both audiences. Yde doesn’t put on men’s clothing and take up a man’s life because she identifies as male, but rather because it is a way to be safe as a woman alone in the world. But having done so--following the medieval principle that you are what you present to the world--she becomes the ideal of chivalric masculinity. And the miraculous transformation is not for the positive purpose of aligning body with identity, but for the negative purpose of avoiding the fatal consequences of engaging in a same-sex marriage. There are three versions of this story, all with different resolutions. In one, there is no transformation and the two lovers end up married to each other’s fathers instead, which...sorry, no. Just no. But I’m glad to finally have an accessible version of the primary text. Now I just need a bilingual edition of L’Escoufle, my second favorite medieval romance with women in love, though it doesn’t have any cross-dressing in it.
My fourth favorite non-fiction book this year doesn’t directly address sexuality, but it does speak to some of the stumbling blocks writers face when writing f/f historical romances. This is Daughters of London: Inheriting Opportunity in the Late Middle Ages by Kate Kelsey Staples, which analyzes gender differences in what daughters inherited when compared to sons, primarily in middle class families in London. Writers of historical fiction sometimes go through contortions to give their heroines economic independence and the social standing to live a life independent of heterosexual marriage. But as studies like this one show, women’s situations in the past were varied and often involved far more opportunity than modern stereotypes assume. My rule of thumb has become, “If you can’t find data on women in same-sex relationships, look to the single women.” And in many times and places, inheritance laws and customs gave women the freedom to support themselves in an unmarried life.
My fifth pick brings a couple of different lessons. This is Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918, edited by Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey. It’s interesting to compare this collection of personal and revealing correspondence to the diaries of Anne Lister, earlier in the 19th century. The women lived in rather different eras and circumstance. Lister was a member of the English gentry, living in the Georgian era, frank about her sexuality in the privacy of her coded diaries, but moving through a woman-centered society that both enabled and disguised her romantic relationships with other women. If we had only her public records and not her private coded diary, it would be difficult to prove anything about her sexuality--as it is for so very many women in similar circumstances. Rose and Evangeline were Americans, living in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, moving through fairly high society due to wealth--both inherited and self-earned--and family connections. (Rose served as White House hostess for her brother, President Grover Cleveland.) Their correspondence is steeped in romantic sentimentalism, but is also woven through with the sensual physicality of their relationship and the conflicts Rose had over Evangeline’s marriage. What do I find interesting to compare and contrast? In both cases, these women were not unique. Their lives and loves followed paths shared by many of their contemporaries. They weren’t “special” in experiencing same-sex romance. What is special is that detailed documentation of their lives survived the years and the looming threat of erasure, in both cases due to a certain amount of chance and luck. Rose and Evangeline’s love was not unique or unusual. If you dig through the correspondence of other women of a similar era, you will find that intensely romantic relationships between women were normal and common. And if we had similar private records preserved from Anne Lister’s contemporaries, I am utterly confident that we’d find many of them similarly “loved, and only loved the fairer sex.”
As with fiction, I’m claiming a bonus item for my non-fiction Top Five. This is a brief article from a series of studies of the Oxford English Dictionary--considered the definitive historical dictionary of the English language--tracing the deliberate erasure of vocabulary and word usage around the topic of lesbianism in the compiling of the dictionary. So many historians struggling to discuss the context of same-sex relations have fallen into the trap of assuming that if the OED doesn’t have a word or a meaning for a word, then it didn’t exist. Thus we have text after text asserting that the very idea of lesbianism only arose in the 19th century, because how could we have a concept for something without having words for it? The study of history--whether the history of sexuality or the history of words--is never neutral.
There haven’t been enough movies and tv shows with historic f/f content to put together a top five favorites, but the ones we did have...wow!
I loved the irreverence and meta-commentary of Wild Nights with Emily, telling the story not only of Emily Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, but also telling the story of how their passionate feelings for each other were deliberately erased from the historic record. Although details of her life were fictionalized, rearranged, or simply turned into metaphor, the movie did an excellent job of focusing on essential aspects of the poet’s life and legacy.
And, of course, 2019 was the year that brought us Gentleman Jack, the ongoing series about the early 19th century lesbian Anne Lister and her quest to establish a marriage-like partnership with neighbor and fellow landowner Ann Walker. I don’t think it’s possible to exaggerate how mind-blowing it is that such a series has been created, with such amazing production values and writing. There are many stories of women loving women throughout history that could make equally amazing tv shows. Let’s hope that Gentleman Jack is successful enough to convince the powers that be to support them.
I’m still planning to do an Anne Lister show--perhaps several of them--at some point. I need to figure out what my special contribution can be, because the pod-world is full of people gushing over the show. I’ve been following a really fun podcast titled Shibden After Dark that combines complete fangirl squee with expert analysis of the technical production aspects of the show. And if any film or tv producers out there want ideas for which queer woman in history to tackle next, I have a very long list of suggestions.
This blog title is the polar opposite of my own attitude, and the fact that the author of the paper I'm covering today states it in his conclusions might go some way to illustrating why I find his research frustrating and annoying. The rest of my commentary on this point is interleaved with my summary of the article.
Trumbach, Randolph. 2012. "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 832-848.
I’m going to start this summary by noting that the more articles I read from Randolph Trumbach, the grumpier I get. When the highlights on my pdfs are augmented by scribbled red pen notes saying “No! Wrong!”, it’s not a good sign. So I don’t exactly come into this summary with an unbiased mind. My major beef is his tendency to make pronouncements on the history of women’s same-sex relations that appear based primarily on assuming that all his research and conclusions on men’s same-sex relations can just be applied willy-nilly to women, even if women’s history has to be distorted and mangled to make them fit. In this particular article, I rather lost it at the point where he notes “all these prominent historians who focus on women’s history disagree with me, but I’m going to cherry-pick some examples to show how they’re wrong wrong wrong.”
So I will scrupulously keep my commentary on this article within square brackets.
* * *
Trumbach begins with the statement that before 1700, Europeans assumed that all males experienced sexual desire for both women and adolescent boys, but that within a generation after 1700 this was shifting to a belief that most males only desired women and a minority of of “deviant” males desired other males (of non-specific age). This shift, he claims, began in England, France, and the Netherlands by the mid-century, by 1800 had expanded to central Europe, and to southern and eastern Europe by 1900.
The history of relations between women, he notes is less thoroughly documented due to fewer legal sources, but “it is likely” that they followed the exact same pattern as men in being attracted to both men and women before 1700, with same-sex relationships being age-differentiated, while after 1700 women also were differentiated into a heterosexual majority and a lesbian minority, though the lesbians had less impact on social attitudes than male homosexuals did. [Note: as the phrase “it is likely” signals, no documentation is presented for this assumption that women’s experiences exactly mirror men’s.]
Trumbach reviews a significant body of evidence for the prevalence of male same-sex erotics in the 16-17th centuries, although in my opinion he doesn’t sufficiently consider that some of that evidence was politically motivated (as with King Henry VIII’s investigation of monastic sexual activity which had clear political goals in the context of the dissolution of the monasteries).
Men’s same-sex relations had long been predicated on aligning age with sexual role: adolescents (like women) were expected to accept a “passive” sexual role while adult males took an “active” role. [Note: this overlooks the blurring of age/status-differentiation in the overlap with neo-Platonic friendship, but I’m willing to buy it as an overall trend.]
Turning again to women, he begins, “Most sexual relations between women before 1700 (like those between males) were probably structured by difference in age.” He then notes that Brooten (1996), Traub (2002) and others dispute this as a factor in women’s experience and selects individual examples from their data that did involve an age difference between the women to support his claim. [Note: what he doesn’t clearly demonstrate is that age-difference was an essential component of women’s relationships or that it corresponded to particular sexual roles, as opposed to some subset of f/f relations having an age difference.] He reviews several sources involving legal cases, often involving the use of artificial penises for sex, suggesting that they represent the typical case for female same-sex relations. He also conflates cross-gender performance with same-sex erotics, including a context-free reference to Joan of Arc.
Moving on to “after it changed” Trumbach asserts that the new model of men having desire exclusively for women was the cause of the rise of “romance” as a foundation for marriage and of the “tender care of children” that he says became to appear around 1750. [Note: see Hitchcock 2012 for a far more detailed and nuanced discussion of parallel social changes in the 18th century. Also, see the rise of the concept of "companionate marriage" in the 17th century.] The shift to earlier and more frequent marriage by men, he asserts, was “motivated by the need to establish what would later be called heterosexual identities” now that non-heterosexuality had become stigmatized. “It is not clear” he notes that women’s earlier and more common marriage was similarly due to not wanting to be suspected of being lesbians, but “more likely that women sought in their sexual and marital behavior to show that they were mothers and not prostitutes.” [Note: I feel that this high-minded motivation entirely ignores the severe social and economic disadvantages of single motherhood. Further, given the intimate relationship between marriage patterns and economic trends across the ages, I'm reluctant to assume a psychological motivation for a shift to earlier marriage unless an economic motivation has been actively ruled out.]
“Nonetheless, there did emerge by the middle of the eighteenth century a minority of women attracted only to women who signaled their desires by taking on certain masculine traits in their gait, speech, and clothing” in parallel with “effeminate” male homosexuals. This is followed by a survey of pop culture and biographical examples of female couples in which one member (or both) adopted male-coded garments such as riding habits. He gives a brief nod to female couples who both have female-coded presentations, identifying them as “organized by mother-daughter roles” and thus dismissing nearly the entire Romantic Friendship phenomenon.
Why did this supposed shift in sexual roles occur? Why at that time? Why so rapidly? “This, alas, I do not find a terribly interesting or profitable question,” Trumbach says.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41b - The Highwaywoman Special (Reprise)
(Originally aired 2017/09/30, this airing 2019/12/14 - listen here)
To give myself something resembling an end of year holiday, instead of a new interview, I’m reprising this show on highwaywoman songs and stories. It originally aired on September 30, 2017. I thought it might make a nice lead-in to next week’s show on Vikings. [Note: I rearranged the episodes after recording and the Viking show is two weeks after this one.]
* * *
[First two verses of “The Highwayman” by Alfred J. Noyes, music by Phil Ochs, pronouns adjusted]
Outlaws have been a staple of popular stories as far back as recorded literature. Specific types of outlaw arise out of the society of the times. Laws restricting the hunting of game created poachers. The age of merchant ships crossing the seas spawned pirates. The concentration of cash in banks gave rise to bank robbers. And the establishment of regular coaching routes to carry passengers and commerce on fixed schedules were the temptation that gave rise to highwaymen.
In England, the great era of mythic highwaymen began around the 17th century and continued into the early 19th. The majority of real life highwaymen were male, of course. But a few highwaywomen made their way into song and story and the pages of history as well. Some examples in literature may have simply been an opportunity to turn gender tropes on their head, but throughout early modern history, there have been many women who found the economic temptations of male professions sufficient to trade skirts for trousers.
Not all depictions of literary highwaywomen were particularly feminist in spirit, though. The earliest known highwaywoman ballad, “The Female Highway Hector” from the 17th century, is more of a cautionary tale. After a long series of successful robberies against various stereotyped victims, she tries to rob a “real” highwayman and is defeated and sexually assaulted.
Here’s the beginning of the ballad. The original broadsheet suggests singing it to a tune called “The Rant” and I’ve used a tune with that name that is believed to be the one that was originally used.
The Female Highway Hector
You gallants of every station
Give ear to a frollicksome song
The like was ne’er seen in this nation
‘Twas done by a female so young.
She bought her a mare and a bridle
A saddle and pistols also
She resolved she would not be idle
So upon the pad she did go.
She clothed herself in great splendor
For breeches and sword she had on
Her body appear’d very slender
She show’d like a pretty young man.
And then like a padder so witty
She mounted with speed on her mare
She left all her friends in the city
And steered her course towards the Ware.
We’ll leave her story there, as the rest of the ballad is not edifying.
Real life highwaywomen--those for which we have solid evidence--were rarely romantic figures. But then, neither were most male highwaymen.
Legal records of prosecutions of women for this crime seem to have been rare, though not unheard of. Joan Bracey was hanged in Nottingham in the later 17th century for highway robbery, as was Ann Meders, hanged at Tyburn. Both met their ends at a relatively young age, not surprisingly. Both began their careers in partnership with male companions, as did Nan Hereford, who managed to carry on the profession for six years after her husband was hanged before meeting her own end.
Legend is more likely to view highwaymen--and women--as romantic figures. The early years of the profession corresponded with the political struggles in England between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads during the English Civil War and the dashing cavalier turned highwayman was a staple of popular culture.
Katherine Ferrers was a 17th century Englishwoman whom legend holds to have been the “Wicked Lady”, a notorious female highwayman. Katherine became an heiress at age six, during a period when her family was swept up in conflicts between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. Katherine’s family were Royalists and financial difficulties related to this state inspired them to marry Katherine off at age 14, after which most of her inherited property was sold off. She died at age 26, shortly after the return of King Charles II to the throne. For the last couple years of her life, her husband had been in prison for participating in an uprising. This much is fact.
Legend holds that--like a number of impoverished Royalists--she turned her hand to highway robbery to support herself during her husband’s imprisonment. Legend further holds that, after being shot during a robbery she died of her wounds, being discovered wearing men’s clothing. In this case, legend is unlikely to hold any truth. There are no mentions of Katherine’s supposed exploits in any of the sensational histories of famous highwaymen published in the 18th century. The first mention of her supposed exploits seems to be in the mid 19th century, but the image of a beautiful and daring woman taking to the highway has been irresistible to authors and filmmakers, and The Wicked Lady has been the subject of several novels and films, as well as inspiring ghost stories associated with her residence.
Within the context of this podcast, it must be admitted that--like most legends and ballads of cross-dressing women, the tales of female highwaymen from the 17th and 18th centuries remain steadfastly heterosexual. One notable exception is Mary Frith, known as Moll Cutpurse, a real woman living around 1600 who was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes and rumored to be sexually interested in both men and women. Contemporary records portrayed Moll Cutpurse as a thief, a fence, and a pimp but an early 18th century writer who produced a history of famous highwaymen, decided she also needed to be given a brief fictional career of highway robbery.
A much more cheerful (though still solidly heterosexual) story is told in a ballad titled “Sovay” or “The Female Highwayman” which was collected in the late 19th century, at a time when highwaymen had long since disappeared. This one is worth performing in full as it introduces a motif particularly popular in modern female highwayman fiction.
Sovay, or The Female Highwayman
Sovay, Sovay, all on a day,
She dressed herself in man's array,
With a sword and pistol all by her side,
To meet her true love
To meet her true love away did ride.
She met her true love all on the plain,
And when she saw him she bid him stand,
'Stand and deliver, kind sir,' she said,
Or else this moment
Or else this moment I’ll shoot you dead.'
Oh, when she'd robbed him of all his store,
She says, 'Kind sir, there is one thing more,
A diamond ring which I know you have,
Deliver that, your sweet life to save.'
'That diamond ring a token is,
That ring I’ll keep, my life I’ll lose;'
She being tender hearted just like a dove,
She rode away
She rode away from her own true love.
Next morning in the garden green,
O like true lovers they were seen;
He saw his watch hanging by her clothes,
Which made him flush
Which made him flush like a red rose.
'What makes you flush at so silly a thing,
I fain would have had your diamond ring,
‘And if you had given me the ring,’ she said,
I’d have pulled the trigger
I’d have pulled the trigger, I’d have shot you dead.’
In the oldest version of the ballad, Sovay only tells her love that demanding the ring was a test, but I rather like the stronger version that I performed. But remember this trope of stealing a love token, because it’s going to come up again.
The era of the rise of highwaymen was also an era when popular media was fascinated with gender disguises and the possibility of accidental homoerotic encounters with women disguised as men. Denise Walen’s extensive study of female cross-dressing in early modern drama doesn’t seem to include any examples where the disguised woman has a homoerotic encounter while acting as a highwayman, but it’s exactly the sort of plot one might find in that context.
Lesbian historical romance, on the other hand, has latched on to the motif of the cross-dressing female highwayman as an excellent way to combine swashbuckling, gender play, and the possibility of accidentally falling in love with a woman who was forbidden to you both by gender and profession.
Within this sub-genre, the motif of the stolen trinket that provides an excuse for further contact almost seems a requirement. In fact, we can lay out a formula for the standard lesbian highwaywoman romance: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate on the marriage market) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending.
Here are five stories about female highwaymen finding love and redemption in the arms of another woman.
* * *
Rebeccah and the Highwayman by Barbara Davies (Bedazzled Ink, 2008)
I loved the solid historic grounding in Barbara Davies’ Rebeccah and the Highwayman. At the beginning of the 18th century, in the time of Queen Anne, Rebeccah Dutton has a series of encounters with the mysterious highwayman Blue-Eyed Nick, but the secret that “Nick” is actually a woman proves dangerous as both women are drawn together again and again.
The meaningful keepsake in this story is Rebeccah’s family signet ring, which she is allowed to keep in the initial encounter. They are reunited when Kate--in the guise of Blue-Eyed Nick--is wounded in the course of rescuing Rebeccah, who must then conceal the highwaywoman during her recovery. Kate has a brush with the gallows, but we know it will come off well--after all, this isn’t a Sarah Waters novel! I particularly liked the novel’s use of the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (who is conveniently Rebeccah’s distant cousin) to convey understandings and attitudes towards women’s romantic relationships at the time. The story is solidly written with only occasional historical info-dumps. Kate’s eventual change of profession was delightfully true to the times. Unlike several of the books discussed in this show, the erotic content draws the curtain after passionate kissing, though more is clearly implied. This is an excellent book for those who want both good writing and good history.
The Locket and the Flintlock by Rebecca S Buck (Bold Strokes Books, 2012)
Rebecca S. Buck’s The Locket and the Flintlock takes a Regency era setting and draws on the motifs of that genre as well as the standard highwayman tropes of a stolen sentimental keepsake (as one might guess from the title) and a highwaywoman with a tragic backstory, a heart of gold, and a drive for social and economic justice. A few days after her dead mother’s locket has been taken during a daring highway robbery, Lucia Foxe recognizes the thieves riding past from her bedroom window and sets out after them, bareback on her favorite mare, to retrieve the keepsake in the middle of the night. And there lies one of the major flaws of this work: almost all the characters do something important that breaks my willingness to believe in the story. But if you can overlook plot holes and inconsistencies, it’s a rollicking adventure with a lot of angsty self-examination and the level of steaminess one tends to expect from a Bold Strokes book.
Daring and Decorum by Lawrence Hogue (Supposed Crimes, 2017)
Except for one issue, which I’ll get to in a moment, I loved Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum. Set in 18th century England, Elizabeth Collington longs for something beyond the life of a respectable vicar’s daughter. Then one day she encounters a highwayman who steals her mother’s necklace...and a kiss. The encounter stirs feelings that must be kept secret, and an even greater secret is that the highwayman is a woman. The book’s strength is its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times. Unlike many stories that plunge the women directly into a relationship, Daring and Decorum provides a realistic pacing for the relationship, though this may cause some readers to find it slow. I loved Hogue’s writing. He has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. The one thing that got the book off on the wrong foot for me was a mild sexual assault in the opening scene. Nothing more than groping, but I’m not fond of the message that women will, of course, get turned on by assault as long as it’s by the person who ends up being the love interest. It wasn’t enough to put me off the book entirely, but I think the story could have worked just as well with a different opening.
The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy
In The Mask of the Highwaywoman by Niamh Murphy, Evelyn Thackeray is traveling to visit friends in advance of her upcoming marriage to a business associate of her widowed father when a band of highwaymen--and one highwaywoman--stops the coach she’s traveling in. Robbed of her money and a locket that Evelyn risked the anger of the highwaymen to try to keep, she’s now stranded penniless in a village. She offers to work at an inn in exchange for a room for the night...and then Bess, the highwaywoman, climbs through her window there, out of the darkness.
The story uses the standard collection of highwaywoman tropes: the soft-hearted thief, the keepsake stolen and then returned as an excuse to meet again, the sudden inexplicable attraction to an outlaw. And it tries to add in a layer of off-balance, constantly shifting loyalties and triple-crosses, but never quite sticks the landing in terms of believability. The plot consists of a non-stop sequence of chases, kidnappings, and escapes, punctuated by emotional confrontations and betrayals. I found it hard to sympathize with either Evelyn or Bess, and the question of how a highwaywoman successfully retires from a life of crime felt glossed over a bit too easily. But if non-stop action is your thing, check it out.
Behind the Mask by Kim Larabee (Alyson Books, 1989 out of print)
What is a single young woman in the Regency era to do if she must support a household? In Kim Larabee’s Behind the Mask, as an alternative to setting one’s cap for a handsome man with a title or a fortune, our hero Maddie Elverton turns to highway robbery. But her double life threatens to unravel when she encounters Allie Sifton, at first as a victim of her robbery, and then as a partner in her secret. There is a theft and return of jewelry, though not of the usual sentimental keepsake.
This story is largely a light-hearted romp, filled with exquisite writing, and leavened by a small amount of peril from the dogged pursuit by Lt. Bridgewater, who has set his sights on taking the highwayman in hand. Larabee is mistress of the language and conventions of the Regency romance, and turns the usual tropes of the genre on their head to bring Allie and Maddie together for their happily ever after. I highly recommend this book if you can find a copy, however unfortunately it is out of print.
* * *
There are plenty of ideas left to tackle in the female highwayman genre. England isn’t the only possible setting and the field is wide open for a plot that starts out with something other than the theft of a sentimental keepsake.
I’ll take what may be unfair advantage to note that I included a brief highway robbery scene in my novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer”, set in the late 17th century where the crime is planned to cover up the retrieval of sensitive state documents. There is, of course, also a damsel in distress to rescue. There’s a link to the free story in the show notes.
Whether your heroines meet over the theft of a sentimental locket or rob Roundheads in support of King Charles, whether they run off together to enjoy their life of crime or eventually settle down in the guise of lady companions, it’s hard to beat a highwaywoman for swashbuckling adventure!
[Final verse of “The Highwayman” by Noyes & Ochs]
The second book in O’Dell’s near-future Sherlockian thriller series takes the reader on a game of cat-and-mouse where our protagonist, Dr. Janet Watson, struggles in the midst of chaos and danger to continue trusting her colleague/housemate/friend--I would say “partner” except that word carries some erroneous implications when you’re talking about two queer women--Sara Holmes.
Janet’s progress to reclaim her career as a surgeon in the face of reliance on a high-tech prosthetic arm is derailed when disappears abruptly, and then leads Janet on a terrifying treasure-hunt of clues, contacts, and disguises deep into the heart of enemy territory on a rescue mission that requires her still-uncertain surgical skills.
I’ve grown very attached both to Watson and to the maddeningly unpredictable Holmes, whose background we learn more about in hints and the rare quiet moments of the story. There’s plenty of action and all-too-realistic violence, as well as a sketch of a fractured America that is terrifyingly believable these days.
If you like twisty, fast-paced thrillers that center queer women of color, then you may love this series as much as I do. (Probably best to start with the first book, A Study in Honor, though if you’re a quick study and comfortable with filling in backstory in your head, you could read this one first.)
My commentary on this article has been incorporated into a final paragraph, rather than being placed here in the introduction. Overall, I think Hitchcock makes a fascinating case for connecting various historical trends across the 18th century. But I think he has significant blind spots as well. I think that trends in age at first marriage and overall marriage rates cannot be separated from economic patterns that make it more or less possible for women (especially) to be economically viable outside the marriage economy. In earlier centuries, one major force in English employment patterns for unmarried people was the service economy. Were there significant changes from the 17th to the 18th century in domestic service (and agricultural service) patterns? He also takes for granted that women lost sexual negotiating power in the shift from the 17th to 18th century, but fails to explore the possible context for this significantly. So, overall, and interesting take on the complexities of social history, but one that may raise more questions than it answers.
Hitchcock, Tim. 2012. "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England" in Signs vol. 37, no. 4 823-832.
Hitchcock starts from a demographic observation and works to build a picture of the social and historic context that may have motivated that demographic fact.
Over the course of the 18th century, the age at first marriage dropped significantly, bastardy rates increased threefold, the proportion of marriages celebrated after the bride became pregnant increased to a third of the total, and the percentage of the population who never married dropped significantly. (Also, as a consequence of the combination of these, there was a rise in population.) Hitchcock posits that collectively these facts suggest an overall change in sexual behavior. To explore the nature of that change, he examines changes in social attitudes towards marriage and the family, the history of pornography and libertinism, and women’s and gender history.
This change in sexual behavior can be summed up as: an increase in penetrative, heterosexual sex, i.e., the sexual activity resulting in pregnancy. That simple observation is hard to refute, but an explanation is more difficult to identify.
One change over the long 18th century was the concept of “companionate marriage”, that is, the idea that marriage should be a partnership between two people who came together out of affection as well as economic necessity or family imperatives. Another developing concept during the same period was the beginnings of the industrial revolution and the idea that the purpose of both society and the family was production, whether of goods or of children.
These two shifts can be seen reflected in literature, both in novels and in pornography. The libertine novels of the period reflect a more individualized, interiorized experience of sexual desire, and the ability to separate desire from its social context. More sexual desire leads to more sex leads to more babies. (To oversimplify.)
This theory would appear to be in conflict with the findings of women’s and gender history, which views the same period as a time of shifting from a domestic economy to a factory-based one, resulting in a loss of female social power, with a consequent increasing repression of women. [Note: it seems naive to me to view an increased focus on (male) sexual pleasure and desire, combined with repression and loss of power by women, as having some sort of inherent conflict.]
As detailed in Laqueur’s work, another shift in process at the time was of the understandings of male and female bodies and their role in sex and reproduction, including a loss of the belief that female sexual pleasure was necessary for procreation. This resulted in a more sharp delineation between concepts of the sexes (the “two gender system”) and the belief that female sexual pleasure was unnecessary.
This, Hitchcock suggests, creates a clear dichotomy between “a liberationist narrative” (more sexually explicit literature, emphasis on sentiment) and a “repressive narrative” (increased gender policing and differentiation of the roles of the sexes). This apparent conflict, he suggests, can be resolved by tracing the physical culture of sexual practice.
Sex is not a single, simple behavior but a set of complex behaviors with multiple purposes, including masturbation, penetrative (heterosexual) sex, oral sex, and sodomy. Typical sexual behavior at the beginning of the 18th century (and here Hitchcock is talking about heterosexual behavior) included significant amounts of mutual masturbation, kissing and fondling, extended non-penetrative erotic play, and relatively little p-in-v sex, especially before marriage, but also within marriage. The boundaries around what “counted as sex” were fuzzy. Coitus interruptus was also practiced commonly as a birth control measure, as well as abortion if that failed.
Overall, this resulted in the observed relatively lower birth rate and low bastardy rate. The sexual economy actively worked to control and manage reproduction but did not strictly police non-reproductive activity. This system required women to have significant power to negotiate sexual activity. It also involved many types of sexual behavior that later generations came to associate with homosexuality (both male and female).
The latter half of the 18th century came to emphasize a phallocentric view of sex in which all non-penetrative activities were at best “foreplay”. Popular culture reflects an obsession with the penis and with a single purpose for it. This shift in focus--including a de-emphasis on non-procreative sexual activity--would have the effect of increasing pregnancy rates, and with pregnancy as a driver of marriage, it would lead to more common and earlier marriages among sexually active couples.
The shift in belief to the irrelevance of female orgasm in procreation plays a complementary role, and could play a part in women’s decreased negotiating power within sexual relationships. With men now being viewed as the sex with the stronger sex drive (where women had previously been viewed as the more “sexually uncontrolled” gender), women could only be “protected” from male sexual advances by constraining their public exposure.
None of this represents any sort of scientific proof of the causes of the demographic shift, but it shows how multiple apparently unrelated cultural changes can be shown to align. Not all people would be exposed to the same cultural changes, e.g., literary or medical texts. Can a broad-based change in sexual knowledge be traced during the 18th century?
Around 1700, sexual knowledge was transmitted primarily by individual word of mouth, with each generation controlling what the next learned. When control of reproduction was prioritized, so was the knowledge of non-procreative sexual practices. But with the rise of popular printed literature, including sexual literature, attitudes could be influenced widely by the dissemination of sexual ideas.
One genre that took root during the 18th century was anti-masturbation literature, establishing in the popular mind the myth that masturbation (especially by men) resulted in medical and psychiatric ills--a myth that persisted into the 20th century. A parallel role was played by popularly-oriented sex manuals aimed at married couples, such as Aristotle’s Masterpiece: or, the Secrets of Generation Displayed in All the Parts Thereof (1684). These works focused strongly on procreation as the goal of sex and promoted sexual behaviors that would lead to pregnancy.
Hitchcock finishes with what I consider to be an entirely too cursory assertion that these changes in sexual culture are also reflected in the 18th century histories of homosexuality. If there was, indeed, a sea change in heterosexual sex culture in the 18th century, it should also be reflected in homosexual sex culture.
In the case of lesbians, he asserts, this appears as a change from a culture dominated by cross-dressing to one focused on romantic friendship and a decline of a “butch-femme” dichotomy. Similarly, he asserts, male homosexual culture saw the rise of an emphasis on effeminate behavior and “molly culture”, along with the rise of popular homophobia. A phallocentric sex culture concerned with reproduction found sodomy and effeminacy uniquely threatening.
The problem I have with this last section of the article is that it oversimplifies the actual historic trends and ignores recurring cycles that undermine the desired conclusion. (I have a hard time taking seriously the assertion that English lesbian culture ca. 1700 was characterized by a cross-dressing butch-femme culture, even if one is using those labels to describe the “female husband” phenomenon. He even cites Donoghue 1993 as a source but hasn’t absorbed its complexity.) So overall, even though I think Hitchcock points out some interesting trends during the 18th century, I’m skeptical about the strength of his conclusions.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 41a - On the Shelf for December 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/12/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2019.
Another year is winding down and one of the shows this month will be a year-end retrospective about f/f historical media I’ve consumed and enjoyed this year. But what about a review of some of the things the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has done in 2019?
Back in April, we reached our 100th show, which I celebrated with a bonus fiction episode of my Renaissance romantic short story “Where My Heart Goes.” Somewhere around June, the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast topped 100,000 downloads! It’s worth compulsively tracking statistics just to know things like that. On the average, these days each episode reaches 1000 downloads within three months of airing. Not quite the big time, but not too shabby.
In 2019 we branched out into movie discussions, with episodes about The Favourite and Wild Nights with Emily. I still plan to do an episode on Gentleman Jack at some point, although there are entire podcasts devoted to the show so I’m still thinking about what special angle I can bring to it. This year, I also became more comfortable with giving myself a break on occasion and doing re-runs of past shows. Putting out a show every week can push my limits at times. I may use the editorial “we” in this show, but it’s all just me: doing the research, writing the scripts, arranging for the interviews, editing the recordings, compiling the show notes.
We’ve completed our second year of audio short stories and I’m so proud of the authors who have entrusted their work to me. Going into next year, I’m hoping for submissions that will make the choices even more difficult to narrow down. We’ll be accepting certain types of historic fantasy as well as strict historicals and there are some very exciting things going on in that field currently.
I’ve been delighted to be able to feature some authors writing historic fantasy in the mainstream in my interviews and hope to continue cross-pollinating various reading communities that share a love of queer women and history.
And that brings me to an idea I’d like to plant in your minds. I don’t know how much of an overlap there is between my listenership and the World Science Fiction Society members that nominate and vote for the Hugo awards. But among the categories that are recognized by the Hugos is Fancast--for podcasts or videocasts that contribute to the science fiction and fantasy community. It feels a bit daring to suggest, but I think the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast has enough SFF content that it makes sense for the show to be considered for nomination. So if you’re a nominating member of the World Science Fiction Society--which is to say, if you’re a supporting or attending member of either this year’s or next year’s Worldcon--I’d be grateful if you took a moment to consider whether you agree. Or, if you don’t agree yet, I’d appreciate if you listen to our next year’s offerings keeping that idea in mind. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it.
But let’s get back to the 2020 fiction series. In just one month, submissions will be open. I’ll be buying five stories to produce for the show and I’d love for yours to be in the running. There’s a link to the full call for submissions in the show notes with details of what we’re looking for and how to submit. Remember that we’re paying professional rates--the same per-word rates that far more prestigious and competitive venues offer.
And speaking of more prestigious and competitive venues, I’d also like to call your attention to an entirely different fiction project that will be accepting submissions early in the New Year: Silk and Steel: An Adventure Anthology of Queer Ladies. Their elevator pitch is: “Princess and swordswoman, scholar and mecha pilot, warrior women and the courtly ladies who love them.” I have no personal connection with this project except as a Kickstarter supporter, but I think it will be of great interest to my listeners, whether you’re authors or enthusiastic readers of f/f romantic adventure. The anthology started as an invitational collection featuring authors like Ellen Kushner, Aliette de Bodard, Amal El-Mohtar, Arkady Martine, and a whole bunch of other talented and award-winning authors. When their kickstarter project blew through all the stretch goals to reach nine times their original target, one of the add-ons was an open submissions call to add a few more stories. Their submissions deadline is February 22, 2020 and I’ve put a link to their call for submissions in the show notes for those who want the details. This is going to be exciting.
Publications on the Blog
I almost need a breather from all that excitement! So let’s review what the blog has been covering in the way of lesbian-relevant historical research.
I started off November with Adrienne Rich’s classic essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” which asks the evergreen question, when people are trying to address gender issues whether in history or in the present day, why do they keep forgetting that women who love women exist?
Next was the somewhat less mind-blowing collection of articles Constructing Medieval Sexuality, which had a fair amount of queer content but almost all of it male-centered. Another work that gets cited a lot but which I found less interesting than I’d hoped was Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-Modern. It’s an interesting cross-disciplinary philosophical study, though.
December begins with several papers on Renaissance and Early Modern topics. First up is Valerie Traub’s “The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England” which is one of the papers that eventually grew into her book by the same title. Tim Hitchcock’s "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England" tries to make sense of a variety of shifts in demographics and sexual behavior in the 18th century, including attitudes toward same-sex sexuality. The same general era and topic is addressed by Randolph Trumbach’s "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences.” I confess that every time I read something by Trumbach I get really grumpy because he’s one of those male historians who blithely assumes that one needn’t actually study female same-sex history, one can simply assume that data and conclusions about men apply to them. And speaking of which, I finish up December with John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. It was interesting to revisit this work. I originally read it back in 1980 when it first came out and to some extent every work on the history of sexuality since then has been in conversation with it.
Not much book shopping for the blog. I pre-ordered a book that isn’t due out until next March on the topic of “Female Husbands” viewed through a transgender lens.
I don’t have an author guest lined up this month, though I’m in correspondence with several people and just recorded a show that will air in February. I confess that if there were one part of this podcast that I’d love to farm out to someone with better social skills than me, it would be querying and arranging for guests to interview. I love the chance to talk to all the fascinating and talented authors we feature, but I have problems with anxiety around the process of actually lining them up, and it doesn’t help that I can’t just pull a guest out of my hat when I’ve put it off too long. So instead of interviews, I’ll reprise the show on Highwaywomen, which makes a sort of nice companion to this month’s essay.
This is an essay by request from several friends on Twitter who asked me to do a show on lesbian Vikings. Well, as you’ll find out, the show turns out to be a lot of “we don’t really have any evidence for lesbians in early Norse culture, but here are some tropes and motifs you might find useful if you want to write about them anyway.” I’ll also have a book list of f/f historic fantasy with Viking themes.
I plan to finish the year, as mentioned at the top of the show, with a look back at some of my favorite f/f historical books, movies, and other media I’ve consumed this year.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And that brings us to this month’s recent, new, and forthcoming book list.
Catching up on an October book with a fairy tale re-telling: Cinderella and the Lady, self-published by K.T. Grant
The sudden death of Ellie’s father leaves her with an uncertain future. Her stepmother, Geraldine and step-sister Mina treat her like a servant. The seductive Countess Tremaine wants to save Ellie from her life of drudgery, but all for a price- her innocence. She feels all hope is lost until she meets a lady who makes all her wishes come true. Lady Kristina, the Duke of Perrault’s daughter has returned home after five years abroad. She’s expected to marry, but her attraction to women stops her from carrying out her parents’ wishes. One night she meets a shy servant girl and becomes obsessed. She’ll do whatever she can to gain the trust of this mysterious woman and claim her for her own. With the countess pressuring Ellie into accepting her unscrupulous offer, and her stepmother growing more unstable, she turns to Kristina for support. But then her whole world comes crashing down when she learns the truth behind Kristina’s identity and the lies Geraldine has kept from her. As Ellie falls victim to those dark forces set on ruining her, Kristina fights to save Ellie’s heart before she loses her forever.
I found two November titles--or rather I found one, and the publisher let me know about the other one, which is always appreciated. The latter is a French erotic romance set in 1st century Rome.
O Venus ! Morior ! (Ô Vénus ! Je meurs !) by an author whose pen name is “Le Jardin de Sappho” (Sappho’s Garden). The story is in French, but here’s my translation of the cover copy, with a little help from Google Translate.
Aula Tullia Pulchra is a young Roman patrician of twenty years old. It's been four years since her husband Marcus left her bed. But thanks to a papyrus scroll that her sister-in-law gave her, she will discover with delight the joys of solitary pleasure and lesbian love with two magnificent slave girls from distant Germany.
The other November offering is a bit more serious: a self-published trilogy by Vicky Jones and Claire Hackney set in the American South in the 1950s. The Shona Jackson Trilogy consists of: Shona, Meet Me at 10, and The Beach House. The three blurbs run pretty long, so I’m going to condense it a bit, which I don’t usually do.
Shona - Mississippi, 1956. Shona Jackson knows two things—how to repair car engines and that her dark childhood secret must stay buried. Being a woman working a man’s job as a mechanic brings notice in a small town. And attention is dangerous, especially when it comes from free-spirited Lucy, a new college student. Lucy’s attraction to Shona is complicated by her entanglement with Frank, a failing bar owner whose schemes to raise money may also raise questions about Shona’s past.
Meet Me At 10 - It’s 1958 and Shona Jackson is on the run again. She lands a mechanic’s job at a machinery plant, but racial tensions and a supervisor bent on exposing management abuse come to a head when the boss’s beautiful daughter, Chloe, comes home from college.
The Beach House - California, 1958. (I guess this is sort of a spoiler.) Shona and Chloe arrive at their beautiful new beach house intent on a peaceful existence after their harrowing time in Alabama. With her own garage and a home beside the Pacific Ocean, Shona feels content for the first time in her life. But when Chloe returns from the doctor’s office with news that will forever change their carefully-made plans, Shona is left reeling.
December brings us three books. The first involves a bit of gender disguise: Donning the Beard self-published by EA Kafkalas.
Orphaned Madeline is sent to live with her aunt and work for Lord Guillomot. When she is assigned to care for the lord's daughter, Gabrielle, she finds her best friend and the love of her life. When Gabrielle's life is threatened by her fiancé, Madeline poses as a new suitor and wins her true love's heart. What will happen when Gabrielle finds out that her new love is also her ladies' maid?
Another Victorian tale with a rather darker turn is The Little Wife: A gothic Victorian tale of grief, desire and revenge, self-published by Delphine Woods.
When Beatrice Brown’s husband is duty-bound to return to the ominous Dhuloch Castle, she has no choice but to leave her home and go with him. The journey to the Scottish Highlands is nerve-shattering for Beatrice, and life in such a desolate place is no better. All she wants is to go back to England, back to her old, boring life. As she struggles to cope with the isolation and her husband’s cruel nature, Beatrice finds comfort in the only friendly face, the castle’s mistress, Clementine Montgomery. Soon, the two embark on a passionate affair. With Beatrice’s desires and vibrancy reawakened, she begins to wonder what her husband is hiding. Why did he flee the castle all those years ago? Something evil lurks inside Dhuloch’s walls. It will not rest until it has blood. Will Beatrice have the strength to uncover the truth before the castle claims its next victim?
And we finish with The Wonderful by Saksia Sarginson from Flatiron Books, which is one of those books where I had to go on social media to get confirmation that it really does have a queer protagonist.
A sweeping and turbulent drama about the anxieties of postwar Britain, where one strong and inspirational young woman looks to find her place, no matter the cost. Sometimes, the truth lies in fiction It’s hard to be an American girl in 1957. Especially when your dad’s job means you have to move four thousand miles from home. Especially if you’d rather play baseball than wear a dress. Especially if you see your mom fraying a little more from anxiety each day. And especially if being five minutes older means you have to protect your fragile twin brother. Still, Hedy Delaney loves her family, and she’s trying to make the best of her new life on a U.S. airbase in England. After all, her dad’s a war hero, her mother’s a beauty, and her brother’s a brainiac who writes moving stories about space travel. Then one tragic day, the unforeseen occurs and all three are ripped away, leaving Hedy alone with countless questions. What really happened on the airbase? What went on behind military closed doors? What were the secrets that could never be told? And how could any of it have led to her family’s destruction? In her search for the truth, Hedy turns to a story her brother began months before he died. Deciding to finish what her brother started, Hedy begins to piece together what happened to her family. But whether she’s ready for what she’ll discover is another matter entirely. A sweeping and turbulent family drama, The Wonderful asks whether writing fiction can uncover fact, and if it’s ever better to let the truth remain hidden. Sometimes, it’s safer not to finish what you’ve started.
What Am I Reading?
And what have I been reading since I recorded the last podcast? If I’m reading my notes correctly, I’ve been rather busy. A twisty time-travel epistolary romance “This is How You Lose the Time War” by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics which we talked about on the podcast a while ago. Cat Sebastian’s A Little Light Mischief which has also had a lot of f/f historical buzz. And then I’ve been tearing through Stephanie Burgis’s Regency fantasy series Snowspelled, Spellswept, and Thornbound, in preparation for interviewing her about the upcoming addition to the series, Moontangled, which features a female romantic couple. That seems like a lot, but many of them were fairly short. I’ve also changed up my daily routine and instead of reading fiction at the gym, I’m now reading it on the train to work, which just might be making a different in reading speed. Who knows.
What books are you hoping that Santa will bring you as presents? Or are you the sort who says, “To heck with Santa, I’m just going to buy them for myself!”
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One of the creative aspects of organizing a large "dump" of journal articles into a sequence of presentation is identifying clusters of common themes. This article would fit in several places within the group of articles I'm currently processing. I'll be running an extended set of studies of the intersection of friendship and romance in March and April. (Yes, I currently have blogs drafted up through April. The theory is that I'll try to keep that far ahead so I have space to tackle some of the longer books in my stack.) But those mostly address the 18-19th century and I had another, smaller group that focus on ideas about an Early Modern "turning point" in how same-sex relations were viewed. As I note in the analysis below, either different authors are seeing entirely different turning points in different centuries, or we need to step back and look for a larger picture of multiple recurring "turning points" that operate more like a revolving door of attitudes toward sexuality. At some point, I need to start deveoping a timeline of all the various theories (and their evidence) for these shifts in attitude, because I've been getting the image of a constant sense of present change that somehow re-sets even as it turns.
Traub, Valerie. 2001. "The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England" in GLQ 7:2 245-263.
This article forms the core of Traub’s 2002 book by the same name, covered in entry #69. However summarizing this original article will provide a different angle and different details than I picked up from that previous entry.
Traub begins by examining the subject matter and composition of a ca. 1631 painting by Anthony Van Dyck showing a scene from the play Il Pastor Fido (the faithful shepherd) in which the shepherd Mirtillo, disguised as a shepherdess in order to gain access to Amaryllis, the woman he desires, is drawn into a “kissing war” among that woman’s female friends, to determine which of them is the best kisser. Judged by the woman herself. The painting depicts the moment of Mirtillo’s victory, which simultaneously can be viewed as the triumph of heteroerotic love and as an apparent depiction of homoerotic love. (This is a link to an image of the painting, although I can’t guarantee that the link will be permanently stable.)
The complex scene raises contradictory interpretations. Even if one accepts the central couple as a triumph of heterosexuality, it’s a victory that requires an earlier state of idyllic homoeroticism. And can Amaryllis’s giving the crown to Mirtillo truly be a heterosexual act if she believed this champion kisser to be a woman?
More to the point as a historian, scenes such as this contradict a position long claimed by historians that lesbianism was functionally invisible in Western Europe before the modern era. Traub offers brief quotes from The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1995) which attests to this belief.
What Traub concluded, and sets out to prove, is that early modern England saw a renaissance of representations of female-female desire in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a gradual increase over that period of depictions of women’s same-sex physical and emotional investments across a wide variety of textual genres. These representations existed within a context that considered women to have a stronger sex drive than men, and that considered same-sex desire to be a natural manifestation of that drive.
In addition to literary depictions of f/f love, this era saw medical manuals explore a new understanding of the function of the clitoris (and a consequent preoccupation with the motif of the overdeveloped clitoris being used to facilitate sex between women), travelogues with tales of female same-sex desire in the Near East and North Africa, and an influx of continental literature that treated homoerotic themes between women.
As much of this proliferation of material was due to the rise of printing technology, it is impossible to compare its availability quantitatively, as there was a similar expanded proliferation of content in many other fields. And some material was clearly a continuation of themes present in medieval literature, as with the endless variations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. But whatever the contributing causes, by the 16-17th centuries there was a wealth of material.
Traub uses the term “renaissance” very deliberately as much of the material has roots in classical antecedents which were essential to the understanding of the material. These antecedents came in two major flavors: medical and satirical treatments of the motif of the tribade, the sexually aggressive woman who played “a man’s part” in sex (and increasingly was assumed to have deviant anatomy to accomplish this), and the classical philosophical tradition of amicitia (friendship, amity) which was traditionally celebrated as idealized friendships between men, but now extended to, or claimed by, women as well. Much of this renaissance of representation was produced by men, but in this era we also see women producing their own depictions of homoerotic love.
As a central example of how female-female love was depicted, Traub looks at several variants of the Iphis and Ianthe story, including Arthur Golding’s 1567 verse translation into English, and John Lyly’s retelling of the motifs in Gallathea, which contrasts with the source material in featuring two cross-dressing girls who fall in love with each other. One of the themes in these I&I retellings is the lament of the girls for the “impossibility” of their love. Yet the dramatic depictions again and again rely on recognizing such love as possible and even prevailing.
How was same-sex female desire made understandable? And what strategies were used to contain it and convince the consuming public that it was impossible? Were those strategies successful?
The image of “women having sex together” depends greatly on how sex is defined. The 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the recognition of its analogy to the penis with regard to sexual pleasure, created new images and mythology about women’s same-sex activities. Whereas the figure of the “tribade” had previously incorporated beliefs about phallic importance via the use of an artificial penis, now a new image was created of the woman with an enlarged clitoris who was capable of using it for penetrative sex.
In English, this image was first made explicit in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia: or, A Description of the Body of Man (1615). The central theme of such works was that an enlarged clitoris either caused, or was caused by (or both), the rubbing of women’s bodies together for sexual purposes. (Or, in the “was caused by” version, sometimes initially by rubbing against clothing.) Causation was a confused and contradictory aspect of this motif. Borrowing from humoral theory and beliefs about the penis, clitoral size was asserted to correlate with the quantity of sexual desire (but, again, causation could go both ways).
Under this theory, any woman possessed the basic original equipment necessary to become a tribade, as well as the inclination to excess sexual desire (as a feature of women in general). This contrasts with later theories that same-sex desire represented a deviation of gender, an internal “masculinity”.
[Note: Traub identifies this as a “later” attitude, but Classical writers also theorized that a woman’s desire for women was due to an “innate masculine nature”. The two models have played tag across the ages. Traub also fails to make the connection between the “macro-clitoris” theory and how interest in anatomy spread awareness--if not understanding--of the variations in human anatomy, plus the fascination during this same era with the image of the “hermaphrodite” in its probably-intersex-inspired form.]
But if the image of the tribade as a male-coded, sexually voracious woman was expanded in the early modern era from an “Other” to being something that any woman had the potential to become, similarly the popularity of the image of sensuality between “normal” feminine bodies also universalized women’s same-sex potential.
“Fem-fem” love is typically depicted as arising in the context of intimate friendships, often beginning in adolescence when the participants were assumed to be “chaste and innocent”. These images and descriptions occur within a social context when physical affection between friends is expected and when the sharing of beds was common. But rather than framing such features of women’s intimate friendships as being entirely non-erotic, literature regularly draws explicit parallels between same-sex affections and the heterosexual bonds and interactions that the work frames as the ultimate goal of the narrative. Shakespeare uses this dynamic regularly with pairs such as Hermia and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Rosalind and Celia (As You Like It).
This dynamic--under the complex and heavily loaded term “amity”--was depicted as existing side-by-side (although not always amicably) with the heterosexual marriage plots of the works precisely in order to negate the serious potential of same-sex love and to overwrite it with the work’s heterosexual resolution. It is a general pattern in comedic works of the early modern period that anxieties are raised explicitly only to be resolved. Fem-fem couples in this literature become significant when they challenge the patriarchal and marital imperative of society, when they threaten to become exclusive, at which point they must be dismantled. Traub notes that female homoerotic pairs feature only in courtship plots rather than history plays or tragedies. [Note: but see Walen’s Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama for a more detailed and nuanced look at the medium that somewhat contradicts this.]
Thus, although “tribades” transgressed gender norms, “fem-fem” couples were not viewed as disruptive to the social structure unless they went beyond using the language of marriage to trying to appropriate the social function of marriage. In fictional texts such as Iphis and Ianthe and Gallathea, this risk was nullified by magical sex transformation. But in real life there was no such safe resolution for expressions like the Maitland Quarto Manuscript poem XLIV (1586) in which a woman (or at least a female voice) expresses the desire for marriage to another woman, even if it required such a bodily change. The Maitland poet does not lament the “impossibility” of her love, as Iphis does, but only the impossibility of marriage between two female bodies.
In tracing not only the instances where female homoerotic bonds become “significant”, but changes in the ways in which those bonds are represented over time, Traub argues that the “innocence” of fem-fem love began to be challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to increasing circulation of literature about the sexual possibilities between women. She says, “These behaviors, represented as unexceptional until the mid-seventeenth century, begin to be construed as immoral, irrational, a threat to other women.”
[Note: What is missing from Traub’s analysis here is that popular opinion has regularly cycled through periods of considering women’s same-sex romantic bonds to be “innocent” to being “suspicious” to being “deviant”. The shift Traub identifies in the mid-17th century obviously did not preclude later periods that represented passionate friendships as socially acceptable and "innocent".]
It is this conflation of the image of the tribade and “innocent” fem-fem love that creates the possibility of a modern erotic identity of “lesbian” that incorporated a wide variety of micro-identities. Although 16th century representations of female homoeroticism don’t provide clear and direct antecedents for modern lesbian identities, they can expand our understanding of the multiple roots for that identity.
[Note: Interestingly, Trumbach makes a very similar argument about there having been a point when multiple, previously unrelated threads of women’s homoerotic experience coalesce to form an identifiable “sexual orientation”, but he places that event two centuries later (Trumbach 1991). Is this a case of different historians staking out different “turning points” based on their own specific focus of interest? Or are we seeing what Traub later (Traub 2011) refers to as “cycles of salience” when she notes that she revised her own thinking on the course of lesbian-relevant history.]