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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110b Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 2)

Full citation: 

Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Chapter 2: Law

It is a regular contradiction that legal cases often provide the most insight into pre-modern women's desire for each other, and how they acted on it, while simultaneously only giving us glimpses of those cases where the participants were so unlucky, or indiscreet, or even perhaps unusually transgressive as to be brought to answer for themselves. Similarly, in these cases we hear the women's own words only in a context where they have strong motivations for framing their actions in the ways most likely to be forgiven. This makes their stories all the stronger when, as with the weaver of Montier-en-Der, they chose not to take that route.

* * *

The introduction notes the extreme variation in how female same-sex relationships were treated, in terms of penalties, liability, and the means and extent of enforcement, including differing legal theories of whether the term “sodomy” could apply. As a generalization, consensual same-sex behavior was least prosecuted in England, while Florence may have regularly prosecuted relations between men but the penalties were relatively light, while in Spain penalties were regularly quite severe including execution, and similarly severe were those recorded in Geneva.

These statistics are almost exclusively male, however. Prosecutions of women were much rarer, though penalties could be as severe as for men. One source counts only 30 known prosecutions of female couples between 1450 and 1700. [Unclear if this is for Europe as a whole? Western culture as a whole? England only? My guess is the second.] Of 75 sodomy trials in Geneva between 1444 and 1789, only one involves women. In the New World colonies, only one known prosecution of a female couple is recorded. The text discusses the reasons why the law might be less concerned with women’s sexual activities, and notes that prosecutions typically focused on cases involving gender disguise (female husbands) or penetrative sex.

Travel Journal of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (September 1580) - Passing through the town of Vitry-le-François in France, he is told the story behind a recent hanging nearby.

Several years before, seven or eight girls around Chaumont-en-Basigni plotted amonst themselves to dress as males and continue their lives in the world accordingly. Amongst these, one came to Vitry under the name Mary, earning his living as a weaver, a well-behaved young man friendly with everyone. Here he became engaged to a woman still alive; yet because of some disagreement between them, their bargain went no further. After having gone to Montier-en-Der, still earning his living at the said trade, he fell in love with a woman, married her, and they lived together four or five months to her satisfaction, according to what is said. But, having been recognized by someone from Chaumont, and the matter brought to justice, she was condemned to be hung, which she said she’d rather suffer than return to a girl’s state, and was hung for the illicit inventions used to supplement the defect of her sex. [Note the interesting pronoun alternation in the source.]

Trial Documents Regarding Sarah White Norman (fl. 1639-1654) and Mary Vincent Hammon (1633-1705) - This is the only known legal prosecution of a female couple in the North American colonies. Both women were married at the time to men and were prosecuted in 1648 for “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed”. Mary was only 15 at the time and received only an admonishment while Sarah, who may have been a decade or so older, was brought to trial. The sentence was, “to make a public acknowledgment, so far as conveniently may be, of her unchaste behavior, and ... also ... to take heed of such carriages for the future, lest her former carriage come in remembrance against her to make her punishment the greater.” Sarah’s husband deserted her and their children during the trial and returned to England. Mary’s marriage continued until her husband’s death in 1703. [The word "carriage" in the above should probably be understood as "behavior".]

Time period: 

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