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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110c Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 3)

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 3: Medicine

Rather than open by discussing the contents below (which are pretty standard for the early modern medical view of lesbianism and cover ground seen many times before in this project), here's a link to a recent article (h/t abd07) on the hazards of researching lesbian themes with the question "what is the lesbian analogue for this particular gay male thing?" This is a theme that was more problematic during the early period of LGBT historiography when attempts at a comprehensive approach tripped over a variety of hurdles: the greater volume of male-related material, the stronger (and more hostile) focus in historical sources on male behavior, and the unexamined normalization of men's lives (even "abnormal" men's lives) in historical research, and the stronger position of male academics and their interests.

The article is looking at the question of both slang and speech patterns used in gay male communities and whether there are lesbian analogues. While reading the article, two additional issues occurred to me -- one touched on somewhat tangentially and one apparently not considered.

The first is the greater…one might say "resilience" of gay men to visibility. (Yes, it's only a relative resilience, not an absolute one.) Both the development and the ability to research "gay men's speech" in a historic context rely on the fact that it was possible for such speech patterns to be visible enough to serve as a communication device. This creates a delicate balance between visibility and discretion that was undoubtedly different for women.

The second issue that occurred to me is that these male researchers proclaiming that there must have been no historic "lesbian speech patterns" because they didn't observe them may simply not have had the same access that they did to men's communities. Linguists in the field are quite aware of the barriers a researcher may have to understanding gendered speech behavior for a different gender than their own.

In any case, it's an interesting article, although far too modern in coverage for the Project's scope.

* * *

Medical references to sex between women include several on the “rediscovery of the clitoris” theme as well as pseudo-medical explanations for same-sex desire, plus some titillating orientalism. Several of the texts cited here are classical but formed part of the corpus of standard medical literature in the Renaissance.

Caelius Aurelianus (ca. 400CE) - Discusses sex between women but identifies only the “active” partner as a tribade. He considers both passive men, and both partners in a female relationship, to be unhealthy. Tribades “are more eager to lie with women than with men; in fact, they pursue women with almost masculine jealousy”.

Avicenna (980-1037) - In a discussion of how physicians are allowed to discuss techniques for enhancing sexual pleasure with their patients, he explains that women’s sexual pleasure is essential for conception (due to a theory that female orgasm, like ejaculation, was necessary to produce seed). He makes a somewhat vague allusion to sex between women (via a reference to achieving orgasm by “rubbing”) in the context of women who are sexually unsatisfied by their husbands.

Rodrigo de Castro (1546-1623/9) - In discussing the clitoris as the seat of women’s sexual pleasure, he discusses the theory that the organ may become enlarged, resulting in continual stimulation (e.g., by rubbing against clothing) and that this causes such women to be sexually agressive “as Amatus relates conccerning two Turkish women of Thessalonike; and we have seen some women publicly punished at Lisbon for the same crime. They are called tribades by Caelius Aurelianus, dominators (subigatrices) by Plautus, and Martial says of a certain Bassa, that she ‘Has devised a worthy demonstration of the Theban riddle: How there can be adultery where no man is to be found.’”

He then discusses clitoridectomy but disapproves of it as he considers women’s sexual pleasure to be important, and furthermore because he notes that sometimes an enlarged clitoris is actually an emergent penis of a hermaphrodite and that at puberty it may be that an individual previously considered to be female becomes a man. In another passage discussing that it is easier to preserve virginity (because virgins don’t know what they’re missing) than chastity (because women who have had sex will continue to desire it), he notes that the desire of an experienced woman for sex is “even more true of those who are called tribades or ‘rubbers,’ who only love to rub one another, and thus perform a disgraceful act upon one another.”

André du Laurens (1558-1609) - Another clinical discussion of the function of the clitoris. He notes that “women who are called tribades or ‘rubber’ rub each other on that part” but though the same passage discusses enlarged clitorises there isn’t a direct causal connection made.

Helkiah Crooke (1576-1635) - Yet another discussion of the clitoris, its function, the possibility of it being enlarged to masculine proportions, and the implication that tribadism is due to this aberration.

Time period: 

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