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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110e Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 5)

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 5: Physiognomics

Anyone who has participated in a palm-reading has taken part in the pseudo-science of physiognomy. For that matter, statistical studies attributing a wide variety of psychological and behavioral traits (including sexual orientation) to the ratio of lengths of the index and ring fingers are operating within the realm of physiognomy. The two excerpts below that specifically mention sexual desire between women touch on only a few aspects of the field. It is interesting to note how fuzzy the line is between supposed cause and effect. In the description of Fracassa, her "manly" personality is considered to be signaled by the shape of her head and her lower limbs, but are behavioral traits (such as gait and posture) or activities (such as jousting in armor) considered to be a further consequence of that "manly personality" or are they, too, simply outward signifiers by which one may determine her "nature"? That is, does she joust because she's manly, or is she manly because she jousts?

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We have not entirely managed to shed the idea that an individual’s habitual predispositions are reflected in their physical features. The Greek pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomics is one of the foundational treatises that systematized this view. References to female homoeroticism (as opposed to male references) in the context of physiognomy are rare and primarily appear in texts derived from an anonymous Latin treatise of the 4th century.

Bartolommeo della Rocca (1467-1504) in a section on chiromancy (interpreting the hands) discusses how to interpret “signs of morally offensive lust on the hands of a woman”. The discussion groups together a wide variety of sexual behaviors, from incest, to women taking an active role with men, to any sexual activity by nuns, to masturbation, to bestiality. But the discussion specifically notes, “Note also that in women ‘morally offensive lust’ can be understood when women come together vulva to vulva and rub one another, of which Juvenal writes in this verse: ‘They ride one another, turn and turn about, and disport themselves for the Moon to witness.’ And such women are called by the ancient term tribades. It is said that Sappho, the Lesbian lass and poet, amused herself with this kind of lust.”

In a section primarily discussing characteristics of hair, della Rocca provides a detailed description of a “manly woman” both in terms of physical appearance and behavior (though sexual activity is not specifically mentioned). “By many outward signs may a man find out the qualities of the mind and courage. As when a woman is apparelled and decked in man’s apparel, which doth then declare her nature to draw near to man’s. As the like did that woman of courage named Fracassa, who commonly used to wear (by the report of the Physiognomer [i.e., Rocca himself]) man’s apparel, and would upon a bravery many times arm herself at all points to joust and run sundry times so armed at the ring. The form of which woman...was on this wise: she had a small head, and Pineaple-like, a neck comely formed, large breasted, seemly arms, answering to the body. But in her other parts, as in the hips, buttocks, thighs, and legs, near agreeing to man’s. This manly woman also walked upright in body, treading light on the ground, and bearing her head playing like to the Hart. The other notes of this woman did the Physiognomer for brevity sake here omit. Yet he thus concludeth that by the sundry notes which he viewed, she was prone to come to a violent death...”

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