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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #17 - Bennett 2000 "’Lesbian-Like' and the Social History of Lesbianism"

Full citation: 

Bennett, Judith M. 2000. "’Lesbian-Like' and the Social History of Lesbianism" in Journal of the History of Sexuality: 9:1-24.

I don’t know exactly when I first started thinking of a something along the lines of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, but I can pinpoint when the idea coalesced in my mind like a firework going off. It was November of 1998 and I’d flown off to New York City to attend the Queer Middle Ages conference sponsored by CUNY and New York University. I was sitting there in an auditorium--knowing no one and straining the limits of my introvert’s soul--when a woman stepped up to the podium and said, “My name is Judith Bennett and I like to count things.” (I know, because I jotted that down in my notebook at the time.) And then she proceeded to give a presentation that would eventually become this paper. It was a sort of Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment for me. This was the concept that made everything come together: that it is valid and useful to study “lesbian-like” spaces in history as a context for understanding historic lesbians, rather than restricting ourselves to those few, anomalous instances where we can incontrovertably prove the emotional and sexual connection of two women. And though Bennett’s purpose is the study of actual (if hypothetical) historic people, and my purpose is the creation of of fictional historic people, that concept and the stimulus and focus it provided to other researchers has proven invaluable to my own selfish purposes.

* * *

While the academic “queer studies” movement has analyzed a great many “high culture” works in literature and art, looking for evidence of same-sex impulses, this approach has been less useful for (or perhaps less interested in) an understanding of the ordinary lives of average people who might have had those same impulses. For this purpose, identifying lesbian motifs in works like the Roman de Silence or interpreting nuns’ adoration of vulva-like images of the wounds of Christ as homoerotic is somewhat beside the point. If we’r looking for hard, solid evidence for women having same-sex genital contact in the medieval period (defined here as pre-1500) we’re restricted for the most part of a very small number of legal records where the relationship came to the negative attention of authorities. (She notes a dozen women, all from the 15th century. [Trust me, I’ll track them all down from her footnotes.])

Bennett contextualizes this problem among other fields of the social history of minorities and notes, “I want to participate in the creation of histories that can have meaning for those women who today identify as lesbians, bisexuals, queers, or otherwise.” Even feminist approaches to the history of medieval women often ignore homoerotic possibilities. Medieval commentaries provide less evidence for female than male homosexuality in part because it was taken less seriously, as seen for example in lesser penances assigned for it in penitentials. Most historians tend to ascribe this to the focus on female chastity as it affected the legitimacy of children and concerns over sexual activity driven by a phallocentric approach where lesbian activity was only problematic when it appropriated the appearance of masculinity or when it resulted in marriage resistance. But the general lesser visibility of women of all types in medieval records also contributes. The interpretation of medieval mystical texts and art involves too much “reading in” to be reliable as a guide to actual human lives and the relationships portrayed, for example whether an emotional connection between unrelated women should be interpreted as pseudo-maternal or romantic.

To broaden the scope of what is studied with regard to the social history of  lesbians in the Middle Ages, Bennett introduces the concept of “lesbian-like” individuals, characteristics, and experiences. [Note: I’ve met a number of people who intensely dislike this particular wording, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything better.] That is, the study of contexts that offered opportunities for same-sex love and erotic interactions, of women who resisted heterosexual norms and paradigms, and of circumstances in which women provided nurturance and support for each other outside of the structures of patriarchal families and heterosexual marriage.  This terminology side-steps the question of how specifically or narrowly one wants to define the word “lesbian” in the first place. Some object that the very use of the word “lesbian” betrays a modern bias and worldview, however Bennett dismisses this noting that the use of the word for women who have sexual relations with each other is long-standing in medieval sources, not only occurring in antiquity, but used by a 10th century Byzantine commentator (who equated Lesbiai with tribades and hetairistriai, unequivically indicating sexual activity) and the use of the word in its modern sense occurs in English at least as early as the 1730s. Furthermore, historians are quite happy to use anachronistic terminology in other fields, and objections to “lesbian” often seem to be misogynistic derailing. (A fair amount of the article is devoted to discussing issues around the topic of terminology and historiography.)

The last part of the article is a survey of some of the topics that fall under this “lesbian-like” concept. As they will all be covered under their primary references (most of which I have yet to post), I’ll be brief here. The 15th c. Polish woman who passed as a man to attend the University of Krakow (Shank 1987).  Two French married women who had an ongoing sexual relationship with each other and saw nothing wrong with it until there was a contentious breakup (Benkov 2001). A group of Italian widows (possibly including unmarried women?) who combined their resources to create a communal living arrangement that was nominally religious but resisted coming under male authority for at least two generations (McLaughlin 1989). The surprising normalcy of singlewomen across Europe (Kowaleski 1999).

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