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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #45 - Merrick & Ragan 2001 Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection

Full citation: 

Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6

I know I promised to do Dekker & van de Pol next (based on the survey results), but I sort of fell into this one while doing my intake-posting last weekend. (And it doesn't actually delay the postings for Dekker & van de Pol because I'd been planning to stretch out Dugaw to finish up today.) When you see historians talking about how little evidence there is on pre-modern homosexuality, it often means that they simply haven't had the interest or the access to dig deeply enough. Collections like this one that mine primary source documents may be a bit dreary and depressing in terms of the actual content, but they are refreshing in the hints and clues they provide to "hidden history". The majority of the content of this collection concerns men, simply due to the asymmetry in the social context, however the authors have been assiduous in identifying and including material on women when it is available.

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This is a sourcebook of excerpts (in translation) from historic documents relating to France during the 16-18th centuries that relate in some way to same-sex relationships. The documents cover court records, personal correspondence, religious commentary, medical opinion, satire, and political polemic. While most items take an external point of view, some are (or purport to be) from the point of view of homosexuals themselves. One significant aspect to keep in mind is that accusations of homosexuality (against both men and women) were used as political weapons and smear tactics, especially during the revolutionary era, and therefore while the texts may shed light on public attitudes (the attitudes that enabled the accusations to be a smear) they do not necessarily constitute evidence of homosexual behavior or orientation of specific named individuals.

The book begins with a glossary of vocabulary related to homosexuality that is used in the documents. This enables the editors to avoid some of the distortions that translation can require, but it would also be invaluable for the potential historic novelist. The remainder of this entry will be brief summaries of the individual documents that relate to lesbian-like motifs, although some are clearly better categorized as transgender. (As a departure from my usual format, I’ll provide the starting page number reference for each excerpt, simply to make it easier for anyone who wants to follow up in the book itself.)


p.2 1610 Treatise on sin mentions women in the context of sodomy, but specific examples are all clearly male.

p.5 1648 Instructions to confessors inquiring about sexual sins; suggests inquiring whether “something lewd took place with other girls or women” and who they learned it from or may have taught it to.


p.14 1563 Court case covers “two women corrupting each other together without a male” and cites an accusation against Françoise de l'estage and Catherine de la Manière. The women were not executed because the witnesses were “validly challenged” but they were sentenced to be tortured.

p.14 1573 A treatise on punishments for various crimes includes women under “buggery” describing it as “practiced between women who are so abominable that they follow other women, just as or more ardently than the man follows the woman, corrupting each other together without males.”

p.15 1618 A discussion of sexual crimes and punishments includes women under sodomy: “women who corrupt each other, whom the ancients called tribades” and cites several classical sources. The death penalty is specified.

p.17 1715 A discussion of sexual crimes including sodomy notes “women who corrupt each other are called fricatrices and triballes [sic]” but prescribes two years penance per canon law rather than execution.

p.19 1771 After a long list of cases where men were sentenced to death by burning for sodomy, women are mentioned as a hypothetical case “if they have sexual relations with each other after the example of the male and the female” and note that the crime “deserves” capital punishment but that sometimes a less severe punishment is given.

p.23 1785 Women mentioned almost as an afterthought in a discussion of various punishments for sodomy.

p.24 1787 “Women who corrupt each other without men” mentioned briefly in passing in a discussion of sodomy.

Medicine (Purely as an aside, the phallocentric myth that associates an enlarged clitoris with lesbian activity was still appearing in "enlightened" sex manuals in the 1960s!)

p.26 1599 Anatomical discussion of the clitoris and its function for sexual stimulation, followed by a discussion of the claim that tribadism involves women with an enlarged clitoris who use it as a penis.

p.27 1612 In a discussion of women’s reproductive health, mention of the claim associating tribadism with an enlarged clitoris.

p.27 1690 Anatomical discussion of the clitoris and its function, covering masturbation and the “enlarged clitoris = tribadism” motif.

p.28 1760 Discussion of the clitoris covering both masturbation and lesbian sex, citing classical Roman sources, though no reference to the “enlarged” motif. Notes the attraction of lesbian sex in not risking pregnancy and associates lesbian desire (through an odd chain of logic) with the leveling of class distinctions. Mention of a lady at the court who was “so smitten by a young girl” that she became jealous of the girl’s other suitor.

p.29 1771 Discussion of nymphomania and investigating whether it is caused by lesbian activity either with friends or servants. Recommendation that the afflicted girl be separated from all her close companions and spied upon to determine whether this cause is involved.

Repression (Primarily references to legal accusations, but from sources other than the law codes covered previously. The introductory discussion notes that -- the law codes notwithstanding -- most sodomy accusations were handled by the police outside the courts and did not involve the severe penalties listed there.)

p.33 1580 A group of 7-8 girls decided to dress and live as males. One, making a living as a weaver, became engaged to a woman but broke up with her, then married a different woman. He was recognized by someone from his home town and brought to justice for “using illicit devices”. He was hanged in punishment, saying he would rather endure that than return to being a girl. [The condemned individual's statement seems to put this case clearly in the transgender category, and the original records appear to alternate pronouns depending on context.]

p.37 1698 An extensive set of documents and correspondence related to one Madame de Murat who was suspected/accused of improper behavior with women. The following items were supplied in evidence. A woman of immoral reputation, Madame de Nantiat lives with Murat and “is the object of her continual adoration” even in front of third parties. Something about a portrait (of Murat?) that had been defaced with a knife by a woman she’d left for Madame de Nantiat. (Also mentioned were cursing and gambling and singing lewd songs.) Murat left Paris briefly in response to the accusations and warnings but returned a week later and took up again with Nantiat. Then Nantiat left town. Murat claims that since her husband doesn’t complain about her conduct it’s no business of the law. Murat is sent off to the chateau of Loches to be imprisoned but continues to correspond with her lover(s).

p.74 1750 Testimony of Geneviève Pommier, an unmarried 34 year old embroidress. She was arrested for selling newspapers and sent to prison. She got permission to go put her possessions in safekeeping and was being transported in a carriage to do this in company with “la Maréchale” with the jailers riding on top of the carriage. La Maréchale took the opportunity to have a sexual encounter with her and offered to get her out of jail if she would promise to love her and live with her. The witness (Geneviève) claims she didn’t really understand what was being suggested and agreed. She was, indeed, released from prison with la Maréchale writing her love letters, sending her food, and paying her prison expenses in the mean time. On arriving at la Maréchale’s house after her release, Geneviève was taken aback by the other woman’s expressions of love and passion, “in bed with her, she was surprised by what la Maréchale said to her and wanted to teach her, telling her that if she knew the pleasure that two women could have together, she would abandon her [male lover].” There are more details indicating how la Maréchale expressed her desire and sexual interest. Geneviève was uninterested enough to eventually sneak out and beg to be taken back to prison instead.


p.97 1566 Anecdote about a girl from Fontaines who disguised herself as a man and worked as a stablehand at an inn for seven years, then married a local girl. They lived together for two years working in the vineyards but then she was exposed, arrested, confessed, and was executed by burning. There is mention of “the wickedness she employed to fake a husband’s function” which may have contributed to the harshness of the penalty.

p.103 early 17th c. Excerpts from Brantôme regarding whether married women commit adultery when participating in lesbian activity. This excerpt doesn’t include any conclusions on that point, but provides five pages of historical and contemporary anecdotes regarding lesbian sex. [I really should just give Brantôme his own entry, but this will be an extremely abbreviated list of the quoted contents.] Positive description of the topic: “two ladies in love with each other...sleeping together and doing what is called ‘donna con donna’” Classical examples: Sappho, Martial’s epigram #90 about Bassa who was considered virtuous for never entertaining men, only women, until it was discovered that she “played the role of man ... and couple with them.” A Spanish courtesan in Rome named Isabella de Luna who was enamored of another courtesan named Pandora and continued maintaining and sleeping with her even after Pandora married a man. Juvenal’s reference to a particularly skilled female lover named Grissas. Lucian’s evaluation that women who “come to couple together like men” are still better than an effeminate man. Also from Lucian, a woman describing how her female lover kissed and embraced her, including tongue-kissing, plus an oblique mention of how they “coupled in a certain way that was much more pleasant than with a man.” Moving on to contemporary (but non-French) examples. Lesbianism common in cultures with female seclusion as a means for “cooling off a bit”. Turkish women going to the (segregated) baths for sex. Courtesans in Italy and Spain who seek out female lovers despite having men freely available. Description from a peeping Tom about seeing two women at court making love. [Very many of his anecdotes begin “I have heard it told ....”] General observation about women who make love to women and maintain them “as a man does to his mistress” with the complaisance of their husbands, which Brantôme warns is a mistake as he considers that lesbianism will only lead to the greater sin of heterosexual adultery. Anecdote about “two lovely and respectable gentlewomen ... both of them cousins” who slept in the same bed for three years and enjoyed sex together but who then decided to try male lovers, which he blames on their previous behavior having whetted their appetites. Anecdote about a nobleman asking a woman’s opinion about a relative of hers that he is interested in marrying, and being told to forget it because the woman’s female lover would never allow the woman of his interest to marry. Mention of the myth that female weasels make love to each other and therefore that the weasel has been used as a symbol for lesbians. Discussion of the difference between tribadism and the use of dildos, including a caution of the physical damage that the latter can cause. Anecdote about two women of the court who were known for frequent Public Displays of Affection, who were making love vigorously supported on a close stool (portable toilet) that broke under them, soiling the gown of the one underneath. [This anecdote takes the spin of “they were so ardent they couldn’t wait for a more appropriate location.”] Another discussion of how men would prefer their wives to have female lovers than male ones. Mention of the observations by Firenzuloa [see Eisenbichler 2001] that some women love each other “in a pure and holy way” as with Margaret of Austria and Laodamia Fortenguerra while others love “lewdly and wantonly” like Sappho and the Venetian courtesan Cecilia in Rome. (He discourses for a while on Margaret of Austria in a way that makes it clear he knows nothing about the actual historic woman.) He concludes with a couple of anecdotes about hermaphrodites (i.e., intersex persons) presenting as women who had sexual relations with women.

p.110 1680 Dialog from the play The Academy of Women accompanying a rather explicit sexual initiation scene between a married woman and one engaged to be married. It goes on for eight pages and provides a lot of varied vocabulary and imagery for the activities. The married woman climaxes but the initiate is only somewhat stimulated. They discus the use of dildos but that is to be put off so that she can go to her future husband a virgin. [The dialog then devolves into a long medical lecture for two pages.]

p.131 1748 [This appears to be an excerpt from a novel entitled Thérèse the Philosophe.] The narrator has just arrived in Paris and has been taken under the wing of a female neighbor named Bois-Laurier who sounds her out about her sexual history and interests, and then flirts with her while helping her settle in. Bois-Laurier initiates a sexual interlude in the guise of personal hygiene and later on the two go to bed together and it is implied they have sex. In the larger context, though, Bois-Laurier seems to be a procuress of sorts who is grooming the narrator for prostitution.

p.137 1778 [Excerpts from a pornographic novel.] The protagonist is a young woman who is thrown out of her home for being so lascivious (due to an enlarged clitoris) that she was caught engaging in tribadism with her younger sister. She falls into the hands of a procuress who decides that her physical attribute will make her sought-after by her lesbian clientele. She is cleaned up and offered to a social circle of lesbians, which she takes to enthusiastically.

p.144 1773 [Yet more excepts from a different pornographic novel.] There is a long description and explanation of the “Anandrine Sect” of lesbians -- it isn’t clear whether this is an actual fictional international organization, or a metaphoric expression for lesbianism as an orientation. The extensive descriptions are very vague and flowery, for the most part.

p.152 1785 [Yet another pornographic novel.] This text includes lesbian interactions as a minor part of a pansexual orgy.

p. 155 later 18th c. Dictionary definition of “tribade” as a woman who has a passion for another woman.

Revolution (During the period generally surrounding the revolution, accusations of homosexuality were made against both male and female members of the court for political purposes, whatever basis of truth they might have had in individual cases. Queen Marie Antoinette was a particular target of accusations of sexual impropriety.)

p.173 1790 Brief and passing mention of “tribades” in a satirical tract that purports to be an address from the sodomites of Paris to the National Assembly.

p.204 1791 An almost incomprehensible and very rude satirical polemic, invoking the fictitious “Anandrine Sect” and arguing from the basic premise that since all men are given over to sodomy, the women should renounce men entirely and stick to their own kind.

p.212 1793 A polemic against Marie Antoinette that purports to reveal her entire scandalous sexual history since childhood. Lesbian activity features prominently. [Yes, I’m getting a little fatigued with giving detailed summaries at this point. Let’s just say that if you want to write historically-accurate male-gazey lesbian pornography set at the French court, you should track this material down and read it.]

Time period: 

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