Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69f Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 5)

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Chapter 5: The psychomorphology of the clitoris: or, the reemergence of the tribade in English culture

If chapter 4 looked at the “acceptable” (because “insignificant”) side of female homoeroticism, this chapter addresses a major motif in the unacceptable side of the equation.

* * *

The general topic of this chapter is the historic association of the clitoris with transgressive lesbian sex (as opposed to culturally-acceptable same-sex relationships). Traub begins by reviewing Freud's theory that vagina = heterosexual, clitoris = homosexual, and points out that this was not a new concept with him but merely the culmination of a long tradition. To sum up a great deal of material: focus on the clitoris as a penis substitute, and especially the mythologized "enlarged clitoris", along with focus on mechanical penis substitutes, came to define the unacceptable, unnatural, gender-transgressive "masculine" lesbian, in contrast to the "insignificant" femme-femme desire that could be integrated within hetero-patriarchal structures. The association was so strong that it was assumed that any woman perceived to have an enlarged clitoris was presumed to be a tribade and any woman participating in lesbian sex was automatically suspected of having an enlarged clitoris. This was part of an overall distinction between women who appropriated male characteristics (physiological, behavioral, cultural) and were condemned for that reason (whether or not they had sex with women), and women who did not and were considered acceptable (even if they participated in sex with women). A few European examples of this framing are given (e.g., Montaigne's observations in a French town in 1580 regarding a female husband; Ambroise Paré's medical text Microcosmographia (1615)) but the chapter moves on to look at the extensive early modern "travelogue" literature that locates clitoral excess and the presumed associated lesbian activity in exotic cultures, especially in the Islamic world and Africa.

The following texts fall in this category:

  • Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (16th c. Flemish ambassador to Turkey) - Discussion of female homoeroticism at the baths, and an anecdote about a cross-dressing female husband.
  • Ottaviano Bon (1587, Italian ambassador to Turkey) - Anecdote about fears that women of the harem will use cucumbers as sexual aids.
  • Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1677, French traveler in Turkey) - Repeats the cucumber anecdote, discusses male and female homosexuality in Turkey.
  • Nicholas de Nicholay (1585, traveler in Turkey) - Female homoeroticism at the baths, including explicit mention of tribades as a class.
  • Leo Africanus (1600) - Discusses female fortune-tellers in Fez who use their profession to seduce women, identifies them as Fricatrices (Latin) or Sahacat (Arabic).
  • Jane Sharp (1671, English medical writer) - Discusses enlarged clitorises and presumes their use to have sexual relations with women, asserts they are "frequent" in the Indies, Egypt, and elsewhere in Africa; notes clitoridectomy as a treatment in Egypt.
  • Ludovico Sinistrari (1700, Italian) - Discusses definitions of female sodomy, attributes enlarged clitorises to women in Ethiopia and Egypt and discusses various forms of clitoridectomy performed there.

The last part of the chapter considers modern psychological theories of lesbianism and how they relate to these historical models of the morphology-driven tribade and the less definable phenomenon of "acceptable" female homoeroticism. One feature of erasing this previous destination was to pathologize all female homoeroticism, but that was a development after the period covered by this book.

Time period: 

Add new comment

historical