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LHMP #181 Bonnet 1997 Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love

Full citation: 

Bonnet, Marie-Jo. 1997. “Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love” in Queerly Phrased: Language Gender, and Sexuality, ed. Anna Livia & Kira Hall. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510471-4

Publication summary: 


A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.

Bonnet, Marie-Jo “Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love”

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This article looks at French historical terminology for women who loved women to consider whether changes in the prevalent terminology reflected social shifts in attitudes toward such women, on the basis that “naming grants recognition”. Unfortunately the article is deeply flawed by unfamiliarity with earlier examples of some terms, and by overlooking terms that were as common as the ones considered (if not more so). This results in conclusions based on faulty premises.

For example, the author fails to consider Brantôme’s 16th century use of “lesbienne” in the modern sense and identifies only “tribade” as being in pre-modern use in French, dating it only to the mid 16th century. She entirely ignores the distribution of “fricatrice” and “fricarelle”.

When considering language deriving from Sappho and Lesbos, she mistakes iconicity with causation, calling Sappho “the founder of lesbian love”. She considers the early absence of terminology derived from Sappho to be due to patriarchal suppression of the idea of egalitarian female same-sex love.

The author is also unfamiliar with the complex semantic history of “sodomy” and related terms and erroneously claims that there is “no specific term for women’s [same-sex] sexual practice in the Middle Ages”. She views the medieval church as uninterested in women’s same-sex behavior unless there is appropriation of male attributes (ignoring penitential evidence for that interest).

She attributes to Henri Estienne the first use in French of “tribade” and see this as a consequence of the revival of interest in Greek and Latin texts (as opposed to reflecting a shift from Latin to French for the types of records discussing such topics). She seems to accept at face value the claims by writers such as Estienne that displaced lesbian relationships into the classical era, asserting that such behavior in the 16th century was novel and unheared of. Rather than tracing the continued use of derivations of Greek/Latin “tribade” through the ages, she considers it a Latin invention (from Greek roots) with no Greek antecedent. And--noting that all the classical citations of the word “tribade” are from male authors, in combination with the absence of Sappho-based terminology, interprets this as a specific preference for male antecedents for sexual models. While a preference for male sources is quite possibly true, she overlooks medieval and Renaissance references to Sappho in the context of same-sex love, which would contradict this interpretation. This curious blindness also appears when she quotes Brantôme extensively while failing to note that he contradicts her claim that “lesbienne” was a later invention.

Brantôme’s discussions of lesbian love make it clear he considered it a “harmless game”, but she notes that women who made more transgressive life choices, such as marrying women in male disguise (see e.g., Montaigne) were punished more harshly. In this context, she considers that the focus on condemning only the “active” sexual partner and the alleged preference for the term “tribade” (which she sees as reinforcing an active/passive distinction) was a deliberate program to undermine a hypothetical egalitarian same-sex love associated with Sappho.

The author considers the changing dictionary definitions of “tribade” during the 18th century to reflect an ongoing philosophical debate around the meaning of the term and sees the driver of these changes as the rise of socially and culturally elite women who openly expressed their passion for othr women. [It seems odd to me that a linguist would treat dictionary entries as a reflection of contemporary usage and debate, rather than being conservative, prescriptive sources.] She considers expressions of passionate friendship in the 18th century as presumed to indicate sexual relationshps. She views the French revolution as constituting a cultural break between Renaissance culture and 19th century women who led a new wave of sexual openness that shifted into decadence and scandal. George Sand’s Lelia is presented as a turning point.

The author attributes the modern sense of “lesbienne” to Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, suggesting that it was the association of the word with decadence and damnation that made it acceptable for general use (by men, presumably). Unfortunately this theory is undermined by the documented earlier use of the word as far back as the 16th century. She reviews lesbian terminology that has connotations focusing on the absence of men, such as “anti-homme” in L’Espion Anglais and “anandrine” in Revolutionary-era literature, and compares these terms to the root senses of “virgo” and “parthenos”. And finally, the author traces the rise of the word “homosexual” in parallel with the medicalization of sexuality in the early 20th century.

The article cites an early example of a prosecution for cross-dressing that I don’t think I’ve seen published elsewhere, so I thought I’d quote it here. It appears to refer to two separate events and there is no indication that there were sexual transgressions involved.

“In the thirteenth century, two women were burned at Péronne by Robert le Bougre for having porté l’habit d’homme (worn men’s cothing).” [Cited in the notes as: “These events ocurred between 1235 and 1238, notes Michèle Bordeaux, Professeur de Droit at the University of Nantes, to whom I am endebted for providing me with this information.”]

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