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LHMP #249 Loughlin 2014 Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England: 1550-1735

Full citation: 

Loughlin, Marie H. 2014. Same-Sex Desire in Early Modern England, 1550-1735: An Anthology of Literary Texts and Contexts. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-8208-5

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When one of my summaries is basically a list of contents, either it means that the publication is really thin on relevant content, or it means that it’s so rich that you simply need to buy the book and put it in a cherished place on your shelf. This one is the latter. At least half the contents apply to women’s experiences (although it’s still true that the male-authored female-relevant content far outnumbers the female-authored male-relevant content) and the collection includes many of the oft-cited texts from the covered period. Far from all, but an excellent place to start. So I will simply provide an index of the items I consider to be of interest and suggest that anyone interested in studying same-sex desire in the mid-16th through early 18th century should just go ahead and buy this book. Here’s a buy link. For a university press book, it’s astoundingly affordable.

The text are arranged by genre, with discussions on the context both of the authors and the material. Only a few representative items from religious, medical, and legal genres are offered. (There is a vast amount of available material from these genres, but I’m happy to have the book’s focus be more on literature.)

The introduction to the book directs the interested reader to the online companion material, which includes texts that were not included in the published volume due to length considerations. This online companion can be found here: [this link redirects to ]

Religious and Moral Writings

  • 1.1.5 - The story of Ruth and Naomi from the King James version (1611).

Pesudo-Medical Writings

  • 2.1.1 - Giles Jacob Tractatus de Hermaphroditis (1718) - Although Jacob’s topic is physiological hermaphrodites (i.e., intersex persons), he also provides salacious examples of women with same-sex desires (i.e., women with “masculine” appetites). He goes into the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire and quotes (2.1.3) Nicholas Rowe’s poem about lesbian sex (which is more about a metaphorical hermaphroditism that assumes that the “active” partner in sex is inherently masculine). The work includes several case histories of women engaging in sex together. One (2.1.4) is included in the book while others are available at the online supplement.
  • 2.2 - Anonymous Supplement to the Onania (1725?) - A Penthouse-like “letters column” that purports to be confessional but is clearly intended to be pornographic. The item included here is the supposed confession of a woman who engaged in sex with other women beginning in adolescence which resulted in an enlarged clitoris. The editor responds with a discussion of classical and foreign references to f/f sex and to the enlarged clitoris motif, notes that one treatment used both in “Arabia” and Europe is amputation of the clitoris. He notes an example in France that he interprets as a prolapsed uterus mistaken for a penis, where the subject was ordered by the magistrates to live as a man until medical treatment “reduced” it and she was required to return to living as a woman “to her great regret.”

Legal Writings

  • No material on women in this section, for the understandable reason that sex between women was not against the law in England.


  • 4.1.1 - Leo Africanus A Geographical History of Africa (1600 - English translation of the Arabic text (1526) that includes a class of “witches” in Fez (Morocco) who engage in homosexual relations and request sexual relations from women as payment for magical services.
  • 4.2.1 - Nicolas de Nicolay The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages Made into Turkey (1585). Translation of the French original (1568) - Description of sex between women at the gender-segregated Turkish baths.
  • 4.3.3 - Jean-Baptiste Tavernier Collections of Travels Through Turkey into Persia and the East Indies (1685) from the French original published sometime before 1677 - Discusses sex between women with in the seraglio, implies it is due to frustration at not having sexual access to men. Tells of a story (but considers it a myth) that women in the seraglio are only served cucumbers if they are sliced, so that the can’t use them for sexual purposes. Relates an anecdote about a woman who cross-dresses as a man to try to marry another woman.
  • 4.4 - Mary Whortley Montagu The Turkish Embassy Letters (1716-18) - Personal correspondence written to friends describing her observations within gender-segregated spaces in the Ottoman Empire. Includes very sensuous but non-sexual descriptions of women in the baths. “Not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture...” However she describes being entertained by female dancers and notes “...I am very positive that the coldest and most rigid prude upon Earth could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of...”

Personal Correspondence

  • 5.2 - Letters from Constance Fowler to her brother (1630s?), praising the woman they both loved and encouraging her brother to marry her. This is a motif we see repeatedly and one that may be very hard for modern people to understand. But in an age when same-sex households were socially and economically difficult, and when marriage was not necessarily expected to be driven by romantic passion, one way for two woman to establish a familial bond was for one to marry a close relative of the other.
  • 5.3 - Letters between Mary Stuart (later Queen Mary II) to Frances Apsley expressing romantic sentiments. Mary refers to Frances as “husband” and Frances refers to Mary as “wife”.

Public Perception of Homosexual Subcultures

As this “public homosexual subculture” was almost exclusively male, there is little female-relevant material in this chapter, with one exception.

  • 6.2.2 - “Venus’s Reply (1699) an anonymous poetic answer to the similarly anonymous “The Women’s Complaint to Venus” (1698). In the earlier poem, women complain about men all turning to sexual relations with men. In the reply, Venus alleges that the women are to blame because they were ignoring the men in favor of sexual relations with women.

Classical Literature in Translation, Interpretation, and as Inspiration

The English surge of interest in classical literature didn’t begin in the mid-17th century, but it certainly thrived during the period covered by this collection. This chapter includes both translations and works in imitation of the classics, as well as some material simply drawing on classical themes and motifs.

  • 7.3.1 - Pierre Bayle An Historical and Critical Dictionary (1710) “Sappho” - a brief biography of Sappho that mentions her homoerotic themes.
  • 7.4 - Ambrose Philips The Odes of Sappho (1713) a biographic sketch of the poet that accompanied his translations.
  • 7.5 - John Addison (1735) - biographic sketch of Sappho and translations of her poetry.
  • 7.6 - John Lyly, excerpts from his play Sappho and Phao (1592) dramatizing Ovid’s story of Sappho & Phaon.
  • 7.7 - John Donne - poem “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633) dwelling on homoerotic themes.
  • 7.8 - William Walsh A Dialogue Concerning Women (1691) - An excerpt discussing Sappho and her homoerotic relationships.
  • 7.9 - Anonymous poem “The Sappho-an” (1735?/1749?) that presents a very negative and highly sexualized image of Sappho.
  • 7.17 - Arthur Golding Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1567) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Callisto and her sexual relationship with Jupiter while he was disguised as Diana.
  • 7.18 - George Sandys Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1632) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe.
  • 7.19 - George Turbervile Heroical Epistles (1567) - Verse translation/rendering of Ovid’s story of Sappho and Phaon.
  • 7.20 - John Lyly Gallathea (1592) - A play very loosely inspired by Iphis and Ianthe involving two cross-dressing heroines who fall in love with each other.
  • 7.22 - Thomas Heywood The Golden Age (1611) - A play based on classical themes and motifs that includes an episode based on the myth of Callisto and Jupiter/Diana.
  • 7.23 - R. Fletcher - Verse translations of Martial’s epigrams (1656) including the homosexual accusations against Bassa.
  • 7.27 - John Dryden The Satires of Decimus Junius Juvenalis (1693) - Verse translations/interpretations including a passing reference to sex between women that is worth quoting as it pushes the association of the term “flats” with lesbianism half a century earlier than the 1749 reference to “game of flats” with this sense. “Laufella lays her garland by and proves the mimic lechery of manly loves. Provokes to flats some battered household whore and heaving up the rubster does adore, ranked with the lady, the cheap sinner lies, for here not blood, but virtue gives the prize.”
  • 7.31 - Thomas Brown The Works of Lucian (1711) - Translation of the dialogue between Cleonarium and Leaena discussing a courtesan’s hiring by a female couple.

Note: it is both unsurprising and depressing that all of the above material is written by men. There were French women translating and being inspired by Sappho’s work in the early modern period, but as this volume focuses only on English materials they are not included.

Literature Representing Male Same-Sex Desire

Quite obviously, this section isn’t relevant to the Project. As a point of interest of the 22 authors included in this section, only two are women. Of the 26 authors represented in the next section on female desire, 10 are known to be male and 3 are unknown, so only half of the 26 are demonstrably female voices.  Just FYI.

Literature Representing Female Same-Sex Desire

  • 9.1 - Roger L’Estrange Erasmus’s Colloquies (1689) - Translation of the 1589 original. Colloquy 7 “The Marriage Hater” involves a man trying to dissuade a young woman from entering a convent by implying that convents are hotbeds of lesbianism.
  • 9.2 - Mary Maitland (presumed author) - Poem ca. 1586 in which a the female persona of the poem expresses love for a woman, using classical allusions and comparisons, and including a wish for one of them to change sex if that is the only way they could marry.
  • 9.3 - Philip Sidney The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (1593) - The story of a man who disguises himself as a woman to gain sexual access to a secluded woman. The woman comes to accept that she’s fallen in love with another woman before the man’s true gender is revealed.
  • 9.3 - William Shakespeare A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-5) - Of all the homoerotic scenes in Shakespeare, the collection has included an episode where Helena expresses how broken-hearted she is that her close friend Hermia has (as she supposes) incited two men to mock her by declaring their love. Helena describes how the two women had previously been an inseparable couple.
  • 9.5 - Aemilia Lanyer - A selection of poems (1611) that express admiration and love for various women, though in fairly conventional terms. About half the poems are religious in nature with no clear homoerotic content so I’m not sure why they are included.
  • 9.6 - Mary Wroth Urania (1621) - Another story where a man disguises himself as a woman in order to gain access to the target of his affection, resulting in the woman accepting the possibility of same-sex desire.
  • 9.8 - Ben Johnson - Two poems, the first “The Forest” (1616) has unclear relevance, but the second “Epigram on the Court Pucelle” is his vicious poetic attack on rival poet Cecelia Bulstrode in which he calls her a “tribade” whose poetic skill is the result of “raping” a muse.
  • 9.9 - Edmund Waller “On the Friendship Betwixt Sacharissa and Amorett (1645) - A poem in which a man laments that the romantic love between a female couple makes them unavailable to men.
  • 9.10 - Anonymous poem “A Copy of Verses Made by a Lady and Sent to Another Lady, with a Bracelet Made of Her Own Hair” (1655) - The title pretty much says it all. A very personal gift, explicitly given to remind the wearer of her love.
  • 9.11 - Andrew Marvell “Upon Appleton House” (1681) - A long poem on the history of his patron’s family seat, including a fictitious episode when the building was a convent in which the patron’s ancestress is depicted as being the victim of sexual importuning by the abbess.
  • 9.12  - Margaret Cavendish Nature’s Pictures (1656) - Story about a woman who is passing as a man to escape assault and the queen who falls in love with her, thinking her a man. After discovery, the queen briefly wishes for a sex change so their love could continue but both then turn their hearts to men.
  • 9.13 - Margaret Cavendish The Convent of Pleasure (1668) - An heiress, scorning her fortune-hunting suitors, sets up a women-only retreat. A man disguises himself as a woman to continue pursuing her and we have the standard episode of the woman accepting the possibility of same-sex desire before the man reveals himself.
  • 9.14 - Katherine Philips Poems (1667) - Several poems expressing romantic love for women.
  • 9.15 - Edward Howard “Fricatrices: or, A She upon a She” (1674) - A pornographic poem describing two women having sex.
  • 9.16 - Jean Barrin Venus in the Cloister (1683) - Pornographic novel about sapphic goings on in a convent.
  • 9.17-19 - Aphra Behn - Various poems (1684-1692) expressing admiration and devotion for women in homoerotic terms of varying levels of explicitness.
  • 9.20 - “Euphelia” (pen name of an unidentified author) - Several poems (1679) expressing admiration and desire for women, especially one identified pseudonymously as “Marina”.
  • 9.21 - Anne Killigrew “On a Picture Painted by Herself Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s, One in a Posture to Hunt, the Other Bathing” (1686) - The title pretty much tells the poem’s content. The image of Diana and her nymphs was a common context for female homoeroticism.
  • 9.22 - Jane Barker  “On the Death of My Dear Friend...” (1688) - Poem about the loss of  beloved friend expressed in romantic terms.
  • 9.23 - Jane Barker A Patchwork Screen for the Ladies “The Unaccountable Wife” (1723) - A complex story about a wife who becomes inexplicably devoted to her husband’s mistress (who had been her servant). The two women end up moving out and forming their own household and continuing as a family even after the death of the abandoned husband. The relationship is presented as “unaccountable” but makes sense if one assumes genuine devotion between the two women.
  • 9.24 - Catharine Trotter Agnes de Castro (1695) - Play about two women who are rivals for a man but then become more devoted to each other than to him. Tragic ending.
  • 9.25 - Catharine Trotter “Chloe to Artimesa” (1700) - Poem elevating love between women over heterosexual love.
  • 9.26 - Mary Chudleigh Poems on Several Occasions (1703) - Several poems expressing romantic passion between women.
  • 9.27 - Delarivier Manley The New Atalantis (1709) - Satirical travelogue that includes extensive descriptions of a “new cabal” of women who love women and disdain men. Written as a political satire on various figures in the English court.
  • 9.28-30 - Anne Finch - Three poems (1685-1702) in the voice of “Ardelia” expressing love and devotion for women, with specific (though ambiguous) references to Sappho.
  • 9.31 - Anonymous poem “An Epistle from Signora F---a to a Lady” (1727) - Poem allegedly in the voice of a female opera singer to her female beloved and expressing sexual desire, composed in the context of a professional feud with another singer.
  • 9.32 - John Hoadly “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” (1730) - Another poem in the genre of “men praising the romantic devotion of a female couple and expressing jealousy at being shut out.”
  • 9.33 - William King The Toast (1736) - A viciously satirical poem attacking Myra, Countess of Newburgh (his aunt) and her husband. The vitriol was inspired by a financial dispute and the poem includes scores of allusions to contemporary figures, not all of whom are identifiable at this point. Myra is, among other things, depicted as a lesbian.

It’s worth noticing that the material in this chapter falls primarily into two groups: works by women expressing positive and uplifting sentiments relating to love between women, and works by men depicting women’s same-sex relations as sordid, predatory, and pornographic. There are a few outliers on both sides: Delarivier Manley’s satire, the more sweetly jealous poems of John Hoadly and Edmund Waller. But the overall pattern says a great deal about attitudes of the times.

Event/Person Tags

Since pretty much every item listed above gets a tag, but my tag fields have a character limit, I'm including the full list here instead and an abbreviated selection of the more obscure items in the tag list. Unfortunately this means that this entry won't necessarily come up in tag searches, though it will in text searches.

Aphra Behn, Epigrams (Martial), Juvenal, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Gallathea (John Lyly), Katherine Philips, Leo Africanus, The Convent of Pleasure (Margaret Cavendish), Lady Mary Montague, Dialogues of the Courtesans (Lucian), Nicholas de Nicholay, The Game at Flats: A Song (Nicholas Rowe), Sappho, Arcadia (Philip Sidney), The Sappho-an, The Unaccountable Wife (Jane Barker), Ruth & Naomi (Bible), The Golden Age (Thomas Heywood), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare), Sappho to Philaenis (John Donne), Upon Appleton House (Andrew Marvell), To the Fair Clorinda (Aphra Behn), Tractatus de Hermaphroditus or a Treatise of Hermaphrodites (Giles Jacob), Onania or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution (Balthazar Bekker?), Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Epigram on the Court Pucelle (Ben Jonson), On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies (Edmund Waller), Venus’s Reply, The New Atalantis (Mary Delarivier Manley), Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (Anne Finch Countess Winchilsea), The Toast (William King), On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow (Jane Barker), Agnes de Castro (Catharine Trotter Cockburn), Venus dans le Cloître (Abbe du Prat), An Epistle from SIgnora F-a to a Lady, Margaret Cavendish, The girl with no interest in marriage (Erasmus), Heroides: Sappho (Ovid), Constance Fowler, Frances Apsley, Aemilia Lanyer, Urania (Mary Wroth), A Copy of Verses Made by a Lady and Sent to Another Lady (anonymous), Nature’s Pictures (Margaret Cavendish), Fricatrices: or A She upon a She (Edward Howard), Euphelia (pen name), On a Picture Painted by Herself Representing Two Nymphs of Diana’s (Anne Killigrew), Chloe to Artimesa (Catharine Trotter), Mary Chudleigh, On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies (John Hoadly), Metamorphoses: Callisto (Ovid)

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