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Historic Couples: Passionate Friends

Women who were known for engaging in passionate friendships with other women when the relationship was not publicly considered to be sexual. This category covers cases where there may not have been a specific partnership or where the women never lived as a couple. (See also "Historic Couples: Romantic Pair".)

LHMP entry

In this set of works, women seem to have discovered the usefulness of fantastic and unusual imagery to disguise some rather intense eroticism in poetry. Subtle misdirection is also used in a novel to enable homoerotic scenarios. We also have a conventional work of romantic partnership. The male authors are largely sticking to sensational and decadent eroticism and misogynistic satire, with one set of poems lapsing to a more neutral, if voyeuristic, depiction.

As the paper’s title indicates, this is a study of both the depiction of friendships between women in Eliot’s novels, and the close friendships--some of them clearly romantic and passionate--she had with other women. These relationships fall solidly into the patterns and expressions of mid-19th century “romantic frienship”, focusing on the emotionally and intellectually transformative nature of the bond, but without any overt sexual element.

In a future entry, I will be covering Traub's magnum opus ( The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England) where she traces changes in the rhetoric around relations between women during the 17th century. The present article is adapted from one chapter of that work that looks at concept of "Nature" and the theme of love between women as being an "impossibility".

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy.

Like Schibanoff, Weston looks at the framing of religious devotions in same-sex imagery associated with the convent of saint Radegund. An episode in Radegund's Vita in which she encounters Christ as Bridegroom is turned around and echoed more strongly in Radegund’s relationship to the female community she founded, which is expressed in the language of desire and relationship. Within the female-authored part of her Vita, Radegund becomes conflated with Christ the Bridegroom in her relationship to the Brides/nuns who venerate her.

Schibanoff’s article explores the close emotional relations between 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade, a younger noblewoman who became a nun under her. Their relationship led to conflict when Richardis left to become abbess at a different institution and Hildegard went to great lengths to try to arrange for her return.

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.

In France in the later 18th century there arose the motif of secret societies of sapphists "more mysterious than the Freemasons" that existed to initiate women into lesbianism, to serve the pleasures of their members, and to achieve unsavory political ends. The existence of these formal organizations was purely fictitious. Their alleged membership typically included unpopular political and social figures. And their alleged purpose was ostensibly to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society, as an allegory for disrupting other social frameworks.

This chapter tackles the question of how "sameness" in the context of same-sex relations reflected and represented concerns about social leveling. It begins by considering an example of the "metamorphic" framing: a 17th c. book of curiosities that included a chapter of 24 instances of persons changing sex. Though the book was reprinted regularly, the sex-change chapter was dropped, perhaps reflecting a shift from an earlier miracle-accepting age to one more concerned with rational explanations.

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