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Lives of Gallant Ladies (Pierre de Bourdeille seigneur de Brantôme)

16th century French work on memorable women that includes rumors and anecdotes about purported lesbians, both historic and contemporary.

LHMP entry

In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.

The book opens with an examination of  female homoerotics in “libertine” literature of the 16-18th centuries, that is, books written almost exclusively by men that depict women in erotic encounters with each other, primarily for the titillation of the (presumably male) reader. This includes works such as Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals generally with the sexual exploits of women at the French court of Henri II, and includes a special section on “donna con donna” (woman with woman).

Following the theme of “who tells your story?”, this set of selections diverges strongly between male and female authors. We have three named male authors including lesbian themes in pornography or crude sexual satires. We have five female authors writing poetry of intense romantic friendships, sometimes tinged with an erotic sensibility but never explicit. And we have two anonymous works of varied nature.

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.

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”.

In the 16th century Laudomia Forteguerri wrote sonnets to Duchess Margaret of Austria, five of which survive. And at least one contemporary of theirs placed the relationship between the two in the context at Plato’s myth of lovers seeking their "other half”, placing them in a list of "those who...love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as ...

There are many aspects of the history of homosexuality where an assumption of parallelism between the experiences of men and women leads to erroneous conclusions about what did and didn’t exist. For men seeking sexual experiences with men, there’s a fairly well documented history of networks, meeting places, and informal associations that helped them achieve their ends.

Renaissance philosophy tackled the question of friendship: who is an appropriate friend, what behavior should a friend exhibit, what is the relationship between the love of friends and sexual desire? Given the times, the majority of texts addressing this topic were concerned with friendships between men, though a nod was often given to Sappho as a proponent of female friendships, or to the possibility of “Platonic love” between women, which is given explicit license in the Symposium as well as by Renaissance writers commenting on it, as Agnolo Firenzuola did.

This chapter covers various textual and visual works that can reasonably be interpreted as deliberately portraying same-sex activity for the purposes of titillation. One item of particular interest is Jeanne Mignon’s work “Women Bathing” (after Luca Penni, ca. 1540) which depicts a large group of naked women bathing together, some engaging in mutual stimulation. (The work matches in content very well with the picture mentioned by Brantôme as having been arousing to women who viewed it.)

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