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One of the motifs that fluctuates regularly across cultures and times is whether people are expected to feel romantic or erotic desire based on similarity or difference. During periods when desire is associated with similarity, there may be greater acceptance of romantic friendships between women or of passionate expressions of love and friendship betwen them.

LHMP entry

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In this synthesizing chapter, Traub reviews the ways in which theatrical representations of female-female desire dwell on the mirror-like similarity between the pair, whether in Lyly’s directly parallel speechifying in Gallathea, or Sandys’s 1626 translation of Iphis and Ianthe which lists their physical and behavioral likenesses, or Shakespeare’s Helena describing her and Hermia as “Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition.” This contrasts with the homoerotic figures and practices that emphasize difference and distinction between an active “mascu

Female same-sex desire is generally presented in early modern drama in fictitious constructions: the desire is either mistaken or misdirected. Only in this last chapter do we see examples where knowing desire from one woman to another is presented positively, and may even be celebrated as an ideal over heterosexual desire. Things aren’t always straightforward, even so. Although the desiring woman may believe the object of her desire is a woman, not uncommonly the scenario is defused by involving a gender-disguised man.

In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose.

In considering various types of transgressive cross-dressing (e.g., for theatrical purposes), Schleiner begins by looking at some literary models available within that context that focus around logistical gender disguise.

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”.

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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