Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Contents summary: 

The material is organized by topic and covers both literature produced within the target period, and materials (such as medical literature) that were available to people in that era. In some chapters, the latter predominates, though there is usually a discussion of new editions or translations available in the Renaissance.

The general categories the book covers are: Theology, Law, Medicine, Astrology, Physiogonomics, Encyclopedias and Reference Works, Prodigious Monstrosities, Love and Friendship, The Sapphic Renaissance, and Erotica. Each chapter has an introductory discussion that provides background to the subject and identifies connections and relationships among the cited texts as well as related texts that do not include same-sex-relevant material.

In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will be covering only the texts with female relevance, therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Contents summary: 

In general, theological texts make no explicit reference to female homoerotic activities, though coverage may be inferred (with varying degrees of confidence) by the inclusion of women in discussions of sodomy or under vague general references to inappropriate sexual behavior. Some authors, when presenting theological discussions of sexuality, include less ambiguous examples, as in the following.

Apology for Herodotus (1566) - Among a series of anecdotes under the general topic of sodomy and bestiality, the following account is given. Now albeit the former example [of a woman having sexual relations with a dog] be very strange, yet we have here another far more strange (thought not altogether so wicked) committed about thirty years ago by a maid born at Fountaines (between Blois and Rommarantin), who having disguised herself like a man served as an hostler at an Inn in the suburbs of Foy for the space of seven years, and afterwards married a maid of the town, with whom she companied for the space of two years or thereabout, attempting much, but effecting nothing. After which time her cousinage and knavery in counterfeiting the office of a husband being discovered, she was apprehended, and having confessed the fact, was burned. By which examples we see that our Age may well boast that (notwithstanding the vices of former times) it hath some proper and peculiar to itself. For this fact of hers hath nothing common with that which was practiced by those famous strumpets who in old times were called Tribades.

Note that this is one of the types of commentaries that Lanser (2014) points to in noting the contradictory perception of lesbianism as both connected to, and entirely distinct from, ancient practices mentioned in classical sources.

Contents summary: 

The introduction notes the extreme variation in how female same-sex relationships were treated, in terms of penalties, liability, and the means and extent of enforcement, including differing legal theories of whether the term “sodomy” could apply. As a generalization, consensual same-sex behavior was least prosecuted in England, while Florence may have regularly prosecuted relations between men but the penalties were relatively light, while in Spain penalties were regularly quite severe including execution, and similarly severe were those recorded in Geneva.

These statistics are almost exclusively male, however. Prosecutions of women were much rarer, though penalties could be as severe as for men. One source counts only 30 known prosecutions of female couples between 1450 and 1700. [Unclear if this is for Europe as a whole? Western culture as a whole? England only? My guess is the second.] Of 75 sodomy trials in Geneva between 1444 and 1789, only one involves women. In the New World colonies, only one known prosecution of a female couple is recorded. The text discusses the reasons why the law might be less concerned with women’s sexual activities, and notes that prosecutions typically focused on cases involving gender disguise (female husbands) or penetrative sex.

Travel Journal of Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (September 1580) - Passing through the town of Vitry-le-François in France, he is told the story behind a recent hanging nearby.

Several years before, seven or eight girls around Chaumont-en-Basigni plotted amonst themselves to dress as males and continue their lives in the world accordingly. Amongst these, one came to Vitry under the name Mary, earning his living as a weaver, a well-behaved young man friendly with everyone. Here he became engaged to a woman still alive; yet because of some disagreement between them, their bargain went no further. After having gone to Montier-en-Der, still earning his living at the said trade, he fell in love with a woman, married her, and they lived together four or five months to her satisfaction, according to what is said. But, having been recognized by someone from Chaumont, and the matter brought to justice, she was condemned to be hung, which she said she’d rather suffer than return to a girl’s state, and was hung for the illicit inventions used to supplement the defect of her sex. [Note the interesting pronoun alternation in the source.]

Trial Documents Regarding Sarah White Norman (fl. 1639-1654) and Mary Vincent Hammon (1633-1705) - This is the only known legal prosecution of a female couple in the North American colonies. Both women were married at the time to men and were prosecuted in 1648 for “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed”. Mary was only 15 at the time and received only an admonishment while Sarah, who may have been a decade or so older, was brought to trial. The sentence was, “to make a public acknowledgment, so far as conveniently may be, of her unchaste behavior, and ... also ... to take heed of such carriages for the future, lest her former carriage come in remembrance against her to make her punishment the greater.” Sarah’s husband deserted her and their children during the trial and returned to England. Mary’s marriage continued until her husband’s death in 1703. [The word "carriage" in the above should probably be understood as "behavior".]

Contents summary: 

Medical references to sex between women include several on the “rediscovery of the clitoris” theme as well as pseudo-medical explanations for same-sex desire, plus some titillating orientalism. Several of the texts cited here are classical but formed part of the corpus of standard medical literature in the Renaissance.

Caelius Aurelianus (ca. 400CE) - Discusses sex between women but identifies only the “active” partner as a tribade. He considers both passive men, and both partners in a female relationship, to be unhealthy. Tribades “are more eager to lie with women than with men; in fact, they pursue women with almost masculine jealousy”.

Avicenna (980-1037) - In a discussion of how physicians are allowed to discuss techniques for enhancing sexual pleasure with their patients, he explains that women’s sexual pleasure is essential for conception (due to a theory that female orgasm, like ejaculation, was necessary to produce seed). He makes a somewhat vague allusion to sex between women (via a reference to achieving orgasm by “rubbing”) in the context of women who are sexually unsatisfied by their husbands.

Rodrigo de Castro (1546-1623/9) - In discussing the clitoris as the seat of women’s sexual pleasure, he discusses the theory that the organ may become enlarged, resulting in continual stimulation (e.g., by rubbing against clothing) and that this causes such women to be sexually agressive “as Amatus relates conccerning two Turkish women of Thessalonike; and we have seen some women publicly punished at Lisbon for the same crime. They are called tribades by Caelius Aurelianus, dominators (subigatrices) by Plautus, and Martial says of a certain Bassa, that she ‘Has devised a worthy demonstration of the Theban riddle: How there can be adultery where no man is to be found.’”

He then discusses clitoridectomy but disapproves of it as he considers women’s sexual pleasure to be important, and furthermore because he notes that sometimes an enlarged clitoris is actually an emergent penis of a hermaphrodite and that at puberty it may be that an individual previously considered to be female becomes a man. In another passage discussing that it is easier to preserve virginity (because virgins don’t know what they’re missing) than chastity (because women who have had sex will continue to desire it), he notes that the desire of an experienced woman for sex is “even more true of those who are called tribades or ‘rubbers,’ who only love to rub one another, and thus perform a disgraceful act upon one another.”

André du Laurens (1558-1609) - Another clinical discussion of the function of the clitoris. He notes that “women who are called tribades or ‘rubber’ rub each other on that part” but though the same passage discusses enlarged clitorises there isn’t a direct causal connection made.

Helkiah Crooke (1576-1635) - Yet another discussion of the clitoris, its function, the possibility of it being enlarged to masculine proportions, and the implication that tribadism is due to this aberration.

Contents summary: 

One of the premises of astrology is that it predetermines various personality traits, as well as aspects of the course of one’s life. As applied to sexual preference, astrology provides at least a vague analog to the notion of an inborn orientation toward certain types of sexual activities and partners, although the ways these activities and partners are categorized don’t necessarily align with modern categories. Beginning with classical Greek and Roman texts on the topic, the influence of the heavens was thought to determine not only a homerotic or heteroerotic predisposition, but an orientation towards exclusive or nonexclusive preference, pederastic or generationally indifferent, “active” versus “passive”, or some mixed position on any of these scales.

The characteristics that were considered the unmarked norm were different for men and women. So, for example, women were considered naturally to be “passive” sexual partners, and so the “passive” member of a female same-sex relationship was given little attention in these texts as she was considered “normal”.

That isn’t to say that writers considered astrology to give one a free pass with regard to morality. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) argued that an astrological predisposition to burglary, murder, or fraud did not excuse their commission, and neither should a conjunction associated with disparaged types of sexual congress be allow to excuse those actions.

Geographic location was considered to interact with astral alignment (as certain regions were considered to be located more closely to specific constellations or heavenly bodies). So, for example, Claudius Ptolemy (fl. 100-178) wrote that “those who live in Bithynia, Phrygia, and Colchica ...most of the women, through the influence of the moon’s oriental and masculine aspect, are virile, commanding, and warlike, like the Amazons...” And further, that the influence of masculine signs on women makes them “lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades, for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives.’” In a section discussing astrological effects on marriage, he discusses how a wide variety of influences make women inclined toward partnering with various specific types of men or “if the planets are made masculine they are so depraved as actively to have commerce with women.”

Julius Firmicus Maternus (fl. 330-354) notes “If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love [impurely and] unchastely to other women [due to lust]. These vices will be stronger if this combination occurs in Capricorn or Aries.”

Contents summary: 

We have not entirely managed to shed the idea that an individual’s habitual predispositions are reflected in their physical features. The Greek pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomics is one of the foundational treatises that systematized this view. References to female homoeroticism (as opposed to male references) in the context of physiognomy are rare and primarily appear in texts derived from an anonymous Latin treatise of the 4th century.

Bartolommeo della Rocca (1467-1504) in a section on chiromancy (interpreting the hands) discusses how to interpret “signs of morally offensive lust on the hands of a woman”. The discussion groups together a wide variety of sexual behaviors, from incest, to women taking an active role with men, to any sexual activity by nuns, to masturbation, to bestiality. But the discussion specifically notes, “Note also that in women ‘morally offensive lust’ can be understood when women come together vulva to vulva and rub one another, of which Juvenal writes in this verse: ‘They ride one another, turn and turn about, and disport themselves for the Moon to witness.’ And such women are called by the ancient term tribades. It is said that Sappho, the Lesbian lass and poet, amused herself with this kind of lust.”

In a section primarily discussing characteristics of hair, della Rocca provides a detailed description of a “manly woman” both in terms of physical appearance and behavior (though sexual activity is not specifically mentioned). “By many outward signs may a man find out the qualities of the mind and courage. As when a woman is apparelled and decked in man’s apparel, which doth then declare her nature to draw near to man’s. As the like did that woman of courage named Fracassa, who commonly used to wear (by the report of the Physiognomer [i.e., Rocca himself]) man’s apparel, and would upon a bravery many times arm herself at all points to joust and run sundry times so armed at the ring. The form of which woman...was on this wise: she had a small head, and Pineaple-like, a neck comely formed, large breasted, seemly arms, answering to the body. But in her other parts, as in the hips, buttocks, thighs, and legs, near agreeing to man’s. This manly woman also walked upright in body, treading light on the ground, and bearing her head playing like to the Hart. The other notes of this woman did the Physiognomer for brevity sake here omit. Yet he thus concludeth that by the sundry notes which he viewed, she was prone to come to a violent death...”

Contents summary: 

A specialized version of the encyclopedia was the catalog of unnatural or monstrous individuals, encompassing deformities, birth defects, and a great many mythical beings. Of particular relevance to sexuality was the fascination for hermaphrodites. Visual representations often portrayed a bilateral dimorphism, with the right half of the individual portrayed as one sex and the left half as the other.

Accusations of hermaphroditism often focused on behaviors or styles of dress that were considered to belong to the “opposite sex”. But some descriptions seem to fall more in the category of physiologically intersex individuals, where genitalia are ambiguous and some life event draws the appropriate gender assignment into question. Questions of sexual desire were one clear locus where categorization became relevant. Catalogs of monstrosities also overlapped with the genre of “wonders of far away lands”, and some texts asserted the existence of entire races of hermaphrodites who performed alternately as male or female by turns.

In more immediate, local cases, individuals classified as hermaphrodites were generally legally assigned to what medical officials determined to be their predominant sex, and were left in peace to the extent that they conformed to that role, but treated as sodomites or tribades (as appropriate) if they then changed roles. Cases sometimes came to the attention of the law when an individual who had been assigned to one gender wished to gain permission to officially change category, especially in order to engage in a marital relationship with a chosen partner of the “wrong” sex.

For example, in 1601 in Rouen, a person who had been raised as female asked permission to be reclassified as male in order to marry a woman they were having a sexual relationship with. Although the request was controversial, evidently it was successful. Similarly, Eleno de Céspedes in 16th c. Spain, after having lived as a woman and given birth to a child, spent a long period living as a man and received official classification as a “hermaphrodite deemed male” in order to marry a woman. This classification was later reversed.

Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590) discussed his theory that spontaneous changes from female to male were possible, but not the reverse. The passage occurs in a section discussing female genitalia, including the common belief at the time that enlarged female genitals were a cause of female homoeroticism (i.e., “masculine” sexuality) and that excision was a treatment for this (though he seems to focus on the labia minora rather than on the clitoris). Paré discussed a distinction between four types of hermaphrodites, depending on the type and functionality of the external genitalia. In the same section, he quotes Leo Africanus regarding female homoerotic behavior in Mauritania. There is a list of several cases of apparent change from female to male at puberty. [Note: Case histories of this type suggest the possibility of a condition such as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. In a historic context that has no familiarity with genes, enzymes, and hormones, it’s easy to understand how some of the theories and beliefs about hermaphroditism arose.]

The medical treatise of Helkiah Crooke (1576-1635) Microcosmographia: A Description of the Body of Man has a similar catalog of several categories of hermaphroditism, but ascribes the condition to unlawful sexual behavior on the part of the parents.

Contents summary: 

Early modern Europe had quite a fondness for encyclopedic works that defined and classified the entire known world (and much that was imaginary). Theodor Zwinger (1533-1588) wrote Theatrum vitae humane (Theater of Human Life) in something of a biographical dictionary form, in groupings according to the characteristic that provided their fame. Under the section “Tribades” he notes “Here we say nothing which has not been said before, and collect only a few items. Although there are not laws against it, this indecency deserves to be denounced to that good people will be deterred from imitating it. Those who were ruined readily made examples of themselves, that they might be held up as examples.”

He then lists a number of individuals, primarily from classical texts, including six women mentioned in Sappho’s poetry “whom she used to gratify her lusts”, a blanket categorization of Milesian women as “tribades and lewd women [who] made use of the dildo,” and two tribades mentioned in the Epigrams of the Roman poet Martial (specifically, Bassa and Philaenis). This section concludes with a more contemporary reference. “A certain Galla who disguised herself as a stableboy worked for an innkeeper in Blois for seven years. She married the daughter of a citizen, and had tribadic relations with her for two years. When the crime came to light, she was burned alive.”

Contents summary: 

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. Although classical models for same-sex friendship diffused from the literati to the common people, the primary literature addressing Sappho would have rarely been accessible to even most literary women (though popular and common as a cultural reference). Differences in male and female access to public discourse also affect what types of texts and discussions we have access to on this topic. Women’s writings about their relationships were more often private correspondence (not covered in the current work), or might be disguised in the conventions of poetry, while men’s writings were more public and more overtly concerned with philosophical underpinnings.

Current researchers on the topic of women’s friendships in the Renaissance include Harriette Andreadis and Valerie Traub. At least among the upper classes, female friendship was characterized as an attraction of similarity between two conventionally “feminine” women, where the possibilities of genital expression were camouflaged with a presumption of female chastity and innocence. Male writers, treating the same historic individuals, were sometimes more willing to ascribe physical desire to female friends, as in Brantôme’s treatment of Laudomia Forteguerri. And in parallel with the literary treatment of female (potentially erotic) friendship, moral and legal writings record relationships that were more clearly physical, as with a 1648 court case concerning “lewd” behavior on a bed between Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon. There was also a growing body of proto-feminist literature (often pseudonymous or anonymous) that promoted ideals of female friendship and love that could even eclipse the ideals masculine friendship. Portrayals of close female friends in literature and drama had increasing popularity during this era.

Agnolo Firenzuola (1493-1543), in his dialogues “On the Beauty of Women” provides several examples of notable female friendships that rose to the level of love. Starting from the reference in Plato’s Symposium he notes women who “love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Fortegurra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation”

Unlike some of the more obscure allusions, we have further evidence regarding Laudomia and Margaret. Laudomia Forteguerri wrote six sonnets declaring her love for specific women and praising their beauty and accomplishments. Five of them are addressed to Margaret of Austria (the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V). Regarding this pair, Alessandro Piccolomini said that when they first met, “suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” Firenzuola, a contemporary of the two women and a personal friend of Laudomia, while acknowledging that women might love each other unchastely, insists that this couple loved purely. Some time later, in the writings of Brantôme, their love is given a more sexual framing. And even some of Margaret’s contemporaries, taking into account her disinterest in consummating her second marriage, suggested that the two were tribades (though the accusations were tied up in politics as well).

An anonymous poem in the ca. 1586 Maitland Manuscript expresses a female speaker’s wish that she could be transformed into a man in order to marry her beloved female friend. (The lack of an attributed author means that a male poet using a female persona cannot be ruled out.) As with many Renaissance treatments of female homoerotic friendship, the example of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe is invoked as a model.

As noted above, Pierre de Bourdeille, Abbé and Seigneur de Brantôme (1540?-1614) was inclined to view female friendships as potentially erotic. His deliberately sensationalist collection The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies includes a number of homoerotic encounters between women. In one, a company of heterosexual couples are viewing a painting depicting women engaging in sexual activity in the baths, which the women viewers find overwhelmingly arousing and thereupon drag their lovers off to seek satisfaction. In another passage he discusses the sexual practice of donna con conna ["woman with woman"], associating its origins with Sappho, referencing other classical examples, and discussing specific sexual techniques popular between women such as tribadism and tongue-kissing. From this, he digresses into Orientalist fantasies of harem activity and then gossip about ladies of the French court who had been spied on during their lovemaking with each other. Another story involved a male suitor who was warned off of the object of his affection, being told “he would but be wasting his time, for as she did herself tell me, such and such a lady--naming her (‘twas one I had already heard talk of)--will never suffer her to marry.” He mentions the legend that female weasels enjoy sexual activity together and that for this reason weasels were sometimes used as a sign and signal between women. The use of “artificial instruments” is discussed under the name godemiches, with the indication that they would be attached with straps for use. Brantôme concludes with the excuse that it may be better for women to “relieve their heat of blood” with each other than to dishonor themselves with men and risk pregnancy.

Contents summary: 

The revival of interest in, and knowledge of, the works and life of Sappho as part of the general revival of classical culture in the Renaissance created a major context for discussing female homoeroticism, although the myth of Sappho’s abandonment of women for a fatal desire for Phaon was also popular.

As a symbol, Sappho became a site of contestation regarding not only female friendship and desire, but regarding the place of female poets and intellectuals in general. However much some may have wanted to convert Sappho into a more conventionally sexual figure, there was a general acceptance and acknowledgement, in works of the late 15th and 16th centuries, of her association with sexual love between women.

Beginning around the 1540s, there was a systematic effort to identify, compile, and publish the surviving works of Sappho. The fact that this effort (like most literary endeavors) was largely the province of men, significantly affected the debate over Sappho’s image and reputation. It was impossible to deny that classical authors such as Ovid accepted her sexual love for women, so the emphasis was put on how--given this--Sappho’s final turning away from women in favor of heterosexuality was an even greater rejection of the possibilities of desire between women. That is: given that she had loved women, the Phaon story was held up as proof that love between women was unsustainable.

Several approaches were taken to appropriate Sappho’s image under the flag of normative sexuality: by transferring her voice to a male point of view, by male poets appropriating her image to address female subjects in a pseudo-feminine voice, or by asserting Sappho’s inherent “masculinity”. (I.e., the argument “she’s not like other girls”.)

This chapter excerpts a number of 15-16th c. biographies of Sappho, all of which undertake this appropriative work to some degree, while yet finding it impossible to omit or entirely erase her status as an icon of sexual desire and activity between women. (It’s impossible to excerpt representative material, but the whole chapter is well worth reading for those interested in the image of Sappho in Renaissance Europe.)

Contents summary: 

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.)

The majority of textual works discussed here that include sexual activity between women were written by men for a male audience and therefore don’t shed much light on what women might have found arousing (or even necessarily what they participated in). The sexual dialogues of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) include activities between women in the context of a rather anything-goes orgy.