Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt (eds). 2011. The Lesbian Premodern. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Puff examines terminology for women in same-sex relations in a context of exchange and communication (that is, the question of how such terminology was shared and disseminated) using two focal texts: the Zimmern chronicle and the Colloquies of Erasmus. The Zimmern Chronicle was composed ca. 1564 by Count von Zimmern, covering the German family’s history from antiquity onward. It is a massive collection of all manner of trivia, left unfinished by the count’s death around 1566. [See Puff 2000 for a specific look at the episode in this document.]
In a chapter covering the life of one ancestor, there is a brief reference to “a poor servant-maid” named Greta who worked in the marketplace of Messkirch (or Mösskirch) who courted young women with a “masculine affect”. This activity provoked concern among the residents which resulted in a physical examination to determine if she was a “proper woman”. And that’s it: no consequences, no closure, no follow-up. The episode isn’t told in the style of a fabliau (which are featured elsewhere in the chronicle) or as a moral lesson or joke. It’s simply offered as a curious anecdote. Several frameworks for understanding were explored in the text: anatomy, astrology, ancient literature, or history
Puff argues that this is evidence that the knowledge of lesbianism in pre-modern Europe was more diverse and widely shared than is generally recognized. He posits that the presence of the woman who loved women crossed boundaries of language, genre, and knowledge systems and that understanding of this has been hampered by the silo effect of national philology studies.
The chronicle author’s confusion regarding Greta is not individual but is reflected in the various knowledge systems he brings to bear. For example, we know that Greta’s contemporaries believed that physiology might explain her behavior. Although examination contradicted that theory in Greta’s case, that knowledge didn’t put the concern to rest. A second theory was that an “unnatural constellation” at her birth might be the cause of her behavior. Any number of astrology manuals (beginning in classical times and handed down in later interpretations) discuss contexts that provoked sexual disorder. Alternately, the count turned to references to “hermaphrodites or androgynes” in ancient literature as a model for understanding. The term “hermaphrodite” also shows up in the 1405 request for pardon in the French case of Jehanne and Laurence. [See e.g., Benkov 2001 for details.] As in Greta’s case, theirs involved sexual behavior rather than visual gender transgression such as cross-dressing. The concept of the hermaphrodite staked out an unstable position between gender and sex, body and behavior, text and experience. The Count von Zimmern’s final theory was that Greta’s behavior was a sign of “the sinful times.”
Greta’s life and behavior belongs to the experiential world, but the interpretations placed on it come out of theoretical systems. Some of those systems (such as physiology) could be contradicted by experience, but the framework of morality could not. As the chronicle was meant to analyze and provide guidance on the Zimmern family’s fortunes, the question of Greta’s significance (in the section covering the author’s uncle) reflects the indeterminate status of those fortunes.
Where would the count’s knowledge about women who desired women come from? It would come from all levels of society, by both written and oral transmission. The chronicle accumulates information from a demonstrably wide range of sources. The nature of the anecdote suggests oral transmission through multiple iterations before being recorded. Oral networks involving both men and women were important for establishing and communicating standards of sexual behavior. If such informal debates were loud enough, they might be taken up by legal authorities. Legal records in south-western Germany attest to a wide variety of types of female same-sex behavior that came to the attention of authorities, and a variety of outcomes. The count’s chronicle became part of continuing those concerns at a remove from the original events.
Erasmus’ colloquies stand at another pole of communication: that of staged, formal argumentation, despite the superficial format of natural speech. [Note: “colloquy” literally means “conversation” and indicates a text in the form of a conversation between multiple parties. The purpose of a colloquy might be to make a logical argument, but the term was also used for language-learning texts intended to present vocabulary and grammar for everyday conversation.] Such texts, especially Latin ones, are less studied in the context of the “renaissance of lesbianism”, when 16th century vernacular translations of Sappho are treated as a watershed in accessibility and influence. Questions of transmission and translation are rarely addressed. Despite this glossing over of the Latin material, it is clear that knowledge of Sappho’s homoerotic reputation was in common currency before translations of her were into the vernacular were available.
Erasmus, in a colloquy of 1523, demonstrates this “common knowledge” in a passage where a young man is trying to persuade his beloved not to enter a convent. He points out with respect to the intellectual climate of the convent, “there are more who copy Sappho’s behavior than share her talent.” The young woman (who is identified in the title of the colloquy as “the girl with no interest in marriage”) is portrayed as innocently clueless to the allusion, saying, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Who, then, was the audience for this innuendo? Although the colloquy’s overt audience was young male students, the text was widely disseminated among elite readers, although it was translated from Latin to German somewhat later than his other works. “Sapphism” is only one of the hazards of convent life implied in the text, though the only one the woman claims ignorance of. Though women were denied formal schooling in Latin, they had access through family and private tutors.
Later in the colloquy, the woman leaves the convent after an unnamed encounter with clerical depravity. Did Erasmus mean to refer to Sappho the sexually voracious heterosexual, or Sappho the lesbian? The former interpretation was promulgated by the more familiar Phaon story, as opposed to the less familiar homoerotic verses. Further, even Latin translations of Sappho’s poetry weren’t yet published at the time Erasmus was writing. So was Sappho’s homoeroticism public knowledge even at that remove?
Lochrie expresses uneasiness with the premise of the collection--that there is such a thing as “lesbian” in the pre-modern era. She suggests that heteronormativity does not exist across time but is a modern/post-modern phenomenon. This collection operates within a general critique of historicism, chronology, and periodization. It questions the idea that pre-modern scholarship constitutes a type of historical theory in itself.
The title and concept of the collection is deliberately provocative of the concept that “lesbian” is a limiting and essentialist concept. The editors point out that the challenges to identifying “lesbian” concepts in premodernity (i.e., that it’s anachronistic) apply equally well to heterosexuality, and that the concept “lesbian” almost always has been considered anachronistic throughout time.
The collection challenges the notion that theory-to-premodernity is a one-way street, and considers primary pre-modern scholarship as a theoretical structure in itself. The book is organized in three sections: theories and historiographies, histories and texts, and encounters with the lesbian pre-modern. It begins by re-examining the work of influential pre-modern scholars in lesbian and queer studies, as well as collecting and examining recent research and analysis, with the last section bringing scholars of later periods into the conversation to respond to its content and premise.
Part one addresses the erasure of lesbian experience from the body of received history. But erasure also comes from the presumed heterosexuality of historic societies, as well as from a framing that requires exclusivity to same-sex relations to bring someone under the rubric of “lesbian”. (In contrast, scholars of “gay history” include men under the category of “homosexual” if their lives include any same-sex relations, rather than requiring exclusively same-sex relations.)
The rest of the introduction is a summary of the papers to come.
Traub looks at methodological issues currently facing lesbian history as a field. It faces the contrasting problems of a continuist approach versus considering alterity (with its regular charges of anachronism against the other approach). Traub feels both models have outlived their usefulness. She notes Faderman as an example of the continuist approach, i.e., that there is a single connected “history of lesbianism”. Others on this team include Castle and Brooten, who challenge Foucault’s focus on periodization (i.e., that there are distinct and unrelated “periods” of how same-sex relations were understood) and the emergence of the alterist position--one that has been more developed in studies of men than women. [Note: I’m not sure I have a complete grasp on what the “alterity” approach constitutes. It appears to be something along the lines of viewing same-sex relations as existing at various times in opposition to normative structures, rather than having a continuous connected historical tradition. That is, that same-sex relations at any point in history are structurally connected to heterosexual relations at that same point, rather than being connected to same-sex relations at other points in history.]
Bennett, looking at social history, recognizes a distinction between looking at change in women’s experiences and looking at change in women’s social status, where a “patriarchal equilibrium” works to maintain the latter, but is more flexible on the former. In the context of lesbian history, this suggests that the social acceptabiity of lesbian identity and behavior may be affected by how it either ameliorates or challenges women's relationship to patriarchy. Other critiques of alterity recognize similarities and continuity in the experience of sexuality while rejecting universals. Researchers like Vicinus note repetitive or continuous patterns and structures of intimacy whose meanings may change over time.
As more archival material is identified, examined, and re-examined, more nuanced understandings are possible. Traub sets out a shift in her own thinking:
1. Recurrent explanatory meta-logics give a sense of familiarity and consistency to lesbian history over time.
2. These meta-logics get their specifics from the specific contexts and social definition.
3. These recurrences can be seen as “cycles of salience” as concepts recur with differences across time.
That is, continuity is not continuous, but recurrent, due to persistent concerns filtered through dynamic social contexts. Similarities are not due to inheritance but due to being driven by similar forces. The structures and definitions within a particular time and place may reflect narrow types of experience (e.g., the dominance of middle class white women’s concerns in modern lesbian models) but comparison across intersections can tease out the common dynamics.
Traub considers repeating “types” (tropes) in which lesbian desire manifests and what the underlying meta-logic is that (re)generates them. E.g., Katherine Phillips’ 17th century “Society of Friendship” compared to Boston Marriage in the 19th century, or the concept of Romantic Friendship compared to convent intimacies. When comparing gender-bending types (virago, tribade, female husband, passing women, butch) the similarities are disrupted by contextual dynamics. Another repeating trope is the motif of the enlarged clitoris (in the 16-17th century) and the early 20th century sexologists’ search for an essentialized morphology of deviance from a meta-logic of physiological essentialism. (See similarly the more recent search for a “gay gene”.) This motif is related to larger social fixations that include “scientific racism”.
Manifestations of models of sexuality emerge out of more general social discourse unrelated to sexuality. Traub argues against simply shifting to seeing these tropes as a continuity or universal, but neither should the homologies be dismissed. Current historians (in lesbian history) avoid trying to construct an overarching historical narrative, but have also moved away from the “famous gay people in history” approach. Traub offers a long bullet-point list of themes that are worth tracing across cycles of history that affect the expression and understanding of same-sex desire, with a special list relating specifically to women’s experiences as women in society that affect their experience of sexuality.
This article addresses the question of terminology for women who love women from three angles: literary-historical recovery of evidence of sexuality, queer disruptions of expected categories and readings of human desire across time, and scholarly talk-arounds such as “lesbian-like”. It points out the difficulty of retrieving historic language, given the biases and gaps in the historic record.
Laskaya considers the useful broad ambiguity of “queer” to be undermined by its tendency to be used more often in reference to men. This broadness of application can erase the specificity of “lesbian” and so to erase lesbian-specific concerns and readings. [Note: compare, for example, how "gay" is allegedly inclusive of women but defaults to being male-specific.] She looks for concrete evidence in the past and--specific to the current topic--the language used to identify and frame female same-sex desire. She examines the historicity of “lesbian” specifically.
Queer theory’s institutional prominence can undermine its disruptive potential in the academy. It becomes distanced from the specifics of identity politics and can be in conflict with the concerns of lesbian-feminism. Some approach “queer” as a reading/critical strategy rather than an identity, decoupling it from concepts such as “gay” or “lesbian”. [Note: This is why queer academics and queer identities are often incomprehensible to each other. Who owns the concepts of “queerness”?] Under this approach, “queer readings” disrupt homosexuality just as much as they disrupt heterosexuality.
Even as the concept "queer" undermines binaries, it stands in binary opposition to “not queer”. To the extent that “queer” gains power and status from its abstraction, it thus becomes congruent with conservative intellectual traditions that value abstraction over particularity. Is some of the current prominence of “queer” due to the permission it gives to larger numbers of people to lay claim to that abstraction-based status without engaging with particular embodied identities? [Note: This question comes perilously close to a suggestion that some people "aren't queer enough" to be queer. That is, as a critique of the term "queer" it feels awefully gatekeeperish.]
The concept of identities as socially constructed is widely accepted regardless of theoretical stance. Given this, to what extent are choices of language a way of creating and sustaining those social constructions? To what extent is the repetitious acknowledgement of social constructionism a way of creating and maintaining that concept? To what extent are the concepts of social constructs in conflict with individual agency? Without using that specific term, Laskaya points out that the “great man” theory of history requires an acceptance of the power of individual agency. And just as society is not monolithic, agency may affect specific social axes without changing all of them. This has relevance for lesbian studies because premodern lesbians were part of the audience for culture and responded to that culture on an individual as well as a collective basis. The potential homoerotic readings picked out by queer studies were available for experience and interpretation, as well as the ever-present potential for cross-gender identifications that “queer” the experience.
Farina considers the tension between being a “passionate reader” of a text and being aroused by the act of reading, particularly for gay and lesbian readers whose lives are already hypersexualized by society. But she argues for the need for “erotic reading” in lesbian history. She discusses the concept of erotic reading especially as a counter to “received” non-erotic understandings of texts, for example, comparing erotic reading to “wonder” or “startlement” which are derided by literalist forces in historic studies. “Erotic” interaction with texts includes not just the act of reading but the act of writing--the tools and materials, such as manipulating a “phallic” pen. Another example would be devotional texts that encourage the reader to meditate on sensory experiences. Or texts that dwell on the experience or contemplation of love/desire.
This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.
Jankowski begins with lesbian imagery in Marvell’s Upon Appleton House [note: a 17th century work exploring family history that includes tropes of predatory lesbians in convents] and its challenge to the patriarchal sexual system. There is a consideration of the problems and consequences of naming historical periods and cultures. The convent as a site of sexual dissidence encompasses not only the imagined lesbian activity but the virgin’s removal from the mainstream sexual economy entirely. There, women are sovereign. She uses this as an introduction to the concept of nuns in different places and times and the place of virgin women in the medieval social hierarchy. That place was disrupted by protestantism which viewed virginity as unnatural and perverse. Jankowski considers the “virgin pleasures” in Lyly’s play Gallathea in which two cross-dressing virgins fall in love with each other and enjoy off-stage “pleasures” that do no result in a revelation of gender, that is, ones that by definition cannot involve genital activity. The play frames their desire as having “no cause” (i.e., no penis) but undermines this assertion by showing and approving of the love itself. In this, like nuns, they remove themselves from the category of “woman” to “not-woman” (i.e., virgin). The virgin/not-woman category aligns consistently with opportunities for female same-sex eroticism. The pre-modern “virgin” category has resonances with some feminist theories on the importance of opting out of the heterosexual social economy as the only pure response to patriarchy.
Around 600 in what would become France, two monastic women engaged in a correspondence of which one letter survives in a 9th century copy. Weston discuses the problems of interpreting this text as “lesbian” or even “lesbian-like”. If the letter was preserved in a religious context, could it have been understood as “lesbian” at that time? What does it mean to identify a text as “lesbian” apart from the author’s expressed lesbian identity? One suggestion is whether the text “actively performs” a lesbian-like sensibility, especially one shared within a community.
The convent in question was founded by Saint Radegund in 522 and was a novel type at that time, bringing together women from various families rather than being an establishment associated with a specific family. While secular noblewomen were defined by family and their lives used in service to their dynastic affiliations, monastic women were (incompletely) shifted from secular to monastic family, though secular ties could disrupt that ideal.
The reading and writing of texts was an essential component of engaging in that community, many of which texts directly address the definition and negotiation of virginity as a status. Literacy was an essential focus at the monastery of the Holy Cross--a required skill. The institution became famous for its participation in literary culture of the time. Much of this celebrates a culture of female friendship parallel to that better documented among male ecclesiastics of the era. This literature of male monastic friendship could express excessive poetic sensuality because it was given license by the overt elevated purity of the context. Similarly, writing about the convent community celebrated the mutual affection and bonds of the nuns. The letter considered here represents a performance of female desire expressed through the medium of friendship and so allowed that emotional excess.
The writer positions herself as younger and subordinate, able to express desire and a wish to emulate the addressee only because the addressee herself has requested it. This permission makes the expression possible, rather than being presumptuous due to the difference in status. This negotiates the acceptability of the expression of desire, a return of attention once the writer knows she herself has been noticed.
The article discusses the literature of how women learn to be virgins, including the caution that the Biblical claim that religious virgins “become like men” should not be taken literally as license for cutting hair short, cross-dressing, or behaviors with a masculine engagement with the world. (Note, however, that this explicit admonishment suggests that some women did take the Biblical passage as license for cross-gender presentation.) Monastic women are enjoined to love each other in close community to better direct their souls to God. There is a regular theme that they are expected to form close familial-like bonds, sometimes cloaked in the language of mother-daughter or sisterhood, and that such pairs might share a cell and bed. But at the same time, they are admonished that “unchastity of the eyes” (mutual glances) leads to unchastity of the flesh. And nuns are expected to police each other’s behavior as well as their own. These concerns are then applied to “special friendships”, see e.g., the Rule of Donatus against walking hand in hand or using endearments.
Correspondence would seem to evade concerns about physical interaction and gaze, but text itself is gazed on and written endearments may stand for caresses. The letter in question does not include such endearments and shifts from the personal (I) to collective (we) in its praise of the recipient. It offers praise in Old Testament imagery, using a metaphor of virgins receiving the Word into their wombs and bearing salvation. The letter uses recurring images of this metaphor. The writer protests her unworthiness to address the recipient as “sister”, using instead Lady (domina). Thus an otherwise suspect close relationship is re-framed in a distancing way (via differences of age or authority) while retaining an emotional closeness.
While some “queer readings” of medieval texts examine how God replaces a carnal beloved in courtly poetic forms, this article looks at an example of courtly images of women used to illustrate pious texts, and what the motivations and consequences of that might be. These manuscripts read as “queer” via the gaze of the women the texts are intended for [note: this is not speculation, we know who the original owners/patrons of the books were] and the use of female bodies of objects of desire and fantasy for a female viewer.
Like the Barbie doll, the images become private playthings for the viewer to engage with harmlessly. The “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (a collection of saints’ lives covering early ascetics) might be an unexpected text for plentiful illustrations of elegant women, even when the collection is expanded to include Desert Mothers. Here, the saints are not depicted as ascetics but as consumers and enjoyers of elegant culture. The women themselves are stylized to represent the ideal of beauty and sensuality of the day.
The article also considers manuscripts of various romances and a luxurious illustrated New Testament with commentary. The romances include Yde and Olive and the romance of the Comte d’Anjou. The illustrations create a world of women’s bonds that can be stronger than their presence in the text itself, with contexts ranging from homosocial to homoerotic.
This set of manuscripts were created in Burgundy and ended up in Turin, Italy via the ducal collections at Savoy. The article has a general description of the contents of the Lives, highlighting the presence and context of these female figures.
Regardless of the male-focused subject matter, the illustrations create a strong female presence and orientation for the books. There is a similar female presence in a manuscript of the Roman du Comte d’Anjou, with the scenes chosen for illustration skewing to those involving women.
The unique manuscript of Yde and Olive (from the Huon de Bordeaux cycle) includes an illustration of the central female couple in their marriage bed. The bed scene is the only illustration from this section of the longer Romance. The text also focuses on this marriage/bed scene, with extensive descriptions of the interaction between the women, including both verbal bonds (repeating the marriage vow) and physical interactions (kissing and hugging). The author makes a point that the text as the conclusion of the tale, which is typically interpreted as a divine sex-change, literally involves God giving Yde “all that a man has of his humanity (umanite)” which is more ambiguous regarding bodily consequences.
The author’s discussion of the illustrated Biblical commentary focuses on the sensual feel and appearance of the pages and the significant presence of noble women in the book’s provenance.
This article takes up the theme of women conceiving under difficult and or impossible conditions, e.g., virgins giving birth, and how the children of these conceptions are marked out as special. This theme appears in the context of multiple cultural traditions, e.g., Ruth and Naomi in the bible, and the mothers of Bhagirtha, who was explicitly engendered by sexual activity between two women with the help of the God of Love.
Vanita looks at three Indian devotional texts concerning how the god Vishnu and two co-wives of a king ensure his lineage continues, as prophecy requires. Most variants of the tale involve ordinary heterosexual procreation but in several 14th century versions, the king dies without children and his wives ask divine help to give him a son. The stories attribute various other motivations to the women’s actions, including same-sex desire, in which they engage in sex and one becomes pregnant.
Many types of miraculous births occur in Indian texts. The inclusion of female same-sex love is possibly motivated by a 14th century interest in goddess worship and the worship of Kama, a god of love, who blessed female same-sex eroticism. The goddess texts often featured her ability to produce children autonomously.
The figure of Bhagiratha is closely associated with one of the oldest goddesses, the river Ganga. The Rig Veda includes various references to rivers as pairs of co-mothers. The god Kama is depicted as a force of desire and the urge to create. His “energy” allows the sexual activity between the two women to result in pregnancy.
Vanita continues with a discussion of other symbolic themes present in the stories and a discussion of medical texts that show the early Hindu understanding of female sexual anatomy and behavior.
[I’ve also covered a more extensive article by Bennett on this monument that focuses more on the details of the artifact, its manufacture, and untangling the genealogy and relationships of the two families. This present article goes into more detail of the social interpretation.]
The central topic of this article is a 15th century brass memorial located in a small parish church in Sussex that shows two women turned toward each other, with an explanatory inscription. Elizabeth Etchingham (on the viewer’s left) is the smaller figure, shown with loose flowing hair. Agnes Oxenbridge (on the viewer’s right) has tightly pinned up (but uncovered) hair and is shown larger. The two are dressed identically. Elizabeth’s text identifies her as the first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, died December 3, 1452. Agnes’s text identifies her as the daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, died August 4, 1480, and asks God’s mercy on both women.
Bennett takes us on a consideration of the context of the monument, the women, and the iconography of memorial brasses to show the evidence for situating this story within a lesbian history.
The use of a brass memorial indicates a good birth, and both women came from land-owning gentry. Their families lived in the neighborhood of the church where they are buried, which belonged to the Etchingham family.
The usual pattern for young women’s lives for this time, place, and class would be to be raised at home until the beginning of adolescence and then be placed out into another household as part of their social training and to form bonds between families that would shape their later lives. It’s quite possible that the two women lived in the same household as part of this sort of arrangement. The usual expectation would be to marry in the late teens or twenties, although perhaps 5% of women (in this time/place/class) remained single life-long. Only a few of those singlewomen became nuns; others remained with their families.
Despite the lack of contemporary records for the two women (other than the memorial) we can know that neither married, based on the absence of references on the memorial to husbands, and from their depiction with uncovered hair. Both likely were born in the 1420s, with Elizabeth dying in her mid 20s and Agnes three decades later.
The Oxenbridge family mausoleum was in Brede, so the choice to bury Agnes next to Elizabeth in Etchingham with a joint memorial is unusual and indicates the joint approval and cooperation of both families, in the persons of the heads of the households: Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Etchingham and Agnes’s brother Robert Oxenbridge. But the arrangement is unlikely to have been driven by anyone other than Agnes herself as expressed in her will (which has not survived). Implementing this desire required the support and approval, not only of both families but also the workshop that made the memorial. As such, it’s unlikely that anyone involved considered whatever relationship the women had to be scandalous or unacceptable.
The design of the brass provides clues to how that relationship was viewed. There is a symbolic vocabulary for the layout of memorial brasses. Paired memorial images conventionally involved a married couple. The husband is usually placed on the viewer’s left in the more prestigious location, the place Elizabeth occupies, perhaps because the burial was done in her family’s church, but perhaps because the Etchinghams were a more prominent family than the Oxenbridges. The difference in size and hairstyle of the women most likely is intended to reflect their age difference at death. Loose, flowing hair was associated with young women, whereas Agnes’s pinned-up style is seen on mature women. The lack of a head covering is a strong symbol of unmarried status. The third aspect of visual symbolism indicates the relationship that motivated the joint memorial. Here, from among various possible arrangements of the figures, the brassmakers chose the one that represented an affectionate marriage-like bond. This is shown not simply in the joint memorial itself, but by having the women face each other, looking directly into each other’s faces. (Elizabeth’s head is tilted up slightly to gaze at the taller figure of Agnes, whose head is bowed slightly.)
The majority of joint effigies have both figures front-facing, reflecting the earlier style of sculptural effigies with reclining figures. The facing-in-profile style was relatively new at the time this brass was made. Scholars of memorial symbolism see it as a development to express “the intimacy of marriage” (as well as to better display newer fashions in headwear on the female figures--a consideration not relevant in this case). But the Elizabeth-Agnes memorial avoids two features that could undermine this impression of intimacy. The workshop that produced the brass more typically showed the facing figures leaning slightly backward, away from each other, depicting a static and immobile pose via the arrangements of the folds of skirt drapery. Instead, Agnes and Elizabeth appear to be in motion towards each other, with their skirts spread backwards and their bodies angled forward.
As brasses are not portraits and these details were unlikely to be specified by Agnes herself, they are more likely to reflect the communal understanding of their relationship by their families. Commemoration of same-sex friendships in joint memorials is widespread (though not common) but the overwhelming majority are male pairs and have later dates than the 15th century. Alan Bray’s work on the history of friendship cited no female examples before the 17th century, so the Etchingham/Oxenbridge memorial and others like it expand the scope of this data considerably. The emphasis of Bray’s study is on emotional intimacy but not necessarily sexual love. Similarly in this case, we can solidly understand Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as commemorating a close, intense, lasting emotional bond, but we have no evidence one way or the other regarding whether that bond was also erotic.
Bennett pauses to discuss why she created the concept of “lesbian-like” to discuss examples like this (Bennett 2000), without having to apply some rigid standard of evidence and definition to whether they “counted” as lesbians by modern identity-based definitions. Resistance to viewing examples like Elizabeth and Agnes via a “lesbian-like” category are often overtly driven by a horror that it “slanders” the women involved. It also leads to convoluted interpretation of the evidence, such as the counter-factual claims that Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorials were actually separate objects coincidentally placed side by side. Bennett asks why we should demand a greater stability and clarity of definition of “lesbian” in history than we have at the present time. She points out that some scholars argue that medieval European society only recognized one gender--male--with women being considered “imperfectly male”, while other historians view the evidence as showing a rigid two-gender system. Similarly, some scholars argue that the medieval world had no concept that would correspond to heterosexuality, no sense of “normal” against which to define “abnormal” sexuality. In this context, viewing the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial as “lesbian-like” doesn’t close off interpreting the women as heterosexual, if that is a category that has no validity in the medieval context in the first place.
Coming back to the theory focus of this collection, Bennett argues that viewing the memorial as lesbian-like helps break free of anachronistically modern assumptions about the women’s lives (rather than identifying them by anachronistically modern identity labels). Using the word “lesbian”, which has carried through the centuries with unstable but related senses, helps with this process, Bennett argues, more than the deliberate avoidance of the word “lesbian” does. She points out that singling out “lesbian” as problematic while using similarly unstable terms such as “housewife” [or for that matter “household”] is suspect. Identifying Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as “lesbian-like” does not claim them as “lesbian” but as exploring a related set of affinities between women. “Lesbian-like” refuses to privilege sexual relations and our knowledge of them as a definition for the borders of lesbian history. In the face of historical claims that the middle ages were hostile to medieval lesbianism--or at best indifferent to it--examples like the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial suggest other intriguing possibilities.
Bauer looks at the concept of periodization as it applies to sexuality and how the limitations on lesbian self-representation affect and are shaped by concepts of historic periodization, for example, the extensive debate around Foucault’s division of history relative to an acts/identity divide. By centering the writings and experiences of pre-modern women who loved/desired women, this collection calls the existence that divide into question, as well as calling into question the study of it. If the very concept of periodization and “modernity” rests on traditions that excluded and erased women’s lives, how can its conclusions about lesbian history be valid? Under the rubric of “lesbian time”, Bauer examines shared conceptual spaces that cut across conventional periodization to challenge the gendered concepts underlying it. These questions occur in parallel with similar challenges to racialized periodization.
Historians of male homosexuality draw on a long tradition of evidence made available and prominent by the gendered imbalance of historic records. Similar approaches to female same-sex history must first build an archive of historic data in order to establish a similar antiquity and tradition. Within this, the very existence of the organizing topic “lesbian” is contested.
The cyclic model of historic change evolves from and then is used to support a heteronormative and anachronistically modern concept of “family” as the basic structure. A temporality that rejects a generational model of history allows for the inclusion or even centering of other modes of relating. This includes a challenge to the importance of Foucault’s periodization based on the 19th century “scientification of sex” and demands consideration of structures outside that cultural scope. A consideration of “lesbian time” raises the question of how and by whom our notions of lesbian sexuality were shaped and transmitted. Bauer discusses how the other papers in the collection address this.
Bauer revisits a Victorian “proto-sexological” text, A Problem in Greek Ethics by John Addington Symonds, that examined classical Greek male same-sex desire from a social and philosophical angle to determine how it benefitted its social context. The work set a pattern for 19th century works affirming male homosexuality in arguing for male same-sex bonds as the ideal form of citizenship and the driver of all civilization and progress. He then makes the circular argument that women’s exclusion from social prominence meant that female same-sex desire could not similarly drive progress and thus why lesbian desire was not similarly sanctioned and therefore disappeared. [!] Symonds then argues that a shift from elevating male same-sex love to a “romantic cult of woman” resulted in the decline of civilization from the classical ideal. Thus, he simultaneously dismisses the relevance of the middle ages and of women as a class.
Bauer concludes by calling for attention to the way in which acceptance of current models of periodization similarly erase lesbian history and sexuality.
Faderman builds on Bauer’s discussion of how conventional historic approaches erase lesbian history, but adds that an abandonment of the concept of history as “what really happened” is a surrender to that erasure. She notes her own pursuit of lesbian history as an “unabashedly political project”--a pursuit of a “useable past” that offered the modern audience connection with history. Faderman has some possibly snide things to say about how the scarcity of premodern evidence for lesbians drives post-modern scholars to “all sorts of imaginative--and sometimes rather labored--devices.” On the other side, she notes how the longing for a “useable past” leads to ahistoricity (perhaps what is elsewhere called “search and rescue” missions). She asserts how the framework of Romantic Friendship allowed her to discuss intense loving relationships between women in the 18-19th centuries without anachronistically labeling them “lesbian”. This raises the question, if “lesbian” is an unstable concept, how is it possible to discuss lesbianism in history at all?
Faderman spends a while discussing how the strict scrutiny on the precise definition of “lesbian”--both within and outside the field of lesbian history--inevitably leads to erasing the realities of women who had primary emotional bonds with other women. But conversely, she probes at the question of whether “lesbian” has lost its most crucial meaning if it doesn’t refer to sexual relations. [Note: This is the theme that regularly bothers me in Faderman’s writing, that sex is the sine qua non of the word “lesbian”.] But she also notes that looking for “lesbian-like” data only in the context of social non-conformity excludes women whose lives were superficially conventional, despite strong evidence for female same-sex emotional or erotic relationships. “If our definition of ‘lesbian-like’ is limited to women who were openly outlaws, we’re in danger of losing much that is juicy and wonderful.” She notes the class divisions in responses to lesbian-like behavior and the promising evidence that knowledge and acceptance of female same-sex love was more widespread in premodern times than we often think.
Where “lesbian” once signaled the avant-garde, it now is often interpreted as quietly normative, as pre-post-modern in comparison to “queer.” Freeman plays around with the semantics of “pre” and “post” for a while. She considers how the roots of historical theory are found among medievalists but that the primary texts and their analysis are often ignored by current theoreticians. She makes a comparison suggesting that lesbian/feminist scholarship occupies a similar relationship to queer theory: the concrete roots of the theory are ignored or unknown to those working in current theory. Freeman calls for a re-valuing of those roots, if only to better evaluate and critique the theory. There follows much discussion of that process of evaluation and critique. Freeman considers historical theories as “secular” but points out that this framing excludes a definition of religion as “a set of knowledge practices and embodied rituals.” From that point of view, secular modernity is a “habitus” of religion rooted in Protestantism, and conversely the critical avant-garde has a sort of sacramental approach to the concept of history as a systematic whole. In this framing, “sacramental” history includes more subjective “ways of knowing” that include desires, bodies, and fantasies. The acceptance of theory becomes like the experience of the Eucharist: a passive transformative acceptance. Can texts be treated as sacraments and experienced via transformative incorporation? Could this result not in expertise over, but community with, the past? The paper ends with an extensive discussion of how this framing would apply to the various papers in the volume.
Garber reviews the progress of lesbian studies from an overly exuberant "laying claim", to the development of more nuanced criteria and engagement with Foucaultian social constructionism, as well as the overlap/intersection of lesbian and transgender themes in history. The 1970s were obsessed with how broadly or narrowly to define “lesbian,” both in the past and present. The nature of premodern evidence makes a strict social-constructionist approach problematic, even as the wide net premodern historians cast makes coherent boundaries impossible. Acknowledging a Foucaultian divide around 1869 doesn’t mean accepting that as the only definition for the scope of lesbian history. Like the other summing-up papers in this collection, Garber reviews the contents of the volume in the context of these contrasts. She reiterates the political nature of historical study and the place of fantasy and invention within that political context. Is there a direct comparison to the social history of, for example, ethnic minorities? Ethnic histories work to reconstruct the nature of a provable past, whereas lesbian history is often required to demonstrate the very existence of the past it wants to study.
Vicinus sees the problems of modern and premodern scholars as similar rather than distinct. She compares them to the issues she finds in studying Victorian writer Vernon Lee, who shared her life and love with women. Like the questions around medieval virginity as an identity/orientation, Lee dealt with negative reactions to tackling “male” topics and for her “passionate celibacy”. The concerns of the medieval church about “special friendships” between nuns is recapitulated in early 20th century uneasiness about schoolgirl same-sex crushes.
Vicinus discusses various metaphors used to discuss same-sex knowledge and understanding, both self-knowledge and historical knowledge, and how various theoretical communities have re-thought such dichotomies as “acts versus identities.” She sees this volume as a call for new paradigms and metaphors and looks at the mainstreaming of sexuality studies and how female same-sex relations can be an agent of social change, for example, women’s same-sex friendships (romantic or not) as a counter to rigid gender roles limiting women to marriage as a life goal.
Vicinus returns to Victorian author Vernon Lee, whose intellectual pursuits and personal style struck many as “masculine,” drawing the admiration of women and condemnation of men. Lee’s own studies of the past were often touch-centered, similar to considerations in some essays in this collection. She saw the past as a ghost still walking beside us as a companion.
Wiegman connects this volume to its thematic predecessor The Lesbian Postmodern and considers how theoretical approaches can provide the very responses they warn and react against. Resistance to a concept is a sign of attachment to it. Both the premodern and postmodern volumes show a desire to reanimate and reorient critical studies of “the lesbian.” The current book is filled with reactions against the postmodern reactions against identitarianism. Those postmodern reactions center the concept of the lesbian even when applying the tools of queer theory. If modern queer theory considers the lesbian an anachronism, she asks, “When was the lesbian not considered an anachronism--something always out of place in its own time?”
These papers, instead of seeking legibility and legitimacy, demand an entirely different approach--one not bound by the structures of periodicity and historicism. At the same time, other papers promote the importance of that other historiographic anachronism: material studies--the importance of identifying and interpreting things, not just playing with ideas.
Wiegman returns to the central question: why does “the lesbian” need a history and what does it benefit historians to work to provide it? What continues to unite scholars who seek “knowing” and those who consider knowing impossible? The answer, she concludes, is love--the theme of love between women is a through-line in the articles. There is a resonance underlying all the critical incompabilities that leads scholars to continue to forge alliances and connections across the divides. (The essay continues on this theme at some length, but I think that covers the essence.)