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Full citation: 

Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt (eds). 2011. The Lesbian Premodern. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


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.

Contents summary: 

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?

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

This article is all about theories about theories and didn’t really have any comprehensible content I could summarize. Sorry.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

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.