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Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2001. "The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England" in GLQ 7:2 245-263.

Contents summary: 

This article forms the core of Traub’s 2002 book by the same name, covered in entry #69. However summarizing this original article will provide a different angle and different details than I picked up from that previous entry.

Traub begins by examining the subject matter and composition of a ca. 1631 painting by Anthony Van Dyck showing a scene from the play Il Pastor Fido (the faithful shepherd) in which the shepherd Mirtillo, disguised as a shepherdess in order to gain access to Amaryllis, the woman he desires, is drawn into a “kissing war” among that woman’s female friends, to determine which of them is the best kisser. Judged by the woman herself. The painting depicts the moment of Mirtillo’s victory, which simultaneously can be viewed as the triumph of heteroerotic love and as an apparent depiction of homoerotic love. (This is a link to an image of the painting, although I can’t guarantee that the link will be permanently stable.)

The complex scene raises contradictory interpretations. Even if one accepts the central couple as a triumph of heterosexuality, it’s a victory that requires an earlier state of idyllic homoeroticism. And can Amaryllis’s giving the crown to Mirtillo truly be a heterosexual act if she believed this champion kisser to be a woman?

More to the point as a historian, scenes such as this contradict a position long claimed by historians that lesbianism was functionally invisible in Western Europe before the modern era. Traub offers brief quotes from The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1995) which attests to this belief.

What Traub concluded, and sets out to prove, is that early modern England saw a renaissance of representations of female-female desire in the 16th and 17th centuries, including a gradual increase over that period of depictions of women’s same-sex physical and emotional investments across a wide variety of textual genres. These representations existed within a context that considered women to have a stronger sex drive than men, and that considered same-sex desire to be a natural manifestation of that drive.

In addition to literary depictions of f/f love, this era saw medical manuals explore a new understanding of the function of the clitoris (and a consequent preoccupation with the motif of the overdeveloped clitoris being used to facilitate sex between women), travelogues with tales of female same-sex desire in the Near East and North Africa, and an influx of continental literature that treated homoerotic themes between women.

As much of this proliferation of material was due to the rise of printing technology, it is impossible to compare its availability quantitatively, as there was a similar expanded proliferation of content in many other fields. And some material was clearly a continuation of themes present in medieval literature, as with the endless variations of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. But whatever the contributing causes, by the 16-17th centuries there was a wealth of material.

Traub uses the term “renaissance” very deliberately as much of the material has roots in classical antecedents which were essential to the understanding of the material. These antecedents came in two major flavors: medical and satirical treatments of the motif of the tribade, the sexually aggressive woman who played “a man’s part” in sex (and increasingly was assumed to have deviant anatomy to accomplish this), and the classical philosophical tradition of amicitia (friendship, amity) which was traditionally celebrated as idealized friendships between men, but now extended to, or claimed by, women as well. Much of this renaissance of representation was produced by men, but in this era we also see women producing their own depictions of homoerotic love.

As a central example of how female-female love was depicted, Traub looks at several variants of the Iphis and Ianthe story, including Arthur Golding’s 1567 verse translation into English, and John Lyly’s retelling of the motifs in Gallathea, which contrasts with the source material in featuring two cross-dressing girls who fall in love with each other. One of the themes in these I&I retellings is the lament of the girls for the “impossibility” of their love. Yet the dramatic depictions again and again rely on recognizing such love as possible and even prevailing.

How was same-sex female desire made understandable? And what strategies were used to contain it and convince the consuming public that it was impossible? Were those strategies successful?

The image of “women having sex together” depends greatly on how sex is defined. The 16th century “rediscovery” of the clitoris, and the recognition of its analogy to the penis with regard to sexual pleasure, created new images and mythology about women’s same-sex activities. Whereas the figure of the “tribade” had previously incorporated beliefs about phallic importance via the use of an artificial penis, now a new image was created of the woman with an enlarged clitoris who was capable of using it for penetrative sex.

In English, this image was first made explicit in Helkiah Crooke’s Microcosmographia: or, A Description of the Body of Man (1615). The central theme of such works was that an enlarged clitoris either caused, or was caused by (or both), the rubbing of women’s bodies together for sexual purposes. (Or, in the “was caused by” version, sometimes initially by rubbing against clothing.) Causation was a confused and contradictory aspect of this motif. Borrowing from humoral theory and beliefs about the penis, clitoral size was asserted to correlate with the quantity of sexual desire (but, again, causation could go both ways).

Under this theory, any woman possessed the basic original equipment necessary to become a tribade, as well as the inclination to excess sexual desire (as a feature of women in general). This contrasts with later theories that same-sex desire represented a deviation of gender, an internal “masculinity”.

[Note: Traub identifies this as a “later” attitude, but Classical writers also theorized that a woman’s desire for women was due to an “innate masculine nature”. The two models have played tag across the ages. Traub also fails to make the connection between the “macro-clitoris” theory and how interest in anatomy spread awareness--if not understanding--of the variations in human anatomy, plus the fascination during this same era with the image of the “hermaphrodite” in its probably-intersex-inspired form.]

But if the image of the tribade as a male-coded, sexually voracious woman was expanded in the early modern era from an “Other” to being something that any woman had the potential to become, similarly the popularity of the image of sensuality between “normal” feminine bodies also universalized women’s same-sex potential.

“Fem-fem” love is typically depicted as arising in the context of intimate friendships, often beginning in adolescence when the participants were assumed to be “chaste and innocent”. These images and descriptions occur within a social context when physical affection between friends is expected and when the sharing of beds was common. But rather than framing such features of women’s intimate friendships as being entirely non-erotic, literature regularly draws explicit parallels between same-sex affections and the heterosexual bonds and interactions that the work frames as the ultimate goal of the narrative. Shakespeare uses this dynamic regularly with pairs such as Hermia and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Rosalind and Celia (As You Like It).

This dynamic--under the complex and heavily loaded term “amity”--was depicted as existing side-by-side (although not always amicably) with the heterosexual marriage plots of the works precisely in order to negate the serious potential of same-sex love and to overwrite it with the work’s heterosexual resolution. It is a general pattern in comedic works of the early modern period that anxieties are raised explicitly only to be resolved. Fem-fem couples in this literature become significant when they challenge the patriarchal and marital imperative of society, when they threaten to become exclusive, at which point they must be dismantled. Traub notes that female homoerotic pairs feature only in courtship plots rather than history plays or tragedies. [Note: but see Walen’s Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama for a more detailed and nuanced look at the medium that somewhat contradicts this.]

Thus, although “tribades” transgressed gender norms, “fem-fem” couples were not viewed as disruptive to the social structure unless they went beyond using the language of marriage to trying to appropriate the social function of marriage. In fictional texts such as Iphis and Ianthe and Gallathea, this risk was nullified by magical sex transformation. But in real life there was no such safe resolution for expressions like the Maitland Quarto Manuscript poem XLIV (1586) in which a woman (or at least a female voice) expresses the desire for marriage to another woman, even if it required such a bodily change. The Maitland poet does not lament the “impossibility” of her love, as Iphis does, but only the impossibility of marriage between two female bodies.

In tracing not only the instances where female homoerotic bonds become “significant”, but changes in the ways in which those bonds are represented over time, Traub argues that the “innocence” of fem-fem love began to be challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to increasing circulation of literature about the sexual possibilities between women. She says, “These behaviors, represented as unexceptional until the mid-seventeenth century, begin to be construed as immoral, irrational, a threat to other women.”

[Note: What is missing from Traub’s analysis here is that popular opinion has regularly cycled through periods of considering women’s same-sex romantic bonds to be “innocent” to being “suspicious” to being “deviant”. The shift Traub identifies in the mid-17th century obviously did not preclude later periods that represented passionate friendships as socially acceptable and "innocent".]

It is this conflation of the image of the tribade and “innocent” fem-fem love that creates the possibility of a modern erotic identity of “lesbian” that incorporated a wide variety of micro-identities. Although 16th century representations of female homoeroticism don’t provide clear and direct antecedents for modern lesbian identities, they can expand our understanding of the multiple roots for that identity.

[Note: Interestingly, Trumbach makes a very similar argument about there having been a point when multiple, previously unrelated threads of women’s homoerotic experience coalesce to form an identifiable “sexual orientation”, but he places that event two centuries later (Trumbach 1991). Is this a case of different historians staking out different “turning points” based on their own specific focus of interest? Or are we seeing what Traub later (Traub 2011) refers to as “cycles of salience” when she notes that she revised her own thinking on the course of lesbian-relevant history.]