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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #19 - Sautman & Sheingorn 2001 “Introduction: Charting the Field”

Full citation: 

Sautman, Francesca Canadé & Pamela Sheingorn. “Introduction: Charting the Field” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn, Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé & Pamela Sheingorn. “Introduction: Charting the Field”

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In my opinion, the article overstates the lack of a vocabulary for women to express same-sex desire though it points out tendency for records to be filtered through hostile lenses. As a symbol of the problems with the evidence, it looks at an image of two women kissing while dancing from the Roman de la Rose as symbolic of desire being evident and overt without being clearly categorized or named. The dance and kiss are described explicitly in the text, though coyly: ''their lips would touch in such a way that you might have thought they were kissing." This collection or articles looks at instances that share this context: where affection is demonstrated with erotic overtones even if it does not continue to sexual activity. There is an extensive theoretical discussion of the balance between the extremes of essentialism and constructionism, the history of theoretical approaches and academic dialogue. Examples include the disruptive effect of gender challenges such as Joan of Arc's overt cross-dressing.

They continue with a review of studies on the identification and naming of a "lesbian" category, beginning in late antiquity, in contradiction to the constructionist position that such a category is of very recent date. They consider the study of lesbians to be inseparable from the study of women's history as something other than an appendix to men. The evidence argues for an awareness among medieval women of same-sex possibilities, despite the lack of documented formal networks as are found for men. Although there is clear evidence for this awareness in religious literature, they caution against generalizing the clerical preoccupation with sex as sin. The clerics' position on the inferiority of women and their "natural" passivity helped drive the condemnation of same-sex pairings, though disapproval went beyond those transgressing this norm. Clement of Alexandra condemned female-female marriages both the "active" member and the "bride". (See Brooten 1997.)

The topics in this volume consider a spectrum ranging from homosocial, homoaffective, homoerotic, through homosexual. This Queer Studies approach draws connections between passionate friendships and sexual relationships, even when the participants themselves would never consider such a connection. This approach avoids the trap of interpretations that presuppose heterosexuality, e.g., in characterizing a religious devotion to Christ as 'erotic’ but a similar devotion to the Virgin as non-erotic. There is a discussion of how the word and concept of ‘sodomy’ relate to women's experience and how this led to an erasing of lesbianism as a separate concept and category. Also problematic in this conflation is that there were different options for men and women to combine opposite-sex marriage and same-sex relations, making extrapolation from male evidence less than useful. But they argue against a position that studying same-sex relations is futile due to a lack of data and this “male filtering” of what data there is. One field where distinctions are preserved is the literature of ecstatic religious experiences with erotic overtones. Traditional interpretations downplayed the appearance of eroticism in this literature but the authors caution against concluding that erotic language between women is meaningless in the absence of sexual activity, as opposed to being part of a continuum that could either include sex or not.

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