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Saturday, January 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42d - Iphis and Ianthe - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/01/25 - listen here)


One of my first goals when I started researching f/f themes and motifs in history was to get a sense of what images my fictional characters would have of the possibilities for two women who loved each other. So much of our self-identity as queer people comes from comparing ourselves to the social models we have available. Endless mid-20th century “coming out” stories involved women who thought they were the only person who had ever felt that way because they had no models for same-sex love in their communities, in literature, or in popular culture. Faced with the idea of writing endless historical romances that centered around coming-out themes, I wanted to know what the alternatives were. Just how might women in history have been introduced to the idea of same-sex love?

When you look at Western history, one pop culture property that carries the image of love between women across the centuries--albeit in a shifting and problematic form--is the story of Iphis and Ianthe, as first presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s likely that the story was not original to Ovid--most of the stories in the Metamorphoses have older roots--but we have only his version as an early source. In brief, Iphis and Ianthe is the story of a girl raised as a boy who falls mutually in love with another girl and who the gods then transform into a boy so they can marry. I’ll get back to the story itself, but first a bit of background on Ovid.

The Context

The poet Ovid--in full, Publius Ovidius Naso, was born in the mid-1st century BCE to an upper-class Roman family. His family wanted him to study law but he preferred to write poetry and his early career involved praise poems with erotic themes. His collection Heroides is a series of letters from famous women (or fictional female characters) to absent lovers, and is the source of the myth of Sappho pining for a male lover Phaon. His Ars Amatoria (the art of love) was a semi-satirical instruction manual on how to woo, please, and keep lovers and was popular in translation down the ages. The emperor Augustus banished Ovid, possibly for political reasons, possibly because Ovid’s work was seen to encourage adultery during an age of concern for the sexual morals of the Roman upper class.

But before that exile, he also completed the 15-volume Metamorphoses: an encyclopedic verse compilation of transformation motifs in Greek and Roman mythology, progressing from the birth of the cosmos to the political triumph of Julius Caesar. Although Ovid re-worked and interpreted existing mythic material in the Metamorphoses, one result of the popularity of his work is that his versions are commonly taken as the definitive ones.

The Metamorphoses was conceived of as a unified work, with themes progressing and connecting the various stories, but this aspect is often lost when the individual myths are read or studied in isolation. For the story of Iphis and Ianthe, this removes some of the essential context for interpreting the sexual themes.

Keep in mind that the unifying theme of the work is “metamorphosis” or “transformation”. Iphis and Ianthe appears at the end of Book 9 (out of 15) of the Metamorphoses generally in the context of transformations relating to love for inappropriate objects. Within the story, Iphis compares her love for another woman to the love of Pasiphaë (the wife of King Minos of Crete) for a bull, which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. Pasiphaë’s story occurs in an earlier book of the Metamorphoses, but more immediately before Iphis and Ianthe we find how the infant sons of Callirhoe were transformed instantly into adults so they could avenge the death of their father who had been killed while trying to fulfill a greedy desire of Callirhoe for a necklace. (Look, it’s complicated.) Then the story of Byblis who fell in love with her twin brother and after failing to convince him to engage in an incestuous relationship, she was transformed into a spring because of her incessant weeping. So the story of Iphis’s transformation into a man to resolve the problem of her “impossible” love for another woman must be seen as one of a set of stories of non-normative desire. To be fair, the love between Iphis and Ianthe is treated far more sympathetically than these others, and the two are allowed a happy ending of sorts, but the same-sex love is not allowed to stand as such.

The Story

So let’s dig a bit deeper into the story itself, with examples from the translation in Thomas K. Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, which provides a literal, though not metrical, version of the meaning.

When Iphis’s mother, Telethusa was pregnant, her father, Ligdus said that if the child were a girl then--although he would regret the necessity--the child would have to die because they couldn’t afford to raise a girl child. Telethusa begged him to reconsider but he was adamant. Right before the birth, Telethusa had a dream of the goddess Io (who was associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis) who promises to protect her and the child, no matter what sex it is. When Iphis is born a girl, Telethusa conceals her sex, presenting her to Ligdus as a boy.

The father fulfilled each vow he owed the gods, and gave the child his father’s name, Iphis--named for her grandfather. Her mother was delighted, since the name could work for either sex, no need to be dishonest. ... She wore boys’ clothes and had the kind of face that would be called a beauty, masculine or feminine.

There are two interesting points here: that because the name Iphis could be borne by either a boy or a girl, her identity avoids one type of “deception”. And in common with a number of other gender disguise stories, the ideal of beauty is presented as being androgynous, one that doesn’t require extreme association with either a male or female stereotype. Therefore Iphis can be an idealized figure without being depicted as abnormal, either as a women or as a man.

Ligdus arranged for a betrothal between the child he thought was his son and Ianthe, the daughter of his neighbor. As was not uncommon at the time, the betrothal was at what we would consider the early age of thirteen. This meant the two entered adolescence encouraged to think of each other as romantic partners. Ianthe had:

the richest dowry of beauty, golden-haired, the daughter of Telestes. They were alike in age and loveliness, and from the same teachers they had learned their childhood lessons. So, naturally, love touched their young hearts equally. The wounds they felt were equal, but their confidence at total odds. Ianthe longed for her marriage, the promised wedding torches, and her husband, whom she believed to be a man. Who wouldn’t? Iphis loved and longed, but she despaired of ever having the one she longed for, and this increased her passion.

Now, remember what I said about this story being placed in the context of the consequences of inappropriate desires? For the story to make sense in this context, it must be presented as involving an “impossible” love. That is, a love between two women. There are two ways to look at this. One is the easily falsifiable position that it is psychologically impossible for a woman to desire another woman. Since the very premise of the story is the Iphis and Ianthe fall in love with each other, it doesn’t make sense that this would be the argument. The second interpretation is that “possible love” is being defined as love that can be consummated with penetrative sex. This might make sense, except that in the passage that follows, Iphis compares her situation with the natural world in terms of desire not in terms of consummation.

A girl on fire for a girl. She spoke through her tears, “What end awaits me, victim of this new, bizarre unheard-of spell of Venus? If the gods intend to spare me, then they should have; if they want me ruined, they should at least have sent some normal malady. No cow lusts after a cow, or mare for a mare. The ram inflames the ewes, the doe follows the buck, and so on--birds and every type of animal. No female ever desires another female. I wish that I didn’t exist, or weren’t a girl!

And yet, she desires Ianthe. That is simple fact. It clearly is possible. What Iphis can’t get past is that they can’t perform male-female sex acts. She compares her situation to that of Pasiphaë whose sexual desire for the sacred bull was made possible by the inventor Daedalus creating a cow-costume for her. Look, don’t ask. Greek myths go strange places. But that, Iphis laments, was at least a male-female coupling. Could Daedalus use his ingenuity to change her into a boy? Or to change Ianthe into a boy? This is the first point at which the transgender concept is raised. Iphis now laments that it is the physical impossibility that stands in her way.

No guardian forbids you the caress you crave, no over-anxious husband, severe patriarch, not even the girl--she’s yours for just the asking--and yet you can’t possess her, can’t get lucky, not for all the world, for all that gods and men can do. ... What I want, my father wants, so does my future father-in-law, so does my bride-to-be. Nature alone says no, and her voice drowns out all the rest, and she alone subverts me. The day I’ve longed for, my wedding day draws near, and soon Ianthe will be mine, but not belong to me. I’ll die of thirst with water all around.

What we have here is a conflict between an in-story and out-story explanation. Within the story, Iphis simply has a failure of imagination as to what two women can do together. She’s been brainwashed into thinking that only pseudo-heterosexual sex counts. But from the authorial point of view, something more insidious is going on. Because Ovid is quite aware of the possibilities for sex between women. Bawdy humor about women’s same-sex escapades was commonplace in Imperial Rome. Ovid’s own Heroides included reference to Sappho’s sexual history with women, though he depicts her as considering that past shameful now that she has Phaon the ferry-man to desire. For Ovid, the problem isn’t imagining what two women might get up to in bed, it’s considering that compatible with Iphis as a positive heroic figure.

One of the archetypes in classical Roman understanding of sexuality was of the tribade--the “masculine” woman who takes an active role in sex. This didn’t necessarily involve penetration, but could simply involve taking the lead and the upper position in rubbing vulvas together, the activity to which the tribade gave her name. The male-dominated records that have come down to us are deeply rooted in a hierarchical, asymmetric understanding of sexual activity. There must be an active and a passive partner, and those roles were gendered. But women were expected by nature to take the passive role in sex, so a woman who accepted the sexual attentions of another women was not necessarily considered abnormal in the same way that the active partner was. The woman in the active role was considered abnormal, not because the object of her desire was a woman, but because she was usurping the role of a man.

Thus, for Iphis to act on her desire--to take the role of a tribade--moves her out of the category of “normal” admirable women and into the category of “abnormal” sexually-aggressive women. In general, Ovid metes out punishments to female sexual aggressors in the Metamorphoses. In this context, Iphis's failure or refusal to act on her desire appears to be what makes her a virtuous character. Her desire for a woman is tragic, but not directly condemned, only because she doesn’t claim the male prerogative of acting on it.

So what is she to do? The wedding day is approaching. Iphis really really wants to marry the woman she loves, but doesn’t see how it’s going to work out. And what about Ianthe? Well, Ianthe believes herself to be betrothed to the man that she loves and feels no conflict about it. Iphis’s mother, Telethusa, is the only other person who knows the shit is about to hit the fan. But Io promised her that everything would be ok, right? So she goes to the temple and prays to the goddess, this time under the name of Isis, and demands:

“[I did] all that you commanded. My daughter is alive now, and I have not been punished. We have you to thank. The gift of your advice. Take pity on us both. Help us!”

The goddess gives her a sign that all will be well and Telethusa leaves the temple with Iphis:

Whose stride is longer now, her complexion is less delicate, her expression sharper, her strength has increased, her tousled hair is shorter, and she has more stamina than usual for a female. The reason, Iphis, is that until this very moment you were a female, and now you’re a boy.

Voila! Everything’s ok. Now the marriage is celebrated.

For a relatively short and tidy story, it has a lot of ambiguity and complexity. In contrast to the Roman stereotype of the tribade as a “masculine” woman, Iphis and Ianthe are described in the language of similarity: equal in age, in beauty, in education, and in the love they feel for each other. Iphis is described as having a non-gender-specific beauty. And as we see in the metamorphosis, both Iphis’s physical traits and her behavioral ones are changed from what they were before. The description is not unproblematically a case of simply aligning the physiological self to the inner gender identity.

Despite the cross-gender presentation motif, Iphis and Ianthe fit more with the model that Valerie Traub calls “femme-femme love” in which similarity is seen as the driving force behind women’s love for each other. In their pre-metamorphosis state, there is no active-passive contrast, no distinction of masculine and feminine presentation except in the most superficial terms.

Iphis is understood socially to be a boy, but simply by parental fiat--not based on appearance or personality or physical prowess or even based on a gendered name. We see this in the post-transformation description. Now her stride is longer, now her complexion is less delicate, now she is stronger and has more stamina, and--curiously--now her hair is shorter. Implying that she had long feminine hair before the transformation and yet this was not taken by anyone as a gendered attribute. In fact, the pre-transformation Iphis provides conflicting arguments about gender essentialism. Nothing about the pre-transformation Iphis was read as being feminine, otherwise the deception couldn’t have been successful. Contrarily, the proof of the sexual transformation is presented as being a shift in gendered attributes.

Iphis is raised as a boy due to her mother’s choice, not her own. And in her internal conflict over the marriage, her anxiety is over identifying as a girl and believing that this makes her love for Ianthe unnatural. If Iphis identified as a boy--leaving aside the question of whether this is a concept that Ovid could have envisioned--that problem wouldn’t exist. In the moment when Iphis raises the possibility of sexual metamorphosis as a solution, she doesn’t fixate specifically on transforming her, but only that one of them must change.

Let Daedalus himself come flying back to Crete on wings of wax, what will he do for me, with all his brains and skill? Turn me into a boy? Or will he change you, Ianthe?

This open-ended option is emphasized even more strongly in a Renaissance adaptation of the tale, which leaves the question entirely unsettled as to which of the girls has been changed after the curtain closes. The metamorphosis is not to align internal gender and external sexual identities, even despite the prior gender-disguise motif.

And yet if the ways in which Iphis is described makes it difficult to read the story whole-heartedly as a transgender one, there are also significant problems in reading the story whole-heartedly as a lesbian one. Despite the obvious evidence that Iphis is in love with Ianthe, both her internal dialogue and the author’s framing represent love between women as impossible. Or at least untenable. Metamorphosis is imposed on them to dodge the possibility of an egalitarian, mutual, non-phallocentric love between two women. Not because it was impossible, but because it was unacceptable. One cannot look at the conclusion to Iphis and Ianthe and say, “Here is a female couple with a happily ever after ending.” Because they are only allowed to have that happy ending once they are a heterosexual couple.

This cultural imposition of heterosexuality is an underlayer for the entire Western history of “female husbands.” We cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a lesbian because the shape of their lives is identical to what we’d expect for a heterosexual trans man. And yet we cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a trans man because we see, time and again with cyclic regularity, the rise of cultural scripts that define women who love women as “actually being men.” This is a conflict that continues to play out today, even in the face of the deciding principle that your identity is what you understand it to be. History is less susceptible of that subjective truth whether analyzing the lives and identities of actual persons, or even more so when interpreting fictional characters in the past where the author’s motives and limitations play as much of a part as the lives they present on the page.

One curious side-note to the sexual-metamorphosis motif is that such a transformation--though only from female to male--was considered to be a known phenomenon in classical Roman times and on through the middle ages. Such transformations are described in histories, travelers’ tales, and other anecdotes. The philosopher Pliny claimed that some animals could change sex, even repeatedly.

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Transmission and Translation

I mentioned a Renaissance adaptation, but let’s step back and look at the full history of how the tale of Iphis and Ianthe was transmitted across the ages. We have no copies of the work from anywhere near its time of composition at the very beginning of the 1st century CE. In general, all texts of this era come down to us only because they were copied and re-copied continually over the ages. We have a few fragmentary parts of the Metamorphoses dating to the 9th and 10th centuries, and then more complete versions from copies made in the 11th century and later, but it was an extremely popular text by the middle ages, with hundreds of copies in circulation.

Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1390)

In the middle ages, there were French adaptations of the Metamorphoses that I’ll discuss a bit later. Versions of the stories began appearing in Middle English in the later 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed some of them to use in his Canterbury Tales, though Iphis and Ianthe was not one of those.

John Gower included a number of older romantic tales in his work Confessio Amantis “a lover’s confession,” written around 1390. It has a framing story in which an aging lover gives his confession to the chaplain of Venus, the goddess of love--an interesting mix of Christian and pagan motifs! The tales in the confession are organized in groups by the seven mortal sins, with Iphis and Ianthe placed under “sloth”--not as an example of sloth, but as an example of what the hard-working lover can achieve.

Gower’s interpretation is ambivalent about sex between women rather than being entirely negative. He alludes (possibly) to sexual activity between the two young women, in contrast to other versions, which treat such a thing as impossible. Gower’s version is relatively short, so I’ll include it in its entirety. I’ve edited some of the vocabulary to make it understandable to modern ears, but the original version is in the transcript.

[The Original Text]

The king Ligdus upon a strif
Spak unto Thelacuse his wif,
Which thanne was with childe grete;
He swor it scholde noght be lete [i.e., should not be prevented]
That if sche have a dowhter bore
That it ne scholde be forlore [i.e., it nothing should be but destroyed]
And slain, wherof sche sory was.
So it befell upon this cas,
Whan sche delivered scholde be,
Isis be nyhte in priveté,
Which of childinge is the goddesse,  [child-bearing]
Cam for to helpe in that destresse,
Til that this lady was al smal,
And hadde a dowhter forthwithal;
Which the goddesse in alle weie
Bad kepe, and that thei scholden seie [bade keep]
It were a sone: and thus Iphis
Thei namede him, and upon this 
The fader was mad so to wene. [ween = understand]
And thus in chambre with the qweene
This Iphis was forthdrawe tho, [taken away then]
And clothed and arraied so
Riht as a kinges sone scholde.
Til after, as fortune it wolde,
Whan it was of a ten yer age,
Him was betake in mariage [to him was delivered in marriage]
A duckes dowhter for to wedde, [duke’s]
Which Iante hihte, and ofte abedde [in bed]
These children leien, sche and sche,
Which of on age bothe be.
So that withinne time of yeeres,
Togedre as thei ben pleiefieres, [playmates, playfellows]
Liggende abedde upon a nyht,
Nature, which doth every wiht
Upon hire lawe for to muse,
Constreigneth hem, so that thei use
Thing which to hem was al unknowe;
Wherof Cupide thilke throwe
Tok pité for the grete love,
And let do sette kinde above, [and caused [love] to be set above nature]
So that hir lawe mai ben used,
And thei upon here lust excused.
For love hateth nothing more
Than thing which stant agein the lore [teaching]
Of that nature in kinde hath sett. [what nature, naturally has set]
Forthi Cupide hath so besett
His grace upon this aventure,
That he acordant to nature,
Whan that he syh the time best,
That ech of hem hath other kest, [kissed]
Transformeth Iphe into a man,
Wherof the kinde love he wan [whereof the natural love he ?felt?]
Of lusti yonge Iante his wif;
And tho thei ladde a merie lif, [led a merry life]
Which was to kinde non offence. [to nature]

[The Confessor]

   And thus to take an evidence,
It semeth love is welwillende [well-willing, benevolent]
To hem that ben continuende
With besy herte to poursuie
Thing which that is to love due.
Wherof, my sone, in this matiere
Thou miht ensample taken hiere,
That with thi grete besinesse [busy-ness, diligence]
Thou mihte atteigne the richesse
Of love, if that ther be no Slowthe."

[Made somewhat more readable by me]

The king Ligdus upon a strife
Spoke unto Thelacuse his wife,
Which then was with child great;
He swore it should not be let
That if she have a daughter born
That it should be forlorn
And slain, whereof she sorry was.
So it befell upon this cause,
When she deliveréd should be,
Isis be nigh in privacy,
Which of child-bearing is the goddess,
Came for to help in that distress,
Til that this lady was all small,
And had a daughter forth-withall;
Which the goddess in all way
Bade her keep, and that they should say
It were a son: and thus Iphis
They naméd him, and upon this 
The father was made to believe
And thus in chamber with the queen
This Iphis was taken though,
And clothéd and arrayéd so
Right as a king’s son should.
Til after, as fortune it would,
When it was of a ten year age,
Him was betake in marriage
A duke’s daughter for to wed,
Which Iante hight, and oft a-bed
These children lie, she and she,
Which of one age both be.
So that within time of years,
Together as they be play-fellows,
Lying a-bed upon a night,
Nature, which causes every wight
Upon her law for to muse,
Constrains them, so that they use
A thing which to them was all unknown;
Whereof Cupid, arrows thrown
Took pity for their great love,
And set that over nature above,
So that nature’s law be used,
And they upon their lust excused.
For love hates nothing more
Than a thing which stands against the lore
Of what nature naturally has set.
For Cupid has so be-set
His grace upon this adventure,
That he according to nature,
When that he sees the time best,
That each of them hath the other kissed,
Transforms Iphis into a man,
Whereof the type of love he can
Of lusty young Iante his wife;
And then they led a merry life,
Which was to nature no offence.

[The Confessor]

And thus to take an evidence,
It seems love is well-willing
To them that be continuing
With busy heart to pursue
A thing which that is to love due.
Whereof, my son, in this matter
Thou might ensample taken here,
That with thy great business
Thou might attain the riches
Of love, if that there be no Sloth."

It isn’t entirely clear what the “thing” is that Iphis and Ianthe use in bed together--“a thing which to them was all unknown”--whether this is an oblique reference to using the genitals in a way that was against nature, or whether an object is meant. But this version of the story at least implies the possibility of sexual activity--and the certainty of a kiss--between the women prior to the metamorphosis. In Gower’s version it’s implied that the love between the two carries such weight that Cupid rewards them with the ability to “lead a merry life” together. Whereas Ovid’s original frames the metamorphosis as an escape from the social consequences of having Iphis’s female state discovered. Cupid is, perhaps, a better author of this ending than the less familiar Isis would have been.

Caxton’s The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose (1480)

But the pagan content of the story must have made some uneasy, for by the early 14th century, a French adaptation was composed known as Ovid Moralisée or “Ovid, Moralized,” which adapted the stories to create Christian moral lessons, with Ovid converted into a sort of proto-Christian philosopher. Many of the stories were drastically changed in the process.

William Caxton, of printing press fame, produced a translation of the French Ovid Moralisée in 1480. By the time we get to Caxton’s version, a number of details of the story have changed. The father, Ligdus, is no longer too poor to afford a daughter, instead he’s rich and merely murderously misogynistic, claiming, A woman is withoute strength & valoyr. By women many ther be put to gret shame & sorrow. When Telethusa appeals to the goddess Isis, the goddess doesn’t simply assure her all will be well, but specifically instructs Telethusa to deceive her husband. Deceit is much more to the forefront in this version, because Caxton’s text claims that the name Iphis could only be a male name, where Ovid had claimed it as non-gender-specific and thus as appropriate for a daughter as a son.

This doughter was named Yphis after the name of her grantfader and therby he wende the more certaynly that it hade be a son. The moder enioyed her & moch it plesed her that she was so named, for suche a name apperteyneth to a man & not to a woman, and so myght by hys name he be apperceyued withoute sayenge the trouth.

Thus Caxton introduces the common trope of transgender status as inherently deceptive. Also in contrast to Ovid’s version, Caxton’s language attributes masculinity to Iphis before the physical transformation. Ovid emphasizes a “similarity” model of attractiveness and attraction, describing characteristics that are not implied to be inherently gendered. Caxton also emphasizes the similarity motif, describing Iphis as having “such a vysage that who sawe her myght indefferently saye ‘it is a sone or a doughter’.”

But where Ovid uses feminine pronouns for Iphis (until the metamorphosis), Caxton, similarly to other medieval texts, alternates gendered reference by context, not only before the metamorphosis but even before Ianthe is introduced. myght by hys name he be aperceyued ... Yphis had th’abyte of a man chylde whych becam hym moche wel. And also she had such a vysage that who sawe her...

That is, Caxton’s Iphis is male in some essential way, just not quite male enough to marry a woman. This inherent masculinity is implied to be the basis for Iphis’s desire for Ianthe, but is not sufficient to enable consummation. Iphis laments that she is not worthy of Ianthe’s love.

she was moch descomforted, which supposed neuer to haue mow enioye her, ne acowple to her. ... A shep female desyreth the masle & engendre togeder, and a kowe assembleth her to a bulle. Euery femele by ryght requyreth his masle. Ther is no femele that desireth to acowple her to another femele. And I, a femele, requyre as masle agaynst raison. I had leuer not to be born than to haue so folisshe hope.

Like in Ovid, after recalling how the inventor Daedalus created a device to enable Pasiphaë’s foolish love for the bull, Iphis raises the idea of a sex change either for her or for Ianthe, but only to deny its possibility.

for I may not become a masle, ne she nether that abydeth for me.

Ovid’s text is somewhat coy in identifying exactly what aspect of marriage Iphis is incapable of fulfilling, but Caxton is somewhat more direct.

For I may goo, come, speke, embrace & kysse her as my love whan it pleseth me, and ther is nothynge that may destrowble me. ...[the goddes] gyue to me a grete parte of my desyre. ... But what shal avaylle me this joye? In the myddes of the water we shal deye for thurst, for I may not doo with her as a man ought to do with his wyf.

Once more, Caxton’s text attributes masculine identity to Iphis. To desire a woman is to desire “as a male.”

Iphis’s mother delays the wedding as long as possible but then takes her to the temple of Isis to throw themselves on the goddess’s mercy. The goddess appears in a vision, the temple shakes as a portent (or maybe just an earthquake, this is Crete after all), and Iphis emerges from the temple:

a greter paas than she was wonte to doo and had lasse white in her vysage than she had before. And her heere were shorter & harder and she was more vygorous & stronger than she had ben to fore, ne than woman myght be by nature. She had changed al her femenyne nature in to masculyne.

But here Caxton’s anticipatory gender assignment is missing. At the very point when Iphis has been physically transformed into a male, the language is entirely feminine. What is the moral? Well, in the moralized Ovid, we aren’t left wondering on that point, for Caxton lays it out in an afterword, suggesting that the story might have been inspired by a cross-dressing woman who married another woman. But in contrast to the rather innocent romantic angst of Ovid’s Iphis, the “moralized Iphis” is depicted as being driven by lechery, aided by an “old and evil bawd” who helped her obtain an artificial penis to deceive her wife.

It may wel be that in ancyent tyme was a woman that ware the habyte of a man whych semed a man. And they that saw her had supposed wel that she so had be. And the moder made the peple also to byleue it. And it myght hapen that som fair mayde sawe her, fair, gente & plaisant in th’abyte of a man, & byleued that she was a man & desired to haue her in maryage. And she, whych was folyssh & nyce, fyanced & espoused her, how wel she hade not th’ynstruments of nature, but, ayenst the right of her, desyred to complaire her lecherye in her, how be it that she had such empesshement as afore is sayd. The whych wyf & very love knewe it not. So moche complayned she that the folysshe loue tempted her that by th’arte & crafte of an old & euyl bawde achievyd her fowl desyre by a membre apostate & deceyued this wif, whiche by lawe of mariage ought not to haue her. And whan she apperceyuyd it, she hydd it no, but shewd & told it, wherof she had euer aftir all her lyf shame & vylonye & was sore blamed, and that other fledd & absented her fro the contrey. Now ther be none that haue to doo with suche werke, for it is overmoch vylanous and domageable.

The whole framing is converted into excessive lust, deception, and dildos. In contrast to Ovid’s acceptance--whether genuine or not--of physical transformation and a heterosexual resolution to the romance, the moralized version does not admit of the possibility of genuine metamorphosis and focuses on the mechanisms of sexual activity rather than the motivations of erotic love. The French versified version of the moralized Ovid places this obsession with dildos and deceit within the story of Iphis itself, rather than being offered as an ex post facto suggestion of the story’s origins. Note that some scholars interpret this final section as depicting the fate of Iphis and Ianthe themselves, rather than a parallel story.

Renaissance Translations

In the mid 16th century, Arthur Golding returned to the original Latin text and produced a verse translation into English that was the version known by influential poets such as Shakespeare and Spenser. There is a rumor that Shakespeare produced a play based on Iphis and Ianthe--which would certainly fit in with his fondness for gender-disguise plays--but this rumor is discounted by most historians.

In contrast to Gower’s abbreviated version, Golding’s retains all the digressions and poetic excursions of Ovid’s original, so it’s a bit long to include in full. I’ve excerpted the portion in which Iphis is discovering and lamenting her love, but the full version is included in the transcript.

[The bolded text is included in the podcast.]

Iphis and Ianthe from Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis translated by Arthur Golding (1567)

More neerer home by Iphys meanes transformed late before.
For in the shyre of
 Phestos hard by Gnossus dwelt of yore
A yeoman of the meaner sort that
 Lyctus had to name.
His stocke was simple, and his welth according to the same.
Howbee't his lyfe so upryght was, as no man could it blame.
He came unto his wyfe then big and ready downe to lye,
And sayd: Two things I wish thee. T'one, that when thou out shalt crye,
Thou mayst dispatch with little payne: the other that thou have
A Boay. For Gyrles to bring them up a greater cost doo crave.
And I have no abilitie. And therefore if thou bring
A wench (it goes ageinst my heart to thinke uppon the thing)
Although ageinst my will, I charge it streyght destroyed bee.
The bond of nature needes must beare in this behalf with mee
This sed, both wept exceedingly, as well the husband who
Did give commaundement, as the wyfe that was commaunded too.
 Telethusa earnestly at Lyct her husband lay,
(Although in vayne) to have good hope, and of himselfe more stay.
But he was full determined. Within a whyle, the day
Approched that the frute was rype, and shee did looke to lay
Her belly every mynute: when at midnyght in her rest
Stood by her (or did seeme to stand) the Goddesse
 Isis, drest
And trayned with the solemne pomp of all her rytes. Two homes

Uppon her forehead lyke the moone, with eares of rypened comes
Stood glistring as the burnisht gold. Moreover shee did weare
A rich and stately diademe. Attendant on her were
The barking bug Anubis, and the saint of Bubast, and
The pydecote Apis, and the God that gives to understand
By fingar holden to his lippes that men should silence keepe,
And Lybian wormes whose strnging dooth enforce continuall sleepe,
And thou, Osyris, whom the folk of Aegypt ever seeke,
And never can have sought inough, and Rittlerattles eke.
Then even as though that Telethuse had fully beene awake,
And seene theis things with open eyes, thus Isis to her spake:
My servant Telethusa, cease this care, and breake the charge
Of Lyct. And when Lucina shall have let thy frute at large,
Bring up the same what ere it bee. I am a Goddesse who
Delyghts in helping folke at neede. I hither come to doo
Thee good. Thou shalt not have a cause hereafter to complayne
Of serving of a Goddesse that is thanklesse for thy payne.
When Isis had this comfort given, shee went her way agayne.
A joyfull wyght rose Telethuse, and lifting to the sky
Her hardened hands, did pray hir dreame myght woorke effectually.
Her throwes increast, and forth alone anon the burthen came,
A wench was borne to Lyctus who knew nothing of the same.
The mother making him beleeve it was a boay, did bring
It up, and none but shee and nurce were privie to the thing.
The father thanking God did give the chyld the Graundsyres name,
The which was Iphys. Joyfull was the moother of the same,
Bycause the name did serve alike to man and woman bothe,
And so the lye through godly guile forth unperceyved gothe.
The garments of it were a boayes. The face of it was such
As eyther in a boay or gyrle of beawtie uttered much.

When Iphys was of thirteene yeeres, her father did insure
The browne Ianthee unto her, a wench of looke demure,
Commended for her favor and her person more than all
The Maydes of Phestos: Telest, men her fathers name did call.
He dwelt in Dyctis. They were bothe of age and favor leeke,
And under both one schoolemayster they did for nurture seeke.
And hereupon the hartes of both, the dart of Love did streeke,

And wounded both of them aleeke. But unlike was theyr hope.
Both longed for the wedding day togither for to cope.
For whom Ianthee thinkes to bee a man, shee hopes to see
Her husband. Iphys loves whereof shee thinkes shee may not bee
Partaker, and the selfesame thing augmenteth still her flame.
Herself a Mayden with a Mayd (ryght straunge) in love became.
Shee scarce could stay her teares. What end remaynes for mee (quoth shee)
How straunge a love? how uncoth? how prodigious reygnes in mee?
If that the Gods did favor mee, they should destroy mee quyght.
Of if they would not mee destroy, at least wyse yit they myght
Have given mee such a maladie as myght with nature stond,
Or nature were acquainted with. A Cow is never fond
Uppon a Cow, nor Mare on Mare. The Ram delyghts the Eawe,
The Stag the Hynde, the Cocke the Hen. But never men could shew,
That female yit was tane in love with female kynd. O would
To God I never had beene borne. Yit least that Candy should
Not bring foorth all that monstruous were, the daughter of the Sonne
Did love a Bull. Howbee't there was a Male to dote uppon.
My love is furiouser than hers, if truthe confessed bee.
For shee was fond of such a lust as myght bee compast. Shee
Was served by a Bull beguyld by Art in Cow of tree.
And one there was for her with whom advowtrie to commit.
If all the conning in the worlde and slyghts of suttle wit
Were heere, or if that Daedalus himselfe with uncowth wing
Of Wax should hither fly againe, what comfort should he bring?
Could he with all his conning crafts now make a boay of mee?
Or could he, O Ianthee, chaunge the native shape of thee?
Nay rather, Iphys, settle thou thy mynd and call thy witts
Abowt thee: shake thou off theis flames that foolishly by fitts
Without all reason reigne. Thou seest what Nature hathe thee made
(Onlesse thow wilt deceyve thy selfe.) So farre foorth wysely wade,
As ryght and reason may support, and love as women ought.
Hope is the thing that breedes desyre, hope feedes the amorous thought.
This hope thy sex denieth thee. Not watching doth restreyne
Thee from embracing of the thing wherof thou art so fayne.
Nor yit the Husbands jealowsie, nor rowghnesse of her Syre,
Nor yit the coynesse of the Wench dooth hinder thy desyre.

And yit thou canst not her enjoy. No, though that God and man
Should labor to their uttermost and doo the best they can
In thy behalfe, they could not make a happy wyght of thee.
I cannot wish the thing but that I have it. Frank and free
The Goddes have given mee what they could. As I will, so will bee
That must become my fathrinlaw. So willes my father, too.
But nature stronger than them all consenteth not thereto.
This hindreth mee, and nothing else. Behold the blisfull tyme,
The day of Mariage is at hand. Ianthee shalbee myne,
And yit I shall not her enjoy. Amid the water wee
Shall thirst. O Juno, president of mariage, why with thee
Comes Hymen to this wedding where no brydegroome you shall see,
But bothe are Brydes that must that day togither coupled bee?

This spoken, shee did hold hir peace. And now the tother mayd
Did burne as hote in love as shee. And earnestly shee prayd
The brydale day myght come with speede. The thing for which shee longd
Dame Telethusa fearing sore, from day to day prolongd
The tyme, oft feyning siknesse, oft pretending shee had seene
Ill tokens of successe. At length all shifts consumed beene.
The wedding day so oft delayd was now at hand. The day
Before it, taking from her head the kercheef quyght away,
And from her daughters head likewyse, with scattred heare she layd
Her handes upon the Altar, and with humble voyce thus prayd:
O Isis, who doost haunt the towne of Paretonie, and
The feeldes by Maraeotis lake, and Pharos which dooth stand
By Alexandria, and the Nyle divided into seven
Great channels, comfort thou my feare, and send mee help from heaven,
Thyself, O Goddesse, even thyself, and theis thy relikes I
Did once behold and knew them all: as well thy company
As eke thy sounding rattles, and thy cressets burning by,
And myndfully I marked what commaundement thou didst give.
That I escape unpunished, that this same wench dooth live,
Thy counsell and thy hest it is. Have mercy now on twayne,
And help us. With that word the teares ran downe her cheekes amayne.
The Goddesse seemed for to move her Altar: and in deede
She moved it. The temple doores did tremble like a reede.
And homes in likenesse to the Moone about the Church did shyne.
And Rattles made a raughtish noyse. At this same luckie signe,
Although not wholy carelesse, yit ryght glad shee went away.
And Iphys followed after her with larger pace than ay
Shee was accustomd. And her face continued not so whyght.
Her strength encreased, and her looke more sharper was to syght.
Her heare grew shorter, and shee had a much more lively spryght,
Than when shee was a wench. For thou, O 
Iphys, who ryght now
A modther wert, art now a boay. With offrings both of yow
To Church retyre, and there rejoyce with fayth unfearfull. They
With offrings went to Church ageine, and there theyr vowes did pay.
They also set a table up, which this breef meeter had:
The vowes that Iphys vowd a wench he hath performd a Lad.
Next morrow over all the world did shine with lightsome flame,
 Iuno, and Dame Venus, and Sir Hymen joyntly came
 Iphys mariage, who as then transformed to a boay
Did take Ianthee to his wyfe, and so her love enjoy.

In the 1620s, Henry Bellamy wrote a play “Iphis and Ianthe” in Latin, diverging from Ovid’s plot in places, largely by introducing several new characters including a suitor competing for Ianthe’s affections. Like Ovid, Bellamy suggests that Iphis and Ianthe are similar enough to be twins--similar enough that Ianthe’s other suitor is expected to be able to transfer his love to Iphis on being told her true sex. Iphis’s virtues are depicted in female-coded terms and the attraction of like to like is presented as natural and praiseworthy.

Other verse translations appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there’s no need to elaborate on them except to note that the continued popularity of the work meant that the component stories were kept current in popular culture.

Other Adaptations

That currency appears in passing allusions and quotations in other works. When the (presumably female) poet of the 1586 Maitland manuscript poem expresses her desire for her female beloved, comparing the two of them to passionate pairs of same-sex friends and lovers throughout history, she concludes by suggesting that Jove (well-known for bodily transformations) by “metamorphosing our shape--my sex into his will convert” such that the poet might marry her beloved. Both the bodily transformation to enable marriage and the use of the word “metamorphose” call to mind the tale of Iphis.

More solidly, the story of Iphis and Ianthe was used as a basis for other popular works. This includes the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, which--among other motifs--borrows the impending marriage between a cross-dressed woman and a female-presenting one as the context for anxiety about the possibility of love--and sex--between women. Yde chooses her masculine disguise rather than having it imposed on her from birth, but the purpose is similarly safety from a threatening father. It isn’t clear that Yde falls in love with Olive--we aren’t given the same window into her interior emotional life. But unlike Ianthe, Olive renews her expressions of love and faithfulness after learning Yde’s femaleness in their marriage bed. Like Iphis, Yde is magically transformed into a man to save her life when her sex is about to be revealed to the world.

On a lighter note, John Lyly’s romantic comedy Galathea, sets up a mirror to the Iphis character and has both heroines pressured into cross-dressing for reasons to do with their fathers (though in this case with the father’s knowledge). While in disguise, each falls in love with the other, each initially thinking that her love is safely heterosexual (despite the superficial appearance of male-male love), but both quickly suspecting the other’s disguise. Yet their love for each other survives this realization.

Gallathea proclaims, “I will never love any but Phyllida, her love is engraved in my heart, with her eyes.

Which Phyllida echoes with, “Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.”

The god Neptune mocks them and asks Venus, goddess of love what she thinks of such a foolish choice.

Venus responds, “I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and faith. Is your love unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to be altered until death?”

The two young women reply in the affirmative and Venus promises, “Then shall it be seen, that I can turn one of them to be a man, and that I will. What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?”

Their fathers squabble a while over which of their daughters must be turned to a boy until Venus puts her foot down. “Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?”

As alluded to more faintly in Ovid’s text, Gallathea undermines a purely transgender reading of the story by emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the choice. One of the lovers is to be transformed to a man, not because of an underlying male identity, but in order to dodge a resolution in which two women are allowed a romantic and sexual union. But the obligatory transformation in both stories undermines a purely lesbian reading as well.

Iphis’s lament includes the claim that she was, “Victim of [a] new, bizarre, unheard-of spell of Venus.” That “No female ever desires another female.” And yet the continuing popularity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the last two millennia allowed Iphis to be a beacon to women who might otherwise have felt similarly. Iphis provided literary proof that women could desire other women. That they did. Iphis and Ianthe provided a context for women who loved women to recognize what they felt and to place it in a  long--if not always happy--tradition. To know that they weren’t alone in feeling what they did. When I wanted to give my characters in Daughter of Mystery a wake-up call to contemplate their dawning love, I invented an operatic performance of Iphis and Ianthe for them to watch together. I couldn’t find any actual operatic versions of the story in the 19th century, but it’s quite in keeping with the long tradition of reworking the story. And maybe it should exist.


The full text of Gower’s Confessio Amantis can be found at the website of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series

The full text of Golding’s 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses is available from Wikisource

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Metamorphoses: Iphis and Ianthe (Ovid)

Major category: 
Daughter of Mystery
Monday, January 20, 2020 - 07:00
Full citation: 

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8

This is not a book of facts and analysis. It is a book of assertions, stated boldly with documentation only as an afterthought. Foucault talks about the pursuit of “truth” about sex while employing no definable methodology that could be challenged or debated. This means that if the data on which he builds his conclusions has gaps, those gaps are impossible to chart. Thus, his conclusions can only be debated by those who have a sufficiently broad and universal knowledge of the field to be certain of their own ground. Whether this is an intentional feature of this genre of text, or simply a convenient byproduct is hard for me to tell. But this is not a book that I would classify as a “history” book in the ordinary sense of the word. Certainly not in terms of history books written in the last quarter of the 20th century. (It strikes me as being far more similar to the sort of thing produced in the 19th century by gentlemen amateurs who considered footnotes and references to be beneath their notice.) I had expected to read this work and disagree with facts and conclusions, but instead I’m mostly frustrated with the respect given to a work that comes across to me as smugly self-satisfied. [Note: after reading the other two volumes, I would soften this somewhat, but for reading the first volume in isolation, my reaction stands.]

Part I - We “Other Victorians”

Foucault begins by setting up the strawman he intends to tear down. The current age, he asserts, involves two centuries of “Victorian prudery”, contrasting with the free and open sexual discourse that held until the early 17th century. That discourse has now shifted to the privacy of the home and a focus on reproduction. But this idealized state of privacy and prudery was created by denial, avoidance, and repression, with the only sexual safety valves found in the prostitution industry and mental illness, which carefully removed such anti-social activities from public view. (By this, he means that "alternative sexualities" were classified as psychological aberrations, not that people found sexual release by going crazy.) Freud, he allows, offered a small reprieve of honesty from this general represion.

With the beginning of this culture of repression assigned to the 17th century, it is natural to align it with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois dominance of society. Surely repressive Victorian sex culture arose to constrain “non-productive” sex, seeing sexual activity as only one more capitalist enterprise where productivity was the only good?

[Note: as I was reading this, I found it impossible to tell if he was sincere, or engaging in an elaborate set-up. The latter, as it turns out.]

If sex must be repressed, then to speak of it is to be a rebel. Sexual discourse aligns one with prophecy and preaching, calling for a coming better world of pleasure. But this provides an incentive for sex talk to uphold the image of repression in order to make heroes and visionaries of those who engage in it. Then the question becomes not “why are we repressed?” but “why do we insist so vehemently that we are repressed?”

Foucault then turns around and raises several points to ask if they can be demonstrated. 1) Is sexual repression an established historic fact? And does it begin in the 17th century? 2) Have the powers that be acted primarily and consistently to repress sex? 3) Is anti-repressive discourse a counter to, or part of the same system as, repressive discourse?

In addressing these questions, Foucault plans to situate repression as only part of a continuous system of sex-discourse in modern society. Who talks about sex? Which side they are on? What point of view do they have in society and what institutions support them? What forms of power are implicated in sexual discourse?

Part II - The Repressive Hypothesis

Power over sex discourse is exercised by controlling language--how and when it is talked about. But when you look at the record, rather than a decrease in discussions of sex, there is an explosion. This might include a shift in “authorized” vocabulary and shifts in authorized contexts for sexual discourse. But the sheer volume shows a significant increase in the last three centuries.

For example, penitential manuals shifted from eliciting many specific details about sexual sins (exactly what actions and body parts were involved), to recommending that vague language be used, while at the same time the scope of life activities that were subject to scrutiny for sexual implications vastly increased. All thoughts and actions were to be examined for sexual significance.

This focus on expanding detail is not limited to confession, but can be seen reflected in pornography. This compulsion to dissect sex in detail permeated political, social, and technical discourse. Sex-related texts regularly called attention to the “disgust and ridicule” their subjects were expected to generate, supporting the framing of sex-talk as transgressive.

Sexual discourse must be managed and administered. It must be “policed” both literally and figuratively. People as individuals became a “population”--a resource to be managed, and one inextricably tied to sex.

The sexualization of ever-expanding facets of life can also be seen in ideas about the sexuality of children and the function of sexual discourse between children and adults. The official silence and reticence in this context masked the purpose of control. The sexuality of adolescent boys, in particular, became an obsession among medical and educational professionals. There was an expansion of medical and psychological concern, with ever more behaviors being considered “disordered” sexually.

If this increase in sexual discourse were simply quantitative, it might not be significant. But there was also an expantion of the negative discussion of non-reproductive sexual behaviors and obsession over how to control and suppress them. Foucault says he’s not sure if the primary goal can be demonstrated to be population growth/reproduction. Rather than reducing the catalog of sexualities, it has expanded in order to codify the activities labeled as perversions. Earlier discourse tended to identify only two categories of sexual activity: licit and illicit. Interest in cataloging and identifying illicit forms of sex focused primarily on sex within marriage--to distinguish the times, conditions, and circumstances that defined licit sex. Non-marital sex, though illicit, was not explored and cataloged in detail. Prohibitions on illicit sex were legal in nature, not moral. [Note: I don't think this last statement holds water, when you examine the medieval history of the discourse around sodomy. It may have been subject to legal penalties, but the objections were moral.]

From this, the sexual discourse in the 18-19th century shifted in two ways. Normative sex (i.e., m/f marital sex for the purpose of procreation) was less discussed and was taken for granted. It was other types of sexualities that formed the expansion of discourse. At the same time, libertine excesses of m/f sex were distinguished from this new catalog of “perversions.”

If variant sexualities could not be opressed legally, they were medicalized. In theory, legal consequences diminished, but in practical terms, the increased scope of interest and control more than balanced out the severity of effect. Non-reproductive sex was medicalized as “disordered” even within marriage.

What was the purpose in exercising this control over sex? Not the elimination of the acts, but the excuse for their persecution. Deviant sexuality was no longer a set of forbidden acts, but an identifiable set of deviant people.

[Note: This is the essence of the concept Foucault is most often know for: that there was a shift between conceptualizing “deviant” sex as acts, to conceptualizing deviance as adhering to a type of person. In the discussion in which this idea is introduced, we aren’t talking about self-identity or how individuals understood their own actions and nature, but about how behavior was viewed and dealt with by persons and systems of authority.]

The proliferation of medically-named perversions was not for the purpose of eliminating them, but to establish their reality to justify their study and treatment. This power required constant surveillance and proximity to the potential deviants. Power over sexuality became its own reward and justification--a type of perversion itself. Rather than restricting sexuality to the licit conjugal act, now the entirety of life was filled with potentially sexualized acts, thoughts, and experiences.

[Note: Foucault regularly uses the word “perversion” in a way that is ambiguous with regard to his position. Is this a scare-quotes “perversion” meant to signal the point of view of the people studying and defining it? Or is Foucault asserting that there is an objective concept of “perversion” to which acts/thoughts/experiences can belong?]

Foucault’s conclusion is that the modern age has not been an age of increased sexual repression. Rather it has seen a vast expansion of interest and concern about sex that invested all aspects of life and society with sexuality, in order to justify the intrusive study, categorization, and control of any sexualized aspect of life, creating “perverse” power dynamics within the very structures claiming to oppose perversion.

Part III - Scientia Sexualis

Granting the proliferation of sexual discourse, was its purpose to conceal sex behind a screen of avoidance talk? Foucault takes us on a tour through the field of sexology , which created a “pornography of the morbid,” riddled with established delusions, systemic blindness, and disinterest in “truth.” The work of the sexologists was filtered through deliberate omission and distortion of their observations to avoid tackling explicit truths about sexual experiences. [Note: Foucault credits Freud with introducing “truth and rationality,” which is a laugh considering what has come out about Freud’s deliberate omissions and distortions to deflect the truth of actual female sexual trauma into imagined fantasies.]

Truth about sex can be produced in two ways. One means is through a cultural “art of pleasure” which derives truth from the experience of pleasure itself, studied for its effects and codified into expert knowledge which can then be imparted to the student. Alternately, truth can be pursued via the “confession” (the Western approach), in which one self-reports one’s experiences to a judging body, which fits them into a framework of meaning. This places meaning into the hands of “professionals” separate from the experience being studied, who claimed the sole ability to identify relevance, causality, and meaning.

Part IV - The Deployment of Sexuality

This section contains a discussion of the relationship of power and sex and the mechanics of the techniques that power employs. [I skip over a lot in this section.]

Foucault identifies four major strategic threads in the use of power over sexual discourse:

  • 1. “Hysterization” of women’s bodies, that is, identifying women as essentially and fundamentally sexual beings, and pathologically sexual ones at that.
  • 2. The “pedagogization” of children’s sexuality, that is, putting sexual exploration and experience by children under the surveillance and direction of adults.
  • 3. Socialization of procreative behavior, that is, framing individual procreative choices as being a proper subject of social concern and control.
  • 4. Psychiatrization of perverse pleasure, that is, all pleasure is separated into “normal” and “pathological” with the latter subject to correction.

Foucault reviews a timeline of various significant “ruptures” in the history of sexuality: the 18th century silencing and focusing relative to marital sexuality, and the 20th century opening up and loosening of controls. Between those, the invention of a “science” of sex in the 19th century provided a transition.

Part V - Right of Death and Power Over Life

Here Foucault discusses systems of power that claim rights over lives. The claim to power over sexuality and reproduction relate directly to ideas about rights over people’s lives and deaths.

Misc tags: 
Saturday, January 18, 2020 - 09:00
Cover: Between Boat and Shore

I had no idea what to expect going into this book, and if I’d had expectations they would have been wrong. Based on the cover copy, what you have is a Neolithic murder mystery with intimations of queer romance. But Between Boat and Shore is neither a murder mystery nor a romance in terms of genre. The story opens with both a violent death and the arrival of two traveling strangers in the small community of Otter Village, motifs that would ordinarily suggest a classic whodunnit plot. But this story is much more of a slice-of-life anthropological tale (a la Clan of the Cave Bear but a lot queerer) that follows the community through a year’s cycle of everyday life, exploring a possible past that blends solid archaeological research with imagined cultural details.

Grant’s world-building envisions a diversity of micro-cultures, each interacting and borrowing from each other, or coming into conflict because of local differences. The motif of the “visiting strangers” provides a context for exploring both the setting of the story and the contrast of that diversity without falling into excessive authorial explanation. The larger cultural picture is one in which non-binary gender is an unremarked option and same-sex romance is an accepted, if not always encouraged, alternative.

The writing is solidly competent and avoids the pitfalls of excess info-dumping or making the dialogue stilted and artificial in an attempt to avoid anachronism. It’s hard for me to guess how the story would come across to a reader with less background in the history and material culture of the era. One of the most interesting world-building choices both worked and didn’t entirely work for me. Within the envisioned social micro-cultures, the one Grant developed for Otter Village is expressly based on modern worship and consensus-building practices of the Society of Friends (Quakers), as discussed in the author’s afterword. As a thought experiment in how such practices could work as a system of small-community government in a prehistoric culture, I thought it felt very natural. But as someone who was raised within Quaker culture, my problem was that it was too recognizable and jostled me out of the story a bit until I was able to set my reaction aside. I have no idea whether this aspect would be recognizable to anyone not closely familiar with Quaker culture, but for me it would have worked better with a few more of the serial numbers filed off.

Overall, this was a fascinating, fairly quick read with a satisfying and feel-good conclusion. In terms of genre, it’s very hard to classify and requires discarding genre expectations for the best reader experience.

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Saturday, January 18, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42c - Book Appreciation with Kate Heartfield - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/01/18 - listen here)


Books mentioned

  • A transcript of this podcast is pending.

Links to Kate Heartfield Online

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 14:00
book cover: Once Ghosted

Contemporary romance isn’t usually my thing, but I’m so desperate to get another f/f historical romance out of Alyssa Cole (having loved “That Could Be Enough”) that I decided to triangulate by picking up “Once Ghosted, Twice Shy” for the f/f side, and her Loyal League series for the historical side. I still want more f/f historicals but at least I get more Alyssa Cole.

I really enjoyed this very NYC second-chance story of two equally delightful women whose intended brief fling looked to turn into something more...until it didn’t, and how they negotiated around the lingering hurt to put the pieces back together again. The two protagonists are so vividly real as people and Cole’s voice is masterful--both the narrative voice and the voicing of the two rather different characters. The structure followed the common path of alternating viewpoints, but then took the interesting approach of jumping back and forth between their original meeting and their second-chance get-together. It worked perfectly to let the explanations unfold without resorting to talking heads, while leaving the reader in the same suspense as to what had happened that the “ghosted” character was in.

The story is relatively short (novella length) so just the right bite-size for reading in a single session.

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Monday, January 13, 2020 - 07:00

While proofreading this entry before posting, I found myself thinking about the question of "what are identity categories anyway?" This also comes from the book that I was writing up an entry for last night (which won't post for quite some time), which talked a lot about the difference between "modern sexual identities" versus "pre-modern sexual tastes." Thinking from my own personal experience of "sexual identity," it sometimes feels like even "modern sexual identities" is an invented construct rather than an objective phenomenon. My sexuality category is "lesbian" (also "asexual") but when I contemplate understanding my sexuality as part of an objective, identifiable, widespread cultural "thing" that is a lesbian identity, I either have to conclude that there is no unified "lesbian identity" or I'm not part of it. Similarly, to the extent that there is an objective, identifiable "asexual identity" I also don't feel part of it. Part of my identity is "woman, " but it would be a snare and an illusion to suppose that there is an objective, identifiable cultural experience of "woman" that all women belong to and participate in. And I'm not sure that I feel any more comfortable about assuming that the unease I feel is simply a matter of factoring in the question of intersectional identities. And yet...I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "lesbian" even if I don't identify with some universal unified lesbianhood. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "asexual" even if I don't identify with some universal unified asexuality. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "woman", etc etc.

So does this mean that I'm really a social constructionist? I don't think so. Because I don't think that my experience of those categories is an arbitrary product of a fleeting conjunction of cultures. In fact, I think that my unease with the idea of belonging to "objective, identifiable identity categories" is an unease with the specific social constructions produced by this fleeting moment in time. (I sometimes point out that I identify much more with the sexuality category of "romantic friendship" than I do with the sexuality categories available during my own lifetime.) I experience something--I guess "building blocks of identity" is a good way to put it--that feels apart from the specific conjunctions of features to which gender/sexuality labels are given. But to represent those building blocks as "a matter of individual personal taste" (as the book I was writing up last night would put it) feels trivializing. The distinctions in how I experience romantic and sexual attraction are not the same as my dislike for kale and my love of sushi, even those the latter are both shaped by specific, transitory cultural factors. Would I have always felt a vague, undefinable yearning to eat raw fish if sushi restaurants hadn't been "a thing" within my lifetime? Somehow I don't think so.

At the same time, there are vocal (though minority) voices on the "identitarian" side, both with regard to sexuality and gender, that seem bound and determined to narrow and specify the categories of "lesbian" or "woman" so strictly that we may end with no one qualifying for membership at all, either in the present day or the past. (In some cases, this seems to be an intentional goal.) Human categories are complex and fuzzy. Any time we have tried to eliminate that complexity and fuzziness has ended in tragedy and horror.

These meandering thoghts boil down to a couple of points. 1) Are the social constructionists/anti-identitarians simply wrong-headed in treating contemporary gender/sexual identities as a fixed point to react against? 2) Does it trivialize the inner subjective experience of "identity building blocks" to dismiss them as less meaningful than the complex intersectional structures of those building blocks that we give names to? (This is the topic of my podcast "Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles.") 3) Can one belong to a category that never entirely seems to fit? Anyway, on to the article.

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Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2012. "The History of Lesbian History" in Feminist Studies vol. 38, no. 3 566-596.

This is a survey of the field of lesbian historiography as of 2012. This sort of article is primarily useful to me as a pointer to publications I may not know about, but Vicinus has written a very readable guided tour of the various movements and developments in the field which can help provide a context for the publications themselves. I think anyone trying to navigate the specifics of academic writing on the history of sexuality would benefit from this sort of high-level chronology. It helps remind us that the conclusions of historians are always contingent on the framework they are working in, just as the expression of gender and sexuality in history is always contingent on the historic frameworks people had available.

As a preface, Vicinus begins with a review of the works of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, noting that despite their goals they flounder a bit in determining just what they’re studying. Is lesbianism “an emotion, a sexual act, a gender reversal ... situational or innate”? Agreeing that fuzziness is perhaps an essential feature of lesbian history, she then tackles a summary of the previous 30 years of study of the topic. Her focus, she admits, is her own field of modern British history and draws largely on Euro-American scholarship.

The first question to be addressed is whether using the word “lesbian” is even advisable, but Vicinus comes down on the side of considering the word “a useful shortcut for evoking a whole range of words that have been used to describe attachments between women” with the advantage that the associations of the word keep a certain focus on sex and avoid the scope-creep that a more general term like “queer” invites.

One feature of recent lesbian historiography (aside from regular paradigm shifts) has been a rejection of psychological models of the mid-20th century that divided the world of sexuality into “normal” and “deviant.” The next section of the article is organized around reviewing “five paradigms in less than thirty years.”

1. Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum”

Following the 1970s, as lesbian historians focused on identifying lesbians in history, Rich expanded the concept of “lesbian” to embrace a wide variety of affective relationships such that most women could be identified as within the continuum. This approach was less appealing to many who worked to identify women in history who had an identifiable identity that could be defined as lesbian. Their approach was “essentialist” in the sense that it pre-supposed an essential, unchanging sexual identity that could be determined through evidence.

Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men fell on the “continuum” side in arguing that women’s same-sex relations had a long history in Europe and encompassed a range of expressions, but her stance that most “romantic friendship” relationships were non-sexual spurred a backlash. The initial publication in 1988 of Anne Lister’s diaries put the “non-sexual” theory to bed (as it were) and other work on the topic has identified a more complex and layered understanding of women’s sexuality in the era Faderman studied.

Even as the models of Rich’s continuum struggled with identity-based models, other historians were raising issues of communities marginalized within that original work: Smith on Black women’s friendships, Kennedy and Davis on working-class butch/femme relationships, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s focus on race and class. The search for identification with the past needed to include identification by race and class rather than revolving around a Eurocentric white middle-class model.

2. Social Constructionism

This second paradigm emphasized differences across historic eras, rather than identity. Driven by the work of Jeffrey Weeks and Michel Foucault, it argued that sexuality was always a social construction of a particular set of historic circumstances and that identities in the past were unrelated to present-day categories. This approach drew on observations such as the different features of “masculinity” and “femininity” in various cultures, as well as using anthropology to study affective cultures that don’t correspond across time. Smith-Rosenberg’s work on women’s friendships and networks in 18-19th century America is an example. Same-sex affective cultures of the past might have emotional resonance for the present, but could not be directly equated with modern identities.

By the 1980s, feminist historians were adopting the tools and rhetoric of social constructionism and beginning to view theories of a transhistoric “homosexual identity” as too essentialist. Constructionists argued that the past was an alien country where same-sex acts did not correspond to a defined sexual identity.

3. Queer Theory

Around 1990, historians such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began arguing against the very notion of a stable sexual identity (even in the present day). Queer theory approached identity as a flexible and shifting performance, with gender identity and sexuality simply being another type of performance. Judith Butler is another name prominent here. Lesbian “identity” was to be disassembled and examined as an intersection of gender, sexual identity and desire, all of which are unstable.

In this context, rather than homoerotic desire being a minority identity, it becomes part of a universal erotic pluralism that has always existed. While queer theory lent itself to cultural studies, historians have been hesitant to embrace it, as the dissolving of categories and causation work against the generally understood purposes of historic study.

Moreover, there has been a certain wariness in how queer theory has focused on masculinity and masculine subjects, while dismissing the concept of “lesbian” as essentialist and outdated. And the all-encompassing nature of queer theory led some scholars to consider it of questionable usefulness. Others feel that when queer theory focuses both on historical specificity and the varied nature of sexual behavior, it provides a useful tool--and has been used to question Foucault’s strict distinction between pre-19th century “acts” versus post-19th century “identity”.

Queer theory can still provide a basis for connection with the past on the basis of similarity, but rather by assuming the modern viewpoint as the origin of that similarity. The flip side of this is losing track of history as a factual concept and embracing only the subjective fictions of modern interpreters.

4. Transgender studies

Since the late 1990s, transgender studies have brought new angles to bear on the topics of gender and sexuality, returning to a focus on gender as a crucial attribute rather than sexual behavior. Rather than defining identity through the nature of the erotic object, transgender studies define it through embodied experience of the self.

Vicinus then takes us on a personal tour through how her own focus of study reflects these overall shifts, especially through her studies of female friendship. Having begun by studying female friendship as an emotional resource in the context of heterosexual marriage, she looked for “different” forms of same-sex friendship that could be part of a continuum of same-sex desire. 19th century same-sex friendships were richly varied and provided information in their silences as much as their texts.

Coming to examine the relational nature of sexuality, she argues for a fifth paradigm that focuses on complex identifications that draw on familial, class, national, and racial associations. She has studied the ways that women constructed their individual identities out of the imagery of other relationships to express a vocabulary of love and desire for other women. These relationships were negotiated using flirtation, erotic games, role playing, and careful definitions around forbidden concepts (e.g., what counted as “sex”). Women’s same-sex relations in the 19th century both borrowed the forms of heterosexual courtship and were in turn co-opted as part of heterosexual structures. By this means, women constructed a variety of same-sex relationships as reflections of familiar family ties: husband-wife, mother-daughter, sisters, etc., roles that could shift and co-exist within the same couple.

Currently (i.e., that is in 2012 when this article was written) Vicinus sees the study of sexuality in a “state of fruitful crisis.” Lesbian history is still stuck in the ruts of pursuing a genealogical timeline and trying to name-and-claim identifiable “lesbians”. Visibility is seen as a measure of legitimacy and lesbian identity is still defined in reference to heterosexuality. Lesbians alternate between an assimilationist or adversarial relationship to dominant society, or hold both at once. No one historical theoretical framework can encompass all the necessary analysis.

That said, approaches can still broadly be divided between those focusing on similarity (identifying connections across time and finding same-sex relations integrated into society), and those focusing on difference (examining the impact of social and political institutions on sex-deviant women and the forces for punishment or conformity).

One promising development is the mainstreaming of lesbian topics within general history, showing how homoerotic relationships acted as a historic force, or viewing expressions of female friendship at face value rather than assuming coded lesbianism. The celebration of female friendship supported not only homoerotic connections, but the freedom of women to exist outside of marriage in general.

There is still a place for those studying fragmentary documentation from the pre-modern period for evidence of similarity or difference to modern relationships. And the queer theorists support the desire for connections with the past as a subjective reality. The “lesbian continuum” has returned in the form of Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” concept, declining to define the past while still identifying connections.

Vicinus surveys a number of questions that remain a challenge on the “difference” side of the line, not only in terms of how lesbians are viewed and treated by institutions, but the importance of race and class as contributing axes. The social work that often brought women together in supportive romantic bonds often took colonialist forms with respect to their beneficiaries. And the intersection of transgender studies with lesbian studies partakes of a “difference” approach, not only in identifying trans men/trans-masculine women/butch women as a site of contention, but in tracing the ways that theoretical treatments of gender and sexuality have shifted emphasis from one to the other.

The article concludes with a review of some newer metaphors and images for considering lesbian history, such as Clark’s “twilight moments” and Traub’s “cycles of salience.” Studies that address non-Western history are also getting more attention. As a final coda, Vicinus discusses the biography of Edith Less Ellis, the wife of sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose marriage was full of complex and contradictory sexual themes.

Saturday, January 11, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42b - Interview with Kate Heartfield - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/01/11 - listen here)


  • Books mentioned
  • A transcript of this podcast is pending.

Links to Kate Heartfield Online

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Monday, January 6, 2020 - 07:00

Articles that are not about history, but rather are about how we think about history don't have the same "zing" and "pop" as facts-on-the-ground articles, but especially once one gets past marveling at the incoherent wealth of primary evidence that historians are presenting to us, it becomes more and more important to think about how we think. This article is the sort of general talk that is typical of opening a conference roundtable. It doesn't have some of the deep digging into historiography that I enjoyed, for example, in the collection The Lesbian Premodern. But it does address ideas such how we "periodize" lesbian history and how we study world-wide related phenomena without shoehorning them into a Western historical framework. I think the idea of "generations," both of female same-sex experience and of the historical study of those experiences, is an intriguing one. Certainly across my own lifetime and even strictly within USA culture, there are multiple distinct and identifiable ways of experiencing lesbian-relevant desire, to say nothing of distinct and identifiable ways of relating to the word and concept "lesbian."

On twitter yesterday, someone posted a comment about "why are identities/labels like bi, gay, non-binary, and trans get to be 'umbrella terms' that are understood to encompass a collection of different identities and experiences, while some people feel it's 'dangerous' to suggest that 'lesbian' could have similarly varied application?" I contributed to the discussion by pointing out that, given the ways that the word "lesbian" has been used prior to the 20th century (and, in fact, prior to the later 20th century), most of the women to whom that word was applied in the past would not meet the strict and narrow definitions that a (small) group of exclusionists argue for today. But the definitional wars over the word "lesbian" are not unique to people who want to preserve it only for some small select "pure" core meaning. Challenges are also raised by people who feel that identifying a person or a relationship or an act as "lesbian" erases any other possible reading of that person, relationship, or act. This position, too, risks functionally erasing the word and concept "lesbian" from history. The introduction to The Lesbian Premodern challenges the tendency for this asymmetry of "umbrella terminology" function, where a male historical figure will be welcomed as "gay" for any trace of same-sex relations, while a female historical figure will be allowed the identity of "lesbian" only if and when she can be proven to have engaged in same-sex erotics and to have done so exclusively to any heterosexual interests.

My own personal position is that when you look at the historic usage of the term lesbian (apart from its geographic sense) one can either conclude that it has a broader meaning of "relating to any female same-sex relations" or one can conclude that no one in history was using the word correctly. My (very personal) belief is that the greatest risk from movements to push for a narrow, rigid, "pure" usage for "lesbian" is that it will result in us losing useful access to the word entirely. And that would be a historic and cultural tragedy.


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Full citation: 

Rupp, Leila J. 2013. "Thinking About 'Lesbian History'" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no 2 357-361.

This is a very short article that introduces a roundtable discussion of “lesbian generations.” (Only one other article included in the roundtable was suitable for the LHMP.) The roundtable posed the following questions (paraphrased): Who is part of “lesbian history”? Has female same-sex sexuality changed over time/space in a way that creates identifiable “generations”? Does the term “lesbian” make sense in a global context? How do we approach global questions of sexuality? Has the practice of “lesbian history” changed over time and does it have “generations”? How do we address the intersection of sexuality and gender? Can we imagine new frameworks for thinking about sexuality and in particular lesbian historiography? How does lesbian history differ from gay or queer history?

Rupp discusses why she invented the word “sapphistries” for her global survey in order to avoid the complexities of applying “lesbian” in times and places where it might not apply. To the extent that “lesbian” defines an identity, it is not always available or chosen. But Rupp also wants to avoid the overly-encompassing approach of Rich’s “lesbian continuum” feeling that a focus defined by female same-sex desire, erotic love, and/or sexual acts is a necessary organizing principle.

She discusses the difficulties of tackling the lesbian/trans interface in a historic context, but notes that when historic societies had problems with female same-sex activity, it was the concept of two female bodies coming together that they considered relevant, not the question of self-identity or presentation. Therefore when studying such historic contexts, it is relevant to study the topic from both sides.

The question of self-identity becomes more salient and prominent when moving to a contemporary global understanding. Even people who have access to Western concepts of “lesbian” and “gay” may not choose those identities as reflecting their experience. And the current generation in Western culture is increasingly shifting to a multiplicity of identities where they might previously have used “lesbian”.

Both across history and across cultures, we see repeating but varied patterns of how same-sex sexuality is conceptualized, such as whether the image of similarity or of difference is emphasized, or whether same-sex desire is framed as physiological or psychological. Rupp argues against looking for binaries in these patterns and instead seeks how complex interactions play out.

Sunday, January 5, 2020 - 09:51
Crosword Challenge Logo

Lesfic author and publisher Jae is running another year-long participatory book promotion event. This time it's a monthly crossword puzzle with clues from a specific set of f/f books, either by genre or sponsored by a particular publisher. Complete the crossword to win free books! See the website for full contest details, and I highly recommend that if you want to participate you sign on for Jae's newsletter so you don't miss any new postings.

(Evidently someone submitted crossword clues relating to one or more of my books, but since I don't know which one(s) or what category they'll appear in, you'll just have to follow the series and find out.)

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Saturday, January 4, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42a - On the Shelf for January 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/01/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2020.

Saying that, it occurs to me that we’re going to get an entire year of jokes about “20-20 vision.” So what’s my vision for this new year? I wish I knew. I’m just going to keep on keeping on and do my bit to add more diversity, more knowledge, and more understanding to the world. As for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I feel like I’ve reached a point of equilibrium with all my projects. I don’t expect any major changes in format or content for the blog or the podcast this year. Maybe some minor additions and shifts.

As you know from the sponsor break text, the Project has a Patreon, in addition to the general Patreon for the TLT podcast group. I’ve been thinking about types of content that would provide value back to Patrons. One experiment I’m going to try is micro-reviews of the new book listings, which I’ll talk about later in the show.

Another type of content I’ve been working on is practical reference material for authors. I’m thinking of things like vocabulary about f/f sexuality, or examples of romantic and sexual language used between women in historic sources. I’m also looking at timelines of types of relationships and identities in historic cultures. This sort of content doesn’t work well for entertaining audio and is the sort of thing you’d want to save off for reference. If you want that sort of content--or simply want to support the podcast--check out the Patreon. I’ll note that show’s expenses are primarily royalties and narrator fees for the fiction series. I don’t expect patrons to support my book habit! And the podcast hosting expenses are under the TLT group as a whole, so support that aspect through the TLT Patreon.

2020 Fiction Series

Since it’s January, submissions are open for the 2020 fiction series! If you’ve been working on a story to submit, I certainly hope you’ll send it in for consideration. If you’ve been dithering and you’re a fast worker, you might still have time to write something. Check out the show notes for the link to the full instructions. If things go like they have the last two years, by the time you listen to this, I’ll be biting my fingernails because people always seem to wait for the last minute to send in their submissions. Mind you, there’s no advantage from getting your submission in early, except for keeping your editor from freaking out.

Other Markets

While we’re on the subject of fiction markets, in addition to the open submissions for the Silk and Steel anthology that I mentioned last month, I’ve run across a new market that has produced some interesting queer historical audio short fiction. The show is “A Story Most Queer” and it’s part of the Mischief Media podcast group, which produces a number of pop culture related shows. The podcast produces audio versions of stories by and about queer people. While the scope of representation is broad and all genres are welcome, they caught my interest not only because the balance of representation is good, but because out of the first 13 episodes, 2 of them involve f/f relationships in historic settings. So whether you’re looking for new podcast listening, or whether you have fiction looking for a home, check out their website. They pay a flat fee of $50 for stories in the 2000-4000 word range, with some flexibility, and they accept reprints. See the show notes for a link.

Publications on the Blog

The blog is being busy with some substantial books mixed in with the articles. In December we covered several papers on Renaissance and Early Modern topics: Valerie Traub’s “The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England”, Tim Hitchcock’s "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England", and Randolph Trumbach’s "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences.” December finished with John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Then at the beginning of January I rolled right on into Boswell’s other classic work, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. His work is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because he tackled the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in Europe from a personal and sympathetic viewpoint, but frustrating because his work functionally ignores female homosexuality while paying lip service to being a general study. If you want more of my grumpy opinions on that topic, you can find them in the blog.

After that I take a brief breather with two survey articles: Leila Rupp’s “Thinking about ‘Lesbian History’” and Martha Vicinus’s “The History of Lesbian History.” Following those, I grit my teeth and tackle Michel Foucault’s three-volume The History of Sexuality, which I’ll cover in one volume each week. Foucault is a philosopher, not a historian, and I’ll be skimming rather that reading deeply, so this may not be as painful as I anticipate. (I haven’t actually started on it as of drawing up these notes.) I get something of a blog vacation after that, not because I won’t be posting, but because I already have articles written through April!

Book Shopping!

I hadn’t meant to buy any new books for the blog, but since all the copies of Foucault’s History of Sexuality were checked out of the U.C. Berkeley library, I decided to swing by Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue and was relieved to find a used set. My theory was that I’d get that work written up over the holidays, but...well...not yet.

Not a purchase, but while I was poking around in the library, I also checked out Phillips & Reay’s Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History which I’ll prioritize since I’ll need to return it soon.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Kate Heartfield who writes some exciting historic fantasy. I connected with her at Worldcon in Ireland this summer but we only just worked out the logistics to record. I’ve had her pair of time-traveling novellas, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides on my radar for a while now.


I hadn’t decided on this month’s essay until I was sitting down to write up my script for this show, but I’d set up a bunch of idea folders and picked the one that seems closest to ripe. So I’ll be doing a show on Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid’s tale of gender disguise, same-sex love, and transformation that inspired many later variants and versions. It’s a story that sits awkwardly at the intersection of lesbian themes and transgender themes and I’ll be talking about how it can be a touch-point for a variety of modern identities. One of the aspects I’ll discuss is how the tale continued to be re-told and re-interpreted from Ovid’s Latin original early in the first century throughout the middle ages and Renaissance and on into the 17th century. When I imagine what models women in those eras might have had for same-sex love, this story is one that was common in pop culture retellings.

[sponsor break]

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Time for the recent, new, and forthcoming books! In the podcast, I mostly stick to listing the books and giving the cover copy. Every once in a while I’ll mention a recommendation or a content advisory, but I want this part of the podcast to be a neutral service as much as possible. But people regularly ask me for more guidance in which f/f historicals I’d recommend, so I’m trying out a new service on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s Patreon, where I provide micro-reviews based on preview excerpts. If you’d like to opt in to that sort of content, the Patreon link is in the show notes. Please keep in mind that this is the LHMP Patreon, not the TLT Patreon and these micro-reviews are not in any way affiliated with TLT or with The Lesbian Review.

I start off with a couple of December books and then the rest are coming out in January.

The first title is in competition for the earliest setting in my database: Where There Are Mountains self-published by Sarah Pearlman. The story is inspired by an archaeological find of a grave with two female skeletons embracing.

5000 BCE. Seven thousand years ago. A time of great migrations that took place over hundreds of years and thousands of miles as numerous tribes fled the cold and hunger of their northern homeland to travel a path south. Most were peaceful, wanting only a place where there was food and warmth—struggling past tribes that lived near Mount Olympus and the mountain passes of what would become Hellas. Greece. A matrilineal people that worshiped a female divinity. Celebrating and giving gratitude for the fertility of the land, the birthing of children, and sexual pleasure. Desire without rules. Others on the path were warrior people. Tribes who came to conquer and enslave. Bringing their male gods.

Clara's Way self-published by Roberta R. Carr is one of those books that only hints at sapphic content and I haven’t been able to get solid confirmation.

The year is 1904. Nurse Clara Tyler happily spends her days tending patients in rural Ohio. Her brother, who is working in Panama on the great canal, informs the family he must return home due to illness. Too sick to travel alone, he begs Clara to come and get him. Anxious about going but determined to save her brother, Clara makes her way to the Canal Zone. She is quickly drawn into a web of heartbreak, controversy, and friendship that keeps her there. When her father demands she return, Clara must decide where she belongs in this gripping tale about love and loss, courage, and the unexpected paths that shape our lives.

The next book is rather tenuous on the historic front, being a secondary world fantasy, but inspired by a gender-flipped version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton from Tor Books. Whether you count it as a historical or not, I suspect it will be of interest to readers who like historicals.

STRIKE FAST, LOVE HARD, LIVE FOREVER This is the motto of the Lady Knights―sworn to fealty under a struggling kingdom, promised to defend the prospective heir, Banna Mora. But when a fearsome rebellion overthrows the throne, Mora is faced with an agonizing choice: give up everything she’s been raised to love, and allow a king-killer to be rewarded―or retake the throne, and take up arms against the newest heir, Hal Bolingbrooke, Mora’s own childhood best friend and sworn head of the Lady Knights. Hal loathes being a Prince; she’s much more comfortable instated on the Throne of Misrule, a raucous underground nether-court where passion rules all. She yearns to live up to the wishes of everyone she loves best―but that means sacrificing her own heart, and so she will disappoint everyone until the moment she can rise to prove those expectations wrong. And between these two fierce Princes is the woman who will decide all their fates―Lady Hotspur Persy, the fiery and bold knight whose support will turn the tides of the coming war.

A couple months ago I commented on what seemed like a flood of f/f Robin Hood stories in my forthcoming books spreadsheet. This month’s contribution is Nottingham by Anna Burke from Bywater Books.

Robyn Hood didn’t set out to rob the rich, but in Nottingham, nothing ever goes according to plan. . . . After a fateful hunting accident sends her on the run from the law, Robyn finds herself deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. All she really wants to do is provide for her family and stay out of trouble, but when the Sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in the history of England, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands. Relying on the help of her band of merry women and the Sheriff’s intriguing—and off limits—daughter, Marian, Robyn must find a way to pull off the biggest heist Sherwood has ever seen. With both heart and freedom at stake, just how much will she risk to ensure the safety of the ones she loves?

This next book combines some interesting cross-time tropes with the paranormal. Spellbound by Jackie D. and Jean Copeland from Bold Strokes Books.

Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes. Complicating matters, Raven Dare, a supernatural hunter, informs her that they’ve all been summoned by the Queen Witch, Morgan le Fay. Morgan compels Hazel, Sarah, and Raven to correct the shift in the realms of good and evil by ridding the world of the evil that followed Sarah into modern day. If they fail, the forces of white magic will be extinguished forever. But completing the perilous mission, convincing Sarah to return to Puritan life, and resisting their growing attraction for each other might prove more difficult than Hazel and Raven ever anticipated.

For this next book, I had to poke around a little but was able to confirm that it definitely has queer elements, although I have no idea how it all comes out in the end. The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore from Lake Union Publishing

1855, New Hampshire. Lucy Blunt is set to hang for a double murder. Murderess or victim? Only Lucy knows the truth. In the shadow of the gallows, Lucy reflects on the events that led to her bitter downfall—from the moment she arrived at the rambling Burton mansion looking for work and a better life to the grisly murders themselves. In a mysterious household of locked doors and forbidden affections, Lucy slips comfortably into the shadows, where she believes the indiscretions of her past will remain hidden. But when Lucy’s rising status becomes a threat to the mistress’s current companion, the delicate balance of power and loyalty begins to shift, setting into motion a brewing storm of betrayal, suspicion, and rage. Now, with her execution looming closer, Lucy’s allies fight to have her sentence overturned as the tale she’s spinning nears its conclusion. But how much of her story can we trust? After all, Lucy’s been known to bend the truth…

Similarly to the previous, I was able to get confirmation that despite the somewhat ambiguous cover copy, Blood Countess by Lana Popovic from Amulet Books definitely has queer content. This appears to be a purely historical take on Countess Báthory and not a supernatural one.

In 17th century Hungary, Anna Darvulia has just begun working as a scullery maid for the young and glamorous Countess Elizabeth Báthory. When Elizabeth takes a liking to Anna, she’s vaulted to the dream role of chambermaid, a far cry from the filthy servants’ quarters below. She receives wages generous enough to provide for her family, and the Countess begins to groom Anna as her friend and confidante. It’s not long before Anna falls completely under the Countess’s spell—and the Countess takes full advantage. Isolated from her former friends, family, and fiancé, Anna realizes she’s not a friend but a prisoner of the increasingly cruel Elizabeth. Then come the murders, and Anna knows it’s only a matter of time before the Blood Countess turns on her, too.

What Am I Reading?

So what am I reading? After last month’s reading extravaganza, this month was a lot slower. I’ve been reading different books on three different ebook apps: Claire O’Dell’s A Jewel Bright Sea on my phone, my own newest novel Floodtide while testing new ebook apps since iBooks isn’t playing nicely with non-Apple epub files, and in iBooks itself a non-fiction book Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes. I have some thoughts on that last one, because I find that romance novels that follow the structure she promotes as the One True Romance Way fail to work well for me at precisely the points where they adhere most closely to her formula. I may blog about that.

Stat of the Publishing Field

The rest of the podcast is going to be doing some intense numbers geeking about trends in f/f historicals in the past year. If you’re a numbers geek like me, I strongly suggest following the link in the show notes to the transcript of this podcast so you can follow along in print. If you’re not a numbers geek, then I won’t feel the least bit insulted if you skip the rest of this episode. Really. It’s ok. Because if you aren’t a numbers geek, this is going to be really boring.

Last year, I did a separate episode that took my ongoing database of relevant historical fiction and did something of a survey of the field and comparing 2018 to what had come before. It’s a very rough analysis because my data is far from complete, especially for older titles. But now that I’ve had two years of scouring the new releases for historicals featuring queer women, I can start making some sort of comparisons for the current state of the field. I’m alternating between grouping the books based on which year I mentioned them on the podcast and publication date so not all the numbers will match. As usual, I can only talk about the books I know about, and I include historic fantasy as long as the setting is in some way identifiable by time and place.

The numbers of books mentioned on the pocast this year and last are roughly similar 101 in 2019 compared to 83 last year. When you look at date of publication, the groups are essentially identical, around a hundred in both cases.

Let’s start with basic publishing info. This year, 40% of the books were self-published, including through Amazon Digital, while the other 60% had a named publisher. In some cases the named publisher is a one-author imprint, so they’re functionally self-published, but this would take some work to sort out. This year’s 40% figure compares to 20% self-published last year. I suspect this isn’t a true change, but rather a reflection of me getting better at searching for relevant books on Amazon, and thus identifying more Amazon-published books, rather than needing to hear about them through other channels.

Of the books with named publishers, there were 49 different publishers for the 2019 books, but 80% of those publishers only had a single title on the list. This compares very closely with 2018 when I found 46 different publishers and 75% with only a single title. Statistically equivalent.


  • 83 books, 20% self-published
  • 46 named publishers, 75% with only one title


  • 101 books, 40% self-published
  • 49 named publishers, 80% with only one title

So for publishers who put out more than one title, that leaves us with 10 publishers in 2019 and 12 in 2018. Five publishers met the threshold both years. This included two mainstream presses (Harper Collins and and three small presses (Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, and Sapphire Books). Bold Strokes was the clear leader in 2018 with 8 historic titles, but dropped to only 2 titles in 2019. The other publishers held steady in the 2-3 titles range. Five publishers had 2 titles this year after not meeting the threshold last year, while 8 publishers met the threshold last year but not this year.

Publishers with >1 title both years

  • Bold Strokes Books: 2018 - 8, 2019 - 2
  • Bella Books: 2018 - 3, 2019 2
  • Sapphire Books: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 3
  • Harper Collins: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 2
  • 2018 - 2, 2019 - 2

Moved up into >1

  • Bywater Books: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Illustrated Romance: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Manifold Press: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Nine-Star Press: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Supposed Crimes: 2018 - 1, 2019 - 2

Moved down from >1

  • Harlequin Teen: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Less Than Three: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Little, Brown and Company: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • LZ Media: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Regal Crest Enterprises: 2018 - 3, 2019 - 1
  • Sans Merci Press: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Shadoe Publishing: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 1
  • Three Bunny Farm: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0

I’m hesitant to draw any large conclusions since the numbers we’re dealing with are small, but overall it feels like a slight contraction in the market. What the publisher numbers don’t tell you is one striking trend, which is for historic romance authors who have already made a name for themselves writing m/f or m/m historicals taking on an f/f project. Writers like Cat Sebastian, Olivia Waite, Courtney Milan, and K.J. Charles. Two of them publish with mainstream presses and two are self-published.

Another way to look at the data is to take a set of 8 small lesfic presses as an index, based on long-term presence in the field and current activity in lesfic in general. For this index I use Affinity, Bella, Bold Strokes, Bywater, Regal Crest, Sapphire, Spinsters Ink, and Ylva. They’re also useful because I can check their back catalogs and be fairly confident that I haven’t missed much. If you look at the total number of historicals put out year by year from this index group, it’s averaging barely over 12 books per year for the last half dozen years, with fewer earlier than that. The numbers fluctuate a bit year to year, but not enough to show a current trend up or down.

Total books published by the index group

  • 2019: 11
  • 2018: 16
  • 2017: 8
  • 2016: 13
  • 2015: 15
  • 2014: 13
  • 2013: 10
  • 2012: 6
  • 2011: 5
  • 2010: 4

One clear conclusion that I also mentioned last year is how diffused f/f historicals are throughout the publishing landscape. There is no one publisher or even group of publishers that a reader can rely on to find f/f historicals. And, conversely, there are no f/f publishers who focus on historicals sufficiently to build up a reputation and expertise in the field. One of the things that became clear from the buzz around the mainstream writers entering this genre is that there are a lot of readers out there who would like more well-written f/f historical romances, but that they have no idea how to find them except from their existing social media networks. I keep hoping that this podcast will fill at least some part of that need.

So those are the dry numbers in terms of who’s putting out books. How about settings and themes? This is where I really have fun crunching the numbers! But outside of statistics, some impressions include clusters of Robin Hood retellings, highwaywoman adventures, the usual popularity of Regency romances, but less focus on the US Civil War and wild west settings. The two world wars continue to be a popular setting, but this year the period between them is fairly well populated as well. Now for the details.

The emphasis on stories set in the 19th and 20th centuries is identical to last year’s with about 80% of stories being set in the last two centuries. Earlier settings aren’t quite so badly skewed to the early modern period this year. About equal numbers are set in the medieval-to-Renaissance period as in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a smaller number set even before that, mostly in classical Greece or Rome.

Stories with New World settings are all in the 19-20th century group--no colonial period or Revolutionary War stories. Half the pre-19th century stories are set in the British Isles, which is also similar to last year, and British settings still dominate the early 19th century due to the popularity of the Regency. But this year The British Isles hold their own against American settings from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. This may be related to seeing fewer Civil War and Wild West settings.

Other than those two geographic juggernauts, where are stories being set? About a quarter of the stories have a primary setting that falls outside the US or Great Britain plus Ireland. But this is down from about a third last year. The US settings have also dropped from around 50% to around 40% and it’s been the British settings that have made up the difference. Non-US non-British settings are primarily European, especially France and Germany, with single representatives from the Caribbean, Uruguay, Japan, and Malaysia (which last has much of the action in England).

Looking at the US settings in more detail, we see a drop in stories set in the South (possibly related to the drop in Civil War settings) but otherwise similar regional proportions. I was able to identify 11 specific states in the cover copy, compared to 18 last year, and California edged out Texas for second place after New York this year.

I’ve been trying to do some coding in my database to track things such as whether books are strict history or have fantastic elements, whether they can be classified as romance in a broad sense, whether they have cross-time motifs, and what the sexual content is. Unfortunately this can be difficult when I’m only working from cover copy, so most of those aspects will need to wait until I have some way of crowd-sourcing data. But the question of fantasy elements is relatively easy to identify. Despite my delight at some of the great historic fantasy I’ve been reading, stories with fantasy elements have actually dropped somewhat from 27% last year to 20% this year, though the number of titles where the classification isn’t clear could easily erase that difference.

So there’s my take on the year in f/f historic fiction. I’d be interested in knowing what trends and patterns you’ve been seeing as readers. If you’d like to talk about the f/f historicals you’re enjoying, I’m always looking for people to contribute to my book appreciation interviews. Drop me a note.


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