This article is, of course, the one that brought the entire collection to my attention, when Ursula Whitcher cited it as one of the strands of inspiration for her story "The Spirits of Cabassus" published as part of this year's fiction series. Direct references to female same-sex desire are rare in many eras, and the tantalizing glimpses we get aren't always put in a positive light in the original sources. But for a historical fiction author, those glimpses can be the spark to kindle a fire. Because the glimpses can be fragmentary and offered up in biased acounts, there's often a temptation to expand them into a more complete story--one that centers and is sympathetic to the sapphic figure. I have a whole laundry list of historic anecdotes that I'd like to turn into fiction, when I have the time.
Efthymiadis, Stephanis. 2019. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
Efthymiadis, Stephanis. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature”
This is a relatively general article, reiterating the themes of how social changes under Christianity created a context in which not marrying (or not re-marrying) could be considered a viable life choice, whether it involved a retreat into an ascetic community or continued presence in the secular world. Singlehood itself was not the goal, but rather an acceptable mode in which one could devote oneself to religious causes and activities.
The discussion is anecdotal, presenting various stories of different types of unmarried life. One of particular interest to the Project for tangential reasons is worth quoting:
A woman named Martha, suffering from chronic illness, went to a shrine “where other women, mostly suffering from demonic possession, lodged, separated by curtains and awaiting a cure. Being a kind and good-hearted person, she never missed an opportunity to serve and console those of her companions who were in pain. In the event, the saints visited her a few times, but to her disappointment, they granted her only partial relief, causing her to raise her voice in protest. It was under these troubled circumstances that a woman who had moved in next to her fell in love with her. Her name was Christina, and she was a married woman, the wife of one of the clergy of the Church of Saint Laurentius. Oddly enough, her infatuation functions as a catalyst in the story. As she was about to step into the curtained-off space Martha occupied and set about seducing her, the saints were forced, as it were, to intervene and offer Martha a complete cure.
“Thanks to this unique – or at least very rare –attestation of (would-be) lesbian eroticism in Byzantium, we once again gain an insight into the life of a single woman at the troubles she might have faced because of her singleness.”
[Not: The event and its framing may not be entirely positive, but it brings the potential for acting on same-sex desire into view at a time when evidence is otherwise scarce.]
(Originally aired 2022/09/17 - listen here)
Today we’re going to look at historic romance tropes involving marriage and how they can be adapted to female couples.
When we look at the popular historic romance tropes involving male-female couples, there is a large subset that revolve around the social context of the paired relationship—whether that relationship is depicted at marriage or the functional equivalent, or at an earlier stage of courtship. Closely related to this are tropes involving the motivations of the characters engaging in this relationship. Whether the trope is fake-dating, an arranged or political marriage, a marriage of convenience or outright fake marriage, or a compromising situation that pressures the couple into formalizing the relationship, all these tropes are deeply embedded in the function of marriage within society and the social expectations around marriage in the specific context of the setting.
While contemporary romance now includes marriage-based tropes that expand beyond male-female couples, any romance set in western culture before the 21st century that doesn’t involve a male-female couple needs to engage in some way with the inaccessibility of formal, legally-recognized marriage to other types of couples. This can be just as important as the need to engage with how the protagonists work around the normative expectations that they will engage in a male-female marriage.
And here I want to emphasize--even more than usual--that the discussion here will focus specifically on western culture in Europe and the Mediterranean area, as well as European-derived cultures in the Americas. There have been formalized, marriage-like same-sex bonds in other cultures in a number of times and places, which I don’t mean to erase. But historic romance tropes tend to assume a very specific cultural setting that either draws on or reflects western culture, therefore I hope I may be excused for sticking to that narrow focus.
Within western culture, there is a broad potential for formalized paired relationships other than marriage, but the social dynamics and expectations around those non-marital relationships will affect the ways in which they can stand in for marriage within a historic romance trope. Today’s exploration of the dynamics of popular historic romance tropes for female couples will look at some general types of contractual relationships that can provide an alternate context for marriage tropes, as well as exploring how specific tropes such as “fake relationship” or “marriage of convenience” might play out differently for non-marital bonds.
What Is a Trope?
For those who may be coming into this series in the middle, what we mean by “trope” in this context is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal. Tropes involving marriage-analogues, perhaps more than character-based tropes, will vary a great deal according to the specific historic setting and the types of non-marital relationships it recognizes and supports.
Marriage as Such
There’s a separate topic to be considered in having the couple engage with formal marriage systems by representing themselves as a male-female couple. This covers a range of identities from having a female-identifying partner present herself as male for the sake of the marriage, all the way through various degrees of gender identification to the marriage of a trans man and a woman. This will be a complicated topic and will be covered in its own separate episode (or maybe more than one). Today’s episode will concern itself with two individuals who both identify as women and are perceived by their society as such.
Essential Differences and Potential Similarities
Marriage has always had multiple functions and purposes. The romance genre focuses on the purpose of finding and bonding with a romantic and erotic partner, but specific marriage-related tropes may lean on some of the other functions. These include creating an economic or social contract between families, the establishment of a line of inheritance typically including the production of children, combining economic and labor resources to better support the functioning of an independent household, and the formalization of a friendship. With the exception of procreation, you can find same-sex analogues for these purposes in many historic cultures.
While we may think of marriage as having certain universal features, a cross-cultural and cross-time survey of marriage practices and customs would have a hard time finding a defining set of characteristics. Marriage can be a contract between individuals or between families. It can be formalized by law, or by a religious authority, or simply by the declaration of the parties involved. It may be viewed as permanent or temporary. The consent of the couple being married may be essential, or optional, or irrelevant. Given all this, the question of what counts as a same-sex analogue of marriage depends on what definition and aspect of marriage you’re looking at. For our purposes, it may help to consider the relevant features to be: a formal or semi-formal contractual bond that affects the living situation and interpersonal relationships of two people, which is publicly known and recognized by the community, and which assumes certain features of good faith and sincerity in its ideal form.
One key feature of marriage tropes in male-female romance—as noted above—is the literary convention that a romantic connection is assumed to be relevant to marriage, either in its presence or in its absence. While some non-marital analogues, such as formalized friendship bonds, similarly assume an emotional component, others do not. So while male-female marriage tropes contrast the sincere performance of courtship with a conflicted performance, many of the analogues suggested for female couples contrast a sincere performance of the social contract with a conflicted performance, and then add in a separate polarity between the sincere performance of romance versus a conflicted performance.
This can make for some delightfully complicated plots!
Let’s start with types of social contracts that are typically driven by the character’s family, rather than personal choice. For example, the practice of fosterage among the medieval European elite was partially intended to create social bonds between families. Typically an adolescent would be sent to live with another family where they would learn adult skills and form personal connections that were expected to benefit their birth family. While there was sometimes the intent that the person being fostered would be exposed to marriage prospects, the connections they made between same-sex mentors and peers were just as important and could have life-long consequences. We see a tantalizing hint of how such relationships might form in the joint funeral memorial for Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in 15th century England. Their bond—whatever form it took—was driven by the strategies and goals of their families. But once brought together, they found something in common that went beyond living in the same household.
If we’re brainstorming for a romance plot, we can consider the attitudes of the two characters toward their situation. How might a young woman feel about being fostered into a strange family? How might a daughter of that family react to her? What are their relative social positions? Are they expected to be friends? Do they feel pressured to behave as friends regardless of how they feel? Do they have personal goals that the relationship between them might further or hinder? What happens if one or both feel romantic stirrings?
In a similar situation more fraught with tension, offspring of a range of ages might be claimed as long-term hostages by someone in political power, to ensure the compliance of their birth family. This can place them in a situation where superficially they are like members of their new household, but always with an underlayer of distrust on both sides. In a way, one might view this situation as analogous to a forced or political marriage, if the hostage gets tangled up in emotional connections to the more powerful family.
Situations like those described above can parallel the dynamic in an arranged marriage or forced marriage, in that the protagonist may have little say in the matter and yet be expected to take up the role of serving as a bridge between families, or paying a social debt, or the like. The scenario places them in close proximity to people with whom they need to establish alliances, partnerships, or friendships—ones that may have lifelong consequences in the same way that marriage might.
But from another angle, if the context and power dynamics work out, a couple may manipulate the forms of an arranged contract in order to provide a context to enjoy their romantic relationship. Rather than the contract serving as an arranged or forced context, it becomes the “fake” context that gives cover to a less public purpose.
Outside the upper class, the apprenticeship system is something of a parallel to fosterage. The range of jobs a young woman might be apprenticed into will depend on context, but could include joining her mistress’s household. As with fosterage, she may have an ambiguous position in that household depending on her own background. And her interactions with her fellow apprentices (or with the mistress’s daughter!) create the romantic potential. In the early modern and later eras, you can find a similar dynamic when “poor relations” might place a child in the household of more comfortable relatives, or an unmarried woman might take a place as companion in the household of a relative or social connection of the family.
For that matter, any sort of employment situation can create the sort of contractual framework that can operate as an analogue for marriage for the purposes of a trope. While the power dynamics of employer and employee can complicate the ethics of a relationship for modern authors and readers, they are not qualitatively different from the historic power dynamics of husband and wife. Employment in personal service, such as a lady’s maid or--at a higher level of society--as a lady in waiting, creates the sort of intimate proximity in which complicated desires can flourish. And as with other contractual relationships, the “story behind the story” can turn what appears to be straightforward employment into a fake relationship or a relationship of convenience. What if the lady’s maid isn’t actually a working-class servant but is being concealed from danger under the guise of employment? What if the supposedly loyal lady in waiting is actually a spy?
I’ve talked about the enticing potential of companion roles as a context for romance, but they also provide the possibility of fake or convenience-based relationships. A well-off woman might take on a companion against her preference for any number of reasons. Perhaps she needs a companion for social appearances. Perhaps she’s been pressured to take the woman on as a favor to someone else. Perhaps the two women have decided that a companion arrangement is convenient for both of them even if not financially or socially necessary. In all of these, the companion bond may step in for a marriage in fake, arranged, or convenience tropes in which a romance develops within the context of the bond.
But from a different angle, what if the romance comes first and it’s the employment relationship that is the fake? Here we have a possibility that differs somewhat from the male-female trope. If a man and woman are in love and have communicated that love to each other, and if there is no bar to them getting married, there’s no good reason to frame a marriage as “fake” in that context. But if two women have confessed their love to each other and present themselves publicly as mistress and companion because it gives them a context for sharing their lives, then it’s reasonable to view it as a “fake companion” relationship. You see how things twist and change?
The Bonds of Friendship
In many cultures, there was a recognition and celebration of intimate personal friendships that could even be understood as being closer than the emotional bonds of marriage. As an ideal, such friendships were not dictated by economic, genetic, or social ties but were the free union of two souls. Such friends might use the same language as marriage to talk about their bond, and in some contexts might have formal or informal rituals available to mark their commitment to each other.
Until relatively recently, there was usually an assumption that true friendship was difficult to maintain between those of different genders without it turning awkwardly sexual, and therefore friendship practices tended to revolve around same-sex pairs. Alan Bray’s book The Friend [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-288-bray-2003-friend] is a useful detailed study of attitudes and practices around same-sex friendship across a long span of time, although he focuses almost exclusively on male friendships. But there are a number of studies of intimate female friendships, especially from the 17th century and later, that provide models for fictional characters.
How can intimate same-sex friendships work as a marriage analogue within historical romance tropes? For one thing, in a context where the usual pattern was to develop life-long friendship bonds, and especially if such friendships had significance within larger social dynamics, there’s an opportunity for a declared friendship to act as a context for a “fake dating” or “marriage of convenience” trope. Say Person A is trying to be your best buddy and you have reasons to avoid them or distrust them but don’t want to say so outright? So you arrange with Person B to be your “bosom friend” to whom you profess loyalty. And then, well, it turns out you want more than a convenient excuse.
But such friendships—like familial alliances—could also have more practical benefits than simple companionship. Entering into a public friendship with ulterior motives has clear parallels to agreeing to a marriage for hidden purposes, with similar emotional consequences if the other person believes you are sincere.
In literature, and perhaps sometimes in life, same-sex friendships might be treated as an equivalent to marriage not only in their emotional dynamics, but in being socially obligatory. Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, although written as a satire, describes a secret society in which female pair-bonds were required for entrance and we see a similar, though also satirical, treatment in the late 18th century fictional Anandrine Sect. During the heyday of Romantic Friendship, a middle-class woman who lacked a special female friend might well be considered devoid of proper sensibility. And unlike the other types of semi-formal contractual relationships discussed in this episode, friendship assumed the existence of an emotional bond in the same way that the historic romance genre assumes the alignment of marriage with an emotional bond. This makes formalized friendships an excellent choice for those who want a close parallel to marriage-based romance tropes.
Regardless of gender dynamics or the existence of a marriage contract, one of the very practical functions of people coming together to form a household is the ability to pool resources and share duties. Even in contexts where it was logistically possible to set up an independent household as a single person, everything was easier with one or more partners. Two people can merge their financial resources and incomes and gain access to more security than either of them alone. And the work of maintaining a household, whether it involves physical labor or management skills, is halved when two people are involved. This has always been held out as one of the basic purposes of marriage—the partnering with a “helpmeet”—and outside of marriage it remains as a practical motivation for cohabitation.
Across the ages, it has been common for unmarried women to pool resources—either in pairs or in larger groups—to achieve a more stable position or a higher standard of living. In some historic contexts, this type of household was a recognized “type”. Whether the arrangement is framed as a landlady with boarders, or spinsters ekeing out their resources together, whether they present themselves as business partners or the overt couplehood of a Boston marriage, whether the arrangement looks like employment or like friendship or like familial bonds, the outcome is a semi-formal living arrangement that has a public purpose not related to a romantic or erotic relationship.
This can not only create an analogue to marriage for the purposes of a romance trope, but it can add an additional layer of complexity to the tensions and interactions that play out within the trope. Let’s look at just one isolated scenario and ring some changes over it. Anne has inherited a house from her grandmother and doesn’t want her cousins to move in under the argument that she needs the help. Elizabeth is making an adequate living as a writer, but since it’s all under a pen name to conceal her gender, her family assumes she’s impoverished. To solve both their problems, Anne offers to take Elizabeth on as a boarder. Aha, fake relationship! Because neither of them needs the financial arrangement, they only need the illusion of depending on the financial arrangement. But now, in comes the romance plot, though neither of them went into this expecting any sort of emotional entanglement. For that matter, maybe they don’t even like each other much at first. Or each of them believes the other’s fictional financial emergency. And then one or the other finds herself getting attached. But something happens to disrupt the fictional boarder arrangement. Maybe Elizabeth comes into some money that she’s able to be public about and so can afford her own place. What to do? Can they sort out all the fictions and feelings to achieve true love?
Making it All Come Together
Expanding the types of relationships that can be used as the basis for a marriage-like trope for female couples changes some of the dynamics, but not always in the way you might think. The imperative toward marriage can involve external pressures and demands, but so can other types of personal contract. First marriage traditionally happens around a specific life stage (though perhaps a different age in different contexts) but other interpersonal contracts may have a similar ticking clock. Marriage may be driven by ulterior motives that create the temptation or the need for deception—either between the couple or for an external audience—but so do many other types of relationships.
And as we’ve seen, while male-female marriage tropes typically operate between two contrasting states (the idealized one in which romance, desire, and marriage are all aligned, and the conflicting state in which that alignment is disrupted), parallel tropes for female couples disrupt the assumed connection between the “public” arrangement and the existence of a romance, allowing for a three-way conflict between the romantic potential and the public and private understandings of the contractual context in which it develops.
The essential features in turning a trope into a plot are to identify which functional aspects of the trope you want to replicate, and then find a type of formalized same-sex arrangement that can replicate the same functions. And if you set it up cleverly, you’ll end up with even more potential for angst, intrigue, and misunderstanding than traditional marriage can offer.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
This article looks at some of the realities and myths of early Christian "dedicated virgins". What sort of lives did they lead? How were their lives similar to, or different from, those of unmarried women who were not religious devotees? From the point of view of the LHMP, there's also the question of to what extent this lifestyle could have accommodated same-sex desire.
Vuolanto, Ville. 2019. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
Vuolanto, Ville. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family”
This article focuses primarily on women who chose a single/celibate life for religious reasons in the late 4th and early 5th century. In earlier Roman society, while modesty and chastity were desired virtues for the young, unmarried woman, it was for the purpose of entering marriage as a virgin, not as an end in itself. However shifts in social expectations due to Christianity created the idea of choosing singlehood as a deliberate strategy for religious purposes. For some, it might have been a decision made for them as early as infancy, for others the choice might arise (whether their own or imposed) as they approached or entered a marriageable age. Such a life path was often framed in the context of abstaining from other social privileges of the “good life”.
There is a discussion of how likely it was that the girl herself was the driver of these decisions, given the age at which they would have been made. Hagiography (and especially martyrdoms) focused on narratives where young women refused marriage or chose celibacy in direct contradiction to their parents’ wishes, and often at the cost of severe punishment and coercion. However the author suggests that these narratives were unlikely to reflect everyday reality.
But to what extent would such a life of religious singleness be recognizable as “a single lifestyle”? In general, the young women would remain living with their parents (whereas male ascetics might leave to join a monastery). The expectations for their behavior were nearly identical to those for a not-yet-married woman: domesticity, modesty, and restriction from the public sphere. Among the elite, however, there could be a performative aspect to their lives where it was important that they be seen to be extreme in their piety and renunciation. At the same time, the existence of young unmarried women in the household could be considered a hazard to the family’s reputation if she were accused (rightly or wrongly) of impropriety.
Separate ascetic communities for women were not an option at first, but elite households that supported their daughters in this lifestyle sometimes evolved into a “magnet” for other women, developing into a non-familial community. If such communities involved women who came to asceticism later in life, they might bring with them children who would initially grow up in the ascetic community but might not remain as a devotee.
Some of the anxieties surrounding these dedicated virgins were addressed by the development of the concept of being a “bride of Christ.” Marriage returned as the central organizing expectation of women’s lives, but in a form that allowed for chastity. For these “single women,” solitariness was not a part of their experience. Largely, they continued to live as part of familial communities, bowing to parental expectations, and ruled by the behavioral expectations for all unmarried women.
Another article from this collection that is primarily about men even when nominally about women.
Cribiore, Rafaella. 2019. “Different Ways of Life: Being Single in the Fourth Century CE” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.
Cribiore, Rafaella. “Different Ways of Life: Being Single in the Fourth Century CE”
This paper explores different modes of singlehood through the lives of three elite men. There is a brief discussion of single women mentioned in the epistles of one of the three: Libanius, a 4th century professor of rhetoric in Antioch. The women in question are widowed mothers of his students, most of whom did not remarry and who experienced certain struggles as a result, as well as their status having consequences for the students in question. But there are few details and Libanius’s concern is primarily for how their status affected their sons.
It's common for articles about demographic studies to focus heavily on the methodology and definitions used for interpreting the data. This is of vital importance, as all such interpretations are conditional on the accuracy of the premises. But this sort of approach can give the impression that nothing at all is known for certain. To some extent, that's an accurate impression if one focuses on the "for certain" part, though not with regard to the "nothing is known" part. Still, in exploring "how we know what we know" the authors necessarily lay out a complex understanding of the social structures and conditions that underlie their interpretations. It's all fascinating.
This is my last day at Worldcon in Chicago and I'm down to a book signing and a small group fan-chat. I've had a good time, though I've also learned some shifts in the boundaries of my energy. Most of the panel discussions I've participated in have not simply been entertaining, but have been exciting and energizing. Particularly memorable were a discussion of "proto-sci-fi" works, especially the long history of "hollow earth" stories; an examination of gendered magic in historic fantasy; and a look at how alternate history stories can give voice and visibility to historically marginalized characters.
It's too early to tell whether my Covid precautions have held, especially since I have another day of airports to get through tomorrow. The convention required proof of vaccination and universal masking, but of course it's still possible for those to fail if the luck goes against you. Keep your fingers crossed for me, and hold a thought for those who would like to return to attending in-person conventions but don't yet consider it safe.
Goessens, Thomas. 2019. “Singles and Singleness in the Christian Epigraphic Evidence from Rome (c. 300-500 CE)” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
Goessens, Thomas. “Singles and Singleness in the Christian Epigraphic Evidence from Rome (c. 300-500 CE)”
Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single
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This article uses early Christian funerary inscriptions in the city of Rome as a data source for life-long singleness, allowing for a quantitative and statistical analysis. The corpus of relevant inscriptions includes over 40,000 items though many are fragmentary. As the vast majority of inscriptions from this period are funerary in nature, and due to the typical content of such inscriptions, we have perhaps 20,000 epitaphs that include not only the name, but also age at death, length of marriage (if any), and references to familial relationships. In date, they range from the early 3rd to mid-7th century CE, thugh most fall in the century between the death of Constantine the Great and the early 5th century.
Several caveats are necessary. Due to social differences in burial preferences, these inscriptions are less likely to belong to the social elite. Due to Christian avoidance of identifying people by social status, it is not possible to make group distinctions between enslaved people, freedmen, and citizens. In addition, the shift from use of the tria nomina name formula to the use of a single name can make family connections difficult to trace. The epigraphic information rarely touches on questions of divorce and remarriage.
Given these caveats, the criteria used to classify an inscription as referring to a “single” person are: of marriageable age and not in a spousal relationship at the time of death (regardless of reason). Three women are used as examples to introduce the analysis.
Maximilla died in 389 at age 51. She was the daughter of a diaconus (deacon), but the epitaph was commissioned by a friend, the daughter of a man of senatorial rank. Maximilla is described as virgo (virgin) and ancilla Dei (female-servant of God). There is no reference to a spouse. It is a reasonable conclusion that she never married and may have deliberately chosen a life of consecrated virginity.
Cassia Sophrosyne was commemorated in 402 by her niece Cassia Vindicia. Although Sophrosyne’s age is not given, the fact that she had an adult niece suggests she may have been past the age of expected marriage. Sophrosyne is described a a virgo sacra (sacred virgin) respected for her sexual abstinence, and Vindicia identifies herself as a virgo Deo dedicate (virgin dedicated to God), though her age is not known.
The contextual information for these three women is atypically detailed, and it’s possible that such details over-represent a religious motivation for singlehood (as other reasons would not be celebrated for posterity). In addition, all three belonged to the social and economic elite. Therefore caution must be observed in extrapolating from the more detailed inscriptional data.
Singlehood can either be mentioned explicitly, or implied by the lack of reference to a spouse, with the latter being more common. Many inscriptions contain only the name of the deceased (which indicates gender) accompanied by formulaic expressions. Most often, there is no mention of what the relationship is to the person doing the commemoration, and the author has chosen to exclude these from analysis as no conclusion about singlehood can be made. Another problematic group are epitaphs that indicate they were arranged for by the deceased themselves—a context that suggests but does not prove single status.
Searching for more certainty, the author considers what explicit language might indicate single status. “Caelebs” is a good candidate but in funerary inscriptions seems to be limited to military veterans. “Vidua” (widow) may also be used to indicate an unmarried woman (as opposed to a woman whose husband had died but who might have remarried). (There seems to be a suggestion that “vidua” might also be used to mean “never-married”?) Overall, the author concludes that the use of specific terminology is unhelpful in identifying those unmarried at death.
Use of the word “virgo” is also a problem for interpretation as it is associated primarily with young women (up to age 25), and doesn’t absolutely correlate with unmarried status. Overall both female and male virgins are highly likely to be never-married, but it may sometimes refer to a married person in a chaste relationship. To confuse the issue, the words virginia/virginius are used almost exclusively for married people and seem to refer to virginal status at the time of marriage. The phrases “virgo Dei” or “virgo sacra” seems much more likely to refer to a deliberate never-married state, on religious principles, but these phrases are quite rare and there is some indication the label would only be applied after reaching a certain age. And in contradiction to this interpretation is Ioviniana who was described as “virgo sanctae memoriae” but also as a wife and mother.
The use of the formulas “ancilla Dei” or “servus Dei” [Note: typically translated “servant of God” but with a nod to my classicist friend who emphasizes this point, a more contextual translation is “slave of God”] seem to refer purely to religious devotion with no implication regarding marital status, with some explicitly noted as being married.
References to the status of clergy carries no indication of singlehood as there was no requirement for clergy to be unmarried, though it was considered an ideal.
The author once again comes to a conclusion that identifying singles via specific keywords in the inscriptions is fraught with uncertainty. He moves on to an analysis of inscriptions in which it is married status that is explicitly indicated. Based on the demographic data in the inscriptions, a normative life course for married people can be identified, after which this can be used as a context for evaluation. Then a metric can be established to categorize people who had passed the normative age for marriage (at the time of death) but for which no explicit reference to marriage was present.
After much hedging about, he suggests that women married between the ages of 14 and 21, and men between 20 and 25, with an average for women of 20 and for men of 26. This estimate might be corroborated from inscriptions that include an age at death and length of marriage, but there are relatively few that contain this data. This approach suggests that women married between 12 and 27 (with 90% married by that age) and men between 18 and 34 (with 90% married by that age).
After yet more hemming and hawing about what weight can be put on the data, th author proposes that for lower estimates of expected age at marriage, perhaps 1 out of 7 women were unmarried at death and 1 out of 4 men; while for higher estimates of expected marriage age, perhaps 1 in 10 women and 1 in 7 men were unmarried at death. But then he notes only that this 1/10 and 1/7 no doubt included some single people, though not necessarily never-married ones.
All in all, the paper takes a great deal of time and analysis to conclude that we can’t really be certain about anything except in the few specific cases where the person’s singleness is explicitly noted in the inscription. But there are some interesting data tables for specific keywords in the inscriptions and graphs for some of the demographic patterns.
(Originally aired 2022/09/03 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2022.
Last month kicked my ass and I’m sitting here composing the September On the Shelf script with a brain that’s gasping for air a bit. Mostly day-job stuff – the sort that means you get a phone call from your boss at 7pm Friday evening asking you to log on again so you can participate in a live report-editing session with the Directors and VPs, and the session goes to midnight, and at the end of it the conclusion is that the report has to be re-written from scratch before Monday. It’s been a bit like that all month and has left me wrung out and not up to much else except trying to recover from each day before the next.
Underneath all that, has been preparations for attending the annual World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention – Worldcon, for short – in Chicago, which is where I am at the time this podcast is going live. I have a fabulous schedule, with panel discussions and volunteer time and business meetings and book signings and seeing all manner of friends in person whom I mostly only see at Worldcons. And missing the ones who aren’t able to make it or still don’t feel safe traveling or mingling in crowds.
Even though I’m recording this in advance, I feel confident telling you that I’m having a wonderful time. One of the items I’m involved in is as one of the co-hosts for a LGBTQIA+ “Elders meetup” social gathering. When I saw that on the schedule as I was picking programming items I was interested in, I had a brief moment of thinking, “Wait, am I an ‘elder’?” But however much I sometimes question whether I feel part of a community, I’ve been doing this SFF fandom thing as an out queer woman for over 40 years now, so I guess that really does make me a queer elder.
I’m participating in several panel discussions that are very near and dear to my heart, and quite relevant to this podcast. One is “Reclaiming History Through Alternate Yesterdays,” where we’ll talk about using alternate history to challenge the dominant historical narratives and to center those who are often marginalized in the study of traditional history. Every single work of queer historical fiction is doing this work, alongside fictions that tackle the contexts of race, colonialism, disability, and other topics.
I’m moderating a panel discussion on gendered magic in historic fantasy (though we may broaden the scope of literature we discuss), which ties in very nicely to how gender and gendered characteristics have been perceived and policed across the ages. I’m involved in a couple panel discussions on podcasting in general: how to get started, and what it’s all about, plus a few other assorted items. If, by some chance, you too happen to be at Worldcon in Chicago, I’d love for you to find me and say hi.
On a more routine topic, this is your monthly reminder that the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast is doing a short fiction series again in 2023, so it’s time for you to be brainstorming story ideas and telling all your friends to do the same. A link to the Call for Submissions is in the show notes or on the website.
Publications on the Blog
During August and continuing on into September, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been looking at articles from the collection The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World edited by Sabine R. Huebner and Christian Laes. As usual, for collections about singlehood, there’s a wide variation in how relevant the articles are in application to imagining queer lives. But they also show the variation in attitudes and practices in the classical and early Christian eras. The detailed demographic data on pre-Christian Egypt is especially full of anecdotes that get my imagination spinning, particularly in contrast to some of the more rigid attitudes and practices in Rome proper.
This collection will see us through September, but after that I’m planning on doing an intersection of the blog and podcast around a particular primary source that I’ve been working on. I’ll save the details until I’m certain it’s on the schedule, but it’s a historic incident that interrogates the overlap between gender and sexuality in interesting ways—one that I’ve mentioned previously in several podcasts, but where I’ve only recently gotten my hands on the full original text to work with.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
With everything that’s been going on, it’s no surprise that I haven’t had time to shop for non-fiction for the blog, but we have a bumper crop of new fiction to talk about. I don’t usually reach back several months for the new book listings. If I missed something too much earlier, I just add it to the database and move on. But this June book looked too interesting not to include.
Mackenzy O'Rorke P.I.: In the Case of the Dangerous Dames self-published by Dee D. Matthews looks like a good old-fashioned hard-boiled detective novel. The cover copy is somewhat generic, but the book’s metadata indicates that we’re dealing with a lesbian PI.
1942, in the city of angels. Mackenzy O’Rorke was a one-of-a-kind P.I. For starters, she was a dame doing a man’s job and doing it with style. To be a successful sleuth, you had to be smarter than the average cop and 10 times that of the criminals. Mack, as her friends called her, was that and more. Her latest case was supposed to be a simple missing person but turned out to be bigger than a movie plot and more dangerous than the war the boys were fighting overseas. The clock is ticking, and lives are on the line. It’s up to Mack to keep three dames alive until they can sing to Uncles Sam.
There are three August books I haven’t covered previously. I’ve been trying to do a bit of sleuthing on the first one. The Lioness Queen by Elly Greys appears to be the same as the French book La Reine Lionne published in 2021 by Alexia Damyl. I’m a bit confused by the difference in author names, since both names have a presence on Amazon and Goodreads, but without any clear linkage for the couple of titles that appear to be different language editions of the same book. I tried reaching out to Alexia on Instagram to clarify that both names are her but haven’t heard back. I’m probably worrying too much, but you sometimes hear about scammers lifting entire books by someone else and republishing them under a new name, and I’d hate to discover that I accidentally supported something like that. The book has a rather unusual setting: Pharaonic Egypt.
Amanishaketo is the niece of the Nubian king Teriteqas. Disliked by her mother and denied by her brother, she ends up reconnecting with happiness in the arms of an exceptional woman. Cheeky and rebellious, she will have to fight to save the woman she loves and her entire country. Under the watchful eye of the god Amon-Re, will she succeed in going through all the trials that fate has decided to impose on her?
Another less common setting, with a touch of the supernatural, appears in Temis and Lofn by Mary Eicher from NineStar Press.
In eighth-century Ireland, the daughter of a nobleman is torn between two futures. Temis must either abide by her father’s plan to thwart a looming Viking onslaught or follow her heart and find the one to whom she believes she is eternally bound. Word of ever-closer Viking raids heightens the alarm of the villagers, and her father is forced to set aside Temis’s romantic notions to protect the village. Furious at the betrayal, Temis abandons the village to its coming battle and sets off to see where her heart might lead her. When the raiders attack, Temis rushes home, only to discover the village destroyed. Receiving a final message from her captured father, she sets aside her heart’s quest in favor of rescue and revenge for the destruction the Vikings have wrought. But the cruel invaders have brought something more than death. Within their number is the very person Temis has sought, the other half of a twin flame that has burned for millenia. It is left to a prescient Viking gothi to intervene and help determine if a timeless love can rise above violence and revenge.
I’m not sure how I missed advance knowledge about the release of the anthology Queer Weird West Tales edited by Julie Bozza from Libratiger, given that I know several of the contributing authors personally. While I don’t know exactly what the representation is in the individual stories, I feel confident asserting that we’ll see a good variety of characters in fascinating stories. Here’s the brief cover copy.
Frontiers have always attracted the Other - where they find that the Other is always already there. These 22 stories explore what happens when queer characters encounter weirdness on the edge of the worlds they know.
I found six September releases, starting off with another early medieval setting in Sigrid and Elyn: A Tale of Norvegr (Tales of Norvegr #1) by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.
Attracted by passion, repelled by war. Can two shieldmaidens navigate battlegrounds of the sword and their hearts? Pre-Viking Scandinavia. Sigrid the Valiant is legendary throughout the kingdoms of Norvegr, along with her twin brother, for their many heroic deeds, but her heart has not found a home. Now, racing on the heels of their father’s murder, a neighboring kingdom’s raids threaten to cause an all-out war. Elyn is a young shieldmaiden with a score to settle, fighting her own insecurities along with enemies who threaten her homeland, but she remains unconvinced all is as it seems. When the two clash on opposite sides of their shield walls in combat, sparks fly from both their swords and passions. Unable to forget each other, they meet a second time, and become trapped in a cave. With nothing to do but talk, the two fierce women begin to unravel a plot that has pitted their kingdoms against each other. Will Sigrid and Elyn get past their suspicions and differences to forge a relationship and uncover the villain’s scheme, or will the antagonist’s assassins end their search for the truth?
We seem to be experiencing a profusion, not simply of sapphic Regency romances, but of Regency series. The newest contribution, with the following two books in the series scheduled for the next several months is: Her Morning Star (Ladylike Inclinations #1) self-published by Violet Cowper.
England, 1807. Miss Melanie Bright longs to escape the shadow of disgrace. Still haunted by her parent’s mistakes, the shunned debutante seizes on a hopeful chance by sharing a roof with a well-respected noblewoman. But when her patron proves to be a beautifully reckless daredevil, she’s quickly seduced by the breathtaking promise of foreign escapades. Lady Evelyn Prynne hides deep wounds behind her madcap reputation. Determined to track down and expose a French spy, she refuses to let her gorgeous guest become a distraction. Yet as they face perilous gaming halls, Lebanese deserts, and gunfire side by side, she’s intrigued by the backbone of steel beneath her delightful new companion’s dainty exterior. Wondering if the ton’s favor is still her coveted goal, Melanie questions why she’s so desperate to please her tough benefactress. And even as Lady Evelyn revels in having found a confidante who can finally keep pace with her fiery nature, she continues to plunge them into darker dangers. Will they dare the wrath of convention and bring home the life-changing prize of love?
I often grouse about how plot summaries of books can be so cagey about queer content, so it can be a relief to see the cover copy casually refer to a character as “her girlfriend,” as we see in A Funeral for a Stranger by Eve Morton from Wax Lioness.
Harriet Mortimer knows the man is going to die long before her family agrees to let him accompany them on their wagon journey out of Independence, Missouri and towards California. Isaac is a tall, young, and forthright man--yet a miasma of illness follows him and marks him as one of the many Dead Harriet sees before they truly pass. She and her best friend (and girlfriend) Patrice take a liking to the young man, and become determined to see that he leaves the world a better man, and with the solace of their presence, at his side when the time comes to pass.
The Trunk by C.M. Castillo from Glass Spider Publishing uses two of the tropes that I categorize under cross-time stories. The “romance of the archives” where a contemporary character learns about a queer woman of the past by researching some artifact connected with her, and the “mystical connection across time” trope, where the two characters experience a supernatural encounter despite the separating years.
Simone Adan is living a lie. Engaged to a man she doesn't love and disillusioned with the hand that fate has dealt her, she knows she was meant for something more. Then, one day, everything changes when she stumbles into a magical antique shop and comes across an old steamer trunk. Adorned with faded stickers of its past travels-Madrid, Africa, Italy, Morocco-the trunk's timeless beauty is matched only by the mystery of its origins. When Simone buys the trunk and has it shipped to her home in Chicago, she has no way of knowing the extraordinary chain of events she has set into play. Meanwhile, one hundred years ago in 1923 New York, Vivian Oliver is on a similar journey. A brilliant anthropologist, college professor, and frequent party girl, Vivian decides she wants more out of life than champagne socials and one-night stands with beautiful women. Accepting a position on an archaeological dig in Kenya, she is determined to build a new future for herself. But on the way to Africa, Vivian's cherished steamer trunk disappears-taking with it her clothing, her dig tools, and her private journals-only to resurface a century later in a faraway place. Through a series of inexplicable dreams, and drawn together by the enigmatic trunk, Simone and Vivian meet. Each is trapped in their own timeline-Simone in 2023, and Vivian in 1923-but despite the hundred-year barrier between them, they forge a bond strong enough to bridge the gap across time and space . . . changing their destinies forever.
The Reads Rainbow website says that Rust in the Root by Justina Ireland from Balzer + Bray has a sapphic main character, so I’ll trust them, though the cover copy gives no hint in that direction. But Justina Ireland has featured queer characters in the past, so there’s no reason to doubt.
It is 1937, and Laura Ann Langston lives in an America divided—between those who work the mystical arts and those who do not. Ever since the Great Rust, a catastrophic event that blighted the arcane force called the Dynamism and threw America into disarray, the country has been rebuilding for a better future. And everyone knows the future is industry and technology—otherwise known as Mechomancy—not the traditional mystical arts. Laura disagrees. A talented young mage from Pennsylvania, Laura hopped a portal to New York City on her seventeenth birthday with hopes of earning her mage’s license and becoming something more than a rootworker. But six months later, she’s got little to show for it other than an empty pocket and broken dreams. With nowhere else to turn, Laura applies for a job with the Bureau of the Arcane’s Conservation Corps, a branch of the US government dedicated to repairing the Dynamism so that Mechomancy can thrive. There she meets the Skylark, a powerful mage with a mysterious past, who reluctantly takes Laura on as an apprentice. As they’re sent off on their first mission together into the heart of the country’s oldest and most mysterious Blight, they discover the work of mages not encountered since the darkest period in America’s past, when Black mages were killed for their power—work that could threaten Laura’s and the Skylark’s lives, and everything they’ve worked for.
Groups of women working in non-traditional jobs during the 20th century World Wars is a popular setting for sapphic historic fiction, with WWI ambulance drivers and WWII munitions workers or codebreakers being popular favorites. The Killing Code by Ellie Marney from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers takes on the last setting.
Virginia, 1943: World War II is raging in Europe and on the Pacific front when Kit Sutherland is recruited to help the war effort as a codebreaker at Arlington Hall, a former girls’ college now serving as the site of a secret US Signal Intelligence facility. But Kit is soon involved in another kind of fight: government girls are being brutally murdered in Washington DC, and when Kit stumbles onto a bloody homicide scene, she is drawn into the hunt for the killer. To find the man responsible for the gruesome murders and bring him to justice, Kit joins forces with other female codebreakers at Arlington Hall—gossip queen Dottie Crockford, sharp-tongued intelligence maven Moya Kershaw, and cleverly resourceful Violet DuLac from the segregated codebreaking unit. But as the girls begin to work together and develop friendships—and romance—that they never expected, two things begin to come clear: the murderer they’re hunting is closing in on them…and Kit is hiding a dangerous secret.
What Am I Reading?
Once more, most of my own book consumption has been audiobooks. The amount of intense screen time involved in my day-job makes on-the-page reading feel exhausting, and I’ve been making very slow progress through a couple of ebooks or hard copies. But in audio I enjoyed the third volume in Olivia Waite’s Regency-era Feminine Pursuits series: The Hellion’s Waltz, with a complex heist-type plot involving textile workers and a musician searching for her lost self-confidence who also finds love. One of the highlights of this book is that both romantic protagonists not only have prior romantic experience with women, but also have supportive and accepting home lives in a way that feels true to the times.
I also enjoyed listening to the newly-released audiobook of my own first novel, Daughter of Mystery, which came out in early August. It’s fascinating to hear your own work being produced in a new medium and I hope this one does well enough that they go on to produce the whole series.
The two other items I consumed recently that I want to talk about are connected thematically in an interesting way. A couple of times I’ve talked about the importance, not only of seeing media that explicitly includes and centers queer lives, but of having a wide variety of media that depict stories in which queer people could exist, or in which they clearly exist even when not centered. The two items I want to talk about are the recent Netflix historic mini-series The Essex Serpent, based on the novel of the same name by Sarah Perry (though I’ll be talking about the tv show), and a rather fluffy British-set novel titled Miss Buncle’s Book, written in the 1930s by Scottish author Dorothy Emily Stevenson, writing as D.E. Stevenson.
It is, perhaps, less surprising that a fairly recently-written historic Gothic romance, set in Victorian times, makes clear nods to the homoerotic undercurrents in Victorian society. In The Essex Serpent, everybody loves recent widow Cora Seaborne, whose interest in paleontology gets her tangled up in the concerns of an Essex village where mysterious disappearances and deaths are blamed on a supernatural mythical sea serpent. Her surgeon friend who is looking for opportunities to practice Victorian-era heart surgery loves her, the village pastor whose wife is dying of tuberculosis and trying to set him up with Cora loves her, and her beloved friend and companion Martha, whose passion is social activism, loves her. But things get complicated because Martha also has a fling with the surgeon, and the surgeon ends up living with his very, very close male friend in what likely would be called a romantic friendship if they were women. The eroticized – though never overtly sexual – relationship between the two women is depicted in how they casually share a bed, and in the physical affection they share. Martha struggles with jealousy over Cora’s attraction to the two men, and over the recognition that society might grudgingly accept Cora’s disinterest in remarriage due to the unhappy nature of her previous one, but that society would not consider Cora and Martha’s relationship to be anything more than employer and employee, or at best friendship.
But within the context of this fictional depiction, other characters within their social circle do recognize that Martha has a place and a claim in Cora’s life, as illustrated by a scene where one of the men turns to Martha and says, in recognition, “You’re in love with her,” and Martha responds, “Aren’t we all?”
The story was never going to end with Cora and Martha as a couple, but it recognizes that they have an emotional bond that is as real as the various heterosexual connections in the story, and as Martha turns more and more to her social justice work, there is space to imagine her finding a new girlfriend there.
In some ways, the queer representation in D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book is even more delightful, as it was written within the same era as the setting, and so cannot be accused of anachronism. I’m going to dive into this story in extensive detail because I think it tells us some useful and unexpected things about historic accuracy in fiction.
I became aware of this book (and the motif of interest) through a review by author and very prolific reader K.J. Charles. Written, set, and published in the 1930s, the story tells of Miss Buncle, a spinster living in the sort of small English village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, who tackles an unexpected decline in her income by writing a pseudonymous roman a clef about the people around her, but with a lightly supernatural twist in which a mysterious figure wanders through the village inspiring people to break out of their ruts and make drastic changes in their lives for the better. The story involves the reactions of her neighbors to recognizing themselves in the unexpected best-seller, their attempts to identify the mysterious author, and how the changes depicted in the book come into being, though not always as they did in the novel.
Among the many stock “types” in Miss Buncle’s village is a household composed of two unmarried women. Let’s look at several of the passages describing them.
Miss King and Miss Pretty dwelt in the High Street next door to Dr. Walker in an old house behind high stone walls. They had nine o’clock breakfast, of course, being ladies of leisure.
In this next passage, several characters are commenting on a tennis match and we get Barbara Buncle’s take on Miss King.
“It would have made a better game if they had had Dorothea Bold instead of Olivia,” said Miss King firmly.
“Oh, Miss King, how can you say such a thing?” cried Miss Isabella in horrified tones.
“Merely because it happens to be true. Dorothea is a more reliable player than Olivia,” replied Miss King firmly, and moved away.
“Horrid old thing!” said Miss Isabella to Barbara Buncle who happened to be sitting next to her. “It’s just jealousy, that’s what it is. She may dress herself up like a man, and talk and smoke like a man, but she’s nothing but a cat—that’s what she is.”
“I rather like Miss King,” said Barbara placidly, and she looked at Miss King’s tall commanding figure as it strode off across the court with some affection. Of course she was rather funny with her deep voice, and her short hair, and her strange habit of wearing tailored coats and skirts with collars and ties like a man, and very often she was to be seen with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and her hands in her pockets; but, after all, these little peculiarities did nobody any harm, and there was something rather nice about the woman. At any rate she would never say behind your back what she would not say to your face (like some people one could name). You always knew exactly where you were with her; she said what she thought without fear or favor.
As one of the other characters is reading through the novel and recognizing who the characters are meant to be, while being amused by the unexpected turns their lives take, she thinks,
In fact everyone did something queer, even Miss King and Miss Pretty (they were called Earle and Darling in the book but Sarah had got beyond troubling her head with such details) were seized with the spirit of adventure and decided to start upon an expedition to Samarkand. They each ordered a pair of riding breeches from Sharrods, and the book closed—very suitably—on that high note.
At this era, it’s plausible—though not a guarantee—that the word “queer” is meant to evoke something particular about Miss King and Miss Pretty’s relationship. Note that “everyone did something queer” is referring to a number of twists in decidedly heterosexual lives. But the potential ambiguity and evocation of same-sex relationships is there.
The village queen bee, quite unamused at how her fictional persona is treated, calls a meeting to discuss the matter (including, unknown to them all, the book’s actual author). We once again are told that Miss King’s defining attribute is her performance of gender transgression.
Miss King found her voice first. Perhaps it was the manliness of her attire that gave her confidence in her own capabilities, or perhaps it was her confident and capable nature which promoted the manliness of her attire. It does not really matter which, the important thing is that Miss King believed she was a capable sensible person and this belief was a great help to her in emergencies such as the present one.
Once Miss King actually reads the book and recognizes the characters meant to be her and Miss Pretty, she becomes anxious enough to go confront the publisher and demand retraction. Initially she describes the issue in general terms “it is causing a great deal of misery and trouble to innocent people.” The publisher (who, by the way, gradually falls in love with Miss Buncle), being accustomed to dealing with confrontations of this type, tells her she needs to be more explicit. Miss King, after some hemming and hawing, explains,
“So there we were,” she was saying, “both orphans, without anybody dependent upon us, nor any near relations. I had a house, larger than I required. Miss Pretty was homeless. We both possessed small incomes, too small to enable us to live alone in comfort. I was about to sell my house (for I could not live in it alone) when the suggestion was made that we should pool our resources and live together—what more natural? By this means we were enabled to live comfortably in my house. The companionship was pleasant, the financial problem was solved. There was a book some years ago,” continued Miss King incoherently, “it distressed us very much at the time, but it had nothing to do with us, and I decided to ignore it—this book is far worse—it’s all about us—it’s far, far worse—”
“You have misread the novel entirely,” said Mr. Abbott uncomfortably. “I assure you that you have misread it. There is nothing in it to cause you the slightest distress. The author is a particularly simple-minded—er—person.”
“But Samarkand!” exclaimed Miss King, trying to keep the sound of tears out of her voice. “Why Samarkand of all places?”
“I don’t know anything about Samarkand,” said Mr. Abbott truthfully, “but to me it has an adventurous sound, and I feel convinced that that was what it was intended to convey—”
“A dreadful Eastern place—full of vice and—and horribleness,” cried Miss King.”
She gets nowhere with the publisher, and later is commiserating with another villager who advises,
“Perhaps in time he will get tired of saying no. Come up and see him constantly—publishers love to have their mornings wasted for them—put off your visit to Samarkand for a few weeks, and sit upon Mr. Abbott’s doorstep.”
“Samarkand,” cried Miss King, goaded to frenzy. “I’m not going to Samarkand—why should I? What’s it got to do with you where I go? I shall go to Samarkand if I like—”
Now why should the reference to Samarkand – a city with deep historic roots located in modern Uzbekistan – bother Miss King so? Why should the associations of it be “vice and horribleness”? And what sort of vice and horribleness? It is located on the ancient Silk Road, and in the late 19th to early 20th centuries was caught up in the proxy wars between western powers, eventually becoming part of the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, which was its status at the time of this book. But one gets the sense that Miss King isn’t thinking of contemporary politics, but rather that Samarkand is standing in for the “exotic East,” a place where standards of behavior are quite un-English, and that the people who live there – or even simply visit there – are suspect in some way. One can’t help but think of the long history of how lesbian relations were projected onto Islamic societies such as the Ottoman Empire. (It’s hard not to be reminded of Anne Lister’s dramatic travels to that general part of the world that ended in her unfortunate fatal illness.) Taking a step back, it’s clear that Samarkand is standing in Miss King’s mind for sexual deviance, and that Miss Buncle’s Book, she believes, is accusing her and Miss Pretty of things she would prefer not to discuss explicitly.
But as life goes on, we learn that Miss Angela Pretty has some chronic lung problems, and her doctor raises the question with Miss Ellen King about a change of environment.
“I don’t like these continual colds,” he said. “I don’t like them, Ellen.”
These two were old friends. They had always lived next door to each other (for Dr. John’s father had been Silverstream’s doctor before Dr. John was born). Ellen and John had played together as children, and together had climbed every climbable tree in the two adjoining gardens. Dr. John had a great respect for Ellen King, and a great compassion; she was such a lonely sort of creature and ridden by a curious temperament. Her excellent brain had never been developed and turned to use. Ellen would have made a good doctor or lawyer (the stuff was there), but her father had abhorred clever women and had denied her the opportunity of a decent education.
“What do you mean, exactly?” she asked him anxiously.
“I don’t mean anything very much,” Dr. John told her. “In fact I mean exactly what I say—I don’t like these continual colds that Angela gets. Could you possibly go away?”
“Go away? You mean to Bournemouth or somewhere?”
“Bournemouth? No. I mean to Egypt. It is warm and dry there. Just for the rest of the winter, of course.”
“I suppose we could if it is necessary—I mean of course we could if it is necessary,” she amended in sudden alarm.
“I wouldn’t like to say it is necessary, but it is advisable,” he replied, choosing his words carefully.”
As Miss King and the doctor discuss this possibility, we encounter some hints of psychological stereotypes that associate same-sex relationships with personality weaknesses. The doctor dismisses these concerns, although he does so in a rather sex-stereotyped way.
“John!” she said suddenly. “Shall I let Angela go alone? I could take up some sort of work—no, don’t say anything yet—I believe I’m bad for Angela, John. I have begun to think she would be better without me. She depends upon me too much. Sometimes I think she is beginning to lose her identity altogether—”
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Dr. John furiously, taking a few strides across the floor and back again to his usual station in front of the fire. “What on earth are you talking about, Ellen? I thought you had more sense. Angela would depend upon anybody who happened to be there to depend upon. It’s her nature to—to lean—Angela is weak in body, and soul, and mind.”
“I know,” said Ellen, “I know all that, John, but I love her just the same. I love her too much. I fuss over her too much—I agonize over her—”
“Look here, we all agonize over people we love. But we mustn’t fuss—that’s the important thing. It’s difficult not to fuss, but we mustn’t do it, Ellen. I don’t think you do fuss over Angela. I think you’re very sensible with her.”
“I’ve begun to doubt it,” Ellen replied. “You don’t know how she depends upon me for everything. She can’t even decide what to wear without asking me what I think. That’s bad, isn’t it, John?”
“It’s the woman’s nature,” he said impatiently. “You’ve done such a lot for her; you’ve been wonderful to her, Ellen. Believe me it’s not your fault that she’s weak and vacillating—you’re not bad for her; it’s absurd and ridiculous to think so. As for her going to Egypt by herself, the thing’s simply unthinkable; I couldn’t countenance it for a moment. I’d rather she stayed here, infinitely rather. You must go and look after her; she needs you. For pity’s sake, don’t go and get a lot of foolish ideas into your head.”
“John, have you read that book?”
Miss King has recognized that Miss Buncle’s Book is depicting her relationship with Miss Pretty as queer (in the modern sense) and seems to be worrying that there is something unacceptable about the relationship that perhaps she, herself, hadn’t recognized. Or maybe she’s worried that everyone else will suddenly realize that they aren’t “just good friends” and it will destroy their lives. The doctor assures her, “It didn’t strike me as a satire, nor could I find anything nasty in it.” He reiterates the suggestion that Miss Pretty needs some time in a warmer climate, and Miss King concludes,
“Why don’t you send us to Samarkand while you’re about it?” she demanded, with a deep chuckle. “I believe you’re in league with [the author].”
Dr. John waved his hat at her. “Good! Splendid!” he cried. “That’s the spirit—that’s more like the good old Ellen King I know so well. Tell them all that you and Angela are off to Samarkand—and, Ellen,” he added in lower and more confidential tones, “don’t forget to order those riding breeches, will you? You’d look fine in them.”
Later on, the doctor’s wife is discussing the book with Miss Buncle (still unaware that Miss Buncle is the author) and we get the impression that perhaps Miss Buncle, while depicting King and Pretty dead-to-life is not consciously aware that their relationship is romantic.
“I can’t understand Ellen King at all; she’s usually such a sensible sort of person. I can’t see anything in the book for her to make a song and dance about—can you?”
“No, I can’t,” said Barbara. She had not intended to be hard on Miss King; she liked her. The fact was that Barbara had always been of the opinion that Miss King found Silverstream a trifle dull. There was little scope in Silverstream for Miss King’s energies and capabilities, and it had been with friendly intent that she had arranged an adventurous holiday for her in Samarkand.”
Towards the end of the book, though still before anyone knows the true authorship, Miss Buncle encounters Miss King.
“What horrid damp weather,” Barbara said, wondering what we would do without that safe topic of conversation. “And so warm and unseasonable, isn’t it? I do hope it will clear up and be nice and frosty for Christmas Day. I like Christmas Day to be frosty, don’t you?”
“It never is,” Miss King pointed out.
“I expect we shall have a cold spell later,” continued Barbara. “After all this mild wet weather we are practically bound to. Don’t you think so?”
“Well, it won’t affect me, anyway,” said Miss King blithely, “Angela and I are off to Samarkand next week.”
However we are meant to understand the self-awareness of Miss King and Miss Pretty, they are given their happy ever after. And they embrace and publicly acknowledge the depiction of their relationship in the book, as symbolized by choosing Samarkand as destination.
But much more to the point, the author D.E. Stevenson, who was born at the end of the 19th century, created a heartwarming story in the 1930s that included a female couple clearly meant to be understood as a romantic couple, living in peace and friendship with their neighbors in a small English village, who also clearly recognize them on some level as a romantic couple, but everyone just quietly accepts that and pretends they haven’t noticed. Not only do we need that type of queer representation in historic fiction, but we need to recognize that that type of queer representation is historically accurate – that stories set in the past don’t need to choose between being pure fantasy and being awful and miserable. Go ahead and write your characters pulling up stakes and moving to Samarkand with everyone being happy for them.
Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
A "completist" entry in this series, but as my summary points out, not of particular interest to the Project. Which aligns fairly well with my current mood. Let me tell you about the last 12 hours. I was supposed to fly out of SFO this morning at 08:30 (going to Chicago for Worldcon), which meant setting my alarm to get up at 05:00 to get BART to the airport. My attempt to get my full complement of sleep by going to bed early failed (general anxiety about travel schedules does that), so I'm not sure I had actually slept yet when the text arrived around midnight saying our plane was not leaving its origin, due to the crew timing out, and the flight was being rescheduled for 13:30.
In theory, this meant that I could turn off my early-morning alarms, sleep in to a reasonable hour, and then make a leisurely trip to the airport at a rational hour. In reality, I still didn't sleep well. And since I'd deliberately used the trip as an excuse to use up my perishables and I'd left the kitchen spotless for the house-sitter, I'd have to leave the house to get breakfast and coffee anyway, so I just headed for the airport as soon as I was up. Had a nice leisurely brunch (complimentary, courtesy of the Airline food vouchers). But I'm now at that state where I'm pre-exhausted and looking at not getting into Chicago until dinner time (Pacific Stomach Time) and then have to take the train into the city and find the hotel before I can have dinner.
But all in all, my strategy of allowing an extra day before the convention (I'm volunteering at Reg tomorrow, but it wouldn't be a disaster if I'd had to cancel that), and scheduling an early flight (so the back-up plan still has me flying on the same day) means this is all just par for the course for Travel These Days. I am confirmed in my rule of thumb to always leave an extra day leeway when I have to be somewhere on a specific date.
None of this has anything to do with singlehood in classical Rome, but I'm not planning on posting the links to this entry anyway so no one is likely to read this and I can just grouse and be grumpy in peace. So...grump.
Petrova, Mina. 2019. “Single as a ‘Lena’: The Depiction of Procuresses in Augustan Literature” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
Petrova, Mina. “Single as a ‘Lena’: The Depiction of Procuresses in Augustan Literature”
This article looks at the associations in Roman society between singleness in women and sex work, whether directly or as a procuress (lena). Although focused on women, this chapter has no particular relevance to the Project.
As with so many moral judgments imposed on women, it's rarely a case that some particular action or state is praised or blamed in abasolute terms, but rather that it is conditionally praiseworthy depending on how it upholds patriarchal ideals and structures. Being/remaining single may default to being discourged, but circumstances may elevate it in support of some other ideal or principle. Thus, the "widow faithful to her dead husband" is praiseworthy...unless she has failed in the higher principle of procreation. The Amazonian virgin may be very conditionally praiseworthy as a pseudo-man, but face narrative punishment for daring to step outside approved female roles.
Even when the rise of Christianity created a new context in which singlehood was praiseworthy, it was still conditional on fulfilling the requirements of the chaste religious devotee. But to judge these societies for not offering a context in which women might choose to be single (or at least, unmarried to men) for individualistic purposes is still based on culturally determined "allowable ideals" -- it's just that one of those ideals is individualism. This can be very difficult to portray in historic fiction -- and especially in historic romance, in which historic realities are more often bent to accommodate reader desires and expectations. Would your fictional historic character consider individualism an acceptable reason for deviating from the roles and behaviors expected by her society?
One work-around for the modern author is to provide the character with an acceptable in-story justification for the circumstances and goals we want her to have. But especially in sapphic historical romance, readers have a strong desire to see characters for whom same-sex desire is, in itself, a valid justification for her life choices. Not a make-do alternative when the normative life path isn't available. We want our widowed Dido to remain unmarried because, having done her duty in her first marriage, she now chooses to follow her heart and win the affections of a Camilla who is not viewed as a virago, but as embodying one of the life paths that women are capable of choosing.
Pyy, Elina. 2019. “Tracing Roman Ideas on Female Singleness: Virgil’s Aeneid” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
Pyy, Elina. “Tracing Roman Ideas on Female Singleness: Virgil’s Aeneid”
This article compares the literary figures of Dido and Camilla as commentary on Roman attitudes toward deliberate singleness in women. Very briefly, Dido begins by representing the faithful widow, resolved to remain loyal to her dead husband by never remarrying. Her subsequent relationship with Aeneas can either be seen as a betrayal of this ideal or adherence to a different ideal that a childless woman should remarry. But her unhappy end implies that the relationship with Aeneas was inadequately virtuous.
Camilla also resists marriage, but as an Amazonian warrior committed to virginity and war. She represents the “man-like” woman who rejects normative womanhood and is admirable only in a masculine framing. Her dedication to virginity, while given lip service as admirable, is seen as a waste, and the nature of her death in battle can be seen almost as a “corrective rape” motif. [Note: my label, not the author’s.]
The author suggests that hypothetical Roman ideals around female chastity were contradicted by more pragmatic attitudes idealizing procreation and motherhood.
(Originally aired 2022/08/20 - listen here)
The spinster, the wallflower, the woman who is considered “on the shelf” and faces a future as an old maid. And then she meets…well, that’s going to be a surprise.
Historic romance is full of beloved tropes—scenarios that evoke a certain dynamic or conflict or anxiety that gets us right in the feels. Whether you have your favorites or enjoy them all, have you ever stopped to think about how those tropes might play out differently in a historic context when your romantic couple involves two women?
I’m continuing my series of interpreting favorite historic romance tropes in the same-sex context with a look at the spinster. While the series will also sometimes look at how the trope works with a male couple, I think we can agree that the social context for unmarried men versus unmarried women is different enough that there really isn’t a parallel in this case.
Originally, I was thinking about doing a combined show about spinsters and widows, but as I began putting my notes together, it felt like the two character types didn’t really make a natural set, other than for the fact of not being currently in a heterosexual marriage. So I’ll save the widows for later (although pairing spinsters with widows has a lot of potential).
What Is a Trope?
To briefly review what we mean by “trope” in this context, the word is used to mean a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.
As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal.
The Spinster Trope
So what is a spinster? A spinster is not simply a woman who has never married, but specifically a woman who has remained unmarried well past the typical age of marriage for her culture. (The word “spinster” itself has a highly specific cultural context, both in its literal sense and as a general pejorative term. But that’s a digression that we can save for another time.)
The concept of the spinster assumes a certain normative lifecycle in which all women are expected to marry—and to marry on an accepted schedule—and where never-married women are considered to be of low social value. They have marginal economic status, either taking low-paying jobs or jobs with low social status, or must live as appendages to someone else’s household, often acting as unpaid domestic labor. There is an implication that a woman becomes a spinster because she is insufficiently attractive, skilled, or endowed to attract an acceptable husband. A possible sub-reason might be that she was deprived of the opportunity to marry due to the death or other unavailability of a preferred suitor. Alternately, family circumstances — whether of finance, or social or political scandal — may have made her unmarriageable.
Within heterosexual historic romances, the attraction of the spinster heroine (for the reader!) is multifold. She may be depicted as strong-willed and independent-minded, having never encountered a potential suitor she felt was worth compromising her standards and goals for. Or she may be depicted as someone whose light has been hid under a bushel — a woman who is disastrously shy, or whose attractions are different enough from the conventional expectations that she hasn’t encountered someone who properly appreciated them. The spinster heroine may be a type of damsel in distress where — through no fault of her own — she has been deemed unmarriageable despite her conventional attractions. By definition, a spinster is older than the typical heroine for her context, which can appeal to readers who want to see wider age representation while still depicting historic norms.
The suitor who wins her over may be the thoughtful, insightful man who recognizes her hidden value, or the bold, unconventional man who breaks through the comfort of her independence to spark her desire, or the one so assured in his own position that her social defects can be safely ignored.
The Historic Spinster
Historically, in Western culture, there has been a lot of variation in the age at which one is considered a spinster, in social attitudes toward never-married women, in the proportion of never-married women present in the culture, and in the reasons why a woman might remain unmarried. There has also been a lot of variation in a woman’s ability to remain unmarried by choice, and the resulting options for her.
Demographers identify two contrasting life patterns: the southern or Mediterranean pattern in which women are expected to marry relatively young to a somewhat older husband, and to live within the parental household until marriage rather than being employed, and often for the married couple to then live with the husband’s family. Marriage prospects rely primarily on family position, available dowry, and on the moral reputation of the woman. In Catholic cultures, women who remained unmarried past the usual age might be encouraged to enter religious life. I should note that this pattern wasn’t fixed and unchanging — as we move into the early modern period and later, the expected age of marriage drifted later to align more closely with that of the “northern pattern.”
The northern European lifecycle pattern involved relatively equal age of marriage partners, relatively later age at first marriage (typically in the mid-20s), an expectation that the married couple would set up an independent household, and an expectation that both partners would have contributed the money necessary to set up that household, either from family contributions or by working outside the home or both. For a more wealthy or upper class family, and especially in more recent centuries, the period before marriage for young women might involve schooling rather than employment, or in earlier eras it might involve being sent to live in another household to strengthen social connections and learn essential skills.
Within these patterns, the proportion of never-married women might fluctuate anywhere between 10% and 50% depending on factors such as the availability of suitable partners due to warfare or migration patterns (or social constraints on who was considered suitable), the general economic circumstances that made it easier or harder for either the individuals or the family to supply the starter funds for the marriage, or shifts in social attitudes toward women remaining unmarried.
Extreme social hostility to the unmarried spinster or “old maid” seems to have been a peculiarly English phenomenon, beginning around the 18th century and tangled up with the rise of feminist movements. Feminist sentiments were seen both as a cause and a result of spinsterhood. Many feminists criticized traditional marriage as functionally equivalent to slavery and argued both for changes in marriage and for more viable options for unmarried women. But satirists depicted feminists as embittered and lonely due to their inability to attract a husband, and attracted to feminism to make up for that lack.
Never-married women were viewed askance in other eras and contexts as well. As a woman who wasn’t under a husband’s control, she might be seen as something of a loose cannon socially. In other circumstances, the systematic lower pay women received, even for equivalent work to men, meant they were viewed as economically disruptive in much the same way that immigrant or overseas labor is viewed in today’s first world economies. At various times, singlewomen were deliberately edged out of more economically lucrative work in favor of men. And while employment factors were less relevant to the upper class characters who are the traditional focus of historic romance, the impact on overall social attitudes affected all women. In eras when fertility was viewed as a social crisis, unmarried women might be considered self-centered and unpatriotic. And in eras when womanhood and motherhood were considered synonymous, unmarried women might be viewed as essentially unfeminine.
In all eras, as previously noted, there was always some proportion of the population of women who never married. But their cultural circumstances speak to why that might be the case and how people would treat them because of it.
What’s Different for Spinsters in a F/F Romance?
So how does the spinster historic romance trope change when the context is a sapphic story?
The most obvious consequence is that there is no looming male love interest to compete with the second heroine. Perhaps our spinster regrets never having found a male partner. Perhaps she’s simply anxious about how to support herself outside of marriage. Perhaps she’s deliberately embraced singlehood in support of a personal cause or preoccupation. Perhaps she’s actively disinterested in having a husband, whether or not she’s aware of being attracted to women. One of the themes that regularly comes up in historic feminist literature or literature about female friendship is how the everyday realities of marriage interfere with women’s commitments to each other (even when considering only non-romantic bonds). Though keep in mind that even women who had a romantic preference for women didn’t necessarily consider that a reason for remaining single. Love and marriage were often considered separate considerations. So if you want to set your heroine up to be a spinster, it can help to have additional reasons besides preferring women.
Has your spinster character already dealt with the fact that she isn’t married and doesn’t appear likely to be, and has settled into a modus vivendi? Or is she still coming to grips with her position and casting about for direction? Is she still living with her family or does she have sufficient resources (and sufficient reason) to live independently? What’s her financial situation? Lack of finances was the most common reason for a woman to remain single, but it’s not impossible for even a woman with comfortable prospects to remain unmarried. And in the rare but plausible circumstance where she has both financial resources and personal control over them, then she may be in a position to consider marriage a bad bargain, if she doesn’t need a husband’s support.
For that matter, are we dealing with one spinster or two? Are both of our heroines in a similar position and stage of life when they meet each other? Or are they coming from different positions? If we want to recreate some of the favorite character types from the heterosexual spinster trope, what parallels can we find?
The thoughtful suitor who sees the spinster’s true worth despite her retiring personality or unconventional attributes could be almost anyone, but perhaps a slightly older mentor figure, someone the spinster will believe when told she is worthy of love. Someone who helps her find her feet only to end up finding her heart.
The rescuer who is secure enough in her own position that the spinster’s social flaws can be overlooked might be a well-off widow. Widows get a lot of latitude for eccentricity and they frequently have an established independent household that the spinster could join. In some ways, widows are the closest parallel in economic and social terms to the position of the male suitor.
The devil-may-care rake who tempts the spinster to let go of her last attachments to respectability might be a glamorous courtesan, a successful actress, or a woman on the wrong side of the law. Some of these options are more precarious than others, but isn’t that always the case?
How does the character’s spinsterhood interact with her attraction to women? Perhaps she has always felt a romantic attraction to women and is relieved when she ages out of the expectation to fall in love with a man instead. Perhaps she and an intimate friend have spent their marriageable years terrified that the other will receive an offer she can’t refuse, ending their hopes of finding a life together. Perhaps she takes a position expecting genteel poverty as a governess or a lady’s companion, only to find love waiting in her new home. Perhaps she finds herself gradually drifting into the company of other spinsters and realizes that many of them have far more in common that just their marital status. Regardless of romantic interests, one option for unmarried women across the centuries was to form a household with other women in a similar situation, pooling their resources. In 18th and 19th century England, such households were a recognized phenomenon, often set up in less expensive locales than London, such as Bath.
The examples I’ve been giving have tended to center around the 18th and 19th centuries — those favorites of the historic romance genre. But there are plenty of contexts for spinsters in earlier eras. In 16th and 17th century England, an unmarried woman of the middle or upper middle class might turn inherited real estate or a share in a business into an independent living. Medieval daughters of aristocratic families who were not needed for marital alliances were far more likely to end up in convents than to remain unmarried within the family, so the spinster character is somewhat less plausible in this context.
For those enamored of aristocratic characters, the convent life was no longer an option for upper class spinsters in Protestant cultures (after the Reformation), and the restrictions on who was considered an acceptable marriage partner meant that, for example, in 18th and 19th century England, perhaps a quarter of women born to the aristocracy never married. A much more fertile ground for spinster romances, though fraught with anxieties about acceptable means of finding a living. But for earlier eras, it’s much more plausible to focus on middle class and gentry than the titled aristocracy.
There is, of course, another angle on interpreting the spinster trope in a sapphic historic romance, and that is to view it within the context of intimate female friendships. That is, rather than considering the case of a woman who hasn’t married within the expected timespan, what about looking at social contexts where close female bonding was a normative phenomenon, and then considering the woman who hasn’t succeeded in forming a “special friendship” within the age range where that is expected?
The 18th or 19th century woman who has never engaged in a romantic friendship with a woman. The late 19th century girl at a boarding school who develops no same-sex crushes. The woman in any society where gender-segregated socializing is the norm, but who has no particular friends within that context.
It’s hard to see this as closely parallel to the traditional spinster trope, because even when intimate female friendships were considered normal and typical, they were rarely considered obligatory in the way that marriage was expected to be. It’s an interesting motif to play with, but the dynamics are different. And except for the case of schoolgirls, the characters will also be dealing with the default expectations around marriage.
So let’s return to our more typical spinster heroine. She has achieved that age when she’s on the shelf. Perhaps she’s disappointed. Perhaps she’s frightened. Perhaps she’s relieved. Perhaps she feels as if she’s just opened the door to an entirely new world of possibilities. And perhaps there is someone special waiting on the other side of that door.
In a heterosexual spinster romance, the outcome is a reversal of the initial state. Rather than remaining unmarried, the original barriers to marriage are overcome. But in the sapphic spinster romance, those original barriers enable a different type of resolution. They free the heroine from conventional expectations for her life path and make the choice of a female partner acceptable as what is perceived as a fall-back option. The personality features or personal circumstances that discouraged male suitors may be irrelevant to a potential female partner. Intelligent, strong-willed, and independent? Sign me up! Not conventionally beautiful or charming? Men are so superficial. Inadequate dowry or scandalous past? Well, we’ve already stepped outside the expected bounds of polite society, so we’ll just make do as best we can. As spinsters we’ve become invisible, and in invisibility is power.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online
It may not entirely be coincidence that last week, when I wanted some background entertainment for processing my apple harvest, I decided to do a re-watch of I, Claudius. The Augustan marriage laws get a mention in one scene, and of course an exaggerated version of imperial Roman upper class marriage shenanigans is featured throughout. But as this article points out, despite the clear intention of penalizing people for remaining unmarried, the laws ended up only affecting a limited set of the population, and in very limited ways.
I had intended to post these articles on a more frequent basis. (I already have the entire collection written up.) But the day-job is being very intense at the moment (combination of a high-profile investigation assigned to me, plus our regular routine FDA inspection) and I have very little brain for doing anything else. Other than processing the apple harvest, which will not wait. This year I've gotten about 3 bushels from the oldest tree, plus a much smaller quantity from each of the younger trees. They have become (or are becoming) applesauce, dried apple slices, pre-made apple pie filling, and some frozen as wedges to be used in recipes yet to be determined, such as fritters. And a very few eaten fresh because, ironically, I'm not that fond of fresh apples.
Grubbs, Judith Evans. 2019. “Singles, Sex and Status in the Augustan Marriage Legislation” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9
Grubbs, Judith Evans. “Singles, Sex and Status in the Augustan Marriage Legislation”
The legislation in discussion here was only relevant to upper class women, but also to freedmen/freedwomen of the elite. The intent was to regulate behavior around marriage, divorce, and sexuality, but we must distinguish theory and practice. These notes will primarily cover women and the effects of the law were strongly gendered.
Instituted by Augustus in the 1st century, most of the content of the acts were repealed by Constantine in the 4th century. They did not survive to become part of the Justinian code which influenced later medieval law. There were three separate sets of acts, two on marriage and one on illicit sexual activity. But the contents were later combined and so it’s hard to distinguish the original structure.
The goal of the laws was for men between 25 and 60 and women between 20 and 50 to be married and procreating. Unmarried people were penalized by not being allowed to inherit except from close relatives. Childless couples were restricted in what they could will to each other.
Widows and divorcées were allowed a grace period varying between six months to two years before being required to remarry or face the penalties. If such restrictions on inheritance meant there were insufficient eligible heirs, the remainder of the estate went to the public treasury. (Parents and legitimate children could always inherit.) The exemption for close relatives meant that singlehood did not affect legacies from anyone up to second cousins or closer kin. So the effects were not as severe as the intent.
Conversely, adhering to the law’s intent resulted in benefits. A woman who had three or more children was freed from the requirement to have a male legal representative, and could act for herself legally and financially. Freedwomen (former slaves) gained the same after four children (but only if the children were born after she was freed).
The adultery law focused more on penalties. A married woman who had sex with any man other than her husband committed a crime. The penalty was for half her dowry and 1/3 of her other property to be confiscated. She also lost the right to ever marry again. Enforcement required accusation (typically by the husband or father) and conviction. Part of the intent of having legal penalties was to discourage husbands and fathers from simply killing the adulterous woman outright. But husbands could be penalized if they failed to accuse unfaithful wives of adultery.
Women weren’t able to accuse their husband of adultery. For a man to have sex outside marriage was not a crime unless his partner was in a prohibited class, such as a “respectable” woman or a male citizen. Only another man could accuse a man of adultery, based on the status of the woman he was committing adultery with.
The omission of men from this discussion is not only because of my own focus, but because the laws focused on controlling women’s behavior—and specifically the behavior of “respectable" high ranking women.
Widows who had at least one child were free of the inheritance restrictions if they did not remarry, otherwise they had a grace period before it kicked in. In an age of high child mortality, the laws spelled out how long a child had to survive to “count” for the inheritance rules.
But keep in mind that most Romans would only expect an inheritance from within the exempt degrees of relationship and so would not be disadvantaged by remaining single or declining to remarry. Only the very wealthy were inclined to leave legacies to more distant kin or to friends, and they were also those with the social power to protest the laws to some effect.
The laws also forbade the marriage of people from families of senatorial rank to freedmen/freedwomen, actors, or sex workers. (The article has many more details on this aspect that is not relevant to the Project.)