Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 17d - Death did not them Depart - transcript
One of the themes that traces the lives of women who love women through history is the representation of their relationships as being equivalent to heterosexual marriage. For the most part we look for that evidence in their lives: in living arrangements, in the way their contemporaries referred to them, in the ceremonies they use to celebrate their partnership, in how they addressed and referred to each other. But another place to find the symbolism of marriage for female couples is in death.
Beliefs about the afterlife in many religions led to the symbolism of joint of family burials and memorials, representing the hope that those close ties would be replicated after death. Marriage in particular was represented by a formal vocabulary of symbolism in joint grave memorials, both by images of the deceased shown joined in some way, and by the organization and content of the text describing them.
When that same symbolic vocabulary is used to commemorate a same-sex pair, there is often backpedaling by the archaeologists and historians who describe the memorial to explain away the implied relationship. And it is true that the symbolism of marriage was often adopted to talk about intense platonic friendship--both in life and in death. But even if one accepts that the symbolism of marriage is just that--symbolism--it is still meaningful that it is applied. And it is even more significant, perhaps, that grave memorials, by their nature, represent the complicity of the surviving relatives or friends of the dead in creating that symbolism in physical form--often at significant trouble and expense. Therefore, joint same-sex memorials can be read as reflecting the knowledge, acceptance, and even celebration of same-sex relationships by others in a way that the recorded actions of the couple themselves do not.
As is often the case in the historic record, it is far more common to find examples of male same-sex grave memorials. Alan Bray’s detailed study The Friend was inspired by a study of joint grave memorials for male friends and he comments on the scarcity of female examples.
There are several reasons for this. Foremost is the greater social prominence given to men’s friendships. Society praised male bonds even when the men involved had wives and children, while women’s friendships were typically considered to be secondary to family bonds. Phenomena like the Romantic Friendship movement of the 19th century were notable specifically because they gave women a context for treating their friendships with women as primary in their lives.
But this means that when a married woman was memorialized, the default assumption was that it would be her husband and children who took pride of place in the commemoration of her life. This was also an expectation for men, but it was more acceptable for a man’s intense friendship to be memorialized even over family ties.
A second factor affecting the creation of enduring grave memorials is the typical economic disparity between men and women. An unmarried man who left instructions to commemorate a same-sex friendship at his death was also more likely to be able to leave sufficient funds to see that the memorial was created in a lasting form than a woman in a similar position would be.
And yet, as we’ll see in this brief tour of women’s same-sex joint memorials, all of those factors could be superceded to leave us a record of the special place women held in each others’ lives. I’ve arranged this chronologically but there are large gaps in time, and my sources are exclusively English in the post-classical period.
Athens, 4th c. BCE
The difficulties of interpreting memorial symbolism are discussed at great length by John G. Younger in his study of women’s grave memorials in a cemetary of the 4th century BC near Athens, Greece. After reviewing the arrangement and identification of female scuptural figures in the memorials, including the symbolic meaning of posture, dress, gestures, and accessories, Younger identifies several monuments that he believes commemorate the close personal realtionships between non-related women.
Three of the memorials are similar enough in style and arrangement that they may be from the same workshop and be a formalized representation of a female couple. In each, there is a woman standing on the left, with her left hand raised in a gesture indicating speech. The woman on the right is seated in a chair, and the whole is framed by a simple stylized house. An inscription names them: Hedeia daughter of Lysikles and Phanylla daughter of Aristoleides. Demetria and Pamphile. Kallistomakhe daughter of Diokles and Nausion daughter of Sosandros.
In another memorial statue, two young women embrace and one touches the chin of the other -- a gesture that later would become specifically associated with romantic interest, though it isn’t clear that it had that meaning at this early date.
Two grave reliefs from Thessaly in the 5th century BC use different suggestive symbolism. Both show two women facing each other. In one, a woman lefts up the left shoulder of her dress and holds out a ball of wool as the other woman reaches to receive it. The offering of gifts typically indicates a romantic scene when the participants are of opposite sexes. The second uses the more specific symbolism of flowers being offered as a gift, using a very stylized gesture with one hand raised and the other lowered. This “hands up and down gesture” is most commonly seen in Classical Greek art in scenes of male homoerotic courtship--a genre that is much more common and well studied. This parallel example between two women strongly suggests a similar interpretation.
Roman 1st century BCE
The symbolism in a Roman marble grave relief from the 1st century BC is even less ambiguous. The carving shows two women from the waist up, facing each other, and holding their right hands clasped together prominently. The inscription identifies them as Eleusis and Helena, both freedwomen formerly belonging to a woman named Fonteia. Here is is not simply their inclusion on the same memorial stone that suggests an even closer relationship. The act of joining right hands was a standard symbol in Roman art for a marriage relationship, taken from the act of joining right hands during the marriage ceremony. The gesture even had its own name: dextrarum iunctio. It is unmistakable that whoever designed this sculpture intended to portray the two women in a marriage-like relationship, perhaps even as a married couple. There are a few tantalizing references in Roman literature to marriages between women, although often in a context where it’s deprecated as a strange foreign practice in places like Egypt.
England 15th century
We jump now to England in the 15th century. One reason for the detailed information about this memorial is due to a change in materials. The fashion for marking graves with engraved brass plates, rather than carved stones, meant that the details of the inscription and artwork were far less likely to be worn away by the passage of years and feet--for many gravestones were set into the floor of the church. And when there is a strong motivation to look for alternate interpretations of a same-sex memorial, it helps to have the physical details be unambiguous.
In the parish church of Etchingham in East Sussex, there is a memorial brass that jointly commemorates two never-married women. One was Elizabeth Etchingham who died in 1452, most likely when in her mid-20s although the genealogical evidence is not certain. The church in question belonged to the Etchingham family so it’s unsurprising that this is where Elizabeth was buried. She was surrounded there by the graves of other family members.
But the other half of the brass plate commemorates the death of Agnes Oxenbridge who died almost 30 years later in her 50s. The Oxenbridge family lived nearby, perhaps 12 miles distant, but they had their own family church and even if we assume Agnes died in Etchingham, there is no reason why her body couldn’t have been taken the short distance to rest with her family. The joint burial and commemoration was deliberate. It was almost certainly done by Agnes’s express wish, but it was also only possible because of the cooperation and efforts of both families.
The layout of the design on the brass follows a format that is most often seen for a married couple, although sometimes also found for unmarried siblings. The two women stand facing each other with a block of text beneath them, divided into two portions by a vertical line in the middle. Elizabeth stands in the more important position on the left, perhaps because the memorial is in her family’s church and because her family was of higher social status. She is pictured smaller than Agnes, a typical way of indicating the difference in ages at death. The two hold their hands before them clasped in prayer and Elizabeth looks slightly upward while Agnes’s gaze is directed slightly downward so that they appear to be looking at each other. Both women have uncovered heads--a certain sign that they were unmarried. But while Elizabeth’s hair flows unbound down to her hips, signifying her youth, Agnes’s hair is pinned up in a style more suitable for a mature woman.
The inscription is, of course, in Latin. The text under Elizabeth reads: “Here lies Elizabeth Etchingham, first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, who died the third day of December, in the year of our lord 1452.” The text under Agnes reads: “Here lies Agnes Oxenbridge, daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, who died the fourth day of August, in the year of our lord1480, may God be merciful to their souls, amen.”
That seems little enough evidence on the face of it from which to hang an interpretation that the two women enjoyed a close relationship. But the overall artistic symbolism is inescapably that used for a married couple. When this is combined with the simple fact of the joint memorial in a context where that would not otherwise be expected, it’s clear that there was some close and very enduring bond that the two women shared--and one that their families supported and commemorated.
Knowedge of the typical lives of young women of the English gentry in this era can suggest a possible story. If the estimation of Elizabeth’s age at death is correctly placed in her 20s, they would have been very close in age. At that time women of their class would normally leave their families in early adolescence to live in a different household where they would learn the adult skills of running a household. They would establish and expand social networks that would serve their families in later life, and not uncommonly they would be introduced to the young men that were their most likely marriage prospects. The friendships established among these cohorts of young women and men frequently lasted throughout their lives and shaped their prospects.
Most typically, a young woman would then move on to marriage, either directly from her service or after returning to her family for a while. If she didn’t marry, she would usually remain living with parents or siblings, contributing her labor to the maintenance of the extended household. Unlike some other medieval cultures, the convent was generally not the expected fate for unmarried women of the upper class.
So we can easily imagine Elizabeth and Agnes meeting while both were placed out in the same household and forming a friendship of such depth and intensity that it was still the primary bond Agnes wanted to commemorate 30 years after death had parted them. Was that bond relevant to their unmarried state? There are any number of reasons a woman might not marry at that time, although only one in ten remained unmarried for the entirety of her life. But lack of opportunity wasn’t the only possibility. In one document giving the financial provisions for the daughters of a family at this time, there is an acknowledgement that a woman might “not be disposed to marry.” And so at least in the case of Agnes, we are allowed to imagine that she considered marriage to a man a less desirable alternative to remaining true to Elizabeth’s memory.
England 15th century
While the Etchinghams and Oxenbridges had the money for family churches and brass plaques, we can trace the desires of less well-off women to be buried together by the directions given in their wills. In 15th century London, a woman named Joan Isham who identified herself as a singlewoman--that is, someone never married--specified in her will that she be buried next to the grave of Margery Nicoll. From their names, we know they aren’t immediate family, but nothing else can be guessed about their possible relationship except that it was one that inspired Joan to spend eternity at Margery’s side.
A Crowded Grave in 1600
Bonds of passionate friendship between women might be commemorated in their grave inscriptions even when a man came between them. Mary Barber of Suffolk, England died on September 6, 1600, followed in death six years later by her beloved friend, the widow Ann Chitting, and closely thereafter by Mary’s husband Roger. It was Ann Chitting’s son Henry who arranged for their burial -- a joint arrangement of the three of them, with Mary lying between the bodies of her close friend and her husband.
The inscription that Henry commissioned declared that the two women “whose souls in heaven embrace” had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights” and so he chose to unite those two “whose bodies death would sever.”
In this case, it is clear that--however intense the relationship between the two women--both had nonetheless married. And yet that relationship was recognized as being so close that it was only right to unite them in death, and still so socially acceptable that their surviving family had no hesitation in doing so publicly.
England 18th century
Two graves among the many funeral monuments in Westminster Abbey in London commemorate pairs of unmarried women who shared a household and whose relationships were framed in terms of intense friendship that--while perhaps unusually prominent in their commemoration--fell well within what was not only accepable but expected for women of the 18th century.
The monument of Mary Kendall was commissioned by her cousin, Captain Charles Kendall, and is typically florid in its description of the deceased, shifting towards the end to celebrating the “close union and friendship in which she lived with the Lady Catharine Jones” that inspired her to request that she be buried next to the future gravesite of Lady Catharine so that they would never be separated. The full inscription reads:
“This Monument was Erected by Capt. Charles Kendall
Mrs Mary Kendall
Daughter of Thomas Kendall Esq’r,
And of Mrs Mary Hallet, his Wife,
Of Killigarth, in Cornwall,
Was born at Westm’r Nov. 8 1677.
And dy’d at Epsome, March 4, 1709/10.
Having reach’d the full Term
Of her blessed Saviours Life:
And study’d to imitate
His spotless Example.
She had great Virtues,
And as great a desire of Concealing them:
Was of a Severe Life,
But of an Easy Conversation;
Courteous to All, yet strictly Sincere;
Humble without Meanness;
Beneficent, without Ostentation;
Devout, without Superstition.
These admirable Qualitys,
In which She was eqall’d by Few of her Sex,
Surpass’d by None.
Render’d Her every way worthy
Of that close Union & Friendship,
In which She liv’d, with
The Lady CATHARINE JONES;
And, in testimony of which, She desir’d,
That even their Ashes, after Death,
Might not be divided:
And therefore, order’d her Selfe
Here to be interr’d,
Where, She knew, that Excellent Lady
Design’d one day, to rest,
Near the Grave of her Belov’d And Religious Mother,
Elizabeth Countess of Ranelagh.”
The said Catharine Jones was, indeed, buried there 30 years later. The immediate region of the chapel where these burials took place was something of a family mausoleum for the Earl of Ranelagh, with multiple members of the family buried there. The erection of the memorial by Mary Kendall’s brother and the location in an area in some sense “belonging” to Ranelagh, indicate that the “close union and friendship” between these two women was not merely recognized by their families but was considered to represent a bond between the two families. There is no indication in either woman’s memorial or in family records that either of them ever married.
Also in Westminster Abbey is the tomb of Katharina Bovey who died in 1727 and whose laudatory memorial inscription concludes with the following words:
“This monument was erected With the utmost respect to her Memory and Justice to her Character, By her executrix Mrs Mary Pope Who lived with her near 40 years in perfect Friendship Never once interrupted Till her much lamented Death.”
Some scholars have connected Katharina Bovey to a fictional character appearing in the July 10, 1711 issue of the periodical The Spectator under the description “the Perverse widow”. This widow is beautiful, accomplished, scholarly and completely uninterested in men. This same personage received the dedication of volume II of The Ladies Library. Here is how the fictional widow is described:
“You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town, to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship; she is always accompanied by a Confident, who is witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a Barr to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.”
If one removes the misogyny and male expectations of access from this description, we have a woman who enjoys reading, has a particular close female friend who is viewed as a bar to her interest in a renewal of the married state, and who while pleasant enough to attract a train of admirers, really wishes that they would learn to take no for an answer.
The identification of this fictional character with Katharine Bovey is supported by the editors of modern editions of The Ladies Library. Bovey was widowed at age 22 in 1692, after which she lived in retirement near Gloucester, devoted to charitable and religious works, in the company of her friend Mrs Mary Pope of Twickham. Pulling all the evidence together, Bovey and Pope seem to have established an independent household together, indifferent to offers of marriage, for “nearly 40 years of perfect friendship”.
Who among us would not wish for such a glowing epitaph and the chance to live the life that inspired it?