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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 45d - The (Sex) Lives of Fair and Gallant Women

Saturday, April 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 155 (previously 45d) - The (Sex) Lives of Fair and Gallant Women - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/04/25 - listen here)

In the middle ages and even more so in the Renaissance, there was a genre of literature that cataloged biographies of notable women. The subjects might be virtuous, or infamous, or both. Generally there would be an attempt to cover the whole scope of human history, starting with mythical and biblical figures and work though the centuries up to the author’s own era. The intended purpose of each work might be different. Christine de Pisan’s Book of the City of Ladies used examples of notable women of the past to argue that women should have equal respect and status as men. Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Claris Mulieribus or “Concerning Famous Women” claimed a moral purpose in urging readers to imitate the virtuous women in his collection and to take a lesson from the wicked ones. Geoffrey Chaucer was one of many later writers to take Boccaccio’s work as a model, though his poem The Legend of Good Women focused only on the praiseworthy ones.

But the 16th century French book, Vies des Dames Galantes by the courtier Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, though it also took the form of a catalog of biographies and anecdotes about notable women, falls more in the category of entertaining gossip rag than edifying treatise.

Brantôme was a soldier and courtier, and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies is his best-known work (or at least, the most notorious). The positive-sounding title is actually tongue-in-cheek. The text focuses on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of women cuckolding their husbands. (Because, of course, this being a male writer working within the patriarchy, sex outside of marriage is all the fault of the woman and only women’s sexual escapades are worthy of condemnation.)

Where does lesbianism come into it? There is an entire section of the book exploring the question of whether women having sex with women falls within the definition of cuckoldry. And although the discussion is framed with mockery and the assumption that sex between women could not possibly be as satisfying as sex involving a penis, Brantôme’s forthright and--let us go so far as to say pornographic--discussion of the subject provides evidence of beliefs about, and attitudes toward, women’s same-sex relations that would be hard to retrieve from other types of texts. For those interested in knowing what an educated 16th century person might know or believe about sex between women, Brantôme offers concrete evidence. Brantôme’s stories reflect the misogyny and ribald sense of humor of the male aristocratic elite of his day, but what makes his book interesting to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is his fascination with lesbian relationships and the colorful and frank language he uses in describing them.

The work is certainly not intended to be a sober sociological study of women's same-sex relationships in late 16th century France. The work is steeped in the male gaze, but at the same time, it presents an unblinking look--indeed, an outright stare--at both the attitudes of elite men of that era, and most likely some version of the reality of women's lives. We also get information on the everyday language of sexuality, including clear examples of the word lesbienne used as a noun for the author's contemporaries (not simply an ambiguous reference to ancient Greeks who might or might not have been interested in same-sex love), and slang for various sex acts described in clear detail, such as tongue-kissing and tribadism. This is a different level of evidence than one gets in the same era from medical manuals or regurgitations of classical authors (though Brantôme quotes those as well).

Brantôme’s memoirs were written toward the end of the 16th century but were not published until after his death--in the 1660s for The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies. English translations over the centuries have often been bowdlerized to varying degrees. The translations I include here are based on just such a bowdlerized version published by A.R. Allinson in 1922, but supplemented by other editions to return the direct and explicit content (or where Allinson modestly left the explicit language either in French or Latin). Particularly useful was Merrick & Ragan’s Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection, and in trivial cases I’ve done my own translation. Allinson seems to have considered that translations of Rensaissance texts required forsoothly language, so I hope you will enjoy the spirit of the thing.

Brantôme begins by introducing the question at hand and throwing some classical citations at it.

Now will I further ask this one question only, and never another, one which mayhap hath never yet been enquired into of any, or possibly even thought of, to wit, whether two ladies that be in love one with the other, as hath been seen aforetime, and is often seen nowadays, sleeping together in one bed, and doing what is called donna con donna (woman with woman), imitating in fact that learned poetess Sappho, of Lesbos, whether these can commit adultery, and between them make their husbands cuckold. Of a surety do they commit this crime, if we are to believe Martial in Epigram 119 of his First Book. Therein doth he introduce and speak of a woman named Bassa, a tribad, reproaching the same greatly in that men were never seen to visit her, in such wise that folk deemed her a second Lucretia for chasteness. But presently she came to be discovered, for that she was observed to be constantly welcoming at her house beautiful women and girls; and 'twas found that she herself did serve these and counterfeit a man. And the poet, to describe this, doth use the words, geminos committere cunnos (joining twin cunts). And further on, protesting against the thing, he doth signify the riddle and give it out to be guessed and imagined, in this Latin line: Hie, ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium, "a strange thing," that is, "that where no man is, yet is adultery done."

Although Brantôme introduces his anecdotes variously with “I knew” or “some say” or “I was told by so-and-so”, I think we can err on the side of caution and consider that the stories, while common gossip, need not always be taken for literal fact. Still, in the following anecdote, we see a snapshot of the sort of international culture he was dealing with. A Spanish courtesan living in Rome had a female lover who then married a servant of a French Cardinal (though perhaps also living in Rome at the time). Keeping this in mind, we need not assume that Brantôme’s observations apply only to French women.

I knew once a courtesan of Rome, old and wily if ever there was one, that was named Isabella de Luna, a Spanish woman, which did take in this sort of friendship another courtesan named Pandora. This latter was eventually married to a butler in the Cardinal d'Armaignac's household, but without abandoning her first calling. Now this same Isabella did keep her, and extravagant and ill-ordered as she was in speech, I have oft times heard her say how that she did cause her to give her husbands more horns than all the wild fellows she had ever had. I know not in what sense she did intend this, unless she did follow the meaning of the Epigram of Martial just referred to.

Brantôme returns to a catalog of classical sources. While the anecdotes themselves obviously aren’t commentary on his contemporaries, the passages do give us vocabulary that reflects 16th century France rather than ancient Greece or Rome.

Tis said how that Sappho of Lesbos was a very high mistress in this art, and that in after times the Lesbian dames have copied her therein, and continued the practice to the present day. So Lucian saith: such is the character of the Lesbian women, which will not suffer men at all. Now such women as love this practice will not suffer men, but devote themselves to other women and are called tribads, a Greek word derived, as I have learned of the Greeks, from  tribo, tribein, that is to say fricare. These tribads are called in Latin fricatrices, and in French fricatrices or those who do the fricarelle in the art of donne con donne, as it is still found at the present day.

This is the sort of context that confounds lexicographers who are trying to pin down early uses of the word “lesbian” to mean homosexual women. A conservative reading of this passage points out that “lesbian” is always used in a context where a literal reading of “belonging to the island of Lesbos” is possible. But at the same time, the text indicates a clear connection between women of that island being sexually oriented towards women.

When discussing various Roman authors on the topic of sex between women, Brantôme doesn’t have the nuanced understanding of Roman sexual attitudes that might sort out the difference between women having sex with women and women acting like a man in sex.

Juvenal again speaks of these women, when he saith: ...frictum Grissantis adorat (she loves the rubbing of Grissas) talking of such a tribad, who adored and loved the embraces of one Grissas. The excellent and diverting Lucian hath a chapter on this subject, and saith therein how that women do come together like men, coupling with lascivious, secret, monstrous instruments made in a sterile form. Moreover this name of tribad, which doth elsewhere occur but rarely as applied to these women, is freely employed by him throughout, and he saith that the female sex must needs be like the notorious Philaenis, who was used to parody the actions of manly love. At the same time he doth add, 'tis better far for a woman to be given up to a lustful affection for playing the male, than it is for a man to be womanish; so utterly lacking in all courage and nobility of character doth such an one show himself. Thus the woman, according to this, which doth counterfeit the man, may well be reputed to be more valorous and courageous than another, as in truth I have known some such to be, as well in body as in spirit.

As usual, issues of gender and sexuality get tangled up in this era, compounded by misogyny, resulting in a mocking “admiration” for homosexuality among women while condemning it among men. In this next passage, our forsoothly translator has declined to do his job entirely, leaving the whole passage in French, so we have a more modern rendering.

In another place Lucian presents two ladies chatting about this love, and one asks the other if so-and-so had been in love with her and if she had slept with her and what she had done to her. The other answered her freely, “First, she kissed me as men do, not only in joining her lips, but also in opening her mouth (this means like a female pigeon, with the tongue in the mouth), and although she had no virile member and was like the rest of us, even so she said that she had a manly heart, love, and everything else. And then I embraced her like a man, and she did the same to me, kissed me, and panted, and it seemed to me that she got pleasure beyond measure out of it. And she coupled in a certain way that was much more pleasant than with a man.” That is what Lucian says.

Although Lucian does indeed describe open-mouthed kissing between the women, Brantôme is the one who glosses it as “like a female pigeon”. From this we may interpret that “kissing like a pigeon” (here, “en pigeonne”, and in a later passage, [ok, excuse my French here] “s'entrebaiser en forme de colombe”) is 16th century French slang for tongue-kissing

Brantôme now turns to contemporary images from foreign lands, connecting love between women with severely gender-segregated societies where women are kept in seclusion from men. A European fascination with gender relations in the Ottoman Empire shows up in a number of 16th and 17th century texts. Note that this time when he uses the phrase “lesbian dames” it’s no longer possible to argue that it could simply men “women of Lesbos”.

Well, by what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such Lesbian dames, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places. And wherever the women are kept secluded, and have not their entire liberty, this practice doth greatly prevail. For such women, burning in their bodies, surely must, as they say, make use of this remedy to cool off a bit or else they burn all over. The Turkish women go to the baths more for this than for any other reason, and are greatly devoted thereto. Even courtesans, who have men at their disposal at all hours, yet have recourse to these fricarelles, seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard of sundry doing in Italy and in Spain. In my native France women of the sort are common enough; yet it is said to be no long time since they first began to meddle therewith, in fact that the fashion was imported from Italy by a certain lady of quality, whom I will not name.

Brantôme may decline to name her, but the reference is generally understood to be to Queen Catherine de Medici, who married Henri II of France in 1547 and so became queen of France. All manner of “foreign” practices were attributed to her influence, though many were viewed positively, such as her importation of Italian high cuisine.

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And now we get to the salacious gossip part of the book, discussing women who were actually members of Brantôme’s social circles, though he is often coy about specifics.

I heard it told by the late Monsieur de Clermont-Tallart the younger, who died at La Rochelle, who as a young boy, having the honor to be the companion of Monsieur d’Anjou, later our king Henry III, in his study and studying with him customarily, whose tutor was Monsieur de Gournay, that one day, being in Toulouse, studying with his master in his cabinet and being seated in a corner by himself, he saw, through a little crack (in as much as the cabinets and rooms were made of wood and had been built quickly and in haste thanks to the cardinal d’Armagnac, archbishop of the place, to receive and accommodate the king and all his court better) in another cabinet, two very tall women, with their clothes all tucked up and their drawers down, lie one on top of the other, kiss each other in the manner of pigeons, rub themselves, caress each other, in a word, move their hips vigorously, copulate, and imitate men. And their sport lasted almost a full hour. They were so overheated and tired that they were worn out and were obliged to rest for as long. And he said that he saw this game played on several other days, in the same way, as long as the court was there. And he never again had the convenience of seeing this sport, in as much as the room facilitated it on this occasion and on the other occasions he could not see. He told me even more about it than I dare to write about it and named the ladies. I do not know if it is true, but he swore it to me and vouched for it a hundred times with sincere oaths. And, in fact, this is quite probable, for these two ladies have in fact always had the reputation of making and prolonging love in this way and spending their time so.

Several others have I known which have given account of the same manner of loves, amongst whom I have heard tell of a noble lady of the great world, who was superlatively given this way, and who did love many ladies, courting the same and serving them more than men do, and made love to them as a man does to his mistress. So would she take them and keep them at bed and board, and give them whatever they would. Her husband was right glad and well content thereat, as were many other husbands I have known, all of whom were right glad their wives did follow after this sort of affection rather than that of men, deeming them to be thus less wild.

This is a regular theme throughout Brantôme’s work--that men were tolerant of their wives’ same-sex adventures because they found them less threatening to their dignity than if their wives had taken male lovers. But Brantôme isn’t so sure they should take this attitude.

But indeed I think they were much deceived; for by what I have heard said, this is but an apprenticeship, to come later to the greater one with men. For, after they have warmed up and sent each other into heat, their warmth not decreasing on account of this, they must bathe in cool running water, which refreshes much better than still water. Thus I have it from reliable surgeons, and considering that, if anyone wants to dress and cure a wound well, he must not waste time medicating and cleaning around it or along the edge but must probe it to the bottom and apply a syringe and bandage to it well before that.

I can’t say that cleaning wounds is the most attractive of metaphors for sex that I’ve found! This idea shows up in a number of 16th century pornographic works: that sex between women would get them aroused but only sex with a man could satisfy that arousal. I’m sure it made the men feel better to keep thinking that. The motif is continued in another paragraph that I’ve omitted as not being to the point, although it does provide a clear example of French lesbienne as a noun referring to 16th century French women, not ancient Greeks.

Even Brantôme’s own anecdotes undermine his assertion that women would always end up trading women for men.

I have known in my time two very fair and honourable damsels of a noble house, cousins of one another, which having been used to lie together in one bed for the space of three years, did grow so well accustomed to this fricarelle that at the last getting the idea the said pleasure was but a meagre and imperfect one compared with that to be had with men, they did determine to try the latter, and soon became downright harlots. They confessed afterward to their lovers that nothing had corrupted them so much and incited them to it but this fricarelle, detesting it for having been the only cause of their corruption. And for all that, when they ran into each other, or with others, they always made some snack of this fricarelle and thereby always increased their appetite for the other with men. And this was the answer a very honourable damsel I knew did once make to her lover, when he asked her if she did never follow this fricarelle with her lady friend with whom she usually slept, "No, no!" she replied  laughing, "I like men too well."  but she nevertheless did it with both.

Another anecdote undermines the supremacy of male love even further.

I have heard of an honourable gentleman who, desiring one day at Court to seek in marriage a certain very honourable damsel, did consult one of her kinswomen thereon. She told him frankly he would but be wasting his time; for, as she did herself tell me, such and such a lady, naming her, ('twas one I had already heard talk of) will never suffer her to marry. Instantly I did recognize the hang of it, for I was well aware how she did keep this damsel at bed and board  for her pleasure, and did guard her carefully like a treasure. The gentleman did thank the said cousin for her good advice and warning, not without a merry gibe or two at herself the while, saying she did herein put in a word or two for herself as well as for the other, for that she did take her little pleasures now and again under the rose. But this she did stoutly deny to me.

Yet throughout all these anecdotes, there is a clear sense that--with regard to sex outside marriage--the gender of one’s partner seems to have been a matter of personal taste.

This doth remind me of certain women who have their own whores in this way and actually love these friends so dearly they would not share them for all the wealth in the world, neither with Prince nor great noble, with comrade or friend. They are as jealous of them as a beggarman of his drinking barrel; yet even he will offer this to any that would drink. But this lady was fain to keep the damsel all to herself, without giving one scrap to others.

One of the more intriguing anecdotes Brantôme offers, suggests that women who loved women may have kept pet ferrets as an advertising mascot. The basis for medieval mythology associating weasels with lesbian sex is complicated and obscure. And there are other unrelated reasons for the Renaissance portraits we see of women holding an ermine, or holding a zibellino, a fashion accessory consisting of a mink or weasel pelt with jeweled head and feet. But this passage sets the imagination going.

'Tis said how that weasels are touched with this sort of love, and delight female with female to unite and dwell together. And so in hieroglyphic signs, women loving one another with this kind of affection were represented of yore by weasels. I have heard tell of a lady who dabbled in this love} which was used always to keep some of these animals, for that she did take pleasure in watching her little pets couple in this way.

And now we get into Brantôme’s discussion of sexual techniques.

Here is another point: it is that these feminine loves are handled in two ways, some through fricarelle and, as this poet says, through uniting twin cunts. This way does not cause any harm, some say, unlike when one makes use of instruments made of [missing word], but which people have chosen to call dildos.

This suggests that the term fricarelle, which Brantôme has been using regularly as a general term for what women do with each other, has a specific meaning distinct from penetration with a dildo. The word for the latter in the French text appears only as an initial G. There is a later French term godemiché with the same meaning but I don’t know if it was in use this early. Referring to dildos, he notes:

I have heard it said that a great ruler, having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member. She was so surprised that she did not have a chance to remove it, so that the ruler compelled her to show him how the two of them did it. They say that several women have died from it, from engendering abscesses in their wombs caused by unnatural motions and rubbing.

It’s possible that the belief that dildos caused internal injury is mere hostility to an inanimate rival, but it’s not implausible that some of the materials used were a bit more abrasive than modern synthetics. Given the variety of sexual techniques discussed in these anecdotes, there is a suspicious fascination with penetrative sex between women. And the following story seems to take a perverse pleasure in the calamity that this activity brought down on the participants. This one is a bit icky, I’m afraid.

I have heard a story told, being then at court, that the Queen Mother having ordered an inspection one day of the rooms and chests of all those who were housed in the Louvre, without excepting ladies and girls, to see if there were any hidden weapons, and especially pistols, during our troubles [the civil wars], there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos, which gave everyone a good laugh and caused her a good deal of astonishment. I knew the gentlewoman. I believe she is still alive, but she never looked well. Such instruments, in the end, are very dangerous. I will tell yet this story about two ladies of the court who loved each other so much and were so ardent about their business that wherever they were, they could not keep or refrain from at least making some sign of toying or kissing, which discredited them very much and gave men much to think about. One of them was a widow, and the other was married. And when the married one, on a day of great sumptuousness, was very well adorned and dressed in a gown of silver linen, since their mistress had gone to vespers, they went into her cabinet and began to perform their fricarelle so roughly and so violently on her close stool [toilet chair] that it broke under them. And the married lady, who was the one underneath, fell backward in her lovely silver linen gown, flat down in the filth from the chamber pot, so that she spoiled and soiled herself so much that she did not know what to do but wipe herself off, as best she could, tuck up her skirt, and go with great haste to change her gown in her room, not however, without having been noticed and indeed smelled along the way, so much did she stink, about which some who knew the story laughed a lot. Even their mistress, who relieved herself as they did, knew that they did not wait for a suitable place and time without discrediting themselves.

If Brantôme can’t convince the reader that women will inevitably turn to men, he pulls out the mockery and ridicule. But reading between the lines, keep in mind that there is no indication that women’s same-sex relations were prosecuted through the courts or considered any more hazardous to one’s future and reputation than other sexual adventures might be. In fact, in the sections of this work that cover women’s adultery with men, there is an acceptance that a jealous husband might punish his wife by killing her, but this is not raised as a possibility regarding a female lover. Though, no doubt, this was because a woman was not considered a serious rival.

I’ll skip the passage that talks about how at least committing adultery with another woman isn’t nearly as bad as committing it with a man, on which basis Brantôme seems willing to excuse the practitioners.

He follows this by quoting a passage by Firenzuola on women’s friendships citing Margaret of Austria and Laodomia Forteguerra, which Brantôme embellishes with some rather more pointed speculations.

Monsieur du Gua and I were reading one day in a little Italian book, called the Book of Beauty, writ in the form of a dialogue by the Signor Angelo Firenzuola, a Florentine, and fell upon a passage wherein he saith that women were originally made by Jupiter and created of such nature that some are set to love men, but others the beauty of one another. But of these last, some purely and holily, and as an example of this the author doth cite the very illustrious Marguerite of Austria, which did love the fair Laodamia Fortenguerre, but others again wantonly and lasciviously, like Sappho the Lesbian, and in our own time at Rome the famous courtesan Cecilia of Venice. Now this sort do of their nature hate to marry, and fly the conversation of men all ever they can. Hereupon did Monsieur du Gua criticise the author, saying 'twas a falsehood that the said fair lady, Marguerite of Austria, did love the other fair dame of a pure and holy love. For seeing she had taken up her rather than others which might well be equally fair and virtuous as she, 'twas to be supposed it was to use her for her pleasures, neither more nor less than other women that do the like. Only to cover up her naughtiness, she did say and publish abroad how that her love for her was a pure and holy love, as we see many of her fellows do, which do dissemble their lewdness with suchlike words. This was what Monsieur du Gua did remark thereanent; and if any man doth wish to discuss the matter farther, well! he is at liberty to do so. 

I’ll skip the last passage in the section with brings in the Renaissance fascination with intersex physiology and how it could be categorized with regard to sexuality.

While keeping in mind the context of Brantôme’s writings on sex between women in 16th century France -- he was writing a scandalous and near-pornographic work on illicit sex in general -- we can find many traces of useful information for understanding sex between women at that time. We have discussions of techniques, of slang vocabulary; we get a sense of how women’s same-sex relations may have been viewed by their contemporaries; and if we read deeply between the lines, we see the likelihood that these relationships were not simply about physical pleasure but could include emotional bonds and the enjoyment of women’s company in a society where men’s company could be hazardous. It’s also interesting what we don’t see in Brantôme’s descriptions. Except for a few references to making love “like a man”--which might simply mean taking an assertive role--we don’t see an association of same-sex love with male gender performance. There are, of course, records of women living cross-gender lives at this time, sometimes partnered with a woman, but Brantôme doesn’t draw this as a connection. We don’t see the relationships being framed as like marriage, except perhaps in the case where a female bond was considered to get in the way of marrying a man. We don’t see same-sex love being treated as particularly sinful in comparison with other illicit relationships.

In all eras and settings, the forms and understandings of same-sex relationships have a shape specific to their context, even when motifs are shared across time and space. Brantôme gives us a glimpse into some of the specifics of 16th century French court life, even though the distorting filters of point of view. The resulting picture helps to expand our own understanding of that time.

Show Notes

A glimpse into same-sex relations in 16th century France through the salacious memoirs of the Seigneur de Brantôme

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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