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Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 12:29

The session title suggests a focus on material culture, although it’s organized by the International Marie de France Society, so we can expect the papers to be filtered through a literary lens. (This is the second session in a row that ended up containing only a single paper.)

Telltale Textiles: Fabric and Voice in the Lais of Marie de France - Simonetta Cochis, Transylvania University

Paper focuses on the functions of fabric in the tale of Bisclavret (a werewolf story). Examples from the text of how wolf!Bisclavret still shows nobility and gentility, even though “naked”. This is contrasted with how his wife is described as base and treasonous, despite her fine clothing. She has stolen Bisclavret’s clothing, preventing him from returning to human form(?). His clothing become “spoils” of conflict. When the clothing is returned to Bisclavret, he declines to transform back in front of witnesses, but must perform the transformation/dressing in private.

This bare outline leaves many questions around the role of the clothing. Does clothing “make the man”? Or does it have a different function.

The paper looks at using voice and performance as a way of shifting the audience’s perspective to try to access how the tale would have been understood in its original context. [Note: the presenter specializes in medieval performance, especially of the Lais. Fortunately, we are getting translations alongside the original French text performances.] “Voice” can mean both the verbal performance of the storyteller and the character-voices within the tale.

The presenter discusses the importance of reading the Lais aloud in order to gain a deeper understanding, or additional layers of interpretation, beyond what is on the page. A performer/speaker must make choices to embody only one of multiple possible readings that can remain ambiguous on the page.

Getting back to clothing, the stolen clothing represents the fragility of status, while it is the inner qualities of Bisclavret—not the status conveyed by incidentals—that earns him acceptance and praise in the court, even as a wolf.

We now move on to the romance of Lanval. There is a motif of a character reclining on/within fabric in the context of a key interaction between Lanval and his (future) beloved. Lanval goes to sleep with his head on his folded cloak—described in plain and unornamented terms—and then is taken to meet a lady reclining within a tent (on a ship?) described with rich and varied terms indicating luxury and wealth. (Now we get a discussion of analysis of theatrical technique.) The lady’s opulent tent display her nature and character, with the text building up the dramatic tension along with the build-up of the language of description as Lanval/the audience is led to meet her.

Gender and Agency in Marie de France's Domestic Spheres - Susan Hopkirk, University of Toronto

[Presenter has asked that the paper not be shared in social media. And what is more, the paper was withdrawn at the last minute.]

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Conventions
Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 10:47

A very intriguing session title…which ended up with only one paper. There were two papers listed in the catalog, and the norm is to start with three papers, so I’m guessing that one was pulled at some point earlier. Fortunately, the paper that was given was great enough to make up for being the only one!

Brides and Bridles: Gower's "Tale of Rosiphelee," Asexuality, and Queer Failure - Lacey M. Wolfer, Western Michigan University

Typically treated as a “carpe diem” story in which the protagonist decides she can’t put off looking for love. But this paper examines the story from an asexual lens, viewing the character as being oppressed by normative expectations.

The story appears in the section of the Confessio Amantis on “idleness” (sloth) in which a lover (with the active lover always framed as male) is “doing all he can” to win the love of a woman who seems to just want him to go away. The tale looks at how “activity” is shown as a means of pressuring others, especially women, to comply with another’s desires. Rosiphelee is accused of being “slothful” with regard to love, but she appears simply to be uninterested.

(Gives a shout-out to the modern definition of asexuality from AVEN.) Identifies Rosiphelee as having “asexual possibility” which encompasses those who may be motivated by asexuality but where we are not given access to motivations, only to actions. Brings in descriptions of asexual experiences from the contemporary era to compare with the depiction of Rosiphelee’s experience. The attribution of Rosiphelee’s responses to “sloth” corresponds to modern medicalization of asexuality. The “refusal to progress to sexuality” is treated as refusal to take on adult responsibilities and roles. Rosiphelee is expected to marry to maintain social and economic expectations. There is a discussion of J. Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure and places Rosiphelee’s experience in the context of “queer failure.”

During a nature walk, Rosiphelee meditates on nature especially paired male and female creatures. She “began a quarrel between love and her own heart.” In a dream-sequence she sees a group of queens, well-dressed and beautiful on white horses. As they pass, she notes a straggler who rides an old black nag, who is wearing a bunch of horse halters around her waist. Rosiphelee approaches the woman and asks who they all are. The woman describes a life story similar to Rosiphelee’s who, due to her life choices, must serve the queens as their groom.  The bridles represent a belated decision to engage with love.

Rosiphelee considers this as a lesson for her own life and is terrified by the supposed consequences for putting off love. This has been treated by some as an act of agency, with Rosiphelee making a decision based on new information. But in context, she is given no viable alternative to marriage. And she is not entering marriage with a positive desire, but from fear of the punishment for putting it off. Her heart isn’t changed, only her decision on how to act.

There is a suggestion of a metaphoric interpretation of the halters as being a means of coercing another to one’s will with regard to the path taken. Wolfer suggests that there are hints that Gower may have been sympathetic to her plight, rather than creating a story that showed an actual change of heart.

Major category: 
Conventions
Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 10:01

I picked this session because of the Amazon paper, which—alas—the presenter does not want shared on social media. It’s the last day of the conference and my initial picks cover five sequential sessions with no break. We’ll see if I decide that walking away from the screen for a while is more interesting than one of the sessions.

"Do you know who my father is?!": Gendered Imperialism and the Exceptional Parent Excuse in Sir Degaré - Arielle C. McKee, Gardner-Webb University

[Paper begins with a content warning for sexual assault and violence.] The romance of Sir Degaré links prowess in battle with the domination and control of women. “Love” and battle are conflated with women being a prize to be won. Standard plot where a king’s daughter will only be allowed to marry a man who bests her father in combat. The princess encounters a faerie on a journey who rapes and impregnates her. The resulting child (Degaré) is left as a foundling with magical tokens to identify him. This misfires when he ends up besting his grandfather in combat and almost marrying his mother, except the magical tokens identify her just in time. Degaré then goes on a quest to find his father, and the ultimate resolution involves him winning a princess as a bride and reuniting his mother and father who then marry.

Women in the story are framed not simply as beautiful but as valuable for their inheritance and status. There is a common theme in medieval romances on the “gift” of women along with land as a reward for service or valor. Because victory in combat is the prerequisite for marrying the princess, “love” is set aside as a motivation in favor of desire for land and power and the demonstration of physical domination.

Degaré’s eventual bride is obtained by defending her and her castle against and attacker/would-be ravisher, and she secures his military services by offering both her lands and herself as payment.

The title of the paper brings in the authority of lineage that excuses one’s actions. The child of an exceptional father is both expected to be exceptional and given freedom from the consequences of the actions taken to claim that privilege. Although the central theme of the romance is Degaré’s search for his parentage, the events rest on the authority, privilege, and magical glamor that he already has by virtue of that unknown paternal privilege, which is accessible to the reader and therefore mitigates the reader’s potential negative judgments of his behavior. Women have no such inherited authority or privilege in the tale, but are framed as continually vulnerable and valuable, accessible to whatever powerful man intersects their path.

Violence, Vulnerability, and Hurt/Comfort Fanfiction in the Stanzaic Guy of Warwick and the Alliterative Morte Arthure - Megan B. Abrahamson, Central New Mexico Community College

Yes, she’s going there: Arthurian romances as fan fiction. And she’s analyzing texts through the lens of fan fiction tropes and formulas. Specifically, the use of excessive violence and resulting injury as a mechanism for allowing “manly men” to engage in physical and emotional closeness.

Guy of Warwick goes on pilgrimage to atone for his past violent deeds, but somehow keeps getting embroiled in other people’s business and engaging in further violence while on the journey. In the Morte d’Arthur, Arthur conquers across Europe until needing to return to deal with Modred. Both Arthur’s and Modred’s pain are driving motivations.

Because the audience is expected to be familiar with the characters and situations, the author is able to begin in media res, similarly to fan fiction, and focus on specific emotional events that are given context by the larger literary context. We get a summary of the elements and meanings of hurt/comfort and examples of the characteristics in medieval art and literature.

In fan fiction, one role of hurt/comfort is to allow hyper-masculine characters to engage in vulnerability/care/closeness. (The paper is being read very quickly so I’m having a hard time keeping up.) The reader participates vicariously in this dynamic.

In medieval romances, the expressed pain/anguish (whether physical or emotional) provides an invitation for one man to engage with and comfort another man. In contrast, women’s pain/anguish is typically ignored by men. Male characters are allowed to express extreme emotions toward each other in the context of these hurt/comfort episodes.

In the Morte d’Arthur, Arthur and Modred’s parallel grief over Gawain’s death (at Modred’s hands) provides the trigger for both to express and recognize emotional pain to each other. Picking up a thread I missed earlier, these scenes also provide context for male characters to gaze on and express admiration for male bodies in an intimate way.

Love, Sex, and Amazons - Suzanne C. Hagedorn, College of William & Mary

[The presenter has requested that their paper not be shared on social media.]

Major category: 
Conventions
Saturday, May 15, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 201 – Researching the Origins of Lesbian Myths, Legends, and Symbols - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/05/15 - listen here)

Introduction: The Joy of Research Puzzles

What do we know about history? How do we know what we know? And how do we go about figuring out the facts behind the things we think we know?

Today I want to take you on a little tour through what I consider one of the most fun aspects of historic research. It’s a bit like solving mysteries, and a bit like doing archaeology, and a bit like following wildlife tracks across the wilderness. You run across a really fascinating statement about someone or something in history, and you ask yourself: Is this true? How do we know what we know about the subject? In searching out the answer to that question we can learn far more than simply answering the original prompt.

If you want to see how a simple question about a historic fact can explode into something far more fascinating, check out the book Mary Diana Dods: A Gentleman and a Scholar by Betty T. Bennett. (There’s a link to my summary of the book in the show notes, but it only begins to capture how much fun that story is.) What starts out as a simple question of a biographical footnote in an edition of Mary Shelley’s letters turns into a wild hunt through archives and correspondence to turn up a story of gender disguise and same-sex marriage. Sort of.

My own favorite project along these lines was about the emperor Charlemagne and his favorite cheese. I ran across a book about the history of food that mentioned two specific local varieties of cheese—brie and Roquefort—that the 8th century emperor was fond of. And I asked myself, how can we possibly know something that specific from that long ago? The book itself gave me no clue—no footnotes, no references. It became something of a treasure hunt and quest to trace the question back to its sources. (You can read the results of that quest in the article linked in the show notes.)

This sort of intriguing claim turns up a lot in history books aimed at a general audience. Usually the reader will accept what the author says and keep reading. After all, the author is an expert—why would you question whether they’re telling the truth? But like the childhood game of “telephone” where a message gets whispered from one person to another and changes in the process, historical facts often get passed from scholar to scholar without checking back to their basis. And they can change in the process. Or entire new “facts” can come into being along the way because a reader understood what they were told differently than it was intended. Or they took a general statement and retold it in a more specific form. Or they filled in the gaps of a story with speculation and the next person failed to point out that it was speculation. And, of course, sometimes “facts” are changed or invented on purpose, to tell a specific story for a specific purpose.

Today I want to think about how to research the myths, legends, and symbols associated with lesbians in history. What is the nature of the myth or legend? How did it originate? What evidence do we have about it—and what evidence may have existed but has been lost? Who had a stake in establishing or passing along that item as fact? Did they intend for it to be understood as fact? And what fascinating things can we discover during the journey to try to answer those questions?

Definitional Myths

One type of topic that’s a challenge to research are what might be called “definitional myths”. And when I say “myth” I don’t mean it in the sense of “something that’s not true” but rather in the sense of “an idea that’s part of our cultural understanding of something.”

A definitional myth might be something like “the word lesbian wasn’t used in a sexual sense before the later 19th century.” This is a claim you’ll hear commonly because it can be found in a lot of general works on the history of sexuality. Why would you question it? The people and publications that pass along the claim don’t usually give you the background for why they believe it to be true. And most people who quote it aren’t in a position to do their own primary research to support or contradict it.

In one way, this type of myth is very easy to investigate because it’s a negative claim: any positive evidence of earlier use of the word lesbian adds to our store of knowledge and expands our understanding beyond the myth. But in another way, a broad sweeping claim like this can be hard to follow up on, because the reason it persists is that so many sources agree. Why do they agree? Because they all learned the myth from each other.

Another definitional myth might be “there was no such thing as lesbian identity before the 20th century; women might have sex with women but they didn’t think of themselves as a specific type of person because of it.” Or, conversely, “every woman in history who had sex with women or fell in love with women was a lesbian.” These types of definitional myths lie more in the realm of philosophy than history, because they rely heavily on the exact parameters being specified. Investigating them doesn’t so much involve looking for facts to interpret as thinking about how the question is being defined in the first place.

Definitional myths can shape a lot of our understanding about a subject, but they’re somewhat less fun to investigate than myths about specific people and things. So let’s move on to those.

Myths about People

Consider the myth about Sappho and Phaon, the one that says Sappho left behind her girlfriends and fell hopelessly in love with Phaon the ferryman, for whom she made a suicidal leap off the Leucadian rock. It’s a highly specific and detailed myth—and this time we can use the word “myth” in its classical sense as well, meaning a story about gods and heroes. Given Sappho’s connection with love between women, the Phaon myth was a looming presence throughout history, telling us that love between women is ephemeral, that women will always prefer to love a man in the end, and that a background of sapphic love makes a woman unstable and suicidal. That’s a lot of cultural meaning to pack into one little legend.

Does it matter? Does it matter whether it was true or not? If we could prove that Sappho either did or definitely did not love a man named Phaon, would that have consequences for how we feel about love and sex between women? Put that way, it certainly shouldn’t. And yet the question of how and why this story arose and became the dominant biographical element of Sappho’s story over well over a millennium can tell us a lot about cultural attitudes.

How would one take on that challenge? Can the question even be answered, given how much information has been lost about the historic Sappho’s life? André Lardinois takes a stab at it in his article “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos”, and you can trace the methods for approaching this type of question in his explanation. First of all, he traces the texts that mention Sappho and Phaon. Somewhat obviously, if the story were true, then it isn’t something that Sappho could have mentioned herself. The key source for the story is Ovid’s Heroides, a series of poems about betrayed women, expressed in the voice of the woman herself. Many of the other poems in the series can be tied to pre-existing myths, but often focused on mythical, rather than historic, women. So Ovid was retelling stories that already existed in many cases, simply in a new format. Does that mean that a story about Sappho and Phaon already existed? Possibly—perhaps even probably—but that avenue of exploration appears to be blocked by a lack of sources. Lardinois suggests that during the era when Sappho had become a stock figure in Athenian comic drama that “in all probability her love of Phaon was made fun of” but no specific works are noted so this appears to be speculation.

Let’s take a different angle. Do Sappho’s surviving works make any reference to a man named Phaon or a Leucadian rock? The rock, no, though a Greek poet of a similar era, Anacreon, refers to a leap from the Leucadian rock as a proverbial remedy against the pain of love. (Note that it is not necessarily a suicidal leap.) If this was a commonly known folk-charm against unwanted desire, it is certainly plausible that Sappho might have made reference to a “Leucadian leap” in some now-lost poem, given how often her work discusses the pangs of love and how to deal with them.

How about Phaon? Was he a real person that Sappho might have mentioned? Mentioned, yes; real, no. Phaon was a mythological figure—one of Aphrodite’s human lovers, similarly to Adonis. Sappho mentioned him as Aphrodite’s beloved in fragment 211. And in various poems, Sappho speaks in the persona of Aphrodite, including one fragment where Aphrodite speaks of her love for Adonis. Put all together, we have a plausible—if far from proven—scenario in which a poem in Aphrodite’s voice expressing love for Phaon, combined with a reference to the Leucadian rock in the context of a means of addressing the pangs of love, were re-interpreted at a later date as a biographical story about Sappho herself. Thus, the origins of the myth can make sense while not supporting the myth itself as factual.

Violets

While we’re on the topic of Sappho, let’s look at another lesbian myth where the popular version and the historic context tell different stories. You can find a lot of discussions of queer visual symbols that will assure you that “violets were an early lesbian symbol dating back to 600 BC when Sappho described her lover as wearing a garland of violets”

Are violets a symbol of lesbian love? They are today because people use them in that way. But does that symbol date all the way back to Sappho? And if not, how did it arise?

First of all, yes, Sappho does mention garlands of violets in some of her sensual poems praising women. She also mentions garlands of anise (fragment 5), roses and crocuses (fragment 14, along with violets), clover, hyacinth, lotus, dill, as well as generic references to spring flowers, blooming flowers, purple blossoms. There is no special focus on violets, nor are mentions of violets specific to the poems suggestive of desire for women. For example, in fragment 30 we have a “violet-bosomed bride.” So while violets were one of the flowers mentioned in Sappho’s poems, we don’t really find Sappho herself making a specific connection between violets and love between women. Flower and plant garlands were a common motif. Sappho notes that the Graces favor those who wear garlands (fragment 81). But we have to look somewhere else to tie violets and lesbians together as a symbol.

Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that there have been large swathes of time since Sappho’s day when her reputation as a lover of women was not at the forefront of people’s minds, or when the body of her poetry was not available to people even when they were familiar with her as a poet. So the idea that Sappho’s mention of violets as a motif gave rise to an enduring and continuous tradition of using the flower as a lesbian symbol is clearly nonsense.

One key event in the modern queer mythology of violets is the 1926 play La Prisonnière (The Captive) by Édouard Bourdet, who has one of his characters use a bouquet of violets as a lesbian symbol. In the context of the vibrant queer culture of Paris in the 1920s, the censorship of this play turned it into a cultural flashpoint, and this seems to be when the wearing of violets as a lesbian symbol arose. A number of discussions of queer symbols claim a more general use of violets as a symbol of lesbian desire in the 1920s, losing track of the association with Parisian society and the Bourdet play. And indeed the use of violets as a sign of support of lesbian themes does seem to have spread after that date. An article in The Advocate (issue 338) notes that women wore violets to performances of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour which involved lesbian themes. But the use of violets within the Bourdet play made no specific reference to Sappho or her poetry. Within the play, the flowers refer to an earlier scene between two women when one mentions wearing violets during a particularly happy rendezvous they had, and the other woman later sends her a corsage of violets as a reminder of that time.

Was this just a case of a random symbol being picked up and given a retroactive history? Not necessarily, though it would be interesting to see if a direct connection with Bourdet could be traced. But French lesbian poet Renée Vivien, who was a major figure in the late 19th century Parisian salons, used violets as a symbol and was even known as “the muse of the violets”. Vivien was also a major figure in the revival of interest in Sappho as a lesbian figure, so is there a direct connection there? Did Vivien pluck the violet out of Sappho’s poetry to use as a lesbian symbol? That might have been an influence, but a more direct connection was Viven’s romantic relationship with her childhood friend Violet Shillito who died tragically young. So we have another connection of lesbians and violets, but one that doesn’t necessarily perpetuate an existing tradition, and that can’t necessarily be connected with later tradition.

I’ve only scratched the surface of tracing the violet connections and it would be fun to see someone do a rigorous study to answer the question of whether there was any tradition of lesbians and violets before the 1920s, or whether there is simply a set of individual connections.

Blue Feather

Visual symbols seem to attract mythology, perhaps because they can be used covertly and therefore a documentary trail to establish the history of their meaning may be deliberately obscured. Beginning in the late 1980s, you can find references to the use of a blue feather as a queer symbol in the middle ages. Sometimes it’s considered to be a lesbian symbol, sometimes a symbol for both male and female homosexuals. So what are the origins of this symbol and how can we trace them?

The Wikipedia article on LGBT symbols mentions that the modern use of the symbol is popular among certain historical hobby organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism and Renaissance fairs, and that it is also used among certain neo-pagan groups. If you’re familiar with the sociology of those communities, at least in the US, then it makes sense that use of the blue feather symbol is most likely to have spread from inter-community connections rather than being due to independent discovery of the symbol in other contexts.

But where did the motif come from? What was the historic basis for it? The story behind it is an object lesson in how the history of a symbol can be unclear even when its appearance can be pinned down very precisely. I should know, because I was there.

In August of 1988, at the large annual Society for Creative Anachronism event known as Pennsic, a group of people got together to form an interest and study group within the organization on the history of homosexuality in the middle ages, as well as to serve as a social support group back in an era when not all people felt comfortable being “out” to everyone in the SCA. By chance, I happened to be attending Pennsic that year and attended the organizational meeting, so some of the following is from personal recollection, as well as being documented in the newsletters of the interest group that formed. SCA people are very fond of their visual symbols and social structures, and the idea was tossed around of using a blue feather as a symbol and semi-secret signal for group members. By a year later, this symbol had been officially adopted and its use gradually spread throughout the organization. The overlap of SCA members with participants in Renaissance fairs and membership in neo-pagan groups led to use of the symbol in those contexts, which were also places where a visible but covert recognition symbol was found useful at the time.

But where did the blue feather as a symbol come from? This is where the trail gets a little muddied. I have very clear memories from 1988 of the blue feather symbol being described as a symbol used by troubadours with homosexual interests in France. And that this came from a reference in Judy Grahn’s book Another Mother Tongue. At some later date, the myth shifted to being a symbol used by women in Renaissance Italy who had lesbian interests. Sometimes specifically in Venice. The blurring of these different versions can be seen in the May/June 1989 newsletter of the group, which attributes the choice of the symbol “from the custom of wearing a blue feather in one’s cap to indicate one’s preferred company (Italian?) troubadour custom.”

The problem is: none of those possible origins had any solid facts behind them. A close reading of Judy Grahn’s book found no trace of any reference to feather symbolism. And the shifting details of the alleged context of use made it difficult to find a thread to pull on. Being interested in pinning down the specifics, I made the effort at the time to contact the organizers of the interest group to get more details on where the blue feather motif had come from, to no avail. What I eventually got was something along the lines of “what does it matter whether it’s true or not?” From which it was hard not to conclude that motif of the blue feather was entirely invented in or shortly before 1988. At that time, the best resources I had for researching the origins were the people who had put forth the symbol as a historic fact. If I hadn’t been present—with access to those people—then trying to find the context of those first references would have been a much more difficult job. Today, having spent a lot of time reading historic research on the history of sexuality in Europe, I can add that I’ve never turned up any additional references to the use of a blue feather as a queer symbol that can’t be traced back to that SCA event. And yet, like violets, the use of blue feathers as a queer symbol means that they are a queer symbol. But they’re a late 20th century queer symbol, not a medieval one.

Lesbian Bordellos in 18th Century London

One outcome of the quest for the historic origins of a myth is to find that there are none. Another outcome can be to find a quagmire of possible leads, made confusing by the tendency of books to cite each other and to add layers of specificity to far less certain original data. This was what I ran into when trying to trace down the myth of lesbian bordellos in 18th century London. I posted most of this on the blog previously, but let me take you on a guided tour through how I try to track down sources and references for the facts of lesbian myths in history.

When I was blogging Betty Rizzo’s book Companions without Vows: Relationships among Eighteenth-Century British Women, I ran across a footnote in the chapter about Elizabeth Chudleigh about how some friends of hers were known (or perhaps rumored) to frequent a lesbian bordello in London. Well, that certainly caught my attention! Rizzo cited the claim from E.J. Burford’s Wits, Wenchers, and Wantons – London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century but noted that there was no solid citation given in the book for its source. Despite that, Burford’s book needed to be my next stop along the path.

Burford wrote a popular-oriented tour through the “scandalous” aspects of the Covent Garden district in the 18th century, particularly focusing on sex and alcohol. The book has three pages of bibliography, mostly 18th century primary sources, and an extensive index. It isn’t footnoted in a scholarly way, but sources for particular chapters are given more generally. So there’s a little hope that we may be able to follow the scent.

The vast majority of the sexual content is focused on heterosexual interests, of course, though there are a dozen index entries relating to male homosexuality, some of them covering multiple pages. I didn’t want to read through the entire book in detail to try to find the hypothetical “lesbian bordello” material, so I focused on the three index entries under “lesbians”, as well as following up on cross-references to the women mentioned by name in those discussions.

In chapter 7 (“The Places of Resort”, which covers various specific taverns with significant reputations), the discussion of the Rose Tavern makes a passing reference to how all sexual appetites were welcome at the Rose including: “homosexuals and lesbians (the latter’s activity called ‘the Game of Flats’)…” No specific source is given for this information, but if you check out the LHMP tag for the phrase “game of flats” it will show you several known sources from the 18th century. So the Rose Tavern and the phrase “game of flats” are further threads from this particular reference.

In chapter 11 of Burford’s book (“The Heyday”, which is sort of a hodgepodge of anecdotes from the mid 18th century), after a discussion of an attack on a well-known “molly house” (a gathering place for male homosexuals), the chapter segues into the following discussion:

“Lesbianism is seldom mentioned. It was colloquially known as ‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street. The best-known practitioners were Lady Caroline Harrington and her friend Elizabeth ‘the Pollard’ Ashe. It was regarded as an aberration – indeed, it was not even a misdemeanour.”

There are no references to primary sources in this section that would appear to be relevant to this passage, however the listing of specific names and locations provides a number of threads to follow: Mother Courage’s bordello, Frances Bradshaw’s house (which the context implies may be a house of ill repute), and a specific reference to Caroline Harrington and her “friend” Elizabeth Ashe, who presumably are among the “ladies of the quality” involved in lesbian relationships.

Finishing up Burford’s index listings for “lesbians”, we have in chapter 12 (“The Theatrical Connection”, which discusses the overlap between actresses and courtesans, noting both licit and illicit intersections with the aristocracy) there is a second mention of Ashe and Harrington. Once again, there is no reference to a specific primary source in this section of the chapter that would give a clue to the story’s origins. But there is a verbatim quotation from some source that might provide a clue. Further research determined that the quote discussing Elizabeth Ashe is from Hester Thrale Piozzi, although her writings are not listed in the bibliography for Burford’s book. Here’s the section from the book that includes the quote:

“One of the most bizarre actress-courtesans was Elizabeth Ashe, ‘a small pretty Creature…between a Woman and a Fairy’, daughter of John Ashe, one of His Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs – although she always claimed that she was the illegitimate daughter of Admiral Lord Rodney and the Princess Amelia. When very young she was often in Covent Garden mixing with the haut ton. In 1751 she married the scapegrace Edward Wortley-Montague but he left her a year later because of her promiscuity. Ten years later she married Captain Robert Falconer RN but before long she was carrying on a lesbian relationship with the equally profligate Lady Caroline ‘Polly’ Harrington (also a frequenter of Covent Garden ‘stews’). The friendship was broken when Miss Ashe became the mistress of Count Josef Franz Zavier Haszlang, Bavarian Envoy to London, who was very well liked in all circles in London Society as a pleasant, helpful and compassionate man. Lady Harrington, one of the most powerful Society hostesses, claimed that ‘her character was demolished’ by her friend’s actions. Despite her two marriages, Elizabeth was always known as ‘Little Ashe’, and Horace Walpole nicknamed her ‘the Pollard Ashe’, observing that ‘she had had a large collection of amours’ before she died, still gay and happy, at the age of eighty-four.”

That provides a lot of biographical specifics to follow up on: lovers and husbands, contemporary writers who mentioned the two women. We can now set to work tracking down further details that may support Burford’s claim that the two women were lovers. But we can also cross-check where Elizabeth Ashe and Caroline Harrington appear elsewhere in Burford’s book.

Ash appears only in the two cited passages. Harrington is also mentioned in chapter 17 describing Covent Garden institutions that began competing with the traditional houses of prostitution:

“The other competition came from the marvelous concerts and balls given by Mrs Cornelys at her mansion in Soho Square, which royalty occasionally attended and where the most refined and elegant assignations could be made by such powerful ladies as the Countess of Harrington and her clique, who acted as unpaid procuresses.”

There’s no direct reference to lesbian relations, but the mention of Harrington being a countess suggests it will be easy to find further biographical information on her.

Frances Bradshaw was mentioned earlier as running an “elegant” house of prostitution in Bow Street, and she gets two additional mentions in Burford’s index. Around 1760, Frances Herbert was keeping ‘a very reputable brothel in Play-house Passage in Bow Street’, financed by a wealthy man whose mistress she had been. But a Lord of the Admiralty named Thomas Bradshaw fell for her sufficiently to think about marrying her. It isn’t clear from the text that he actually did so, though she began using his surname starting a few years before his death. But this mini-biography of Frances Bradshaw provides no repetition of the suggestion that her house’s clientele included female customers.

This leaves us with the only other named reference being “Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street”. The index entry for “Courage, Mrs.” adds the information “a house for lesbians” with one other citation besides the one we’ve already discussed. This occurs in the context of the courtesan and opera singer Caterina Ruini Galli who, worked her way through several wealthy (male) lovers who found they couldn’t support her extravagance, after which “the last heard of her was that she was gracing Mrs Courage’s well-known place of assignation in Suffolk Street off the Haymarket.” But this passage makes no reference to lesbian assignations nor does it imply any lesbian connections for the singer.

So let’s collect up what we’ve learned from Burford’s book. He makes two specific claims:

  • Countess Caroline Harrington had a sexual relationship with the courtesan-actress Elizabeth Ashe.
  • At least two named houses of prostitution (Frances Bradshaw’s and Mother Courage’s) catered to lesbians.

We have some quotations from primary sources about these women, but none of the quotes indicate lesbian relationships. While I wouldn’t necessarily put the idea of lesbian bordellos into the category of “extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof”, it would be nice to find something more specific and documentable. And honestly, Burford has provided absolutely no documentation at all. Having squeezed all the possible clues out of Burford, I took my clues and threads and turned to other sources to see if I could find more. For basic biographical information about historic figures, Wikipedia is a good starting place, although it should never be relied on as a sole source of historic information. But because Wikipedia entries are sourced, one can trace back further for their claims. This is a lot easier than doing a similar project in the days before the world-wide-web!

One good place to start would be Caroline Harrington, since a countess seems most likely to have left a trace in the historic record. Sure enough, there’s a Wikipedia entry for Caroline FitzRoy Stanhope, Countess of Harrington. (It doesn’t say much for Burford’s historic accuracy that he’s turned her title into a surname. But never mind.) The rather brief entry states:

“After being blackballed by the English social group The Female Coterie, she founded The New Female Coterie, a social club of courtesans and "fallen women" that met in a brothel. Known for her infidelity and bisexuality, she was nicknamed the "Stable Yard Messalina" due to her adulterous lifestyle.”

Well that sounds promising. And Wikipedia has a footnote for the claim “she had male and female lovers” citing it from Fergus Linnane’s Madams: Bawds & Brothel-Keepers of London. Definitely promising…but on checking the cited passage (via Google Books), the details regarding her alleged lesbian relationships are so exactly parallel in wording to Burford that I’d be very surprised if he weren’t the source. (And Burford is cited elsewhere in Linnane’s book.) Which brings us full circle.

Caroline Stanhope’s Wikipedia page cites three historical studies that include her as a major focus. It’s possible that one or more of them has some more solidly cited evidence than “she was part of a social club of adulterous women who held their events at a brothel.” But I’m not ready to start ordering more books on that slim a lead and I can’t take a look at library copies until I’m willing to break quarantine. So let’s start down another path.

Elizabeth Ashe doesn’t seem to have her own Wikipedia entry, so we’ll leave her for now. Trying to do a broad-scope search on the brothel name “Mother Courage” runs into a lot of interference from the Bertolt Brecht play of that name and from a restaurant in New York City. Powerful online search engines tend to fail when you’re trying to research the name-twin of something much more famous. So again, I’ll set that line aside for now.

Frances Bradshaw has no Wikipedia entry, but Thomas Bradshaw does and it rather undermines Burford’s suggestion that Thomas seriously proposed marriage to Frances, given that he was survived by his wife of 17 years.

So circling back to the footnote in Rizzo’s book that started this whole thing, the context was that Elizabeth Chudleigh (mistress and then wife to a duke) had, in her 20s, been intimate friends with Lady Caroline Fitzroy Petersham (later Caroline Stanhope, Countess of Harrington) and Elizabeth Ashe, and that the purported romantic relationship between Caroline and Elizabeth suggested that Chudleigh’s rather jealous attitudes toward her companions may have been sexual in nature.

Chudleigh and Lady Caroline were much of an age (only a year’s difference) while Elizabeth Ashe was eight years younger, which raises the question of when their lives would have intersected. A Google search on “Caroline Fitzroy Petersham” + “Elizabeth Ashe” turns up a text in archive.org of a 1911 biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh by Charles E. Pearce, which places all three women together. We find the following descriptions in chapter 8 (titled “Elizabeth's associates Gay ladies of fashion, The frolicsome Miss Ashe, The friendship and wrangles of Miss Ashe and Lady Caroline Petersham, A merry night at Vauxhall…”). Keep in mind that this is an early 20th century biography, not an 18th century source. And like many historic and biographical works of the early 20th century, it does not believe in footnotes. But we get a lot of specific details that provide confidence that there is an original source that could be tracked down.

p. 136: It is related that while Miss Chudleigh, the free-and-easy Lady Caroline Petersham, afterwards Lady Harrington, and the latter's inseparable friend one equally free and easy Miss Ashe, were at Tunbridge Wells they were somewhat incensed by the intrusion into their circle of a Mrs. Wildman, a rich widow of low origin, who wished to pose as a lady of fashion.

Ok, so Chudleigh, Harrington, and Ashe are friends, the latter two “inseparable” which was often a code-word for a sapphic relationship. Let’s continue to something more concrete. Speaking of Chudleigh, the biographer writes, quoting some other source:

p.144 "Her intimacy with Lady Harrington (Lady Caroline Petersham) and Miss Ashe, who rioted in dissipation, gave a stamp to her character. She was constant at the midnight orgies of their pleasures, and no doubt participated in their sensual indulgencies." As this was written in 1780, thirty years afterwards, it is purely conjecture. It is certain, however, that Lady Harrington, then Lady Caroline Petersham, and the eldest daughter of the second Duke of Grafton, was one of the most-talked-about beauties of the day. About her intimate friend, Miss Elizabeth Ashe, there is a little mystery. She is stated indirectly by Wraxall and directly by Mrs. Piozzi (who describes her as “a pretty creature, but particularly small in her person”), to have been of very high parentage, her mother being no less a personage than the Princess Amelia Sophia Eleonora, second daughter of George II, and her father the gallant (in more senses than one) Admiral Rodney. The Princess, it is said, displayed the same partiality for Rodney which her cousin and namesake, the Princess Amelia of Prussia, manifested for Baron Trenck. Miss Ashe was as frolicsome as she was adventurous, and her escapades included a Fleet wedding, and an elopement with the scapegrace Edward Wortley Montagu, of which more later on.

p.146: Lady Caroline and Miss Ashe were inseparable, their friendship occasionally interrupted by quarrels, which, however, they soon made up. One may be sure that Lady Caroline was the offender, as she seems to have been blessed (or cursed) with a temper.

p.153: …[in reference to a notorious highwayman] at his trial the court was crowded with ladies of fashion, among them the inseparables, Lady Caroline Petersham and Miss Ashe, "like Niobe, all tears."

Again, we have the repeated use by the 20th century biographer of the term “inseparables”. This was definitely a code-word for sapphic relationships in the 18th century, and we can guess that the biographer may be quoting his sources in using it. Caroline and Elizabeth seem to have had a tempestuous relationship, as noted in the following passage quoted in the biography.

p.199: "Miss Ashe is happily reconciled to Lady Caroline Petersham, who had broke with her upon account of her indiscretion, but who has taken her under her protection again”

There are a number of passages about Miss Ashe’s heterosexual encounters, but one should keep in mind that 18th century mores tended to see same-sex and opposite-sex relationships as running along different tracks and not necessarily incompatible with each other. And Lady Caroline seems to have used quarrels as a routine part of her courtships, as the book later notes regarding:

p.215: the obstreperous Lady Caroline Petersham and her lively friend, little Miss Ashe. For the time being the frivolities of these fair dames provided ample material for the diarists and polite letter-writers. The wrangles of Lady Caroline always made a dainty dish of scandal, and we learn that she and "Pollard" Ashe quarrelled about reputations, while a little later she has her " anniversary quarrel with Lady Townshend."

While this biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh is a secondary source and doesn’t bother with detailed footnoting, many of these references are attributed to Horace Walpole, and one of the references was to prolific diarist Hester Thrale Piozzi, so I’m going to consider the general tenor of the information well-sourced. Although, if I were writing this study up as a formal research project, I’d want to track down the original quotations.

As a summary then, Pearce’s biography of Elizabeth Chudleigh seems to solidly support an image of Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe as “inseparable” and “intimate” friends with licentious reputations. In this era, the fact that their licentiousness included men doesn’t exclude the possibility that they were also lovers (or rumored to be such). Since Piozzi was known to have strong negative opinions about homosexuality (in both men and women), her writings might be a good place to look for a more explicit accusation, but I don’t have an electronic edition of her writings. And since she wrote very prolific diaries, I’d want a searchable form or one that was very well indexed.

The suggestions in Rizzo that Elizabeth Chudleigh’s close friendship with the two women might indicate sapphic leanings on her part is far more conjectural, and I’d put it down as “suggestive, but far from proven.”

So we’ve gotten as far as accepting a “probable” lesbian relationship between Caroline Stanhope and Elizabeth Ashe, but what about the suggestion that Caroline was a “frequenter of Covent Garden stews” which, if one reads very carefully, is the only point at which Burford’s book actually places houses of ill repute in conjunction with specific named supposed lesbians? A search of Pearce’s biography turns up no examples of “Covent”, no relevant examples of “garden” and no examples of “stews”. So, he can’t be the source of this accusation, at least not in anything resembling that wording. And since he doesn’t seem to shy away from discussion of sexual indiscretions, it makes me wonder whether the supposed reference actually exists. And—let us note—Burford’s book only claims that the two women frequented the “stews”, not that they went there to seek female sexual partners, as opposed to looking for possible hook-ups with men. So there’s the potential that the entire implication of “lesbian bordellos” has been read into this passage based on mistaken assumptions.

So what about the references to Mother Courage’s house in Haymarket and Frances Bradshaw’s house on Bow Street as being houses of prostitution that catered to women seeking women? Casting about for more leads to follow, I put “Frances Bradshaw” + “Bow Street” into a Google search and the wisdom of the search algorithm pointed me toward Peter Ackroyd’s book Queer City: Gay London from the Romans to the Present Day which I happen to own but have not gotten around to blogging yet.

Here's Frances Bradshaw in the index… a lead! What does he say? “Close encounters were not reserved for men. Certain female bagnios were open only to other women, such as Frances Bradshaw’s establishment in Bow Street.” That’s a far more specific claim that Burford’s, who simply referred to “‘the Game of Flats’, usually indulged in by ladies of the quality in specialist houses such as Mother Courage’s in Suffolk Street, Haymarket, and later in the century at Frances Bradshaw’s elegant house in Bow Street.” Ackroyd makes a similar exclusive claim about Mother Courage, stating “Mother Courage ran a house exclusively for females in Suffolk Street.” In both cases we’ve moved from “indulged in by ladies in specialist houses” to “exclusively catering to lesbians” which seems like a leap to conclusions. Furthermore, we still don’t know what the original evidence is that this claim is based on. Ackroyd, alas, has no footnotes at all. And his bibliography doesn’t list Burford, which might be the expected source if this is part of a circular game. However he does list Catherine Arnold’s City of Sin: London and its Vices which also turned up in the aforementioned Google search for Frances Bradshaw. Google Books allows us a peek at the relevant passage:

“’Mother Courage’ of Suffolk Street and Frances Bradshaw of Bow Street catered for the lesbian trade, while Sisters Anne and Elanor [sic] Redshawe ran ‘an extremely secretive discreet House of Intrigue in Tavistock Street, catering for Ladies in the Highest Keeping’ and wealthy married women who came in disguise to amuse themselves.”

The passage is footnoted, but the footnote isn’t available through the page preview I have access to. However we can trace the reference to Anne and Elanor Redshawe (again, via the power of Google) to Harris’s List of Covent-Garden Ladies an annual publication in the later 18th century listing prostitutes and their specialties. The mention of the Redshawes is glossed in Colin Murphy’s Fierce History: 5000 years of startling stories from Ireland and around the globe, using wording precisely similar to that in City of Sin. It feels like we may be circling in on something profitable here. But I do want to note that a strict reading of “catering for ladies” and “married women who came in disguise to amuse themselves” does not specify female partners, as opposed to providing a space where women could indulge discreetly in liaisons with men. Several of the many editions of Harris’s list are available online, however without having a more specific reference to the year, the search could be tedious. And it isn’t at all apparent that the references to Frances Bradshaw or Mother Courage came from this source.

Indeed, if Burford is the source of connecting Mother Courage with an establishment catering to lesbians, it isn’t at all clear that even his blanket assertions support the idea. The description of how the opera singer Caterina Galli ended up “gracing Mrs. Courage’s well-known place of assignation” is in a context where it’s clear that Galli’s liaisons were with men.

And Burfords discussions of Frances Bradshaw—back when she was Frances Herbert—describe her as keeping “a very reputable brothel” which doesn’t sound like how you’d describe a lesbian establishment, and further that it was financed by a man whose mistress she had been, which weakens the suggestion that she set up her establishment exclusively for a lesbian clientele.

There are still a lot of threads to pull on, leads to follow up, primary sources to comb through. One suspects that there may be references to Mother Courage and Frances Bradshaw née Herbert in the index of Covent Garden prostitutes, at the very least in their roles as proprietors. But for now, let’s leave the puzzle as unsolved. You’ve gotten a tour through the complexities and processes of trying to retroactively verify historical claims that have been passed from author to author, being changed along the way sometimes into an unrecognizable form. And yet, there are hints of treasure possibly to be found. The problem is, if we don’t know how we know something, we don’t actually know it. And we don’t yet know that we know there were lesbian brothels in 18th century London.

Does it Matter?

Does any of this matter? Does it matter whether the myths about lesbians in history have any truth value? Or, if they were made up, does it matter whether they were invented by an ancient Roman poet, or a French salonnière, or a sloppy Victorian biographer, or a medieval re-enactor? No one can tell you whether it should matter to you. I’m a historian and it matters to me. But even more, the whole process matters to me—the glorious quest to trace information and evidence across time and to see what we can tell about the human experience from its origins.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, May 14, 2021 - 17:04

This session definitely looks interesting, but I don’t plan to take detailed notes. Sorry. Just kind of worn thin, since I spent the last two hours finishing my podcast script for tomorrow and still need to record and edit it! That included skipping a session that superficially looked interesting (Queering Women of Medieval Scandinavia and Iceland) but the actual paper titles in that one looked far less interesting. And I really really needed to finish the podcast script.

I have to say that one through-line of this year’s conference has been a sincere attempt to address the racist potential of the field of medieval history and, if not always to redress that potential, at least to shine a light on it and recognize it.

Savage and Medieval in C. S. Lewis's Discarded Image - Thomas Peter Klein, PhD, Idaho State University

From "Tissues of Silk and Gold" to Fibers of the Harakeke: Re-Weaving the Medieval Past - Katie Robison, University of Southern California

Contact and Context: Dismantling the Myths of Medieval Settlement - Wallace Thomas Cleaves II, University of California at Riverside

Addressing Stereotypes with Public Outreach: The Viking Coloring Book Project - Dayanna Knight, Viking Coloring Book Project

Major category: 
Conventions
Friday, May 14, 2021 - 13:11

I picked this session in part for the promise of an LGTBQ+ topic, and in part for an examination of race in early modern literature. But the middle paper also potentially intersects my interests (see the LHMP tag for Mary Wroth).

Sidney’s "Black Boies": Race as Emblem in the New Arcadia - Dr. Kathryn DeZur, PhD, SUNY Delhi

Description from Sidney’s Arcadia of a coach drawn by white horses ridden by “black-a-moor” boys, with the entire equipage in themes of black and white. The speaker provides a context for the vocabular of Sidney’s phrase “black” “boys”. Sidney’s use of visual imagery is discussed with considerations of how to interpret the connections between life and art in the text. In this episode, the reverse is present: a description of (in-text) life that is present as if a work of emblematic art, where the symbolism is more important than the contextual reality.

What can this particular image tell us about the concepts of race and difference in Sidney’s social context? Even though the word “race” was not used in the modern sense associated with ethnicity, racialized descriptions still carry symbolic meanings indicating essentialized traits and judgments. Does it matter that these characters are black? And does this blackness count as “race”? The presenter answers “yes” and will go on to support this conclusion.

Examples are presented of “emblems” treating the blackness of “Ethiopians” as an essential characteristic, something that cannot be changed. And although black skin is not directly equated to negative traits, the parallels of other unchanging essential characteristics that are mentioned imply negative polarity. In the Arcadia heraldic emblems are used as identifying features. The character of Helen (the inhabitant of the black and white coach) is discussed in dark/light terms with her virtue being “light” and her sorrow being “dark”. The black and white color scheme of her coach and servants thus are not about the coach and servants, but are merely a medium for the symbolic color scheme representing Helen herself. The boys’ Blackness, in itself, doesn’t matter because they don’t matter—not because they are Black, but because they are a living “emblem” of Helen’s qualities. And yet, their skin color matters because they were presumably chosen for the position in order to be part of that color scheme.

The presence of racialized individuals in European households, and their association with non-Christian cultures, combined with the context of Western color symbolism makes it inevitable that negative (from a Christian perspective) essential characteristics would be projected on dark skins. But within the Arcadia some of the traits projected on the Black riders (such as fear of the attacking knights) can be understood as a rational reaction to their vulnerable status as servants, rather than being an essential trait.

Given the potentially ambiguous interpretations, this consideration is not a claim about Sidney’s own views on race, but is intended to address oft-overlooked themes of race that should be foregrounded by scholars.

Lady Mary Wroth Now - Paul J. Hecht, Purdue University Northwest

This paper also touches on issues of race, as well as queerness, looking at the linked poem. The poem may relate to court masques involving black-face. The speaker suggests that she is “blackened” by her love, just as “Indians” are blackened by the sun. But the black/white imagery is ambiguous and confusing, with a certain uncertainty of pronoun reference. (We’re getting a very close reading of the verse and I’m not going to be able to summarize in any detail.) The general topic has to do with racialized conceptions of religious faith. (I’m drifting away from the details at this point, but the preceding is the theme.) We move on to a second poem. This poem of disappointed love uses imagery of day/brightness/happiness and night/darkness/sorrow. Alas, the speaker didn’t have time to touch on the matter that the beloved in this poem appears to be referred to with female pronouns.

Taking Cleophila Seriously: LGBTQ+ Students and the Old Arcadia - Nancy L. Simpson-Younger, Pacific Lutheran University

The speaker notes that this is more of a pedagogical paper than an analysis. There is a question about whether one can identify “coming out” moments within historic contexts. Is it appropriate to use modern terminology of gender and sexuality when discussing historic figures and characters? And how does one affirm the identities and experiences of modern students when teaching this material? The focus is primarily on transgender experience, and so there is a certain focus on cross-dressing motifs in early modern texts. (I’m not going to take notes on the basic theoretical concerns here, since my blog has gone over this sort of topic a lot.) The overall thesis seems to be, yes, queer and trans students can see themselves in early modern texts and this gives them a rooted investment in the material as well as a framework for moving forward within the cultural context.

The focus of this discussion is the character of Cleophila in the Arcadia (the assigned-male character who presents themselves as an Amazon to woo the princess Philoclea). But the discussion is strongly focused on classroom dynamics that can help make queer students feel welcome and included in the discussion without feeling singled out or highlighted. Also, what the students anxieties may be around subject matter that potentially includes queer interpretations and how that will be handled within the classroom. (This is actually very fascinating, but not easy to summarize since it involves a lot of anecdotal material. Also, as noted above, mostly about the process of teaching. So I’m pretty much leaving it here.)

Major category: 
Conventions
Friday, May 14, 2021 - 11:12

I primarily picked this session for the 2nd paper on a clothing topic, which was definitely worth coming for all on its own. I had skipped the first two sessions to work on this week's podcast (which should have been done already!) but may go back and pick up one of them in recorded form next week.

Personifications of Abstract Ideas as Expressions of Donors' Elite Status in Late Antiquity - Prolet Decheva, University College Dublin

[I came in a little late, so I didn’t get the introductory remarks.] Ktisis as personification of “foundation” used in buildings. Female personification shown dressed in chlamys with tablion, a normally male garment that usually only appeared as a female garment on an empress. More examples of personifications: Magnanimity. Personifications more typically dressed according to the figure’s gender. [I missed taking a bunch of notes because my wireless mouse keeps dropping the signal and I had to hunt down a wired one.] The general theme here is the ability to connect the images of personified attributes as “portraits” of a person associated with the building or space in which the personification appears. I’m not trying to take down the details, but I’m finding the arguments fascinating and convincing.

Dress and Historical Imagination: A Case Study - Merih Danali, PhD, Princeton University

14th c. Greek astrological manuscript includes various illustrations including two unique portraits. A female figure sitting in a howdah on the back of an elephant, wearing a turban and a loose blue garment with gold bands. An inscription added later identifies her as “The Grand Lady” using an Arabic title. Facing her is a young man with a beard, sitting cross-legged on a carpet. He wears a white turban and a white garment decorated with red birds. The legend indicates “a sultan” in a calligraphic script but the top of the page has been removed and a legend “Ptolemy” has been added.

We are given some comparative images from Mamluk art of a similar era. The single-headed eagle on the man’s garment is a Mamluk symbol (as contrasted with the double-headed eagle).

Interpretations of these figures include: Islamic royalty (indicating prior ownership), that they are separate from the manuscript’s contents, and that the female figure is related to the male figure. Specific identifications are uncertain.

Some problems: for double portraits, they lack expected features such as indications of relative status, parallelism. But the subject portraits are not symmetric in composition or appearance, the woman physically dominates the space in comparison to the male figure. There is a reversal of the expected gender hierarchy. Proposed: the current arrangement of folios is not original and the two portraits were never intended to be paired visually. [We are given a demonstration with photocopies of how this works.]

In the original composition, the male figure faces a depiction of a map of the world. This is a standard Byzantine composition indicating authorship (Ptolemy’s geography). But why would Ptolemy be depicted as a Mamluk sultan? There was a common conflation of the Greek geographer Ptolemy with the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty. Thus the depiction of Ptolemy as a (contemporary) Egyptian ruler (a Mamluk sultan) is in this tradition.

The female figure was also originally paired with a different image, now lost. If that image were available, it would presumably indicate her identity more clearly. The speaker suggests Hypatia of Alexandria (Greco-Egyptian philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer). The elephant was a symbol of imperial power and, via association with Alexander the Great & Alexandria, became associated with Egyptian elites. Thus the placement of the female figure on an elephant could simply indicate a “wise Egyptian woman” by which the viewer would understand Hypatia.

Ptolemy and Hypatia were both from Alexandria and had other connections as well. Therefore the connection between them in the text has many different underpinnings, but indicating an intellection connection, not a familial one. We get a review of Hypatia’s symbolic role as a pagan female intellectual martyred by Christian fanatics.

Donors in Their Built Context: A Reexamination of Village Donor Portraits - Mark James Pawlowski, University of California, Santa Cruz

Examinations of donor portraits typically focuses on identifications, etc. but this paper looks at the “built” context in which they appear, and how that speaks to their relationship to the community. The two images analyzed here appear within a church in Marathos. [I’m not sure I have enough basic background to follow this one well.] We are given a description of the physical circumstances of the village. A fairly ideal location for a medieval village. A small community with remains of houses and churches, possibly 100+ inhabitants. Houses are built of local stone and there is no differentiation in style. [We’re looking at heaps of undifferentiated rock and being given interpretations that are far from obvious!] In the first phase of building, there is one significantly larger house, though otherwise not much variation. Some size difference is from later additions to the original structures. Indication that families may have shifted in prosperity.

One house near the church does stand out somewhat, being set slightly apart physically but not significantly different in size. The church itself is better preserved, is unique in using masonry, and includes wall paintings. High vaulted ceiling and other signs of “better quality” than any other building in the settlement. There are other signs that the isolated house is connected physically to the church. There is a suggestion both of separation of the church and the house, as well as association between them. But the church does not appear to be intended for private access by the family in the house. Also, there are two cisterns located between the two buildings which are clearly intended for communal access. Further, when the house was expanded, it reoriented access to the house away from the church. Examples of similar situations were a house and church in close proximity created deliberate separation between the two.

Much of the painting in the church has degraded, with maybe half a dozen figures being identifiable. The donor images are part of a later renovation of the church, ca. 13th c. So the donors cannot be associated with the original creation of the church, but may have been recognize for some smaller amount of expansion or renovation. Thus, artistic features of their clothing that appear to represent luxury features may have been symbolic representations of status, rather than major differences of wealth. The features of their dress do not correspond to aristocratic fashions, but rather more ordinary styles. [Note: although not specifically proposed, it sounds like there’s a suggestion that the donor portraits may be of the family living in the associated house.]

Major category: 
Conventions
Thursday, May 13, 2021 - 16:40

Normally, browsing the bookroom at Kalamazoo is a kid-in-a-candy store type experience. The books are there, physically. You can leaf through them and figure out whether they hit the spot of your particular interests. Not having that direct interaction made it a bit difficult to determine what I wanted to buy, in this case. But there were still the conference discounts…

So here are the titles I ordered, that will trickle in over the next month or so, complete with commentary on why I bought it.

Publisher/Vendor: The Compleat Scholar

Peters, Edward. 1982. The Magician, the Witch, and the Law. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812211016 – When and how, during the middle ages, did magic shift from being considered an acceptable science to being an unacceptable heresy? Bought for deep background on historic attitudes toward magic.

Summers, Sandra Lindemann. 2013. Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature. University Press of Florida. ISBN 978-0813044187 – The idea that women were passive players within the medieval romantic landscape is contradicted by literary examples of “the female gaze” in a very literal sense. In several of the “gender confusion” romances (though the ones I’m thinking of aren’t German) the experience of gazing on the beloved is a key element of the femme character’s participation in the romantic relationship. Even when present in a m/f relationship, the element of the female romantic/sexual gaze disrupts ideas about the role of the woman in medieval romantic scenarios.

Farmer, Sharon. 2016. The Silk Industries of Medieval Paris: Artisanal Migration, Technological Innovation, and Gendered Experience. Penn Press. ISBN 9780812248487 – Not sure why I haven’t bought this previously, since it intersects two interests: textiles and female-dominated industries. The Parisian silk industry was a highly gendered field and offered unmarried women some unusual opportunities (while still being underpaid relative to male-coded occupations). These themes are also reflected in references to silk-workers in medieval romances, reflecting an image of female-dominated workshops that were a site of social solidarity as well as economic independence.

Publisher/Vendor: Broadview Press

Claire M. Waters. 2018. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Translation. Broadview Press. ISBN 9781554810826 – I have an English-language edition of her work, but regularly find myself wanting to check things against the original language.

Publisher/Vendor: McFarland Books

Short, William R. 2010. Icelanders in the Viking Age. McFarland & Company. ISBN 978-0786447275 – A general-interest (rather than academic) work that brings together recent scholarship and interpretations. This is general background for my eventual novel set in the Viking era.

Publisher/Vendor: University of Chicago Press

Hunting, Penelope. 2021. My Dearest Heart: The Artist Mary Beale. Unicorn Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1912690084 – Mary Beale made a living as a portrait artist and author in the second half of 17th century. Her career was thoroughly documented by her husband, who approved of her success. She also wrote in favor of the equality of the sexes in marriage. I’ve been collecting up biographies of interesting English (and other) women with dreams of a series of romance novels set in Restoration England.

Stoichita, Victor I. 2019. Darker Shades: The Racial Other in Early Modern Art. Reaktion Books. ISBN 978-1789140569 – Part of my program of re-training my imagination to see non-white people in history.

Nummedal, Tara. 2019. Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226639727 – Not a study of alchemy itself, but of alchemists (both male and female) and what their lives were like. Yes, I really do need to write more Alpennian stories involving alchemy.

Publisher/Vendor: Columbia University Press

DeVun, Leah. 2021. The Shape of Sex: Nonbinary Gender from Genesis to the Renaissance. Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231195515 – OK, funny story here. For about the last year, every month when I search Amazon listings to put together the new book listings for the podcast (sapphic historical fiction), this title keeps popping up in the first page or so of results. I’ve gotten very used to ignoring it, since I only see it when I’m looking for fiction. But I was chatting with folks about queer historic topics, and one of my friends says, “There’s this book coming out that I think you really need to read.” So now I’ve ordered it.

Publisher/Vendor: University of Toronto Press

Pugh, Tison. 2021. On the Queerness of Early English Drama: Sex in the Subjunctive. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-1487508746 – I winced a bit at the price on this one, particularly since the catalog listing didn’t answer the question of whether it included any female-relevant material. (Not at all a given.) But I was able to find a more detailed discussion that gave me hope, so I added it to my list.

Publisher/Vendor: Penn Press

Bennett, Judith M. 2020. A Medieval Life: Cecilia Penifader and the World of English Peasants Before the Plague. Penn Press. ISBN 9780812224696 – I’m not sure why I hadn’t picked this up previously. Bennett is a great writer and I expect this to be a very readable and informative description of everyday medieval life.

Major category: 
Conventions
Thursday, May 13, 2021 - 14:50

Usual reasons for listening to sessions of history of magic. A bit concerned that that presenters and presider make up over ¼ of the people on screen.  Ah, no, they just announced that three of the four anthropologists listed in the panel won’t be appearing, so the actual audience ratio is higher.

And I ended up noping out of the session. No one had actually come prepared to speak to the subject, so it ended up being a meandering discussion that would have been great as “hanging out in the bar shooting the breeze” but doesn’t work as a formal session. Sometimes that happens.

Major category: 
Conventions
Thursday, May 13, 2021 - 13:31

Honestly, I added this to my schedule with no idea what the content is going to be. I was originally planning to do a bike ride in this time-slot, but I just got my second Moderna shot this morning and decided to take it easy. Roundtables typically involve multiple short presentations (we have 5 people on the panel) followed by discussion. I don’t think I’m going to try to take detailed notes [spoiler: I took detailed notes], but rather give an overall impression at the end. Hmm, but they’re testing the presentations before the panel and there are fancy purses. So maybe notes after all?

Session 286 - New Perspectives on Gender and Difference in Honor of Sharon Farmer (A Roundtable)

Nancy A. McLoughlin - University of California, Irvine

Begins by discussing how the honoree influenced her work and career. Studying “Illicit persuasion” and the female personification of vices with respect to male ecclesiastical authors. Motifs of gendered authority, including the feminine personification of the University. Sermons about how illicit lust causes men to do disastrous things. Use of the personified University as a contrast to female-personified vices. Alternate symbolic interpretations of David and Bathsheba in positive terms, rather than as an example of dangerous lust. More female personifications (the church, the nation) set up as “better” than the influence of actual women (mothers, queens). [I’m starting to lose the through-line.] We’re talking about discourse around crusades as ways of forming political connections among Christian rulers. Now we’re talking about the symbolism (as opposed to reality) of Saracens as Other. In all these high-level symbolic discourse, actual women have little presence.

Fiona Harris-Stoertz - Trent Univ.

Intends to discuss the contributions of the honoree to feminist scholarship, particularly from her earlier period. [This seems to be primarily a review of topics and works that Farmer has covered.] Focus on “difference” and on dissecting gender dichotomies. First monograph on veneration of S. Martin in three different communities. The very different ways in which a single symbol, such as a particular saint, can be interpreted and used. Relates this back to contemporary scholars and how they are shaped by their own communities. Participated in push-back against Georges Duby’s characterizing of medieval women as powerless pawns. Discussion of several articles taking this stance. Women’s persuasive power working across formal power structures, but also working within those structures contrary to misogynistic claims. [Losing the thread again.] “Subverting the dominant gender binaries.” Next topic of study is the poor people of medieval Paris. [I’m recognizing some book covers that looked intriguing in the bookroom, but not sufficiently in me wheelhouse to buy.] Within the study of poverty, gender is a less important category than other elements.

Kate Kelsey Staples - West Virginia University

[Oh, I think I have her book on daughters in London! Ah, yes, I blogged it here: https://alpennia.com/blog/what-wills-can-tell-us-about-womens-lives] Plans to talk about contesting gender norms. Learned to discard modern assumptions about how economies work and modern prescriptive interpretations about the place of gender. Focus on women’s work within the household economy rather than looking only at women’s incursions into male-dominated roles. In working on London wills, exploring how the elite created opportunities for both sons and daughters, some of the gendered patterns in occupation led to seeking out alternate sources of data that told different gendered stories. Clerical authors often envisioned separate spheres for men and women: men were productive, women were reproductive. But this provides an inaccurate view and we must contest the filters of medieval authors to find the realities. In looking for the “exceptional” women who insert themselves in primarily-male roles, the nature of urban records can make them difficult to identify. But does this mean they are actually rare, or only that the usual types of records don’t reflect the actual work being done?  Is it an exceptionality of reality or only of how the women are categorized in contemporary records? Studies of Parisian merchant families, showing the significant work and influence of women within those families. Some fascinating details of specific examples. Sums up: despite these types of evidence, there is still a constant struggle to re-educate people around the traditional myths of women’s place in medieval societies. Ties this in with gendered differences in student evaluations in academia, which is more effective at demonstrating student bias than teacher effectiveness.

Anne E. Lester - Johns Hopkins University

Has put up slides about purses. Examples from Sens, France that survived due to repurposing as relic containers. Many described as “Saracen work.” These objects were ubiquitous in secular use, but primarily survive only when repurposed. [Many lovely slides of objects.] Now we move on to one specific intriguing object, made from two different luxury fabrics (description). This object is variously described in different inventories. Why was it made of two different fabrics? Not similar to the purses made of embroidered silk and velvet studied elsewhere. The textiles clearly have Eastern associations. There is a discussion of possible avenues by which it came to Sens. Might it have been used as a reliquary purse and brought back from crusade in that context? Or might it have been deliberately created as a patched-together object from fabrics that had independent meaning? Not only are we looking through the lenses of how medieval people discussed such objects, but we look through the lens of the 19th c. publications that may be our only easy access to them, unless given special physical access. [The talk now goes on to personal reminiscences of the honoree and becomes much harder to take notes on.]

Martha G. Newman - Univ. of Texas-Austin

[So far it’s primarily personal reminiscences about working on a book that the honoree edited: Gender and Difference. The talk is primarily about approaches to doing history, and especially an intersectional approach.] A suggestion that the natural outgrowth of this approach is to recognize the problems in using a binary approach to gender and the benefits of exploring the “elasticity” of gender categories and how they interact with other categories of difference. Distinctions between studying “representations” of gender and studying bodies and embodied experience. Insight from trans studies. [But I’m getting lost in the jargon a little.] Discussion of the transgender aspects of Engelhardt’s story of Hildegund/Joseph of Schonau. [See LHMP items tagged with this individual.]

Major category: 
Conventions

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