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Monday, May 10, 2021 - 10:59

I picked this session for the “transvestite saint” paper, given my own interests in the how that topic intersects my interests. (Also, given the intersection with my own ‘zoo paper a couple years ago on gender-disguise narratives.) The other papers are less directly interesting to me, so I’ll probably be multi-tasking during them.

Revisiting the "Transvestite" Saint - C. Libby, Pennsylvania State University

References Bullough’s work on changing the paradigm when considering TS (transvestite saints), moving away from the “pathologizing” narrative driven by early 20th century social dynamics. This leads to a current transgender framing.

Brief review of the genre and the stated motifs/motives within the narratives. Example: St. Eugenius/Eugenia. [Note: LHMP entries tagged with St. Eugenia]

While disguise is clearly an element of the saints’ lives (as opposed to gender change), post-sexological analysis of these texts emphasized the disguise/deception theme and connected them with contemporary attitudes toward transvestism, applying a pathologizing lens. Themes from psychology were retrospectively applied to the interpretation of early hagiography, viewing the TS as undergoing a rejection of the feminine and desire for the masculine as a sign of pathology and trauma, while also focusing on the male monastic response as a key theme. [Note that Anson, who is covered in the LHMP, is one of the authors referenced as engaging in this approach.] But Bullough continues the interpretation of TS through a modern lens, projecting the misogynistic asymmetric view of female and male transvestism (status gain versus status loss) onto the past, without placing it in the historic context of non-religious cross-dressing.

More recent work breaks away from the focus on gender “disguise” and points to how the focus on deception encourages and maintains hostile responses to cross-gender performance. Discussion of the Rykener case and how Karras is revisiting that data in light of transgender studies. [Note: see LHMP entries mentioning Rykener.] But Libby notes that even Karras & Linkenen’s more recent work is rooted in binary models. (Lots of references to researchers and publications in this field that I can’t catch.)

Jesus in Furs: Masochism and Queer Bodies in The Book of Margery Kempe - Megan Vinson, Indiana University

[Note: OK, I’m just not going to be able to follow this one because it’s being presented in the context of theoretical frameworks and technical vocabulary that I’m not fluent in. Sorry.]

Performance and Disruption: A Late Antique Ascetic Experiment in Gender as Assemblage - Dr. Katie Kleinkopf, University of Louisville

Looks at how Byzantine ascetics manipulated gender as a way of getting closer to God, but also at how scholars have approached the ascetic movement in ways that deployed their own gender ideologies. (Makes an interesting connection between the physical isolation of ascetics, and how it allowed them to step outside gender binaries, with the way that contemporary virtual spaces allow one to step outside embodied binary gender.)

A brief review of hierarchical (although not necessarily binary) categorical gendered expectations in late antiquity. Various examples of how physically isolated ascetics were pursued by their contemporaries who wanted to claim knowledge of their embodiment (including gender) with an almost fanatic curiosity. Isolation allowed ascetics to remove themselves from the established gender expectations and to construct their own identities at will, accepting and rejecting various gendered attributes. (Lots of specific examples from ascetics’ lives, illustrating ascetic refusal to become legible to others in terms of gender.)

Respondant – Roberta Magnani

Magnani provided commentary and responses to the papers, but I needed to step away for a bit so I haven’t tried to capture them.

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Monday, May 10, 2021 - 09:26

I dithered between two sessions—neither being recorded—in this time-slot. The one I didn’t choose was #28 Homosocial Communities and Seclusion, because there was only one paper that looked like it might possibly be related to relationship potential in homosocial environments. (What can I say, I have highly specific interests.) Instead I chose this session, which looks at several topics relating to cross-cultural interactions during travel. This is the sort of information I file away in my “compost-heap memory” where it may later serve to add verisimilitude in a story about characters on the road.

Nuns on the Run: The Sisters of Syon Abbey and Their Links with Continental Europe, 1415-1580 - Virginia Rosalyn Bainbridge, Univ. of Exeter

Starts with a brief background on the exile of Syon Abbey after the dissolution of the abbeys. Bainbridge is involved in a prosopography project to trace the lives of the members of the abbey in this context. [Insert Brexit joke relating to Henry VIII’s break with Rome.] Touches on the importance of personal/familial connections among personnel and supporters of Syon Abbey with respect to these changes. The “links with the continent” referenced in the title are an extensive catalog of these personal/familial connections that led to the founding, expansion, and transition of the institution. (I’m not going to try to take notes on details.)

Cursing, Haggling, and Choosing an Inn in French: Vignettes of Travel and Daily Life in the Manières de langage of 1396, 1399, and 1415 - Martha Carlin, U. of Wisonsin-Milwaukee

(This is the paper that most caught my attention. Her powerpoint won’t open so she’s winging it.) This genre of literature were intended to be guidebooks for foreign students, but they also include extensive dialogues (perhaps intended as phrasebooks) which provide detailed views of daily life. They include ordinary activities of interest to travelers, with valuable examples of ordinary speech and conversation. [Hey, authors of historical fiction – this should be invaluable to you!] But what prompted the collection of texts during this particular period? Around 1396 three was a lull in hostilities between England and France, with some significant high-level contacts around royal alliances, so this may have been the context for providing English travelers with guidance.

Scene: a lord with a brand new townhouse sends his servants out to buy furnishings, provisions, clothing, and other supplies. Focus is on vocabulary, but provides a picture of household needs.

Scene: the lord is preparing a short journey to Paris on business and instructs his servant to make arrangements to prepare the horses, as well as ordering a fine dinner before leaving. There is an example of giving travel directions. The servant is sent on ahead to secure lodgings in Paris and has a vivid exchange with the innkeeper, whom he knows personally. There is a discussion of what makes good versus bad lodgings. The servant then goes to the market to buy the makings of dinner and returns to the inn to prepare them. (Note that the innkeepers neither supply nor prepare the food!) The lord, on arriving, inspects the “young ladies” that the inn-wife has available for companionship and selects one to share his dinner. The lord supplies spiced wine and entertainment including dancing for all the gentle people at the inn, and then takes the young lady to bed. The lord gives the inn staff lavish gifts and then departs.

Scene: A similar encounter shows what traveling is like for people of the lower classes (possibly two of the servants of the previous lord). Significant contrasts with the lord’s experience! Also: implications of an erotic overture between the two (male) servants that is refused.

The texts are extremely valuable resources for the lives of servants and the lower class, who are poorly represented in other genres of text. Alas, these manuscripts have not yet been published in English translation.

For those who might like to follow up on this genre of text, here are some links I found – these are not related directly to the paper being presented.

WorldCat listing for a 1995 edition of the texts.

Reference to a journal article with translated extracts. Free access to pdf download.

A blog looking at some brief passages as an example of Anglo-Norman language.

The English Hospice in Rome: Home away from Home

Joel T. Rosenthal, Stony Brook University

English pilgrimages to Rome were popular as early as the 5th century and have a long and continuous history. English travelers were not always well treated as visitors, which inspired the establishment of an English hospice (lost track of dates, maybe in the 14th century?) which resulted in an English expatriate community being established there. There are detailed records of visitors from certain periods, including the late 15th century, which give us a useful picture of the pilgrims. Mostly middling class, mostly men, lots of clergy. But overall quite a diversity. To some extent, going on pilgrimage was an “entertainment” for those who were able to do it. But “those who were able” included members of mendicant religious orders, so money wasn’t the only issue. After England’s break with Rome, the hospice transforms from a travelers’ residence to a college for training English Catholic personnel in exile. Lots of anecdotal examples from the registers, and a note that the English hospice still exists.

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Monday, May 10, 2021 - 07:41

(Chosen because of the paper on Amazons.)

The organizing theme of the session is to examine topics that occur across cultures, or where different cultural perspectives may provide insight.

The Amazons in Medieval Arab and Western Travel Accounts - Sally Abed, Alexandria University

(This presenter has requested that their material not be shared on social media, alas. The topic is a comparison of the depiction of “Amazon tribes” in different literary traditions, rather than the depiction of individual “Amazonian women-warrrior” types, for which see, e.g., Kruk 1998.)

Metafictional Romance in the Medieval Orient and Occident - Padmini Sukumaran, Kean University

Presents the 1001 Nights as the example from the Orient. In addition to being central to the framing story, Scheherazade inserts herself into the narrative through the characters of the genies, as well as shaping the meta-narrative by the introduction of stories of happy romance, or of the betrayal of trust and unjust murders (her own framing story). Several embedded stories are analyzed for structure and how they contribute to Scheherazade’s overall purpose of manipulating her murderous husband’s attitude.

The next metafiction presented is the Tale of Genji, focusing on discussions of types of women and how they are desirable, as well as the different ways in which they express themselves in love letters. Types of women are then compared to types of painting, and to types of calligraphy. These motifs are brought together later in a discussion of storytelling and the relationship of illustrated romances to fact and reality.

The Occident themes are brought in via Yonec, in which the lady’s imagination creates her reality via storytelling. This section is very brief. The paper doesn’t directly pull together the various examples, although I can see the structural parallels around the motif of storytelling within stories, and the ways that storytelling empowers the female characters to shape their own narratives.

From Constantinople to Castilla and Avalon: Intericonicity, Warrior Saints, and Epic Arete in the Christianization of Britain and Spain - Inti Yanes-Hernandez, Dexter Southfield

Looks at parallels between the role of the King Arthur myth in the Christianization of Britain, and El Cid as a symbol during the Reconquista of Spain, via Byzantine mythic prototypes. [Note: the themes are interesting, but I’m not following the details very well.]

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Sunday, May 9, 2021 - 19:55

Yes, it's that time again! Time to blog the papers presented at the annual International Medieval Congress (at least, the ones in the session I attend). Normally, I'd be in Kalamazoo for this, enjoying the company of my fellow medieval history geeks, pretending the entire thing is intended as my birthday party, and limited to attending one session of papers at a time. This year, of course, I'm attending from my home office, zooming with my fellow medieval history geeks, and not quite as limited because some of the sesions will be recorded for later viewing. The conference proper starts tomorrow morning, but the plenary sessions are pre-recorded, so I got in the mood by watching one of those tonight.

My usual blog heading identify the day and timeslot of the papers, but since I may be watching some out of order, I'll stick to session numbers. As usual, these are quick, stream-of-consciousness notes. I'll indicate if I know I'm missing context or have lost track of the thread, but I may also misunderstand the presentation, not catch names and references correctly, and similar errors. Any anomalies in my summaries should not reflect on the presenters or their work.

Plenary Session II: The Black Queen of Sheba: A Global History of an African Idea - Wendy Laura Belcher, Princeton Univ.

(Note: I don’t typically attend the plenary sessions, which are often earlier in the morning than I’m up and moving at the ‘Zoo. But for the virtual conference, they’re pre-recorded. And this one attracted my interest because of having used the motif of the Black Queen of Sheba in the fictitious opera appearing in Mother of Souls.)

Opens with the outline of the legend, in which the Queen of Sheba, the wisest and most beautiful woman in the world, goes to visit King Solomon because she’s heard of his wisdom. They enjoy an intellectual companionship for quite some time, but Solomon decides he wants to have a child with her and tricks her into agreeing to share his bed. She returns home, bears the child, who grows up, returns as an adult to visit Solomon but declines to remain in Israel, preferring his mother’s land. Complex things happen and Solomon sends a group of the sons of noblemen back with him, taking the ark of the convenant with them, and thus God’s blessing is transferred from Israel to Ethiopia.

The talk covers the questions of when story (as represented in the physical text the Kebra Nägäśt 1321, hereafter referred to as "KN") was composed and by whom, and what that means on a symbolic level. Belcher holds the position that it was written by Ethiopians and thus represents the oldest surviving sub-Saharan African text, which has an obvious symbolic importance in the modern world. Arguments against this include the multi-lingual nature of the vocabulary and a somewhat loose understanding of Ethiopian geography displayed in the text. The text reads like an ancient Greek novel in content and style. These together suggest a Greek-Egyptian or Syriac origin for the story. In favor of an Ethiopian origin is the focus on the triumph of an African queen, the literary tradition, and other details I didn’t catch.

We get a brief overview of the social geography of the diversity of Christianity in the 10th century. The “non-Chalcedonian” Christian religions looked to the highlands of Ethiopia as the most important Christian center – a Christianity that has nothing to do with European Christianity but developed independently in the Near East. Ethiopia had a strong literary tradition in the Ge’ez language, with thousands of surviving medieval manuscripts.

When was the text written? No full version has been found anywhere except in Ethiopia, or earlier than 1321. But other texts reference parts of the story. Hypothesis: text was written between 900-1100 CE.

When did the Queen of Sheba become viewed as African? (The Bible only references “Sheba”.) But by 93 AD, Josephus refers to her as Queen of Etypt and Ethiopia, and by 1181 in Germany, she is depicted in art as Black.

When did the motif of her bearing a son to Solomon occur? First mentioned in the 800-900s, so pre-existing motif.

When did the motif appear that she controlled a significant totem? 900s-1000s (Coptic Egyptian) mentions a magical inscribed pillar with all the wisdom of the earth. So the motif of a powerful object pre-exists, but not the specific one in the Ethiopian text.

When did the Queen of Sheba become located specifically in Abyssinia? Mentioned in 920.

But there is no text in the 900s that all these elements come together in the way they do in the KN. That doesn’t happen until the 1200s when all the elements are mentioned as common knowledge by Egyptian author Abu Salih. This suggests that the KN represents a written creation reflecting a set of elements in common circulation in oral form from at least the 900s.

What does the KN say about its origin? The colophon indicates it was translated from Arabic, from a book present in Ethiopia by 1225, into Ge’ez in 1321. It says the Arabic version is itself a translation of the earlier Coptic version. So likely first written around 900-1100.

Where was it written? Most likely earliest in Egypt, given that the earliest relevant texts are in Egyptian Arabic or Coptic. But Ethiopian scholars assert that the colophon may be a fictional invention to give the text greater legitimacy and that it was written originally in Ethiopian in Ge’ez, in support of a new dynasty. However this is contradicted by the basic facts. Further, the text shows clear linguistic evidence of being a translation from Arabic, not a composition in Ge’ez. But does this establish Egyptian authorship?

But might the existing KN have been a translation of an Arabic text that itself was a translation of an Ethiopian composition? Might it have been written by an Ethiopian living in Egypt in Arabic? Might it have been written by an Egyptian living in Ethiopia? Or by an Ethiopian, living in Ethiopia, writing in Arabic? Or do we take the colophon at face value?

Do we have other types of evidence? Might it have been composed in Ethiopia as an oral text, and only the written text passed through Arabic? There was a long tradition in Ethiopia of having conquered a Jewish kingdom in Yemen in 520 that included brining Jewish sacred objects back to Ethiopia. Around this time, the Ethiopian kings began taking Israeli names. So as early as the 500s the Ethiopians were telling stories about having possession of the ark of the convenant and making that part of their religious iconography. These motifs were especially strong in the 1200s, including an Ethiopian king who adopted a throne name of Solomon. Further, other Christian leaders took note of the Israeolophilia of the highland Ethiopian culture and criticized them as “becoming too Jewish.”

Within this context, it seems most likely that an oral version of the Queen of Sheba story was solidly established in Ethiopia somewhere between 500-1000, but the specific manuscript KN was likely written down in Arabic in Egypt or Syria.

What about the geographic anomalies? The geographic description sounds more like Nubia than highland Ethiopia. Might this have been a confusion arising from the Arabic text? Or might the apparent anomalies be illusory? (Arguments are rehearsed for both sides. Belcher leans toward highland Ethiopia but admits there are problems.)

Overall conclusions: Ethiopian oral composition of 500-900 CE, Arabic-langauge text (possibly from a Coptic original) set down around 900-1100, Ge'ez translation of the Arabic in the 1200s, with the earliest surviving version the KN manuscript of 1321.

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Saturday, May 1, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 200 - On the Shelf for May 2021 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2021/05/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2021 and welcome to episode 200!

Whether you’ve been a listener all along, or whether you’ve become a fan more recently, I’m glad to have you along on this journey. Podcasting can be a lonely experience, sitting here by myself in this sound booth—well, ok, I don’t actually have a sound booth. I have a home office with a view of my garden and the occasional background contribution from my neighbor’s motorcycle. But in any event, for all that podcasting is about reaching out and connecting with an audience, I don’t often get a chance to actually connect with you. So for our 200th episode celebration, I decided to invite you all over for a party.

Um…that is…invite you all to join our Discord server and drop by for a chat. If you aren’t familiar with Discord, it’s a type of private chat board, similar to Slack or Teams, with both text and video options. You can sign up for a general Discord account for free, then ask me for an invitation to join the server. Contact me through Twitter or Facebook or through the Alpennia website. The Discord is for both the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and for fans of my fiction, and has a steady trickle of people chatting and geeking out about various topics.

I’ll be hosting the Podcast-iversary party on Saturday May 8, more or less from when I’ve had my coffee in the morning until when I crawl off to bed in the evening. That’s on Pacific Daylight Time, for those calculating time zones. Drop by to say hi, to chat about history, to squee about your favorite books and media. All very laid back and informal.

I’ll talk a little more about what this milestone means to me at the end of this episode.

News of the Field

Historical fiction is pretty small potatoes in the lesbian fiction field, but we’re going to have a bit of representation at the annual Golden Crown Literary Society conference, being held online during the month of July. I proposed a panel discussion along the lines of “what historical fiction means to me”—that is, to each of the participating authors—and it was accepted to be part of the programming. I’ll give more details on scheduling and content as we get closer.

Some day I’d love to see if we could put together an online conference on queer historical fiction in general. Now that people are getting a better sense of how to make online conferences work, I think it would be a real possibility, and certainly easier than trying to put on such a niche event in person!

Publications on the Blog

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog is in the middle of my short series of recent books on gender crossing. I spent most of April working through Ula Klein’s literary study Sapphic Crossings: Cross-dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature which studied specific motifs in the narratives around female husbands, cross-dressed pirates, actresses in breeches roles, and novels with cross-dressing characters.

While Klein’s book used the lens of how historic people viewed and talked about gender-crossing, Jen Manion’s book Female Husbands: A Trans History applies a different lens, looking specifically at the phenomenon of 18th and 19th century couples who lived lives that appeared from the outside to be heterosexual marriages, where one partner had been assigned as female at birth but is read as male.

I suspect it will take me all of May to work through Manion’s book, but if I finish early, the next lined up is Emily Skidmore’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. This book will complete the spectrum of approaches to cross-gender lives, operating specifically from the viewpoint of modern approaches to gender identity and performance. In juxtaposing these three books with their spectrum of approaches to related subject matter, it isn’t my intent either to create or to blur category distinctions among the historic individuals they discuss. Rather I hope to explore how approaching historic gender identity from these different angles can help both authors and readers to develop a more nuanced understanding of how a variety of identities can be depicted in historical fiction in a manner that is both accurate and sensitive.

Book Shopping!

I haven’t acquired any new books for the Project, but I’m very excited about one I just pre-ordered today. It’s an English translation of Sandra Boehringer’s Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. I had the French original in my database, but with no hope that I’d ever make the time to struggle through it. I’ve previously bemoaned that comprehensive studies of sexuality in the classical world skim so briefly over female material, when they take note of it at all. So I have high hopes for this book.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

The new book listings are a bit lagging behind release at the moment, with only one actual May publication and the rest catching up on the March and April books. June will be different: I already have about 10 June books in the spreadsheet. Sometimes that’s just how the release dates cluster in the calendar.

We start off with a couple of March releases. T. L. Dickerson continues the Coffield Chronicles, set around the US Civil War, with Hearts Under Fire from Sapphire Books. The series is following one of the popular Civil War plots, with a Northern woman fighting for the Union in disguise as a man and encountering romance and danger in the form of a Southern belle.

Our second book is in the same general timeframe. In Bridget A. Finnegan’s Odette's: A Quality Men's Club, from Dawdle Publishing, ex-prostitute Jessamyn has set up as a private investigator, but when her ex-lover goes missing she has more than one mystery to solve, with adventures ranging all along the eastern seaboard.

I have half a dozen April titles to offer. Pushing much more to the fantasy side of historic fantasy than the historical side, Anya Leigh Josephs’ Queen of All, from Zenith, follows two cousins thrust from rural obscurity into the glittering and dangerous royal court, where they must rediscover the kingdom’s history and its magic.

Another April book reaches even further back in time to the Egypt of the pharaohs. The French-language novel La Reine Lionne (The Lion Queen), self-published by Alexia Damyl follows the niece of the king of Nubia as she struggles against her family and fate to save both her country and the woman she loves.

There are several books with 20th century settings. In Moyra Sammut’s A Map of Scars, from Olympia Publishers, on the eve of WWII, a young woman takes a journey of self-discovery from the island of Malta to England to find her purpose, and maybe love.

The Juliana series by Vanda, from Sans Merci Press, continues in its fifth book, Do You Know Dorothy? in which Al needs to find a comeback act to keep the crowds coming to her nightclub and turns to drag shows.

Susie Ray has self-published a pair of Victorian stories in a single volume: Lady Charlotte: Two Lesbian Romances. Charlotte has a sexual epiphany in the arms of Lady Lydia, but happiness may be standing even closer at hand in the form of her adoring lady’s maid. I get a vibe that this may be a fairly steamy book, which you may take as either a plus or minus.

This next book may also be very much a matter of taste. The Inverts by Crystal Jeans from The Borough Press follows the lives of Bettina and Bert across the 20th century. Having discovered neither of them is interested in a heterosexual relationship, they decide that getting married to each other is the best option before plunging into the Roaring 20s and beyond. The book appears to be only available in the UK at the moment, and I’m going to advise potential readers to check out some Goodreads reviews to see if any of the content advisories there might put you off. In brief, the protagonists aren’t very likeable people and the text has some odd angles that aren’t for everyone.

The solitary May release that I could find advance notice of is Renée Dahlia’s self-published Her Lady’s Melody, in her Great War series. Two women, widowed on the same day, are looking for purpose in the wake of WWI. They may be each other’s best hope of comfort, but secrets from the past stand in their way.

What Am I Reading?

My own reading is still dragging along. I devoured Nghi Vo’s novella When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain in a single gulp. It’s a story-within-a-story about a shapeshifting tiger and her scholar girlfriend and difficult philosophical questions such as under what circumstances it’s permissible to eat someone you’ve shared a bed with. These are very tigery tigers. The story is set in the same mythic alternate China as her previous story The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which I also loved.


I’m still debating what to do for an essay this month. I’m poking at the topic I was thinking about previously, which is about the process of researching the roots of modern folklore of lesbian history. You know those stories that get passed around about people and events and symbols where everyone just “knows” they’re true but no one can offer you a source? Yeah, those ones. It’s a tricky subject to tackle, because the stories are passed around because people connect with them emotionally. And that means they may be very invested in their truth value. But I’m fascinated by the ways in which such things take root, by which ones get altered and which ones maintain their original forms. And there’s one particular myth that I was present for the birth of, which makes a useful object lesson.


At the end of this month we get our next fiction series installment. I’ll be narrating Catherine Lundoff’s “The Adventuress,” continuing her series about female spies and pirates. A few more of these and there could be enough to publish a collection, which I certainly hope will happen some day.

Thoughts on 200 Episodes

I promised you all some more thoughts on this, the 200th episode of this podcast.

I never intended to start a podcast. I never intended to start a history blog. What I did intend was to collect, read, and synthesize as much information on queer history and women’s history as I could, so that when I set out to create historical fictions of women who loved women, I would do it in a way that was true to history as well as being true to my vision.

I have loved studying history all my life. I don’t have any illusions about the past being better than the present. I don’t want to live in any century but my own—though these days my own is nothing to write home about. But I love the sense of awe and wonder I can get from contemplating lives both different from my own and yet connected in essential ways. I love the way that the study of history can take me somewhere else, can let me be someone else, for brief imagined moments of time.

When I first began to understand my sexuality, I had a deep need to feel how that connected with the past. To be able to imagine who or how I might have been as a woman who loved women in other ages. I wouldn’t have been the same person—just as I wouldn’t have been the same person as a writer, or as a scientist, or as a craftsperson in other ages. But I wanted to know. I wanted to feel ownership of that past.

When I first began looking for information on lesbian history, back in the late ‘70s, the great blossoming of academic interest in the history of sexuality was barely beginning. Very little was published, and what there was could be hard to find. For the first couple of decades of my search, it was like wandering on the beach, hoping to find a pretty shell washed up by the waves, or if I were very lucky, a bottle with a message in it. I started to put together a collection of information. The sort of collection of pretty shells and rocks a child takes home from summer vacation. Then I learned where to go diving.

But it was still more of a dragon’s hoard type of collection. I stored up books and articles—anything that looked like I might find it useful some day—but I’d barely scratched the surface of reading them. Only the ones directly related to my own small projects.

One of the things I learned in my decades doing research for historic re-enactment was that the most important part of any research project was simply knowing what types of information on my topic existed. If you know it exists, you can figure out how to find it. But what if you have no idea what types of data survive? Or how that data might be relevant to your questions? I’d spent a lot of time tracking down research on peculiar little topics just because they interested me. I’d gotten rather good at the whole “what sort of data exists” part of the question. I knew my way around academic libraries and journals. And I knew that lots of people didn’t have that starting point.

How do I know this? Because one of the most consistent themes I hear when interviewing authors of sapphic historical fiction is how difficult it is to find information. How hard they had to work to research how their characters would have experienced their sexuality. How very little there is published on the topic.

I won’t contradict the difficulty of the task, but it simply isn’t true that the information doesn’t exist. I have a database of nearly 1000 publications that speak to sapphic lives in the past. So it’s frustrating to hear author after author tell me that the research is impossible. That invention is their only option.

When I started the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, I had one selfish reason and one altruistic reason. The altruistic reason was to take that familiarity I had with the available research on lesbian history and make it easier for other people to find the information they wanted, without having to reproduce my decades of poking around on library shelves and bibliographies. I wanted the same thrill I always got when someone came to me and asked, “How can I find out about Viking clothing, or Roman cooking, or Old Irish poetry?” and I was able to drop a large stack of books in front of them and say, “Let me take you on a guided tour.”

There wasn’t any physical place or group or event where I could do that for lesbian history, but there was my blog.

The selfish reason? Well, the selfish reason was that I’d been gathering up all these historical publications and hadn’t gotten around to reading a lot of them, and I needed a structured motivation to do that. Setting myself a schedule for reading and blogging about all those books and articles was the most reliable way to motivate myself. I’m all about the schedules.

The podcast was a little different. When I started the Lesbian Historic Motif Project I already had a blog. I even had a set of regular readers of that blog, back when it was on LiveJournal. It was just a matter of writing things up and posting them. But a podcast: that meant new technology, mastering new apps, and finding a new audience. I’d been playing with the idea of starting a podcast but was daunted by the start-up process, when Sheena came along with The Lesbian Talkshow and asked me to contribute a regular series. That was the tipping point. And having gotten my feet wet with her assistance, eventually moving to an independent show was relatively easy.

But why podcast at all? Why not just keep on with the blog? As usual, there were several motivations. It diversified my audience. People who might not read a blog might listen to a podcast and then learn about where to find more information. Podcasting gave me an opportunity to make connections with other people in a way that blogging didn’t. I had one or two guest bloggers for the Project, but writing blogs for someone else’s site is a lot of work. People are much more willing to be interviewed, especially if they have a book to talk about.

Yes, books. The blog was very much focused on the historic research end, but I wanted to do something to boost sapphic historical fiction too.  A podcast was much better suited to that. The podcast format gave me a chance to pitch some of the interesting historic people and stories I’d discovered in a more light-hearted and accessible form. It was more suited to some of the peripheral geekery I enjoyed doing, like my show comparing gender identities to the meanings of prepositions.

And the podcast helped one of my dreams come true: to be a publisher and boost the field of sapphic historical fiction by helping put it out into the world. That’s something I doubt I’ll manage in the print world, but broadcasting audio fiction was just one small step further for a podcast.

Two hundred episodes is a lot of episodes. It’s a grueling schedule. I’ve never yet missed a deadline, though there were times when I squeezed out a break by doing reruns. There’s some satisfaction in that.

And there’s satisfaction in the thought that maybe somewhere out there, there’s a listener to the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast who gets inspired to go out and learn more about lesbian history on their own, so they can write a glorious and wonderful historic novel, which some day I will read. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll let me know that I inspired them.

If I’ve inspired you, or if you just enjoy the show, or you’re curious to meet me outside of the podcast airwaves, or you just want to say hi, stop by the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s 200th podcast-versary party on our Discord server. I’d love to see you there.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Monday, April 26, 2021 - 20:00

I'm a bit tired and want to post this and go to bed, so nothing extra clever or thoughtful today. I was experimenting today with dictating the entry directly into my Mac's speech-to-text function, rather than dealing with the intermediary of scribblings on post-it notes. I'll see how it works for this book. It's fascinating how different methods of extracting and summarizing information require different mental processes. But I have to say: not having to do so much writing/typing in the process is nice. The challenge is in formulating what I want to say inside my head so that I can dictate it in comprehensible chunks. (Fortunately, the dication function is easy to pause and restart.)

I did notice that I'm more likely to lift entire phrases and wordings from the book when I'm dictating. I need to be careful about that. It might be too easy to fall into the trap of doing too much direct summary and not enough synthesis.

I'd say, "So what do you think? Can you notice a difference in how the blog reads based on differences in my note-taking methods?" But nobody's reading this anyway, so there's not much point in asking, is there?

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Introduction: Extraordinary Lives

Manion begins by introducing several of the historic figures who will feature in this book: Charles Hamilton in 18th century England, George Wilson in 19th century New York. These are just two of the many individuals collected under the category “female husbands,” who claimed a male role in society including the right to marry a woman.

This book follows the social category of female husband from its beginnings in the mid 18th century up through the era just before World War I when the phenomenon more or less disappeared. Although there were many individuals assigned as female who lived male-presenting lives for economic or personal reasons, the category of female husband is specifically defined as those that include marriage to a woman.

While the focus of female husband narratives is usually on the person read as male, the women who loved and married them are equally interesting. Sometimes they are depicted as ignorant victims of deception, but often they were active participants who are well aware of their husbands’ background.

Journalistic accounts typically framed the wives as ordinary women, drawn into an unusual relationship. However the female wives of female husbands held a great deal of power within the relationship in their role as secret keepers, and discovery sometimes came when a wife either was surprised to learn her husband’s past, or when the relationship went sour and she wanted leverage to obtain a divorce or a favorable settlement.

Up through the mid 19th century, female husbands were primarily viewed in terms of gender crossing. But around that time, reactions began to change and female husbands were interpreted more within the context of the women’s rights movement. Interpretations shifted rapidly in the late 19th century. In the US, female husbands were initially framed in class terms, associating the phenomenon with vagrancy and poverty, but this shifted to viewing them as precursors to same-sex relationships.

Rather than emphasizing the gender of the female husband, narratives now emphasized sex, with female husbands being viewed as actually being women and therefore not “husbands.”

Although authorities generally condemned the gender transgression of female husbands, they often had difficulty finding applicable laws. Was the underlying problem that someone assigned female was living as male, that is, a gender transgression? Or was the problem that a female couple were living as married, and therefore it was a sexual transgression? Regardless, when such arrangements came to the attention of authorities, they were consistant in claiming the right to define and decide on the fate of the participants.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the label female husband was losing its specific meaning. Accusations of masculinity were hurled in the context of women’s rights with satirical accusations that women wanted to take on all male roles including that of husband. In another context, when two women lived openly as a couple in a same-sex relationship, one was typically interpreted by society as being “the man” in the relationship and termed a female husband. All of these uses diluted the specificity of the original category.

The connection between gender non-conformity and homosexuality was a popular theme among sexologists at the beginning of the 20th century. It has been a long-time theme that gender expression marched in parallel with sexual orientation, with male effeminacy or female masculinity being interpreted as a sign of homosexuality. But as the century progressed, interpretations shifted to distinguishing between gender and sexual orientation.

In examining the roots of the female husband phenomenon, it is impossible to separate gender and sexuality issues from the economic and social power that one could claim by living a male life. Female husbands were sometimes treated sympathetically because, after all, who wouldn’t prefer to be a man than a woman?

Newspapers played a major role in disseminating information about female husbands in the 18th century, as stories of gender crossing were considered of general curiosity. Local examples were frequently repeated and shared outside the local community where the subjects lived. But by publicizing accounts of female husbands, the press normalized them and created a familiar model that others could relate to and find inspiration in.

Manion discusses how female husbands and their wives fit within the construction of lesbian history, which typically works backward from a framework of modern identities. The modern paradigm of sexual orientation focuses on sex and minimizes gender, but the fuzzy boundaries between transgender men and masculine lesbians have always been difficult to define, and it’s not possible to make generalizations about that distinction in historical contexts.

When female husbands came to public attention, by definition by having their histories revealed, they were no longer in control of the narrative of their lives. How we understand their identities is almost always filtered through other viewpoints. Accounts of female husbands regularly alternate the gender of descriptions and pronouns, regardless of the identity and internal understanding of the person involved.

Manion takes a very specific approach to describing the objects of her study. She takes the approach of considering trans not as a fixed category of identity, but as any degree of movement away from the gender assigned at birth, either in terms of identity or in terms of practice. For this reason, rather than arbitrarily applying an identity to her subjects in the language she uses to describe them, Manion has chosen to use gender neutral pronouns when describing female husbands in the third person, and to refer to them with the names they chose for themselves.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first section it traces the concept of the female husband in Great Britain following two major themes: one considering sexual desire and intimacy and the other focusing on the representation of masculinity and patriarchy. After the mid 19th century there were far fewer examples of female husbands noted in the British press, however this era marks the rise of female husbands in the United States, and US examples feature in the second part of the book, up through the early 20th century.

Time period: 
Saturday, April 24, 2021 - 12:00

I was a bit worried that Klein's book was going to be more on the naval-gazing lit-crit side of things, but I ended up enjoying it a lot (even though I did quite a bit of skimming). While Klein does spend a lot of focus on issues of literary genre (even when discussing historic individuals), I think that -- like the way I frame the focus of the LHMP -- it can help in navigating between questions of historic context and personal identity. This book is examining the way historic texts present and discuss "women dressing/disguised as men" because that's how those texts and their authors (for the most part) viewed their subject. When we're examining how Henry Fielding depicted Mary Hamilton in his fictionalized account The Female Husband, we aren't dealing with a man who had a nuanced modern concept of transgender identity that could be explored and interrogated. Nor--at that remove--are we dealing with how the historic Mary Hamilton may have experienced and understood their own gender and sexuality. (Even Fielding wasn't particularly interested in that question.)

For an entirely different approach to some of the same historic content, stay tuned for the next publication in my current gender-crossing mini-series.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 4: Putting on Gender One Leg at a Time

Legs, as a feature of cross-dressing, are legible primarily in the context of actresses playing male roles. The clothing of the day meant that women’s legs were normally concealed. That meant that, on stage, women’s exposed legs both represented masculinity and were potentially a powerful erotic stimulus. The dramatic fiction that cross-dressing actresses were “men” in their roles gave license for women to find them desirable, as well as for others to deny the same-sex aspect of that desire.

Even more than other contexts, cross-gender roles on the stage emphasized the performative nature of gender. The boundary-crossing of actresses like Charlotte Charke (who took cross-dressing off stage to a greater degree than many others) was used as an excuse for condemning the profession, even as it was a major draw for viewers.

If the visible legs of actresses were framed by contemporaries and historians as primarily being intended for consumption by the male gaze, the actresses’ male performance was also available as a way to solicit or signal (or engender) same-sex desires in other women, whether indirectly in the audience or via general public awareness.

When those actresses in their male roles courted or seduced women on the stage it became difficult to ignore the sapphic erotic possibilities for women off stage. Furthermore, the social and physical freedom the trouser-clad legs represented created an association between that freedom and independence and sapphic desires.

This chapter lays out those dynamics by reviewing 18th century discourse around gender fluidity, mobility, and sexuality, especially through biographical writings on actresses Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Then it covers the themes of how legs function both as markers of femaleness and as representing female desire and independence in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story.

In the 18th century, a well-shaped leg was the provenance of men as a sex symbol. Not only did breeches acknowledge the existence of legs, but the close-fitting stockings featured below the knee-length breeches of the era drew attention to a well-defined calf muscle, further enhanced by tall heeled shoes, even as we see in women’s fashions today.

Respectable women might have license in a carnival atmosphere to wear men’s clothes (as men did women’s) and cross-dressing actresses were accepted, but under ordinary circumstances it was scandalous for a woman to reveal even a portion of her lower legs to a man’s gaze. Gowns were long and voluminous and came with multiple layers of skirts, normally keeping even the feet hidden. “Skirts” or “petticoats” became metonymic for the state of being female, and for female genitalia specifically.

With the rise of women on the stage in England in the late 17th century. [Note: Actresses were common in earlier eras elsewhere, but England had some odd notions around the topic, hence the phenomenon of boys playing all the female roles in Elizabethan theater.]  No sooner had the profession opened to women in England than turnabout created the “breeches part,” with women playing male roles. One function of “breeches roles” in Restoration theater was to put female bodies on display by some means other than being undressed, but women wearing breeches were not simply passive objects of the male gaze.

Trousers allowed greater physical mobility in many situations, and some working class women had always worn trousers for practical reasons. [Note: There are some flaws in this argument. Most working-class women doing heavy manual labor still wore skirts. And not all skirts were voluminous, encumbering court costumes. Just as with some modern misguided attitudes toward stays and corsets, we need to beware of reflexively viewing all female-coded garments as essentially disabling.]

Overt trouser wearing by women was associated with deprecated professions: stage performers, manual labor, and sex work. [Note: Though Klein doesn’t touch on it, there seems to be a significant association of cross dressing being assumed to signal sex work in the 16th and 17th century England. See e.g., Bennett and McSheffrey 2014 [ Whether this was true or simply attributed needs further study.] In any event, cross-dressing and especially trouser-wearing was associated with loose sexual morals, regardless of the women’s motivations or circumstances. But even as a sex object, the woman in breeches is an object of desire for both men and women: men, because her genitals are foregrounded by metonymy; women, because the masculine performance gives them license to feel desire.

Female mobility, both physical and social, undermines patriarchal control, whether we consider control of the woman herself or control of the narrative about her. When women experience desire for a cross-dressed actress, they escape gendered control over their desires via a public fiction—the stage role. But within fictional cross-dressing narratives, when a woman experiences desire for a covertly cross-dressing woman, it is the reader who is licensed to understand that desire as sapphic.

The association of masculinity with mobility and independence also intersects with disability and the ways in which it was not simply the visible male leg that was a sex symbol, but the shapely well-muscled athletic leg in particular. The erotic qualities of the female leg lay in how the legs framed and stood in for the genitals. Women’s legs were stereotyped at the time as thick and less shapely than men’s (as we see in satirical drawings). Thus the erotic visibility of cross-dressing actresses’ legs—in being praised for their shapeliness—are viewed in terms of masculine attractiveness, as well as being a symbol of sexual independence, even as their visibility as female legs signalled wantonness and sexual availability.

The mutability of gender in stage roles had been present in the early modern period not only via boys playing female roles, but in how female characters, in turn, took on cross-dressing male roles (as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). As female actors became accepted on the English stage in the second half of the 17th century, this turned around, with nearly one-third of all plays performed including roles in which actresses wore male clothes. This meant that the sight and idea of women in men’s clothing was established in the popular imagination, even if taboo off stage.

Breeches roles did attract criticism from moralists, but it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century when that criticism began to be heeded. [Note: See discussion of the “sex panic” around 1800 that affected British sexual and gender culture in complex ways.]

The remainder of the chapter takes a detailed look at two famously cross dressing actresses: Charlotte Charke and Margaret Woffington. Charke left a somewhat fictionalized autobiography, which also addresses her cross-dressing and gender-passing off stage. Woffington is known only from secondhand sources. Both were known for attracting and accepting the erotic desire of both men and women (though the latter is less certain in the case of Woffington).

There is also a discussion of the symbolism of legs in the novels Belinda and A Simple Story, in which the cross-dressing characters are depicted as unfeminine and are punished for the transgression, and yet underneath the moralizing, each includes themes of sapphic eroticism and female bonds motivated by attraction.

I’m going to skip over the detailed discussion, though it’s quite interesting.


In summing up some of the themes of the book, Klein surveys various intersections of race and nationality with gender symbolism.

Time period: 
Tuesday, April 20, 2021 - 20:00

I didn't get even one chapter up last week, much less completing Klein's book. The day-job was kicking my ass and I pretty much tossed everything else out the window. But let's get Sapphic Crossings finished this week, shall we?

Here's a regular reminder that the LHMPodcast is coming up on a round-number anniversary at the beginning of May (episode 200!) and I'll be holding a sort of "open-house party" on the Alpennia/LHMP discord. Hit me up for an invitation, if you want to join it. Or if you're interested in generally hanging out and chatting with the sort of people you might find hanging out in an Alpennia/LHMP discord. Stay tuned for more details.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 3: Penetrating Discourse and Sapphic Dildos

How do cross-dressing women work around the “missing penis,” both in sexual and everyday contexts? Biographical narratives often show a fascination for the mechanical details, such as Christian Davies’ urination device, or the artificial penises used for sex by Mary Hamilton and Catherine Vizzani. While such a descriptions may take a condemnatory tone, they also advertise the erotic possibilities between women that these devices signal. There is a voyeuristic tone in which the scenes of dildo-mediated sex are produced by men for men, and yet cannot entirely escape the implication that men may be irrelevant to women’s sexual pleasure, regardless of whether one woman is playing a male role.

At the same time, narratives involving the adoption of an artificial penis can have the strongest resonances with trans narratives. Klein discusses how the narratives work awkwardly around this topic, alternating pronouns by context. The historic authors consistently presented their subjects as women, some of whom had lesbian desires, but modern historians have explored their context within a gender continuum where the reference points of “butch lesbian” and “trans man” do not have hard boundaries.

Within this fluid landscape, Klein focuses in this chapter on the dual themes of how female cross-dressers may use a prosthetic as part of their presentation, which in turn becomes a material focus for the (male) authors to imagine same-sex desires.

Earlier in the 18th century, the dildo appears in a genre of comic or satirical literature that is more focused around solitary use, but again suggests the potential irrelevance of men to women’s pleasure. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.

The penis was considered not simply a piece of anatomy but the sign of male status. It is the usurpation of that status that constitutes the central offense committed by cross-dressing women. But anatomy was also considered to control or generate desire, such that women with female same-sex desires were assumed or suspected of having masculinized anatomy—either a large clitoris or an intersex body. The genre of spontaneous sex-change stories, in which assigned female persons first developed sexual desires for women and then developed male appearing genitals, legitimized this theory and delegitimized the femaleness of all women who desired women.

But in narratives that emphasize the female nature of cross-dressing women—that exclude a physiological framing for the desire—this focus on the penis as the driver of desire for women is destabilized. Thus cross-dressing narratives become a key space for negotiating the shift from the galenic one-sex two-gender model, to the two-sex model, regardless of whether cross-dressing women are then assigned to a third gender. Medical and scientific literature in this era was obsessed with cataloging and labeling, to which cross-dressing women were a challenge. Where previous eras might have resolved the conflict with a narrative of physiological transformation, 18th century narratives instead emphasized the femaleness of cross-dressers, resulting in a preoccupation with potential sites and contexts of exposure: the bathroom and the bedroom, as it were.

The use of a dildo by cross dressing women placed her in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. But 18th century literature was full of dildos, whether in solitary use, or with two femme women pleasuring each other. Multiple examples are given.

Dildos are generally played for humor or titillation, sometimes bringing in an element of xenophobia in being depicted as a “foreign visitor.” In general, the dildo is depicted as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity (when one woman straps it on to engage in sex with another) do the texts veer into unease. That unease becomes overt anxiety when the dildo serves as part of a more complete masculine presentation. Dildos destabilize masculinity from two angles: the ability to appropriate it, and the ability to render it irrelevant.

In general, 18th century clothing obscured the question of anatomy, and clothing itself was the most powerful gender marker. Most cross-dressing narratives don’t touch on concealment strategies around washing, dressing, and urination. But a few treat the question as a point of curiosity. One re-printed edition of the Christian Davies biography adds a note about the use of a “urinary instrument,” though this detail may have been added by an editor rather than being part of Davies’ own story. In this added anecdote, the “little silver tube” was the inspiration for Davies’ cross dressing, when she found it abandoned in haste in the bed of a cross-dressing a female soldier. This creates an image of a literal “inheritance” of a cross-dressing tradition.

The pop culture familiarity with dildos makes it impossible to ignore the sexual implications of the flirtations that cross-dressing women engaged in with other women, even when such flirtations are framed in the text as being only part of the disguise—a way to act male among other men.

Although the dildo, in one sense, emphasizes a phallocentric understanding of sex, it blurs the concept of sexual difference. Rather than people being divided into those who do, or do not, have a penis, the penis becomes an optional accessory. It contradicts the image of a “natural” body and becomes one more tool with which a constructed masculinity can be assembled.

In some continental legal cases, the use of a dildo when cross-dressing seems to have been the boundary that, if crossed, could warrant the death penalty. But even this was rare (and nonexistent in England), and no such executions are known after the mid 18th century. Rather, in narratives such as Mary Hamilton, Catherine Vizzani, etc. the use of a dildo was characterized and sometimes prosecuted as fraud and imposture.

There is a brief discussion of the extensive documentary evidence for “female husbands” in the 18th century, though this isn’t connected directly to dildo use. There is a discussion of Henry Fielding’s contradictory satirical purposes in writing The Female Husband, his fictionalized biography of Mary Hamilton. When Fielding’s Hamilton tells one of her lovers that marriage to her would provide “all the pleasures of marriage without the inconveniences” (that is, pregnancy) it sums up male fears about the possibility of their irrelevance. These fears are both embodied and softened by the use of oblique and coded language about dildo sex, referring to it as “to indecent to speak of.” Modesty, supposedly an attribute of women, is instead ascribed to the male author and audience, to protect them from facing an explicit description of the artificial nature of masculinity.

There is a discussion of how the preceding themes play out in the narrative of Catherine Vizzani, and then a discussion of the use and symbolism of the dildo in Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy rather than used for masculine presentation.

Time period: 
Saturday, April 17, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 199 – What’s the Difference between Lesbian and Sapphic? - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/04/17 - listen here)


What is the distinction between lesbian and sapphic?

At some point I should systematically track where my random podcast ideas come from. Today’s show was touched off by a facebook discussion about how people feel about identifying books as lesbian versus sapphic versus women-loving-women versus queer, or some other way of indicating the book’s content.

Well, you know that I’m always going to go for the linguistic angle. Some people in the discussion appeared to be approaching the question as: you have this group of woman-loving-women books here, how do you label them? It treats the choice simply as personal preference. Others felt that picking one term over another was a political choice—that it highlighted or backgrounded some aspect of identity.

I come at this question, not only as a linguist studying how people use different terms to communicate different things, but as a podcaster and blogger who wants to respect how authors and readers engage with the identities of their fictional characters.

Now, given the history and associations of the words, it’s a reasonable question to ask “do the words lesbian and sapphic actually mean different things?” I mean, they both came to be used to talk about women who love women from the same original source context. So how is it even possible for them to have different meanings?

The short answer is that the meanings of words evolve over time and can drift away from their origins. They can acquire more specific meanings, or more general ones. They can narrow in meaning to be applied to only a subset of what they started out referring to. Let’s look at some examples that have nothing to do with sexuality.

The Latin word lex meaning “law” gave rise to the Latin word legalis, “having to do with the law”. And legalis was taken into English as legal. But when legalis was taken into French, it became loial and shifted in meaning from something like “law-abiding, legitimate”, to focusing more specifically on “doing what the law requires” and from there to “faithful, showing allegiance”, which is the meaning it had when borrowed into English. So we have legal and loyal which ought to be identical in meaning, based on their origins, and yet they ended up with different meanings.

Another really fun pair of words in English is shirt and skirt. Completely different, right? But if we go back to the ancestor language of the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, they both trace back to something like *skurtjon meaning “a short garment”. The word came down into English directly as shirt, originally meaning any sort of basic short garment for the body, a tunic if you will. But English had this habit of borrowing words from all the various people who settled on the island of Britain, and the Norse speaking people who did that were calling this garment a skirt. The two words diverged in application: shirt meaning a garment for the upper body and skirt one for the lower body.

So even with words that start from the exact same root, we may evolve words with different sounds and different meanings. And the words lesbian and sapphic don’t even start from the same root word. They took the opposite route, going from having different meanings to having similar ones. But their history is even more interesting than that.


Our story starts, of course, with Sappho of Lesbos, the famous early Greek poet. Sappho is a personal name, and although names often have literal meanings, any original sense isn’t relevant to our discussion—as well as being lost to time. Lesbos is also a proper name—that of an island in the Mediterranean Sea, quite close to Turkey but belonging culturally and politically to Greece. The name Lesbos may mean “a forested place” but, again, that origin isn’t relevant to today’s discussion.

What is relevant is that a long time ago a woman named Sappho lived on an island named Lesbos and she became famous for writing really, really good poems that included talking about the women she loved. She was significant enough that all sorts of words derived from both Sappho and Lesbos came into use with associated meanings. And we’re going to trace some of the paths those words traveled along the way to find out how we get to our current question.

Linguistic Differences

One of the reasons that words derived from Sappho and words derived from Lesbos ended up with different meanings is that they started out by referencing different things, and they continued to pick up meanings due to those different references.

For example, Sappho was famous for her poetry. The island of Lesbos, though I’m sure it was home to other poets as well, wasn’t specifically known for a certain type of poetry. So when people named a particular poetic meter after one of the ones that Sappho used, they named it after her—the Sapphic stanza—not after Lesbos the place.

Similarly, when people coyly referenced the sorts of relationships suggested between Sappho and the women she addressed poems to, they spoke of “the women of Lesbos, the Lesbian women” because there were clearly more people involved than just Sappho.

Lesbian has also always meant “pertaining to the island of Lesbos”. And if Lesbos were a more prominent and more talked-about place, it’s possible that the adjective lesbian wouldn’t have picked up a specialized sexual meaning, simply because people would commonly encounter it in other contexts. But in the timeline that we inhabit, it’s possible for someone to be familiar with the sexual meaning of lesbian and not realize that it’s named after a real place.

So we have Sappho, a name. And we have sapphic, an adjective meaning “related in some way to Sappho.” We have Lesbos, a name. And we have lesbian, an adjective meaning “related in some way to Lesbos.” But we have some other word forms derived from these roots as well.

Just as an artist is someone who does things related to art, and a scientist is someone who does things related to science, a sapphist is someone who does things associated with Sappho. Similarly, words ending in -ism are created to mean “a practice, system, or philosophy of the root word.” A feminist practices feminism. A capitalist is part of the system of capitalism. A vegetarian follows vegetarianism. And a sapphist can be thought of as practicing sapphism.

Now, I said that lesbian is an adjective—which is how it started out. But adjectives that identify groups of people often develop into nouns that refer to those people. Someone with Christian beliefs is a Christian. Someone from a Scandinavian country is a Scandinavian. And the ambiguity between lesbian as an adjective and lesbian as a noun is one of the complications of modern identity terminology. Can one speak of “lesbian acts” without implying that the people involved are lesbians? Can we say that a 17th century poet wrote “lesbian poetry” if we don’t think she had a lesbian identity? Whatever that means?

But at any rate, to complete our set of words, someone who does lesbian things—however defined—can be said to be practicing lesbianism.

But all that is a bare sketch of the grammatical relationships of the words. What did they mean? How did people use them? And how did that end up with the set of words derived from Sappho and the set of words derived from Lesbos having different meanings?

Chronology of Usage

Part of the answer is that various words associated with women who love women sort of leap-frogged over each other in popularity, with one becoming common, then falling out of favor, then another becoming popular. And there are other words besides the ones deriving from Sappho of Lesbos that participated in this game of leap-frog, but I’m looking specifically at these two in comparison.

In the earliest examples—we’re talking the first millennium of the common era—words taken from Lesbos show up with a sexual connotation, although the sexuality can’t be pinned down as exclusively between women. In classical Roman texts, a “woman from Lesbos” could be a dogwhistle for various types of non-normative sex. There’s a 10th century Greek example using lesbiai “women from Lesbos” as equivalent to a couple other nouns meaning women who have sex with women.

But it isn’t until we get the Renaissance revival of Sappho’s works that we start seeing both our root words showing up more commonly in this context. (People certainly talked about women who loved women earlier than that, they just used a different set of words.)

We get a good snapshot of how people were using this vocabulary in the late 16th century from the French writer Brantôme, who had a fascination with the image of women having sex together. He brings Sappho into the discussion, but only by name, not using nouns or adjectives derived from her name. He talks of how women who have sex together are imitating “that learned poet Sappho of Lesbos” and how she was “a very high mistress in this art.”

But when Brantôme refers to other women who practice the art, he uses Sappho’s attributes but not her name. Sappho is Sappho de Lesbos “Sappho from Lesbos” or sometimes Sappho lesbienne “the Lesbian” using a form of the word that could be either adjective or noun, and in this context is ambiguous between her birthplace and her sexuality. Her fellow countrywomen who imitate her sexuality are dames lesbiennes “lesbian women”, but again there is ambiguity because the women in the passage are both inhabitants of Lesbos—femmes de Lesbos—and women who have sex with women. Then, when Brantôme turns his story away from ancient Greece and talks about women “in many regions and lands…in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places”, here when he speaks of dames lesbiennes there is no longer ambiguity. The word lesbian is now separated from having geographic meaning and can only be interpreted as having a sexual meaning. In this passage, lesbienne functions as an adjective, “lesbian women”, but later in the text he refers to ces Lesbiennes “these lesbians” treating it grammatically as a noun.

Because of one man’s obsession with what other people are doing in bed, we have a detailed picture of how the vocabulary had evolved by the 16th century. Sappho is an icon, but lesbian is a word that can be applied to other women.

We don’t have as detailed a picture of English usage in the 16th century. Translations of classical works refer to Sappho’s love for “lesbian lasses” but as in the French examples, this can be ambiguous when the women involved literally live on the island of Lesbos. But English texts of this era tend to use other words entirely (such as tribade) and don’t seem to have established the same tradition of using lesbian as a general identity term at this time.

In the languages that did use forms of lesbian, it’s hard to tell from the available glimpses and fragments whether the sexual use of lesbian as an adjective was popular long before it was used as a noun for a category of person. Given how geographic or ethnic terms are often used in parallel as both adjective and noun, it’s a reasonable guess that the two uses have always been closely bound.

But the situation is different with words derived from Sappho. We don’t start with a context where someone can be “a Sappho” meaning a type of person. Or rather, we do find this use applied to other female poets, but in a more individual sense rather than as a category label. What we do have as a starting place for more general use is an adjective meaning “related to Sappho”, as in the poetic meter “Sapphic stanza.”

There are also some experiments in adapting the name of Sappho more generally that didn’t take hold. In the early 18th century, William King’s poem “The Sapphoan” envisions something of a club or society by that name, filled with women having sex with each other.

By the 18th century, the adjective sapphic was fairly common in English referring to women’s same-sex relations. A woman might be described as being sapphic or as having sapphic passions. But unlike the word lesbian we need to modify sapphic to get a noun that could identify a person. The earliest identified example of sapphist with this meaning occurs in the late 18th century, though it’s likely to have been in used for a while at that point.

But did sapphist and lesbian mean the same thing to people who used them at this time? That’s difficult to know, particularly because we don’t often find the same person using both words in a context where we could distinguish meaning. In the 18th century, the sexual sense of lesbian was fairly rare in English, with the scurrilous poetry by William King being a rare example. What we seem to find, rather than a distinction of meaning, is a succession of use.

Across the 19th century, lesbian starts showing up with increasing frequency while sapphic becomes less common and sapphist starts sounding quaint and old-fashioned.

What was going on in parallel with this shift? The rise of French decadent literature—where lesbienne was the popular term—with a later boost from medical literature (which leaned toward lesbian rather than sapphist when it wasn’t using other terminology entirely). By the early 20th century, there was a sense that sapphist was something of a rarefied literary term, perhaps used in upper class circles, but fallen out of use in popular literature.

There’s a fascinating tool available from Google that can compare the rates of usage of different words or names appearing in the books Google has scanned. It’s not always reliable, but as a blunt instrument it can show general trends. I haven’t tried using it to compare the words under consideration before the 20th century because earlier than that the sexual senses tend to get overwhelmed by non-sexual ones.

In the first couple decades of the 20th century, both lesbian and sapphic are declining in use with the former being somewhat more common. But starting around 1920, lesbian begins to rise in frequency while sapphic keeps declining. And when we get to the end of WWII, lesbian begins to completely dominate the semantic space. Sapphic and sapphist are still there, trudging along, but far under the radar, while lesbian has rocketed to frequent usage. But then something interesting happens. Around about 1980, sapphic starts making a little bit of a comeback. And even sapphist picks up a little in usage after having functionally disappeared.

And that brings us up to the present day.

Shades of Meaning in the World of Books

How have lesbian and sapphic come to have different shades of meaning when applied to books? The biggest reason is that sapphic simply wasn’t in common use any more. Oh, it was still around as an archaic term. But when the big explosion of discourse around sexuality identities happened in the later 20th century--when people were looking for words to describe themselves--the word that women who loved women were already using most commonly was lesbian. So lesbian was the word that got fixed and defined in people’s minds and is the word that people pay most attention to the boundaries of. It’s the word that people feel either includes or excludes them. And that inclusion or exclusion centers around the identities people claim, not the features they might have in common with other identities.

Sapphic escaped having that weight of definitional baggage primarily by virtue of being unpopular. And yet it was still there in the language, carrying the resonances of women loving women with a more neutral flavor. That made it an attractive choice when people wanted an inclusive term that covered attraction by a female-identified person for another female-identified person without implying that their attraction was necessarily exclusive to women—the meaning that lesbian had acquired.

I honestly don’t know when people started applying the term sapphic to books to indicate a wider spectrum of identities in the characters. It was something that burbled up into my awareness during the period that I’ve been doing this podcast. And my understanding of the use and meaning of the term within book circles has largely come from watching how other people used it and what books they applied it to. I’ve also done a lot of listening to people explaining why the term feels comfortable to them. It certainly solves the problem of potentially misidentifying a character or a plot as lesbian if neither the character nor the author identify with the exclusive sense of that term.

If I put on my linguist’s hat, I think part of that comfort stems from the fact that sapphic is an adjective. It describes things without categorizing them, without labeling them. And while one can argue that the adjective sense of lesbian could be understood the same way–that describing a book as a lesbian romance isn’t a claim that the people in the romance identify as lesbians—there’s a flinch reflex among many bisexual women who feel the word doesn’t belong to them and excludes them.

Words have meanings, but meanings evolve. In the long run, words mean what we use them to mean. Lesbian has had a lot of meanings across the centuries, sapphic rather fewer, but both have changed, expanded, contracted, shifted. And they may shift again. The one thing that language never does is stand still.

Show Notes

A linguistic tour through the history of words derived from Sappho of Lesbos, and why a book might be a sapphic book while not being a lesbian book.

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021 - 07:00

I keep forgetting that I meant to put all the commentary related to the publications themselves in a blog field that keeps that commentary tied to the "official summary". So sometimes I have to go back and "fix" things later. (Like today.) In fact, there are a lot of LHMP entries where I keep meaning to go back and systematically sort out where the various bits of text should go. The difference is fairly invisible to anyone who reads the blog as it comes out, but if you're reading publication entries from searches or through tag links, it affects how easy it is to find my associated commentary.

Such is the awkwardness of legacy systems! The LHMP started out on my LiveJournal, with a "flat" structure of the single text field. When my highly-talented web people started designing how the LHMP would work on this site as a specialized function, we had to tackle how I wanted to divvy up the information from those original all-in-one blogs. Obviously, the summary of the publication was a key element. (With all its assorted meta-data.) But I often (though not always) had a more meta-discussion that was more about me reacting to the article than about the article, and I wanted to keep that separate. (Except for the times when it made more sense to interleave it in the summary, where I had to flag it more carefully as my commentary.) But those original  blogs sometimes also included text unrelated to the LHMP entries. And if I wanted to keep the superficial appearance of having the "same" blog as the original (only on a new site) then I couldn't simply strip those parts out and ignore them.

But now comes a different logistical consideration. Because if my commentary on the LHMP articles goes in a "commentary" field tied to the LHMP entry itself, rather than the framing blog text, then the vast majority of my LHMP-related blog posts won't have any "blog text" at all. And the blog text is what shows up in, for example, the website's front page field. (Though this problem doesn't affect my RSS feed, because that uses the whole blog+LHMP entry, rather than using a truncated portion that might end up being empty.)

And now you now why my webmasters sometimes give me That Look when we talk about features. I tend to have a fuzzy "grand vision" approach to web design. They have to make it work. And once they've set something up that will work as programmed, I have to remember to actually use the structures as they're intended in order to get the effects I claimed I wanted.

Oh, and having explained all that, I'm now remembering why I keep defaulting to putting my LHMP commentary in the opening blog field: because currently the commentary field doesn't display in the blog view, only in the LHMP entry view. Argh. Well, put that on the list of things to tweak, and let's put it in both places for now.

# # #

Klein's book belongs more to the category of high-concept lit-crit studies than to more strictly historical studies. I'm not saying this to criticize it, but simply to situate it. The focus on various body parts is a clever conceit, but has a tendency to skew the significance of the topics she's chosen to discuss.

The focus on analyzing the narratives of cross-dressing, rather than studying the behavior and psychology of the actual historic people involved (which are far less accessible) excuses, to some extent, the way the text defaults to considering the subjects of the book always as women, and to a large extent as assumed-cis women who are employing strategic disguise. This, after all, is how the contemporary narratives about these people treat their lives. And so, as a study of the narratives (as opposed to a study of the people) it makes sense.

But it means that Sapphic Crossings is a book that is unlikely to appeal to those who are looking for historic resonances for a modern transmasculine experience. In all the discussion of the "meaning" of breasts, there is no mention of how they might participate in gender dysphoria, and it's difficult to tell whether that's because dysphoria is never hinted at in the historic narratives, or because it isn't part of what Klein is interested in studying. But never fear, the next book I plan to discuss works from an opposite default: treating all such historic cases as transgender narratives. Neither approach is ideal from a general history point of view. But together--with the understanding that the books each take their position for a particular analytic purpose--they can provide a richer background.

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Full citation: 

Klein, Ula Lukszo. 2021. Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature. University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville. ISBN 978-0-8139-4551-4

Chapter 2: Sapphic Breasts and Bosom Friends

Klein's book belongs more to the category of high-concept lit-crit studies than to more strictly historical studies. I'm not saying this to criticize it, but simply to situate it. The focus on various body parts is a clever conceit, but has a tendency to skew the significance of the topics she's chosen to discuss.

The focus on analyzing the narratives of cross-dressing, rather than studying the behavior and psychology of the actual historic people involved (which are far less accessible) excuses, to some extent, the way the text defaults to considering the subjects of the book always as women, and to a large extent as assumed-cis women who are employing strategic disguise. This, after all, is how the contemporary narratives about these people treat their lives. And so, as a study of the narratives (as opposed to a study of the people) it makes sense.

But it means that Sapphic Crossings is a book that is unlikely to appeal to those who are looking for historic resonances for a modern transmasculine experience. In all the discussion of the "meaning" of breasts, there is no mention of how they might participate in gender dysphoria, and it's difficult to tell whether that's because dysphoria is never hinted at in the historic narratives, or because it isn't part of what Klein is interested in studying. But never fear, the next book I plan to discuss works from an opposite default: treating all such historic cases as transgender narratives. Neither approach is ideal from a general history point of view. But together--with the understanding that the books each take their position for a particular analytic purpose--they can provide a richer background.

The breast is an elusive gender signifier. An opening example from Hannah Snell’s biography tells how a combination of posture, breast size, and viewing angle prevented the presence of breasts from giving away her sex when she was stripped to the waist for a whipping in the army.

Working class cross-dressing narratives establish the breast not only as a sign of femaleness but as a site of erotic connection with the women who desire her. The chapter primarily examines cross-dressing in military and sea-going contexts, but also touches on Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda.

Regularly throughout the texts, the breast functions not so much to reinforce normative gender expectations, but to draw attention to female centered relationships. Alongside that function, breasts reflect racial and national stereotypes and reveal how themes of gender and desire are linked to whiteness.

During the 18th century, medical and political discourse around the breast shifted from an erotic, to a maternal symbol. And as with facial hair, we see a taxonomy of civilization reflected in breast characteristics.

In cross-dressing narratives such as that of the pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, exposure of the breast is linked to being read as female, but often the revelation is deliberate and strategic, not accidental or involuntary. Deliberate exposure of the breast by a cross dressing woman to establish her sex may be done for a female audience, creating sapphic possibilities. In Belinda, Lady Delacourt’s exposure of her damaged breast creates the context for bringing the women of the novel together.

[Note: one text that Klein doesn’t mention but that plays up the themes of this chapter is The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu, in which the cross-dressing main character reveals her sex to the woman she has a crush on (who has sworn off relations with men) by opening her clothing to reveal her breasts.]

The presence of the breast functions similarly to the absence of facial hair in being a gender marker, but an ambiguous and elusive one. It must be hidden to maintain the disguise, but it’s surprisingly easy to conceal.

Breasts have a long and contradictory history of being used to represent various perceptions of female identity, both positive and negative. The ambiguity of the breast is furthered by the multiple meanings that words such as “breast” and “bosom” can have, drawing in metonymic references to emotions. The 18th century saw a rising focus on the symbolic nature of the breast, and of maternal breast-feeding as a feature of female identity. (As contrasted with hiring a wet-nurse.) Some scholars trace a shift from the “erotic breast” of the renaissance to the new political symbolism of the breast in the 18th century, though this is not a universal view. The chapter has a fascinating discussion of the range of breast-meaning theories, but it’s too detailed to really summarize here.

The idealized breast in 18th century western culture was small and rounded, representing a young, pre-lactating body. Colonialist writing evaluated non-western societies using a sort of “breast phrenology” to equate pendulous breasts with a lack of civilization. In western contexts, large breasts were associated with aggressiveness.

When breasts are mentioned in cross-dressing narratives, it is usually to note them as small (and thus easier to disguise) but also as aligned with racialized images of superiority and whiteness. In cross-dressing narratives, women focus first on concealing the breast, and then on strategic deployment of them--in both cases as a gender marker.

The chapter dives into a detailed analysis of these themes in several texts, specifically: the history of pirates Read and Bonny, the military narratives of Hannah Snell and Christian Davies, and the novel Belinda, which adds another layer to the symbolism of breast and cross dressing. In Belinda the “wounded breast” of the cross-dresser embodies the punishment for her gender transgression as well as providing the stimulus for female bonding over the intimate nature of sharing the knowledge of the wound.

I’m skipping over a lot of the details of this very close reading of the texts.

Time period: 


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