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Saturday, January 20, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 278 – The Dildo Episode - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/01/20 - listen here)


In reading published research on the social history of dildos—which was not a thing I had actually expected to find—what struck me was how the questions and themes felt similar to the discourse back in the ‘70s when I first entered the lesbian community. In fact, one of the papers I read made that very point.

What does a sex toy shaped like a phallus “mean” with respect to erotic desire, sexual orientation, and social dynamics? Does it emphasize a phallocentric view of sexual intercourse or does it emphasize the irrelevance of living men to women’s sexual pleasure? When a dildo is used, is maleness present or absent? If a woman uses a dildo to give another woman pleasure, does that masculinize her in some way? If so, what does it mean when she uses it all by herself? Does it make a difference if she uses a strap-on or holds it in her hand?

Some questions that are specific to historic discourse include: how confident are we that an object made to represent a phallus can be interpreted as a sex toy? Regardless of whether it’s used solo or by couples, did historic societies categorize the use of a dildo more with masturbation or more with sexual intercourse? And how did societies react to the use of this type of sexual aid? Did it matter who was using it…and on whom?

Liza Blake, in her article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” focuses on an interpretation that, during the 16th through 18th centuries, the dildo was a fashion accessory—much like a hat or a walking stick. She argues against Freud’s view of dildos as a sexual fetish, on the logic that a fetish displaces erotic desire onto an unrelated object, while the dildo has a direct functional connection with the satisfaction of sexual arousal. Both Blake and Ula Klein (writing in Sapphic Crossings: Cross-Dressing Women in Eighteenth-Century British Literature) note the awkward ambiguities when discussing wearable dildos in the context of people who trans gender presentation, as the object may be part of a masculine social presentation without being used for sexual purposes, or may be used as a sexual aid without necessarily being worn for everyday appearance. And even the presence of both functions may or may not coincide with a masculine gender identity. Furthermore, two women together may use a dildo—including a strap-on—for sexual purposes in the absence of any sort of masculine social presentation.

So in this presentation, rather than trying to categorize those various possibilities with respect to some sort of transgender continuum, I will include all evidence regarding the use of dildos by two assigned-female persons. But the question of combining that use with male presentation is salient because it strongly affected how societies reacted to such use.

As Klein notes, 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.

Valerie Traub points out that Early Modern women’s employment of anatomical “supplements” does not result in an imitation of man, but a replacement that emphasizes the artificiality of the gender binary, and indeed of “man” as a concept. To the extent that the dildo did become a fetish object, it was not so much for the women who were using them, but for the authorities who fixated on the phallus precisely in the context of its absence and displacement. Early Modern discourse around the use of a dildo by female couples is not about sexuality, so much as it’s about gender; not about the pleasure the women experience, but on the usurpation of male prerogatives. And that usurpation of male prerogatives was precisely the reason why the presence or absence of a dildo became a flashpoint for how female homoeroticism was judged.

It is inescapable that most (though not all) of the literature depicting dildo use was written by men for male consumption. As usual, this makes it difficult to evaluate to what extent it represents reality. Even when dildo use is included in legal testimony, one must consider that it was part of the social mythology around sex between women, and therefore was a point of scrutiny and perhaps even pressure on defendants to shape their narratives to those social myths. But all that said, there is sufficient evidence from multiple genres—including material culture—to conclude that dildos have been used for sexual stimulation for at least the last couple millennia, and were one of the options employed by women to control their own pleasure, both individually and in couples.

One theme that runs through the literature—especially from male authors—is the premise that, to count as “sex”, an act must include a penis or a penis substitute. Therefore, in some cultural contexts, penetration is the defining attribute for a sex act, though the use of a dedicated object is not required. Pleasure might be experienced without penetration, but it might not be classified as “sex.”

Contexts that focus on penetration as essential for pleasure often downplay any emotional relationship between the women involved and focus on the dildo simply as a sex toy. In this genre, there is also a strong theme of women finding the dildo inadequate or at least less satisfying than the biological equivalent. But it could be a “make do” when men are unavailable, as in the Restoration play Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery, when the men of the court turn to homosexual pleasures, and the ladies turn to using dildos on each other in frustration. Another example in this vein is the anonymous novel A New Atalantis for the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Fifty-Eight where a sexually voracious woman is served by her French dildo-wielding maid who, on proving inadequate to the challenge, brings in a willing footman to finish the job more organically.

But even when the dildo is framed as a dispreferred alternative, there can be suggestions that women are using it in the context of a genuine romantic relationship, as in an anecdote in the 1718 A Treatise of Hermaphrodites where two young Italian women, having lost their male suitors, set up a house together as inseparable companions and take turns pleasuring each other with a strap-on dildo. When used by women in a solo context, the use of a dildo can be framed sympathetically (if with a certain amount of mockery) as in the doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, detailing the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London. Regardless of context, there’s sometimes a nod to the preferability of dildo use because it has no potential to result in pregnancy.

With that introduction, this discussion is going to take on four topics. First, a history of evidence for dildos and similar objects, regardless of who is using them. Then a brief look at some social attitudes toward their use, followed by legal issues specifically regarding female couples, and finally a discussion of terminology and construction.

A Brief History

In classical Greek art and poetry we find depictions and references to an “olisbos” which seems directly equivalent to dildo both in form and function. There is a possible reference to one in Sappho’s poetry, although the text is too fragmentary for context. More overtly, in a poem of the Hellenistic period, two women discuss an elaborate chain of re-gifting an olisbos from woman to woman. Sandra Boehringer concludes that this and several other representations concern the use of the olisbos for solitary gratification and is unconvinced that there is support for its use by female couples. But Nancy Rabinowitz’s article “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting” identifies two such possible examples, one involving a woman approaching another wearing a “strap-on”, and a sexual scene in which a double-headed dildo is present.

Roman art and literature have similarly ambiguous references. One wall-painting from 1st century Pompeii may show a woman reclining naked in bed being approached by a woman wearing a dildo, but the image is damaged and faded and the interpretation is uncertain. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, when Megillus tells Leaena about having “a substitute of my own” for sex, this may be a reference to a dildo. More clearly, in the 2nd-4th century work Forms of Love (attributed falsely to Lucian), the author suggests, “Let women, too, love each other. Let them strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery, those mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed, and let woman lie with woman as does a man.”

The evidence for dildos in the early medieval period primarily comes from penitential manuals that prescribe what sort of penance should be assigned for using one. Women who “practice vice” together are punished less severely than heterosexual adultery and much less severely than male homosexual activity, unless the women use an “instrument”. As noted in the 9th century penitential of Hincmar of Rheims, such women “do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.” A version of Iphis and Ianthe revised into a moral lesson in a medieval text converts Ovid’s divinely-mediated change of sex into the use of an artificial penis substitute by the female couple.

In the 13th century, in an Italian legal record, we have an unusually detailed and candid description of the device used by Bertolina Guercia. Court testimony accused her of “using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The witness said that Bertolina showed him her silk virilia (i.e., dildo) and explained that she used it for sexual purposes.

Until we get closer to the 17th century, the evidence is similar to Bertolina’s case: testimony in court records where the presence or use of a dildo is taken as evidence of criminal sexual activity between two women. (Note that this only applies in countries where such use was illegal, which wasn’t the case in England.) As we’ll discuss later, this could be the key element in whether the relationship was considered criminal, and influenced the fate of the accused. While Bertolina used her virilia for sexual purposes, she was not accused of cross-dressing. Whereas in 15th century Germany, Katherina Hetzeldorfer used her strap-on in the context of cross-dressing, passing for a man, and sexually assaulting a woman—for which she was executed.

A turning point in our evidence for dildo use was the rise of pornographic texts, starting in the 16th century. Aretino’s illustrated sexual “dialogues” included women pleasuring themselves with dildos. An illustrated edition of Nicholas Chorier’s Satyra Sotadica shows a group of upper-class women shopping in a “dildo market” with wares hung up on display as if in a butcher’s shop. Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies goes into some detail about dildos at the French court, usually in a context that mocks the women or suggests that this practice will inevitably have negative consequences. He tells an anecdote about a ruler who, “having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member.” In another story, the apartments of the ladies in waiting were being searched for contraband weapons, and “there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos.”

Up through the 17th century, there was an expectation that women had an active sex drive and would naturally seek out a means of satisfying it. In this context, the dildo was depicted as a tool used by women of all classes and sexual orientations for their fulfilment. While court records highlighted the conjunction of dildos with gender crossing, popular literature was far more likely to associate them with femme women who simply happened to be over-sexed. Sexual practices of all types treated female pleasure as desirable and essential, both for successful impregnation and for a woman’s health. But the rise of interest in dildos, shifts the context from procreation to pleasure; from medical advice to bawdy humor. In this context, the image of two femme women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always—in the literature—for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal).

The early 18th century doggerel verse Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignior D---o’s Adventures in Britain, details the trials and tribulations of a French dildo’s visit to London, illustrating both solitary use by women frustrated in love, and one verse involving a female couple.

One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.

In the anonymous 1735 poem “The Sappho-an” the Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo.

While pop culture references to dildos were often simply salacious and mocking, there was also a streak of hostility. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” But the use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. In some literature, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives. The phallus becomes separated, not only from male bodies, but from the context of masculinity entirely.

But in the later 18th century, we begin seeing the notion that the idealized woman was sexually passive. In this context, active sexuality shifted to being viewed as inherently masculine (or low-class, or foreign) and the motif arises of the dangerous, masculine-appearing woman who seduces and satisfies her female lover with the aid of a dildo. We can see these contrasting themes co-existing in John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (or Fanny Hill), where the instrument is primarily a sex toy, and in the biography of Catherine Vizzani (introduced to England via Cleland’s translation and adaptation), where a young Italian woman with an exclusive sexual interest in women, cross-dresses and enjoys multiple sexual relationships with women, using a leather dildo.

While Vizzani achieved an unusual degree of acceptance and success, it is far more likely for the records to feature lives gone badly awry, in which the presence of dildo-mediated sex is only one aspect, but becomes a locus of anxiety and an excuse for harsh measures. The strap-on dildo used by Catharina Lincken in her marriage to Catharina Muhlhahn (as well as in her other previous relationships with women) was a central feature of the 1721 court case against her, although violent interactions with her mother-in-law and her habit of switching back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism were of greater legal significance.

Another German trial in 1802 followed similar lines. Ilsabe Bunck joined the army and twice married women while presenting as a man. Bunck’s use of a dildo for sexual relations became a major point of contention in court to determine whether it fell in the category of sodomy, but her execution was most likely due to other contributing circumstances.

The dildo fades from view in popular culture across the 18th century as it shifts from being viewed as a sex toy to being viewed as more closely associated with lesbianism. But at the same time, as a focus of social anxiety, the dildo was being displaced by the image of the lesbian with an enlarged clitoris that was capable of penetration. It was as if, once the dildo had been firmly strapped onto a lesbian body, the next step was to envision it as growing there organically. The dildo would only re-emerge into public discourse with the rise of the decadent movement’s fascination with lesbian sex in the later 19th century.

Social Considerations

As we’ve seen, social attitudes towards dildos shifted with changing perceptions of female sexuality, of the definitions of sexual acts, and of the ways in which female sexual independence challenged phallocentric assumptions and men’s relevance to women’s pleasure. When dildos are viewed as a “second-best” alternative for pleasure, used by femme-presenting women, they tend to be lightly mocked as harmless toys. But when they are viewed as a serious challenge to men’s position, the mockery becomes harsher and the spectre is raised that dildos will injure women’s reproductive systems—as Brantôme asserts—that their use will lead to licentious moral decay, or that their use represents an appropriation of male privilege.

The use of a dildo by women who transed gender placed them in the most heavily condemned group, even in places like England where the condemnation was social rather than legal. In contrast, even clearly articulated female same-sex desire was treated mildly as long as overt male signifiers were not present. At best, the dildo is depicted humorously as an independent male presence within women’s erotic space. Only occasionally, when appropriated more overtly as attachable masculinity do attitudes 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.

Another aspect of cultural response to dildos is in an element of xenophobia with the object being depicted as a “foreign visitor,” as in the poem Monsieur Thing’s Origin. This may partially motivate the peculiar fascination Europeans had with the use of dildos among secluded women in Islamic cultures, such as the story travelers told about the use of cucumbers in Ottoman harems. But such information is not limited to the writings of Europeans. In the 16th century, Ottoman scholar Deli Birader Gazali wrote, “In big cities, there are famous dildo women. They put on manly clothes, they ride cavalry horses, and they also ride kochis [covered wagons] for fun. Rich and noble women invite them to their houses and offer them nice shirts and clothing. These women tie dildos on their waist and grease them with almond oil, and then start the job, dildoing the cunt.”

Despite the focus of this present podcast, one important thing to keep in mind is that there has never been a fixed correspondence between dildo use and female homoeroticism. For every example of dildos in sapphic contexts, there’s a counter-example where the device explicitly stands in for a desired heterosexual activity that is unavailable or inconvenient. Furthermore, dildos are only one of a wide range of sexual techniques associated with female couples—though one that is highly salient because of the anxiety it produces in society. Nor is there always a close correlation between female masculinity and a preference for use of a dildo. Ann Lister—you knew I had to drop in a Lister reference at some point, right?—Ann Lister, for all that she envisioned her desire for women as partaking of some sort of inherent masculinity, never gives any indication that she used a dildo in bed and, in fact, expresses disdain for “sapphic artifices that create distance” which, in context, can be interpreted as a dildo.

Legal Considerations

Aside from social attitudes towards dildo use, depending on the era and context, there could be legal consequences that ranged from awkward to deadly. As noted previously, official anxiety around dildos was not so much about their sexual function as it was about gender appropriation. The church might frown on any sort of unauthorized sex—especially if it fit the shifting definition of “sodomy” at that moment—but the penances for women using an “instrument” for non-procreative sex demonstrate that this was considered more on the level of masturbation than adultery or fornication.

But when the use of a dildo was combined with other aspects of appropriating a male role, then both the religious and secular authorities brought out the big guns. Prosecutions for sexual activity between women are notoriously scanty in the records—far less common than for sexual activity between men. And, as noted previously, in some places such as England, there were no official legal prohibitions at all. But when we look at the legal cases addressing women’s sexual relationships, a common thread is that prosecution rarely occurs unless a penetrative instrument is involved, and the consequences are most severe when both a dildo and gender-crossing is involved.

In Louis Crompton’s classic study “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity,” reviewing legal cases in Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries, among the 6 cases he identifies where at least one of the women was executed, 4 involved both cross-dressing and the use of a dildo, one involved a dildo only, and one deliberately omits details of the sexual act from the record (but also involves other aggravating circumstances). Other researchers have added to this tally by searching legal archives. Sherry Velasco identifies a number of prosecutions for lesbian acts in Spanish records of the Inquisition, where a key element of the testimony and sentencing was whether an “instrument” had been used. If it was concluded that no instrument had been involved, there might be no prosecution, even when the women confessed to a sexual relationship. And if an instrument was used but there was no cross-dressing, the women were not always condemned. Further, cross-dressing alone—though penalized—does not appear to have resulted in execution in the absence of sexual elements. But when the two factors are combined, the default result was execution unless there were significant extenuating circumstances.

In countries where there was no legal basis for prosecuting “female sodomy,” cases where there was an intersection of gender-crossing and sexual relations using a dildo were usually categorized as “fraud” if someone took the trouble to make an accusation. In this context, the sexual aspect might be treated as a sensational “extra” but the primary concern was laying claim to a masculine gender role, including marriage to a woman.

Words and Materials

The earliest identified use of the word “dildo” for a sex toy is in Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines.” Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adaptation of diletto “pleasure.” But a competing theory notes that there’s a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including in sexual or suggestive contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. This ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo.

But earlier, and outside the English-speaking world, what else were these objects called?

We’ve already mentioned the classical Greek olisbos. In Latin, a phallus-shaped amulet was called a fascinum from its other purpose in protecting against magic or witchcraft, but the word also appears when its used as a sex toy, as in the Satyricon of Petronius. Medieval Latin sources tend to describe it simply as an instrument or device, and we see this tradition continued in Bertolina’s mancipium using a word meaning “possession, property.” Bertolina also describes her sex aid as a virilia, simply indicating a male sex organ, and this is another strand of vocabulary where the object may be labeled with the same language used for the body part. Catharina Vizzani’s instrument is described in Italian as a piuolo which appears to mean “peg or stake.” A late 19th century source indicates that other Italian terms are passatempo (past-time) and diletto (delight), but it’s unclear how early these were used. In French the later term is godemiche, supposedly from Latin gaude mihi meaning “please me” and it may well be that this is the word represented by the abbreviation “g” in Brantôme’s late 16th century writings. Two lesbians in early 16th century Spain were called by their neighbors baldresera in reference to their dildo use—a word that (based on a very cursory search) may refer to a type of very soft leather, presumably meaning the material involved in the dildo’s construction. So, in general, terminology seems to be descriptive, with only a few contexts offering a dedicated word for the object.

We find a great deal more information on materials and even specific shapes in some cases. Leather is the most commonly-mentioned material. The early Greek poem that talked about a dildo being passed around among women described it as “beautifully stitched red leather.” The 15th century trial records of Katharina Hetzeldorfer include a fairly detailed description of her “instrument.” One of her female partners described it as “a huge thing, as big as half an arm. She thought it was like a horn and pointed in front and wide behind.” Katharina then confesses that after penetrating her partner first with her fingers and then with a “piece of wood what she held between her legs,” she said she then “made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round.” Spanish records of 1502 and 1603 describe an instrument made of lambskin and one of leather, though the user of the latter said she stopped using it because it was painful. In 1721, Catherina Linck engaged in sexual relations using “a penis of stuffed leather with two stuffed testicles made from pig’s bladder attached to it.” Also in the 18th century, Catterina Vizzani used “a nice leather dildo, stuffed with rags” which was belted on. An archaeological find of a leather dildo from an 18th century site in Poland is about 8 inches long, stuffed with hair, has a carved wooden tip, and has two testicles attached at the base. The trial records of Ilsabe Bunck in 1802 allege she used an artificial penis made of leather or fabric, though the testimony was contradictory.

Fabric of various types is the next most common material mentioned. In addition to Ilsabe’s fabric dildo just mentioned, Bertolina’s 13th century Italian one was made of silk, with attached silk testicles. Two late 17th century literary references describe a dildo sewn from velvet and stuffed with bran, and one made from satin and velvet. Liza Blake’s article includes a photo of a surviving cloth dildo with cords for attaching it to the body, but there is no provenance attributed to it.

Two records refer to wooden implements, not counting the use of wood as an internal stiffening agent. In the 15th century, Katharina Hetzeldorfer said she used a piece of wood held between her legs before making one of leather stiffened with wood. Two Spanish women in 1603 were said to use a dildo made of cane, although they testified they used leather instead.

At a higher level of luxury, ivory had its supporters. The reference to an ivory dildo in the 18th century poem The Sappho-an may have been literary hyperbole, but there is a surviving ivory artifact of the same century, possibly French, that is hollow and includes a “squirting mechanism” as well as coming with an embroidered cloth storage bag.

Similarly smooth, but less luxurious, there are several literary references to dildos made of glass. Thomas Nashe’s 1592 poem “The Choise of Valentines” describes one as “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. At a similar date, John Marston’s poem “The Scourge of Villanies” describes a woman using a “glassie instrument.”

Some commentaries on dildos compare them favorably to alternatives such as candles, fingers, or vegetables such as carrots and parsnips. And then, of course, there’s the infamous reference to cucumbers in travelers’ tales about Ottoman Turkey. So if we’re being expansive, we can add vegetables and candles to the catalog of more temporary dildo materials.

Part of Liza Blake’s thesis about viewing dildos as dress accessories has to do with the shift to attaching them to the body with straps. Katherina Hetzeldorfer described a simple system with a string passed through a hole in the wooden handle of the dildo and tied around the body. The majority of references to attachment methods come from the 18th century, including the use of ribbons in the Treatise of Hermaphrodites, the “new-invented belt” mentioned in The Sappho-an, and Caterina Vizzani’s use of a belt for attachment. In Emma Donoghue’s book Passions Between Women she mentions a variation where the dildo could be attached with straps to the jaw rather than the crotch, perhaps suggesting it was designed for simultaneous oral sex. I haven’t been able to track down the source of this particular example.

In addition to the basic function of being stiff enough to insert and of an appropriate size and shape, dildos might have any of a number of additional features. Some are described as having attached testicles, which may be a design feature if used for gender crossing, but in other cases simply seems to be an aesthetic choice. One description mentions “rowels to heighten delights” which is somewhat hard to envision if we’re talking about something resembling spur rowels, that is, a rotating spiked wheel used to goad a horse. A regularly mentioned feature is a mechanism for squirting warm water or milk, perhaps held in a hollow reservoir in the dildo, to simulate ejaculation. The surviving possibly-18th century ivory dildo includes just such a mechanism, and this feature is mentioned in Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” and in the poem “Portsmouth’s Returne.”

There are a few mentions in the context of gender-crossing of phallic devices used for urination. Katharina Hetzeldorfer used an object “like a horn” that she was said to urinate through. In the 18th century, Christian Davies said that finding a “little silver tube” that a cross-dressing solder used for urination was the inspiration for Davies to do the same. But there seems to be no evidence that the same object would also be used for sexual purposes


Bringing this topic back around to the purpose of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, if you’re writing sapphic characters into history, would they have considered using a dildo for sex? What would they have thought about it? What would others think if they found out? Would it cause legal problems for them? As we can see, the answers are all over the map. Although there are large gaps in the nature of the historic evidence, there does seem to be a fairly continuous tradition of dildos being an available option, either for solitary use or for couples, and when used by couples, there seems to be a fairly continuous tradition of attaching them to the body for use. Although dildo use would fall outside of approved sexuality under the usual Christian emphasis on procreative sex, there were eras and contexts where it was considered nothing worse than a harmless amusement, if perhaps one that a woman might be teased about. Furthermore, throughout most of history there was no special association of dildos with lesbian sex. Not all lesbians used dildos and not all dildo users were lesbians. So possessing such an instrument would not be evidence about one’s sexual orientation as long as the user was not also cross-dressing. But in a significant subset of times and places, the combination of cross-dressing and dildo use could put the user in legal jeopardy, up to and including execution—not so much for the sexual transgression as for the challenge to male privilege. It’s up to you, the author, to decide where to go with all that.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The cultural dynamics of dildo use
  • A history of dildos in western culture
  • The social and legal consequences of dildo use
  • Terminology and materials of construction
  • Sources used
    • Arvas, Abdulhamit. 2014. “From the Pervert, Back to the Beloved: Homosexuality and Ottoman Literary History, 11453-1923” in The Cambridge History of Gay and Lesbian Literature ed. E.L. McCallum & Mikko Tuhkanen. Cambridge University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-107-03521-8
    • Auanger, Lisa. “Glimpses through a Window: An Approach to Roman Female Homoeroticism through Art Historical and Literary Evidence” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Benkov, Edith. “The Erased Lesbian: Sodomy and the Legal Tradition in Medieval Europe” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York, 2001.
    • Blake, Liza. 2011. “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. University of Michigan Press. pp. 130-156
    • Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
    • Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.
    • Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9
    • Brantôme (Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme). 1740. Vies des Dames Galantes. Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, Paris.
    • Burshatin, Israel. “Elena Alias Eleno: Genders, Sexualities, and ‘Race’ in the Mirror of Natural History in Sixteenth-Century Spain” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7
    • Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0
    • Clark, Anna. 1996. "Anne Lister's construction of lesbian identity", Journal of the History of Sexuality, 7(1), pp. 23-50.
    • Clarke, John R. 1998. Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 0-520-20024-1
    • Crompton, Louis. 1985. “The Myth of Lesbian Impunity: Capital Laws from 1270 to 1791” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)
    • Donato, Clorinda. 2006. “Public and Private Negotiations of Gender in Eighteenth-Century England and Italy: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Case of Catterina Vizzani” in British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29. pp.169-189
    • Donato, Clorinda. 2020. The Life and Legend of Catterina Vizzani: Sexual identity, science and sensationalism in eighteenth-century Italy and England. Voltaire Foundation, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-78962-221-8
    • Donoghue, Emma. 1995. Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801. Harper Perennial, New York. ISBN 0-06-017261-4
    • Eriksson, Brigitte. 1985. “A Lesbian Execution in Germany, 1721: The Trial Records” in Licata, Salvatore J. & Robert P. Petersen (eds). The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 0-918393-11-6 (Also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 6, numbers 1/2, Fall/Winter 1980.)
    • Faderman, Lillian. 1981. Surpassing the Love of Men. William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York. ISBN 0-688-00396-6
    • Halberstam, Judith (Jack). 1997. Female Masculinity. Duke University Press, Durham. ISBN 978-1-4780-0162-1
    • Haley, Shelley P. “Lucian’s ‘Leaena and Clonarium’: Voyeurism or a Challenge to Assumptions?” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Hubbard, Thomas K. 2003. Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents. University of California Press, Berkeley. ISBN 978-0-520-23430-7
    • Karras, Ruth Mazo. 2005. Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-415-28963-4
    • 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
    • Krimmer, Elisabeth. 2004. In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. Wayne State University Press, Detroit. ISBN 0-8143-3145-9
    • Lansing, Carol. 2005. “Donna con Donna? A 1295 Inquest into Female Sodomy” in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History: Sexuality and Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Third Series vol. II: 109-122.
    • Lardinois, André. “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos” in Bremmer, Jan. 1989. From Sappho to de Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-02089-1
    • Linkinen, Tom. 2015. Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam. ISBN 978-90-8964-629-3
    • Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
    • Michelsen, Jakob. 1996. “Von Kaufleuten, Waisenknaben und Frauen in Männerkleidern: Sodomie im Hamburg des 18. Jahrhunderts” in Zeitschrift für Sexualforschung 9: 226-27.
    • Mills, Robert. 2015. Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-16912-5
    • O’Driscoll, Sally. 2010. “A Crisis of Femininity: Re-Making Gender in Popular Discourse” in Lesbian Dames: Sapphism in the Long Eighteenth Century. Beynon, John C. & Caroline Gonda eds. Ashgate, Farnham. ISBN 978-0-7546-7335-4
    • Phillips, Kim M. & Barry Reay. 2011. Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History. Polity Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-7456-2522-5
    • Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4
    • Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The categorization of gender and sexual irregularity in medieval Arabic vice lists” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2
    • Schleiner, Winfried. “Cross-Dressing, Gender Errors, and Sexual Taboos in Renaissance Literature” in Ramet, Sabrina Petra (ed). 1996. Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-11483-7
    • Traub, Valerie. 1994. “The (In)Significance of ‘Lesbian’ Desire in Early Modern England” in Queering the Renaissance ed. by Jonathan Goldberg. Duke University Press, Durham and London. ISBN 0-8223-1381-2
    • Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9
    • Van der Meer, Theo. 1991. “Tribades on Trial: Female Same-Sex Offenders in Late Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 1:3 424-445.
    • Velasco, Sherry. 2011. Lesbians in Early Modern Spain. Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville. ISBN 978-0-8265-1750-0
    • Wahl, Elizabeth Susan. 1999. Invisible Relations: Representations of Female Intimacy in the Age of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, Stanford. ISBN 0-8047-3650-2
    • Walen, Denise A. 2005. Constructions of Female Homoeroticism in Early Modern Drama. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4039-6875-3
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Dildo

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Sunday, January 14, 2024 - 10:26

Sometimes a topic for a podcast has been waiting for just the right research material to come along. When I included this article in my most recent library "shopping trip" I figured it was time to take a stab at doing a podcast on the topic of lesbians and dildos. While Blake takes more of a "lit crit" approach than one focused on material culture or a history of sexual practices, this article was a wealth of references that I might not otherwise have encountered.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Blake, Liza. 2011. “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories. University of Michigan Press. pp. 130-156

Blake is looking at the history of the dildo in early modern culture not as a physical object, but as fulfilling the function of a fashion accessory. This, despite opening the conversation by stating that she is not viewing it for its symbolic purpose, but for its functional one. In passing, she notes that philosophical arguments about the function on the dildo in history have resonances with modern arguments about the symbolism and function of dildoes in lesbian relationships. Fortunately, the initial discussion that invokes a lot of Freud and Derrida soon moves on to more practical matters both physical and literary. In viewing the dildo as a “accessory” Blake is examining it, both in terms of being an assistive device, and as being a fashion statement—as a “thing” on its own rather than as a symbolic substitute for something else.

One of the values of this article are the extensive and detailed references to dildos both in legal records and in popular culture. For my own purposes, I’ll include something of a bullet point list of those references at the end of the summary.

The practical examples open with an illustration from the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 La philosophie dans le boudoir, depicting various uses of the dildo both as a freestanding object, and as a strap-on. The dildo as a “prosthesis” for a disabled man is suggested facetiously in one 17th c poem, but more typically it is an enhancement for sexual pleasure, either in addition to, or as an alternative to, the male member. This may include devices for producing a spray of warm water or milk to simulate ejaculation. (Although it is regularly emphasized in the literature that one benefit of a dildo is that there is no risk of pregnancy.) A regular motif is the use of straps to attach the dildo to the lower body—typically associated with female use.

A comparison is made between the symbolic/practical parallels between the codpiece and the dildo as fashion accessories. The codpiece had purely symbolic function as a fashion accessory and fell out of fashion due to changing images of masculinity, whereas the dildo—even if inspired as a symbolic analog to the penis, retained popularity because its practical uses were distinct and separable form its symbolic reference.

Blake asserts that the dildo and strap-on become “culturally visible” in the last quarter of the 17th century in parallel with their development as “luxury commodities” dissociated from being representations of a penis. Earlier examples of “fake and detached penises”, she claims, did not have this aspect. [Note: I’m not sure I’m buying this argument, unless earlier references to use of penetrative sex toys are being considered in a different category entirely.] To the extent that I understand her argument, she is asserting that only in the Renaissance did people start strapping dildos on for use, which is the distinction that make them an “accessory” (as opposed to a tool?).

The legal visibility of strap-on dildoes when used between women emerges on the Continent rather than England, due to differences in the legal codes. Multiple prosecutions from France and Spain are mentioned in which a woman both cross-dresses and uses a strap-on dildo to have sex with a female partner. The multiple functions of the device to enhance cross-dressing, to enable standing urination, and to engage in penetrative sex are discussed.

But the dildo could be viewed as a sexual rival for a man even when used solo. Satirical poems warn men that women who are unsatisfied will take their own pleasure in hand using a dildo. The purpose-made dildo could be viewed as a sign of sophistication when used in place of more everyday penetrative objects such as candles and vegetables. Poems list it as a luxury object that can be bought alongside other accessories such as gloves and perfume. And in addition to references to luxurious materials, some descriptions indicate additional features such as “rowels to heighten delights” as well as the previously-mentioned ability to eject warm liquid as desired.

Lest one think that luxury materials are a literary motif only, a surviving carved ivory dildo (possibly dating to the 18th century) includes a squirting mechanism and a cloth storage bag. In a somewhat confusing description of materials (leather, velvet filled with bran, wax, horn, ivory, wood, glass) Blake suggests that “soft covers could be made for ease of carrying, cleaning, or cushioning” or for “resizing” as in a poem describing “…a slender glass all covered with satten or such like most curiously and by our caves form just is measured.” Or the reference in The Sappho-an, “if too rude the polished engine seems, the velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes…for to your choice they shall adapt the size.” Whether substance or storage case, there are references to a personified dildo being “dressed up” as in the ballad Monsieur Thing’s Origin that M. Thing might at first be considered “no person of note, because he’ll appear in a plain leather coat,” but later when taken up by the nobility they “cloathed him in satin and brought him to court.” Similarly, the dildo in Nashe’s poem is “attired in white velvet or silk.” [Note: I do wonder if some of the references to “covers” for dildos that Blake is interpreting as part of the substance of the instrument itself might not be references to carrying cases instead. It’s hard to imagine the durability and comfort of a velvet one!]

Blake explores the vocabulary of dildoes including various theories on the origin of the word “dildo.” Most attribute the first unambiguous use of the work in a sex toy sense to Thomas Nashe’s “The Choise of Valentines” in 1592. Later references attribute the origin of the word to Italy, perhaps as an adapation of diletto “pleasure”, but there’s also a long tradition of English ballads using “dildo” and related words as “nonsense” refrains, including sexual or suggesting contexts—a tradition that continued through the 17th century. The ambiguity between nonsense-rhymes and sex toys is sometimes deliberately employed to create innuendo. Although Nashe’s poem was not publicly printed at the time, it was evidently well known in circulation as other authors make reference to it. The original, full poem is clearly about “male sexual inadequacy and female sexual autonomy” but several expurgated versions were also in circulation that keep the initial sexual content but remove the references to the dildo, thus assuaging male anxieties and denying women’s autonomous pleasure. Rather than serving to focus women’s pleasure on the male member (even when the man isn’t present), the dildo can be interpreted here as representing a displacement of the male ego. [Note: Blake is referencing Valerie Traub’s interpretation here, so this isn’t necessarily a contradiction of her own position that the dildo is not a symbol.] Blake instead views it as contributing one more “choice” to the sexual options. But the poem also acknowledges that access to this option allows women to “scorn Cupid” and disdain men, which parallels one of Nashe’s themes that love poetry of the time dwells too much on frustration and pain rather than pleasure.

Scattered among various end-notes to the article are references to materials that dildoes might be made of, including velvet stuffed with bran, glass, and leather. Another note offers more vocabulary, quoting Burton’s Arabian Nights in 1886: Latin phallus and fascinum, French godemiche, Italian passatempo, diletto. Separately, French godemiche is traced to Latin gaude mihi (please me).

The article includes several figures. In addition to the illustration from the Sade book, there is a photo of an undated cloth dildo with cords attached, and a photo of a carved ivory dildo that includes a mechanism for emitting liquid, together with a cloth storage bag, attributed “possibly French, possibly eighteenth century.”

List of dildo references and descriptions in the article

  • 14th c. – unspecified record – Description of a wax model of a penis made as a votive offering, presumably as part of a religious charm against impotence or infertility. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 16th c. - (unspecified legal records) – women caught and prosecuted for using a strap-on dildo with another woman.
  • 16th c. – Antonio Gómez (legal commentary) – Reference to a woman having sexual relations with a woman using a “material instrument.” A reference to two nuns condemned for this act.
  • 16th c. – Pierre Brantôme Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies (book) – Describes dildoes as gentiment faconnés “nobly fashioned.”
  • 1502 – Spanish legal record – A person appearing to be a man was arrested as a thief in Valencia  and discovered to be female-bodied and wearing “a thing of a man, between her legs, made of leather” which she confessed to having used for sexual relations with a woman.
  • 1533 – France (legal record) – Two women tried but acquitted for having sex using a dildo.
  • 1580 – Michel de Montaigne (diary) – Description of a woman who passed as a man and married a woman using “illicit devices” to engage in sex.
  • 1584 – Reginald Scot The Discoverie of Witchcraft (book) – Description of the use of a wax image of her husband’s supposedly bewitched penis as a religious counter-charm against impotence. No implication of direct sexual use.
  • 1592 - Thomas Nashe (poem) “The Choise of Valentines” – A tale of a man who, after various sexual endeavors with his mistress with variable success, is dismissed in favor of a dildo. The poem then includes an extensive description of the object (not included in this article however the poem can be found online: The object is “almost two handfuls high, straight, round, and plumb” with “one eye,” made of “congealed glass” and nourished with water or milk that spurts forth. (Description not from Blake.)
  • 1598 – John Marston The Scourge of Villanies (genre not mentioned) – Describes a woman who scorns her husband, evidently for providing her with insufficient pleasure in bed, and satisfies herself “with glassie instrument.”
  • 17th c. – “News from Crutchet-Fryers” (ballad) – Description of a group of women throwing dildoes over a neighbor’s wall in order to harass her.
  • 1656 – “To a Lady Vexed with a Jealous Husband” (poem) – Warns a husband that even if he locks up his wife, “she’ll make thee cuckold with an instrument.”
  • 1672 – Samuel Butler (poem) The Dildoides – Suggests that, just as military amputees are offered artificial limbs, men whose sexual performance is impaired by venereal disease or drunkenness might strap on a dildo instead.
  • 1674 – John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester “Seigneur Dildoe” (poem) – Describes the dildo as being an improvement over the use of “candle, finger, or thumb.”
  • 1682 – “Portsmouth’s Returne” (poem) – Describes a woman shopping for “elaborately fashioned dildoes” made of “satin and velvet” with “furling water to draw’t up streight, and rowels to heighten delights.”.
  • 1684 – anonymous Eve Revived, or the Fair One Stark-Naked (novel) – Description of two girls making a dildo out of velvet, stuffed with bran.
  • 1718 – Treatise of Hermaphrodites (non-fiction book) – Describes a female couple where one fastens the dildo onto her crotch on with ribbons.
  • 1722 – anonymous (poem) Monsieur Thing’s Origin: or, Seignor D---o’s Adventures in Britain – Satirical verses describing various women using a dildo, including one verse involving a female couple.
  • 1735 – (poem) The Sappho-an – Sappho describes the historical origin and evolution of the dildo. Mentions in passing the sexual use of objects such as candles, carrots, and parsnips. References use with a “new-invented belt.”
  • 1795 - Marquis de Sade (book illustration) La philosophie dans le boudoir – An illustration of a woman using a strap-on dildo on a man, who in turn is wielding a freestanding dildo on a woman who is also interacting with other men. All dildo-mediated interactions are between a m/f pair.
Saturday, January 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 277 - On the Shelf for January 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/01/06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2024. While writing up the script and notes for this episode I kept having to correct the year, so I guess I’m not quite ready for this. What I am ready for is receiving submissions for the 2024 fiction series. If you’re listening to this at any time close to the release date, then you still have most of the month of January to submit a story. Heck, if you’re motivated, you have time to brainstorm, write, revise, and then submit! Since I’m recording this episode late in December, I’m still at the point of worrying about getting enough good submissions. (I always do, but I always worry about it.) Given the timing, I won’t have decisions made and contracts signed in time to announce the acceptances in the February On the Shelf episode, so check the blog for updates.

It is quite possible that this may be the last year I run the fiction series. There are a number of factors I consider each year when I make that yes/no decision: the enthusiasm of the submissions, whether the fiction shows get a good listener response—either in terms of download numbers or in terms of audience feedback. But the factor that will change in 2025 is that I’ll be retiring and will be making a number of decisions about controlling expenses. I don’t expect the show to pay for itself in any meaningful way—it’s a labor of love and I want to keep it that way. But royalties and narrator fees are a big line-item expense that may need to be re-evaluated. That said, I’ve gotten a lot of personal satisfaction out of publishing sapphic historical short stories on the show and encouraging authors in the field in a very concrete way. So a lot will depend on how the books balance on both the monetary and satisfaction scales.

Publications on the Blog

The blog didn’t see any new books or articles in December, even though I read several things that will be written up eventually. My day-job has been really hectic, which means that my allegedly “free” time gets squeezed. (See my previous comment about upcoming retirement. I love my job, but I’m eager to see the end of it.) I did fit in another session of downloading articles from JSTOR at the U.C. Berkeley library, so in theory I have enough material for the next year just from that source. Maybe one of my New Year’s resolutions will be returning to a schedule of at least one publication per week on the blog, rather than the boom-and-bust schedule I’ve managed recently.

If you have favorite topics that you’d love to see prioritized, drop me a note, either in comments on the blog or in social media. I probably have publications on almost any subject you’re interested in! For that matter, if you ever have ideas for a podcast topic, I’ve done a number of shows in the past that were inspired by a listener asking a specific question. I’ve been trying to intersperse the trope shows with other content to keep things varied. I’d love to know what you’d find interesting.


I had meant to get caught up with my pending interviews this month (at least, caught up with recording them, but spacing out their release). It didn’t happen. For reasons peculiar to how my brain works, interview scheduling is one of the hardest parts of this job. Don’t despair—there will be interviews. Eventually.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

But let’s move on to what has become the meat of the On the Shelf epiosodes: the new book listings! Things are very clustered in the Regency-to-Victorian era this month, with a scattering of later settings.

We start out with a topic near and dear to my heart: Jane Austen re-tellings. In The Lady's Wager by Olivia Hampton, Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice gets a chance to break out of her shell.

Mary Bennet is in London to try to sell the novels and the conduct book she has secretly written over the last few years. She has to sell them. The threat of being left penniless by her father's death grows larger every single day, and Mary cannot stand the idea of being dependent upon her family. The family who doesn't seem to see her as a real and valuable person. Then she meets Miss Gemma Hart, a former governess with a beautiful face and a gift for music. Not to mention, Gemma has a habit of making Mary's heart sing.

Gemma's got a past filled with painful memories. She's desperate to wager on a horse that's running in a fixed race because if she doesn't get more money, and soon, she may very well be forced into taking another position, something she just cannot do. Mary Bennet, with her big dark eyes and habit of punching men in the nose is not a distraction that Gemma can afford.

As Gemma and Mary move from London to Longbourn they find themselves risking not just their money and reputations, but their hearts. Is love a gamble worth taking? Find out in The Lady's Wager.

Helen's House (School of Enlightenment series) by Maggie Sims is a sapphic spin-off from what looks like a primarily heterosexual spicy Regency series. Based on the cover copy of other books in the series, you may want to expect some BDSM content.

Regina Carlisle has found her forever home at The School of Enlightenment as the stablemistress. She can run the stables, wear men’s trousers, and love who she wants. Despite being surrounded by lovely women, only one woman tempts her—her employer, the headmistress. Too bad about the no-fraternization rule.

The School of Enlightenment is Helen Montague’s passion. As a widow, she focused her time building the school from nothing, but now it is established, she is lonely. When the stablemistress is injured in a fall, Helen steps in to help take care of her, discovering a new desire. Although she’s in charge of enforcing the rules, Helen is now tempted to break them.

Time-travel provides the framework for The Ease of Time by Charlotte Rowan from Spectrum Books.

If Max has learned one thing from life, it’s that nothing happens without a reason. Though the reason why she was transported from 21st century East London to the English countryside in 1813 might be a little difficult to comprehend…

But inexplicably, it’s the reality she finds herself in after an encounter with a mysterious portrait. And so what if she meets a family that makes her feel like she belongs? What if to return to her own time, she has to trust a woman who could be more than she seems at first glance?

It’s not like Max was meant to stay… right?

Jane Walsh’s “Spinsters of Inverley” series from Bold Strokes Books has a third installment in The Secret Duchess.

When the Duke of Stanmere’s will reveals a nasty secret, London Society is shocked—and so is his widow, Joan. Humiliated by the scandal, Joan flees to Inverley in disguise. Surely the quaint seaside town would be the last place anyone would look for a duchess on the run. After her mother’s remarriage, fashionable spinster Miss Maeve Balfour must make a living with hands whose only labor has been arranging her hair into the latest style. With nowhere to turn and nothing to lose, she persuades mysterious newcomer Joan to let her stay in her manor house. Although entranced by worldly and seductive Maeve, Joan doesn’t know if she can trust again. As Maeve learns Joan’s secrets, she yearns to protect her from the men who have sought to destroy her. But can a spinster and a widow dare to defy a dukedom—and win each other’s hearts?

I did something of a mini-round-up of sapphic stories inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre in my episode on gothic stories. Here’s a new entry in the field: Escaping Mr. Rochester by L.L. McKinney from Harper Collins

Jane Eyre has no interest in a husband. Eager to make her own way in the world, she accepts the governess position at Thornfield Hall.

Though her new employer, Edward Rochester, has a charming air—not to mention a handsome face—Jane discovers that his smile can sharpen in an instant. Plagued by Edward’s mercurial mood and the strange wails that echo through the corridors, Jane grows suspicious of the secrets hidden within Thornfield Hall—unaware of the true horrors lurking above her very head.

On the topmost floor, Bertha Mason is trapped in more ways than one. After her whirlwind marriage to Edward turned into a nightmare, he locked her away as revenge for withholding her inheritance. Now his patience grows thin in the face of Bertha’s resilience and Jane’s persistent questions, and both young women are in more danger than they realize.

When their only chance at safety—and perhaps something more—is in each other’s arms, can they find and keep one another safe before Edward’s dark machinations close in around them?

There are a vast number of possible set-ups for sapphic romance in the 19th century and I’m always delighted to see one I haven’t encountered before, which is why I’m definitely looking forward to Don't Want You Like a Best Friend (Mischief & Matchmaking #1) by Emma R. Alban from Avon.

Gwen has a brilliant beyond brilliant idea. It’s 1857, and anxious debutante Beth has just one season to snag a wealthy husband, or she and her mother will be out on the street. But playing the blushing ingenue makes Beth’s skin crawl and she’d rather be anywhere but here.

Gwen, on the other hand, is on her fourth season and counting, with absolutely no intention of finding a husband, possibly ever. She figures she has plenty of security as the only daughter of a rakish earl, from whom she’s gotten all her flair, fun, and less-than-proper party games. “Let’s get them together,” she says.

It doesn’t take long for Gwen to hatch her latest scheme: rather than surrender Beth to courtship, they should set up Gwen’s father and Beth’s newly widowed mother. Let them get married instead. “It’ll be easy” she says.

There’s just…one, teeny, tiny problem. Their parents kind of seem to hate each other. But no worries. Beth and Gwen are more than up to the challenge of a little twenty-year-old heartbreak. How hard can parent-trapping widowed ex-lovers be? Of course, just as their plan begins to unfold, a handsome, wealthy viscount starts calling on Beth, offering up the perfect, secure marriage. Beth’s not mature enough for this…

Now Gwen must face the prospect of sharing Beth with someone else, forever. And Beth must reckon with the fact that she’s caught feelings, hard, and they’re definitely not for her potential fiancé. That’s the trouble with matchmaking: sometimes you accidentally fall in love with your best friend in the process.

This next book, Eve of Kilcargin by Susan M. Gaffney, has an interesting back-story discussed in the cover copy. It says “Originally written in rural New Zealand in the early 1950s, it would surely have been a landmark in lesbian fiction if it had ever seen the light of day, but was sadly incomplete at the time of the author’s death. The story of her brief and troubled life, and her only novel’s seventy-year journey to publication reads like a work of fiction in itself, with the manuscript believed lost in a fire until the 1990s, and finally completed in a posthumous collaboration between aunt and grandniece seven decades after its inception.”

It isn’t clear to me whether the credited author is the original writer or the grandniece indicated as having completed the work. I’d also be curious to know more about what aspects are the recent completion and which were original. (Alas, I can’t seem to find the author on social media or I might seek the answers to some of those questions.)

In 1919 Clara Bridewell, a widow of the Great War, receives an invitation to stay with her well-to-do aunt in the Irish countryside, to provide a stabilising influence on her unruly young cousin Eve. Upon arriving, she discovers that the family are destitute, and their sprawling country house is virtually a ruin. Clara soon finds herself embroiled in her aunt’s scheme to marry Eve to a wealthy young aristocrat in order to save the family home. But the romantic feelings she develops for her cousin, and the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, threaten to derail their plans.

 As usual, the two world wars provide gravity wells for stories set in the first half of the 20th century, for reasons explained in the cover copy for Don't Stop Me Now: Forbidden Love in Wartime by Roo Bannister.

Imagine if all the men in Britain suddenly disappeared. Imagine there was no clue as to when they might return. Imagine a world where the women were suddenly called upon to do the jobs that men have dominated for decades if not centuries.

At the outbreak of World War II, that is exactly what happened! the men were gradually all called to war while the women were encouraged to go to the factory gates, the farms, the military - anywhere they could to be of service to their country. Gladly they went, while their men were off fighting, the gals did their part to keep the country going. But what of love? What of romance?

Meet Stella, a boyish young daughter of an Irish couple settled in London. Raised on the streets of London, Stella grew up in fist fights with boys in the neighbourhood, wishing she had been born a boy and feeling out of place in her time and space. At the outbreak of war, her older brother Derek was first in line to sign up for army duty, now she feels she too must serve her country as bravely as her brother. Off to the factory she goes, meeting new friends and finding independence for the first time in her life - a whole new world in war! And then...

In walks Callie, a beautiful red head with almond shaped eyes and a cheeky grin. Stella is instantly speechless, on edge and awkward whenever she encounters Callie at the factory. What on Earth are all these squiggly tummy, burning face, tongue-tied feelings all about? And what is she to do about them? The two women encounter love in the most trying of circumstances, in a world at war with itself - how will this world treat this new love in an era when same sex relationships are still so very taboo? Illegal even. Certainly not what Stella was raised to believe in or consider as a life choice. to resist this angelic, confident and brazenly attractive young woman?

In the first part of their story, Stella and Callie struggle to battle through this new land of confusion and unspoken expectations. With no one to confide in, who do the women find the right path through life in London...and then the Lakes and later still further afield. Will they ever find a moment in time to stand together honestly and truly? Or will their discovery of love, sex and relationship in the midst of global chaos be torn apart by circumstance?

You Stumble, I Fall (Generations of Love #1) by Christine Collins from Painted Hearts Publishing falls into that awkward zone of “is it historical fiction if I was alive then?” But I suppose that’s an unfair standard the older I get.

1961. Summer. At nineteen, Louise is oblivious to her attraction to women and a novice in matters of love. Living in the heart of the English countryside, she loves horses and spends her days looking after a feisty pony that needs schooling. Louise dreams of a career in medicine, but her studies have been put on hold after the sudden death of her father.

Mary, a twenty-year-old visitor to the countryside, is well aware of her own lesbian identity and is fascinated by Lou. Schooled in privilege, Mary has traveled across Europe with her family and pursued her artistic aspirations during two gap years in Florence, Rome, and Paris. However, her family's plans for her clash with Mary’s ambition to become a portrait artist, exacerbated by her father's contempt for homosexuals.

Opportunity, sexual tension, proximity, and the glorious countryside ignites their passion.

Other Books of Interest

One book falls in my “other books of interest” category. At first I thought this was another fantasy-Viking-era story, but the setting seems to be entirely the modern world. It’s the intrusion of ancient Norse gods that gives the historic impression—that and having a historic re-enactor as a protagonist. Check out Kiss of Death by Bryony Rosehurst.

Maeve thought she would have more time...

A seemingly unremarkable woman from the north of England struggling to make ends meet, she attends York’s Viking Festival every year to participate in a battle reenactment. But when she wakes up wounded and bloody in the middle of the empty battlefield, she finds the world to be a much darker place than she realised.

Hel has many names. The Goddess of Death is just one of them. Cast out by Odin, her duty is to take souls back to her kingdom of Helheim, where they can live out their afterlife peacefully. But when she sets out to claim a shield-maiden, it quickly becomes clear that something is wrong. Jorvik has changed drastically since the last time she was here, and Maeve is no ordinary warrior.

As the storm rages, they find themselves unable to get back to the gates of Hel and must question if the universe has other plans for them — plans that might have something to do with the volcanic eruption happening not far from Hel’s home. With the world crumbling and Maeve filled with grief, the strength of Maeve’s unclaimed spirit is dwindling quickly, but their relationship only develops as they battle through tempests and face the Norns, confronted by some harrowing truths and monsters along the way. Will the Fates allow them to reach Helheim in time, or will Hel lose the woman she is quickly falling in love with?

I’ll finish up the new release listings by taking a bit of license in mentioning a new French translation of an existing book. Because, you see, it’s L'Héritière des Secrets the first translated edition of my debut novel Daughter of Mystery. The translator is Anne Bénédicte Damon and it’s published by Homoromance Editions. I’ll include the French-language cover copy in the show transcript. I am totally over the moon to have the book translated and am grateful to Anne for her interest in pursuing this project.

Margerit n'attendait de son parrain, le baron Saveze, qu'un petit héritage, juste de quoi se constituer une dot. Au lieu de cela, le baron lui a laissé la majorité de sa fortune et les services d'une épéiste redoutable, ainsi que la haine de l'homme qui s'attendait à être son héritier. La nouvelle fortune de Margerit lui donne la liberté de réaliser son rêve d'étudier la thaumaturgie dans la ville de Rotenek, pour apprendre les Mystères des Saints. Barbara était fière d'être la duelliste du baron, mais pensait que sa mort la libérerait. Aujourd'hui, son destin est lié à celui de Margerit. Ce qui commence comme un devoir devient bientôt plus dangereux pour son cœur que la pointe d'une épée. Lorsque les études de Margerit les entraînent toutes les deux dans un complot impliquant la succession royale, il faudra un miracle pour les sauver. Heureusement, les miracles sont ce que Margerit est venue apprendre à Rotenek.

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading in the past month? Once again, it’s been all audiobooks. First up is Emma Donoghue’s Learned by Heart, a novelization of the schoolgirl romance between Anne Lister and Eliza Raine. As they say, there are no spoilers in history, and the sweet love story spun out in Donoghue’s always-elegant prose is inevitably tragic, with its hints of the story that might have happened.

I continued my collection of K.J. Charles’ gay historical romances with a couple of her earlier titles: Think of England and Wanted, A Gentleman. Both of them involve characters with marginalized ethnicities (Jewish in the first case, and Black in the second case) with a rather harshly unflinching look at the realistic prejudices of the times. Wanted, A Gentleman also has one of Charles’ favorite tropes: an unreliable protagonist—but I’ll leave the specifics alone to avoid spoilers.

I listened to a historic mystery, Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley, as an introduction before reading a spin-off novella that features a sapphic couple in Victorian London. Alas, the premise of the series, with a cook to an upper class family as the amateur detective, was hard to swallow—at least as presented in this story. The protagonist spent so much time running around investigating, it’s impossible that she wouldn’t have been sacked the second day on the job. Other than the spin-off, I’m not likely to continue following the series but I have hopes to enjoy that one when I find time to read in print.

I hope you’ve all been finding books you’ve enjoyed, whether historical or not. I hope to post a blog about some of my favorites from this year. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make the time to get caught up on reviews.

Show Notes

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

In this episode we talk about:

  • Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
  • Other Titles of Interest
  • What I’ve been consuming
  • Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue
  • Think of England by K.J. Charles
  • Wanted, A Gentleman by K.J. Charles
  • Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Saturday, December 30, 2023 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 276 - Battling Poll by Rose Cullen - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/12/30 - listen here)

When I became a publisher of other people’s fiction, I entered into a new era of “firsts.” Being an author’s first fiction submission. Being an author’s first professional sale. And in this case, the first time that I reluctantly declined the first submission of a story, and had the author revise to address the story’s weaknesses and resubmit it for a successful sale. That won’t always be the case. I’ve also had the experience of receiving a revised submission and, while it was clearly improved, it was edged out by other stories I liked better. But “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen had a happy ending because I knew as soon as I started reading the new version that I’d be buying this one.

Rosie Cullen is an Irish born writer based in Manchester in the United Kingdom. She has written for both stage and screen and her short stories have appeared widely, including in The Copperfield Review and Nixes Mate. Her first novel, a semi-autobiographical family saga, The Lucky Country, was published in 2021. An historical crime fiction novel, Harlequin is Dead, the first of a series set in the London theatre world of the late 18th century is expected to come out in 2024 from Sapere Books. The short story, “Battling Poll,” was inspired by a former pugilist of the same name in that novel, and reimagines her origins. For more information about Rosie’s works, see the link to her blog in the show notes.

Author photo of Rosie Cullen

When we first discussed narration for this story, I hoped to find a narrator who could properly represent the protagonist’s identity as a Black Londoner of the 18th century. Rosie and others gave me leads on possible voice talent, but alas none of them worked out. My principle is that if I can’t find a good match for a character voice, I’ll take on the responsibility of being less than perfect myself, rather than leaving someone else open to criticism for it. So imagine, if you will, that this story is not being narrated by a modern American.

This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.

Battling Poll

by Rose Cullen


The first time I took note of Poll it was at a hanging.

The cart carrying the men to be executed followed its usual route from Newgate to Tyburn to the general entertainment of the crowds in the streets. The highwayman Dan Steele—a proper murderous villain—was making great play with those he passed, boasting of his exploits and what a fine show he would give at the end, to rousing cheers from his supporters. It was Dan that I had come to bid farewell. The other man, a poor ragged soul, looked about with wide, terrified eyes and could scarce keep upon his feet for the way they were trembling.

A great gathering was already assembled and were in jolly humour with all the noise of a fair. Men spilled from the taverns which had opened early, some still inebriated from the night before. Snafflers and scoundrels of every hue wove in amongst the throng. Games of chance were hastily set up. A girl and her ma were shucking oysters. Cries came from the pie sellers and muffin men. A musician struck up his fiddle in anticipation of the jig that would be danced by the condemned men. The Newgate Calendar was waved aloft, with its lists of the recent hanged, sensational accounts of their lives, their confessions and dying words.

I pushed my way forward until I was alongside the cart and that’s when I spotted the two girls. Nancy caught my eye first. A young beauty and no mistake, despite the plainness of her dress and the grubby tears that streamed down her face. I knew at once she must be the quaking man’s daughter come to witness her father’s sorry end. She had an arm hooked into a younger girl, her sister, a glowering creature who threw dark scowling looks at all who jostled to peer at them.

I am not in the habit of attending hangings but felt I owed Dan some due; he had an interest in fighting men and was amongst the first to sponsor my father’s bare-knuckle bouts. Black Sam is now a shadow of the man who held such sway with his fists. Injured bad about the head in a fight at Marylebone Fields his wits have never been the same again. It was then that Steele set me on my own career—for I was schooled at my father’s knee and knew all the tricks of fighting. What choice did I have? It was either fists or whoring. To be a servant was no choice at all. My father had been sold off a plantation as a boy, to play the part of a black page in a grand house, a fashionable accessory. Then turfed out onto the streets of London when he was grown too big for novelty and too surly. I would serve no one. Whilst men would wager on my fists and I might seize the prize I would punch and kick my way to infamy.

But I must look to my future. Never more so. My benefactor about to take his final exit, dancing a jig on the fatal tree. He caught sight of me from the jolting cart and waved his hat with a flourish.

“Jane! My Savage Beauty! Come to bid old Dan farewell?!”

I nodded up to him with a grin. “And to pray for your wicked soul, sir!”

He laughed uproariously, “The devil shall have to catch me first!” He turned to his supporters, “Isn’t that right, lads?”

There was a great roar of approval from the crowd.

The cart drew up at Tyburn. I could see the liquid gleam in Dan’s eye, he was well in his cups, his supporters plying him with toasts and he full of banter and boasts. He knew his end was upon him but he should live on in legend and in song and he would cock a snook at death. The other man was dragged from the cart by the guards and making a great cry and wail of his innocence.

The crowd jeered, for no man is innocent and may as well hang for one thing as another. An apprentice lad pointed, his high-pitched hoot rang above the general noise, “That milksop has pissed and shat himself and not yet on the tree!”

At which, the younger daughter leapt forward and set about the boy with her fists. They flew in a furious shower of pummelling and the fellow, though a head taller and raising his arms in defence, was tipped on to his arse. He had such a look of astonishment as to be quite comical.

The older sister rushed to restrain her sibling. “Poll, come away!”

I could see that the apprentice did not much relish being the butt of his companions’ jokes. There was a blazing cast to his eyes as he found his feet again in the dirt. Straight away I sensed he was the sort of tyke that would not have his pride bested by any woman, never mind a chit of a girl. Young Poll had been yanked by her sister. But this lad would have the last blow, his fist was raised and clenched.

I could see his intent and yelled a warning.

Poll swung about dodging under his assault and, her eyes blazing in turn, dealt the lummocks a singeing blow square on the chin. He staggered back into the arms of his brothers who clapped him soundly and dragged him away. One lad winking at Nancy as they withdrew. “Your sister’s a fiery minx, ain’t she? Tis a pity your pa does not have some of her stomach!”

I was minded to think the same, as she had grabbed my attention so had a notion—that I might set up a school for female pugilists.

Some find hangings a great diversion, their own lives being so paltry—in watching another die they may feel for an instance that they have the great good fortune to be alive. I was thankful that Dan’s end was made quick; he had paid this Jack Ketch well enough for the execution of his job. The girls’ father was not so blessed. It was upwards of twenty minutes before he twitched his last.

The girls were led away by a thin pock-marked man I had not much noticed before. I must act swiftly on the idea which had begun to take shape in my mind and rushed to stand in their path.

“Them’s handy fists,” I directed to Poll. “I might have a use for them fists.”

“Pardon, if you please.” Nancy made to pass.

“I could train you up.” I kept hold of Poll’s eye and saw the interest there.

“To what?” the girl asked.

“A bruiser, like me.”

“Away, blackie.” The man glowered.

I remained fixed on Poll. “Think on it. Where’s your diggings?”

“Did you not hear me strumpet, make way,” the man snarled.

I took note of him then. His pinched mien. He was a man well past his prime, lank grey hair straggling from beneath his tricorn, but the cut of his cloth was fine enough.

“I’m no hedge whore and you shan’t be neither Poll.”

“By the Blue Boar in St Giles,” Poll threw back over her shoulder.

I nodded and smiled slowly; Poll was not so pretty as her sister but I could feel a quickening of my heart toward her.

A school for female pugilists. The idea took root in my breast. There should always be an interest in that spectacle since the days of the champion Eliza Wilkinson; even if only as a side show. I had seen women slide into the fighting life through gin-addled desperation, a side-line to their harlotry, thinking nothing of baring their breasts as part of the attraction. But I had fought for my own glory, saved my prize monies and had a mind to make a respectable retirement, never having met a man I liked in the marrying kind of way. I had no need of a husband’s protection and besides I still had the care of my father. Black Sam could help in the training, his wits would allow of that. This girl, Poll, should be the start of my establishment, my fancies raced ahead, we might even one day be partners and share the enterprise together.

Two days later I found where the girls were lodged and more in addition. Pretty little Nancy worked at her needle, mending dresses for the second-hand clothes trade. Poll had fetched up slaving for a washerwoman. Turning the great mangle to wring the sheets had developed her muscles, I hazarded. The money that the girls earned scarce enough to keep the dismal roof above their heads now that their father was no more. They should be in need of some assistance.

That was soon apparent as I approached their mean cellar. Nancy stood below at the narrow door and a bawd was on the step above decked out in her frippery.

“Mistress Knowles has sent me to fetch you, if you are willing,” the bawd sniffed. “To help keep house, mend, and shift. It’ll be your board and keep and more besides if you are minded and show willing.”

Nancy looked hesitant and covetous of the pink and purple gown with its trim of lace. But then a hand was laid on Nancy’s shoulder and drew her back within. In her place stood the thin wiry man. “Get away about your devilish business. You are not welcome here.”

The harlot bridled, “You have your chance, Nancy Treddle!” she called down to the girl now out of sight. “Better than an old goat like this reeky pox-marked moldwarp!” Then flounced up the step and passed me with a huff. The door slammed shut behind her.

I paused, was now a good time to speak with the girls? It seemed the vultures were already circling. I had learned that this old goat was Mr Isaac Gridley. He had a shop of second-hand clothes and Nancy was one of the needle girls mending the better class of garment that wanted a stitch or two. Was his interest in her welfare simple philanthropy? I doubted it very much. That hand on her shoulder had spoken of possession in more ways than one. Mr Gridley should be a veritable guard dog now that he had such a delectable prize within his grasp. It turned my stomach to think of his thin mean claws pawing at Nancy’s young ripe flesh. His pitted snout nestled in her blossoming buds. Well, I would not think on that. It was that game bird Poll that I had come for, with or without Nancy.

A man on the corner was casting a cutty-eye in my direction. I did not like the look of the rogue. Pa had taught me from the earliest age to have a half-eye for them that might want to blackbird me onto some ship at Deptford bound for the West Indies. He was born a slave and wanted no child of his to suffer that fate. My mother had been a scullery maid from Kent, dead long years past from a coughing fever. My lighter colouring only added to the threat. I found the little clasp-knife I kept in my pocket and gripped the handle for reassurance, at the same time shooting the cove a sharp look to signal that I had his measure. He slunk away into the alley behind.

To business. I stepped down to the poor mean dwelling with fresh purpose.

‘You think our Poll can earn that kind of money?”

“She’s got the guts for it,” I asserted.

“And have her teeth knocked out most like—along with her brains, then where’s her prospects?” Nancy cast a worried glance at her younger sister.

Poll had passed me a shy look as she held the door wide. I made a bold entrance to the miserable room which the young Treddles called home; I had come with a fair proposition, I declared. When Isaac Gridley attempted to interject, I made it clear that my business was not with him and I would not be put out of the door until I had been heard.

Poll leapt forward with Gridley’s hat accompanied by a swift curtsey. “Good day Mr Gridley you was just taking your leave, was you not, sir?”

The shopkeeper scowled but bowed in turn and bade farewell to Nancy. Promising to return on the morrow for her answer.

“I’d train you up.” I addressed Poll direct.

“Poll has employment.”

“Stirring the great copper and mangling sheets. I know. And her hands will cripple with chilblains and her back bend double under that labour.”

“It is honest work.”

“And so is mine. I am no trickster or deceiver.” I pushed advantage. “I’d take a cut, mind, be like her manager. My father is Black Sam and a noted champion, we’re starting a proper school. There’d be a small room and mat, no rent for the present—” My heart was in my mouth looking between the two girls.

Nancy paused, her girlish features twisted in an agony of uncertainty. “I have an offer of marriage. Poll may come and keep house for Mr Gridley. That is the promise.”

So, the old lecher had wasted no time in courting the young beauty and would make a skivvy out of Poll.

“And what does Poll want?”

“Pa wanted for us to stay together,” Nancy answered; the shape of her decision made.

“Pa’s dead.” Poll took a step forward.

At that Nancy slapped her quick and hard on the cheek; then clasped her mouth, a sob rising in her throat.

Poll nursed her reddened cheek and hung her head.

I sighed, “I will wish you well of your nuptials then, Nancy Treddle, and bid you both good day.”

Day had fast turned to dusk when I emerged. The narrow derelict streets of the rookery already deep in shadow. A link boy stood about trimming his wick. I pulled my shawl tight and took my bearings. A dog crept by and licked my shoe. I could take a short cut from the end of the street that would bring me quicker to Holborn.

I turned into a ginnel that led through a fetid courtyard where an old crone sat on a step and reached out a hand for alms. But my mind was still playing over the scene in the cellar; a missed opportunity. I had felt sure young Poll would have taken my hand then and there and brought her sister round to it were it not for Mr Gridley’s various proposals. With my thoughts so distracted I failed to notice the figures looming out of the darkness from behind until one had grasped me by the arm whilst the other attempted to put a burlap over my head. My wits were slow but my instincts were not. I squirmed about and kneed out sharp to the man with the sack. He grunted. With my free hand I grappled for the knife in my pocket whilst I tried to wrestle free of restraint. A blow rained down on my head, the force of which shot through my spine, I staggered but was still on my feet and the knife in hand. Then, in a moment, all was black as the sack slipped over my head. I lashed out with the blade and caught one of my assailants—he cried out in a shocked agony and released my arm.

“God’s teeth! Seize the bitch!” the man cried.

I leapt back, groping for the sacking that blinded me. My ears were thrumming from the blow but I heard steps running towards the yard. The old crone cackled. And then I heard the thud of an object hitting one of my attackers and his sharp cry. I yanked the burlap from my head in time to see a cobble flying towards the second man and hitting him square at the back of his thick skull. My would-be-kidnappers had had their fill and with a flurry of oaths made haste away.

I caught at my breath. “My thanks—” and turned to find young Poll emerge from the ginnel.

“I saw them coves follow yer. I guessed what they might be about and run to warn you.”

“And very grateful I am, Poll!”

“You’d have stuck ’em anyways.”

“You have a good aim, that’s another fair attribute.”

Poll shrugged but even in the dimming light I could see a blush rise up her cheeks.

“Again, my thanks.”

“I told Nance she must let me give it one chance.” Poll scuffed her clogs. “That is why I follow.”

“She is agreed?”

“She will not stop me when I am set.” There was a sudden steel in her eye.

I nodded, the girl had grit and plenty of it.

“We start tomorrow then.”

Poll arrived in the afternoon, having quit the washerwoman and packed up a bag of scant possessions.

“Nance ain’t happy, says Mr Gridley won’t be neither.”

“He would make a slave of you—both of you.”

Poll nodded. “Nance only thinks to be respectable. But there’s more than one way and no need to marry that old curmudgeon. She thinks she will have the pick of all his dresses and make herself a very fine lady.” Poll grunted. “You’re not married then?” She cast a sly glance at me.

I held her gaze. “I am not so inclined, and besides—a husband might put his feet up and should drink all my winnings.”

Poll grinned, “You’re right there! Only with us it was our ma got the taste for gin, did for her. Pa was the one kept us neat.” Her eyes narrowed. “Now he is hung and some ratfink taken the reward—the same that planted them stolen goods I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Ah, is that the story. A common enough tale.”

“So, you will put me to work?”


Over the succeeding days Poll was made to exercise her muscles in a dozen new ways. I had her jumping up and down as though she were a rabbit bouncing across the yard. My father would hold a heavy canvas bag that was slung up in the yard and she must hit at it as hard as she could for hours on end, Black Sam encouraging and goading her along. In the evenings she could scarce bare the throbbing pain and the scrapes across her fists from the rough canvas. I rubbed a mixture of boiled water and vinegar stinging into any cuts. Then I would apply a poultice of honey to take down the swelling and inflammation in her hands, murmuring soothing words all the while she is gritting her teeth and trying to blink back the exhaustion which assailed her.

“You missing the mangle then, Poll?” I jested.

The girl shook her head vigorously. “I ain’t quitting.”

“I knew you was a rum one. Good girl. Them fists are hardening nicely. Knuckles calloused. And your wrists, you can feel it can’t you?”

Poll nodded. “They can take more of the pummelling, I can tell.”

“Rest up tomorrow and then the day after you’ll see your first opponent.”

Poll looked up sharp.

“Bess Bamber, she’s fighting down in Wimbledon Fields—against no one of consequence. But you shall see what Bess can do and you will remember when you comes up against her. We’ll lay the challenge whilst we’re there. I’m thinking end of May you’ll be ready for your first outing—if you’ve still the stomach for it.”

It was a fine day for the time of year and a lively crowd were gathered in Wimbledon for the sport.  I could feel Poll afire and twitching beside me with a nervous energy, eyes darting every which way as she took in all the business, the ceremony and etiquette. Bess’s opponent was a poorly prepared scrapper but the woman put up a brave show and the rounds went on well past the hour.

Later, as we scrambled back onto the cart I had borrowed, I prodded Poll, “So, what did you take note of?”

Poll thought a moment. “I thought Bess would aim for the face with every blow, but instead she laid about the body.”

I nodded. “You’re slugging bone on bone, see, aiming for the head, that’s a lot of cutting and blood, on hands and face. You hit the body, can hurt just as much and less damage to the fists. Pick your moments see, when you come in with a jab to the chin or a side blow to the skull.”

“I seen that. Still, plenty blood.”

“There’ll always be blood. It’s what the audience comes for.”

“And that girl looked half-blinded by the end.”

“Swelling round the eyes, always looks bad.”

“The other girl was swinging but Bess’s dodging.”

“That’s right. You got to duck and dive too my pretty if you want to keep them good looks of yours.”

Poll was silent.

I laid a hand on her knee. “Now you’ve seen it close, fighting might not be to your fancy no more. I don’t hold you to nothing, Poll.”

“The Challenge?”

“Bess’d fight me in your stead, makes no matter.”

Poll tightened her lips and then grasped my hand. “I am determined.”

I squeezed her hand in turn, and liked the feel of it in mine. A good honest hand. I thrilled that she let it rest and did not pull away. Poll cast a sidelong look with an impudent smirk, “And besides, you have not lost your good looks, Miss Black—for all your fighting years, I shall trust in your training to keep mine too.”

“And I will have a care, Poll, I promise you that.” She may not be as pretty as her sister but Poll’s looks had quite crept up and stolen my fancy. “You must learn to lead with the first two knuckles. That way you will not damage your hand so much and you may strike with greater accuracy.”

Her hand remained clasped in mine all the drive back to Southwark as we jostled up close together.

A location for the bout was fixed at Marylebone. Post-bills printed. The announcement of the challenge appeared in The London Daily Post.

A note arrived to inform Poll that the first Sunday of the Marriage Banns had been called for Mr Isaac Gridley and Miss Ann Treddle, the ceremony should take place at the beginning of June after the proscribed third Sunday. Nance hoped that Poll would join her and then afterwards take up residence in Mr Gridley’s house. She was grateful that Mr Gridley was still so kindly disposed towards Poll.

Poll replied informing her sister of the date and venue of the Challenge.

“You read and write?” I remarked.

“A little, my hand is not so fine as Nance; our pa taught us.”

“It is a useful skill for affairs of business.”

“Should you like me to teach you? We may make fair exchange?”

“I see I shall have to have a care, Poll Treddle, or it is you shall have the management of me.”

She smiled at that as though the notion pleased her. That night I offered her a share of the comforts of my bed and we made a regular and cosy fit of ourselves.

Broughton’s rules were agreed. There should be no grabbing below the waist. A round should last until one or other pugilist went down but they should then have to square off in the count of thirty. An opponent was not to be hit when they were down. There would be no hair pulling or eye gouging. To ensure this last, both parties agreed to hold a half crown in each hand and the first to drop their coin should lose the battle. Bess had been reluctant to this condition but persuaded at last that they would attract a more sporting crowd and larger stakes if they could show that female bruisers were of as professional a demeanour as Mr Jack Broughton.

The noise and hub bub of the gathered spectators rose to greet us as I brought Poll to her corner. She was dressed in a simple skirt and plain chemise but I had strapped her breasts for modesty and safety. I could tell that Poll was glad of this when we caught sight of Nancy on the arm of Mr Gridley.

It vexed me to see Nancy so openly displayed by the lecherous villain. For villain he was, of that I had no doubts despite my lack of proofs. The more I thought on the hanging of Robert Treddle and the consequences for his daughters, the more I was convinced that Gridley had played a part in it. But I must keep mum or sour all relations.

Bess Bamber arrived at the scratch looking mean and tough, flexing her muscles and with her fists up like a good boxer; believing she had the prize already.

I patted my apprentice on the back. “Go to it Poll!”

Poll took up her position and the signal was given. At once Bess launched in ready to jab and punch the green stripling. But to the surprise and delight of the audience Poll started to jump about, bouncing like a rabbit. Bess frowned in confusion, throwing punches but they’re hitting air and the next thing Poll has caught her on the side of her jaw. A blow like a hammer. Bess is shaken but steadies and jabs back and moves around in a tight circle as Poll comes around and about, every so often darting in with a mean jab.

I had to stop myself from laughing out loud, Poll was playing her own game against a seasoned opponent. But oh, how glorious it was, if only she could keep it up!

A rising hum and buzz rippled through the crowd; Poll might not have the weight advantage but whenever she lands a punch it’s on target and doing plenty of damage.

But Bess was following her now, keeping her eyes trained—all at once she leapt in at Poll from underneath, catching her a fierce blow. Poll staggered and fell back, losing balance and then she was down.

How quickly fortune could shift; I felt the blow as though it had landed on my own chin and it was all I could do not to rush forward and take Poll in my arms. “Come on Poll,”  I urged under my breath.

The crowd were jeering now. They did not want so quick a defeat.

Poll scrambled back up onto her feet and presented at the scratch. Fists clenched, determined not to lose her coins. The round is called and each returned to their second.

I could sense that Poll was mad with herself.

“You must not underestimate Bess,” I hissed in her ear. “She is dangerous—but so are you, you can prevail.”

Poll gave a curt nod.

She was more cautious now, still leapt about but also kept her defences up. And then she met the mark I had proposed, opening an old scar above the left eye.

A ripe excitement exploded in the chants and shouts from the sporting crowd. They scented blood and sure enough it was trickling down the side of Bess’s cheek.

All at once Bess attacked with a ferocious burst of punches, one landing square on Poll’s jaw, my girl slid to the ground and this time it took all her effort to regain her feet.

I pushed a tankard of small beer between her lips.

“You do not have to go on. You have done enough.”

Poll shook her head and pressed back into the bout.

Both fighters are tired now and once or twice they fall into a clumsy embrace, Poll’s head lolling to one side.

I felt every blow, and would trade places in an instant.

Bess came in again but Poll anticipated and side stepped at the last, swung about and jabbed her sharp on the nose. Moments later there’s a smear of blood. Poll swerved again and penetrated the falling defences with a singeing upper cut which lifted Bess right off her feet. The old bruiser crumpled to the floor, never to find those feet again, two half-crowns rattling to the ground beside her.

In the general hullaballoo Nancy rushed to her sister’s side, “Poll, dearest Poll! You are injured. You have had this chance, foolish girl. You must come home to me now.”

“It’s alright Nance. I shall be alright.”

“I will look after you. Come away with me now.”

Poll shook her head.

“You cannot want this, for your life,” Nance insisted.

“That’s for Poll to decide,” I cut in.

“Come Nancy, tarry no more.”  Isaac gripped her arm. “Leave your sister to her filthy trade if she will not see what is right and proper.”

“Nancy, do you not see?  I have won the prize. I dun it for you! And I shall win again. You do not need to marry this man.”

“What do you say?” Nancy was all confusion.

Poll looked quickly to me.

“You are most welcome to come to us, Nancy.”

Nancy stepped back, “No. I am to be Mrs Gridley, wife to an honest merchant, you ask me to forsake all that—for what? I cannot, Poll.”

The two sisters stared at each other a long moment until Nancy allowed herself to be led away.

I could see a tear edged up over Poll’s swollen eyelid.

“I thought to save her from him.”

“I have lost you a sister, I’m sorry for it.” I placed a hand on her shoulder.

Poll regarded me keenly from bruised and battered face, “But I have found another.” Then she let herself fall into my arms and I took her home.

Show Notes

This quarter’s fiction episode presents “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen, narrated by Heather Rose Jones.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Rosie Cullen Online

Major category: 
Sunday, December 17, 2023 - 18:36

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 275 - Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 11: Employment Relationships - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/12/16 - listen here)


This episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes,” examining how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

Today’s topic is employment-related tropes—any situation in which one member of the romantic couple works for the other member of the couple. In addition to considering gender dynamics, we’re also going to talk a little about the historic context of “employment”—in various forms—and how that intersects with gender as well.

As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

It can help to split up employment tropes into three basic categories. Using the term “employment” for the first category is misleading, because that category covers enslavement and similar not-at-all-voluntary associations. I’m not going to address this category directly, but it draws on many of the same dynamics as the other categories—just more intensely on the consent-related issues. The second category is domestic employment, where the employee works in the employer’s home and provides various personal support services. The third category is non-domestic employment, covering situations where the employer and employee don’t reside in the same household—although even this category can get fuzzy around the edges in certain time periods.

Regardless of the type of employment, the relationship—and an important part of the dynamic for people who like these tropes—involves the presence of power differentials and associated consent issues. This can make the subject tricky to discuss, because for some fans of employment tropes, problematic power and consent issues are a major attraction, while for other fans, those issues represent a hazard to be worked around carefully.

On a more generally positive note, employment tropes generally bring in dynamics of compulsory proximity, and often the overlap between dynamics of trust, loyalty, and support that operate on both a personal and professional level.

Situating the Trope in Time

The ways in which employment tropes play out are strongly shaped by the historic setting. What types of employment were available? How did one enter a particular job? What restrictions or requirements do the jobs have on who may do them? How does the job shape other parts of your character’s life? What are the social and legal expectations of the employment contract? These are all factors that will be part of your general historic background research before considering the specific dynamics of your characters’ relationship and there isn’t space here to consider them in any detail.

Furthermore, when considering popular examples of employment-based relationships, there ways in which the difference between contemporary settings and historic settings are far more relevant than the gender of the participants. As modern people, we’re accustomed to a situation where employees expect much more control over their workplace conditions than they had in pre-20th century settings. We have more legal recourse and the power differentials—though still significant—are nowhere near as serious as in previous centuries. An employee can walk away from a problematic workplace without automatically putting all future employment at risk. So placing an employer-employee romance in a historic setting isn’t just a matter of set dressing, but involves very different rules and expectations.

As some general guidelines, settings in the ancient world (for example, classical Greece and Rome) are going to involve the significant presence of an enslaved workforce, especially for domestic labor, but the social and legal dynamics will differ from those of later eras.

The availability of domestic versus non-domestic employment will vary significantly for women in different eras, and will often depend on location, with non-domestic employment generally being associated with urban locations. While there will generally be some types of non-domestic employment available to women in all times, in many eras the majority of female employment will be domestic. Restrictions of the types of work available to women will often be greater the higher one’s social status. Manufacturing and craft type jobs are different in scope and nature before the Industrial Revolution, and the possibilities for employer-employee relationships are drastically affected by that shift.

The types of occupations and positions available to women, as contrasted with men, have also changed across the centuries, though not always in the same direction. The options for women’s non-domestic employment narrowed significantly around the 17th century and only began to expand again in the later 19th century.

From another angle, when dealing with pre-20th century employment, the general expectation that a married woman’s primary employment is taking care of her own household, means that the default expectation for an employer-employee pairing is for the employee to be unmarried. Expectations on the employer side are more variable. A woman employing domestic help is statistically likely to be married, unless she has an independent household, either as a widow or due to being wealthy. A woman employing non-domestic labor—assuming she’s the primary employer—may be more likely to be single, depending on the exact historic circumstances. It’s complicated and variable, and it may be helpful to go back and review some of the previous trope episodes that touched on economic independence, such as the episodes on spinsters, widows, and billionaires.

It’s probably a good rule of thumb that social status and employment power differentials will align closely—employees are unlikely to come from a higher social class than their employers, unless we’re also dealing with concealed origins.

Gender Dynamics in Workplace Romances

And that brings us to one of the two most significant gendered differences in employment tropes, because for a male-female workplace romance, gender adds a third axis to traditional power differentials. So if your employer is male and your employee is female, then you have the triple whammy, of gendered power, economic power, and most likely innate social power being in alignment, placing the female partner at multiple disadvantages in negotiating the relationship. In a historic context, even moreso than a contemporary one, there can be a strong pressure for a female employee to consider fielding romantic or sexual advances from her boss as part of the landscape. This makes it challenging for her to recognize sincere interest. And as an author, it can be tricky to set up believable romantic situations in which genuine consent is possible.

Conversely, if your employer is female and your employee is male, then you’re dealing with a structural conflict between the expectations of gendered power and the expectations of economic and social power. Both of these alignments can bring strong flavors to how the romantic relationship progresses. Does the male partner feel “unmanned” by being the less privileged member of the couple? Does the female partner feel the need to cede other types of power to make up for it? And that’s without touching the common taboo against women partnering men of a lower status.

But if both characters are female, then there is no extra layer of power differentials based on gender. The expectations of who will have initiative and control are based entirely on the employment relationship. Though we’ll get back to this topic in some of the literary examples.

The second significant difference applies primarily to domestic employment situations. Employer/employee interactions in the domestic sphere are traditionally aligned with gender. A female employer will have more direct interactions with female employees, and even if the household is headed by a single woman, interactions with male employees are likely to be managed through a male subordinate. In a more direct context, a female employer will be expected have close physical and personal interactions with female staff, in ways that would be highly suspect for a male employer. She will be dressed by women, cared for by women, kept company by women, and perform everyday tasks in the company of women. This creates a context where emotional bonds can develop naturally, where professional loyalty can shade over into personal attachment unnoticed, and where types of physical and emotional caretaking that we often associate with romance may be an inherent part of the employee’s work. Depending on the specific time period, other tropes that may naturally align with domestic employment are forced proximity and even in some cases “only one bed.”

So while a male employer initiating highly personal interactions with a female employee (or vice versa) inherently violates social rules, resulting in heightened awareness of the romantic or sexual potential, a female employer or employee doing the same things is working within the system, not against it.

Employment-Based Tropes in History and Historic Literature

When we look for romantic or erotic potential within a female employment relationship in history and historic literature, we find two main themes—and this is where gender dynamics can sneak in by a back door. One manifestation is where the employee falls into the traditionally female role in the relationship: being supportive, submissive, perhaps silently yearning that her devotion will be recognized and rewarded, where her romantic role aligns with the power dynamics of her employment. The employer is not necessarily “masculinized” by this dynamic because the power imbalance can rest entirely on social and economic forces.

The other manifestation is where the employee takes a more active, assertive role in the relationship, perhaps where caretaking shades over to providing protection, or where the inherent problem-solving requirements of service shift into taking charge. The employer may be depicted as relatively helpless, perhaps leaning on motifs of female incapability where she is hyper-feminized in comparison to the employee. Or the employee may be overtly masculinized and depicted as adopting multiple signifiers of a male social role, in addition to taking the lead in the romance.

Neither of these is required, of course, when writing a historic romance—here I’m talking about historic examples where a romantic or erotic overlay can be identified. So let’s look at some of those specific examples. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive catalog of romantic same-sex employment motifs.

We can see the motif of the devoted lady’s maid being depicted using standard romance tropes from a very early date. In the early Christian Greek romance of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the story of the beautiful young Polyxena being devoted to her mistress, being abducted from her chamber, and going through many perils and adventures to eventually be reunited is directly parallel to the structure of male-female romances of the same era.

In the French medieval romance L’Escoufle or “The Kite,” the young noblewoman Aelis, when abandoned in the world, takes up with a young working-class woman Ysabel with their interactions described in romantic and erotic terms. But class and employment relationships are constantly shifting around the female pairings in this story. Despite Aelis’s social isolation, she takes on the role of employer with respect to Ysabel, with Ysabel promising loyalty and obedience and Aelis setting up an embroidery business that Ysabel works to support. Then Aelis’s roles are upturned when the noblewoman she supplies with embroidered goods takes Aelis into her household as a handmaiden and their interactions then turn erotic. In both of the pairings, the higher status woman (or the one in the position of employer) takes charge of initiating the intimacies, and those intimacies are treated as an inherent aspect of the employment.

In a medieval or Renaissance context, the relationship between a queen or noblewoman and her ladies in waiting often take on a romantic tinge. While this may not be the typical image of an “employee,” the role definitely included personal service and a power dynamic that was dependent on a fine balance between intimacy and hierarchy. This type of employment would generally involve women of quite similar social class, that would avoid some of the potential anxieties of cross-class romance. Such relationships might be of long duration, and often meant foregoing marriage. Loyalty was expected, though not always observed, given the complex politics of court life.

Within a context such as the household of Queen Elizabeth I, a never-married woman could achieve an influence and functional social status that ordinarily would come only through marriage. Emotional connections between the women of the court would not raise the same concerns regarding loyalty and influence that marriage sometimes did. In addition to services such as managing the employer’s wardrobe and household, the women serving female aristocrats were secretaries, companions, and confidantes. At the upper levels of society, women shared beds as well as secrets with their closest companions. Such close relationships could not avoid having an erotic component, and when society felt that the employee was pushing the accepted bounds of influence, one of the charges that might be brought was that of an inappropriate sexual relationship, as happened to some of Queen Anne’s circle.

Literature of the 18th century has some notable examples of relationships that begin as maid and mistress then develop romance-like elements as a key plot point. In Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, gender and class roles get blurred when the title character is abandoned by her husband and—when cast onto her own resources—makes common cause with her loyal maidservant to set up in business. The maid, Amy, is faithful beyond expectations due to the affection she feels for her mistress, even when the latter can no longer offer her any monetary compensation. The language of business and love are intertwined in their relationship, sometimes uncomfortably, as the business they engage in together is being courtesans.

The contrasting dynamic is seen in Jane Barker’s story “The Unaccountable Wife” in which a woman develops such an infatuation for her maidservant that she turns the social order upside down by allowing the serving woman a life of ease while she does the menial labor of the home. The two women eventually move out together, descending into poverty while the wife continues to try to provide a life of ease for the serving woman. It’s never entirely clear that the maidservant returns her employer’s affections, and the peculiarity of the social role-reversal is the lynchpin of the plot.

In addition to shifts in employment possibilities for women, the era in which stories are set affected shifting beliefs about sexuality and class. In the 19th century, both historic commentary and fiction could reflect the attitude that a female sex drive was more strongly associated with the lower classes. Thus employment-based romances might either support the motif of employee-driven eroticism, or the reverse motif might be used as a negative commentary on the upper class employer.

Kirsti Bohata’s article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” (which I’ll be covering on the blog shortly), provides a wealth of examples in which these themes intertwine, from which I’ll offer a few examples.

In Amy Dillwyn’s Victorian-era novel Jill, a well-born woman disguises herself as working class after running away from a bad home situation and takes a position as a lady’s maid. She falls in love with her employer and enjoys the sensual aspects of dressing her and caring for her, but Jill’s devotion is not returned, though she contemplates revealing her true origins so that she can declare her love openly. The apparent class barrier between them is temporarily removed when the two are abducted and imprisoned in a gothic scenario.

Sarah Orne Jewett’s story “Martha’s Lady” defers the realization of the yearning romance and near-chivalric devotion between Martha and her employer until late in life, after long separation, when they are at last reunited—though still as mistress and servant—and Martha is rewarded with a declaration of tenderness and a kiss.

The motif in which a female employee in love with her employer is portrayed as being masculine shows up clearly in Elizabeth Gaskell’s story “The Grey Woman,” where the servant Amante rescues her mistress from a murderous husband by cross-dressing and working as a tailor so the two can live together as husband and wife. Not only does Amante take up a male role for the public, but as the “husband” she now has social power over her former employer within the context of the masquerade.

The preceding examples of Victorian employment relationships flirt with eroticism, but in a sufficiently deniable way that the desire can be portrayed as positive. In the same era, stories in the sensationalist vein are more likely to use same-sex cross-class employment-related desire to signal the moral defects of one or the other character, especially of the employer, as in Thomas Hardy’s novel Desperate Remedies where a mistress approaches her maid sexually and oscillates between leveraging her social power to obtain compliance and acting as a suitor who may be rejected and denied.

Workplace Sexual Harrassment

Because historic records (as contrasted with literary examples) are more likely to focus on toxic employment circumstances than mutually consenting relationships, our examples of unambiguously sexual encounters cannot be considered romantic, although they demonstrate circumstances in which homoerotic relationships might have developed.

18th century legal records from the Netherlands include legal complaints about a woman boasting that she had sex with her maid every morning, and that her maid preferred her to a man. In a different complaint involving a woman and her maid accused of having a sexual relationship, the maid was also accused of groping another serving girl against her will.

And since historic examples always seem to come around to Ann Lister eventually, we can note one of her diary entries where Lister is interviewing a girl for possible employment at Shibden Hall and, after commenting that she found the girl attractive, notes, “if I could contrive to have the house clear, might manage matters…”


This exploration of employment-based sapphic romance tropes has been a bit anecdotal, but those examples offer a glimpse of how such relationships might evolve, what difficulties and challenges they might face, and how their dynamics would differ from similar romance plots for different-sex couples. Romance in the face of fundamental power imbalances can be tricky to write, but the interplay of power, desire, and negotiating consent can be very sexy indeed.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Historic differences in employment-romance dynamics
  • Gender differences in employment
  • Some historic and literary examples

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Saturday, December 2, 2023 - 16:32

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 274 - On the Shelf for December 2023 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2023/12/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for December 2023.

Another year comes to a close and it’s hard not to start having those “what have I accomplished” thoughts. Mostly, with respect to the blog and podcast, I’ve just kept plodding along. The blog took an unintentional break for much of the year, but I’ve been trying to make up for it a little. It helps that I’ve done some trips to the U.C. Berkeley library to download and photocopy articles. Articles are less daunting to blog than entire books and give me more of a chance to put together themes that might lead into podcast topics.

Publications on the Blog

This past month the blog was definitely all about working on materials for a podcast episode on early modern European perceptions of lesbianism in the Ottoman empire. So I blogged a whole array of primary sources. Reports of travelers and diplomats like Nicolas de Nicolay, Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, Ottaviano Bon, Thomas Glover, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, and Mary Wortley Montague. Plus publications that demonstrate how Europeans came to specially associate Ottoman Turkey with lesbianism among sequestered women, such as William Walsh’s A Dialogue Concerning Women and the anonymous tract Satan’s Harvest Home.

Book Shopping!

No sapphic-related book shopping this month, but I did pick up a collection of essays on pre-20th century science fiction: Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors, edited by David Seed.


This month we’ll present the final story in our 2023 fiction series: “Battling Poll” by Rose Cullen. And of course next month submissions are open for the 2024 series. I’m a bit worried about getting as much reach for publicizing the submissions call, given how useless the former Twitter has become. It feels like BlueSky is growing into the same supportive community for creative works, but the reach isn’t quite as wide yet. And while I enjoy being on Mastodon, it feels too fragmented and isolated to be useful for submissions calls. Every year I worry about what I’ll receive and every year I’ve gotten enough good stories. But it really helps if you-all can spread the submissions call around if you see it on your social media.


In the outro to every episode, we encourage you to rate and review the show, to help others find us. I don’t make a big deal out of it because, quite honestly, I can’t afford to set my heart on getting those reviews. But the other day I was checking something out on Apple Podcasts and happened to notice that we’ve had two new reviews this year. So I thought I’d share what people are saying about the show. One listener praises the show for “always [taking] the greatest care to let us know what is modern supposition, historical theory, or written/verified ‘fact’.” Several people give a shout out to the original fiction and the new book listings. I love that folks say they’ll pause the podcast to go look up a book that sounds interesting. I’d love to know how many people have found and enjoyed books because they heard about them here. One listener especially appreciates discussions of “the thorny issue of reading our modern ideas into historic text.” I think my favorite review is the one that says, “This podcast is better than any queer studies course offered at any university at the moment, and it’s FREE!” (All caps.) Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I do appreciate when you listeners share your love of the podcast, whether in a review or just by recommending the show to your friends.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

And speaking of learning about new releases, what do we have for you this time? There are a few October books that only just came to my attention and the rest are December releases. Maybe I’ll spot some more November books for next month’s episode.

First up is a cross-time story, Say Their Names by Karen Badger from Badger Bliss Books.

Jo Benson is a political science professor. Tam Allen is a cardiac care nurse. Jo and Tam met several years previously, at a demonstration protesting police brutality against the black community. After several years together, they relocate from South Carolina to upstate New York when Jo is offered a tenured position at the State University of New York. Two years after relocating, Jo and Tam purchase an old mansion in the Adirondack region of New York. History collides when they discover secrets about their new home that will change their lives forever. Join them as they strive to discover who had been living in their attic for sixty years.

I’m assuming from context that the secrets in the attic are sapphic in nature, as well as the contemporary framing story.

Next up is Rest in Paper by Jay Mulling, which sent me to look up just how common it was for women to be lawyers at the turn of the 20th century. The answer might surprise you.

Josephine Bradley's grandmother insists that the Bard wrote utter smut. Josephine can't really find the fault in Granny's logic. She had no problem believing Shakespeare was a dirty dog. A very "keen sir," as it were.

Josephine Bradley is a 27-year-old lawyer living her best life. She didn't think she would wear 1904 well, but there she was, absolutely crushing it. She was killing it at her father's firm--well, at their firm, now that she had passed the Illinois Bar Exam--and couldn't think of a better place to be than exactly where she was. That place being the home that she had grown up in, surrounded by family and friends, in a small commuter suburb an hour's train ride west of Chicago.

This thought--that there was no better place to be--was only galvanized by the arrival of two new schoolteachers. One of them was a total Mary and Josephine really couldn't be bothered. But the other one--Miss Thalia Radcliffe--was perfect in every way and only too easy to love. Josephine flirts her way into the new schoolteacher's good graces and finds in her a partner she'd never thought she'd have. Not in this life, anyway.

Josephine and Thalia's budding romance is put on hold, however, when the Bradley's attend Chicago's 1904 Labor Day Parade and Josephine's grandmother goes missing. The family scours the city, searching for their missing matriarch. Chicago is no place for lost Grannies, after all.

Shoot the Moon by Isa Arsén from Putnam Books falls in that awkward era of, “how can this be historic fiction when I remember those events?”

Intelligent but isolated recent physics graduate Annie Fisk feels an undeniable pull toward space. Her childhood memories dimmed by loss, she has left behind her home, her family, and her first love in pursuit of intellectual fulfillment. When she finally lands a job as a NASA secretary during the Apollo 11 mission, the work is everything she dreamed, and while she feels a budding attraction to one of the engineers, she can’t get distracted. Not now.

When her inability to ignore mistaken calculations propels her into a new position, Annie finds herself torn between her ambition, her heart, and a mysterious discovery that upends everything she knows to be scientifically true. Can she overcome her doubts and reach beyond the limits of time and space?

Two Wings to Hide My Face by Penny Mickelbury from Bywater Books is the eagerly-awaited sequel to Two Wings to Fly Away.

In 1857 the US Supreme Court ruled that Blacks were not—and could never be citizens. Black lives were already in peril from the hooligans who would capture and sell them South under the protection of the Runaway Slave Act, even if they weren't runaway slaves. By 1861 Southern states spoke openly of seceding from the Union to form the Confederate States and protect what they believed was their right to own slaves. If the South were to win, slavery would become the law of the land. So for many Blacks, leaving was the only option. Genie Oliver, who frequently dresses as a man to move about the city, is no longer safe in her disguise. White people find themselves just as imperiled for providing any assistance to Blacks—which means that the former Pinkerton’s agent Ezra MacKaye, his fiancé Ada Lawrence, and heiress Abigail Read, are in as much danger as Genie and her friends, the Juniper family. Not knowing what to expect, Ezra, Ada, and the Juniper family join Genie and Abigail as they pack up their lives and head to Canada. Their goal is to stay at least one step ahead of the brutalities of the uncivil war, but can they outpace the dangers that cross their paths every step of the way?

The Prohibition era in California’s Bay Area is the setting for Whiskey War (Speakeasy #2) by Stacy Lynn Miller from Bella Books

At the height of Prohibition and the dawn of the Great Depression, lesbian couple Dax and Rose look forward to a clandestine life together in Half Moon Bay after narrowly escaping death at Devil’s Slide. Dax’s sister May makes the Foster House their refuge while they sit on a gold mine of stolen whiskey from the Seaside Club. But then Frankie Wilkes learns Dax might have it and makes Rose’s life miserable for defending her.

Dax scrambles to unload the barrels in San Francisco to keep their struggling restaurant afloat but sparks the curiosity of May’s husband Logan, who had abandoned them months earlier. He shows up looking for money and finds the hidden barrel Dax had kept for a rainy day. When Logan sells the whiskey to customers by the glass, Dax sees the ugly side of the illegal business when left unchecked.

In comes Grace Parsons, a wealthy Hollywood starlet and Rose’s former lover, with a solution to their problems. However, her bold help spirals into a violent feud that leaves no one in their inner circle untouched. How far will Logan and Frankie go to get what they want? Can Dax and Rose find a way out before the whiskey war takes their lives?

We have yet another cross-time story involving a discovery in an attic with The Apple Diary by Gerri Hill from Bella Books.

After the death of her grandmother, reluctant heiress Madilyn Marak agrees to stay with her grandfather at the estate for the summer. There, she finds an old diary hidden in an antique desk in the attic—The Apple Diary—written by her great-grandmother Isabel.

In there, she finds the love story of Isabel and Lorah, along with a photograph of the two young women from 1933. The diary, like the love affair, was short and brief, but rich and vivid enough for her to feel a true bond with the women despite the heartbreaking ending.

She is determined to get Isabel’s beloved apple orchard—which had fallen into ruins—vibrant again. She hires the inexperienced Dylan Hayes, a woman soon to be homeless, to take on the chore of restoring the orchard to its original glory.

The normally quiet and reserved Madilyn finds a new joy in life as she becomes friends with the outgoing and energetic woman who has come to live on the property. As she is transformed from a stoic and passive heiress to a happy and spirited woman, she realizes the similarities of her journey and that of Isabel’s.

Like Isabel, is she destined to marry a man she doesn’t love? Or will she find the strength that eluded Isabel and follow her heart?

Next up are a couple of books in that favored setting of World War II. Virgin Flight by E.V. Bancroft is from Butterworth Books.

Can love triumph in the battle between duty and desire?

Beryl Jenkinson is a young dreamer determined to break free. Though bound to her family’s garage, her heart dreams of taking flight with Attagirls, the brave women piloting planes across the nation to play a vital role in the war effort.

Odette de Lavigne embodies the allure of a World War Two pin-up girl: glamorous, seductive, and a masterful pilot. But beneath her carefree demeanour lies a poignant secret.

Their destinies collide when Odette literally crashes into Beryl’s life, sparking a blaze of passion and an enduring infatuation. Fate reunites them at the ATA, but can love conquer the clash between duty and enchanting desire?

J.E. Leak’s “Shadow Series” concludes with In the Shadow of Victory (Shadow Series #4) from Certifiably Creative LLC. If you haven’t been reading along in this series, you might want to start at the beginning.

Paris, 1944. As OSS agents Kathryn Hammond and Jenny Ryan navigate the dangerous world of espionage, they are faced with the ultimate test of love and loyalty. Can their love overcome the obstacles in their path, or have time and the shadows of the past cost them a second chance at happiness? Join Kathryn and Jenny on their journey of forgiveness, healing, and devotion, as they discover the strength of their love in the thrilling conclusion to the sapphic noir Shadow series.

Other Books of Interest

Three books fall in my “other books of interest” category.

Bone Rites by Natalie Bayley from Aurora Metro Books indicates that there is queer content, but it isn’t entirely clear what the specifics are.

"I collected the first bone when I was twelve. This fact was not mentioned in court... Such a tiny little bone, more like a tooth. I only kept it to keep him safe."

Kathryn Darkling, imprisoned in Holloway, is facing death by hanging for her vengeance killing. Haunted by a spirit, she still hopes to perform the ancient black magic that will free her soul, or her struggle to punish the mighty will have been in vain. Will the love of her life come to her aid?

Or can she find a way to escape her fate?

Stories set in a fantasy-Viking era often involve gender-bending protagonists. In the case of Vyking Queen by Elora Roze from Blue Flame Publishing the tagline “a third gender romance” suggests that I might be doing the character a disservice by putting her in the lesbian or sapphic category.

A story of a lonely young jarl that must live up to her father's legacy while securing her own. All while fighting against the curse she was born with due to her mother's hate. Will she find a true love? Will she break the curse? Or will the curse prove to be strong enough to break a thousand years rule her family has held over the wild North sea and the people that call it home.

While one of the reviews for A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather from indicates that there are sapphic elements, and it turned up under my search terms, the cover copy itself is pretty much silent on the topic.

In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born, with eyes made for the dark and webbed digits suited to the sea. Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness—having hidden her uncanny nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice to a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. But with each new unnatural birth, the fear in London grows of the Devil's work. When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who want to use her power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.

What Am I Reading?

And what am I reading? It was all audiobooks this month, and given that one of those was Menewood by Nichola Griffith, which clocks in at almost 29 hours of listening time, I hope you’ll understand the skimpiness of this month’s list. Menewood is the sequel to Hild and if you liked the first book, you’ll most likely enjoy this one as well. The story is packed with dense worldbuilding—a term not usually used for historic fiction—and has a meandering pace until things pick up in the last section. There’s more of the same casual background same-sex relationships that we saw in Hild—in fact, I’d say they’re more present and significant in Menewood, though it takes quite a while in the book for that aspect to appear. If you aren’t already familiar with early Anglo-Saxon history, it may be best to approach this book as if it were an epic fantasy set in an unfamiliar world, and let it soak in as you read.

The second audiobook I consumed was Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher, a dark, bordering-on-horror fairy-tale quest that won the Hugo Award for best novel and was a finalist for a couple other major awards. No sapphic content, but a solid Kingfisher-style adventure with a heroine you want to root for.


I had ambitious plans to record a bunch of interviews this week when I was on vacation, and I utterly fell down on the job because my brain gets all claustrophobic and keeps putting off the whole “reaching out and making arrangements” part. Rest assured, I have several fascinating people to interview once I pull my brain back off the ledge and convince it that everything’s ok.

But I’ll finish up with a “what am I writing” note. Because the thing I did accomplish on my vacation was to write a short story that’s the first fiction I’ve completed since the start of the pandemic. Be sure that I’ll let you know more details as they’re available.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
    • de Nicolay, Nicolas. 1567. Quatre premiers livres des navigations. Translated by T. Washinton (1585) as The Navigations, Peregrinations, and Voyages, Made into Turkie. Collected in: Osborne, Thomas. 1745. Collection of Voyages and Travels…, vol. 1. London: Thomas Osborne of Gray’s-Inn.
    • Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. 1581. Itinera Constantinopolitanum et Amasianum (Journey to Constantinople and Amasya. Translated into English 1694 as: Four Epistles of A.G. Busbequius, Concerning His Embassy Into Turkey. Being Remarks Upon the Religion, Customs Riches, Strength and Government of that People. As Also a Description of Their Chief Cities, and Places of Trade and Commerce. Reprinted in 1744 as: Travels into Turkey: Containing the Most Accurate Account of the Turks, and Neighbouring Nations, Their Manners, Customs, Religion, Superstition, Policy, Riches, Coins, &c.
    • Bon, Ottaviano. 1587. Descrizione del serraglio del Gransignore. Translated by Robert Withers (1625) as The Grand Signiors Serraglio, published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas.
    • Glover, Thomas. 1610. The Muftie, Cadileschiers, Divans: Manners and attire of the Turkes. The Sultan described, and his Customes and Court. Included in George Sandys A Relation of a Journey begun Anno Dom. 1610 published in: Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes edited by Samuel Purchas (1625).
    • Tavernier, Jean-Baptiste. 1675. Nouvelle Relation De l’intéreur Du Sérail Du Grand Seigneur Contenant Plusieurs Singularitex Qui Jusqu’icy N’ont Point esté mises En Lumiere. Translated into English by J. Phillips as: A New Relation Of The Inner-Part of The Grand Seignor’s Seraglio, Containing Several Remarkable Particulars, Never Before Expos’d To Public View bound with A Short Description of all the Kingdoms Which Encompas the Euxine and Caspian Seas, Delivered by the author after Twenty Years Travel Together with a Preface Containing Several Remarkable Observations concerning divers of the forementioned countries. 1677. R. L. and Moses Pitt.
    • Montague, Mary Wortley. 1763. Letters of the Right Honourable Lady M—y W—y M——e: Written during her Travels in Europe, Asia, and Africa. T. Becket and P.A. DeHondt, in the Strand.
    • Walsh, William. 1691. A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex. London, Printed for R. Bentley in Russel-street in Covent-Garden, and I. Tonson at the Judge’s-Head in Chancery-Lane.
    • Anonymous. 1749. Satan's Harvest Home: or the Present State of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Sodomy, And the Game of Flatts, (Illustrated by an Authentick and Entertaining Story) And other Satanic Works, daily propagated in this good Protestant Kingdom. London.
  • Book Shopping
    • Seed, David (ed). 1995. Anticipations: Essays on Early Science Fiction and its Precursors. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-2640-1
  • Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction
  • Other Titles of Interest
  • What I’ve been consuming
    • Menewood by Nichola Griffith
    • Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
  • Call for submissions for the 2024 LHMP audio short story series. See here for details.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Friday, December 1, 2023 - 13:28

The one major to-do item for my vacation this week was to write a short story I promised for an anthology on libraries and librarians. As of now, it's complete and ready for a few beta readers with quick turn-around time. It ties in with my planned Restoration-era historic romance series (series title: Diana's Band) and involves the failed heist of a book of Latin pornography. (Nothing explicit in the story.)

I really need to make a blog icon for the Diana's Band series at some point. This is the second story I"ve written in that series, but the first didn't sell to the market I wrote it for so I've been holding on to it for future use. The basic premise of the series begins with a second-chance romance between widows who were separated by marriage and then by their families being on opposing sides of the English Civil War. After they get back together (the first novel), Diana Countess of Hartsworth sets out on a campaign to take under her wing various women who find themselves in need of friends and assistance (many of whom just happen to be queer, naturally). Her pitch is that if she assists you, you've become part of Diana's Band and are pledged to repay the favor when she calls on you. (See this post for the inspiration for the name.) This creates the context for a connected through-line for the series that allows each story to stand on its own.

This is the first completed fiction project I've written since the start of Covid. One reason I signed up for the anthology project was to give myself a solid target for getting something written. After all, it would be good to have something of a running start when retirement shifts me into being a full-tme writer.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Saturday, November 18, 2023 - 11:54

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 273 - Turkish Delights: The European Fascination with Lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire - transcript

(Originally aired 2023/11/18 - listen here)


I’ve long wanted to do a show focusing on the peculiar fascination that early modern Europe had for the image of lesbianism in the Ottoman Empire. This is a topic that I’ve touched on in a number of previous shows, including episodes about lesbian stereotypes associated with racialized groups, and with lesbianism in single-sex communities, as well as other briefer references. In addition to looking at how this image developed and the historic context that gave it a deeper meaning, I’ve wanted to trace the connections between various early travelers’ descriptions that fed into this European stereotype.

This is not necessarily an episode about sexuality and sexual practices within the early modern Islamicate world, which is a different topic. But as background it can be useful to keep in mind that European attitudes toward homosexuality derive significantly from Christian attitudes toward sex, coming out of a deep-rooted asceticism that was suspicious of any erotic activity that could not be excused as procreation. In contrast, while the Islamic world included a wide variety of attitudes toward sex and pleasure, the moral and ethical frameworks that shaped them were different. There had been a long history of relatively neutral—or sometimes positive—attitudes toward female homoeroticism in the medieval Islamicate world that had no parallel in European culture. While there is a shift to more uniformly negative attitudes by the early modern period, it can be difficult to trace a clear timeline, not only due to the scarcity of documentation on the topic, but because those historic sources that do exist can be difficult for scholars to access due to current Islamic attitudes toward homosexuality among the institutions that control access to the texts.

But as I said, this is an episode about European beliefs and attitudes, and for that we need to begin with a brief overview of the history of the Ottoman Empire and its relations with Europe.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was an extensive political entity, centered around modern-day Turkey, that had its roots in the 14th century and existed in some form or another into the early 20th century. At its greatest geographic extent in the 16th and 17th centuries, it included Turkey, significant portions of the Near East including modern Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, stretching along the Mediterranean coastline as far as Algeria, and also including Greece, and areas roughly equivalent to the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine. In the early 16th century, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent—known in Europe as “the Great Turk”—made it as far as laying siege to Vienna, though he never took the city. The Ottoman Empire saw itself as the heir to the Byzantine Roman Empire, referring to its citizens collectively as “Romans” and setting its capital in Constantinople.

All this is to say that during the same period that Christian European nations saw themselves as emerging world powers in the realms of trade and colonization, they were literally next door neighbors to a vast Islamic empire whose power and influence could not be ignored or denied. European contacts in this era with other powers such as India and China played similar havoc with European illusions of cultural superiority, but those powers were not on the European doorstep.

After several centuries in which the dominant interactions were hostile, by the 16th century, European powers were coming to grips with the need to have solid diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. In this century, we have a profusion of writings by European diplomats and travelers, describing and commenting on what they saw and experienced in Constantinople and the rest of the empire. These commentaries are a mixture of admiration, curiosity, and no small admixture of smug superiority. But the writers could not dismiss Ottoman society as being insignificant, primitive, or uncultured. And this, I think, is one of the key underpinnings of European perceptions of female homoeroticism within Ottoman society generally, and especially within the culture of the harem.

Although the basics of European and Ottoman attitudes toward the place of women in society were not fundamentally different—women were in general viewed as lesser beings and were constrained as to their social freedoms and legal rights, though individual women might wield significant economic and political power—but Europeans found the superficial differences striking and noteworthy. The prevalence of polygamy among high-status men, the seclusion of women from contact with men outside their immediate family, the lack of a context in which men and women socialized freely. These factors, combined with popular beliefs about women’s sex drives and how they might be fulfilled among secluded women, led to a prurient curiosity about exactly what women might be doing together in those harems.

This would seem to be a second key factor in the fixation on Turkey as a locus of female homoeroticism. European men had no direct access to the personal lives of Ottoman women—especially high status women—and had strong preconceptions about what might predispose women to homosexual activity, especially lack of access to male company. In contrast to perceptions based on gender segregation, many Turkish women—especially those of the sultan’s household—wielded significant social and economic power within their own households and even extending beyond them. These mysteries and contradictions no doubt gave free rein to European imaginations.

Of course, given the traditionally more sex-positive attitudes in the Islamicate world, that prurient curiosity likely had substance to work with. But the result was a developing myth of rampant lesbianism in Turkish harems and bathhouses that continues to color Orientalist fantasies to the present day.

But let’s move on to exactly what those travelers and ambassadors recorded to share with their countrymen back home.

The Travelogues

I’ll split this discussion into two groups: the primary texts written by people who actually travelled to the Ottoman Empire (though there may be valid questions about whether they were recording first-hand observations), and then later texts that reflect the mythic image as it developed.

With respect to images of female homoeroticism, we’ll trace two major themes and two specific anecdotes. One theme is lesbianism among the women of the sultan’s seraglio. The “seraglio” as the term is used in the historic sources, refers to the sultan’s personal residence in its entirety, only a portion of which housed the women of the household. These women included not only the sultan’s wives and concubines, but all the female servants attending on them and a significant number of women being trained and educated to serve as resources for the sultan’s political engineering. There was a separate establishment known as the “old seraglio” that housed widowed sultanas, exiled former favorites, as well as the sultan’s sisters and daughters. Accounts often focused closely on these two households due to their association with the sultan and because they represented the ultimate in “forbidden women”. Discussions of lesbian activity within the household focus specifically on these.

The second locus of interest is the public baths. Travelers’ tales show fascination with the Turkish bath as a social institution, some comparing it to the function of coffee houses or taverns as a meeting place. Gender segregation in the baths might involve separate locations or more commonly involved designated times of day for men or women. While European observers comment on both male and female homosexuality, descriptions of the baths are more likely to mention female homosexuality than male activity.

It may be relevant that writers appear to mention one or the other of these locations, but not both. This may have to do with the specific interests of the writer: whether the court or general society.

The two specific anecdotes are, in part, what first drew my attention to the recycling of content among these accounts. One that I call the “cucumber anecdote” first appears in the account of Venetian ambassador Ottaviano Bon, and then is repeated to be rejected by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier a century later. The second anecdote that I call “the old women falls in love at the baths” is first related by Flemish traveler Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, also repeated by Tavernier a century later, and then quoted with attribution even later in the English polemical tract Satan’s Harvest Home.

As Valerie Traub notes, “These exoticizing tales, most of them written during the period when the Ottoman Empire posed a viable military and religious threat to Western Europe (and, incidentally, during the period when high ranking women of the Ottoman dynasty enjoyed a degree of political power and public prominence greater than ever before or after), enable a number of observations about the rhetorics and figures of female-female eroticism in the early modern period.”

With that introduction, let’s do a brief survey of the authors and the lesbian-related content of their accounts. For more extensive excerpts from the original texts, see the blog entries linked in the show notes.

Nicolas de Nicolay

Nicolas de Nicolay was a Frenchman who served in various diplomatic roles in the mid 16th century, including escorting the young Mary Queen of Scots to France for her marriage to the Dauphin, and accompanying the French ambassador to Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople. On this journey, one of his roles was to make an extensive survey of the lands and peoples he encountered, which was published in French in 1567 as the First Four Books of Navigations, and translated into English two decades later.

Like most of the male authors, Nicolay makes a special note of his lack of direct access to the lives of the women he’s describing, including how, in order to be shown how the women of the court dressed, his contact arranged for a “public woman” (probably meaning a prostitute) to be dressed in the fine clothing for him to see.

After a very extensive description of the men’s baths (including massage practices), he describes women’s bathing practices, whether in a private bath at home or going to the public baths several times a week. He notes that women might use the baths as a cover to making less approved excursions, as they had an absolute right to leave the house for bathing. He follows this comment with the following.

[S]ometimes they do go ten or twelve of them together, and sometimes more in a company, as well Turks as Grecians, and do familiarly wash one another, whereby it cometh to pass, that amongst the women of Levan, there is very great amity proceding only thro’ the frequentation and resort to the bathes: yea and sometimes become so fervently in love the one of the other, as if it were with men, in such sort, that perceiving some maiden or woman of excellent beauty they will not cease until they have found means to bathe with them, and to handle and grope them every where at their pleasures, so full are they of luxuriousness and feminine wantonness: even as in times past were the Tribades, of the number whereof was Sapho the Lesbian, which transferred the love wherewith she pursued an hundred women or maidens, upon her only friend Phaon. And therefore, considering the reasons aforesaid, to wit, the cleansing of their bodies, health, superstition, liberty to go abroad, and lascivious voluptuousness, it is not to be marvelled at, that these baths are so accustomably frequented by the Turks.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

Next we hear from the Flemish scholar Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, who was in Constantinople at roughly the same time as Nicolay. Busbecq was named an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I and was in Constantinople primarily to negotiate a border treaty. But Busbecq was deeply interested in describing his experiences in an extensive correspondence with friends, which he later collected and published in Latin in a collection titled Turkish Letters in 1581. Unlike Nicolay’s account, it was nearly a century before Busbecq’s book was translated into English in 1694. (I’m focusing on English translations not only because that’s how I accessed the material, but because I’ll be talking about some specifically English resonances in the 18th century.)

Busbecq gives a relatively brief description of the women’s baths and then dives into a very detailed discussion of lesbian activity in them, including the anecdote of the “old woman who fell in love at the baths” which, I warn you, does not have a happy ending.

A Turk hates bodily Filthiness and Nastiness, worse than Soul-Defilement; and, therefore, they wash very often, and they never ease themselves, by going to Stool, but they carry Water with them for their Posteriors. But ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together; so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins.

By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them. But these Offences happen among the ordinary sort; the richer sort of Persons have Baths at home, as I told you before.

It happened one time, that at the public Baths for Women, an old Woman fell in Love with a Girl, the Daughter of a poor Man, a Citizen of Constantinople; and, when neither by wooing nor flattering her, she could obtain that of her which her mad Affection aim’d at, she attempted to perform an Exploit almost incredible; she feign’d herself to be a Man, changed her Habit, hired an House near the Maid’s Father, and pretended she was one of the Chiauxes of the Grand Seignior; and thus, by reason of his Neighbourhood, she insinuated herself into the Man’s Acquaintance, and after some time, acquaints him with the desire of his Daughter. In short, he being a Man in such a prosperous Condition, the Matter was agreed on, a Portion was settled, such as they were able to give, and a Day appointed for the Marriage; when the Ceremonies were over, and this doughty Bridegroom went into the Bride-chamber to his Spouse; after some Discourse, and plucking off her Headgeer, she was found to be a Woman. Whereupon the Maid runs out, and calls up her Parents, who soon found that they had married her, not to a Man, but a Woman: Whereupon, they carried the supposed Man, the next day, to the General of the Janizaries, who, in the Absence of the Grand Seignior, was Governor of the City. When she was brought before him, he chide her soundly for her beastly Love; what, says he, are you not asham’d, an old Beldam as you are, to attempt so notorious a Bestiality, and so filthy a Fact?

Away, Sir, says she! You do not know the Force of Love, and God grant you never may. At this absurd Reply, the Governor could scarce forbear Laughter, but commanded her, presently, to be pack’d away and drown’d in the Deep; such was the unfortunate Issue of her wild Amours. For you must know, that the Turks make no noise when secret Offences are committed by them, that they may not open the Mouths of Scandal and Reproach; but open and manifest ones they punish most severely.

Ottaviano Bon

Ottaviano Bon was a Venetian diplomat, but his time in Constantinople appears to precede his diplomatic career, perhaps in the 1580s. This visit, which may well have been something of an espionage mission, resulted in a detailed Description of the Seraglio of the Great Turk, initially written as a confidential report, but published in Italian around 1606. An English translation appeared (without attribution) in 1625 as part of an extensive multi-volume collection of travel writing.

The following excerpt concerns young women who are servants of the court, rather than the sultanas and the sultan’s concubines, and is somewhat more vague than other writers about the nature of the behavior he is describing.

Now in the Womens lodgings, they live just as the Nunnes doe in their great Monasteries; for, these Virgins have very large Roomes to live in, and their Bed-chambers will hold almost a hundred of them a piece: they sleepe upon Sofaes, which are built long wise on both sides of the Roome, so that there is a large space in the midst for to walke in. Their Beds are very course and hard, and by every ten Virgins there lies an old woman: and all the night long there are many lights burning, so that one may see very plainely throughout the whole Roome; which doth both keepe the young Wenches from wantonnesses, and serve upon any occasion which may happen in the night.

It is unlikely that the “wantonness” referenced here involves men, given the strict seclusion of the women, but it is possible that the concern is for masturbation. This caveat also applies to the following anecdote.

Now it is not lawfull for any one to bring ought in unto them, with which they may commit the deeds of beastly uncleannesse ; so that if they have a will to eate Cucumbers, Gourds, or such like meates, they are sent in unto them sliced, to deprive them of the meanes of playing the wantons ; for, they all being young, lustie, and lascivious Wenches, and wanting the societie of Men (which would better instruct them) are doubtlesse of themselves inclined to that which is naught, and will be possest with unchast thoughts.

Although Bon is a bit coy on this point, we’ll see in a later version of this same anecdote that others clearly interpreted it as implying a lesbian context.

Thomas Glover

Unlike the other authors discussed in this podcast, Thomas Glover was born and raised in Constantinople. With an English father and Polish mother, he was fluent in Turkish, Greek, and Italian, as well as Polish and English. Around 1600 he served as secretary to two successive English Ambassadors to Constantinople before serving in the role himself. Despite being embedded in the culture, his attitudes toward Ottoman culture feel very similar to those of European visitors.

Glover’s description of the pubic baths, or “bannias,” somewhat confusingly mixes references to men and women, but when he gets around to describing same-sex activity, he gets more specific.

Much unnaturall and filthie lust is said to bee committed daily in the remote closets of the darkesome Bannias: yea, women with women; a thing uncredible, if former times had not given thereunto both detection and punishment.

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier

Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was a French gem merchant and traveller in the 17th century who went as far as India multiple times in pursuit of gemstones. He wrote extensively of the lands he visited—and some he did not—and also produced a treatise A New Relation Of The Inner-Part of The Grand Seignor’s Seraglio based on his time in Constantinople. There is some basis for questioning how much of Tavernier’s work was original observation as opposed to recycled material. He relates versions of both the cucumber anecdote and the “old woman who fell in love at the baths.” These are not exact copies of Busbecq and Bon’s accounts, and could represent stories that were in continued circulation during the half-century since those earlier writers recorded them. But they certainly aren’t original observations, and some of Tavernier’s other travel writing describes countries he never personally visited.

Tavernier offers what may be the most candid picture of the situation of male visitors to Constantinople who wanted to describe women’s lives.

There is not in all Christendome any Monastery of Religious Virgins, how regular and austere soever it may be, the entrance whereof is more strictly forbidden to men, than is that of this Appartment of the Women: insomuch that my white Eunuch, who has supply'd me with so particular a description of the inner part of the Seraglio, could give me no certain information of this Quarter of it, where the Women are lodg'd.

Tavernier clearly connects the “cucumber anecdote” with concerns about lesbian activity, but also claims that it’s a myth based on a misunderstanding of local foodways. Then he relates a version of Busbecq’s story, situating it in the time of Suleiman the Magnificent a half-century before, which matches the era when Busbecq recorded it.

[S]ome of the more ancient Maids are Mistresses over the Younger ones, and are, night and day employ'd in observing their actions, and that their unvoluntary restraint forces them to the same unseemly actions amongst themselves, as the brutish Passions of those Young Men engages them in, whenever they can find the opportunities to commit them. And this presumption has no doubt given occasion to the Fabulous Story, which is related of their being serv'd up with Cucumbers cut into pieces, and not entire, out of a ridiculous fear lest they should put them to undecent uses: they who have forg'd the Story not knowing, that it is the custome in the Levant, to cut the Fruit a-cross, into great thick slices, as I shall make it appear in the Chapter, where I treat of their Gardens. But it is not only in the Seraglio, that that abominable Vice reigns, but it is predominant also in the City of Constantinople, and in all the Provinces of the Empire, and the wicked Example of the Men, who, flighting the natural use of Woman-kind, are mutually enflam'd with a detestable love for one another, unfortunately enclines the Women to imitate them.

Of this, there was a strange instance in the time of Solyman the Magnificent. An old Woman was guilty of such an excess of extravagance, as to put on Man's Cloaths, and to give out, that she had bought a Chiaoux’s place, the better to compass her desire, of obtaining the only Daughter of a Trades-man of Constantinople, with whom she was desperately fallen in love, having made fruitless attempts, by other ways, to satisfie her infamous inclinations. The Father, not suspecting any thing of her wicked intentions, and being withal poor, grants her his Daughter, the Marriage is solemniz'd in the presence of the Cadi, and the imposture having been discover'd the very Wedding-night, the old woman was condemn'd the next day to be thrown into the Sea, there to quench the Gomorrhean Inflammations of her lewd desires. This Story is to this day related in Constantinople, and I have had it from several good hands.

These insatiable salaciousness amongst the Women, are the effects and conferences of the same inclinations in the Men; and the Turks are so much the more execrable and abominable as to this particular, the more they are permitted a plurality of Wives.

Popular Culture

We’ve seen how, from the mid 16th century through the mid 17th century, during the period when the Ottoman Empire was at the height of its power, European men visiting Constantinople reported back that Turkish women, segregated socially from all men except their husbands, and mingling with other women in the literal hothouse atmosphere of the baths, nude and free from male gazes, were susceptible to the attractions of lesbian desire. These inclinations were considered to be expected, if not approved, and only in extreme cases were there negative consequences. While we can be skeptical of how much direct knowledge the reporters had of the topic, it does seem to be a reasonable conclusion that there was a factual basis for their reports.

Now let’s turn our attention to how those reports developed into a fixed motif that Turkish women could be equated with lesbianism. The earliest connection I’ve found outside a traveler’s report doesn’t specifically single out Turkey as uniquely associated with lesbianism. The French author Brantôme, writing in The Lives of Gallant Women in the late 16th century, when discussing sex between women, comments:

By what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such lesbian ladies, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places. And wherever the women are kept secluded, and have not their entire liberty, this practice doth greatly prevail. For such women, burning in their bodies, surely must, as they say, make use of this remedy to cool off a bit or else they burn all over. The Turkish women go to the baths more for this than for any other reason, and are greatly devoted thereto. Even courtesans, who have men at their disposal at all hours, yet have recourse to these fricarelles, seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard of sundry doing in Italy and in Spain.

Brantôme doesn’t localize lesbianism to any specific place, but he does call out the Turkish baths as a site for sex, and suggests that gender segregation is a contributing cause. So we see a connection but not a unique one.

But by the later 17th century the connection with Turkey has become a byword—a coded reference that both confirms to the reader that we’re talking about lesbians, and safely displaces that knowledge not only to a distant land, but to a non-Christian society. Thus it becomes legible and deniable at the same time, even when the presence of lesbians in western Europe is the subject of discussion.

We see this in William Walsh’s supposedly feminist philosophical treatise A Dialogue Concerning Women, published in 1691, where the antagonist, holding up examples of women’s perfidy, pairs Sappho with Turkish lesbianism.

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason it wou'd be expected she shou'd make some additions to a Science in which all Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, she begins Amours with her own, and teaches us a new sort of Sin, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey at this day.

The main voice of this treatise, speaking in support of women’s virtues, even as he defends Sappho’s literary talents, feels the need to acknowledge her sexual transgressions, once again bringing Turkey into the conversation, but arguing that famous Greek men of the classical era had similar reputations.

Whatever Sappho's Life and Conversation were, there is nothing in her Writings, but what represents the most tender, and delicate passion in the World. … But not a word more I beseech you of Sappho, nor her new Crime, let Lucian be forgotten for putting us in mind of it, and let it be Cloister'd up within the walls of a Turkish Seraglio;

I speak not this in behalf of the Female Sex, but of our own; for if they shou'd once hear of this Argument, and fall upon us with Socrates, Plato, and all those Heroes of Antiquity, whom Plutarch and Lucian produce in defence of a like Sin in our Sex; shou'd they mention Anacreon, Tibullus, Martial, and all those Poets who have eterniz'd their Infamy in their writings; and after that shew you what progresses this Crime has made, not only in the Turk's Dominion, but even in Spain and Italy, I am sure, Sir, you wou'd wish you had said nothing of a point, that may be so severely made use of against our selves.

Sappho has also, by this era, become an open signifier of lesbianism, so the two themes reflect back on each other, in case the reader missed one or the other of the references.

Both William Walsh’s text and a direct and acknowledged quotation of Busbecq’s writings are brought together in the somewhat peculiar treatise Satan’s Harvest Home, a cobbled-together polemic against all manner of sexual sins asserted to be running rampant in mid 18th century England—though one could be forgiven for reading it instead as tongue-in-cheek pornography. A snippet of Walsh’s text is introduced, adding to it the nickname “the game of flats”.

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason, it would be expected she should make some Additions to a Science in which Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own, and teaches the Female World a new Sort of Sin, call'd the Flats, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's Time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey, as well as at Twickenham at this Day.

In a separate section, the author lifts the entirety of Busbecq’s story of the old woman who fell in love at the baths, which I will not repeat as it’s word-for-word the same, but it’s prefaced by a text that connects the story to English habits.

I AM credibly informed, in order to render the Scheme of Iniquity still more extensive amongst us, a new and most abominable Vice has got footing among the Women of Quality, by some call'd the Game at Flats; however incredible this may appear to some People, I shall mention a Story from an Author of very great Credit, applicable to the Matter, speaking of the Turks.

So in the course of two centuries, we see the progression from Turkey being offered as an example of a place where lesbianism is known to be practiced, to the use of Turkey—alongside Sappho—as a symbol of the open practice of lesbianism.

We may see echoes of this association even in tangential comments, as in the late 18th century French pornographic text The English Spy, in which members of the lesbian-focused Anandrine Society, “take their places in pairs, reclining entwined on pillows in the Turkish style.” Is it the reclining or the pairing that is in the Turkish style? Or both?

Mary Wortley Montagu

But after all these male voices and disparaging texts, I’d like to leave you with the breath of fresh air that is the accounts of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu was the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 18th century. She was there well after the travelers’ accounts discussed earlier, but Montagu’s account is groundbreaking in several ways. Unlike the male authors of observations on Ottoman society in the 16-17th centuries, Montagu had access to segregated women’s spaces and—as a high-status guest—social access to women of the upper classes, including a visit to the baths and invitations to private socializing. Her account does not include any salacious descriptions of overt lesbianism, though she does regularly express appreciation for the beauty and sensuality of the women she interacted with. And there’s one passage that…well, just wait for it.

During her travels, Montagu corresponded extensively with friends and relatives and these letters were collected up and published in 1763 at her death, though they were in private circulation during her lifetime. Montagu presents an entirely different image of Ottoman women’s lives—though one that was unlikely to dislodge prejudices, even had it been generally available at an earlier date.

I’ll quote two extensive passages from the letters, one about a visit to the baths and one about a private entertainment. Montagu must have stood out as an oddity at the baths as she declined to disrobe as was the standard custom.

I WAS in my travelling habit, which is a riding dress, and certainly appeared very extraordinary to them. Yet there was not one of them that shewed the least surprise or impertinent curiosity, but received me with all the obliging civility possible. I know no European court, where the ladies would have behaved themselves in so polite a manner to such a stranger. I believe, upon the whole, there were two hundred women, and yet none of those disdainful smiles, and satirical whispers, that never fail in our assemblies, when any body appears that is not dressed exactly in the fashion. They repeated over and over to me; "UZELLE, PEK UZELLE," which is nothing but, Charming, very Charming.—The first sofas were covered with cushions and rich carpets, on which sat the ladies; and on the second, their slaves behind them, but without any distinction of rank by their dress, all being in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any beauty or defect concealed. Yet there was not the least wanton smile or immodest gesture amongst them. They walked and moved with the same majestic grace, which Milton describes our general mother with. There were many amongst them, as exactly proportioned as ever any goddess was drawn by the pencil of a Guido or Titian,—and most of their skins shiningly white, only adorned by their beautiful hair divided into many tresses, hanging on their shoulders, braided either with pearl or ribbon, perfectly representing the figures of the Graces.

I WAS here convinced of the truth of a reflection I have often made, That if it were the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed. I perceived, that the ladies of the most delicate skins and finest shapes had the greatest share of my admiration, though their faces were sometimes less beautiful than those of their companions. To tell you the truth, I had wickedness enough, to wish secretly, that Mr Gervais could have been there invisible. I fancy it would have very much improved his art, to see so many fine women naked, in different postures, some in conversation, some working, others drinking coffee or sherbet, and many negligently lying on their cushions, while their slaves (generally pretty girls of seventeen or eighteen) were employed in braiding their hair in several pretty fancies. In short, 'tis the women's coffee-house, where all the news of the town is told, scandal invented, &c.—They generally take this diversion once a-week, and stay there at least four or five hours, without getting cold by immediate coming out of the hot bath into the cold room, which was very surprising to me. The lady, that seemed the most considerable among them, entreated me to sit by her, and would fain have undressed me for the bath. I excused myself with some difficulty.

At one point, Montagu had the opportunity to make a social visit to the wife of the kahya, the chief assistant to the grand vizier.

SHE was dressed in a caftan of gold brocade, flowered with silver, very well fitted to her shape, and shewing to admiration the beauty of her bosom, only shaded by the thin gauze of her shift. Her drawers were pale pink, her waistcoat green and silver, her slippers white sattin, finely embroidered: her lovely arms adorned with bracelets of diamonds, and her broad girdle set round with diamonds; upon her head a rich Turkish handkerchief of pink and silver, her own fine black hair hanging a great length, in various tresses, and on one side of her head some bodkins of jewels. I am afraid you will accuse me of extravagance in this description. I think I have read somewhere, that women always speak in rapture when they speak of beauty, and I cannot imagine why they should not be allowed to do so. I rather think it a virtue to be able to admire without any mixture of desire or envy. The gravest writers have spoken with great warmth, of some celebrated pictures and statues. The workmanship of Heaven, certainly excels all our weak imitations, and, I think, has a much better claim to our praise. For my part, I am not ashamed to own, I took more pleasure in looking on the beauteous Fatima, than the finest piece of sculpture could have given me. She told me, the two girls at her feet were her daughters, though she appeared too young to be their mother. Her fair maids were ranged below the sofa, to the number of twenty, and put me in mind of the pictures of the ancient nymphs. I did not think all nature could have furnished such a scene of beauty. She made them a sign to play and dance. Four of them immediately began to play some soft airs on instruments, between a lute and a guitar, which they accompanied with their voices, while the others danced by turns. This dance was very different from what I had seen before. Nothing could be more artful, or more proper to raise certain ideas. The tunes so soft!—the motions so languishing!—accompanied with pauses and dying eyes! half-falling back, and then recovering themselves in so artful a manner, that I am very positive, the coldest and most rigid prude upon earth, could not have looked upon them without thinking of something not to be spoke of.

The phrase “not to be spoke of” evokes the regular theme that same-sex desire is something “unspeakable” in the sense of something one is not supposed to talk about. So I don’t think it is at all a stretch to consider this passage to be directly (if coyly) raising the question of lesbian desire and indicating that Montagu was not impervious to that desire.

Montagu was a bit of a social iconoclast. She picked up the habit of wearing Turkish trousers for comfort, and later in life left her husband to take up with a bisexual Venetian philosopher. She enjoyed traveling independently and offered vocal support for women’s independence and freedom. And if she never personally acted on those “certain ideas” that the Turkish dancers had roused in her breast, one suspects that she might have sympathized with those who did.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

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Friday, November 17, 2023 - 08:05

One of the observations that inspired me to do this focused series on texts related to Ottoman Turkey was the repetitiveness of the content. When specific content (not simply the topics or motifs) is recirculated and republished in different combinations, it can give the impression of being a far more dominant narrative than it may actually have been. "Look at all these authors saying the same thing!" But part of the dynamic here is that with the rise of publications for the popular market, the demand for content often outstripped the rate at which publishers were willing or able to source new content. Hence, a great amount of recycled text, either repackaged with a new introduction or reorganized an shuffled around to appear novel. Think of the practice, perhaps, as the Large Language Model text generator of the Early Modern period.

The polemical pamphlet Satan's Harvest Home gets cited a lot in studies of 18th century sexuality, but when you look at the content and its context, it becomes less clear what genre it actually meant to represent. Compare, for example, to the anti-masturbation tract The Onania which purports to be a moral treatise, but is difficult to distinguish in content from pornography. In this same era, medical manuals that addressed sexual issues were becoming a subject of scrutiny for similar reasons.

Another interesting feature of how the content is organized is the way in which male and female homosexuality is linked. It has not always been the case that the two topics were treated as parts of a whole. And the component tract "Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy" did not itself touch on female homosexuality--the chapter on the Game of Flats was added to it when incorporated into Satan's Harvest Home. Several texts of this era suggest that the (supposed) rise in female homosexuality was directly due to the rise of male sodomy, and the resulting lack of male attention to female sexual desires. This is a theme touched on in some of the Ottoman reports, though in those there is also the element of gender segregation, not only the assertion of male preference for homosexual encounters.

This finishes up the series of texts I'm newly posting for this topic. Next up will be the podcast in which I take an overall look at  European perceptions of sexuality in the Ottoman Empire, and how those perceptions were integrated into discourse about lesbianism in Europe itself, becoming part of a long tradition of assigning the practice as newly-arrived due to foreign influences.

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Full citation: 

Anonymous. 1749. Satan's Harvest Home: or the Present State of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Sodomy, And the Game of Flatts, (Illustrated by an Authentick and Entertaining Story) And other Satanic Works, daily propagated in this good Protestant Kingdom. London.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

Satan’s Harvest Home is an anonymous polemic (published 1749) railing against the perceived rise of effeminacy, sodomy, and prostitution in English society. The full title is: Satan's Harvest Home: or the Present State of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Sodomy, And the Game of Flatts, (Illustrated by an Authentick and Entertaining Story) And other Satanic Works, daily propagated in this good Protestant Kingdom. The text has been cobbled together from several sources, some attributed, others not.

The first section is entitled The Present State of Whorecraft, Adultery, Fornication, Procuring, Pimping, Etc. In Great Britain, which includes material that is a direct reprint (or plagiarism) of the 1734 text Pretty Doings in a Protestant Nation, by the pseudonymous Father Poussin (part of which appears to be lifted from William Walsh’s A Dialogue Concerning Women).

The second section is entitled Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy, Etc., which directly lifts the text of a 1731 pamphlet Plain Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England and then appends as chapter V the text “Of the Game of Flatts,” which consists of a brief introductory passage followed by a direct (and attributed) quotation of Busbecq’s story of the old woman who fell in love with a girl at the baths. Of particular interest is the term “game of flats” which is clearly a slang term for lesbian sex (which did not appear in Busbecq).

It can be difficult to tell whether the pamphlet was genuinely intended to arouse a moral panic, or whether it used the cover of morality to collect up a number of salicious texts for prurient purposes. In any event, Satan’s Harvest Home is an excellent example of the syncretic nature of popular culture texts regarding sexuality in this era.

The text I used is downloaded from Google Books and proofed against a pdf of the original from the same source.

The first passage of interest discusses all manner of offenses against authorized sexuality, and includes a passage that is clearly equivalent to part of Walsh’s Dialogue (published earlier), but with some rearrangement and rewording. Sappho is invoked, lesbian sex is nicknamed “the flats”, and a connection is made between lesbianism in Turkey and lesbianism in England, though without implying a causal relationship.

I must confess, that in the Business of Lust we ought to submit to the Ladies, and with Shame allow them the Preference; ’tis that can make Sappho witty; Eloisa eloquent; a country Wife politick…

Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason, it would be expected she should make some Additions to a Science in which Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, begins Amours with her own, and teaches the Female World a new Sort of Sin, call'd the Flats, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's Time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey, as well as at Twickenham at this Day.

The second passage of interest is the one lifting Busbecq’s story, but with a brief introduction asserting that this “new and most abominable vice” of lesbianism has “got footing among the w[ome]n of q[ualit]y” and gives it the name “game of flats.” Once again, this makes a direct connection between lesbianism in England and Turkey, though without explicitly claiming a causal relationship.

Chapter V Of the Game of Flatts

I AM credibly informed, in order to render the Scheme of Iniquity still more extensive amongst us, a new and most abominable Vice has got footing among the W—n of Q—y, by some call'd the Game at Flats; however incredible this may appear to some People, I shall mention a Story from an Author of very great Credit, applicable to the Matter, who, speaking of the Turks, says,

“A Turk hates bodily Filthiness and Nastiness, worse than Soul-Defilement; and, therefore, they wash very often, and they never ease themselves, by going to Stool, but they carry Water with them for their Posteriors. But ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together; so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins.

By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them. But these Offences happen among the ordinary sort; the richer sort of Persons have Baths at home, as I told you before.

It happened one time, that at the public Baths for Women, an old Woman fell in Love with a Girl, the Daughter of a poor Man, a Citizen of Constantinople; and, when neither by wooing nor flattering her, she could obtain that of her which her mad Affection aim’d at, she attempted to perform an Exploit almost incredible; she feign’d herself to be a Man, changed her Habit, hired an House near the Maid’s Father, and pretended she was one of the Chiauxes of the Grand Seignior; and thus, by reason of his Neighbourhood, she insinuated herself into the Man’s Acquaintance, and after some time, acquaints him with the desire of his Daughter. In short, he being a Man in such a prosperous Condition, the Matter was agreed on, a Portion was settled, such as they were able to give, and a Day appointed for the Marriage; when the Ceremonies were over, and this doughty Bridegroom went into the Bride-chamber to his Spouse; after some Discourse, and plucking off her Headgeer, she was found to be a Woman. Whereupon the Maid runs out, and calls up her Parents, who soon found that they had married her, not to a Man, but a Woman: Whereupon, they carried the supposed Man, the next day, to the General of the Janizaries, who, in the Absence of the Grand Seignior, was Governor of the City. When she was brought before him, he chide her soundly for her beastly Love; what, says he, are you not asham’d, an old Beldam as you are, to attempt so notorious a Bestiality, and so filthy a Fact?

Away, Sir, says she! You do not know the Force of Love, and God grant you never may. At this absurd Reply, the Governor could scarce forbear Laughter, but commanded her, presently, to be pack’d away and drown’d in the Deep; such was the unfortunate Issue of her wild Amours.”

 See Busbequius's Travels into Turkey, P. 146, 147.

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Thursday, November 16, 2023 - 21:45

The last couple of sources I'm presenting as part of the Ottoman Turkey series are not travelers' accounts, but rather texts that demonstrate that the motif of "lesbians in Ottoman Turkey" had become sufficiently established to be referenced in popular culture. In this and the next text, we get the double-whammy of Turkey and poet Sappho as touchstones for lesbian activity. These aren't the only texts that use such references--I'll be mentioning others in the upcoming podcast, including some texts that have been blogged previously.

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Full citation: 

Walsh, William. 1691. A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex. London, Printed for R. Bentley in Russel-street in Covent-Garden, and I. Tonson at the Judge’s-Head in Chancery-Lane.

This post is part of a series of primary source materials illustrating how Europeans perceived, reported, and discussed female homoeroticism in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to early 18th centuries. I’ll give a larger context for why this is a period of interest for European interactions with a non-European, non-Christian culture that could not be dismissed easily as  not being of equal power an importance to their own. Attitudes toward, and practice of homosexuality was far from the most noteworthy difference that these reports covered, but it’s the one of interest to us within the scope of this Project. I’ll be presenting the descriptions from ambassadors, travelers, and others in chronological order of their time spent in Constantinople and other key cities, followed by some additional primary sources that show how the echos of these interactions became part of European myths about lesbianism.

William Walsh was a late 17th century English poet and critic. The work of his that piques our interest is a philosophical treatise A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex, which is dedicated to someone identified as Eugenia. The work is in the form of a debate between Misogynes (the misogynist) and Philogynes (the lover of women), with authorial asides commenting on their arguments and directly addressing the dedicatee. Unfortunately for the casual reader, it appears (based on a single image from the internet) that the voices are distinguished using italics for one, but none of the accessible texts online make this distinction. I’ve done my best to guess at distinguishing [Misogynes], [Philogynes], and [Narrator] in the excerpts below, based on content. I have bolded the text that references either lesbianism or Turkey, given that they are embedded in much more extensive quotations.

A Dialogue Concerning Women, being a Defence of the Sex was published in 1691. (London, Printed for R. Bentley in Russel-street in Covent-Garden, and I. Tonson at the Judge’s-Head in Chancery-Lane.) the text I used was sourced from the University of Michigan—Early English Books website. This text included a number of OCR glitches. I’ve cleaned up those where the intent was obvious, but there’s one Latin name where I couldn’t figure out which author was meant.

Walsh’s text is cited in Donoghue 1995.

The relevance of this text is the demonstration that a link between Sappho, lesbianism, and Turkey had become sufficiently embedded in popular culture by the late 17th century that it is presented as accepted fact in a screed (though one set up as a strawman) against learned women.

[Narrator] This Misogynes is a very rude Fellow, and I am sure your Ladyship will be of my Opinion, that his last simile was very fulsome. 'Tis a sign he hates Women; for had he convers'd with them, they wou'd have taught him better manners.

[Misogynes] But there are doubtless, you will say, Women of Understanding: Pray where are they? Is it your Prudent Woman, your good Houswife, who is plaguing all the World with her Management, and instructing every body how to feed Geese and Capons? Or is it your Politician, who is always full of Business, who carries a Secretary of State's Office in her Head, and is making her deep Observations upon every days News? Or is it your Learned Woman, who runs mad for the love of hard words, who talks a mixt Jargon, or Lingua Franca, and has spent a great deal of time to make her capable of talking Nonsense in four or five several Languages? What think you, Sir, do you not wish for your Visitant again, as the more tolerable folly of the two? Do not you think Learning and Politicks become a Woman as ill as riding astride? And had not the Duke of Brittaine reason, who thought a Woman knowing enough, when she cou'd distinguish between her Husband's Shirt and his Breeches?

[Misogynes] Do not you, in answer to these, fetch me a Sappho out of Greece; a Cornelia, the Mother of the Gracchi, out of Rome; an Anna Maria Schurman out of Holland; and think that in shewing me three Learned Women in three thousand years, you have gain'd your point; and from some few particular Instances, prov'd a general Conclusion: If I shou'd bring you half a dozen Magpies that cou'd talk, and as many Horses that cou'd dance, you wou'd not, I suppose, for all that, chuse out the one to converse with, or the other to walk a Corant.

[Misogynes] But wou'd you see 'em to their best advantage? Wou'd you have their Wit, Courage, and Conduct display'd? Take 'em upon the business of Lust. That can make Sappho witty, Aloisia Eloquent, a Country-wife Politick; That can humble Messalina's Pride to walk the Streets; can make tender Hippia endure the Incommodities of a Sea-Voyage, can support the Queen of Sheba in a Journey to Solomon, and make Thalestris search out Alexander the Great: In this particular, I must confess, we ought to submit to 'em, and with shame allow 'em the preference. I cannot reflect upon the Stories of Semiramis's lying with all the handsomest men in her Army, and putting 'em to Death afterwards; of her offering her Son the last Favour; of Messalina the Empresses prostituting her self in the publick Stews; and of Queen Ioan of Naples providing a Bath under her Window, where she might see all the lustiest young men naked, and take her choice out of 'em, without such an admiration as their Heroick Actions deserve. Sappho, as she was one of the wittiest Women that ever the World bred, so she thought with Reason it wou'd be expected she shou'd make some additions to a Science in which all Womankind had been so successful: What does she do then? Not content with our Sex, she begins Amours with her own, and teaches us a new sort of Sin, that was follow'd not only in Lucian's time, but is practis'd frequently in Turkey at this day. You cannot but be sensible, Sir, that there is no necessity of going so far for Instances of their Lewdness, and were it civil to quote the Lampoons, or write the Amours of our own Time, we might be furnish'd with Examples enow nearer home.

[Philogynes] We might tell you further, Sir, that this Modesty too often hinders 'em from making their Vertues known; That they are not of those eternal Scriblers who are continually plagueing the World with their Works; and that it is not the Vanity of getting a Name, which several of the greatest men of the World have own'd to be the Cause of their writing, that is the Cause of the Womens. Had not Sappho been so much in Love, 'tis possible we had never heard any mention of one of the greatest Wits that ever was born; had not Cicero and Quintilian given us accounts of Cornelia, and the Daughters of L•lius, and Hortensius, they had never done it themselves; had not Jane Gray been put to Death, her Vertues had never been so much taken notice of; Had not the Portugueze Nun been deserted by her Gallant, we had mist some of the most passionate Letters that these latter Ages have produc'd; and had not Anna Maria Schurman's Works been publish'd by a Friend, without her consent, we had lost the benefit of 'em. We may tell you too, that 't not only in respect of their own Sex that they are admir'd, but even of ours. That of those two Odes we have yet of Sappho, we owe one to Dionysius Halicarnassaeus, the other to Longin, the two best Criticks of Greece, who chose 'em out for Examples to their Rules, before any of the Mens; That the Epistle of Sappho to Phaon, which is esteem'd the most delicate of Ovid,'s is supposed to be taken out of her Writings. That Corinna was five times victorious over Pindar the best Lyrick Poet of our Sex. And were we here in England as forward in Printing Letters, as they are in France and Italy, we might furnish Volumes of 'em written by our own Ladies, that wou'd make all the Women-haters blush, or make all Men else blush for 'em.

[Narrator] Here, Madam, I must own to you I grew jealous, for I cou'd not imagine that Philogynes wou'd have said this, without having seen some of your Ladyships Letters.

[Philogynes] We may tell you too, that granting the equal Capacities of both Sexes, 'tis a greater wonder to find one Learned Woman, than a hundred Learned Men, considering the difference of their Educations. If you shou'd go into Greece, and, seeing the ignorance is amongst 'em at present, tell 'em their Country men were incapable of Learning, wou'd you not be very well satisfied, when they told you of the Plato's and Aristotle's of Antiquity? And that if they had not as Famous Men now, it was because they have not the same Advantages they had then? And pray why may not the Women be allow'd the same excuse? Will you by all your Laws and Customs endeavour to keep 'em ignorant, and then blame 'em for being so? And forbid all Men of Sense keeping 'em Company, as you do, and yet be angry with them for keeping Company with Fools? Consider what Time and Charge is spent to make Men fit for somewhat; Eight or Nine Years at School; Six or Seven Years at the University; Four or Five Years in Travel; and after all this, are they not almost all Fops, Clowns, Dunces, or Pedants? I know not what you think of the Women; but if they are Fools, they are Fools I am sure with less pains and less expence than we are.

[Philogynes] Upon second thoughts I hope, Sir, you will allow, that Women may have Wit and Learning; for their Courage and Conduct we may possibly say more anon. But for Heaven's sake, do not aggravate their faults always at that rate; for whatever Sappho's Life and Conversation were, there is nothing in her Writings, but what represents the most tender, and delicate passion in the World: And as for Aloisia Sigaea (I give you thanks for putting me in mind of Aloisia Sigaea, who was as remarkable for her Wit and Learning as any of the other) I am very well assur'd you do not believe that infamous Book which goes under her Name, to have been written by her; all who speak of it assure us the contrary; and that she was so far from writing it, that she never publish'd any thing; On the other side, all Historians represent her as remarkable for her Vertue, as her Learning. For the Queen of Sheba, there is no mention in Scripture of her Travelling for any thing but to be satisfied with the wisdom of Solomon; however, if you will believe she went to him, for the same reason that Thalestris did to Alexander the Great; it was no such great matter, in Countreys where it was thought no Sin, if the one had a mind to have a Child by the wisest man in the world, and the other by the bravest. After all, we must own if there are lewd Women, they endeavour to conceal their lewdness they do not brag of it, nor flye openly in the face of Religion; and if they once come to be publickly discover'd, they are render'd infamous to all the World, and their nearest Friends and Relations avoid their company: Whilst there are several Men who boast of their iniquities, value themselves upon their being thought lewd, and what is worse, find others to value 'em upon it too; nay by their incitements and encouragements to wickedness, often bring themselves to that pass, that the least part of the Sins they are to answer for, are what they have committed themselves But not a word more I beseech you of Sappho, nor her new Crime, let Lucian be forgotten for putting us in mind of it, and let it be Cloister'd up within the walls of a Turkish Seraglio; I speak not this in behalf of the Female Sex, but of our own; for if they shou'd once hear of this Argument, and fall upon us with Socrates, Plato, and all those Heroes of Antiquity, whom Plutarch and Lucian produce in defence of a like Sin in our Sex; shou'd they mention Anacreon, Tibullus, Martial, and all those Poets who have eterniz'd their Infamy in their writings; and after that shew you what progresses this Crime has made, not only in the Turk's Dominion, but even in Spain and Italy, I am sure, Sir, you wou'd wish you had said nothing of a point, that may be so severely made use of against our selves.

[Philogynes] Now tho' you are pleas'd to quote the Lampoons, yet you think as well as I that such things are not worth any bodies taking notice of; we both know there are a sort of people about this Town, who please themselves with Defamations; One of these, if they see a Man speak to a Woman, make their little signs, their politick winks, and possibly when they meet him, in their insipid way of Rallery, tax him with it: If he is angry at 'em, then he is pique'd, and afraid the Intrigue shou'd be found out; If he says nothing (as it deserves nothing) then he is out of Countenance and cannot say a word; and if he laughs at 'em (which is all the answer a man wou'd make to such stuff) then he is pleas'd with the thing; so that every way the poor Ladies Reputation suffers; and these Sparks shall not fail to blow it about Town, that there is an Amour; not that they think so of you, but that you may return the Complement, and say so of them, when they speak to any Lady themselves.

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