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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110g Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 8)

Full citation: 

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

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Chapter 8: Love and Friendship

Given the coincidental focus within this chapter on the romantic friendship between Laudomia Forteguerri and Margaret of Austria (i.e., Duchess of Parma), I feel permitted to remind the reader that my short story "Where My Heart Goes", which was inspired by their lives, is available in both print and electronic formats in the historic romance anthology Through the Hourglass.

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Renaissance philosophy tackled the question of friendship: who is an appropriate friend, what behavior should a friend exhibit, what is the relationship between the love of friends and sexual desire? Given the times, the majority of texts addressing this topic were concerned with friendships between men, though a nod was often given to Sappho as a proponent of female friendships, or to the possibility of “Platonic love” between women, which is given explicit license in the Symposium as well as by Renaissance writers commenting on it, as Agnolo Firenzuola did. Although classical models for same-sex friendship diffused from the literati to the common people, the primary literature addressing Sappho would have rarely been accessible to even most literary women (though popular and common as a cultural reference). Differences in male and female access to public discourse also affect what types of texts and discussions we have access to on this topic. Women’s writings about their relationships were more often private correspondence (not covered in the current work), or might be disguised in the conventions of poetry, while men’s writings were more public and more overtly concerned with philosophical underpinnings.

Current researchers on the topic of women’s friendships in the Renaissance include Harriette Andreadis and Valerie Traub. At least among the upper classes, female friendship was characterized as an attraction of similarity between two conventionally “feminine” women, where the possibilities of genital expression were camouflaged with a presumption of female chastity and innocence. Male writers, treating the same historic individuals, were sometimes more willing to ascribe physical desire to female friends, as in Brantôme’s treatment of Laudomia Forteguerri. And in parallel with the literary treatment of female (potentially erotic) friendship, moral and legal writings record relationships that were more clearly physical, as with a 1648 court case concerning “lewd” behavior on a bed between Sarah White Norman and Mary Vincent Hammon. There was also a growing body of proto-feminist literature (often pseudonymous or anonymous) that promoted ideals of female friendship and love that could even eclipse the ideals masculine friendship. Portrayals of close female friends in literature and drama had increasing popularity during this era.

Agnolo Firenzuola (1493-1543), in his dialogues “On the Beauty of Women” provides several examples of notable female friendships that rose to the level of love. Starting from the reference in Plato’s Symposium he notes women who “love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Fortegurra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation”

Unlike some of the more obscure allusions, we have further evidence regarding Laudomia and Margaret. Laudomia Forteguerri wrote six sonnets declaring her love for specific women and praising their beauty and accomplishments. Five of them are addressed to Margaret of Austria (the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V). Regarding this pair, Alessandro Piccolomini said that when they first met, “suddenly with the most ardent flames of Love each burned for the other, and the most manifest sign of this was that they went to visit each other many times.” Firenzuola, a contemporary of the two women and a personal friend of Laudomia, while acknowledging that women might love each other unchastely, insists that this couple loved purely. Some time later, in the writings of Brantôme, their love is given a more sexual framing. And even some of Margaret’s contemporaries, taking into account her disinterest in consummating her second marriage, suggested that the two were tribades (though the accusations were tied up in politics as well).

An anonymous poem in the ca. 1586 Maitland Manuscript expresses a female speaker’s wish that she could be transformed into a man in order to marry her beloved female friend. (The lack of an attributed author means that a male poet using a female persona cannot be ruled out.) As with many Renaissance treatments of female homoerotic friendship, the example of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe is invoked as a model.

As noted above, Pierre de Bourdeille, Abbé and Seigneur de Brantôme (1540?-1614) was inclined to view female friendships as potentially erotic. His deliberately sensationalist collection The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies includes a number of homoerotic encounters between women. In one, a company of heterosexual couples are viewing a painting depicting women engaging in sexual activity in the baths, which the women viewers find overwhelmingly arousing and thereupon drag their lovers off to seek satisfaction. In another passage he discusses the sexual practice of donna con conna ["woman with woman"], associating its origins with Sappho, referencing other classical examples, and discussing specific sexual techniques popular between women such as tribadism and tongue-kissing. From this, he digresses into Orientalist fantasies of harem activity and then gossip about ladies of the French court who had been spied on during their lovemaking with each other. Another story involved a male suitor who was warned off of the object of his affection, being told “he would but be wasting his time, for as she did herself tell me, such and such a lady--naming her (‘twas one I had already heard talk of)--will never suffer her to marry.” He mentions the legend that female weasels enjoy sexual activity together and that for this reason weasels were sometimes used as a sign and signal between women. The use of “artificial instruments” is discussed under the name godemiches, with the indication that they would be attached with straps for use. Brantôme concludes with the excuse that it may be better for women to “relieve their heat of blood” with each other than to dishonor themselves with men and risk pregnancy.

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