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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #28 – Hutcheson 2001 “Leonor López de Córdoba and the Configuration of Female-Female Desire”

Full citation: 

Hutcheson, Gregory S. “Leonor López de Córdoba and the Configuration of Female-Female Desire” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Hutcheson, Gregory S. “Leonor López de Córdoba and the Configuration of Female-Female Desire”

It is sometimes objected that approaches like the "lesbian continuum" of Adrienne Rich as used in this analysis are a bit loosey-goosey in either subsuming any interaction between two women to this continuum or in erasing the essential understanding of lesbianism as involving romantic and erotic desire between women and not just affection or support. But in a historic context where important parts of women's lives have been deliberately excised or erased from the available record, I agree that it's necessary to cast a wider net than a set of necessary-and-sufficient requirements that would come close to eliminating pre-modern lesbianism entirely. Was the virulence of the "bad breakup" between Leonor and Catalina due to the dynamics of shifting romantic or sexual relationships? We can't know. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth examining it in that light.

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The article begins with a 16th century Spanish literary interchange between two women -- ostensibly a matchmaker and her client, but one rife with same-sex expressions of desire and moving into erotic play. After a standard review of a cultural/legal context where concern over male homosexuality did not extend to a similar concern about women unless a direct challenge to male prerogatives was involved, the article examines evidence from the life and memoirs of Leonor López de Córdoba, covering the late 14th and early 15th centuries. In the latter part of her life, she was a close companion and advisor to Castile’s queen-regent Catalina of Lancaster (co-regent for her son Juan II with her brother-in-law Fernando) and this relationship is considered within the framework of Adrienne Rich's "lesbian continuum".

The memoir covers Leonor's early life but it sheds light on historic events later relating to her time with Catalina. Rising from poverty after her entire family was imprisoned for political reasons she achieved significant prosperity due largely to her relationship with a wealthy aunt. At this point her memoirs cease and we must rely on other sources. The historic record then shows her as a close confidante and advisor to Catalina and seen as having significant and undue influence over the powerful Catalina due to the “love and trust” Catalina had for her. While this relationship seems to have resulted in enmity between Leonor and the queen's co- brother in law Fernando, Leonor’s eventual precipitous fall from favor and exile from the court seems to have been driven by another player: a protege of Leonor, Inés de Torres, who seems to have supplanted her in Catalina's affections, This change of heart was sudden and stormy with Catalina making violent threats to keep Leonor from approaching her. The entire time-span from Leonor's arrival at court to her death after this break was about a decade. The context suggests a personal falling out rather than one with political motivations. A traditional historical approach sees Leonor's fall as due to conflict with the male political establishment but Catalina's court featured a group of string, capable women with close personal bonds and however one interprets the two women's relationship the evidence is strong that it was conflicts within this group that drove events.

Leonor’s memoir begins with a male-centered account of her family's troubles, but after her release, with the death of her immediate male relatives, and separation from her husband her life and writings become woman-focused as she joins the household of her wealthy, powerful, and independent aunt. Despite the presence of male relatives in the household and the eventual return of Leonor’s husband, it is this context of female agency and community that should be considered in Leonor’s interaction with Catalina and her court. This context neither requires nor denies any erotic component to their relationship. It occurs in a continuum of women's relationships to each other that disrupt hetero-normative and patriarchal models.

It is noteworthy that the position of personal advisor (privada) to Spanish royalty was one that attracted accusations of sexual irregularity, whether or not there was any basis. The favorite advisor of Catalina’s son, Juan II, provoked accusations of sodomy. Critiques of Leonor’s influence never included similar accusations and she was charged in language that largely erased her femaleness entirely, subsuming it under masculine language about the misuse of influence. Since a lack of evidence is unlikely to have prevented accusations of sexual impropriety, this lack may be attributable to the erasure of lesbianism as a possibility (or valid concern).

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