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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #90 Crawford & Mendelson 1995 "Sexual Identities in Early Modern England: The Marriage of Two Women in 1680"

Full citation: 

Crawford, Patricia & Sara Mendelson. 1995. "Sexual Identities in Early Modern England: The Marriage of Two Women in 1680" in Gender and History vol 7, no 3: 362-377.

With the current focus on the legalization of same-sex marriage, it's interesting to see the contexts in the past in which same-sex marriages occurred and how they were resolved legally and socially when challenged. The case covered here brings into question the reliability of almost all of the individuals providing testimony, leaving us perhaps a better record of ex post facto ass-covering strategies rather than sincere attitudes towards marriage between women. Unlike the case that will be covered in the next entry, while there is gender disguise involved in the wedding itself, it seems implausible to consider this a case of transgender identity, particularly as that aspect is explicitly denied by the cross-dressing party.

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The recent history of debate over the question of same-sex marriage has tended to take as a given that the concept did not exist in pre-modern times, but a growing body of evidence suggests that this is not entirely the case. This article begins with the usual review of the problems in identifying what would constitute historic evidence for female homoeroticism before the modern period, though Emma Donoghue's work is cited as establishing early uses of terms like "lesbian" and "sapphist", which are relatively unambiguous. Data sources included classical references, potentially homoerotic poetry, court gossip, and medical treatises. Against this familiar context, the authors present the circumstances and documents related to one particular, relatively unambiguous, case.

On September 12, 1680, 18-year-old Arabella Hunt, a beautiful and talented musician associated with the English court, married Amy Poulter, who was dressed as a man at the time and using the name James Howard. The ceremony was witnessed by Arabella's mother and two of her friends and the two cohabited as "man and wife" for six months. Documentary evidence for this marriage exists because Arabella then sued for an annulment on the grounds, not that Amy was a woman, but that she was a bigamist, being already married to one Arthur Poulter, the son of a prominent Hertfordshire family. The annulment petition touched on gender in representing Amy as being "of a double gender" (i.e., a "hermaphrodite").

Amy acknowledged in testimony that she was married to Arthur at the time of her marriage to Arabella (Arthur died 5 months later, before the annulment proceedings began), and confessed that she did cross-dress on occasion and had courted Arabella both in women's and men's clothing, but she denied the claim that she was a hermaphrodite. Amy asserted that the courtship and marriage had been a "frolicsome prank" and agreed to the annulment on that basis. To prove her case, she agreed to submit to a medical examination by midwives, who pronounced her "a perfect woman in all her parts."

Amy died five weeks after the annulment was finalized and the article speculates that the timing suggests she may have taken her own life. Arabella lived for two more decades, became a prominent court musician, and never married again.

The nature of the documentary evidence is driven by the legal concerns of the time and not by the women's motives in marrying (which may or may not be represented accurately in the testimony). This issue of Amy's physiology was relevant as her ambiguous suitability for valid marriage to both a man and a woman was necessary for a charge of bigamy. But if (as was judged) she was a woman, then the marriage to Arabella was not valid and no charge of bigamy was relevant. Conversely, if the examination had judged her to be "more man than woman" then the validity of Amy's marriage to Arthur (and so her widow's jointure) would be cast in doubt.

The article discusses Renaissance models of sex and anatomy and the fascination that era had for the idea of hermaphoditism and its relationship to female homoeroticism. There were two prevailing models in the literature of the time: a strict binarism which held that a physical examination could determine to which sex a person should be assigned, and a classical model based on Hippocrates and Galen which held that there was an intermediate sex as part of an anatomical spectrum. Popular (as opposed to medical) attitudes towards this topic can be seen in works such as Dainty Fine Aniseed Water (1652) and The Male and Female Husband (ca. 1682). This pop culture view envisioned a single individual with two sets of fully functioning sexual organs (artistic depictions, though not necessarily intended as anatomically accurate, often depicted a lateral division into male and female halves).

Other examples of this theme are cited: a 16th c. serving maid named Greta who made love to young women and was examined on suspicion of being a hermaphrodite, and Aphra Behn's poem "To the Fair CLorinda, who made Love to me, imagin'd more than Woman." Mixed in with this fixation on hermaphroditism was the "rediscovery" of the clitoris, and a popular association of large clitorises with sexual activity between women. The motif of cross-dressing women was less clearly associated with non-default sexual interests, as pop culture presented models of women cross-dressing to accompany a male husband or lover in war, and respectable women sometimes cross-dressed for safety while traveling.

The new practice of allowing women to act on stage opened the door to "breeches parts" which were treated as sexually titillating, but for the male gaze (with women's legs unaccustomedly displayed). In this context, the idea of cross-dressing as a prank would be considered plausible.

Popular culture and, more rarely, legal records provide other images of marriage between women, always involving one of the couple in male disguise. These depictions tended to frame the unions in heterosexual terms, always by analogy to a male-female couple. Several examples from popular culture are listed: The She-Wedding: or a Mad Marriage at Deptford (1684) involving marriage to save the reputation of a unmarried pregnant woman by providing her with a husband, and the ballads Cheat upon Cheat (1683/4), The Scornful Damsels Overthrow (ca. 1685), and Comical News from Bloomsbury (ca. 1690), all involving duplicity on the part of the cross-dressed woman.

In this context, Arabella and Amy each offered the framing of their marriage that made them appear in the best light: Arabella that she had genuinely believed she was marrying someone who could fill the role of a man, Amy that it had never been anything but a prank. Both versions had models within the culture that made them acceptable and believable. Notably, both framings set Arabella up as an innocent party. Either that or her social class and connections may be responsible for the relatively lenient response to her position and actions.

But there was also a pop-culture context for interpreting the relationship as sexual. Aphra Behn's play The False Count (1682) has a jealous husband asserting "I have known as much danger hid under a petticoat as a pair of breeches. I have heard of two women that married each other" (which may have been a direct reference to the legal case at hand). Certain discrepancies in the trial record support a conclusion (or at least suspicion) that the two women had a sexual relationship. The length of time they cohabited is a strong argument against the marriage being merely a joke, and there was no particular financial motive on either woman's part to marry (indeed, Amy had a disincentive related to her jointure). Arabella never outright claimed that she had been deceived about Amy's sex, and both during the courtship and after the marriage Amy wore women's clothing as well as men's.

The article concludes with extensive extracts from the court documents.

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