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LHMP #201 Crawford & Gowing 2000 Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England

Full citation: 

Crawford, Patricia & Laura Gowing. 2000. Women’s Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England. Routledge, London. ISBN 0-415-15637-8

Publication summary: 

A sourcebook of texts illustrating various aspects of women’s everyday lives in 17th century England.

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There are two passages in this book that are relevant to themes in the LHMP: the first concerning sex between women and the second concerning cross-dressing, including a same-sex encounter. The section also includes a 19th century reproduction of a woodcut from a 17th century broadside ballad showing two women together in bed, embracing.

The first item comes from a case in the London consistory court in 1694 regarding an accusation of bigamy. This is a bit complex to untangle. Ralph Hollingsworth had at one time been married to Susannah Bell. Later he married Maria Seely without having bothered to formally dissolve his earlier marriage. Maria sued Ralph for bigamy but Ralph argued that his marriage to Susannah had not been valid as it was unconsummated. As part of his testimony, he offered this: as to Susannah Bell: she knowing her infirmity ought not to have married; her infirmity is such that no man can lie with her, and because it so she has ways with women as well, as with her old companions men, which is not fit to be named but most rank whorish they are ... the said Susan belongs to a company of clippers and coiners, as she herself was telling me and relating the great benefit of it, which was one main thing, which frighted me from her ...

This is quite a grab bag of accusations, but the relevant part appears to be that Susannah was predisposed to reject sexual relations with men, and that as part of this predisposition she had sexual relations with women, and because of this she should not have agreed to marry Ralph in the first place. This suggestion seems to be contradicted somewhat by the passage, “ with her old companions men...” but in any event there is a clear accusation that she had sex with women.

The woodcut that follows this passage (though not directly related to it in the sources) was originally used to accompany at least two 17th century broadside ballads. (The woodcuts used when printing broadsides were often re-used multiple times in various contexts, often with only a general thematic relevance.) One of the ballads was “The Bloody Battle at Billingsgate” and opens with a scolding match between two fishwives, Doll and Kate. The text doesn’t mention what the second ballad was.

The image shows a bed in a curtained alcove, with two women lying closely together, apparently naked (at least in what shows outside the bedcovers). One woman is reclining against pillows and the other (behind her) is propped up on one elbow with her other arm laid across the first woman’s abdomen. Bed-sharing by people of the same sex was expected and normal in this era and did not necessarily have sexual connotations, but in this case the physical arrangement suggests an embrace.

The third item in this collection is an article from The Gentleman’s Journal: Or the Monthly Miscellany dated April 1692, and is a typical example of how discoveries of passing women or “female husbands” were treated as entertaining news in England, perhaps with a salacious edge, but not something to be condemned (at least, not when no other transgressive elements were involved). Notice how the woman in question is used as an example of English virtue, thus being appropriated for national pride as a way of softening the gender transgression.

Courage is so natural to the English, that even the tender sex give a frequent mark of theirs: We have had but two years ago a young lady on board the Fleet in man’s apparel, who show’d all the signs of the most undaunted valour. Several others are still living, and some of them in this town, who have served whole campaigns, and fought stroke by stroke by the most manly soldiers. The last letters from Genoa give us an account of an English heroine who, they tell us, is of quality. She had served two years in the French Army in Piedmont as a volunteer, and was entertained for her merit by the Governor of Pignerol in the quality of his Gentlemen of the Horse; at last playing with another of her sex, she was discover’d; and the Governor having thought fit to inform the King his master of this, he hath sent him word that he would be glad to see the lady; which hath occasion’d her coming to Genoa, in order to embark for France: Nature has bestow’d no less beauty on her than courage; and her age is not above 26. The French envoy hath orders to cause her to be waited on to Marseille, and to furnish her with all necessaries.

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