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17th c

LHMP entry

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.

Cressy looks at the social context of both “acceptable” and unacceptable forms of cross-dressing by both men and women in his study period. While the contexts for the two groups were very different, both raised similar concerns about the violation of appropriate gender roles and the use of cross-dressing as an excuse (or context) for other social transgressions.

Like many articles of this era, Bruster begins by explaining that (and why) there is a dearth of academic investigation into the topic of female homoeroticism in [insert topic here]. He asserts that prior work has focused on affirmative and subversive portrayals of female homoeroticism, resulting in an incomplete and idealized picture. So he’s going to be iconoclastic and look at less positive portrayals of female-female eroticism on the stage.

Medical references to sex between women include several on the “rediscovery of the clitoris” theme as well as pseudo-medical explanations for same-sex desire, plus some titillating orientalism. Several of the texts cited here are classical but formed part of the corpus of standard medical literature in the Renaissance.

The introduction notes the extreme variation in how female same-sex relationships were treated, in terms of penalties, liability, and the means and extent of enforcement, including differing legal theories of whether the term “sodomy” could apply. As a generalization, consensual same-sex behavior was least prosecuted in England, while Florence may have regularly prosecuted relations between men but the penalties were relatively light, while in Spain penalties were regularly quite severe including execution, and similarly severe were those recorded in Geneva.

There’s a rich amount of data on singlewomen and female-headed households in medieval Germany. Tax records for selected cities in the 14-15th centuries show between 17-25% of tax-paying households headed by women. Widows were often labeled as such in the records but it isn’t alway possible to clearly distinguish never-married women, though estimates suggest they may have been as many as half of these households. This continued in the 16th century with tax records indicating that 20-25% of tax-paying urban households were headed by women.

The rise of a virulently negative attitude toward never-married women in the 18th c. seems to have been a peculiarly English reaction. While negative attitudes toward never-married women appear earlier, the 18th c. saw an increase in hostility. This occurs in parallel with the rise of feminist literature challenging sexist and patriarchal structures, and especially questioning the benefit of marriage to women. The negative screeds against “old maids" presage modern anti-feminist venom in framing singlewomen as simultaneously sexually frustrated and undesirable to men.

This is a complex, data-heavy survey of sources for the demographics of singlewomen, the overall (very complex) patterns that emerge, and an analys of the theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain those patterns. For my summary, I’ve rearranged the topics to try to focus on single variables at a time.

The article looks at category differences between never-married women and widows. There can be a problem with conflating the two despite superficial similarities. Widowhood was more respectable, while singlehood was both pitiable and suspect. Singles were sometimes twice as common as widows, only emphasizing differences in treatment in the records. Widows were viewed as being a deputy for her late husband but the never-married were expected to be dependent, either on a father or as a member of another (male-headed) household.

The article looks at Venice in the 16-17th centuries. Social commentaries framed singlewomen who were not under male control as “dangerous”. Charity aimed at this sector focused on dowries and making young women more mariagable. This paper proposes that worsening circumstances for singlewomen in the16th century resulted in expanded and new opportunities, especially female communities. There is discussion of the usual problems with documentation. In the 16th c. the best source is church 'censuses’ of baptismal status.


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