Sautman, Francesca Canadé & Pamela Sheingorn (eds). 2001. Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, Palgrave, New York.
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.
In my opinion, the article overstates the lack of a vocabulary for women to express same-sex desire though it points out tendency for records to be filtered through hostile lenses. As a symbol of the problems with the evidence, it looks at an image of two women kissing while dancing from the Roman de la Rose as symbolic of desire being evident and overt without being clearly categorized or named. The dance and kiss are described explicitly in the text, though coyly: ''their lips would touch in such a way that you might have thought they were kissing." This collection or articles looks at instances that share this context: where affection is demonstrated with erotic overtones even if it does not continue to sexual activity. There is an extensive theoretical discussion of the balance between the extremes of essentialism and constructionism, the history of theoretical approaches and academic dialogue. Examples include the disruptive effect of gender challenges such as Joan of Arc's overt cross-dressing.
They continue with a review of studies on the identification and naming of a "lesbian" category, beginning in late antiquity, in contradiction to the constructionist position that such a category is of very recent date. They consider the study of lesbians to be inseparable from the study of women's history as something other than an appendix to men. The evidence argues for an awareness among medieval women of same-sex possibilities, despite the lack of documented formal networks as are found for men. Although there is clear evidence for this awareness in religious literature, they caution against generalizing the clerical preoccupation with sex as sin. The clerics' position on the inferiority of women and their "natural" passivity helped drive the condemnation of same-sex pairings, though disapproval went beyond those transgressing this norm. Clement of Alexandra condemned female-female marriages both the "active" member and the "bride". (See Brooten 1997.)
The topics in this volume consider a spectrum ranging from homosocial, homoaffective, homoerotic, through homosexual. This Queer Studies approach draws connections between passionate friendships and sexual relationships, even when the participants themselves would never consider such a connection. This approach avoids the trap of interpretations that presuppose heterosexuality, e.g., in characterizing a religious devotion to Christ as 'erotic’ but a similar devotion to the Virgin as non-erotic. There is a discussion of how the word and concept of ‘sodomy’ relate to women's experience and how this led to an erasing of lesbianism as a separate concept and category. Also problematic in this conflation is that there were different options for men and women to combine opposite-sex marriage and same-sex relations, making extrapolation from male evidence less than useful. But they argue against a position that studying same-sex relations is futile due to a lack of data and this “male filtering” of what data there is. One field where distinctions are preserved is the literature of ecstatic religious experiences with erotic overtones. Traditional interpretations downplayed the appearance of eroticism in this literature but the authors caution against concluding that erotic language between women is meaningless in the absence of sexual activity, as opposed to being part of a continuum that could either include sex or not.
Schibanoff’s article explores the close emotional relations between 12th century abbess Hildegard of Bingen and Richardis of Stade, a younger noblewoman who became a nun under her. Their relationship led to conflict when Richardis left to become abbess at a different institution and Hildegard went to great lengths to try to arrange for her return. Secular as well as church politics were involved in the maneuverings, but what stands out in Hildegard's correspondence is the expression of a strong and very personal emotional bond between the two, couched in language that otherwise might seem passionate or even erotic. The entreaties also carry overtones that wouldn’t be out of place after a bad breakup.
The rhetoric of the correspondence on both sides suggests the unusual nature of Hildegard's demands and the unease they provoked from authorities. Although Hildegard’s own writings echo monastic rules and penitentials in condemning physical sexual relations between women, and especially nuns, the physicality of her language with regard to her bond with Richardis suggests she may have compartmentalized the prohibition as applying to specific practices ("play[ing] a male role in coupling with another woman") and have seen her own relationship as qualitatively different. Her letters also invoke a maternal bond but the desires and expressions don't resemble a mother-daughter relationship. In the only extant letter between the two, Hildegard frames a reciprocal mother-daughter relationship with each playing both roles. She paraphrases Biblical quotations that suggest a separation of romantic partners or spouses.
In this she echoes two other surviving missives at the 12-13th century where a woman expresses longing and desire for an absent female friend. Those cases draw on the decidedly erotic language of the Song of Songs and Canticles. The article discusses gender fluidity in how Christ and the church are framed in medieval devotional literature, including Hildegard's works where she pairs the (grammatically) female Ecclesia with the Virgin in metaphors of marriage and passionate joining, As further evidence that Hildegard may have seen a clear distinction between forbidden phallocentric activities between women and acceptable-even praiseworthy-non-phallic relations, her medical treatises include a rather frank discussion of differences between men and women in experiencing sexual pleasure, describing how a woman "may be moved to pleasure without the touch of a man" with further metaphorical elaborations.
Like Schibanoff, Weston looks at the framing of religious devotions in same-sex imagery associated with the convent of saint Radegund. An episode in Radegund's Vita in which she encounters Christ as Bridegroom is turned around and echoed more strongly in Radegund’s relationship to the female community she founded, which is expressed in the language of desire and relationship. Within the female-authored part of her Vita, Radegund becomes conflated with Christ the Bridegroom in her relationship to the Brides/nuns who venerate her. This interpretation is clearly on the symbolic-cerebral end at the same-sex desire scale, but in the context of an all-female community, the license that this framing gives for same-sex internal desire is an important part of that continuum.
Benkov reviews how the squeamishness of medieval legal texts in indicating how the word "sodomy" is applied to women's acts effectively erases the lesbian nature of their activity: “women with each other by detestable and horrible means which should not be named or written about.” Which text is placed beside for more simple and clear descriptions of men participating in anal intercourse. Crompton (1980) addressed the question of prosecutions of women for sodomy up to the French revolution, but little additional material has been added since. Although historians have demonstrated that lesbianism was not immune from legal penalty it is still striking how relatively few cases were recorded compared to men.
Benkov proposes to understand this contrast via the legal focus of women's "sodomy" as being understood solely as an analog for male sexual transgressions, thereby excluding large amounts of possible sexual activity from inclusion. Detailed penitential manuals that include a variety of proscribed activities for men may indicate female transgressions with a vague “if a woman fornicates with a woman". The few more specific penitentials are valuable, such as Hincmar of Rheims. "They do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.” This focus on penetration as the definition of sex, and thus of sexual crime/sin, follows pre-Christian classical thought. But where classical writers allowed for the fricatrix, Hincmar either can not conceive of non-penetrative activity or does not categorize it as sin.
This contrast provides a bridge to understanding why only certain types of activity may have made the transition from sin to crime and thus appeared in court records. Changes in the 13th century to procedures for accusation and evidence created greater scope for legal prosecution of private sexual activity on the basis of rumor or suspicion alone. In the same general period, the rise and consolidation of a legal category of sodomy from what had been a collection of less clearly related acts, both creates the beginning of a concept of male homosexual “identity” and effectively excludes women from this process. This was not a universal process and writings continue to identify vague female transgressions together that are defined primarily by the women's failure to interact sexually with men. (For example, Peter Abelard who condemns women who fail to have their genitals "for the use of men" but instead “co-habit with women".) This omission and vagueness in ecclesiastic law carried over to secular law, as did a common elision of more specific crimes under the rubric of sodomy, making it unclear whether women were covered by the category at all.
A late 13th century law text from the Orleans region is unusual in mentioning women specifically in the section on sodomy, but the illogical parallelism with the corresponding male text raises the question whether this was merely a structural parallel rather than a functional legal category. (What else to think when the penalties for women repeat the example of "losing the member" indicated for men?) Non-legal texts such as monastic rules acknowledge the existence of women's non-phallic homo-eroticism but the law fails to find a clear way to define it. Instead of focusing on female same-sex sexual activity, per se, the legal response follows the hetero-normative model by focusing on "women who behave sexually like men". This often resulted in a focus on identifying an "active" partner as culpable, with correspondingly more severe penalties. This created a perverse incentive for one member of a suspect couple to identify the other as the male-acting member in order to dodge punishment. The article concludes with an extended presentation of the three most detailed cases of prosecution for lesbian activity that have survived which illustrate these contrasts. (These cases were also mentioned in Puff (2000) and several other articles.)
Case 1: A 1405 French royal register contains the appeal documents from a woman sentenced (condemned?) for a lesbian relationship who asks for pardon apparently on the basis that she was the”passive” partner, an appeal in which she is successful. The women are both married. Laurence testifies that the relationship began when Jehanne approached her asking if she would be her “sweetheart” (mie) at which Laurence “thought there was nothing evil in it” and after some surprise, agrees. Jehanne is portrayed as the sexual aggressor who “climbed on her as a man does on a woman”. The encounter was enjoyable enough that they met repeatedly until one night when Jehanne came to Laurence’s house and Laurence said she no longer desired her. Jehanne took the news badly and attacked her with a knife then ran away. It isn’t clear whether the case first came to the attention of the law because of the assault or because of the transgressive sexual activity. It also isn’t clear whether the absence of a “diabolical instrument” contributed to the success of the appeal. Jehanne’s fate is not mentioned in the documents.
Case 2: Around 1514, it was recorded that Greta, a serving girl in Mösskirch, Germany, “loved young daughters, went after them ... and she also used all the bearings and manners, as if she had a masculine affect.” The investigation seems to have centered around the question of whether Greta was a hermaphrodite (and thus may have had a sexual organ capable of penetration) but on examination she was found to be “a true, proper woman”. The record doesn’t seem to indicate that there was excess concern over her behavior, only over the question of her somatic status. As in the first case, there is no mention of any external sexual aids and this contributes to the evidence that non-phallic activity may have been of lesser concern.
Case 3: This is the contrasting case of Katherina Hetzeldorferin in Speyer, Germany in 1477. The details can be found in the entry for Puff (2000). Here the “active” partner is not only sexually aggressive and male-acting, but she cross-dresses and passes for a man and makes use of an instrument to perform penetrative sex. In her case, the outcome of the trial was execution for Katherina and exile for her partners.
Several of the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages look outside the European sphere that the phrase “Middle Ages” normally implies. Malti-Douglas looks at the language and discorse around lesbianism in medieval Arabic texts, particularly as contrasted with the treatment of male homosexuality which is mentioned extensively in medieval Arabic/Islamic texts. The core text under consideration in this article is the 13th century Nuzhat al-Albâb fîmâ lâ Yûjad fî Kitâb (The Diversion of the Hearts by What is Not to Be Found in Any Book) by the jurist Shihâb al-Dîn Ahmad al-Tîfâshî (henceforth: al-Tîfâshî). The book is a collection of entertaining stories centering around sex, falling more in the “entertainment” side than the “sex manual” side. As such, it is part of a tradition of adab literature that combines entertaining and edifying material, often with verses from the Qur’an, poetry, and sayings of the Prophet, to form a sophisticated whole covering a topic or topics, with a traditional internal structure reflecting the social hierarchy from top to bottom. Women, therefore, and especially women’s same-sex activities come fairly late in the book. Even within the book’s section on sahq (tribadism, from a root meaning “to rub, pound, or make soft”) the material is structured into “stories and poetry”, “arguments in favor”, and “blame.” Presentation of sahq within this structure integrates and normalizes it within the literary genre as a whole.
The article provides a linguistic tour through the Arabic vocabulary for female same-sex relations. Much of it derives from the same root as sahq, such as the reciprocal verb tatasâhaq clearly implying the mutual participation of both women. A different root supplies a more intriging label zirâf, which the women call themselves, meaning literally someone who is witty, elegant, and charming, but used as a codeword. “If they say so and so is a zarîfa, it is then known among them that she is a tribade.” (This is not a fixed meaning, and elsewhere the term is used without sexual innuendo.)
Despite the topic, the material is always filtered through the male gaze and experience of the author al-Tîfâshî and many of the humorous anecdotes focus on male reactions to the women’s activities. One anecdote carries the implication that all (or most) women participate, when man curious about sahq is advised to enter his own house stealthily to learn more. Another focuses on a man’s indifference to his wife’s sexual activities with women as he considers it will better prepare her to appreciate him. But other descriptions and anecdotes build up an image of the lesbian as a distinct subculture with its own habits and practices (or at least its own stereotypes). The women are said to use perfume excessively, to be fastidious in their clothing, and to enjoy having beautiful possessions around them. They love each other more intensely than men love women, and spend large amounts of money on the object of affection. There is some implication of active/passive roles labeled as “lover” and “beloved”, with the “lover” normally taking the top position during sex. (Although an allowance is made for larger body types.)
A later article in this same collection provides more material from al-Tîfâshî.
In the chansons de geste, women might don male garb for a variety of reasons, especially for safety, but also to be able to participate in masculine activities or join male groups. There is a repeating motif of the woman who disguises herself as a knight and succeeds in winning great renown in that guise. A common twist then has her dealing with the amorous or matrimonial desires of another woman, as in the story of Yde and Olive. Yde goes out into the world to escape the incestuous advances of her father, disguises herself as a man and wins fame as a knight, and is offered the hand of Olive in marriage. Different versions of the tale resolve this problem into heterosexuality in different ways, but leave the transitory state where a woman disguised as a man is married to another woman (with her knowledge).
In the 14th century story Tristan de Nanteuil, the character Blanchandine, having disguised herself entirely too well as a man in order to accompany her lover Tristan on adventures, is loved and courted by the noblewoman Clarinde. Believing Tristan to be dead, she finds herself forced to agree to marry Clarinde but successfully delays consummation until a miracle transforms her into a man. Blanchandine's erotic feelings are dictated entirely by the form of her body: uninterested in Clarinde before the change, but in love with her afterward, and after the change denying any trace of attraction to poor Tristan who turned out not to be dead after all.
Another tale with similar structure is Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999) where the heroine lives as a man and wins fame as a knight and courtier, however in Silence’s case, there is no same-sex marriage but rather she attracts the adulterous attention of the queen.
Sautman examines this group of stories in terms of shared motifs and tale types, arguing for an interrelation between them at a structural level, as well as exploring how the disruptive possibility of same-sex love is acknowledged, framed, and eventually resolved into heterosexual order again.
This article looks at an unusual 12th century text: Etienne de Fougères’ Livre des Manières, a catalog-in-verse of different classes of people. The inclusion of women who have sexual relations with other women is unusual for touching on the subject at all and valuable for the reflection of the author's attitude. The concept of classifying and ordering the parts of society has a long tradition, whether the older Dumézilian division into priests, warriors, and farmers, or the medieval division into various "estates". The Livre uses various divisions and contrasts to address distinct groups. Each is lectured on their proper characteristics and duties and the relationships that should hold between them, first cataloging their virtues and then noting the sins that each group is prey to.
Women are excluded from the traditional social classifications except as connected to men in the categories. And when women are critiqued, their sexuality in general comes in for scrutiny. De Fougères’ work is systematically misogynistic, and only when discussing women does his poem treat first of vice and secondly of virtue. It is in this context--condemning both women and sex--that the verses on lesbians must be understood. But the tone of the condemnation is more mocking than virulent. Depictions of lesbian sex in medieval texts in general divide between those where an artificial penis is used (which are condemned as trespassing on masculine prerogatives) and those where the absence of a penis is emphasized (which are framed as ludicrous and pointless). De Fougères employs a number of visual metaphors for female-female sex that not only imply the absence of a penis but define the activity by that absence: two coffins (boxes) banging together, stirring up a fire without a poker, joining two shields without a lance, a mortar without a pestle, thigh-fencing.
This imagery of activity defined by the absent penis is consistent with the tone at the text but is unusual in the larger context of sexual commentary of the time.
Amer draws close connections between the symmetric penis-less images of Etienne de Forgères' 12th century French poem Livre des Manières, a catalog-in-verse of different classes of people, focusing on the vices they are prone to. Parallels are noted between the language of this poem and depictions of lesbian sexuality found in Arabic homoerotic literature. The article includes an extensive general discussion of Arabic sources for the language of courtly love and a lament for the ways Eurocentrism has impeded and obscured exploration of these connections.The author explores whether European expression of lesbian desire in literature can be connected to Arabic sources the way male homosexual literature can, The texts considered on the French side are Bieris de Romans, Yde and Olive, and the Livre des Manières. Specific metaphoric images such as "join[ing] shield to shield without a lance" are also found in Arabic sources. (E.g., “They invented a tournament in which there is no use of lance, Hitting only with great noise one shield against the other!”) Other image parallels are noted. The most daring suggestion is to connect the obscure word "trutennes" in de Fougere with an Arabic root t-r-t found in at least one Arabic erotic text to refer to the mons, a reading that brings sense to de Fougères couplet where it appears. The author reviews other Arabic erotic texts that include descriptions of lesbian sex, however the image parallels with the French texts are more attenuated in those, such as attempts to find parallels for “thigh-fencing". The most detailed and evocative of the Arabic texts is quoted here in full:
“The tradition between women in the game of love necessitates that the lover places herself above and the beloved underneath--unless the former is too light or the second too developed: and in this case the lighter one places herself underneath and the heavier one on top, because her weight will facilitate the rubbing, and will allow the friction to be more effective. This is how they proceed the one that must stay underneath lies on her back, stretches out one leg and bends the other while leaning slightly to the side, therefore offering her opening (vagina) wide open: meanwhile, the other lodges her bent leg in her groin, puts the lips of her vagina between the lips that are offered for her, and begins to rub the vagina of her companion in an up-and-down, and down-and-up, movement that jerks the whole body. This operation is dubbed “the saffron massage” because this is precisely how one grinds saffron on the cloth when dying it. The operation must focus each time on one lip in particular, the right one, for example, and then the other: the woman will then slightly change position in order to apply better friction to the left lip…and she does not stop acting in this manner until her desires and those of her partner are fulfilled. I assure you that it is absolutely useless to try to press the two lips together at the same time, because the area from which pleasure comes would then not be exposed. Finally, let us note that in this game the two partners may be aided by a little willow oil, scented with musk”
Medieval Indian devotional mystical texts included representations at love between women. These do not necessarily represent societal approval of lesbian relationships and typically frame the sakhi or female friend as an adjunct and assistant to the primary relationship with a man or god. In this the sakhi functions like a mirror of the self. But this function fulfilled a greater emotional need as seen by elaborations of stories in the mystical traditions, and the multiple layers of envisioning human-divine relationship via gendered (and sometimes cross-gendered) imagery also contributes to bringing female same-sex desire into the portfolio of accepted concepts.
The legendary devotion of intimate female friends can appear as in the mystic Mirabai’s lifelong female companion joined her in romantic suicide. In other contexts, love between women is sometimes justified by reincarnation, either reflecting the prior relationship of a pair of friends or of a previously heterosexual couple. Gender connections in devotional practices can be tangled, as when male devotees of the female figure Radha (wife of Krishna) show devotion to Krishna by dressing as women to represent Radha's role in devotion to Krishna, but then turn their devotion to Radha as an intermediary. Despite all the layered gender representations, the eroticism is always framed as male-female. But in artistic representations of these stories, there are spaces where female-female erotic interactions are clearly depicted, either with the presence or absence of Krishna. The Sakha Bhava tradition frames devotion to god as friendship, combining imagery of familial love and intimate friendships. The female mystic poet Janabai expresses the relationship of a devotee and deity as that of female friends, interacting in everyday or intimate tasks such as bathing and hairdressing. Another tradition with similar imagery is the Varkari where god is seen as an omnipresent parent or close friend and includes female same-sex framings.
The strongest portrayal of female couples may be in the Krittirasa Ramayana. Here Shiva sanctions love between women by instructing two co-widows of a childless man to have sex with each other with the promise that one will become pregnant. (The driving purpose is still male-centered: the dead man’s lineage is fated to produce a hero to perform a task that has not yet been accomplished.)
While not contradicting the heteronormative essence of Indian tradition, Vanita shows a variety of ways in which female same-sex desire existed and was even exalted within that context.
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).
In the 16th century Laudomia Forteguerri wrote sonnets to Duchess Margaret of Austria, five of which survive. And at least one contemporary of theirs placed the relationship between the two in the context at Plato’s myth of lovers seeking their "other half”, placing them in a list of "those who...love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as ... in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana.” Setting aside the distinction between "pure" and "lascivious" love, this text provides not only an acknowledgement at the possibility of love between women-in a variety of expressions-but gives the names of actual women considered to embody that love. In addition, it puts a label on the sentiments expressed in Laudomia's poetry that otherwise would be at the mercy at interpretations that focus only on the conventional expressions and format of laudatory verse. The literary dialog in which the discussion takes place is rife with male gaze and privilege. Written by a male author (Agnolo Firenzuola) it presents a conversation between a young man and four women on the topic of female beauty where the man dominates and directs the conversation. Despite this, not only does he express this view of apparent tolerance, but the conversation began as a female-only admiring discussion of another woman's beauty that they were reluctant to include the man in. (As framed by the male author, to be sure.)
There is no other reliable source for the identity of Cecelia Venetiana though another author gives a brief biography of her origins and how she set herself up in her profession with the assistance of a series of men. There are other references to Roman courtesans having female lovers as in Brantôme’s description “courtesans, who still have plenty of men available to them all the time, indulge in this rubbing (fricarelles) and seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard it said in Italy and Spain.” Whether this reflects reality or only popular imagination is unclear.
A far more solid background is known for Margaret of Austria and Laudomia Forteguerri. Laudomia was of the Siennese nobility, twice married, had children, was both the author and subject of poetry, was considered beautiful and learned, and is reputed to have been one of a group of women who organized the women of sienna in defense against a siege of the city in 1555. Margaret of Austria was the illegitimate daughter of Emperor Charles V, twice married, by which she became duchess of Parma and Piacenza, had children, served as governor of the Netherlands, and was remarked on as less than beautiful and masculine in personality. There is no solid documentation that the two met in person though a contemporary claims they did first in 1535 and on later occasions. At their first meeting, he says, “as soon as Laudomia saw Madama, and was seen by her, 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.” And on one of these occasions, “they renewed most happily their sweet Loves, and today more than ever, with notes from one to the other they warmly maintain them.” (Alas that none of this correspondence has been located!) This first meeting would have been early in their lives when Laudomia was newly married and just before Margaret’s first marriage. This writer, too, felt it was important to point out the "purity" of their love. The language of Laudomia's poems is conventional love and praise, unusual only in having both a female subject and object. Laudomia praises Margaret's beauty and begs her for a portrait that she can look at always, she longs for Margaret's physical presence. There is no self-consciousness in her expression or sense of guilt for her feelings. Laudomia at that time was an apparently happy wife and mother, with a growing reputation as an intellectual. Margaret, on the other hand, after a brief first marriage at a young age, openly refused to consummate her second marriage. Political satires at the time accused her family of all sorts of sexual vices and she was accused of being a lesbian in this context. Having eventually relented, Margaret produced children for her husband after which she returned to living separately from him. She was never accused of interest in any other man and other than the satirical speculations early in her second marriage, the only claim that she was a lesbian comes a generation later from the unreliable Brantôme, working from Firenzuola's description, but his garbling of the original text and the salaciously misogynistic context he brings it up in cast doubt that the interpretation came from anything except Brantôme's imagination and literary purpose.
In all the discussions of the relationship between the two women, there's a clear Madonna-whore thing going on (with Margaret, at least, assigned variably to both categories) which distorts the possibility of reliable evidence on the women's physical relationship,
The article concludes with the text of the sonnets in the original and English translation.