Skip to content Skip to navigation

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. 2002. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-44885-9

Publication summary: 

This is a sizable work, tackling the broad topic of female homoeroticism in 16-17th century England. This work is one of a number to address (and disprove) the notion that lesbianism--by name and by definition--is a purely modern concept.

Contents summary: 

The introduction begins with a consideration of the play Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd) and the interpretation of a key scene in art, when the shepherd Mirtillo -- having disguised himself as a woman to gain access to the object of his desire, the nymph Amarillis -- comes upon the nymphs holding a kissing competition among themselves. He enters the competition (still in disguise) and is crowned the victor by Amarillis (the scene commonly portrayed in paintings). While there is an arguably heterosexual underlay to this victory, the entire set-up presupposes a background of female homoeroticism via the kissing game. (And, indeed, as the story continues, Mirtillo is able to have continued proximity to Amarillis only by maintaining the gender disguise and thus never actually consummating the alleged heterosexual framing.)

Traub moves on to examining how--in the face of examples such as this--historians have nonetheless maintained the position that medieval and Renaissance texts are silent on the topic of lesbianism. In contradiction to this position, Traub notes a wealth of works that reference or pre-suppose female-female desire in the 16th and 17th centuries. In this book, she explores the ways in which this desire was represented and made understandable, and the techniques used to render it as "safely impossible", at least superficially. She draws her data from works of drama and poetry, from medical texts, from travelers tales of "exotic" practices, and from artistic representations of women in amorous poses. Some of the explosion of representations during this period can be attributed to technology: the increase in printed books meant an explosion of material on all manner of topics. And it is noted that these representations of female desire occurred in a social and political context in which women rarely benefitted from the "Renaissance" ideals of individualism and intellectualism.

The introduction then discusses issues of theory and methodology. Of particular interest is the question of how one recognizes portrayals of erotic desire, especially when they exist on a continuum with expressions of non-romantic friendship. While using the word "lesbian" liberally in the text of the book, Traub emphasizes that this imposes an anachronistic unity onto a number of disparate motifs and concepts that had yet to converge. One strand is a (re)emerging understanding of the clitoris as the focus of female sexual pleasure, and the concomitant understanding that male participation was not necessary for female pleasure. Another related strand is the figure of the tribade: a woman defined by sexual practice. The intimacy of friendship expressed via classical models contributes, despite the majority of examples being male. Another aspect of this "renaissance" is a growing suspicion of female intimacies that had previously been viewed as chaste and harmless, such as sharing beds, kissing and caressing, and exclusive intimate friendships.

Several social shifts of the time, including the rise of Protestant morality, contributed to the focus on women as the site and driver of sexual sin, and an increasing use of accusations of sexual transgression to punish or control non-conforming women in general. Within this context, accusations of lesbianism are not prominent and, when used, tend to occur within a shotgun of insults rather than being singled out.

With regard to the modern reception of this material, Traub emphasizes that she is not arguing for an early date for the modern concept of lesbian identity, but rather for identifying and uncovering the plurality of stands that eventually came to make up that identity. She spends some time considering the ìactsî versus ìidentityî arguments and the mistake of studying womenís homoeroticism as a direct parallel to men's experience.

Contents summary: 

Renaissance drama provides a case study in how lesbian themes and female homoerotic potential can be hidden in plain sight simply by the denial of their possibility. Traub notes that even today one can find vehement denials of homoerotic content in such overtly suggestive works as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. And less overt content may only emerge into view through an awareness of the era’s understanding and encoding of female desire and forms of female intimacy. To provide a context for this understanding, Traub uses this chapter to review the theological, legal, and medical debates regarding female homoeroticism in the Renaissance.

In the absence of an essentialist division of desire into homosexual and heterosexual, how was eroticism categorized in the early modern era? Age, marital status, familial relations, and social rank all affected what were considered legitimate and illegitimate expressions of sexuality. The core prototype of legitimate sexuality was patriarchal marriage, with divergences from that core being considered less legitimate. But this meant that erotic behaviors were judged in terms of compatibility with marriage, rather than in terms of the nature of the underlying desire. Therefore expressions of female same-sex desire that did not exclude or contradict patriarchal marriage could potentially be considered legitimate and acceptable.

Both the primacy of marriage as the means of legitimizing sex, and the hierarchy of sexual offenses when deviating from it, found their roots in the church’s positions. But this reliance could create a paradox that legitimized lesbian activity by erasing it. Anti-sodomy laws in the 16th century became increasingly harsh, and yet frequently omitted women’s activities entirely. Or, when included, actual prosecution of them was disproportionately rare. Traub notes the correlation of prosecutions with appropriation of masculine characteristics, such as the use of dildoes. A list of cases where women were prosecuted is provided and worth summarizing here as it only partially overlaps similar lists in previous-covered publications:

  • 1625 Glasgow, Scotland - Elspeth Fauls and Margaret Armour charged with sodomy and forced to separate from one another
  • 1533 Toulouse, France - Francoise de l’Estage and Catherine de la Maniére aquitted of sodomy due to inadequate evidence (after arrest and torture)
  • 1535 Foy, France - a woman burned for crossdressing and marrying a woman
  • 1580 Montier-en-Der, France - a woman executed for cross-dressing and marrying a woman and using “illicit devices” for sex
  • 1547 Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany - Agatha Dietzsch punished and banished for cross-dressing and marrying Anna Reulin
  • 1568 Geneva, Switzerland - a woman executed by drowning for the crime
  • (I’ll skip the Dutch examples which have been given in more detail in Dekker & van de Pol.)
  • 16th c. Spain - several cases of female couples executed for using “genital instruments”
  • No Italian cases noted.
  • A remark on the absence of Russian legislation against same-sex activity.
  • Colonial American laws in the 17th century generally omitted women from sodomy laws, but at least two cases of non-capital punishment for female same-sex erotic activity are noted (1642 Elizabeth Johnson and an unnamed woman, 1648 Sara Norman and Mary Hammon for “lewd behavior each with other upon a bed”).

Medical theory of the time aligned with the understanding of women as an imperfect or undeveloped man, thus sexual transformation where a person who had lived as a woman changed into a man was seen as a plausible occurrence by some as it involved "development" into a higher state. There was a fascination with the connection between an enlarged clitoris and tribadism, or with identifying hermaphroditism as an underlying cause for lesbian desire (on the principle that desire for women was essentially connected with the penis). Several cases are adduced of women found to be engaging in same-sex activities who were investigated for the possibility of hermaphroditism. And this identification could legitimate activity that would have been illigitimate for a woman. In all this, the categories of hermaphrodite, tribade, female sodomite, spontaneous transsexual, and female cross-dresser cut across each other in a confusing fashion.

Cross-dressing featured both in popular culture and real life, but was not automatically associated with sexual transgression with women (it was perhaps more closely associated in the popular imagination with transgressions with men due to increased access to the male social sphere). There is a list of various cases of “female husbands” involving one partner crossdressing. Traub once again notes the incoherence of the response to such cases: some couples living quietly in peace even when their situation was known, others censured either socially or legally.

The emphasis on virginity and physical chastity motivated some differences in reaction to sexual transgressions, where penetrative activities were viewed more harshly than non-penetrative ones. Social attitudes that de-emphasized personal privacy and considered as normal the sharing of beds by unrelated women offered a context for same-sex erotic activity with little comment.

The chapter returns to applying this understanding to portrayals of female homoeroticism in Shakespeare and his contemporaries (Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, Signdey’s New Arcadia, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, et al.), whether that portrayal is enabled by cross-dressing or comes in the form of passionate female friendships that exist in parallel with relationships with men.

Such devoted and passionate friendships are attested outside of literature as well. Although marriage was the model for a woman’s life, it was not a universal norm, with perhaps 20% of women never marrying. Some of these women are documented as having enjoyed long, close friendships such as that described on the funeral monument of Mary Kendall (d. 1710) which notes “that close union and friendship in which she lived with the Lady Catharine Jones ... in testimony of which she desired that even their ashes after death might not be divided.” Similarly the memorial of Katharina Bovey (d. 1727) was “erected with the utmost respect to her memory and justice to her character by her executrix Mrs. Mary Pope who lived with her near 40 years in perfect friendship never once interrupted till her much lamented death.” (Evidence is presented connecting this Mrs. Bovey with a woman who notoriously disdained the love of men in preference for a female companion.

Contents summary: 

In this chapter, Traub looks at medical views of female erotic pleasure, the understanding of orgasm, and the “rediscovery of the clitoris”. She opens with the story of the Spaniard Catalina de Erauso who dressed and passed as a man through many adventures both in Spain and the New World, but returned to living as a woman when convicted of murder in order to escape execution. One key factor in her plea was her status as an “intact virgin”. This arbitrary physical state was considered the crucial attribute of “innocence” despite her admitted history of erotic encounters with women. In a context that considered heterosexual sex within marriage as the only legitimate form of eroticism, women could still find ways of satisfying themselves by using cultural blind spots to their advantage. In looking at the contrasting genres of medical texts and obscene literature, a contradiction emerges between the position that female erotic satisfaction was essential for healthy procreation, and an underlying distaste for female anatomy.

Women took action for their own purposes across the spectrum of erotic objects. The framework of patriarchal marriage in obedience to parental dictates was subverted most often for the purpose of a chosen, but disapproved, heterosexual partner. Virginity may have been nominally prized, but a significant percentage of brides were pregnant at the marriage. Despite official disapproval from the church and law, betrothed couples were granted a great deal of latitude in sexual interactions. And popular culture recognized that men and women were equally interested in sex. This same attitude was reflected in both medical and behavioral literature, which viewed a mutual enjoyment of sex as essential for a prosperous marriage, though religious literature overlaid it with a tone of “as long as you don’t seek it out for its own sake.”

Humoral theory, which still held sway in medicine, viewed orgasm (in the form of the emission of humors) to be essential for bodily balance. Beliefs about the effects of unbalanced humors fed into advice regarding how to stimulate desire in a partner, but also to the prescription of masturbation (or manual stimulation by another person) for unmarried persons who lacked the approved outlet. The “hand of a skillful midwife and a convenient ointment” are prescribed for the “greensickness”, a label given to sexual frustration in women. As female orgasm was believed to be as important to conception as male emission, these instructions carried a professional air.

Another changing aspect of medical thought at this time was the view of woman as an “imperfect man”, which was beginning to shift to (in theory at least) a view of both sexes being perfect for their own kind. In this context, the “rediscovery” of the clitoris by anatomists may have gone some way to redeeming the “perfection” of women, as the organ was correctly understood to be a homologue to the male penis. Initially (and incorrectly) believed to be involved only in urination, it came to be understood as the locus of sexual pleasure for women.

But all this focus on the desirability of female arousal and satisfaction, on the use of foreplay to enhance that arousal, and on the stimulation of the clitoris as the means of that satisfaction, left open the possibility of enjoying sex without the alleged end-goal of conception. In this context, the substitution of a dildo for the male organ completes the shift from procreation to pleasure. But with this shift, we move from medical and behavioral advice to obscenity, from the merely bawdy to the pornographic. In this context, the image of women instructing each other in the pleasures of non-procreative sex merges seamlessly with the image of lesbians, engaging in sex with each other for its own sake (though always -- in the literature -- for the purpose of the male reader’s arousal).

In terms of activities, equipment, and effects, medical literature and pornography are very little distinguished. And there was a constant anxiety that medical writings would be condemned as obscene. Medical works were often censored in later editions (always the parts on female anatomy) due to fear that they would put ideas into the reader’s mind. Both genres of literature shade off into misogynistic disgust at the edges. In both cases, there is sometimes a sense that men’s sexual pleasure barely suffices to repay for the unfortunate necessity of interacting with female genitals. (Women, in contrast, are considered to be repaid in pleasure for the dangers of childbirth.)

Contents summary: 

In this chapter, Traub looks at representations of Queen Elizabeth as embodying the contradictions between a professional discourse that authorized female pleasure and mutual sexual relations, and the licensing of this only within the context of patriarchal marriage with its concurrent emphasis on female chastity outside marriage. In this context, Elizabeth stands as an icon--if not at all a typical example--of marriage resistance and the erotic possibilities for women outside marriage. While this chapter is quite interesting from a visual theory point of view, it offers relatively little of direct interest for the present project.

Elizabeth’s steadfast insistence on autonomy with regard to marriage (whether in resisting it or setting preconditions for it) provide a model, but not one that most women had access to. Conversely, there was a discourse around Elizabeth that saw her rule and her refusal to be ruled by men (or a single man) as setting the world upside down. But the majority of the chapter is more abstract, looking at various portraits of Elizabeth as symbolizing a simultaneous chastity and eroticism that may lie more in the eye of the interpreter than the historic era.

The latter part of the chapter explores the eroticization of the breast, both in portraiture and as a focus of erotic poetry, including a number of homoerotic encounters (though always presented for the male gaze). This is then contextualized in a motif of the alternate concealing and revealing of focal body parts, as in Elizabeth’s cited habit of repeatedly donning and doffing her gloves during audiences, offering her bare hand for salutation and then concealing it again. Traub offers that if Elizabeth cannot in any real way be considered to represent homosexuality, she certainly can be considered to represent un-heterosexuality. Her appropriation of male political and social roles, her refusal to submit to masculine authority in any form, and her ultimate resistance to marriage entirely certainly disrupted the heterosexual paradigm. But if the person of the monarch sets a model for society, the vastly different models set by Elizabeth’s successors show the instability of this as a driver for social change.

Contents summary: 

This chapter begins with a look at allegorical images of what appear on the surface to be female same-sex erotic embraces. Images such as "Peace and Justice embracing" on the frontispiece of Saxton's 1579 atlas (in the cartouche above Elizabeth's head), or various paired embracing nudes in paintings representing Justice and Prudence or Faith and Hope raise questions of the public use of female homoeroticism for symbolic purpose. A literary parallel is found in correspondence between the poets T.W. and John Donne where the muses of the two men are envisioned as engaging in "tribadry", standing in for their own creative relationship.

If images of this sort are not meant to valorize lesbianism, per se, what do they represent? The immediate textual source is the biblical passage "mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other" but the combination of embodying these qualities in female form and the quality of their embrace goes beyond a gesture of formal reconciliation. Their nudity and the inclusion in some cases of putti, recalling Cupid as a symbol of erotic love, cannot help but put an erotic spin on things.

Traub notes Isabel Hull's analysis of early modern sexuality, which notes that the focus on heterosexual marriage and on the social consequences of sex, rather than on the acts themselves, led to an erasure or dismissal of sex between women as "insignificant" in the literal sense: "without meaning". Therefore acts may not have been categorized as "sexual" if they had no relation to these significant foci of sexuality. The chapter goes on to consider "the way that certain bodies and bodily acts accrue meaning and intelligibility as sexual." "This consideration focuses first on law and then on the more fluid context of drama.

Movements to regularize and make sense of the largely tradition-based body of English law did not attempt to create a legal system of significance, but to build an understanding of what had already been determined to be significant. Thus there was no expectation that male and female sexual transgressions would be treated in parallel, only that a framework must be identified in which the asymmetries made sense. For example while female sexual transgression outside marriage was framed as being--or being equivalent to--prostitution, male prostitutes were condemned, not for prostitution itself, but for having same-sex relations (sodomy). By this era, women were largely absent from the category of sodomy, in contrast to medieval approaches. Laws against sodomy typically did not include women, therefore women were not prosecuted for sodomy, therefore there were no female sodomites, regardless of what activities they participated in. This legal blindness coexists with an awareness of female homoeroticism elsewhere in the culture. But the general absence of legal sanctions helps explain the lack of social anxiety around depictions of lesbian desire, making it possible to use those depictions in positive contexts.

In English drama, one major focus in studies at female homoeroticism is the cross dressing heroine. These characters create a context for erotic opportunity without permanently disrupting heteronormativity. But this focus raises a number of problems, whether in the transparency of the dramatic disguise or the surface presentation of heterosexuality. An entirely different literary tradition promotes love and desire between women as women (a "femme-femme" desire, as it were) and not mediated through male disguise. This includes the female friendships in A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It as well as themes of erotic friendship in the writings of Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish.

These works emphasize closeness and inseparability, using the same language and imagery used for heterosexual love. The dramatic examples reflect a dynamic where female erotic friendships are not disrupted externally by the (eventually displacing) men, but are dissolved by the women themselves, either by choice or betrayal. Thus lesbian love is not cast as a direct challenge to men but as a passing phase.

The desire between the women was not always as chaste as portrayed in Shakespeare. Shirley's "The Bird in a Cage" flirts openly with women's sexual desire for each other. Cavendish's "The Convent of Pleasure" creates a context for homoerotics via an all-female separatist retreat in which the women amuse themselves with entertainments that include cross-dressed erotic role-play. A male wooer invades this scene in female disguise, thereby gaining access to erotic interactions with the object of his desire in the guise of homoeroticism. Pastoral imagery and role-playing add to the sense of sexual license.

The overall picture found in these plays is of a non-specific female desire that may be directed toward men or toward women, so long as male roles are not appropriated. The dramatic resolution in heterosexuality is not a male triumph but the triumph of marriage and its attendant social structures. Desire between women becomes problematic only if exclusive such that it interferes with marriage and legitimate procreation. If that desire did not interfere it was by definition insignificant. (Note that this means "insignificant to the culture" not to the participants in the relationship.)

A later chapter will examine the case where an female-oriented community, even when organized around chastity, could be viewed as sexually transgressive precisely because it interfered with marriage. The present chapter ends with several examples of conventional but passionate correspondence between female friends, one from a letter-writing manual in which the correspondent desires to "change sex for thy sake" and expresses a plan never to marry in order to devote herself to her female friend.

Contents summary: 

The general topic of this chapter is the historic association of the clitoris with transgressive lesbian sex (as opposed to culturally-acceptable same-sex relationships). Traub begins by reviewing Freud's theory that vagina = heterosexual, clitoris = homosexual, and points out that this was not a new concept with him but merely the culmination of a long tradition. To sum up a great deal of material: focus on the clitoris as a penis substitute, and especially the mythologized "enlarged clitoris", along with focus on mechanical penis substitutes, came to define the unacceptable, unnatural, gender-transgressive "masculine" lesbian, in contrast to the "insignificant" femme-femme desire that could be integrated within hetero-patriarchal structures. The association was so strong that it was assumed that any woman perceived to have an enlarged clitoris was presumed to be a tribade and any woman participating in lesbian sex was automatically suspected of having an enlarged clitoris. This was part of an overall distinction between women who appropriated male characteristics (physiological, behavioral, cultural) and were condemned for that reason (whether or not they had sex with women), and women who did not and were considered acceptable (even if they participated in sex with women). A few European examples of this framing are given (e.g., Montaigne's observations in a French town in 1580 regarding a female husband; Ambroise Paré's medical text Microcosmographia (1615)) but the chapter moves on to look at the extensive early modern "travelogue" literature that locates clitoral excess and the presumed associated lesbian activity in exotic cultures, especially in the Islamic world and Africa.

The following texts fall in this category:

  • Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (16th c. Flemish ambassador to Turkey) - Discussion of female homoeroticism at the baths, and an anecdote about a cross-dressing female husband.
  • Ottaviano Bon (1587, Italian ambassador to Turkey) - Anecdote about fears that women of the harem will use cucumbers as sexual aids.
  • Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1677, French traveler in Turkey) - Repeats the cucumber anecdote, discusses male and female homosexuality in Turkey.
  • Nicholas de Nicholay (1585, traveler in Turkey) - Female homoeroticism at the baths, including explicit mention of tribades as a class.
  • Leo Africanus (1600) - Discusses female fortune-tellers in Fez who use their profession to seduce women, identifies them as Fricatrices (Latin) or Sahacat (Arabic).
  • Jane Sharp (1671, English medical writer) - Discusses enlarged clitorises and presumes their use to have sexual relations with women, asserts they are "frequent" in the Indies, Egypt, and elsewhere in Africa; notes clitoridectomy as a treatment in Egypt.
  • Ludovico Sinistrari (1700, Italian) - Discusses definitions of female sodomy, attributes enlarged clitorises to women in Ethiopia and Egypt and discusses various forms of clitoridectomy performed there.

The last part of the chapter considers modern psychological theories of lesbianism and how they relate to these historical models of the morphology-driven tribade and the less definable phenomenon of "acceptable" female homoeroticism. One feature of erasing this previous destination was to pathologize all female homoeroticism, but that was a development after the period covered by this book.

Contents summary: 

In this chapter Traub looks specifically at the pastoral genre, and particularly that inspired by Ovid, as a context for portraying love between women as a temporary adolescent amusement that will eventually and inevitably give way to a marital (and therefore heterosexual) norm. The normalcy of bodily transformation in Ovid provided a context for exploring “accidental” female homoerotic desire. Motifs that were particularly fertile ground include Diana and her nymphs and the story of Iphis and Ianthe. Poets and other writers operating within the pastoral genre, such as Sidney's Arcadia, drew in similar motifs even when moving beyond their classical origins.

The homoerotic behavior within the pastoral genre does not typically involve appropriation of masculinity, but rather might be labeled a “femme” eroticism which is discounted and therefore accepted precisely because it does not challenge the patriarchal structure. If “sex” requires the presence of masculinity, then “femme” eroticism can be defined as chaste, even within an established community of exclusively female affections (as with Diana’s nymphs). This remained viable so long as sexual disapproval was focused on the tribade. One of the significant shifts in the transition to the 18th century was the collapse of the categories of tribade and chaste female friend into a sapphic unity. While the tribade was associated with penetrative or pseudo-penetrative sex, the romantic friend was associated with kisses and caresses. What Traub terms the “perversion of lesbian desire” is the intermingling and confusion of these two formerly separate categories. This fusion resulted, not in an extension of social acceptance to tribades, but in an extension of disapproval to a wider range of female romantic relationships.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to examining various versions and representations of the myth of Callisto and Jupiter. In brief: Callisto, one of Diana’s attendant nymphs, is seduced by Jupiter who has disguised himself as Diana, then in his own form Jupiter rapes and impregnates her which, when discovered, leads to her banishment from Diana’s company. The homoeroticism of the story lies in the seduction period when Callisto is being courted, kissed, and fondled by a person she believes to be Diana. This gave license for dramatic and artistic depictions of the tale to present erotic relations between women.

But with the conflation of this “chaste love” with tribadism, representations of the story shifted from showing Diana rejecting Callisto for the pregnancy that betrayed heterosexual relations, to rejecting her for expressing homoerotic desire for Diana. (In these versions, Diana often turns to heterosexual desire for the shepherd Endymion, further negating the originally female-exclusive community of the nymphs. But in these versions, for Callisto to continue in the belief that she has been Diana’s lover, Jupiter’s role must remain covert, eliding the rape and intimating that whatever sexual pleasure he gave Callisto is something that a woman could have given her. But for Diana to turn against Callisto for expressing desire for this form of sexual pleasure, non-penetrative "femme-femme" eroticism must be framed as unacceptable. This new version of the story participates in communicating the possibility of non-penetrative but still unchaste female homoerotic activities which, as noted before, leads to an expansion of the possibilities for female unchastity.

The chapter finishes with a consideration of how these shifts in the understanding of desire and chastity manifested within the debate over the desirability of “companionate marriage” which emphasized emotional bonds and complimentary duties between the married couple. This view of marriage also included the position that erotic desire for one’s spouse was an essential part of marriage.

Contents summary: 

In this synthesizing chapter, Traub reviews the ways in which theatrical representations of female-female desire dwell on the mirror-like similarity between the pair, whether in Lyly’s directly parallel speechifying in Gallathea, or Sandys’s 1626 translation of Iphis and Ianthe which lists their physical and behavioral likenesses, or Shakespeare’s Helena describing her and Hermia as “Like to a double cherry, seeming parted, but yet an union in partition.” This contrasts with the homoerotic figures and practices that emphasize difference and distinction between an active “masculine” tribade and the “feminine” object of her desire. Traub then discusses various historiographical approaches that differentially focus on historical continuity versus historical change. She notes that lesbian historical scholarship has often emphasized continuity--or been accused of over-emphasizing continuity--to serve the desires of modern lesbians for a sense of connection and identification. (Perhaps, in itself, a desire for the mirror-like self.) In this context, she asks, "What does it mean to identify a historical figure or work as 'lesbian'?" But the remainder of the chapter is largely analysis along this line and falls outside the scope of the LHMP.