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Full citation: 

Andreadis, Harriette. 2001. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics, 1550-1714. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226020099

Publication summary: 

An examination of diverging treatments of female homoeroticism in English writing in the long 17th century, and of how the image of Sappho was used both in discussing transgressive sexuality and “chaste” passionate friendship.

Contents summary: 


Early Modern England (16-17th century) was developing a vocabulary and symbology to describe and express intimacy between women and female non-normative sexuality. This was taking place in various genres, including travel narratives, medical texts, and works of marital advice. At the same time, women were developing an evasive coded language to express such desires in their own lives. In this context, Sappho was invoked not only as a symbol of female lyricism, but also to represent and make reference to erotic bonds between women.

England in this era is sparse in documentation of same-sex behaviors between women, in part due to the silence of the law with regard to such activity. So this book focuses primarily on textual representations (both by men and women) and thus necessarily is skewed toward the literate classes. This is an era before the evolution of a clear binary between homosexual and heterosexual identity, though the concept is beginning to emerge in the later part of the 17th century.

The material tends to fall into two approaches, based to some degree on the gender of the author. Female-authored works tend to focus on poetic expressions of emotional intimacy, while male-authored discourse tends to focus on physical sexuality in medical and advice manuals and travelogues. Some of the latter were written by women as well, but there are interesting differences in tone. And beginning in the mid 17th century, we also have female-authored works that are deliberately transgressive sexually. The image of Sappho makes her appearance across all these genres.

Toward the end of the period under study, Andreadis also looks at the court of Queen Anne in the context of an emerging concept of binary sexuality. In that era, the use of accusations or rumors of female homosexuality begins to be used to control or silence women’s erotic expression.

Chapter 1: An Erotics of Unnaming

When it comes to clearly named female same-sex relations, there is a textual history discussing tribadism going back to classical times. But this concept/term always carries a clear sense of sexual transgression and social ostracism. Women in early modern England who experienced same-sex intimacy would not necessarily have seen themselves reflected in this available vocabulary. Nor would they necessarily have considered their desires and the expression of them to be incompatible with socially obligatory things like marriage and children. In this context, they might instead use oblique discursive strategies to express their same-sex desire while evading condemnation.

In this era, individual concepts of identity were determined by external and social attributes rather than by interior self-image and individual subjectivity. Self-identity develops within a communal conversation, and the development of specific identities can be traced within that discussion. If the overt discussion of female same-sex erotics was primarily between men and focused on displacing that concept to “others”, what was available for women to express?

A vocabulary existed for transgressive same-sex activity between women: tribade, fricatrix, rubster, lollepot (17th c. Dutch), Tommy (18th c. English). Use of these words was marked by context and time/place and could convey nuances of approval or disapproval. While vocabulary can define specific behaviors, not all behaviors modernly considered to be sexual would have been so in all times and places--especially if they didn’t correspond to a heterosexual model of sexual activity. The prevalent vocabulary of “rubbing” interacts with the motif (popular in medical literature) of sex between women either being caused by, or causing, an enlarged clitoris. Male writers obsessed over this motif, imagining such organs to be capable of penetrative sex in imitation of heterosexual intercourse. Descriptions of enlarged clitorises were often “othered” into the past or into foreign lands.

Turkey was a very popular locus for English writers to situate female homoerotic behavior. [Note: During the 16-17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire, with its capitol in Istanbul, was at the height of its political power and geographic spread, making it not only more familiar to Europeans, but a clear candidate to stand in for non-Christian foreignness in general.] Nicolas de Nicolay’s Turkish travelogues explicitly connected sexual activity between women in Turkish bath houses with the image of Sappho. Jane Sharp’s midwifery manual was explicit about anatomy and sexual practices between women, but also displaces both the sex and the motif of clitoral penetration to foreign lands. “In the Indies and Egypt [women with enlarged clitorises] are frequent, but I never heard but of one in this country; if there be any, they will do what they can for shame to keep it close.” De Busbecq (1589) was another writer who provided detailed descriptions of sexual activity between women in a Turkish context.

As the 17th century progresses, there is increasing interest in female sexual transgression, especially in foreign contexts, but there is a shift to avoiding explicit naming of behaviors, or reference to specific practices. Examples of this interest includes news reports of “female husbands” (i.e., married couples where one member is living as a man), “hermaphrodites” (ambiguously used to describe women who sexually desired women, women with enlarged clitorises, and possible also intersex persons), and passing women (women living as men, especially in military contexts). These sensational stories often implied, but now rarely named the possibility of sexual activity. Women serving in disguise as soldiers were an exception where their image was often desexualized in order to treat them as models of patriotic heroism.

This retreat from explicit discussion of sexual behavior appears in Lady Montagu’s 1717 descriptions of women’s baths in Turkey. Although she focuses on casual nudity in the baths and discusses the women’s beauty and appreciation thereof she deflects any suspicion of “wanton” or “immodest” activity. This “unnaming” as well as the need to deny the behavior serves the counter purpose of creating an expectation of the possibility.

Roughly in the same era, satiric texts such as the anonymous polemic Satan’s Harvest Home (1749) were more open in claiming that women were engaging in sex together in England (with the implication that it was due to foreign influence). Texts such as this introduce new vocabulary, such as “game of flats”, as well as invoking Sappho as a symbol of sexual activity between women. But even in this context, specific sexual acts are not described. Much more is known in this era regarding men’s same-sex practices and subcultures, not only because men’s activities are more likely to be recorded, but because English law took active notices of them. The various genres of text discussed above show that knowledge of female same-sex possibilities was available, but also that there was anxiety about women’s access to that knowledge. Later editions of texts such as Jane Sharp were bowdlerized for “women’s editions”.

In a context where overt discourse about sex between women was disapproving and oblique, how did those women who didn’t consider their own feelings and actions to be transgressive express those desires? Or, conversely, when women expressed passions for each other in writing, what physical behaviors might have accompanied those desires? There are textual genres that could speak to the question if we could identify examples. Anne Lister’s private diaries (1791-1840) are a clear example of a sexually transgressive woman constructing her own identity and vocabulary in writing, and to a limited extent, in correspondence with other women. Prosecution records might supply evidence [but, in England, tended to be focused on issues of fraud rather than sexuality].

The avoidance of “naming” physical behaviors may have been part of a somewhat conscious strategy by women to avoid condemnation. The behavioral boundaries between friendship, love, and sexuality were not solidly established, but we can examine the social frameworks around “passionate friendship” and see what behaviors they accommodated.

The shift of patriarchal structures from tacit assumption [“this is just they way things are”] to a consciously policed system in the 18th century parallels the emergence of a more modern concept of gender difference and sexuality. The naming of female same-sex eroticism is part of this dismantling of a tacit, unarticulated understanding of sexual behavior. This included distinguishing between friendship and erotic interactions. Sexuality between women could be invisible as long as it did not involve a penis-analo. When named, behaviors such as kissing, touching, manual stimulation, etc. could be categorized as sexual. As long as women didn’t challenge male prerogatives, there was no need to stigmatize what they did together, but as such challenges were articulated, behavior came under scrutiny.

When the language used to describe homoerotic sex acts appeared only in Latin texts, that textual knowledge was available only to an educated elite--primarily male. But as Latin texts began being translated into vernaculars in the mid 16th century, this textual knowledge became accessible to more women. And in parallel to this access, we see the increasing displacement of discourse about female homoeroticism into foreign cultures.

As this discourse became more available, female same-sex relations became a significant theme in 17th century English literature. Earlier, Ovidian motifs such as those in Shakespeare and Lyly were resolved via magical sex-change before the plot approached the enactment of sex between women. But as knowledge of the possibility of such sexual activities comes into focus after the Restoration, women (and men) begin embracing literature with real or feigned transgressive homoerotic acts, as in Manley’s The New Atalantis and Aphra Behn’s poetry.

So the wider dissemination of sexual knowledge in textual sources results in a coherent vocabulary and codification of certain behaviors as transgressive, which in turn produces a clear distinction between texts that name transgressive relations and those that don’t.

One fascinating example of this is medical texts that discuss the treatment of women’s “hysteria” by means of manual stimulation of the genitals (including digital penetration) by doctors or midwives to produce “hysterical paroxysm” (i.e., orgasm). Within a medical context, this was not treated as sexual activity. By “unnaming” such activity, it was framed as non-transgressive.

Overtly transgressive women writers continued to name sexual acts (often obliquely) while “respectable” writers adapted romantic and eroticized heterosexual tropes to describe relations between women that might otherwise be suspect. Poetry written from one woman to another was a vehicle for passionate feelings that went beyond the expectations of friendship, and in some cases there is clear corroborating evidence that the poetic language was not simply conventional and that there was a strong emotional bond between the women. But this literature of passion doesn’t indicate how the authors and the recipients understood themselves, or whether they would have seen any connection between their feelings (and behaviors) and those of “tribades”. Would they, in fact, even have had a name to identify their experiences?

Although it was common for such authors (and their audiences) to make overt assertions that their love was “chaste”, this didn’t necessarily mean anything more than that there were no men and no penetration involved. As with medicalized behaviors described above, within a heterosexist paradigm, behaviors like manual and oral stimulation or other non-penetrative activities could be excluded from the category of “sexual acts”.

The emerging construction of “Romantic Friendship” in the 18th century could be clearly erotic without being considered unacceptably sexual. Such relationships tended to become suspect only if they came in conflict with social expectations, e.g., for marriage. Modern historical studies--especially those that try to establish a continuity of “identity” communities”--often look for modern-style paradigms in people’s lives, rather than trying to identify the contextual self-understanding of historic subjects.

The chapter concludes with a review of various academic studies of pre-1900 “lesbians” that try to evaluate them in terms of modern sexual identities and ideals. On the other end of the scale, studies such as Faderman’s [Surpassing the Love of Men] can strain to avoid acknowledging a corporal erotic component in Romantic Friendship contexts. All of these studies of women’s same-sex behaviors in England are made more difficult by the lack of legal persecution, and so the absence of trial records. [Note: I’m sure that the women in question were happier for this “difficulty”!]

Chapter 2: Representing Sappho: Early Modern Public Discourse

This chapter looks at representations of Sappho as a symbol of female same-sex desire. Andreadis disputes DeJean’s claim that English treatments of Sappho were merely later copies of the French reception. Sappho’s passion for other women was well known to English people of the 16-17th century who had access to Latin. There were three primary representations: Ovid’s mythologized suicidal abandoned (heterosexual) woman; as the earliest example of female poetic prowess (usually presented with a glossing over of the sexual aspects); and as an early example of “unnatural” female sexuality. This chapter reviews examples of each of these. But these three views were not always distinct and specific treatments showed them as interconnected.

The myth of Sappho and Phaon traces back to Ovid but was also inspired by earlier Attic comedies that conflated a myth about Phaon and Aphrodite, substituting Sappho in place of the goddess. Latin commentaries on the Phaon myth continued appearing in the medieval period up through the 15th century and identify Sappho as a “tribade” who had “shameful intimacies” with women who were her “concubines”. The vocabulary leaves no room for doubt that sexual activities were involved.

The first Latin edition of Sappho’s work published in England in 1583 retains enough of this material for clarity. But these same-sex erotics were contrasted with her destructive unrequited heterosexual passion for Phaon. A 1567 English translation of Ovid makes clear that “Lesbian lasses” attracted her desire before she forgot them for Phaon. But a 1636 translation softens the sexual aspects, speaking only of her “love” for women and not emphasizing the “shame” of that love. In this version, the “Lesbian lasses” loved Sappho for her poetry, not erotically.

The Phaon story was mentioned in Thomas Heywood’s Gynaikeion, a collection of moral lessons for women. He presents Sappho as not only failing to win Phaon’s love, but losing the love of her former companions to him--companions with whom she once enjoyed “preposterous and forbidden luxuries” (but nothing more specific) whose loss led to her suicide. In these English editions, the nature of her former life is erased and only her despair over Phaon is blamed for her death. The loss of the cloud of erotic transgression then allows writer to redeem her reputation as a poet, as when the playwright Lyly uses Sappho as an allegory for Queen Elizabeth.

Sappho’s reputation as a poet existed in parallel with the Phaon myth and was revived in the mid 16th century with new published editions of her work, first in France. Full editions were published in English only in the late 17th century (with individual works earlier), by which time the French translations were also available there. Although the two most significant of her surviving works made clear her passion for women, Sappho held a place as the sole (known) ancient model for female poets and writers, and therefore was regularly used as a standard of comparison.

When comparing their contemporaries to Sappho, early modern English writers sometimes felt the need to disclaim Sappho’s “shame”, as in Abraham Cowley’s praise of Katherine Phillips, of whom he notes that her “inward virtue is so bright” compared to Sappho’s more questionable morals. In the 17th century, literary women were regularly compared to Sappho despite this strain of discomfort around her sexual reputation.

Sappho appears regularly as an icon of female same-sex desire. She is mentioned, for example, in medical texts in discussions of tribadism and the function of the clitoris in sexual desire. These texts were primarily in Latin and aimed at an elite male audience. When vernacular versions of these texts began to appear in the early 17th century, they retained the fascination with tribades and the motif of an enlarged clitoris, accompanying the descriptions with strong condemnation. The connection with Sappho is brought in later in the mid 17th century. [Note: the chronology here appears confusing but I'm trying to extract an overview from a more complex presentation in the book.]  A few other classical figures were cited as examples of female same-sex transgression, such as Philaenis (mentioned in one of Martial’s epigrams).

The vocabulary of sexual activity between women, such as “tribade” was introduced in English vernacular texts in strongly moralizing and condemnatory contexts. And we see the beginnings of the use of accusations of same-sex desire to control or suppress female intellectuals, as in Ben Jonson’s satirical reference to the court poet Cecelia Bulstrode as a “tribade” who is (homosexually) raping a (female) muse. Male poets played with themes of transgressive female sexuality, as in Thomas Woodward’s imagery in a poem to John Donne of their muses engaging in “tribadry” to inspire a poem between them, or in Donne’s similar image of sex between women as poetic inspiration in “Sappho to Philaenis”.

A search through the various vernacular genres of the 16-17th centuries identifies a burgeoning vocabulary for sex between women. In 1653 we find “confricatrices” and “rubsters”, in 1595 “fricatrice” (though this word seems by 1700 to have broadened into an all-purpose sexual insult, even being used of men), and by the 18th century “tommies”. These slang terms imply friction (rather than penetration) as the focal activity, but male visions of sex between women considered it impossible for friction alone to be capable of providing sexual satisfaction, as in a 1673 poem which implies only penetration is capable of satisfying.

“Respectable” literature shifts to more evasive language in parallel with the rise of this language of sexual transgression in the more explicit genres. The 17th century may have seen the establishment of female homoerotic subcultures in parallel with the better documented male subcultures. The slang terms and a various popular culture reflections of a prurient awareness of female same-sex eroticism are the only solid traces. But the silencing of same-sex erotic sentiments in “respectable” discourse may be another clue.

The 18th century saw the definition of “sex between women” narrowed to a specific set of forbidden behavior which could still be associated with Sappho. The shift in how same-sex affections were treated by women who were not comfortable being associated with transgressive sex may have been a deliberate protective strategy to divert suspicion.

Chapter 3: An Emerging Sapphic Discourse: The Legacy of Katherine Philips

Female literary expression in the 17th century displayed a wide variety of erotic possibilities. Women’s works were addressed to both men and women and used a variety of styles. This chapter looks at those styles used to express female same-sex erotic affection, and how the means of that expression was both commonly known and increasingly circumscribed by deliberate silence.

Katherine Philips is a central figure in examining this phenomenon. Philips’ reputation is based on privately circulated poems addressed to intimate female friends. She established the acceptability of female poets and helped develop “chaste” vocabulary to express clearly erotic feelings toward women. She also wrote more public and conventional works, such as elegies. Though of middle-class birth, her talent and personality brought her into court circles after the Restoration. In her poetic persona of “Orinda”, she was lauded by her male contemporaries. Her legacy was somewhat diminished in the 19th century but she has been reclaimed in the 20th, especially for the eroticism in her work.

Philips’ poetry features a clear emotional focus on other women and an original use of literary conventions. Her work can be situated within a tradition of male friendship poetry with homoerotic overtones. And she is the earliest known example of printed English poetry expressing female same-sex love (as opposed to works recorded only in manuscript). Katherine Philips’ works depict a “society of friendship” and echo earlier conventions of the Cavalier poets and “préciosité”. Another feature is the use of pastoral nicknames. But the emotional vibrancy of her work doesn’t fit the “préciosité” mode of hyperbole and excess. Her early works are private and contemplative, focusing on platonic love poems to female friends. Her later work was more in a public, neo-classical mode, during and after the Restoration.

Her poems expressed a desexualized (with caveats) passionate and erotic version of platonic love. There is emotional eroticism, but not genital reference (hence the “desexualized” label, if sex is equated with genital activity). She uses the rhetoric of heterosexual love as it was imagined in the 17th century. In echoing heterosexual love poetry, she claims the “active” role typically associated with a male suitor. Philips had several very personal romantic associates. Mary Aubrey (dubbed Rosania) was a school friend, who fell from Philips' favor after she married. Philips’ next romantic object was Anne Owen (called Lucasia). Their relationship also became rocky after Anne’s marriage. Philips’ later relationships were with women who served more as patrons than companions.

The chapter continues with an analysis of several poems, examining the erotic imagery and comparing Philips’ work with that of John Donne. There is a consideration of Katherine Philips’ antecedents, whether or not she was aware of the specific works. One prior poem expressive of female homoeroticism appears in the Maitland Quarto manuscript (1586) describing a passionate friendship between two women, invoking famous male friendships as models (as well as iconic relationships between women, such as Ruth and Naomi), and bringing in a wish to change sex in order to marry the beloved. Regardless of the unknown context for this isolated poem, it shows a search for a non-transgressive vocabulary for expressing love between women.

The coded classical language of male passionate friendships in the Renaissance was socially sanctioned and more widely available as a model than the  few known surviving female examples. The discourse of relationships between men in the Renaissance distinguished intense friendship and physical sexual enjoyment, but as part of a system whereby true friendship could only exist between equals. Thus true friendship was not considered possible between men and women or between “respectable” men and men of a class considered acceptable as homosexual sex partners. Parallel Renaissance models for female friendships were entirely lacking.

One of the things that shifted, moving into the 17th century, was the rise of the concept of companionate (heterosexual) marriage, reframing heterosexual relationships as an equal partnership, and necessarily elevating women as worthy of friendship. The emergence of acceptance is seen in writing like Kenelm Digby’s descriptions of his wife as being capable of such friendships because she has a “masculine soul”. [Note: Andreadis doesn’t touch on the issue that women didn’t always have the social power to maintain independent friendships, in the say that men did. This may also have contributed to the lack of female models. The literature and correspondence around the Romantic Friendship phenomenon often bewails the social or economic difficulties around maintaining friendships between women.]

There is general agreement that women’s status was determined by marriage--both determined by the married state, and within that by inheriting the status of the husband. Katherine Philips considered that marriage heralded the end of a passionate female bond. Fantasies of female friendships often focused on an imagined Arcadian retreat from “the real world” that would also remove them from the status relationships of urban court life.

Philips herself was married at 16 to a 54-year-old man. Though the marriage was amicable, they were different in taste, politics, and lifestyle. He was a parliamentarian and preferred rural life, she a royalist who preferred the intellectual life of London. They spent much of their time apart. Philips’ poetry never expressed unhappiness at this separation in distance and thought, in great contrast to how she addresses separations from her female friends. She was devastated when her special friends married, and expressed it poetically in terms of apostasy and grief. She reacts like a scorned lover.

Her final known passionate friendship was with a woman addressed by the pastoral pseudonym of “Berenice”, whose identity is not certain but appears to have been a member of the Irish nobility. To Berenice, the language of friendship is tinged with an awareness of class difference and supplication. Katherine Philips died at the age of 31 in London of smallpox.

An examination of the boundaries between friendship and love, and the acceptable and unacceptable expressions of them, were being openly debated at this time in Philips’ circle. The existence of expressions of love that “should be kept at a distance” are mentioned, but never specified. But anxieties of this type emerge in the evocation of Sappho, especially as a comparison for Katherine Philips’ poetry. In calling her “another Sappho”, the possibility of unacceptable eroticism is both raised and refuted by hasty claims that Philips was “more virtuous than Sappho.” [Note: one might call it an early instance of the “no homo” reflex.]

The discussion moves on to two other women writers of the 17th century: Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn. They were more willing to tackle female homoeroticism in a transgressive fashion. Cavendish was protected by her rank (Duchess of Newcastle) and Behn by having little social standing to lose and by tackling adventurous topics as part of building her reputation.

One of Cavendish’s key works in this field was The Convent of Pleasure, describing a women-only retreat. It directly tackles the potential for sexual desire between women, though framing it as transgressive. Behn addresses sexuality in a more playful and witty fashion, including (but not exclusively addressing) desire between women. A significant example is her poem “To the Fair Clarinda”. Somewhat later, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis (1709) was a thinly veiled satire on her contemporaries, including discussion of an all-female group “The New Cabal”. The work both makes clear the homoerotic sexual exploits of the group and entirely avoids any description of specific physical acts, invoking the reader’s imagination to fill in the silences. The targets of this satire are Queen Anne and her court, especially her female favorites. Manley could write about these topics because her own moral position was fairly abandoned, but possibly also because she wasn’t depicting her own desires.

Chapter 4: Doubling Discourses in an Erotics of Female Friendship

This chapter looks at the development of a coded, sexually evasive language of erotic female friendship that developed in parallel with an identification of sexual acts between women as transgressive. Andreadis posits that it was the public discourse about sex between women that created the necessary redirection. [I.e., she considers it a form of self-censorship to avoid the need to identify oneself as transgressive, or to deflect one’s thoughts away from transgressive desire.] This was associated with an impulse to create idealized female communities.

Andreadis considers this in the context of the “fundamental uncertainty of the category ‘lesbian’” among researchers seeking to identify both past behaviors and persons as “lesbian”, combined with the erasure of those feelings and behaviors from the historic record. She discuses Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum” versus Stimpson’s focus on sexual desire as the defining characteristic of lesbianism. The focus of historians on specific narrow behaviors parallels the historic use of stigmatized transgressive behaviors to manage women’s experience of desire.

By the mid 17th century, sexual transgression by women is increasingly discussed in two contexts. One is a genre of “expert” texts (medical, travelogue, and to some degree erotica) that was overtly misogynistic and often prurient. The second were allusions by male literary writers and the more unconventional female writers. More conventional women shifted to a vague and self-protective mode. [At this point, Andreadis is repeating many of the points and discussions already covered.] Their work emphasized “virtuous” and “chaste” friendship. Andreadis seems rather certain that “respectable” women did not see any connection between their passionate friendships and women who engaged in transgressive sex, rather than suggesting that their coded language was hiding the similarity. The erotic experiences of these women are then found in the silences when emotions are expressed but not acknowledged as sexual. The common genres for this expression included poems of praise or elegy, works on the topic of friendship, writing about feminine roles, and dedicatory texts.

The Restoration brought sexual permissiveness and social shifts including the potential for women to write professionally. There was a developing importance of the bourgeoisie and the rise of an ideal of domestic life. The chapter continues with a study of several women writers who worked in this tradition, including Anne Killigrew, Anne Finch, and Jane Barker. [Note: I’m trying to skim over the material a bit more, since a great deal of the theoretical analysis has become repetitive.]

Chapter 5: Configurations of Desire: The Turn of the Century at Court

This is largely a summary of what has gone before:

  • Transgressive women were defined in descriptive texts
  • This created knowledge and vocabulary about them
  • Which resulted in the denigration of specific behaviors
  • Respectable writers then took pains to dissociate themselves form those behaviors
  • Developing their own different vocabulary of passionate friendship

As examples, Andreadis discusses several treatments of the Calisto myth, showing approaches to female same-sex eroticism as a contrast to descriptions of “chaste” love. There is a discussion of the rumors and gossip about female friendships in Queen Anne’s court, as well as slightly fictionalized examples of transgressive female affection among the court members.