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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #99 Huot 1990 "Addressing the Issue of Lesbianism in a General Course on Women in the Middle Ages"

Full citation: 

Huot, Sylvia. 1990. "Addressing the Issue of Lesbianism in a General Course on Women in the Middle Ages" (Gay and Lesbian Concerns in Medieval Studies, special issue) Medieval Feminist Newsletter 13:10-11.

The publication covered today wasn't originally on my list of referenced articles to look up, but it was right next to another article in that issue of Medieval Feminist Newsletter and it seemed like a useful book-end comparison for the Project. Back in 1990, this article indicates the state-of-the art regarding research into lesbianism in medieval Europe. Take a look at the publication dates for most of the cumulative bibliography for this project and you'll see that it wasn't a matter of Huot overlooking anything obvious. There has been a revolution in the field in the last 25 years.

Twenty five years ago, I was just starting to think about trying to write historic fiction with lesbian characters and motifs. Some of the lesbian historic novels that I'd read at that time that made me think there might be an interest in the genre had already been published at that time, without the benefit of all the research done since then. Michelle Martin's Pembroke Park came out in 1986, Katherine Sturtevant's A Mistress Moderately Fair in 1988. I recall several novels fictionalizing the life of Sappho that I'd have to take more time to track down. I'm not saying that it was impossible to write good lesbian historic fiction without access to extensive academic references, but my experience as an amateur historian -- particularly of material culture and social history -- is that historic reality is far more nuanced and far less predictable than can be predicted from the modern experience. And the research that has been done in the last quarter century has taken the possible set of solidly-grounded inspirations for lesbian fiction and blown the field much more widely open.

* * *

This isn’t so much an article about researching lesbianism in history, but about teaching the researching of lesbianism in history. It’s probably a pretty good snapshot of what was common knowledge in the field in 1990. [Compare that to what I’ve been able to find for this blog project and you’ll get an idea of why I call the 1990s “the early years of lesbian historiography.”]

The author discusses the publications she selected for an advanced seminar (for either upper class undergrads or for graduate students) on “Women in the Middle Ages” that were intended to address the topic of lesbianism. Requirements included that the publications be physically and linguistically accessible (i.e., in print, and in English). The list includes the following (starred items have already been covered by the LHMP; those with a + are already on the list to cover):

+Brown, Judith, C. 1986. Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-504225-5

*Matter, E. Ann. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1989.

Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “Discourses of Desire: Sexuality and Christian Women’s Visionary Narratives” in Journal of Homosexuality 18: 119-31.

Dronke, Peter. 1968. Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love Lyric. Oxford University Press, New York. [Specifically the love poem “To my singular rose” which has been discussed in several previously covered articles.]

Other background reading included:

+Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in Signs 5:631-60.

Using these materials, the seminar discussed the question of what “identity” or “orientation” might mean in the context of culturally available options, the question of essentialism versus cultural constructionism, all-female communities such as convents and Beguinages as a potential site for discovering or enjoying same-sex romantic and erotic relations, and the problem of how cultures may construct or deny the concept of “sex” outside of heterosexual activity.

[Reviewing my current working list, I can find a few publications that might have been included, even with a narrow construction of “medieval” (she considers Brown to be a special exception with regard to time period, and so my have considered Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men to have too little pre-Renaissance coverage to be relevant) and a focus on historic rather than literary examples. The collection Hidden from History came out in 1989, but it’s possible either that the author wasn’t aware of it or omitted it for some logistical or methodological reason.]

Time period: 

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