Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69a Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Introduction)

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.

Introduction: Practicing Impossibilities

* * *

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.

Time period: 

Add new comment