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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #69b Traub 2002 - The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Chapter 1)

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.

Chapter 1: Setting the stage behind the seen: performing lesbian history

While Traub is careful to avoid an anachronistic "essentialist" approach toward lesbian-like themes in early modern England (to the point where she routinely italicizes "lesbian" and "lesbianism" in her text to signal the problematic nature of the terms), this makes her approach to the interpretation of female same-sex desire and sexuality in this chapter strongly parallel to the purposes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. There is a wealth of data in her first chapter on examples, both in literature and life, on women whose lives could provide grounding for fictional lesbian-like characters. The examples I summarize here are only a bare survey of what she covers and expand the particularly valuable list of legal records. (A future side-project for the LHMP may be to cross-reference publications by these known historical cases.)

* * *

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.

Time period: 

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