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Picking Apart Brooten's "Love Between Women"

Tuesday, May 28, 2024 - 08:00

Look! Look! I published a blog article!

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Cameron, A. 1998. “Love (and Marriage) Between Women” in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 39, pp.137-156

Just as there arose something of an industry of scholars responding to John Boswell’s, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, there is an entire category of articles similarly picking apart the premises and conclusions of Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. In both cases, the establishment of historians specializing in early religious history felt that these authors were treading on ground they had no right to, and challenging long-held assumptions without an adequate contextual understanding of the texts they were working with. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of those attitudes, it remains that the naysayers give the appearance of holding Boswell’s and Brooten’s positions to a far higher standard of proof than more mainstream historic theories are held to.

I’ll note that Brooten is working on an updated version of her study. I was able to join a virtual roundtable where she presented some of her new work and had it discussed by fellow scholars. I look forward to seeing the results of that.

Cameron acknowledges that Brooten found more evidence for love between women in Greco-Roman antiquity than scholars had previously supposed was available. However, he then lays out his agenda that her arguments depend on four Greek texts, each of which he will challenge the interpretation of. In two cases, Cameron’s objection is that the verb “gamein,” when applied to two women, does not refer to marriage at all, not even metaphorically. [Note: Readers should make the connection between this word root and familiar terms like “monoGAMy" “GAMete” etc., although of course the sense a root has in neo-Latin technical terms doesn’t restrict the senses it may have had in classical writings.]

When applied to a male-female couple, “gamein” is used in the active voice of a man and the passive voice of a women. That is, a man marries a woman but a woman is married by a man. The word can also be used as a euphemism for “fuck,” with this same asymmetry.

Lucian and Clement both wrote at a time when “gamein” was used both for “to marry” and “to fuck” and Cameron argues that context will always provide a clear guide to which sense is intended. [Comment: The problem is always that scholars who use this type of argument inevitably presume “women did not marry women” as part of the context for interpreting the sense of the word.] He then provides a variety of examples of “gamein” in contexts where a sex act is a more likely interpretation than a marriage.

The relevant quotation from Clement is of the “world turned upside down” sort, complaining that “men suffer womanly things and women play the male role, getting married and marrying women contrary to nature.” Cameron argues that the inclusion of both the active and passive forms of the verb indicates that some of the women in question play a “male” role while other play a “female” role, which he concludes demonstrates that the word is being used in a sexual sense. [Comment: As an objection against understanding the action as marriage, this argument seems to overlook a likely cultural prejudice that views marriage as necessarily involving a male-coded partner and a female-coded partner. In contrast, I’ll note that this symbolic framework has been applied broadly throughout history, with female partners often being assumed to take on gender-contrasting roles, all the way up to the present day, when same-sex couples regularly get asked “but who is the man and who is the women?” So you’ll forgive me if I find fault with Cameron’s chain of logic.]

The Lucian text is from the Dialogues of the Courtesans when Megilla says, “I have been married [gamein] to Demonassa here for ever so long, and she is my wife [gyna].” Here Cameron argues that since the purpose of the conversation is for Megilla to explain to Leaena that Leaena has been hired to join a threesome with Megilla and Demonassa, that talking in terms of marriage, rather than in terms of sex, would not get the point across. [Comment: But if “gamein” could be understood as either “marry” or “fuck” in this context, then we can’t assume in which sense Leaena would have taken it. If Cameron correctly asserts that Megilla is trying to break through Leaena’s naivete about what women can do together, wouldn’t a less ambiguous word than “gamein” work better? “Gamein” implies sex specifically because marriage implies sex. So Megilla’s claim that she is married to Demonassa would inherently bring the implication that they’re having sex. But that’s a different matter from asserting that because the intent is to say “we’re having sex” that “gamein” could not possibly mean literal marriage here. In fact, one could interpret Leaena’s initial confusion specifically because she’s understanding the conversation to be about marriage rather than sex.]

Next there comes a discussion of a much later commentary on Clement, in which the reference to women “playing the male role” is explained as “tribades, whom they also call hetairistriai and Lesbians” These commentaries date from centuries later than Clement’s text and therefore don’t necessarily assume the same cultural understandings. Later commentary linking “tribades” to passages in which women “gamein” also appear in an edition of Lucian’s Dialogues, and a commentary on an erotic text attributed to Philainis also links “hetairistriai” and “tribades”. But, as Cameron notes, all three of these commentaries were written by the same 10th century scholar. Therefore, Cameron argues, the commentaries support only a single scholar’s knowledge of obscure classical terms and not, as Brooten suggests, “the existence of a cultural category of homoerotic women (and not just of individual homoerotic acts).”

This is followed by a deep dive into the path by which the (possibly fictional) Philainis became associated with knowledge about love between women. This leads, in a roundabout way, to a speculation that the commenter did not use the word “lesbian” in the sense of “women who have sex with women” (in which case it would be the earliest surviving example of that meaning) but is rather deriving that reference entirely from the line in Lucius “they say there are women like that in Lesbos, with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women,” and that the gloss on Clement (which equates “lesbians” with “hetairistriai” and “tribades,” if you recall) is simply implying that there are tribades on Lesbos. [Comment: I think he’s working overly hard here to deny a semantic equivalence between the three words.] The 10th century commenter, Cameron concludes, is mostly interesting for his preoccupation with same-sex love between women and not for shedding light on social understandings of the phenomenon either in his own time or in that of the texts he’s working with. [Comment: Which…ok? But isn’t his preoccupation itself of interest regarding awareness of love between women as a possibility in the 10th century?]

The remaining texts to consider are an astrological text and the summary of Iamblichus’s Babyloniaka. The astrological text I’ll grant him, as it does seem that Brooten’s translation shifted the meaning from women referring to other women “as if they were their legal wives” to translating it as women referring to their female partners “as their legal wives.”

But Cameron’s discussion of Iamblichos returns to applying asymmetric standards to the translation of “gamous” in which the presumption that women do not marry women turns into the conclusion that the word is not used to mean “marry” when used between women. In this case, the proposed “correct” translation, rather than being a sex act, is “to hold a wedding feast.” Cameron proposes that rather than the conclusion of the story being “Berenike marries Mesopotamia,” the event is “Berenike holds a wedding feast for Mesopotamia to marry some other unspecified person.” To come to this conclusion, Cameron posits that Iamblichos has “blurred the distinction” between two formulas using the key word and that without the detailed text lost from the surviving summary “there is no way of being sure which sense he intended.” Keep in mind that it has been established in the story that Berenike loves Mesoptamia, so Cameron is left claiming that “Iambluchus’s purpose may have been to exploit the dramatic irony” of Berenike celebrating her beloved’s marriage to someone else (the prime candidate being a eunuch who has played a continuing role in the story).

Cameron then goes into a comparison of typical marriage practices in real life with the rather different tropes present in romantic novels such as the Babyloniaka…and then fails to notice that these literary tropes fail to support his rather convoluted interpretation of the relationships in the story.

[Comment: Once again, I feel that Cameron is working extra hard to devise an interpretation that fits the presumption that—even within a work of fiction—classical authors would not have envisioned the possibility that two women might marry. While it’s true that marriage between women isn’t such an ordinary thing that it’s the expected interpretation, in the case of the Babyloniaka, that possibility is well set up within the text, and therefore it’s a less natural conclusion that some other interpretation of “gamous” must be the preferred reading in the key passage.]

Cameron doesn’t deny that the Babyloniaka depicts a passionate relationship between two women—he simply objects to interpreting language including words meaning “to marry” as straightforwardly indicating that the women in the story got married. Similarly he notes that the astrological text presenting women who treated their relationship as if it were a marriage as being common enough to need explanation in terms of astrological influences, definitely suggests that female same-sex couples were a known phenomenon. But the overall thrust of the article is that if alternate possible explanations (even tortuous ones) can be found for each individual use of “gamein” and related words when applied to female couples, then even a collected body of evidence such as Brooten assembled, for the idea of woman-woman marriage in the classical world, can be dismissed as a whole.

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