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Monday, October 3, 2022 - 08:00

This blog series (in 14 installments) is probably the most ambitious thing I've done for the Project so far.

When trying to understand the details and nuances of primary source material dealing with gender and sexuality, there are many layers of information to sort through: the literal meaning of the words, the contextual meaning of the words, the social background of how people understood those concepts, the purpose and biases of the author of the text and of their culture. When historians discuss how such texts contribute to our understanding of gender and sexuality, we assume and trust that they have taken all these things into account. But sometimes you find yourself asking different questions than the historians, or coming at the questions from a different angle. And then you want to have a go at the original texts. If you're lucky, the material is relatively short and has been included in a scholarly publication. Alternately, the material is in publication somewhere and the scholar has given you a clear enough citation to find it. The worst case is when the source material exists only in manuscript in some archive (or--worse than that--has been lost since the time the scholar accessed it). But the appeal record of Grandjean falls somewhat before that worst case: it was written at a time when it was published in print, and copies of those print editions have been digitized and made available on the internet. (It is, of course, long out of copyright!)

And then there's the issue of translation. The text is in French--and French of the 18th century, though the differences from modern literary French are quite minor. My French is very very minimal--I can make my way through technical language in a field I'm familiar with, rather laboriously. But fortunately, we live in an age when machine translation has improved amazingly, and with the help of a truly marvelous translation site, Deep-L, I was able to render the original into English. More details on that below. This approach means I've been able to examine the ways that the author uses gendered language to discuss Grandjean's case, whether to put forth a particular view of Grandjean's gender categorization, or to follow the shifts and changes in how Grandjean's gender was understood by others.

I'm going to be completely up front about my own, personal interpretation of Grandjean's identity. Like Grandjean's advocate, I have emphasized and de-emphasized certain aspects of the stated evidence (which is contradictory). I believe that Grandjean was a woman who sexually desired women, but who believed authority figures when told that this was not a possible thing. Grandjean was told "if you desire women, then you must be a man." So Grandjean became a man as far as their community was concerned, changed their name, and married a woman. When other authority figures contradicted the original instructions (considering that anatomy was more important in determining gender than desire), I believe that Grandjean's case was taken up by an advocate who emphasized his own interpretation of the relationship of anatomy and desire to gender--an interpretation that still had no place for the existence of women who desired women. Grandjean's advocate, knowing of the existence of intersex conditions, spun a story that Grandjean was intersex and that this was the underlying cause of their desire for women. (At a later point, I'll go into more detail about the contradictory evidence of the medical examination.)

My take on Grandjean's story is certainly not the only valid one. But I think there's a deeper truth involved. Assuming Grandjean had fully normative female anatomy, the initial stages of their story would have been the same. Based on the stated evidence, Grandjean's initial social gender reassignment was not based on anatomy, but on sexual desire. And I necessarily reject the advocate's premise that sexual desire is impossible between two women. So the deeper truth is the light this story sheds on the variety of attitudes and understandings regarding desire between women in 18th century France. We certainly know that the "impossibility" opinion wasn't the only one that prevailed. We are less than a half-century away from the scandalous stories of the Anandrine Sect and the political accusations of lesbianism against Queen Marie Antoinette. But one possible position was that the idea of lesbianism was so unacceptable that the entire structure of society could be upended to align one person's gender with their desires.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Vermeil. 1765. Mémoire pour Anne Grandjean. Louis Cellot, Paris.

Publication summary: 

The original text, translation, and commentary on the appeal record of Anne Grandjean against a charge of "profaning the sacrament of marriage" by marrying a woman.

Introductory Material

Introduction

People in the past could have complex, contradictory, nuanced understandings of gender and sexuality, but we rarely have access to these complexities in as detailed a manner as for the case on Anne/Jean-Baptiste Grandjean, thanks to the existence of a popular-oriented publication of the legal appeal against Grandjean’s initial sentence. As a very brief summary, a person assigned female at birth, with female-conforming anatomy, raised as a girl, and with no prior indications of gender dysphoria, is instructed by their confessor to live as a man after confessing to experiencing sexual desire for women. This person continues living in their community as a man, courts several women and marries one, moves to a different community, has their assigned gender “outed” by a former girlfriend, and is tried in court for “profaning the sacrament of marriage” and given a fairly harsh sentence (though typical for the times). A sympathetic and broad-minded lawyer is responsible for Grandjean’s appeal, primarily on the argument that Grandjean is intersex and should be classified as male, althugh this argument was not accepted during the original trial. The lawyer also argues that Grandjean was naïve and sincerely believed the priest had the authority to reassign their social and legal gender, and that therefore the necessary intent for the charge of "profaning marriage" was lacking. This argument prevailed and Grandjean was released, with an injunction to return to living as a woman and never to see their wife again. To the legal arguments, in some editions, in appended a piece of doggerel verse in the persona of Grandjean bidding farewell to their wife and railing against the hand fate dealt them.

Even with the level of detail available through this publication, we must be aware of the layers of filtering and “spin” that have been put on the underlying narrative. We do not have direct access to Grandjean’s experience and thoughts except through what is recorded in testimony. We have even less access to the experience and thoughts of Grandjean’s wife, Françoise Lambert. Lambert does not appear to have been considered “at fault” in any way, but that only tells us that the court accepted a particular presentation of her experience (as well as demonstrating the legal presumption of women’s lack of agency). We may understand the lawyer’s stated opinions as reflecting his sincere beliefs about gender and sexuality, although we must also allow for the possibility that he is simply presenting what he believes to be the best case for the goal he seeks. (And that may include goals other than Grandjean’s acquittal.) The verse, we should understand as belonging to a particular popular genre of sensational entertainment, meant to appeal to the audiences sensibilities, but without any necessary truth-connection to the lives and experiences of the verse’s subject.

Text and Translation Credits

The original French text is taken from two different versions of the 1765 publication. Both are credited to the same publisher and have the same year of publication, but the layout and fonts are somewhat different and one has sections of additional material not present in the other. This additional material consists of an additional item on the title page referencing the addition at the end, an introductory summary and address to the reader (titled “Advisory”) located immediately after the title page, and the verse, with introductory matter, appended at the end. As best I can determine, the texts are otherwise identical except possibly for details of punctuation and occasional abbreviation.

The facsimile texts in pdf form were made available by Google Books (shorter version, extended version) and the initial rough transcription was copied from the Google Books epub editions of the text, presumably created by optical character recognition (OCR). I proofread the rough transcription against the facsimiles and performed extensive corrections, including sorting out the marginal commentary.

The initial translation pass was done using DeepL (https://www.deepl.com), a truly amazing translation app, whose use for private or business translation is permitted by the use agreement. Acknowledgement statement: Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

I have performed light revisions of the DeepL text for contextual clarity, and especially to align and amend gender references, given the key importance of this aspect. In some passages, I have traded felicity of language for a translation that retains the gender references in the French, when a more idiomatic English translation might not use gendered language.

A Note on Gender in the Translation

Linguistic gender in French may either reflect the assigned gender of the person being referenced, or the arbitrary grammatical gender of the noun being used (including pronoun references to a previously mentioned noun). But some grammatical constructions do not distinguish masculine and feminine gender (i.e., use epicene gender). In order to track how the author is presenting Grandjean’s gender in various contexts, I’ve used an approach that may be somewhat awkward. Specifically, when the French text uses an epicene reference (and it isn’t closely associated with other, gendered, language) I will use the neo-pronouns “zie/zem/zir” to indicate this lack of gender specificity. Please note that this usage is strongly marked as “non-gendered” in English, but is translating French expressions that are not in any way marked. They simply don’t indicate gender. I felt that using singular gender-neutral “they” might introduce number ambiguity that isn’t present in the original text. The approach I’m using is not intended to indicate that the author viewed Grandjean as non-binary or to indicate that I do, but rather to highlight that the author sometimes clearly referenced Grandjean with feminine language, more often with masculine language, but in many cases with language that is unmarked for gender.

In my own commentary and comments, I will normally refer to Grandjean with gender-neutral “they,” not only to honor the alternatives that Grandjean had female or male identity, but to honor the possibility that Grandjean was intersex and of uncertain gender identity. (Also, to recognize that Grandjean didn't necessarily have the same conceptual options avaialble for identification that we would have today.) I, personally, believe that Grandjean was not intersex and that they had no gender dysphroria when living as a woman, but naively took direction from male authority figures with regard to what gender they should present. But this is only my personal reading and several other views are equally valid.

Use of the Word “Hermaphrodite”

In past centuries, the word “hermaphrodite” was used in several different senses. See the discussions in the following articles for a deep dive into some of the relevant context. 

The word “hermaphrodite” was sometimes used to identify persons whose social behavior did not align with the expected behavior for their assigned sex, at it is possible that this sense was included when LeGrand accused Grandjean of being "a hermaphrodite." However the more relevant use in this text is for intersex persons, i.e., those with ambiguous physiology. The use of “hermaphrodite” for intersex persons is currently considered offensive and should generally be avoided. However I have retained this word to translate the French hermaphrodite in the source text, not only as the best literal translation, but to signal that the concept embodied in the text differed from the modern concept of intersexuality. I acknowledge that this convention has the potential to cause harm and apologize for that.

Formatting Conventions

The general format of the text is as follows.

  • The original French text in plain type. Capitalization and punctuation are as in the original, though some extra spaces have been removed. There are a few places where a marginal note or variant text is indicated with curly braces.
  • The translation in bold type. This may include some notes for clarity. If the original text includes non-French material, it is kept intact at this point.
  • {HRJ: My editorial commentary in italics and in curly braces. If there was non-French material in the original text, this is where I will translate it. Not all passages will have this commentary, but most will.}

[The text and translation will begin in the next blog entry.]

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Saturday, October 1, 2022 - 10:16

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 240 - On the Shelf for October 2022 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2022/10/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2022.

Sometimes I find myself scrambling to put a show together because time has simply slipped away, and sometimes it’s because life comes crashing down. September was definitely one of those crashing months, so this may be a bit of a bare-bones round-up. The month started off with the World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago, which was thoroughly enjoyable, if a bit exhausting. I participated in panels on podcasting, fairy tale retellings, themes in early “proto-science fiction”, the interaction of magic and gender in historic fantasy, and other topics. Then in mid-month I participated in an online panel on historic research for marginalized characters for the Toronto Romance Writers conference. Going on underneath all this was a rather intense project for my day job—because, of course, it’s not possible to schedule all these things in a rational manner.

And then at the end of the month, I traveled to a small family get-together on the opposite coast and Covid finally caught up with me. So far, it’s being a fairly mild case, thanks to being fully up to date on vaccinations, no doubt. But it’s been a lottery I participated in every time I chose to travel, and I finally lost the toss. So just a reminder for all of you: keep up to date on all your vaccinations, mask like everyone’s health depends on it, and don’t beat yourself up too badly if you eventually lose the roll of the dice and get Covid anyway. You’re still better off than if you hadn’t taken all the precautions.

Publications on the Blog

October is shaping up to have some great content. In September, the blog finished up the collection of articles from The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World  and October starts a multi-part presentation of a primary source in translation: the 18th century French legal appeal of Anne Grandjean. Grandjean’s story is an excellent example of how difficult it can be to define and interpret identities from historic records. Depending on how you interpret the record and how you filter for the prejudices and “spin” of the parties involved, Grandjean might be interpreted as a cross-dressing lesbian, as a trans man, or as an intersex person who was caught between classifications. I’ve seen references to the case in a number of articles over the years, but hadn’t been able to find a full translation. So when I was able to get copies of a couple different editions of the original publication from Google Books, I decided to tackle the ambitious project of producing my own translation and edition. In addition to presenting it in the blog, this month’s podcast essay will present some of the content and discussion.

Grandjean’s case is an example of what I mean when I say you cannot study lesbian history separate from trans history and other types of queer history. People who want there to be some sort of pure and unambiguous history of different categories of queer people often scoff at the phrase “we can’t really know.” But the evidence in Grandjean’s case is ambiguous, deliberately skewed in multiple ways, and full of unreliable witnesses. Even apart from the question of what types of identity categories Grandjean had available to try on, we aren’t given enough direct, unfiltered evidence to know what the facts were. If we want to relate Grandjean’s story to the field of lesbian history, we must embrace that ambiguity or lose a great deal of the available evidence.

Fiction

October is a fiction series month and we’ll be presenting “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard, narrated by the author, plus an interview with Miyuki in next month’s On the Shelf episode.

And don’t forget that we’ll be opening for new fiction submissions in January for the 2023 series. It’s not at all too early to be thinking about writing something.

Book Shopping!

Book shopping for the blog is still very quiet these days, but on the fiction side we have ten new titles to talk about.

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

It seems a bit early in the year for Christmas-themed books to start coming out, but first up is Christmas Secrets of the Soho Club: New Season New Secrets a self-published anthology of Regency romance short stories by various authors. Only one story involves a sapphic romance: “The Widow’s Modiste” by Renée Dahlia.

What happens in the Soho Club stays in the Soho Club, especially during Christmastide! Get ready for some passionate, romantic secrets from the Regency club where people can be themselves, away from prying eyes and family demands. In The Widow's Modiste. Lady Merryam, widowed and bored, only attends the Soho Club’s latest ball to help raise funds for her son’s orphanage. The last thing she expects is a one-night-stand with the mysterious woman wearing ‘that’ dress. Could spending more time with her be the answer to her ennui?

Cameron Darrow has a sixth volume, Pax Victoria, in the Ashes of Victory series, a supernatural historical adventure.

For eleven years, the witches of EVE have made it their mission to ensure that the War to End All Wars remains exactly that. So when Svetlana returns home to Longstown with a proposal for a true, permanent peace in Europe, it's met with jubilation—and on the heels of tragedy, a renewed optimism that the future they have sacrificed so much for might actually be on the horizon. For those still sifting through the ashes of victory and defeat alike, it also presents a second, more personal opportunity: the chance to rest. But in order for the world to achieve true peace, so must Victoria Ravenwood. When she learns that the British government has started a program to put her theories on atomic energy into practical use, the realization that she may have inadvertently unlocked the ability for humanity to destroy itself comes with a singular responsibility: only she can stop it. After years of struggle with trauma and depression, is her love for her family and partner Katya enough to finally overcome her demons safely? Or will they drive her to pay the ultimate price to ensure they live into the glorious new future that they have been building together?

Witches are also the topic of The Pannell Witch self-published by Melissa Manners. This is a fictionalization of a brief reference to an actual victim of a witch trial in 16th century England.

Yorkshire, 1593. Mary Pannell, small-town herbalist, only ever wanted to help. She never meant for anyone to die. But still, they called her witch. She deserves to have her story told. When Mary is arrested for witchcraft, she must do whatever it takes to survive. From medieval torture methods and plague-ridden London, to the ever-looming threat of being hanged - does she have the strength to endure it all? Condemned as a witch, will she face the gallows? Or can she escape with the woman she loves?

In the cover copy of the popular sub-genre of pirate romances, it can be hard to tell whether a story is meant to have a historic setting or simply exists in the pirate-verse. Siren's Kiss self-published by Ariel Spencer is a bit light on historic specifics but strong on romance.

Siren's Kiss is the story of captive-turned-crew, Ashlyn Stillson, and a no-mercy, wild haired pirate captain, Iliana The Fierce. Ash is uncertain about these feelings towards her new captain and captor. She knows to be cautious and fearsome of her rage and cunning, but she also can see the tender, gentle side of her as well. She longs to grow closer to her stand-offish superior, but knows it could lead to her death. Iliana is suspicious of her newest crewmate. The small, white-skinned woman was constantly around. Whenever Iliana caught her gaze, she would hastily put her head down and scuttle off. But she can't help but be intrigued by her as well. Her soft, white skin and golden halo of curls, her wide, rich brown eyes. Perhaps there is more to this wench than meets the eye.

There are certain expectations that come with a title like Reader, I Murdered Him by Betsy Cornwell from Clarion Books. This take-off of the familiar concluding line from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre gives us a clue to the setting and tone, but this is the story of Mr. Rochester’s ward Adele.

Adele grew up in the shadows—of her broken family, of the gloomy manor halls of her lonely childhood. So when she's finally sent away to boarding school, she’s happy to enter the brightly lit world of society girls and their wealthy suitors. Yet there are shadows there, too. Many of the men that try to charm Adele’s new friends do so with dark intentions. After a violent assault, she turns to a roguish young con woman for help. Together, they become vigilantes meting out justice. But can Adele save herself from the same fate as those she protects? With a queer romance at its heart, this lush historical thriller offers readers an irresistible mix of vengeance and empowerment.

Divided Lives by K.R. Mullins from Jkj Books is frustratingly cagey about having queer content, so this is another case of reading the tea leaves and coded language in the cover copy and giving it the benefit of the doubt.

New York City (1912) is a city divided: Greenwich Village where rejected tradition is regularly flouted, and Manhattan where it is strictly upheld. Lottie Flannigan successfully balances both sides. While embracing a bohemian lifestyle, she maintains a legal career clerking for conservative Justice Goff in Midtown. Committed and dedicated, Lottie begins work on a high-profile criminal case involving local Police Officer Charles Becker. Suddenly her professional and personal lives collide as she finds herself caught in a blackmail scheme that seeks to disclose her most intimate choices if she doesn't do as they say. In a fascinating look into a scandalous turn-of-the-century trial and ever-changing Greenwich Village social norms, the book puts Lottie in the middle of Police Lieutenant Charles Becker's Conspiracy trial.

Maid to Love self-published by S.J. Faden sounds like a straight-forward rich-girl/poor-girl romance.

In 1930s Chicago Adoncia Martinez is a young heiress who spends most of her day in her vast library trying to figure out her purpose in life. Her seemingly endless search finds its possible answer when her new maid, Danika Batrovic enters her life. Though unassuming at first glance, Adoncia sees in the new maid a kindred spirit with a deep desire for something more. When the two come together things start to change in both their lives with the people around them paying most for the changes.

The glittering club scene of pre-WWII Germany brings together excitement and danger in Nothing Sung and Nothing Spoken by Nita Tyndall from Harper Teen.

Charlotte Kraus would follow Angelika Haas anywhere. Which is how she finds herself in an underground club one Friday night the summer before World War II, dancing to contraband American jazz and swing music, suddenly feeling that anything might be possible. Unable to resist the allure of sharing this secret with Geli, Charlie returns to the club again and again, despite the dangers of breaking the Nazi Party’s rules. Soon, terrified by the tightening vise of Hitler’s power, Charlie and the other Swingjugend are drawn to larger and larger acts of rebellion. But the war will test how much they are willing to risk—and to lose.

Jumping ahead to a more recent war, we have A Belief in Her by Barbara Valletto from Flashpoint Publications.

Claire McCollum, an American Red Cross Vietnamese Interpreter, and Maggie Calder, a Captain in the USAF, discover love in war-torn Vietnam in the months prior to the Fall of Saigon. Stationed on an air force base in Southeastern Vietnam, the two band together to partake in a mission of mercy that defies all odds. But the truth may not be what Claire expected, and knowing it may place beliefs she holds dear, in jeopardy.

To finish up this month’s new books, we have the third volume in Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle from Tor-dot-com, Into the Riverlands. This historic fantasy with an alternate China-like setting follows a collector of stories.

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themselves far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be. Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story―beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel―bears more than one face.

What Am I Reading?

For my own consumption this month, books read in print outnumbered audio books for the first time in several months. I finally finished a historical mystery that I started back in the beginning of the year: Jane and the Canterbury Tale by Stephanie Barron. It’s part of a historical mystery series with a fictional Jane Austen as the amateur detective. Back in the ‘90s I was seriously into reading historical mysteries and still follow some of the series, though less avidly.

I’ve started another of KJ Charles’s m/m historical romance series with Slippery Creatures, set just after WWI. With Charles’s work there’s always a tricky balance for me between enjoying the plots and characters and finding the sexual content too emphasized for my taste. This series is a bit heavier on the sexual side than some of the others, to the point where it sometimes feels like the plot is more like connective tissue. And yet I keep reading for the marvelous writing.

I listened to the audiobook of The Oleander Sword, the second book in Tasha Suri’s Burning Kingdoms series. The series has a lovely, complicated, central lesbian romance, embedded in an epic fantasy of empires and magic. For the first half of the book, The Oleander Sword felt very much like a “middle book” in taking the elements introduced in the first volume, expanding the scope, and setting things up for a later climax. But then everything starts changing into new and strange shapes and you realize that all your assumptions about “good guys” and “bad guys” have been mistaken. The immediate conflicts resolve with the understanding that a far more drastic challenge lies ahead in the final volume. Yes, I’m being a bit coy about exactly what that drastic shift in understanding is, but I think it’s more enjoyable to experience it for yourself.

The last book I started this month is…well…something entirely different in a totally bonkers way. I picked up this anthology on a whim at Worldcon because it had an irresistible hook. The title of the collection is Well…It’s Your Cow and the hook is that every story begins with an exchange between two characters: “Do we think this is a good idea?” “Well, it’s your cow.” The collection begins with the real-life incident related by the collection’s editor, Frog Jones, that inspired the anthology, then continues with stories of all flavors and genres unified by that hook.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, September 30, 2022 - 07:00

Like the previous article, this one provides some comparative data for considering the social dynamics of singlehood. And like the previous article, it feels a bit disconnected from the main content of the volume. There are connections to be made regarding how non-married people fit into deliberate social structures even when marriage is the norm, but those connections are mostly left for the reader to make.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Manfredini, Matteo. 2019. “Singleness in Nineteenth-century Italy: Permanent Celibacy and Solitariness between Coercion and Free Choice” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Manfredini, Matteo. “Singleness in Nineteenth-century Italy: Permanent Celibacy and Solitariness between Coercion and Free Choice”

This article summarizes various “ways of  being single” in Catholic society of one particular Tuscan community in the first half of the 19th century.

Permanent celibacy is defined for this purpose as being never-married by age 50. While out of line with normative expectations, permanent celibacy was accepted under certain conditions, e.g., for those with religious vocations. But certain economic strategies also required an acceptance of permanent celibacy when only the eldest son was expected to marry and beget children (to avoid diluting the inheritance), with other sons taking up religious, military, or diplomatic careers rather than marriage, and surplus daughters either entering religious life or performing household support activities for a married sibling. In a context where marriage was the only licensed means to producing children, control of access to marriage by the family was also a means of population control when resources or land was scarce. This could result in 15% of men and 12% of women never having access to marriage. (The social dynamics involve other complications, so this is a simplification of a simplification.) The vast majority of these never-married individuals were part of complex extended-family households, although solitary singles and members of smaller nuclear households also occurred. While these permanent singles were excluded from full access to social rights and privileges, they were not stigmatized, unless it were viewed as a personal whim rather than part of a family strategy.

Living alone as a one-person household was another option for singles, and its acceptability was highly contextual. If the solitary state was due to household attrition—the death of other members or the natural fracturing of the family into smaller units on a life-cycle basis—then there was not typically any stigma or marginalization. The solitary state tended to be unstable, with such persons typically joining another family unit or moving to an urban center for opportunity. However if the solitary state was perceived as voluntary or due to family rejection or the individual failure to form a family unit, then they might face social disapproval, especially if female. This was more often the case in rural areas than urban ones. These solitaries were likely to be never-married in younger age ranges, and much more likely to be widowed (especially female widows) in older age ranges.

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Misc tags: 
Thursday, September 29, 2022 - 07:00

There's an interesting sociology in trying to figure out how a specific set of paper topics get collected together into a publication. Appended onto this collection of studies relating to singles in the ancient world, we get two papers with "comparative material" that I find hard to integrate into an overall purpose. While this paper on singlewomen in late medieval Antwerp and Bruges touches on some parallels with, for example, the position of women in Roman and Coptic Egypt, it feels like the reader is left to draw her own conclusions about how the topics speak to each other. It almost feels like there was a conversation along the lines of, "I'm putting together a volume of papers on singlewomen in the classical world and I'd really like to have a paper from you." "Um...can't manage that, but how about the Low Countries a millennium later?" Goodness knows, I've be present for similar conversations.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

De Groot, Julie. 2019. “To Marry or Not to Marry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Cities, with Antwerp and Bruges as Case Studies” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

De Groot, Julie. “To Marry or Not to Marry in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-century Cities, with Antwerp and Bruges as Case Studies”

Comparative Voices

As a comparison from an extremely different time and place, the author looks at marriage patterns in 15-16th century Bruges and Antwerp in the Low Countries. This culture followed what is known as the “West European marriage pattern” involving a relatively late age for first marriage, a small age gap, and a significant adult population who had not yet married or might never marry. In these urban centers, newlyweds expected to establish an independent household, so marriage was delayed until a sufficient nest egg could be accumulated, often through wage labor by both parties.

Even when the will to marry existed, circumstances might make it impossible. And in a social context where marriage was not always possible, choosing not to marry stood out less. What consequence did that have? And did those consequences differ for men and women? Studies of singlehood often focus strongly on women, but this article explores both women’s and men’s single circumstances.

In theory, the marital status of men in Antwerp and Bruges did not affect their legal status, and so that status might not be mentioned overtly, as it typically was for women. Women’s legal status depended heavily on whether they were never-married, married, or widowed. Married women could enter certain types of legal contracts on their own, while singlewomen and widows were expected to have a male agent who acted for them. The importance of marital status shows up in how women are referred to in legal records in terms of their relationship to the relevant male relative “wife of” or “daughter of.” Widows are more visible as their own identities and they were often allowed to be their own legal agents. [Note: the article seems to contradict itself several times regarding the allowance for widows to be their own legal agents. Not just in terms of theory versus practice, but I think there’s a wording error when the topic is first introduced.]

We can also find differences between the prescriptive legal theory and the de facto activities of women reported in the record. One study of 14th century Ghent suggests that married women had far more real ability to act independently of their husbands than legal theory would suggest. This same de facto legal competency is seen in the accounts of widows in 15-16th century Antwerp, despite the official position that they were legally incapable and needed a male guardian to act for them.

Further, in an era when marriages were often clandestine or of challengeable validity, the categories of “single” and “married” could shade into each other.

Unmarried women were economically vulnerable, even setting aside the sharp differential in male and female wages for similar work. As the Middle Ages came to a close, trade guilds became increasingly closed to women as members, and hostile to women freelancers. Young men went into trade apprenticeships while the primary employment for young women was increasingly restricted to domestic service, which was viewed as a temporary lifecycle occupation.

But dynamics were shifting for men as well. It was no longer a given that apprenticeship would lead to independence as a master. And guilds developed feedback loops that increasingly favored the children of existing masters. Strategic marriage and the support of one’s father in law it could be critical to professional success.

There were identifiable strategies that single women (and widows) used to address economic pressures. Joining together in households or informal communities provided security and companionship.

[Note: This section brings in a much wider scope of time and place than the article’s nominal topic, so it’s hard to tell what it’s trying to demonstrate. I feel like this article lacks a clear overall point.]

 

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Tuesday, September 27, 2022 - 07:00

For all that I sometimes emphasize the opportunities that single women (and especially widows) could have--opportunities that are often more varied than popular visions of history include--we shouldn't overlook that relentless disadvantages that women had in relation to men in similar circumstances. Many of the anecdotes in this article emphasize that a woman, acting alone, often had very little leverage to enforce her legal and social rights. And that gaining the support of some male authority could be the difference between success and failure. But women were part of complex social systems. These widows were not necessarily isolated and  helpless. The might need male legal assistance, but they also felt they had a right to certain types of assistance, and would pursue it with that understanding. As I note, this article feels a bit like a scrapbook of isolated anecdotes, but somtimes those snapshots are what give us the best picture of people's everyday lives.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Cromwell, Jennifer. 2019. “‘Listen to My Mistreatment’: Support Networks for Widows and Divorcées in the Coptic Record” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Cromwell, Jennifer. “‘Listen to My Mistreatment’: Support Networks for Widows and Divorcées in the Coptic Record”

This article is a narrowly-focused study of single, once-married women in Coptic Egypt, concerning their difficulties due to that state and the support networks available to them. It draws on non-literary evidence primarily from the 6th to 8th century from the area around Thebes. The evidence includes letters and incidental legal documents and focuses on local conditions at a village level.

The data shows women acting independently in a variety of economic contexts, but within this it can be difficult to distinguish married versus unmarried women. Widows tend to be easiest to identify, due to the use of specific vocabulary for them, or the tendency to reference their late husband. In other cases, the composition of specific households can be reconstructed from the evidence, even if larger demographic patterns are elusive.

Among these, we can sometimes identify households consisting of an adult woman and her children, with no husband/father present. While specific reference to a husband/father can identify a widow, the absence of an expected reference cannot distinguish between death, divorce, or the absence of any prior marriage.

Marriage and divorce were (still) relatively informal practices and Coptic records rarely refer to the actions directly. However there were economic and social pressures to remain married. Coptic Christian authorities viewed adultery as the only valid reason for divorce. And those who divorced for other reasons might be ostracized. But some references indicate that other reasons/contexts existed, and the only known surviving divorce agreement simply notes that the couple “agreed together and separated.”

Church officials encouraged widowed or divorced women to remain unmarried for moral reasons. Older widows were encouraged to become nuns. But more practical matters of finances and inheritance played a part, as well as the availability of support for from the wider family.

A man’s will might specify that his widow could not inherit if she remarried, likely out of concern that his property not leave the control of his descendants. But widows did remarry and the inheritance complications sometimes show up in the records. Some widows were wealthy enough that they could choose not to remarry. Some never-married women were wealthy enough that remaining so was an option.

The inventories recorded when women willed their property to religious institutions can document some significant resources, such as multiple houses and a share in a bakery or houses plus a share in a church property. Some no-longer-married women had significant business activities which might be large enough to involve employees.

Either in addition to property and business income, or as a substitute for them, close family we’re an important resource for unmarried women. An elderly widow might live with one of her children, or receive physical assistance even though financially comfortable.

A widow with no immediate family might turn to religious officials for substantial or social support that would typically be provided by family. (I’m skipping many of the fascinating individual stories.)

Women’s lack of ability to pursue their own legal matters as forcefully as a man could, meant that widows often needed a male figure to act for them. Sometimes religious leaders were asked to intervene on behalf of widows in disputes with their relatives. But it was also the case that secular authorities might be turned to for similar assistance.

Widows are easier to identify as such in the records than divorcées. In addition, there was a religious duty to provide support to widows, but the church frowned on divorce, therefore divorcées may have been less motivated to seek assistance when needed. But there is one record of a woman divorced by her husband who sought assistance in pursuing support from him for her children, as promised in their divorce contract.

[Note: If this feels like a somewhat random list of the circumstances widows might find themselves in, that’s an accurate understanding of the article’s contents.]

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Monday, September 19, 2022 - 07:00

This article is, of course, the one that brought the entire collection to my attention, when Ursula Whitcher cited it as one of the strands of inspiration for her story "The Spirits of Cabassus" published as part of this year's fiction series. Direct references to female same-sex desire are rare in many eras, and the tantalizing glimpses we get aren't always put in a positive light in the original sources. But for a historical fiction author, those glimpses can be the spark to kindle a fire. Because the glimpses can be fragmentary and offered up in biased acounts, there's often a temptation to expand them into a more complete story--one that centers and is sympathetic to the sapphic figure. I have a whole laundry list of historic anecdotes that I'd like to turn into fiction, when I have the time.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Efthymiadis, Stephanis. 2019. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Efthymiadis, Stephanis. “Single People in Early Byzantine Literature”

This is a relatively general article, reiterating the themes of how social changes under Christianity created a context in which not marrying (or not re-marrying) could be considered a viable life choice, whether it involved a retreat into an ascetic community or continued presence in the secular world. Singlehood itself was not the goal, but rather an acceptable mode in which one could devote oneself to religious causes and activities.

The discussion is anecdotal, presenting various stories of different types of unmarried life. One of particular interest to the Project for tangential reasons is worth quoting:

A woman named Martha, suffering from chronic illness, went to a shrine “where other women, mostly suffering from demonic possession, lodged, separated by curtains and awaiting a cure. Being a kind and good-hearted person, she never missed an opportunity to serve and console those of her companions who were in pain. In the event, the saints visited her a few times, but to her disappointment, they granted her only partial relief, causing her to raise her voice in protest. It was under these troubled circumstances that a woman who had moved in next to her fell in love with her. Her name was Christina, and she was a married woman, the wife of one of the clergy of the Church of Saint Laurentius. Oddly enough, her infatuation functions as a catalyst in the story. As she was about to step into the curtained-off space Martha occupied and set about seducing her, the saints were forced, as it were, to intervene and offer Martha a complete cure.

“Thanks to this unique – or at least very rare –attestation of (would-be) lesbian eroticism in Byzantium, we once again gain an insight into the life of a single woman at the troubles she might have faced because of her singleness.”

[Not: The event and its framing may not be entirely positive, but it brings the potential for acting on same-sex desire into view at a time when evidence is otherwise scarce.]

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Saturday, September 17, 2022 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 239 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 3: Adapting Marriage Tropes - transcript

(Originally aired 2022/09/17 - listen here)

Introduction

Today we’re going to look at historic romance tropes involving marriage and how they can be adapted to female couples.

When we look at the popular historic romance tropes involving male-female couples, there is a large subset that revolve around the social context of the paired relationship—whether that relationship is depicted at marriage or the functional equivalent, or at an earlier stage of courtship. Closely related to this are tropes involving the motivations of the characters engaging in this relationship. Whether the trope is fake-dating, an arranged or political marriage, a marriage of convenience or outright fake marriage, or a compromising situation that pressures the couple into formalizing the relationship, all these tropes are deeply embedded in the function of marriage within society and the social expectations around marriage in the specific context of the setting.

While contemporary romance now includes marriage-based tropes that expand beyond male-female couples, any romance set in western culture before the 21st century that doesn’t involve a male-female couple needs to engage in some way with the inaccessibility of formal, legally-recognized marriage to other types of couples. This can be just as important as the need to engage with how the protagonists work around the normative expectations that they will engage in a male-female marriage.

And here I want to emphasize--even more than usual--that the discussion here will focus specifically on western culture in Europe and the Mediterranean area, as well as European-derived cultures in the Americas. There have been formalized, marriage-like same-sex bonds in other cultures in a number of times and places, which I don’t mean to erase. But historic romance tropes tend to assume a very specific cultural setting that either draws on or reflects western culture, therefore I hope I may be excused for sticking to that narrow focus.

Within western culture, there is a broad potential for formalized paired relationships other than marriage, but the social dynamics and expectations around those non-marital relationships will affect the ways in which they can stand in for marriage within a historic romance trope. Today’s exploration of the dynamics of popular historic romance tropes for female couples will look at some general types of contractual relationships that can provide an alternate context for marriage tropes, as well as exploring how specific tropes such as “fake relationship” or “marriage of convenience” might play out differently for non-marital bonds.

What Is a Trope?

For those who may be coming into this series in the middle, what we mean by “trope” in this context is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that is used regularly enough that it carries a whole context of meaning, and connects the story to other works that employ the same trope. The trope could be a character type, or a situation, or even a plot-sequence or mini-script. In the context of historic romance novels, popular tropes include ones that describe attributes of the romantic couple, the context in which they meet, the barriers keeping them apart, or the mechanism by which they connect romantically.

As usual, my examples and discussion are going to lean heavily on western culture. If you’re brainstorming a historic romance in some other cultural context, be careful about assuming that motifs from western culture are universal. Tropes involving marriage-analogues, perhaps more than character-based tropes, will vary a great deal according to the specific historic setting and the types of non-marital relationships it recognizes and supports.

Marriage as Such

There’s a separate topic to be considered in having the couple engage with formal marriage systems by representing themselves as a male-female couple. This covers a range of identities from having a female-identifying partner present herself as male for the sake of the marriage, all the way through various degrees of gender identification to the marriage of a trans man and a woman. This will be a complicated topic and will be covered in its own separate episode (or maybe more than one). Today’s episode will concern itself with two individuals who both identify as women and are perceived by their society as such.

Essential Differences and Potential Similarities

Marriage has always had multiple functions and purposes. The romance genre focuses on the purpose of finding and bonding with a romantic and erotic partner, but specific marriage-related tropes may lean on some of the other functions. These include creating an economic or social contract between families, the establishment of a line of inheritance typically including the production of children, combining economic and labor resources to better support the functioning of an independent household, and the formalization of a friendship. With the exception of procreation, you can find same-sex analogues for these purposes in many historic cultures.

While we may think of marriage as having certain universal features, a cross-cultural and cross-time survey of marriage practices and customs would have a hard time finding a defining set of characteristics. Marriage can be a contract between individuals or between families. It can be formalized by law, or by a religious authority, or simply by the declaration of the parties involved. It may be viewed as permanent or temporary. The consent of the couple being married may be essential, or optional, or irrelevant. Given all this, the question of what counts as a same-sex analogue of marriage depends on what definition and aspect of marriage you’re looking at. For our purposes, it may help to consider the relevant features to be: a formal or semi-formal contractual bond that affects the living situation and interpersonal relationships of two people, which is publicly known and recognized by the community, and which assumes certain features of good faith and sincerity in its ideal form.

One key feature of marriage tropes in male-female romance—as noted above—is the literary convention that a romantic connection is assumed to be relevant to marriage, either in its presence or in its absence. While some non-marital analogues, such as formalized friendship bonds, similarly assume an emotional component, others do not. So while male-female marriage tropes contrast the sincere performance of courtship with a conflicted performance, many of the analogues suggested for female couples contrast a sincere performance of the social contract with a conflicted performance, and then add in a separate polarity between the sincere performance of romance versus a conflicted performance.

This can make for some delightfully complicated plots!

Familial Bonds

Let’s start with types of social contracts that are typically driven by the character’s family, rather than personal choice. For example, the practice of fosterage among the medieval European elite was partially intended to create social bonds between families. Typically an adolescent would be sent to live with another family where they would learn adult skills and form personal connections that were expected to benefit their birth family. While there was sometimes the intent that the person being fostered would be exposed to marriage prospects, the connections they made between same-sex mentors and peers were just as important and could have life-long consequences. We see a tantalizing hint of how such relationships might form in the joint funeral memorial for Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge in 15th century England. Their bond—whatever form it took—was driven by the strategies and goals of their families. But once brought together, they found something in common that went beyond living in the same household.

If we’re brainstorming for a romance plot, we can consider the attitudes of the two characters toward their situation. How might a young woman feel about being fostered into a strange family? How might a daughter of that family react to her? What are their relative social positions? Are they expected to be friends? Do they feel pressured to behave as friends regardless of how they feel? Do they have personal goals that the relationship between them might further or hinder? What happens if one or both feel romantic stirrings?

In a similar situation more fraught with tension, offspring of a range of ages might be claimed as long-term hostages by someone in political power, to ensure the compliance of their birth family. This can place them in a situation where superficially they are like members of their new household, but always with an underlayer of distrust on both sides. In a way, one might view this situation as analogous to a forced or political marriage, if the hostage gets tangled up in emotional connections to the more powerful family.

Situations like those described above can parallel the dynamic in an arranged marriage or forced marriage, in that the protagonist may have little say in the matter and yet be expected to take up the role of serving as a bridge between families, or paying a social debt, or the like. The scenario places them in close proximity to people with whom they need to establish alliances, partnerships, or friendships—ones that may have lifelong consequences in the same way that marriage might.

But from another angle, if the context and power dynamics work out, a couple may manipulate the forms of an arranged contract in order to provide a context to enjoy their romantic relationship. Rather than the contract serving as an arranged or forced context, it becomes the “fake” context that gives cover to a less public purpose.

Employment Bonds

Outside the upper class, the apprenticeship system is something of a parallel to fosterage. The range of jobs a young woman might be apprenticed into will depend on context, but could include joining her mistress’s household. As with fosterage, she may have an ambiguous position in that household depending on her own background. And her interactions with her fellow apprentices (or with the mistress’s daughter!) create the romantic potential. In the early modern and later eras, you can find a similar dynamic when “poor relations” might place a child in the household of more comfortable relatives, or an unmarried woman might take a place as companion in the household of a relative or social connection of the family.

For that matter, any sort of employment situation can create the sort of contractual framework that can operate as an analogue for marriage for the purposes of a trope. While the power dynamics of employer and employee can complicate the ethics of a relationship for modern authors and readers, they are not qualitatively different from the historic power dynamics of husband and wife. Employment in personal service, such as a lady’s maid or--at a higher level of society--as a lady in waiting, creates the sort of intimate proximity in which complicated desires can flourish. And as with other contractual relationships, the “story behind the story” can turn what appears to be straightforward employment into a fake relationship or a relationship of convenience. What if the lady’s maid isn’t actually a working-class servant but is being concealed from danger under the guise of employment? What if the supposedly loyal lady in waiting is actually a spy?

I’ve talked about the enticing potential of companion roles as a context for romance, but they also provide the possibility of fake or convenience-based relationships. A well-off woman might take on a companion against her preference for any number of reasons. Perhaps she needs a companion for social appearances. Perhaps she’s been pressured to take the woman on as a favor to someone else. Perhaps the two women have decided that a companion arrangement is convenient for both of them even if not financially or socially necessary. In all of these, the companion bond may step in for a marriage in fake, arranged, or convenience tropes in which a romance develops within the context of the bond.

But from a different angle, what if the romance comes first and it’s the employment relationship that is the fake? Here we have a possibility that differs somewhat from the male-female trope. If a man and woman are in love and have communicated that love to each other, and if there is no bar to them getting married, there’s no good reason to frame a marriage as “fake” in that context. But if two women have confessed their love to each other and present themselves publicly as mistress and companion because it gives them a context for sharing their lives, then it’s reasonable to view it as a “fake companion” relationship. You see how things twist and change?

The Bonds of Friendship

In many cultures, there was a recognition and celebration of intimate personal friendships that could even be understood as being closer than the emotional bonds of marriage. As an ideal, such friendships were not dictated by economic, genetic, or social ties but were the free union of two souls. Such friends might use the same language as marriage to talk about their bond, and in some contexts might have formal or informal rituals available to mark their commitment to each other.

Until relatively recently, there was usually an assumption that true friendship was difficult to maintain between those of different genders without it turning awkwardly sexual, and therefore friendship practices tended to revolve around same-sex pairs. Alan Bray’s book The Friend [https://alpennia.com/lhmp/lhmp-288-bray-2003-friend] is a useful detailed study of attitudes and practices around same-sex friendship across a long span of time, although he focuses almost exclusively on male friendships. But there are a number of studies of intimate female friendships, especially from the 17th century and later, that provide models for fictional characters.

How can intimate same-sex friendships work as a marriage analogue within historical romance tropes? For one thing, in a context where the usual pattern was to develop life-long friendship bonds, and especially if such friendships had significance within larger social dynamics, there’s an opportunity for a declared friendship to act as a context for a “fake dating” or “marriage of convenience” trope. Say Person A is trying to be your best buddy and you have reasons to avoid them or distrust them but don’t want to say so outright? So you arrange with Person B to be your “bosom friend” to whom you profess loyalty. And then, well, it turns out you want more than a convenient excuse.

But such friendships—like familial alliances—could also have more practical benefits than simple companionship. Entering into a public friendship with ulterior motives has clear parallels to agreeing to a marriage for hidden purposes, with similar emotional consequences if the other person believes you are sincere.

In literature, and perhaps sometimes in life, same-sex friendships might be treated as an equivalent to marriage not only in their emotional dynamics, but in being socially obligatory. Delariviere Manley’s The New Atalantis, although written as a satire, describes a secret society in which female pair-bonds were required for entrance and we see a similar, though also satirical, treatment in the late 18th century fictional Anandrine Sect. During the heyday of Romantic Friendship, a middle-class woman who lacked a special female friend might well be considered devoid of proper sensibility. And unlike the other types of semi-formal contractual relationships discussed in this episode, friendship assumed the existence of an emotional bond in the same way that the historic romance genre assumes the alignment of marriage with an emotional bond. This makes formalized friendships an excellent choice for those who want a close parallel to marriage-based romance tropes.

The Helpmeet

Regardless of gender dynamics or the existence of a marriage contract, one of the very practical functions of people coming together to form a household is the ability to pool resources and share duties. Even in contexts where it was logistically possible to set up an independent household as a single person, everything was easier with one or more partners. Two people can merge their financial resources and incomes and gain access to more security than either of them alone. And the work of maintaining a household, whether it involves physical labor or management skills, is halved when two people are involved. This has always been held out as one of the basic purposes of marriage—the partnering with a “helpmeet”—and outside of marriage it remains as a practical motivation for cohabitation.

Across the ages, it has been common for unmarried women to pool resources—either in pairs or in larger groups—to achieve a more stable position or a higher standard of living. In some historic contexts, this type of household was a recognized “type”. Whether the arrangement is framed as a landlady with boarders, or spinsters ekeing out their resources together, whether they present themselves as business partners or the overt couplehood of a Boston marriage, whether the arrangement looks like employment or like friendship or like familial bonds, the outcome is a semi-formal living arrangement that has a public purpose not related to a romantic or erotic relationship.

This can not only create an analogue to marriage for the purposes of a romance trope, but it can add an additional layer of complexity to the tensions and interactions that play out within the trope. Let’s look at just one isolated scenario and ring some changes over it. Anne has inherited a house from her grandmother and doesn’t want her cousins to move in under the argument that she needs the help. Elizabeth is making an adequate living as a writer, but since it’s all under a pen name to conceal her gender, her family assumes she’s impoverished. To solve both their problems, Anne offers to take Elizabeth on as a boarder. Aha, fake relationship! Because neither of them needs the financial arrangement, they only need the illusion of depending on the financial arrangement. But now, in comes the romance plot, though neither of them went into this expecting any sort of emotional entanglement. For that matter, maybe they don’t even like each other much at first. Or each of them believes the other’s fictional financial emergency. And then one or the other finds herself getting attached. But something happens to disrupt the fictional boarder arrangement. Maybe Elizabeth comes into some money that she’s able to be public about and so can afford her own place. What to do? Can they sort out all the fictions and feelings to achieve true love?

Making it All Come Together

Expanding the types of relationships that can be used as the basis for a marriage-like trope for female couples changes some of the dynamics, but not always in the way you might think. The imperative toward marriage can involve external pressures and demands, but so can other types of personal contract. First marriage traditionally happens around a specific life stage (though perhaps a different age in different contexts) but other interpersonal contracts may have a similar ticking clock. Marriage may be driven by ulterior motives that create the temptation or the need for deception—either between the couple or for an external audience—but so do many other types of relationships.

And as we’ve seen, while male-female marriage tropes typically operate between two contrasting states (the idealized one in which romance, desire, and marriage are all aligned, and the conflicting state in which that alignment is disrupted), parallel tropes for female couples disrupt the assumed connection between the “public” arrangement and the existence of a romance, allowing for a three-way conflict between the romantic potential and the public and private understandings of the contractual context in which it develops.

The essential features in turning a trope into a plot are to identify which functional aspects of the trope you want to replicate, and then find a type of formalized same-sex arrangement that can replicate the same functions. And if you set it up cleverly, you’ll end up with even more potential for angst, intrigue, and misunderstanding than traditional marriage can offer.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The structure of historic romance tropes focusing on marriage
  • Historic relationships between women that can be used as marriage-analogues in tropes
  • How separating the relationship aspect of the trope from the emotional dynamic creates the potential for even more angst and conflict

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Friday, September 16, 2022 - 07:00

This article looks at some of the realities and myths of early Christian "dedicated virgins". What sort of lives did they lead? How were their lives similar to, or different from, those of unmarried women who were not religious devotees? From the point of view of the LHMP, there's also the question of to what extent this lifestyle could have accommodated same-sex desire.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Vuolanto, Ville. 2019. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Vuolanto, Ville. “Single Life in Late Antiquity? Virgins between the Earthly and Heavenly Family”

This article focuses primarily on women who chose a single/celibate life for religious reasons in the late 4th and early 5th century. In earlier Roman society, while modesty and chastity were desired virtues for the young, unmarried woman, it was for the purpose of entering marriage as a virgin, not as an end in itself. However shifts in social expectations due to Christianity created the idea of choosing singlehood as a deliberate strategy for religious purposes. For some, it might have been a decision made for them as early as infancy, for others the choice might arise (whether their own or imposed) as they approached or entered a marriageable age. Such a life path was often framed in the context of abstaining from other social privileges of the “good life”.

There is a discussion of how likely it was that the girl herself was the driver of these decisions, given the age at which they would have been made. Hagiography (and especially martyrdoms) focused on narratives where young women refused marriage or chose celibacy in direct contradiction to their parents’ wishes, and often at the cost of severe punishment and coercion. However the author suggests that these narratives were unlikely to reflect everyday reality.

But to what extent would such a life of religious singleness be recognizable as “a single lifestyle”? In general, the young women would remain living with their parents (whereas male ascetics might leave to join a monastery). The expectations for their behavior were nearly identical to those for a not-yet-married woman: domesticity, modesty, and restriction from the public sphere. Among the elite, however, there could be a performative aspect to their lives where it was important that they be seen to be extreme in their piety and renunciation. At the same time, the existence of young unmarried women in the household could be considered a hazard to the family’s reputation if she were accused (rightly or wrongly) of impropriety.

Separate ascetic communities for women were not an option at first, but elite households that supported their daughters in this lifestyle sometimes evolved into a “magnet” for other women, developing into a non-familial community. If such communities involved women who came to asceticism later in life, they might bring with them children who would initially grow up in the ascetic community but might not remain as a devotee.

Some of the anxieties surrounding these dedicated virgins were addressed by the development of the concept of being a “bride of Christ.” Marriage returned as the central organizing expectation of women’s lives, but in a form that allowed for chastity. For these “single women,” solitariness was not a part of their experience. Largely, they continued to live as part of familial communities, bowing to parental expectations, and ruled by the behavioral expectations for all unmarried women.

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Misc tags: 
Monday, September 12, 2022 - 07:00

Another article from this collection that is primarily about men even when nominally about women.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Cribiore, Rafaella. 2019. “Different Ways of Life: Being Single in the Fourth Century CE” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Cribiore, Rafaella. “Different Ways of Life: Being Single in the Fourth Century CE”

This paper explores different modes of singlehood through the lives of three elite men. There is a brief discussion of single women mentioned in the epistles of one of the three: Libanius, a 4th century professor of rhetoric in Antioch. The women in question are widowed mothers of his students, most of whom did not remarry and who experienced certain struggles as a result, as well as their status having consequences for the students in question. But there are few details and Libanius’s concern is primarily for how their status affected their sons.

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Misc tags: 
Monday, September 5, 2022 - 07:00

It's common for articles about demographic studies to focus heavily on the methodology and definitions used for interpreting the data. This is of vital importance, as all such interpretations are conditional on the accuracy of the premises. But this sort of approach can give the impression that nothing at all is known for certain. To some extent, that's an accurate impression if one focuses on the "for certain" part, though not with regard to the "nothing is known" part. Still, in exploring "how we know what we know" the authors necessarily lay out a complex understanding of the social structures and conditions that underlie their interpretations. It's all fascinating.

This is my last day at Worldcon in Chicago and I'm down to a book signing and a small group fan-chat. I've had a good time, though I've also learned some shifts in the boundaries of my energy. Most of the panel discussions I've participated in have not simply been entertaining, but have been exciting and energizing. Particularly memorable were a discussion of "proto-sci-fi" works, especially the long history of "hollow earth" stories; an examination of gendered magic in historic fantasy; and a look at how alternate history stories can give voice and visibility to historically marginalized characters.

It's too early to tell whether my Covid precautions have held, especially since I have another day of airports to get through tomorrow. The convention required proof of vaccination and universal masking, but of course it's still possible for those to fail if the luck goes against you. Keep your fingers crossed for me, and hold a thought for those who would like to return to attending in-person conventions but don't yet consider it safe.

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LHMP
Full citation: 

Goessens, Thomas. 2019. “Singles and Singleness in the Christian Epigraphic Evidence from Rome (c. 300-500 CE)” in Sabine R. Huebner & Christian Laes (eds), The Single Life in the Roman and Later Roman World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-47017-9

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers addressing (and definine) the state of "singleness" in the Roman Empire, both in pre-Christian and early Christian times. There is a strong focus on Egypt as well as Rome proper, as well as wider Byzantine material. Comparative material is offered from Jewish sources, as well as a small selection of studies from specific cultures of more modern date.

Goessens, Thomas. “Singles and Singleness in the Christian Epigraphic Evidence from Rome (c. 300-500 CE)”

Late Antique Christianity: The Rise of the Ideal of Being Single

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This article uses early Christian funerary inscriptions in the city of Rome as a data source for life-long singleness, allowing for a quantitative and statistical analysis. The corpus of relevant inscriptions includes over 40,000 items though many are fragmentary. As the vast majority of inscriptions from this period are funerary in nature, and due to the typical content of such inscriptions, we have perhaps 20,000 epitaphs that include not only the name, but also age at death, length of marriage (if any), and references to familial relationships. In date, they range from the early 3rd to mid-7th century CE, thugh most fall in the century between the death of Constantine the Great and the early 5th century.

Several caveats are necessary. Due to social differences in burial preferences, these inscriptions are less likely to belong to the social elite. Due to Christian avoidance of identifying people by social status, it is not possible to make group distinctions between enslaved people, freedmen, and citizens. In addition, the shift from use of the tria nomina name formula to the use of a single name can make family connections difficult to trace. The epigraphic information rarely touches on questions of divorce and remarriage.

Given these caveats, the criteria used to classify an inscription as referring to a “single” person are: of marriageable age and not in a spousal relationship at the time of death (regardless of reason). Three women are used as examples to introduce the analysis.

Maximilla died in 389 at age 51. She was the daughter of a diaconus (deacon), but the epitaph was commissioned by a friend, the daughter of a man of senatorial rank. Maximilla is described as virgo (virgin) and ancilla Dei (female-servant of God). There is no reference to a spouse. It is a reasonable conclusion that she never married and may have deliberately chosen a life of consecrated virginity.

Cassia Sophrosyne was commemorated in 402 by her niece Cassia Vindicia. Although Sophrosyne’s age is not given, the fact that she had an adult niece suggests she may have been past the age of expected marriage. Sophrosyne is described a a virgo sacra (sacred virgin) respected for her sexual abstinence, and Vindicia identifies herself as a virgo Deo dedicate (virgin dedicated to God), though her age is not known.

The contextual information for these three women is atypically detailed, and it’s possible that such details over-represent a religious motivation for singlehood (as other reasons would not be celebrated for posterity). In addition, all three belonged to the social and economic elite. Therefore caution must be observed in extrapolating from the more detailed inscriptional data.

Singlehood can either be mentioned explicitly, or implied by the lack of reference to a spouse, with the latter being more common. Many inscriptions contain only the name of the deceased (which indicates gender) accompanied by formulaic expressions. Most often, there is no mention of what the relationship is to the person doing the commemoration, and the author has chosen to exclude these from analysis as no conclusion about singlehood can be made. Another problematic group are epitaphs that indicate they were arranged for by the deceased themselves—a context that suggests but does not prove single status.

Searching for more certainty, the author considers what explicit language might indicate single status. “Caelebs” is a good candidate but in funerary inscriptions seems to be limited to military veterans. “Vidua” (widow) may also be used to indicate an unmarried woman (as opposed to a woman whose husband had died but who might have remarried). (There seems to be a suggestion that “vidua” might also be used to mean “never-married”?) Overall, the author concludes that the use of specific terminology is unhelpful in identifying those unmarried at death.

Use of the word “virgo” is also a problem for interpretation as it is associated primarily with young women (up to age 25), and doesn’t absolutely correlate with unmarried status. Overall both female and male virgins are highly likely to be never-married, but it may sometimes refer to a married person in a chaste relationship. To confuse the issue, the words virginia/virginius are used almost exclusively for married people and seem to refer to virginal status at the time of marriage. The phrases “virgo Dei” or “virgo sacra” seems much more likely to refer to a deliberate never-married state, on religious principles, but these phrases are quite rare and there is some indication the label would only be applied after reaching a certain age. And in contradiction to this interpretation is Ioviniana who was described as “virgo sanctae memoriae” but also as a wife and mother.

The use of the formulas “ancilla Dei” or “servus Dei” [Note: typically translated “servant of God” but with a nod to my classicist friend who emphasizes this point, a more contextual translation is “slave of God”] seem to refer purely to religious devotion with no implication regarding marital status, with some explicitly noted as being married.

References to the status of clergy carries no indication of singlehood as there was no requirement for clergy to be unmarried, though it was considered an ideal.

The author once again comes to a conclusion that identifying singles via specific keywords in the inscriptions is fraught with uncertainty. He moves on to an analysis of inscriptions in which it is married status that is explicitly indicated. Based on the demographic data in the inscriptions, a normative life course for married people can be identified, after which this can be used as a context for evaluation. Then a metric can be established to categorize people who had passed the normative age for marriage (at the time of death) but for which no explicit reference to marriage was present.

After much hedging about, he suggests that women married between the ages of 14 and 21, and men between 20 and 25, with an average for women of 20 and for men of 26. This estimate might be corroborated from inscriptions that include an age at death and length of marriage, but there are relatively few that contain this data. This approach suggests that women married between 12 and 27 (with 90% married by that age) and men between 18 and 34 (with 90% married by that age).

After yet more hemming and hawing about what weight can be put on the data, th author proposes that for lower estimates of expected age at marriage, perhaps 1 out of 7 women were unmarried at death and 1 out of 4 men; while for higher estimates of expected marriage age, perhaps 1 in 10 women and 1 in 7 men were unmarried at death. But then he notes only that this 1/10 and 1/7 no doubt included some single people, though not necessarily never-married ones.

All in all, the paper takes a great deal of time and analysis to conclude that we can’t really be certain about anything except in the few specific cases where the person’s singleness is explicitly noted in the inscription. But there are some interesting data tables for specific keywords in the inscriptions and graphs for some of the demographic patterns.

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