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Tuesday, August 24, 2021 - 07:00

Sometimes when I run across a book or article that doesn't seem to add value to the Project, I simply take a note in my master list (so I don't keep "discovering" it) and move on. And sometimes a book or article promises so much and delivers so badly that I just need to get the whole thing out of my system by talking about it.

This is one of those times.

Full citation: 

Stehr, Emily (compiler). 2018. Tragic (but Interesting & Very Short) History of Sodomite, Lesbians, & Sapphics. Self-published. ISBN 978172000756

I’m doing this publication out of order because it doesn’t take very long to say, “Don’t touch this book with a ten foot pole,” and I want to get that out of the way and never look at it again.

It isn’t that the content of the book is particularly harmful, it’s that its very existence is an act of bad scholarship. Why did I buy it? Because I was on the website for University Press Books (which was a great browsing-bookstore back when they had a physical presence, right across the street from U.C. Berkeley) ordering an entirely different book. And recalling that UPB was a place where I’d happened by chance across all manner of books useful to the Project, I plugged the search word “lesbian” into their web site and skimmed through the listed items. This title was intriguing, the price was quite reasonable, and so I ordered it.

So what did I get? It’s best to introduce this by quoting the author’s forward: “Dear Reader, this “book” is ridiculously short. During my search on google scholar, I was amazed at the lack of documentation about same-sex relationships in history. I think this is an important story to be told. It is my hope that someone in the future will add to this document as other historical sources become available.”

I have no idea what she was searching for in Google Scholar, or why she seems to think that the items she turned up are the entirety of what is known of queer history in the 18th and 19th centuries, or how she managed to be working on anything relating to this topic without having a basic grounding in historic methods, but even in making a heap of all she found, this compilation is misleading, misattributed, and utterly lacking in useful context. The one virtue of the work is that it is short. (It lacks pagination and I can’t be bothered to actually count, but I think about 20 pages?) It consists of verbatim quotations from 16 publications, evidently identified through some sort of keyword search. The extracts are given a source, an author, and a date, but in many cases that information is misleading.

For example, one extract is cited as ”1839 Jean Froissart”. The 1839 date comes from an edition translated and edited by Thomas Johnes from the French original of the 14th century.

A similar displacement of attribution occurs for the excerpt cited as “Robert Kelham; Britton: Containing the Antient Pleas of the Crown, 1762.” Kelham was a legal historian and antiquarian of the 18th century. This is his translation of an early 16th century compilation of English law, which itself was based on a 13th century work. But Stehr’s presentation of the excerpt gives no context to suggest that it is anything other than an 18th century legal opinion. (And…look: it only took me five minutes with Google and Wikipedia to trace this back. It’s not like it was hard.)

A couple of excerpts seem to be included solely on the basis of quoting someone yelling “Sodomite!” as an insult, which is meaningless without understanding the social context in which it was hurled. Another couple seem to be included solely due to references to the poet Sappho as a “Lesbian,” but in contexts where her sexuality is not a focus.

In sum (and it would have been best to stop earlier), this book contributes less than nothing to the knowledge or understanding of sexuality in history. And if I were University Press Books, I’d be embarrassed to have it in my catalog.

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