Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16d - When did we become Lesbians? - transcript
For all that we’ve had a generation of hearing queer people say, “I don’t like labels,” the power of names and labels is hard to deny. One of the arguments we hear from people who say that lesbians didn’t exist until the late 19th century sexologists invented the concept, is that no one identified as a lesbian before the 19th century and how can something exist without a name?
There are several arguments against that position. One of them is that the word “lesbian”, used in the sense of a woman who had homoerotic desires, came into use much earlier than that. Another argument is that there were other words in use throughout history to refer to women who had sex with other women. But it’s also true that words change in meaning over time, and that the ideas represented by the word “lesbian” today may be different from what people in other eras meant when they used the word. And it’s true that the specific shades of meaning implied by various labels don’t correspond precisely to our current meaning of “lesbian.” But then, there are ongoing debates today about just what exactly the category of lesbian encompasses.
Today’s podcast is going to take a tour through some of the vocabulary used in European history for women who loved or desired other women. I’m also going to touch briefly on some Arabic terms, but I don’t have the resources available at the moment to cover the rest of the world. I’m looking specifically at words for persons. There was a parallel vocabulary of adjectives and verbs, and different forms of the language evolved at different times. For example, “lesbian” as an adjective, talking about desires and acts, seems to have emerged earlier than the widespread use of the word as a noun, referring to a person. Similarly, the word “Sapphic” used as an adjective to describe feelings and activities seems to show up earlier than “Sapphist” as a word for a person. Some words were in widespread use across cultures, showing up in forms specific to the various languages. We can see the evolution of the Latin word “fricatrix” as it begins showing up in vernacular languages across Europe. Other words, especially slang terms, were found only in a single language, like the Dutch word “lollepot.”
It might be useful to think of these words as having three types of origins. There are words that have their primary meaning as describing what it is that lesbians do. We’ll see that most of these descriptive terms have to do with the act of rubbing, referring to that action in the context of sexual activity. Second are the metonymic words that refer to someone or something that has come to be associated with lesbians but had some other original meaning. The most obvious example of this group is the word lesbian itself, which originally meant simply a person from the island of Lesbos and acquired its sexual sense by a roundabout path because Sappho lived on Lesbos. The third set of words can be slippery to identify. These are slang terms, which derive their meaning from an indirect allusion or from some coincidence of reference. Finding their origins can be tricky because the word or phrase may mean something else on the surface and you have to find contexts where the sexual sense is unambiguous. A great example of this type of word is “gay”, though it won’t be one of the ones discussed here. It’s hard to figure out when the word “gay” first started to be used to mean homosexual because most of the time the interpretation is ambiguous. Often that’s exactly why slang terms come into use: because they can be used discretely.
So let’s follow the histories of some of these words and see where it leads us.
One of the most tantalizing words I’ll discuss is the Greek hetairistriai. It is perhaps the oldest clear reference for a woman who desires women and appears in a relatively positive context, but it is a hapax legomenon--a word that appears only once in surviving records, other than later sources quoting that source--therefore it’s hard to think of it as a term in common use. It’s also awkward that we only have the word in the plural and it isn’t entirely certain what the singular form would be, though hetairistria is perhaps a good guess. Hetairistriai is used in Plato’s Symposium in a mythic tale of how human sexual attraction came into being. All people, so the story goes, were originally double-bodied beings that split into two. Those who descended from double-bodied creatures that were both male and female have heterosexual desires (although obviously Plato doesn’t use that term), while those who descended from double male bodied creatures are men who desire men, and those descended from double female bodied creatures are “hetairistriai”, who have no interest in men but are attracted to other women. The word has the same root as “heteira” or courtesan, but with no additional context it’s hard to know the exact relationship between the two words, whether hetairistriai means “women who love courtesans” or has some other sense.
The word appears rarely in later writings, and the examples that people cite are from dictionaries or from commentaries where it’s being used to discuss and define other words. A 5th century Byzantine dictionary considers dihetaristria to be equivalent to the word tribas (which we’ll discuss next), and glosses it as meaning “women who, like men, are oriented towards female companions for sex.” And similarly, a 10th century commentary of the 2nd century Roman author Lucian equates hetairistria and tribades. Another 10th century commentary, this time on the 2nd century Christian writer Clement of Alexandria, lists tribades, hetairistriai, and Lesbiai as all being equivalent in meaning.
One thing to notice in the definitions and explanations for these early terms is that there is often an implication that the label applies specifically to a woman who actively pursues other women, but with the implication that her female partner may not fit under the same definition if she merely passively allows herself to be pursued.
Chronologically, the next word that comes into use is tribas, from the Greek verb tribein meaning “to rub or wear down”. Tribas is used by classical Greek writers for women who have sex with women. The Greek plural, tribades, gave us the later use in various languages as tribade. We can find this term used in Greek astrological texts of the 1st and 2nd century to describe a woman whose stars result in her being a lover of women. The context and discussion implies that this is due to masculinizing factors in her horoscope. Like the classical Romans, the Greeks viewed sexual roles in terms of active and passive, rather than in terms of the gender of the sex partner. A woman who took the active role was considered to be taking on a male sexual role and therefore was expected to desire women.
The word tribas was taken directly into Classical Latin and is used by authors such as Seneca and Martial to refer to a woman who has sex with other women, not only by rubbing but also by penetration. Given the way that classical Romans understood sexuality, they made a distinction in considering only the active partner--the top, if you will--to be a tribas.
Medical manuals of the early Christian era are another early source of examples of tribade to discuss women with homoerotic desires.
Tribade continued in regular use during the medieval period and later, well into the modern era. As noted previously, there are 10th century writings that specifically comment on it meaning the same thing as hetairistriai and lesbia.
In the later 16th century, the scandalous French writer Brantôme included a long discussion of women who loved women in his book The Lives of Gallant Ladies. He uses the terms tribade and fricatrix, or in French, fricatrice, as well as using lesbian as a noun, clearly in the modern sense as being equivalent to those terms. Finding writers who use sets of different terms together like this help us be certain of which of the possible senses is being included.
In the 16th century, in addition to France, tribade is found in use in Italy and England. Spanish had its own version at this time, as tribada. In English, it continued in use as late as the 18th century, although it was falling out of popularity by then. By the Renaissance, the term tribade was starting to acquire a more specific meaning of a very sexually aggressive lesbian, and became particularly associated with the myth that lesbians were associated with an enlarged clitoris capable of penetrative sex.
One of the difficulties in tracing the use of the words lesbia and lesbian to mean women who desire women is the word’s basic meaning of “a woman from the island of Lesbos” in combination with the somewhat fuzzy reputation in early Greek and Latin writings that the women of Lesbos had for various atypical sexual practices. Despite the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry, Sappho of Lesbos became a figure associated with excessive heterosexual desire in satirical Greek plays of the 4th century BC. It isn’t clear whether the more generic sexual meanings of Lesbian in early sources were due to an entirely independent reputation that the women of Lesbos had, or whether all the various sexual implications derive from the various incarnations of Sappho’s reputation.
The Greek playwright Aristophanes, in the 5th century BC, used a verb with the same root as lesbian to mean “to practice oral sex” in a heterosexual context, and this meaning was one of the senses the word had through late Antiquity. But eventually Lesbos also became associated with women who loved women, and again it’s unclear whether this was specifically due to an association with Sappho or whether there were independent reasons for it. In the 2nd century, the Roman writer Lucian has one of the characters in his “Dialogues of the Courtesans” say, “They say there are women in Lesbos with faces like men, and unwilling to consort with men, but only with women as though they themselves were men.” This is in his dialogue about Megilla, who comes across either as an extremely butch woman or as a trans man (if I may be forgiven for using modern categories). And Megilla is, literally, a woman from Lesbos. But in the context of the dialogue, the courtesan relates how she was hired to entertain Megilla and Megilla’s female partner. The ambiguity is there, but there’s a clear implication that the phrase “a woman from Lesbos” was meant to suggest sexual attraction to women.
In post-classical use, the first fairly unambiguous example we have of lesbiai (the plural) to mean homosexual women comes from the previously mentioned 10th century commentary on Clement of Alexandria that groups tribades, hetairistriai, and Lesbiai together. While any one of the terms might sometimes be ambiguous, setting all three together in this way is strongly suggestive.
As mentioned above, the 16th century French writer Brantôme used the word lesbian clearly in the sense of a female homosexual. And in English, the earliest example found to date is in an early 18th century satirical poem, which uses lesbian several times as an adjective, but concludes with proclaiming a woman “chief of the tribades or lesbians” which is unarguably the modern sense.
It might be surprising that the term sapphist is fairly late to arrive to the party. The earliest known use in English is in a late 18th century diary entry by society gossip-monger Hester Thrale who, in contradiction to the popular image of Ponsonby and Butler--the Ladies of Llangollen--as the epitome of chaste romantic friendship, refers to them as “damned sapphists”. The adjective sapphic was in fairly common use in English in the 18th century, so it’s likely that this was not an isolated invention on Thrale’s part. By the early 20th century, sapphist came to be a somewhat upscale term, used by the literati with full awareness of its classical associations.
Like the Greek word tribas, the Latin word fricatrix or frictrix derives from a root meaning “to rub”--the same root we get “friction” from. The early Christian writer Tertullian uses frictrix in a sexual sense, possibly implying a woman who performs oral sex, but it isn’t entirely clear that he intended homosexual activity.
But in an astrological text dating to some time between the 2nd and 7th century and associated with the name of Hermes Trismegistos, we find fricatrix used to describe a woman with a horoscope that inclines her to love women, and it describes her partners also using fricatrix. This suggests a more egalitarian sense than sometimes found for tribade, which often seemed to imply an active-passive distinction. In early modern English the word is found as fricatrice, and a sense of mutual activity is emphasized in the less common alternate form confricatrice.
Italian turned the original Latin word into fregatore, which we encounter by the 16th century. In French, we find frigarelle in the same era, and a few decades later frigarelle turns in English too.
It can be difficult to untangle the contexts in which the word sodomite and its derivatives indicate female homosexuals. The history of what types of activities were considered sodomy is complicated and it changed greatly over the centuries. In the early medieval period, sodomite meant someone who performed any sort of sex act that was considered to be counter to nature, including same-sex acts but by no means confined to them. During the high medieval era, there was more of a tendency for it to mean homosexual acts specifically, and we find references to “female sodomites”, as well as to the Latin sodomita with a female sense. There is a 13th century Italian record where a woman who boasts of giving her female lovers pleasure using a strap-on dildo is called sodomita, but it’s possible that the word more narrowly referred to penetrative sex between women as opposed to any same-sex act. There is a rare example in English around 1600 of the form sodomitesse.
Another set of words that overlap with the nomenclature of male homosexuality derive from the word “bugger”. Bugger itself has a rather convoluted origin, deriving from Bulgar that is, a Bulgarian, it picked up the meaning of “religious heretic” due to attitudes by western Catholic Europeans toward the Eastern Orthodox religion that was common in Bulgaria. But there was a long association of religious heresy with forbidden sexual practices, and in medieval France the word shifted in meaning to a purely sexual sense with a similar meaning to sodomite. In the 16th century, we find the Spanish word bujarrona and the Italian buzerone both used specifically for women who had sex with women.
Another term that was sometimes applied to women who had sex with women, but where the specific meaning was somewhat different is hermaphrodite. This derives from a premodern understanding of sexual desire that tried to fit everything into a heterosexual mould. So if a woman desired other women, this was considered to indicate a masculine personality. The combination of a male personality in a female body was labeled hermaphrodite, and similarly people with male bodies who were considered to behave in a feminine manner were similarly labeled. It’s also likely that some of the people identified as hermaphrodites may have had ambiguous genitalia. I’d hesitate to say that hermaphrodite was in any way a label for women who desired women because its use was based on entirely different models of gender and sexuality than we have today. But it was definitely a term that such a woman might be called by her contemporaries who were trying to understand her behavior. In general, the heyday of the hermaphrodite model was around the 15th through 17th centuries and the term doesn’t seem to have been used for same-sex desire outside that period.
There are some early texts that use the Latin term virago--literally a masculine woman--in a context that equates it with tribas. One example comes from a 4th century astrology manual by Julius Firmicus Maternus. But I’d be hesitant to consider virago to have an unambiguously sexual sense, since it is commonly used to talk about social behavior where a woman is considered to be usurping what was considered to be a masculine role in general. This is a general issue with a number of terms in cultural contexts where the desire for women was considered to be inherently masculine.
In addition to words that were in use across a number of different cultures, though often adapted into those languages in local forms, there are words that came into use in specific languages, either as new descriptive coinages or as slang terms.
The popularity of words meaning “one who rubs” to describe those who engaged in lesbian sex was not just a legacy of Greek and Latin words with that meaning. In the 17th century, a medical manual by Bartholin gives rubster as an equivalent for the more learned confricatrice.
In 17th century Dutch, we begin to find the word lollepot used for women who have sex with women, a narrowing of meaning from earlier use where it simply meant “an immodest woman.” I don’t know what the literal meaning of the word was originally.
Readers of Sarah Waters’ novels about lesbians in the Victorian era are familiar with the English slang term tommy. Slang terms like this can be hard to pin down in origin unless the context of use is quite specific. In this case, we have a clear example from a late 18th century English poem that reads in part:
“Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:”
This sense of tommy is reminiscent of the modern use of tomboy to mean a girl who rejects gender stereotypes and behaves in ways associated with boys. But rather than tomboy being a watered down derivation from the sexual sense of tommy, the origin may go in the other direction. Tomboy begins showing up in the mid 16th century to mean a particularly rude or boisterous boy, but by the end of the 16th century it had been transferred to meaning a “bold or immodest woman” or a woman who behaved in ways considered masculine. Tom, short for Thomas, was at that time considered to be a name for a generic man, with maybe a connotation of being rude or ill-mannered. Consider the word tom-foolery, but also the use of “tom” in tomcat to signify a male cat. So tommy to mean a lesbian most likely was derived from the more general gender-transgressive sense of tomboy.
While most of this discussion has focused on European cultures, I promised to touch on some historic Arabic terms that show interesting parallels. I mentioned some early astrological texts that were a source of vocabulary about homoerotic relations. An Arabic translation of a 1st century Greek astrology manual by Dorotheos of Sidon discusses constellations that result in a woman desiring women and uses the word sahaqa for such a woman. This is the term found throughout Arabic literature of the medieval period, sometimes as suhaqiyya as the basic word for a woman who has sex with women. Like tribade and fricatrix, the root meaning of the word is “one who rubs”, generally implying a particular type of sexual technique. This term and associated words have been in use up to the modern era.
Another term found in Arabic literature falls more in the slang category and has intriguing connotations. This is zarifa or tharifa. (I believe these are variants of the same word but I haven’t been able to confirm it solidly.) In origin, this term means “someone elegant, witty, and charming” and is part of a medieval Arabic esthetic movement that prized sophistication and elegance. There are descriptions of how women who were sexually interested in women would use these terms as something of a code, saying that a woman was tharifa to indicate that she was a suhaqiyya and part of a subculture of women who loved women. But the word tharifa was never exclusive to this sexual sense. One might think of it as similar in implication to “gay” in that there were always non-sexual interpretations available as well.
So the answer to the question “when did we become lesbians?” depends to some extent on whether you’re speaking specifically of the word lesbian used as a noun to denote a woman whose primary sexual and romantic orientation is to other women, or whether the question is when did people have a vocabulary available to talk about homoerotic relations between women, or whether you’re being a stickler for some particular shade of meaning equivalent to the modern understanding of the word.
But is there a single modern understanding of the word lesbian? Think about all the arguments people have over what degree of commitment and experience is required to bestow the title of lesbian on a woman. Is it appropriate to speak of a bisexual woman as being in a lesbian relationship if she happens to be with a woman? Is someone allowed to claim the identity of lesbian if--for reasons that seem convincing to her--she chooses to be in a relationship with a man, despite feeling a primary orientation towards women? One could argue that some far future historian studying the use of the word lesbian in the 20th and 21st century would have a hard time coming to a clear definition of exactly what the boundaries of the category were.
Let us keep that in mind when we’re studying the vocabulary of the past and trying to sort out exactly when a woman might first have called herself a lesbian to claim an understanding of herself that we would recognize today under that banner.
Somehow I failed to review this when I finished it, quite possibly because that happened in the chaos leading up to my summer travel.
Jackalope Wives is a collection of short pieces by Ursula Vernon under her writing-for-adults name of T. Kingfisher. I say “short pieces” rather than short fiction because it also includes poetry and things that don’t really fit neatly into categories (like the totally hilarious and biting “This Vote is Legally Binding” which is basically a letter to the editor talking back to an article on how to try to pick up women who are wearing headphones in public). But for me the heart and spine of the collection are the stories that I think of as falling in the “Kingfisher mythos” -- a quintessentially American mythic otherworld peopled with jackalopes and sentient feral railroads and magical wild hogs and very very many snarky grumbling wise old women who sigh and glare and then go off to save the world. Stories like the titular “Jackalope Wives” in which male bullheaded entitlement causes a tragedy that must be redeemed, and “Razorback” (a reworking of an old folk tale) where a witch looks for justice for the death of her best friend, and “Bird Bones” which involves an avian intervention in neighborhood hostilities. And, of course, the fiercely delightful “The Tomato Thief” (which won a Hugo this year) in which the protagonist of “Jackalope Wives” returns to figure out just who is robbing her garden and encounters yet another injustice demanding her wise and cranky attention.
I’ve been spacing out my reading of Kingfisher’s short fiction a bit because it hits so solidly in my sweet spot that I’m not sure I could bear to run out of new stories to read. I’m not sure I can be coherent it saying how much I love her writing. Just give it a try; maybe you’ll feel that way too.
Just a few quick notes or they'll get lost in the vacation/holiday shuffle.
The Band's Visit is a layered, poignant, and sometimes funny show (taken originally from a real-life episode) of an Egyptian police department's traditional orchestra making a trip to give a goodwill concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva, but through a missed travel connection and linguistic confusion end up in the tiny desert village of Bet Hatikva instead. The bulk of the show takes place in Bet Hatikva as the orchestra members are offered hospitality while waiting for the next available bus and various personal encounters highlight both cultural differences and a sense of underlying unity. This isn't a story where anyone's life is dramatically changed or turned around. It's more about how the various encounters enable people to understand their own lives more deeply. I really enjoyed how the multilingual setting was presented, with both Arabic and Hebrew used conversationally (made understandable by context and the acting) while English was used both as an in-story lingua franca as well as the access point for the audience. It's easy to see why this has become a very popular show, both among critics and general audience.
I jumped at the chance to see Phantom of the Opera where Lauri has been subbing recently as house manager--so much for a relaxing retirement!. We got a personal backstage tour before the performance, which I always enjoy. I really enjoy the mechanics of spectacle productions like this, so it was fun to see how all the traps and sets worked. It was also interesting to see the differences in presentation from my previous experience in Las Vegas. (Of course, one of the big differences is that the Las Vegas dedicated theater was designed around the dramatic chandalier action, but it was still impressive in the smaller space.) The Broadway show is a bit longer, which seemed to come mostly from extended ensemble songs. (I love the structural concept of the ensemble counterpoint songs, but I can never actually understand what's being sung, so some of the effect is lost on me.) One dramatic difference--and I don't think it was a difference in the songs/lines themselves, but only in the performace--was that in the final confrontation there seemed less of an implication that Christine was genuinely torn between Raoul and the Phantom, and much more of a sense that she was putting on an act for Raoul's life. (And I still dislike Raoul using her as a pawn in the Don Juan gambit. I think she deserved to go on to a great career as an operatic soprano rather than ending up as a rescued damsel.)
This is a very theory-intensive book -- historiography rather than history, and not well suited for the casual reader. But there are some great discussions that made it worth tackling. The writing is very dense and my summary only touches on the outlines of the discussion rather than its specifics. Although theories about how we study and interpret history might seem rather removed from the process of writing lesbian historical fiction, from another angle, the two fields have a great deal of overlap. Consider the question of whether our approach to history is focused on finding identity with our own specific experiences and relationships, or whether we are seeking to understand and appreciate people whose lives have connections with ours but also wide areas of difference. Do we seek to find/write "lesbians in history" from a very narrow definition of the word "lesbian" or do we seek to find/write themes of women's same-sex relationships expressed in a multitude of ways? Do we consider sexual activity to be a necessary defining aspect of those persons we study/write under the rubric of "lesbian" or is it only one of a cluster of important themes? Historical fiction (not just lesbian historical fiction but the entire field) has a pervasive uneasiness around how closely similar historical figures need to be made to modern mindsets in order to be sympathetic to modern readers. In the specific case of lesbian historical fiction, this concern can work to delegitimize the very concept of lesbians in history, just as some historical theories work to erase lesbians as a topic of valid study. And that's why I love finding the parallels in books like this to my own thought processes around the project of writing.
Traub, Valerie. 2016. Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0812223897
Theoretical considerations of studying sexuality in the early modern period.
Chapter 1 - Thinking Sex: Knowledge, Opacity, History
This book is historiography rather than history, that is, it takes a strongly theory-intensive look at the ways in which sex and sexuality are studied and raises questions about the current process of doing history around the topic of sex. Sexuality is used as a lens to examine how people in history (and today) think. In particular, it’s concerned with the concept of knowledge and what it means for a person to “know” something sexual, whether as an individual in history or as a historian studying the topic. Different approaches to the identification and understanding of knowing make sex a difficult topic to study as well as a site of conflict.
One example of these approaches is the question of how we divide the world between passionate friendship and eroticism. When is a kiss (or an embrace, or the sharing of a bed) just a kiss and when is it erotic? The book has a strong focus on women’s experience and the ways it has been excluded from study. Because of this, Traub is very inclusive of female same-sex experience, and often focuses specifically on the ways in which female same-sex eroticism has been excluded or erased from larger theoretical movements in historical study.
Chapter 2 - Friendship’s Loss: Alan Bray’s Making of History
This chapter examines how historians have understood the interface between friendship and eroticism, focused through the lens of Alan Bray’s study of friendship and homosexuality among men in Renaissance England. He’s concerned with the contradictory position of intimate relations between men in the Renaissance which treated friendship and sodomy as clear contrasts, despite massive overlap in practice.
Although the chapter is mostly concerned with male relations, it also touches on the phenomenon of marriage between women. Traub emphasizes the different social receptions of the ideal of male versus female homoerotic relationships. One historiographical problem is that of researchers who impose moral judgments on asexual versus sexual friendships. There is a brief consideration of the intersection of documented cases of erotic desire with rituals associated with sworn friendship, as we find in the diaries of Anne Lister. Also noted are friendship rituals that partake of the forms of marriage, such as the co-burial of Ann Chitting and Mary Barber.
Chapter 3 - The New Unhistoricism in Queer Studies
This chapter examines historicism and teleology, that is, the question of whether history “moves” in a meaningful direction. Do historical phenomena have systematicity and coherence or are they discontinuous? In particular, is there a connected “history of homosexuality” across the ages? What are the hazards of studying sexuality from a point of view that assumes a present enlightened truth.
Chapter 4 - The Present Future of Lesbian Historiography
Traub critiques the usefulness of an assumption of a “sameness/difference” polarity in framing women’s same-sex relationships. She notes previous major works that take a “continuist” approach to history (i.e., looking for a single continuous narrative of lesbianism) including Faderman, Castle, and Brooten. These historians are critical of Foucault’s periodization model that splits the history of sexuality into a focus on “acts” versus a focus on “identity”. Traub notes the conceptual simlarity across time of lesbian concepts, e.g., female intimate friendship as examined by Vicinus and others. She urges that the “present future of lesbian history” should look at these recurring patterns across time. Thus circumstances and behaviors in other times may look like the modern definition of “lesbian” because they emerge from similar sets of continuing preoccupations about women’s bodies and behaviors. She considers studies of various historic types of representations or relationships that contributed to or have been retroactively connected with the modern lesbian. She presents a recapitulation of various images and interpretations of female same-sex relations from the 17th century to today and then draws up a list of themes relevant to these recurring patterns. (A very long list, or I would include it here.)
Chapter 5 - The Joys of Martha Joyless: Queer Pedagogy and the (Early Modern) Production of Sexual Knowledge
This chapter looks at sexual knowledge and ignorance, riffing off an example of dialogue in the 1638 play “The Antipodes” by Richard Brome, in which a still-virgin wife of three years is speculating on heterosexual knowledge (complaining to a friend about not knowing how to get her husband to perform), while recalling a same-sex erotic encounter. The woman’s request for her female friend to instruct her about sex is portrayed as naïveté. In contexts like this, there is no concept that a male versus female sexual partner indicates a particular orientation or identity, although “spouse” versus “non-spouse” is a relevant category. Similarly there is no hint in this dialogue of a concept of “the closet” or an expectation of negative reactions from others to her relation of the same-sex encounter. The only aspect of the scenario that is considered problematic is her husband’s sexual indifference.
The chapter then considers various other examples of sexual dysfunction in drama, and how the situations are addressed by non-marital sexual activity, regardless of gender. What do we, as moderns, “know” about early modern sex and how do we know it? Among the motifs available from literature are the older woman who sexually initiates a younger one--a cross-over motif from pornography. These texts question the “natural, innate” nature of sexual knowledge. Rather, it is a type of cultural knowledge and practice.
Chapter 6 - Sex in the Interdisciplines
Traub examines the overlapping contexts of history, literary criticism, and queer theory for studying the history of sexuality. There is an extensive description of the state of the field as the author experiences it. This includes a comprehensive catalog of the understanding of English sexual culture in 1550-1680 and a discussion of sexual vocabulary in use by 1650.
Chapter 7 - Talking Sex
This chapter examines descriptive, metaphoric, and humorous language around sex. How were people represented in historic records and literature as speaking of erotic and sexual acts? What language was used for sex workers? And what shades of meaning did the various terms carry? There is an extensive catalog of sexual vocabulary (which would be extremely useful to a writer setting bawdy scenes in this era). In the discussion of sexual humor, Traub discusses how to edit, translate, and annotate texts containing early modern sexual language in order to convey all the layers and nuances of meaning it held. There is a special discussion of language around dildos.
Chapter 8 - Shakespeare’s Sex
This chapter looks at interpretations of Shakespeare’s personal sexuality as embodied in his sonnets (as opposed to the sexual themes in his plays or the evidence of his biography). The study is less concerned with Shakespeare’s actual life than the shifting “knowledge” of that life. That is, how people have come to conclude the things they think they know about him.
Chapter 9 - The Sign of the Lesbian
Traub addresses the question, “Why do we need a history of lesbianism?” That is, why would we need one that focuses on “lesbian” as a specific and defined field of study, as contrasted with the need or usefulness of lesbian history to lesbians in particular. Traub notes a conjunction of “queer history” doubts about history itself along with disinterest in lesbian identity in the context of queer studies. This seems to require identifying a general benefit from the field if a continued interest in “lesbian history” is to survive. To this end, she suggests destabilizing the meanings of both “lesbian” and “history” to ask, “What does it mean to identify ‘lesbian’ in the context of ‘history’?” Why and how does the concept of “the lesbian” become pivotal in history?
Traub’s answer begins, “My purpose is to supplement these revisionist accounts of queer theory by suggesting that it is precisely the history of lesbianism, when reconceived as a problem of representation and epistemology, that offers a valuable heuristic for crafting an analysis that is simultaneously feminist and queer. Reasoning that one impediment to recognizing these interventions as queer theory is that many of these innovations have been produced by means of analysis that is explicitly historical, I argue that ‘the lesbian’ presents not only a limit case for queer theory, but a methodological release point for anyone interested in sexual knowledge--past, present, and future.”
Traub discusses different approaches and concerns of lesbian and gay historical studies versus queer studies. The field currently privileges the queer studies approach. She looks at works in which the figure of “the lesbian” is foregrounded but is concerned that they dismiss the contributions of historicity. Must history be discarded to include the lesbian in queer theory? The lack of interest in lesbian history outside the field producing it means that it rarely influences the construction and debate of larger theories. There is a conflict between the tendency to see lesbian history as rooted in identity, with queer theory associated with post-identitarianism.
Traub suggests that dismissal of the lesbian from theoretical consideration on the basis of rejecting identitarianism assumes the narrowly modern identity associated with the label, and ignores the varied and discontinuous histories of lesbianism. That is, queer theory narrows lesbian identity to a concept easy to dismiss and to consider historically irrelevant. If “the lesbian” can be confined to a 20th century identity, then all pre- and early modern evidence of female homoeroticism becomes “not queer enough” to contribute to queer theory.
The denigration and marginalization of lesbian studies, even by some of those engaged in it, comes from multiple sources: the marginalization of sexuality studies, the tendency of those engaged in lesbian studies to have a broader focus to their work, and shifting popular attitudes that consider the label “lesbian” as retrograde and associated with the white middle class. There is a false belief that the recency of the label “lesbian” represents a lack of a historic subject for study. This attitude persists in the face of awareness of the term’s long history.
A more historic approach would be to examine women’s understandings of their own experience, rather than viewing lesbian history as a “search and rescue” project. Traub notes the valuable data in Anne Lister’s self-examinations and self-reporting of her sexuality. Traub draws attention to how, of all “queer” identity labels and categories, only “lesbian” seems to be deemed retro and essentializing--in the face of no logical difference from similar uses of “gay” or “trans”. She suggests (without quite using that term) that systemic misogyny can’t be ruled out as an explanation for the marginalization of lesbian history within queer studies.
Chapter 10 - Sex Ed: or, Teach Me Tonight
This chapter focuses on the process of learning, especially with regard to sexual knowledge. Literary examples are given of a character learning or teaching sexual techniques. Sexual knowledge in particular is often communicated in allusions and slang, or in meaningful omissions. The chapter mostly contains discussions of theory and modern pedagogy and provides a summary of the book’s main points.
I bought Barbary Station by R.E. Stearns based on the response of various advance reviewers that boiled down to “lesbian space pirates; what more could you want?” Well, evidently I want more. Barbary Station appears to be a competently written space opera involving pirates, malevolent AIs, and bionically-enhanced cyber-hacking engineers. The central protagonists are a same-sex couple in a pre-existing and utterly taken for granted relationship. But having gotten four chapters in, I have yet to find myself caring what happens to them or whether they succeed. The story simply hasn’t grabbed me. Space opera isn’t one of my top ten genres, but there have been many books in that general subgenre that I’ve loved, when the characters caught my interest. So I’m going to have to leave this one at Did Not Finish and forgo a rating. If you generally enjoy space pirates and plots that revolve around engineering problem-solving, you may well have a very different experience.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16c - Book Appreciation with Farah Mendlesohn
Farah talks about two novels by Ellen Galford that she really enjoys for their historic elements. (And incidentally inspired me to add Moll Cutpurse to the topic list for the podcast.)
Unfortunately no transcript is available for the interview episodes at this time.
This is a short piece within de Bodard’s “Dominion of the Fallen” world, falling hard on the heels of The House of Shattered Wings and I believe introducing us to a key character who will feature in The House of Binding Thorns. It goes beyond character study, giving us a tightly packaged perilous adventure (perilous from several directions) featuring not only the harsh cut-throat politics of the various Fallen houses, but the lingering hazards of the magical cataclysm that destroyed Paris--hazards that have no respect for house loyalty. It probably isn’t a story that would stand alone for someone who hasn’t read at least one of the novels--there’s far too much essential world-building to be able to summarize for a piece of short fiction. But it’s exactly right for a short bonus feature for those who are following the series.
Last week I talked about how manipulation of point-of-view can change the entire flavor of what I’m writing. This week, rather than talking about my own writing, I’d like to bring together three things that have passed through my brain recently about understanding and portraying romantic relationships between women in historical settings.
The one that really sparked this train of thought is a podcast titled Frankentastic being created by Tansy Rayner Roberts and put out by Twelfth Planet Press in fulfillment of a stretch goal for the kickstarter for the forthcoming anthology Mother of Invention. The premise of Frankentastic is a fairly straightforward re-gendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein read as a serial. All the male characters (which is the vast majority of the on-page characters) become female, while the female characters are converted either to male or non-binary characters. Other than names, pronouns, and gendered references (like mother/father/parent), the text remains completely as the original. But what seems like a simple little conceit makes some interesting differences in how the characters in their relationships read.
The biggest thing that struck me was how overwhelmingly homoerotic the language of the story is: not merely in the context of Victor(ia) Frankenstein and friends, but also in the context of the initial framing story of Robert(a) Walton’s sea voyage and the interactions with associates and crew. The language these characters use is effusively and overwhelmingly romantic and even sensual with regard to same-gender friends and associates. I don’t know whether it is striking me more in this audio version than it did back when I read the book due to the immediacy of the medium, or whether I notice it more when those exchanging the sentiments are women for personal reasons, or whether I’m more likely to discount such effusive sentiments as literary convention when spoken between men, or some other reason. But the take-away observation here is that an early 19th century writer, of good birth if unconventional lifestyle, considered it normal, natural, and unremarkable to put expressions of same-sex devotion and love in the mouth of her characters that—if written today—would be interpreted unambiguously as expressing homosexual desire.
And although Shelley’s work placed this language in the mouths of male characters, I know from the research I’ve studied for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project that similar language was considered normal, natural, and unremarkable between actual women in everyday life. We know this from correspondence and diaries and reported conversations, as well as from the depictions of emotionally intense female friendships in literature of the time. It’s one thing to read books are articles discussing this phenomenon, but somehow it’s a viscerally different matter to listen to it being expressed in audio, and particularly in a context where gender-swapping has highlighted the import of the conventions.
So, there’s that.
The second stream feeding into these thoughts is having just read Farah Mendlesohn’s Spring Flowering (set in the same era) and seeing how noticeable the contrast is between how her characters express and enact the spectrum of same-sex emotional (and sensual) relationships, reflecting the same conventions we seen in Frankenstein, as compared to the depiction of historic characters more commonly found in lesbian historical fiction that attributes a very modern-feeling guilty self-consciousness around experiencing and expressing same-sex romantic desire. The characters in Frankenstein feel no need to reassure themselves or their companions of the purely platonic “no-homo” nature of their relationship, just as their real life sisters felt no embarrassment or guilt at the most effusive expression of emotional bonds with each other. Because that was how close friends were expected to act with each other.
Now, you may protest that close friends may have felt free and unselfconscious to act in that way precisely because there was no actual erotic component to their relationship. But we know that isn’t the key, because we know that some early 19th century persons who wrapped the enactment of their romantic friendship in this effusive passionate language and behavior also had erotic relationships. Not all of them. Perhaps not even most of them. But some of them. And we know—from our admittedly scanty scraps of direct evidence—that they did not consider their feelings to be a separate species of relationship from non-erotic romantic friendship. And I must acknowledge that the differences between male and female sexuality may make the two experiences diverge somewhat on this point. But the point is that you can write an early 19th century story in which two women proclaim their love for each other publicly, express themselves in the most passionate terms in correspondence, writing of the desire for kisses and embraces and the longing to sleep together and the dream of sharing their lives together, have these desires and expressions be known to all their associates, and have them be free of both internal and external condemnation and suspicion for those expressions. (Which isn’t to say that there weren’t occasions when women’s passionate friendships did rouse suspicion and censure, but only that it was a far from universal consequence.)
The third stream of thought on this comes from editing an author interview for my podcast where the author is talking about honoring how brave and daring and ground-breaking woman-loving-women in history were. And this is where I long to immerse people more in the historical context—the ways that actual women in history expressed and enacted their same-sex relationships. Because they weren’t all lonely, daring radicals—not necessarily and not generally. Not until the 20th century, that is. For the most part, they were finding ways to express their love and desire for each other in ordinary and conventional ways that their society considered not merely acceptable but, in many cases, praiseworthy. To be sure, the ways they found generally did not involve making public proclamations of the sexual nature of their relationships, or of political agitation for legal equality (hard to do when women as a class did not have legal equality!). But the depiction of pre-20th century women who loved women as having the same sort of tormented and conflicted internal life that we see depicted for early 20th century women is simply flat-out historically inaccurate. And I’d love to see more historical fiction that reflected that. Perhaps what we need is more familiarity with literature of the times that depicts intense same-sex emotional relationships—and if we can’t find them with women, then gender-flip the men and enjoy the ride!
One of the contradictory features of reasoning about same-sex relationships in the past is the circular logic that same-sex romantic relationships could not have been socially approved, therefore evidence showing social approval for conjunctions of two people of the same sex must not represent romantic relationships. And while the careful historian avoids making claims beyond the known evidence, the imagination is sparked by examples such as this one where two women are given a commemoration after death--a commemoration that was within the control, and therefore with the approval of, their families--that represents them with the forms and symbolism normally attributed to married heterosexual couples.
Bennett, Judith. 2008. “Two Women and their Monumental Brass, c. 1480” in Journal of the British Archaeological Association vol. 161:163-184.
An examination of a joint memorial brass for two women.
The parish church in Etchingham (East Sussex) has a memorial brass jointly commemorating two never-married women: Elizabeth Etchingham who died in 1452, and Agnes Oxenbridge who died in 1480. This article considers both the specific life circumstances of these two women and the general context of funeral monuments dedicated to same-sex pairs.
As might be guessed, the church in Etchingham was built by, and served as a resting place for, the Etchinghams and might in some senses be considered a family church. When designed in the late 14th century, the chancel was created to serve as a family mausoleum for generations of Ethchinghams to come, and most of the funeral brasses commemorate the principle heirs of the dynasty. But in 1480 a brass was laid in the church commemorating someone who was not only not a male heir, but an unmarried daughter: Elizabeth Etchingham. Her exact relationship to the main line (and consequently her exact age) are not conclusively determined. But it is clear that she had some significant relationship to the woman she shares the memorial with: Agnes Oxenbridge, a daughter of another prominent east Sussex family.
Bennett notes Alan Bray’s exploration of the social place of intense same-sex friendships in European society (The Friend) and the evidence that the Christian church has accommodated and celebrated those friendships both in life and in death. Examples are given of the joint tomb from 1391 of the English knights William Neville and John Clanvowe in Galata near Istanbul, which depicts their coats of arms displayed impaled in the style normally used for married couples. Most of Bray’s examples are more modern (from the 17th through 19th centuries) and (virtually?) all were male. Bray emphasized that these monuments celebrated emotional intimacy and friendship and cannot be taken as proof of sexual relationships, but they do establish a genre of memorials that treat same-sex couples with the symbolism and dignity similar to that given to married couples.
The Etchingham-Oxenbridge brass survives in complete form and is clearly readable. It shows two women with their hands raised in prayer, turned in semi-profile toward each other. Elizabeth Etchingham is depicted as a smaller figure on the left, with the loose flowing hair down to her hips, a motif associated with a young unmarried woman. Agnes Oxenbridge, on the right, is depicted larger, and her hair is pinned up but not covered, again indicating an unmarried state but not indicating youth. Both wear narrow bands about their hair decorated with a triangular ornament, and they wear identical fashionable gowns.
The text appears in two columns separated by a vertical line, clearly associating each of the two passages with a specific figure. On the left, for Elizabeth, the text identifies her as the first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, died December 3, 1452. For Agnes, the text identifies her as the daughter of Robert Oxenbridge and gives her death date as August 4, 1480, concluding with her request for God’s mercy on both women. While this sort of separated text was not unknown from other memorials, the more usual format for married couples is a single joint text. The lack of any mention of husbands in either woman’s entry is very strong presumptive evidence that they never married, especially in combination with the depicted hairstyles which mark them as unmarried.
Their exact position within the Etchingham and Oxenbridge families is difficult to pin down, as neither is mentioned clearly in family genealogies (which focus more on the lines with descendents), and due to the tendency not only for names to repeat within a family, but in some cases for multiple children to be given the same first name. (As children were typically named after a godparent, there wasn’t always a choice of a unique name available, given the socio-political constraints on godparent choice.) But after much analysis, Bennett concludes that most likely Agnes Oxenbridge was the daughter of the second Robert Oxenbridge listed in the genealogies, and thus was born around 1425. This means that she would have been in her twenties when Elizabeth Etchingham died and in her fifties when she herself died. Elizabeth Etchingham’s exact position is less certain: depending on which generation she was born into, she herself might have been in her twenties when she died (and thus of an age with Agnes) or might have been a child at her death.
Their unmarried status was unusual for the time--less than 10% of women of their social class remained unmarried. But during this time in England a religous life was not generally considered a viable option for unmarried daughters and they remained within the family. The normative life pattern for well-born 15th century English girls was to be raised at home until adolescence and then be placed in another similarly-positioned household to learn adult skills, expand social networks, and enhance their marriage prospects. Depending on the relative status of the families, the girls might be treated as quasi-daughters or might be treated more as servants, but they would generally be part of a group of girls (and boys) of similar age and background who developed social bonds that would have consequences for the rest of their lives.
Women of this class and era might marry young and therefore not be sent away in this fashion, but more often would marry in their twenties or later, either while serving in another household or after returning to their household of birth for a time. Unmarried daughters were generally provided for in some fashion, sometimes sufficiently to establish an independent household, and there was an acknowledgement that a woman might “be not disposed to marry.” But generally they remained living with their families and contributed to the household administration and duties.
Given this context, it is a strong likelihood that Elizabeth and Agnes were friends from childhood, given the proximity of the two families and their relative status. They might have met while both serving in a third household, or it’s possible that Elizabeth remained at home and Agnes was placed with the more established and prestigious Etchinghams. Beyond that, several possible scenarios can be proposed. If Elizabeth fell in the younger generation (and thus died young), Agnes may have served as her nurse--which would have to have been an unusual bond to have been commemorated in this fashion thirty years later. In the scenario where Elizabeth was older, they most likely would have met and began their friendship during the adolescent outplacement of either both of them or of Agnes with the Etchinghams.
How did they end up both buried at Etchingham church? This would be the natural location for Elizabeth Etchingham’s grave. But the expected place for an unmarried Oxenbridge daughter to be married would be their family church at Brede, where her parents and siblings were buried. One possibility would be that Agnes lived at Etchingham after Elizabeth’s death and was therefore buried locally, though the two churches are not so far separated (12 miles) to make that a requirement. But almost certainly the burial location was due to a strongly expressed preference on the part of Agnes--not only to be buried in Etchingham but to be buried specifically next to Elizabeth. And the commissioning and placement of their joint memorial brass almost certainly would have been specified by Agnes in her will (which doesn’t survive) as no other explanation would make sense of this unusual event. It was extremely common for wills at this time to specify not only the church of burial but the specific placement of the grave next to other named individuals. Again, it is not unusual to wills to specify the imagery and text for an individual’s memorial, particularly in regard to soliciting prayers for God’s mercy. While this is the only currently known funeral brass commemorating two women, there are several other known medieval English joint burials of “unrelated” women or records of wills specifying such joint burial.
Bennett gives the background on the London workshop that produced this brass (and many others), including shifts in stylistic features that provide context for interpreting the image, as well as the general dynamics of memorial brasses. Much of the imagery was conventional, but within that there was a range of symbolism in the placement and nature of the figures. At this time there was a shift from showing the human figures face-on (in imitation of sculptural effigies), to turning them in profile, and especially showing couples facing each other, or with the wife turned more toward the husband. Elizabeth and Agnes are shown in complete profile, not only facing each other, but with their gaze meeting. Among various possible positions for the figures, this choice aligns with depictions of familial intimacy and physical closeness. Other possible design options at the time included the older front-facing style, or showing a lower status figure turned more toward a higher-status front-facing one, or with a devotional object placed between them to be the focus of a profile gaze. (There is a great deal of discussion of the specific nuances of this composition from among the range of known examples.)
For married couples, typically the man was placed at the viewer’s left in the higher-status location. Elizabeth Etchingham occupies this position in the joint memorial, possibly due to the higher status of her family and the location of the tomb on their property? The relative size of the figures also needs interpretation. Age is one factor represented by relative size, and the smaller figure of Elizabeth may represent her younger age at death, rather than specifically a difference in ages when they were both living.
Even given the presumption that Agnes may have specifically requested the joint memorial brass in her will, the approval and execution of the design would have fallen to her surviving relatives and the brass workshop. This means that the idea of commemorating the women’s close relationship was something considered unremarkable and desirable by their family circle. Interestingly, generations of historians describing the piece have gone to some lengths to avoid recognizing it as a commemoration of a relationship between two adult women, either describing it as depicting “two children” or mistakenly claiming that it was two separate brasses, positioned coincidentally, or even going so far as to claim that one of the figures was male! (An example is given of a different 14th century brass that clearly shows two men in calf-length garments and both wearing swords that a historian has labeled “civilian and wife”.) None of these earlier interpretations stands up to scrutiny. That said, while the memorial clearly commemorates a strong emotional and social bond between the two women, we can’t know for certain what the nature of that bond was beyond that. But the surface form of the memorial indicates that their families honored that relationship as being worthy of equivalent respect as that given to marriage.
Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn is a gentle, domestic Regency romance, more in the vein of Jane Austen with its parson’s daughters and the family dynamics of middle class families “in trade”, than in the vein of Georgette Heyer’s dashing aristocrats and gothic perils. Ann Gray’s life is disrupted by the death of her father, the village parson, and she joins the bustling household of her cousins in Birmingham where the family business manufacturing buttons, jewelry, and other small metal accessories becomes the framework of her new social life. Until her father’s illness and death, Ann’s life had been taken up by the responsibilities of ministering to the needs of her father’s parish. Her future is open and unsettled now, with only the formalities of mourning to give her a breathing space to consider the options. Her loved ones--both the Birmingham family and her beloved special friend Jane, who has recently married--expect her to jump at the impending offer of marriage from the young curate who has taken her father’s place. But Ann thinks she doesn’t feel as she ought toward a man with whom she would spend the rest of her life, and an offer of a very different nature has arisen from the handsome widow, Mrs. King, soon to be a business partner of her uncle.
Mendlesohn’s novel is a refreshingly different sort of lesbian romance, depicting the attitudes and mores of the times with a social historian’s eye. The characters are neither anachronistically modern in their self-awareness of sexuality, nor anachronistically tormented and angsty about it. The physicality of Ann’s romantic friendship with her friend Jane is portrayed as completely ordinary for her times, but just as ordinary is Jane’s expectation that Ann will share her joy in her marriage. Through Ann’s explorations of new ties in Birmingham, we see how women who longed for same-sex friendships to be primary in their lives communicated and negotiated those feelings without needing to challenge social rules, as well as how families all too aware of the gender imbalance in the wake of the Napoleonic wars could encourage and approve of “surplus women” creating their own domestic arrangements. There are several very tasteful but explicit sex scenes that are well integrated into the overall emotional and self-realization arcs.
Although romance (with a few surprises) is the culmination of this novel, it is not the dominant theme throughout. Spring Flowering is a quiet tale of families and everyday life in Regency England, sweeping the reader into a world both familiar and intriguingly different in its details. There are a very few places where those details seemed to bog down the already leisurely pacing with a touch of “researcher’s syndrome,” but never in a way that derailed the story, as long as you approach the book as the story of a life rather than as a genre romance.
If you’ve longed to read stories of women loving women in history with happy endings that ground their love and their happiness in the spirit of the times, then Spring Flowering will be a breath of fresh air and a hope for a new wave of lesbian historical fiction.