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Monday, October 16, 2017 - 14:00

This article only scratches the surface of the peculiar fascination that emerged in the Renaissance around physiological ambiguity and gender identity. If one picks through the dubious concepts of anatomy and the strong binarist and heteronormative positions of both medicine and the law, there are some interesting developments in attitudes toward subjective gender identity.

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Full citation: 

Daston, Lorraine & Katharine Park. 1996. “The Hermaphrodite and the Orders of Nature: Sexual Ambiguity in Early Modern France” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X

Publication summary: 


This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history.  As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.

Daston & Park 1996 “The Hermaphrodite and the Orders of Nature: Sexual Ambiguity in Early Modern France “

The late 16th and 17th century fascination with hermaphrodites would give the impression that such persons were common. As well as the volume of discourse on the topic, the nature is different from previous medieval discussions and later early modern ones. The opinions and positions are contradictory, even when limited to the medical community, and include both formal and informal expertise (e.g., surgeons versus midwives). The focus of this article is specifically on the discussions of learned physicians, in order to narrow the range of variables.

Classical opinions fell in two general camps. Followers of Hippocrates and Galen considered hermaphrodites to be truly intermediate in sex, neither male nor female, although a spectrum was recognized that included effeminate males and masculine females. The Aristotelian view was that hermaphrodites had both male and female genitals but that the “true gender” of the individual would be apparent from temperament and essential personality. (One might summarize these as the “neither” and the “both” models, with reference to binary gender.)

Medieval Arabic medical manuals and the European texts derived from them discuss surgery to “treat” hermaphrodites, but this raised the question of identifying the “true” sex that was to be the output of the surgery. In general, medical literature of the medieval era avoided moral judgments, in contrast to medieval philosophical literature which viewed gender ambiguity more negatively.

Beginning around 1550, medical literature began addressing the theological and moral implications of gender ambiguity. For example, Paré whose discussion of hermaphrodites in the context of birth defects then slides sideways to discuss sex between women and then to examples of women transformed into men.

This shift in the moral tone of the discourse was accompanied by a focus on the Hippocratic model that saw hermaphrodites as a midpoint in a continuum of gender, situated between the effeminate man and the masculine woman. This positioning now linked hermaphrodites to discussions of sodomy and other sexual transgressions, as well as to transvestism. Like those topics, hermaphroditism represented a blurring or destruction of gender boundaries.

The shift to moralizing about hermaphrodites branched out into using biology for titillation. Paré was accused of obscenity by the Paris medical faculty due to his intentional inclusion of prurient material intended to appeal to the growing association of hermaphrodites with lesbians and thus with pornography. Thus, hermaphrodite anatomy became associated with a pointed focus on sex.

The law had no context for taking a neutral approach to the legal status of hermaphrodites. All interpretations required fitting into a strict gender binary. While medieval legal practice assumed there was an “innate” gender identity that could be determined by self-reporting of the individual hermaphrodite, Renaissance practice was deeply concerned with the possibility of deception and fraud and preferred to bring in outside experts to examine the supposed hermaphrodite and proclaim a gender assignment that the law would then impose.

The impact on individual lives of this approach is documented in any number of legal cases. Marie/Marin le Mercis was assigned female at birth but at 21 abandoned female dress, changed to using the masculine name Marin, and announced the intention of marrying a fellow maidservant, a widow named Jeane le Febvre. Marie/Marin was condemned to die for sodomy and cross-dressing, but an expert witness was brought in who testified that Marin had a penis that emerged from the vagina during arousal. The death penalty was avoided, but Marie/Marin was required to live as a woman and not have sex of any kind for two years to determine which gender nature would emerge.

Another case (which may demonstrate class privilege) was that of a lawyer’s daughter who was caught having sex with a woman but then was judged to be a hermaphrodite with a hidden penis. Having been judged to be officially male, the defendant was not only allowed to live as a man but to study philosophy at the university.

Reliance on outside testimony for legal questions of sexual performance (e.g., accusations of impotence relevant to divorce proceedings) was an established practice.  However the use of expert testimony for questions of hermaphrodite gender was new and related to concerns about gender fraud. This concern intruded into the lives of physiologically ambiguous people even when no potential crime was involved.  Such was the case in 1686 in France of Marguerite Malaure who was declared “predominantly male” and legally required to dress and live as a man (under the name Arnaud). Marguerite was strongly opposed to this judgment but had to petition the king to be allowed to return to a female life.

These are only some of the cases that illustrate this conflict between whether the “truth” of gender was to be found in physiology or subjective personal identity. But arguments from subjective gender identity were highly heteronormative and binary, often concluding that the object of sexual desire was a certain evidence for (heteronormative) gender identity. Physiognomy was also consulted to determine “true gender”, evaluating the subject in relation to gender ideals. Did the person have “feminine” or “masculine” features. But the primary emphasis was on the genitals. This was the context in which we see the evolution of the trope of an enlarged clitoris being associated with lesbianism.

Anxiety about hermaphrodites is also contemporaneous with general social anxiety about gender blurring, as exemplified by tracts such as Hic Mulier.

Sunday, October 15, 2017 - 19:00

(If you’re unfamiliar with the phrase “the uncanny valley” in visual representation, this Wikipedia article is a useful start, especially the section on computer animation.)

I had something of an epiphany the other day when reading Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads and following discussions online about a recent lesbian romance novel and contemplating other books in my past that have poked at me in uncomfortable ways around the issue of representation. Representation in books is something of a hot topic these days-- the idea that everyone has a right to see the many facets of their own identity represented in the fiction they read, complicated by the nearly infinite number of intersectional combinations those identities can create.

My epiphany is this: sometimes I take more joy in a book that comes nowhere near to representing my own specific identities as long as it clearly shows a world in which I could exist. That is, where the individual points of representation are distributed widely enough across the spectrum of the possible that I can find myself in the interstices. Sometimes this can be more satisfying than a book that comes much closer to representing my own specific intersections and yet erases the possibility of some essential aspect.

The world represented in The Salt Roads is one in which it is an assumed and given fact that women have connections with other women. That those connections will be of widely varying types. And that those types will include a range of romantic, sensual, and erotic connections. The Salt Roads is a book that makes me feel like I exist somewhere within that world even though I have very little in common with the protagonists on the basis of culture, ethnicity, economic status, and life story. It isn’t that the characters represent me--none of them come close to representing my own romantic and sexual experiences--but that the world has a place for me within it.

What do I contrast this with? Books where women live lives of isolation. (Or where women don’t exist as multi-dimensional human beings at all.) Where all their key relationships are to men. Or where women are unremarkably exclusively heterosexual in every emotion and action without ever straying from that path. Books where every single character is driven by motivations that I find incomprehensible, with no indication that other possible motivations exist.

You might think that, as a lesbian, I would find a great deal of inclusion and representation within the field of lesbian fiction, but here’s where the other part of my epiphany kicks in. Contemporary lesbian romance--and that’s the core prototype and dominant market presence in the lesbian fiction industry--depicts a world in which women experience a fairly narrow range of types of relationships, interactions, and expectations. There is, as a rule, an expectation that there will be certain types of attraction, that relationships will progress according to certain types of scripts, and that the eventual goal is taken from a specific set of outcomes.

I can hear people saying, “But wait! There’s an incredibly wide variety of personality types and relationship shapes and plot arcs within lesbian romance,” but that comes from looking from inside that set of expectations. You aren’t comparing it to the possibility of what could be. It’s a bit like being a white American and looking at an entire literary genre and seeing all the diversity in it but failing to notice that all the protagonists are white Americans. Or, for a more frivolous comparison, it’s like being excited about the enormous variety of offerings from See’s Candies and failing to notice that they all have chocolate in common. No they don’t! you protest. There’s that one item in the Nuts & Chews box that’s just peanuts in nougat. I’m sure there’s at least one choice that doesn’t have chocolate. My case rests. You aren't thinking about the existence of fresh peaches. Or tomatoes. Or roast beef. You're still thinking in terms of chocolate and not-quite-but-almost-chocolate.

The discussion that was the other half of the inspiration for these thoughts revolves around a recent contemporary lesbian romance novel with the “shocking revolutionary twist” that one of the protagonists is asexual. Now I think it’s a lovely idea to have asexual protagonists in books, though setting them in a formulaic romance may undermine the point a bit for the reading public. I haven’t read the specific book itself, so I’m not talking about whether the topic was handled well or badly in that specific instance. I may or may not read it--I’m not sure I’d enjoy a novel that treats asexuality as an “afterschool special” educational project, given that contemporary romance isn’t really my thing in the first place.

But what struck me was the significant number of readers within the lesbian fiction community whose response was along the lines of, “Wow, this is fascinating, I never knew that such a thing as asexuality existed! I don’t know any asexual lesbians! This introduces me to people and ideas that I’d never encountered before! Thank you for educating me on this topic! Nobody’s ever written about it before.” (Hint: Yes, people have written novels with asexual and aromantic protagonists before. Please don’t erase their existence.)

Let’s get one thing out of the way. Of course you already knew that asexual lesbians existed. You’ve met them, both online and in real life. You just called them “frigid” or “sexually hung-up” or “full of internalized homophobia” or "repressed" or “emotionally unavailable” or any of the other popular labels for people whose erotic response is radically different from yours.

And the people saying this--that they didn’t know asexual lesbians existed--are saying it in online social spaces where people like me have been participating all along. It means that they’ve never seen me. They’ve never actually listened to any of the things I’ve said in those online communities around the topic of representations of desire and sexuality in fiction. I don’t exist for them. It means that every time I’ve interacted with them, they’ve pasted a picture on top of my existence that’s something other than who I am and interacted with that, because they literally didn’t believe that I existed.

And that’s what I mean by books that create worlds that I could exist in. If an author of lesbian fiction literally doesn’t know that asexuality is a possible thing, they certainly aren’t going to write fictional worlds that represent it, or that have a space in which it could exist. That part of the map of human territory won’t be an empty space labeled “here be sea serpents and mermaids” there won’t even be an empty space on the map it could be penciled into.

The third book I’d like to bring into this discussion is Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword. I’ve previously spilled a fair amount of ink over how that book was an emotional flash-point for me, because it came so close to being the perfect book for my emotional core...and then it veered sideways and was a perfect book for someone who was not quite me. Reviewing my reaction in the context of the current topic, I think one of the places where it failed me that I hadn’t been able to articulate properly, is that the female same-sex relations that I’d seen represented in the world of Riverside were fairly narrow in scope--in part because of the relatively small number of examples. Riverside is a world where it seems like half of the men have been in some sort of romantic or sexual relationship with another man, but whatever the author’s intent, we don’t see a similar normalization of women’s relationships. For that matter, we don’t see a full range of women’s relationships at all. To quote my post-review analysis:

“There’s a point in Katherine’s sexual explorations with Marcus where a point is made about ‘having sex with your best friend’ and I think that was when it hit me that The Privilege of the Sword doesn’t seem to show women having serious, genuine friendships with other women. Men have deep and binding friendships with men. Men and women can have genuine friendships as well as relationships based on desire or familial bonds. But women’s friendships are shown as being contingent (“do our husbands get along?”) or as play-acting (Katherine and Artemisia) or as part of power jockeying (the two actresses).”

Here was an excellently-written story of a daring, resourceful, and passionate young woman, and it existed in a world where women don’t seem to have genuine friendships with each other--much less enduring passionate feelings for each other. It came so close to hitting my personal target and then denied the existence of things that are at the core of my being. (Note: the Riverside serial Tremontaine has been a bit better about representing a variety of women’s interpersonal and same-sex romantic interactions.)

So if you’ve ever wondered why my reading habits and my reviews don’t align on a simple “lesbian books good, non-lesbian books less good” axis, it’s because I’m not only a lesbian, and all the other parts of who I am are just as important to me as that one. In the aggregate, they are more important. I’m not interested in reading and praising lesbian novels that nevertheless leave me feeling like an alien from another planet whose existence the author doesn’t quite believe in.

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Friday, October 13, 2017 - 19:40

One of the peculiarities of the podcast is that although the episodes go live on Saturday...that's "Saturday" in South Africa where our fearless leader Sheena lives. Usually it makes for this awkward moment of "do I post the blog the day before?" but since I'm going to be out of the house all day tomorrow, it's a plus this time.

This month's author guest is Caren Werlinger, whose historical stories are often framed by a connection--either mystical or via objects--with a character in modern times. Listen to her talk about how she develops those connections with the past.

And remember that you can find links to all the past episodes of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast (and to the transcripts, as I get them up) on the Index Page.

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Friday, October 13, 2017 - 07:00

(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in the lesbian romance genre. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)

Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum, stands out in the micro-genre of lesbian historic highwaywomen stories for its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times.

The plot follows what seems to be an obligatory formula for the micro-genre: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry, prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending. This is actually the generic formula that applies to nearly every lesbian highwayman story I’ve encountered. What Hogue does is flesh it out into a well-written period piece.

The pacing--especially of the middle section where we learn the backstory of our second protagonist--was just on the edge of leisurely, but only because the adventures are being related to another character rather than being experienced in real time. Hogue notes in the introductory material that he was inspired in part by the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman”, which may add a bit of tension for readers familiar with that work. Certain details of the book’s plot seemed a bit forced to fit the poem’s structure, but possibly not in a way that those unfamiliar with it would notice. Unlike some other similar books, the climax of the story was neither too rushed nor too pat and felt historically plausible as long as one accepts the motivations and actions of a certain third character.

Hogue has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. His familiarity with the historic and social background raises the book above the “erotic encounter in costume” level that is too common in lesbian historical romance. I’m not a good judge of erotic scenes in books, but those in Daring and Decorum didn’t seem any more awkward or inherently ridiculous than in any other story I’ve read. (Confession: I’m really not a fan of sex scenes in my historic fiction, so I’m not a good judge.)

Content warning: Unfortunately the book got off to a bad start for me with a sexual assault in the opening scene (although it didn’t go beyond groping) which was framed as inspiring the heroine’s erotic desire for the highwayman (much later revealed to be a highwaywoman). Given how much I liked the book overall, I don’t consider that one stumble a fatal flaw, but it’s certainly worth a content warning.

It wasn’t the gender perception issue in the assault scene that bothered me--to some extent when you’re dealing with historic gender-disguise plots in lesbian fiction, it really helps to view the characters as solidly bisexual, because any other framing tends to lead you down some sort of weird telepathic/gender-essentialism road. (The sort that was popular in medieval and Renaissance gender-disguise plots: “It’s ok that she fell in love with someone who she thought was a woman because it was really a man in disguise and she somehow unconsciously intuited this.”) But I digress.

No, what bothered me was invoking the trope that a woman will naturally overlook being forcibly assaulted and will find herself enjoying the assault and later fall in love with the person who assaulted her. Not only did I think that the story could have been made to work perfectly well with a different--or at least much less offensive--interaction, but the assault felt extremely out of character for the highwaywoman, as we later come to know her. It felt like cheap titillation. And given that the reader has no clue yet that this particular highwayman is our love interest (there are several people involved in the robbery), it felt like a slap in the face to readers who came to the book for some escapist woman-centered reading.

That said, most stories in this genre involve a requisite amount of fairly dubious consent, or at least of secretly enjoying a forced erotic encounter. The overall writing quality definitely makes this book worth checking out if you enjoy swashbuckling lesbian romantic adventure.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017 - 07:00

The Salt Roads is a beautiful, brutal, crystalline and ambiguous novel tracing the lives of three women of the African diaspora and one mystical spirit. The principal characters are: Mer, an enslaved woman who is a healer and worker on a sugar cane plantation on Saint Domingue during the early stages of the slave rebellion of the late 18th century; Jeanne Duval, the Creole mistress of 19th century French decadent poet Charles Baudelaire; and Thaïs (or Meritet) a sex worker in early Christian-era Alexandria, who in this story inadvertently becomes Saint Mary of Egypt (combining the legends of two early desert saints). They are tied together in this story not only in sharing a cultural and racial heritage, and by the experience of not having ownership over their own bodies--whether in a formal sense in the case of Thaïs and Mer, or due to economic necessity, in the case of Jeanne. But they also share the hosting of an entity--call her a goddess perhaps, although it takes a while for her to come (back?) to that understanding of herself--who shares their experiences and can sometimes guide or control their actions, using the imagery of a Vodou deity riding them (although I don’t think that word is used). Thaïs and Mer are open to understanding these visits as a religious experience, though Jeanne seems largely unaware of her guest.

But that’s just the bare bones of the structure. I would say that this novel defies plot summarization--it doesn’t have that kind of arc, being unmoored in time with the sequence of scenes for each of the three human characters being interleaved across the ages representing how their spirit guest experiences them, moving back and forth as she’s able. And she has her own quest of discovery and self-awareness whose goal is the making of those connections across time. I call this a “brutal” novel and it’s one where the concept of “happy ending” has no meaning, except to the extent that each individual may succeed in making choices that she won’t regret and taking what measure of autonomy over her life that she’s able to grasp.

The prose and exposition is the sort that delights me, where the reader is plunged into an unfamiliar world and acquainted with it through the immediate experiences of the characters. Though, to be fair, I’m not going to discount the usefulness of having at least a passing familiarity with the history of Saint Dominque, with the French decadent poets, and with early Christian hagiography. It’s a novel that rewards coming to it with a broad historical literacy and it won’t hold your hand if you don’t meet it halfway.

One thing I always appreciate in stories that are woman-centered like this is the easy and unremarkable inclusion of the wide variety of affectional and erotic bonds that women can have with each other, even while participating in the obligatory heterosexuality of the dominant culture. All three women have a rich variety of bonds with other women that include, without not necessarily focusing on, romantic and sensual relations. (I had something of an epiphany with regards to this element in the context of representation in fiction that is going to turn into a separate essay.)


The Salt Roads is a deep and powerful story about surviving and thriving and connecting with personal and cultural roots (the essence of the quest that the unifying divine spirit comes to understand). It explores exciting structural territory and narrative rhythms, not only in the non-temporality, but in the use of interleaved voices and shifts of mode. This book left me thoroughly satisfied as a reading experience.

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Monday, October 9, 2017 - 20:31

The Lesbian Historic Motif Project - Episode 15a - On the Shelf

(Originally aired 2017/10/07)

Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2017.

When I recorded last month’s On the Shelf, the new expanded format hadn’t actually gone live yet. So I’m still working with the format and getting a sense of what listeners would like to hear.

The September blog entries for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project were supposed to all tie in with the theme of Boston and Boston marriages, but when I scoured my bookshelves I only came up with two publications that were relevant. One was a museum exhibition catalog on the history of LGBTQ Boston. I loved browsing through it and seeing all the photographs we have of 19th century female couples that we know to have been in romantic life partnerships. Each photo is a story waiting to be explored. I also covered a book that looks at some modern lesbian relationships through the lens of the concept of the Boston Marriage, although interpreting that term specifically as an asexual romantic relationship.

I filled in the rest of September and continue on into October with books relating to September’s week 4 episode on documentary evidence for lesbian sexual techniques in the European middle ages and Renaissance. This included a collection of penitential manuals (books providing guidance for confessors on how to classify sinful acts), as well as several general works on sexuality in the middle ages. While these books typically have much more information on male homosexuality than female topics, it’s exciting to have some solid new publications bringing together the state of the historical research.

Ruth Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe is a very accessible introductory text on the subject. Tom Linkinen’s Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture is heavily focused on men and looks at ways that popular attitudes toward same-sex relationships were created and reflected in popular culture, as well as how accusations of sodomy were used for political purposes. I haven’t finalized the rest of the books for October yet, but since I plan another medieval topic for the end of the month I’ll probably be sticking to relatively early material. Possibilities include the collections Premodern Sexualities edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, The Lesbian Premodern edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt, and Valerie Traub’s monograph Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, for which I suspect the relevant material will largely be a rehash of her book The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.

The October essay is planned to continue the medieval theme with a discussion of cross-dressed female knights in medieval literature. Cross-dressing was always a context in which accidental love between women was a possibility. And while the ways it was acted out didn’t always have happy endings, they always provide inspiration for possible new stories.

This month’s author guest will be Caren Werlinger who often uses connections between the present and the past to frame her historic stories, either via the discovery of historic documents about past relationships or involving psychic connections across the centuries.

I have two questions for the Ask Sappho segment this month.

The first is from an anonymous listener who says, “This isn’t really a historic question, but a question about the podcast. I’m used to podcasts including credits for the music at the beginning and end of the show. I was wondering why you didn’t include that information.”

The answer makes me a little bit self-conscious, though maybe not in the way you’d think. People who listened to last week’s show may already guess. You see, the simplest way to deal with broadcast rights for intro music was to use something I wrote and performed myself. The excerpts that frame this podcast are from a piece I call “Planxty Oncia” which I wrote as a wedding present for some friends. It used to be a habit of mine to always write harp tunes for wedding presents. I don’t mention that specifically in the show credits because it felt too much like showing off, not because I was using someone else’s work without credit!

The second Ask Sappho question is from Amy Herman-Pall, who is very active on the facebook groups for the Lesbian Talk Show and the Lesbian Review. She asks: “I've heard vague stories and rumors about rulers who have been lesbians, for example Queen Christina of Sweden. What is the response of the people they rule to this? I'd love to know what the reactions of not only the common people were, but also of those courtiers and advisors that surrounded her.”

Now, that’s a great question with some surprising answers.

We can’t always know for certain whether the rumors about a historic individual having homosexual relations were true, or if they were only put about for political purposes. And if they were true, they would certainly be likely to be used by political enemies. But it’s important to keep in mind that cultures in history didn’t necessarily have the same very black and white attitudes towards homosexuality that modern cultures do. There are ways in which 20th century attitudes towards lesbians and gay men are the anomaly, and the rest of history, before and after, are a lot fuzzier.

Rulers in history almost never married for love. So it was often the case that a monarch’s lovers would have as much or more power than their legal spouse. This was the case no matter what gender they were. And while the language used about them might be sexually charged, what people were worried about was influence.

Take for example, English royal politics of the early 14th century. King Edward the Second married Isabella, affectionately known as “the she-wolf of France” which tells you something about how she was viewed. Edward had a sequence of close male friends that it was rumored were his lovers. Those men were hated--and eventually killed--by the English barons--not so much because of the rumored homosexual relationships, but because they had enormous influence over King Edward’s decisions and influenced him to make some very bad ones. Queen Isabella, in turn, turned on her husband the king, and took as an ally and lover Roger Mortimer. Together they overthrew and--according to rumor--murdered King Edward. But Mortimer in turn was executed by Isabella’s son King Edward the Third in large part for the influence he’d gained through being Isabella’s lover.

So the point here is that being the non-spousal lover of a monarch could attract you a lot of negative attention if it was felt that you were abusing that influence, regardless of sexuality and gender.

Another thing to keep in mind is that close emotional relationships between people of the same sex were not necessarily inherently suspect before the 20th century. In fact, to a large extent it was expected that your close emotional relationships would be with same-sex friends, not with the person you were married to.

So it can be hard to disentangle whether people took issue with a monarch’s same-sex lover because of the sexual aspect, or because they would have had issues with anyone who was perceived to have undue influence. That said, let’s look at some of the cases where lesbianism was brought up as an issue.

Queen Christina of Sweden lived in the mid 17th century and was the only surviving child of King Gustav the Second. She succeeded to the throne at age 6 and began ruling in her own right at age 18. She was renowned for her intelligence, education, and scholarship, being nicknamed the “Minerva of the North”. She founded the oldest newspaper still in continuous publication in Europe. She was a notable patroness of scholars and philosophers such as René Descartes. But most troublesome to her staunchly Lutheran people and ministers, as early as nine years old, she began a flirtation with...Catholicism.

Christina never married. She recorded in her autobiography that she felt "an insurmountable distaste for marriage." When pressured, she told her advisors, “I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”

She had a close intimate friendship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre. Even after Christina left Sweden--and we’ll get to that in a moment--she wrote passionate love letters to Ebba Sparre, saying she would always love her. She introduced Ebba to an ambassador as her bed-fellow. And while I don’t want to discount the likelihood that the two were lovers, it’s important to keep in mind that using romantic language and sharing a bed were things that same-sex romantic friends were expected to do in the 17th century. It’s not that these things weren’t romantic, or weren’t erotic, but that they were normal. And being normal, these practices would not have attracted negative attention by themselves.

Having a female favorite would not have been an issue for Queen Christina on its own. Nor would the accusations of wasteful spending have been an issue on their own. But her deep attraction to Catholicism was incompatible with keeping the crown of Lutheran Sweden, and in 1654, when she was 27 years old and had been queen for 22 years, she abdicated in favor of her cousin and left Sweden forever.

Christina left Sweden, traveling in disguise for safety, wearing men’s clothing and assuming the name Count Dohna. At the end of the year, she officially converted to Catholicism. Her religious advisors in Sweden had been Spanish, and the Spanish court made plans to welcome her as a visitor in triumph. But Christina envisioned herself as mediator in the hostilities between Spain and France and to get to Spain, she had to travel through France first. She never did make it to Spain.

In terms of gender roles, the French court viewed her as something of a curiosity. One of the noble ladies of the French court described Christina as “masculine” saying of her presence at the opera that she "surprised me very much – applauding the parts which pleased her, taking God to witness, throwing herself back in her chair, crossing her legs, resting them on the arms of her chair, and assuming other postures... She was in all respects a most extraordinary creature." Rumors of Christina’s lesbianism abounded in France. But there’s an interesting contrast in Spain.

When they could boast of having inspired Christina to convert, and looked forward to her lending her influence on their side in the conflict with France, Spanish writers and diplomatic correspondence had nothing but praise for her. When she threw her lot in with France, suddenly her morals were called into question--but in heterosexual terms. She was accused of having had illicit affairs with various men, and even of having had a secret pregnancy from one of them.

It wasn’t that people in Spain were unaware of Christina’s reputation with women. In a satirical play, a character named Christerna de Suevia (that is, Christina of Sweden) who was clearly intended to represent her, was given a maid named Lesbia and depicted as agreeing to enter into a same-sex marriage with the sister of her political rival.

Given Christina’s very complicated life history, it’s hard to untangle the question of how people would have reacted to her romantic relationships with women in the absence of other factors. Her own people seem to have approved of almost everything she did except for the whole Catholicism thing. Her contacts in Spain where on her cheering squad up to the point where she threw them over for France. She had powerful friends in France, like Cardinal Mazarin (of the Musketteers fame) and although people in Paris thought her energetic and forthright ways were a bit uncultured, the only thing that really got their noses out of joint was when she murdered a popular diplomat who was part of her household. She had both friends and enemies in Rome, but since the friends included multiple cardinals and a pope, it seems that whatever they thought of her personal life, it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

As a comparison, let’s look at three other royal figures.

In the early 15th century, Queen Catalina of Lancaster, who was serving as co-regent of Castile for her young son, had a close friend and advisor named Leonor López de Córdoba. Leonor was not a member of the aristocracy but rose in the world largely due to the patronage of a wealthy aunt. She appears in the historic record as a close confidante and advisor of the queen, beset by personal enemies that included the other co-regent, the queen’s brother in law. These enemies felt Leonor had undue influence over the queen due to the love and trust the queen had for her.

But Leonor’s precipitous fall from favor, resulting in exile from the court, wasn’t due to her political enemies but appears to have been driven by a more personal rival. Inés de Torres came to the court as Leonor’s protege but seems to have supplanted her in the queen’s affections. The break up was rapid and stormy, with Queen Catalina making violent threats to keep Leonor away from her.

Queen Catalina’s court featured a group of strong, capable women who had close personal bonds with each other. Leonor did not in any way stand out as an unusual personality in this context, nor were the previous expressions of affection between her and the queen unusual in this context. The position of personal advisor to royalty was an established role, and one that was a magnet for accusations of undue influence and favoritism. It was also a role that regularly attracted accusations of sexual impropriety. Queen Catalina’s son, when he was later grown up, had a relationship with a male personal advisor that led to accusations of sodomy. The recorded references to Leonor never raised similar sexual accusations. Given that lack of evidence was rarely a bar to accusing your enemies of anything that might stick, one likely interpretation is that no one considered a sexual relationship between the women to be something that anyone would care about.

Such accusations were made against the personal favorites of Queen Anne of England in the 18th century. Anne inherited a very complicated political legacy and I’m going to skip over it entirely to cut to the chase. When she was a child of six, the future Queen Anne met Sarah Jennings, later to become Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who for most of her life would be her closest friend and most influential advisor. Sarah was a little older when they met, around eleven years old. But Sarah was not Anne’s only childhood crush--there are regular records throughout her early adulthood of her passionate feelings for women in her circles. And we should remember that Anne grew up among the sexual license of the Restoration court, where sexual affairs between women were no secret.

By the time Anne came to the throne thirty years later, Sarah not only had enormous influence with the queen, but had become so knowledgeable and canny about the structures of government and how to wield political power that she was the go-to person for anyone with requests to the queen. She was a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. When her husband, the Duke of Marlborough came to head the government, it was largely due to Sarah’s influence, intelligence, and energy. And it should be noted that whatever the nature of Sarah’s relationship with Anne, she was equally devoted to her husband and his career.

Anne’s devotion to Sarah was equally strong, and at various times before she became queen, she risked a great deal to keep Sarah with her as friend and advisor. After Anne’s coronation, Sarah was appointed to a number of offices of political, economic, and symbolic importance, while similar honors were heaped upon the Duke of Marlborough, and more gifts of land and offices followed. Anne and Sarah had affectionate pet names that they’d called each other since childhood and continued to use them in private. Anne cherished the knowledge that Sarah would always tell her exactly what she thought and never offer her false flattery.

But speaking truth to queens is a delicate matter, and Anne found herself wanting more in the way of support and friendship and less in the way of lobbying and being ordered around. They had a falling out over differing support of political parties and grew gradually apart as Sarah spent more and more time away from Queen Anne’s side. This left an opening for Abigail Masham, who was a cousin of Sarah’s who had introduced her to the court. Abigail was kind, flattering, and attentive to the queen--all the things that Sarah was not. Sarah’s intense jealousy of Abigail became tangled up with their political differences. And here comes the possibly unexpected part of the story.

When Queen Anne refused outright to dismiss Abigail from her service, Sarah accused them of having a lesbian affair. But the Marlborough’s influence was taking an irrevocable downward turn at this point. Soon Anne was refusing to see or speak to Sarah at all. But let’s get back to that accusation. Is Sarah’s accusation that Anne and Abigail were having a lesbian affair proof that Sarah’s relationship with her was not sexual? Or does it mean that Sarah was well aware of the truth that Anne’s interests in women were more than platonic, but thought that she was safe from a similar accusation? Was it simply the worst thing Sarah could think of to say, in the heat of what can only be called a messy break-up? Can we take it seriously as a homophobic accusation when sparked by what is certainly alienation of affections by the other woman?

Let’s step back and look at this in the context of the original question: when a queen had romantic and most likely erotic relationships with other women, what did the people around her think about it and what did they do about it? It is, perhaps, telling that for all the enemies that Sarah Churchill made in her career, although the possibility that she and the queen were lovers must certainly have crossed people’s minds, the accusation does not appear to have been used as a weapon against either of them. The only context in which an overt charge of lesbianism is made is from a jilted and brokenhearted favorite against a woman who had originally been her protege and had supplanted her in the queen’s affections.

But let’s take note of another aspect of this tangle. All of the women involved were also married to men. Anne failed to produce an heir, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Sarah had several children. Whatever the nature of the relationship between them it coexisted with the personal relationships that their society expected them to enter into. So we come to another consideration: people may be more indifferent to a queen’s affairs with women if they don’t get in the way of her royal obligations. And yet, recall that Queen Christina outright refused to marry and explicitly told people she wasn’t suited for marriage. So there’s that.

The last queen I’d like to consider is one who was publicly accused of lesbian relations, and where it was part of a much larger wave of hostility against her. And this is Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Again, there is an enormous social, political, and economic background to the issue that transcends one woman’s possible sexuality. We can be certain that the French Revolution wasn’t fought over who Marie Antoinette was sleeping with. But among the accusations that she was lavishly spendthrift, was indifferent to the plight of the French poor, and that she used her political influence to benefit foreign powers, there were also accusations that Marie and her favored ladies in waiting were involved in secret societies to engage in lesbian orgies.

The image of the secret lesbian sex club had been growing in French popular culture for some time and in some ways it stood in for a general anxiety about secret societies such as the Masons and political clubs that eventually led to revolution, combined with the growing motif of lesbian sex as the ultimate in decadent pornographic entertainment. Let us be clear: it is highly unlikely that Queen Marie Antoinette was part of a secret lesbian sex club. It’s actually unlikely that such clubs existed outside male imagination. And it’s nearly impossible to untangle whether any of Marie Antoinette’s intense friendships with her closest female courtiers were also sexual. But at the time and in the context of French civic unrest, it was an accusation that was made and that had the power to intensify the personal hatred that many felt for the unpopular queen.

So what’s the overall answer to the question of how people reacted to having a queen who had sexual relations with women? It’s not a question we can answer in that form, because of the lack of solid evidence in most cases that they were having sexual relations with women. But we can say that when the possibility of lesbian sex was raised in royal contexts, the sex itself was never a primary issue. There were issues of the amount of political influence that court favorites (of any gender) might have, and how they might abuse it. And there were issues of competition among the close friends and advisors to royalty for those positions of access. Sometimes the issue of sex was employed as a weapon in those contexts, but not as a primary issue. Rather as an additional tool to be used.

Queen Catalina of Castille was not attacked on sexual grounds, despite the jealous rivalries of her female favorites. Queen Christina of Sweden was considered odd for many reasons, but the rumors of her female lovers were fairly quiet, and they had nothing to do with her voluntary relinquishment of the throne. Sarah Churchill, in a fit of jealous anger, accused her rival of having a sexual relationship with Queen Anne, but it had no effect on Anne’s reign or her continuing affection for Abigail Masham. And the accusations of lesbianism against Queen Marie Antoinette were a consequence of the pre-existing hatred for her, not a cause of that hatred. If you were a queen, and you ruled well, and your people were content, and you secured the succession to the crown, it doesn’t appear that anyone gave a damn about whether you had a woman in your bed. That peculiar focus on people’s sex lives belongs largely to the medicalized model of sexuality that starts around the beginning of the 20th century.

There are links to some relevant publications in the show notes, though I’ve pulled this explanation from a lot of different sources.

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Monday, October 9, 2017 - 07:00

I included this article despite being only tenuously related to the Project's focus because it forms an interesting contrast and counterpoint to cases of women cross-dressing and passing as men. Of particular interest are the differences in economic opportunities and in what aspects of the case were of concern to the courts. More generally, it provides insight into the differences between modern and medieval approaches to gender and sexuality. Much like the historic examples of women passing as men, it raises the question of how culturally constructed the concept of transgender identity is, as opposed to other framings of the motivations for acting in the world with a different gender performance than the one your culture expects from someone with your body. The historic imbalances in the economic and legal opportunities for men versus women mean that the economic and legal motivations for taking up a different gender role are not identical for male and female roles. It is particularly unexpected, in the case of John/Eleanor Rykener, that the surface explanation for Eleanor's existence was economic: the dubious financial attractions of sex work and working as an embroiderer. And yet the testimony that Rykener engaged in sexual relations with women, as a man, and not for economic gain argue against interpreting their behavior as a simple case of being a proto-transgender woman. People's lives are, of course, complex and contradictory, and this one point isn't definitive proof of anything, but such points are all we have when searching for understanding. 

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Full citation: 

Karras, Ruth Mazo & David Lorenzo Boyd. 1996. “’Ut cum Muliere’ - A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London” in Premodern Sexualities ed. by Louise Fradenburg & Carla Freccero. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-91258-X

Publication summary: 


This is a collection of papers looking at issues in the historiography of sexuality, that is: how to study sexuality in historic contexts with consideration of the theoretical frameworks being used. In general, the approach is to dismantle the concepts of universals and essences, by which “history” has been used to define and persecute “others.” The papers are very theory-focused around how the study of the “other” points out the narrow and distorted picture of history in the mainstream tradition. One feature that these papers challenge is a clear dichotomy between a pre-modern understanding of sexuality as “acts” versus a modern understanding as “identity”. The papers cover not only queer sexuality by a broader variety of sexualized themes in history.  As usual with general collections like this, I’ve selected the papers that speak to lesbian-like themes, but in this case I’ve included on with a male focus that provides an interesting counterpoint on issues of gender identity.

Karras & Boyd 1996 “’Ut cum Muliere’ - A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London”

This case is drawn from a legal document that is almost unique in medieval England in providing a description of male same-sex activity in a context of male cross-dressing. The legal focus emphasizes the importance of gender, and not sexual behavior or sexual “identity” in the context of medieval law.

John (alias Eleanor) Rykener was apprehended in 1394 for committing an act of prostitution with a man while wearing female clothing. Rykener testified to working as a prostitute as well as an embroidress (a female profession that he engaged in while passing as a woman). He named two women who had initiated him into the trade of prostitution and taught him how to dress. He testified that he was paid to have sex with men and that he also had sex with women (when in male clothing) but not for money. [Note: I am following the original article in using male pronouns for Rykener.]

It isn’t clear that there was ever a formal legal proceeding against him. Sexual crimes were in the purview of the church and what would have been the relevant church records for that place and time have not survived. The original investigation seems to have been under the umbrella of public disorder. Prostitution was a civil crime, but gender transgression seems to have been the main concern.

The article considers how Rykener would have been viewed or would have identified in both medieval and modern terms. Did the medieval authorities consider Rykener a sodomite? Or did they evaluate his case as that of a woman? There are differing frameworks of identity versus activity involved. Medieval law treated sodomy as a criminal act rather than recognizing a homosexual orientation. But prostitution was considered a status crime. That is, the law didn’t view a woman as engaging in prostitution but rather as "being" a prostitute.

Could Rykener have been viewed as having this identity, that of being a prostitute? Prostitute was an inherently female-gendered status. To be considered a prostitute Rykener would have needed to be considered a type of woman.

Conversely, although Rykener admitted to engaging in sexual acts with men, the words “sodomite” or “sodomy” do not appear in the record, although related language such as “detestable sin” and the like do. As noted above, sodomy was evaluated as a specific act, not as a status. And discussions of the moral concerns around sodomy indicate that those concerns were not necessarily for the act itself, but for how it affected the gender status of the participant. Men were supposed to be “active” and women “passive”. For a man to be a passive participant in sex with another man was to disrupt the stability of gender categories.

When men had sex with Rykener, the act is described as “as with a woman”, whereas when Rykener had sex with women, it was “as a man.” Rykener’s gender identity was defined by the role he played in specific acts. But that gender wasn’t solely defined in relation to the gender of his sexual partner, but also by the act of dressing as a woman (or a man) and behaving as one. That is, Rykener was not condemned as a sodomite because he was not having sex with men as a man, but as a woman.

The article includes a full transcription of the legal record (in translation from the Latin original).

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Saturday, October 7, 2017 - 12:20

The October "On the Shelf" episode is up at the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. In addition to listing the books covered by the blog in the past and forthcoming month, and anouncing this month's author guest (Caren Werlinger), there's an Ask Sappho segment about how rulers with lesbian relationships were viewed in history. The transcript for this episode will go up tomorrow.

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Friday, October 6, 2017 - 07:00

Shira Glassman writes self-described "fluffy queer Jewish princess fantasies" (ok, I may have reworded slightly but I think I've kept the essence of it). The Second Mango introduces the reader to Perach, a secondary-world fantasy realm where everyone just happens to be Jewish. I mean that in the most positive possible way -- when creating a fantasy setting completely separate from real-world history, why not set it up exactly as you choose? It's subversive in its own way, because every time I was tempted to trip over the concept, I thought about all the similar fantasy settings that never get questioned or challenged when they silently echo dominant real-world cultures without presenting any logical basis for why they should. But perhaps I digress too much into literary theory.

The Second Mango is a fairly straightforward quest adventure, where a young, newly-installed queen goes off on a quest to find a girlfriend. There is just enough heteronormativity in the setting that her quest leaves her advisors and courtiers baffled and confused, but not so much that everyone won't cheerfully accept the outcome when she succeeds. The quest is aided by a masked gender-bending swordswoman and her shapeshifting horse-dragon, with barriers and challenges being offered variously by scheming innkeepers and misogynistic sorcerers.

The book is very young adult in feel, not so much for the age of the protagonist, but for the relative straightforwardness of the plot. Characters are pretty much who they present themselves as, challenges are relatively straightforward and solvable, and the plot twists are foreshadowed well enough for a pleasant reading experience without being obvious enough to spoil it. The prose is on the explanatory side more than the immersive side, and various aspects of character identity (such as food sensitivities) are solidly rooted in contemporary discourse rather than being given a more oblique in-world presentation. For the target readership of this series, I assume this is a solid feature, not a flaw. If the phrase "fluffy lesbian Jewish queen with food sensitivities finds true love" makes your heart go pitter-pat, then you are solidly in the target demographic for The Second Mango and I strongly recommend it to you.

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Monday, October 2, 2017 - 07:00

In last week's post, I lamented that I'm increasingly finding less new material in general medieval works such as this. But I was able to extract three new publications to track down from this book: two on pairs of women buried together with a common memorial (where it's clear they aren't family members), and one on the source of an anecdote I've been seeing references to for many years. This last is a description of a group of women showing up at a tournament dressed as men to take part in the activities. While women cross-dressing in the context of chivalric culture is a not uncommon literary motif, I've been a bit skeptical of how solid the evidence for this event was in the third and fourth-hand references I'd seen of it previously. Now I have a publication to track down and plans for a podcast topic on gender-transgressive women in tournament contexts.

It's been delightful to see some of the more recent research and discoveries on the history of homoeroticism (by "recent" I mean generally post-1980 or so!) being published as general studies such as this one and the text on sexuality in general by Karras that I covered last week. I recently had a request from a friend for research materials on male homosexuality in medieval England for a historic novel she's working on and was able to enthusiastically lend her Karras, the present volume, and Mills' book Seeing Sodomy in the Middle Ages. I'm always delighted to know that people are using the results of this project for their fiction.

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Full citation: 

Linkinen, Tom. 2015. Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam. ISBN 978-90-8964-629-3

Publication summary: 

Pretty much exactly what it says on the label.


As with most general works on same-sex sexuality (and especially ones authored by men) this book is overwhelmingly focused on male sexuality. There is also the tendency usual in this context to suggest that texts, situations, and commentaries that don’t specifically include women can be extrapolated to them.

[For this reason, I’ve largely passed over the sections discussing generic texts. Most of them were created by men, for a male readership, and with the assumption that male sexuality was the only topic worth writing about. So I have strong doubts that they can be taken as providing relevant information for female study. The chapters that focus exclusively on men have very short summaries.]

This study looks not only at the nature of medieval same-sex sexuality and attitudes toward same-sex relationships, but also how accusations of sodomy were used to stigmatize men for political reasons. The final section of the book takes a more positive look at how the omissions and silences in the historic record suggest “implicit possibilities for love and desire” both in spite of and because of medieval attitudes toward the topic.

The book is primarily taken from written sources (descriptive, moralistic, literary) but also some visual art.

Chapter 1: Framing condemnations

This is a general discussion of the concept of sodomy in the general sense of sex “against nature”. Some texts discussing sodomy specifically include women having sex together, but more often there is no explicit inclusion. Even texts clearly discussing woman-woman sex don’t necessarily use the term “sodomy”. Despite the title of Helmut Puff’s paper on the 14th century trial of Katherine Hetzeldorfer, the trial records and interviews never use the term “sodomy” for what she was accused of. Or any specific categorical label at all.

Theologian Peter Abelard, in reference to Saint Paul’s famous text, suggests that the sin in woman-woman sex was that women’s genitals were intended for the use of men “not so women could co-habit with women.” That is, women’s homoerotic activity was not a sin in itself, but a sin against masculine prerogative, access, and authority.

Medieval versions of Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe, e.g., Gower’s, focus on the transformation of “unnatural” female/female love to “natural” male/female activity via a miraculous bodily sex change. Female/female love, though portrayed as real and genuine, is still treated as “vain” and a state in need of correction.

Much of the anxiety around same-sex sexuality was an extension of general concern with transgressing gender boundaries and roles. The central sin in sodomy (other than being non-procreative) was a man “turning himself into a woman” in taking what was considered a passive role in the act. Women need not be thought to be having “unnatural” sex to be condemned for claiming masculine roles. A story is given from Knighton’s Chronicle of women dressing as men to take part in tournaments in Berwick (on the Scottish border) in 1348. [This is a reference I’ve been trying to track down a good citation for, since it provides a fascinating historic rather than literary precedent for women openly cross-dressing in the medieval period.] “A rumor arose and great excitement concerning some armed women taking part in the tournament. They were all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom’s better sort.” And “neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint” and seemed to have been punished by nothing worse than bad weather which was held to be God’s punishment on them. Their offense was claiming a masculine presentation and taking part in masculine activities, but it was an offense against gender, not sexuality.

The vague references in penitentials to “a woman sinning with a woman” may have had broader concerns than penetrative sex. The French court records concerning Jehanne and Lawrence are discussed (where the activity appears to have been tribadism). In general, though female same-sex acts are virtually absent from the legal record. There are essentially no English examples up through 1500.

Chapter 2: Silencing the Unmentionable Vice

What do the silences in the written record mean? In primary sources, it can mean the simple absence of data, but in secondary sources it can mean that historians aren’t asking the questions that would lead them to find the existing data. For women’s same-sex activities, that silence is even deeper, not only the silence around same-sex sexuality but the silence around women in general. The author briefly discusses this as an observation but doesn’t really dissect the reasons why.

In primary sources, even the avoidance of topics can provide clues. Moral instructions and penitential manuals often specifically recommend against “giving people ideas” by being too specific in questioning them regarding their activities. In this context Ancrene Wisse (a manual for anchoresses--lay women devoted to pious seclusion, but living in the community and with regular social contacts) notes several contexts for the possibility of sexual sin and warns “Anchoresses have been tempted by their own sisters.” [Please note: this is not a suggestion of incest, but rather the use of “sister” to refer to fellow anchoresses.]

Chapter 3: Stigmatizing with Same-sex Sexuality

Close personal relationships among the powerful, especially those that suggested political corruption, often attracted accusations of sodomy. (Much discussion of King Edward II.) This chapter is concerned exclusively with relations between men, as women were far less often in a position with that type of authority and similarly less likely to have an opportunity to extend benefits to close same-sex friends. [A couple of notes: Recall that this work focuses specifically on medieval England. Accusations against powerful women that their close personal friendships might be tainted with same-sex desire occurred, for example in Iberia, and in later centuries in England, see e.g., Queen Anne.]

Chapter 4: Sharing Disgust and Fear

This chapter discusses the public performance of disgust and fear around (men’s) same-sex activities as a means of communicating and enforcing social standards.

Chapter 5: Sharing Laughter

When same-sex relationships were a topic of humor, it was usually mean-spirited mockery, but that label could apply to entire genres of medieval humor, especially when sexual or scatological or involving gender reversals (which were either punished, or appeared as punishment for some other transgression). Like expressions of disgust, humor was a means of expressing anxiety as well as communicating cultural attitudes. Examples of material covered here are fabliaux, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (which are often borrowed from fabliaux), satirical songs and poems. Visual humor of a sexual or scatological type is often found in marginal manuscript art.

Chapter 6: Framing Possibilities

The author ventures into controversial territory in this chapter by asking, “Where are the possibilities within the evidence for non-condemnatory attitudes towards same-sex relations?” He focuses primarily on attitudes towards same-sex friendship and love (rather than sex) but with the question of whether these institutions might have allowed for expressions of desire as well, even though the accepted medieval discourse about the love of friends considered the two to be incompatible. (He notes that the vocabulary used by defendants in medieval sodomy trials came from the realm of sex and sin, not love and affection.)

Silence around same-sex desires and acts allowed for the possibility of their unremarked presence. The inability to name--or avoidance of naming--same-sex sins allowed for individuals to express same-sex desire secretly and without condemnation. English law lacked explicit statutes against same-sex activity until the 16th century (and then only against men), and social privilege could protect the participants from consequences and scrutiny.

The silence is even deeper around women’s sexuality, leaving even more possibility for women’s same-sex relations to go unremarked and thus uncondemned. The avoidance of naming specifics, e.g., in Lollard anti-clerical polemics referencing acts “shameful to speak of” and the “most horrible sin possible” or women “having sex with themselves...or inanimate objects” made it possible to be ignorant of what was meant. [It occurs to me to wonder whether in the original language it would be possible to distinguish between “themselves” as reflexive or mutual.]

Women’s activities were typically considered of concern only as they affected men. If their same-sex activities were considered irrelevant to the lives of men, would they have been mentioned in the literature at all? One gendered activity that does come in for regular negative attention is gossip, and women’s close friendships regularly came under male suspicion in this context.

Anchoresses are warned against the temptations of lust, noting it can come “in the eye, or with the mouth, or with the hand...and many unseemly and unnatural things.” This passage is closely followed by the abovementioned acknowledgment that an anchoress might be tempted by “sisters”, i.e., by other anchoresses or religious women. Concerns about religious women sinning with men were usually described explicitly, so the lack of specificity in these passages seems to exclude a male presence. These sensual temptations are presented in parallel with ordinary, everyday concerns, as if they are both expected and of no special moment. The text Hali Meidenhad (Holy maidenhood) similarly suggests sensory temptations: that lechery may come through sight, speech, kisses, and feeling by the hands.

Instructions to confessors for soliciting details of sins in confession (and this is specifically in a context concerned with sexual sins) suggested that prompts for details should begin with vagueness and then suggest the penitent offer details. If there were a partner she is prompted to explain it was “this sort of man...a married man, or an innocent thing, or a woman as I am.”

One same-sex context the author suggests [that I have some skepticism about] is that as “lust” was personified in these Latin texts as linguistically female. So while discussions of men's temptation were linguistically heterosexual, this usage could lead to discussions in which a female Lust tempted a female virgin, which might have presented ideas to a previously ignorant reader. [I’m not discounting the potential for arbitrarily gendered words to both reflect and shape cultural concepts, I’m just skeptical.]

Continental records of this era, including penitentials and medical manuals, are more explicit about sexual activity between women using manual stimulation or dildos. Some medical manuals even recommend that midwives use stimulation to orgasm in some cases to promote female health.

The literary imagination offered female same-sex relations in works such as John Gower’s version of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe.

The final part of the chapter is focused on the romantic implications of elevated “noble friendships” and is centered almost entirely on men. The discourse around friendship at the time (written entirely by men, of course) considered friendship only possible between equals, and thus impossible between those of the same gender.

After a discussion of male friendships being celebrated on joint grave memorials, there is a brief mention of two examples of female pairs on joint grave memorials. A funeral brass of two women in the mid 15th century commemorates Elizabeth Etchingham and Anne [actually Agnes] Oxenbridge, two unmarried women of local aristocratic families who were buried and memorialized together, despite 30 years separating their deaths. Another case of female co-burial in 15th century London provides no information about the women other than their names: Joan Isham and Margery Nicoll.

The chapter ends with a discussion of how these close loving friendships were understood at the time. Andreas Capellanus (The Art of Courtly Love) presents the apparently contradictory positions that the love of men for each other (in friendship) is elevated over what they feel for women, but elsewhere he explicitly excludes the possibility that courtly love can exist between people of the same sex. This is not contradictory if you understand “courtly love” to be sublimated sex, but reintroduces ambiguity in analyses that point out that courtly love relationships were often ways for men to create transitive bonds with other men (i.e., with the husband of the woman they are paying court to).


No new information is introduced in the conclusion.



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