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.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16b - Interview with Farah Mendlesohn
This month's author interview is with Hugo Award-winning academic writer of literary analysis Farah Mendlesohn, who is taking her first step into being a fiction author this month with her lesbian Regency romance Spring Flowering. We had a lovely discussion about the varying attitudes toward same-sex relationships in different eras and the challenges of writing historical fiction.
No transcript is currently available for this episode, for which I apologize.
A historic fantasy featuring an ensemble of fascinating female characters--the "daughters" (in various senses) of various classics horror fiction protagonists. This is the sort of book that often leaps to the top of my to-be-read list. I liked it...but I didn’t love it, which always makes me sad. So first: why did I like it? The premise is full of promise. Mary Jeckyll (daughter of the late doctor) finds information after her mother’s death that results in her taking responsibility for a young woman named Diana Hyde, evidently the daughter of her late father’s assistant who disappeared after being charged with murder (the assistant, not the daughter). They stumble into participating in Sherlock Holmes' investigation of the gruesome murder of a prostitute, and soon clues are turning up to a mysterious “Society of Alchemists” that appears to tie all sorts of threads together, including several other rather unusual women whose fathers were similarly connected to the Society. For anyone familiar with weird literature of the 19th century, picking up on the hints and clues will be a large part of the fun of this story.
The writing is solidly competent and the characters of the various women are distinct and colorful. What didn’t work for me quite as well was the structure of the plot, which feels a great deal like working through the collective origin stories of a band of superheroes without quite getting to the adventure they tackle together. Each character narrates her history to the others which, while, it fills in essential information for the reader, results in a very slow build-up. The need to fit these expository chapters in where they don’t disrupt the flow of the action (which is quite dense and break-neck) can lead to some strange pacing, such as when Justine Frankenstein tells the others her story in the aftermath of the dramatic climax. To be sure, there is a climax and a natural conclusion to the book, as well as a clear opening for a sequel. But this book feels like the set-up for that sequel rather than a stand-alone story.
The other narrative technique that didn’t entirely work for me--and I feel like this is a bit petty--is the meta-fiction of the story’s structure. One of the women is writing up the adventure, deliberately in the style of a penny-dreadful and told from the points of view of the various participants. This narrative is interrupted at regular intervals by commentary among the women, criticizing the wording, their portrayals, and arguing with the choices of the writer. The meta-fiction is that the lot of them are, in essence, hanging over the shoulder of the writer as she works and having their interjections and comments recorded in real time. But the feel of it, to me, was more like an MST3K running commentary--more oral than written--which kept throwing me out of the meta-fictional context. (That is, I might not have been bothered if the side comments felt more like something set down originally in writing than transcribed from audio.) To be fair, it’s an imaginative technique and has the dual functions of turning what might otherwise be a somewhat flat narration into a more lively time-disrupted sequence, and of introducing us to the personalities of the entire group of women long before they enter the storyline, which in some cases comes fairly late in the game.
So, as I said, liked it but didn’t love it, primarily for structural reasons in the writing. But if you're intrigued by the female viewpoint on the consequences of classic horror stories, this will be right up your alley.
It's a regular feature of my life as an author to feel like I have to justify and excuse the fact that I pay attention to what the world is saying about my books. You see, authors aren't supposed to pay attention to reviews--whether to what they say or simply to their existence. Authors aren't supposed to mention that what readers do to help spread the word about a book is important, because that puts undue pressure on readers. But it does matter and we do care. And to balance out my occasional pleas (both silent and out loud) for people to help spread the word, I like to share examples of when you, my readers, have made a difference.
Yesterday when I was doing my routine name/title search in Google to see if there were any new reviews or mentions of my books, I turned up something exciting. (I'm not going to apologize for doing regular searches like this. Often it's the only way I ever learn about great reviews, and when I get great reviews, I add those reviewers to my list of people to suggest for review copies in the future.) The Barnes and Noble book blog included Daughter of Mystery in a list of "50 Magical Romances to Read Right Now". I think it's the only f/f romance included in the list, based on a quick skim of the summaries. And I am quite certain that it was included because of one of those twitter crowd-sourced requests for books with a particular theme.(*) And that means, that it was you, dear readers, who brought it to the blogger's attention and saw that it was included.
I don't know if you can imagine how great it feels to see my work side by side on a list put out by a major bookstore chain with authors like Nora Roberts, Mary Robinette Kowal, K.J. Charles, Zoraida Córdova, and Ilona Andrews. And you did that. You did it by telling the world how much you love my books and finding opportunities to recommend them to other people. It matters. And I love you for it.
(*) I'm pretty confident that Daughter of Mystery was included based on recommendations rather than the blogger having read the book, because the summary turns Margerit Sovitre into "Lady Margerit" which is a peculiar error to make if you've read it.
My friends are often frustrated at my resistance to their suggestions of books or movies they think I’d like. “This is just up your alley! You’ll love it! You liked X so you’re going to love Y! I think this is really your sort of thing!” When I don’t want to deal, I’ll point out that I have an enormous to-be-read list already and mumble something about adding it to the list, or I’ll leave my movie-going up to the chance of which movies my friends are getting a group up to see when I happen to be available. But sometimes I’ll push back and point out that my friends’ recommendations—not just of things they like, but of things they actively think I’ll like—have a success rate that isn’t much better than random. So bringing something to my attention is fine, but when I say it doesn’t grab me, just accept that it doesn’t grab me.
Comic book movies are one of my weak spots in this process. And just like Lucy and the football, I have a weakness for believing that maybe, just maybe, this time the movie that all my friends are saying is the best Marvel movie ever will actually recapture the things that I enjoy about graphic novels, and will spark that sense of wonder I felt back at the beginning of the long chain of big SFX budget features that gobsmacked me by putting my comic book fantasies up on the big screen.
The thing is, what the movie makers are taking away from the success of comic book movies is exactly what makes me swear every single time that I’ll never again let myself be fooled into giving them one more chance. Explosions and long lovingly-drawn-out sequences of extreme meaningless violence. Not merely not my thing, but something that a movie needs to actively overcome by being extremely (and I mean extremely) good at everything else.
Thor: Ragnarok did not overcome.
Honestly, except for that one heartbreaking flashback scene with Valkyrie where we are allowed to pretend that the companion she sees fall in battle was her girlfriend (and we aren’t actually told that, we’re just tossed the crumb of not having it outright contradicted), all I came out of Thor:Ragnarok with is the memory of constant non-stop fight and chase scenes. Boring. Unutterably and mind-numbingly boring. And if you edited out all the scenes of violence from the movie, you might possibly have ten minutes left of pratfalls and embarrassment humor.
And yet, everywhere I look, people are calling it the best Marvel movie ever. People whose taste and opinions I ordinarily find trustworthy. So if you’re ever in a position of raving to me about how wonderful something is and how I absolutely must read/watch/play/try it and I get this pained and evasive look on my face and mumble something about there only being so many hours in a day, just…take no for an answer. Ok?
Readers and writers both have strong opinions about point of view, even when that strong opinion is, “Any point of view can work if you’re skilled enough.” I’ve heard authors proclaim that they’ll only use one specific type of point of view because that’s the only one that works for them. Fair enough. One can’t argue with what works.
I’ve found two ways in which point of view can be the key to telling the story I want to tell. One is in limiting what the reader is allowed to know, and thus positioning them with respect to specific characters in the story. One of the reasons I’ve stuck to a very tight third person POV in the Alpennia stories (at least so far—don’t count on it staying that way!) is to manipulate what the reader knows about the events of the story and the motivations of the other characters. An omniscient point of view can either remove suspense or leave the reader annoyed about selective omissions of information.
But a second reason I’ve found to choose a particular point of view is to break myself out of specific storytelling modes. This is particularly the case when I’m working with traditional tale forms, such as the Merchinogi stories. The immense weight of the original literary style of medieval romances can be hard to fight if you use the same tools as the original tellers. Medieval romances can be wonderful for their flights of description and their use of repetition and cadence, but they’re really bad at showing interiority. King Arthur may have done great deeds, but we don’t get a lot of insight into what he thought about those accomplishments, or why he made the choices he did. When I first started writing “Hoywverch,” I used the third person to match the original Mabinogi, but found the result more flat and simplistic than I cared for. Shifting to the heroine’s voice helped me break free of that flatness.
Retold fairy tales are another genre where the stylistic weight of the original material can feel overwhelming. In my first draft of “The Language of Roses”—my Beauty and the Beast retelling--I followed what has become my default mode: tight third person rotating between key viewpoint characters, with events allocated carefully to keep the reader in suspense regarding important plot points. And it felt like it was working fairly well until I decided to bring in the fairy who laid the crucial curse as a viewpoint character. She had an important role to play in setting up certain elements of the backstory that no one else had put together yet. But I found the scenes I’d given to her somewhat lackluster. She was thin. A cardboard prop. And the crucial world-building information she supplied felt wrong as something a character would ruminate over on her own.
And then, on this morning’s drive, the first line of her first scene came to me in a different voice. An accusing, critical, second person voice. And things clicked. It’s an omniscient voice: someone who knows everything that has happened in the past and who hints at knowing how the story will come out when none of the characters themselves do. (I have a suspicion just who that voice is, and that may shape some of the rewriting.) This isn’t a second person POV where the reader is being addressed, which is the version that people who dislike second POV tend to rail against—the “choose your own adventure” type that tries to force the reader into being a participant. It’s a voice that allows the fairy to remain a cipher while providing the reader with a very personal glimpse of her.
Ah, Peronelle! You are patient now. Patient enough to stand outside the gates of Betencourt for days to see what might befall. You were not so patient when you were…but no, you were not young. It has been very long since you were young, hasn’t it? The fée are young only once and old for a very long time. But one may be foolish and impatient at any age. Do you remember when you were young, Peronelle? Do you remember your parents and the glittering tower where you dwelt with them? Do you remember the guests and the balls and the hunting parties when they would ride out to slip between the worlds and tease those in mortal lands? Do you remember learning to walk the worlds for yourself and how to draw glamour after you to hide the truth from mortal eyes?
And having made that choice, I now needed to know what to do with all my other points of view. That second person wasn’t going to work for all of them. I wanted differentiation. But at the same time, having one character’s scenes in second and the other three POV characters all in third felt unbalanced. Well, it isn’t really three—more like two and a single chapter from the remaining character. What if (I thought)…what if I gave one of them a first person approach? What if my Beauty (who isn't named Beauty) tells her own story? That would work well for her: the confused innocent who is still sorting out her place in the world and how she feels about it. Yes, that feels right. While the third primary viewpoint character (who is definitely not the Beast) is more knowledgable, more controlled, more deliberately distanced. Third person works for her.
Now my immediate reaction to this idea was, “You know, this is one of the features of N.K. Jemisin’s award-winning novel The Fifth Season—a feature that is a key element of the plot—and maybe it’s going to look a little bit like you’re being a copycat?” Well, heck. If you’re going to be a copycat, copy a great writer. You can make any approach to point of view work if you do it well, and if you don’t do it well, it doesn’t matter that someone else did make it work. But I’ll acknowledge that the idea of mixing first, second, and third person in the same story isn’t some fantastic new invention I came up with.
Maybe I’ll make it work, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll finish up the whole story and decide I need to unravel it and do something different. But when I heard that voice snarking at Peronelle, something clicked into place. And any author can tell you that when you feel that click, you should pay attention.
This description of a group of flamboyantly-dressed women "crashing" a medieval tournament and setting tongues wagging can't help but send my imagination racing. Think of what a great opening for a movie it would make! It's the sort of image that feels anachronistically modern...except that it was recorded as an actual event in a historical chronicle. And though there may have been some interpretation and exaggeration in the telling, there's no reason to doubt that the essential facts are true. Who were these women? Why did they show up at the tournament in masculine dress? Whose clothing was it? Husbands' or brothers'? Was it planned or spontaneous? Did they try to participate in the tournament itself? If so, did they succeed? What happened afterward? Was "matrimonial restraint" reimposed on them or did the experience change their view of themselves and what they were capable of?
Knighton, Henry. 1995. Knighton’s Chronicle 1337-1396. Edited and translated by G.H. Martin. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-820-503-1
Latin text and modern translation of a historic chronicle of the 14th century.
I don’t usually include primary texts in this project, in part because there’s more value in reading the interpretations of historians (of which I am only an amateur) and in part because the selection and excerpting of relevant sections is itself an interpretation process, which I am hesitant to perform. But in this case the relevant excerpt is short enough to include in its entirety. So I’ve included both the original Latin (for fun) and Martin’s translation.
Martin suggests that the claim that these cross-dressing women appeared at multiple tournaments was most likely a generalization from a single noteworthy event. The claim that they were rained out every time they appeared supports this suggestion, as it seems an unlikely coincidence (excluding the possibility of actual divine displeasure). Martin also suggests that a previous editor is mistaken in locating the tournament in Berwick (a location I included in my previous discussion of this event). The chronicle did discuss a tournament in Berwick in an earlier entry, but this specific description doesn’t indicate a location.
Nota de dominabus in hastiludiis. Illis diebus ortus est rumor et in gens clamor in populo eo quod ubi hastiludia prosequebantur, quasi in quolibet loco dominarum cohors affuit, quasi comes interludii in diuerso et mirabili apparatu uirili, ad numerum quandoque quasi .xl. quandoque .l. dominarum, de speciosioribus et pulcrioribus, non melioribus tocius regni, in tunicis partitis scilicet una parte / de una secta, et altera de alia secta, cum capuciis breuibus et liripiis ad modum cordarum circa capud aduolutis, et 3onis argento uel auro bene circumstipatis in extransuerso uentris sub umbilico habentes cultellos quos daggerios wlgaliter dicunt, in powchiis desuper impositis. Et sic procedebant in electis dextrariis uel aliis equis bene comptis de loco ad locum hastiludiorum. Et tali modo expendebant et deuastabant bona sua, et corpora sua ludibriis et scurilosis lasciuiis uexitabant, ut rumor populi personabat.
Et sic nec Deum uerebantur, nec uerecundam populi uocem erubescebant, laxato matrimonialis pudicie freno. Nec hii quos sequebantur animaduertebant quantam graciam et prefulgidam expedicionem Deus, omnium bonorum largitor Anglorum milicie contulerat, contra omnes inimicos undecunque eis aduersantes et quali priuilegio triumphalis uictorie in omni loco illos pretulerat. Sed Deus in hiis sicud in cunctis aliis affuit mirabili remedio, eorum dissipando dissolucionem. Nam loca et tempora ad hec uana assignata, imbrium resolucione tonitrui et fulguris coruscacione, et uariarum tempestatum mirabili uentilacione preocupauit.
A tale of women at tournaments. In those days a rumor arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom's better sort. They were dressed in parti-colored tunics, of one color on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes wound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumor ran.
And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint. Nor did those whom they accompanied consider what grace and outstanding blessings God, the fount of all good things, had bestowed upon English knighthood in all its successful encounters with its enemies, and what exceptional triumphs of victory He had allowed them everywhere. But God in this as in all things had a marvelous remedy to dispel their wantonness, for at the times and places appointed for those vanities He visited cloudbursts, and thunder and flashing lightning, and tempests of astonishing violence upon them.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 16a - On the Shelf for November 2017 - Transcript
Welcome to On the Shelf for November 2017.
Sometimes it’s easy to tell that when it comes to history, my heart lives in the middle ages. Last week’s episode on women knights in shining armor was a lot of fun to put together. But the middle ages isn’t just about pageantry and castles. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog has been covering a number of publications that look closely at how medieval people thought about sex and gender. The essays in the collection Premodern Sexualities ask questions like “what does it mean when homosexuality is not considered an identity but being a prostitute is?” Or “what was the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation, and how did that affect how medieval law treated people with ambiguous bodies?” It can be easy to acknowledge today that gender and sexuality are social constructs, but it can be harder to accept that people in the past used such different constructs that it can be hard to draw clear parallels between our lives and those of our ancestors. When we encounter hints of homoerotic sentiment in the writings of women like Margery Kempe, do we work too hard to try to fit them into our modern identity boxes?
When I finish up the papers from the Premodern Sexualities volume, I look at the original text of Knighton’s Chronicle that I talked about in last week’s episode--the one about the gang of cross-dressed women showing up at a 14th century tournament. I don’t usually include primary sources in the blog, but sometimes it’s fun to let a text speak for itself. After that I cover an article on an unusual joint memorial brass to two women from 15th century England. Memorials like this gave me an idea for a future essay, so hold on to that thought.
After that, the blog is going to plunge deep into the pool of historiography and theory with Valerie Traub’s book Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns. This book was a lot more dense than what I usually choose to cover and talks more about talking about history, than looking at the past itself. I’ll be continuing on a similar theme of historic theory for much of the rest of the year, covering the articles in a collection titled The Lesbian Premodern, which includes a lot of essays on what it means to think about lesbian history as a field of study, and the academic conflicts between various ways of approaching the study of the past. I’m finding the debates intensely interesting and it makes me want to find people to discuss the parallels between the study of lesbian history and the creation of lesbian historic fiction.
This month’s author guest is someone I can imagine having those discussions with. Farah Mendlesohn is publishing her first novel: a lesbian regency romance titled Spring Flowering. Farah is an academic with a background in history and literature and has a lot of interesting things to say about the social dynamics of gender and sexuality in the early modern era. And I can’t wait to read her novel, which should be on my iPad by the time you’re listening to this.
This month’s essay is going to be on the vocabulary of women who love women, looking at the words used in various languages and cultures across the ages, both technical language and everyday slang. You can tell a lot about how people perceived lesbian sexuality by the root meanings of the words that were used. But you can also learn a lot from the simple fact that such vocabulary existed and by noticing how and when it was used.
This month’s Ask Sappho question touches on the question of how women have communicated their desires in the past. Rose Herman-Pall asks “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?”
The question doesn’t specify a particular era or culture, but I’ll focus in the last several centuries in England and America, since that’s the context most listeners are likely to be familiar with. And this is going to be a lot more off-the-cuff than usual, so there’ll be no footnotes in the show notes.
In the past, when I’ve done research for historic re-enactment, or answered research questions for authors, I’ve always found it a useful exercise to take a question that starts out “How did they...?” and back up a step to ask, “Did they...?” I remember once someone asked, “How did medieval people get going in the morning when they didn’t have coffee yet?” That started a conversation on the history of breakfast as a concept, and the other changes in society that happened around the time that stimulating beverages like coffee and tea entered Western society, and the ways in which rituals around those beverages have become so ingrained in our lives that it’s hard to imagine life without them.
So let’s think about what underlies that question: “How did women in history signal to each other that they were Sapphically inclined, especially if they were in marriages to men?” There are at least three important assumptions here that we need to unpack before thinking about an answer. The first is that women needed some special way of signaling their desires to each other. The second is that women have always had a specific concept of lesbian desire as something different from the default. The third is that women would have viewed heterosexual marriage as a barrier to expressing those desires.
For those of us who grew up in the latter part of the 20th century--and that’s pretty much all of us at this point--it can be just as hard to imagine a world in which same-sex desire is not considered a separate, fixed, inborn orientation as it is to imagine a world in which people have never encountered coffee or tea. But when you look at women’s literature around romance, affection, and passionate expression during the last several centuries (and earlier as well, but I’m focusing on maybe the 17th through 19th centuries) it becomes clear that passionate and romantic feelings between women weren’t considered some special separate aberration, but were considered normal, natural, and desirable. It was women who didn’t experience sentimental attachments to female friends who were considered odd.
In a world where women are expected to call each other beloved, to speak of their undying devotion to each other, and to long for each other’s presence and embraces, in a world where it is utterly normal to exchange kisses, caresses, and embraces, both in public and in private, in a world where it is completely expected that people of the same sex will sleep in the same bed as a sign of their close emotional relationship--or simply for the sake of convenience--it can be hard to figure out what sort of special signal a woman would need to use to express romantic interest in her special friend.
I emphasize the word “special” because this isn’t to say that women didn’t have ways to indicate that they wanted to shift the intensity of the friendship. We can see some methods in the diaries of Anne Lister because she talks about them explicitly. She talks about mentioning certain works of literature that discuss same-sex desire to see if the other woman is familiar with them. Or maybe she kisses the object of her interest in a more lingering way than she would kiss an ordinary friend. But the fact that she kissed her would have been considered normal.
Another thing to consider is how geographically circumscribed most lives were before the 20th century. The vast majority of people you interacted with would be people you’d known all your life. People who lived in the same town as you--or if you were part of the minority who lived in a large city, people who lived in the same neighborhood or who were part of your family’s social circle. If you wanted to delicately hint that you wanted a deeper relationship with someone, you weren’t likely to be dealing with a stranger. It would be someone you’d known for some time. Someone whose opinions and responses you were already familiar with.
When considering the lives of pre-20th century women, it’s also important to understand that the dividing lines between sex and affection were drawn in different places at different times. Activities that we consider sex acts might have been considered ordinary expressions of very close friendship. A woman might want to make sure that the object of her affection felt the same degree and intensity of attachment that she did before committing herself wholeheartedly, but it wasn’t necessarily a negotiation that either of them would have felt needed to be done covertly. And they wouldn’t have considered the degree of attachment and affection between them to be something separate and apart from what other female friends felt for each other.
But--you ask me--what about the historic records we can find in which women that we would consider lesbians are criticized or punished? This gets back to the question of how society is drawing lines between concepts and behaviors. You will find women being criticized if they claim male social prerogatives. If they cross-dress. If they marry a woman in the guise of a man. You will find women being criticized if they explicitly resist the expected forms of society. If their attachment to a female friend leads them to reject what would be considered a desirable marriage. In some eras, if they are open about genital sexual activity of any type--with a woman or a man--this will be cause for censure. And in some eras, public discourse around stereotypes of female same-sex sexuality is used to communicate expectations and limits, and to create social divisions that prevent women as a class from advancing women’s causes. In eras when outspoken, socially active women were accused of lesbianism, the point wasn’t to control women’s sexual activity, but to control women’s social and political agency. Sex itself wasn’t the point, it was the weapon.
So getting back to our third assumption--that women who desired other women would have considered marriage to a man to be a bar to those relationships or to expressing those feelings. This takes a very modern position on the optionality of marriage. For most of history, marriage was not about making an individual, voluntary choice based on erotic desire or even on romantic attraction, even in eras when romantic attraction was held up as an ideal. Marriage was primarily an economic transaction--at the very least a major influence on one’s economic and social status. As a parallel, consider how absurd we would consider it to think that one’s employment should be based primarily on personal bonds of affection with the employer. Sure, in some cases you may be offered a job because of personal connections. And sure, in some cases you may end up having a personal friendship with your boss. But those things aren’t considered expected. A woman opting out of marriage because she didn’t have a pre-existing erotic attraction to the man she was marrying would have been considered as silly as we would consider refusing a job because you didn’t think your future boss was hot.
Another aspect of pre-20th century society that we sometimes have a hard time imagining is how strongly gender-segregated people’s lives were. (Think about that awful politician who said he had a rule never to be alone in a room with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Now imagine everyone in society thinking that way.) In a society that considers a woman suspect for any sort of emotional attachment to a non-related man, it’s not only expected that your close emotional bonds will be with other women, but that is considered desirable. Friendship, as the theory went, was only possible between equals, and men and women could rarely be equal. Women were expected to rely on other women to fulfill their emotional and affectionate needs. (Just as men were expected to rely on men for those needs.) In that context, the dividing line between affection and romantic love was functionally non-existent. The dividing line between ordinary physical expressions of that love and something that went beyond the norm was exceedingly fuzzy. And that dividing line would be negotiated between two women who already had established an emotional bond and engaged in a lot of physical expression of that bond already.
So, to a large extent, the original question presumes a universality to our 21st century experiences of desire, our expressions of desire, and our social expectations. We won’t find 18th century women secretly signally their erotic desires to complete strangers by using carefully color-coded handkerchiefs, because they had no need to do so. They would be walking side by side in the park, with arms twined about each other’s waist, leaning in for a kiss the way that good friends were expected to do, and then maybe lingering over that kiss just a few moments longer than they ever had before, to see how the other woman would respond.
Call for Submissions
And now for a special announcement. I’ve been pondering what to do with the occasional fifth show when there are five Saturdays in a month. And the idea that kept coming back, as persistently as a cat at feeding time, was to include some original lesbian historic fiction audio short stories. So I’ve posted a call for submissions on my website. You can find the link in the show notes. In January 2018 I’ll be accepting submissions of original, unpublished short stories of up to 5000 words and choosing two to record for the show. The text will also be published on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. I’ll be paying professional rates because the purpose of the Project is to encourage people to write and enjoy really great lesbian historic fiction, and you only get the best by letting authors know you value it. There are some content specifications, so be sure to read the call for submissions if you’d like to submit a story for consideration. Instructions on how to submit will be posted closer to the submissions window, but this gives you two months to get writing.
(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in modern lesbian romance. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)
The Locket and the Flintlock has a solid historic romance concept: the carriage bearing Lucia Foxe, her father, and her sister is accosted on the road by a gang of highwaymen and they are robbed of their valuables, including the locket that Lucia’s dead mother left to her and which she loudly protests the loss of. (This is, by the way, lesbian highwaywoman romance standard plot point A.) Alternating points of view between Lucia and the leader of the highwaymen, Len Hawkins, leave us in no doubt of the gender of the latter and that she will be the love interest. A reference to the poetry of Byron and to Lucia’s brother being off in the Peninsular Wars appear to narrow the setting down solidly to ca. 1812-14 or so. The Foxes are members of the rural gentry and Lucia is starting to age out of expectations for an advantageous marriage. The set-up is perfect for her to be swept off her feet by a dashing highwaywoman with a heart of gold whose philanthropic interests extend to supporting the anti-industrial actions of the Luddites.
Unfortunately the core of the story is obscured by the prose style, including overly detailed descriptions of the setting, and the characters repetitiously examining their every emotion, regret, second thought, and aspiration. Beyond that, the writing is solidly workmanlike, other than a tendency for the characters to explain their actions to the reader rather than to experience them.
There are serious plausibility issues with the plot and setting. All the major characters are given to impulsive actions that should long since have proven fatal (especially to highwaymen). Two examples will suffice. Scant days after robbing the Foxes’ carriage, the highwaymen just happen to ride past Foxe Hall at a close enough distance that Lucia is able to recognize their faces (at night, in the dark) from her bedroom window. And having done so, Lucia sneaks out of the manor in the middle of the night, evidently in her nightgown (though with a cloak), and rides her horse bareback after the highwaymen to demand the return of her locket.
Plot holes and world-building holes abound, with the geography of the neighborhood being conveniently elastic depending on whether locations need to be nearby or completely unfamiliar. The author has done her research on many aspects of the historic setting (in particular the Luddite movement) but the presentation of the economics and logistics of early 19th century rural English society left me scratching my head. (There is a startling lack of servants at crucial points, and somehow the household and stable chores of maintaining a robbers’ hideaway don’t involve anyone actually doing domestic labor.)
That said, if you're forgiving regarding plausibility in your historic setting, and you’re willing to overlook the protagonists' suicidal impulsivity in exchange for lots of angsty self-examination and a few hot sex scenes, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy this book.