You might guess from the title of this episode that this one is definitely not safe for work, though you’re going to get far more technical details than racy erotica. But be aware that we’re going to talk about sex today. A lot.
At first thought, it might seem silly to ask, “how did medieval European lesbians have sex?” I mean, you just do what comes naturally, right? I’ve noticed in my interviews with authors of historic lesbian fiction that when it comes to what characters do in bed together, most people shrug and say, “I use my imagination.”
But especially when you move away from the tab A and slot B basics of heterosexual reproduction, sexual activity is a complex and culture-specific activity. Did you ever have the experience as an adolescent of taking a peak in a book like The Joy of Sex and thinking, “Wait...do people actually do that?” Imagination isn’t always an accurate guide.
The mechanics of sexual pleasure are not necessarily obvious, and although many people succeed in re-inventing favorite techniques on their own, there’s a large cultural component in the behavior, the logistics, and the associated equipment. To say nothing of how people thought about what they were doing. People learn sexual techniques in many ways: from lovers, from popular culture, from gossip, from jokes, from observation. Keep in mind that different ages have different concepts of personal privacy, and medieval people learned a great deal about sex from seeing it performed in front of them.
All these factors come into play even for marginalized sexual subcultures. In the early 18th century, when Catharina Linken was on trial for passing as a man, marrying a woman, and having sexual relations with her, she testified that she knew of other women who had done the same and thought there wasn’t anything wrong with it. A 17th century French manual for priests taking confession from their female parishioners told them to ask whether something lewd took place with other girls or women, and if so, who they learned it from or may have taught it to.
Although today’s podcast covers an earlier era, we can expect that there may have been similar networks of information--that women who desired women knew of others who felt the same, and so learned how to act on those desires.
But conversely, we can’t assume that specific sexual acts and techniques are either universal or obvious. When writing historical fiction about lesbian characters, it can be just as important to consider what types of sex your characters might have been familiar with as to consider what clothes they might have worn or what food they might have eaten.
So where can we find evidence on this question? After all nobody was writing sex manuals in the Middle Ages were they?
Well, perhaps they were. There were actually some interesting sex manuals written in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages, although that won’t be covered in this particular podcast.
One source of information for how people were having sex--or at least how people thought other people were having sex--are lists of what sexual activities were prohibited. Starting in the early Christian era, religious authorities began drawing up penitential manuals to help priests when taking confessions. These penitentials would provide lists of possible sins, including details of minor variations that might make the sin greater or lesser, along with the penances that should be assigned for them.
During much of the medieval period, the Catholic church was the primary institution concerned with sexual transgressions in Europe. Secular law codes only came into the picture later. But that doesn’t mean that people weren’t brought into court for reasons related to same-sex relationships, and even when the specific sex acts aren’t the charge, they may be discussed as part of the evidence.
While penitential manuals listed what was prohibited, trial records documented what people were accused of. Whether or not the specific accusations were true, they represent what the “common knowledge” was at the time. What people imagined that their neighbors might be doing. That common knowledge was just as available to women contemplating sex with each other as it was to busybodies who wanted to restrict what they were doing. In fact, as time went by, the penitential manuals started getting more and more vague, noting that a confessor should avoid giving people ideas by asking questions that were too specific.
Of course, laws and trial records distort the historic record in many ways. If an act isn’t considered to be sex unless it resembles heterosexual intercourse, then all manner of activities may fly under the radar and fail to be mentioned. Official records have a rather prurient interest in the use of penetrative sex toys and other activities that seem to mimic heterosexual sex. It’s likely that this focus reflected the activities that made male authorities most anxious, rather than the ones that were necessarily most common among women.
Beyond that, there are mentions of tribadism--of women lying on top of each other and rubbing vulvas together--as well as mentions of manual stimulation. Kissing and general references to fondling are common, but references to oral sex are rare. Not unheard-of, but rare. Does this mean that medieval European women weren’t practicing oral sex? It’s hard to say. We have clear evidence that women in Classical Rome were accused of doing so, but that doesn’t mean that it was practiced continuously.
Let’s take a look at the specific references that we can find. Although I want to focus on the medieval period in Europe, I’m going to extend coverage though the Renaissance and cut things off around 1600. It’ll be a chronological tour, though it would be just as interesting to compare different countries. I’m also focusing specifically on Christian Europe which, as we all know, had some very decided hang-ups around sex. During the same era, the Islamic world provides some interesting and more sex-positive information, which I may tackle in a future podcast.
Saint Augustine’s instructions to nuns in the 5th century acknowledged the potential for lesbian sex but in non-specific terms. “The love between you, however, ought not to be earthly but spiritual, for the things which shameless women do even to other women in low jokes and games are to be avoided, not only by widows and chaste handmaids of Christ, living under a holy rule of life, but also entirely by married women and maidens destined for marriage.”
A similar rule for cloistered women written by Donatus in the 7th century dances around the potential for sex acts. He addresses it via more public behaviors. He is concerned “that none take the hand of another or call each other ‘little girl’ It is forbidden lest any take the hand of another for delight or stand or walk around or sit together.” And the rules for sleeping arrangements suggest that privacy and easy access to naked bodies were considered too tempting. Nuns should each sleep in a separate bed in groups with a light burning in the chamber. They should sleep clothed, with their dresses belted.
While penitential manuals begin addressing the topic of lesbian sex as early as the 7th century, the specific acts aren’t described in detail. Theodore of Tarsus says, “If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.” In context, it’s clear that vice is referring to sex, but in what form?
The 8th century English penitential of Saint Bede offers specific imagery, specifying “If nuns [have sex] with a nun, using an instrument, seven years’ penance.” Vague references to an instrument or similar language can always be understood to mean a dildo.
In the 9th century, the Frankish writer Hincmar of Reims expands on this theme, writing of such women, "They do not put flesh to flesh as in the fleshly genital member of one into the body of the other, since nature precludes this, but they do transform the use of that part of their body into an unnatural one: it is said that they use instruments of diabolical operations to excite desire.”
So we see women being condemned for calling each other by endearments and walking hand in hand, and for employing dildos for sexual enjoyment. But what about something between those extremes?
Alongside religious and legal attitudes toward sex, there is a long tradition of medical writing that was often more open-minded. That open-mindedness may in some cases be directly related to standing apart from Christian religious traditions. The Persian physician Avicenna, writing in the 11th century, explained an accepted theory that women’s sexual pleasure was essential for their health, as well as being required for the successful conception of children. This idea is part of the humoral theory of medicine that was popular throughout Europe at the time. Although Avicenna noted that “rubbing among other women” was one way to address this need, he discouraged the practice. This sort of therapeutic stimulation fell out of favor in later medieval medical manuals, but appears again in the Renaissance.
The 12th century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen had her own rather passionate attachments to fellow nuns, but seems to have made a distinction between even very intense spiritual love and sexual activity. She wrote that “a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in my sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one.” Hildegard’s description reflects the active-passive model of sex that prevailed in the middle ages. In context, it might suggest penetrative sex, but it could simply frame one woman as the pursuer and the other as pursued.
How well does the penitential literature describe how nuns expressed erotic desire for each other? Not well at all if you go by a 12th century German poem addressed by one nun to her absent beloved, in which she recalls “the kisses you gave me, and how with tender words you caressed my little breasts”.
It’s possible that kisses and caresses were not typically perceived as sexual between women. The 12th century French theologian Allan of Lille wrote a treatise De Planctu Naturae “Nature’s Complaint” that personifies Nature in relation to God and specifically attacks homosexuality as against nature. And yet illustrated editions of this work depict pairs of female allegorical figures in passionate physical embraces and kisses with only positive implications. The images may even be described in the text literally as “nuptial embraces”, that is, a formal action representing marriage. So while it’s possible that these artistic images were given a pass on their passion for being mere symbols, it’s also possible that this sort of sensuality was not considered to be sexual in a forbidden sense.
Elsewhere, embraces, kisses, and formalized gestures such as one lover holding the other’s chin (a gesture called a chin-chuck or chucking under the chin), are used as clear symbols of an implied sexual relationship. An entire series of illustrated Bibles of the 13th and 14th centuries show female and male pairs of lovers (clearly labeled as “sodomites”) lying together (fully clothed), kissing, with their arms around each other, and touching each other’s chin in the chin-chuck gesture. These gestures, and in particular touching or holding the lover’s chin, were part of a formalized artistic vocabulary of erotic activity. We see such signs again in illustrated versions of Ovid’s tale of Callisto created in the same era. The nymph Callisto is being kissed and embraced and touched on the chin by Diana (who is actually Zeus in disguise) and then, later, Callisto turns up pregnant.
So it seems reasonable to add kissing and embracing to the set of activities that were recognized as directly related to sexual activity, whether or not they were categorized as sex acts in and of themselves.
The English monk Aelred of Rievalux tackled this question directly in the 12th century when contemplating distinctions between spiritual and carnal friendship. He concludes that kissing on the lips can either be a spiritual act or a sexual one. Aelred included same sex relations in this concern, for in a treatise aimed at anchorites, he warns that a woman can be inflamed with passion for another woman. Female religious recluses were warned against “playing games of tickle” with female companions, which suggests another activity that may have balanced on the edge of sexuality.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas expressed similar concern about the erotic potential of these non-genital actions, asking “May there be mortal sin in caresses and kisses?” He answers that kisses and embraces can be innocent, but if done for the sake of pleasure then they can be sinful, that is, sexual.
In this same era, changes to procedures for accusation and evidence in the courts created a greater scope for the prosecution of private sexual activity on the basis of rumor or suspicion alone. Now we begin to see a new category of evidence for women’s sexual activities: the accusations of their neighbors.
In the late 13th century, an Italian woman named Bertolina, was tried in Bologna for sodomy with other women. An anonymous accuser claimed that she was publicly known as a sodomite and that she had “conducted herself lustfully with women” using a sexual instrument made of silk to satisfy her lovers. The accusation seems to have been inspired by personal enmity, and Bertolina doesn’t seem to have made any secret of her activities. One witness, named Ugolino, told a story of how he’d heard some men serenading someone near his house, and he went out to ask if they’d serenade his own lady-love, Dolzebone. The singers said they’d been hired by Bertolina, but she said they could take the other job and went along with them to Dolzebone’s house, asking Ugolino, “Are you interested in her?” It turned out that Bertolina was another longtime suitor of the lady in question. When Ugolino scoffed at her, “How can you be interested in women?” Bertolina pulled out her silken dildo and said she knew how to satisfy them.
When lesbian sex came to the attention of the law, most commonly it involved some trespass on male prerogatives, and especially the use of a dildo or involving male disguise. But one early 15th century French couple that I discussed in the very first episode of this podcast, were described simply as “climbing on top of each other, as a man does on a woman,” suggesting that the activity may have been closer to tribadism. Their ongoing relationship was consensual and they thought there was nothing wrong in what they were doing, but when their breakup turned violent the law got involved.
The more common situation in which the law got involved is seen in cases like a Spanish couple where a woman was passing as a man and twice married women, but was later convicted of sodomy for using a dildo for sex with them.
The details in the German trial of Katherina Hetzeldorder in the later 15th century shows a woman imitating the worst of male sexual aggression, but also has one of the most detailed descriptions of sexual activity found in medieval records. One woman testified that Katherina had “deflowered her and had made love to her over two years.” Another asserted that Katherina had “grabbed her just like a man” … “with hugging and kissing she behaved exactly like a man with women.” The most detailed testimony in the trial concerned how Katherina used an artificial penis both in her gender disguise and as a sexual aid. “She made an instrument with a red piece of leather, at the front filled with cotton, and a wooden stick stuck into it, and made a hole through the wooden stick, put a string through, and tied it round; and therewith she had her roguery with the two women….” Katherina’s sexual repertoire also included manual stimulation. One partner described how “she did it at first with one finger, thereafter with two, and then with three, and at last with the piece of wood that she held between her legs as she confessed before.”
So we have evidence that women were using digital stimulation for everyday pleasure as well as it being recommended as a medical treatment. Avicenna’s somewhat hesitant suggestions on that topic return in medical manuals by Italian physicians such as Antonio Guaynerio and Giovanni da Gradi, who recommended a treatment for sexual frustration under the name “suffocation of the womb.” A midwife should apply an ointment to the mouth of a woman’s vulva and rub it in using her finger in a circular motion both around and inside the vulva until the woman expelled the seed that was being retained. That is, until she came to orgasm.
It’s curious that so little of the medieval material talks about the simple act of sexual rubbing, when so much of the vocabulary for lesbians focused on this activity. Whether it’s the Greek tribade, the Latin fricatrix, the English rubster, or the Arabic suĥaqiyya, meaning “grinder,” the linguistic assumption was that lesbian sex could be defined as rubbing. In the 16th century, professional literature about sex joined the image of rubbing genitals with the medical rediscovery of the clitoris and invented the idea that lesbian desire either was caused by, or would result in, an enlarged clitoris that was capable of penetrative sex all by itself. It’s pretty clear that this medical focus on the clitoris is due to its being considered an analog of the penis. And therefore people who assumed there could be no sexual pleasure without a penis, saw it as a focus for female sexual pleasure. It was true, but the logic was wrong.
There were still harsh legal penalties for sex between women involving dildos, and we still find trial records making reference to them in Spain and France. But now we start hearing stories of women who could perform sexually as if they were men using their own anatomy. Although this possibility is within the range of natural anatomical variation, the trope of it being common was largely a male fantasy.
As England had no tradition of prosecuting women for same-sex activity, medical literature is one of the few types of sources we have for what 16th century women may have been doing there. The medical fascination with the connection between tribadism and enlargement of the clitoris by writers such as Helkiah Crooke suggests that this was considered one popular sexual activity. But as I mentioned earlier, the medical theory of humoral balance included a belief that the “emission of seed”--that is to say, orgasm--could restore health to an abstinent woman. Sexual frustration even had its own name--“green sickness”--and some doctors prescribed treatment by the hand of a skilled midwife using a medicinal ointment. Though this wouldn’t have been considered a sexual act, it may have provided women a context for pleasure with official sanction.
There may have been any number of contexts in which women found excuses or reasons for why their sexual activities with each other were acceptable, or even desirable. One of the more extreme cases was that Benedetta Carlini, the abbess of a convent at Pescia, Italy in the early 17th century--which I’m including outside my date range because of the details. Benedetta may have been emotionally disturbed--possibly including hallucinations. And the relationship she had with the nun who provided testimony definitely involves some questionable consent, although it’s also true that the nun had a strong motivation for claiming to have been unwilling and admitted to having experienced sexual satisfaction.
Benedetta made a number of outrageous claims. She claimed to have received stigmata--that is, wounds in imitation of the wounds of Christ. She claimed to have had visions of divine figures and conversations with them, and to be the embodiment of an angel named Splendidiello. Benedetta was originally being investigated for the possibility that her experiences were holy and miraculous--a topic the church took seriously and was interested in either confirming or denying. Only as the testimony came out at great length did the sexual topics appear.
The nun who reported Benedetta’s activities was originally assigned to be her companion, to sleep with her and assist her during her episodes of hallucination and self-injury. (The stigmata were eventually proven to be self-inflicted.) As the holy nature of Benedetta’s experiences began to unravel, the nun who was her companion testified in detail to a sexual relationship.
Benedetta’s relationship with the nun began with kissing and putting her face between the other woman’s breasts and kissing them. Benedetta would lie on top of her and “stir herself on top of her so much that both of them corrupted themselves”. Benedetta grasped the other woman’s hand and placed it on her genitals, with a finger inside her, and then “holding it there she stirred herself so much that she corrupted herself.” I should note that “corrupted herself” in this context is an unambiguous reference to orgasm. Then Benedetta would perform a similar act to bring the nun to orgasm.
Benedetta’s explanation was that the angel Splenditello was acting through her, causing her to kiss the other woman and to fondle her breasts, and perform the other actions. On other occasions, the voice speaking through her presented itself as Jesus and told the nun that what they were doing was not a sin.
Although the context of these activities can hardly be viewed as a healthy, loving romantic relationship, the details provide us with a wealth of information about what sexual techniques 16th century nuns either learned from others or came up with on their own. And given this wealth of detail, it may be meaningful that there is no description of oral sex inciuded.
There was an understanding and expectation that women in convents--who may have been sent there with no particular religious vocation--might find solace and enjoyment in close personal relationships with each other. Even as penitential manuals grew more vague in their specifics, sets of rules for convents began to address secondary behaviors that were considered to lead to “special friendships” or to provide the opportunity for sin.
Spanish convent rules in the 16th century forbade nuns to sleep in the same bed or to be alone together behind closed doors. Special scrutiny was given to nuns who were seen hugging or “joining their faces together” (one wonders why they didn’t simply say “kissing” so perhaps something more specific was meant here).
When secular female couples came under the scrutiny of the courts, the traditional concern for the use of dildos was still present and punished harshly, sometimes with death, especially if gender disguise were involved. A woman in Valencia escaped the death penalty on a technicality despite passing as a man, marrying a woman, and enjoying sexual relations with her using an artificial penis made of lambskin. “Lambskin” was sometimes the term used for a condom made from a sheep’s intestines, so it’s possible that she was using a stuffed condom as a sex toy.
A much wider range of erotic activities are discussed that received non-lethal penalties when punished. Inés de Santa Cruz and Catalina Ledesma enjoyed a long-term, if stormy, domestic partnership “eating at the same table and sleeping in the same bed” that was public knowledge among their families and neighbors. Gossip presented at their trial included the results of eavesdropping where they were heard panting and grunting and making comments like, “Does that feel good?” as well as pillow talk. The sexual acts they admitted to included rubbing vulvas together and manual stimulation. They provided inconsistent testimony regarding the use of a dildo and there’s a sense that they may have been trying to include that item simply because the court expected them to.
The French writer Pierre de Bourdeille, better known by his title, Brantôme wrote a sensational book titled The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies that includes a number of homoerotic encounters between women, though the specifics may owe more to the male imagination than the female repertoire. Along with the usual descriptions of tribadism and the use of dildos attached using straps, he describes tongue-kissing, calling it “kissing in the manner of pigeons” that is, with the mouth open and the tongue in the mouth.
I would never treat the period from the 8th through 16th centuries as a single unified culture. The frequency with which particular techniques are mentioned varies over time, though in part this is due to changes in what the people making the records were most concerned about. There are some clear regional differences to be found in sexual behavior once you have enough data to look for them. But when you summarize the evidence for the types of sexual and erotic activities women enjoyed in Christian Europe in the middle ages and Renaissance, the same items are mentioned throughout this period and the same items are absent.
One category of activity that is notably absent is oral stimulation of the genitals, although this is a behavior that is clearly documented during Classical Roman times as well as after the Renaissance.
The activities that women did enjoy that were either considered to be sexual or that were clearly associated with erotic relationships include: kissing, in some cases including tongue-kissing, embracing, fondling of the breasts, tickling, the use of verbal endearments, hand-holding, chucking under the chin, sleeping in the same bed, lying on top of one another either clothed or naked and rubbing the genitals together, use of a dildo, manual stimulation and penetration with fingers.
Some of these activities could also be engaged in publicly without being considered sexual: including kissing, embracing, and sharing a bed.
So now you have a better idea about what your fictional medieval and Renaissance lesbians might have been up to.
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When interviewing authors of historical fiction for the podcast, one of things that come up regularly is that people have a hard time finding research on what, specifically, women in earlier ages were doing in bed together. But both sexual practices and attitudes towards them are strongly influenced by culture. Imagination alone isn't a good guide to sex any more than it is to cuisine or clothing. Today's podcast takes a look at the types of documentary evidence we have for specific sexual techniques and practices, and what they tell us about medieval European women's sexual lives.
Bella Books is holding one of its periodic surprise sales. This time the theme is relatively recent ebooks, so if you haven't gotten around to buying Mother of Souls yet (yes, I'm secretly tapping my foot impatiently) it's only $5.99 through this weekend. Plenty of other bargains as well!
Sheena (our fearless leader at The Lesbian Talk Show) was chatting with me on facebook about how I write characters, after the review of Mother of Souls came out at The Lesbian Review (her other project), and it ended up turning into an interview for her series The Write Stuff. So here you can listen to me talking about my approach to creating three-dimensional characters and how I let the characters themselves shape their stories. Plus, you get the very very short version of "stapling the octopus to the wall".
When I was putting together my main podcast essay for this month, on details of lesbian sexual techniques as given in sources like penitential manuals, I realized that I already owned this book but had never blogged it. I was somewhat disappointed to discover how heavily excerpted it was, making it rather less useful for my purposes than I thought, particularly in relation to the podcast. That means that at some point I should track down the full texts of some of the penitential manuals that I know have relevant information. Still, it was on the list and now it's been done.
Penitential manuals were designed not only as guidance for acceptable behavior in monastic institutions and for the clergy, but later as guidelines for confessors to sort out exactly what was and was not considered a sin, and to standardize penances to some extent. Although my summary here is only concerned with same-sex sexual sins, I found some of the early Irish material fascinating in how it pointed out some of the social fractures of the time (especially between different branches of the church).
Penitentials are, of course, theoretical sources. They discuss what sorts of activities people are considered at risk for doing. And they only cover activitites that the church was actively concerned about. So while they aren't exactly useless as evidence for what women were doing together, neither are they a reliable guide to the details. And in the case of this publication, there's the further filter that we see only those sections of the books that the translators/editors considered to be of historical interest.
McNeill, John T. & Helena M. Gamer. 1990. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales.Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-09629-1 (reprint of 1938 edition)
A collection of excerpts in translation from early medieval books of pennance. The significant editing means that the material is less useful for tracing the details of how penitential manuals handled same-sex sexual activity.
Penitential manuals began being produced in the early Christian era (at least by the 5th century) as a guide for confessors or those in charge of monastic institutions to, in some ways, standardize and regularize what actions were considered sins, and what the penance for different degrees of sin should be. This focus can make them valuable for the discussion of matters that might otherwise not be discussed in historic sources. Although penitential manuals covered a wide range of behaviors and aspects of life, this blog is specifically interested in what they have to say about sexual relations between women. So mostly I’ll be extracting the specific passages that speak to this topic. For a more general discussion of penitential manuals, follow the related tags.
As this book and its translations were initially published in 1938, don’t expect a nuanced and broad-minded treatment of homosexuality. The inclusion or omission of activities from these manuals often reflects the degree of concern that the church had about them at the time, rather than the presence or absence of those activities in society. Note also that general references to “fornication” may have been understood to cover same-sex situations, but have not been included in these notes unless they explicitly do. Furthermore, this edition does not reproduce the penitential texts in full, and in some cases I know from other sources that material specifically addressing female homosexuality is present but hasn’t been included.
The following early medieval Irish material is meant for the guidance of male monastics and priests, therefore it is not surprising that women’s same-sex activity isn’t addressed as it doesn’t fall within the scope of interest.
Misc. early Welsh penitentials (6th century) - A vague reference to “anyone who sins with a woman or with a man”. The assumed audience is male, but there is only an implication that the sin is sexual. Specific reference to “he who is guilty of sodomy in its various forms.”
Penitential of Theodore (7th century, Anglo Saxon) - In contrast to the previous documents which primarily addressed an audience of male monastics, this one has a broader audience. The section on fornication has an elaborate set of distinctions for sexual acts between men, and addresses women’s same-sex activity explicitly: "If a woman practices vice with a woman, she shall do penance for three years. If she practices solitary vice, she shall do penance for the same period.” That is, for women, masturbation and lesbian sex were considered equivalent in severity. The penance is less severe than for sex between men, though the proliferation of distinctions for male participants makes it hard to know which to compare to. But male masturbation appears to be treated much more lightly.
Penitential of Columban (7th century, St. Columban was Irish but this text was compiled on the continent where he founded monasteries) - A reference to monks committing sodomy, to laymen committing sodomy (in a context where the audience is clearly male). Even though women are covered by other sex-related penances, there is no reference to same-sex activity between women.
Judgment of Clement (8th century, Frankish) - The audience for these rules is general, not clerical. Nothing specifically addressing sexual activity is included.
Burgundian Penitential (8th century, Frankish) - The implied audience is male except in some very specific cases. There is reference to committing “fornication as the Sodomites did”.
Saint Hubert Penitential (9th century, Frankish) - There is a fascinating item on cross-dressing that seems to have to do more with prohibitions on pagan practices than gender transgression. “Of dancing -- Anyone who performs dances in front of the churches of saints or anyone who disguises his appearance in the guise of a woman or of beasts, or a woman [who appears] in the garb of a man--on promise of amendment he [or she] shall do penance for three years.” No references to same-sex fornication.
Penitential of Halitgar (9th century, Frankish) - The default audience, as usual, is male, in which context we have a reference to “if anyone commits fornication as the Sodomites”. There are no references to women’s same-sex relations.
The collection also covers a number of later documents but in much abridged form, generally quoting only discussions that don’t appear in earlier documents. There is no material relating to same-sex relations in these excerpts.
Genevieve Fortin returns to the podcast to talk about her favorite lesbian historical novels.
The Lesbian-Interest website posted a nice shout-out to The Lesbian Talk Show and featured my episode on Sappho's poetry to illustrate it. If you're interesting in discovering lesbian media in a wide variety of formats and from the entire international scene, you should check them out! I'm going to go add them to my Feedly feed right now.
This book isn't in-depth in context or details, given the purpose for which it was put together. And it is sometimes generously inclusive in subject matter, straining the limits of solid evidence. But what better place to look for lots of portraits of women in Boston Marriages than a book on the history of lesbians and gay men in Boston? I only wish this blog could show you some of the photographs of female couples--going back to the mid-19th century--who we know to have been in romantic relationships with each other.
In reviewing this entry just before setting it to go live, I was reminded of an unfortunate practice that I participate in: assuming a white default in the subjects of my postings. I notice it when I find myself including racial/ethnic information about subjects only when they are not white. To some extent, this is a reflection of a "default to whiteness" in the sources I'm summarizing. If my sources don't explicitly indicate a particular racial/ethnic origin, then it doesn't occur to me to track down and specify one. This is laziness, and I own it, but I also don't really have the time to re-research all the unmarked people mentioned in publications. I'd like to take this opportunity to recognize all the historic, archaeological, and anthropological research that reminds us that Europe (and hence, European-origin America) has always been home to people of color, and that very many of the historic individuals mentioned in the publications I cover could have been something other than white, if it isn't specified.
History Project, The. 1998. Improper Bostonians. Beacon Press, Boston. ISBN 0-8070-7948-0
A companion book to a museum exhibition on “Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland”.
This book is a glossy, photo-filled companion volume to a museum exhibit on lesbian and gay history in Boston, for a fairly broad definition of those terms. Due to this connection with a museum exhibit, there is a natural focus on material objects, accompanied by a relative minimum of explanatory commentary. The exhibit emphasized the importance of making a historic connection for modern visitors--a “usable history”. The scope extends to people who “lived unconventional lives” with regard to gender and sexuality, whether or not they can be confirmed as falling within the category of homosexual.
All events and individuals mentioned here had a personal connection with Boston--generally having been born there or living much of their lives there--even if the specific events discussed happened elsewhere. As usual, I have cherry-picked the material relating to women.
Boston was founded in 1630, so its history covers nearly the entire scope of the European presence in North America. In a valiant attempt to be inclusive, it begins with a discussion of non-cis/heterosexual understandings of gender and sexuality among indigenous Americans, but notes that there are no relevant records regarding sexuality for the specific cultures in the area that would become Massachusetts.
The earliest materials are legal statutes regarding sexual crimes, at a time when religious law and secular law were functionally identical. A 1656 statue addresses “men lying with men”, and acts of women that are “against nature” (though the phrase “against nature” doesn’t necessarily specify homosexuality). Very little of this early material mentions women specifically, even when homosexual behavior between men is explicitly targeted.
In 1677 a court record notes a charge of cross-dressing against Dorothie Hoyt who left town before the accusation could be lodged, leaving her father to answer for her in court. No explanation or context for her actions is given. Also in the 17th century there is a record that Elizabeth Johnson and a fellow maid where whipped and fined for “unseemly practices...attempting to do that which man and woman do” along with other unruly behavior such as insolence toward their employer. In 1649, Sarah Norman was charged with “lewd behavior on a bed” with Mary Hammon and warned against repeat offences. In 1696 Mary Cox asked the court for leniency for the “inadvertence” of wearing men’s clothing. (Since it’s hard to imagine one wouldn’t notice doing so, perhaps the inadvertence is that she didn’t realize it was forbidden?)
There are far fewer similar records in the 18th century, in large part because the legal authorities became less interested in prosecuting people’s personal lives in this fashion. Women in the 18th century had the social freedom to express emotional attachments to other women in romantic terms, though they were restricted in their ability to share their lives with a woman. In the 1750s, Sarah Prince, the daughter of a Boston preacher, exchanged romantic letters with Esther Burr, the mother of Aaron Burr. When Esther died, Sarah wrote of her heartbreak at the event.
Concern over women cross-dressing persisted, but reactions were mixed. Deborah Sampson enlisted in the Continental Army in male guise and was later granted a pension for her services by the government of Massachusetts. A contemporary biographer implied that she may have had romantic encounters with women while in the army as part of that disguise, though she later married a man. Another woman, Ann Bailey, was not treated as warmly when she tried to enlist in 1777. She was charged with “fraudulently” passing as a man and was fined.
In the 19th century, women gradually begin to achieve the ability to support themselves outside of heterosexual marriage, and thus to set up domestic partnerships together. Early in the 19th century, Margaret Fuller wrote a feminist treatise that argued for the possibility of same-sex love as equivalent to that in heterosexual marriage. She herself had a deep emotional attachment to a cousin, Anna Barker and recorded some revealing sentiments at Barker’s marriage. Fuller translated the correspondence of Karoline Günderode and Bettine von Arnim (a German same-sex couple whose literary works are full of themes of gender transgression), which in turn inspired writers such as Emily Dickinson.
In the mid 19th century, a number of women were establishing international careers in the arts. One notable Boston-born example was actress Charlotte Cushman, who gathered a circle of artistic (and woman-loving) women both in Boston and in her second home in Rome. Cushman had something of a specialty in “trouser roles” on stage and was romantically linked to several of the female artists in her circle, including sculptor Emma Stebbins who had originally been introduced to Cushman via fellow sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Hosmer was another Bostonian by birth. She was described as something of a tomboy in her youth and continued to be criticized for “unfeminine behavior” in adulthood, though in some cases this meant her lack of an appropriate modesty regarding creating sculptures of male nudes. Cushman seems to have made a specialty of collecting sculptors. Another member of her circle was Edmonia Lewis, a Bostonian of West Indian and Chippewa heritage who preferred Cushman’s residence in Rome as a place where her gender and color were not a bar to artistic success.
An anonymous Boston woman writing under the pen name Mary Casal produced an autobiography in the later 19th century (though not published until 1930, under the title The Stone Wall) that included her coming to recognize her lesbian identity.
In the late 19th century social networks of unmarried women founded clubs and held social events that promoted singlehood as a positive state, in contrast to the image of the “old maid.” In addition to the clubs of middle-class, financially stable women, the opportunities for women to come together and form romantic bonds outside of parental view included single-sex schools and colleges where the same-sex “smash” was considered an ordinary and expected experience, and boarding houses for single factory girls.
Among the educated upper classes, the phenomenon of two unmarried women living together in a devoted long-term partnership was so well established and recognized that such relationships came to be known as “Boston marriages”. Among the female faculty at Wellesley College, female couples among the faculty were common enough to be known as “Wellesley marriages”. The catalog details a great many such couples, focusing on those for whom we have photographic and other records. Among these couples are:
The remainder of the book covers the 20th century and so falls outside the scope of this project. It focuses to a large extent on the infrastructure of social institutions such as bars and clubs that catered to a (largely male) same-sex clientele.
This week I'm talking with Bella Books author Genevieve Fortin about her recent release Water's Edge, involving Canadian immigrants to New England in the late 19th century. Genevieve talks about how local and family history inspired her to write this story.
How delightful to wake up this morning to find the release announcement for "Hyddwen" in my Twitter mentions! This is the second story in a series inspired by my love for medieval Welsh literature (and the gnawing feeling that what medieval Welsh literature needed was more lesbians). I love love love what Pip Hoskins, the narrator, has done with this one! If you enjoy "Hyddwen", you might want to go back and listen to "Hoywverch", the first story in the series, though you get the essential recap within the story itself.
If you enjoy fantasy fiction and listening to audiobooks, I strongly encourage you to subscribe to the Podcastle podcast. You may have read my occasional short reviews of some of their output. In addition to doing audio reprints of stories published elsewhere, they publish a lot of great original work and recently won the Best Fictional Podcast at the Academy of Podcasters Awards. All their podcasts are free to download, but if you like what you hear, you can support them through venues like Patreon.
The Monday holiday almost made me lose track of setting this post to go live! Such is the power of habit--my brain is in weekend mode. The next few LHMP entries are chosen to tie in with the August podcast "Beguines, Boston Marriage, and Bed Death: Historic Archetypes of Asexual Lesbianism". This week we look at a study of modern (well, at least 1990s) asexual lesbian relationships with reference to the historic concept of Boston Marriage.
Rothblum, Esther D. & Kathleen A. Brehony (eds). 1993. Boston Marriages: Romantic but Asexual Relationships Among Contemporary Lesbians. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst. ISBN 0-8723-876-0
This book is primarily concerned with the dynamics of modern relationships, but it uses the historical concept of the Boston Marriage as a conceptual framework.
Introduction – Esther D. Rothblum and Kathleen A. Brehony
This summary will cover only the Introduction and the chapter by Lillian Faderman on the history of Romantic Friendship. The remainder of the book is primarily personal memoirs of psychologists and some of their patients around the topic of non-sexual lesbian relationships.
The term “Boston Marriage” is useful in this context because it discusses asexual relationships in a positive way, in reference to publicly accepted (and even celebrated) female partnerships that were framed as being non-sexual (whatever the individual practices of the partners may have been). This book was written in 1993, well before any inkling that same-sex marriage would be legalized in our lifetimes. So it notes the problem in discussing relationships that—in the absence of a marriage certificate—the existence of a marriage-like partnership (as contrasted with a friendship) tends to be defined by the presence of sex. The authors acknowledge the problem of using sex as a defining characteristic when considering historic relationships, as access to knowledge about it is lacking. In considering the characteristics of “Boston Marriages” today, they note a tendency of the lesbian community to delegitimize partnerships that are known to be asexual.
Nineteenth-century Boston marriage as a possible lesson for today – Lillian Faderman
This chapter is largely a summary and recapitulation of Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Man. The term Boston Marriage reflects an era when pairs of women, typically feminists and career women, frequently chose to live in long-term devoted relationships. There was an often-unstated assumption that because they were “respectable” women, they did not have sexual relations. Nevertheless, they were perceived by friends and society as the equivalent of a married couple. In Henry James’ The Bostonians (which may have given its name to the phenomenon), he describes a couple of this type as “one of those friendships that are so common in New England.”
A professional woman of that era who wanted to avoid the distraction of repeated pregnancy and running the resulting household did not have the option of having a non-marital romantic relationship with a man, but there was no stigma associated with enjoying a romantic relationship with another woman. Faderman notes similar types of supportive same-sex relationships among women in China, India, and Africa. But when sexologists began conflating same-sex romantic relationships with a pathologized model of lesbianism, the institution of the Boston Marriage was no longer viable.
Faderman repeats her thesis from Surpassing the Love of Men that social expectations regarding female desire most probably were internalized such that women in Romantic Friendships did not participate in genital sexual activity. There is a quotation from the 18th century correspondence of Madame de Staël to Juliette Récamier expressing strongly passionate feelings for her. Such feelings were condoned in women, in part because they were not taken as a serious challenge to heterosexual marriage. Rather, intense passionate relationships between women were seen as an acceptable outlet for emotional needs that might not be satisfied through marriage. Faderman suggests that the stigmatization of female romantic bonds in the 20th century may in part have been driven by social shifts that allowed such relationships to challenge the need for marriage.
Suspicion of female same-sex affection grew in the 1920s, during the era of The Well of Loneliness and the increasing medicalization of homosexuality. The change in attitude can be seen, for example, in how romantic friendships at girls’ schools were treated. Simultaneously, the label “lesbian” provided a framework for women to identify their same-sex relationships as being meaningful and significant, if they were willing to claim that name. But lesbian relationships were expected to be sexual. Lack of interest in a sexual component implied repression and inhibition.
Faderman doesn’t challenge the validity of the theory of “bed death”, but explains it in terms of the historic socialization of women regarding sex drive (i.e., that men are expected to have one, and women are not), the lack of an obvious “on/off” signal of sexual arousal like that present for men, and a willingness to find satisfaction in “non-sexual” expressions of affection. She makes reference to a theory that difference/unfamiliarity are drivers of sexual desire which she sees as a motivation for a pattern of serial monogamy. [Note: the argument that desire between women is “vain” due to excessive similarity is heard in critiques of the possibility of female homoeroticism as early as the Renaissance.] Faderman interprets surveys of long-term lesbian couples with respect to sexual frequency as suggesting that a strong sex drive is incompatible with relationship stability.
[Note: I will reiterate that I often feel that Faderman is carefully defining her terms to make the facts fit her theories. But this is a summary of what the book says.]