I really loved the concept of the Sword and Sonnet anthology (edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler--all of whose work I admire). Battle poets! An intriguing premise. I backed the kickstarter and regretted that I didn't have space in my schedule to try writing something to submit. So I'm honestly bewildered that the collection is falling flat for me. Maybe this just isn't the right time. I'm not in the right mood. I dunno. I read the first few stories and the skimmed through several more and they all felt...gray and flat and of a sameness. And dreary. I get that the collection is inevitably shaped by the political times in which we live. But I guess I was expecting battle poets to feel more like a trumpet call to arms, not like a dirge. Maybe there are stories later in the collection that would make me feel that way, but I'm not up for it at the moment.
(For a complete change of mood, I switched over to Stephanie Burgis's magical Regency YA, Kat, Incorrigible.)
I was feeling smug this morning about getting on the road by my target time (before 6am). I'd have lots of time in the coffee shop in Berkeley to compose this blog and maybe get some other things done as well before going to the office. And then I saw the big flashing freeway sign "West Hwy 24 accident all lanes blocked." They don't go to that extreme for a minor fender bender, so I quickly reviewed potential alternate routes and took off into the hills, detouring through Moraga, up Canyon Road, and winding through the east bay redwoods.
It was a glorious drive. There was a double rainbow hanging over the hills and a slight drizzle--a "misty moisty morning," as the song says. Everything was green, the little streams were running, the winding road was overhung with ferns as it dodged among the redwoods. You forget that these experiences are there, just a few minutes off the track. I don't know whether I saved any time over sitting in the freeway parking lot while they cleared the wrecks (by the time I came out onto Hwy 24 again the other side of the tunnel, the traffic seemed to be unblocked) but I definitely saved some sanity.
You never know when an unexpected opportunity will present itself--sometimes in the form of a disaster. But you can set yourself in the way of it. In my case, by being familiar with the back roads through the east bay hills, in Roz's case, by deciding she needed to make a positive effort to interact with the other household staff at Tiporsel House and engage more in the economy of traded favors that made your place more secure.
* * *
The common room was one of the few rooms downstairs with lots of windows. It looked out over the upper edge of the garden and sunlight even made it into the kitchen where it opened off to one side. The year was turning toward spring and we were allowed to go into the garden as long as the family wasn’t using it. It was damp and gray now, but in summer I imagined taking my work out to the benches there. Not the bench by the dock right down at the edge of the river—everyone warned me that was the baroness’s and we weren’t to use it.
The garden sloped down from the back of the house to the river. You could enjoy watching the birds skim over the water and listening to the whistles and shouts of the rivermen. Sometimes one of the family would send word down to hail a riverman and then I could see them pass by in all their fine clothes to be handed into the boat and rowed off somewhere. Once Charsintek wanted me to bring a delivery back from the Nikuleplaiz and gave me a coin for a ride. But most times when a boat came to the dock, it was the kitchen delivery from the market out past the east gate. Every morning Cook or her assistant took a hired fiacre off to the market and sent the baskets back by the river. It was like a second set of roads. There’d be a sharp whistle up from the dock and Cook would send whoever was idling about down to fetch things up. Sometimes the riverman would help carry baskets too, just for the extra teneir, or to get the boat unloaded more quickly. That was how I met Liv.
It was a fine day and the door had been left open to the gardens, the easier to hear a halloo from the dock. I was keeping quiet because Cook was out of sorts and one of the kitchen maids was being scolded. Nothing to do with me, but best to lay low. We heard a sharp whistle from down by the water and then the yipping of a dog. Some of the rivermen kept a little dog trained to bark at doors if you didn’t hear the whistle. Lufise came out of the kitchen with a quick smile and wink to me as if to say, “There’s an excuse to get out of the kitchen for a few minutes.”
Just as she was coming back with the first basket—a wide awkward one that took both hands to carry—there was a crash and a shriek from the kitchen. It was easy enough to guess what had happened. The new girl that Cook had been scolding had dropped a bowl and spilled something all over the floor.. Lufise dropped the baskets in the doorway to go help clean up and threw me a pleading look. “Roz, could you go get the rest? I’ll make it up to you.”
It wasn’t my job, but it never hurt to be owed a favor so I folded my work away and walked down the path beside the garden wall, with the riverman’s little dog skipping around my feet. I must have stared a bit when I got to the water-steps. I’d never seen a girl in the boats before. She didn’t look much older than me. Her arms were all brown and thick with muscles—even more than I’d gotten wringing out laundry. I knew I’d been staring because she said, “Are you going to gape like a carp all day? I have other houses to do and I’m late already.”
* * *
Not the most auspicious meeting! And it's about to get worse. But when Roz determines to make friends with someone, she's quite clever in finding a way, even past her own mis-steps. All it takes is watching for the right opportunity and seizing it when it comes. Like I seized the opportunity to turn a traffic jam into a scenic drive. If you let go of your plans and preconceptions, you just might find adventure!
I was excited to hear about this book because material on Jewish topics has been sadly lacking in my research materials. Alas, it's still sadly lacking. This collection is quite extensive in scope and nature but there is very little material of lesbian relevance, and what there is adds little new information. If you know someone who's interested in researching male homoerotic experiences in western Jewish history, I think it would be a valuable resource. I suspect that if a work of this type had focused specifically on queer female experiences, there might be more to dig up. I sometimes get the impression that imbalances of this sort in general works derives as much from the researchers taking an "equal effort" approach as opposed to an "equal coverage" approach. Finding historic information on women can take more work--especially for a researcher whose primary interests are male topics and doesn't have leads on female topics already at hand. The result can often reinforce the impression that the data isn't there to be found. I suspect that there is more material on queer Jewish women out there in the world, but it will probably only be found by those who are working on that specific topic.
SIenna, Noam (ed). 2019. A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969. Print-O-Craft, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-9905155-6-2
As might be predicted from past experience with general survey works, the amount of material relating to female same-sex relations in this book is low. And like most surveys that cover all of history up to the present day (1969 counts as “the present day” for practical purposes), more than half the page count covers the 20th century. Out of 120 entries, I counted 14 that were in any way relevant to the LHMP (and that includes anything ambiguous between lesbians and trans men). Furthermore, except for the works of a couple of 19th century poets, those entries are written by men and view the topic with an unmistakably male gaze--including legal, religious, and medical texts that view female same-sex love as pathology.
Given that, even though this collection is obviously sympathetic to the queer experience, it’s hard for me to recommend it as a useful reference for someone working to write queer female characters into history. Here is a brief summary of what I consider to be the relevant contents.
1st to 15th century
Entry 1 - Sappho’s fragment 31 (“he is like a god to me”) was preserved in a Greco-Jewish treatise on literary esthetics. The author discuses the literary techniques that express the sublime.
Entries 2, 3, 5 - Various 1st-3rd century religious texts discussing general topics of transgression of gender and sexual roles.
Entry 9 - Midrash of the 3-5th centuries that expands on Leviticus 18:3 (“don’t do like the Egyptians and Canaanites do”) by discussing the specific cultural practices being forbidden, including same-sex marriage (by both men and women) and poly marriages of various types. [This has been interpreted by scholars such as Brooten as evidence that same-sex marriages existed in Egypt during that era. Otherwise why would Jews need to be warned away from them?]
Entry 11 - The only explicit mention of sex between women in the Talmud (Babylonia, 6-8th c) which occurs in the context of a scholarly dispute over whether women who have had sex with women are allowed to marry into the priestly caste. [The evident conclusion, as echoed in the next item, is that sex between women wasn't important enough to have consequences.]
Entry 27 - Law codes of Maimonides (Egypt, 12th c) call sex between women “a detestable act” but note that there is no legal or social penalty for it. Associates the practice with Egypt and refers to women “known for this” implying it may have been considered an something approximating orientation or preference.
Entry 33 - A male Jewish poet (Spain, 14th c) expresses desire for an Arab girl that he sees “in the company of other young women, all kissing one another.” He wishes he were a girl so she’d kiss him. [Although there are many entries about poetry expressing homoerotic desires between men, the lack of inclusion of female poets in this section--no doubt due to their works not being recorded and preserved--means there are no similar works expressing female desire]
16th to 19th century
Entry 40 - A 16th c Kabbalistic discussion of reincarnation of male souls into female bodies. The only consequences discussed are to fertility. Sexual desire and gender presentation are not mentioned in the excerpt.
Entry 43 - A Portuguese converso (convert to Christianity) doctor writes in 1603 of the “enlarged clitoris” theory of lesbian desire. [This is part of an extensive and pretty much interchangeable literature making this association. There doesn’t appear to be anything uniquely Jewish about his version.] He reports on women tried for lesbianism in Turkey and Portugal.
Entry 51 - A young Jewish woman in France, separated from her family, begins living as a man and as a Christian and eventually ends up emigrating to Quebec in 1738. A detailed account of their life history is given. In regards to concealing their Jewish origins they testify it was “to enjoy the same liberty as the Christians” but no reason is given for the decision to cross genders.
Entry 59 - A sexological “case study” (Germany 1875) of a Jewish maidservant who experienced depression and suicidal desires which were attributed to her unrequited desire for a woman.
Entry 61 - Two poems by Emma Lazarus (New York, 1876, 1880) with homoerotic themes.
Entry 63 - Several poems by Amy Levy (London 1889) that express same-sex desire, though in heavily coded terms. Levy had an unrequited passion for author Vernon Lee and dedicated several poems to her.
The second half of the book covers the 20th century. The rate of lesbian-relevant material is about the same, but a little more of it is from female authors.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 34c - Historic Lesbians on the Screen: What We Love - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/05/18 - listen here)
Between last year’s movie The Favourite, the current HBO mini-series Gentleman Jack, and the recent sapphic take on Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily, we seem to be living in a golden age of historical lesbians on the screen. I plan to add more coverage of these movies and tv shows in this podcast--though I confess I won’t go so far as to subscribe to HBO solely for the sake of seeing Gentleman Jack at release.
To kick off this plan, I asked some of the folks on the Lesbian Talk Show facebook group to share their favorite shows. The responses covered quite a swathe of release dates and settings.
It’s not at all surprising that Sarah Waters came in for a lot of love. Brenda Murphy says, “Tipping the Velvet. And of course Fingersmith. Also, there is an adaptation of Fingersmith set in Korea during the Japanese occupation called The Handmaiden that I love.”
Tipping the Velvet is, of course, the picaresque tale of an oyster-seller’s daughter who falls for a cross-dressing stage performer in Victorian England. The 2002 British miniseries was followed three years later by another, darker Sarah Waters miniseries, Fingersmith. Also set in Victorian England, it follows two young women through layers of deception and fraud that turn your understanding of the plot inside out. The Japanese version, The Handmaiden, keeps the central plot but translates it to a different setting.
Our fearless leader Sheena comments, “The mini series adaptation of Fingersmith was simply gorgeous.” And goes on to say, “I loved the film version of The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister.”
This would be the 2010 movie about early 19th century lesbian Anne Lister which mostly focuses on an earlier part of her life than the new miniseries.
Alexis Jackson reccomends If These Walls Could Talk 2. Calling it, “My favorite lesbian movie ever!”
If These Walls Could Talk was something of a high-concept series, telling multiple independent short stories set in the same house. The second movie in the series focused on three lesbian stories, representing three generations of women, from the 1960s though 2000.
Elizabeth Andersen is overflowing with recommendations. “One our LGBT film festival will be showing next month is Vita and Virginia about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. I'm excited to see it. Orlando because Tilda Swinton was marvelous.”
These two go together well, of course, because the movie Orlando is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, about an immortal, gender-shifting character born in the 16th century and watching the world go by for three centuries. Woolf’s brilliant and experimental writing was ahead of its time in the early 20th century. Her complex personal life included romantic relationships with several women, but the relationship with fellow author Vita Sackville-West was particularly inspiring for both women.
Sarah Hunczak recommends The Hours, which has another Virginia Woolf connection, being a study of how Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway affects three generations of women who connect with its themes. (And, I mean, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Julianne Moore -- what other reason do you need to watch it?)
Margaret Snow recommends Miss Marks and Miss Woolley, but I can’t find a movie by that name and I think she must mean the book of that title. She notes it’s “A biography of former Smith College President and her partner. One wrote travelogues. They had a beautiful home on Lake Champlain that I got to tour once. Owned by a cousin's Aunt. Inspirational to see women living and succeeding on their own in the 1940's.”
The two met at Wellesley College in the 1890s when Woolley was a professor there. You’ve probably heard the term “Boston marriage” for women in life-long romantic partnerships in the later 19th and early 20th century, but the label “Wellesley marriage” was also popular, in reference to the number of female couples among the faculty of that woman’s college. Marks became a professor at Mount Holyoke College and Woolley became president of Mount Holyoke the same year. They were a couple for 55 years. Their story would definitely make a great movie, but I can’t find any mention of it having been done yet.
Massachusetts around the turn of the 20th century is also the setting of another movie recommended by Elizabeth Andersen. She notes, “Packed in a Trunk is a documentary, but so good. Edith Lake Wilkinson, born in 1868, was an artist who lived and painted in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the early decades of the 20th century until she was committed to an asylum for the mentally ill in 1924. Wilkinson's great-niece wrote and directed.”
Elizabeth finishes out her recommendations with, “Carol, Reaching for the Moon, and Albert Nobbs.”
Carol is the 2015 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, perhaps the first lesbian novel of the pulp era to dare to claim a happy ending. Reaching for the Moon appears to be more in the tragic vein, a Brazilian bio-pic about American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Albert Nobbs was also limited to the art-house circuit back in 2012. Starring Glenn Close, it’s the story of a woman in late 19th century Ireland passing as a man to work as a butler in a hotel. Her imagination is opened to new possibilities when she encounters another passing woman and her wife.
Meredith Santiago recommends Aimee & Jaguar and notes, “I haven’t seen it yet, but Wild Nights With Emily looks interesting. I’d be curious to hear your take on that movie and on Emily Dickinson.”
That definitely sounds like a request to do another pair of shows like I did for Queen Anne and The Favourite! I can’t find clear information on how to find Wild Nights with Emily. Wikipedia claims it premiered in March 2018 but then says it was released just last month in April 2019. Movies.com knows nothing...but wait. The website for the movie says it’s playing right now at several art-house theaters in my area. Anyone in the San Francisco Bay Area want to get together for a movie? I mean, I’ll probably have gone ahead and seen it by the time this podcast airs, but I could see it again. Seriously -- find me on social media and let’s set something up.
Elizabeth Anderson comments, “Yes! I don't know why I spaced on that one. I've seen it twice, and it's one I recommend without reservation.” And she provides a link for an interview she did with the director last June for her show The Tenth Voice. I’ll put the link in the show notes. And speaking of show notes, I’ll include links to the IMDB entries for all these movies in the notes. So look forward to more movie content in the podcast -- probably coordinated with essays about the historic context. And if you’d like to be a guest and talk in depth about lesbian historic movies, drop me a note and let me know.
I hadn't quite expected the to-be-shipped books to start arriving this quickly! There was a Fed Ex note on my door when I got home from the airport Monday evening and--having authorized doorstep delivery--the book was there after work Tuesday.
Mechain, Gwerful (edited and translated by Katie Gramich). 2018. The Works of Gwerful Mechain. Broadview Press, Peterborough. ISBN 978-1-55481-414-5
Gwerful Mechain is one of the few female Welsh poets of the medieval period to have left a substantial body of attributed work. The survival of her work is even more interesting as many of her poems voice earthy, erotic, unsentimentally feminist opinions that counter the prevalent misogyny in her contemporaries' poems. At the same time, she was clearly participating as an equal in a lively literary community, where poets addressed works to each other and teased each other in verse. This collection includes all the poems solidly attributed to her, several of uncertain authorship that are believed to be her work, and a selection of poems that provide context, being works that she was responding to or commenting on (or that were responding to her).
No teaser last week because it was a topsy turvy day: no morning coffee shop session because I took the train in to work so I could go straight to the airport (motel) from work to catch an early morning flight to Kalamazoo. Also because all my spare writing time was being spent polishing a 40-minute first draft of my paper down to a 20-minute presentation. As my regular readers may be aware, writing short is not one of my strong points! But now we're back to the weekly teasers!
In the Alpennia series so far, most of the focus has been on "high magic" -- on the formal mysteries, or on learned magics such as alchemy. I've made passing references to "market charms" and other everyday practices that have an ambiguous status: Not "approved" religious mysteries, but mostly sufficiently embedded in orthodox religious practice to be considered innocuous. (I rather liked how two of the papers in this Kalamazoo session addressed this aspect of how to "domesticate" suspect folk-magic practices.) In Daughter of Mystery, when Margerit is dealing with Barbara's head wound, she laments, “for the first time wished she knew all the little charms and rhymes that every dairymaid and scullery girl seemed to learn. Against burns, against the scab, against bleeding, against the wet cough, against the cramp. She’d always considered them little better than fortunetelling, but what good were grand cathedral mysteries when what you needed was to close the cut of a knife?”
Floodtide is all about those "little charms and rhymes," but that doesn't mean that the characters have a unified understanding of them. Roz has learned little bits of ritual that accompany her everyday work. Something along the line of "trade secrets" imparted by her Aunt Gaita along with the more practical skills of a laundress. Celeste aspires to be a charm-wife, someone with enough store of those little charms and rhymes to be considered a "go to" expert when you needed magical help. Even so, they have very different approaches to what magic means and how it works, as shown in this interaction early in Roz's apprenticeship. (It's also the interaction that sparks the beginning of their friendship, because nothing thaw's Celeste's standoffishness faster than a puzzle to poke at.)
* * *
When I started rubbing up the linen with salt and vinegar before setting it to soak, like I’d learned from Aunt Gaita, [Celeste] watched me close like she did sometimes when we were sewing together.
“What’s that for?” Celeste asked later when I’d soaped it up and hung it by the fire.
“You have to set the soap in with heat so it’ll rinse clean,” I said.
“No. What you’re singing.”
I stared at her for a moment. “Just washing charms.” It wasn’t singing really, but Aunt Gaita always put a bit of lilt in them that felt like music and made them easier to remember.
“No.” Celeste spoke carefully like I’d said something foolish. When she did that, it always felt like she was measuring you with the tape and didn’t like the result. “I mean, what’s it for. What does it do?”
Now she was the one being foolish. “It makes the washing take. You think my aunt would send me out to work without knowing all her secrets?” Everyone had little bits like that. Not real charms like the charmwives sell, but tricks of the trade. All the girls in service were greedy to learn each other’s house-charms. No one at Tiporsel House was friendly enough to share with me yet, so I’d kept Aunt Gaita’s to myself so far.
Celeste came closer and poked at the cloth. “Do they work?”
I shrugged. “It’s not a proper job unless you say charms.” I tried to think if I’d ever heard Mefro Dominique use house-charms. Maybe Celeste never had anyone to share them with her.
“Have you tried washing one thing using the charm and another without it?”
I laughed. “Why would I do that? That would be as silly as washing without soap!”
“So you don’t know.” She sounded disappointed.
It was like she didn’t believe in charms, but I knew that wasn’t so because she’d charmed my hurt leg that first day. “How did you know how to make my bruise go away?” I rubbed my hand over where it had been. I’d almost forgotten it.
Celeste bit her lip and stared at me measuring-like again.
Horváth seems to have written extensively on this topic, with special attention to the ways in which early descriptions of the people and phenomenon were distorted by their own prejudices and social context. Horváth is careful to try to engage with questions of gender identity in a sensitive fashion without projecting modern categories into the past or onto other cultures, although readers who identify strongly with her subjects as trans men may find her pronoun usage disconcerting.
One of the things I find fascinating about the Balkan "man-woman" social category (this label is a literal translation of what appears to be the most typical of the in-culture names) is that it takes place within the context of an extremely patriarchal and--dare I say--misogyistic culture. For fiction writers, this is an interesting world-building point. One might think that in such a social context the gender barriers would be most impermeable. And yet, the options provided by the man-woman role (considering also its restrictions) enabled some individuals to cross that barrier. Perhaps not fully, but in a socially accepted way.
Horváth, Aleksandra Djajić. 2011. ‘Of Female Chastity and Male Arms: The Balkan ‘Man-Woman’ in the Age of the World Picture” in Journal of the History of Sexuality vol. 20 no. 2 358-381.
[Note: I have followed Horváth’s treatment of pronouns within the article’s content, which is somewhat inconsistent and leans toward using female pronouns for individuals in the “man-woman” role described in this article. Although the cross-gender social role discussed here does not correspond fully or precisely to modern definitions of transgender, and not all such individuals occupied fully male-presenting roles, it is clear that most or all of the specific individuals discussed in the article identified as male and were unremarkably treated as such by their community.]
Horváth reviews several accounts of a formal gender-crossing role in the Balkans within the social and political context of the turn of the 20th century. This was an era when western culture defined itself in terms of a scientific understanding of the world, but simultaneously interpreted and categorized non-western cultures and phenomena in terms of a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of experience, particularly with respect to issues of gender and sexuality. But during this era, western view of gender and sexuality were far from value-neutral, imposing a strict “virgin-whore” dichotomy on female sexuality and expressing deep anxiety about sexual “deviancy”, as analyzed in works such as Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.
Horváth’s specific topic is how this late 19th century western gaze interpreted and “translated” the figure of the Balkan “man-woman” (her term, intended as a neutral translation), an accepted and ritualized cross-gender role in which a female-bodied person renounced a female social role and became an honorary man, especially including social responsibilities relating to warfare and feuding. This role was present in a number of variations and using a variety of terms among tribal, pastoral communities of Montenegro and northern Albania.
This role was first recorded by outside observers in 1855 by a Serbian ethnographer who described meeting a woman named Milica who had vowed to remain unmarried and fulfill a surrogate male role in her family, due to having no brothers. She wore male clothing, carried arms, and was treated socially as a man within her community. A similar account was recorded in 1860 by an Austro-Hungarian consul who described meeting four Albanian women who had renounced marriage and changed their gender. Other scattered accounts can be found in following decades. Part of Horváth’s focus in this article is to compare the interpretations and purposes of these accounts, and the differing ways in which they engaged with their subjects.
The Balkan region was undergoing a significant transition as the receding borders of the Ottoman Empire opened up greater contact with western travelers and governmental officials. In reading the various descriptions of this practice of gender change, Horváth notes distinct differences between relative cultural insiders, and more external observers who interpreted the phenomenon through the lens of highly sexualized western perceptions of gender roles. She notes that, in common with other travel literature, such reports are often about defining the traveler’s own culture in contrast to the Other.
As a general characterization, western views of cultural and racial progress at the time focused not only on the development of reason, but on the repression and control of sexual impulses. Western men viewed themselves as the pinnacle of rationality, including the ability to repress the impulses, especially including sexual impulses. Women were lesser, not only for lacking the same capacity for reasoning, but for being subject to impulsive behavior of all types. The control of women’s sexuality was a prerequisite for civilization and one of the main purposes of Christian marriage. Women held a constant potential for disruption in parallel with the disruptive power of “uncivilized” cultures and races. Women were part of nature; men part of science and culture.
Ethnographic descriptions and even living exhibitions were popular during this era. The display--especially of women--in what amounted to human zoos particularly focused on the inversion of western roles and values. “Wild women” or “Amazons” were a particularly favorite topic, providing both fascination and anxiety that helped to reinforce ideas of civilization versus the Other.
This context supported the interpretation of western observers that the Balkan man-woman should be categorized as “war-like women” rather than being understood as men, despite the unremarked acceptance of them as such within their own cultures.
The Balkans had a liminal status at the edge of the Orient and Occident, or as the nearest lands that were part of the Orient (and geographically part of Europe). Early western travel literature describing the region in the 19th century focused on the image of penetrating and revealing a mysterious, closed society. Descriptions often projected static antiquity onto the Albanian culture and emphasized practices such as honor feuds that were considered backwards and primative.
These aspects were emphasized in descriptions of men-women, as in an 1885 account in a German newspaper of Maruk e Col-Doz, which emphasized military attributes and accomplishments, while describing her as a “virgin” who “acts as the lord of the household” when no other male relative is available.
Such accounts often focused on the subject’s “virgin” status, although renouncing marriage and (heterosexual) sexuality was only one part of the model. Taking on the role was one of the few socially acceptable ways for a woman to evade a family-arranged marriage (sometimes arranged in infancy for reasons of inter-familial bonding). It could be done with the father’s permission and involved a formal declaration before the (male) trival assembly, after which she would be according certain male-only privileges and would typically take on some behaviorally male attributes including name, hair style, and clothing. If she were found to have broken the vows relating to sexuality (e.g., by becoming pregnant), she would be executed along with her partner, if known.
Some women may have taken on the role to avoid an unwanted marriage, but in other cases the choice seems to have begun with parental choice when no sons were available, due to the strongly patriarchal structures of inheritance. Some observers speculated that women may have taken on the role in reaction to the restricted and repressed status of women in the culture, though this argument was tainted by language equating civilized status with the elevated treatment of women.
This German account reported a possibly exaggerated count of 200 men-women among 10 parishes in northern Albania, but with only 10-15 of them going armed and wearing full male dress, while others wore symbolic male headgear with otherwise female garments. But the focus (and all the photographic evidence) was on those who had taken on the full military role and male presentation. That is, the individuals who best fulfilled the fantasy of the “wild warrior woman.”
The German writer universally describes his subjects with female pronouns with a single exception, using the male pronoun in scare-quotes when contrasting a “pretty” appearance with the attribution of violent deeds. Bringing in the western fascination with an anatomical explanation for cross-gender behavior, he carefully notes that all the women in question had “normal” female genitalia. This was part of a systematic strategy of confining the men-women into a female classification and solidly part of a binary gender system.
Despite a wealth of vernacular terms to describe this role-change, the German writer consistently refers to them as “virgins”, focusing on the renunciation of sexuality to the exclusion of other factors. This allowed them to be viewed as virtuous (while still deviant) in contrast to gender-transgressing western women who were assumed to be sexually voracious. The word choice inherently sexualized the phenomenon while appearing to desexualize it. (A footnote provides 22 different local terms, representing perhaps 10 different linguistic roots in both Albanian and Serbian. The author’s gloss “man-woman” is a literal translation of several of these.) Labeling the men-women as “virgins” was a means of controlling the sexual danger of the “monstrous female.”
The second documentary source that Horváth examines comes from a relative cultural insider--a Serbian physician making a public health survey in Montenegro in 1885. He introduces the topic with a dramatized conversation with his hosts who hint at something unusual about one of the soldiers he is to examine the next day. The doctor had an advantage over other reporters in that he was somewhat familiar with the local culture and needed no translator to speak with the local residents. But at the same time, he was emotionally invested in the culture of glorification of military prowess and nationalist pride in the liberation from Ottoman rule.
As the doctor performs his examination (which is largely visual and by interrogation, not as intrusive as the phrase “medical examination” might imply), his hosts keep teasing him with hints about one particular soldier. Finally they say outright that “Miraš is a woman.” The village hosts expand on Miraš’s story: born Milica, the only child of a famous warrior who was killed shortly after the birth, her mother re-named her Miraš and raised her in male dress in order to provide her dead husband with a son. When later offered the opportunity to return to living as a woman, Miraš declined. [Note: this suggests a different tradition than the one in which reversing the role-change was punished with death.]
The doctor was able to have a private interview with Miraš to satisfy various technical interests (such as the topic of menstruation-- Miraš attested to having had only a couple of periods at puberty which then ceased) but declined to be too intrusive. Throughout, the doctor addresses Miraš as a man, in contrast with other reporters who frame similar individuals as women. Local people, he reports, shrug and explain, “He is, and he is not,” indicating some ambiguity to the classification.
Horvath concludes with a contrast of the two reports: one emphasizing the cross-gender role as aberrantly female and a symptom of the otherness and primitiveness of the local culture, the other focusing on personal experience and individual identity and allowing the subject of his study self-representation.
Blogging Kalamazoo Session 540: Experiencing Textiles in Medieval Culture and German Literature
Sponsor: Society for Medieval Germanic Studies (SMGS)
Mit kunkeln und mit schaeren: Tools for Reading Textiles in Medieval German Texts
Hannah Hunter-Parker, Princeton Univ.
Medieval German romances include many details of textile objects, but the usual interpretation is of the objects as metaphors, rather than focusing on them as actual objects. The central content will be a German version of the Trojan chronicle. Although descriptions of textile objects may be extensive and detailed, the focus, both in the text and in literary scholarship rarely considers their materiality and construction. Textiles are treated as unimportant except for their symbolic meaning in the text. This overlap between “text” as textile in literary analysis is of long standing, but elides the textile as object. We now move on to a consideration of the Trojan Chronicle (early 14th c.). A verse translation of a French original, but expanded from the original. This paper looks at two specific additions in the German version. We get the episode of Achilles being hidden among the women, wearing women’s clothing, and performing women’s textile crafts. The man sent to find him lays out two sets of merchant wares: textile supplies (thread, scissors, etc.) and arms and armor. The second added passage is earlier, in the prologue, when the author compares the art of the poet to other crafts (including several textile crafts) as better because the poet uses only the tools of his mind. There is an implication that the physical crafts poetry is compared to are feminized in some way. We get a context of disputes in the German textile trades at the same era where specific elements of the craft were gendered and women were being elbowed out of some aspects of cloth production. Examples of legal conflicts between male merchants and the female piece-workers supplying them with specialized labor, but also of special privileges given to the textile industry, such as exception from military service. This feeds back to the tension between the tools of textile work and the tools of war, in the prologue, where the poet is jealous of the high monetary value assigned to textile work and objects. This tension may not be descriptive, but rather aspirational on the part of the poet. He wishes for his work to be seen as more valuable. And yet, the poetic descriptions of cloth and clothing, even in a symbolic context, had a life beyond the chronicle itself, being adapted into other mediums such as minnelieder, while the more polemical prologue was, in some versions, cut.
Weaving Words, Spinning Yarns, and Embroidering the Truth in Medieval German Literature
Kathryn Starkey, Stanford Univ.
German literature full of descriptions of fine textiles, both as setting and as objects of exchange between the characters. The physical and economic attributes of these textiles are elaborate and prominent. While often treated as symbolic background objects, understanding their place within the story requires an understanding of the historic material context. Cloth is uniquely able to create a setting of luxury and exclusivity. But they are also invoked for literary purposes. Various approaches to studying textiles in literature: in relation to clothing and the visual arts, as information for understanding surviving material objects, and as symbolism within the story itself. This paper looks specifically at the meaning of lengths of uncut cloth. Luxury fabrics may be kept as part of a royal treasury, a story of supplies for the production of clothing, but a means of story and exchanging wealth on its own. These opulent descriptions of the silks and furs in royal treasuries do not reflect the reality of German courts at the time of composition, but rather represent an ideal. The possession of lengths of costly uncut silk fabric is a mark of the resources of the possessor. These may be given as-is, as lengths of uncut fabric, as a gift as part of politically critical power exchanges. The bestowal of such a gift creates an obligation in the recipient, as well as establishing social hierarchies. (Gifts always go from higher to lower.) But in contrast to gifts of clothing and other functional objects, uncut cloth behaves more as a commodity and can be given in any direction in the hierarchy. Uncut cloth can be exchanged as a type of tribute, not as an establishment of a hierarchical relationship. In the story of Kudrun, a give of uncut silk is performed at a critical point in the narrative when the giver’s status has been challenged by a disaster and he must securing support and alliance. The refusal of such gifts creates conflict and anxiety, especially when misunderstood by the recipient who offers a return that’s inappropriate to the relationship between the two. (Entwined in this is the wooing/abduction of a woman as a potential part of the exchange.) For context: the Sachsenspiegel distinguishes textile objects and uncut cloth as possessions, especially as inheritance. A widow is entitled to manufactured textile objects, but uncut cloth goes to the male heir. Conclusion: review of the purposes of textiles and textile imagery in medieval German literature.
Who and What Do You Pin It On? Badges and Belonging in Late Medieval Europe
Ann Marie Rasmussen, Univ. of Waterloo
Paper looks at three portraits (comprising two sitters) and the place of badges within the images. These badges (signs, signa, etc.) were prevalent in medieval culture, worn by many parts of society, and intended to be seen and understood as claiming various types of social relationships. They participated in making identity visible, similarly to other genres of objects such as clothing and heraldry. Portrait: Henry IV, Duke of Mecklenburg, ca. 1507. Probably made to commemorate his marriage (with the bridge’s portrait now lost). The badge is a miniature halberd, suspended from a collar, visible at this neck above the shirt. The badge is only one of a number of signifiers within the portrait. The pendant badge bears heraldic meaning but is less fixed than a coat of arms. Generally these types of badges were voluntarily chosen to show alliance (though there also could be social politics around wearing them). While badges were often of cheap manufacture (e.g., pewter or lead), in this case it is of precious metal set with a jewel. Another sign is an embroidered “H + V” on the upper edge of his shirt. (This would be the initials of Henry and Ursula.) Initials are another popular type of metallic badge. His gown has appliqué of the same pole axe, as well as a “ragged staff” cut tree trunk motif. These are very large in scale. He is also wearing an elaborate hat, ornamented with metal beats and gold cord woven through slits in the hat, with the cord threaded through 9 rings of individual design, similar to the ring he wears on his hand. So what does all this symbolize as a whole, other than simple wealth? As abstract signs, some knowledge is necessary to decode them (knowledge that would be available to his contemporaries). Some are obvious (like the initials) but others are obscure (like the rings on the hat). Second portrait: Oswald von Wolkenstein (poet, 1432). Brocaded gown, ornamented collar-necklace with motifs of the jar and lilies, white sash ornamented with a set of badges: cross, dragon, jar with lilies, gryphon. These represent his membership in various chivalric orders: Order of the stole and jar, Order of the dragon. Goes back to the paper title: badges aren’t necessarily “pinned” on. They might be necklaces, embroidered, or part of other jewelry. Metallic badges might be pinned or sewn. Those from Britain and France usually had pins, while those from Germany and Scandinavia typically had eyelets for sewing to a base. (Examples of pilgrims badges shown sewn onto hats, for example.) Who wears these signifying devices? Not only the elites, but also ordinary pilgrims, etc. Always designed to be attached in a visible way. Textile signifiers were discussed by nobles in correspondence to coordinate signs of support for particular persons and groups. Third portrait: genealogical manuscript of Henry and his second wife, that includes armorial shields, banners, etc. Heraldic symbolism requires familiarity with the symbolic system. Discussion of the production context of the three portraits.
Respondent: Monica L. Wright, Univ. of Louisiana–Lafayette
An overall discussion of how these papers bring together the meaning and materiality of textiles within their texts.
[I picked this session because it ties in with some material I’ve been looking at on Jeanne d’Arc and gender identity, and because she was on my mind from the trail materials I mentioned in my own paper on cross-dressing.]
Sponsor: International Joan of Arc Society/Société Internationale de l’étude de Jeanne d’Arc
The Redhead and the Widow: Gender Models and Modifications in Joan of Arc’s Two Trials
Tara B. Smithson, Manchester Univ.
Using the lens of a film on the subject, the paper focuses on how Joan was “rehabilitated” in the posthumous second trial, and especially how the content of that rehabilitation framed her as a gendered being, in relation to two women: her mother, and the owner of a boarding house at which Jeanne stayed. The speaker views Jeanne as a queer figure, using the definition of David Halperin as someone disruptive to the social norms. The figure of the “virgin” as Jeanne was framed, is prototypically a young, white, heterosexual, able-bodied figure. Virginity can be viewed positively at one age/life stage and negatively at others. Jeanne’s very first trial was not relating to her military activities but relating to a broken engagement, a context in which she rejected default life scripts. The “pucelle” was not simply a virgin but a specific life stage, roughly from 8-18. This term was more commonly used in her rehabilitation trial, and not the trial that condemned her. That original trial worked to undermine her as a gendered being, or focusing on negative aspects of womanhood such as accusations of witchcraft. [Key passages in the paper are being given in untranslated French.] Something about how the broken engagement was due to Jeanne’s lodging at the boarding house in a suspect age/context? In the main trial, Jeanne is depicted as alone and estranged from her family, while the rehabilitation trial reintegrates her within her family and envisions her possible life within a normative female paradigm. The rehabilitation also frames her as an innocent virgin in need of the church’s protection, needing to be also reintegrated into the family of the church. There is now a digression about the current case of Caster Semenya and how institutions define and regulation female identity.
Profaning the Pucelle: Voltaire Comments on the Body Politic
Stephanie L. Coker, Univ. of North Alabama
The author’s background is largely on modern pop cultural and dramatic adaptations of Jeanne d’Arc’s story. Topic is a mock-epic poem by Voltaire on Jeanne’s life, asserted to be the only humorous treatment of the subject, considered by some to be unacceptably so. Later editions may have incorporated additional even more scandalous material that Voltaire disowned. This paper examines the work as a political comment on French affairs, rather than a personal attack on Jeanne herself. Voltaire had a pattern of iconoclasm into which this work fits. The satire revolves strongly around challenging the idea of Jeanne’s virginity and purity, thereby undermining her right to be the redeemer of France, but the author suggests that Voltaire is instead using Jeanne to stand for a sullied and degraded ideal of France. But to do this he raises doubt about Jeanne’s virginity and morality. A discussion of the chronology of terms used in French for young women and virgins (pucelle > demoiselle > vierge). “Pucelle” is not simply a virgin but a young woman on the edge of adulthood. In Jeanne’s day “vierge” was sometimes added to it to emphasize a virgin state. Was Voltaire’s work anti-nationalist and anti-religion? Or simply anti- the current instances of those concepts in his day?
Not As Advertised: The Ringling Bros. Joan of Arc Spectacle
Scott Manning, Independent Scholar
A circus spectacular in 1912 took Joan as it subject and may have been a major vehicle for popular images of her in the American imagination. [https://www.google.com/search?q=Ringling+brothers+joan+of+arc&tbm=isch&s... So what version of Joan’s story did this spectacle tell? The primary emphasis was on the size and elaborateness of the spectacle itself. A secondary emphasis was on the inspirational nature of Joan’s story, emphasizing both Joan’s humble origins contrasted with her accomplishments. At a far third, there was an intent to educate about the historic facts of Joan’s life. The spectacle lasted 30-45 minutes (depending on sources). The posters advertised 1100 participants, but eyewitnesses, surviving cast photos, and cast lists suggest a more realistic number would be around 250. The structure was: Part 1: Joan goes to meet Baudricourt; Part 2: the court of the Dauphin with a joust and Joan’s recognition of the Dauphin; Part 3: the coronation of Charles; Part 4: a tableau of King Charles and Joan eating dinner. As might be seen, this sequence does not provide any clear idea of the historic events. Joan is presented as a “sweet, simple, poor peasant girl” and the violent and depressing aspects of her stories were carefully avoided.
The Patron Saint of Dysphoria: Joan of Arc as Transgender
M. W. Bychowski, Case Western Reserve Univ.
The question of Joan of Arc’s transgender identity is used today to disparage the concept of transgender figures in the middle ages, as well as being treated as a symbol of transgender understandings as an attack of “white womanhood”. The paper looks at the question more sincerely from a historic viewpoint and a transgender lens. Initially the paper looks at the contemporary political context and the idea of a “patron” as contrasted with interpreting Joan as personally transgender. The paper moves on to understanding how a medieval concept equivalent to transphobia was certainly a major motivating force behind Joan’s conviction and death. Joan is seen as a patron or icon for many different groups, but especially for women in non-traditional gender roles. People who identify with her in this context may feel a personal stake in Joan’s female identity and resist considering her in a transgender context lest they “lose” her as an identifying figure. And yet, patron saints are often patrons for a wide diversity of groups and activities without personally instantiating those identities (as with Saint Nicholas being patron of a variety of occupations). Saint Marinus is another saint identified as a patronage figure for trans-masculine people. Joan represents trans-masculinity in a variety of ways, including crossing gender boundaries due to the gender coding of specific occupations, such as the military. But Joan’s testimony and circumstances reflect concepts that fit well into modern concepts of gender dysphoria. A discussion of how the current definitions of gender dysphoria focuses on a mismatch between personal and societal expectations, not as purely an internal conflict. So, for example, the continuing conflict over Joan’s gendered clothing during her trial fits well into this understanding of dysphoria. Similarly the gendering of concepts such as “virgin” and “knight” create a context for gender dysphoria in the conflict over Joan’s activities. Within this context, the question “is Joan an appropriate patron for those experiencing gender dysphoria?” is entirely separate from the question “could Joan be understood as a trans man?”
[I found this paper quite interesting as it intersected the question of the discourse around Joan and clothing gender in my own presentation.]
These are the books I’m carrying home with me. I’ll blog the ones I had shipped as they arrive. First, books picked up for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project:
Dipiero, Thomas and Pat Gill (eds). 1997. Illicit Sex: Identity Politics in Early Modern Culture. The University of Georgia Press, Athens. ISBN 0-8203-1884-1
Amtower, Laurel & Dorothea Kehler (eds). 2003. The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England: Her Life and Representation. Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe. ISBN 0-86698-306-6
Books on women’s lives in history generally:
MacDonald, Joyce Green. 2002. Women and Race in Early Modern Texts. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 0-521-81016-7
Erler, Mary C. and Maryanne Kowaleski (eds.) 2003. Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages.
Books picked up for deep background research on everyday life in various historic contexts. (I have a lot of books of this type on my shelves, awaiting their chance to prove their worth.)
Whittle, Jane (ed.). 2017. Servants in Rural Europe 1400-1900. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-239-6
Swabey, ffiona. 1999. Medieval Gentlewoman: Life in a Widow’s Household in the Later Middle Ages. Sutton Publishing, Phoenix Mill. ISBN 0-7509-1644-3