In the words of the sage, "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss..." But that's never been true in western culture. A kiss is never "just" a kiss. And all the various meanings that kissing can have create what we might think of as "Schroedinger's intimacy" where observers decide whether a kiss is a sign of erotic intimacy based on their assumptions about the relationship of the people involved.
This can create problems for interpreting artistic depictions or textual descriptions of women kissing other women. A kiss can be a salutation between close friends or kinswomen (as in the iconic image of Saint Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary greeting each other with a kiss and embrace). It can be an act sealing a bargain or contract. But it can also be a sensual or erotic act, and in literature that directly acknowledges the erotic potential between women, this ambiguity is often a "testing ground" or invitation to see if further intimacy would be welcome (or at least tolerated).
In hunting for evidence of women's same-sex eroticism in history, kissing cannot be assumed to be primary evidence of erotic feelings in every case. But neither can kissing be dismissed as never indicating erotic interactions, simply because non-erotic interpretations existed in parallel. This provides the author of historical fiction both a dilemma and an opportunity. It can be vitally important to know under what circumstances your characters would be able to kiss without it provoking public suspicion or condemnation, but you also need to manage your readers' expectations so they will understand all the layers of meaning those kisses will have.
Berry, Helen. 2005. “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720” in The Kiss in History, ed. Karen Harvey, 62-79. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6594-1
Throughout western history, the act of kissing--of touching the lips either to another person’s lips or to another part of their anatomy--has had a wide variety of meanings and messages, as well as being a physical experience on its own. The essential ambiguity of what a kiss means in any particular context has been a part of its powerful symbolism and its use as a social tool, for good or ill. The physical act of kissing is an inherently intimate gesture (not necessarily in the sexual sense of “intimate”) in a way that actions like a handshake are not. Discussions of the meaning of kissing (and such analyses can be found as early as the 1660s) focus on that ambiguity and on the kiss as a shorthand for a range of feelings and emotions ranging from platonic friendship to status difference to erotic love.
This article looks at the meaning and use of kisses within cheap, easily available, popular literature of the later 17th century, including texts specifically intended to instruct and guide people on proper social behavior. They explore the distinction between a “lawful kiss”--one that was appropriate to the relationship of the two individuals and approprite to the social context--and an “unlawful kiss” that expressed an inappropriate relationship or was itself an inappropriate act.
At one extreme, the most “lawful” version was the “kiss of peace” used within Christian ceremonies to express harmony and community within the church. This approved religious use meant that the use of a “kiss of peace” as a form of greeting between friends (regardless of gender) was an accepted and unmarked practice in some cultures, though not universally. Visitors to 16th century England commented on the frequency of kisses being exchanged as a casual greeting, suggesting that non-English people found it a bit odd.
[Note: It must be emphasized that this created a context where men could kiss each other on the lips without it being considered sexual, and similarly for women kissing women. This has consequences for interpreting same-sex kisses depicted in literature, art, and drama of the era. Such a kiss could be non-sexual, but it also could be sexual. And identifying ways to distinguish them is part of the purpose of this article. One could similarly consider how actions such as hand-holding have been sexualized in modern culture.]
Berry points out that filtering out modern post-Freudian interpretations of such activities is important for understanding the meanings of behaviors in the past. The kiss was “a physical embodiment of an ongoing negotiation of power between individuals that could inicate an unspoken range of feelings and intentions.” A kiss can indicate submission or domination, relative status, sexual desire, friendship, or as a physical signifier of agreement to a contract such as an agreement to marry or even a truce. In 13th century England, villages might hold a “love day” where people involved in disputes would reconcile, symbolized with a kiss which was blessed by a priest and witnessed by their neighbors.
Even into the early modern era, one can find references to this type of “kiss of peace” between individuals who were neither married nor blood kin, used to signify a contract or agreement. In a business letter of 1727, a businessman describes concluding somewhat fraught business and legal talks with a former rival, Lady Clavering, with “a hearty kiss.” The kiss was a formal acknowledgement of the resolution of their former animosity and, despite being performed between an unrelated man and woman, had no sexual connotations.
But such social kisses occupied an ambiguous territory, and conduct literature noted that inappropriate kissing could result in embarrassment, public censure, or suggest an illicit relationship. The problem was that the genre of conduct literature rarely gave practical advice on what the rules were. Religiously-based advice manuals tended to the conservative and focused on the appearance of sexual impropriety, suggesting that all forms of bodily contact should be kept only within marriage. Unmarried women, it was suggested, shouldn’t have to worry about the boundaries for appropriate kissing, because if it got to the point where she needed to deny a kiss, she had already allowed a man to get too close. And the advice directed at young people also railed against other forms of personal indulgence and “light” behavior, such as whispering, laughing loudly, wanton glances, and the like.
The lawyer Henry Swinburne offered advice in 1686 regarding kissing in the context of marriage promises. A promise of marriage was binding if accompanied by certain performative acts such as lying together, embracing, kissing, or exchanging gifts. In such a case, a promise of marriage was taken as a binding contract, and therefore such actions should not be done lightly.
While manuals overtly about conduct weren’t always helpful regarding kissing, this gap was filled by a new genre of popular literature that offered purportedly first-person narratives illustrating concerns of the emerging middle class. Social mobility was giving rise to anxiety, both about how to behave to social superiors but also how to avoid undesirable familiarity with one’s inferiors.
This new genre might appear in the form of “advice columns” in the ancestors of today’s tabloid periodicals. The questions posed included things like “Whether a Lady, at the first Interiew, may allow an humble Servant to kiss her hand,” or requests for advice on how to conduct a courtship and the part kissing might play in it. Too much kissing might turn a woman’s affections to aversion, but it might also weaken a man’s moral fiber and turn him effeminate. In exploring detailed and specific scenarios, these advice columnists found themselves arbitrating (sometimes humorously) the parameters of lawful kissing.
Though the discussions might be lighthearted, the goals were serious: knowing whom to kiss, in what circumstances, and when to refrain from kissing--all marks of “good breeding” that the emerging middle class was desperate to master. One exchange may have been intended to poke fun at a “country manners/city manners” divide when a man of rural origins noted that he had angered a wealthy citizen of London by kissing his wife--a woman to whom he was related--“with the usual Salutations of Kindness”. The matter was turned around in a letter from a country gentleman complaining that a “Town-Gentleman” newly arrived in the neighborhood substituted bows for kisses as a social salutation to women. This, the country gentleman complained, was taken for the more fashionable choice, “and there is no young Gentlewoman within several Miles of this Place has been kissed ever since his first Appearance among us.”
[Note: the satirical angle here is that, even though the Country Gentleman may be presenting such social kisses as a neutral form of saluation, it clearly appears that he resents the possibility that a less intimate form of greeting is edging it out. If kissing were truly neutral and non-erotic, the substitution should make no difference.]
Such discussions about social kissing were always also about ways of articulating and expressing sexual desire, even when they claimed to be policing such desire. Was it acceptable, a young man writes, to kiss a woman “in a Frolick,” suggesting a context where usual strictures might be loosened. Was it entirely too singular, another asks, for a woman to still refuse to kiss a suitor even after several years’ courtship? Was it ever lawful for a married man to kiss his neighbor’s wife “out of real respect and affection”? The answers given were rarely unexpected or daring, thus it seems the act of proposing the questions provided its own pleasure in exploring sexual topics.
Feminist literature of the era had its own considerations of the purposes of kissing in the face of misogynistic positions such as that published by the Athenian Society that husbands of outspoken wives should “stop her mouth with a kiss...if you can kiss her whether she will or no, ‘twill be a convincing argument atht you are still the stronger.”
Romantic relationships were not the only context in which appropriate kissing was discussed. The concept of platonic friendship between men and women was challenging the position that male-female relations were always necessarily sexual. Did kissing invariably introduce an erotic element to platonic friendship? Berry notes that the shift of “platonic” to mean a non-sexual relationship was a product of 15th century homophobic re-interpretations of Plato’s philosophy. It was no longer acceptable to believe that Plato’s love for boys was sexual, therefore a new, chaste definition of “platonic love” was constructed that then could be extended to relations between men and women as well.
Discussion and expressions of this new version of platonic love became popular in the court of Charles I in the early 17th century, and was revived later in the century after the Restoration. Within this context, the question of whether kisses could be acceptable within a platonic relationship was debated with varying levels of seriousness. Even writers who valorized the concept of platonic friendship as an ideal sometimes felt that kissing would invariably introduce an erotic dimension to the relationship, at least for male-female relations.
Within the realm of same-sex “platonic” friendships, public opinions seemed to avoid the suggestion that kissing added a sexual dimension. This can largely be ascribed to an assumption of compulsory heterosexuality, as there was a similar resistance to believing that male-female friendships could successfully be non-sexual. In addition to the basic assumption of unavoidble eroticism, the possibility that men and women could interact as social equals had potenatial consequences that many (men) wanted to avoid.
In terms of overall sociological trends, across the 18th century we see a decline in the acceptability of social kissing, driven by the manners and opinions of urban elites, and an increasing openness to discussing the social context of kissing, as well as an examination of the erotic and non-erotic dynamics of male-female relationships as signified by the presence and understanding of kissing within such relationshps.
[Note: Although this article spends very little time looking at the meaning of kissing within the context of women’s same-sex relationships, it provides a useful background to understanding the contexts that could signal an erotic or non-erotic interpretation to kisses, as well as contexts where “lawful kisses” could be a prelude to more intimate interactions.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 25b - Interview with Vanda - (no transcript available)
(Originally aired 2018/08/11 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
In this episode we talk about
I've posted my schedulde for Worldcon next week! If you're planning to be there, I'd love to see you--whether at my programming or just to hang out. Hear me talk about gender, mythology, and podcasting! Hear me read (possibly something from "The Language of Roses" -- I haven't quite decided yet). Buy my books and bring them to me to sign! Talk to me about all the things you love about SFF!
Also: as part of trying to clean out some of my old filk publishing stock, I'm planning to put some songbooks out on the freebie tables. So if you've always wanted a copy of Songbook Pusher or Dreamer (and maybe some copies of Stave the Wails, I need to check), keep your eyes peeled.
The dividing line between women's same-sex friendships and romantic relationshps can be fuzzy--and distinguishing them on the basis of often scanty documentary evidence is difficult indeed. This article looks at the structure and rhetoric of female friendship in the middle ages and how some specific friendships are reflected in the correspondence of Saint Hildegard of Bingen.
WIethaus, Ulrike. 1993. “In Search of Medieval Women’s Friendships: Hildegard of Bingen’s Letters to her Female Contemporaries” in Wiethaus, Ulrike (ed) Maps of Flesh and Light: The Religious Experience of Medieval Women Mystics. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. ISBN 0-8156-2560-X
Wiethaus addresses the problem of finding and identifying women’s same-sex relationships in history by looking at the general context of women’s same-sex friendships and especially features of those friendships that are specific to women’s experiences.
Medieval commentary on women’s friendships is scanty by not entirely absent. Christine de Pizan (in her Book of the City of Ladies) wrote about relations between women at court and developed a theory of how female solidarity enabled women to survive in such a misogynistic environment. But in contrast, medieval literature on same-sex friendships between men is plentiful, especially in religious contexts. Within Cistercian culture contemporary with the life of Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, male authors such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Aelred of Rievaulx celebrated bonds between men and used such friendships as a model for making connections between the secular and sacred.
Wiethaus offers an explanation suggested by several other authors regarding the medieval monastic context. The lack of a parallel use of female friendships in philosophical or theological contexts may derive from the different theories of the nature of masculinity and femininity prevalent at the time. Masculinity was seen as a state that must be achieved and maintained while femininity was seen as an inherent condition that connected women primarily to male family members, not to each other. Male friendships among monks were valorized as a path to spiritual perfection and a public performance of masculine values, while women’s status was more limited in the contributions of performance.
Thus, while male monastic friendships were seen as a transferral of a relationship structure from the secular to the sacred like, there was no similar tradition of valorizing secular female friendships that could be used as a basis for establishing and valorizing female monastic friendships. Women in the convent, instead, had a unique opportunity to establish same-sex social bonds that were not constrained by their familial relationships and status within patriarchal structures.
If this is the case, can the categories and dynamics of male monastic friendships be used to analyze women’s friendships, even if medieval writers did not view them as similar? One obvious difference is in men’s and women’s different experiences of the overall patriarchal structures of society. Another is that women’s friendships often used the symbolism and language of mother-daughter relationships, which invoke a different set of familial dynamics than those experienced by men. In addition, there was a long existing tradition regarding male friendships that could be built on, whereas women would need to “translate” that tradition across the gender divide in order to appropriate it as a model. Women writing about cross-sex friendships sometimes employed rhetorical formulas taken from classical literature on male friendships, but there seem to be no examples applying them to women’s same-sex friendships. Like other female authors, Hildegard does not appear to invoke the tradition of male writing on friendship when discussing her relationships with other women.
A third consideration is that men’s monastic friendships could be modeled on or even directly reflect existing feudal kinship ties. While women in the cloister might enter with similar pre-existing familial ties, they did not necessarily translate into friendships. In the case of Hildegard’s relationship with Richardis of Stade, their personal bond found itself in conflict with Richardis’s family connections at the latter won out.
Cistercian philosophy recognized the significance of personal experience for spiritual growth, but gender affected how friendships were seen to contribute. Gendered stereotypes for behavior and connection lost their power within women’s communities in the absence of men as a constant referent. Authenticity and self-expression were easier for women within single-sex communitites.
Half a century ago, psychologist M. Esther Harding suggested that female friendships pose a challenge to male-centered cultural norms and proposed the following five categories of women’s friendships in 19th century literature (which Wiethaus labels “without doubt idealistic” and which I label in my working notes as “problematic”). Her categories are: sentimental, erotic, manipulative, poitical, and social, with only political and social friendships (per Harding) offering an explicit critique of patriarchy. Under this classification, sentimental friendships are “effusive...revelling in rapture and rhetoric...providing close emotional support” and may serve as a substitute or replacement for unhappy heterosexual love. Erotic friendships are what it says on the label. Maniuplative friendships involve a power-over relationship that provides benefit or satisfaction to the one in power. Political friendships “require some action against the social system, its institutions, or conventions.” While social friendships offer support and nurturance to help sooth women’s passage through society.
[Note: I find these classifications and definitions significantly lacking as they either leave out significant swathes of literary friendships or require one to force them into ill-fitting pigeonholes.]
Can these categories based on 19th century literature translate to the medieval experience? The author notes Elzabeth’s Petroff’s study of 13th century Italian female saints and notes the prominance of at least one significant female friendship with the majority of them. Medieval female friendships had their own language of visual iogonography and one spiritual model for them were female saints explicitly turned to for women’s protection. Another source of information for women’s relationships are social rituals that were traditionally restricted to women, such as attendance on childbirth and preparation of the dead for burial.
The article now turns to Hildegard of Bingen’s correspondence to look for the specific friendships recorded in them. Hildegard’s fame and prominence in her own lifetime included a number of gender-specific hurdles, such as the establishment of an independent convent and the struggle to have her prophecies and visions taken seriously. Her corresponence survives in part because of that fame and includes a number of female correspondants showing a diveristy of relationships, though due to the context, Hildegard is typically positioned as an older counsellor to younger women of leser experience and status. Despite this, her letters to women reflect an open, honest and often emotional content that contrasts with her correspondence with men.
Gertrud of Stahleck fits into the category of “social friendship”. She was of noble status and acted as a financial patron to Hildegard before eventually taking the veil as a widow and later founding her own establishment with Hildegard’s assistance. Their friendship was relatively balanced and mutual in benefit, with each providing advice and material or social support at different stages in their lives, but the more personal interactions faded once Gertrud was established in her own convent.
Elisabeth of Schönau is identified as a “professional and political” friendship. Wiethaus notes that their correspondence often centered on spiritual experiences. (A number of other examples of pairs of women interacting around their mystical experiences are offered.) Elisabeth and Hildegard discussed the “work” of sharing their divine mission and the pressures and difficulties of being a public mystic.
Richardis of Stade is classified as a “sentimental” friendship (but with a question mark). The intense and sometimes conflicy-ridden nature of the women’s relationship has been explored in other publications. Familial bonds developed into a close semi-romantic relationship between the two women, though with Hildegard assumig a position as mentor. Their bond is expressed specifically in the language of love and the sort of praise one would expect between a romantic couple. But when Richardis begins to establish an independent career and separate herself from Hildegard’s supervision, Hildegard moves into framing herself as an abandoned daughter. Hildegard tried to use her political influence to prevent Richardis from leaving, while Richardis’s immediate family, in turn, more successfully opposed her and supported Richardis in taking charge of her own institution.
Wiethaus suggests that the relationship between Hildegard and Richardis does not fit easily (or perhaps at all) into Todd’s five categories of friendship, and suggests that at the very least, a sixth category of friendships modeled after a mother-daughter bond might be useful. [Note: Or, I would suggest, a recognition that human relationships are often complex and multi-layered and shouldn’t be subjected to simplistic categorization.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 25a - On the Shelf for August 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/08/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2018.
It’s been an entire year of the weekly schedule for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. For our first year, we were on a once a month schedule, and for our second year we’ve posted every week. But never fear, we aren’t increasing the frequency again for the third year!
Producing this podcast is an amazing experience. Not only do I get to talk to you about all my favorite historical research, but with the expanded format I have an excuse to hunt down authors of lesbian historical fiction and grill them about their work. I’ve also worked to bring more awareness of the fiction that’s out there, whether it’s via recommendations from my author guests, or topical lists of stories with particular themes, or the new original fiction that we’re including in the podcast.
My very selfish goal with this podcast is to find out about great lesbian historical fiction and to encourage people to make more of it. I’m always looking for new ways so support the field. If you’re an author of historically based fiction or a voracious reader with opinions about what books people should know about, please feel free to contact me about being on the show. I’m always looking for new voices to feature.
Publications on the Blog
The blog version of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project is finishing up our summer run of journal articles. July’s theme was 17th and 18th century topics, including Emma Donoghue’s discussion of the intersection of the themes of lesbians and hermaphrodites, Clorinda Donato’s examination of John Cleland’s edition of Catharine Vizzani’s biography as a commentary on his contemporary, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Jaqueline Holler’s look at the sexual and religious transgressions of a 17th century Mexican heretic, Susan Lanser’s consideration of homoerotic literature of 17th century England as a way of constructing a feminist consciousness, and Tim Hitchcock’s review of various attitudes towards female homosexuality as part of a general study of sexuality in 18th century England.
That leaves the month of August to cover all the assorted articles that I couldn’t fit into any of the previous months’ themes. We’ll look at Ulrike Wiethaus’s study of female frienship in the letters of Hildegard of Bingen, Helen Berry’s consideration of the question, when is a kiss just a kiss? And how we can tell that kissing is meant to be understood as erotic? Then a brief reivew of homosexuality within a general consideration of medieval female sexuality by Monica Green. I’ll finish off the month with a publication yet to be chosen, which means I need to get working on my reading!
This month’s author guest will be Vanda, who has just published the third volume in an extended saga about a rising entertainment star and the woman who loves her in the mid 20th century.
And for this month’s essay, I’ve decided to return to a favorite topic: poetry about love between women. I’ve pulled together enough material to do several episodes and this one will include material from the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily from England but including some translated material from other languages.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
How about some new lesbian historical fiction? While I have a list of publisher’s websites that I check regularly, and I get some titles from mentions in social media, I’d like to give a shout-out to the website Women and Words who puts together a list of new releases every month that sometimes fills in the gaps of what I’ve found.
We’ll start with the crime thriller Crossing the Line, the newest book in C.F. Frizzell’s Stick McLaughlin series from Bold Strokes Books. Here’s the blurb:
For Stick “Mac” McLaughlin, it’s all about family: the stalwart friends, her former gang of bootlegging hijackers, and, above all, her lover and their daughter. So when New York mobsters begin squeezing the livelihood of new friend Rey, a veteran rum-runner on rural Lake George, Mac lends Rey resources but remains safely distant from enemies of the past. Grateful for help, Rey opens her back-woods life to Mac’s seasoned, gun-toting crew, but never expects it to include the likes of petite bombshell Millie. The buxom, wily spitfire’s gumption and sass are as vital to the cause as they are aggravating…and beguiling. But the Mob soon discovers a nemesis within its ranks, and, in the ultimate retaliation, draws Mac from anonymity by threatening everything she holds dear. Now, to finally end this deep-woods nightmare, Mac must cross the line with a vengeance.
We get a less commonly seen setting in Frances de Pontes Peebles’ novel The Air You Breathe from Riverhead Books. Here’s a synopsis:
Some friendships, like romance, have the feeling of fate. Skinny, nine-year-old orphaned Dores is working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation in 1930s Brazil when in walks a girl who changes everything. Graça, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy sugar baron, is clever, well fed, pretty, and thrillingly ill behaved. Born to wildly different worlds, Dores and Graça quickly bond over shared mischief, and then, on a deeper level, over music. One has a voice like a songbird; the other feels melodies in her soul and composes lyrics to match. Music will become their shared passion, the source of their partnership and their rivalry, and for each, the only way out of the life to which each was born. But only one of the two is destined to be a star. Their intimate, volatile bond will determine each of their fortunes--and haunt their memories. Traveling from Brazil's inland sugar plantations to the rowdy streets of Rio de Janeiro's famous Lapa neighborhood, from Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood back to the irresistible drumbeat of home, The Air You Breathe unfurls a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship--its unparalleled rewards and lasting losses--and considers what we owe to the relationships that shape our lives.
K’Anne Meinel has put out a pair of novels published by Shadoe Publishing set in the Old West that tie in with some of her contemporary work. Cavalcade came out in July. Here’s the description:
Molly didn’t know what kind of life to expect when she fell in love with Erin Herriot—her schoolmate, her best friend, and a woman. She had been grateful for Erin’s friendship when the bank swindled her after selling her parents’ farm and she was invited to live on Erin’s parents’ farm. After making the difficult decision to live life as ‘man and wife,’ Molly gladly accepted the challenges before them. Together, they made the decision to sell Erin’s farm and embark on the journey of a lifetime…on the Oregon Trail. Erin couldn’t give Molly children; however, she could love her forever. But leaving the area where they had both grown up and where everyone knew the women was the only way they could be together without questions about the true nature of their relationship. Come along on their adventure as two women cross the country, adopt a family, and begin a life that neither had imagined possible growing up in the mid-1800s
The sequel, Pioneering comes out this month: One family’s saga had only just begun… In the epic sequel to Cavalcade we find out what happens to the Herriots once they arrive in Oregon and take up their claim. Erin and Molly have arrived in Oregon with their family. Granted six-hundred and forty acres of land for married couples under the Organic Laws of Oregon they have to build their home, farm, and eke out a living from the raw land. Wolves, bears, and wildcats are the least of their worries in this new land. Hard work and trust in each other to do their very best are the keys to conquering the wilderness as they pioneer their lives on the high plains of Oregon! Come along as they and their family live a life that few attempted in this wilderness near the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from an anonymous listener, who asks, “Your show talks about queer women who identify in a variety of ways: lesbian, bisexual, gender-queer, as well as talking about people who are more accurately considered trans men. So why do you label everyone ‘lesbian’?”
That’s a question that I work hard on being sensitive about. And because I often use the word “lesbian” as a shorthand, sometimes my guests have to correct me on it when describing specific characters or books. But the answer to why I use that shorthand is threefold: poetry, practicality, and purpose.
To start with “purpose”, I’ve never made any secret of the fact that my blog and podcast have a specific, highly subjective purpose: to look at the historic evidence that can be useful in creating lesbian fictional characters in historic settings. And of course that evidence can also be useful in creating historic fictional characters with other identities and orientations. Virtually all the sexuality issues that I cover are equally useful for developing bisexual female characters. And because of the historic models of the interrelationship between gender and sexuality, there are large areas of overlap in the data between same-sex relationships between women, and opposite sex relationships involving trans men. I point this out regularly and do my best to discuss it with regard to specific historic figures.
There are a lot of world-building issues and problems around creating fun stories about lesbian characters that don’t touch directly on sexuality at all. The question of how to build a rich and satisfying life as a single woman who doesn’t have an automatic place within patriarchal power structures applies to any female character in that situation. When we fight the ingrained prejudices that argue against the accuracy of women leading interesting and adventurous lives in historic settings, the question of those women’s romantic lives is secondary.
But at the heart, the organizing principle of my project--the one that protects me from scope-creep--is the topic of women who have an exclusive orientation toward women. And that purpose feels best represented by using the word “lesbian.”
The second reason for using that word is simple practicality. I’ll sometimes use the much more inclusive term “queer women” instead, especially when talking about current fiction, but that’s just as inaccurate in a different direction. Because I’m not talking about all women who fall under the broad umbrella of “queer”, I’m specifically concerned with women who have strong emotional, romantic, or erotic relationships with other women. For example, my project isn’t particularly concerned with heterosexual trans women, but they definitely fall within the category of queer women. I’m not specifically concerned with aromantic or asexual women unless they’re involved in same-sex relationships, but they too have equal claim to the category of queer women. And stories that center bi women but don’t center same-sex relationships are also outside my scope.
So no matter whether I use “lesbian” or “queer” I’m being misleading in some fashion, either on the side of exclusion or inclusion. Quite frankly, it’s just too cumbersome to say, “women who have strong emotional, romantic, or erotic relationships with other women” every time I’m making reference to the topic of the blog and podcast. I need a practical shorthand, and the word “lesbian” makes the most sense.
The third reason comes down to poetry. As women who love women, we have the glorious luxury of a poetic heritage for naming ourselves. The name of Sappho and the heritage of the association of Lesbos with love between women is an unparalleled gift. When you look at the historic terminology used for gay men, or for transgender people, or for those with non-binary identities, you realize just how lucky we are to have words to talk about love between women that are not only positive in connotation, but that evoke beauty and a rich history that literally stretches for millennia. It’s a gift that we shouldn’t lightly discard or avoid using.
Part of that poetic heritage is that the words “lesbian” and “sapphic” throughout history have more commonly been used as adjectives than as nouns. They have described feelings and acts more often than people. So when I use the word “lesbian” to talk about relationships between women or types of erotic activity, there’s a historic basis for understanding that as encompassing all relationships between women, not just those that are based on an exclusive and specific identity.
The editors of the collection The Lesbian Premodern point out a double standard in modern scholarship, where many theorists seem to require historic women to be exclusively and overtly homosexual to earn the label of lesbian, while men in history are granted membership in the gay club on the basis of any homosexual activity regardless of the rest of their lives. Rather than using the term “lesbian” in this project to erase women’s bisexual identity, I use it to recognize their queerness in the face of an academy that often considers women’s same-sex relationshps to be a trifling or dismissable digression unless the women in question stand on a figurative table and proclaim their utter rejection of men. The narrowing of the definition of “lesbian” or “sapphic” to this type of exclusive orientation is a fairly recent phenomenon--barely reaching before the turn of the 20th century. And that fact has sometimes been used to erase the very concept of women’s same-sex desire in the past, with people arguing that, if there was no word that designated an exclusive orientation, then such an orientation must not have existed. To some extent, I’m turning that around and saying, “If people in 16th century France or 10th century Byzantium used the word lesbian for women we would consider bisexual today, then those women are included under my use of the term in historic contexts.
In summary, I’m well aware that using the term “lesbian” as a shorthand for the organizing principles of my project can give the impression that I’m subsuming bisexual women, or transmasculine people inappropriately into a lesbian box. And all of my justifications won’t change that impression. But for my purposes, it’s still the most practical and the most poetic way to talk about my subject.
This book chapter very conveniently lays out the problem of the historical novelist: given a general life story that is compatible with--but not prescriptive of--lesbian experience, how do we fill in the more detailed social context that establishes both the plausibility of our proposed story and how our characters would experience it on a day to day basis? Not that this is what Hitchcock is trying to do. After all, historians are not supposed to be looking to prove theories about specific individuals, but to determine what is actually knowable about them. ("Not supposed to" though of course historians regularly work very hard to prove personal theories about historic people.)
This is the case is no much research about specific individuals whose lives appear briefly in the historic record and where we long to establish a more direct and concrete personal connection regarding identity. It's entirely too easy for "we can't really know how this specific historic person understood their life" to turn into erasure of entire categories of identification simply because those categories always involve ambiguous and incomplete data. But at the same time, when that data is ambiguous and incomplete, it's also easy for the drive for personal identification to turn into erasure of the other possible understandings a person had of their life.
Examining the people, beliefs, and practices of an era through the conceptual lens of same-sex relationships as Hitchcock does here can highlight many of those other possibilities as well, if only because it asks the question, "What if we utterly reject the normative paradigm?"
Hitchcock, Tim. 1997. English Sexualities, 1700-1800. St. Martin’s Press, New York. ISBN 0-312-16573-0
A general study of sexuality in 18th century England. This summary covers only Chapter 6 “Tribades, Cross-Dressers and Romantic Friendship”
The chapter opens with a tantalizing personal history that suggests, but never clearly demonstrates, lesbian possibilities. In 1722, Ann Carrack, a 30-year-old spinster set up in business as a milliner in London with Mary Erick. They rented a shop together and lived together above the shop. Several years later, they moved together to another location. After 7 years sharing a business and living quarters, they parted: Ann to work as a needlewoman and Mary to set up a shop in Chelsea. But 10 years after that, Ann resumed the partnership, moving in with Mary in Chesea. They lived and worked together for another 20 years until old age and the logistical demands of charitable relief parted them.
There are any number of frameworks for understanding their relationship. At the time, perhaps 20% of women never married, and simple economics would make sharing living quarters a necessity for those who didn’t live with family. But their continued and renewed partnership through changes of location and occupation suggest a personal bond of some type, though they left no evidence for its specific nature. Their lives allow a space where a lesbian relationship could have existed and in the absence of any reason for such a relationship to come to official attention, it would leave no trace.
After dropping this intriguing biography into the opening paragraphs, Hitchcock moves on to two fields of more concrete evidence regarding women’s homosexuality.
The first is that of legal and medical discourse. Unlike on the contintent, and unlike male homosexuality, lesbianism per se was never illegal in England. (Even on the continent, it was rarely prosecuted unless an artificial penis was involved.) This doesn’t mean that accusations of lesbianism were not a factor in cases involving other charges. Incidents of “female husbands” (i.e., marrying a woman while presenting as a man) could bring charges of fraud. In the case of Ann Marrow, the fact that she had married several women in this context in order to gain access to their money makes the fraud accusation seems apropos, though the extreme negative public reaction against her suggests that gender transgression was considered an aggravating factor.
Alternately, lesbian activity might be raised as an issue in unrelated contexts, such as when Ralph Hollingsworth, in a 1693 case of bigamy, argued that at least one of his previous wives shouldn’t count because she refused sex with men and had sex with women and thus had been unsuitable for marriage.
Some feminist historians have suggested that this apparent tolerance was actually a deliberate practice of erasing lesbianism from the social imagination--a position that Hitchcock finds implausible, noting that 18th century English law was not given to that sort of subtlety, as well as noting that there is no absence of lesbians from other professional literature, such as medicine and anatomy.
By the early 18th century, there were clear categories availble for discussing lesbian behavior. Medical philosophy had shifted from the “one body” concept that viewed gender as a continuum (or rather, as a sliding scale of maleness), to a “two body” concept that viewed male and female as distinct and--at least conceptually--equal. Under the “one body” system, a range of intermediate categories, loosely covered by the concept of “hermaphrodite”, created the potential for uncertainty regarding the gender of persons engaging in apparently lesbian sex. This created another way to erase lesbian possibiities: by re-categorizing any apparently female person who engaged in sex with women as actually being intermediate in gender and expressing a male nature.
A concretized version of this framing was that of the hyper-clitoral tribade: a woman with a clitoris large enough for penetrative sex, either as a cause or a result of engaging in sexual activity. Both causal modalities are seen in a story published in the Onania in which a young woman claimed that engaging in mutual masturbation (i.e., lesbian sex) with another woman had caused her clitoris to grow, and that this enlarged organ now “inclines me to excessive lustful desires”. The motif of the hyper-clitoral tribade enabled the official discussion of lesbian sex to be restricted to phallocentric and heteronormative practices, even when the bodies involved were undeniably female. At the same time, the focus on penetration, and the lesser degree to which this was possible even with a large clitoris, made it possible to frame lesbian sex as inherently less satisfying and therefore unthreatening. This was important given the 18th century belief in women’s strong sex drive and that a woman who had discovered sexual pleasure would become insatiable. Thus, men could reassure themselves that even if a woman’s sexual appetite had been whetted by lesbian sex, she would eventually turn to men for true satisfaction. This position is laid out solidly in Cleland’s erotic novel Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.
The 18th century saw a shift in assumptions that affected understandings of lesbianism. One was a shift from viewing women as aggressively lascivious to viewing them as sexually passive (the beginnings of the attitude commonly associated with “Victorian” beliefs). Previously, there had been a belief that female orgasm was as essential to conception as male ejaculation was, but medical professionals were coming to an understanding that this was not the case. This was accompanied by a decline in the perception of male and female genitalia as being different configurations of the same underlying organs [Note: which, in fact, was more true than not -- just not as directly as they thought], replaced by a view of two unrelated sets of organs. And studies that focused more on direct anatomical observation than medical tradition were in the process of eliminating the myth of the hyper-clitoral tribade, and determining the relative rareness of intersex conditions (under the label of hermaphroditism). All of these shifts taken together eliminated the two most popular “official” explanations for lesbianism and redefined female sexuality in a way that appeared to leave no context for active sexual desire whether for men or women.
The absense of legal evidence (prosecutions) or biological evidence (pregnancies) for illicit sexual activity between women has enabled historians to deny the existence of lesbian activity prior to the clinical definitions of the late 19th century sexologists. This has left those looking for evidence of lesbian-like lives primarily with homosocial relationships that cannot be proven to be sexual in nature, and which therefore can be posited to be romantic but not sexual.
One significant proponent for the position of “not provable sexual and therefore provably non-sexual” is Lillian Faderman in her study of Romantic Friendship, Surpassing the Love of Men. She views 17th century female “libertinism” as more pansexual in nature and therefore not classifiable as lesbian. The epitome of the romantic friendship phenomenon, with its high-flown emotional language and apparent chastity were the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, who became celebrated icons of female friendship. The accepted timeline of the romantic friendship phenomenon begins in the 1760s and 1770s in both Britain and America, with the rise of “sensibility”, romanticism, and Gothic themes. In the later 19th century, these themes are joined by the rise of the “Boston marriage”. And, in parallel with these developments, we see the strengthing of the image of the “passionless” woman.
This timeline and alleged dominance of the passionless romantic friendship phenomenon has been challenged by historians such as Emma Donoghue and Terry Castle who have assembled extensive evidence for other 18th century experiences alongside that of classic “romantic friendship”. These experiences include a tradition of cross-dressing, marriage between women (both in theatrical and everyday contexts), libertinism, and extensive examples of homosocial affective communities especially among elite women. Donoghue returns to the idea of a lesbian continuum, ranging from non-sexual female friendships through explicitly sexual relationships, and covering both exclusively lesbian and bisexual women, with a wide range of sexual practices that included both non-penetrative and penetrative activities.
There is even evidence in language and literature for the beginnings of a lesbian subculture in London, including slang terms like “tommy” and “game of flats”. And to put a final nail in the coffin of the alleged non-existence of 18th century lesbians, we have the explicit journals of Anne Lister from the end of the 18th and early 19th century, which depict a homosocial world of women who flirted, engaged in sex, and sometimes devoted themselves to marriage-like partnerships with other women. One key element of Lister’s recorded experience is that her actions and experiences never seem to have been viewed as unnatural or unthinkable by her contemporaries. The uniquely candid nature of this source makes it difficult to argue on solid ground whether it represents knowledge and experiences available to all women.
Similarly, the skewing of sources on romantic friendship toward elite women makes it difficult to tell whether the experience itself was associated with specific classes. The experiences of working class women have, in part, simply been ignored by historical research, outside of a few actresses and the phenomenon of cross-dressing. In part, this has been fallout from a bias among scholars of lesbian history toward “positive models”, avoiding the types of evidence most common for the poorer classes, such as criminal records.
The patterns of everyday life--especially homosocial insitutions and the commonness of shared sleeping acommodatiosn among all classes--afforded opportunities for erotic encounters that were unlikely to leave a record. Further, a modern emphasis on lesbianism as an innate identity has sidestepped the question of any sort of chronological development of lesbian awareness. Hitchcock suggests the outlines of just such a potential chronological development, operating along multiple axes, suggesting that the broad transition from sexually voracious libertine to chaste romantic friend was one of a shift in public framing rather than necessarily a shift in individual experience.
The final topic in Hitchcock’s discussion is the place of female cross-dressing within the understanding of sexuality. The number of public accounts of women passing as men in the 18th century is remarkably large. (Not only in Britain--detailed studies have been made in the Netherlands.) The motif of the cross-dressed woman is equally prominent in popular culture of the time. Not all cross-dressing women pursued relationships with other women, but many did, in many cases involving marriage. In many cases, economic motives were the original impetus. In some cases, the change of dress was originally for practical reasons and not meant to hide gender. [Note: Hitchcock does not touch on individual gender identity as a potential motivation for cross-dressing.]
One remarkable aspect of 18th century cross-dressing women is that it was so often successful, and that when unsuccessful it rarely met with harsh condemnation. The absence of legislation against cross-dressing [note: I think Hitchcock must be speaking specifically of England here] is strong evidence for a high level of tolerance with a context where legislation often micro-managed personal behavior. Moving into the 19th century, the literature about cross-dressing declines, though we can’t be certain that the phenomenon itself did so.
Hitchcock concludes with a summing up of his view of the various trends and shifts in female sexuality relating to lesbian identity across the 18th century. [Note: I’d have to pretty much reproduce the whole thing to summarize it.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 24d - Women and Same-Sex Marriage in Western History - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/07/28 - listen here)
The topic of same-sex marriage has seen enormous changes over my lifetime. I can still remember that when I was coming out in the late ‘70s, one of the things I felt I had to come to terms with was the acceptance that marriage would never be an option for me. Back then I couldn’t imagine society changing enough to see legal same-sex marriage in the USA in my lifetime. Then came the formalization of domestic partnerships, the beginning of individual states legalizing same-sex marriage on a local basis, and in my home state of California the drama of how Gavin Newsom’s bulldozer approach in San Francisco helped drive an initial legalization, followed by the heartbreak that was Proposition 8, and then the long slow slog through the courts to establish marriage equality as a right. And then finally the Supreme Court decision that made marriage equality the law of the land for the United States. Many other countries have progressed along similar paths, in recent decades. And though there are still forces trying to nibble away at the edges of those rights or to sweep them away entirely, it can be worth sitting back and marveling at the wave of change.
Within the field of historical romance, marriage is usually a major plot element. Marriage legitimizes the developing relationship. It sets the seal on the couple’s story arc. Traditionally it has provided the concluding event of the novel, though modern fashions in historical romance are a bit more liberal in whether marriage is required for a Happily Ever After ending, or where in the relationship’s timeline it needs to occur.
But what does that mean for same-sex couples in historical romance? For that matter, what does it mean for same-sex couples in near-contemporary romance? Certainly, lesbian romance novels were possible before mariage was an option. I’ve seen some interesting reactions around the importance of marriage to romance novels, especially regarding the historic options. That combined with a question that Sheena had on one of her recent podcasts about what it meant when women in the late 19th century talked about being “married” to each other. So it seemed a good subject for a podcast.
To map out the scope of today’s discussion, I first need to define the concepts mentioned in the title: “women,” “same-sex,” and “marriage”. Although the topics in this podcast often engage with the ambiguities of gender identity and sexuality in history, in this case, it’s a bit simpler to find a useful definition. Because western culture has historically made a strong connection between marriage and heterosexual relationships, and because western culture has historically placed significant weight on physiology in defining the sexes, and because one of the central concepts of marriage has been about the recognition of a relationship by its community, I think that in this context we can reasonably use “same-sex” to mean “two persons to whom society would assign the same physiological sex.”
So although some of the historic cases I’ll talk about may very well be reasonably classified as a heterosexual relationship between a woman and a trans man, within their historic context, those relationships would have been evaluated by contemporaries as being same-sex.
Marriage can most generally be understood as a socially-recognized personal contract. And therefore the understanding that society had of the people involved is relevant to whether and how they recognized a particular contract. So in this episode when I talk about “female husbands” or about marriage involving gender disguise, I’m defining how contemporaries understood the people involved. This isn’t to say that these historic societies didn’t have an understanding of transgender concepts, but that’s an entirely different show that maybe I’ll be tackling at some point.
“Marriage” is actually the trickiest concept to define of the three. While all of the cultural contexts that I’m going to consider today had a core, prototypical model for marriage, those models could vary enormously and could have extremely different methods of recognizing or controlling the institution.
Marriage might be a personal contract between two individuals, or the familial equivalent of a business merger involving two extended families. A significant theme is the recognition and provision for any children produced by the couple and defining their relationship to the larger kin group. This focus on establishing the legal status of any children is one of the aspects that has continued to tie the concepts of marriage and procreation together up to the present day. One type of argment raised against the legalization of same-sex marriage in the present century was that same-sex couples had no need to use marriage as a framework for legitimizing children. (Never mind that the argument ignored shifts in the understanding and mechanism of parenthood. The point is that the concepts are still closely associated in people’s minds.) But while sexual relations are typically asociated with marriage, they have never been considered an absolute deal-breaker. Some versions of Christianity have considered the most desireable form of marriage to be a chaste one in which the partners don’t engage in sex at all. So in looking for historic examples of same-sex marrige, I’m not concerned with whether the relationship was sexual or not.
A marriage contract might be religious in nature, or secular, or both. The religions considered in this review were not always the familiar major monotheistic ones. Marriage might involve a formal legal contract or a personal commitment or even simply a recognition that the couple were behaving as if married.
There might be different types of marriage within a culture, and people might be allowed to engage in more than one at a time. Despite the general emphasis on marriage as a relationship relevant to procreation, there have been cultures with formally recognized institutions of same-sex marriage between women, although those are largely outside the scope of what I’m looking at today. Entire volumes have been written about the history and institution of marriage and no matter what characteristics you identify to define it, you’ll find some culture that breaks that rule.
So the question of determining whether a given relationship is or is not a “marriage” can be complicated. A few historic shifts in the practice of marriage within Christian Europe can show some of these complexities. The early Catholic church, although it frowned on sex outside marriage, had no interest in administering marriages and declined to be involved in formalizing them. Marriage wasn’t recognized as a sacrament until the late 12th century and it wasn’t until the 13th century that it became required practice for marriages to be announced in church. Only in the 16th century did it become a requirement that a priest be a witness for a Catholic marriage to be valid. And, of course, by that time the emerging Protestant cultures established different structures, largely shifting management of marriages to the state. In England it wasn’t until the mid 18th century that marriage required a formal registration and witnesses. Before these various formalizations, a marriage could be contracted simply by the two parties making a statement to each other. Or, in the case of common-law marriage, by behaving publicly as if they were married.
Apart from these questions of what the boundaries of formal, recognized marriage were, there’s the question how couples understood a private relationship that used the forms and language of marriage, such as the exchange of rings and vows. Even in cultures where the common understanding was that marriage would involve a heterosexual couple, there was not always an obvious legal bar to same-sex marriages. Often because it wasn’t considered necessary.
So with all that as background, let’s look at some of the broad issues in same-sex marriage between women in Western culture before moving on to specifics.
It can be useful to identify three general categories of same-sex marriage. The first is when the institution of marriage is openly available to a same-sex couple and is acknowledged or accepted as such.
The second is when individuals participate in the formal institution of marriage by means of presenting themselves as an acceptable couple. Here we’re talking about one member of the couple being accepted as fulfilling a male social role. As we’ll see later, this didn’t necessarily mean complete secrecy about that individual’s physiological sex. Remember that one of the central themes of marriage is recognition and acceptance by the community. There are cases where a couple’s community tacitly accepted the legal fiction that allowed two women to marry by this means. It was a precarious acceptance, but there are cases where such couples were recognized as married.
The third situation is where the couple themselves viewed their relationship as the functional equivalent of a marriage, often with community support for that understanding, but without the backing of formal approval by the relevant legal or religious institutions. One might argue that these cases aren’t “real” marriage, but in that case one could similarly argue that there were no “real” marriages in eras or cultures where marrige wasn’t under formal administrative control.
So let’s look at some historic examples of same-sex marriages.
Same-Sex Marriage Openly Available
There is a repeating theme in several classical-era Roman texts referring to women engaging in same-sex marriage in Egypt. Keep in mind that, throughout history, it’s been common to associate women’s same-sex relationships with foreign locations--whatever “foreign” meant in that particular context. So when Roman writers indicate “this is a thing that those foreign people in Egypt do” we should keep a certain level of critical awareness. But at the least, these are practices that Roman culture believed about Egypt. A novel by the 2nd century Greek author Iamblichos that is known only through secondary references tells a story about a woman named Berenike (that is, Bernice), the daughter of the king of Egypt, who loved and married a woman named Mesopotamia. Within the context it’s clear that this is an allegorical story about the personifications of various regions, but it presents marriage between women as possible.
In support of the possibility that this represents an actual Egyptian practice, Jewish writings of the classical era refer to marriage between two men or two women as “following the practice of Egypt or Canaan”. Other writers of the 2nd century also associated Egypt with marriage between women.
The lack of a central authority over marriages in classical Rome raises the question of the status of some satirical references to female marriages. In Lucian’s Dialogs of the Courtesans, one story tells about a masculine-presenting woman named Megilla who refers to her female partner Demonassa as her wife. Was this a case where such a partnership was recognized as a marriage specifically because Megilla’s trans-masculine presentation was considered sufficient to meet the cultural expectations? Or was this a situation where women had access to marriage as a de facto status despite the social and economic pressures against it?
Classical Roman culture shared with ancient Greek culture a strongly binary and performative definition of masculinity and femininity that corresponded to active and passive roles in sex. This meant that Roman writers (and we’re inevitably talking about male writers here) found it hard to conceptualize an erotic relationship between women that wasn’t, in effect, a butch-femme couple. What isn’t entirely clear is to what extent couples who matched that image would be accepted as being married. And keep in mind that we aren’t talking about the Roman elite here, where familial power structures were solidly partriarchal. So when we’re considering possible candidates for Roman same-sex marriage, we’re talking about the lower classes and foreigners, not patrician families.
One other piece of tantalizing Roman evidence involves a visual representation associated with married couples. The depiction in art of a man and woman with their right hands joined was a solid, unambiguous symbol that they were married. This pose, called dextrarum iunctio, literally “the joining of right hands” was a part of the marriage ceremony and was often used on tombstones to indicate the married status of the people being commemorated. Tombstones were not casual and informal artifacts and were a very public statement regarding their subjects. So the Roman tombstone from the 1st century BCE showing two women, Eleusis and Helena, with joined right hands is either an official public recognition of their married status, or at the very least a proclamation that they considered their relationship to be a marriage.
Same-Sex Marriage By Gender Disguise
At the other end of the scale of public acceptance we have those cases where women married by fitting themselves into a heterosexual template by means of one of them taking on a male persona. This is the topic where I need to emphasize most strongly that I’m talking about two individuals who would have been classified as being women by their contemporaries. There were a wide variety of reasons why a female-classified person would choose to take up a male social role. There are also a variety of reasons why such a person would add marriage to a woman to the performance of that role. The topic of this discussion doesn’t involve motivations or self-identity but simply the fact that this was one context in which same-sex marriage occurred. And from the point of view of writing fictional characters in history, it’s the most obvious option if you want your characters to be able to marry. Furthermore, as we’ll see, taking this option did not mean that the “husband” was restricted to performing a male role in public for the rest of their life.
There are so many examples of this type of marriage that I’m only going to skim the surface. And by definition, we only know about the ones where someone found out about it and recorded the case for posterity. So I’m not going to dwell on the sometimes unpleasant context in which the marriage was recorded, except to note that the question of marriage itself wasn’t always considered a problem. Sometimes there is a mention of crimes against the institution of marriage, but more often the negative reaction involved forbidden sexual practices, or the use of marriage for fraudulent purposes. In many cases, the “wife” in the couple was perfectly aware and accepting of her husband’s female physiology but there may have been other interpersonal problems that led to making the matter public. In other cases, the wife raised an objection due to this discovery. And in some cases, the matter came to light only after death.
The earliest recorded marriages of this type date to the 15th century. That doesn’t mean they weren’t happening earlier. There’s a great deal of variation in how much interest and attention was given to same-sex marriages. So the numbers in the historic record aren’t a certain guide to actual demographics. But circumstances like easy movement between communities, and the relative anonymity of town life as compared to more rural communities, mean that the 15th century may well have been a turning point for the ability to successfully engage in same-sex marriages by gender disguise.
In fact, we have clear evidence that people understood the idea of this sort of marriage earlier, because they wrote stories about it. The earliest version, and the one that gave rise to several later variants, is the Greek author Ovid’s story about Iphis and Ianthe, although the original version doesn’t quite count as a same-sex marriage as the goddess Venus changes the gender-disguised Iphis into a biological man before the wedding takes place. But Benserade’s Renaissance version of the story has the two women marrying and enjoying a happy wedding night before the transformation. And one of the annotated medieval manuscripts of the story offers support for its plausibility in an anecdote about a same-sex marriage involving gender disguise where the “husband’s” mother assists in the plan.
Similarly, some versions of the medieval tale of Yde and Olive, in which the disguised Yde wins the heart and hand of Olive, the emperor’s daughter, show them going through with the marriage, and only later does the story resolve to eliminate the problematic same-sex aspect of the marriage.
This also happens in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil, where the gender-disguised Blanchandine goes along with marriage to the Saracen princess Clarinde and only afterward is magically transformed into a biological man to solve the dilemma.
But getting back to the 15th century and real life, Katherina Hetzeldorder may not technically have been married to the woman she identified as her wife when they arrived in Speier, Germany in the 1470s. And in any event, she didn’t behave in a very married fashion as she got into trouble due to making advances to other women there. We don’t have a record of the name of her male identity, as is often the case.
The 16th century sees an expanding number of same-sex marriages in the records. Examples are recorded in Germany, between Agatha Dietzsch and Anna Reulin, in France where a group of seven or eight women began traveling together as men, one of whom married a local woman, and another case in Switzerland where the couple is not named.
In the 17th century, we have the marriage of Amy Poulter, using the identity James Howard, to Arabella Hunt. Unlike the more scanty descriptions in the previous century, here we learn how they met, and something of their life together before Arabella found out that her husband was a bigamist, being previously married to a man. This isn’t the only case where a same-sex marriage raised the question of bigamy, which would seem to strengthen the idea that these were considered valid marriages of a sort. Bigamy was a fairly common legal problem in the context of opposite-sex marriages, and it’s interesting to see the number of cases where it was treated as the central problem in same-sex marriages, rather than the central problem being that of the identity of the participants.
Another 17th century case was recorded in Spain in private records, where a woman escaped an abusive marriage by becoming a man and marrying a woman in that guise. The record appears to indicate that she disclosed her story to the writer, but was not otherwise discovered in her lifetime.
18th century English records offer a wealth of examples of same-sex marriage, commonly known at that time as “female husbands”. Some of our knowledge of them comes from newspaper accounts where they were popular fodder for tabloids. We often get quite touching stories in these cases, with a sense of sympathy from the reporters.
In 1760, a woman named Barbara Hill tried to enlist in the army under the name John Brown but was recognized by a former acquaintance. It came out that she was married to a woman “with whom she has lived very agreeably ever since.” The account further notes that after the discovery, her wife pled not to be separated from her, and the writer appears to be sympathetic to their position.
When Mary East and her female friend decided that marriage to each other was the most practical way to arrange their lives, they said they drew lots to decide which of them would become the “husband”, with Mary being assigned the male role as Mr. How. They kept a public house together for many years.
A similar long-term marriage, lasting 20 years, was recorded in 1764 after the death of farmer John Chivy who was discovered to be a woman.
Although reports of female husbands were common, one was elevated to celebrity status due to her story being adapted by novelist Henry Fielding as The Female Husband. The true story of Mary Hamilton is only slightly less sensational than the novel. She began living as a man at age 14 and apprenticed to a quack doctor. Practicing medicine on her own under the name Charles Hamilton, she married Mary Price who somewhat belatedly raised objections to the match. It appears that Charles Hamilton may later have traveled to America as a person matching that life story appears in legal records there.
In addition to sensational news reports, another source of data on same-sex marriages comes from parish marriage registers. Curiously, the clergymen keeping these records sometimes recorded suspicions about the identity of the couple they were marrying but didn’t feel compelled to refuse to perform the ceremony. A pastor recorded his suspicion that John Smith who showed up to marry Elizabeth Huthall was actually a woman, noting “I almost could prove them both women, the one was dressed as a man, thin pale face and wrinkled chin.” But he performed the ceremony nevertheless.
The ceremony for John Mountford and Mary Cooper, however, was cancelled as the clergyman suspected John of being a woman. Whereas John Ferren and Deborah Nolan married successfully and then John was later discovered to be a woman, though we don’t have any evidence of whether the marriage was annulled because of it.
The Dutch woman Maria van Antwerpen began living as a man to make a living as a soldier, and then courted and married a woman. When the disguise was discovered due to encountering someone who had known her in her previous life, one of the charges brought against her was “mocking laws concerning marriage” indicating that the authorities did consider this to be an offense in and of itself.
After the 18th century, records of “female husbands” decline in number, though it’s unclear whether this was due to stricter scrutiny of couples, because the image of same-sex marriages was no longer considered to be entertaining news, or because women no longer considered this a desirable or necessary path to spending their lives together.
Cross-over Cases with Elements of Gender-Crossing and Overt Same-Sex Marriage
But it isn’t always the case that same-sex marriages involving a male persona were entirely concealed from the authorities. Some female couples lived openly as women either before or after the marriage.
The 17th century Dutch couple, Bertelmina Wale and Maeyken Joosten began their relationship openly as women. Maeyken began wearing male clothing and using the name Abraham in order for them to marry. Another Dutch couple in the 18th century took a similar path. Cornielia Gerrits van Breugel and Elisabeth Boleyn began their relationship as a female couple. Cornelia took on a male persona in order for them to marry but returned to a female presentation afterward.
In 18th century Germany, Catharina Margaretha Lincken moved back and forth between female and male presentations. She became engaged to Catharina Margaretha Mühlhahn while living as a man and identified her mother as one of the witnesses that she was legally free to marry. Although Mühlhahn seems not to have been aware of Lincken’s physiological sex at the time of the wedding, she later supported her spouse when questions arose. When the matter finally came out and went to trial, Lincken testified that regarding her marriage, “she thought she would be well able to answer this before God.”
In some cases, people who had been living as female went to the authorities and requested to be reclassified as male so that they could marry their chosen female partner. Eleno de Céspedes, in 16th century Spain, had been living a male identity for a number of years, though raised as female and with a previous marriage and pregnancy as a woman. Eleno requested to be examined and certified as male in order to marry María del Caño. Some time after the marriage, suspicions were raised that resulted in a second examination that contradicted the first. Ironically, this was one of the cases where one of the charges against Eleno was that of bigamy, as there was no proof that the father of Eleno’s child was dead prior to Eleno’s marriage to María.
A similar case occurred in early 17th century France, where a person who had been raised as female asked permission to be reclassified as male to marry their lover. The request was evidently successful. Less successful was the request of 18th century Dutch prisoner Elisabeth Wijngraaff to be reclassifed in order to marry a fellow female prisoner.
The situation of Anne Grandjean in 18th century France demonstrates the confusing contortions that the authorities were willing to go through to re-define same-sex relations as heterosexual. There seems to have been no reason for anyone to classify Anne as male except for the fact that she’d fallen in love with a woman. But on that basis, Anne was ordered to dress and behave as a man and eventually married a woman in that guise.
And sometimes, inexplicably, we may have evidence of two women being recorded in a marriage register under female names and with no comment at all. This is the case in 18th century England for Ane Norton and Alice Pickford, and for Hannah Wright and Anne Gaskill. We know nothing at all about their stories except for the records of their marriages. Was this a case of a liberal minded local pastor? Or perhaps one who simply couldn’t be bothered to make an objection, similarly to the ones who suspected a disguise but performed the marriage anyway? We also have to accept the possibility that the female names in the register don’t correspond to female persons. Name gender isn’t a fixed and certain thing. In medieval records, forms of names that we would consider masculine were used by women. And in some Catholic cultures, names of female saints were sometimes given to men. I don’t know if any local historian has tried to scour the records for more information about these four apparent women. But in the mean time, we’re allowed to imagine just what those records might mean.
Same-Sex Relationships Treated as Equivalent to Marriage
Once the institution of marriage came under government administration and there are formal authorities determining what does and does not count as a legal marriage, some of the less formal avenues became closed off to female couples. But there have always been couples who decided to consider themselves married and use the symbolism and language of that legal status. In countries that had a formal institution of “common-law marriage”, such relationships might even have legal status...as long as they fit the acceptable paradigm of man and woman. But especially from the 18th century onward, we find many examples of female couples behaving publicly as if they were married and being accepted by their associates as having that status, if not that legal state.
The famous “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, used the language of marriage to describe their relationship, referring to each other specifically as husband and wife, as well as more obliquely with language like “my better half.” And their friends and associates described them in similar terms.
Butler and Ponsonby’s contemporary, Anne Lister, invoked marriage as the nature of her relationship with her longtime lover Marianne. In one diary entry she writes, “Went upstairs at 11. Sat up lovemaking, she conjuring me to be faithful, to consider myself as married, & always to act to other women as if I was Marianne's husband.” Later she writes a very loving letter to Marianne and addresses her as “my wife”. And a few months afterward, visiting Marianne at the home of her brother in Newcastle, Anne records two important events: they exchange “an irrevocable promise for ever” and symbolize it with the exchange of a ring that Anne had previously given Marianne. Although, note that all of this happens in a context where Marianne has an existing marriage to a man.
The marriage-like pairings of women in the later 19th century were so widely known and accepted that terms like “Boston marriage” and “Amherst marriage” were in common currency, the latter named for teachers at the women’s college of Amherst who frequently set up households in pairs.
While such relationships may have had no legal standing, they had the social recognition and acceptance that has always been one of the organizing principles of the institution of marriage. Such social recognition might be commemorated after death just as it was in life, as I discussed in a previous podcast on grave memorials. The visual and descriptive symbolism of marriage was sometimes used to commemorate female couples after death even when the specific terminology was not used, as in the joint memorials of Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones, or Katharina Bovey and Mary Pope, both in the early 18th century.
This survey may not be entirely satisfactory for those looking to validate their historic female couples with the blessings of matrimony. The circumstances in which two women, living publicly as women, could enter into a legally binding and legally recognized marriage were few and not always solidly documented.
A more universal option, in nearly all time periods, was for one member of the couple to play a male role and gain access to marriage in that way.
But even the strategy of having one partner present as male for the sake of the marriage did not necessarily mean a lifelong masquerade or require the ignorance of their community, even though communal acceptance was certainly rare and tenuous.
And women across the ages have entered into personal oaths and commitments, using the symbols and rituals of marriage regardless of the opinions of their contemporaries--though sometimes with their blessing and acceptance as well.
So if you feel that your lesbian historical romance requires a marriage for its happily ever after, know that you have a variety of options to choose from, and go ahead and have your characters start shopping for rings.
One of the themes mentioned by several authors in the collection The Lesbian Premodern was that social understandings of gender/sexuality in Western culture behave in cyclic ways, not as a linear evolutoin of understanding and expression. Lanser's article here looks at one of those cycles: the association of female homoerotic discourse, feminist philosophy, and woman-centered socializing. Understanding cycles such as these can be critical to grounding fiction in a particular time and place. I could easily see a historic novel set in early modern England that deliberately evoked resonances with aspects of lesbian-feminism of the '70s while still remaining true to it's own time.
Lanser, Sue. 2007. “The Political Economy of Same-Sex Desire” in Structures and Subjectivities: Attending to Early Modern Women, ed. Joan Hartman and Adele Seeff. University of Delaware Press, Newark, DE. ISBN 0-7413-941-4 pp.157-75
Lanser opens her article with the bold hypothesis that “in or around 1650, female desire changed.” That there was a conceptual shift in gender relations reflected in literature, politics, religion, and individual behavior in which private intimate relationships between women became part of public life, and that this shift shaped women’s emergence as political subjects claiming equal rights. The mechanism for this was an appropriation of the emerging importance of elite same-sex friendships between men and the use of parallel friendship structures among women to support struggles for autonomy and authority. Although these friendships were enacted in the context of an erotically-tinged discourse, elite women often deflected suspicions of lesbianism by developing a class-based conservatism.
In this article, Lanser goes beyond her previous analysis of the social results of this shift, and argues that the shift may be considered a collective strategy to create a context for emerging feminist consciousness and actions, not simply a reflection of individual, pre-existing desire. A “sapphic” consciousness (encompassing both private and public expressions of same-sex desire) acted to dismantle the logic of patriarchy and thus formed the basis for the emergence of modern feminism.
One objective observation is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the representation of female same-sex intimacy in print experienced something of an explosion. Sapphic scenarios in the late 16th century were primarily generated by men and tended to express male anxieties and fantasies (i.e., that women could “become” men and lay claim to male spaces and privileges). Female same-sex desire was attributed to abnormal physiology, moral degeneracy, or the mistaken direction of an underlying heterosexual desire. The most positive representations in that era tended to invoke abstract and distanced images of desire between women, as in John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis”.
But with the 17th century, women’s expressions of same-sex desire begin to come into print circulation. Lanser offers the following catalog, focusing strongly but not exclusively on poems addressed by one woman to another:
Scholarship has traditionally attempted to explain the homoerotic elements in these on the basis of individual biography, but taken as a whole, this literature calls for a more systemic analysis. Why would this explosion of women into published literature include such public expressions of private same-sex desire. [Note: Lanser doesn’t quite state it outright, perhaps assuming her readership doesn’t need it pointed out, but the 17th century is when women began having their personal writings published in significant numbers are all. So this isn’t a case of the body of published woman-authored literature suddenly introducing same-sex desire as a topic, but that the expression of same-sex desire is part and parcel of women entering the world of published literature.] The question is not simply “do these works represent their authors’ personal desires?” but “why would the authors choose to include representation of same-sex desire in their published work?”
One traditional argument has been to connect sapphic topics with women appropriating masculine forms and conventions, i.e., inhabiting an underlyingly male authorial position addressing a female object because that was how the literary genre was structured. This strategy works to erase the sapphic potential by essentially transforming women writers into “male” voices. [Note: this is, of course, a strategy with a long history in western culture for managing anxiety around same-sex activity. If you can re-define anyone who expresses desire for a woman as inherently masculine, then you don’t need to acknowledge same-sex desire.] This position is difficult to maintain in the face of women’s literature that explicitly elevates same-sex relationships over cross-sex ones.
From a different angle, more recent arguments have been that the homo-desiring elements in this work are used to re-direct the authors’ same-sex desires into an acceptable literary form, creating an image of “chaste femme love” (per Valerie Traub) to distinguish and distance themselves from the “taint” of both tribadism and masculinity. But this explanation fails to support why the authors would include same-sex desire in their work at all if the goal was to avoid attracting suspicion.
Scholarship around the poetry of Katherine Philips and whether it can be read as “lesbian” is a useful lens for examining all the various academic approaches to the topic. Was Philips simply imitating an existing heterosexual “poetic love language” that did not reflect her personal desires? Does her work provide unquestionable evidence that both Philips and her poetry can be classified as “lesbian”? Whether one considers Philips’ poetry to represent only homoerotic desires, regardless of her behavior, the history of Philips scholarship is an object lesson in methods of erasing lesbian possibilities.
Lanser returns to the argument that the inclusion by Philips and other writers of sapphic themes in publicly circulated work must be viewed as a communal reshaping of discourse that operated on levels beyond the simply personal. This argument holds even more strongly for authors who included sapphic themes in their writing with no corresponding motivation in their personal life, such as Margaret Cavendish and Delarivier Manley. Assuming that homoerotic content in their writings necessarily corresponds to homoeroticism in their lives erases women’s agency in using literary themes for public ends.
Perhaps the pertinent question is, “why would women--regardless of their individual private lives--include sapphic themes in their public writing?” Here Lanser returns to her thesis that those themes represent and support a larger social and political movement towards women’s equality and empowerment. And specifically that those themes are part of a deliberate (if diffuse) strategy to create that movement. Simone de Beauvoir is cited as noting that one barrier to women’s collective agency is that individual women are dispersed among patriarchal structures that hinder the ability to see themselves--much less act--as a unified group. But Lanser points out the “agency of print”--the ways in which creation of a published body of literature can become a collective act and can represent itself as the voice of the larger population. Print technology offered a new and powerful means of constructing a collective voice.
Pre-modern literature that made feminist arguments did so largely by comparing women to men and begging for men’s good will and recognition of women’s worth, as in Christine de Pisan’s City of Ladies. Beginning around 1600, feminist treatises (such as the pseudonymous Jane Anger’s 1589 Protection for Women or Moderata Fonte’s 1600 treatise The Worth of Women) argue from the premise that women’s social power can only derive from separating themselves from men and focusing their resources in support of other women. Other authors who took a “women first” stand included Lady Mary Chudleigh, Marie de Romieu, and a semi-anonymous group of six London maidservants who published an open letter in 1567 appealing to their female employers to make common cause.
All of these texts highlight the idea of a homosocial economy of women that allows for equality in relationships (an equality not possible between women and men) that can stand against patriarchal structures. The specific activities of constructing these homosocial bonds point out the inequality of male-male friendships and female-female ones: men’s same-sex friendships act within and support patriarchy while women’s same-sex friendships act to subvert and negate its power. For women to create non-marital bonds outside the family was an inherent act of challenge to the status quo which expected women’s loyalties to be to husband, household, and extended family in that order.
Such female alliances were not necessarily or inherently erotic, but given the ways in which women’s oppression was enacted through control of female bodies, for women to claim control of the disposition of their own bodies in ways that excluded men had significant symbolic importance. This sentiment is embodied in the ca. 1700 poem “Cloe to Artimesia” which praises love between women as being above “the dangerous follies of such slavish love” (i.e., love of men) and urges women to “scorn the monster (i.e., man) and his mistress too,” staking out a position reminiscent of late 20th century feminist arguments that the only true feminist position was to reject relationships with men entirely.
Thus female same-sex relationships became almost a pre-requisite for envisioning women’s equality and empowerment, even when such relationships were not practical to enact, and regardless of whether the women envisioning them had an individual erotic orientation toward women. The vision of utopian sapphic relationships created the framework for the practical and material enactment of “friendship as kinship” when other shifts in the social and economic landscape put its realization within reach. That utopian vision might be limited, as in Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure where the premise of the female-only society ultimately resolves into heterosexual marriage, but one could argue that the disguised prince who marries Lady Happy must “become as a woman” to earn that goal. Other works by Cavendish, such as The Female Academy, create women’s separatist communities without the same overt frisson of homoeroticism, but still operating on the premise that women best support women by operating outside of male structures. And her works are regularly infused with the images of female friendships and female intimacies as utopian spaces.
These are only some of the texts that create a direct connection between female homoeroticism and resistance to male authority. Within this context, personal homoerotic desire may have been awakened within the context of political rhetoric, rather than necessarily the other way around.
One parallel theme that emerges from these writings is the depiction of female homoeroticism as driven by an appreciation of similarity. While authors such as Valerie Traub caution against taking this “erotic similitude” as the only theme within early modern sapphic discourse, Lanser considers it plausible that the emphasis on similarity enabled women to construct themselves as authoritative agents by recognizing that authority in other women. This is not to deny the material embodiment of the homoeroticism of these early modern texts, nor to suggest that their imagery is only metaphorical or that none of these writers were reflecting their own romantic and erotic lives. But the expression of those images and ideas could also have political purposes and consequences. And the expression of those ideas could, in turn, give women a context for recognizing and expressing their personal erotic desires. Here Lanser returns to her somewhat tongue-in-cheek proclamation at the start that “female desire changed around 1650.”
In closing, Lanser notes that the ideas she presents here were at play in the 1970s in the concepts of “political lesbianism” and “cultural feminism” as well as the (re)introduction of similitude as a model for female homoeroticism (alongside the earlier 20th century butch-femme model that invoked the concept of desire being driven by difference). Just as the dynamic interplay of lesbian discourse and feminist political action created a synergy for women’s empowerment in the later 20th century, there is evidence for that same interplay in the 17th century.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 24c - Book Appreciation with Justine Saracen - No transcript is available at this time
(Originally aired 2018/07/21 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favourite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Justine Saracen recommends some favourite queer historical novels:
For further information on Justine Saracen see her Bold Strokes Books web page or the show notes for the previous episode of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast when she was interviewed.
The unfortunate fact is that one of the best sources of detailed information on pre-modern same-sex eroticism comes from legal records when those relationships came under scrutiny either by religious or secular authorities. This not only means that those case histories often are accompanied by tragic fates or at least unhappy ends, but it means that we can get an image of the participants as viewing their own experiences negatively.
Marina de San Miguel was eventually bullied into labeling her erotic experiences as sin and heresy, the result of having been misled and tempted by the devil. But if we read past and beyond the text on the page, we get a glimpse of a religious community that considered "free love"--including homosexual relationships--to lie outside of the question of sin or innocence. The Alumbrados were certainly not the first or only religious sect to take this view. I wouldn't hold up the Alumbrados as any sort of enlightened philosophy--it had its deeply peculiar aspects as much as any other religious philosophy--but beliefs such as theirs provide an interesting counterpoint to the common belief that homosexuality was universally condemned by those considering themselves Christians.
Holler, Jacqueline. 1999. “’More Sins than the Queen of England’: Marina de San Miguel before the Mexican Inquisition” in Women in the Inquisition: Spain and the New World, ed. Mary E. Giles. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. ISBN 0-8018-5931-X pp.209-28
In 1599 in Mexico City, a 54 year old Dominican “beata” concluded her confession to the Inquisition by indicating she had nothing more to say “even though she might have more sins than the queen of England”. Marina de San Miguel was accused of heresy (specifically the “alumbrado” heresy) but also that she was considered a “holy woman” by her neighbors, known for her visions and raptures, that she acted as a prophet and mystic, and that she had engaged in sexual misconduct, “so abominable and lewd that even the devil himself would be offended by [her actions]”--a charge that Marina’s own testimony supported.
[Note: The connection between heresy and sexual transgressions had a long history at this point. One need only point out that the word “bugger” in its sexual sense was a corruption of “Bulgar” in reference to a heresy attributed to Bulgaria.]
The connection of these three themes is not coincidental. For the Inquisition, they presented a seamless and coherent case. Rapturous visions were strongly associated with the alumbrado heresy, as was sexual license. But these features also demonstrate both the potential advantages and delicate balance of the life of a beata. Because of her reputation for holiness, Marina enjoyed an important position in her community and held authority among her religious peers. Her position also gave her a context for enjoying her sensual desires. But those benefits only existed so long as the legal authorities took no notice.
The article gives a detailed history and context for the Inquisition in New Spain, which I won’t summarize. In general, Inquisitors were concerned narrowly with inhabitants of European origin, not those of native ethnicity, and covered an enormous geographic scope. Due to the temporal scope of the Inquisition in the New World, they were more concerned with intra-Catholic religious doctrine than with the pursuit of crypto-Jews or outright heretics, although those were concerns as well. Investigations of heresy were far less common than trials for bigamy, blasphemy, superstition, and witchcraft. But beginning in 1598, there was a concerted action against an organized, clandestine cell of alumbrado heretics in New Spain, which included Marina de San Miguel.
Marina was born in Spain to a reasonably well-off middle-class family, some of whom had New World connections, and her biography is typical of Spanish immigrants to New Spain. As a child, her father moved the family there for the financial opportunities. Having earned “something to live on” they returned to Spain and squandered the money. Marina was more interested in spiritual matters and at 16 took a vow of chastity in the convent of La Merced in Seville. That is, she became a beata, but not a nun. She had more freedom of choice in where she lived and the nature of her vows, as well as how she might earn her living. But she had committed not to marry and was expected to engage in a spiritual life. These freedoms also involved hazards if one were considered to have gone astray.
Due to financial considerations, Marina’s family returned to Mexico. Her mother died and her father wanted her out of the way so he could re-marry. Mexico City had few options for cloistered nuns, which required a substantial dowry for entrance, but life as a beata was an option, just as it was in Spain. Marina was sent to the Colegio de las Niñas (College of the Girls) which was not quite a convent, but at least was a placement outside the home, but this was no longer an option after her father killed his wife’s lover and fled to Peru. Marina went to live with a tradeswoman and then later took a house with her sister where they earned a living sewing and teaching girls. After that they took lodgings with a wealthy patron who became Marina’s spiritual advisor. Their father died and Marina used her inheritance to buy a house in that same wealthy neighborhood, where she took in lodgers. At the time of Marina’s inquisition, she testified that she had been living there for thirteen years.
Marina was well-educated and religiously observant. She had achieved financial independence. So why did she come under the scrutiny of the Inquisition?
The role of the beata in the community had a lot of latitude. Marina’s personal reputation came in part from being a sort of spiritual social worker, providing counseling to neighbors with medical or psychiatric concerns. But Marina’s own life included visions, trances, and episodes involving physical manifestations of religious experiences. This seems to have enhanced her reputation as a holy woman in her community, though there were occasional concerns that she profited from the “gifts” given her in exchange for her services.
Relations between men and women in the context of mysticism fell into some regular patterns. Female mystics might enjoy guidance, support, and protection from male patrons while those patrons gained access to an “exciting realm of direct revelation.” Such relations were not necessarily suspect with regard to sexuality.
The alumbrado heresy was not a coherent belief system, but more of a mystical tradition. [Note: This article assumes familiarity with the topic, but Wikipedia linked above supplies the information that it involved belief in the ability to perfect the soul such that it could comprehend the essence of God without need for mediation. Those in this state had no need of sacraments and were incapable of sin. They could fulfill any desires, including sexual ones, without risk to their souls.] The late 16th century alumbrado group in Mexico involved both men and women in roughly equal numbers. Marina was, perhaps, typical in her experience. She felt she had a direct link to God which enabled her to prophesize and dispense God’s favor.
But Marina was not an oblivious innocent in dealing with the Inquisition. She was very cautious in what she confessed, and admitted to next to nothing that would condemn her. She did indicate that she received “gifts” and visions during her trances but initially seemed to rely on her questioners accepting her sanctity. However, two months after her initial questioning, she requested an audience and reported that she felt the need to make confession of her sins.
She had experienced a temptation of the flesh, she said, and had performed “dishonest acts with her own hands in her shameful parts” at the urging of the devil who had come to her in the form of an angel and in the form of Christ. In this, she echoed the testimony of other religious women with ecstatic sexual experiences, including Bendetta Carlini. Marina also testified that her relationship with her spiritual sponsor had been carnal as well, including tongue-kissing, fondling of the breasts and genitals, though not intercourse. And they would discuss these experiences as being part of God’s will.
She had engaged in hugging and kissing with another man who lived with her, and recalled feeling desire for him to touch her breasts, but had not done that with him. And she recounted an erotic relationship with another beata, deceased by that time, with whom she had engaged in kissing, hugging, fondling of the breasts, and with whom “she came to pollution ten or twelve times, twice in the church.” [Note: “come to pollution” is a way of describing orgasm.] Marina described using a mirror to examine her own genitalia while masturbating, saying that she had done these things “not to delight in them” but as a way of giving thanks to God for the wonder of his creation.
Through it all, Marina asserted that she had never believed she was sinning at the time. That “to the clean, all things are clean” (part of the alumbrado heresy). So why confess them as sins now? Holler considers that it may have been a deliberate strategy to distract the Inquisitors from the accusations of heresy by offering them lurid sexual details to pursue instead. But this approach would be unlikely to succeed, given that her account scarcely paints her as a passive, innocent victim. Another possibility is that her time in prison genuinely gave her visions of hell, as she claimed, and that her psychological trauma now seemed to her to be retroactive proof that she had sinned.
Marina’s stubborn insistence that she had not considered her actions to be sin at the time she was engaging in them presented a problem for her accusers. Penitence required an acknowledgement of willful wrong-doing not simply an admission that one had been mistaken. The trial transcript shows the inquisitor’s frustration and impatience with Marina’s attitude through extensive questioning until he managed to frame the questions in such a way she was led to accept the official framing of her actions, with the sole exception that she would not admit to faking her visions, but that they had been a true experience. After that, Marina proclaimed that she had nothing more to say “even though she might have more sins than the queen of England”--a symbolic touch-point, as the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I must have been something of an icon of heresy to Spanish Catholics.
This confession made conviction and sentencing finally possible. Marina received possibly the harshest penalty of her alumbrado community--being paraded naked to the waist while her crimes were read out, public confession, one hundred lashes, a fine, and then ten years public service in a hospital. She appears in the records again, shortly afterward, being urgently summoned to give testimony against her mentor because she was “very ill and at risk of dying” after which she is not mentioned again.
A number of familiar themes thread through Marina’s story: the close conflation of heresy and sexual transgression, the precarious social position of women who gained a reputation for sanctity, especially outside of formal church structures, and the differential treatment of men’s and women’s sexual activity. What makes her of interest to this Project is that the “free love” embraced by the alumbrados seems to have encompassed some rather modern-feeling openness toward same-sex love and sex-positivity, along with the mysticism.