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Monday, February 10, 2020 - 07:00

I'm not finished with my "foundational weighty tomes" project, but for the next few months I'm interspersing them with shorter articles on similar themes in order to catch my breath. This one starts a month of articles organized vaguely around the theme of Sappho.

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Full citation: 

Andreadis, Harriette. 1989. “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips, 1632-1664” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 15(1):34-60.

I should really do a podcast about Katherine Philips sometime, because she's a great example of how debates over how and whether to apply the label "lesbian" in historic contexts can obscure and distract from examining the ways in which same-sex desire were expresed in different contexts. It does equal damage to her historic realities to focus on her heterosexual marriage and the question of wehther she ever, you know, actually had sex with women, or to focus on the clearly homoerotic content of her poetry and correspondence and dismiss both the realities of women's social and economic options outside of marriage, and the possibility that her marriage may have brought her a different sort of satisfaction.

The English poet Katherine Philips, writing in the mid-17th century achieved a significant reputation during her own lifetime, one of the earliest English female poets to do so. Despite a bourgeois background, her personal charm and talents brought her entry into court and literary circles. Her reputation would continue into the 18th century before fading into being considered merely sentimental and an example of the préciosité fashion, and of interest only for the male literary circles she intersected. Her significant body of poetry written for friends and associates was published only after her death, though later re-edited with additional non-poetic material including translations of plays and correspondence. During her lifetime, her reputation came from private circulation of her work--a limitation that affected many female poets of the era. In addition to the evidence of the passionate poems dedicated to her female friends, the evidence of her correspondence, especially with her close friend Sir Charles Cotterell, traces the intensely emotional connections she had with a series of women--connections that were explicitly set in conflict with the marriages of those friends, and contrasted with Philips’ decidedly tepid relationship with her husband.

Since the 18th century, her importance has been trivialized or overlooked and is worth a close examination. The core of her work is her emotional focus on other women and the passionate feelings for them that inspired her poetry. In this, she was creative in manipulating both the conventions of heterosexual love poetry, and that of platonic male friendship (with homoerotic overtones) in ways that can only be read as same-sex love between women.

In her youth, Philips created a “society of friendship” among her female circle that used pastoral nicknames and motifs from Italian and French romances. She framed her emotions in the context of neo-Platonism and although she drew on the conventions of the précieux tradition of the French court, she did not indulge in its exaggerated imagery. After the Restoration, her poetry had moved from a more private, contemplative style to public, neo-Classical works on public themes. But it is more accurate to say that she was part of the establishment of this fashion than to assert that she was simply following it.

Several women feature prominently in Philips’ poems. The first was Mary Aubrey, assigned the name “Rosania”. After Aubrey’s marriage, she was replaced in Philips’ affections by Anne Owen, known as “Lucasia.” These poems speak of the union of souls, of the ecstasy of being with the beloved, and of the purity and innocence of their love. If addressed from a man to a woman, there would be no hesitation in classifying them as expressing romantic love. The poems are not simply sentimental expression, but also set forth philosophical arguments for the importance of such love.

Philosophical discussions of (male) platonic love at that time drew from several sources and ideals, including male friendship bonds as the foundation of the civilized state, or platonic ideals of an idyllic retirement to nature. Philips took a more direct and impassioned approach but was in dialogue with those ideals.

Philips’ personal life must be considered when interpreting her literary output. The daughter of a wealthy London cloth merchant, at 16 she married the much older James Philips (54). Although the marriage was amicable, the two had many differences. Katherine loved London intellectual society while her husband preferred his manor on the west coast of Wales. She was a royalist, he was a parliamentarian. (This worked to both their advantages, protecting her during the interregnum, and giving him an advocate after the Restoration.) Separation from her husband (and children) never provoked the anguish that Phlips expressed when separated from her romantic female friends. Her relations with him were described as “duty.”

Despite her own marriage, Philips treated the marriages of her romantic friends as a betrayal, writing one on the topic of “apostasy” and complaining to a confidante that “the marriage of a friend [is] the funeral of a friendship.” A third focus of her passion raised more ambivalence as the woman--known only from her nickname “Berenice”--was a member of the aristocracy, and Philips’ expressions of devotion also carry a tone of supplication to a patroness.

Having achieved success with her plays in Dublin, Philips returned to London where she died of smallpox at age 31. [Note: Andreadis suggests that Philips’ inability to recover from the loss of Lucasia’s friendship two years earlier, combined with her husband’s financial difficulties “left her depressed...weakened, and vulnerable to disease.” I’m uncomfortable with this implication that her romantic disappointment contributed to her death--an echo of the queeress=death trope--especially given that plenty of perfectly happy and contented people died of smallpox in the same era.]

The public poetry that Philips wrote later in her life retained the forms of her friendship poems while lacking much of their passion and are not counted among the foundation of her genius. The combination of her life story and the content of her poetry makes it clear that it would be wrong to classify her poetry as anything other than homoerotic. She was also conscious of the connection between her work and the tradition of male friendship literature, as evidenced by her philosophical correspondence with various men on the topic of the nature and limits of friendship. Their answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.

These responses failed to daunt Philips and her dedication to the topic drew comparisons with the classical poet Sappho, not only for the subject matter, but for her technical brilliance. Interestingly, her contemporaries often felt compelled to contrast Philips' “chaste Orinda” with Sappho’s sexual reputation, even while praising Philips’ verses as “vigorous and masculine”, “solid...and manly.”

This comparison to Sappho was shared with contemporary Aphra Behn, and both were referenced by other woman writers of the time as being an inspiration and model.

The phrase “Sapphic-Platonics” in relation to Philips’ work was coined in 1905 in an introduction to a new edition of her work. The implication of same-sex love invoked by comparisons to Sappho was available throughout Philips’ posterity. There is little direct evidence regarding erotic relations between women in 17th century England, but plentiful literary evidence of what people imagined was possible (see, for example, Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure and Delariviere Manley’s “new Cabal” in The New Atalantis).

One might consider the shift noted by several historians in the later half of the 17th century for male same-sex erotics from an accepted (if not approved) facet of a variety of social institutions, to an increasingly isolated “sub-culture” with the development of molly houses and similar phenomena. The suggestion these historians make is that, before this shift, homosexuality was unacknowledged in import, but not unusual. [Note: but beware of assuming direct parallels between male and female culture.] Regardless of how such relationships were understood by the participants and their society, it is clear that women’s erotic same-sex relationships existed. (Andreadis discusses this in the context of various approaches to modern theories of sexuality and identity.) Philips’ texts can certainly be identified as “lesbian” regardless of one’s position on her own identity.

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Saturday, February 8, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43b - Interview with Stephanie Burgis - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/02/08 - listen here)

(transcript pending)


Books mentioned

Links to Stephanie Burgis Online

If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:

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Wednesday, February 5, 2020 - 09:00

The contracts are all signed, so here's the 2020 fiction series for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast! The order of appearance isn't set yet, so this is alphabetically by author.

  • Ferreira, Jeannelle M. "Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink" - danger and decisions in a Russian Jewish community in the late 19th century
  • Flavell, Caitlin "Talking to Ghosts" - those left behind find comfort from the supernatural (maybe?) in Victorian Scotland
  • Lundoff, Catherine "Cardinal's Gambit" - another adventure with the pirate Jacquotte Delahaye and the spy Celeste Girard, who featured in a previous story on this site
  • Morrison, Diane "A Soldier in the Army of Love" - a tale of war, persecution, and the Court of Love set in 13th century Provance during the crusade against the Cathars
  • Nestojko, Jennifer "Give us this Day" - a baker's widow in 13th century Brittany may have found a new flame...if only her dead husband would let go

Jennifer Nestojko's story is perfect for a Halloween tale, and I'm flipping a coin between Caitlin Flavell's and Catherine Lundoff's for the February story. One of the stories will be scheduled for January 2021 since I'll need to line it up before the next Call for Submissions is finished. I have a lead on a narrator for the Morrison story, but I'm looking for someone to narrate Ferreira's work--which requires a solid comfort level with Yiddish vocabulary and names. If you think that might be you, contact me and we can arrange a voice audition. (This is a paying gig.)

Thank you to all the authors who trusted me with their submissions. I'm really excited about this year's fiction series, which fulfills my goal of expanding to include historic fantasy.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 07:00
cover image: Moontangled

I think I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve read from Stephanie Burgis, though I haven’t real any of her middle grade series. When preparing to recording an interview with her for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast on the occasion of the release of Moontangled, I read the entire series leading up to it. Herewith are some briefer-than-usual reviews of the component parts.

Usually I copy my blog reviews in their entirety over to Goodreads, Amazon, and iBooks, but to avoid awkward repetition, this time I’ll do a general background review that only lives on the blog and then individual “likes” on each book for the commercial sites.

The series posits an alternate history in which 1) magic exists, and 2) during the Roman invasion of Britain, Boudicca was able to successfully repel the occupation, teamed up with her magic-wielding second husband, establishing a model in which women fulfill their natural role in government as the practical, hard-headed sex (selected to join the ruling Boudiccate), supported by their magical husbands who are better suited to the more emotional realm of sorcery.

In the only alt-historical aspect that I had to work to get past, this has made little disruption to the basic outlines and flavor of society in succeeding centuries such that we arrive in the early 19th century with a culture that is recognizably “Regency”, softened by Angland’s international affiliations being due to extensive trade rather than colonial conquest. Probably best not to poke at the questions too sharply (especially for someone like me who did much the same thing in my own alt-Regency series).

The central through-line of the series revolves around Cassandra Harwood, born to a prominent political family but far more interested in learning magic than strategy. Because, of course, it’s not the case that women can’t do magic, only that they don’t. Just as it’s not the case that men can’t be practical and logical, only that they aren’t asked to be. Cassandra--and her brother who similarly bucks gender expectations by declining to learn magic--begins the process of upending the structure of her world by winning the right to study formal magic. And then the consequences start arriving.

Oh, and there are elves and fairies and supernatural creatures with whom the human residents of Angland have very tenuous peace treaties...


In the aftermath of a calamitous magical mistake, Cassandra Harwood is trying to put her life back together in the middle of an unnatural snowstorm as the treaties with the fair folk are fraying dangerously. I very much liked how the initial social conflict (“Argh, my family are trying to throw me together with a man I’m trying to avoid!”) isn’t at all what it seems and we’re led through several different understandings of their back-story as the main conflict progresses. The world-building is intense without taking over the plot and the conflicts never feel manufactured. Charming and intriguing.


A prequel best read after you’d been introduced to the Harwood Spellbook series. The (future) sister-in-law of the central character of Snowspelled is a strong-willed woman who goes after what (and whom) she wants and brings about a satisfying conclusion by refusing to abandon the dreams of any of the people she loves. I particularly enjoyed the casual ethnic diversity of the characters.


Cassandra Harwood has established her girls’ school for magic but the accreditation board arrives with a magical curse in their wake. A bit of light mystery, more details of the engagements between human and supernatural characters in Burgis’s alt-historical Angland, and a quiet set-up for my favorite characters in the series to get their own story. I really enjoy how this series solves plot conflicts with good will and the building of bridges.


Juliana Banks and Caroline Fennell have been secretly engaged for...well, for the last couple books, but there’s one major obstacle to their love. No, not the fact that they’re both women, but the fact that in order to have a successful career as part of the ruling Boudiccate of Angland, Caroline must marry a magician. And until the establishment of the Thornfell (Women’s) College of Magic, only men were magicians. Now that Juliana is a star pupil at Thornfell, why has Caroline grown cold and distant? This is an engaging romance of miscommunication and mistaken self-sacrifice, complicated by a meddling wood-fairy who has her own agenda. A fun and heartwarming romance that pushes all my Regency fantasy buttons.

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Monday, February 3, 2020 - 07:00

Well, there it is: my final thoughts on Foucault. I'm glad I read it, but not sure I've taken away much of value except renewed skepticism.

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Full citation: 

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8

With this third volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality it’s time to sum up my impressions. And mostly I’m just confused why the big take-away that has made a mark in the study of sexuality is the whole thing about “pre-modern people didn’t have a concept of sexuality, they focused on acts not identities.” Because that’s not the theme I take away from this work at all. Oh, to be sure, in the first volume Foucault argues strongly against the pre-modern existence of “sexualities” in the sense of “personal identities that correlate with a particular sexual experience”. But I’m not sure he demonstrates that non-existence unless we’re defining “sexual identities” as only and specifically the set of identities considered standard today. I see evidence and arguments for identities throughout Foucault’s arguments, they just aren’t identities narrowly defined by the gender (or sex) of one’s partners, or by engaging in particular types of sex acts. I’ll agree that to understand sex in the past it’s necessary to break free of assuming that modern sexual identities are fixed, unversal, and exclusive. But I don’t see the evidence that it’s necessary to discard the concept of sexual identities entirely and to view all experience in terms of isolated acts and random expressions of personal taste.

The second take-away I get from reading Foucault (and which I suspected I was going to get before reading) is that any pretensions this work has to presenting some sort of philosophical truth are fatally undermined by the functionally exclusive focus on elite male experiences. Further, by the lack of any genuine self-awareness that this exclusive focus might be a problem. There are places where Foucault appears to acknowledge the narrowness of the population he's studying, but no acknowledgement that this negates any claim that he has to identifying a "truth" about sexuality in general.

In the first volume of this work, Foucault makes a strong point about how the supposed age of Victorian prudery was actually an era of obsessive, excessive focus on sex. He points out that “sexual repression” as a concept is actually a question of enforced control over who is allowed to talk about sex and how they’re allowed to talk about it. It’s unclear that he took these questions to heart and considered what topics he engaged in an obsessive, excessive focus on. How he was part of the social apparatus controlling whose voices on sexual topics were amplified and whose were suppressed.

At any rate, I have paid this part of my dues. But if reading The History of Sexuality changes any aspect of how I discuss sexuality research in the future, I suspect it will be that I drift away from using “Foucaultian” as a shorthand for “social-constructionism”. Because viewing sexuality as shaped by social constructs is a more expansive topic than the position he puts forth, and it embraces possibilities he argues against. And I don’t think that social-constructionism is necessarily in conflict with an understanding that some aspects of sexual desire are innate. But that’s a topic for another day.

Part 1: Dreaming of One’s Pleasures

This section examines Artemidorus’s book The Interpretation of Dreams--the only work of the (classical) period that systematically addresses different sexual acts. It’s the only survival of what was once an extensive literature of dream interpretation and was intended as a practical manual. [Note: One might say that professional dream interpreters were the psychoanalysts of the day.] Artemidorus also presented a theoretical argument for the validity of the field of dream interpretations.

Artemidorus identified two types of dreams: those that simply reflect the dreamer’s present state, and those that tell what is to come and shape the soul to implement it. Another dichotomy is between images that can be read transparently and those that must be read allegorically. The professional dream interpreter comes into play for the latter two of each pair.

Four chapters of the work involve sexual dreams, with other scattered references to sexual imagery. The sex acts in dreams fall in three categories: those in accordance with law, those contrary to law, and those contrary to nature. [Note: The distinction between these categories and the assignment of acts to them is also present in other types of texts, but this work is often cited for the underlying concepts as it discusses them overtly.]

As allegories, the nature of one’s partner in the dream (wife, mistress, prostitute, stranger, married or not, of higher or lower status) is the key to interpretation, not the nature of the act itself. Also relevant is the dreamer’s role in the act, whether active or passive. This distinction gets a bit fuzzy when dealing with things like the category for “against nature”. For a man to dream of being the passive participant in anal sex carries a negative interpretation not because anal sex is involved, but because it’s “unnatural” for a free adult man to be in this position relative to a lower status partner.

There is a very brief mention of interpreting the sexual dreams of women, but a male partner is assumed and the analysis is not detailed in the same ways as that of men’s dreams.

The category of acts “contrary to law” is explored primarily as meaning incest. The category “contrary to nature” can refer either to the sexual position involved or to acts against the relative “nature” of the participants. Dreams of acts “against nature” generally have negative meanings, as do dreams of acts “against law” except in a few highly specific cases. But even negatively-valued sex acts can imply positive dream meanings in particular contexts. [Note: My perception is that Artemidorus was able to construct a positive meaning for almost any sort of dream by manipulation of the allegorical meanings.]

Dream-sex between women (unlike dream-sex between men) is always categorized as “against nature” because the only types of sex acts being considered involve penetration, and it is always considered against a woman’s nature to penetrate.

[Note: This is a point that is easy to misunderstand. “Contrary to nature” doesn’t mean “completely unnatural and never to be done” but rather “not consistent with the characteristics assigned to this category of person.” For example, it is contrary to the nature of a free adult man to allow himself to be penetrated, but it is not contrary to the nature of a male slave to be penetrated by someone of higher status. It is contrary to the nature of a woman to take an active, penetrating role in sex, regardless of partner, because it is woman’s assigned “nature” to be passive/receptive in sex. Thus if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Woman B, then only Woman A is acting “contrary to nature”, whereas if Woman A is the active partner in sex with Man C (regardless of his status) then both are acting “contrary to nature”.]

These interpretations always assume the dreamer is present in the dream and that sex is always a “predictive” image rather than one reflecting current reality. The focus of the interpretation nearly always assumes a male subject.

Part 2: The Cultivation of the Self

[Note: It feels to me as if the rest of volume 3 is a recapitulation of the topics covered in volume 2, but now considering them more in the context of Roman rather than Greek society. If this is the intended distinction, it isn’t made clear.]

The book shifts to a consideration of  a philosophy of “strictness” and a type of individualism in how “the self” was approached. The primary themes are self-control and self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is considered a life-long project. The body must be attended to so that one can attend to the mind and soul. Abstinence (either temporary or permanent) plays a key role in self-knowledge.

Part 3: Self and Others

The “cultivation of the self” now has less focus on the role of pleasure and this shift is associated with, or attributed to, changes in marriage practices and shifts in political dynamics. Marriage was evolving away from a private “ownership” transaction between the bride’s father and the husband--one that did not have significant social or political meaning. In the 1st to 2nd century BCE, marriage was shifting to being a civic institution in which the city participates. The rise of laws regarding adultery are one example of this. As upper class status became more tied to civic roles, marriage as a political strategy became less important. There was more emphasis on marriage as a voluntary partnership. Women gained (relatively) more power in making marriage arrangements. Men were increasingly expected not to maintain other sexual relationships outside marriage.

On the political side, the decline of independent city-states and political life as an upper class profession resulted in a turn to focus on the self as the “profession” of the aristocracy.

Part 4: The Body

This section discusses the field of medicine in classical references, especially medical understandings of sex--both as physiology and activity. Sexual activity was thought to have physical effects on the body, and medical manuals advised how both procreation and sexual pleasure should be organized to optimize health. The mind and “soul” had a role in the pursuit of proper enjoyment of sex. This idea developed into a fixation on sex as a potential hazard to health and spiritual well-being. But this idea must be distinguished from associating sex with sin.

Part 5: The Wife

This section discusses the place of marriage in the understanding of a “good life” (but only from the male point of view). Foucault reviews the evolution of philosophical views of marriage, including emphasis on the personal bond between spouses. Marriage was considered “natural” due to its place in procreation and community. People were expected to have an attraction to a joined life, but there was a constant tension with arguments regarding the proper forms of marriage. Treatises were written on the proper “regimen” for married life that gave rather limited space for discussing sexual relations. An ideal emerged that sex was only proper within marriage. The focus is still on self-restraint as virtue but there is also a focus on legitimate offspring as the purpose of sex. Though pleasure within marriage is expected, excess sexual pleasure can be considered inappropriate. It might suggest you are treating your wife as a courtesan, whose purpose is only to provide pleasure.

Part 6: Boys

In the early centuries of the common era, reflection on the love for youths became a less vital and less important debate. In part, this was a difference between Greek and Roman attitudes. A relationship with an older male figure was no longer an expected part of a free-born man’s youth. Discussions about the “love of boys” began to mean relations with male slaves.

[Note: There's an interesting contradiction here in Foucault's equation of these two types of male-male relations. If the nature of the object of desire and the types of erotic activity do not define a "sexual identity" then why should there be any conceptual connection between the Greek system of erastes/eromenos and the relations between (male) Roman citizens and their (male) slaves? Yet Foucault makes a direct connection between these two practices by context and impmlication while still maintaining his disbelief in the concept of sexualities.]

The sons of Roman citizens would be shamed by being sexual objects. But there was also a shift from the importance of male-male philia to the valorization of marriage as the primary bond. Love was no longer viewed as being elevated by the removal of physical pleasure.

It is the “naturalness” of male-female relations that becomes the argument both for and against the love of youths. “Natural” can be considered lesser because it’s common or ordinary, or it can be considered elevated because it aligns with one's inherent nature. This debate became its own genre of literary argumentation.


Foucault sees several strands of philosophical thought in the first centuries of the common era that converge on an elevation of the ideal of austerity. Was this a precursor to the ethics that developed within Christianity? Dual strands in this process include focus on the ethics of pleasure and care for the body with consequent consideration of the effects of pleasure on it and a distrust of those effects.

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Sunday, February 2, 2020 - 14:31

Yesterday I read through all the story submissions, winnowed them down to a short-list, then made the hard choice of which five to buy. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, I sent out responses to everyone, drew up and set the contracts for the five stories selected, and by this morning had most of the contracts signed and returned. SInce I'm still waiting on one, I won't post the titles and authors yet, but I thought you might be interested in some trends in what types of submissions I've been getting over the last three years.

I still haven't matched the total number of submissions from the first year (24), but this year's 19 were more gratifying than last year's worrisome 10. To the extent that there's a pattern in when they arrive, I see a small bump around the end of the first week, and then things really take off in the last week of the month. Between a quarter to a half of all submissions come in on the very last day. So I guess deadlines are a way of life for many people!

In terms of length (given that I have a cap of 5000 words), a fairly consistent 40-50% of submissions fall within the 4000-5000 word range. But shorter lengths are also well represented. This year was unusual in having only a single story come in under 2000 words, whereas in other years 25-40% have been in that range.

The 19th century has consistently been the single most popular century for settings, and taken together the 17-19th centuries dominate with 50-80% of submissions. Earlier settings sometimes come in odd clusters: in 2018 I had three in the 15th century, this year I had three in the 13th.

In terms of geography, Europe is a heavy hitter with 40-80% of the stories, but I've consistently received stories set in several Asian cultures. North America is used as a setting less commonly than one might expect.  Of course, receiving stories set in a diversity of cultures doesn't mean they'll all make the final line-up, but it's a necessary condition for that.

This was the first year that I opened up to including certain types of fantastic elements in submissions and (depending on quite how you define fantastic) maybe a third of the submissions included something of the sort (which roughly matches the proportion in acceptances).

I'd be curious to know how the submitters heard about the Call, but it isn't a type of data I collected (and I'm not sure I'd want to collect it because it feels intrusive). In addition to getting the CfS listed in several of the commonly-used aggregators (like Submisions Grinder), and promoting it heavily on Twitter and Facebook (as well as on my own blog and podcast), I know that people were passing it along on their own sites and lists. I suspect the biggest problem for the 2019 series was that I didn't plug away enough, for long enough, in enough places. This year I'll make a point of starting the push in mid-year again.

Now I just need to choose which story will appear at the end of the month and get recording!

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Saturday, February 1, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 43a - On the Shelf for February 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/02/01 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2020.

I sometimes wonder if my listeners would like more bits of personal information along with the book and history news. I keep trying to guess what might interest you. Which authors would you like to hear interviewed? What special book themes would you be interested in exploring? What historical eras or questions have caught your interest? Let me know.

It’s been two months since my most recent novel, Floodtide, came out and I’m still in the nail-biting period waiting to see how it was received or whether it’s already dropped out of sight. I’ve been filling in the waiting by writing a short story set in Restoration England--in London during the reign of Charles II and just after the Great Fire--featuring a courtesan and an actress and a bit of sword play. As I’m recording this, I just sent it off on submission to the anthology that inspired me to write it, though I expect the competition to be awfully tough. My back-up plan is that it’s tied in with a series of romances I’ve been doing a bunch of deep-background research for, and maybe this will start me working on that in earnest. Not that I’m done with the Alpennia series! That one still has three books to go, but it might be fun to play in some other sandboxes along the way.

Since you’re probably a podcast fan if you’re listening to this, you might want to check out the new podcast my publisher, Bella Books is putting out. It sounds like it’s going to be book news and chats with authors and that sort of thing. The title is “What’s New at Bella” and it’s available on all the standard podcatchers. Check out the link in the show notes.

LHMP Fiction Series

By the time you’re listening to this, the submissions period for the podcast’s 2020 fiction series will be closed--just barely--but I won’t yet have chosen and contracted for the stories I’ll be publishing. (And, of course, I certainly won’t have managed that at the date when I’m recording this!) That means the first story to air, at the end of February, won’t be pre-announced until it comes out. But if you want advance knowledge, you can check the master index for the podcast at the website. It’ll go up there as soon as I know what it is.

Since the fiction episodes come out when there’s a fifth Saturday in the month, consider how unusual it is for one to air in February. February only has the potential for a fifth Saturday in a leap year, and then only when the first and last days of the month are on Saturday. In fact, with a little help from, I can tell you that February 29 should only fall on a Saturday every 28 years (with a few minor adjustments). The last time it happened was in 1992, the previous time in 1964, and the next time it will happen is 2048. So if I’m still podcasting when I’m 90 years old, then you can expect another surprise story like this time.

Publications on the Blog

The blog has been covering a mixed bag of topics. January started out with a couple of survey articles on the history of lesbian history. Leila Rupp kicked off “Thinking about Lesbian History” as a general topic, and Martha Vicinus followed with “The History of Lesbian History” which is a thorough and introspective survey of the development of the field of study.

After that I finally tackled Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality which was just as annoying and frustrating as I expected it to be. Perhaps because I expected it to be that, but in part I just felt like “what’s the big deal here?” But read the blog for my ranting in detail.

As a palate cleanser, I worked through a series of articles with poetry as a theme. First Hariette Andreadis’s “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips,” discussing a 17th century English poet with strong themes of love between women, who I have totally worked into the backstory of my 17th century romance series. Next up, Susan Gubar on “Sapphistries” looking at how various poets have used and reinterpreted the image of Sappho and her work across the centuries. And then an article focused on Sappho the historic person, “Sappho and Her Social Context” by Judith Hallett who has done some fascinating work on sexuality in the classical world.

Book Shopping!

Time for the book shopping segment! While putting together last month’s essay on Iphis and Ianthe, I impulsively went out online and bought a secondhand copy of the collection Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early-Modern Culture. As it happened, the article on 17th and 18th century dramatic productions of the story wasn’t directly useful for the podcast I was putting together, but the collection has several other useful articles that will go in the to-do list. I won’t count as “shopping” the couple of medieval and Renaissance translations of Iphis and Ianthe that I downloaded from various sites for putting the show together. I’m so glad I’m doing this kind of research in an era when so many historic texts have been made available online.

Other than that moment of weakness, I’m still trying to hold off on too much book shopping because it only means I have something new and shiny that I want to work into the current schedule. But I did pick up a back-up hardcover copy of a beloved book that I already own in paperback: Emma Donogue’s Passions Between Women. I spotted it...well, there’s a bit of a story and it might be fun to tell so you get a better picture of my relationship with books.

I don’t think of myself as someone who is a memorably extreme buyer of research books, but either I’m wrong, or Michael Hackenberg, the proprietor of Hackenberg Booksellers, is just that good. Hackenberg really is just that good, but I suspect that I’m a more memorable book buyer than I think. You have to be good to thrive as a seller of academic and antiquarian books in today’s market, and Hackenberg has an index-card-memory of what all his customers’ specialties and interests are. When I first got to know him, he was located in downtown Berkeley and I was in grad school. Back then, I specialized in texts on Celtic language and linguistics, with Welsh history on the side. He’s the one who stuck a copy of Seebohm’s The Tribal System in Ancient Wales in front of my face and then waited patiently for me to decide I really did want to spend $300 on it on a grad student’s budget. That was in the dealer’s room of the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, which is where I most often run into him these days. Which is a bit odd, given that we’re both located in the San Francisco Bay Area! The first time I saw him there, he recognized me straight off among the thousands of medievalists passing through and remembered exactly what my interests were. He’s caught up when my academic focus shifted over to textile history, though he’s still catching up with more recent shifts.

Periodically I’ll get an email from him saying, “Hey I thought you might be interested in this.” My most common response is, “Have it already.” My second most common is, “Nah, not quite my thing.” But when he hits my sweet spot, my wallet comes out pretty quickly. So this time, it was Margaret Spufford’s The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. He thought I might be interested because of the textile and clothing angle, but I immediately thought of my current writing interests in Restoration England. No, I’m not abandoning Alpennia, but I just finished a 17th century short story that ties in with a series of romances I want to write, so my book-buying reflexes are attuned in that direction. This specific book may be of fairly marginal usefulness to my writing unless I decide to create a character specifically based on the subject, but it delves into the lives of ordinary people, which can be a hard topic to find good sources on.

There’s an additional bit of trivia about this book because it came from the library of Professor Jan de Vries (not the Dutch linguist who died in 1964, but the American historian of economic history at UC Berkeley) and has an inscription from the author to him on the flyleaf. I don’t tend to make a fuss about inscriptions or signatures unless it’s an author I have a personal relationship with. But it’s still interesting to have that bit of direct connection in the book.

But how does this relate to book shopping for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, you ask? I’m getting to that. One of these days, I need to spend a day browsing through the shelves at Hackenberg’s store because I always find things that I had no idea I wanted (or sometimes, no idea they existed) until I see them. But I was on my lunch hour from work this time, so the only other book I spotted and picked up was a hardbound copy of Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 which I count as one of a couple of foundational books in my journey through lesbian history. I already had a copy, of course--the paperback copy I picked up back in 1993 when it first came out! But paperback copies of books I use this often and this enthusiastically are often the worse for the wear, and like Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (another of my foundational books), I thought it worth buying a second, more durable copy.

So those were my book-buying adventures for the month, not counting a rather self-indulgent session at Moe’s Books in Berkeley picking up deep-background research materials for my fiction.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Stephanie Burgis, who is coming out with a brand new book in one of my favorite genres: Regency fantasy romance. Like some other recent f/f historicals, this is part of a series romance where the earlier books had male-female romances. But unlike most others, the promise of a female couple was right there in the very beginning, so I’m excited that we’ve finally gotten to the right point in the series for them to get their featured story.


For this month’s essay, I picked a topic that has been nibbling at my attention for a while: the question of how and when masculine presentation started to be considered a lesbian signifier in Western culture, though I touch on Islamicate culture as well. This is a different topic than the question of gender disguise or transgender presentation and its intersection with relationships perceived as being between two women. In this essay, I’m going to look at how masculine-coded presentation--“mannishness”, if you will--has been used to indicate or interpreted as being associated with female desire for women. It’s a topic that could have whole books written on it and I’m only going to skim the surface, but some of the answers may be surprising.

[Sponsor break]

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned? I have a list of nine books, catching up with a few from December and January and including one February book that I’ll defer until next month because I haven’t been able to verify that it has f/f content.

Also, remember that I’ve added a Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Patreon feature where I offer mini-reviews of books mentioned on the show, based on previews. Because the previews may not be available until the book is released, I’ve just posted the January books. If you’re interested and you’re a LHMP Patreon member, look for the mini-reviews toward the end of the month.

First up we have a December book, The Traveler - Book One: The Hunted by Kim Pritikel from Sapphire books.

1977: In the era between flower power and the yuppie, Sonia Lucas is a young wife and mother, just starting out in life. Without warning, a strange presence and dark force enters her life, clouds building …. 1917: …. and a storm brewing as the world reeled from the horrific events of World War I just before it was ravaged by a Spanish flu epidemic that would kill millions. Sephora Lloyd is a 16 year old girl lost in the responsibilities of an adult world helping to support herself and her mother. A beautiful young nun-in-training enters her life, bringing love and hope with her. That is, until a force bigger than either of them threatens everything Sephora holds dear.

January books start with Merchants of Milan: Book One of the Night Flyer Trilogy by Edale Lane from Past and Prologue Press.

Three powerful merchants, two independent women in love, one masked vigilante. Florentina, set on revenge for her father’s murder, creates an alter-ego known as the Night Flyer. Madelena, whose husband was also murdered, hires Florentina as a tutor for her children and love blossoms between them. However, Florentina’s vendetta is fraught with danger, and surprising developments threaten both women’s lives. Merchants of Milan is the first book in Edale Lane’s Night Flyer Trilogy, a tale of power, passion, and payback in Renaissance Italy.

Next is a Western, Pioneer Hearts, self-published by Becky Harris.

All Belle wanted was to be left alone, but life doesn't always give you what you want surviving on the harsh frontier. It was supposed to be a simple trip into town. Once a year. Get supplies. Ignore the jeers and jibes from townsfolk who didn't want to understand her. Ignore how everything reminded her of Suzanne. She wasn't expecting Jeane. A damsel in distress out on the prairie? A broken down wagon and three men who meant no good closing in on her? Belle knew frontier life could be harsh, and sometimes that meant dealing with rabid animals. Only now she's stuck with Jeane. And the more time they spend together traveling back to her homestead, the more she can't get this woman out of her mind. The more she starts hoping, against all reason and hope, that maybe she can find something like what she had with Suzanne. Two women, alone together on the frontier where they can truly be themselves, learning to love again.

Now we get to the February books, most of which are from mainstream sources.

Belle Revolte by Linsey Miler from Sourcebooks Fire is a YA historic fantasy set in an alternate French Revolution.

Emilie des Marais is more at home holding scalpels than embroidery needles and is desperate to escape her noble roots to serve her country as a physician. But society dictates a noble lady cannot perform such gruesome work. Annette Boucher, overlooked and overworked by her family, wants more from life than her humble beginnings and is desperate to be trained in magic. So when a strange noble girl offers Annette the chance of a lifetime, she accepts. Emilie and Annette swap lives―Annette attends finishing school as a noble lady to be trained in the ways of divination, while Emilie enrolls to be a physician's assistant, using her natural magical talent to save lives. But when their nation instigates a terrible war, Emilie and Annette come together to help the rebellion unearth the truth before it's too late.

Another fantasy alternate history is Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland from Harper Collins. This is the sequel to her post-Civil War zombie story Dread Nation. I hadn’t mentioned the first book on the podcast because I could’t tell if there was queer content, but this one seems more solid on that point.

After the fall of Summerland, Jane McKeene hoped her life would get simpler: Get out of town, stay alive, and head west to California to find her mother. But nothing is easy when you’re a girl trained in putting down the restless dead, and a devastating loss on the road to a protected village called Nicodemus has Jane questioning everything she thought she knew about surviving in 1880s America. What’s more, this safe haven is not what it appears—as Jane discovers when she sees familiar faces from Summerland amid this new society. Caught between mysteries and lies, the undead, and her own inner demons, Jane soon finds herself on a dark path of blood and violence that threatens to consume her. But she won’t be in it alone. Katherine Deveraux never expected to be allied with Jane McKeene. But after the hell she has endured, she knows friends are hard to come by—and that Jane needs her too, whether Jane wants to admit it or not. Watching Jane’s back, however, is more than she bargained for, and when they both reach a breaking point, it’s up to Katherine to keep hope alive—even as she begins to fear that there is no happily-ever-after for girls like her.

Next up is the Regency fantasy Moontangled by this month’s author guest Stephanie Burgis, from Five Fathoms Press.

For just one moonlit, memorable night, Thornfell College of Magic has flung open its doors, inviting guests from around the nation to a ball intended to introduce the first-ever class of women magicians to society...but one magician and one invited guest have far more pressing goals of their own for the night. Quietly brilliant Juliana Banks is determined to win back the affections of her secret fiancée - rising politician Caroline Fennell, who has become inexplicably distant ever since the events of Thornbound. Juliana may be shy, impractical and bookish, but she's never lacked for courage. If she needs to use magic to get her stubborn fiancée to pay her attention...well, then, as the top student in her class, she is more than ready to take on that challenge! Unbeknownst to Juliana, though, Caroline has been wracked by political and emotional turmoil in their time apart. Tonight, she's come to nobly save her fiancée from the oncoming fallout by cutting off their secret betrothal for good - and no one has ever accused Caroline Fennell of being easy to distract from any goal. Their path to mutual happiness may seem tangled beyond repair...but when they enter the fae-ruled woods that border Thornfell College, these two determined women will find all of their plans upended in a night of unexpected and magical possibilities.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave from Little, Brown and Company is a rather different-looking story.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.  Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.  As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.  Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

And I’m going to finish this month’s listings with the 6th book in a series that didn’t show up on my radar earlier. End of War in Thermopylae in the Thermopylae Bound series by Belinda Harrison from Gee Be Publications. This is an ancient Greek historic fantasy with gods and monsters. There is definitely an f/f romance in the first book but it isn’t entirely clear to me whether that aspect carries throughout the series. I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt, but it looks to me like you’d be best off starting at the beginning.

Before Ava sent Ares to the cage, he promised her the Persians would return to Greek shores and in the autumn of 480BC, nine winters after Ava’s return to Trachis, his words ring true. The yellow caps are sailing to the west, intent on claiming victory. But they are not the only returning enemy. Ava’s greatest foe has also found his way back to Thermopylae and means to take revenge for what she denied him of. Ava will have to call on more than just her willpower and the god of the forge if she is to be victorious again; the consequences dire should she fail. As their final showdown looms, hearts will be broken and old stories proven once and for all. This is the Battle of Thermopylae. This is life and death. This is love and war. This is the end of war in Thermopylae.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading since the last update? I zipped through an advance review copy of Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis, which I loved. I read a rather unexpected queer historical set in the Neolithic era, Between Boat and Shore by Rhiannon Grant. Because I desperately want more f/f historicals from Alyssa Cole, I made do by reading her contemporary romance novella Once Ghosted Twice Shy. I’m still reading  A Jewel Bright Sea by Claire O’Dell, which has some queer characters in the background. I should explain why it’s taking me so long to finish. I’m reading different books on different platforms, and I have A Jewel Bright Sea on iBooks on my phone, but for some reason my reading progress isn’t syncing with my iPad, so I’m reading at times when I don’t have the iPad available which makes it very stop-and-start. Usually I save phone reading for non-fiction that I don’t plan to get immersed in. I think that’s everything, though it feels like I’ve read more. Just to shake things up this month, I’m planning to read an actual physical copy of a novel! Stay tuned for this exciting development.


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Major category: 
Monday, January 27, 2020 - 07:00

I'll save my overall summing up for after the third and final volume of this work next week. In the mean time, enjoy my parenthetical comments and notes.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Foucault, Michel. 1990. The History of Sexuality. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-679-72469-8


This work was not meant to be a history of sexual behavior and practices but of the concept of “sexuality”: how people understand the experience of sex. Foucault asserts that such a study could not be undertaken until he had invented the theoretical tools necessary to perform it. [Note: clearly we are supposed to gasp and marvel at his genius.] He encountered problems at the point of structuring the modes in which individuals recognize themselves as sexual subjects--as desiring beings. He needed a historic genealogy of conceptions of desire. This, in turn, required an entire study of the development of a “hermeneutics of the self.” A history of truth, as it were. Thus, he detours into the realms of philosophy, noting that although he is studying history, he is not “doing history.”

Foucault starts off with the classical problematization of the “arts of existence” and especially sexual behaviors, looking at texts of philosophers and physicians, and later theologians, regarding prescriptions for the practice of the self. [Note: as Foucault points out later at the end of the book this analysis is all about didactic, prescriptive texts for how people should live. Not so much about trying to identify how people did live.]

What are the points that were problematized, especially in the transition from paganism to Christianity? 1) The meaning of the sex act (sin or pleasure?), 2) The definition of legitimate partners, 3) The meaning placed on abstinence.

But these don’t have the clear ruptures in the pagan/Christian transition that first glance would suggest. Christian philosophy drew heavily on pre-Christian principles. Four themes are noted: 1) Fear of sexual weakness, 2) Ideals of conduct, 3) How stigmatized behavior is imagined, using the stereotype of male homosexuals as “feminized” as an example, 4) The model of abstention--rejecting temptation--as a virtue or strength. Foucault sees continuity of thought between paganism and Christianity on these points.

Foucault notes in passing that this is a history of an ethics for men, in which women are merely props, or to be trained into their roles. [Note: I’d give him more credit for this recognition if he hadn’t then entirely ignored this point.]

This reflection brings Foucault to focus on “four great domains of relations” that were problematized in the absence of explicit prohibitions: men’s relations with the body (dietetics), with the wife (economics), with boys (erotics), and with truth. These are the domains in which the presence of sex caused anxiety and discussion. He offers a discussion of the definition of “morality” as a set of rules for behavior that operates within a system of self-reflection.

Part I: The Moral Problematization of Pleasures

Foucault asserts that because the Greeks didn’t have a single word covering the broad concept of “sexuality” that they didn’t have it as a concept. [Note: Like many discussions of historic sexuality, Foucault takes a fairly strong Sapir-Whorf approach: if you don't have language for a thing, you obviously can't think seriously about it.] He sees four different realms in Greek thought relating to sexuality: 1) dietetics (concern with the body), 2) economics (concern with marriage), 3) erotics (concern with the love of boys*), and 4) philosophy (concern with truth).

* Note: Foucault regularly discusses the topic of Greek age-differentiated erotic relationships using the word “boys”. It isn’t clear whether this is a matter of translation, or whether he is oblivious to distinguishing various categories of pre-adult males, or whether he intends to evoke the negative modern associations of pederasty. I rather incline towards “oblivious” since that seems to be the case in a number of other aspects of his writing. From here on in, I’m going to substitute the word “youths” (which he sometimes also uses) to try to keep the framing on the more typical age range of those involved.

There is a discussion of the Greek concept of aphrodisia--the arts, etc. that provide sexual pleasure--and relates it to other types of sensual pleasure. The sexual experience is treated as “gendered” as an essential characteristic. Sexual participants are categorized as actors and objects, not by gender, with the “actor” being quintessentially masculine and all objects being “feminine” to some degree. [Note: Foucault doesn’t seem to recognize the inherent contradiction in these two positions. It seems to me that if you consider all sexual objects as “feminized” then you are categorizing participants by gender. It's just that you're assigning gender as an aspect of the sexual role, rather than assigning a sexual role as an aspect of gender.] Sexual desire/pleasure is treated as a force in relation to “appetite”.

Pleasure is problematized in terms of its “proper” enjoyment. But what does this mean? “Need” is considered an appropriate basis for judging something as proper. If you desire something that is necessary for life/health, then enjoying it is “proper.” The burden is then placed on evaluating the right time and context for that enjoyment. “Context” includes paying attention to aligning with status differences. The ideal of masculinity includes the concept of “mastery” over the self. One should be in charge of one’s desires and experiences, not be driven and controlled by them. This mastery was equated with freedom (in the semantic framework of free-slave). Thus, moderation of desires was virile/virtuous because it showed control and mastery. Immoderation and indulgence was “feminine” and therefore deprecated.

Part II: Dietetics

The approach to morality of the Greeks, i.e., that self-control was moral superiority, meant that they accepted/celebrated relations between men and youths while also having an ethics of abstention. Similarly, a man was understood to seek pleasure outside of marriage while also valuing being faithful to one’s wife. [Note: this is, of course, focusing only on the male point of view.] Sexual pleasure was not considered “evil” but the relationship of sex and health was a subject of concern.

These concepts are examined via a metaphor of the place of dietary pleasure in the “ethical life.” Food, like sex, was one of a variety of fields of experience where necessity was balanced with moderation and pleasure. Similarly for sleep, exercise, etc. In all cases, excess could have negative effects even when the practice itself was essential to life and health. [Note: This basic concept--of a wide variety of aspects of life being part of “diet”--continued in the medieval period as “health manuals” included discussions of clothing, activities including sex and sleep, personal hygiene, etc.]

Sexual activity had its essential place, but that place was shaped and modified for optimal health and benefits. Even with respect to procreation, the “diet” of sex (i.e., the amount, context, nature) was considered important for the outcome. Sexual activity was complexly constructed and there was significant anxiety about the side-effects it could have on health in general. [Note: To toss in just the tiniest bit of lesbian-relevant content, this same concept--that the nature, frequency, and context of sex was part of one’s overall health--when it appears in Arabic health manuals, is inclusive of sex between women as potentially beneficial/necessary to the women in the right circumstances and to people with specific attributes. Also, since I’m pausing to comment, another thing that Foucault doesn’t specifically point out, is that the imperative of procreation means that, to the extent that same-sex desire unbalances one away from procreation, it represents an undesirable “excess”. But at the same time, the imperative of procreation means that m/f sex always has the justification of potential “need” to procreate, whereas same-sex activity, lacking that justification, inspires more abstract philosophical considerations.]

Self-control in sex was also positive in all circumstances because the expenditure of “life force” as a consequence of sex was harmful to procreation if it was unnecessarily wasted.

Part III: Economics

[Note: the word “economics” here is being used in the original Greek sense of “things pertaining to the house/household” and not in the modern sense of “systems of value and trade.”]

How, then, could sexual relations between husband and wife be “problematic”? Compared to some other cultures, Greece envisioned an ideal of specialized female purpose: mistresses for pleasure, concubines for daily care of the person, wives to bear legitimate children and keep the house. But this recognition of multiple female social roles was also far removed from Christian monogamous ideals.

Women’s virtue was in confining themselves to their prescribed role, while men’s virtue was in exercising freedom. Adultery was defined by the woman’s status (because she “belonged” to another man) and not by the man’s marital status. Yet men did have sexual obligations to their wives: to have sex with them on a regular basis, and to leave behind some of the sexual excesses of youth.

The aphorism quoted above about mistresses/concubines/wives did not mean that sex with a wife was not pleasure, but rather that there was one function that only a wife could provide (legitimate children) in addition to any erotic pleasure involved. A wife must restrict sex to her husband because she was under his control, but a husband could restrict sex to his wife as an exercise of self-control. For her it was obligation, for him, optional virtue.

There is a discussion that elaborates on the roles of husband and wife, and how a husband is expected to “train” his wife into her role. There is a discussion of Plato’s directives for moderation of one’s life, which were more rigid and narrow than actual common practice at the time.

Part IV: Erotics

This section is not about “erotics” in general, but about adult men’s sexual pleasure involving youths. Greeks did not view desire for the same or opposite sex as exclusive or as categorically different experiences. The pursuit of moderate, self-controlled pleasure was independent of the object of that pleasure. “Loose morals” involved excessive desire for either or both objects, self-control was abstention from both. Greeks both were bisexual (in practice, by modern definitions) and had no concept of bisexuality as a distinct orientation.

To the extent that the love of youths was sometimes considered more “elevated” than the love of women, it was because males were considered more noble and worthy of love than females. At the same time, individuals might be recognized as having a preferred taste for males or females, as one might have individual preferences in other appetites.

“Tolerance” is the wrong word for this. The love of youths was freely accepted (except in specific circumstances) and was integrated in a variety of social institutions and structures. At the same time, there were aspects of desire for youths that were viewed differently. The object of desire should be worthy of love--not “too easy” or too self-involved or effeminate. “Catamites” were scorned as not being truly worthy of a man’s love. [Note: The existence of a categorical distinction between youths, who accepted the love of a man, and "catamites," who evidently enjoyed/desired the role of passive partner for its own sake, sounds an awful lot like a "sexual identity/orientation" and some more recent studies of Classical attitudes discuss it in this context.]

Given all this, why were there special anxieties around the love of youths? Why have an entire cultural preoccupation around how such a love should be pursued? Foucault claims that the number of texts specifically addressing men’s love of youths are few and primarily from the Socratic/Platonic tradition, though Plato quotes speeches attributed to other philosophers with other viewpoints. Here are the relevant points:

1. The concerns of these texts focused on age-differentiated relationships, not those of age-mates at any age (either the love between youths or the love between adult men). Age-mate relationships were also common, but not problematized in the same way.

2. This anxiety was not solely related to its pedagogical aspects, although an older, experienced lover was expected to guide and support a younger one. There was a larger ritualization of such relationships around courtship behavior (of both parties), reticence (especially on the part of the youth), and consummation.

3. In contrast to the spatially-segregated spaces of male-female relations, male-male relations took place in a common, public space. The male-male relation was also “free” in the sense that the erastes (adult) had no legal or social authority over the eromenos (youth). Any deviation from this assumption of freedom was considered to reduce pleasure. (E.g., if the youth were under some sort of pressure or obligation to return the man’s interest.) The problematicization of male-female marriage was precisely because of the constraint/control the man had over the woman. Self-control was in how he exercised that power.

4. Timing/limits were another source of concern. How old was too old for a youth? How young was too young for the youth to have shown the virtues that should drive attraction? The Stoics were criticized for keeping their young lovers until the age of 28. In general, the first appearance of a youth’s beard was considered the sign that he was “aging out” of being an eromenos. Adolescent male bodies were not considered beautiful by analogy to female bodies, but as their own thing. Only later was a connection made between adolescent male bodies and female bodies. These questions of appropriate age created an anxiety around the inevitable point of loss of desire/desirability, at precisely the time that the boy achieved the (desirable) state of manhood. At that point, eros/love was expected to be left behind and shift into philia/love, which was expected to be constant and life-long.

5. Concerns about youths represented the essence of concerns about eros while not being specific to youths. In marriage, other concerns dominated the ideals of right behavior, but in male-male relationships, eros was the primary concern. Self-control was not for the benefit of the self alone, but focused on the other’s benefit. This tension revolves around masculine ideals of honor and shame (for both erastes and eromenos. These qualities were recognized to differ in different regional cultures. A youth’s honor/shame could affect his future social prospects similarly to how a woman’s honor/shame could affect her marriage prospects--though not universally in either case.

For a youth, the period of his peak desirability was also the period of the peak fragility of his honor, such that he must constantly guard himself. [Note: Although Foucault doesn’t make the connection, the considerations discussed here with regard to a youth’s behavior in the erotic relationship are highly parallel to the double-bind that women felt in cultures where marriage was courtship-driven rather than arranged. One must be desirable, encourage the attention of appropriate partners, but never behave in ways that made one appear too eager for the relationship, and never be “too easy to get.”]

Various qualities and behaviors are discussed that contribute to honor. The youth’s responsibility was to thread the needle wisely. Despite much talk of the youth’s decision when to “grant favors”, there is almost no discussion of the physical details of what "favors" are meant. Here, the principle of self-mastery was somewhat at odds with the position in the relationship. A youth should allow a lover’s enjoyment, but not in a way that showed passivity, and especially not showing a desire for a passive role.

The polarization of dominance in sexual relations (i.e., actor-object) manifested differently with different social categories of sexual partners. Only in the case of age-differentiated male-male relations did this polarization have internal conflicts. That is, in age-mate same-sex relationships the partners were expected to have equal status. In male-female relationships the woman was expected to be in the object role and therefore it did not shame her to take it. But for a free man to accept the “object” role in a polar sexual relationship was unmanly. So the youth (required to be the object due to age/experience) was in an unstable position, as he must eventually become dominant to be a man. Thus, the hedging around of the relationship with anxieties and rituals to allow this eventual transition. Youths could not/must not be treated “like women” sexually, because they must be allowed to become men. The youth was expected not to take pleasure in the sexual act itself, but to allow the act out of admiration and respect for his lover.

This is, of course, a philosophical ideal that emerges from the texts, not necessarily a standard for everyday experience.

Part V: True Love

This section addresses how the use of pleasure relates to the pursuit of truth, as examined in the context of the nature of “true love.” The shift from Greek to Christian approaches to the nature of truth, love, and pleasure was accompanied by a shift in focus from a purely masculine context to a male/female context--Foucault says one “dominated by femininity.” He returns to the questions of “right actions” in the context of set-piece speeches on love and the proper relations of male same-sex lovers. He also returns to the question of how the asymmetric and transitory male-male relationships generated unease and even disgust about its superficial goals. [Note: Foucault seems to betray an underlying unease himself with regard to male-male love here.]

The “searching for your other half” speech that Plato attributes to Aristophanes appears to answer the question of “can it be appropriate for a youth to take pleasure in being an eromenos?" in the affirmative. If a male is a “lost half” of a male-male paired being, then to take pleasure in “reunion” is natural and manly, not feminizing. For such a youth, this is true consent and the relationship is not asymmetrical after all.

This changes the question of the nature of true love to “who and under what conditions can we love such that the love is honorable for both parties?” Must one purge love of the physical dimension in order to purify it--as Socrates seems to advocate? This leads to the elevation of philia over eros.

We now descend into a discussion of the ways in which different characters in Plato present their arguments. The focus shifts from the behavior of the beloved to the nature of the lover and what they love. One should love the ideal, the soul, of the beloved, and not the superficialities of appearance and behavior. The love of bodies is inferior to the love of souls. That is, the love of bodies is not bad, only lesser. [Note: it can be difficult to attribute specific opinions to specific philosophers here as the texts are second and third hand reports placed into the mouths of functionally fictional characters.]

If eros is a relation to the truth, and not to a specific beloved, then the asymmetry inherent in the lover-beloved relation is left behind. Love (philia) may remain if both achieve this love of truth.


Foucault reminds us here that he is focusing on Greek prescriptive discourse--how they talked about the “art of living” and the relation of pleasure to self-control and austerity. He reiterates that it is a misconception that the Greeks “tolerated” sexual freedom, rather that sexual freedom was the context for demonstrating moderation.

There are connections between ancient Greek philosophy and later Christian thought, but the focus of why sexual self-control was desirable shifted. Pleasure was no longer self-indulgent and a sign of lack of control, but was immoral and evil. Greek self-control became Christian divine imperatives. Christian thought re-centered anxieties about pleasure and austerity around women. Then later, from women to the body, as manifested in assigned connections between sex, health, and the control of children’s bodies.

[Note: this last seems intended to close the loop back to the preoccupations of 19-20th century society discussed in volume 1.]

Time period: 
Sunday, January 26, 2020 - 11:21

One aspect of not having a regular reason to drop by downtown Berkeley, is that I’m less likely to just drop by Moe’s Books or any of the other bookstores and randomly browse for interesting deep-background research materials. But this past week I had to drop off some UCB library books after work, and then wanted to kill some time until the traffic died down, so I did a shelf-browse at Moe’s and picked us some fun stuff. (I am regularly grateful that I don’t have to treat my fiction as the sort of business where research purchases have to pay for themselves.)

Most immediately, I spotted Restoration London by Liza Picard (St. Martin’s Press, 1997). A steal at $6. While it isn’t a book necessarily intended for writers, it’s the sort of reference that has lots of mid-level details of everyday life for when you want a reality-check on the size of a middle class house and what the standard set of servants in it would be. That sort of thing. The author isn’t a historian, but sometimes that’s how you get the everyday details rather than a fixation on Great Men And Significant Events. Why did I buy it? Well if you’ve been following my tweets, I’ve been working on a Restoration era romantic adventure short story for a specific call for submissions. But that story is also tied (behind the scenes) to a historic romance series that I’ve been noodling at. (I’ve mentioned it several times in my author newsletter but don’t feel it’s ready to declare as an official project yet.)

I was hoping to find some art books that would give me general background on later 17th century English domestic interiors, but I don’t know the right artists or keywords to follow up on yet. I did, however, find a lovely book on the turn of the 18th/19th century: The Romantic Interior: The British Collector at Home 1750-1850 by Clive Wainwright (Yale University Press, 1989). It’s a lush (though mostly b&w) study of the upper-class British home decorating esthetic in an era that delighted in assembling museum-like collections to demonstrate the reach of British culture through time and space. Exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped to find for the later 17th century, but inspiring for my Alpennian books and potentially for future Regency settings.

Another book that caught my eye for Regency settings is Mrs Hurst Dancing & Other Scenes from Regency Life 1812-1823, an album of watercolors in a delightfully unstudied style whose topics are just what it says on the label. The artist, Diana Sperling, was born in 1791, a member of the rural gentry society that she depicts in this collection of 70 works. The paintings include brief captions describing the scenes and sometimes identifying the specific people depicted. This publication also includes brief contextual explanations by Gordon Mingay who has researched the Sperling family and their setting. This is neither a work of art criticism nor of historical research, but it provides a lot of visual inspiration for everyday life, manners, and concerns.

Sources of such information for everyday life, manners, and concerns are always harder to find than political histories. And they don’t always come in the form you might expect. Personal correspondence is a fabulous source, though it can be hard to find the balance between an edition that sorts through original material to find interesting tidbits, and an editor whose interests and concerns mean that they omit exactly the details you’re looking for. Letterwriting in Renaissance England is a companion publication to an exhibit by the Folger Shakespeare Library on surviving letters from 16-17th century England, but also on the material and social culture of letter writing. What did letters actually look like as physical objects? How were the different parts of the text arranged? How did people learn to write letters in different styles and genres? This book shows examples of letter-writing manuals intended for that purpose (though they are hardly the earliest examples). How might one write letters in code or using invisible ink? This exhibit catalog contains a wealth of inspirations for historic stories. You know that Restoration-era romance series I mentioned? The opening scene in the first novel involves a woman receiving and interacting with a letter from an old but estranged friend. A reference book like this will help me design what that letter will look like, how the salutation will open, what forms the content will take.

I mentioned the tendency of Romantic interior decorating to have a museum-like quality, but a more direct and fascinating precursor to the modern museum is the “cabinet of curiosities” that evolved around the 17th century--the era that, as the book’s jacket copy claims, was “the last period of history when man could aspire to know everything.” (Aspire, not succeed. And of course the “everything” they aspired to know left out vast swaths of the world.) Cabinets of Curiosities by Patrick Mauries (by that publisher of lovely picture-filled historic interest books, Thames & Hudson) takes us on a tour of this phenomenon, illustrated with artwork depicting such cabinets (because it wasn’t enough to have the collection, you want to demonstrate that you have it by memorializing it in art), as well as some surviving examples of the cabinets and the collections they held. The most grandiose examples held the collections of the rich and powerful, like Emperor Rudolf II, but anyone who has put together a collection of sea shells or rocks or interesting objects found in your backyard has participated in the curiosity cabinet tradition. When I was writing Mother of Souls I gave Margerit Sovitre a curiosity cabinet as part of the furnishings of the old mansion she bought to house her academy. It was largely plundered of its collection when it came to her, but on a whim she decided to re-purpose it to hold the physical paraphernalia of her mystery ceremonies--a more elaborate version of the “charm work” chest that Celeste Giraud uses to store her supplies in Floodtide.

I don’t think of myself as someone who is a memorably extreme buyer of research books, but either I’m wrong, or the proprietor of Hackenberg Booksellers is just that good. Actually, I know it’s the latter. Mr. Hackenberg really is just that good. You have to be to thrive as a seller of academic and antiquarian books in today’s market, and he has an index-card-memory of what all his customers’ specialties and interests are.

When I first got to know him, he was located in downtown Berkeley and I was in grad school. Back then, I specialized in texts on Celtic language and linguistics, with Welsh history on the side. He’s the one who stuck a copy of Seebohm’s The Tribal System in Ancient Wales in front of my face and then waited patiently for me to decide I really did want to spend $300 on it. That was in the dealer’s room at the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress, which is where I most often run into him these days. A somewhat odd thing, given that we’re both located in the Bay Area!

He’s been catching up with the fact that my academic interests shifted over to textile history, though not that I’ve moved on to other topics. But periodically I’ll get an email from him saying, “Hey I thought you might be interested in this.” My most common response is, “Have it already.” My second most common is, “Nah, not quite my thing.” But when he hits my sweet spot, my wallet comes out.

So this time, it was Margaret Spufford’s The Great Reclothing of Rural England: Petty Chapmen and their Wares in the Seventeenth Century. Perhaps of fairly marginal usefulness to my writing unless I decide to create a character specifically based on the subject, but it delves into the lives of ordinary people, which I’ve noted is a valuable resource. This is a more academic work than, for example, Restoration London, and includes a lot of details of economics: inventories, wills, etc.

There’s an additional bit of interest in the book because it came from the library of Professor Jan de Vries (not the Dutch linguist who died in 1964, but the American historian of economic history at UC Berkeley) and has an inscription from the author to him on the flyleaf. I don’t tend to make a fuss about inscriptions or signatures unless it’s an author I have a personal relationship with. But it’s still interesting to have that bit of direct connection in the book.

One of these days, I need to spend a day browsing through Hackenberg’s store because I always find things that I had no idea I wanted (or sometimes, no idea they existed) until I see them. But I was on my lunch hour from work this time, so the only other book I spotted and picked up was a hardbound copy of Emma Donoghue’s Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 which I count as one of a couple of foundational books in my journey through lesbian history. I already had a copy, of course--the paperback copy I picked up back in 1993 when it first came out! But paperback copies of books I use this often and this enthusiastically are often the worse for the wear, and like Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men (another of my foundational books), I thought it worth buying a second, more durable copy. This copy notes that it’s the first US edition, though that means very little in collectable terms since the first UK edition has precedence.

Major category: 
Writing Process
Saturday, January 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42d - Iphis and Ianthe - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/01/25 - listen here)


One of my first goals when I started researching f/f themes and motifs in history was to get a sense of what images my fictional characters would have of the possibilities for two women who loved each other. So much of our self-identity as queer people comes from comparing ourselves to the social models we have available. Endless mid-20th century “coming out” stories involved women who thought they were the only person who had ever felt that way because they had no models for same-sex love in their communities, in literature, or in popular culture. Faced with the idea of writing endless historical romances that centered around coming-out themes, I wanted to know what the alternatives were. Just how might women in history have been introduced to the idea of same-sex love?

When you look at Western history, one pop culture property that carries the image of love between women across the centuries--albeit in a shifting and problematic form--is the story of Iphis and Ianthe, as first presented in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s likely that the story was not original to Ovid--most of the stories in the Metamorphoses have older roots--but we have only his version as an early source. In brief, Iphis and Ianthe is the story of a girl raised as a boy who falls mutually in love with another girl and who the gods then transform into a boy so they can marry. I’ll get back to the story itself, but first a bit of background on Ovid.

The Context

The poet Ovid--in full, Publius Ovidius Naso, was born in the mid-1st century BCE to an upper-class Roman family. His family wanted him to study law but he preferred to write poetry and his early career involved praise poems with erotic themes. His collection Heroides is a series of letters from famous women (or fictional female characters) to absent lovers, and is the source of the myth of Sappho pining for a male lover Phaon. His Ars Amatoria (the art of love) was a semi-satirical instruction manual on how to woo, please, and keep lovers and was popular in translation down the ages. The emperor Augustus banished Ovid, possibly for political reasons, possibly because Ovid’s work was seen to encourage adultery during an age of concern for the sexual morals of the Roman upper class.

But before that exile, he also completed the 15-volume Metamorphoses: an encyclopedic verse compilation of transformation motifs in Greek and Roman mythology, progressing from the birth of the cosmos to the political triumph of Julius Caesar. Although Ovid re-worked and interpreted existing mythic material in the Metamorphoses, one result of the popularity of his work is that his versions are commonly taken as the definitive ones.

The Metamorphoses was conceived of as a unified work, with themes progressing and connecting the various stories, but this aspect is often lost when the individual myths are read or studied in isolation. For the story of Iphis and Ianthe, this removes some of the essential context for interpreting the sexual themes.

Keep in mind that the unifying theme of the work is “metamorphosis” or “transformation”. Iphis and Ianthe appears at the end of Book 9 (out of 15) of the Metamorphoses generally in the context of transformations relating to love for inappropriate objects. Within the story, Iphis compares her love for another woman to the love of Pasiphaë (the wife of King Minos of Crete) for a bull, which resulted in the birth of the Minotaur. Pasiphaë’s story occurs in an earlier book of the Metamorphoses, but more immediately before Iphis and Ianthe we find how the infant sons of Callirhoe were transformed instantly into adults so they could avenge the death of their father who had been killed while trying to fulfill a greedy desire of Callirhoe for a necklace. (Look, it’s complicated.) Then the story of Byblis who fell in love with her twin brother and after failing to convince him to engage in an incestuous relationship, she was transformed into a spring because of her incessant weeping. So the story of Iphis’s transformation into a man to resolve the problem of her “impossible” love for another woman must be seen as one of a set of stories of non-normative desire. To be fair, the love between Iphis and Ianthe is treated far more sympathetically than these others, and the two are allowed a happy ending of sorts, but the same-sex love is not allowed to stand as such.

The Story

So let’s dig a bit deeper into the story itself, with examples from the translation in Thomas K. Hubbard’s Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, which provides a literal, though not metrical, version of the meaning.

When Iphis’s mother, Telethusa was pregnant, her father, Ligdus said that if the child were a girl then--although he would regret the necessity--the child would have to die because they couldn’t afford to raise a girl child. Telethusa begged him to reconsider but he was adamant. Right before the birth, Telethusa had a dream of the goddess Io (who was associated with the Egyptian goddess Isis) who promises to protect her and the child, no matter what sex it is. When Iphis is born a girl, Telethusa conceals her sex, presenting her to Ligdus as a boy.

The father fulfilled each vow he owed the gods, and gave the child his father’s name, Iphis--named for her grandfather. Her mother was delighted, since the name could work for either sex, no need to be dishonest. ... She wore boys’ clothes and had the kind of face that would be called a beauty, masculine or feminine.

There are two interesting points here: that because the name Iphis could be borne by either a boy or a girl, her identity avoids one type of “deception”. And in common with a number of other gender disguise stories, the ideal of beauty is presented as being androgynous, one that doesn’t require extreme association with either a male or female stereotype. Therefore Iphis can be an idealized figure without being depicted as abnormal, either as a women or as a man.

Ligdus arranged for a betrothal between the child he thought was his son and Ianthe, the daughter of his neighbor. As was not uncommon at the time, the betrothal was at what we would consider the early age of thirteen. This meant the two entered adolescence encouraged to think of each other as romantic partners. Ianthe had:

the richest dowry of beauty, golden-haired, the daughter of Telestes. They were alike in age and loveliness, and from the same teachers they had learned their childhood lessons. So, naturally, love touched their young hearts equally. The wounds they felt were equal, but their confidence at total odds. Ianthe longed for her marriage, the promised wedding torches, and her husband, whom she believed to be a man. Who wouldn’t? Iphis loved and longed, but she despaired of ever having the one she longed for, and this increased her passion.

Now, remember what I said about this story being placed in the context of the consequences of inappropriate desires? For the story to make sense in this context, it must be presented as involving an “impossible” love. That is, a love between two women. There are two ways to look at this. One is the easily falsifiable position that it is psychologically impossible for a woman to desire another woman. Since the very premise of the story is the Iphis and Ianthe fall in love with each other, it doesn’t make sense that this would be the argument. The second interpretation is that “possible love” is being defined as love that can be consummated with penetrative sex. This might make sense, except that in the passage that follows, Iphis compares her situation with the natural world in terms of desire not in terms of consummation.

A girl on fire for a girl. She spoke through her tears, “What end awaits me, victim of this new, bizarre unheard-of spell of Venus? If the gods intend to spare me, then they should have; if they want me ruined, they should at least have sent some normal malady. No cow lusts after a cow, or mare for a mare. The ram inflames the ewes, the doe follows the buck, and so on--birds and every type of animal. No female ever desires another female. I wish that I didn’t exist, or weren’t a girl!

And yet, she desires Ianthe. That is simple fact. It clearly is possible. What Iphis can’t get past is that they can’t perform male-female sex acts. She compares her situation to that of Pasiphaë whose sexual desire for the sacred bull was made possible by the inventor Daedalus creating a cow-costume for her. Look, don’t ask. Greek myths go strange places. But that, Iphis laments, was at least a male-female coupling. Could Daedalus use his ingenuity to change her into a boy? Or to change Ianthe into a boy? This is the first point at which the transgender concept is raised. Iphis now laments that it is the physical impossibility that stands in her way.

No guardian forbids you the caress you crave, no over-anxious husband, severe patriarch, not even the girl--she’s yours for just the asking--and yet you can’t possess her, can’t get lucky, not for all the world, for all that gods and men can do. ... What I want, my father wants, so does my future father-in-law, so does my bride-to-be. Nature alone says no, and her voice drowns out all the rest, and she alone subverts me. The day I’ve longed for, my wedding day draws near, and soon Ianthe will be mine, but not belong to me. I’ll die of thirst with water all around.

What we have here is a conflict between an in-story and out-story explanation. Within the story, Iphis simply has a failure of imagination as to what two women can do together. She’s been brainwashed into thinking that only pseudo-heterosexual sex counts. But from the authorial point of view, something more insidious is going on. Because Ovid is quite aware of the possibilities for sex between women. Bawdy humor about women’s same-sex escapades was commonplace in Imperial Rome. Ovid’s own Heroides included reference to Sappho’s sexual history with women, though he depicts her as considering that past shameful now that she has Phaon the ferry-man to desire. For Ovid, the problem isn’t imagining what two women might get up to in bed, it’s considering that compatible with Iphis as a positive heroic figure.

One of the archetypes in classical Roman understanding of sexuality was of the tribade--the “masculine” woman who takes an active role in sex. This didn’t necessarily involve penetration, but could simply involve taking the lead and the upper position in rubbing vulvas together, the activity to which the tribade gave her name. The male-dominated records that have come down to us are deeply rooted in a hierarchical, asymmetric understanding of sexual activity. There must be an active and a passive partner, and those roles were gendered. But women were expected by nature to take the passive role in sex, so a woman who accepted the sexual attentions of another women was not necessarily considered abnormal in the same way that the active partner was. The woman in the active role was considered abnormal, not because the object of her desire was a woman, but because she was usurping the role of a man.

Thus, for Iphis to act on her desire--to take the role of a tribade--moves her out of the category of “normal” admirable women and into the category of “abnormal” sexually-aggressive women. In general, Ovid metes out punishments to female sexual aggressors in the Metamorphoses. In this context, Iphis's failure or refusal to act on her desire appears to be what makes her a virtuous character. Her desire for a woman is tragic, but not directly condemned, only because she doesn’t claim the male prerogative of acting on it.

So what is she to do? The wedding day is approaching. Iphis really really wants to marry the woman she loves, but doesn’t see how it’s going to work out. And what about Ianthe? Well, Ianthe believes herself to be betrothed to the man that she loves and feels no conflict about it. Iphis’s mother, Telethusa, is the only other person who knows the shit is about to hit the fan. But Io promised her that everything would be ok, right? So she goes to the temple and prays to the goddess, this time under the name of Isis, and demands:

“[I did] all that you commanded. My daughter is alive now, and I have not been punished. We have you to thank. The gift of your advice. Take pity on us both. Help us!”

The goddess gives her a sign that all will be well and Telethusa leaves the temple with Iphis:

Whose stride is longer now, her complexion is less delicate, her expression sharper, her strength has increased, her tousled hair is shorter, and she has more stamina than usual for a female. The reason, Iphis, is that until this very moment you were a female, and now you’re a boy.

Voila! Everything’s ok. Now the marriage is celebrated.

For a relatively short and tidy story, it has a lot of ambiguity and complexity. In contrast to the Roman stereotype of the tribade as a “masculine” woman, Iphis and Ianthe are described in the language of similarity: equal in age, in beauty, in education, and in the love they feel for each other. Iphis is described as having a non-gender-specific beauty. And as we see in the metamorphosis, both Iphis’s physical traits and her behavioral ones are changed from what they were before. The description is not unproblematically a case of simply aligning the physiological self to the inner gender identity.

Despite the cross-gender presentation motif, Iphis and Ianthe fit more with the model that Valerie Traub calls “femme-femme love” in which similarity is seen as the driving force behind women’s love for each other. In their pre-metamorphosis state, there is no active-passive contrast, no distinction of masculine and feminine presentation except in the most superficial terms.

Iphis is understood socially to be a boy, but simply by parental fiat--not based on appearance or personality or physical prowess or even based on a gendered name. We see this in the post-transformation description. Now her stride is longer, now her complexion is less delicate, now she is stronger and has more stamina, and--curiously--now her hair is shorter. Implying that she had long feminine hair before the transformation and yet this was not taken by anyone as a gendered attribute. In fact, the pre-transformation Iphis provides conflicting arguments about gender essentialism. Nothing about the pre-transformation Iphis was read as being feminine, otherwise the deception couldn’t have been successful. Contrarily, the proof of the sexual transformation is presented as being a shift in gendered attributes.

Iphis is raised as a boy due to her mother’s choice, not her own. And in her internal conflict over the marriage, her anxiety is over identifying as a girl and believing that this makes her love for Ianthe unnatural. If Iphis identified as a boy--leaving aside the question of whether this is a concept that Ovid could have envisioned--that problem wouldn’t exist. In the moment when Iphis raises the possibility of sexual metamorphosis as a solution, she doesn’t fixate specifically on transforming her, but only that one of them must change.

Let Daedalus himself come flying back to Crete on wings of wax, what will he do for me, with all his brains and skill? Turn me into a boy? Or will he change you, Ianthe?

This open-ended option is emphasized even more strongly in a Renaissance adaptation of the tale, which leaves the question entirely unsettled as to which of the girls has been changed after the curtain closes. The metamorphosis is not to align internal gender and external sexual identities, even despite the prior gender-disguise motif.

And yet if the ways in which Iphis is described makes it difficult to read the story whole-heartedly as a transgender one, there are also significant problems in reading the story whole-heartedly as a lesbian one. Despite the obvious evidence that Iphis is in love with Ianthe, both her internal dialogue and the author’s framing represent love between women as impossible. Or at least untenable. Metamorphosis is imposed on them to dodge the possibility of an egalitarian, mutual, non-phallocentric love between two women. Not because it was impossible, but because it was unacceptable. One cannot look at the conclusion to Iphis and Ianthe and say, “Here is a female couple with a happily ever after ending.” Because they are only allowed to have that happy ending once they are a heterosexual couple.

This cultural imposition of heterosexuality is an underlayer for the entire Western history of “female husbands.” We cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a lesbian because the shape of their lives is identical to what we’d expect for a heterosexual trans man. And yet we cannot with certainty interpret every “female husband” as a trans man because we see, time and again with cyclic regularity, the rise of cultural scripts that define women who love women as “actually being men.” This is a conflict that continues to play out today, even in the face of the deciding principle that your identity is what you understand it to be. History is less susceptible of that subjective truth whether analyzing the lives and identities of actual persons, or even more so when interpreting fictional characters in the past where the author’s motives and limitations play as much of a part as the lives they present on the page.

One curious side-note to the sexual-metamorphosis motif is that such a transformation--though only from female to male--was considered to be a known phenomenon in classical Roman times and on through the middle ages. Such transformations are described in histories, travelers’ tales, and other anecdotes. The philosopher Pliny claimed that some animals could change sex, even repeatedly.

[Sponsor Break]

Transmission and Translation

I mentioned a Renaissance adaptation, but let’s step back and look at the full history of how the tale of Iphis and Ianthe was transmitted across the ages. We have no copies of the work from anywhere near its time of composition at the very beginning of the 1st century CE. In general, all texts of this era come down to us only because they were copied and re-copied continually over the ages. We have a few fragmentary parts of the Metamorphoses dating to the 9th and 10th centuries, and then more complete versions from copies made in the 11th century and later, but it was an extremely popular text by the middle ages, with hundreds of copies in circulation.

Gower’s Confessio Amantis (1390)

In the middle ages, there were French adaptations of the Metamorphoses that I’ll discuss a bit later. Versions of the stories began appearing in Middle English in the later 14th century. Geoffrey Chaucer borrowed some of them to use in his Canterbury Tales, though Iphis and Ianthe was not one of those.

John Gower included a number of older romantic tales in his work Confessio Amantis “a lover’s confession,” written around 1390. It has a framing story in which an aging lover gives his confession to the chaplain of Venus, the goddess of love--an interesting mix of Christian and pagan motifs! The tales in the confession are organized in groups by the seven mortal sins, with Iphis and Ianthe placed under “sloth”--not as an example of sloth, but as an example of what the hard-working lover can achieve.

Gower’s interpretation is ambivalent about sex between women rather than being entirely negative. He alludes (possibly) to sexual activity between the two young women, in contrast to other versions, which treat such a thing as impossible. Gower’s version is relatively short, so I’ll include it in its entirety. I’ve edited some of the vocabulary to make it understandable to modern ears, but the original version is in the transcript.

[The Original Text]

The king Ligdus upon a strif
Spak unto Thelacuse his wif,
Which thanne was with childe grete;
He swor it scholde noght be lete [i.e., should not be prevented]
That if sche have a dowhter bore
That it ne scholde be forlore [i.e., it nothing should be but destroyed]
And slain, wherof sche sory was.
So it befell upon this cas,
Whan sche delivered scholde be,
Isis be nyhte in priveté,
Which of childinge is the goddesse,  [child-bearing]
Cam for to helpe in that destresse,
Til that this lady was al smal,
And hadde a dowhter forthwithal;
Which the goddesse in alle weie
Bad kepe, and that thei scholden seie [bade keep]
It were a sone: and thus Iphis
Thei namede him, and upon this 
The fader was mad so to wene. [ween = understand]
And thus in chambre with the qweene
This Iphis was forthdrawe tho, [taken away then]
And clothed and arraied so
Riht as a kinges sone scholde.
Til after, as fortune it wolde,
Whan it was of a ten yer age,
Him was betake in mariage [to him was delivered in marriage]
A duckes dowhter for to wedde, [duke’s]
Which Iante hihte, and ofte abedde [in bed]
These children leien, sche and sche,
Which of on age bothe be.
So that withinne time of yeeres,
Togedre as thei ben pleiefieres, [playmates, playfellows]
Liggende abedde upon a nyht,
Nature, which doth every wiht
Upon hire lawe for to muse,
Constreigneth hem, so that thei use
Thing which to hem was al unknowe;
Wherof Cupide thilke throwe
Tok pité for the grete love,
And let do sette kinde above, [and caused [love] to be set above nature]
So that hir lawe mai ben used,
And thei upon here lust excused.
For love hateth nothing more
Than thing which stant agein the lore [teaching]
Of that nature in kinde hath sett. [what nature, naturally has set]
Forthi Cupide hath so besett
His grace upon this aventure,
That he acordant to nature,
Whan that he syh the time best,
That ech of hem hath other kest, [kissed]
Transformeth Iphe into a man,
Wherof the kinde love he wan [whereof the natural love he ?felt?]
Of lusti yonge Iante his wif;
And tho thei ladde a merie lif, [led a merry life]
Which was to kinde non offence. [to nature]

[The Confessor]

   And thus to take an evidence,
It semeth love is welwillende [well-willing, benevolent]
To hem that ben continuende
With besy herte to poursuie
Thing which that is to love due.
Wherof, my sone, in this matiere
Thou miht ensample taken hiere,
That with thi grete besinesse [busy-ness, diligence]
Thou mihte atteigne the richesse
Of love, if that ther be no Slowthe."

[Made somewhat more readable by me]

The king Ligdus upon a strife
Spoke unto Thelacuse his wife,
Which then was with child great;
He swore it should not be let
That if she have a daughter born
That it should be forlorn
And slain, whereof she sorry was.
So it befell upon this cause,
When she deliveréd should be,
Isis be nigh in privacy,
Which of child-bearing is the goddess,
Came for to help in that distress,
Til that this lady was all small,
And had a daughter forth-withall;
Which the goddess in all way
Bade her keep, and that they should say
It were a son: and thus Iphis
They naméd him, and upon this 
The father was made to believe
And thus in chamber with the queen
This Iphis was taken though,
And clothéd and arrayéd so
Right as a king’s son should.
Til after, as fortune it would,
When it was of a ten year age,
Him was betake in marriage
A duke’s daughter for to wed,
Which Iante hight, and oft a-bed
These children lie, she and she,
Which of one age both be.
So that within time of years,
Together as they be play-fellows,
Lying a-bed upon a night,
Nature, which causes every wight
Upon her law for to muse,
Constrains them, so that they use
A thing which to them was all unknown;
Whereof Cupid, arrows thrown
Took pity for their great love,
And set that over nature above,
So that nature’s law be used,
And they upon their lust excused.
For love hates nothing more
Than a thing which stands against the lore
Of what nature naturally has set.
For Cupid has so be-set
His grace upon this adventure,
That he according to nature,
When that he sees the time best,
That each of them hath the other kissed,
Transforms Iphis into a man,
Whereof the type of love he can
Of lusty young Iante his wife;
And then they led a merry life,
Which was to nature no offence.

[The Confessor]

And thus to take an evidence,
It seems love is well-willing
To them that be continuing
With busy heart to pursue
A thing which that is to love due.
Whereof, my son, in this matter
Thou might ensample taken here,
That with thy great business
Thou might attain the riches
Of love, if that there be no Sloth."

It isn’t entirely clear what the “thing” is that Iphis and Ianthe use in bed together--“a thing which to them was all unknown”--whether this is an oblique reference to using the genitals in a way that was against nature, or whether an object is meant. But this version of the story at least implies the possibility of sexual activity--and the certainty of a kiss--between the women prior to the metamorphosis. In Gower’s version it’s implied that the love between the two carries such weight that Cupid rewards them with the ability to “lead a merry life” together. Whereas Ovid’s original frames the metamorphosis as an escape from the social consequences of having Iphis’s female state discovered. Cupid is, perhaps, a better author of this ending than the less familiar Isis would have been.

Caxton’s The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose (1480)

But the pagan content of the story must have made some uneasy, for by the early 14th century, a French adaptation was composed known as Ovid Moralisée or “Ovid, Moralized,” which adapted the stories to create Christian moral lessons, with Ovid converted into a sort of proto-Christian philosopher. Many of the stories were drastically changed in the process.

William Caxton, of printing press fame, produced a translation of the French Ovid Moralisée in 1480. By the time we get to Caxton’s version, a number of details of the story have changed. The father, Ligdus, is no longer too poor to afford a daughter, instead he’s rich and merely murderously misogynistic, claiming, A woman is withoute strength & valoyr. By women many ther be put to gret shame & sorrow. When Telethusa appeals to the goddess Isis, the goddess doesn’t simply assure her all will be well, but specifically instructs Telethusa to deceive her husband. Deceit is much more to the forefront in this version, because Caxton’s text claims that the name Iphis could only be a male name, where Ovid had claimed it as non-gender-specific and thus as appropriate for a daughter as a son.

This doughter was named Yphis after the name of her grantfader and therby he wende the more certaynly that it hade be a son. The moder enioyed her & moch it plesed her that she was so named, for suche a name apperteyneth to a man & not to a woman, and so myght by hys name he be apperceyued withoute sayenge the trouth.

Thus Caxton introduces the common trope of transgender status as inherently deceptive. Also in contrast to Ovid’s version, Caxton’s language attributes masculinity to Iphis before the physical transformation. Ovid emphasizes a “similarity” model of attractiveness and attraction, describing characteristics that are not implied to be inherently gendered. Caxton also emphasizes the similarity motif, describing Iphis as having “such a vysage that who sawe her myght indefferently saye ‘it is a sone or a doughter’.”

But where Ovid uses feminine pronouns for Iphis (until the metamorphosis), Caxton, similarly to other medieval texts, alternates gendered reference by context, not only before the metamorphosis but even before Ianthe is introduced. myght by hys name he be aperceyued ... Yphis had th’abyte of a man chylde whych becam hym moche wel. And also she had such a vysage that who sawe her...

That is, Caxton’s Iphis is male in some essential way, just not quite male enough to marry a woman. This inherent masculinity is implied to be the basis for Iphis’s desire for Ianthe, but is not sufficient to enable consummation. Iphis laments that she is not worthy of Ianthe’s love.

she was moch descomforted, which supposed neuer to haue mow enioye her, ne acowple to her. ... A shep female desyreth the masle & engendre togeder, and a kowe assembleth her to a bulle. Euery femele by ryght requyreth his masle. Ther is no femele that desireth to acowple her to another femele. And I, a femele, requyre as masle agaynst raison. I had leuer not to be born than to haue so folisshe hope.

Like in Ovid, after recalling how the inventor Daedalus created a device to enable Pasiphaë’s foolish love for the bull, Iphis raises the idea of a sex change either for her or for Ianthe, but only to deny its possibility.

for I may not become a masle, ne she nether that abydeth for me.

Ovid’s text is somewhat coy in identifying exactly what aspect of marriage Iphis is incapable of fulfilling, but Caxton is somewhat more direct.

For I may goo, come, speke, embrace & kysse her as my love whan it pleseth me, and ther is nothynge that may destrowble me. ...[the goddes] gyue to me a grete parte of my desyre. ... But what shal avaylle me this joye? In the myddes of the water we shal deye for thurst, for I may not doo with her as a man ought to do with his wyf.

Once more, Caxton’s text attributes masculine identity to Iphis. To desire a woman is to desire “as a male.”

Iphis’s mother delays the wedding as long as possible but then takes her to the temple of Isis to throw themselves on the goddess’s mercy. The goddess appears in a vision, the temple shakes as a portent (or maybe just an earthquake, this is Crete after all), and Iphis emerges from the temple:

a greter paas than she was wonte to doo and had lasse white in her vysage than she had before. And her heere were shorter & harder and she was more vygorous & stronger than she had ben to fore, ne than woman myght be by nature. She had changed al her femenyne nature in to masculyne.

But here Caxton’s anticipatory gender assignment is missing. At the very point when Iphis has been physically transformed into a male, the language is entirely feminine. What is the moral? Well, in the moralized Ovid, we aren’t left wondering on that point, for Caxton lays it out in an afterword, suggesting that the story might have been inspired by a cross-dressing woman who married another woman. But in contrast to the rather innocent romantic angst of Ovid’s Iphis, the “moralized Iphis” is depicted as being driven by lechery, aided by an “old and evil bawd” who helped her obtain an artificial penis to deceive her wife.

It may wel be that in ancyent tyme was a woman that ware the habyte of a man whych semed a man. And they that saw her had supposed wel that she so had be. And the moder made the peple also to byleue it. And it myght hapen that som fair mayde sawe her, fair, gente & plaisant in th’abyte of a man, & byleued that she was a man & desired to haue her in maryage. And she, whych was folyssh & nyce, fyanced & espoused her, how wel she hade not th’ynstruments of nature, but, ayenst the right of her, desyred to complaire her lecherye in her, how be it that she had such empesshement as afore is sayd. The whych wyf & very love knewe it not. So moche complayned she that the folysshe loue tempted her that by th’arte & crafte of an old & euyl bawde achievyd her fowl desyre by a membre apostate & deceyued this wif, whiche by lawe of mariage ought not to haue her. And whan she apperceyuyd it, she hydd it no, but shewd & told it, wherof she had euer aftir all her lyf shame & vylonye & was sore blamed, and that other fledd & absented her fro the contrey. Now ther be none that haue to doo with suche werke, for it is overmoch vylanous and domageable.

The whole framing is converted into excessive lust, deception, and dildos. In contrast to Ovid’s acceptance--whether genuine or not--of physical transformation and a heterosexual resolution to the romance, the moralized version does not admit of the possibility of genuine metamorphosis and focuses on the mechanisms of sexual activity rather than the motivations of erotic love. The French versified version of the moralized Ovid places this obsession with dildos and deceit within the story of Iphis itself, rather than being offered as an ex post facto suggestion of the story’s origins. Note that some scholars interpret this final section as depicting the fate of Iphis and Ianthe themselves, rather than a parallel story.

Renaissance Translations

In the mid 16th century, Arthur Golding returned to the original Latin text and produced a verse translation into English that was the version known by influential poets such as Shakespeare and Spenser. There is a rumor that Shakespeare produced a play based on Iphis and Ianthe--which would certainly fit in with his fondness for gender-disguise plays--but this rumor is discounted by most historians.

In contrast to Gower’s abbreviated version, Golding’s retains all the digressions and poetic excursions of Ovid’s original, so it’s a bit long to include in full. I’ve excerpted the portion in which Iphis is discovering and lamenting her love, but the full version is included in the transcript.

[The bolded text is included in the podcast.]

Iphis and Ianthe from Book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis translated by Arthur Golding (1567)

More neerer home by Iphys meanes transformed late before.
For in the shyre of
 Phestos hard by Gnossus dwelt of yore
A yeoman of the meaner sort that
 Lyctus had to name.
His stocke was simple, and his welth according to the same.
Howbee't his lyfe so upryght was, as no man could it blame.
He came unto his wyfe then big and ready downe to lye,
And sayd: Two things I wish thee. T'one, that when thou out shalt crye,
Thou mayst dispatch with little payne: the other that thou have
A Boay. For Gyrles to bring them up a greater cost doo crave.
And I have no abilitie. And therefore if thou bring
A wench (it goes ageinst my heart to thinke uppon the thing)
Although ageinst my will, I charge it streyght destroyed bee.
The bond of nature needes must beare in this behalf with mee
This sed, both wept exceedingly, as well the husband who
Did give commaundement, as the wyfe that was commaunded too.
 Telethusa earnestly at Lyct her husband lay,
(Although in vayne) to have good hope, and of himselfe more stay.
But he was full determined. Within a whyle, the day
Approched that the frute was rype, and shee did looke to lay
Her belly every mynute: when at midnyght in her rest
Stood by her (or did seeme to stand) the Goddesse
 Isis, drest
And trayned with the solemne pomp of all her rytes. Two hornes
Uppon her forehead lyke the moone, with eares of rypened cornes
Stood glistring as the burnisht gold. Moreover shee did weare
A rich and stately diademe. Attendant on her were
The barking dog Anubis, and the saint of Bubast, and
The pydecote Apis, and the God that gives to understand
By fingar holden to his lippes that men should silence keepe,
And Lydian wormes whose stinging dooth enforce continuall sleepe,
And thou, Osyris, whom the folk of Aegypt ever seeke,
And never can have sought inough, and Rittlerattles eke.
Then even as though that Telethuse had fully beene awake,
And seene theis things with open eyes, thus Isis to her spake:
My servant Telethusa, cease this care, and breake the charge
Of Lyct. And when Lucina shall have let thy frute at large,
Bring up the same what ere it bee. I am a Goddesse who
Delyghts in helping folke at neede. I hither come to doo
Thee good. Thou shalt not have a cause hereafter to complayne
Of serving of a Goddesse that is thanklesse for thy payne.
When Isis had this comfort given, shee went her way agayne.
A joyfull wyght rose Telethuse, and lifting to the sky
Her hardened hands, did pray hir dreame myght woorke effectually.
Her throwes increast, and forth alone anon the burthen came,
A wench was borne to Lyctus who knew nothing of the same.
The mother making him beleeve it was a boay, did bring
It up, and none but shee and nurce were privie to the thing.
The father thanking God did give the chyld the Graundsyres name,
The which was Iphys. Joyfull was the moother of the same,
Bycause the name did serve alike to man and woman bothe,
And so the lye through godly guile forth unperceyved gothe.
The garments of it were a boayes. The face of it was such
As eyther in a boay or gyrle of beawtie uttered much.

When Iphys was of thirteene yeeres, her father did insure
The browne Ianthee unto her, a wench of looke demure,
Commended for her favor and her person more than all
The Maydes of Phestos: Telest, men her fathers name did call.
He dwelt in Dyctis. They were bothe of age and favor leeke,
And under both one schoolemayster they did for nurture seeke.
And hereupon the hartes of both, the dart of Love did streeke,

And wounded both of them aleeke. But unlike was theyr hope.
Both longed for the wedding day togither for to cope.
For whom Ianthee thinkes to bee a man, shee hopes to see
Her husband. Iphys loves whereof shee thinkes shee may not bee
Partaker, and the selfesame thing augmenteth still her flame.
Herself a Mayden with a Mayd (ryght straunge) in love became.
Shee scarce could stay her teares. What end remaynes for mee (quoth shee)
How straunge a love? how uncoth? how prodigious reygnes in mee?
If that the Gods did favor mee, they should destroy mee quyght.
Of if they would not mee destroy, at least wyse yit they myght
Have given mee such a maladie as myght with nature stond,
Or nature were acquainted with. A Cow is never fond
Uppon a Cow, nor Mare on Mare. The Ram delyghts the Eawe,
The Stag the Hynde, the Cocke the Hen. But never men could shew,
That female yit was tane in love with female kynd. O would
To God I never had beene borne. Yit least that Candy should
Not bring foorth all that monstruous were, the daughter of the Sonne
Did love a Bull. Howbee't there was a Male to dote uppon.
My love is furiouser than hers, if truthe confessed bee.
For shee was fond of such a lust as myght bee compast. Shee
Was served by a Bull beguyld by Art in Cow of tree.
And one there was for her with whom advowtrie to commit.
If all the conning in the worlde and slyghts of suttle wit
Were heere, or if that Daedalus himselfe with uncowth wing
Of Wax should hither fly againe, what comfort should he bring?
Could he with all his conning crafts now make a boay of mee?
Or could he, O Ianthee, chaunge the native shape of thee?
Nay rather, Iphys, settle thou thy mynd and call thy witts
Abowt thee: shake thou off theis flames that foolishly by fitts
Without all reason reigne. Thou seest what Nature hathe thee made
(Onlesse thow wilt deceyve thy selfe.) So farre foorth wysely wade,
As ryght and reason may support, and love as women ought.
Hope is the thing that breedes desyre, hope feedes the amorous thought.
This hope thy sex denieth thee. Not watching doth restreyne
Thee from embracing of the thing wherof thou art so fayne.
Nor yit the Husbands jealowsie, nor rowghnesse of her Syre,
Nor yit the coynesse of the Wench dooth hinder thy desyre.

And yit thou canst not her enjoy. No, though that God and man
Should labor to their uttermost and doo the best they can
In thy behalfe, they could not make a happy wyght of thee.
I cannot wish the thing but that I have it. Frank and free
The Goddes have given mee what they could. As I will, so will bee
That must become my fathrinlaw. So willes my father, too.
But nature stronger than them all consenteth not thereto.
This hindreth mee, and nothing else. Behold the blisfull tyme,
The day of Mariage is at hand. Ianthee shal bee myne,
And yit I shall not her enjoy. Amid the water wee
Shall thirst. O Juno, president of mariage, why with thee
Comes Hymen to this wedding where no brydegroome you shall see,
But bothe are Brydes that must that day togither coupled bee?

This spoken, shee did hold hir peace. And now the tother mayd
Did burne as hote in love as shee. And earnestly shee prayd
The brydale day myght come with speede. The thing for which shee longd
Dame Telethusa fearing sore, from day to day prolongd
The tyme, oft feyning siknesse, oft pretending shee had seene
Ill tokens of successe. At length all shifts consumed beene.
The wedding day so oft delayd was now at hand. The day
Before it, taking from her head the kercheef quyght away,
And from her daughters head likewyse, with scattred heare she layd
Her handes upon the Altar, and with humble voyce thus prayd:
O Isis, who doost haunt the towne of Paretonie, and
The feeldes by Maraeotis lake, and Pharos which dooth stand
By Alexandria, and the Nyle divided into seven
Great channels, comfort thou my feare, and send mee help from heaven,
Thyself, O Goddesse, even thyself, and theis thy relikes I
Did once behold and knew them all: as well thy company
As eke thy sounding rattles, and thy cressets burning by,
And myndfully I marked what commaundement thou didst give.
That I escape unpunished, that this same wench dooth live,
Thy counsell and thy hest it is. Have mercy now on twayne,
And help us. With that word the teares ran downe her cheekes amayne.
The Goddesse seemed for to move her Altar: and in deede
She moved it. The temple doores did tremble like a reede.
And homes in likenesse to the Moone about the Church did shyne.
And Rattles made a raughtish noyse. At this same luckie signe,
Although not wholy carelesse, yit ryght glad shee went away.
And Iphys followed after her with larger pace than ay
Shee was accustomd. And her face continued not so whyght.
Her strength encreased, and her looke more sharper was to syght.
Her heare grew shorter, and shee had a much more lively spryght,
Than when shee was a wench. For thou, O 
Iphys, who ryght now
A modther wert, art now a boay. With offrings both of yow
To Church retyre, and there rejoyce with fayth unfearfull. They
With offrings went to Church ageine, and there theyr vowes did pay.
They also set a table up, which this breef meeter had:
The vowes that Iphys vowd a wench he hath performd a Lad.
Next morrow over all the world did shine with lightsome flame,
 Iuno, and Dame Venus, and Sir Hymen joyntly came
 Iphys mariage, who as then transformed to a boay
Did take Ianthee to his wyfe, and so her love enjoy.

In the 1620s, Henry Bellamy wrote a play “Iphis and Ianthe” in Latin, diverging from Ovid’s plot in places, largely by introducing several new characters including a suitor competing for Ianthe’s affections. Like Ovid, Bellamy suggests that Iphis and Ianthe are similar enough to be twins--similar enough that Ianthe’s other suitor is expected to be able to transfer his love to Iphis on being told her true sex. Iphis’s virtues are depicted in female-coded terms and the attraction of like to like is presented as natural and praiseworthy.

Other verse translations appeared in the 17th and 18th centuries, but there’s no need to elaborate on them except to note that the continued popularity of the work meant that the component stories were kept current in popular culture.

Other Adaptations

That currency appears in passing allusions and quotations in other works. When the (presumably female) poet of the 1586 Maitland manuscript poem expresses her desire for her female beloved, comparing the two of them to passionate pairs of same-sex friends and lovers throughout history, she concludes by suggesting that Jove (well-known for bodily transformations) by “metamorphosing our shape--my sex into his will convert” such that the poet might marry her beloved. Both the bodily transformation to enable marriage and the use of the word “metamorphose” call to mind the tale of Iphis.

More solidly, the story of Iphis and Ianthe was used as a basis for other popular works. This includes the medieval romance of Yde and Olive, which--among other motifs--borrows the impending marriage between a cross-dressed woman and a female-presenting one as the context for anxiety about the possibility of love--and sex--between women. Yde chooses her masculine disguise rather than having it imposed on her from birth, but the purpose is similarly safety from a threatening father. It isn’t clear that Yde falls in love with Olive--we aren’t given the same window into her interior emotional life. But unlike Ianthe, Olive renews her expressions of love and faithfulness after learning Yde’s femaleness in their marriage bed. Like Iphis, Yde is magically transformed into a man to save her life when her sex is about to be revealed to the world.

On a lighter note, John Lyly’s romantic comedy Galathea, sets up a mirror to the Iphis character and has both heroines pressured into cross-dressing for reasons to do with their fathers (though in this case with the father’s knowledge). While in disguise, each falls in love with the other, each initially thinking that her love is safely heterosexual (despite the superficial appearance of male-male love), but both quickly suspecting the other’s disguise. Yet their love for each other survives this realization.

Gallathea proclaims, “I will never love any but Phyllida, her love is engraved in my heart, with her eyes.

Which Phyllida echoes with, “Nor I any but Gallathea, whose faith is imprinted in my thoughts by her words.”

The god Neptune mocks them and asks Venus, goddess of love what she thinks of such a foolish choice.

Venus responds, “I like well and allow it, they shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that Nature or Fortune shall overthrow love, and faith. Is your love unspotted, begun with truth, continued with constancy, and not to be altered until death?”

The two young women reply in the affirmative and Venus promises, “Then shall it be seen, that I can turn one of them to be a man, and that I will. What is to love or the Mistress of love unpossible? Was it not Venus that did the like to Iphis and Ianthe; how say ye, are ye agreed, one to bee a boy presently?”

Their fathers squabble a while over which of their daughters must be turned to a boy until Venus puts her foot down. “Then let us depart, neither of them shall know whose lot it shall be till they come to the Church door. One shall be, doth it suffice?”

As alluded to more faintly in Ovid’s text, Gallathea undermines a purely transgender reading of the story by emphasizing the arbitrary nature of the choice. One of the lovers is to be transformed to a man, not because of an underlying male identity, but in order to dodge a resolution in which two women are allowed a romantic and sexual union. But the obligatory transformation in both stories undermines a purely lesbian reading as well.

Iphis’s lament includes the claim that she was, “Victim of [a] new, bizarre, unheard-of spell of Venus.” That “No female ever desires another female.” And yet the continuing popularity of Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the last two millennia allowed Iphis to be a beacon to women who might otherwise have felt similarly. Iphis provided literary proof that women could desire other women. That they did. Iphis and Ianthe provided a context for women who loved women to recognize what they felt and to place it in a  long--if not always happy--tradition. To know that they weren’t alone in feeling what they did. When I wanted to give my characters in Daughter of Mystery a wake-up call to contemplate their dawning love, I invented an operatic performance of Iphis and Ianthe for them to watch together. I couldn’t find any actual operatic versions of the story in the 19th century, but it’s quite in keeping with the long tradition of reworking the story. And maybe it should exist.


The full text of Gower’s Confessio Amantis can be found at the website of the TEAMS Middle English Texts Series

The full text of Golding’s 1567 translation of the Metamorphoses is available from Wikisource

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Metamorphoses: Iphis and Ianthe (Ovid)

Major category: 
Daughter of Mystery


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