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Monday, January 20, 2020 - 07:00
Full citation: 

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

This is not a book of facts and analysis. It is a book of assertions, stated boldly with documentation only as an afterthought. Foucault talks about the pursuit of “truth” about sex while employing no definable methodology that could be challenged or debated. This means that if the data on which he builds his conclusions has gaps, those gaps are impossible to chart. Thus, his conclusions can only be debated by those who have a sufficiently broad and universal knowledge of the field to be certain of their own ground. Whether this is an intentional feature of this genre of text, or simply a convenient byproduct is hard for me to tell. But this is not a book that I would classify as a “history” book in the ordinary sense of the word. Certainly not in terms of history books written in the last quarter of the 20th century. (It strikes me as being far more similar to the sort of thing produced in the 19th century by gentlemen amateurs who considered footnotes and references to be beneath their notice.) I had expected to read this work and disagree with facts and conclusions, but instead I’m mostly frustrated with the respect given to a work that comes across to me as smugly self-satisfied. [Note: after reading the other two volumes, I would soften this somewhat, but for reading the first volume in isolation, my reaction stands.]

Part I - We “Other Victorians”

Foucault begins by setting up the strawman he intends to tear down. The current age, he asserts, involves two centuries of “Victorian prudery”, contrasting with the free and open sexual discourse that held until the early 17th century. That discourse has now shifted to the privacy of the home and a focus on reproduction. But this idealized state of privacy and prudery was created by denial, avoidance, and repression, with the only sexual safety valves found in the prostitution industry and mental illness, which carefully removed such anti-social activities from public view. (By this, he means that "alternative sexualities" were classified as psychological aberrations, not that people found sexual release by going crazy.) Freud, he allows, offered a small reprieve of honesty from this general represion.

With the beginning of this culture of repression assigned to the 17th century, it is natural to align it with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois dominance of society. Surely repressive Victorian sex culture arose to constrain “non-productive” sex, seeing sexual activity as only one more capitalist enterprise where productivity was the only good?

[Note: as I was reading this, I found it impossible to tell if he was sincere, or engaging in an elaborate set-up. The latter, as it turns out.]

If sex must be repressed, then to speak of it is to be a rebel. Sexual discourse aligns one with prophecy and preaching, calling for a coming better world of pleasure. But this provides an incentive for sex talk to uphold the image of repression in order to make heroes and visionaries of those who engage in it. Then the question becomes not “why are we repressed?” but “why do we insist so vehemently that we are repressed?”

Foucault then turns around and raises several points to ask if they can be demonstrated. 1) Is sexual repression an established historic fact? And does it begin in the 17th century? 2) Have the powers that be acted primarily and consistently to repress sex? 3) Is anti-repressive discourse a counter to, or part of the same system as, repressive discourse?

In addressing these questions, Foucault plans to situate repression as only part of a continuous system of sex-discourse in modern society. Who talks about sex? Which side they are on? What point of view do they have in society and what institutions support them? What forms of power are implicated in sexual discourse?

Part II - The Repressive Hypothesis

Power over sex discourse is exercised by controlling language--how and when it is talked about. But when you look at the record, rather than a decrease in discussions of sex, there is an explosion. This might include a shift in “authorized” vocabulary and shifts in authorized contexts for sexual discourse. But the sheer volume shows a significant increase in the last three centuries.

For example, penitential manuals shifted from eliciting many specific details about sexual sins (exactly what actions and body parts were involved), to recommending that vague language be used, while at the same time the scope of life activities that were subject to scrutiny for sexual implications vastly increased. All thoughts and actions were to be examined for sexual significance.

This focus on expanding detail is not limited to confession, but can be seen reflected in pornography. This compulsion to dissect sex in detail permeated political, social, and technical discourse. Sex-related texts regularly called attention to the “disgust and ridicule” their subjects were expected to generate, supporting the framing of sex-talk as transgressive.

Sexual discourse must be managed and administered. It must be “policed” both literally and figuratively. People as individuals became a “population”--a resource to be managed, and one inextricably tied to sex.

The sexualization of ever-expanding facets of life can also be seen in ideas about the sexuality of children and the function of sexual discourse between children and adults. The official silence and reticence in this context masked the purpose of control. The sexuality of adolescent boys, in particular, became an obsession among medical and educational professionals. There was an expansion of medical and psychological concern, with ever more behaviors being considered “disordered” sexually.

If this increase in sexual discourse were simply quantitative, it might not be significant. But there was also an expantion of the negative discussion of non-reproductive sexual behaviors and obsession over how to control and suppress them. Foucault says he’s not sure if the primary goal can be demonstrated to be population growth/reproduction. Rather than reducing the catalog of sexualities, it has expanded in order to codify the activities labeled as perversions. Earlier discourse tended to identify only two categories of sexual activity: licit and illicit. Interest in cataloging and identifying illicit forms of sex focused primarily on sex within marriage--to distinguish the times, conditions, and circumstances that defined licit sex. Non-marital sex, though illicit, was not explored and cataloged in detail. Prohibitions on illicit sex were legal in nature, not moral. [Note: I don't think this last statement holds water, when you examine the medieval history of the discourse around sodomy. It may have been subject to legal penalties, but the objections were moral.]

From this, the sexual discourse in the 18-19th century shifted in two ways. Normative sex (i.e., m/f marital sex for the purpose of procreation) was less discussed and was taken for granted. It was other types of sexualities that formed the expansion of discourse. At the same time, libertine excesses of m/f sex were distinguished from this new catalog of “perversions.”

If variant sexualities could not be opressed legally, they were medicalized. In theory, legal consequences diminished, but in practical terms, the increased scope of interest and control more than balanced out the severity of effect. Non-reproductive sex was medicalized as “disordered” even within marriage.

What was the purpose in exercising this control over sex? Not the elimination of the acts, but the excuse for their persecution. Deviant sexuality was no longer a set of forbidden acts, but an identifiable set of deviant people.

[Note: This is the essence of the concept Foucault is most often know for: that there was a shift between conceptualizing “deviant” sex as acts, to conceptualizing deviance as adhering to a type of person. In the discussion in which this idea is introduced, we aren’t talking about self-identity or how individuals understood their own actions and nature, but about how behavior was viewed and dealt with by persons and systems of authority.]

The proliferation of medically-named perversions was not for the purpose of eliminating them, but to establish their reality to justify their study and treatment. This power required constant surveillance and proximity to the potential deviants. Power over sexuality became its own reward and justification--a type of perversion itself. Rather than restricting sexuality to the licit conjugal act, now the entirety of life was filled with potentially sexualized acts, thoughts, and experiences.

[Note: Foucault regularly uses the word “perversion” in a way that is ambiguous with regard to his position. Is this a scare-quotes “perversion” meant to signal the point of view of the people studying and defining it? Or is Foucault asserting that there is an objective concept of “perversion” to which acts/thoughts/experiences can belong?]

Foucault’s conclusion is that the modern age has not been an age of increased sexual repression. Rather it has seen a vast expansion of interest and concern about sex that invested all aspects of life and society with sexuality, in order to justify the intrusive study, categorization, and control of any sexualized aspect of life, creating “perverse” power dynamics within the very structures claiming to oppose perversion.

Part III - Scientia Sexualis

Granting the proliferation of sexual discourse, was its purpose to conceal sex behind a screen of avoidance talk? Foucault takes us on a tour through the field of sexology , which created a “pornography of the morbid,” riddled with established delusions, systemic blindness, and disinterest in “truth.” The work of the sexologists was filtered through deliberate omission and distortion of their observations to avoid tackling explicit truths about sexual experiences. [Note: Foucault credits Freud with introducing “truth and rationality,” which is a laugh considering what has come out about Freud’s deliberate omissions and distortions to deflect the truth of actual female sexual trauma into imagined fantasies.]

Truth about sex can be produced in two ways. One means is through a cultural “art of pleasure” which derives truth from the experience of pleasure itself, studied for its effects and codified into expert knowledge which can then be imparted to the student. Alternately, truth can be pursued via the “confession” (the Western approach), in which one self-reports one’s experiences to a judging body, which fits them into a framework of meaning. This places meaning into the hands of “professionals” separate from the experience being studied, who claimed the sole ability to identify relevance, causality, and meaning.

Part IV - The Deployment of Sexuality

This section contains a discussion of the relationship of power and sex and the mechanics of the techniques that power employs. [I skip over a lot in this section.]

Foucault identifies four major strategic threads in the use of power over sexual discourse:

  • 1. “Hysterization” of women’s bodies, that is, identifying women as essentially and fundamentally sexual beings, and pathologically sexual ones at that.
  • 2. The “pedagogization” of children’s sexuality, that is, putting sexual exploration and experience by children under the surveillance and direction of adults.
  • 3. Socialization of procreative behavior, that is, framing individual procreative choices as being a proper subject of social concern and control.
  • 4. Psychiatrization of perverse pleasure, that is, all pleasure is separated into “normal” and “pathological” with the latter subject to correction.

Foucault reviews a timeline of various significant “ruptures” in the history of sexuality: the 18th century silencing and focusing relative to marital sexuality, and the 20th century opening up and loosening of controls. Between those, the invention of a “science” of sex in the 19th century provided a transition.

Part V - Right of Death and Power Over Life

Here Foucault discusses systems of power that claim rights over lives. The claim to power over sexuality and reproduction relate directly to ideas about rights over people’s lives and deaths.

Misc tags: 
Saturday, January 18, 2020 - 09:00
Cover: Between Boat and Shore

I had no idea what to expect going into this book, and if I’d had expectations they would have been wrong. Based on the cover copy, what you have is a Neolithic murder mystery with intimations of queer romance. But Between Boat and Shore is neither a murder mystery nor a romance in terms of genre. The story opens with both a violent death and the arrival of two traveling strangers in the small community of Otter Village, motifs that would ordinarily suggest a classic whodunnit plot. But this story is much more of a slice-of-life anthropological tale (a la Clan of the Cave Bear but a lot queerer) that follows the community through a year’s cycle of everyday life, exploring a possible past that blends solid archaeological research with imagined cultural details.

Grant’s world-building envisions a diversity of micro-cultures, each interacting and borrowing from each other, or coming into conflict because of local differences. The motif of the “visiting strangers” provides a context for exploring both the setting of the story and the contrast of that diversity without falling into excessive authorial explanation. The larger cultural picture is one in which non-binary gender is an unremarked option and same-sex romance is an accepted, if not always encouraged, alternative.

The writing is solidly competent and avoids the pitfalls of excess info-dumping or making the dialogue stilted and artificial in an attempt to avoid anachronism. It’s hard for me to guess how the story would come across to a reader with less background in the history and material culture of the era. One of the most interesting world-building choices both worked and didn’t entirely work for me. Within the envisioned social micro-cultures, the one Grant developed for Otter Village is expressly based on modern worship and consensus-building practices of the Society of Friends (Quakers), as discussed in the author’s afterword. As a thought experiment in how such practices could work as a system of small-community government in a prehistoric culture, I thought it felt very natural. But as someone who was raised within Quaker culture, my problem was that it was too recognizable and jostled me out of the story a bit until I was able to set my reaction aside. I have no idea whether this aspect would be recognizable to anyone not closely familiar with Quaker culture, but for me it would have worked better with a few more of the serial numbers filed off.

Overall, this was a fascinating, fairly quick read with a satisfying and feel-good conclusion. In terms of genre, it’s very hard to classify and requires discarding genre expectations for the best reader experience.

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Saturday, January 18, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42c - Book Appreciation with Kate Heartfield - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/01/18 - listen here)


Books mentioned

  • A transcript of this podcast is pending.

Links to Kate Heartfield Online

Major category: 
Wednesday, January 15, 2020 - 14:00
book cover: Once Ghosted

Contemporary romance isn’t usually my thing, but I’m so desperate to get another f/f historical romance out of Alyssa Cole (having loved “That Could Be Enough”) that I decided to triangulate by picking up “Once Ghosted, Twice Shy” for the f/f side, and her Loyal League series for the historical side. I still want more f/f historicals but at least I get more Alyssa Cole.

I really enjoyed this very NYC second-chance story of two equally delightful women whose intended brief fling looked to turn into something more...until it didn’t, and how they negotiated around the lingering hurt to put the pieces back together again. The two protagonists are so vividly real as people and Cole’s voice is masterful--both the narrative voice and the voicing of the two rather different characters. The structure followed the common path of alternating viewpoints, but then took the interesting approach of jumping back and forth between their original meeting and their second-chance get-together. It worked perfectly to let the explanations unfold without resorting to talking heads, while leaving the reader in the same suspense as to what had happened that the “ghosted” character was in.

The story is relatively short (novella length) so just the right bite-size for reading in a single session.

Major category: 
Monday, January 13, 2020 - 07:00

While proofreading this entry before posting, I found myself thinking about the question of "what are identity categories anyway?" This also comes from the book that I was writing up an entry for last night (which won't post for quite some time), which talked a lot about the difference between "modern sexual identities" versus "pre-modern sexual tastes." Thinking from my own personal experience of "sexual identity," it sometimes feels like even "modern sexual identities" is an invented construct rather than an objective phenomenon. My sexuality category is "lesbian" (also "asexual") but when I contemplate understanding my sexuality as part of an objective, identifiable, widespread cultural "thing" that is a lesbian identity, I either have to conclude that there is no unified "lesbian identity" or I'm not part of it. Similarly, to the extent that there is an objective, identifiable "asexual identity" I also don't feel part of it. Part of my identity is "woman, " but it would be a snare and an illusion to suppose that there is an objective, identifiable cultural experience of "woman" that all women belong to and participate in. And I'm not sure that I feel any more comfortable about assuming that the unease I feel is simply a matter of factoring in the question of intersectional identities. And yet...I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "lesbian" even if I don't identify with some universal unified lesbianhood. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "asexual" even if I don't identify with some universal unified asexuality. I do feel confident in identifying with the concept "woman", etc etc.

So does this mean that I'm really a social constructionist? I don't think so. Because I don't think that my experience of those categories is an arbitrary product of a fleeting conjunction of cultures. In fact, I think that my unease with the idea of belonging to "objective, identifiable identity categories" is an unease with the specific social constructions produced by this fleeting moment in time. (I sometimes point out that I identify much more with the sexuality category of "romantic friendship" than I do with the sexuality categories available during my own lifetime.) I experience something--I guess "building blocks of identity" is a good way to put it--that feels apart from the specific conjunctions of features to which gender/sexuality labels are given. But to represent those building blocks as "a matter of individual personal taste" (as the book I was writing up last night would put it) feels trivializing. The distinctions in how I experience romantic and sexual attraction are not the same as my dislike for kale and my love of sushi, even those the latter are both shaped by specific, transitory cultural factors. Would I have always felt a vague, undefinable yearning to eat raw fish if sushi restaurants hadn't been "a thing" within my lifetime? Somehow I don't think so.

At the same time, there are vocal (though minority) voices on the "identitarian" side, both with regard to sexuality and gender, that seem bound and determined to narrow and specify the categories of "lesbian" or "woman" so strictly that we may end with no one qualifying for membership at all, either in the present day or the past. (In some cases, this seems to be an intentional goal.) Human categories are complex and fuzzy. Any time we have tried to eliminate that complexity and fuzziness has ended in tragedy and horror.

These meandering thoghts boil down to a couple of points. 1) Are the social constructionists/anti-identitarians simply wrong-headed in treating contemporary gender/sexual identities as a fixed point to react against? 2) Does it trivialize the inner subjective experience of "identity building blocks" to dismiss them as less meaningful than the complex intersectional structures of those building blocks that we give names to? (This is the topic of my podcast "Prepositions, Sexuality, and Gender: Unpacking Our Bundles.") 3) Can one belong to a category that never entirely seems to fit? Anyway, on to the article.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Vicinus, Martha. 2012. "The History of Lesbian History" in Feminist Studies vol. 38, no. 3 566-596.

This is a survey of the field of lesbian historiography as of 2012. This sort of article is primarily useful to me as a pointer to publications I may not know about, but Vicinus has written a very readable guided tour of the various movements and developments in the field which can help provide a context for the publications themselves. I think anyone trying to navigate the specifics of academic writing on the history of sexuality would benefit from this sort of high-level chronology. It helps remind us that the conclusions of historians are always contingent on the framework they are working in, just as the expression of gender and sexuality in history is always contingent on the historic frameworks people had available.

As a preface, Vicinus begins with a review of the works of sexologists such as Havelock Ellis, noting that despite their goals they flounder a bit in determining just what they’re studying. Is lesbianism “an emotion, a sexual act, a gender reversal ... situational or innate”? Agreeing that fuzziness is perhaps an essential feature of lesbian history, she then tackles a summary of the previous 30 years of study of the topic. Her focus, she admits, is her own field of modern British history and draws largely on Euro-American scholarship.

The first question to be addressed is whether using the word “lesbian” is even advisable, but Vicinus comes down on the side of considering the word “a useful shortcut for evoking a whole range of words that have been used to describe attachments between women” with the advantage that the associations of the word keep a certain focus on sex and avoid the scope-creep that a more general term like “queer” invites.

One feature of recent lesbian historiography (aside from regular paradigm shifts) has been a rejection of psychological models of the mid-20th century that divided the world of sexuality into “normal” and “deviant.” The next section of the article is organized around reviewing “five paradigms in less than thirty years.”

1. Adrienne Rich’s “lesbian continuum”

Following the 1970s, as lesbian historians focused on identifying lesbians in history, Rich expanded the concept of “lesbian” to embrace a wide variety of affective relationships such that most women could be identified as within the continuum. This approach was less appealing to many who worked to identify women in history who had an identifiable identity that could be defined as lesbian. Their approach was “essentialist” in the sense that it pre-supposed an essential, unchanging sexual identity that could be determined through evidence.

Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men fell on the “continuum” side in arguing that women’s same-sex relations had a long history in Europe and encompassed a range of expressions, but her stance that most “romantic friendship” relationships were non-sexual spurred a backlash. The initial publication in 1988 of Anne Lister’s diaries put the “non-sexual” theory to bed (as it were) and other work on the topic has identified a more complex and layered understanding of women’s sexuality in the era Faderman studied.

Even as the models of Rich’s continuum struggled with identity-based models, other historians were raising issues of communities marginalized within that original work: Smith on Black women’s friendships, Kennedy and Davis on working-class butch/femme relationships, Moraga and Anzaldúa’s focus on race and class. The search for identification with the past needed to include identification by race and class rather than revolving around a Eurocentric white middle-class model.

2. Social Constructionism

This second paradigm emphasized differences across historic eras, rather than identity. Driven by the work of Jeffrey Weeks and Michel Foucault, it argued that sexuality was always a social construction of a particular set of historic circumstances and that identities in the past were unrelated to present-day categories. This approach drew on observations such as the different features of “masculinity” and “femininity” in various cultures, as well as using anthropology to study affective cultures that don’t correspond across time. Smith-Rosenberg’s work on women’s friendships and networks in 18-19th century America is an example. Same-sex affective cultures of the past might have emotional resonance for the present, but could not be directly equated with modern identities.

By the 1980s, feminist historians were adopting the tools and rhetoric of social constructionism and beginning to view theories of a transhistoric “homosexual identity” as too essentialist. Constructionists argued that the past was an alien country where same-sex acts did not correspond to a defined sexual identity.

3. Queer Theory

Around 1990, historians such as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick began arguing against the very notion of a stable sexual identity (even in the present day). Queer theory approached identity as a flexible and shifting performance, with gender identity and sexuality simply being another type of performance. Judith Butler is another name prominent here. Lesbian “identity” was to be disassembled and examined as an intersection of gender, sexual identity and desire, all of which are unstable.

In this context, rather than homoerotic desire being a minority identity, it becomes part of a universal erotic pluralism that has always existed. While queer theory lent itself to cultural studies, historians have been hesitant to embrace it, as the dissolving of categories and causation work against the generally understood purposes of historic study.

Moreover, there has been a certain wariness in how queer theory has focused on masculinity and masculine subjects, while dismissing the concept of “lesbian” as essentialist and outdated. And the all-encompassing nature of queer theory led some scholars to consider it of questionable usefulness. Others feel that when queer theory focuses both on historical specificity and the varied nature of sexual behavior, it provides a useful tool--and has been used to question Foucault’s strict distinction between pre-19th century “acts” versus post-19th century “identity”.

Queer theory can still provide a basis for connection with the past on the basis of similarity, but rather by assuming the modern viewpoint as the origin of that similarity. The flip side of this is losing track of history as a factual concept and embracing only the subjective fictions of modern interpreters.

4. Transgender studies

Since the late 1990s, transgender studies have brought new angles to bear on the topics of gender and sexuality, returning to a focus on gender as a crucial attribute rather than sexual behavior. Rather than defining identity through the nature of the erotic object, transgender studies define it through embodied experience of the self.

Vicinus then takes us on a personal tour through how her own focus of study reflects these overall shifts, especially through her studies of female friendship. Having begun by studying female friendship as an emotional resource in the context of heterosexual marriage, she looked for “different” forms of same-sex friendship that could be part of a continuum of same-sex desire. 19th century same-sex friendships were richly varied and provided information in their silences as much as their texts.

Coming to examine the relational nature of sexuality, she argues for a fifth paradigm that focuses on complex identifications that draw on familial, class, national, and racial associations. She has studied the ways that women constructed their individual identities out of the imagery of other relationships to express a vocabulary of love and desire for other women. These relationships were negotiated using flirtation, erotic games, role playing, and careful definitions around forbidden concepts (e.g., what counted as “sex”). Women’s same-sex relations in the 19th century both borrowed the forms of heterosexual courtship and were in turn co-opted as part of heterosexual structures. By this means, women constructed a variety of same-sex relationships as reflections of familiar family ties: husband-wife, mother-daughter, sisters, etc., roles that could shift and co-exist within the same couple.

Currently (i.e., that is in 2012 when this article was written) Vicinus sees the study of sexuality in a “state of fruitful crisis.” Lesbian history is still stuck in the ruts of pursuing a genealogical timeline and trying to name-and-claim identifiable “lesbians”. Visibility is seen as a measure of legitimacy and lesbian identity is still defined in reference to heterosexuality. Lesbians alternate between an assimilationist or adversarial relationship to dominant society, or hold both at once. No one historical theoretical framework can encompass all the necessary analysis.

That said, approaches can still broadly be divided between those focusing on similarity (identifying connections across time and finding same-sex relations integrated into society), and those focusing on difference (examining the impact of social and political institutions on sex-deviant women and the forces for punishment or conformity).

One promising development is the mainstreaming of lesbian topics within general history, showing how homoerotic relationships acted as a historic force, or viewing expressions of female friendship at face value rather than assuming coded lesbianism. The celebration of female friendship supported not only homoerotic connections, but the freedom of women to exist outside of marriage in general.

There is still a place for those studying fragmentary documentation from the pre-modern period for evidence of similarity or difference to modern relationships. And the queer theorists support the desire for connections with the past as a subjective reality. The “lesbian continuum” has returned in the form of Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” concept, declining to define the past while still identifying connections.

Vicinus surveys a number of questions that remain a challenge on the “difference” side of the line, not only in terms of how lesbians are viewed and treated by institutions, but the importance of race and class as contributing axes. The social work that often brought women together in supportive romantic bonds often took colonialist forms with respect to their beneficiaries. And the intersection of transgender studies with lesbian studies partakes of a “difference” approach, not only in identifying trans men/trans-masculine women/butch women as a site of contention, but in tracing the ways that theoretical treatments of gender and sexuality have shifted emphasis from one to the other.

The article concludes with a review of some newer metaphors and images for considering lesbian history, such as Clark’s “twilight moments” and Traub’s “cycles of salience.” Studies that address non-Western history are also getting more attention. As a final coda, Vicinus discusses the biography of Edith Less Ellis, the wife of sexologist Havelock Ellis, whose marriage was full of complex and contradictory sexual themes.

Saturday, January 11, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42b - Interview with Kate Heartfield - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/01/11 - listen here)


  • Books mentioned
  • A transcript of this podcast is pending.

Links to Kate Heartfield Online

Major category: 
Monday, January 6, 2020 - 07:00

Articles that are not about history, but rather are about how we think about history don't have the same "zing" and "pop" as facts-on-the-ground articles, but especially once one gets past marveling at the incoherent wealth of primary evidence that historians are presenting to us, it becomes more and more important to think about how we think. This article is the sort of general talk that is typical of opening a conference roundtable. It doesn't have some of the deep digging into historiography that I enjoyed, for example, in the collection The Lesbian Premodern. But it does address ideas such how we "periodize" lesbian history and how we study world-wide related phenomena without shoehorning them into a Western historical framework. I think the idea of "generations," both of female same-sex experience and of the historical study of those experiences, is an intriguing one. Certainly across my own lifetime and even strictly within USA culture, there are multiple distinct and identifiable ways of experiencing lesbian-relevant desire, to say nothing of distinct and identifiable ways of relating to the word and concept "lesbian."

On twitter yesterday, someone posted a comment about "why are identities/labels like bi, gay, non-binary, and trans get to be 'umbrella terms' that are understood to encompass a collection of different identities and experiences, while some people feel it's 'dangerous' to suggest that 'lesbian' could have similarly varied application?" I contributed to the discussion by pointing out that, given the ways that the word "lesbian" has been used prior to the 20th century (and, in fact, prior to the later 20th century), most of the women to whom that word was applied in the past would not meet the strict and narrow definitions that a (small) group of exclusionists argue for today. But the definitional wars over the word "lesbian" are not unique to people who want to preserve it only for some small select "pure" core meaning. Challenges are also raised by people who feel that identifying a person or a relationship or an act as "lesbian" erases any other possible reading of that person, relationship, or act. This position, too, risks functionally erasing the word and concept "lesbian" from history. The introduction to The Lesbian Premodern challenges the tendency for this asymmetry of "umbrella terminology" function, where a male historical figure will be welcomed as "gay" for any trace of same-sex relations, while a female historical figure will be allowed the identity of "lesbian" only if and when she can be proven to have engaged in same-sex erotics and to have done so exclusively to any heterosexual interests.

My own personal position is that when you look at the historic usage of the term lesbian (apart from its geographic sense) one can either conclude that it has a broader meaning of "relating to any female same-sex relations" or one can conclude that no one in history was using the word correctly. My (very personal) belief is that the greatest risk from movements to push for a narrow, rigid, "pure" usage for "lesbian" is that it will result in us losing useful access to the word entirely. And that would be a historic and cultural tragedy.


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Full citation: 

Rupp, Leila J. 2013. "Thinking About 'Lesbian History'" in Feminist Studies vol. 39, no 2 357-361.

This is a very short article that introduces a roundtable discussion of “lesbian generations.” (Only one other article included in the roundtable was suitable for the LHMP.) The roundtable posed the following questions (paraphrased): Who is part of “lesbian history”? Has female same-sex sexuality changed over time/space in a way that creates identifiable “generations”? Does the term “lesbian” make sense in a global context? How do we approach global questions of sexuality? Has the practice of “lesbian history” changed over time and does it have “generations”? How do we address the intersection of sexuality and gender? Can we imagine new frameworks for thinking about sexuality and in particular lesbian historiography? How does lesbian history differ from gay or queer history?

Rupp discusses why she invented the word “sapphistries” for her global survey in order to avoid the complexities of applying “lesbian” in times and places where it might not apply. To the extent that “lesbian” defines an identity, it is not always available or chosen. But Rupp also wants to avoid the overly-encompassing approach of Rich’s “lesbian continuum” feeling that a focus defined by female same-sex desire, erotic love, and/or sexual acts is a necessary organizing principle.

She discusses the difficulties of tackling the lesbian/trans interface in a historic context, but notes that when historic societies had problems with female same-sex activity, it was the concept of two female bodies coming together that they considered relevant, not the question of self-identity or presentation. Therefore when studying such historic contexts, it is relevant to study the topic from both sides.

The question of self-identity becomes more salient and prominent when moving to a contemporary global understanding. Even people who have access to Western concepts of “lesbian” and “gay” may not choose those identities as reflecting their experience. And the current generation in Western culture is increasingly shifting to a multiplicity of identities where they might previously have used “lesbian”.

Both across history and across cultures, we see repeating but varied patterns of how same-sex sexuality is conceptualized, such as whether the image of similarity or of difference is emphasized, or whether same-sex desire is framed as physiological or psychological. Rupp argues against looking for binaries in these patterns and instead seeks how complex interactions play out.

Sunday, January 5, 2020 - 09:51
Crosword Challenge Logo

Lesfic author and publisher Jae is running another year-long participatory book promotion event. This time it's a monthly crossword puzzle with clues from a specific set of f/f books, either by genre or sponsored by a particular publisher. Complete the crossword to win free books! See the website for full contest details, and I highly recommend that if you want to participate you sign on for Jae's newsletter so you don't miss any new postings.

(Evidently someone submitted crossword clues relating to one or more of my books, but since I don't know which one(s) or what category they'll appear in, you'll just have to follow the series and find out.)

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Saturday, January 4, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 42a - On the Shelf for January 2020 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2020/01/04 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for January 2020.

Saying that, it occurs to me that we’re going to get an entire year of jokes about “20-20 vision.” So what’s my vision for this new year? I wish I knew. I’m just going to keep on keeping on and do my bit to add more diversity, more knowledge, and more understanding to the world. As for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I feel like I’ve reached a point of equilibrium with all my projects. I don’t expect any major changes in format or content for the blog or the podcast this year. Maybe some minor additions and shifts.

As you know from the sponsor break text, the Project has a Patreon, in addition to the general Patreon for the TLT podcast group. I’ve been thinking about types of content that would provide value back to Patrons. One experiment I’m going to try is micro-reviews of the new book listings, which I’ll talk about later in the show.

Another type of content I’ve been working on is practical reference material for authors. I’m thinking of things like vocabulary about f/f sexuality, or examples of romantic and sexual language used between women in historic sources. I’m also looking at timelines of types of relationships and identities in historic cultures. This sort of content doesn’t work well for entertaining audio and is the sort of thing you’d want to save off for reference. If you want that sort of content--or simply want to support the podcast--check out the Patreon. I’ll note that show’s expenses are primarily royalties and narrator fees for the fiction series. I don’t expect patrons to support my book habit! And the podcast hosting expenses are under the TLT group as a whole, so support that aspect through the TLT Patreon.

2020 Fiction Series

Since it’s January, submissions are open for the 2020 fiction series! If you’ve been working on a story to submit, I certainly hope you’ll send it in for consideration. If you’ve been dithering and you’re a fast worker, you might still have time to write something. Check out the show notes for the link to the full instructions. If things go like they have the last two years, by the time you listen to this, I’ll be biting my fingernails because people always seem to wait for the last minute to send in their submissions. Mind you, there’s no advantage from getting your submission in early, except for keeping your editor from freaking out.

Other Markets

While we’re on the subject of fiction markets, in addition to the open submissions for the Silk and Steel anthology that I mentioned last month, I’ve run across a new market that has produced some interesting queer historical audio short fiction. The show is “A Story Most Queer” and it’s part of the Mischief Media podcast group, which produces a number of pop culture related shows. The podcast produces audio versions of stories by and about queer people. While the scope of representation is broad and all genres are welcome, they caught my interest not only because the balance of representation is good, but because out of the first 13 episodes, 2 of them involve f/f relationships in historic settings. So whether you’re looking for new podcast listening, or whether you have fiction looking for a home, check out their website. They pay a flat fee of $50 for stories in the 2000-4000 word range, with some flexibility, and they accept reprints. See the show notes for a link.

Publications on the Blog

The blog is being busy with some substantial books mixed in with the articles. In December we covered several papers on Renaissance and Early Modern topics: Valerie Traub’s “The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England”, Tim Hitchcock’s "The Reformulation of Sexual Knowledge in Eighteenth-Century England", and Randolph Trumbach’s "The Transformation of Sodomy from the Renaissance to the Modern World and Its General Sexual Consequences.” December finished with John Boswell’s classic Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Then at the beginning of January I rolled right on into Boswell’s other classic work, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. His work is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because he tackled the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in Europe from a personal and sympathetic viewpoint, but frustrating because his work functionally ignores female homosexuality while paying lip service to being a general study. If you want more of my grumpy opinions on that topic, you can find them in the blog.

After that I take a brief breather with two survey articles: Leila Rupp’s “Thinking about ‘Lesbian History’” and Martha Vicinus’s “The History of Lesbian History.” Following those, I grit my teeth and tackle Michel Foucault’s three-volume The History of Sexuality, which I’ll cover in one volume each week. Foucault is a philosopher, not a historian, and I’ll be skimming rather that reading deeply, so this may not be as painful as I anticipate. (I haven’t actually started on it as of drawing up these notes.) I get something of a blog vacation after that, not because I won’t be posting, but because I already have articles written through April!

Book Shopping!

I hadn’t meant to buy any new books for the blog, but since all the copies of Foucault’s History of Sexuality were checked out of the U.C. Berkeley library, I decided to swing by Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue and was relieved to find a used set. My theory was that I’d get that work written up over the holidays, but...well...not yet.

Not a purchase, but while I was poking around in the library, I also checked out Phillips & Reay’s Sex Before Sexuality: A Premodern History which I’ll prioritize since I’ll need to return it soon.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Kate Heartfield who writes some exciting historic fantasy. I connected with her at Worldcon in Ireland this summer but we only just worked out the logistics to record. I’ve had her pair of time-traveling novellas, Alice Payne Arrives and Alice Payne Rides on my radar for a while now.


I hadn’t decided on this month’s essay until I was sitting down to write up my script for this show, but I’d set up a bunch of idea folders and picked the one that seems closest to ripe. So I’ll be doing a show on Iphis and Ianthe, Ovid’s tale of gender disguise, same-sex love, and transformation that inspired many later variants and versions. It’s a story that sits awkwardly at the intersection of lesbian themes and transgender themes and I’ll be talking about how it can be a touch-point for a variety of modern identities. One of the aspects I’ll discuss is how the tale continued to be re-told and re-interpreted from Ovid’s Latin original early in the first century throughout the middle ages and Renaissance and on into the 17th century. When I imagine what models women in those eras might have had for same-sex love, this story is one that was common in pop culture retellings.

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Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

Time for the recent, new, and forthcoming books! In the podcast, I mostly stick to listing the books and giving the cover copy. Every once in a while I’ll mention a recommendation or a content advisory, but I want this part of the podcast to be a neutral service as much as possible. But people regularly ask me for more guidance in which f/f historicals I’d recommend, so I’m trying out a new service on the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast’s Patreon, where I provide micro-reviews based on preview excerpts. If you’d like to opt in to that sort of content, the Patreon link is in the show notes. Please keep in mind that this is the LHMP Patreon, not the TLT Patreon and these micro-reviews are not in any way affiliated with TLT or with The Lesbian Review.

I start off with a couple of December books and then the rest are coming out in January.

The first title is in competition for the earliest setting in my database: Where There Are Mountains self-published by Sarah Pearlman. The story is inspired by an archaeological find of a grave with two female skeletons embracing.

5000 BCE. Seven thousand years ago. A time of great migrations that took place over hundreds of years and thousands of miles as numerous tribes fled the cold and hunger of their northern homeland to travel a path south. Most were peaceful, wanting only a place where there was food and warmth—struggling past tribes that lived near Mount Olympus and the mountain passes of what would become Hellas. Greece. A matrilineal people that worshiped a female divinity. Celebrating and giving gratitude for the fertility of the land, the birthing of children, and sexual pleasure. Desire without rules. Others on the path were warrior people. Tribes who came to conquer and enslave. Bringing their male gods.

Clara's Way self-published by Roberta R. Carr is one of those books that only hints at sapphic content and I haven’t been able to get solid confirmation.

The year is 1904. Nurse Clara Tyler happily spends her days tending patients in rural Ohio. Her brother, who is working in Panama on the great canal, informs the family he must return home due to illness. Too sick to travel alone, he begs Clara to come and get him. Anxious about going but determined to save her brother, Clara makes her way to the Canal Zone. She is quickly drawn into a web of heartbreak, controversy, and friendship that keeps her there. When her father demands she return, Clara must decide where she belongs in this gripping tale about love and loss, courage, and the unexpected paths that shape our lives.

The next book is rather tenuous on the historic front, being a secondary world fantasy, but inspired by a gender-flipped version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Lady Hotspur by Tessa Gratton from Tor Books. Whether you count it as a historical or not, I suspect it will be of interest to readers who like historicals.

STRIKE FAST, LOVE HARD, LIVE FOREVER This is the motto of the Lady Knights―sworn to fealty under a struggling kingdom, promised to defend the prospective heir, Banna Mora. But when a fearsome rebellion overthrows the throne, Mora is faced with an agonizing choice: give up everything she’s been raised to love, and allow a king-killer to be rewarded―or retake the throne, and take up arms against the newest heir, Hal Bolingbrooke, Mora’s own childhood best friend and sworn head of the Lady Knights. Hal loathes being a Prince; she’s much more comfortable instated on the Throne of Misrule, a raucous underground nether-court where passion rules all. She yearns to live up to the wishes of everyone she loves best―but that means sacrificing her own heart, and so she will disappoint everyone until the moment she can rise to prove those expectations wrong. And between these two fierce Princes is the woman who will decide all their fates―Lady Hotspur Persy, the fiery and bold knight whose support will turn the tides of the coming war.

A couple months ago I commented on what seemed like a flood of f/f Robin Hood stories in my forthcoming books spreadsheet. This month’s contribution is Nottingham by Anna Burke from Bywater Books.

Robyn Hood didn’t set out to rob the rich, but in Nottingham, nothing ever goes according to plan. . . . After a fateful hunting accident sends her on the run from the law, Robyn finds herself deep in the heart of Sherwood Forest. All she really wants to do is provide for her family and stay out of trouble, but when the Sheriff of Nottingham levies the largest tax in the history of England, she’s forced to take matters into her own hands. Relying on the help of her band of merry women and the Sheriff’s intriguing—and off limits—daughter, Marian, Robyn must find a way to pull off the biggest heist Sherwood has ever seen. With both heart and freedom at stake, just how much will she risk to ensure the safety of the ones she loves?

This next book combines some interesting cross-time tropes with the paranormal. Spellbound by Jackie D. and Jean Copeland from Bold Strokes Books.

Hazel Abbot spent her whole life unaware she was a witch. When a spell thrusts her great-aunt Sarah Hutchinson forward from the Salem witch trials of 1692 and lands her in Hazel’s bookstore, everything Hazel thought she knew about herself changes. Complicating matters, Raven Dare, a supernatural hunter, informs her that they’ve all been summoned by the Queen Witch, Morgan le Fay. Morgan compels Hazel, Sarah, and Raven to correct the shift in the realms of good and evil by ridding the world of the evil that followed Sarah into modern day. If they fail, the forces of white magic will be extinguished forever. But completing the perilous mission, convincing Sarah to return to Puritan life, and resisting their growing attraction for each other might prove more difficult than Hazel and Raven ever anticipated.

For this next book, I had to poke around a little but was able to confirm that it definitely has queer elements, although I have no idea how it all comes out in the end. The Companion by Kim Taylor Blakemore from Lake Union Publishing

1855, New Hampshire. Lucy Blunt is set to hang for a double murder. Murderess or victim? Only Lucy knows the truth. In the shadow of the gallows, Lucy reflects on the events that led to her bitter downfall—from the moment she arrived at the rambling Burton mansion looking for work and a better life to the grisly murders themselves. In a mysterious household of locked doors and forbidden affections, Lucy slips comfortably into the shadows, where she believes the indiscretions of her past will remain hidden. But when Lucy’s rising status becomes a threat to the mistress’s current companion, the delicate balance of power and loyalty begins to shift, setting into motion a brewing storm of betrayal, suspicion, and rage. Now, with her execution looming closer, Lucy’s allies fight to have her sentence overturned as the tale she’s spinning nears its conclusion. But how much of her story can we trust? After all, Lucy’s been known to bend the truth…

Similarly to the previous, I was able to get confirmation that despite the somewhat ambiguous cover copy, Blood Countess by Lana Popovic from Amulet Books definitely has queer content. This appears to be a purely historical take on Countess Báthory and not a supernatural one.

In 17th century Hungary, Anna Darvulia has just begun working as a scullery maid for the young and glamorous Countess Elizabeth Báthory. When Elizabeth takes a liking to Anna, she’s vaulted to the dream role of chambermaid, a far cry from the filthy servants’ quarters below. She receives wages generous enough to provide for her family, and the Countess begins to groom Anna as her friend and confidante. It’s not long before Anna falls completely under the Countess’s spell—and the Countess takes full advantage. Isolated from her former friends, family, and fiancé, Anna realizes she’s not a friend but a prisoner of the increasingly cruel Elizabeth. Then come the murders, and Anna knows it’s only a matter of time before the Blood Countess turns on her, too.

What Am I Reading?

So what am I reading? After last month’s reading extravaganza, this month was a lot slower. I’ve been reading different books on three different ebook apps: Claire O’Dell’s A Jewel Bright Sea on my phone, my own newest novel Floodtide while testing new ebook apps since iBooks isn’t playing nicely with non-Apple epub files, and in iBooks itself a non-fiction book Romancing the Beat: Story Structure for Romance Novels by Gwen Hayes. I have some thoughts on that last one, because I find that romance novels that follow the structure she promotes as the One True Romance Way fail to work well for me at precisely the points where they adhere most closely to her formula. I may blog about that.

Stat of the Publishing Field

The rest of the podcast is going to be doing some intense numbers geeking about trends in f/f historicals in the past year. If you’re a numbers geek like me, I strongly suggest following the link in the show notes to the transcript of this podcast so you can follow along in print. If you’re not a numbers geek, then I won’t feel the least bit insulted if you skip the rest of this episode. Really. It’s ok. Because if you aren’t a numbers geek, this is going to be really boring.

Last year, I did a separate episode that took my ongoing database of relevant historical fiction and did something of a survey of the field and comparing 2018 to what had come before. It’s a very rough analysis because my data is far from complete, especially for older titles. But now that I’ve had two years of scouring the new releases for historicals featuring queer women, I can start making some sort of comparisons for the current state of the field. I’m alternating between grouping the books based on which year I mentioned them on the podcast and publication date so not all the numbers will match. As usual, I can only talk about the books I know about, and I include historic fantasy as long as the setting is in some way identifiable by time and place.

The numbers of books mentioned on the pocast this year and last are roughly similar 101 in 2019 compared to 83 last year. When you look at date of publication, the groups are essentially identical, around a hundred in both cases.

Let’s start with basic publishing info. This year, 40% of the books were self-published, including through Amazon Digital, while the other 60% had a named publisher. In some cases the named publisher is a one-author imprint, so they’re functionally self-published, but this would take some work to sort out. This year’s 40% figure compares to 20% self-published last year. I suspect this isn’t a true change, but rather a reflection of me getting better at searching for relevant books on Amazon, and thus identifying more Amazon-published books, rather than needing to hear about them through other channels.

Of the books with named publishers, there were 49 different publishers for the 2019 books, but 80% of those publishers only had a single title on the list. This compares very closely with 2018 when I found 46 different publishers and 75% with only a single title. Statistically equivalent.


  • 83 books, 20% self-published
  • 46 named publishers, 75% with only one title


  • 101 books, 40% self-published
  • 49 named publishers, 80% with only one title

So for publishers who put out more than one title, that leaves us with 10 publishers in 2019 and 12 in 2018. Five publishers met the threshold both years. This included two mainstream presses (Harper Collins and and three small presses (Bella Books, Bold Strokes Books, and Sapphire Books). Bold Strokes was the clear leader in 2018 with 8 historic titles, but dropped to only 2 titles in 2019. The other publishers held steady in the 2-3 titles range. Five publishers had 2 titles this year after not meeting the threshold last year, while 8 publishers met the threshold last year but not this year.

Publishers with >1 title both years

  • Bold Strokes Books: 2018 - 8, 2019 - 2
  • Bella Books: 2018 - 3, 2019 2
  • Sapphire Books: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 3
  • Harper Collins: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 2
  • 2018 - 2, 2019 - 2

Moved up into >1

  • Bywater Books: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Illustrated Romance: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Manifold Press: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Nine-Star Press: 2018 - 0, 2019 - 2
  • Supposed Crimes: 2018 - 1, 2019 - 2

Moved down from >1

  • Harlequin Teen: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Less Than Three: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Little, Brown and Company: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • LZ Media: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Regal Crest Enterprises: 2018 - 3, 2019 - 1
  • Sans Merci Press: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0
  • Shadoe Publishing: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 1
  • Three Bunny Farm: 2018 - 2, 2019 - 0

I’m hesitant to draw any large conclusions since the numbers we’re dealing with are small, but overall it feels like a slight contraction in the market. What the publisher numbers don’t tell you is one striking trend, which is for historic romance authors who have already made a name for themselves writing m/f or m/m historicals taking on an f/f project. Writers like Cat Sebastian, Olivia Waite, Courtney Milan, and K.J. Charles. Two of them publish with mainstream presses and two are self-published.

Another way to look at the data is to take a set of 8 small lesfic presses as an index, based on long-term presence in the field and current activity in lesfic in general. For this index I use Affinity, Bella, Bold Strokes, Bywater, Regal Crest, Sapphire, Spinsters Ink, and Ylva. They’re also useful because I can check their back catalogs and be fairly confident that I haven’t missed much. If you look at the total number of historicals put out year by year from this index group, it’s averaging barely over 12 books per year for the last half dozen years, with fewer earlier than that. The numbers fluctuate a bit year to year, but not enough to show a current trend up or down.

Total books published by the index group

  • 2019: 11
  • 2018: 16
  • 2017: 8
  • 2016: 13
  • 2015: 15
  • 2014: 13
  • 2013: 10
  • 2012: 6
  • 2011: 5
  • 2010: 4

One clear conclusion that I also mentioned last year is how diffused f/f historicals are throughout the publishing landscape. There is no one publisher or even group of publishers that a reader can rely on to find f/f historicals. And, conversely, there are no f/f publishers who focus on historicals sufficiently to build up a reputation and expertise in the field. One of the things that became clear from the buzz around the mainstream writers entering this genre is that there are a lot of readers out there who would like more well-written f/f historical romances, but that they have no idea how to find them except from their existing social media networks. I keep hoping that this podcast will fill at least some part of that need.

So those are the dry numbers in terms of who’s putting out books. How about settings and themes? This is where I really have fun crunching the numbers! But outside of statistics, some impressions include clusters of Robin Hood retellings, highwaywoman adventures, the usual popularity of Regency romances, but less focus on the US Civil War and wild west settings. The two world wars continue to be a popular setting, but this year the period between them is fairly well populated as well. Now for the details.

The emphasis on stories set in the 19th and 20th centuries is identical to last year’s with about 80% of stories being set in the last two centuries. Earlier settings aren’t quite so badly skewed to the early modern period this year. About equal numbers are set in the medieval-to-Renaissance period as in the 17th and 18th centuries, with a smaller number set even before that, mostly in classical Greece or Rome.

Stories with New World settings are all in the 19-20th century group--no colonial period or Revolutionary War stories. Half the pre-19th century stories are set in the British Isles, which is also similar to last year, and British settings still dominate the early 19th century due to the popularity of the Regency. But this year The British Isles hold their own against American settings from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. This may be related to seeing fewer Civil War and Wild West settings.

Other than those two geographic juggernauts, where are stories being set? About a quarter of the stories have a primary setting that falls outside the US or Great Britain plus Ireland. But this is down from about a third last year. The US settings have also dropped from around 50% to around 40% and it’s been the British settings that have made up the difference. Non-US non-British settings are primarily European, especially France and Germany, with single representatives from the Caribbean, Uruguay, Japan, and Malaysia (which last has much of the action in England).

Looking at the US settings in more detail, we see a drop in stories set in the South (possibly related to the drop in Civil War settings) but otherwise similar regional proportions. I was able to identify 11 specific states in the cover copy, compared to 18 last year, and California edged out Texas for second place after New York this year.

I’ve been trying to do some coding in my database to track things such as whether books are strict history or have fantastic elements, whether they can be classified as romance in a broad sense, whether they have cross-time motifs, and what the sexual content is. Unfortunately this can be difficult when I’m only working from cover copy, so most of those aspects will need to wait until I have some way of crowd-sourcing data. But the question of fantasy elements is relatively easy to identify. Despite my delight at some of the great historic fantasy I’ve been reading, stories with fantasy elements have actually dropped somewhat from 27% last year to 20% this year, though the number of titles where the classification isn’t clear could easily erase that difference.

So there’s my take on the year in f/f historic fiction. I’d be interested in knowing what trends and patterns you’ve been seeing as readers. If you’d like to talk about the f/f historicals you’re enjoying, I’m always looking for people to contribute to my book appreciation interviews. Drop me a note.


Markets and Calls for Submissions

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Friday, January 3, 2020 - 08:00

Given that I'm posting this last installment on Boswell's Same-Sex Unions at the same time as I'm reading and writing up Foucault's History of Sexuality, I can't help but make some comparisons between the two presentations. In both cases, the authors are presenting a specific take on a field of historic study that is susceptible of widely varied interpretations. Boswell is a historian while Foucault is a philosopher, but both purport to be dealing with historic observations and practices in their analysis. Whatever one may think of Boswell's suggested conclusions, he backs them up with a vast array of primary documentation, often in the original languages as well as in translation. If you want to challenge his ideas, he provides you with the materials to start on your own analysis. Foucault barely cites his sources, rarely in a way that makes it easy to follow up on where his ideas are coming from. Both men (and I emphasize men) purport to be addressing general human experiences, but in fact are narrowly concerned with the experiences of men, and typically of men's experiences in contexts where women are irrelevant or are mere props to the male experience. Boswell acknowledges this and offers apologies. Foucault doesn't quite seem to realize that this might be a problem. On (re)reading these texts, it's easy to see why Boswell's work stirred up energetic discussion and strong reactions. It is less easy for me to see why people treat Foucault's work as ground-breaking and of vast importance to the field. Maybe this is because I'm solidly entrenched in a historian's view of the pursuit of "truth". Maybe isn't an irritated reaction to feeling that Foucault doesn't really seem to consider women to be a relevant part of the pursuit of "truth", either as active agents or as topics. That a masculine truth can be considered universal. Maybe I feel let down by the contrast in the shadow Foucault has cast across the history of sexualtiy and the apparent thinness of the substance. (Who knows, maybe volume 3 will be bursting with brilliant insights that will change my mind.)

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Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard Books, New York. ISBN 0-679-43228-0

Chapter 7 & 8, Epilogue & Appendices

These next two chapters feel like a bit of a random grab-bag, where Boswell included any sort of formal same-sex bond that he could include evidence for. As evidence for the general cultural acceptance of formal same-sex bonds, it’s a useful resource. But there seems to be an implication of cultural continuity between all of the examples, and I’m less convinced of that based on the evidence presented.

Chapter 7: The History of Same-Sex Unions in Medieval Europe

The history of actual performance of same-sex unions is harder to trace than the textual history of the liturgies and the visual history of depictions of same-sex couples. Question: to what extent are same-sex union ceremonies a carryover of pagan unions (e.g., Roman fraternal adoption) versus a new (and perhaps specifically Christian?) concept?

There are legal discussion of restraint on adoptive brotherhood that assigned mutual property rights when there was a wife and/or child involved (who would otherwise be the primary heir). References to adoptive brotherhood imply that it was created by a written contract.There are regular Byzantine references to same-sex partners (adelphopoietos) of prominent men. (Detailed discussion of examples of known same-sex pairs.)

When there are prohibitions on specific types of same-sex pairs or for particular types of men to engage in same-sex bonds, these are similar to the context in which male-female bonds are forbidden, e.g., for monks or unions between clergy and lay people. Same-sex unions might also be prohibited between persons within the same degree of relationship that would bar male-female marriage.

There is a discussion of penances for specific types of sexual behavior, including same-sex practices (finally including some more female examples). The context is that same-sex acts are not specially singled out for prohibition.

Various Slavic historical accounts mention male-male unions (sometimes in contexts where the participants were also in male-female marriages), treating them as ordinary practice. These unions regularly assume emotional closeness as a motivating factor.

Examples are presented of some surviving contracts of brotherhood from Western Europe dating to the 8-12th centuries. There is also a description of an Irish ritual (mentioned previously) recorded by Gerald of Wales that he specifically compares to marriage, though in a derogatory fashion. It involves some features similar to the Eastern ceremonies but also includes blood-sharing which isn’t a feature of the liturgical unions. [Note: This is the case I mentioned above where I feel there is insufficient evidence to conclude a continuous unified tradition, as opposed to an independent and specifically Irish tradition that possibly borrowed some elements from marriage ceremonies.]

Chapter 8: Subsequent Developments

From the 14th century on, Europe was preoccupied with a negative view of homosexuality as the worst imaginable sin. Same-sex union rites disappeared during this period where this feeling predominated. In some cases, there is evidence that the texts for same-sex rites were physically removed form existing codexes. There continue to be references to same-sex union rites in the 16-17th century that include an expectation that they were sexual in nature.

But beside this, there are also examples where same-sex union ceremonies were viewed (at least by the local culture) as positive. Examples are given from Dalmatia of a living tradition of “sworn brotherhood or sisterhood”, including a specific eyewitness account of two young women celebrating their union in church in the early 17th century. In Eastern liturgical collections, there continue to be references to same-sex unions being compared to marriage. And in Ottoman-dominated areas in the 16-17th century, there are references to the complications of same-sex unions across religious lines, similar to concerns over marriages across religious lines.

Boswell provides a number of more modern and/or anthropological examples of same-sex unions, all male-male. In general these unions are not viewed as primarily erotic, but are recognized as having erotic potential. He asserts that “artificial sibling relationships occur less commonly between females” without questioning whether this is an accurate demographic observation or simply an imbalance in the documentary evidence. There is a discussion of popular/folk understandings of “blood brothers” and how both the reality and the mythology differ from formal same-sex unions. He speculates on the possibility that the Albanian tradition of cross-gender “sworn virgins” might be relatable to same-sex unions, but provides no evidence.


The epilogue lays out the basic facts of the same-sex union ceremonies.


The appendices provide translations and in some cases the original texts of same-sex union ceremonies, alongside some of the male-female ceremonies from the same documents for comparison. Several other topics are present in appendices: Jewish perspectives, a list of relevant manuscripts, the Life of Saints Serge and Bacchus.



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