The Lesbian Historic Motif Project - Episode 15a - On the Shelf
(Originally aired 2017/10/07 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for October 2017.
When I recorded last month’s On the Shelf, the new expanded format hadn’t actually gone live yet. So I’m still working with the format and getting a sense of what listeners would like to hear.
The September blog entries for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project were supposed to all tie in with the theme of Boston and Boston marriages, but when I scoured my bookshelves I only came up with two publications that were relevant. One was a museum exhibition catalog on the history of LGBTQ Boston. I loved browsing through it and seeing all the photographs we have of 19th century female couples that we know to have been in romantic life partnerships. Each photo is a story waiting to be explored. I also covered a book that looks at some modern lesbian relationships through the lens of the concept of the Boston Marriage, although interpreting that term specifically as an asexual romantic relationship.
I filled in the rest of September and continue on into October with books relating to September’s week 4 episode on documentary evidence for lesbian sexual techniques in the European middle ages and Renaissance. This included a collection of penitential manuals (books providing guidance for confessors on how to classify sinful acts), as well as several general works on sexuality in the middle ages. While these books typically have much more information on male homosexuality than female topics, it’s exciting to have some solid new publications bringing together the state of the historical research.
Ruth Karras’ Sexuality in Medieval Europe is a very accessible introductory text on the subject. Tom Linkinen’s Same-sex Sexuality in Later Medieval English Culture is heavily focused on men and looks at ways that popular attitudes toward same-sex relationships were created and reflected in popular culture, as well as how accusations of sodomy were used for political purposes. I haven’t finalized the rest of the books for October yet, but since I plan another medieval topic for the end of the month I’ll probably be sticking to relatively early material. Possibilities include the collections Premodern Sexualities edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, The Lesbian Premodern edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt, and Valerie Traub’s monograph Thinking Sex with the Early Moderns, for which I suspect the relevant material will largely be a rehash of her book The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.
The October essay is planned to continue the medieval theme with a discussion of cross-dressed female knights in medieval literature. Cross-dressing was always a context in which accidental love between women was a possibility. And while the ways it was acted out didn’t always have happy endings, they always provide inspiration for possible new stories.
This month’s author guest will be Caren Werlinger who often uses connections between the present and the past to frame her historic stories, either via the discovery of historic documents about past relationships or involving psychic connections across the centuries.
I have two questions for the Ask Sappho segment this month.
The first is from an anonymous listener who says, “This isn’t really a historic question, but a question about the podcast. I’m used to podcasts including credits for the music at the beginning and end of the show. I was wondering why you didn’t include that information.”
The answer makes me a little bit self-conscious, though maybe not in the way you’d think. People who listened to last week’s show may already guess. You see, the simplest way to deal with broadcast rights for intro music was to use something I wrote and performed myself. The excerpts that frame this podcast are from a piece I call “Planxty Oncia” which I wrote as a wedding present for some friends. It used to be a habit of mine to always write harp tunes for wedding presents. I don’t mention that specifically in the show credits because it felt too much like showing off, not because I was using someone else’s work without credit!
The second Ask Sappho question is from Amy Herman-Pall, who is very active on the facebook groups for the Lesbian Talk Show and the Lesbian Review. She asks: “I've heard vague stories and rumors about rulers who have been lesbians, for example Queen Christina of Sweden. What is the response of the people they rule to this? I'd love to know what the reactions of not only the common people were, but also of those courtiers and advisors that surrounded her.”
Now, that’s a great question with some surprising answers.
We can’t always know for certain whether the rumors about a historic individual having homosexual relations were true, or if they were only put about for political purposes. And if they were true, they would certainly be likely to be used by political enemies. But it’s important to keep in mind that cultures in history didn’t necessarily have the same very black and white attitudes towards homosexuality that modern cultures do. There are ways in which 20th century attitudes towards lesbians and gay men are the anomaly, and the rest of history, before and after, are a lot fuzzier.
Rulers in history almost never married for love. So it was often the case that a monarch’s lovers would have as much or more power than their legal spouse. This was the case no matter what gender they were. And while the language used about them might be sexually charged, what people were worried about was influence.
Take for example, English royal politics of the early 14th century. King Edward the Second married Isabella, affectionately known as “the she-wolf of France” which tells you something about how she was viewed. Edward had a sequence of close male friends that it was rumored were his lovers. Those men were hated--and eventually killed--by the English barons--not so much because of the rumored homosexual relationships, but because they had enormous influence over King Edward’s decisions and influenced him to make some very bad ones. Queen Isabella, in turn, turned on her husband the king, and took as an ally and lover Roger Mortimer. Together they overthrew and--according to rumor--murdered King Edward. But Mortimer in turn was executed by Isabella’s son King Edward the Third in large part for the influence he’d gained through being Isabella’s lover.
So the point here is that being the non-spousal lover of a monarch could attract you a lot of negative attention if it was felt that you were abusing that influence, regardless of sexuality and gender.
Another thing to keep in mind is that close emotional relationships between people of the same sex were not necessarily inherently suspect before the 20th century. In fact, to a large extent it was expected that your close emotional relationships would be with same-sex friends, not with the person you were married to.
So it can be hard to disentangle whether people took issue with a monarch’s same-sex lover because of the sexual aspect, or because they would have had issues with anyone who was perceived to have undue influence. That said, let’s look at some of the cases where lesbianism was brought up as an issue.
Queen Christina of Sweden lived in the mid 17th century and was the only surviving child of King Gustav the Second. She succeeded to the throne at age 6 and began ruling in her own right at age 18. She was renowned for her intelligence, education, and scholarship, being nicknamed the “Minerva of the North”. She founded the oldest newspaper still in continuous publication in Europe. She was a notable patroness of scholars and philosophers such as René Descartes. But most troublesome to her staunchly Lutheran people and ministers, as early as nine years old, she began a flirtation with...Catholicism.
Christina never married. She recorded in her autobiography that she felt "an insurmountable distaste for marriage." When pressured, she told her advisors, “I do not intend to give you reasons, [I am] simply not suited to marriage.”
She had a close intimate friendship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre. Even after Christina left Sweden--and we’ll get to that in a moment--she wrote passionate love letters to Ebba Sparre, saying she would always love her. She introduced Ebba to an ambassador as her bed-fellow. And while I don’t want to discount the likelihood that the two were lovers, it’s important to keep in mind that using romantic language and sharing a bed were things that same-sex romantic friends were expected to do in the 17th century. It’s not that these things weren’t romantic, or weren’t erotic, but that they were normal. And being normal, these practices would not have attracted negative attention by themselves.
Having a female favorite would not have been an issue for Queen Christina on its own. Nor would the accusations of wasteful spending have been an issue on their own. But her deep attraction to Catholicism was incompatible with keeping the crown of Lutheran Sweden, and in 1654, when she was 27 years old and had been queen for 22 years, she abdicated in favor of her cousin and left Sweden forever.
Christina left Sweden, traveling in disguise for safety, wearing men’s clothing and assuming the name Count Dohna. At the end of the year, she officially converted to Catholicism. Her religious advisors in Sweden had been Spanish, and the Spanish court made plans to welcome her as a visitor in triumph. But Christina envisioned herself as mediator in the hostilities between Spain and France and to get to Spain, she had to travel through France first. She never did make it to Spain.
In terms of gender roles, the French court viewed her as something of a curiosity. One of the noble ladies of the French court described Christina as “masculine” saying of her presence at the opera that she "surprised me very much – applauding the parts which pleased her, taking God to witness, throwing herself back in her chair, crossing her legs, resting them on the arms of her chair, and assuming other postures... She was in all respects a most extraordinary creature." Rumors of Christina’s lesbianism abounded in France. But there’s an interesting contrast in Spain.
When they could boast of having inspired Christina to convert, and looked forward to her lending her influence on their side in the conflict with France, Spanish writers and diplomatic correspondence had nothing but praise for her. When she threw her lot in with France, suddenly her morals were called into question--but in heterosexual terms. She was accused of having had illicit affairs with various men, and even of having had a secret pregnancy from one of them.
It wasn’t that people in Spain were unaware of Christina’s reputation with women. In a satirical play, a character named Christerna de Suevia (that is, Christina of Sweden) who was clearly intended to represent her, was given a maid named Lesbia and depicted as agreeing to enter into a same-sex marriage with the sister of her political rival.
Given Christina’s very complicated life history, it’s hard to untangle the question of how people would have reacted to her romantic relationships with women in the absence of other factors. Her own people seem to have approved of almost everything she did except for the whole Catholicism thing. Her contacts in Spain where on her cheering squad up to the point where she threw them over for France. She had powerful friends in France, like Cardinal Mazarin (of the Musketteers fame) and although people in Paris thought her energetic and forthright ways were a bit uncultured, the only thing that really got their noses out of joint was when she murdered a popular diplomat who was part of her household. She had both friends and enemies in Rome, but since the friends included multiple cardinals and a pope, it seems that whatever they thought of her personal life, it wasn’t a deal-breaker.
As a comparison, let’s look at three other royal figures.
In the early 15th century, Queen Catalina of Lancaster, who was serving as co-regent of Castile for her young son, had a close friend and advisor named Leonor López de Córdoba. Leonor was not a member of the aristocracy but rose in the world largely due to the patronage of a wealthy aunt. She appears in the historic record as a close confidante and advisor of the queen, beset by personal enemies that included the other co-regent, the queen’s brother in law. These enemies felt Leonor had undue influence over the queen due to the love and trust the queen had for her.
But Leonor’s precipitous fall from favor, resulting in exile from the court, wasn’t due to her political enemies but appears to have been driven by a more personal rival. Inés de Torres came to the court as Leonor’s protege but seems to have supplanted her in the queen’s affections. The break up was rapid and stormy, with Queen Catalina making violent threats to keep Leonor away from her.
Queen Catalina’s court featured a group of strong, capable women who had close personal bonds with each other. Leonor did not in any way stand out as an unusual personality in this context, nor were the previous expressions of affection between her and the queen unusual in this context. The position of personal advisor to royalty was an established role, and one that was a magnet for accusations of undue influence and favoritism. It was also a role that regularly attracted accusations of sexual impropriety. Queen Catalina’s son, when he was later grown up, had a relationship with a male personal advisor that led to accusations of sodomy. The recorded references to Leonor never raised similar sexual accusations. Given that lack of evidence was rarely a bar to accusing your enemies of anything that might stick, one likely interpretation is that no one considered a sexual relationship between the women to be something that anyone would care about.
Such accusations were made against the personal favorites of Queen Anne of England in the 18th century. Anne inherited a very complicated political legacy and I’m going to skip over it entirely to cut to the chase. When she was a child of six, the future Queen Anne met Sarah Jennings, later to become Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, who for most of her life would be her closest friend and most influential advisor. Sarah was a little older when they met, around eleven years old. But Sarah was not Anne’s only childhood crush--there are regular records throughout her early adulthood of her passionate feelings for women in her circles. And we should remember that Anne grew up among the sexual license of the Restoration court, where sexual affairs between women were no secret.
By the time Anne came to the throne thirty years later, Sarah not only had enormous influence with the queen, but had become so knowledgeable and canny about the structures of government and how to wield political power that she was the go-to person for anyone with requests to the queen. She was a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. When her husband, the Duke of Marlborough came to head the government, it was largely due to Sarah’s influence, intelligence, and energy. And it should be noted that whatever the nature of Sarah’s relationship with Anne, she was equally devoted to her husband and his career.
Anne’s devotion to Sarah was equally strong, and at various times before she became queen, she risked a great deal to keep Sarah with her as friend and advisor. After Anne’s coronation, Sarah was appointed to a number of offices of political, economic, and symbolic importance, while similar honors were heaped upon the Duke of Marlborough, and more gifts of land and offices followed. Anne and Sarah had affectionate pet names that they’d called each other since childhood and continued to use them in private. Anne cherished the knowledge that Sarah would always tell her exactly what she thought and never offer her false flattery.
But speaking truth to queens is a delicate matter, and Anne found herself wanting more in the way of support and friendship and less in the way of lobbying and being ordered around. They had a falling out over differing support of political parties and grew gradually apart as Sarah spent more and more time away from Queen Anne’s side. This left an opening for Abigail Masham, who was a cousin of Sarah’s who had introduced her to the court. Abigail was kind, flattering, and attentive to the queen--all the things that Sarah was not. Sarah’s intense jealousy of Abigail became tangled up with their political differences. And here comes the possibly unexpected part of the story.
When Queen Anne refused outright to dismiss Abigail from her service, Sarah accused them of having a lesbian affair. But the Marlborough’s influence was taking an irrevocable downward turn at this point. Soon Anne was refusing to see or speak to Sarah at all. But let’s get back to that accusation. Is Sarah’s accusation that Anne and Abigail were having a lesbian affair proof that Sarah’s relationship with her was not sexual? Or does it mean that Sarah was well aware of the truth that Anne’s interests in women were more than platonic, but thought that she was safe from a similar accusation? Was it simply the worst thing Sarah could think of to say, in the heat of what can only be called a messy break-up? Can we take it seriously as a homophobic accusation when sparked by what is certainly alienation of affections by the other woman?
Let’s step back and look at this in the context of the original question: when a queen had romantic and most likely erotic relationships with other women, what did the people around her think about it and what did they do about it? It is, perhaps, telling that for all the enemies that Sarah Churchill made in her career, although the possibility that she and the queen were lovers must certainly have crossed people’s minds, the accusation does not appear to have been used as a weapon against either of them. The only context in which an overt charge of lesbianism is made is from a jilted and brokenhearted favorite against a woman who had originally been her protege and had supplanted her in the queen’s affections.
But let’s take note of another aspect of this tangle. All of the women involved were also married to men. Anne failed to produce an heir, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Sarah had several children. Whatever the nature of the relationship between them it coexisted with the personal relationships that their society expected them to enter into. So we come to another consideration: people may be more indifferent to a queen’s affairs with women if they don’t get in the way of her royal obligations. And yet, recall that Queen Christina outright refused to marry and explicitly told people she wasn’t suited for marriage. So there’s that.
The last queen I’d like to consider is one who was publicly accused of lesbian relations, and where it was part of a much larger wave of hostility against her. And this is Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Again, there is an enormous social, political, and economic background to the issue that transcends one woman’s possible sexuality. We can be certain that the French Revolution wasn’t fought over who Marie Antoinette was sleeping with. But among the accusations that she was lavishly spendthrift, was indifferent to the plight of the French poor, and that she used her political influence to benefit foreign powers, there were also accusations that Marie and her favored ladies in waiting were involved in secret societies to engage in lesbian orgies.
The image of the secret lesbian sex club had been growing in French popular culture for some time and in some ways it stood in for a general anxiety about secret societies such as the Masons and political clubs that eventually led to revolution, combined with the growing motif of lesbian sex as the ultimate in decadent pornographic entertainment. Let us be clear: it is highly unlikely that Queen Marie Antoinette was part of a secret lesbian sex club. It’s actually unlikely that such clubs existed outside male imagination. And it’s nearly impossible to untangle whether any of Marie Antoinette’s intense friendships with her closest female courtiers were also sexual. But at the time and in the context of French civic unrest, it was an accusation that was made and that had the power to intensify the personal hatred that many felt for the unpopular queen.
So what’s the overall answer to the question of how people reacted to having a queen who had sexual relations with women? It’s not a question we can answer in that form, because of the lack of solid evidence in most cases that they were having sexual relations with women. But we can say that when the possibility of lesbian sex was raised in royal contexts, the sex itself was never a primary issue. There were issues of the amount of political influence that court favorites (of any gender) might have, and how they might abuse it. And there were issues of competition among the close friends and advisors to royalty for those positions of access. Sometimes the issue of sex was employed as a weapon in those contexts, but not as a primary issue. Rather as an additional tool to be used.
Queen Catalina of Castille was not attacked on sexual grounds, despite the jealous rivalries of her female favorites. Queen Christina of Sweden was considered odd for many reasons, but the rumors of her female lovers were fairly quiet, and they had nothing to do with her voluntary relinquishment of the throne. Sarah Churchill, in a fit of jealous anger, accused her rival of having a sexual relationship with Queen Anne, but it had no effect on Anne’s reign or her continuing affection for Abigail Masham. And the accusations of lesbianism against Queen Marie Antoinette were a consequence of the pre-existing hatred for her, not a cause of that hatred. If you were a queen, and you ruled well, and your people were content, and you secured the succession to the crown, it doesn’t appear that anyone gave a damn about whether you had a woman in your bed. That peculiar focus on people’s sex lives belongs largely to the medicalized model of sexuality that starts around the beginning of the 20th century.
There are links to some relevant publications in the show notes, though I’ve pulled this explanation from a lot of different sources.
Your monthly update on what the Lesbian Historic Motif Project has been doing.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online