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Saturday, April 4, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 45a - On the Shelf for April 2020 - Transcript

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

Welcome to On the Shelf for April 2020.

Wow, how are you folks holding up? I’ve been trying to speculate on how 2020 will be remembered in the history books and so far I’ve come up with “the year that was cancelled.” There have been some good historian jokes floating around on Twitter. Like the one where several historians in the future are talking about their specialties and one says, “I study the Renaissance,” another says, “I study World War I,” and the last says, “I study March 2020.” The first historian asks, “Wow, the whole thing or one particular week?”

The measurement of historic times is never static. When you’re living through it, it can be like time is standing still. This is only an instant and yet we’ve been doing this forever. When the event is past, it will seem at first to be a single comprehensible unit. But beneath that illusion is the impossibly complex reality of the failures and successes and the inexorable forces for which failure and success have no meaning.

History is always that complex. And it has different meanings depending on the point of view of the historian and what parts of the topic they consider most meaningful. That’s a truth that always comes out in the study of queer history.

As for me, the month of March was a perfect encapsulation of going from “normal” to “the new normal”. I think the last day when I had the illusion that life was normal was Sunday March 1 when we were having the last-minute hotel walk-through for the SFF convention I’m on the committee for. As we were checking on arrangements for the convention the next weekend, we got notification that one of our guests of honor had been advised not to risk traveling due to health risks. We briefly considered whether it was advisable or even possible to cancel the convention less than a week in advance and decided to forge ahead. We put in extra precautions, we did a lot of public advisories about handwashing and contact, we threw together the ability for our non-present guest of honor to participate remotely by video chat, along with several other remote participants. And we breathed a sigh of relief two weeks later when none of our attendees reported back sick. (In fact, with the extra emphasis on handwashing, we seem to have had an absence of the usual post-convention “con crud”.)

The day after the convention, my department at my day job was told to start taking our laptops home every night and be prepared to work from home, if asked. The next day, we were told that all personnel who could work remotely were instructed to do so until further notice. (I work for a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, so there’s a lot of hands-on activities and it’s an essential industry, but my particular job can be 99% done remotely.) As I’m writing this, I’m starting my fourth week of working from home. I settled into the routine surprisingly quickly, once I’d beefed up my home office with a second large monitor and sorted out the ergonomics a bit. In fact, when this is all over I may see if I can get permission to work from home a couple-few days a week in ordinary circumstances. Better for the environment, better for my time management. But I do miss the casual office chit-chat--not something I would have expected!

In theory, I should be using that lack of commute time to plunge into my next fiction project, but concentration is only available in fits and starts, so instead I’ve mostly been doing yard work and reorganizing my kitchen cabinets. And baking. Evidently stress baking under lockdown is a universal?

In times like these, it can be interesting to compare the dynamics of our everyday lives--and thus the dynamics of our quarantine--to lives in history under similar circumstances. I never figured my most recent Alpennia novel, Floodtide, would end up having current relevance! But even more generally, look at the way people reach out and support each other, even when physical support is contra-indicated. Despite the modern myths of individualism and self-sufficiency, we’re all more connected than we sometimes admit.

I think that can be a feature of life in the past that can be hard to capture in queer historical fiction. We’re used to the idea that if you don’t fit in with your family or community of birth, you can strike out on your own and invent a new life for yourself. But in past ages, being part of a network of family and community connections wasn’t simply a matter of emotional health (or emotional risk), but was essential for maintaining a viable economic, physical, and social life. Family was one network--you might love them, you might hate them, but you always needed them. Friendships were another network. A way of building ties that strengthened and stabilized your place in the world. That gave you support in every possible way when other systems failed.

Publications on the Blog

This month’s blog posts continue on the theme of friendship and especially same-sex friendships and how those relationships overlap and blend into more particular emotional connections that can encompass romance and erotic connections.

March started off with Alan Bray’s monumental work on same-sex friendships across the ages, The Friend. Bray’s work primarily focuses on male friendships--indeed, he seems a bit oblivious to how the dynamics of female friendships worked when they weren’t direct parallels of the male experience--but he does a good job of exploring how the homoerotic potential of intense same-sex friendships was handled and viewed in other eras.

After that, we moved on to more woman-centered articles. Alexandra Verini looks at the ways female friendship is discussed in the works of the medieval writers Christine de Pisan and Margery Kempe. Carol Lasser looks at a particular symbolic representation of women’s friendships as being fictive sisters, and how that reflects the importance of blood-family relationships while admitting others into that close circle. Lisa Moore challenges the image of 19th century Romantic Friendship as being universally accepted and viewed as noble and virtuous, and points to evidence that the image of the chaste and harmless Romantic Friendship was a social tool wielded to contain the more dangerous potential for women’s friendships to include eroticism and challenges to gender norms.

Moving on into April, Caroll Smith-Rosenberg steps back from trying to interpret the “meaning” of specific Romantic Friendships and looks at the larger context of women’s homosocial relations in “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” The intense hot-house atmosphere of all-female educational institutions comes into focus in Martha Vicinus’s look at English boarding-school friendships, including the shifts over time in how schoolgirl crushes were viewed and discussed.

Back when I was blogging Lillian Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men, I speculated on whether any of her views and opinions on the topic of Romantic Friendship had changed since the writing of the book. And I was delighted to discover that she had written exactly on that topic back in 1999. So while it isn’t an entirely up-to-date reconsideration, I got my answer. (Though, interestingly, the answer seems to be that Faderman is bewildered at why so many people took away the impression of her work that I ranted and railed about, which was that she drew a bright dividing line between Romantic Friendships as inherently asexual, and lesbian relationships which hadn’t been invented yet.)

Then April concludes with Everly Gordon Bodek writing on “Salonières and Bluestockings” and how the French and English versions of the women’s literary salon differed, and why. This is a topic very near and dear to the hearts of my early 19th century characters!

May will introduce a new thematic series in the blog and I’ll probably sum up an overview of the friendship material in a podcast at some point.

Book Shopping!

How about the book shopping report? Since the vast majority of my book shopping is online, staying home hasn’t affected it much. To support Powell’s Books while they aren’t able to have the store open, I did some systematic hunting for items in my to-do list, but I’ll talk about those in a later episode when they’ve arrived. Let’s keep this segment to the books that have arrived during the past month.

Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

The first book is Jen Manion’s Female Husbands: A Trans History. I do my best to emphasize that, when studying gender and sexuality in history, we need to be constantly aware of different ways in which concepts and identities are understood at different times. Most historical studies I’ve read about the category labeled “female husbands” -- that is, female-bodied persons passing as men and married to women -- come at it from a framework of lesbian history or women’s history. But it’s equally valid and important to think about these lives within a framework of trans history. Regardless of the evidence--or lack thereof--for how these individuals understood their own identities, it is undeniable that they are “trans gender” in the most basic sense. Someone who is performing a different gender than the one their body would assign them to. And that’s only when we’re sticking to a narrowly binary idea of gender. I’m looking forward to reading and blogging this study that explicitly considers “female husbands” as a transgender concept and category.

Clark, Alice. 1919. Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century. George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., London. (POD edition by Scholar Select)

I’ve previously mentioned several books that I’m accumulating for deep-background research on later 17th century England for a historic romance series I’m poking at. Alice Clark’s Working Life of Women in the Seventeenth Century was recommended as a good resource despite being written in an era (the early 20th century) whose works don’t always stand the test of time well. In addition to discussions of women’s lives in different types of occupations and professions, it includes quotations from account books and descriptions of the era that give concrete substance to the dry facts. “In 1636...Susanna Angell, widow, and Elizabeth her daughter (an orphan) of the city of London humbly pray that they might by their Lordships’ warrant be permitted to land 14 barrels of powder now arrived, and also 38 barrels which are daily expected in the Fortune [a ship], they paying customs and to sell the same within the kingdom”. One of the characters I’ve already sketched out is a widow carrying on the merchant trade of her late husband. I love details like this.

Titley, Norah M. (trans). 2005. The Nimatnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu: The Sultan's Book of Delights. Routledge, London. ISBN 978-0-415-35059-4

There really aren’t clear dividing lines between the categories of non-fiction I buy. Since I’m doing this segment anyway, why worry about drawing distinctions? The previous book is tangentially related to a lesbian historic romance project, despite being an ordinary history book. But this next one is only related in being historic. I love collecting books on cuisine and dining from other eras and cultures, in part because food is such an important part of culture (and makes for fun scene-setting in a story), in part because at various times in my life I’ve enjoyed cooking meals based in other eras. The Nimatnama manuscript came across my attention somewhat randomly on twitter, and when I did a quick search, I found a second-hand copy at a price suitable for an impulse buy. This is a culinary manuscript from late 15th century India, with influences from Persian cuisine. The copy I found has a facsimile of the original, with color plates for the illustrations (which helps in imagining how the food was served). It isn’t a recipe book in the modern sense with clear instructions (although some items include measurements). Often there is just a list of ingredients and a title indicating the nature of the dish. There are also recipes for perfumes, and descriptions of medical treatments, though we should understand all these as falling a single cultural category of “delights”--which gives us yet another angle on understanding the culture.

Author Guest

This month’s author guest will be Edale Lane, talking about her Renaissance-era DaVinci-inspired superhero romance Merchants of Milan. I also expect to have another guest contributing to the Book Appreciation series, but I’ll leave that unspecified since I haven’t done the recording yet.


I also haven’t started writing this month’s essay and I have to be honest that the world is a bit distracting at the moment and I may end up reprising an older episode. So watch this space to see what I come up with.

[Sponsor break]

Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction

What books are coming out this month or have come out recently and haven’t been previously mentioned? Last month I was a bit worried that I didn’t have any April books listed in my spreadsheet yet, but some turned up, along with a couple March books that I hadn’t previously seen.

The first March book looks unusual and intriguing, being a “what if” story inspired by an Old Testament character: The Whoreson's Daughter by Celia Crotteau from Xlibris US.

Chapters 11 and 12 in the Book of Judges recount how a rash vow forced the military victor Jephthah to sacrifice his beloved only daughter. While scholars agree that she was sacrificed, for centuries they have debated the exact nature of that sacrifice. Some argue that Jephthah's daughter was ritually killed on an altar, her throat slit like an animal's. Others maintain that she forsook marriage and motherhood to devote the rest of her life to serving her god. Whatever occurred remains a mystery. But might the unnamed young woman's too eager compliance have disguised more than submission to her father and her faith? Did she stray beyond the accepted norms for her day? What forbidden passions did she pursue? In her own quiet way was she as reckless as her famous father?

Pioneer Vengeance: A Lesbian Western (Pioneer Hearts Book 2) self-published by Becky Harris is a sequel to a book that just came out a couple months ago and continues the story of the characters who met in that volume.

Belle and Jeane thought they had their happily ever after, but they should've known nothing is ever that easy on the frontier. They survived the elements and each other over the winter, learning to embrace feelings neither thought they'd ever enjoy again. Now that Spring is here it's time to head into town to resupply. Only they find trouble waiting for them in the form of Lenington. An underhanded crook who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, and his path of destruction has run right through Belle's family. She never got along with her father, but when he dies at the hands of the town's newest outlaw she knows one thing: she will have her vengeance. The only problem with her brand of frontier justice? Jeanne isn't thrilled about her new love going on a quest for revenge that might get her killed. A quest for revenge. A relationship on the rocks. Will Belle be able to keep everything she's gained, or will her quest for revenge ruin her last best chance for happiness? Find out in Pioneer Vengeance, sequel to Pioneer Hearts!

The next book has an interesting mix of characters, including a mute woman who is one of the romantic couple. I’d be interested to hear opinions on whether the disability representation is solid. It’s hard to tell from the cover copy. The book is: All I See Is You by Lily Hammond from Sapphica Books.

The heart has its own language. Summer in January. Birds with unknown songs. People with strange accents. In 1932, Eliza Sparrow walks straight off the boat from England to New Zealand into a nightmare. Unable to speak or write, and with the death of her mother during the voyage, Eliza is alone, without any means, without any hope. Unless she meets someone willing to help her. Maxine and Ruth have opened their home to destitute women, sheltering those they can from the worst of the Depression. When they find Eliza, they are determined to aid and protect her. Never though, did they think they’d have to protect Eliza from their dear friend Clemency. Like them, Clemency loves other women, but unlike the happily ‘married’ Maxine and Ruth, Clemency is lonely, unable to find a lover she really connects with. When she meets Eliza, no one thinks it could be serious and Clemency would simply be taking advantage of the speechless Eliza, her attraction never possibly other than a passing desire. No one took into account however, that the heart has its own language, and it’s one that Eliza can speak perfectly well.

There are two April releases on my list. The first falls in the rather crowded field of Jane Austen spin-offs: Lucas by Elna Holst from NineStar Press.

In 1813, upon her marriage to Mr Collins, the rector of Hunsford Parsonage, Charlotte Collins née Lucas left her childhood home in Hertfordshire for Kent, where she is set to live out her life as the parson’s wife, in an endless procession of dinners at Rosings Park, household chores, correspondence, and minding her poultry. But Mrs Collins carries with her a secret, a peculiar preference, which is destined to turn all her carefully laid plans on their head. Lucas is a queer romance, a mock-epistolary novel, and a retelling and continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, teeming with Regency references and Sturm und Drang.

And we finish with a relatively recent setting for The Beginning of Everything: A Historical Lesbian Romance by Cara Malone from Lisbon Press.

A closeted secretary in 1960s Chicago. A fearless activist in San Francisco. A love so powerful it can change the world. Betty wants what everyone wants – happiness, security, and a quiet, good life. She’s determined to make that happen on her own, despite her mother’s fears that she’ll turn into a spinster if she doesn’t settle down and find a husband soon. Joan wants an important life – one where she gets to love who she wants to love, do what she enjoys, and will leave the world a better place when she’s gone. But what she is – a lesbian in San Francisco at the beginning of the LGBT+ civil rights movement – is criminal. When Betty comes to California for vacation, it’s love at first sight across a crowded bar in the Tenderloin district. She’s mesmerized by Joan and drawn to the homophile movement, but does she have the courage to come out for love and join the fight for equality? What began as a glance across a room turns into a hopeful, playful and heartwarming courtship across three time zones and four decades in The Beginning of Everything, a standalone historical romance by Cara Malone.

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading in the last month? I’m going to confess that this stay-at-home thing has completely knocked my fiction reading for a loop because my most recent pattern has been to read fiction on my commute. No commute, no cue to rev up the e-reader. I have been reading a number of short works being put out as an open Patreon account: The Decameron Project. Just as Boccaccio’s original Decameron was framed as a group of people sheltering from the plague and telling each other stories to pass the time, this project organized by Maya Chhabra, Jo Walton, and others present a new short story or novel excerpt every day, framed as two characters sheltering from Covid-19 in an empty library. Donations to the patreon raise money for an Italian charity and a number of well-know science fiction and fantasy authors have contributed works for it. Also some not quite as well-known because they accepted one of my unpublished short stories for it. So if you’re interested in reading my queer Arthurian story inspired by the Romance of Silence, check it out and consider subscribing.


Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog

  • Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 978-0-226-07181-7
  • Verini, Alexandra. 2016. "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe" in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 365-391.
  • Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
  • Moore, Lisa. 1992. "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 499-520.
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. 1975. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” in Signs vol. 1, no. 1 1-29.
  • Vicinus, Martha. 1984. "Distance and Desire: English Boarding-School Friendships" in Signs vol. 9, no. 4 600-622.
  • Faderman, Lillian. 1999. "Surpassing the Love of Men Revisited" in The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 6.2 p.26.
  • Bodek, Evely Gordon. 1976. "Salonières and Bluestockings: Educated Obsolescence and Germinating Feminism" in Feminist Studies vol 3 no. 3/4 185-199.

New and forthcoming fiction

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Monday, March 30, 2020 - 08:00

Today's blog continues my mini-series on female friendship with an article that challenges the image of "Romantic Friendship" as a reflection of, rather than a prescription for, women's relations with each other in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I'm entering my fourth week of working from home under Social Distancing. We've entered the phase where it feels like just a few days and forever. I hope you're all doing well, both physically and emotionally. Build and maintain those friendships that sustain you. Our ancestors knew just how vital they are.

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Full citation: 

Moore, Lisa. 1992. "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England" in Feminist Studies vol. 18, no. 3 499-520.

I love reading different takes on the meanings and forms of "female friendship" in the 18th and 19th centuries because this tension and dynamic underlies the relationships and social forms of my Alpennia series. In understanding the lives of specific women in the past, we must look beyond simplistic myths and prototypes and allow for complex interactions between multiple layers of meaning and practice.

It’s always interesting to see the intersection of very different takes on the same set of historic data. Interpretations of the “romantic friendship” phenomenon and how it related to social reality are a great example. In contrast to interpretations that take middle-class models of romantic friendship as naively “innocent” of sexual overtones, Moore suggests that the concept of romantic friendship always existed in parallel with--and was a direct response to--awareness of the possibility of sexual relations between women.

To illustrate this, she looks at three very different documents/texts from early 19th century England that invoke the romantic friendship ideal while clearly expressing anxiety about emotional bonds between women that fell outside this “innocent” idea. Rather than supporting the idea that people believed that “women don’t do that sort of thing,” she argues that people were quite aware that women did do “that sort of thing” and were working frantically to try to suppress this awareness/knowledge.

By analyzing this tension between “romantic friendship” and female homosexual relations, Moore suggests that this conflict played a key role in the development of  “modern” understandings of sexuality, and played a role in managing ideas about gender, bodies, the family, and colonial dynamics as well.

This tension underlies two historic processes: the development of the genre of “domestic fiction” in the 18th century, and the shift from an 18th century “idea of the self as social and socially obligated” to a more Romantic individualism. These can be seen in a shift from novels about marginal and morally suspect figures (e.g., Moll Flanders) to stories focused on women at the center of an idealized middle-class domesticity. This, she says, becomes “the story the bourgeoisie told about itself” and the underpinning of the myth of middle-class virtue and respectability.

Within this context, romantic friendship becomes an ambiguous concept that expresses social anxieties whilel trying to contain them. The official approval given to romantic friendships (as emphasized, for example, in Faderman’s work) becomes more tenuous in texts that police the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable friendships between women. In addition to Faderman, Moore notes Smith-Rosenberg’s “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America” (to be covered here when posted) as uncritically accepting that romantic friendships were “socially acceptable and fully compatible with heterosexual marriage.”

Moore feels that both these authors glossed over the anxieties and prohibitions surrounding women’s friendships that put a different light on the question of acceptance. Faderman, she asserts, sees a parallel between romantic friendships and the lesbian-feminism of her own era that focuses more on gender-solidarity than on sexual desire. Smith-Rosenberg similarly asserts that the emotional segregation of the sexes in 19th century America resulted in “a generic and unselfconscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks” that recapitulated the mother-daughter bond. Smith-Rosenberg’s model sees romantic friendships as inherently non-sexual (due to their familial model) and based on cultural patterns rather than individual psychology.

To counter this, Moore analyzes discourse around romantic friendship in the novel Belinda, in the diaries of Anne Lister, and in the court records for Woods and Pirie v. Dame Cumming Gordon.

Although Belinda gives a nod to the conventional “marriage plot” of its era, the dynamics focus mainly around the title character’s friendships with women, providing a moral lesson about suitable and unsuitable friendships. Lady Delacour begins the novel involved in a romantic friendship with the cross-dressing and “mannish acting” Harriot Freke, who is supplanted by Belinda, a more suitable friend for Delacour. Freke is regularly depicted as wearing men’s clothing, either for a masquerade or as personal habit, and behaving in stereotypically masculine fashion. She also takes on the role of rake in her interactions with women, with pretended abductions and bluster. Freke is also presented as a feminist, arguing for the equality of men and women (which is ridiculed in the book) along with other Jacobin social ideals such as revolution, opposition to slavery, and sexual freedom. Freke’s agressive courtship of Belinda is contrasted with the more traditional and conservative courtship of her male suitor, but also with the “ladylike attentions” of Delacour’s friendship with Belinda.

Freke not only poses a hazard to Belinda’s heterosexual prospects, but is shown to have drawn Delacour into the dangerous and scandalous prospect of a duel with another woman over a dispute in a political campaign.

[Note: Clearly Belinda needs to be re-written with Freke as the heroine, because the more I read about her, the more I like her!]

The interpersonal conflicts between the women in the novel depend entirely on anxieties about “improper” female friendships, symbolizing them with a cross-dressing women with clearly homoerotic interests. Rather than female friendships being universally assumed to be platonic and praiseworthy, there is a clear delineation between the acceptable and the unacceptable.

Dangerous female friendships are--ironically enough--associated in Belinda with the reading of novels by women. Novel reading gives young women “dangerous ideas” about their aspirations and appropriate behavior. This theme is also raised in the diaries of Anne Lister, who herself shares many attributes with Belinda’s Hariot Freke: mannish dress and habits, and erotic interest in women. For Lister, novels roused a longing for romantic fulfilment, “more romance than can let me bear the stimulus, the fearful rousing, of novel reading.” Lister compared her own life and experiences with the protagonists of romance novels and was led into dissatisfaction and longing.

But while Lister was ambivalent about reading (female-authored) novels, she found support for her romantic and sexual inclinations more in (male-authored) works of nonfiction. It is in medical and philosophical works that she finds a basis for accepting and embracing her own homoerotic inclinations.

[Note: I supposed it needn’t be said that Lister’s employment of the forms of female romantic friendship while unambiguously engaging in same sex erotic relationships contradicts the image of romantic friendship as “acceptably” non-sexual.]

The Pirie and Woods legal case (involving two school teachers accused of a sexual relationship by a pupil and the ensuing suit for libel) lays out in detail the reasoning of the 19th century English establishment with regard to the concept of sexual relations between women. It was never disputed that Pirie and Woods engaged in physical affection, shared a bed, and had something resembling a life partnership. The argument was whether this was simply evidence of “warm and interesting mutual regard, which springs from the finest and purest feelings of the human heart, and can only exist in pure and virtuous breasts” (per their lawyer’s arguments) or whether it was evidence of “indecent and criminal practices”.

In the statements of the judges when they were found innocent, one deciding factor was the need to maintain a public understanding of “the purity of female manners...remaining, as they have hitherto been, free from suspicion.” It was considered vital, in addition, to keep the content and nature of the court case from general knowledge in order to preserve that illusion.

One advantage they had in this was that the student who made the original accusation was not a “pure and innocent bourgeois white lady” but a bi-racial (Anglo-Indian) girl born out of wedlock. This enabled the entire legal apparatus to conclude that the accusing student might well be able to imagine (or even be familiar with) sex between women, without actually witnessing such an act between the two teachers.

Using these three texts as examples, Moore builds a case that “platonic romantic friendship”--rather than being either an apt description of women’s same-sex emotional relationships, or even an unquestioned fiction--was deployed as a shield against the specter of female homosexuality. In order to maintain and protect the illusion of white middle-class heterosexual domestic purity, the ideal of romantic friendship was defined in opposition to “dangerous female friendships” or racialized models of sexually deviant women. And yet, in order to stigmatize and negate those alternative homosexual possibilities, they had to be recognized and described, thus creating an awareness of the very phenomenon society was trying to erase. Moore concludes with a reminder that female homosexuality has a historic dynamic that is entirely distinct from that of male homosexuality (and from “women” as a general concept) and that it must be studied in its own right.

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Saturday, March 28, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44d - Bertolina Guercia - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/03/28 - listen here)

When we look for queer women in history, how do we know what we’re looking for? How will we know when we find them? If we go into the historic record with a preconceived idea of what queer people’s lives were like--what their hazards and joys were--will we recognize what we find?

When we start to depict queer women in historical fiction, how do we imagine their lives? What did their families, their neighbors, their lovers think about them? Were they closeted or open? Were they accepted or persecuted? Did they find like-minded community or lead solitary lives?

Attitudes and reactions around people with non-normative sexuality could be highly local and individual, even within general large patterns. And just as in current media with queer characters, the challenges they faced were not necessarily directly related to their sexuality.

Today I’d like to explore the small amount we know about a woman in 13th century Bologna named Bertolina Guercia. As is all too often the case in this era, the reason we have concrete data about her sexuality is because she ran afoul of the law. But don’t assume you know how that encounter played out.

The legal record that mentions Bertolina was studied and published by Carol Lansing in an article in 2005. The record had always been there to find, but it took someone noticing it, recognizing its significance, and considering it worth bringing it to public attention. There are a lot--and I mean a lot--of surviving historical archives with records about obscure, unimportant--dare I say, mostly boring--people. When scholars comb through these archives--most of which have never been published, or even necessarily cataloged in detail--they’re usually looking for information on a particular topic. The vast background material that they have to wade through to find that topic may be fascinating on its own, but the distraction of shiny things is the bane of academia. Any number of researchers may walk past an entry without comment because it doesn’t speak to their particular topic before one picks it up and weaves it into a larger picture.

All of this is in preface to saying that there are undoubtedly many more stories like Bertolina’s waiting to be noticed. The scholarly catalogs of evidence for women’s same-sex relations in the past are often condemned as scanty--and too often interpreted as meaning that either there is little to be found, or that queer women were, in fact, relatively scarce in the past. In addition to the value of stories like Bertolina’s for their own sake, they remind us of what is still out there to be discovered.

But let’s move on to Bertolina’s specific story. The record mentioning her is from 1295. As I noted earlier, she lived in Bologna, Italy--though keep in mind that “Italy” was mostly a vague idea at this time, not a coherent nation-state.

What was going on in Europe in 1295? King Edward I was busy building castles to support his military adventures in Wales and Scotland; this is the era of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame. The 9th Crusade finishes with the Egyptian recapture of Acre, effectively ending the Christian colonial occupation of the Holy Land. In Italy, Marco Polo has just returned to Venice from his travels in China and Dante Alighieri is hard at work on his poetry, though yet to write his greatest works. The Italian Renaissance isn’t quite a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, nor has the Black Death touched Europe yet. We’re pretty solidly in the middle of the “middle ages”.

Bologna was at that time a “commune”--an independent political entity--having escaped domination by the Holy Roman Empire a century earlier as part of the Lombard League. It was a thriving commercial and artistic center with a population in the tens of thousands, though becoming politically unstable due to squabbling among the ruling families. Infractions against the law--the context of Bertolina’s story--were judged in the civic court by appointed judges who were typically outsiders, in place for a limited term. Perhaps this was specifically to avoid having trials influenced by local squabbles and loyalties. Charges were brought, not by anything resembling a police force, but by private citizens, who might make an anonymous report of something that should be investigated, or could make a public accusation. In either case, it was the court’s responsibility to call witnesses, draw conclusions, and assign sentences or fines.

But before we come to the charges, what does the record tell us about Bertolina Guercia?

We know that her father is dead, that she lived in the parish of Santa Cecelia, next to the old city wall--an area that may have had a somewhat seedy reputation. There is no mention of a husband, nor is she identified as a widow--both of which would almost certainly be considered relevant in the legal records, so we can assume she never married. We don’t know what profession she followed, though she was comfortable enough that she could hire singers for an evening’s entertainment. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the trial records does anyone suggest that she was involved in sex work, which was commonly used as an all-purpose charge against unruly women. She is accused of being known to be a magician and fortune-teller, and said to claim that she could cause people to love or hate, and that she used these activities to extort money from people. Charges of this sort were fairly common “add-ons” to other accusations, and the court records indicate that they were rarely taken seriously or mentioned in verdicts and sentencing.

We can also guess that she had, in some way, angered a more powerful neighbor, Guilelmo of San Biagio, who had the good fortune to have friends or patrons among the nobility and whose charges were therefore taken seriously.

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This brings us to the specific charges that make Bertolina of interest to us today. The original anonymous report stated that she “is and long has been, especially for the last six months, a public and well known sodomite, using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The charge also uses some formulaic language, most likely derived from clerical writings about sodomy, calling the act “unspeakable” and contrary to human nature. And, as noted previously, the charge added that “she is a public and well known magician and diviner, deceiving the men and women of the city of Bologna, extorting money from them, saying that she was able to make people greatly and entirely love her, and make others hate, in the manner of a magician and idolator.” What did it mean for a woman to be called a sorcerer “afacuratris”? How did 13th century Bolognese people understand these alleged abilities? We don’t have examples of what Bertolina was supposed to have done, but of one of her fellow citizens of Bologna, a woman named Monna Necha, it was said she “casts spells on men and women and is a fortuneteller and...can teach how to make transfigurations of people to extort money...[who says she] can make the person you want love you at your will ... [and can] bring up tempests and hailstorms so that no one could escape death”. Another woman who was labeled an “affaturatrix” like Bertolina was said to keep an image of a human figure with spines stuck in it. So the charges against Bertolina were meant to evoke the image of similar acts and abilities. But the records indicate that such charges often seem to have been made as leverage when the true dispute was unrelated, and in the above cases, the women were not convicted of the charges of magic.

The judge assigned to Bertolina’s case, a man named Lantelmo of Aliate, followed standard legal procedures and held an inquest, at which four of Bertolina’s neighbors were questioned regarding the charges. Had they heard anything by vox or fama, that is, by direct information or by public reputation, that would corroborate the accusation?

Each testified in the negative. At this point, our understanding of the case must split in two possible directions, as we shall see. Either the later, detailed, testimony was a complete fabrication--an unusually explicit and specific one--or Bertolina’s neighbors had no particular problem with a woman “conducting herself lustfully with women” and performing love magic for pay. (It is, of course, also possible that they did have a problem with it, but not enough to report it to the law themselves, and not enough to be worth the trouble of getting personally involved.)

Those denials might have put an end to the matter--and if so, would have deprived us of some of the more interesting details of the case--but Bertolina’s anonymous accuser came forward in person to pursue the case and bring his own witnesses. We can tell that this Guilelmo was a man of some standing because when you appeared in the court you had to provide references who would back you up, and his were three powerful noblemen of the city. Who was Guilelmo and what did he have against Bertolina? That we can’t tell. He wasn’t an immediate neighbor, and seems to have run in a different social stratum, but from the language of the original accusation--that Bertolina “extorted money from people through her magic”--he may have been an unsatisfied customer. Or--and here is an intriguing possibility--he may have been a romantic rival, thus the focus on Bertolina’s sexuality.

In any event, Guilelmo produced two witnesses, only one of whom directly addresses Bertolina’s actions. Bertolina was also summoned to appear, but declined. In the following testimony, the witness, Ugolino Martini, refers to Bertolina by her nickname Guercia. This is the translation Lansing provides in her article.

“One evening [I was] at supper in my house in the parish of Yeme, in the past though I don’t remember whether it was this year or last year, nor the day or month, but it was after the third bell. I heard two men singing and I went out of my house and went to where they were singing. I did not know them, nor do I know them. They were singing near the church of San Tomaso where they were making a serenade, but I don’t know to whom. When they had sung, I said to them that they should come with me and serenade my lady. They said that they did not wish to come unless it was with the agreement of Gueercia, who was present, and at whose request they said they were there. Guercia said that she did want them to come with me.

“The men and Guercia came along with me, and I led them to the house of Lady Dolzebone in the parish of San Biagio and had them sing there. Guercia said to me, ‘Are you interested in this widow?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘I have been interested in her for two years.’ I replied to her, ‘Unlucky you, how can you be interested in women?’ She said, ‘It is because I--

Here we must pause for some tricky vocabulary. The record has the verb “tifuo” which is not a known word. Lansing believes it may be either a deliberate or accidental mangling of “futuo”, that is “fuck”. The text is also about to refer to an object called a “virilia” which, from context, we can understand as a dildo. So I’ll just use both those words, with the understanding that the translation is approximate.

“She said, ‘It is because I fuck them with these dildos of silk that I have.’ I said to her, ‘May I see some of these dildos?’ She said yes and drew one from her purse and showed it to me. It was made of silk, but I do not know what kind of silk. She showed me a number of them though I don’t know how many because I did not count them, but some were great and large and some small, and I am not sure whether she showed me ten.”

Ugolino testified that he didn’t actually see her using the virilia, and that he knew nothing at all about the other charges. The magic and divination were not mentioned.

Bertolina was summoned to appear in her own defense, but declined to appear. The judge assigned an improbably large fine as an alternative to being banned from the city. There is no further mention of her in the records and she is unlikely to have been able to pay the fine, so she may have left town. Or it may be that her accuser was satisfied with the moral victory and didn’t pursue the matter further.

Although the conviction appears to have been entirely on the charge of sodomy, the outcome should not be taken as evidence that 13th century Bologna was tolerant of homosexuality in general. In that same decade there are records of men being executed for the same charge, though legal records suggest that men were most likely to be accused of sodomy if violence or an underage boy were involved. But Bolognese laws discussing sodomy are explicitly concerned only with men.

It’s noteworthy that Ugolino’s testimony--assuming we can take it at face value--suggests an atmosphere of acceptance and perhaps even sympathy for women’s same-sex relations. He tells a story about love and courtship, not about unspeakable and unnatural passions. Bertolina apparently felt no qualms about disclosing her sexual interest in Dolzebone to her rival in love, nor about boasting of how she satisfied female lovers when he suggested she was unfortunate to have fallen for a woman. We may, perhaps, guess that the target of her hired serenaders may have been another woman she was courting.

The court appears to have taken no interest in her potential partners. Dolzebone was not summoned to testify. And although the original accusation and Ugolino’s testimony show a lurid fascination with the use of an artifical penis, this doesn’t seem to have been a point of particular outrage. Ugolino--again, assuming we can take his testimony at face value--know about Bertolina’s boasting for quite some time before he was induced to provide that information to the court. He certainly hadn’t felt the need to make an accusation on his own. And Bertolina’s neighbors--who were initially interrogated and must have been aware of her proclivities if she were as open about them as it seems--were willing to cover for her by disclaiming any knowledge.

But Bertolina’s refusal to appear before the court--indeed, she appears to have gone into hiding to avoid those sent to summon her--suggests that there were limits to tolerance in the face of an outright accusation. Her accuser, Guilelmo, presumably had enough power and a sufficient grudge to make her life unpleasant regardless of the outcome in court. But all the evidence suggests that the charge of sodomy may have been a convenient dodge rather than his primary grudge.

Let us sum up the most rosy--though quite plausible--scenario here. A single woman of comfortable means, though not high social status, is open about her romantic and sexual interest in women, even to the point of discussing it with a relative stranger. She boasts of satisfying her female lovers with an artificial penis, but is not otherwise masculine in her presentation or habits. Her neighbors, though presumably aware of all this, not only make no complaint of her, but keep silent when asked to testify against her. When the court is forced to consider sexual charges against her, due to the status and persistence of her accuser, it goes through the motions, offers a very lenient (if expensive) judgment, and does not pursue either her or her lovers beyond that.

This sheds a different light on the general absence of women in medieval legal records concerning sodomy. One of the frustrations of researching sexuality in legal records--not the theoretical treatises such as penitential manuals, but records of actual accusations and trials--is that an absence of evidence is highly ambiguous. Does it mean that the practice in question wasn't regarded as a crime? Or that it didn't occur? Other articles on the subject, such as Puff's "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)" and Crompton's "The myth of lesbian impunity: Capital laws from 1270 to 1791" have addressed this question by focusing on cases with more dire consequences. But Bertolina’s case suggests that women’s same-sex relations may have not simply flown under the radar for the most part, but been considered of trivial importance even when brought to official attention.

This case provides a relatively even-handed glimpse into a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual relations between women being similar and parallel to those between men and women. Like extra-marital heterosexual relations, they might provide an excuse for the exercise of malice for other reasons. But for every Bertolina Guercia, we can easily envision any number of Dolzebellas who evidently carried on with their girlfriends with no interference or harrassment.

Show Notes and Links

Sources mentioned

  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here: Bertolina Guercia
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Monday, March 23, 2020 - 07:00

Ordinarily, I don't put a lot of my personal life into the blog here. That's what twitter and facebook and my Dreamwidth journal are for. But on the off chance that I have readers of this blog who don't follow me elsewhere, here's a quick update. I'm entering my third week of working from home as a epidemic-slowing measure. I don't know if the language is common elsewhere, but here in California it's being referred to as "shelter in place"--a term more often used for things like chemical releases, wildfire air quality emergencies, and the like. Not quite as absolute a concept as quarantine. (And, of course, much different from the standard protocol for earthquakes, which is "duck and cover, then exit the building".)

I've been tracking my activities, daily temperature, and potential contacts in my Dreamwidth journal. At this point, any potential exposure from pre-shelter days can be ruled out but I have made a couple of grocery excursions since then. At this point, I'm pretty well set to completely isolate (other than a daily bike ride for exercise) for the duration, even if the duration lasts over another month. I don't think anyone can predict how this is going to play out at that timescale. There are many possibilities and most of them involve catastrophizing. At this time, I do know people who are infected, though all of them are online friends rather than face-to-face. At this time, I don't yet have any direct social links to anyone who has died (that I know of), but statistics says that will happen. In my immediate circle, I worry most for my 90-year-old father and my brother-with-the-heart-condition who live together an hour's drive away. (Close enough that if they needed me to run errands for them, I could.) And periodically, people remind me that, at age 61, I fall in a statistically more-at-risk group, despite being generally in robust health with no significant other risk factors.

So much of my day-to-day social life is online that there are long stretches when it scarcely feels different. Writing a blog like this is like living in a room with one-way glass. For the most part, I never know whether my writing is touching people, or serving to entertain or educate. I know I put out this plea on a regular basis, but when face-to-face contacts are even further reduced, it means a lot to me when people let me know that the work I put out has created a relationship between us. That there's a face on the other side of that glass, even if I can't see it.

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Full citation: 

Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.

I have tried to organize this cluster of articles on friendship in a natural progression, but that wasn't always possible for logistical reasons. But it is very useful to read them as different takes on a central theme. The authors don't always agree and they always emphasize different aspects of the topic. I have plans to do a podcast essay that brings together the different threads of women's friendships--especially in the 18-19th centuries at the height of the Romantic Friendship era--and explores both the realities and the myths. Women's friendship was never just one thing. It operated on several continuums. It is neither accurate to say that friendship never had an erotic componant or that it always did. The one doens't negate the other. Even when considering the effusive language of romantic love that was "just the way women addressed each other" it is not accurate to claim it is always purely conventional, nor always reflecting what we would understand as a romantic bond, nor always something between where genuine emotional bonds are envisioned with the symbols of heterosexual romanctic love.

In this present article, it is important not to let the language of blood-family relations call up a spectre of incest taboos. The language of kinship is regularly used between (heterosexual) spouses, especially in contexts where brother/sister were used to identify fellow members of a religious or social group. (Though I've recently identified an article on the topic of erotic "romantic friendships" between genetic sisters that does cross the line into incest. It'll be a while before I get to it, though.)

Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other. In some cases, pseudo-sororal bonds might achieve legal status by means of one member of the pair marrying the other’s brother or by both friends marrying a pair of brothers.

Such fictive sisterhood existed within a culture of sex-segregated social networks and gendered social roles. (See Smith-Rosenberg 1975, once it's posted, for far more detail on this point.) Various scholars have hotly debated whether intimate friendships of this type should be understood as containing an erotic element or whether they should be understood as entirely non-sexual, following familial bonds such as mother-daughter or “natal” sisters. These debates tend to polarize the topic in a way that distracts from a consideration of just why sisterhood appears so commonly as a framing for intimate friends.

One motivation is an emphasis on the specifically female nature of women’s same-sex friendships, often combined with an idealization of the relationship of natal sisters. But what were the expectations for such family bonds that made them attractive as a model? And does the use of sisterhood as a model contradict the homoerotic possibilities of female friends who use that language? Or might the use of sororal language be a means of negotiating the erotic potential of intimate friendships?

Natal sisterhood in the 19th century came with expectations of mutual emotional and financial support, embedded within larger familial networks, with a lifelong obligation to maintain those networks. The expectation was that sisters would provide mutual care and intense love. The use of sister terminology among religious and activist communities drew on these same expectations. None of these expectations erase the simultaneous reality that not all families were free of conflict, but even within those conflicts was an expectation of continued relations.

All of these features were invoked when women used the model of sisterhood for intimate friendships. It was an intensely emotional model that contrasted with the “cool and rational” relations expected by male friendships. [Note: But is it true that men's friendships were expected to be "cool and rational" at this era? Or is true that they were in fact, regardless of the social model? It's outside the scope of my study, but given how much I see a contrast between the supposed non-erotic nature of women's friendships and their frequent reality, I wonder how much the myth and reality of men's friendships could also differ. But certainly the pubic archetype of women's friendships as intensely emotional provided scope for them to be erotic as well.]

Sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the friendship relationship, the ultimate example of which would be marriage to a brother or other family member.

Kinship networks were essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the natal family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Even heterosexual marriage could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. As one woman wrote to her adopted sister, she didn’t have a particular problem with men, but found the institution of marriage to be a barrier to her goals. She felt no inclination to marry as she could never expect to find a man who would sympathize with her plans and support them in the way that a sister would. (Other women expressed a more focused disinclination for marriage if it would interfere with their intimate friendships.) Even if heterosexual marriage were accepted, a fictive sisterhood might remain the most important relationship in a woman’s life.

Although much of the documentary evidence for fictive sisterhood comes from the white middle class, the phenomenon was also important to working class women and in the African American community..

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Saturday, March 21, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44c - Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/03/21 - listen here)

When Portrait of a Lady on Fire came into the local theaters, my first choice would have been to find movie buddies to watch it with. My second choice was to find one or two people for an online chat, like I did for The Favourite. But, alas, no one responded to my call for interested participants. So here I am, talking to myself in front of a microphone about a movie that you definitely should go see if you’re a fan of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.

It feels a bit silly to try to do a movie discussion show all by myself, so this is going to be more of a rumination on loving uncomfortable history, and the question of whether we’ve arrived at a point in time when even bittersweet depictions of lesbians are a joyful thing. When we don’t have to feel that anything less than unicorns and happy-ever-afters feels like tragedy.

This is already getting dangerously close to spoiler territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put up the spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about what happens in Portrait and I’m also going to talk about what happens in a book I recently consumed, The Mercies, which got me to thinking on many of the same themes. So if you’re a person who is averse to spoilers and if you have plans to watch or read either of those properties, then bookmark this podcast to come back to after you’ve done so.

Are we clear on that? No coming after me complaining that I gave things away? Is this enough time for you to hit “skip” on the podcast app if that’s what you need to do? Ok, then.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s set on an island off Brittany, in the north-west of France, in the late 18th century, though since we don’t see any hints of the French Revolution, it’s not the very end of the century. A widowed countess hires the young painter Marianne to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse as a present--or perhaps better characterized as a job application--for the man chosen as her prospective husband. If he likes the painting, he’ll agree to marry her. The one hitch? Héloïse mustn’t know she’s being painted. The last painter gave up in despair when she refused to let him see her face. So Marianne takes on the role of attendant companion to the young noblewoman, observing her closely enough to be able to begin the painting in secret.

The movie is visually ravishing, taking advantage of locations in Brittany as well as several chateaus. The costuming is similarly lovely, featuring a few glimpses of rich court gowns, but more often the women’s everyday wear from aristocrat to peasant. At some point in the film, I realized how thoroughly focused on women it was. There are some sailors in an early scene, but the story is so completely feminine that when a male messenger arrives toward the end, it feels like a shock, and is no doubt meant to do so.

The countess becomes a background figure after explaining Marianne’s task to her and the story becomes focused on Marianne, her subject Héloïse, and the housemaid Sophie who sees to their needs. Even contact with the nearby villagers comes in the form of a women’s festival. Gradually they become a family in miniature with class differences set aside, though of course, not erased.

Romantic and sexual tension develops slowly but insistently between the two women, impeded by Marianne’s guilt over the deception about the painting and the looming knowledge that the entire purpose of her project is to further Héloïse’s marriage prospects. Their mutual confession of love and the initiation of a sexual relationship comes when you’re almost starting to be afraid you’ve been baited, but their span of idyllic happiness makes up for that tease.

OK, and here’s the real spoiler part, but an essential element for some of the themes I want to talk about. In the end, the portrait is completed with Héloïse’s cooperation, the countess approves of it, it is sent off to the prospective groom, and Marianne leaves to return to Paris and teaching painting to young ladies (the framing story at the opening of the film). In a postscript, Marianne spots another portrait of Héloïse in a gallery, showing her with her young child. Then she sees her alone at the opera, weeping at the beauty of the music (a motif that came up earlier in the film). These experiences are bittersweet but both women had accepted how the course of their lives would run.

So is this a film that draws back from embracing a happily-ever-after ending for its lesbian protagonists? Is this meant to be tragic? Here’s why I don’t see it that way.

One of the things that this film depicts solidly and authentically are class relationships between the characters. Marianne’s unmistakable status as an employee. Sophie’s unremarked duties to see to everyone else’s needs. The countess recounting her own marriage to a stranger in a foreign land, and how her goal is to see her daughter’s life follow the patterns of her own.

Let us, for a moment, imagine an 18th century story in which a young, handsome, middle-class male painter spends an extended period in the company of the young woman he is painting. In which they gradually fall in love. The ending of that story would be the same: he would complete the painting, showing the depth of his love on the canvas, then he would watch her leave to marry the foreign nobleman and be strangely comforted glimpsing her later in her married life, knowing that she found some measure of happiness and that it would never have been possible for them to be together forever.

That’s the context in which I see this movie, not as a failure to give queer characters a happy ending, but as a triumph of the normalization of queer characters in historical cinema, where they get exactly the same range of types of experiences as a straight character would. Yes, there were happy queer stories in history that could be made into movies...and I certainly hope we’ll see many of them. They’ll be different in some ways from happy straight stories, but they’re out there. But this specific story could only realistically end the way it did. It embraced that. And what that means is that we get to be normal in movies, just like everyone else.

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That brings me to the other property I want to discuss, which is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I included this in the new book listings in February and I’m going to repeat the cover copy that was included then.

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

When I read an excerpt to do my micro-review post on Patreon--you do remember that I’m doing micro-reviews of the new book listings as a Patreon benefit, right? When I read it, I thought the writing was gorgeous but there was something in the rhythm of the prose that made me doubt I’d get through reading it. So on impulse I bought the audiobook and it was the best decision because the narrator made both the language and narrative style of the Norwegian setting come alive. Listening in audiobook also made it easier to keep going when I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, or whether the hints and promises of a sapphic relationship were going to be fulfilled.

So, again, there are going to be spoilers here.

As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there are elements in this plot that can only go in certain directions. But that doesn’t preclude some of those directions from avoiding outright tragedy. Maren has lived in the isolated fishing village of Vardø all her life. She has found a man she doesn’t feel too bad about marrying, though it’s clear that she has some unrecognized homoerotic urges floundering for expression. Mostly they’re expressed in something of a crush on an older, somewhat butch woman who scoffs at following gender norms when the loss of almost all the men in a storm leaves the women of Vardø to fend for themselves.

But 17th century Europe wasn’t very forgiving of overt gender non-conformity, even when necessary for survival, and when the new commissioner arrives at Vardø to hunt down heresy and sorcery, such nonconformists are an obvious target, second after the Sámi who, as non-Christians, are marked for vicious persecution.

The commissioner, very pragmatically, has picked up a Norwegian wife, but failed in some of his practical aims by choosing the sheltered daughter of a ship-owner, fallen on hard times. Ursa barely knows the basics of an urban housewife, to say nothing of being in sole charge of a rural household with no servants. She can’t turn to her husband for help--even in marriage he’s a complete stranger to her. Her need combines with Maren’s loneliness to form a fast, if unbalanced friendship. There is a sensual component to that friendship that the two women are unsure how to express until the aftermath of the emotional crisis of the witch trials and executions, which include the execution of Maren’s crush.

OK, here’s the serious spoiler section for this book. In a cathartic moment, the women engage in a sexual relationship and recognize what they’ve been leading toward for the previous year. Ursa’s husband, the commissioner, becomes suspicious and attacks Maren. In a panic, Ursa kills him. (It all feels very triumphant in the moment. He’s a real bastard.) But that act will have consequences. To protect Ursa, Maren decides to leave -- to take to the wilderness and possibly find and join her Sámi sister-in-law -- so that the blame will fall on her and no one else in the village will be punished. Ursa will be free to return to her father’s house. Although there is a hint of space left open for the possibility that they will find each other again later, they cannot be together at the end of the book as it stands.

As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though perhaps more emphatically, the structure of the plot doesn’t allow for a romantic happily-ever-after ending, but it does allow for passion, agency, revenge, and hope. Same-sex love is not punished with death, although it feels touch-and-go for a bit. And though I felt put through the emotional wringer, The Mercies left me feeling validation that the field of queer historical fiction is strong enough to tell stories like this. Stories that tackle the rough parts of history and include us in them without needing either to coddle us or to punish us for existing.

Romances with guaranteed, formula-driven happy endings are important--essential even. But they aren’t the only important type of story to tell. What I long for is the day when any story I encounter could potentially have queer characters included in it. We can’t have that if we require guarantees and promises.

And a romantic couple in a permanent bond is not the only possible way for queer people to be happy in history. Sometimes you find it in recognizing and acknowledging your desires. Sometimes you find it in holding close and then letting go, knowing the joy you took will stay with you. Sometimes you find it in hefting up a stone rolling pin and claiming your freedom.




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Friday, March 20, 2020 - 07:38

One of my twitter friends (who is also a beta reader), Maya Chhabra conceived the idea of doing a "modern Decameron" to entertain those avoiding the plague, and she was quickly joined by Jo Walton who is providing coordination and a framing story. I am proud to be a contributor to the series with my queer Arthurian story "All is Silence" which is posted today. Check out the whole series at Patreon. The posts are free to read by subscriber/contributors will support either the authors or charities of their choice.

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All is Silence
Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 07:00

It's a tribute to how disrupted the normal patterns of my life are at the moment, that I failed to post this on it's sheduled Monday (though I did remember I needed to at several points in the day). As of last Wednesday, I'm under direction to work from home until this whole pandemic thing sorts itself out. I have the privilege and good fortune not only of having a job that can be performed in this way, but in having an employer who was ahead of the curve in setting up guidelines and structures, not only to comply with what is now a government mandate, but to protect our supply chain and patient-customers. (We produce biologically based pharmaceuticals. It isn't a production line you can stop and re-start arbitrarily. And even an unplanned shutdown of a couple of months would mean failing to provide our customers with lifesaving medications.)

On the one hand, not spending 1.5-2 hours commuting every day is giving me time to get some household projects done that usually get crammed into weekends. Even under our current "shelter in place" directive, there's an allowance for getting out for exercise as long as social distancing is maintained. I've taken up a routine bike ride on my lunch hour. And I have sufficient supplies that I haven't had to expose myself to grocery-hunting crowds in this initial realignment phase.

But it's a scary and unsettling age we live in. I'm not sure anyone can foresee what the long-term consequences of this pandemic will be on social and political structures. We can hope that there's a lesson to be learned about collective action for the collective good, and about how infrastructure that protects the poorest and most vulnerable is actually in the selfish self-interest of even the wealthy and powerful. Maybe there's a lesson about how intersecting the groups "wealthy" and "powerful" so completely is part of what got us here in the first place. Do I sound like a radical? Probably not as radical as I should be. I long to be able to do something concrete to support those who don't have the advantages my specific employment gives me. I comfort myself that while I may not be directly supporting Covid19 health care, I do support vital health care in my everyday job. But outside of that, the only concrete things I seem to be able to do is targeted shopping at small businesses who don't have reserves to fall back on. (I'm still feeling uncertain about the risk involved in ording take-out from small food service businesses whose employees may not be able to afford to admit health risks.)

In any event, here is your regular weekly Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. A day late, but never a dollar short.

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Full citation: 

Verini, Alexandra. 2016. "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe" in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 365-391.

In reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the network of female friendships I've written into my Alpennia series--my "web of women." It has the same layered, multi-valent nature as what Verini describes. This is no accident, as I'm basing my world-building on my research into the lives of actual historic women, and that feature shines through as you read about women's lives. It may not be entirely fair to compare the prototypical ideal of men's friendships (focused on a single pair, viewed as being a bond of equals who share everything freely between them) with the emergent images of women's friendships extracted from tangential data (multi-faceted, distributed, often asymmetric, rarely exclusive to a single pair). The realities of men's and women's lives dictated some of the differences. A woman was rarely as free as a man to pledge all her resources to be shared in common with a friend (especially if married). But as Alan Bray notes in The Friend, celebrated male friendships often had an asymmetry of status or power, rather than the ideal of equality. And men, like women, had a wide variety of non-kin networks that included a friendship component. But I think Verini hits on some useful observations in this analysis that help us envision women's lives in the past.


Both historic treatises on friendship and academic studies of the concept have primarily focused on male friendships -- the historic treatises because they were written by men in the context of patriarchal societies, and the academic studies, because they largely focus on those treatises and their context. Male-oriented concepts of friendship typically focused on a bond between two men of relatively equal status and standing that represented a sense of “complete identity of feeling about all things” (Cicero) and that often was given formal standing within social and political structures. Historic authors often doubted that “true” friendship was possible either between women or between a man and a woman. Friendship scholar Alan Bray asserted that he could find no evidence for formal, publicly-recognized friendships between women before the 17th century.

Verini challenges this understanding, noting that while some female authors adopted the classical language of amicitia (friendship) for themselves, it can be more productive to identify concepts and philosophies of women’s friendship within texts whose focus is on other topics. For this purpose, she studies concepts of friendship within two 15th century texts: Christine de Pizan’s allegorical The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe’s autobiographical and visionary The Book of Margery Kempe. These very different texts approach concepts of friendship from different directions but evolve a number of similar understandings that contrast sharply with male-centered models of friendship.

Pizan develops  a proto-feminist allegory of a city built and inhabited by virtuous women drawn from across the ages, while Kempe describes a wide variety of communal interactions--primarily with women, but also with men--that sketch  a model of network-based communal reciprocity. Both--working with no formal guidelines for how to imagine women’s friendships--describe flexible, multi-faceted models that reflect their historic realities.

Pizan’s project is overtly a formal challenge to literary misogyny. It adopts some of the language of classical amicitia in viewing friendship as a “mirror of the self” that must be rooted in the virtuous nature of the participants. When applied to men, this was viewed as a complete intellectual unity accompanied by a willingness to share all material resources. (Male) humanist scholars excluded women from the possibility of such bonds on the basis that “their soul [does not] seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot” (Michel de Montaigne). But within the allegorical world of Pizan’s City, this focus on the ideals of sameness and virtue is claimed by women.

The importance of similarity is represented by the tutelary figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice who instruct the author’s textual persona and who are described as resembling each other so closely they could scarcely be distinguished. The elitist nature of true friendship is ensured in the City by admitting as inhabitants only “women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality.” But alongside this appropriation of the sameness/virtue model, Pizan critiques classical forms by describing a community founded on multiplicity and difference, creating a diverse network of women who exercise their virtue in individual ways. Friendship within the City avoids the absolutes of the classical model by depicting variation between public and private spheres and emphasizing the relationship of individual personal affairs to communal interests. This structure envisions multiple sets of friendship bonds between different pairs or groups of women within the City, constantly intermingling and reassembling in different configurations.

This same multi-layered, diverse network of friendships is represented in another of Pizan’s works The Book of the Queen, which invokes a community of women drawn from different classes, eras, and geographic locations. This model, Verini suggests, reflected the everyday reality of women’s networks of female friends and relatives that typically operated across boundaries of geography, family, class, and the public/private divide.

Kempe’s book has an entirely different purpose, being represented as something of an autobiography/memoir of a woman who entered a solitary religious life in middle age, having been a wife and mother. Kempe describes her relationships and interactions with a wide variety of figures, both human and sacred, male and female, across economic and class divides, and for a variety of immediate purposes and goals.

Kempe relates to various sacred figures with a sense of equality and reciprocity: they provide her with life examples while she provides them with praise and publicity. But the diffuse, reciprocal nature of Kempe’s model of friendship is seen in more detail in her relationships with contemporaries of all classes and levels of religious dedication. These are depicted as involving a sense of equality even when the immediate material or spiritual circumstances of the women differ. What is exchanged may be material (charity, nursing), spiritual (prayer, inspiration), or intellectual (advice, guidance) and need not be returned in kind or even returned directly to/from the same pair of women. Instead of direct reciprocity, a network of friendships is woven from a sort of distributed gift exchange in which acts of friendship may be “paid forward” rather than returned directly.

Both texts meet in this model of a web formed by multiple types and degrees of friendship of different natures, rather than envisioning friendship as inherently limited to a binary pair and resting on identity of nature and interests.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44b - Interview with Catherine Lundoff of Queen of Swords Press - transcript pending

(Originally aired 2020/03/14 - listen here)

An interview with Catherine Lundoff about her small publishing house, Queen of Swords Press


An interview with the founder of Queen of Swords Press about the process of starting a publishing company.

In this episode we talk about:

  • Schedules and timelines
  • Finding the balance in content
  • What to tackle by yourself and when to bring in experts
  • Making the finances work
  • How success can trip you up
  • The surprising cross-market potential of dapper lesbian capybara pirates
  • Books mentioned - you are encouraged to buy through the Queen of Swords website
    • Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff
    • Out of This World by Catherine Lundoff
    • Murder on the Titania by Alex Acks
    • Medusa’s Touch by Emily L. Byrne
    • Scourge of the Seas of Time and Space edited by Catherine Lundoff
    • Wireless by Alex Acks
    • Unfinished Business: Tales of the Dark Fantastic by Catherine Lundoff
    • The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater
  • A transcript of this podcast is pending.

Links to Queen of Swords Press and Catherine Lundoff Online

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

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Thursday, March 12, 2020 - 16:22

When I wrote a story about an epidemic, complete with administrative mismanagement, I hadn't intended it to be immediately relevant to the world the book was released into. (Though, of course, all fictional themes can have metaphorical resonances with contemporary life.) The elite of Rotenek respond to periodic bouts of river fever by "social distancing" -- i.e., by leaving town for their country properties. In Floodtide, a further quarantine measure was to block traffic across the river, in the belief that the source of the disease was the poorer quarters of the city. As today, these measures provide protection to some at the cost of abandoning others to the disease We don't have Celeste's magic charms to protect us against fever, and some of the bravest people out there are the health care workers who risk their own lives to stay at their posts.

Other than the cancelation of a couple of events in my near future, my life is being relatively unaffected. I'm working from home for the indefinite future because the pharmaceutical company I work for needs to reduce risk for the hands-on workers who are keeping our supply chain going to deliver life-saving medicines to the patients who depend on us. (Not directly related to Covid-19, although this morning's corporate update noted that other divisions are donating drugs being used for experimental treatments of the virus.)

I've only been working from home for two days now, and except for the isolation I could really get used to this. A 15 second commute, an entire garden to look at during my breaks rather than a single desk-rose. But in addition to the "what next" dread that hangs over us all, there's an unsettled sense of being off my habits and rhythms. I hope I settle in quickly to be able to put the extra time to productive use, but I hope even more that we all find ways to mitigate this epidemic and use the lessons in the future.

Be safe; wash your hands; and remember that you can read books in the safety of your sealed underground bunker!

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Monday, March 9, 2020 - 07:00

Today's post kicks off a series of publications that revolve around the concept of friendship, especially same-sex friendships.

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Full citation: 

Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-07181-7

Although Bray does discuss women’s friendships at various points, the book is overwhelmingly focused on men and doesn’t always recognize the societal differences men’s and women’s experiences and possibilities. As usual with studies that purport to be inclusive but focus primarily on men's experiences, it isn't clear whether Bray even considered the possibility that women's experiences took a sufficiently different form that they would require a different approach to find. If women are overwhelmingly excluded from formal institutions of learning and from church institutions, then a study that finds a wealth of men's friendships in those institutions would be wrong to conclude that the absence of parallel female examples means that women didn't form friendships. If women are largely excluded from a publicly-performed life, then evidence for their friendships may need to be sought in more private records. And so on, and so forth. The reverse can occur in studies that look at the "romantic friendship" phenomenon through the lens of female-only institutions and activities and somehow conclude that men in that era were incapable of forming deep personal bonds with other men, just because they weren't necessarily using the same language and the same symbolism.


Bray’s book was inspired by trying to understand the meaning behind various joint funeral memorials of pairs of non-related men. The study expanded to “the distinctive place friendship occupied in traditional society” in Europe from the 11th to the 18th centuries. The focus is on friendship as a public rather than a private phenomenon. He also touches on the relationship of homosexuality to same-sex friendship.

The core of the book’s topic, and the image that Bray returns to in each section, is co-burial with symbolism reminiscent of that used for married couples. His study focuses on England and there are aspects of the English experience (especially around religious issues) that don’t necessarily track to other cultures. He stakes out a position that, before the 17th century, he could find no evidence for women possessing the specific type of “kin-like” friendships that he is studying. [Note: As in many similar studies, he doesn’t appear to question deeply whether this is because they didn’t exist or because they existed in forms that left a different type of evidence than men’s friendships did.] For this reason, I’ll skim over many of the details of his study and focus more closely when women are involved.

Chapter 1: Wedded Brother

The focal point in this chapter is the joint tombstone of two 14th century English knights buried in Byzantium. The helmets and coats of arms on the stone are arranged to turn to face each other. Each image bears a shield with both their arms impaled together, as might be done for a married couple. In the 15th century, a heraldic treatise commented on two Spanish knights who were “sworn brothers” and similarly impaled their arms as a sign of the relationship. Also in the 15th century we have a record of two English squires swearing an oath of brotherhood in a church. [Note: Compare this with Boswell’s study of “same-sex unions” which focuses on a specific type of liturgical ceremony for similar relationships and thus may overlook some of the examles Bray considers.]

There are references in medieval romance of sworn brothers sealing their pact with a “kiss of peace”. [Note: it’s important to be aware that kissing was used as a formal symbolic gesture in many non-romantic and non-erotic contexts in this era.] Bray discusses various examples of similar sworn brotherhood in various contexts. One example for which we have significant commentary, due to its prominence and political implications is that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston, who swore brotherhood “after feeling love [amor] for each other at first sight.”

Bray discusses the supposed “purposes” claimed for sworn brotherhood, all of which can be shown not to apply in many cases.

Chapter 2: Friend to Sir Philip Sidney

This chapter begins by describing the planned joint memorial for Fulke Greville and Philip Sidney in the early 17th century, although the memorial was never built. Again, the description matches what would be expected for a married couple in that era: a double tomb arranged as two beds (set vertically) with statues of the two.

Greville and Sidney described their friendship in a more private way than earlier examples of “sworn brothers.” They used pastoral imagery and discussed it in private letters.

There is a detailed discussion of Greville and Sidney’s history and context together, as well as the context of how friendship between men was represented at the time. Such sworn friendships almost inevitably involved inequity of rank, but bonds of patronage and service between them allowed a high level of closeness and trust.

The language of friendship partook of fancy rhetoric in part to negotiate the dangers of the bond, due to conflicting bonds and obligations external to the friendship. Friendship carried obligations that were not easily ignored. And friendship assumed a level of privacy that could easily be betrayed.

Chapter 3: Families and Friends

The chapter opens with more examples of joint memorial brasses of pairs of unrelated men, focusing on a 14th century example with two tonsured clerics at Merton College. Comparative examples of m/f married couples on memorial brasses are provided from the same era.

Bray compares the language of brotherhood oaths with the language of marriage and betrothal. [Note: it’s important to recognize that much of the vocabulary we now consider to be specific to marriage derives from language that had more general applications. Those general applications were not a metaphoric extension of the vocabulary, but the original core meanings. Thus heterosexual marriage was seen as a subset of a larger variety of formal bonds between people that included same-sex bonds.] This language included phrases like “to plight troth” or “wed-brothers” where both “troth” and “wed” are related to the swearing of formal oaths. “Wed” means a pledge or covenent. “Wedded” can apply to any act of commitment. There is also regular use of kinship terminology for sworn friends.

Studies of Byzantine adelphopoiesis rituals [the ones Boswell studied] note that such rituals were considered ordinary in secular society but began to be viewed critically within the church (for clerics) around the 12th century, though it continued to be practiced.

Finally a female example! Mention of the early 17th century joint memorial for Ann Chitting and Mary Barber in Suffolk, which was described by Ann’s son Henry. (The memorial no longer survives.) Does this mean that co-burials of unrelated women were a new thing in the 17th century? Or are they simply more visible then? [Note: or were they less likely to survive? Many of the male examples were preserved in academic institutions where there may have been more active conservation. Judith Bennett’s study of the 15th century joint memorial brass of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge was not published until 5 years after Bray’s book. So he may not have known about it. But this is an illustration of the overall problem of male-centered research.]

The chapter provides many biographical details of m/m pairs of friends and discusses the religious context around the Reformation. More discussion of terminology, illustrated with letters between King James I and the Duke of Buckingham that refers to their friendship as “marriage.” A broader discussion of this history of royal favorites as “sworn brothers” who might act in the king’s name and were often attacked or disapproved of for that authority.

A discussion of kinship structures and anthropological concepts of “family” that extend beyond genetic links. There was a greater diversity of non-genetic bonds being recognized than in modern life where marriage is the only major recognized example. Pre-modern individuals existed within a potential multitude of “families.” Some such bonds automatically brought in other connections, while some were more narrowly construed as applying only to the specific bond.

We return to the Chitting/Barber tombs, now lost, but described by contemporary documents. Barber was the niece of the Chitting family’s patron. The inscriptions for the two women both recognize their marriages. Anne Chitting is buried next to Mary Barber (whose husband is buried on her other side). It’s unclear if Ann’s husband was still living when the memorial was created or was buried elsewhere.

Bray discusses the “uses” of friendships of this type, including inheritance, patronage, mentoring, family support, and legal surrogacy.

The chapter moves on to a discussion of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for creating adelphopoiesis (sworn siblinghood). The Franciscan order had a similar rite (a 14th century example is given). The original texts and translations are provided.

Chapter 4: The Body of the Friend

This chapter focuses on physical aspects and expectations for friends. The beginning example is a mid-17th century co-burial describing the two men’s relationship as “animorum connubium” (a marriage of souls) in the inscription. Would this phrase have been interpreted by their contemporaries as a “sworn brotherhood” as in earlier centuries?

The chapter discusses Jeremy Taylor’s Discourse of Friendship (1657) and how it describes a mingling of interests, fortunes, and counsels. Symbols of the physical closeness of friendship include the kiss of peace and the joint location in the tomb, but what else? Taylor exhorts “so must the love of friends sometimes be refreshed with material and low caresses, lest by striving to be too divine it become less humane.” That is, a physical aspect of friendship was considered not only ordinary, but necessary.

Between the pair of men that is the focus of this chapter, one served as the other’s secretary and go-between. (A not uncommon inequality between the pairs of friends discussed in this book.)

We return to the example of James I, this time in his relationship with the Earl of Somerset, with a description of their physical displays of affection and how these were viewed negatively. These included the earl kissing the king’s hand and how James “hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks.”

The language of kisses and embraces was common as a sign of friendship and goodwill between same-sex pairs. Examples of friendship gestures included arranging/adjusting the other’s clothing. Such actions conferred social status and power on the less ranking recipient and were meant to be understood as conferring that status.

Dining together was another sign of friendship, especially as we move into the 17th century when high-status diners were moving from the common hall into a private chamber. The bedchamber and bed were another place where friendship bonds could be publicly demonstrated. Giving someone an audience in the bedchamber was a mark of closeness and favor. Sharing of beds was expected and was another context where the choice of who to share with indicated closeness. One’s bed-partner was also public knowledge, given that bedchambers were not a “private” space--the lack of corridors in domestic architecture meant that one necessarily moved through rooms to get from one place to another. The term “bedfellow” reflected such choice of closeness but in this era did not assume a sexual relationship as it acquired later. Within the context of a status-differentiated friendship, performing personal service for the friend’s body is another sign of closeness.

These signs of closeness were both sincere and capable of being used strategically on both sides. Bray discusses how overwhelmingly male the environments in which these friendships took place. [Note: That is, how overwhelmingly male men’s environments were.] This is obvious in the context of colleges, but also in the context of the servants and attendants of a man of high status. Women, even when supplying the needs of great houses, tended to “live out” and reside in all-female groups rather than being an integrated part of the household. [Note: Bray doesn’t entirely make clear here how the picture changes in a household that includes a wife and children, rather than the household of a man who is either single or living separately from his immediate family.]

Friends at all levels of society marked their bond (especially at separations) with an exchange of tokens: rings, knives, caps, etc. But letters and books also formed a type of gift exchange. Letters were treasured, not only for the content, but as a symbol of the friend’s presence. Great men, who had secretaries to write for them, might write in their own hand as a special gift.

There is a discussion of suggestively sexual jokes and humor between friends, noting that it can occur between male friends who elsewhere express conventional horror of sodomy. Bray takes the position that such jokes are about affirming masculinity, but could not possibly(!) be about sexual relations. (And yet, the enemies of those friend-pairs clearly might read sexual meanings into the relationship.)

There is a brief admission that little has been said about women, who also formed similar pseudo-kin bonds, shared beds, etc. Bray notes that women left fewer traces in the historic record due to having less property and influence. But in literature, how do women figure in relation to same-sex friendships? His answer is that they appear primarily as the enemies of men’s same-sex friendships. [Note: once again, there is plenty of data on women’s positive same-sex friendships in literature if you are specifically looking for it.]

Chapter 5: Friends and Enemies

The chapter begins as usual with the biography of a specific pair of friends, this time two Catholic priests who fled England together in the 16th century during the religious struggles of the Reformation. There had long been a popular association of Catholic religious orders with sodomy, in part because of the prohibition on married clergy, but in part because of the association of sodomy with effeminacy. In the 16th century, sodomy was considered something everyone was capable of, not a fixed orientation. In contrast to earlier uses of the term, it had become strongly gendered, applying only to men and indicating effeminacy. The term was also more vague than “anal sex” and was considered to go hand in hand with other moral defects.

Thus, the association for Protestants of sodomy with Catholic priests was in part as a symptom of their general immorality. In England, in particular, Catholics were associated with treason and violent opposition to the government.

Pairs of close male friends, especially in universities or religious institutions, were ripe for accusations of sodomy. This connection then extended to the sense that sodomites (especially male friends) were more likely to turn traitor because of the overall immorality that was associated with that term.

There is more discussion of the overlap of male friendships and the idea of betrayal, but as there is no discussion of female topics I’m skipping the rest of this chapter.

Chapter 6: Friendship and Modernity

The chapter example is a joint memorial in Merton College. There is a discussion of shifts in domestic space in the 18th century that created “privacy” as a concept. The sharing of bed and board was no longer a public performance. [Note: it still happened, it just didn’t have the same public symbolism as an open act.] Physical intimacy changed in significance. Men of rank were no longer served by other gentlemen but by servants separated by a class divide. Up and down the social ladder, there was a sense that physical privacy was expected between non-family. Bray is talking here about a narrowly English development that continental visitors found odd.

Formal non-sexual kissing began to disappear. The Enlightenment and a shift away from personal bonds as the basis of commerce and government changed the economic function of close friendships. “Friend” became a more general and diffuse concept, rather than an intimate bond.

In parallel with this formalization of friendship, marriage became more rigid and formal, requiring the presence of clergy and documentation. Bray notes the marriage in 1680 between James Howard (Amy Poulter) and Arabella Hunt. [Note: see Crawford and Mendelson 1995] The evidence is confusing whether this marriage was intended to be sincere or was intended as a joke. Was this the formalization of a female same-sex friendship that was disavowed when things went awry? How might the clandestine Hunt/Poulter bond compare to the open Chitting/Barber bond that was celebrated? Another example of a female joint memorial is presented from 1710 between Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones. Bray discusses their biographical background and connections, showing how friendships were used to connect extended families.

Similar family bonds via same-sex friendship are demonstrated for men in the 18th century with multiple examples given. If such evidence of friendship bonds connecting families became harder to find by the 19th century, is it because they were less common or less visible?

Bray raises the example of Anne Lister to argue for the “less visible” option and points out that without the evidence of Lister’s diaries, her same-sex friendships would be invisible. He reviews evidence for how some of Lister’s family accepted and approved of her “union” with Ann Walker. The diaries go into details of various ceremonial signifiers for her different bonds, including exchanging rings, taking communion together, and pledges of fidelity. These all have echoes of how the language of marriage was incorporated in the tradition of “sworn friendship.”

Bray has a long discussion of the symbolism in the windows of the church where Lister and Walker took communion together. But this section is all very abstractly philosophical and involves a lot of putting thoughts into the heads of historic people.

Another joint memorial for two women--Anne Fleming and Catherine Jennis in 1795--is not technically a co-burial but references the proximity of the two graves in the church as a sign of their friendship.

Bray considers how the wealth of detail in the Lister diaries can shed light on the nature of less well documented same-sex friends. The erotic potential of such friendships goes in and out of focus. Only in rare cases, such as Lister’s, do we have access to the interior of such a bond. But we also know how Lister’s family treated that bond while being unaware of its sexual component. [Note: Or at least, while not leaving any documentary trace that they were aware.]

See also Lister’s opinions about the Ladies of Llangollen, whose public reputation was a non-sexual friendship while Lister suspected that it was sexual. Lister sometimes refers to her erotic interactions as a “weakness.” Might other same-sex friends have integrated their bonds in similar ways? The discussion concludes with a the legal and inheritance aspects of Lister’s union which reinforce the marriage-like aspect.

Chapter 7: Coda

The co-burial example for this chapter is from the late 19th century of two Catholic clergymen who explicitly requested to be buried together. There is a detailed documentary trail of how the one who died later re-emphasized multiple times this wish, evidently out of fear that his body would instead be memorialized in a more prominent and important location. Their memoirs emphasize the closeness (and even marriage-similarity) of their friendship. There is an involved discussion of the social politics of burials at the chapel. Bray creates a scenario in which the two are part of a long lineage across time of sworn friends who were commemorated with co-burial.

Afterword: Historians and Friendship

A discussion of the role and importance of studying friendship in history, with a survey of key studies of the topic and some of the major strands of disagreement among scholars, especially regarding the intersection of same-sex friendship and homosexuality.

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