No thoughtful introduction. Posting on my phone from the middle of a big key ride. Needless to say the main entry was set up in advance!
ETA: You can tell I was posting from my phone because "big key ride" was supposed to be "bike ride".
Lemay, Helen Rodnite. 1982. “Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage eds. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X
Lemay, Human Sexuality in Twelfth- through Fifteenth-Century Scientific Writings
This is an overview of treatments of human sexuality as indicated in the title. Only a very small amount of material pertains to same-sex sexuality, so this summary will be brief. The subject matter is medical, astrological, and philosophical treatises of the 12-15th centuries, either written in or translated into Latin.
In general, medical texts treated sexuality with a matter-of-fact approach and did not reflect moral judgments on their topics even when they noted social attitudes towrads them. Astrological texts also avoided moral judgments although in this case the attitude may be attributed to the deterministic approach of the field itself. If the heavens determined one’s sexuality, what was there to condemn?
Astrological evidence regarding a woman’s virginity might seem a strange place to find discussion of sexual practices, but the discussion notes that the loss of virginity is a complicated question. A woman might technically lose her virginity without having intercourse with a man by means of stimulation by her own hands or someone else’s which brought her to orgasm. (Although the text does not specifically mention same-sex activity, it touches on sexual techniquest that don’t involve a penis.)
Astrological texts recognized a large array of sexual orientations, in the sense of the types of sexual partners and preferences in sexual activites that a person prefers. The postion that a person’s sexual response will be determined at birth is in contrast to the competing medieval theory that “sodomy” was a moral failing and was something any person might fall into.
Astrological texts are unusually forthcoming in recognizing the potential for female same-sex desire, although it is typically framed in heteronormative terms. A particular stellar configuration “increases the virility of their souls and makes them lustful for unnatural congresses, when they act as if their female friends were their wives. ... they may perform these acts either secretly or openly.” Another text elaborates that “act as if their female friends were their wives’ means “they rub one another as if they were men.” One Italian tract suggests that planetary conjunctions can also cause a change of physiological sex later in life.
In medical literature, William of Saliceto was one of the first writers to advance the “enlarged clitoris” theory of female same-sex desire, though his version involves what appears to be a prolapsed uterus rather than the clitoris.
Clockwork Boys by T. Kingfisher (Red Wombat Tea Company, 2018)
T. Kingfisher has enough cred as an author with me that I will give anything she writes a try. But it’s not reasonable to expect that any one author will hit your target every single time. This is a perfectly good story, excellently written, with engaging characters. It just didn’t hit my personal sweet spots in terms of story and characters. Your experience will most likely be different.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 26a - On the Shelf for September 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/09/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for September 2018.
Last month was a bit of a crunch and I’m scrambling a bit to get material lined up for the blog and the podcast for the remainder of the year. I now have a due date for turning in my current novel, the fourth book in the Alpennia series, which adds a bit of extra pressure, but I’ve just sent a novella out on submission, which is the sort of thing that always makes me feel accomplished, even if I don’t have any idea when or to whom it might sell. Last month was also busy with attending Worldcon, the annual World Science Fiction Convention, although at least this year it was practically in my back yard rather than involving international travel. I was hoping to maybe pick up some interviews for the podcast while I was there, but when I matched a shopping list of people writing queer women in historic fantasy to the list of attending authors, nobody jumped out as a good candidate. At least, nobody that I haven’t already interviewed! But I’ve made some additions to my author shopping list and we’ll see what turns up.
It’s hard to believe that we’ve coming up to the third installment of our new fiction series this month! This time the story is “Peaceweaver” by Jennifer Nestojko. It’s a tale inspired by the era of Beowulf, a bittersweet story of mature women finding peace and comfort after sacrificing their youth for the sake of family honor.
It has come up to the time for making a decision about whether to try the fiction experiment again next year. It can be hard to judge the success of a project in its first run. I hope that you’ve been enjoying these stories as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing them to you. I also hope that some of you listeners have been inspired to start thinking about the stories you might want to tell. And so I will definitely be doing another fiction series in 2019. I’ll be posting an official description and call for submissions a bit later, but you can get a sense of what I’m looking for by checking out last year’s call. It isn’t too soon to start noodling with a plot and characters. Like last year, I’ll be accepting submissions in January so you have plenty of time to get writing.
This month’s essay topic comes from one of my listener polls. Of the several historic figures I offered, I got a lot of positive response for 17th century gender outlaw Mary Frith, also known as Moll Cutpurse. So I’ll be looking at her life as presented not only in contemporary records, but as purported to be told in her own memoirs, and as fictionalized on stage. Frith is a fascinating and transgressive figure, with a number of different faces depending on how you’re looking at her. In many ways, she stands as an icon for the disruptions around gender performance that England was dealing with around 1600.
Publications on the Blog
For this month’s blog, I start by finishing up the last of the remaining short journal articles with a look at discussions of sexuality in medieval Latin scientific literature. Then I’m plunging into the material on Moll Cutpurse, including her purported memoir. I have another couple of texts discussing her that I want to cover, including Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels and two plays in which she features as a character: Amends for Ladies by Nathan Field, and Thomas Middleton’s The Roaring Girl. But I’m not sure exactly how I’ll be divvying them up between the blog and the podcast.
If I have space left in the month, I’ll be spinning off of the theme of gender-queer presentations, and looking at the biography of a member of Mary Shelley’s circle in the early 19th century, one Mary Diana Dodds, also known as David Lyndsay, also known as Walter Sholto Douglas--at least according to the investigative research of scholar Betty T. Bennett. The book, originally written in 1991, is not as nuanced in considering the ambiguous territory around transgender themes as we might wish for today. But it presents an interesting tale of gender-crossing, not within the working class examples that we more typically see in that era, but among literary and diplomatic circles, which certainly opens up new horizons in the logistics of story inspiration.
And now for a new podcast feature: the book shopping report! In the past, on my blog, I’ve done periodic posts of research book acquisitions and I thought you might enjoy hearing about things I’ve picked up for the Project, even if I may not get around to covering them for a while.
Several of my recent purchases are in support of the poetry series that I’m planning. This includes Emma Donoghue’s collection Poems Between Women: Four Centuries of Love, Romantic Friendship, and Desire, Domna C. Stanton’s bilingual collection The Defiant Muse: French Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to the Present, and the slightly less useful Secret Sexualities: A Sourcebook of 17th and 18th Century Writing, by Ian McCormick, which alas is heavily focused on male-oriented material, though it collects up some interesting texts about women that get referenced regularly by the articles I cover.
Inspired by my coverage of publication number 200 on my blog, I decided to actually buy a copy of Queer Wales: The History, Culture, and Politics of Queer Life in Wales edited by Huw Osborne, and I used it to track down the published source of the possibly-lesbian medieval Welsh poem it mentions, which is published in the collection Beirdd Ceridwen: Blodeugerdd Barddas o Ganu Menywod hyd tua 1800, that is, Ceridwen’s Bards: a Bardic Collection of Women’s Poems to Around 1800, edited by Cathryn A. Charnell-White. As the book and its contents are entirely in Welsh, it may take me a bit of time to translate the poem sufficiently to include it in a future poetic podcast. Prose is fairly easy to translate, poetry is hard.
The last book I picked up recently is Sex and the Gender Revolution: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London by Randolph Trumbach. This appears to be an expanded version of the article by Trumbach that I covered in the blog back in April. I was hoping that it might include additional material relevant to women, but it looks like I’m going to be disapointed.
I think I have another couple of books on order currently, but I’ll save them for when they arrive. As usual, I’m picking up new books faster than I have any hope of blogging them!
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
In contrast to the non-fiction, I’m feeling a bit desperate at this month’s list of new and forthcoming novels. I’ve scraped up four titles, which I consider my minimum goal, but some of them are stretching the definitions a little. Plus a fifth novel where I’m having to trust the queer content based solely on rumor. If you know of any upcoming books with historic or historically-based settings, drop me a note to make sure I don’t overlook them.
Somehow I missed Alex Westmore’s Dead Man’s Chest when it came out back in July. This is the 5th book in her Plundered Chronicles, featuring piracy in the later 16th century. The series starts in Ireland but wanders over a broad scope of geography. Here’s the blurb:
“If the Croatoans on Roanoke don’t kill her, one of the many women in Captain Quinn Callaghan’s life will. Heading to the New World to bring a mysterious box to Lady Killigrew’s sister, Quinn and her pirate shipmates face dangers unlike any they have ever encountered. The journey alone is fraught with perils, but what they find when they land in Roanoke is enough to chill even a hardened pirate’s bones. But this delivery is barely less dangerous than the women in Quinn’s life--a couple of whom wish to see her dead while another reunites with her. As Quinn is forced to recognize the eventual collapse of Ireland as well as the end of some of her deepest friendships, she makes a decision that will alter the fate of both her life and her crew’s. In this fifth installment of the Plundered Series, you will be taken on a ride that will leave you breathless with every turn of the page as Quinn struggles to keep her men, her women, and herself alive.”
The other July book I’m including is the one where I have to rely entirely on rumor for the queer content. When I read the first book in Theordora Goss’s historical fantasy series The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club, titled The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, it felt like it was a book that by rights ought to have some lesbian themes somewhere in it, and I was a little disappointed that none appeared. I have been assured--though I can’t remember by whom--that this second book does have some queer female characters, though you certainly couldn’t guess that from the blurb, which is a perennial problem with books from the big publishers. The underlying conceit of this series is that the daughters of an array of characters from turn-of-the-century Gothic literature come together to solve the mystery of their origins and stop a sinister plot that their fathers were involved in. Here’s the blurb:
“In the sequel to the critically acclaimed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, Mary Jekyll and the rest of the daughters of literature’s mad scientists embark on a madcap adventure across Europe to rescue another monstrous girl and stop the Alchemical Society’s nefarious plans once and for all. Mary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole. But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time? Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.”
As I say, I’m having to take the queer content on trust at this point, but if it sounds like something you might enjoy, check it out.
It took me a bit of following up on a chance reference to confirm that Like a Book by Bette Hawkins, which came out last month, has a historic connection by way of a character who is researching themes of Romantic Friendship in 19th century literature, although the story itself is a contemporary romance. But that connection between the present and the past makes it a natural fit for the shape of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Here’s the blurb:
“Trish Carter has found the other side of an unsatisfying relationship and is now ready to embrace a new job and a new life. She isn’t expecting to test the limits of her fresh start on her first day at work though. The striking young author, June Williams, grabs her attention from their first conversation and Trish can’t seem to stay away from her. When the two women form a pact to test the theories June is researching for her book, they quickly discover that romantic friendships are easier on paper. Their contract clearly stipulates which types of intimacy are allowed and which aren’t. Holding hands is okay—but kissing certainly is not. At first the deal seems perfect. They can be close to one another without risking too much. But what happens when they cross the line and the boundaries of the contract conflict with real life?”
The two books that I’ve found that are new for September are both fantasies that weave in themes and settings from history. Julia Ember’s The Navigator’s Touch is out and out fantasy if you focus on the mermaids, but the setting draws strongly on early medieval Scandinavian history and mythology. This book is a sequel to her earlier work The Seafarer’s Kiss. Here’s the blurb:
“After invaders destroyed her village, murdered her family, and took her prisoner, shield-maiden Ragna is hungry for revenge. A trained warrior, she is ready to fight for her home, but with only a mermaid and a crew of disloyal mercenaries to aid her, Ragna knows she needs new allies. Guided by the magical maps on her skin, battling storms and mutiny, Ragna sets sail across the Northern Sea. She petitions the Jarl in Skjordal for aid, but despite Ragna's rank and fighting ability, the Jarl sees only a young girl, too inexperienced to lead, unworthy of help. To prove herself to the Jarl and win her crew's respect, Ragna undertakes a dangerous expedition. But when forced to decide between her own freedom and the fate of her crew, what will she sacrifice to save what’s left of her home?”
A similar blend of history and fantasy is found in K. Aten’s The Saggitarius, the third book in her Arrows of Artemis series which blends mythic Amazons with classical history. Here’s the blurb:
“What is life if not the sum of all things that occur before we die? Kyri has known her share of loss in the two decades that she has been alive. She never expected to find herself a slave in Roman lands, nor did she think she had the heart to become a gladiatrix. Soul shattered, she must fight to see her way back home again. Will she win her freedom and return to all that she has known, or will she become another kind of slave to the killer that has taken over her mind? The only thing that is certain through it all is her love and devotion to Queen Orianna. Then again, certainty can only be found in those that control their own destiny.”
And not at all by coincidence, Kelly Aten will also be our author guest this month, so look forward to hearing all about the Arrows of Artemis series and how it came to be written.
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from a previously featured author, Jeannelle M. Ferreira on Twitter, who asks, “Tell us about the Daughters of Bilitis.”
The story of Bilitis fits in very nicely with the theme of lesbian historical fiction because she’s an excellent example of a purely fictional figure who has become part of the historic lore and mythology of women who love women.
The story begins with the history of Sappho’s poetry, its loss, and the rediscovery of some fragments. As I discussed in my podcast on Sappho, we have reason to believe that complete manuscript copies of Sappho’s works continued to be produced up through the 6th or 7th century AD, but sometime around the 9th century, the majority of her work was lost. A few fragments and two complete works survived as quotations in other texts, but it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that archaeological excavations in Egypt, especially at Oxyrhynchus, began turning up scraps of papyrus with substantial additional material from Sappho. New fragments and poems continue to be identified even to this day.
But the relevant point is that in the late 19th century, the literati were familiar with the idea that previously unknown works of ancient Greek poets might suddenly turn up. Enter a French decadent poet named Pierre Louÿs.
The decadent movement in 19th century France had a number of preoccupations, but one of the things they were obsessed with was lesbian sexuality. And the reviewed interest in Sappho generated by the discoveries in Egypt meant that she and the circle of women mentioned in her poetry were popular subjects for the decadent writers and artists.
Louÿs had a fascination with ancient Greek culture and began writing erotic literature at the age of 18. He helped to found a literary review only a few years later that served as a venue for publishing some of his work. He hung out with famous men in homosexual circles such as André Gide and Oscar Wilde. And in 1894, at the age of 24, he published a volume of 143 poems under the title Chansons de Bilitis (Songs of Bilitis), presenting them as his translations of the work of a contemporary of Sappho, recently discovered inscribed in a newly excavated tomb in Cyprus. The volume also included a brief biographical sketch of Bilitis, telling of her youth in Pamphylia, her life in Mitylene on Lesbos with her lover Mnasidika, and then her career as a courtesan on Cyprus. The poems were arranged in three groups reflecting these periods and featuring themes and emotions reflecting different life stages. To digress for a moment, Mnasidika is a name that actually occurs in Sappho’s poetry, and so the reference added some verisimilitude to the story. The name Bilitis, however, is otherwise unknown, although it does a good job of being “made up to sound Greek.”
Louÿs was a classicist and famliar not only with ancient Greek literary styles but with the cultural references appropriate to the era and the Chansons were initially--if briefly--taken for the real deal: an actual newly-discovered corpus of ancient lesbian poetry. When the truth of Louÿs’ direct authorship came out, the work was still hailed as a literary masterpiece, reprinted numerous times with sensual illustrations including the most famous edition by Willy Pogany. Selections of the poems were set to music by composers such as Debussy.
Somewhere in here, you might be noticing the startling lack of any actual women--to say nothing of actual lesbians--anywhere in this story. The French decadent artists were obsessed with their invented image of what lesbians were like. Actual women? Not so much.
But given the thematic connection to Sappho, and the tragically fragmentary condition of Sappho’s own corpus of poetry, lesbians of the early 20th century may be forgiven for latching onto this French voyeur’s writings as being better than nothing.
In 1955, when lesbian activists for civil and political rights wanted to form an organization that offered an alternative meeting space to bars but could fly under the radar of public attention, they chose Bilitis as a namesake because she combined a clear sapphic connection to those “in the know” with almost complete obscurity for the general public. Even founding members Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were unfamiliar with her name when the organization they founded proposed “Daughters of Bilitis” for the group, riffing off of the names of such established organizations as the Daughters of the American Revolution to fend off curiosity. Martin and Lyon were later quoted as saying, “If anyone asked us, we could always say we belong to a poetry club.”
The Daughters of Bilitis quickly spread from its origins in San Francisco to have branches in several major cities in the U.S., and in 1956 began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder which continued in publication through 1972. From a modern point of view, the society’s early goals may have seemed quaintly conservative and focused on assimmilation. One of their stated goals was “Promoting the Integration of the Homosexual into Society” and their suggestions for achieving this end included discouraging women from dressing in gender-transgressive ways and encouraging lesbians to participate in medical and psychiatric studies to establish their “normalacy”. With the rise of wider civil rights activism in the 1960s, the Daughters of Bilitis began breaking away from its assimilationist origins, but at the same time, much of their prospective membership began identifying more with the rising feminist movement and feeling less identification with the tradition of unified homosexual activism, as represented by the Mattachine Society, believing that concerns specific to queer women were being ignored by the male-dominated gay rights community.
The Daughters of Bilitis more or less folded as a national organization in 1970 when internal disputes over the direction of the newletter The Ladder resulted in a separation of the two functions. The Ladder itself folded shortly after.
Bilitis as an icon is an interesting example of the popular mythologizing that often occurs in communities that feel disconnected from historic roots--or feel they have no historic roots to connect with. And I’m of two minds about the psychological usefulness of fastening your identity to a fictional invention.
If I can digress into personal history for a moment, I remember a similar thing happening when queer members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval hobbyist club, formed a social and activist group around 1990. When brainstorming for a name and symbol for the group, someone came up with a story that queer women in Renaissance Italy...or maybe among medieval French troubadours, or maybe some other time and place, it varied...had used a blue feather as a secret signal to each other. At one point the origins of this story were attributed to lesbian poet Judy Grahn but no one could ever produce any actual source. And yet for years people passed around the alleged “fact” that a blue feather had been used as a recognition symbol for homosexuals in pre-modern Europe. As if there were some monolithic unified homosexual culture at that time. In theory, the Society for Creative Anachronism was supposed to be based on re-creating actual historic research. So some of us felt a bit odd about using this piece of utter fiction as the symbol of queer history. But if you ever challenged the veracity of this “blue feather” story, and asked for some sort of proof that it had existed, you got accused of being anti-gay. I recall this myself at the time, because I was one of the people asking for evidence and never actually being offered anything.
We love having attractive symbols and common icons and a sense of shared history, but I’ve always found that the messy, fragmentary, ambiguous realities of history are even more fun than invented mythology. Bilitis was a fiction--a useful fiction, perhaps--and one invented by a man who viewed lesbians primarily as a topic of objectified titillation. I can understand why the Daughters of Bilitis found her to be a useful namesake, but I hope I can interest my listeners in the lives of actual queer women in history as well.
Set in classical Greece, the plot of this novella is fairly straightforward: upper class woman who is Not Like The Other Girls is intrigued by the beauty and defiance of an exotic (in this case, Norse) slave and purchases her in order to tame her and (as we eventually find out) with the goal of some sort of interpersonal relationship. After a period of power play, assorted hurt-comfort scenes, and jealous pining, the slave runs away because...well, because, and her retrieval results in a rescue, a joyous reunion, and her being freed, concluded by a HEA with her former owner. I don’t recall there being any explicit sex scenes, though there is one attempted rape.
I was a little hesitant about this book because the blurb implied the trope of “slavery as a context for romance”, which is really tricky to do well. As it happened, I didn’t really get to the point of evaluating how well or badly the slavery aspect was handled because I simply found the story too clumsily written to enjoy.
The prose is awkward and full of info-dumps. Point of view is handled sloppily and shifts from head to head constantly, sometimes multiple times on a page. There is an excessive use of referring to people by roles and characteristics “the Spartan woman”, “the scraggly slave”, “her owner.” And there is a lot of misuse of vocabulary--choosing the wrong homophone or using the wrong grammatical form of a word--which, along with an inconsistent wavering between a formal historical style and the use of modern slang made it hard for me to immerse myself in the story.
I would like to praise the author for the depth and detail of historic research included in this book. Although I might quibble on the interpretation of certain details and found the incorporation of the world-building both info-dumpy and opaque, the author clearly took the challenge of historical fiction seriously and did her ground work.
I received a review copy of this work.
I'm trying to make a push to get caught up with some casual reviewing as well as my review commitments. Since I'm currently still dazed from having dental work (new crown) I'll go for the casual side and more recently consumed.
* * *
I often comment on how I'm a big fan of "throw 'em in the deep end of the worldbuilding pool and expect them to swim." When that style of story doesn't work for me, most often it's because in some essential way the story isn't for me. It not merely throws worldbuilding at me unexplained, but it assumes layers of knowledge that I simply don't bring to the story. Otherwise I'm happy to surf the wave of uncertainty and see where it takes me.
"The Periling Hand" by Justin Howe, presented on the Beneath Ceaseless Skies podcast takes that type of worldbuilding approach, but failed for me not so much in taking it too far, but in offering me very little story to go with the worldbuilding. The main character has recently suffered an accidental amputation, but fitted with a symbiotic artificial wooden arm that is somehow animated by some...substance?...applied to it. Investigates an unexpected death. And ends up sharing body space with...something...not sure what.
The story offers a wealth of unexplained terminology, concepts, entities, cultural practices, and backstory but none of it ever seems to come together to form a coherent whole. Or even an intelligible whole. One gets the impression that there is definitely a larger story structure into which this work fits, but it fails to stand on its own, not merely in terms of information but even in terms of plot. It's as if the game-play manual for an RPG were presented with a thin veneer of narrative rather than being structured in encyclopedic form.
Maybe I'm being overly harsh, but given that I know that I'm well on the far end of the scale for enjoying deep-end SFF settings, I suspect there are many people for whom this story will work even less well.
If the last 30 years have seen a blossoming in academic research on homosexuality in history, they have seen an even more drastic shift in the academic approach to transgender topics in history. It's one thing to take a hard, dispassionate look at attitudes towards transgender topics within the historic context itself. It's a bit more painful to read the work of "modern" academics and recognize how their work is tainted by the application of frameworks that themselves are products of a specific historic and social context. I continue to cover articles like this one for three solid reasons: They often have references to historic sources that others may find valuable. I have a responsibility to my readers to provide guidance regarding the content of publications so that they can determine whether they would find them useful. And once I get to the point of actually reading and evaluating a work, it's already on the schedule to be covered. Blogging is not necessarily advocacy.
Bullough, Vern L. 1982. “Transvestism in the Middle Ages” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage eds. Prometheus Books, Buffalo. ISBN 0-87975-141-X
Bullough "Transvestism in the Middle Ages"
Vern L. Bullough wrote a number of articles in the 1970s through 1990s on topics relating to crossdressing and “transvestism” in the middle ages. They are all thoroughly outdated, especially with respect to contextualizing gender presentation as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation. I’m going to summarize the article using more current terminology (that would not have been available to Bullough at the time this was written).
This article operates within a Freudian worldview but tries to challenge a purely psychological approach to understanding historic attitudes towards crossdressing by examining the differential attitudes towards masculine and feminine presentations and how they related to assumed status differences between the sexes.
Bullough does not reject the Freudian view of transgender presentation, but rather discusses variation in the reception to the phenomenon depending on the assigned gender of the person in question and the context in which the transgender presentation occurred.
For example, transmasculine presentation by AFAB (assigned female at birth) persons could be tolerated and even encouraged because masculinity was more highly valued and it was considered admirable for a woman to aspire to it. In contrast, the negative value assigned to femininity made it difficult for medieval societies to understand why an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person would perform femininity--and thus a decrease in status--unless for some ulterior purpose such as illicit sexual access to women.
Temporary cross-gender performance was tolerated in the context of specific events such as carnival or Halloween, or as part of overt masquerades. The Biblical reference cited for opposition to cross-dressing (“The women shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment”) does not explain this situational allowance or the differential attitude towards masculine and feminine presentation.
Bullough explores how these differential attitudes played out in the biographies of “transvestite saints”. Women who “became male for Christ,” by setting aside not only their female presentation but their sexuality were viewed as praiseworthy, though it’s uncertain to what extent actual women were accepted and praised for doing so (as opposed to the safely legendary saints). But there are no legends of male transvestite saints (that is AMAB saints presenting as female), not only because this would be a loss of status, but also because trans-femininity was viewed as inherently associated with eroticism. The handful of anecdotes about AMAB persons living in convents as women invariably involved the suspicion or fact of heterosexual fornication.
An assortment of the most archytypal “transvestite saint” biographies are presented and discussed, including several more plausibly historic anecdotes from the medieval period proper, plus mention of Joan of Arc and the legend of Pope Joan.
This is followed by contexts where male crossdressing (i.e., AMAB persons with female presentation) were permitted, such as dramatic performance in contexts where all performers were male, or during Carnival, which in some regions was strongly associated with cross-gender performance.
Bullough concludes that Western hostility to cross-gender performance is far more rooted in issues of change of social status than in Biblical prohibition.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 25d - Poetry about Love Between Women from the 16th and 17th Centuries - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/08/26 - listen here)
There’s an ulterior motive behind this podcast. A couple of them, actually. You see, I’ve discovered that I really like reciting old poetry as part of this podcast. And I think you like it too, because the shows that focus on poetry have been fairly popular, like the one looking at translations of Sappho’s poetry, and the one about medieval love poetry. The second ulterior motive is that putting together an episode involving lots of poetry means I don’t have to write as much. And when I’m feeling in a bit of a time crunch, that’s a good thing. Although, as I found, when putting this show together, just because a lot of the text comes from somewhere else, doesn’t mean it doesn’t take a long time to prepare.
So I thought I’d do a few episodes looking at poetry about love between women in various different eras. As usual, there’s a bit of a European and an English language bias simply because of the sources I have easily available, though I may do one specifically on Arabic poetry if I can find some complete texts in translation, rather than just excerpts. And the non-English material will be in translation, which rather undermines the point of it being poetry. As a wise person once said in Italian, “Traduttore, traditore,” a translator is a traitor. Or in the decidedly misogynistic but more flowery version: a translation is like a mistress, if it is beautiful it will not be faithful, and if it is faithful it is probably ugly. But communication is as essential as beauty, so I’ll try for a happy medium. I’ll include the original versions of the non-English works in the transcript for you to read if you like.
Today’s show is about poetry of the Renaissance and early modern period--for all practical purposes, the 16th and 17th centuries. The works are by both women and men. There is a tendency--though not an absolute rule--for the poems by women to be tender and devoted, while the poems by men are cynical and satirical. But there are some interesting exceptions. Rather than doing a strict chronology, I’ve grouped them into some general themes. I’m calling the first group...
The Pangs of Love
These are poems written by women about the sadder side of love or intimacy with other women. It might be jealousy or unfulfilled yearning or mourning for a lost love. We’ll start out with 17th century English poet Katherine Philips.
There is an ongoing debate on whether Katherine Philips can or should be considered a lesbian poet. She was a significant figure in the expression of Neo-Platonic philosophy among women and founded a social circle called the Society of Friendship that embodied those ideals. Her poems are full of sentiments of intense love and devotion for her closest female friends, especially Anne Owen, who is referred to with the poetic nickname Lucasia, while Philips used the name Orinda. Philips created and promoted a community of women’s passionate friendships--this was well before the official era of romantic friendship. But the traces of her intense same-sex relationships in her poetry also document her frustration with the social dynamics that made such friendships tenuous and often subordinated them to marriage. When her beloved Lucasia married, she wrote, “I find too there are few friendships in the world marriage-proof, especially when the person our friend marries has not a soul particularly capable of the tenderness of that endearment. ... Such a temper is so rarely found, that we may generally conclude the marriage of a friend to be the funeral of a friendship.”
The poem I’ve chosen is not one of the more familiar ones written to Lucasia, but one addressed to Mary Awbrey, who had a place in her heart before Lucasia came along. The verses speak of how love makes two beings seem a single person, and how such a love can be a shield against the world. Philips speaks of two souls, minds, and hearts becoming one. When she says, “my breast is thy provate cabinet” she isn’t speaking of a type of closeting to hide their love away, but rather refers to a private intimate space where they can express their true thoughts to each other. Strengthened by their love, they can ignore the troubles of the “dull world” and count themselves rich--a sentiment many can sympathize with today!
To Mrs M Awbrye
by Katherine Philips
(from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
Soul of my Soul, my Joy, my Crown, my Friend,
A name which all the rest doth comprehend;
How happy are we now, whose Souls are grown,
By an incomparable mixture, one:
Whose well-acquainted Minds are now so near
As Love, or Vows, or Friendship can endear?
I have no thought, but what’s to thee reveal’d,
Nor thou desire that is from me conceal’d.
Thy Heart locks up my Secrets richly set,
And my Breast is thy private Cabinet,
Thou shed’st no tear but what my moisture lent,
And if I sigh, it is thy breath is spent.
United thus, what Horrour can appear
Worthy our Sorrow, Anger, or our Fear?
Let the dull World alone to talk and fight,
And with their vast Ambitions Nature fright;
Let them despise so Innocent a Flame,
While Envy, Pride, and Faction play their game:
But we by Love sublim’d so high shall rise,
To pity Kings, and Conquerours despise,
Since we that Sacred Union have engrost,
Which they and all the factious World have lost.
When I did an entire podcast episode about Aphra Behn, the 17th century poet, playwright, and some-time spy, I included several of her more popular works, especially the gender-bending “To the fair Clorinda, who made love to me, imagin’d more than woman.” Rather than repeating any of the poems I used before, here I offer a somewhat bittersweet verse in which Aphra offers her heart to a woman who...well, alas, you’ll find out in the end. Behn was a bit more forthright than Philips in expressing her desire. (And Behn wrote romantic poems addressed to both women and men.) While Philips’ poem danced at the edge of being interpretable as an expression of intense friendship, Behn’s offering is striking in its physicality.
by Aphra Behn
(from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
While, Iris, I at distance gaze,
And feed my greedy eyes,
That wounded heart, that dies for you,
Dull gazing can’t suffice;
Hope is the food of love-sick minds,
On that alone ‘twill feast,
The nobler part which loves refines,
No other can digest.
In vain, too nice and chaming maid,
I did suppress my cares;
In vain my rising sighs I stay’d,
And stop’d my falling tears;
The flood would swell, the tempest rise,
As my despair came on;
When from her lovely cruel eyes,
I found I was undone.
Yet at your feet, while thus I lie,
And languish by your eyes,
‘Tis far more glorious here to die,
Than gain another prize.
Here let me sigh, here let me gaze,
And wish at least to find
As raptur’d nights, and tender days,
As he to whom you’re kind.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe, like many 17th century poets, was fond of neo-Classical imagery of nymphs and shepherds, as in the chosen selection here. She used the pen name Philomela for her first published collection at age 22. Much of her poetry was religious in nature and she seems to have had an almost neo-Gothick preoccupation with death in her best known collection Letters from the Dead to the Living. In addition to a happy but tragically brief marriage to poet Thomas Rowe, she had an earlier friendship with publisher John Dunton that he, at least, considered romantic though she called it platonic. The same-sex sentiments expressed in her poem “Love and Friendship” don’t seem to correspond to a romantic relationship in Rowe’s own life, and the title gives us a hint that we may be intended to understand a categorical distinction between the love that Amaryllis expresses for her shepherd swain Alexis, and the “nobler warmth of friendship” that Sylvia offers for Aminta. But Sylvia’s sentiments are framed as an “amorous secret”, and the simple act of setting a heterosexual and a same-sex relationship on an equal standing is meaningful. Take note of Sylvia’s appeal to the “chaste goddess of the groves”, which is of course Diana, closely associated with the imagery of women’s same-sex relationships at this time.
Love and Friendship: A Pastoral
by Elizabeth Singer Rowe
While from the skies the ruddy sun descends,
And rising night the evening shade extends;
While pearly dews o'erspread the fruitful field,
And closing flowers reviving odours yield,
Let us, beneath these spreading trees, recite
What from our hearts our Muses may indite:
Nor need we in this close retirement fear
Lest any swain our amorous secrets hear.
To every shepherd I would mine proclaim,
Since fair Aminta is my softest theme:
A stranger to the loose delights of love,
My thoughts the nobler warmth of friendship prove,
And, while its pure and sacred fire I sing,
Chaste goddess of the Groves, thy succour bring.
Propitious god of Love, my breast inspire
With all thy charms, with all thy pleasing fire;
Propitious god of Love, thy succour bring,
Whilst I thy darling, thy Alexis sing;
Alexis, as the opening blossoms fair,
Lovely as light, and soft as yielding air:
For him each virgin sighs, and on the plains
The happy youth above each rival reigns;
Nor to the echoing groves and whispering spring
In sweeter strains does artful Conon sing,
When loud applauses fill the crowded groves,
And Phoebus the superior song approves.
Beauteous Aminta is as early light
Breaking the melancholy shades of night.
When she is near all anxious trouble flies,
And our reviving hearts confess her eyes.
Young Love, and blooming Joy, and gay Desires,
In every breast the beauteous nymph inspires;
And on the plain when she no more appears,
The plain a dark and gloomy prospect wears.
In vain the streams roll on; the eastern breeze
And to the silent night their notes prolong,
Nor groves, nor crystal streams, nor verdant field,
Does wonted pleasure in her absence yield.
And in his absence all the pensive day
In some obscure retreat I lonely stray;
All day, to the repeating caves, complain
In mournful accents and a dying strain:
Dear lovely youth I cry to all around;
Dear lovely youth the flattering vales resound.
On flowery banks, by every murmuring stream,
Aminta is my Muse's softest theme;
'Tis she that does my artful notes refine;
With fair Aminta's name my noblest verse shall shine.
I'll twine fresh garlands for Alexis' brows,
And consecrate to him eternal vows;
The charming youth shall my Apollo prove;
He shall adorn my songs, and tune my voice to love.
With Jane Barker’s “On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow” we are offered the pains of love experienced and then lost. Like the other poets in this group, Barker was forthright in taking feminist stands and arguing for the rights of women--though the poets collected here are otherwise quite diverse in their politics. Barker’s writings were typically aimed at a female audience, as with her structurally innovative work A Patchwork Screen for Ladies which combines romance, poetry, recipes, hymns, and philosophy. She did not marry and expressed disinterest in men, while including homoerotic themes in her writing. We can see that in this presumably autobiographical reminiscence on the death of a close female friend, written in 1688.
Because it comes up in multiple poems of this era, I thought I’d note that the reference to a “turtle” means a turtledove, a common symbol of romantic love and courtship, and is not a reference to a hard-shelled aquatic reptile. Another now-obscure allusion is to Heraclitus, a classical Greek philosopher, nicknamed “the weeping philosopher” for his generally gloomy take on life.
On the Death of my Dear Friend and Play-fellow
by Jane Barker
I dream'd I lost a pearl, and so it prov'd;
I lost a Friend much above Pearls belov'd:
A Pearl perhaps adorns some outward part,
But Friendship decks each corner of the heart;
Friendship's a Gem , whose Lustre does out-shine
All that's below the heav'nly Crystaline.
Friendship is that mysterious thing alone,
Which can unite, and make two Hearts but one;
It purifies our Love, and makes it flow
I'th' clearest stream that's found in Love below;
It sublimates the Soul, and makes it move
Towards Perfection and Celestial Love.
We had no by-designs, nor hop'd to get
Each, by the other, place among the great;
Nor Riches hop'd, nor Poverty we fear'd,
'Twas Innocence in both, which both rever'd
Witness this truth the Wilsthorp-Fields, where we
So oft enjoy'd a harmless Luxury;
Where we indulg'd our easy Appetites,
With Pocket-Apples, Plums, and such delights,
Then we contriv'd to spend the rest o'th'day,
In making Chaplets, or at Check-stone play;
When weary, we our selves supinely laid
On beds of Violets under some cool shade,
Where the Sun in vain strove to dart through his Rays
Whilst Birds around us chanted forth their Lays ;
Ev'n those we had bereaved of their young
Would greet us with a Querimonious Song.
Stay here, my Muse, and of these let us learn,
The loss of our deceased Friend to mourn:
Learn did I say? alas, that cannot be,
We can teach Clouds to weep, and Winds to sigh at Sea,
Teach Brooks to murmer, Rivers to over-flow
We can add Solitude to Shades of Yew.
Were Turtles to be witness of our moan,
They'd in compassion quite forget their own:
Nor shall hereafter Heraclitus be
Fam'd for his Tears, but to my Muse and me;
Fate shall give all that Fame can comprehend,
Ah poor repair for th'loss of such a Friend.
Men Jealous of Women’s Love for Each Other
One of the clues we have that love between women was beginning to be taken seriously in the 16th and 17th centuries is that men were writing about it. And especially when men began to express jealousy about women’s devotion to each other. But in this first poem by French poet Pontus de Tyard, we see an older motif: that of a woman unhappy that the love she feels for another woman is in vain and, by its nature, cannot be achieved. This was a common trope in versions of the classical story of Iphis and Ianthe, but by the Renaissance, women were beginning to contradict that position. Perhaps writers like Pontus needed to reassure themselves that men weren’t being made obsolete.
Like another poem I include in this episode, this one makes a direct connection between the female pair and historical pairs of famous male devoted friends who often featured at this time in discussions of neo-platonic friendships between men that had homoerotic elements.
The original poem is in French and is included in the transcript. The translation I use is from Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbiannism and has aimed for a more literal and vernacular style, rather than being strictly metrical or aiming for the feel of 16th century English poetry.
élégie pour une dame énamourée d'une autre dame - Poéme
by Pontus de Tyard
J'avois tousjours pensé que d'amour et d'honneur,
Les deux seulles ardeurs qui me bruslent le cueur,
Se pouvoit allumer une si belle flame
Que plus belle clarté ne luisoit dedans l'Ame:
Mais je ne me pouvois en l'Esprit imprimer
Comme ensemble on devoit ces deux feux allumer :
Car combien que ' d'Amour beauté soit la matière,
Et qu'en l'honneur entier la beauté soit entière,
Il ne me sembloit point qu'une mesme beauté
Deust servir à l'Amour et à l'honnesteté.
Je disois : ma beauté d'honneur est en moy-mesme,
Mais non pas la beauté, laquelle il faut que j'aime :
Car la seule beauté de moy-mesme estimer
Ne serait seulement que mon honneur aimer,
Et il faut que l'Amante hors de soy face queste
De la beauté, qu'Amour luy donne pous conqueste :
Donq' l'ardeur de l'honneur en moy seulle aura lieu?
Donques doy-je fuir l'ardeur de l'autre Dieu?
Helas ! beauté d'Amour, te choisiray je aux hommes !
Ha, non : je cognois trop le siècle auquel nous sommes.
L'homme aime la beauté et de l'honneur se rit,
Plus la beauté luy plait, plustost l'honneur périt.
Ainsi du seul honneur chèrement curieuse
Libre je desdaignois toute flame amoureuse,
Quand de ma liberté Amour trop offensé
Un aguet me tendit subtilement pensé.
Il t'enrichit l'Esprit: il te sucre la bouche
Et le parler disert: En tes yeux il se couche,
En tes cheveux il lace un nœud non jamais veu,
Dont il m'estreint à toy : il fait ardoir ' un feu —
Helas qui me croira ! — de si nouvelle flame
Que femme il m'énamoure, helas! d'une autre femme.
Jamais plus mollement Amour n'avoit glissé
Dedans un autre cueur: car l'honneur non blessé
Retenoit sa beauté nullement entamée,
Et l'Amant jouissoit de la beauté aimée
En un mesme suject, ô quel contentement!
Si — légère — il t'eust pieu n'aimer légèrement:
Mais le cruel Amour m'ayant au vif blessée
S'est tout poussé dans moy, et vuide il t'a laissée
Autant vuide d'Amour, vuide d'affection,
Comme il remplit mon cueur de triste passion
Et de juste despit, qu'il faut que je te prie,
Ingrate, et que de moy ta liberté se rie.
Où est ta foy promise et tes sermens prestez?
Où sont de tes discours les beaux mots inventez?
Comme d'une Python feinte et persuasive
Qui m'as sceu enchaîner par l'oreille, captive!
Helas! que j'ay en vain espanché mes discours!
Que j'ay fuy en vain tous les autres Amours!
Qu'en vain seule je t'ay — dédaigneuse — choisie
Pour l'unique plaisir de ma plus douce vie!
Qu'en vain j'avois pensé que le temps advenir
Nous devroit pour miracle en longs siècles tenir:
Et que d'un seul exemple, en la françoise histoire,
Nostre Amour serviroit d'éternelle mémoire,
Pour prouver que l'Amour de femme à femme épris
Sur les masles Amours emporteroit le pris.
Un Damon à Pythie, un Aenée à Achate,
Un Hercule à Nestor, Cherephon à Socrate,
Un Hoppie à Dimante ont seurement monstre,
Que l'Amour d'homme à homme entier s'est rencontré :
De l'Amour d'homme à femme est la preuve si ample
Qu'il ne m'est jà besoin d'en alléguer exemple:
Mais d'une femme à femme, il ne se trouve encore
Souz l'empire d'Amour un si riche thresor,
Et ne se peut trouver, ô trop et trop légère,
Puis qu'à ma foy la tienne est faite mensongère.
Car jamais purité ne fust plus grande au Ciel,
Plus grande ardeur au feu, plus grand douceur au miel,
Plus grand bonté ne fust au reste de nature
Qu'en mon cueur, où l'Amour a pris sa nourriture.
Mais plus qu'un Roc marin ton cueur a de durté,
Plus qu'un Scythe barbare il a de cruauté :
Et l'Ourse Caliston ne voit point tant de glace
Que tu en as au seing : Ny la muable face
Du Nocturne Morphé n'a de formes autant
Qu'a de pensers divers ton esprit inconstant.
Helas ! que le despit loing de moye me transporte !
Ouvre à l'Amour, ingrate !
Ouvre à l'Amour la porte :
Souffre que le doux trait, qui nos cueurs a percé,
R'entame de nouveau le tien trop peu blessé,
Recerche en tes discours l'affection passée :
Resserre le doux nœud dont estoit enlacée
L'affection commune et à toy et à moy,
Et rejoignons ces mains qui jurèrent la foy :
La foy dans mon esprit tellement asseurée,
Qu'elle ne sera point par la mort parjurée.
Mais si nouvel Amour t'embrase une autre ardeur,
Je supply, Contr'Amour, Contr'Amour Dieu vengeur!
Qu'avant que la douleur dedans mon cueur enclose
Me puisse transformer, et me faire autre chose
Que ce qu'ores ' je suis, soit que ma triste voix
Reste seule de moy errante par ce bois,
Ou soit qu'en peu de temps ma larmoyante peine
Me distille en un fleuve, ou m'escoule en fonteine,
Et pendant que je dy et aux Cerfs et aux Dains,
Seule en ce bois touffu, ingrate, tes dédains,
Tu puisses, d'un suject indigne consumée,
Aimer languissamment, et n'estre point aimée!
Elegy for a Lady enamoured of another Lady
by Pontus de Tyard
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
I have ever fixed Love and honour’s bright part
As the only two ardors that burn in my heart,
Could such a magnificent flame ignite
That no brighter Soul could ever alight,
But I knew not how to envision in Thought
How the two fires at once could be wrought
For, as much as beauty is the stuff of Love,
And in Honour entire lies beauty entire,
I could not see how this very beauty
Could be part of both Love and integrity.
Thus I spake: My beauty in honour within myself doth lie,
But not that beauty to myself of value
Would be nought but mine own honour true,
Yet the Lover outside the self must not rest
But seek the beauty afforded Love thorugh conquest:
Thus only honour’s heat will exist in me;
Must I thus flee the ardor of the other Deity?
Alas! Love’s beauty, would I choose you over men?
Aha! no; I know too well this century we are in:
Man loves beauty, and honour doth mock, not cherish;
When beauty pleases him, honour doth perish.
So, as one of one honour alone dearly curious,
And free, I disdained all flame amorous,
When Love by my freedom took offense,
And handed me a decoy immune to my defense.
It enriches the Mind; the mouth it refines,
It sweetens your speech; in your eye it reclines;
In your hair it weaves a knot that fain does amaze,
That binds me to you; it fans a blaze,
(Alas! who will believe?) with such new heat,
That my heart--a woman’s alas! for another woman beats.
Never more softly Love did cruise
Into another heart, with honor unbruised
Retaining there its untarnished beauty
The Lover enjoying this beloved beauty
In the same subject, o Felicity above,
If lightly had it pleased you not lightly to love!
But cruelest Love, having wounded me bereft,
Dislodged all within me and emptiness left,
Emptied of Love, no affection it fashioned,
While filling my heart with miserable passion
And by fair spite, I just cry out my plea,
You’re an ingrate, and your freedom mocks me.
Where is your pledged troth, the oaths you did lend,
Where from your speeches are the words that pretend
Like a python that feints and attracts,
That knew how to chain me by ear to those pacts?
Alas! How I’ve spilled my guts in vain!
How I fled every other Love the same!
How in vain you (scornful one) I chose,
As my one delight, as my life’s rose!
How in vain did I think the time ahead
Would by miracle through the centuries us wed
And that, unique example in French history,
Our Love would serve as eternal memory
Proof that Love of woman by woman may arise
And from all manly Lovers seize the prize.
A Damon for Pythias, an Aeneas for Achates,
A Hercules for Nestor, Cherephon for Socrates,
Hoppius for Diamantus, have shown us yet
That Love of man for man is wholly met.
Of Love of man for woman does proof so abound
There is no need for me to cast around
But of woman for woman there is not yet
In the empire of Love, a trove so richly set,
And it cannot be found, as your flight bespeaks!
Since to my faith your in return was weak,
For never beneath the sun was greater purity,
Nor hotter heat in fire, nor sweeter lick in honey,
No greater bounty found in all of nature,
Than in my heart, where Love had come for nurture!
But harder than the Rock Giraltar is your heart’s rule;
More even than a barbarous Scythian is it cruel.
And Ursa Major has seen less ice eternal
Than you have in your veins; nor does Nocturnal
Morpheus’ shifting visage alter its line
As much as thought transforms in your inconstant mind.
Alas! How spite does from me mine own self remove!
Open up to Love, ingrate, open up to Love!
Suffer that the sweet barb that pierced our heart
Might once more enter yours, too much unhurt;
Seek out in your speeech the affection it once drove;
And retie the sweet knot in which was wove
The common bond that you to me once led,
And let our hands rejoin in vows we pled,
The vow that in my spirit is secure,
That even in death will endure.
But if a new Love enfold you in its fire,
I implore Counter-Love, Anteros, a God so dire
That before the pain within my heart immure
I be transformed, achieving one thing more
Than what I was before, to wit, that my voice alone
Despondent, endure when through this wood I roam
Where in a little time my weeping pain
Would flow in a river or shower from a fountain,
While I tell both Stag and Buck behorned,
Alone in tufted woods, ingrate, of your scorn,
That you might of a subject all unworthy be subsumed,
To pine forlornly, languish, and in your love be doomed!
Edmund Waller’s poem “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” shows a bit of unease about whether such a close relationship might interfere with the natural order of things. Women, after all, must be available to men! Waller was a 17th century English poet and politician, being active on the royalist side in the English Civil War. Much of his verse, like this one, is of a relatively simple structure rather than following formal conventions, packed with classical allusions. Many of his occasional poems referred to people in his social circle and we can probably assume that the “two ladies” of this poem were inspired by people he knew, but I haven’t been able to track down any guesses of their identities. Waller uses several interesting metaphors, such as comparing a woman’s love to a debt (that she presumably owes so some generic man) and that loving another woman is like a debtor giving away his money so that he can avoid paying the debt. The reference to “the boy’s eluded darts” is, of course, to Cupid’s arrows and Cytherea is another name for Venus who was said to travel in a chariot drawn by doves.
On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies
by Edmund Waller
Tell me, lovely, loving pair!
Why so kind, and so severe?
Why so careless of our care,
Only to yourselves so dear?
By this cunning change of hearts,
You the power of love control;
While the boy's eluded darts
Can arrive at neither soul.
For in vain to either breast
Still beguiled love does come,
Where he finds a foreign guest,
Neither of your hearts at home.
Debtors thus with like design,
When they never mean to pay,
That they may the law decline,
To some friend make all away.
Not the silver doves that fly,
Yoked in Cytherea's car;
Not the wings that lift so high,
And convey her son so far;
Are so lovely, sweet, and fair,
Or do more ennoble love;
Are so choicely matched a pair,
Or with more consent do move.
Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin was a bit more waspish in his jealousy for women’s mutual affections. He was a French libertine, famed for his lascivious poetry and later nicknamed “the king of Sodom” for his bisexuality. Although the 17th century libertines gave the impression of supporting free love, it often came in a predatory misogynistic flavor. His poem “Two Beauties, Tender Lovers” was not published until two centuries after his death, no doubt due to the subject matter. As with Waller’s poem previously, Saint-Pavin presents love between women as vain and pointless. Women, he claims, cannot satisfy each other, being too similar, so there’s no benefit to denying themselves to men.
Deux belles s’ayment tendrement
by Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin
Deux belles s'aiment tendrement,
L'une pour l'autre s'intéresse.
Et du mesme trcdt qui les blesse
Elles souffrent également.
Sans se plaindre de leur tourment.
Toutes deux soupirent sans cesse,
Tantost l'amant est la maistresse,
Tanlost la mais tresse est l'aniaid ;
Quoy qu'elles fasserd pour se plaire,
Leur cœur ne se peut satisfaire,
Elles perdent leurs plus beaux jours ;
Ces innocentes qui s'abusent
Cherchent en vain dans leurs amours
Les pkdsirs qu'elles nous refusent.
Two Beauties Tender Lovers
by Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Two beauties, tender lovers,
One attends the other equally,
Equally wounded by the same
Affliction, suffering equally.
Uncomplaining in their torment
Both ceaselessly do sigh:
Now the one lover is mistress,
Now the mistress is lover.
Whatever they do for pleasure,
Their hearts are not content,
Wasting thus their daily treasure,
These Innocents, in self-abuse,
Seek pointlessly in their loving
Pleasures which to us they do refuse.
Men Appropriating Lesbian Imagery
If you think that men appropriating the language of lesbianism is a modern invention--that whole annoying thing about, “Oh, I’m a lesbian trapped in a man’s body because I love women too”--rest assured that 16th century dudes were just as annoying. Poetry, after all, was thought to be a manly art, so even the famous Sappho was considered the literary property of men. The following poetic exchange between John Donne and his friend Thomas Woodward is fascinating because not only does it frame Sappho’s love for women in a positive way, but because of how it appropriates that imagery for themselves. Although Donne wrote a fair amount of sensual poetry, probably his most famous work is the meditation that concludes, “any man’s death diminishes me for I am involved with mankind. Therefore do not send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Donne’s poem “Sappho to Philaenis” written in 1633 imagines the ancient poet lamenting that her poetry has failed to secure the heart of her beloved. The poem includes a number of references to Sappho’s poem “He seems like a god to me” but also makes the argument for the greater desirability of same-sex love for women in that it creates no risk of pregnancy. To this end, Donne uses some rather colorful agricultural metaphors. I’m not sure that I’d risk calling my beloved “a natural paradise...unmanured!” Another theme is that love between women is natural because the touch of two women’s bodies is like a body touching itself. This is one of the themes common in this era that simultaneously supports and undermines same-sex love, that a woman loving another woman is like a woman loving herself.
Sappho to Philaenis
by John Donne
WHERE is that holy fire, which verse is said
To have? Is that enchanting force decay’d?
Verse that draws nature’s works from nature’s law,
Thee, her best work, to her work cannot draw.
Have my tears quench’d my old poetic fire?
Why quench’d they not as well that of desire?
Thoughts, my mind’s creatures, often are with thee,
But I, their maker, want their liberty.
Only thine image in my heart doth sit,
But that is wax, and fires environ it.
My fires have driven, thine have drawn it hence;
And I am robb’d of picture, heart, and sense.
Dwells with me still mine irksome memory,
Which, both to keep and lose, grieves equally.
That tells me how fair thou art; thou art so fair
As gods, when gods to thee I do compare,
Are graced thereby; and to make blind men see,
What things gods are, I say they’re like to thee.
For if we justly call each silly man
A little world, what shall we call thee then?
Thou art not soft, and clear, and straight, and fair,
As down, as stars, cedars, and lilies are;
But thy right hand, and cheek, and eye, only
Are like thy other hand, and cheek, and eye.
Such was my Phao awhile, but shall be never,
As thou wast, art, and O, mayst thou be ever.
Here lovers swear in their idolatry,
That I am such; but grief discolours me.
And yet I grieve the less, lest grief remove
My beauty, and make me unworthy of thy love.
Plays some soft boy with thee, O, there wants yet
A mutual feeling which should sweeten it.
His chin, a thorny, hairy unevenness
Doth threaten, and some daily change possess.
Thy body is a natural paradise
In whose self, unmanured, all pleasure lies,
Nor needs perfection; why shouldst thou then
Admit the tillage of a harsh rough man?
Men leave behind them that which their sin shows,
And are as thieves traced, which rob when it snows.
But of our dalliance no more signs there are,
Than fishes leave in streams, or birds in air;
And between us all sweetness may be had,
All, all that nature yields, or art can add.
My two lips, eyes, thighs, differ from thy two
But so, as thine from one another do,
And, O, no more; the likeness being such,
Why should they not alike in all parts touch?
Hand to strange hand, lip to lip none denies;
Why should they breast to breast, or thighs to thighs?
Likeness begets such strange self-flattery,
That touching myself all seems done to thee.
Myself I embrace, and mine own hands I kiss,
And amorously thank myself for this.
Me, in my glass, I call thee; but alas,
When I would kiss, tears dim mine eyes and glass.
O cure this loving madness, and restore
Me to thee, thee my half, my all, my more.
So may thy cheeks’ red outwear scarlet dye,
And their white, whiteness of the Galaxy;
So may thy mighty, amazing beauty move
Envy in all women, and in all men love;
And so be change and sickness far from thee,
As thou by coming near keep’st them from me.
The attribution of the next poem to John Donne’s friend Thomas Woodward is in part conjuctural. The poem appears in a 1620 collection of Donne’s work with the heading “To Mr. J.D. (T.W.).” Scholars are fairly certain of the attribution to Woodward. Donne and Woodward were certainly close friends. There are suggestions that there may have been an erotic aspect to their relationship. The imagery in this poem is clearly intended as a response to that in the previous, though in a decidedly less elevated vein. Woodward envisions the two female figures as their respective muses, engaged in “mystic tribadry” resulting in an orgasm--spending her pith--that is this poem. The classical reference “Bassa’s adultery no fruit did leave” refers to the classical Roman writer Martial’s riddle about how a woman named Bassa could commit adultery with no man present.
To Mr. J.D. (T.W.)
attributed to Thomas Woodward
Thou sendst me prose and rimes, I send for those
Lynes, which, being neither, seem or verse or prose.
They'are lame and harsh, and have no heat at all
But what thy Liberall beams on them let fall.
The nimble fyre which in thy braynes doth dwell
Is it the fyre of heaven or that of hell ?
It doth beget and comfort like Heavens eye,
And like hells fyre it burnes eternally.
And those whom in thy fury and judgment
Thy verse shall skourge like hell it will torment.
Have mercy on mee and my sinful! Muse
Which rub'd and tickled with thine could not chuse
But spend some of her pith, and yeild to bee
One in that chaste and mistique Tribadree.
Bassae’s adultery no fruit did Leave,
Nor theirs, which their swollen thighs did nimbly weave,
And with new armes and mouths embrace and kiss.
Though they had issue was not like to this.
They Muse, oh strange and holy lecheree,
Beeing a mayd still, gott this song on mee.
Satire and Vituperation
Of course, the ribald and teasing imagery of Woodward’s verse is only one small step from satire and vituperation aimed at actual women. The accuastion of lesbianism has long been a staple of men’s attempts to control women’s entrance into realms they considered exclusively male. As I noted above, in the Renaissance, men overtly claimed that poety was a quintessentially masculine art. One of the reasons for male fascination with the figure of Sappho was to identify ways to masculinize her or to appropriate her work in order to remove her apparent exception to this claim.
English poet and playwright Ben Johnson considered the poetic career of courtier Cecilia Bulstrode to be almost a personal affront, perhaps because he thought Bulstrode’s patroness, the Countess of Bedford, should have patronized his work instead. But also because--as he implies in his opening salvo--that she’d dared to criticize him. His venom took the form in 1640 of suggesting rather crudely that she had homoerotic tendencies, implying that her poetry could only result from raping her poetic muse. There’s no evidence that Cecilia Bulstrode had any more pointed interest in women than usual. In fact, another contemporary who satirized her did so after jilting her after she pursued him romantically. But it scarcely matters in what direction Bulstrode’s desires lay. For men, it was enough that she dared to rival them and must be torn down. And one of the easiest ways to do so was to frame her as mannish and perverse.
In the first line of the poem, people may be familiar with the French word pucelle as being an epithet of the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, known as “La Pucelle” or “the maiden”. But by the 17th century, it had picked up a derogatory sense and probably was a fancy way of saying whore. But Johnson doesn’t restrict himself to sexual insults. He accuses her of vanity, then turns around and suggests she feigns too much piety. That she loves fine clothes, yet is ugly and that no man would want her. I confess the more he goes on, the more I’m cheering for Cecilia.
Epigram on Cecilia Bulstrode
by Ben Johnson
(from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Does the court pucelle then so censure me,
And thinks I dare not her? Let the world see.
What though her chamber be the very pit
Where fight the prime cocks of the game, for wit?
And that as any are struck, her breath creates
New in their stead, out of the candidates?
What though with tribade lust she force a muse,
And in an epicoene fury can write news
Equal with that which for the best news goes,
As airy, light, and as like wit as those?
What though she talk, and can at once with them
Make state, religion , bawdry, all a theme?
And as lip-thirsty, in each word’s expense,
Doth labour with the phrase more than the sense?
What though she ride two mile on holidays
To church, as others do to feasts and plays,
To show their ‘tires, to view and to be viewed?
What though she be with velvet gown endued,
And spangled petticoats brought forth to eye,
As new rewards of her old secrecy?
What though she hath won on trust, as many do,
And that her truster fears her: must I too?
I never stood for any place: my wit
Thinks itself nought, though she should value it.
I am no statesman, and much less divine;
For bawdry, ‘tis her language, and not mine.
Farthest I am from the idolatry
To stuffs and laces: those my man can buy.
And trust her I would least, that hath foreswore
In contract twice; what can she perjure more?
Indeed, her dressing some man might delight,
Her face there’s none can like by candle-light.
Not he that should the body have, for case
To his poor instrument, now out of grace.
Shall I advise thee, pucelle? Steal away
From court, while yet thy fame hath some small day;
The wits will leave you, if they once perceive
You cling to lords, and lords, if them you leave
For sermoneers: of which now one, now other
They say you weekly invite with fits of the mother,
And practise for a miracle; take heed
This age would lend no faith to Darrel’s deed:
Or if it would, the court is the worst place,
Both for the mothers and the babes of grace;
For there the wicked in the chair of scorn
Will call it a bastard, when a prophet’s born.
The French poet François de Maynard was even more forthright in what he accused his subjects of, though he had the courtesy (or perhaps the sense) to cloak them in pastoral nicknames. De Maynard was a contemporary of the French courtier Brantôme who wrote very explicitly of the homoerotic exploits of the women of the French court. Here, writing in 1646, he makes the intent of his verse plain in titling it “Tribades, or Lesbians.” The translation, taken from Terry Castle’s The Literature of Lesbianism, uses modern slang to match the sense and tone of the original. It keeps the rhyme scheme but doesn’t attempt to match the meter.
Tribades seu lesbia
by François de Maynard
Ils sont bien battus, vos beaux yeux,
N'en accusez pas la migraine,
Mais bien la fureur de Clymene
Et vos doits, à qui serrait mieux
Braguette que gant ni mitaine.
Si votre doigt savait pisser,
Avec ce qu'il sait deja faire,
Belle Phyllis, c'est chose claire
Qu'on le pourrait faire passer
Pour quelque chose qu'il faut taire.
Pour avoir, comme vous avez,
Une main si blanche et si nette,
Comment diable est-ce que vous faite,
Car le trou où vous la lavez
Est une étrange savonette ?
Tribades or Lesbia by François de Maynard
by François de Maynard
(English from Castle The Literature of Lesbianism)
Your gorgeous eyes are sorely wrecked
And migraine’s not the wind that’s bitten
But rather Clymena’s fierce delect
And your fingers, better fitting
In an open fly than a glove or mitten.
If your finger could shoot its wad
With all it knows to do to date
Sweet Phyllis, there’s no debate
That readily it could masquerade
For something much too crude to name.
To have, as is your pride,
A hand so white and clean
How in hell do you keep it preened
When the tub in which you slide
It has such strange soap, I mean?
17th century England saw a great deal of anxiety and debate on the proper distinction of the genders and the disaster that would come from men appropriating feminine tastes and women claiming masculine prerogatives. This played out in religious polemics, on the stage, and in popular verse. The following are two anonymous linked broadside ballads published in 1698, verging on the pornographic in tone, that form a satirical dialogue. The first is entitled “The Women’s Complaint to Venus” purporting to be the voice of English women complaining that the men were all turned into sodomites, though there are also several political jabs included, such as the quite accurate suggestion that King Charles II was prone to ennobling his mistresses.
Women’s complaint to Venus
How happy were good English Faces
Till Mounsieur from France
Taught Pego a Dance
To the tune of old Sodom's Embraces.
But now we are quite out of Fashion:
Poor Whores may be Nuns
Since Men turn their Guns
And vent on each other their passion.
In the Raign of Good Charles the Second
Full many a Jade
A Lady was made
And the Issue Right Noble was reckon'd:
But now we find to our Sorrow
We are overrun
By Sparks of the Bum
And peers of the Land of Gommorah.
The Beaus too, whom most we rely'd on
At Night make a punk
Of him that's first drunk
Tho' unfit for the Sport as John Dryden.
The Souldiers, whom next we put trust in,
No widdow can tame
Or virgin reclaim
But at the wrong Place will be thrusting.
Fair Venus, thou Goddess of Beauty,
Receive our Complaint.
Make Rigby Recant
And the Souldiers henceforth do their duty.
The second broadside offers “Venus’s Reply” retorting that the women brought this all on themselves by preferring lesbian sex, using possibly the earliest known use of the slang phrase “the game of flats”. In fact, this broadside is quite educational with all its synonyms for fucking: “tup”, “swinge”. The ballad also mentions Green Sickness, which was thought to be an illness suffered by women who weren’t getting enough sex.
Why Nymphs, these pitiful stories,
But you are to blame,
And have got a new game
Call’d Flatts with a swinging Clitoris.
Besides I have heard of wax tapers
With which you get up
And each other Tup
To cure the Green Sickness and Vapours.
I am told by a delicate Seignior
Some Matrons do ease
Their Lust, and so please
They’ve not been laid with these ten years.
Your Frogmore frolicks discover
Some Reasons of Art
So play the man’s part
You are for no Masculine Lover.
At all which I am so offended
My Son at Men’s hearts
Will throw no more darts
Till your Lust and your lives are amended.
Forsake but these odd ways of sinning,
And I’ll undertake
The arrantest Rake
Shall swinge you as at the beginning.
The Triumph of Love
I’ve saved the most positive and most lyrical poems for last, in a group I call The Triumph of Love. These poems are all written by women and addressed to the women they loved, in a myriad of ways. It includes romantic love, near-worshipful devotion, and simply reveling in the excellence of one’s beloved. The poems are in Scots, Spanish, and French, all providing evidence of the emotions we lose when women’s voices are suppressed in the historic record.
The first is anonymous, and the female authorship is attributed largely on the basis of the viewpoint and treatment of the subject, as well as the female persona of the poem’s voice. It comes from a collection called the Maitland Quarto Manuscript dating the 16th century that is a major source of Scots literature of that era. By “Scots” this means neither Scottish Gaelic nor English with a Scottish accent, but the close relative of English that developed along its own path in Scotland. If you’ve ever read the poetry of Robert Burns, you’ve encountered the Scots language. The verse can be rended fairly closely in English by tweaking a handful of words, but the rhymes are sometimes impaired. The adaptation to English is my own work.
There are a lot of classical and biblical references in this piece. Rather than listing them all, I’ll just note that if you hear two names being mentioned together, they’re either famous lovers or famous male platonic friends. The poem is innovative in claiming for a female couple the right to be set beside those well-known pairs.
Maitland Quarto Manuscript, Poem 49
As Phoebus in his spheris hicht
precellis the kaip Crepusculein
And phoebe all the starris licht
3our splendour so madame I wein
Dois onlie pas all feminine
In sapience superlative
Indewit with vertewis sa devine
as leirned pallas rediviue.
And as be hid vertew vnknawin
The adamant drawis yron thairtill
3our courtes nature so hes drawin
My hairt 3ouris to continew still
Sa greit Ioy dois my spreit fulfill
contempling 3our perfectioun
3e weild me holie at 3our will
and raviss my affectioun.
3our perles Vertew dois provoike
and loving kyndnes so dois move
My Mynd to freindschip reciproc
That treuth sall try sa far above
The auntient heroicis love
as salbe thocht prodigious
and plaine experience sall prove
Mair holie and religious.
In amitie perithous
To theseus wes not so traist
Nor Till Achilles patroclus
nor pilades to trew orest
Nor 3it achates luif so lest
to gud AEnee nor sic freindschip
Dauid to Ionathan profest
nor Titus trew to kynd Iofip.
Nor 3it Penelope I wiss
so luiffed vlisses in hir dayis
Nor Ruth the kynd moabitiss
Nohemie as the scripture sayis
nor portia quhais worthie prayiss
In romaine historeis we reid
Quha did devoir the fyrie brayiss
To follow brutus to the deid.
Wald michtie Iove grant me the hap
With 3ow to haue 3oar brutus pairt
and metamorphosing our schap
My sex intill his vaill convert
No brutus then sould caus ws smart
as we doe now vnhappie wemen
Then sould we bayth with Ioyfull hairt
honour and bliss the band of hymen.
3ea certainlie we sould efface
Pollux and castoris memorie
and gif that thay desseruit place
amang the starris for loyaltie
Then our mair perfyte amitie
mair worthie recompence sould merit
In hevin eternall deitie
amang the goddis till Inherit.
And as we ar thocht till our wo
nature and fortoun doe coniure
and hymen also be our fo
3it luif of vertew dois procuire
freindschip and amitie sa suire
with sa greit feruencie and force
Sa constantlie quhilk sall Induire
That not bot deid sall ws divorce.
And thocht aduersitie ws vex
3it be our freindschip salbe sein
Thair is mair constancie in our sex
Then euer amang men has bein
no troubill / torment / greif / or tein
nor erthlie thing sall ws disseuer
Sic constancie sall ws mantein
In perfyte amitie for euer.
(English adaptation by Heather Rose Jones)
As Phoebus in his spheres height
Excells the cape Crepusculine
And Phoebe all the star’s light
Your splendour, so madame I ween,
Does only pass all feminine
In sapience superlative
Endowed with virtues so divine
As learned Pallas does revive.
And as by hidd’n virtue unknown
The adamant draws iron there-till
Your courteous nature so has drawn
My heart, yours to continue still
So great joy does my spirit fulfill
Contemplate your perfection
You wield me wholly at your will
And ravish my affection.
Your peerless virtue does provoke
And loving kindnes so does move
My mind to freindship reciproc’
That truth shall try so far above
The ancient heroic’s love
As shall be thought prodigious
And plain experience shall prove
More holy and religious.
In amity, Pirithous
To Theseus had not such trust
Nor to Achilles, Patroclus
Nor Pylades to true Oreste
Nor yet Achates love so leased
To good AEneas nor such friendship
Dauid to Jonathan professed
Nor Titus true to kind Josip.
Nor yet Penelope I wis
So loved Ulysses in her days
Nor Ruth the kind Moabitess
Nohemie, as the scripture says
Nor Portia whose worthy praise
In Roman histories we read
Who did devour the fiery blaze
To follow Brutus to the dead.
Would mighty Jove grant me the hap
With you to have your Brutus’ part
And metamorphosing our shape
My sex into his will convert
No Brutus then should cause us smart
As we do now--unhappy women
Then should we both with joyful heart
Honour and bless the band of Hymen.
Yea, certainly we should efface
Pollux and Castor’s memory
And if that they deservéd place
Among the stars for loyalty
Then our more perfect amity
More worthy recompence should merit
In heaven eternal deity
Among the gods to inherit.
And as we are, though to our woe,
Nature and fortune do conjure
And hymen also be our foe
Yet love of virtue does procure
Friendship and amity so sure
With so great fervency and force
So constantly which shall endure
That nought but death shall us divorce.
And though adversity us vex
Yet be our friendship shall be seen
There is more constancy in our sex
Than ever among men has been
No trouble, torment, grief, or pain
Nor earthly thing shall us dissever
Since constancy shall us mantain
In perfect amity for ever.
Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz was no ordinary nun of the Order of Saint Jerome. She had one of the largest private libraries in 17th century Mexico, with 4000 volumes, and pursued scientific experiments as well as writing poetry. De la Cruz wrote romantic poetry primarily to two women who were both friends and powerfull patronesses, and to whom she gave poetic nicknames in her work. Leonor Carreto, the Marquise de Mancera, wife of the Viceroy of Mexico, was addressed as Laura in de la Cruz’s love poems. Some time after Laura’s death, de la Cruz began writing poems to “Lysi” her nickname for Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga, the Marquise de la Laguna and Countess of Paredes, who arranged for a volume of de la Cruz’s poetry to be published in Spain. The poems invoke themes of both the courtly love tradition of the past and the romantic friendship tradition of the future, fitting comfortably into a celebration of platonic same-sex friendship used by both women and men in expressing loves that would be less acceptable if interpreted as carnal. The poem I’ve chosen is addressed to Lysi, her second love.
Divina Lysi mía
by Juana Inés de la Cruz
Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.
A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.
Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.
Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.
Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.
Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.
Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.
Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,
En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.
My Divine Lysi: To the Marquise de la Laguna
by Juana Inés de la Cruz
(English from Faderman Chloe Plus Olivia)
Divine one, my Lysi;
Forgive me if I dare
To call you mine
Though I do not merit to be called “yours.”
I believe it is not presumption
To address you thus--
For you are so radiant
That my daring could not dim you.
It is merely the tongue that misspeaks
When one states that the master’s empire,
His very domain,
Belongs to the slave.
“My King,” says the vassal;
“My jail,” says the prisoner;
And the humblest of slaves
Calls his master “his” without offense.
So, when I call you mine
I have no pretense
That all will think you are mine.
It means only that I want to be yours.
I saw you, but that is enough;
In discoursing of fires
It is enough to point to the cause
Without dwelling on the blame of the effect.
To see you so distant
Does not deter my daring;
No deity is secure
From the arrogant flight of the mind.
And though there may be others more deserving,
The most humble valley
And the loftiest mountain
Are equidistant from Heaven.
Finally, I plead guilty
Of adoring you;
If you wish to punish me
That punishment will be my reward.
Anne de Rohan-Chabot was a French noblewoman of the 17th century. Although the poem “On a Lady Named Beloved,” written in 1617, clearly expresses her romantic love for a woman, distinguishing what she feels from friendship and invoking Cupid as a clear signifier of erotic feelings, like many other 17th century women who wrote similar poetry, her interests leaned toward both men and women. She was, for a time, the mistress of King Louis XIV, and she was famous for her devotion to her much older husband.
I don’t think we know who the woman is who inspired this tender poem. Anne was highly educated, and we can see echos of Sappho’s poetry in the repeated phrase about someone being “like a god”. The known works of Sappho had been published in French by her time.
Sur une Dame Nommée Aimée
by Anne de Rohan-Chabot
(Both French and English from Stanton The Defiant Muse)
Belle, j’aurais un très grand tort
Si pour votre grâce estimée
J’avais reçu l’amoureux sort;
Pour autre que pour vous ma chère Aimée,
Tous les olympiques flambeaux
De leur carrière enluminée
Ne sont point ornements plus beaux
Que les yeux de ma bell Aimée
Amour, ravi de ses beaux yeux,
La main droite et de flèche armée
Darda dans mon coeur soucieux
L’ardent désir d’aimer Aimée,
Je ne sais s’ils sont cieux ou dieux
Dont la puissance m’est cachée
Et qui me contraint en tous lieux
De mourir pour aimer Aimée.
A les voir ils me semblent cieux;
Ils sont de couleur azurée,
Par leur effet je les crois dieux,
Me forçant d’aimer cette Aimée.
Bref, je les tiens pour cieux et dieux,
Par cette force recelée
Et par leur aspect lumineux,
N’ayant rien plus cher que mon Aimée.
On a Lady Named Beloved
by Anne de Rohan-Chabot
Beauty, it would be a great wrong,
If, for your worthy graces,
I had been dealt the lover’s fate;
For anyone but you, my dear Beloved,
All the Olympic torches,
Illuminated in their course,
Are not lovelier ornaments
Than the eyes of my beautiful Beloved.
Cupid, delighted with those eyes,
His right hand armed with an arrow
Shot into my troubled heart
The ardent desire to love my Beloved.
I know not whether they be heavens or gods
Whose power from me is hidden
And compels me, both near and far,
To die so as to love my Beloved.
To see them, they seem like the heavens,
Of azure color are they,
But by their effects they’re like gods,
Forcing me yet to love that Beloved.
For me, then, they’re both heavens and gods,
Because of their hidden power
And luminous appearance,
For I hold nothing dearer than my Beloved.
And that seems a good note to end on. We have seen the wide variety of interpretations and presentations of love between women in European poetry of the 16th and 17th centuries. That diversity reminds us that people in history never had a single understanding or opinion about same-sex love. The condemnation existed side by side with the celebration, the scorn with the praise. And more than anything, the poems by women remind us of all the voices that were silenced and suppressed, whose thoughts we can only imagine.
Online sources for individual poems or translations have been linked in the text above. The following published collections were also used.
As I have found on previous occasions, there are a good number of survey articles on women's sexuality or even specifically on women's homoeroticism published in the 1980s and 1990s that--at this point--are mostly useful to include in the LHMP for the purpose of saying "don't bother with this, it's thoroughly outdated." So why do I include them? Several reasons. One is as a service to you, dear reader. One is so I can keep track of the fact that I have looked at them so I don't keep adding them to "to do" lists. And one is to show how much and how rapidly the state of the field has changed in the last several decades. I know that when I talk to authors of my generation, they often aren't aware of that shift. (Talking about fiction authors here, not academic authors.) There have been any number of times when I've talked to people about how they research historic sexuality for their novels and gotten the response, "There's nothing to research. There's nothing there. It's all been suppressed and erased. We have to invent women's sexuality from scratch." That simply isn't the case, but for people whose understanding of the field was formed back when articles like this one were published, try to understand where that attitude comes from.
Green, Monica H. 1990. “Female Sexuality in the Medieval West” in Trends in History 4:127-58..
This is a long summary article on ideas, attitudes, social structures, and legal principles relating to women’s sexuality in medieval Europe. Only a very small section is at all relevant to same-sex sexuality, and that is in a section entitled “Continued Silences” so you can already guess how scanty it’s likely to be, especially given that the “silence” it refers to is women’s own writings about sexuality in general, not specifically same-sex experiences. (It’s always useful to take note of the publication date of articles like this. There has been an explosion of interest and new research in same-sex history since 1990.)
Green notes that the genres of data most useful for women’s sexual attitudes in more recent centuries are lacking for the medieval period: diaries, newspapers, personal correspondence, and female-authored literary works. (Lacking, but not entirely absent.)
The evidence that does exist on women’s same-sex behavior has been subject to conflicting interpretations. The scarcity of references to female homoeroticism in medieval medical literature (as by William of Saliceto) could indicate that doctors didn’t take it seriously...or that it was discussed only when considered a medical (rather than a behavioral) issue. The references to women’s homoerotic activity in penitential manuals suggests an awareness of the practice...or at least offical concern about it. But differential attitudes toward various practices suggest that it wasn’t the same-sex aspect that was concerning so much as gender transgression in its performance, as with the use of artificial penises.
Women’s own voices are frustratingly rare on the topic. In other contexts, as in the lives of female saints, there is evidence that the dominant male attitudes about women’s lives may have had very little in common with how women viewed their own lives. The fundamental asymmetries between men’s and women’s concerns may mean that male preoccupations with sex have been erroneously assumed to be relevant for women as well. Looking at the writings that we do have from women, female religious writings are far less concerned with lust than male writers attribute to them. (That is, medieval men believed that women were just as preoccupied with sex as they were, but the women’s own writings don’t bear that out.)
Green concludes with the question of whether historians have been coming at this question from the wrong angle and have been constructing a history of how female sexuality was viewed by men, rather than a history of how sexuality was experienced by women.
(Originally Aired 2018/08/18 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured guest will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode Darlene Vendegna, voracious reader and energentic booster of lesbian fiction, recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
In the words of the sage, "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss..." But that's never been true in western culture. A kiss is never "just" a kiss. And all the various meanings that kissing can have create what we might think of as "Schroedinger's intimacy" where observers decide whether a kiss is a sign of erotic intimacy based on their assumptions about the relationship of the people involved.
This can create problems for interpreting artistic depictions or textual descriptions of women kissing other women. A kiss can be a salutation between close friends or kinswomen (as in the iconic image of Saint Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary greeting each other with a kiss and embrace). It can be an act sealing a bargain or contract. But it can also be a sensual or erotic act, and in literature that directly acknowledges the erotic potential between women, this ambiguity is often a "testing ground" or invitation to see if further intimacy would be welcome (or at least tolerated).
In hunting for evidence of women's same-sex eroticism in history, kissing cannot be assumed to be primary evidence of erotic feelings in every case. But neither can kissing be dismissed as never indicating erotic interactions, simply because non-erotic interpretations existed in parallel. This provides the author of historical fiction both a dilemma and an opportunity. It can be vitally important to know under what circumstances your characters would be able to kiss without it provoking public suspicion or condemnation, but you also need to manage your readers' expectations so they will understand all the layers of meaning those kisses will have.
Berry, Helen. 2005. “Lawful Kisses? Sexual Ambiguity and Platonic Friendship in England, c. 1660-1720” in The Kiss in History, ed. Karen Harvey, 62-79. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-6594-1
Throughout western history, the act of kissing--of touching the lips either to another person’s lips or to another part of their anatomy--has had a wide variety of meanings and messages, as well as being a physical experience on its own. The essential ambiguity of what a kiss means in any particular context has been a part of its powerful symbolism and its use as a social tool, for good or ill. The physical act of kissing is an inherently intimate gesture (not necessarily in the sexual sense of “intimate”) in a way that actions like a handshake are not. Discussions of the meaning of kissing (and such analyses can be found as early as the 1660s) focus on that ambiguity and on the kiss as a shorthand for a range of feelings and emotions ranging from platonic friendship to status difference to erotic love.
This article looks at the meaning and use of kisses within cheap, easily available, popular literature of the later 17th century, including texts specifically intended to instruct and guide people on proper social behavior. They explore the distinction between a “lawful kiss”--one that was appropriate to the relationship of the two individuals and approprite to the social context--and an “unlawful kiss” that expressed an inappropriate relationship or was itself an inappropriate act.
At one extreme, the most “lawful” version was the “kiss of peace” used within Christian ceremonies to express harmony and community within the church. This approved religious use meant that the use of a “kiss of peace” as a form of greeting between friends (regardless of gender) was an accepted and unmarked practice in some cultures, though not universally. Visitors to 16th century England commented on the frequency of kisses being exchanged as a casual greeting, suggesting that non-English people found it a bit odd.
[Note: It must be emphasized that this created a context where men could kiss each other on the lips without it being considered sexual, and similarly for women kissing women. This has consequences for interpreting same-sex kisses depicted in literature, art, and drama of the era. Such a kiss could be non-sexual, but it also could be sexual. And identifying ways to distinguish them is part of the purpose of this article. One could similarly consider how actions such as hand-holding have been sexualized in modern culture.]
Berry points out that filtering out modern post-Freudian interpretations of such activities is important for understanding the meanings of behaviors in the past. The kiss was “a physical embodiment of an ongoing negotiation of power between individuals that could inicate an unspoken range of feelings and intentions.” A kiss can indicate submission or domination, relative status, sexual desire, friendship, or as a physical signifier of agreement to a contract such as an agreement to marry or even a truce. In 13th century England, villages might hold a “love day” where people involved in disputes would reconcile, symbolized with a kiss which was blessed by a priest and witnessed by their neighbors.
Even into the early modern era, one can find references to this type of “kiss of peace” between individuals who were neither married nor blood kin, used to signify a contract or agreement. In a business letter of 1727, a businessman describes concluding somewhat fraught business and legal talks with a former rival, Lady Clavering, with “a hearty kiss.” The kiss was a formal acknowledgement of the resolution of their former animosity and, despite being performed between an unrelated man and woman, had no sexual connotations.
But such social kisses occupied an ambiguous territory, and conduct literature noted that inappropriate kissing could result in embarrassment, public censure, or suggest an illicit relationship. The problem was that the genre of conduct literature rarely gave practical advice on what the rules were. Religiously-based advice manuals tended to the conservative and focused on the appearance of sexual impropriety, suggesting that all forms of bodily contact should be kept only within marriage. Unmarried women, it was suggested, shouldn’t have to worry about the boundaries for appropriate kissing, because if it got to the point where she needed to deny a kiss, she had already allowed a man to get too close. And the advice directed at young people also railed against other forms of personal indulgence and “light” behavior, such as whispering, laughing loudly, wanton glances, and the like.
The lawyer Henry Swinburne offered advice in 1686 regarding kissing in the context of marriage promises. A promise of marriage was binding if accompanied by certain performative acts such as lying together, embracing, kissing, or exchanging gifts. In such a case, a promise of marriage was taken as a binding contract, and therefore such actions should not be done lightly.
While manuals overtly about conduct weren’t always helpful regarding kissing, this gap was filled by a new genre of popular literature that offered purportedly first-person narratives illustrating concerns of the emerging middle class. Social mobility was giving rise to anxiety, both about how to behave to social superiors but also how to avoid undesirable familiarity with one’s inferiors.
This new genre might appear in the form of “advice columns” in the ancestors of today’s tabloid periodicals. The questions posed included things like “Whether a Lady, at the first Interiew, may allow an humble Servant to kiss her hand,” or requests for advice on how to conduct a courtship and the part kissing might play in it. Too much kissing might turn a woman’s affections to aversion, but it might also weaken a man’s moral fiber and turn him effeminate. In exploring detailed and specific scenarios, these advice columnists found themselves arbitrating (sometimes humorously) the parameters of lawful kissing.
Though the discussions might be lighthearted, the goals were serious: knowing whom to kiss, in what circumstances, and when to refrain from kissing--all marks of “good breeding” that the emerging middle class was desperate to master. One exchange may have been intended to poke fun at a “country manners/city manners” divide when a man of rural origins noted that he had angered a wealthy citizen of London by kissing his wife--a woman to whom he was related--“with the usual Salutations of Kindness”. The matter was turned around in a letter from a country gentleman complaining that a “Town-Gentleman” newly arrived in the neighborhood substituted bows for kisses as a social salutation to women. This, the country gentleman complained, was taken for the more fashionable choice, “and there is no young Gentlewoman within several Miles of this Place has been kissed ever since his first Appearance among us.”
[Note: the satirical angle here is that, even though the Country Gentleman may be presenting such social kisses as a neutral form of saluation, it clearly appears that he resents the possibility that a less intimate form of greeting is edging it out. If kissing were truly neutral and non-erotic, the substitution should make no difference.]
Such discussions about social kissing were always also about ways of articulating and expressing sexual desire, even when they claimed to be policing such desire. Was it acceptable, a young man writes, to kiss a woman “in a Frolick,” suggesting a context where usual strictures might be loosened. Was it entirely too singular, another asks, for a woman to still refuse to kiss a suitor even after several years’ courtship? Was it ever lawful for a married man to kiss his neighbor’s wife “out of real respect and affection”? The answers given were rarely unexpected or daring, thus it seems the act of proposing the questions provided its own pleasure in exploring sexual topics.
Feminist literature of the era had its own considerations of the purposes of kissing in the face of misogynistic positions such as that published by the Athenian Society that husbands of outspoken wives should “stop her mouth with a kiss...if you can kiss her whether she will or no, ‘twill be a convincing argument atht you are still the stronger.”
Romantic relationships were not the only context in which appropriate kissing was discussed. The concept of platonic friendship between men and women was challenging the position that male-female relations were always necessarily sexual. Did kissing invariably introduce an erotic element to platonic friendship? Berry notes that the shift of “platonic” to mean a non-sexual relationship was a product of 15th century homophobic re-interpretations of Plato’s philosophy. It was no longer acceptable to believe that Plato’s love for boys was sexual, therefore a new, chaste definition of “platonic love” was constructed that then could be extended to relations between men and women as well.
Discussion and expressions of this new version of platonic love became popular in the court of Charles I in the early 17th century, and was revived later in the century after the Restoration. Within this context, the question of whether kisses could be acceptable within a platonic relationship was debated with varying levels of seriousness. Even writers who valorized the concept of platonic friendship as an ideal sometimes felt that kissing would invariably introduce an erotic dimension to the relationship, at least for male-female relations.
Within the realm of same-sex “platonic” friendships, public opinions seemed to avoid the suggestion that kissing added a sexual dimension. This can largely be ascribed to an assumption of compulsory heterosexuality, as there was a similar resistance to believing that male-female friendships could successfully be non-sexual. In addition to the basic assumption of unavoidble eroticism, the possibility that men and women could interact as social equals had potenatial consequences that many (men) wanted to avoid.
In terms of overall sociological trends, across the 18th century we see a decline in the acceptability of social kissing, driven by the manners and opinions of urban elites, and an increasing openness to discussing the social context of kissing, as well as an examination of the erotic and non-erotic dynamics of male-female relationships as signified by the presence and understanding of kissing within such relationshps.
[Note: Although this article spends very little time looking at the meaning of kissing within the context of women’s same-sex relationships, it provides a useful background to understanding the contexts that could signal an erotic or non-erotic interpretation to kisses, as well as contexts where “lawful kisses” could be a prelude to more intimate interactions.]