I had a show I wanted to do about five reasons why the English Regency is an excellent setting for lesbian romance novels, with examples of five books that take advantage of those reasons. I didn't have a good place to schedule it on my own show, but Tara invited me onto her show, Les Do Books. Here are the show notes and link:
Aired June 8, 2018
In this episode of Les Do Books, Tara is joined by Heather Rose Jones, author, reviewer at The Lesbian Review, and host of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project. Heather has 5 reasons why the English Regency is the perfect setting for romances between women, and book recommendations to back them up.
Check out the reasons and books she discussed here:
Mostly this project has drawn on scholarly studies of historical data, but I've decided to include a few original source texts, especially when the relevant material is in a fairly manageable excerpt. This text providing the story of 16th century lesbian Greta von Möskirch is interesting enough on its own. But when I went to read the actual original text (as opposed to reading articles about her case) I discovered that the discussion of Greta was followed by a couple of equally interesting anecdotes, including what appears to be a description of a trans woman in 16th century German, serving as a cook, and where there is no indication of any sort of legal consequence beyond a curious inquiry.
Decker-Hauff, Hansmartin and Rudolf Seigel (editors). 1967. Die Cronik der Grafen von Zimmern: Handschriften 580 und 581 der Fürstlich Fürstenbergischen Hofbibliothek Donaueschingen. Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Konatanz und Stuttgart.
A family chronicle of the Counts of Zimmern.
This is an excerpt from a German family chronicle about the Counts of Zimmern. All material transcribed from the published original will be in bold type. My translation will be in plain type, and my commentary will be in italics. I’ll be interleaving my translation and discussion with several separate sections and noting where I’ve omitted material that wasn’t relevant to the interests of the Project. The German text is a transcription of the original 16th century manuscript, reflecting 16th century spelling conventions. For the main section on Greta, I have some guidance from the partial translations by Benkov (2001) and Puff (2011) as a guide, but the rest is my own work and may have inaccuracies due to my imperfect grasp of 16th century German idioms and vocabulary. Corrections and suggestions are very welcome and will be incorporated.
Updated 2018/07/08 thanks to the generous contributions and commentary by Irina Rempt (see comments), who also points out the existence of a wikisource index of all the unusual words in the Zimmern Chronicle. https://de.wikisource.org/wiki/Benutzer:Xarax/ZC1
We begin with a section heading that indicates the general era and topic, followed by the beginnings of the next entry which gives a date. I’ve omitted some non-relevant material after that date phrase, but we can assume the date applies at least approximately to the entire entry.
 Von etlichen seltzamen handlungen, die sich bei zeiten herrn Gotfridt Wernhers freiherrn von Zimbern zue Mösskirch und in der herrschaft zue Guetenstain begeben haben
Concerning several strange events which occurred during the time of Lord Gotfridt Wernher, Freiherr of Zimmern at Mösskirch, and in the lordship of Gütenstain.
Es ist umb die jar 1514...
It was around the year 1514...
The preceding line giving a specific date may apply to the entire following section, but I’m not absolutely certain of this. Also, several of the following stories add an element of vagueness: “in that time”, “I heard about this”, and so forth. But the date gives us a general reference. There are several pages of anecdotes before we get to the one about Greta.
Die arme Dienstmagd Greta
The poor serving-maid Greta
The text is formatted with brief indications of the topic in the margin next to the beginning of the section. I’ll be identifying these as “marginal note.” All other text can be assumed to be in the main part of the page.
So ist auch der zeit ain arme dienstmagdt zu Mösskirch gewesen, hat hin und wider gedienet, ist genannt worden Greta, am Markt. Die hat sich keiner mann oder jungen gesellen angenomen oder denen zu pank steen wellen, sonder hat die jungen döchter geliept, denen nachgangen und gekramet, auch alle geperden und maniern, als ob sie ain mannlichen affect het, gebraucht. Sie ist mehrmals für ain hermaphroditen oder androgynum geachtet worden, welches sich aber nit sein erfunden, dann sie ist von fürwitzigen muetwilligen besucht und als ain wahr, recht weib gesehen worden . Zu achten, sie seie under ainer verkerten, unnaturlichen constellation geporn worden. Aber bei den gelerten und belesnen find man, [dass] dergleichen vil bei den Græcis und Remern begegnet, wiewol dasselb vilmehr den bösen sitten deren verderbten und mit sünden geplagten nationen, dann des himels lauf oder dem gestirn, zuzumessen.
There was also in that time a poor serving-maid in Mösskirch who had served here and there in the market, named Greta. She hadn’t accepted any man or youth, or was willing to be available to them, instead she loved the young daughters, following them and gifting them, also employing all behavior and manners, as if she had a masculine affect. She has frequently been considered a hermaphrodite or androgyne, which however was not confirmed. For she was visited by curious busybodies and seen to be a true, proper woman. Perhaps she was born under a perverted, unnatural constellation. But according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans, though more often those same [people] were corrupted by evil customs and sin-stricken nations, than by the course of the heavens or the measure of stars.
I was a bit startled to see “affect” being used in the sense used in modern psychiatry, but since psychiatry was developed by German-speakers, I assume it was a borrowing of an ordinary everyday word. Regarding my translation "gifting them", the published articles make reference to Greta giving trinkets to the women she was courting. "Kramen" has senses relating to selling minor dry goods, but also senses relating to "fumbling after something, rummaging for something", so while this seems to be the source of the "giving gifts" references, I'd be interested to know if it might instead refer to some type of fondling. But here my grasp of the idiom fails me. As Puff (2011) notes, this text runs through nearly all the most prominent historic theories of female same-sex desire: masculinized anatomy, a historical tradition of “hermaphrodites” or “androgynes”, astrological influences, sin. Puff points out that these hypotheses existed simultaneously in people’s knowledge, rather than being a chronological succession of understandings.
This anecdote is immediately followed by two that involve cross-dressing, the first of which strikes me as being clearly transgender in tone. While there is no connection made in the text between Greta’s same-sex desire (which did not involve cross-dressing) and these two anecdotes (which do not appear to have sexual aspects), the conjunction suggests that some sort of connection around the issues of gender transgression may have been in the author’s mind.
Der Koch des Grafen Wilhelm Werner
The Cook of Count Wilhelm Werner
Zu zeiten sein hievor und auch bei unsern zeiten weiber in manns- und man in weibsklaider wandlen, dienen und alle officia ußrichten besonden worden, als ich dann von dem alten herrn cammerrichter, graf Wilhem Wernhern von Zimbern, mehrmals gehört, das er ain koch, wie er das kaiserlich camergericht versehen bei sich gehapt, der die gestalt eins weibs im angesicht, des gangs und geperden, auch in der rede. Der hab in der bestallung clärlichen auß gedingt, das er all nacht in aim bett allain ligen und nachts niemands bei sich haben oder gedulden welle. Das ist im nun gehalten worden, und hat getrewlichen gedienet und wol gekochet. Zu bekreftigung des argkwons, das er ain weibsbildt gewesen, hat er treffenlichen wol spinnen künden, und so er desshalben angeredt, hat er gesprochen : “Ich mueß wol spinnen, dann wer wolt mir sonst gedüchs genug geben?” Derselbig koch ist auch in aim solchen verdacht, als er sein versprochen zeit außgedienet, hinweg kommen, das hierin kain weitere erkundigung beschehen. Got waist den grundt.
In previous times, and also in our time, [there are] women change into men’s [clothing] and men into women’s clothing, [who] serve and were appointed to all administrative posts. [Both Irina and I are uncertain about that last clause.] As I then once heard from the old presiding-judge Count Wilhelm Wernhern von Zimmern, he had a cook, that the imperial Chamber Court provided to him, who had the form of a woman in appearance, walk, and behavior, also in speech. In the appointment he had clearly stipulated that he wanted to lie all night in a bed alone and in the night would have/tolerate no one with him. That has now been confirmed to him, and [he] had served loyally and cooked well. As confirmation of [or maybe in response to?] the suspicion that he was a woman, he bore witness that he, in fact, spun excellently, and therefore he pronounced the same, he said, “I must, in fact, spin, for who will otherwise give me enough “gedüchs” [perhaps a type of cloth]?” That same cook is also in such a suspicion, for he served his promised time and left, that that [we] have no further account of this. God knows the reason.
Although the account doesn’t discuss the basis for referring to the cook consistently with male pronouns, we may suspect that there was some anatomical basis for doing so. It appears that the cook was accepted as a woman until there was some reason for Count Wilhelm to question the matter. I’m not entirely certain that I’ve correctly interpreted the section about sleeping alone in a bed--whether as I translate it, this was a condition the cook required, or whether there had been some question of morals and this was offered in defense. But there seems to have been no prosecution--indeed no mention of a chargeable offense--and at the cook left service at the end of the contract, though perhaps with some lingering questions by the authorities. I would love for someone with a more solid grasp of 16th c German to review the text and make corrections and adjustments to my translation.
Additional note: 2018/07/08 - It occurs to me to emphasize that I am interpreting this anecdote as involving a trans woman (assigned male at birth, living as a woman) rather than as a trans man specifically because of the use of male pronouns in the text. Texts about transgender individuals in this era aren't in the habit of recognizing transgender identity as such, but overwhelmingly refer to the person based on anatomical sex. There are exceptions, especially in cases of physiological ambiguity, but as this text does not raise that question, my interpretation seems the most likely. As noted previously, I welcome commentary and discussion of this interpretation.
Die Mörderin in Mannskleidern
The murderess in men’s clothing
So haben wir bei wenig jaren erfaren, das ain gemaine fraw sich in mannsklaider verklaidet, die jungen gesellen an sich gezogen, under andern des burgermaisters Hanns Conrat Hettingers son von Rotweil, der dozumal zu Freiburg im Breisgew studirt. Den hat sie an sich gehenkt, mit im ins feldt spaziern gangen, letzstlich hat sie in ermürdt und plinderet, auch an ain girtel gehenkt, also das menigclich anders nit gewist, dann er hab sich selbs entleibt. Aber in aim jar darnach ist der trug offenbar worden, und hat die bestia iren verdienten lone darab bekommen; dann sie ist in manskleidern zu Rotweil gefangen worden und, als sie peinlichen gefragt, hat sie vil böser stuck, die sie begangen und auch dozu geholfen, bekennt, under anderm auch, wie sie den gueten jungen studenten, wie oblaut, zu Freiburg ermürt und zu ablainung alles argwons den mit der gurtel ufgehenkt hab.
So we have learned a few years [ago], that a common women clothed herself in men’s clothing. Atracted the young fellows to herself, among others, the son of the burgermeister Hanns Conrat Hettinger of Rottweil, who at that time was studying at Freiburg in Breisgew. She had hanged him herself: went for a walk with him in a field, finally she murdered and robbed him, and hanged him with a belt, so that everyone else didn’t know [but] that he had killed himself. [Despite my rather awkward translation, the clear intent here is that people would believe that her victim had committed suicide. "Selbst entleibt" is not the more usual term for suicide but is unambiguous.] But a year after, the deception became obvious, and the beast received her deserved reward from it. For she was arrested in men’s clothing in Rottweil and, while questioned painfully [i.e., tortured], she confessed to many evil things that she committed and also assisted, among other things, how she murdered good young students, like the Oblate of Freiburg, and to deflect suspicions, had hanged [him] with the belt.
“Common woman” seems in context to mean “lower class, ordinary” though if I ran across the phrase “common woman” in an English historic text I might guess an implication of prostitution. From the context, it appears that the cross-dressing in this example was motivated by a desire to befriend her victims as a (male) equal in order to gain their trust.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23a - On the Shelf for June 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/06/02 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for June 2018. It’s been quite a month for me what with the whole turning 60 thing, going off to Kalamazoo to get medieval, and finishing up with the BayCon science fiction convention. Oh, and I got a surprise birthday present when one of the administrators of the Gaylactic Spectrum awards tweeted me to say they’d just announced the book awards for 2016 publications at OutlantaCon, a queer science fiction convention, and my third Alpennia novel Mother of Souls was selected as Best Novel. As of the time I’m recording this, the official announcement hasn’t been posted online yet, but by the time you’re listening I assume it will be. And on top of that, my first novel, Daughter of Mystery has been the Lesbian Review Book Club book of the month. So I’ve been flying a bit high in several senses this month.
Publications on the Blog
Last month on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, the accidental theme was cross-dressing, especially in medieval Arabic contexts. Everett K. Rowson wrote about how both male and female cross-dressing at the Caliphal court of medieval Baghdad was focused around the erotic tastes of elite men and how, contrary to European traditions, female cross-dressing was not a context for women’s same-sex desire. This same theme arises in Remke Kruk’s look at a popular medieval Arabic epic adventure, involving a cross-dressing female Byzantine knight and her various love-hate interactions with a clan of Muslim warriors led by a fierce matriarch. The cross-dressing theme continues with Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey’s analysis of 13 legal records of cross-dressing women in 15th and 16th century London. Tucked in among those papers, due to appearing in the same collection as Rowson’s paper, was a look at homoerotic themes in the writings of medieval German religious women, studied by Ulrike Wiethaus.
The accidental theme for June’s blog will be primary sources. Most of the publications I cover on the blog are scholarly analyses of historic material. I’m not a trained historian myself--simply a very interested amateur. So most of the time I think people will get more value out of a professional analysis rather than the raw source material. But sometimes there are texts that appear again and again in the references and that are short enough to be manageable, and of course that are in the public domain, and it feels useful to present those in their entirety (with translation, of course, as necessary). So in June I’ll start off with an excerpt from the Chronicle of the Counts of Zimmern that gives the story of Greta von Mösskirch, the 16th century serving girl who was featured in the very first episode of this podcast. I’ll follow that with the section of Brantôme’s Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies that deals with same-sex love. The last item in this group is an excerpt from a sourcebook on 17th century women’s lives in England that touches on sex between women and cross-dressing. But before that one, I’m doing something a bit special for publication number 200 in the blog.
Many of my listeners may not be aware of it, but one of my first and deepest historical interests is Wales--Wales as in Welsh, not whales as in sea creatures. In my decades doing historic re-enactment I focused on medieval Welsh history. My file drawer of novel ideas has half a dozen outlines for Welsh historical romances. So when I ran across Mihangel Morgan’s article on queer themes in Welsh literature from the middle ages to the 20th century, I knew I had to find a way to schedule it for publication number 200. After I’d determined that it actually had female content, that is.
It seemed natural to pair that with this month’s essay by finally talking in detail about the Ladies of Llangollen, two Anglo-Irish women of the later 18th century who eloped together, set up housekeeping in Wales, and became icons of the romantic friendship phenomenon.
Moving on to the rest of this month’s podcast content, our author guest will be Lise MacTague who has a steampunk novel coming out this month.
And given that June is a month with five Saturdays, of course that means we have a bonus show and will be featuring the second story in our fiction series: “Inscribed” by V.M. Agab, set in 15th century Venice. It’s hard to believe that three months have gone by since the debut of our fiction series! By the time the third story comes out in September, I’ll need to be thinking about whether I want to do another fiction series next year, so if you have opinions on that topic, be sure to make them known.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
And speaking of new fiction, how about new and forthcoming books? We have four this month scheduled to be released in June, starting with Lise MacTague’s Demon in the Machine from Bella Books. The blurb reads: “At the height of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, steam power and magic join forces to create wonders the world has never seen. But those wonders have a dark side—one that will soon force a reckoning few could have anticipated. Half-demon Briar is content with her structured life as an archivist, a far cry from the chaos of her background and upbringing. Briar’s simple and predictable existence is rocked when she discovers something sinister powers one of the grand, new inventions of her era. Isabella Castel, the only daughter of Viscount Sherard, is far from the brainless socialite she pretends to be. Isabella is everything Briar is not: passionate, creative and impulsive, but with secrets to rival even Briar’s own. Two more unlikely partners should not exist, yet if the women cannot find a way to work together, they will lose far more than their reputations.
Moving backwards in time--for the setting, not the publication date, that is-- we have By the Wind’s Will by Nat Burns, published by Regal Crest. Here’s the description: “Fidelia Grace Nelson, nicknamed Foxy for her thick, red hair and wild nature, came to America in the 1700s to help populate the new settlement of Savannah, Georgia. Though disappointment reigned supreme in this new land, Foxy’s good nature as she grew buoyed everyone. Then, she fell in love with her best friend, Maggie. It was a difficult love, as a relationship between two women would not further their two families’ plans for success, but Foxy was determined to make it happen. But such a love was not to be. Foxy, brokenhearted, escapes into the wilderness of uncharted lands. This sets in motion a life of hard work, tragic love among the native Cree people and eventual prosperity. Her plantation, Trapper’s Folly, near the port of New Orleans, becomes well respected for its humanitarian ethics and excellent management. Though doing well, Foxy, middle-aged, realizes that she is lonely. To escape this, she travels back to Georgia to find everything very different than before. Will love be waiting there for her? This epic novel takes the reader to the early days of America and shares the adventures of a powerful frontier woman who summarily beats the odds and thrives despite adversity.”
Also from the 18th century, we have a fictionalized version of the two most famous female pirates. Miriam McNamara’s book The Unbinding of Mary Reade from Sky Pony Press, has this take on the matter: “There’s no place for a girl in Mary’s world. Not in the home of her mum, desperately drunk and poor. Not in the household of her wealthy granny, where no girl can be named an heir. And certainly not in the arms of Nat, her childhood love who never knew her for who she was. As a sailor aboard a Caribbean merchant ship, Mary’s livelihood—and her safety—depends on her ability to disguise her gender. At least, that’s what she thinks is true. But then pirates attack the ship, and in the midst of the gang of cutthroats, Mary spots something she never could have imagined: a girl pirate. The sight of a girl standing unafraid upon the deck, gun and sword in hand, changes everything. In a split-second decision, Mary turns her gun on her own captain, earning herself the chance to join the account and become a pirate alongside Calico Jack and Anne Bonny. For the first time, Mary has a shot at freedom. But imagining living as her true self is easier, it seems, than actually doing it. And when Mary finds herself falling for the captain’s mistress, she risks everything—her childhood love, her place among the crew, and even her life.”
Usually I stick to novels for this segment of the podcast, but I’d like to make an exception to plug a favorite. Back when Natasha Alterici’s graphic novel Heathen put out its first volume, I signed up for the online comics service Comixology simply for that one title and really enjoyed it. Now volume 2 is coming out. This series is in the realm of historic fantasy, dealing with Norse mythology. Here’s the description: “Aydis the banished viking sets sail on the open sea to reach Heimdall, the magical entrance to the land of the gods. She’ll need the help of a crew of worldly pirate women and man-eating mermaids to survive the dangerous journey. Back on land, the cursed Valkyrie Brynhild and the goddess of love Freyja are chipping away at Odin’s power, testing the god-king’s patience and tempting his wrath.”
This month’s Ask Sappho question is from Sophie Lennox on facebook. I’m going to paraphrase a bit and then expand on it. She asks, when did ‘coming out’ become a thing? I don't remember it from when I was younger. No one mentioned the word Lesbian above a whisper and being bisexual was rarely muttered. Even the word gay, was not really used, growing up in Australia.”
I’m going to expand this a bit to something I can answer for a period before the 20th century. Was there an experience equivalent to "coming out" for queer women in history? Do we have examples of women self-identifying as lesbian or expressing an orientation or identity? There are two layers to this question. One is, when did we shift from people viewing same-sex desire as an experience to viewing it as an identity. The other layer is: when people viewed same-sex desire as an identity, how would they talk about their own identities? Would they use specific labels or more descriptive phrases?
It makes a certain amount of sense to work backward through time, from clearer examples to more ambiguous ones. I can’t speak to the timeline in Australia myself, but in California when I was coming out in the 1970s, the vocabulary and practice of “coming out” was solidly established. I think at that time the phrase was more often used in the form, “coming out of the closet”, influenced by the language and imagery of gay male drag shows (though we now acknowledge that drag was often an expression of what we would now consider trangender identity). The “closet queen” was a man whose queer identity lived in his closet of drag costumes, only brought out in secret safe environments. “Coming out of the closet” was the act of making that identity publicly known and visible.
But the closet image was introduced to the phrase in the mid-century and before that, the use of “coming out” in the gay community was based on the language of debutantes and the celebration of entrance into society. The idea that naming and claiming one’s queer identity was an essential part of social and political progress originated with the writings of sympathetic sexologists in the later 19th century, who considered that the medical model of sexual orientation should remove the idea that there was shame or guilt attached to it.
Even when that identity was named and claimed, the labels might be completely unfamiliar to us. In Radclyff Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness, the assertion of the main character’s sexual orientation and the validity of that orientation is a main theme, but the label she uses is “invert”, taken from medical literature, rather than from the vocabulary of popular culture.
Hall’s near-contemporary Marion “Joe” Carstairs identified herself with the word “queer”, with a meaning at least vaguely similar to the present use, and specifically noted that she did not identify as a “stomper” which seems to have meant something close to extremely butch. But her biography doesn’t give any information about whether she self-identified with anything specifically meaning “lesbian”.
I would need to do more digging to find out what terminology late 19th century poet Renée Vivien used to identify herself and her friends who openly carried out lesbian relationships in the salons of Paris, but I would be surprised if they didn’t use some sort of explicit label. Other French lesbian writers of the time identified themselves as “sapphists” in their own writing.
Going even further back, Anne Lister, in 1821, wrote: "I love and only love the fairer sex and thus, beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any other love than theirs." But although Lister clearly understood her same-sex desires and recognized similar desires in others, I’m not sure she ever used a specific label for herself or for others, even though such terms as “sapphist” or “tommy” were available. She would have been very unlikely to use the slang term “tommy” which was considered low-class, but even so she seems to have been resistant to the idea of any sort of public verbal acknowledgement of her orientation. She reacted negatively to others using a teasing nickname for her: “Gentleman Jack.” She usually referred to sexual orientation in descriptive terms.
In 17th century England, we can find written references to slang terms--sapphist, tommy, lesbian--but as labels used by others, not by women describing themselves. This may be simply due to an aversion to putting such a clear identity in print. And that speaks to the identification side: can one be considered “out” if one refuses to publicly claim the identity, even if it’s acknowledged in private?
As Harriette Andreadis notes in Sappho in Early Modern England, it was a feature of 17th century writing by English women with homoerotic interests that they spoke around the topic and found safety in discussing, but refusing to name, their desires. Was this purely a public strategy to avoid the risk to their reputation? Or was it a consequence of dancing around the recognition of those desires, even to themselves?
In any event, based on the reading and research I’m familiar with, we seem to have a loose boundary around the early 19th century. Before that, women might recognize their same-sex desires but seem disinclined to give themselves a clear label, even though others might be quite willing to label them against their will. The boundary for when women began recognizing same-sex desire as an identity rather than as a set of practices comes earlier but is hard to define. But since we defined the question of “coming out” as self-labeling, I think we can leave that earlier stage undefined.
New and Forthcoming Books
I promised to put up some bibliographic notes for people who attended the BayCon panel "Costuming through the Ages" (i.e., what people in the past wore when then "dressed in costume"). Some of these are directly related to the topic of the panel, and others came out of a request for historic costume references on specific topics. Here are the titles that I remember being mentioned:
Facsimile of a Renaissance Italian Court Designer's Sketchbook
Royal Inventories - Some of the royal inventories and wardrobe accounts are good places to research the topic of masque costumes.
Tudor Tailor - This series of books was recommended as a good starting place for people who want to do 16th c English costuming.
Victorian Bat Costumes - One panelist passed around a display of Victorian bat costumes collected on Pinterest. I don't know what the link for that specific collection is, but I recognize several of the costumes in this Pinterest search on the phrase "Victorian bat costumes".
References for Eastern European Clothing in the 15-16th Century - I'm interpreting this a bit broader than the original question and including some Balkan material. But this is just a raw dump of titles I have in my own personal library and is not necessarily a guide to the best available resources.
There was a specific request (if I recall correctly) for Polish and Lithuanian topics.
If you have other useful references on any of these topics or would like to expand on or correct any of my desciptions, please add them in comments. (There may be a slight delay in the comments posting as I have to manually approve them currently.)
This study of legal records from London that mention women cross-dressing as men is an interesting comparison with the article from last month about how cross-dressing in medieval Baghdad revolved around men's sexual tastes. Nearly all of the women discussed in this article came to the attention of the law due to engaging in "ungoverned" sexual activity, that is, any sort of sex outside of marriage. But with a single exception, their cross-dressing appears to have been in service to heterosexual liaisons: either to facilitate free movement in the city, or to enable them to cohabit with a male lover and escape comment from neighbors, or in some cases, because their male lovers found a woman dressed as a man to be sexually stimulating. In only one case is there evidence--and it seems to be the most straightforward interpretation rather than a bit of a stretch--that the cross-dressed woman was engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman. When using cross-dressing as a trope to create opportunities in a historic fiction for same-sex relations, it can be useful to keep in mind that this was not the only reason why women might cross-dress. Most of the women in this article were not motivated by gender identity, or by same-sex desire, but simply by the practical motivation that men were able to more more freely in early modern London than women were. And within this context, it should be noted that the women in these records came to the attention of the law because of their sexual misconduct (with the cross-dressing being noted in passing) and not solely because of cross-dressing. So it's unlikely that they represent the full range of experiences of cross-dressing women in early modern England.
Bennett, Judith and Shannon McSheffrey. 2014. “Early, Exotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London” in History Workshop Journal. 77 (1): 1-25.
This article takes a focused look at all the women (and there were only 13 of them) recorded in London legal records for cross-dressing as men in the century after 1450. While this data set is too small to draw strong conclusions, the variation among the cases challenges our understanding of the purposes and motivations for female cross-dressing. The article provides a longer chronology of cross-dressing in London before 1603 from sources that include letters and courts overseen by the city, the Bishop’s commisssary, and the chancery. Often the descriptive details of the act are few, simply noting that the woman had worn a “man’s gown” or further details of how she had obtained the clothing might be given. The women might simply hide their hair under a hat or cut it short. Whatever their contemporaries felt about cross-dressing in general, the legal records primarily focus on contexts where sexual misbehavior is involved or suspected. In some cases, the cross-dressers were arrested during general action against whores (a category that basically covered any woman of “ungoverned sexuality” and that was distinguished--although inconsistently so--from prostitution as an occupation). The cross-dressing was often noted only as a side issue in relation to the sexual offense, and the punishments for cross-dressed whores were typically identical to those for their conventionally dressed compatriots.
The article compares the cases of these women with the notable case of a male cross-dresser in London, that of John/Eleanor Rykener in 1395. Rykener was arrested for engaging in prostitution as a woman with a man, while also engaging in sex with women while presenting as a man. The article notes another male cross-dresser in 1425, John Tirell, where no sexual offense is mentioned in connection. In addition to the obvious difference of physical sex, the 13 women’s cases differed from Rykener’s in that they were not, in general, attempting to live as men. Only two of the cases involved women attempting to live as men for an extended period: one in order to pursue an illicit relationship with a man, one in the context of a sexual relationship with a woman. The others either engaged in very temporary cross-dressing, or wore male garments but with no attempt to be taken for men. Because the recorded cases focus on moral transgressions, they obscure the more general issue of cross-dressing. If women were cross-dressing for reasons other than sexual misconduct, we have no record of them.
Discussions of women’s cross-dressing often treat it as a “modern” phenomenon but with examples beginning before 1450 the later increase in numbers during Elizabeth’s reign can be seen simply to parallel the increase in London’s population at the time. The rhetorical focus on sartorial gender transgression in the late 16th and early 17th centuries seems to indicate a shift in attention, not in behavior. Although there are no similar reports of cross-dressed women in other towns in England, there are plenty of examples from the continent in the 15th and early 16th centuries, such as Katherina Hetzeldorfer in Speyer (1477), Nase de Poorter in Bruges (1502), Glaudyne Malengin also in Bruges (1510), and any number of prostitutes in Italy (Venice, Florence, and Rome). These examples push the phenomenon back toward the 14th century changes in fashion that create a more sharply-differentiated appearance between men’s and women’s clothing. Even as the new fashions emphasized male sexuality by featuring the legs and crotch, they created an opportunity for women’s erotic display when cross-dressed that had not existed when clothing styles for both sexes covered more of the body. But gender differences existed even before this fashion shift, especially in hairstyles but also in subtle distinctions of clothing. And those differences meant that the adoption of male styles by women could act as gender disguise, as in the cases of Christina of Markyate (1120) and Hildegund of Schönau (1187).
The more plentiful examples of cross-dressing cases in the 15th century and later can be ascribed in part simply to the better survival of records from those eras. London court records are fragmentary and scarce before the 15th century. Earlier examples come from other types of records, both fictional and not, and offer a wider range of motivations. Medieval perceptions of gender difference placed men at a higher status than women, therefore cross-dressing was a way for a woman to elevate her status or essential nature. Cross-dressing might be the only clear avenue for entering certain activities (as with the Krakow university student). But despite the category-crossing nature of cross-dressing, sumptuary legislation, which had as its purpose the control of sartorial category-crossing, rarely addressed the question of gender boundaries, though perhaps because the forbidden nature of the act was considered too obvious to need legislation. Whatever the rationale, women’s cross-dressing generally offended only religious law rather than secular law.
While modern analyses of cross-dressing typically focus on its overtly transgressive nature and is associated with lesbian or transgender identity, the examples from the London records, while erotic, primarily align with heterosexual activity and play to a male audience. The article notes “playful” crossdressing associated with festivals or the stage and not meant to “pass”. Today, this category is more commonly associated with men. Many of the medieval and early modern cases of women cross-dressing are for more obviously practical purposes: to pass incognito, to escape notice (in contexts where a woman might be automatically noticeable), for safety. Popular culture showed an awareness of these multiple possibilities, and the motivation of the woman who wore the clothes might not match how others perceived her. A woman might claim that she wore breeches to protect her chastity while at the same time the motif of a woman wearing breeches was associated with prostitution. In one of the London cases, cross-dressing may have been motivated by an erotic relationship between two female-bodied persons, one of who was presenting as male, though the scanty evidence provides no clear distinction between possible lesbian and transgender readings. It isn’t even entirely certain from the wording that the cross-dressed “concubine” was the concubine of the woman with whom she was living, as opposed to simply being a resident there and in a relationship with another person. (Though the interpretation that the cross-dressed woman was the concubine of her hostess is the more straight-forward reading. In which case, the fact that the court seemed to consider it of no particular significance is interesting.)
Erotic disguise could take many forms, crossing boundaries of nationality and class as well as gender. When done for erotic purposes, the titillation came from an awareness of the contrast between the inner reality and the outward appearance. In some contexts (e.g., as addressed by a Venetian law of 1480) prostitutes presented themselves in male clothing and hairstyles to attract a male clientele with same-sex desires.
One interesting feature of the 13 London cross-dressing cases is the significant proportion of foreigners involved. (Five out of the thirteen.) Like most foreigners in London at that time, they came from the Low Countries or the German states. This unusual presence may simply be due to a disproportionate participation of foreigners in the sex trade. But if not, it suggests that cross-dressing may have been more popular among some nationalities (an argument made by Dekker and van de Pol). Or it may be that migrant women were more likely to cross-dress for economic purposes in general, due to lesser access to more established female professions. A third possibility the authors suggest is that the wearing of male-coded garments was associated with foreign cultures (such as the Tartars) and that cross-dressing was used by these women as a deliberate association with that motif to appear more “exotic”. Fourthly, it may be that the London courts displaced the idea of cross-dressing onto foreigners, and therefore it was differentially noted or differentially prosecuted when done by foreign women. [Note: there’s an interesting parallel with the ways in which many cultures displaced lesbian activity onto foreign cultures, denying that it was engaged in by local women.] All of the 13 London cross-dressing cases involve some element of “distancing” from the norm: displacements of geography within England, of foreign origin, of sexual involvement with priests, of singlehood. This could allow the legal system to dismiss cross-dressing as an ordinary phenomenon, but rather see it as one associated with otherness.
It may also be that the multiple possible motivations for cross-dressing were part of the appeal for the women engaged in it: erotic titillation and freedom of movement, play and economic advantage.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22d - Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/05/26 - listen here)
Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places
When you compare the history of men’s and women’s experiences of same-sex desire, there are many places where those experiences are not merely different in the details, but can fail to align at all. In many ways, the expectation that homosexual women and men have a shared experience is a product of the medicalization of homosexuality that began in the later 19th century with the invention of homosexuality as a unified and distinct concept. Throughout most of history, the experience of same-sex desire has been shaped and overshadowed by the different experiences of gender itself.
In some contexts, this has been to women’s advantage, as they were free of some of the consequences of restrictive models of masculinity. But when it comes to researching queer history, those differences have been a stumbling block. To vastly oversimplify the scope of history, men have generally had more power and freedom to act within the public sphere and to arrange their interpersonal relationships to their own satisfaction regardless of their official familial bonds. When you combine this with the knee-jerk tendency of (mostly male) researchers to take men’s experiences as the default and norm, and to understand women’s experiences in relationship to male models, it has meant that those researching lesbian history have often found themselves looking in vain for data and evidence that corresponded to the male experience.
So when I was asked about queer women’s communities and queer spaces for women throughout history that paralleled what we can find for men, my immediate reaction was to caution that the question itself held the seeds of failure. We only have to look back within my own lifetime in the United States to see that the ways in which queer women and queer men organized themselves in public social spaces have had relatively small overlaps. And when you go further back into history, those differences are even more pronounced. As a gross over-simplification, women have tended to organize their romantic and sexual lives via private networks in private spaces, while men have been more able to use public spaces and institutions as a context for making personal connections of all types.
So a search for the equivalent of the sexual cruising grounds in 16th century Venice or 17th century Paris, or the equivalent of English “molly houses” in the 18th century raises the risk of concluding that there has been no public culture of lesbianism at all before the 20th century. So is there evidence for such a public culture, even if only in the popular imagination?
Here are the parameters of what I’ll be looking at today. In the past, I’ve talked about some of the social spaces that coincidentally provided opportunities and a relative “safe space” to develop same-sex romantic and sexual relationships. These can include gender segregated religious communities, gender-segregated educational institutions, or even simply gender-segregated spaces in private homes in a context when women were encouraged to form emotional and affective bonds with each other. But today I want to look at spaces and institutions where women came together for the specific and overt purpose of engaging in same-sex romantic relationships, and in some cases for engaging in sexual activity. That’s a much narrower focus.
I’m going to expand that focus a bit by including fictional lesbian communities: imagined organizations or contexts in which women came together to enjoy romantic or sexual relationships. In many cases, these communities were a product of male fantasies--whether born of prurient desire or of a deep-seated fear of missing out. And in some cases, it can be hard to tell whether a particular description was mere fantasy and scandalous rumor or whether it reflected actual social institutions.
Fictional and Conceptual Communities
I’ll come back to the topic of fictional communities at the end of this essay when I talk about sex clubs. For much of European history, the most obvious examples of queer female spaces come from fictional depictions, often drawing on classical mythology such as imaginings of Amazon societies or the followers of the goddess Diana as discussed in last month’s podcast. In some cases, such all-woman societies were depicted as being sexually frustrated due to assumptions that sex, of course, required the presence of a man, but in many cases there was a recognition that women in an all-female society would form romantic bonds and that there was a potential for erotic relationships as well. We saw this in several fictional depictions of the legend of Callisto in last month’s essay, but the motif of Amazonian societies and their romantic and erotic potential was also popular in drama of the 16th and 17th centuries, as discussed in Walen’s survey of female homoeroticism in that medium. An example would be the mid-17th century play The Female Rebellion which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other.
While fantasies of Amazonian sex were often written by men, with all the distortion that brings, female authors of the early modern period were more likely to imagine separatist societies that included romantic potential but perhaps shied away from a direct admission of sexual possibilities.
Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure, published in 1668, portrays the deliberate construction of a women-only community in which resistance to heterosexual marriage is one of the organizing principles. The result includes what is most efficiently described as butch-femme romantic pairings. As another character describes it, “some of your ladies do accoustre themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” Within the text, overtly erotic activity such as kissing and embracing is considered a potentially scandalous addition to these loving relationships. But we shouldn’t take this as a description of the contemporary view of women’s displays of affection. Kisses and embraces were considered a normal element of female friendships at the time. Within the context of the play, the surprised reaction to this physical affection functions to signal the subconscious understanding that their women-only community has been penetrated by a man in disguise.
A more accurate view of the 17th century English view of affective bonds between women is seen in the poetry of Katherine Philips, who wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women and argued for the primacy of female friendships over the bonds of marriage. She comes into this discussion of fictional communities based on her creation of a semi-real, semi-imagined network she called a “Society of Friendship”, meant to promote social, political, and artistic bonds between women. As for many of her contemporaries, this Society existed more as an unrealized ideal than a lived reality. Philips’ pastoral imagery operated within the theme of "amor impossibilis" (impossible love) in the tradition of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, though it focused, not on the alleged impossibility of same-sex love, but on the pain of the barriers to achieving it. Her vision of a women’s Society of Friendship in which same-sex romantic relationships could flourish remained a fiction for the most part, but it represented an ideal that would be realized in later centuries.
I’ll be going further into the place of personal social networks as a venue for queer women’s community a bit later, but another fictional--or at least, fictionalized--example that directly addresses romantic and erotic possibilities was Delariviere Manley’s 1709 roman-à-clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean. (This is, by the way, the typical length of book titles in the 18th century.) This example straddles the line between fiction and real life because many of the characters in the novel can be identified with the author’s contemporaries and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the homoerotic elements in the text are not entirely fictional.
But while Manley may have depicted a real-life “community of the mind” formed by the women she modeled her characters on, The New Atalantis creates an actual geographic location--a place where women with same-sex interests meet, interact, and live out those relationships--and a named social institution “The New Cabal”. The same-sex community aspects are only one section of a larger narrative, and they are coyly softened by the authorial voice asserting that such relationships could have no “irregularity” because what could women do together after all? In the publishing context of the day, an emphasis on the fictional nature of the narrative was necessary to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. And the work was undeniably political in nature, choosing as its targets prominent members of the Whig party, while Manley herself supported the Tories.
The descriptions of what women do together in the novel mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, but the organizing principle is clearly lesbian. The rules of the community not only exclude men, but also exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men. Marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, as long as it’s off-stage, but male lovers are right out.
The women of The New Atalantis join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion and secrecy but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Gender role play or cross-dressing was not the norm, but there are a few exceptions. One woman is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [that is, the clothing] of the other sex”. This is not quite an example of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.
The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in Manley’s fictionalized Memoirs of Europe. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.
The formal organization of this lesbian community as a geographic space is fictional, but we can see the shape of what these women’s real-life lesbian community was like in the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age. The accuracy of the specifics must be suspect, though, due to the political satire that inspired it.
Public Meeting Places
Outside of fiction, the evidence for physical public meeting spaces for women seeking same-sex encounters is sparse. (Keep in mind that you can assume the limitation “before the 20th century” in anything I write, unless I specify otherwise.) Emma Donoghue refers to a study of legal records from late 18th century Amsterdam that suggests there were small groups of women there who came together for same-sex encounters, but with no clear mention of specific locations where they might have met. And there are regular references in various times and places to prostitutes engaging in same-sex encounters, so one might add whorehouses to the list of hypothetical meeting places, though that seems a bit contrary to the spirit of the question we’re addressing today.
I’m cautious about drawing any strong conclusions about gender-essentialist differences in women’s and men’s sexuality along the lines of “well, men go to specific locations for sexual hook-ups while women develop long-term emotional relationships,” because gender influences the types of data that have come down to us. For example, much of the evidence for male homosexual cruising places--such as those documented in Merrick and Ragan’s collection of French primary source documents--come from arrest records. If women were far less likely to be arrested and prosecuted simply for sexual activity--whether because there was no applicable law, as in England, or because it wasn’t considered noteworthy without some other criminal element--we can’t take the absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Perhaps there were similar meeting places for women that simply weren’t recorded.
Donoghue quotes a translation from a German visitor to London in the 1780s who writes, “There are females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex. These females are called Lesbians. They have small societies, known as Anandrinic Societies, of which Mrs Y--, formerly a famous London actress was one of the presidents.” The similarity of the description with the French Anandrine Society--which is unlikely to have been factual--prompts a touch of skepticism. But if the German visitor reported accurately, this is a rare reference to a sex club outside of the pornographic imagination. More about those French Anandrine societies later.
There may be an implication of a more informal meeting place for women in 18th century London in a poem titled “Two Kissing Girls of Spitalfields” which describes two women meeting by St. Katherine’s Docks to make out.
Although I’ve mostly confined myself to Europe in this episode, there are some interesting discussions of women’s same-sex meeting places in the Islamic world, though a certain caution is necessary regarding accounts from European travelers.
That caution doesn’t apply to medieval Arabic texts that discuss women’s same-sex relationships. A 13th century treatise titled "On the Literature of Grinders and their Grinding" by Ahmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi describes what seems to be an identifiable social community of women who love women--identified by the Arabic term “sahhaqa” meaning “one who grinds or rubs” referring to the motion involved in sex. This community is defined by yet another term: tharaf or “wit”, but used as a slang term. As Tifashi writes, “They call themselves the witty ones. If they said that so-and-so is tharifa, a witty woman, then it becomes known among them that she is a grinder. They romance each other like men, but more intensely.” And he goes on to describe an identifiable subculture with customs and characteristics of its own.
We might want to be more careful about taking at face value the accounts of 17th and 18th century visitors to Ottoman Turkey who wrote somewhat sensational accounts of women seeking erotic encounters at bath houses--which by definition meant same-sex encounters due to the gender-segregated nature of the institution. There was an Orientalist fascination with lesbian activity in “exotic foreign lands” where it could be safely dissociated from respectable western society. But given the more sex-positive attitude seen in Arabic writings, it seems likely that the basics of accounts like Busbeq’s Travels into Turkey are accurate. He wrote: “Ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together, so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins. By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them.”
Small Personal Communities
By far the greatest evidence for lesbian-like communities in the European cultures I’m familiar with consists of relatively small personal networks of friends and lovers that existed primarily in private spaces, either within the women’s homes or created and maintained through correspondence. If we consider these to constitute a type of lesbian community--and it’s a type that I’d argue was still a major part of lesbian social dynamics in the 20th century--then this is a fertile ground for research.
In the 16th century, we may see a rare working-class example of this type of community in the description in Michel de Montaigne’s travel journal. He describes how a group of eight women in north-eastern France decided to cross-dress and travel together as men to make their way in the world. At least one of the group had sexual relationships with two women, one involving marriage, so it’s not entirely implausible that this was an interest shared by others in the group. Of course, as with any pre-modern example of gender passing, we need to acknowledge that a transgender reading is equally plausible to a lesbian reading.
The 16th century scandal-monger Brantôme tells a number of stories of the French court that imply the existence of networks of women who engaged in sex together, though Brantôme is more interested in being salacious than being truthful and the stories are mostly told at second or third hand.
England in the 18th century saw a profusion of female social circles associated at the very least with romantic attachments, and sometimes more boldly rumored to be sexual. We could be cautious and exclude clearly malicious accusations, such as William King’s defamatory poem The Toast, which accused Myra--a pseudonym for his enemy the Duchess of Newburgh--of being at the center of a circle of lesbians. But that still leaves a number of famous social sets, and some that were not-at-all famous but more informative.
One of the key names from this era is that of sculptor Anne Damer whose reputation as a lesbian and focus of a social circle of women with same-sex interests was well enough known that other women’s sexuality was hinted at by saying that they were “visiting Mrs. Damer.” A more prominent, though less provably sexual circle centered around Queen Anne and her succession of female favorites. But these were only a couple of the many, many small social networks in London that included same-sex romance as part of their shared interests.
Far from London and nowhere near prominent enough to have raised significant public comment, we have the social circle described in the diaries of Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister, from the early 19th century. Using a discreet code, that hid unambiguously erotic descriptions, Lister detailed a complex network of female friends who either engaged in or wanted to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with each other, and who were all clearly aware of being part of an extended circle of such women.
The emerging public acceptance and celebration of the concept of female romantic friendship in the 19th century means that we have plentiful records of women’s social circles that encompassed romantic relationships, though we rarely have solid evidence regarding a sexual component. There are far too many examples to go into detail, but I’ll point you to the show I did on 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman and her circle as one with a clearly erotic component
Lesbian Sex Clubs
Perhaps the topic where it’s most difficult to sort out fact from fiction is that of organized lesbian sex clubs. That German visitor’s description of a lesbian sex club in London in 1780 exists within a fascination with the topic that reached its peak in France around the time of the revolution.
As Lanser points out in The Sexuality of History, this trope arose in a context where social clubs of all types had become popular--organizations focused not on class or family ties, but on a similarity of interests that cut across lines of class and blood. Politically oriented social clubs were a major force before and during the French Revolution and their excesses contributed to a sentiment against secret societies of all kinds in post-revolutionary France. The Freemasons were one target of this hostility, but another target were supposed secret societies of women who met to initiate women in to lesbianism and to engage in group orgies. Lanser dismisses the possibility that these societies actually existed. It’s highly improbable that if they had, they would have left no trace in legal records, but only in sensational and highly pornographic pamphlets.
The most common label for these fictional clubs was “The Anandrine Sect”, where “anandrine” derives from the Greek for “without men”. In addition to sexual activities, this group was depicted as carrying social revolution further to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society entirely. Although hostility to social clubs often focused on the mixing of the classes, attacks on secret lesbian clubs more typically portrayed them as a symbol of aristocratic excess and decadence, in England as well as in France. Remember that word “decadence,” which I’ll come back to. The epitome of this image of aristocratic lesbian excess was the rumors circulated that Queen Marie Antoinette entertained a wide and diverse selection of female lovers and favorites, whose influence contributed to the corruption of the court.
This association of fictional lesbian orgies with aristocratic excess, combined with rising sentiment against secret societies, and the usefulness of lesbian accusations in attacking feminist organizations, may have contributed to the growing caution on erotic topics among the intellectual and aristocratic classes of women in the 19th century. Lesbian eroticisim was shifted conceptually toward lower class women, theatrical performers, and prostitutes. Toward the middle of the century, the trope was taken up by the French decadent writers. One of the goals of the Decadents was to attack what they saw as a hypocritical focus on respectability among the middle class by using art and literature to shock and titillate. The image of the lesbian became one of their favorite tools for this purpose and decadent literature took up the task of creating and depicting lesbian sex clubs in sensational detail.
Two women in a private boudoir were, of course, another of the favored settings for these scenes, but lesbians were described as meeting and recruiting new lovers in public settings such as cross-dressing balls, cabarets, and music halls. Of course, there was an actual public lesbian culture developing in Paris at the turn of the century--including the salons of the famous Natalie Clifford Barney and others, and no doubt including the balls, cabarets, and cafes featured in decadent novels and poetry. But so much of the image of that public culture has been shaped in its details by a prurient male imagination that one must dig deeply to decipher the experiences of actual lesbians of the time.
And that is, of course, the difficulty throughout history: to work from the observations and opinions of outside observers, who were often hostile to the topic, to piece together what a lesbian community or lesbian culture might have looked like in any particular time and place.
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There have been a couple changes to my BayCon programming schedule. A couple of queer-interest items were added and one that I wanted to support conflicted with a panel I'd been scheduled for but didn't feel as strongly about. Remember: you can make an author (or simply a fellow human being) happy by coming up and talking to me. Conventions are a weird mix of enjoying the socializing but also constantly being at the balance between "I must make the effort to reach out to people" and "who would want to talk to me anyway." It really helps to have people be glad to see me.
On another note, it's been really gratifying to see the Spectrum Award news go rippling through online fandom. I got my name in a Locus Online news item! Why that's practically as good as getting your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone! And feeling lots of love from the community at File770 and other places. Tangible things: they really do help. I'm tryin to store some of this away for the next time that I get the book blues.
In following up on references to gender transgression in medieval Arabic literature, I’ve been struck by the way certain motifs align differently from what we see in the literature of Christian cultures. In European romances, “Amazonian” characters who dress and act as men are often a context for accidental homoeroticism. Cross-dressing in general also provides this opportunity. But as we saw in Rowson’s article on categories of cross-dressed entertainers in medieval Baghdad, the social signals and assumptions around gender-crossing were different in the Islamicate world, in part because of the greater normalization (if not actual approval) of male homosexuality. I chose Kruk’s article to cover to illustrate some of these differences even though it touches on female homoeroticism only very tangentially.
There is a long history in western culture of projecting female homosexuality onto the Other, and especially onto an Orientalist fantasy of harems and odalisques. Lesbian historical fiction is not immune to this projection. That makes it all the more important to familiarize ourselves with how issues of homoeroticism and gender performance were understood within the cultures we may consider as fictional settings. The "woman warrior" motif was popular in medieval Arabic epics, but she represented different things from the woman warrior of European chivalric romance, and the gender dynamics of these stories are very different. Historical fiction that wants to use motifs like these as a jumping off place either needs to engage with those differences or risk being nothing more than yet another Orientalist fantasy.
Kruk, Remke. 1998. “The Bold and the Beautiful: Women and ‘fitna’ in the Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma: The Story of Nūrā” in Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, ed. Gavin R. G. Hambly. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-21057-4
Scholarship on medieval Arabic literature has tended to focus on scholarly works or on the specific set of stories that has come to western attention as the Thousand and One Nights. Only recently has the enormous corpus of traditional popular epics begun to receive more attention and analysis. This article looks at one specific episode in a longer epic that illustrates the popular motif of the warrior woman, and how she becomes a force either for disruption or stability.
The role of women in the popular epic tradition is very different from how they are depicted in the more literary traditions. Female warriors are a popular stock figure in the epics (not only in Arabic language traditions, but also in Persian and Turkish). Female characters are typically portrayed as clever and resourceful. Sometimes the female warrior will be a close relative of the male hero and serve as a counterpart, sometimes she will begin as an antagonist and eventually be incorporated into the social structure through marriage. Often she is a link to “outside” cultures. There is a common motif (as in the story discussed here) of female Christian warrrior figures being brought into Islamic society not only through marriage but through conversion.
Kruk is interested in examining how the image of women in epic literature differs from the image of men, but in the present paper is only examining one specific example to explore the different roles women may play. The specific figure in question is the Princess Nūrā, a Byzantine princess who figures within a story cycle about conflict between Muslim forces, led by a woman, Dhāt al-Himma, and her son, against seven Byzantine castles. The superficial male focus of the epic is belied by the way the story revolves around how desire for Nūrā disrupts the social stability of the Muslim forces and the struggle between Dhāt al-Himma and Nūrā to neutralize her effect by means of pairing her off to one of the men.
Nūrā is introduced as the daughter of the king of one of the Byzantine fortresses. She and her female companions live in a monastery apart from the fortress where they engage in all sorts of revelry including wrestling matches, at which Nūrā excels. They are listening to tales about the wars between the Arabs and Byzantines and especially about one particularly heroic Arabic warrior. Nūrā expresses a desire to meet the warrior (the summary notes “even though until now she has only been interested in women”--take that as you will) and by strange coincidence he’s been spying on them and makes himself known. He immediately falls in love with Nūrā. In fact, pretty much every many in the story falls in love with Nūrā--Muslim and Byzantine alike, which provides much of the conflict. Eventually (and it’s a very long, drawn-out eventually) Nūrā is married to this Arabic hero, converts to Islam, and continues to play a major role in the epic as a warrior.
The article takes a detailed look at two repeating themes during the adventures that form that “eventually”: the ways in which men lose all responsibility, dignity, and judgement when driven by obsessive desire for Nūrā, and the relationship between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma as the latter attempts to control the disruption caused by the former. Although Dhāt al-Himma expresses admiration and sympathy for Nūrā, her primary concern is to maintain social stability.
There is a continuing theme throughout the epic of how Nūrā is considered an existential danger (her prospective husband is so terrified of her on their wedding night that he orders her to be tied up and drugged), and Nūrā’s willingness to use this as one of her weapons in battle, including uncovering her face or breasts to distract her opponents and defeat them. Many of the adventures involve captures and escapes and competition among various men for the right to Nūrā. If Nūrā isn’t exactly given a choice in these matters, her resistance to being married off against her will shapes a great deal of the narrative.
While much of the interactions between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma have a flavor of shared exasperation at the antics of the men, there are indications that Dhāt al-Himma is not entirely immune to Nūrā’s attraction. We can overlook one episode where the matriarch participates in a combat over who will “get” Nūrā as being intended to keep the princess still in play, but there are other episodes where Nūrā seems to appeal to a sense of female solidarity that transcends other loyalties, and some where Dhāt al-Himma herself experiences the force of Nūrā’s sexual attractions, as in one case where they embrace and kiss when Dhāt al-Himma is in disguise and al-Himma expresses at least a hypothetical desire for her.
Within the epic, the existence of female warriors and their normalization on both sides of the combat is taken for granted. Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma first meet when the latter is besieging the Byzantine fortress and both women express a specific interest in meeting each other in combat. When Nūrā is first captured by the Arabic forces, it is by Dhāt al-Himma herself, who then thinks to herself that she understands why the girl causes so much disruption: “if this girl had been a man, I would have lost my head.”
But in the end, Dhāt al-Himma’s primary concern is to neutralize Nūrā’s disruptive potential, which is done by enforcing her marriage to the designated hero by a disturbing use of overwhelming force. Even so, the hazard Nūrā represents continues until she is “domesticated” by her hatred turning into love, by her conversion to Islam, and by the production of children, although she still continues her martial activities throughout the remainder of the epic.
Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook got the first informal initial squee on this last weekend, but now the official annoucement is up at the Gaylactic Spectrum Award website, naming Mother of Souls Best Novel for 2017. I can't express how very happy this makes me, putting Alpennia on a list filled with authors like Melissa Scott, Elizabeth Bear, Ginn Hale, Laurie J. Marks, Nalo Hopkinson, and David Gerrold. The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards are given for science fiction and fantasy works with strong positive queer content. Both Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage were finalists for the award, and I have to say that the quality of the competition is such that I would have been perfectly proud to continue making that finalist list. So I'm over the moon to have Mother of Souls recognized in this way.