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Saturday, June 23, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23d - The Ladies of Llangollen - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/06/23 - listen here)

I have to start this episode off with a funny set of coincidences. There is this wonderful podcast called Stuff you Missed in History Class which does in-depth shows either on overlooked figures in history, or events that show a different angle on our world than you get from the standard texts. And although they don’t have a specific focus on queer history, they have intersected with a number of topics that I’ve covered on this podcast. Sometimes we’ve intersected very closely and entirely by coincidence.

For example, I did a show on Aphra Behn back in February 2017...and they did a show on Aphra Behn the next month. (I know it’s complete coincidence because I’m sure they don’t even know my podcast exists.) And then in July of 2017, we both did shows on Catalina de Erauso. So when I listened to their show in May 2017 on the Ladies of Llangollen, I figured I needed to avoid scheduling that topic for a while just, you know, to avoid looking like too much of a copycat. But any podcast about lesbian history will eventually get around to The Ladies, and for reasons that I’m just about to explain, eventually became now.

There are a number of running themes within my historic interests. Queer women are an obvious one for listeners of this podcast. But another one of my deep interests is the history of Wales and the Welsh language. It’s an interest rooted in family history, although not particularly recent history. In 1711, Francis Jones and his family left their home in Pembrokeshire to sail to the new world and settle in Pennsylvania as part of the growing Quaker immigrant presence there. Francis Jones is my direct ancestor, and though the history of the family raises some questions about whether they were Welsh in origin, rather than simply living there for a few years before emigrating, the connection was directly responsible for my historic interest. That interest led to studying the Welsh language, both modern and historic, and to choosing Welsh history as the lens for my activities in historic re-creation, and eventually it led to me pursuing a PhD in historic linguistics, specializing in the medieval Welsh language.

So any connection between queer women and Welsh history is naturally going to spark my interest. When I was scheduling articles for this summer’s blog entries for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, I stumbled across an article by Mihangel Morgan looking at queer themes in Welsh literature from the medieval period up through the present. And because I have a thing about celebrating round numbers, I decided to schedule that article as publication 200 in the blog, which posted just this last Monday. That was the best excuse I needed to tackle Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, known as The Ladies of Llangollen for the village in Wales where the settled after they eloped together from Ireland in 1778. That makes the parallel with my own Welsh family heritage even more parallel, because Francis Jones was recorded as living in Ireland before he appears in Pembrokeshire. When I made a trip to Wales in 1981 after finishing college, two of the places where I made a personal pilgrimage were the vanished village of Redstone where the Jones family had lived before emigrating, and Plas Newydd in Llangollen, where Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby lived together for nearly 50 years, celebrated by all who knew them as the epitome of a devoted romantic couple.

There are many excellent sources that relate the overall story of Butler and Ponsonby. Wikipedia can give you the bare bones. Elizabeth Mavor’s biography The Ladies of Llangollen written in 1971 provides an excellent social and historical background to their lives, though she spends one bare page considering and dismissing the possibility that they might fall into the category of lesbian. Lillian Faderman’s study of the phenomenon of Romantic Friendship, Surpassing the Love of Men, discusses them extensively but fixes on her belief that their relationship was non-sexual and therefore not classifiable as lesbian. Other scholars have provided a more nuanced view of the inherent queerness of Ponsonby and Butler’s relationship, including Emma Donoghue in Passions Between Women, Martha Vicinus in Intimate Friends, and Fiona Brideoake’s online article “‘Extraordinary Female Affection’: The Ladies of Llangollen and the Endurance of Queer Community” in Romanticism on the Net. And of course, if you want to get your information from podcsats, you can always check out the episode from Stuff you Missed in History Class that I’ve linked in the show notes. For that reason, I will give only the basic background interspersed with primary source material, especially that written by their contemporaries and the people who met them.

Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby were both members of the Anglo-Irish gentry. That is, descended from English families who had long ago been part of the English conquest of Ireland and who maintained something of a foot in both social worlds. Their families were close neighbors. When they met in 1768, Eleanor was 29 and considered something of a bluestocking. Sarah was much the younger when they met, at age 13, and they became close friends over the next decade, with Eleanor first serving as a mentor when Sarah was away at school, and then when Sarah returned home around age 18, deepening into romantic dreams of eloping together due to family difficulties. Eleanor was being pressured to enter a convent since she clearly had no plans of marrying. And the orphaned Sarah was being importuned by her guardian, Sir William Fownes, who evidently was not quite content to wait for the death of his wife before attempting to secure her replacement.

So one night in March 1778, Eleanor and Sarah each snuck out of their homes dressed in men’s clothing, met at a prearranged location having obtained horses, and set out for Waterford. This initial elopement suffered a setback due to weather and Sarah’s consequent illness. A relative of Sarah’s wrote in a letter:

The runaways are caught, and we shall soon see our amiable friend again [that is, Sarah] whose conduct, though it has an appearance of imprudence, is I am sure void of serious impropriety. There were no gentlemen concerned, nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of Romantic Friendship. My mother is gone to Waterford for Miss Butler and her, and we expect to see them tonight.

This did not dissuade the two, despite the efforts of their families. A month later, when Eleanor was allowed to visit Sarah once more, the same relative wrote in her journal:

I talked again to Miss Ponsonby, not to dissuade her from her purpose, but to discharge my conscience of the duty I owed her as a friend by letting her know my opinion of Miss Butler and the certainty I had they never would agree living together. I spoke of her with harshness and freedom, said she had a debauched mind, no ingredients for friendship that ought to be founded on virtue, whereas hers every day more and more showed me was acting in direct opposition to it, as well as to the interest, happiness, and reputation of the one she professed to love. Sir W. joined us, kneeled, implored, swore twice on the Bible how much he loved her, would never more offend, was sorry for his past folly that was not meant as she understood it, offered to double her allowance of £30 a year, or add what more she pleased to it even though she did go. She thanked him for his past kindness but nothing could hurt her more, or would she ever be under other obligation to him. Said if the whole world was kneeling at her feet it should not make her forsake her purpose, she would live and die with Miss Butler, was her own mistress, and if any force was used to detain her she knew her own temper so well it would provoke her to an act that would give her friends more trouble than anything she had yet done. She, however, haughtily, and as it were to get rid of him, made Sir W. happy by telling him if ever she was in distress for money he should be the first she would apply to. They dined with us and I never saw anything so confident as their behavior.

But the Butler family, after much consideration, had relented and now supported Eleanor in her plans to live somewhere in retirement with Sarah. Eleanor would have an allowance and something resembling her family’s blessing. Sarah’s guardians capitulated and two days later, this time dressed in ordinary feminine traveling clothes and accompanied by the housemaid Mary Carryll who would be their companion until her death, they left in the Butler family carriage and set out on their adventure. To the extent that sir William was a villain in their story, fate seems to have punished him, for before another month was out he was dead of a sudden and painful ailment.

Eleanor and Sarah were steeped in the culture of Romanticism, which looked to an idyllic rural seclusion, away from the bustle of society, where they could improve themselves with literature and contemplation. And in the popular imagination of the day there was no more ideal location for romantic retirement than northern Wales, as described in Thomas Pennant’s travelogue A Tour in Wales, published around the same time as their elopement. Pennant wrote of Llangollen Vale: “I know no scene in North Wales, where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination.

After deciding to settle permanently in Llangollen, Eleanor and Sarah moved into a cottage--though by cottage we mean a two story building with a parlor and library and room for servants--a place they named Plas Newydd, that is “the new mansion,” which they eventually remodeled into a confection of neo-Gothic ornamentation and filled with all manner of souvenirs and curiosities brought to them by their visitors and admirers.

Although the allowances they received from their families--eventually supplemented by a civil pension--could not be considered to make them wealthy, we mustn’t imagine them living in poverty. Mary Carryll, who had stepped into the role of household manager, ensured that they found a balance between comfort and living within their income, in part by forgoing any personal salary of her own.

A great many details of their lives come from the detailed journals they kept jointly--the sort of journals that record everyday events such as the weather, what they ate, and their various ailments. Eleanor suffered regularly from what appear to be migraines, and she recorded a typical experience in 1785:

I kept my bed all day with one of My dreadful Headaches. My Sally, My Tender, My Sweet Love lay beside me holding and supporting My Head till one o’clock.

As recorded in their journals, their lives were quiet, congenial, busy with the everyday details of life, and involving nothing of any particular consequence. Their journals also emphasize their continuing resolution never to spend a day apart and to try to avoid spending a single night away from their beloved Plas Newydd. But though they obviously did not travel much, the world soon traveled to join them. And one of the reasons they have become icons is because of how those visitors reflected them to the wider world.

Eleanor and Sarah’s elopement and retirement so perfectly fit the prevailing visions and fantasies of the Romantic imagination that they became something of a pilgrimage site for notables and literati of the day in the following decades, although by the end of their lives they were considered quaintly antiquated both in personal style and in their sentimental approach to life. Their visitors included writers such as poet Anna Seward (whose own romantic friendship was balked by her commitment to caring for her elderly father). Seward encapsulated the effusive romantic ideal with this long poem titled “Llangollen Vale” dedicated to Ponsonby and Butler:

LUXURIANT Vale, thy Country's early boast,
What time great GLENDOUR gave thy scenes to Fame;
Taught the proud numbers of the English Host,
How vain their vaunted force, when Freedom's flame
Fir'd him to brave the Myriads he abhorr'd,
Wing'd his unerring shaft, and edg'd his victor sword.

Here first those orbs unclosing drank the light,
Cambria's bright stars, the meteors of her Foes;
What dread and dubious omens* mark'd the night,
That lour'd, ere yet his natal morn arose!
The Steeds paternal, on their cavern'd floor,
Foaming, and horror-struck, "fret fetlock-deep in gore."

PLAGUE, in her livid hand, o'er all the Isle,
Shook her dark flag, impure with fetid stains;
While "DEATH*, on his pale Horse, "with baleful smile,
Smote with its blaring hoof the frighted plains.
Soon thro' the grass-grown streets, in silence led,
Slow moves the midnight Cart, heapt with the naked Dead.

Yet in the festal dawn of Richard's reign,
Thy gallant GLENDOUR'S sunny prime arose;
Virtuous, tho' gay, in that Circean fane,
Bright Science twin'd here circlet round his brows;
Nor cou'd the youthful, rash, luxurious King
Dissolve the Hero's worth on his Icarian wing.

Sudden it drops on its meridian flight! —
Ah! hapless Richard! never didst thou aim
To crush primeval Britons with thy might,
And their brave Glendour's tears embalm thy name.
Back from thy victor-Rival's vaunting Throng,
Sorrowing, and stern, he sinks LLANGOLLEN'S shades among.

Soon, in imperious Henry's* dazzled eyes,
The guardian bounds of just Dominion melt;
His scarce-hop'd crown imperfect bliss supplies,
Till Cambria's vassalage be deeply felt.
Now up her craggy steeps, in long array,
Swarm his exulting Bands, impatient for the fray.

Lo! thro' the gloomy night, with angry blaze,
Trails the fierce Comet, and alarms the Stars;
Each waning Orb withdraws its glancing rays,
Save the red Planet, that delights in wars.
Then, with broad eyes upturn'd, and starting hair,
Gaze the astonish'd Crowd upon its vengeful glare.

Gleams the wan Morn, and thro' LLANGOLLEN'S Vale
Sees the proud Armies streaming o'er her meads.
Her frighted Echos warning sounds assail,
Loud, in the rattling cars, the neighing steeds;
The doubling drums, the trumpet's piercing breath,
And all the ensigns dread of havoc, wounds, and death.

High on a hill as shrinking CAMBRIA stood,
And watch'd the onset of th' unequal fray,
She saw her Deva, stain'd with warrior-blood,
Lave the pale rocks, and wind its fateful way
Thro' meads, and glens, and wild woods, echoing far
The din of clashing arms, and furious shout of war.

From rock to rock, with loud acclaim, she sprung,
While from her CHIEF the routed Legions fled;
Saw Deva roll their slaughter'd heaps among,
The check'd waves eddying round the ghastly dead;
Saw, in that hour, her own LLANGOLLEN claim
Thermopylæ's bright wreath, and aye-enduring fame.

Thus, consecrate to GLORY. — Then arose
A milder lustre in its blooming maze;
Thro' the green glens, where lucid Deva flows,
Rapt Cambria listens with enthusiast gaze,
While more inchanting sounds her ear assail,
Than thrill'd on Sorga's bank, the Love-devoted Vale. *

Mid the gay towers on steep Din's* Branna's cone,
Her HOEL'S breast the fair MIFANWY fires. —
O! Harp of Cambria, never hast thou known
Notes more mellifluent floating o'er the wires,
Than when thy Bard this brighter Laura sung,
And with his ill-starr'd love LLANGOLLEN'S echos rung.

Tho' Genius, Love, and Truth inspire the strains,
Thro' Hoel's veins, tho' blood illustrious flows,
Hard as th' Eglwyseg rocks her heart remains,
Her smile a sun-beam playing on their snows;
And nought avails the Poet's warbled claim,
But, by his well-sung woes, to purchase deathless fame,

Thus consecrate to LOVE, in ages flown, —
Long ages fled Din's-Branna's ruins show,
Bleak as they stand upon their steepy cone,
The crown and contrast of the VALE below,
That, screen'd by mural rocks, with pride displays
Beauty's romantic pomp in every sylvan maze.

Now with a Vestal lustre glows the VALE,
Thine, sacred FRIENDSHIP, permanent as pure;
In vain the stern Authorities assail,
In vain Persuasion spreads her silken lure,
High-born, and high-endow'd, the peerless Twain,
Pant for coy Nature's charms 'mid silent dale, and plain.

Thro' ELEANORA, and her ZARA'S mind,
Early tho' genius, taste, and fancy flow'd,
Tho' all the graceful Arts their powers combin'd,
And her last polish brilliant Life bestow'd,
The lavish Promiser, in Youth's soft morn,
Pride, Pomp, and Love, her friends, the sweet Enthusiasts scorn.

Then rose the Fairy Palace of the Vale,
Then bloom'd around it the Arcadian bowers;
Screen'd from the storms of Winter, cold and pale,
Screen'd from the fervors of the sultry hours,
Circling the lawny crescent, soon they rose,
To letter'd ease devote, and Friendship's blest repose.

Smiling they rose beneath the plastic hand
Of Energy, and Taste; — nor only they,
Obedient Science hears the mild command,
Brings every gift that speeds the tardy day,
Whate'er the pencil sheds in vivid hues,
Th' historic tome reveals, or sings the raptur'd Muse.

How sweet to enter, at the twilight grey,
The dear, minute Lyceum* of the Dome,
When, thro' the colour'd crystal, glares the ray,
Sanguine and solemn 'mid the gathering gloom,
While glow-worm lamps diffuse a pale, green light,
Such as in mossy lanes illume the starless night.

Then the coy Scene, by deep'ning veils o'erdrawn,
In shadowy elegance seems lovelier still;
Tall shrubs, that skirt the semi-lunar lawn,
Dark woods, that curtain the opposing hill;
While o'er their brows the bare cliff faintly gleams,
And, from its paly edge, the evening-diamond streams.

What strains Æolian thrill the dusk expanse,
As rising gales with gentle murmurs play,
Wake the loud chords, or every sense intrance,
While in subsiding winds they sink away!
Like distant choirs, "when pealing organs blow,"
And melting voices blend, majestically flow.

"*But, ah! what hand can touch the strings so fine,
"Who up the lofty diapason roll
“Such sweet, such sad, such solemn airs divine,
"Then let them down again into the soul!"
The prouder sex as soon, with virtue calm,
Might win from this bright Pair pure Friendship's spotless palm.

What boasts Tradition, what th' historic Theme,
Stands it in all their chronicles confest
Where the soul's glory shines with clearer beam,
Than in our sea-zon'd bulwark of the West,
When, in this Cambrian Valley, Virtue shows
Where, in her own soft sex, its steadiest lustre glows?

Say ivied VALLE CRUCIS*, time decay'd,
Dim on the brink of Deva's wandering floods,
Your riv'd arch glimmering thro' the tangled glade,
Your grey hills towering o'er your night of woods,
Deep in the Vale's recesses as you stand,
And, desolately great, the rising sigh command,

Say, lonely, ruin'd Pile, when former years
Saw your pale Train at midnight altars bow;
Saw SUPERSTITION frown upon the tears
That mourn'd the rash irrevocable vow,
Wore one young lip gay ELEANORA'S smile?
Did ZARA'S look serene one tedious hour beguile?

For your sad Sons, nor Science wak'd her powers;
Nor e'er did Art her lively spells display;
But the grim IDOL vainly lash'd the hours
That dragg'd the mute, and melancholy day;
Dropt her dark cowl on each devoted head,
That o'er the breathing Corse a pall eternal spread.

This gentle Pair no glooms of thought infest,
Nor Bigotry, nor Envy's sullen gleam
Shed withering influence on the effort blest,
Which most shou'd win the other's dear esteem,
By added knowledge, by endowment high,
By Charity's warm boon, and Pity's soothing sigh.

Then how shou'd Summer-day or Winter-night,
Seem long to them who thus can wing their hours!
O! ne'er may Pain, or Sorrow's cruel blight,
Breathe the dark mildew thro' these lovely bowers,
But lengthen'd Life subside in soft decay,
Illum'd by rising Hope, and Faith's pervading ray.

May one kind ice-bolt, from the mortal stores,
Arrest each vital current as it flows,
That no sad course of desolated hours
Here vainly nurse the unsubsiding woes!
While all who honor Virtue, gently mourn
LLANGOLLEN'S VANISH'D PAIR, and wreath their sacred urn.

Wow. That’s kind of over the top, isn’t it?

Other visitors were novelist Lady Caroline Lamb, who was a Ponsonby by birth, as well as her lover, poet Lord Byron. Visiting writers included Percy Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth who wrote the following sonnet in their garden:

A stream, to mingle with your favorite Dee,
Along the Vale of Meditation flows;
So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see
In Nature’s face the expression of repose;
Or haply there some pious hermit chose
To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;
To whom the wild, sequestered region owes,
At this late day, its sanctifying name,
Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed cot,
On Deva’s banks ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Even on this earth, above the reach of time!

Their visitors were not confined to the world of literature. The Duke of Wellington visited, as well as industrialist Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgwood china fame. Queen Charlotte wanted to visit them to see their cottage and was sent a plan of their garden, and although that august visit never took place, the queen was instrumental in granting them a pension to supplement the funds they received from their families.

But not all their guests were celebrities. Eleanor’s journal records visits from and to local neighbors among the gentry with the sorts of entertainments common in such households. Here’s an excerpt:

My beloved and I went to Hardwick.... Mr. Kynaston met us at the hall door. In the hall we found Mrs. Kynaston, our Barretts, Miss Davies, the three Miss Piggotts of Undervale, Miss Vaughan of Oteley Park, Miss Charlotte Istoyede, Miss Webb, a little Pigott girl, Dr. Boyd, Mr. Blakeway of Shrewsbury. ... Drank tea in the cottage. Miss Webb spoke two prologues, a scene between Alicia and Jane Shore, the first scene in Lady Randolph, I mean Douglas. Most divinely she looked and spoke, and I pronounce that for beauty and manner I seldom behold her equal.

It also seems that the fame of Plas Newydd did not always mean that Ponsonby and Butler cared to be available to entertain personally. There are many diary entries of the following type.

Compliments from Mr. and Mrs. Pope and Miss Saville desiring to see the Cottage and the Shrubbery. They came. Saw them from the State bedchamber window whither we retired till they were gone.

The ladies enjoyed visitors but they also enjoyed their privacy, and not only that but the social customs of the time meant that a visit generally required a personal reference from someone the ladies already knew and trusted. Thus we come to the first of an intriguing set of entries in 1822 in the diaries of Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister. If you’re listening to this podcast, I expect I don’t need to explain who Anne Lister was.

Tuesday June 11, Halifax - Wrote three pages of my letter to Isabel Dalton...mentioned also my aunt and I taking a fortnight’s tour in Wales and wished they knew anyone acquainted with Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby.

Friday June 28, Halifax - Looking over Marianne’s letters of 1820 fancying it was then she and Lou took their two little tours in Wales. Found, however, that it was in June 1817. Took out her two letters descriptive and mean to take these with us when we go. ... Marianne and...asked several questions what she gave the gardener for shewing Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s grounds at Llangollen, etc.

The Marianne referred to here is Anne’s long-time, and married, lover. The woman she hoped and still at that point hopes to spend her life with.

Monday July 1, Halifax - Letter from Isabella Dalton. Her father says no introduction to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby will be necessary. “Any literary person especially calling on them would be taken as a compliment.”

Anne, accompanied by her aunt, left on their trip on July 11, had a brief assignation in Chester with Marianne, and then arrived in Llangollen two days later.

Saturday July 13, Llangollen - Got here, the King’s Head, New Hotel, Llangollen, patronized by Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, in four and a half hours. Beautiful drive from Chester to Wrexham. It was market day and the town seemed very busy. Beautiful drive, also, from Wrexham here but I was perhaps disappointed with the first couple of miles of the vale of Llangollen. The hills naked of wood and the white limestone quarries on our left certainly not picturesque. About three miles from Llangollen, when Castle Dinas Bran came in sight, we were satisfied of the beauties of the valley but the sun was setting on the castle and so dazzled our eyes we could scarce look that way.

The inn, kept by Elizabeth Davies, is close to the bridge and washed by the river Dee. We are much taken with our hostess and with the place. Have had an excellent roast leg of mutton, and trout, and very fine port wine, with every possible attention. ... We sat down to dinner at 8:30, having previously strolled through the town to Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s place. There is a public road close to the house, through the grounds, and along this we passed and re-passed standing to look at the house, cottage, which is really very pretty. A great many of the people touched their hats to us on passing and we are much struck with their universal civility. A little girl, seeing us apparently standing to consider our way, shewed us the road to Plas Newys (Lady Eleanor Butler’s and Miss Ponsonby’s), followed and answered our several questions very civilly. A little boy then came and we gave each of them all our halfpence, 2 pence each.

After dinner...wrote the following note, ‘To the Right Honourable Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, Plasnewyd. Mrs and Miss Lister take the liberty of presenting their compliments to Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, and of asking permission to see their grounds at Plas Newyd in the course of tomorrow morning. Miss Lister, at the suggestion of Mr. Banks, had intended herself the honour of calling on her ladyship and Miss Ponsonby, and hopes she may be allowed to express her very great regret at hearing of her ladyship’s indisposition.’ ... The message returned was that we should see the grounds at 12 tomorrow. This will prevent our going to church, which begins at 11 and will not be over till after 1. The service is principally in Welsh except the lesson and sermon every 2nd Sunday, and tomorrow is the English day. Lady Eleanor Butler has been couched. She ventured out too soon and caught cold. Her medical man Mr Lloyd Jones positively refuses her seeing anyone. Her cousin, Lady Mary Ponsonby, passed through not long ago and did not see her.

They did indeed visit the gardens that next day and then traveled some more in the vicinity, seeing Conway castle and Mount Snowdon, had dinner and listened to a Welsh harper in Caernarvon, among other sights, before returning to Llangollen.

Tuesday July 23, Llangollen - A drop or two of rain just after setting off and a shower for about the third mile from Llangollen. Heavy rain just after we got in. Mrs. Davies received us at the door and came into our rooms to answer our inquiries after Lady Eleanor Butler. Mrs Davies was called up at one last night and they thought her ladyship would have died. She was, however, rather better this morning. The physician does not seem to apprehend danger but Mrs Davies is alarmed and spoke of it in tears. Miss Ponsonby, too, is alarmed and ill herself, on this account. Pain in her side. ‘She is a lady,’ said Mrs Davies, ‘of very strong ideas; but this would grieve her too.’ Mrs Davis had only known them 13 or 14 years, during which time she had lived at this house but she had always seen them ‘so attached, so amiable together,’ no two people ever lived more happily. They like all the people about them, are beloved by all and do a great deal of good. Lady Eleanor has the remains of beauty. Miss Ponsonby was a very fine woman. Lady Eleanor Butler about 80. Miss Ponsonby 10 or 12 years younger. The damp this bad account cast upon my spirits I cannot describe. I am interested about these two ladies very much. There is a something in their story and in all I have heard about them here that, added to other circumstances, makes a deep impression.

...Mrs Davis just returned. Brought a good account of her ladyship and a message of thanks for our inquiries from Miss Ponsonby, who will be glad to see me this evening to thank me in person. Shall go about six or seven, just after dinner. This is more than I expected. ... At seven, went to Plasnewydd and got back at eight. Just an hour away and surely the walking there and back did not take more than 20 minutes. Shewn into the room next the library, the breakfast room, waiting a minute or two and then came Miss Ponsonby.

A large woman so as to waddle in walking but though not taller than myself. In a blue, shortish-waisted cloth habit, the jacket unbuttoned shewing a plain plaited frilled habit shirt--a thick white cravat, rather loosely put on--hair powdered, parted, I think, down the middle in front, cut a moderate length all round and hanging straight, tolerably thick. The remains of a very fine face. Coarsish white cotton stockings. Ladies slipper shoes cut low down, the foot hanging a little over. Altogether a very odd figure. Yet she had no sooner entered into conversation than I forgot all this and my attention was wholly taken by her manners and conversation. The former, perfectly easy, peculiarly attentive and well, and bespeaking a person accustomed to a great deal of good society. Mild and gentle, certainly not masculine, and yet there was a je-ne-sais-quoi striking. Her conversation shewing a personal acquaintance with most of the literary characters of the day and their works.

She seemed sanguine about Lady Eleanor’s recovery. Poor soul! My heart aches to think how small the chance. ... Mentioned the beauty of the place--the books I had noticed in the rustic library. She said Lady Eleanor read French, Spanish, and Italian--had great knowledge of ancient manners and customs, understood the obsolete manners and phrases of Tasso remarkably well. Had written elucidatory notes on the 1st 2 or 4, I think, books of Tasso, but had given away the only copy she ever had. Contrived to ask if they were classical. ‘No,’ said she. ‘Thank God from Latin and Greek I am free.’ [Anne records their further discussion of classical literature in great detail for another couple of paragraphs, which I shall skip.]

She asked if I would walk out. Shewed me the kitchen garden. Walked round the shrubbery with me. She said she owned to their having been 42 years there. They landed first in South Wales, but it did not answer the accounts they had heard of it. They then travelled in North Wales and, taken with the beauty of this place, took the cottage for 31 years, but it was a false lease and they had had a great deal of trouble and expense. It was only 4 years since they had bought the place. Dared say I had a much nicer place at home. Mentioned its situation, great age, long time in the family, etc. She wished to know where to find an account of it. Said it had been their humble endeavour to make the place as old as they could. Spoke like a woman of the world about my liking the place where I was born, etc. Said I was not born there. My father was a younger brother but that I had the expectation of succeeding my uncle. ‘Ah yes,’ said she, ‘you will soon be the master and there will be an end of romance.’ ‘Never! Never!’ said I. I envied their place and the happiness they had had there. Asked if, dared say, they had never quarreled. ‘No!’ They had never had a quarrel. Little differences of opinion sometimes. Life could not go on without it, but only about the planting of a tree, and when they differed in opinion, they took care to let no one see it.

At parting, shook hands with her and she gave me a rose. I said I should keep it for the sake of the place where it grew. She had before said she should be happy to introduce me some time to Lady Eleanor. I had given my aunt’s compliments and inquiries. Said she would have called with me but feared to intrude and was not quite well this evening. She, Miss Ponsonby, gave me a sprig of geranium for my aunt with her compliments and thanks for her inquiries. Lady Eleanor was asleep while I was there. Miss Ponsonby had been reading to her, Adam Blair, the little book recommended to me by Marianne at Chester. I had told Miss Ponsonby I had first seen an account of them in La Belle Assemblie a dozen years ago and had longed to see the place ever since. ... I came away much pleased with Miss Ponsonby and sincerely hoping Lady Eleanor will recover to enjoy a few more years in this world.

I know not how it is, I felt low after coming away. A thousand moody reflections occurred, but again, writing has done me good ... I mean to dry and keep the rose Miss Ponsonby gave me.

Anne and her aunt left Llangollen the next day and were back in Halifax three days later. But her visit lingered in her thoughts.

Monday July 29, Halifax - Crossed the first page of the first sheet written to Marianne yesterday. Determined to send it this morning, that she may have an account of our arrival at home. ... The ends of my paper contain the following, ‘Charmed as I am with the landscape and loveliness of the country, I do not envy it for home. I should not like to live in Wales--but, if it must be so and I could choose the spot, it should be Plasnewydd at Llangollen, which is already endeared even to me by the association of ideas....’

And then several days later, Anne recounts Marianne’s response:

She seems much interested about Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby and I am agreeably surprised (never dreaming of such a thing) at her observation, ‘The account of your visit is the prettiest narrative I have read. You have at once excited and gratified my curiosity. Tell me if you think their regard has always been platonic and if you ever believed pure friendship could be so exalted. If you do, I shall think there are brighter amongst mortals than I ever believed there were.’ [Anne then adds her own thoughts in conclusion.] I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic. Heaven forgive me, but I look within myself and doubt. I feel the infirmity of our nature and hesitate to pronounce such attachments uncemented by something more tender still than friendship. But much, or all, depends upon the story of their former lives, the period passed before they lived together, that feverish dream called youth.

Anne Lister had experienced regard for and from women that was definitely other than platonic. And given her failure to secure a life together with Marianne, one can understand her fascination with the life that Butler and Ponsonby had succeeded in building for themselves.

Did Anne Lister have an accurate insight into Butler and Ponsonby’s relationship? Or were her observations wishful thinking--the “association of ideas” that she mentions? There is nothing in Butler and Ponsonby’s own journals that comes close to the frank sexuality of Lister’s diaries. There is a great deal of physical affection and they constantly used the language of marriage to describe their relationship, which was a common characteristic of romantic friendships. In that case, does it matter what the nature of their physical relationship was? In Lillian Faderman’s study of romantic friendship, she puts a great deal of weight on the question of sexual activity--that is, sexual activity of the sort that Lister clearly was enjoying. And from the other side, a great many people have invested in the notion that to suggest that Butler and Ponsonby were lesbians would be to besmirch their memory. Their contemporary and eventual neighbor, Hester Thrale-Piozzi had rather harsh things to say about any lady “suspected for liking her own sex in a criminal way” and considered herself expert at identifying and calling out women of that sort. She enjoyed a long comfortable friendship with the Ladies that would appear to contradict any suspicion in that direction, and yet later in life, in an obscure diary entry, Hester referred to the two as “damned Sapphists.” A curious contradition.

Ponsonby and Butler were aware of the possibility that their relationship might be interpreted in scandalous terms. In 1790, an article about them in the General Evening Post described the pair in terms that evoked stereotypes of a butch-like “mannish” partner and her more conventionally feminine companion.

Miss Butler is tall and masculine, she wears always a riding habit, hangs her hat with the air of a sportsman in the hall, and appears in all respects as a young man, if we except the petticoats which she still retains. Miss Ponsonby, on the contrary, is polite and effeminate, fair and beautiful. They live in neatness, elegance and taste. Two females are their only servants. Miss Ponsonby does the duties and honours of the house, while Miss Butler superintends the gardens and the rest of the grounds.

The description is particularly curious given that sketches and descriptions of them by those who knew the pair show them as both dressing almost identically in riding habits, with somewhat antiquated powdered hair and tall hats. But Eleanor was disturbed enough by the implications of this description that she sought legal advice from a friend regarding the advisability of bringing suit. The friend’s advice suggested that it was better to ignore the matter rather than to call more attention to it. But one can’t necessarily take Eleanor’s response as evidence of “innocence” of the implication. Legal action with regard to one’s reputation was a matter of what one allowed to be said, not about truth and falsehood. If Butler and Ponsonby knew that the private details of their life would not bear public scrutiny, that would be all the more reason to take action against those who suggested it.

Since I chose this topic, in part, because of my own personal engagement with the Ladies of Llangollen, I’ll offer my position that the question of the precise nature of their relationship is unimportant. The shape of their lives is a lesbian-like shape: they eloped together, swearing to spend their lives together--an oath that they were lucky enough to carry out. They called each other beloved and spouse. Their friends accepted and celebrated their union as being the equivalent of marriage. To suggest that an absence of sex from their lives makes their union less of a marriage is a slap in the face to many couples today for whom sex is not the defining characteristic of their lives. To suggest that the presence of sex in their lives somehow besmirches and degrades their memory is a slap in the face to all the people who have fought for the legal and social right to enjoy the sexual relationships they choose.

The Ladies of Llangollen are lesbian icons, not because of how they would or would not identify themselves, but because of that “association of ideas” that Anne Lister so eloquently identified. Because of what they represent for us and for our place in history.


Sources for the Texts

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018 - 07:00

Life and work have been so chaotic this past week that I somehow managed to space out on Monday's usual go-live for the LHMP blog! So here it is on a Wednesday instead. (Making a lie of my reference in this week's podcast that it was published on Monday, of course. Such is the life of a poster of pre-scheduled material.)

I chose this article to highlight for the 200th entry in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast because Welsh history and language have always been a deep love of mine, and because I’ve longed for someone to address queer female themes in Welsh literature so that I could include them. The material is, alas, scanty. And the inescapable male focus of both the surviving queer Welsh material and the modern context in which Mihangel Morgan is discussing it in this article is frustrating. It matters if those developing a vocabulary for queerness within their language and culture focus on terms that not only historically, but semantically, prioritize the male experience and ignore or erase the female experience. It matters if one argues for the adoption of a queer-equivalent term like cadiffan that has always specifically meant “an effeminate or homosexual man, or a man cross-dressing as a woman” in preference to a term like hoyw (lively, spritely, gay, elegant, splendid), which has always historically been gender-neutral in its application, even skewing a bit toward use for women. (The title and reference in my Mabinogi-inspired short story Hoywverch draws on this play of meaning: one character improvises a verse addressing the other as hoywverch following poetic convention, but my use of the word is to celebrate and reflect the modern adoption of hoyw to mean “gay” in the inclusive sense.)

But I don’t want to focus only on criticism of approach. Morgan is examining the topic of queer historical heritage in very much the same way that the Project does: finding and discussing material with queer possibilities, even when those possibilities exist far more in the modern imagination than in the historic material. The point is, the material exists and the possibilities exist, and it’s important to struggle against the conservative academic reflex to explain it all away with non-queer interpretations.

One of the contexts for my interest in Welsh history has been via historic re-creation within the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Expressing queer identity--and especially trying to re-create queer lives--within this type of group has not always been comfortable or welcome. My experience of the SCA was that it imposed a requirement of “compulsory symbolic heterosexuality” that was even more intense than that of the modern world I was trying to escape. So I was always delighted to be able to bring in scraps of historic queerness, such as reciting excerpts from Huw Arwystli’s poem, “The slender shapely maid prefers her business with her girlfriend than her boyfriend, she prefers desire for a girl than a boy,” with the full force of historic authenticity behind them. I wish I’d known then about the poem about the salmon love-messenger from Margaret Harry to Jane Owain. I would have memorized it and recited it at every campfire!

If anyone is interested in following up on some of the sex-focused poetry mentioned in this article, I highly recommend the following: Johnston, Dafydd.  1991.  Canu Maswedd yr Oesoedd Canol - Medieval Welsh Erotic Poetry.  Tafol, Cardiff.  ISBN  0-9517181-0-X. It seems to have had a revised 2nd edition in 1998 but is not currently in print.

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Full citation: 

Morgan, Mihangel. 2016. “From Huw Arwystli to Siôn Eirian: Representative Examples of Cadi/Queer Life from Medieval to Twentieth-century Welsh Literature” in Queer Wales: The History, Culture and Politics of Queer Life in Wales. Huw Osborne (ed). University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-7831-6863-7

Publication summary: 

An article reviewing plausibly queer themes in Welsh literature, with a discussion of the creation of a vocabulary for queer identities in modern Welsh.

[Note: I’ll be including additional data and discussion of some of the vocabulary discussed in this article for my readers. The original article was written for an audience that is assumed to have a familiarity--perhaps even fluency--in the Welsh language. I think it’s not entirely self-serving to think that my PhD in Welsh historical linguistics might be excuse enough to think I can bridge that gap for my readers. Additional discussions of historic vocabulary are taken from the Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (University of Wales Dictionary, University of Wales press, Cardiff), a comprehensive historic dictionary of the language.]

Morgan takes on the entirety of queer literary history in Welsh in a single article. He starts with a review of terminology for various flavors of queer identities, to counter the claim made that Welsh is lacking in a vocabulary for the topic--including a claim made in the Welsh literary magazine Taliesin that there’s ddim gair Cymraeg boddhaol am ‘gay’ hyd yn oed (no satisfactory word for ‘gay’ in Welsh yet). Morgan points out that this lament says more about the lack of status accorded to the native vocabulary that Welsh has--and has long had--for non-normative gender and sexuality.

[Note: There’s another unnoticed lack even in Morgan’s review of terms such as gwrywgydiwr (one-who-copulates-with-men) or hoyw (lively, spritely, gay), which is the almost exclusive focus on the male point of view, not only in his discussion, but in the historic material it’s based on. After all, a heterosexual woman could, technically, be described as a gwrywgydiwr, except to the extent that cydio--to copulate--is typically treated as having a male agent by default.]

Gwrywgydiwr at least has the virtue of time-in-grade, having been used by William Salesbury in his 1547 translation of the Bible for the term in 1 Corinthians 6:9 that is rendered “sodomite” in English translations. [Note: Gwrywgydiwr has no citations earlier than Salesbury’s Biblical translation but seems to be used regularly after that in religious contexts where “sodomite” would be used in English. Related forms such as the abstract noun gwrywgydiad “sodomy, homosexuality” or gwrywgydio “to commit sodomy, to commit a homosexual act” are found by the early 18th century.]

The use of hoyw is less clear in terms of its lineage for sexuality. It was adopted as an equivalent for “gay” in the late 1960s and 1970s, but sex-adjacent uses in older literature are more diffuse in implication, such as in Huw Arwystli’s phrase gwidw hoyw (“hoyw” widow) in a 16th century poem discussed below, where it is often interpreted as something like “lusty”. But in this ambiguous evolution, it closely parallels the fairly modern evolution of “gay” from a general sense of performative effusiveness to a more specific sense of queerness. [Note: Hoyw has a long history in Welsh, showing up in some of the earliest surviving texts and appearing consistently thereafter, though with some general shifts in semantic field. In general, it is a positive descriptor, conveying a sense of energy and motion, often translated with words like “sprightly, lively, vivacious, cheerful”. It is often applied in medieval love poetry to the girl who is the object of the poet’s affection. Because of the somewhat diffuse cluster of senses it has in early records, it can be difficult to pin down the introduction of possible senses having to do with sexuality. Some triangulation can be made when the word is glossed in another language or in dictionary entries. William Salesbury’s 1588 dictionary renders it in English as “jolly” though the correspondences it’s used for in his Biblical translation are all over the map. In the 17th century it becomes common as an attribute of clothing and appearance, with a sense of “splendid, elegant”. But I can’t find any example or related word with a clear reference to sexuality within the dictionary citations, which tend to stick to pre-20th century material. And my impression is that the adoption of hoyw as an equivalent for “gay” was a self-conscious innovation of the later 20th century.]

Morgan points out the oldest known citations for several other terms which are parallel with the development of English vocabulary, at least on an order-of-magnitude scale. Gwryw-fenywaidd, meaning variously “bisexual” or “hermaphrodite” can be found as early as 1866. [Note: The dictionary entry seems to imply this citation refers to a botanical or zoological meaning “able to self-fertilize” so I’d be hesitant to claim it as used for human behavior at that date. The etymology is “male+female+abstract noun suffix”.]

Deuryw to mean “bisexual” can be found in 1604. [Note: the word derives from “two+kinds” but the second element, while it means very generally “sort, class, type, family, group” was picked up for the meaning “gender (grammatical or biological)” by at least the early 16th century. While the compound deuryw “of two/both kinds” is found in non-gender-related senses as early as the 14th century, the 1604 citation mentioned here is noted as being biology-related and the specific use is glossing the Latin bigeneris which means “cross-bred from two species”. By the 18th century, both deuryw and related words are being glossed “androgynous, epicene”, so with a sense of “partaking of both genders”. But I don’t see any citations that mean “bisexual” in the sense of “attracted to more than one gender” in these pre-20th century examples, except by implication that a bi-gendered person would naturally be attracted to both “opposite” sexes.]

The term cyfunrhywiol which is used today to mean “homosexual” can be found in 1785. [Note: Once more we have an over-eager interpretation here, though Morgan’s statement is technically correct. Cyfunrhywiol derives from cyf+un+rhyw+iol “together+same+type/kind/sort+adjectival suffix” which builds the literal meaning given for the 1785 citation: “of the same kind or sort, homogeneous, uniform.” Rhyw has a broad scope of meaning as noted above, and specific gender/sex-related senses have never been the primary use. The specific text example for the 1785 date is Canu’r holl bennillion yn gyfunryw “sing the entire verse in unison” which is quite a distance from a sexual meaning. I point out all these details, not to undermine the thrust of Morgan’s argument--because Welsh is simply behaving like every other language in taking up words with pre-existing unrelated meanings and applying them to sexual senses--but to make it clear that Welsh did not have the modern concepts of bisexuality and homosexuality in the 16th century any more than English did.]

Morgan’s point is that Welsh has an existing vocabulary, if one is willing to let go of the notion that English is the central and default language of the topic. But even Welsh speakers working in queer theory and writing in the Welsh language give the impression of feeling embarrassed to use that existing vocabulary, as when Dafydd James balks at using cadiffanllyd to describe his work in “queer theory”.

Yet cadi in the sense of transgressive gender and sexuality has a much longer history than “queer” in the sense of “homosexual”. [Note: I feel that Morgan is stacking the deck a bit here, because queer has been used for a diffuse sense of transgressiveness much longer than it’s been used specifically to mean homosexual.] Deriving originally from the feminine given name Catrin (Catherine), it picked up a sense of performative femininity in the same way that “Nancy” or “Molly” did in English. [Note: I’m not sure if Morgan is ignoring the connection between Molly as meaning an effeminate man and the Latin mollis (soft) used widely in the same sense, or if his sources simply don't make that connection. Though the existence of the feminine name Molly almost certainly helped it along as a slang term.]

In Welsh, the use of Cadi to mean an effeminate man, a sissy, or a man cross-dressing in seasonal theatricals such as May Day dances dates back to 1600-1630. [Note: This is an accurate rendering of the dictionary entry. Cross-dressing in seasonal performances (most often men dressed as women) dates much earlier than 1600 and was associated with Carnival in Catholic cultures. Compare also to the Robin Hood plays in which the Maid Marion character was traditionally a cross-dressed actor. While cadi itself could mean “an effeminate man, a sissy”, the compound cadi ffan that emphasizes this specific meaning has its earliest citation in the 19th century.]

The transfer of such terminology from slang, to everyday vocabulary, to technical academic terminology is simply a matter of practice and acceptance. Some academics have begun this process, as in Richard Crowe’s discussion of cross-cultural parallels for various historic Welsh gender/sexuality traditions, in which he references the Cadi Haf tradition (the “May Cadi”, a festival figure who dresses half-male half-female), makes a bilingual pun on the word “camp” in the Mabinogi (where it means “a feat, an achievement”), and discusses the concept labeled sgwarnogrwydd (hare-like-ness) by Twm Morys [Note: I’m guessing it would be this Twm Morys] with Crowe concluding by casually using the term hoywder (gayness). [Note: the “hare” reference invokes animal-related folklore dating back to classical times in which the hare was reputed to be either hermaphroditical or homosexual or both.]

Now we plunge into the Welsh literary tradition to find examples of that hoywder, beginning with the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi (composed ca. 1200), in which two sons of King Math fab Mathonwy are magically transformed in sex and species (as punishment for performing and abetting rape) such that each alternately in turn spends a year as a female creature (deer, pig, wolf) to his brother’s male of the species, and bears a child in that form.

Most of the historical examples adduced here are less clear and overt, though. And Morgan discusses the necessary inclusion of possibilities, rather than certainties--a “queer historical touch” as discussed by Carolyn Dinshaw, to find connection in the past. For that, it is necessary to discard presumptive heterosexuality and to give potential queer readings of the material an equal standing with potential straight readings.

The motif of deep and intense same-sex friendships in medieval romance is a fertile ground for such readings, as in the story Kedymdeithyas Amlyn ac Amic (The Friendship of Amlyn and Amig) dating at least as early as the early 14th century. (This is an adaptation of an international tale, known in English as Amis and Amiloun.) The story involves two men who, although unrelated, have twin-like characteristics: born at the same time and identical in appearance. They become fast friends as children, sharing food and drink, and sleeping in the same bed, but then are separated. When reunited as adults, they swear an oath of friendship and each undertakes significant (and sometimes horrific) sacrifices for the other’s sake.

Queer interpretations of intense same-sex friendships are a regular theme, even when the friendships are asymmetrical in terms of social status. Morgan cites Peter Busse’s article “The Poet as Spouse of his Patron: Homoerotic Love in Medieval Welsh and Irish Poetry” that pulls examples both from the earliest known poets (Aneirin and Taliesin in the 6th century) and those of the medieval period (Cynddelw in the 12th century, Dafydd ap Gwilym in the 15th) that illustrate intense emotional bonds between poet and patron. One example is this excerpt from a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym for his patron Ifon Hael:

...Fy mod ers talm, salm Selyf
Yn caru dyn uwch Caerdyf
Nid salw na cham fy namwain,
Nid serch ar finrhasgl ferch fain,
Mawrserch Ifor a’m goryw,
Mwy no serch ar ordderch yw.
Serch Ifor a glodforais,...

(...I have now been a while courting a being near Cardiff. No fortune ugly or perverse is mine, no love for slender smooth-lipped girl, but I am overwhelmed with love for Ifor, More than the love of any girl it is. I have celebrated Ifor’s love...)

One striking feature of this verse is the prominence of the word serch for “love” (six times in all, though I only quote four of them) compared to caru (here translated as “court” but more directly meaning “love”). Welsh has two basic verbs for love where serch has an implcation of “eros” (sexual love) while caru is used more neutrally not only for romantic love but for the love of family and friends.

Another praise poem  by Guto’r Glyn from a similar era uses the language of marriage (priodas) for the bond between poet and patron, noting that it was different from the marriage of man and woman, being “without jealousy.” Poems of this type were part of public culture and can be interpreted as expressing sentiments that would not have been considered shocking or unacceptable. Although they may well have been understood metaphorically, as many modern scholars insist, the literal wording creates space for imagining queer relationships.

Morgan’s analysis so far has been overwhelmingly masculine (to the point where terminology like gwrywgydiwr or cadi can only be viewed as queer if understood through the male gaze), but he suggests queer possibilities in the words of one of the few female poets whose work has survived from the medieval period, Gwerful Mechain (later 15th century), whose works reflect an earthy, woman-centered, sex-positive sensibility.

[Note: I find interesting parallels between this analysis of Gwerful’s poetry with that of some of the female troubadour poets from several centuries earlier, in the ways they challenged male-centered tropes in romantic poetry to demand a more egalitarian and realistic relationship between the sexes.]

Some of her pieces are satires on standard poetic tropes, such as the popular motif of male poets railing against “jealous husbands” of the women they desire, turning her verses instead on “jealous wives”. But the most striking and sexually explicit poem left by her is a praise-poem to female genitals: Cywydd y Cedor (probably best translated as “Ode to the Cunt” in parallel with Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Cywydd y Gal or “Ode to the Penis”, which it may have been a direct response to). [Note: The tradition of praise-poems for objects began in the early middle ages as part of the economics of poetic patronage, where poets would extravagantly praise objects that they hoped their patrons would bestow on them in payment for their poems (e.g., horses, jewelry, garments). But in the later middle ages, with the erosion of the patronage system (which women like Gwerful don’t appear to have had access to anyway), the form was generalized to other objects.]

Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Cywydd a Gal operates as a self-mocking boast, wherein the poet describes the magnificence of his organ while complaining about all the trouble it gets him into. Gwerful Mechain’s Cywydd a Cedor parodies this format to some extent, but also serves to scold male poets for praising a woman’s appearance--her hair, her clothing, her figure--while ignoring the most important parts relevant to a sexual relationship: [y]r plas lle’r enillir plant, a’r cedor clyd...lle carwn i, cywrain iach, y cedor dan y cadach. (The place where children are conceived, the warm cunt...where I loved, in perfect health, the cunt below the smock.)

Gwerful’s poetry expresses a forthright sex-positive attitude regarding women’s bodies. As Morgan notes, “she sings from the female body to the female body. ... She connects with other women, empathizes through herself with them.” [Note: I’m less willing than he is to claim that Cywydd y Cedor is “an expression of love between women” as opposed to being an expression of love for one’s own female physicality. Morgan admits that the poem’s references to sexual activity are all between men and women, just as Dafydd ap Gwilym’s penis poem glorifies his heterosexual exploits.]

This is not the only medieval Welsh poem with imagery of love between women, though. Another popular poetic form was that of the llatai or “love messenger”, in which the poet addresses an object, creature, or other human being who is requested to bear the expressions of his (or her) desire to the beloved. Typically in a llatai poem, the poet begins with extravagant praise of the messenger itself, and then moves on to the request.

In the poem Cywydd i yrru gleisiad yn llatai oddi wrth ferch at ferch arall (Ode to send a salmon as love-messenger from one girl to another girl) it is the context of the sender and recipient that introduces queer sensibility--quite explicitly this time. (The llatai always operates within the context of romantic and sexual love.) And in the text of the poem, we get an entire little love-story: the poet sends the salmon to dos i drin fy nghyfrinach (go deal with my secret), going to Siân Owain (Jane Owain) who used to be Siân Griffith, a maiden who used to be free but is now dan ben yr iau (under the yoke [of marriage]). She broke with Marged Harri (Margaret Harry) who presumably represents the narrative voice of the poem, and who was previously fel chwaer i mi (like a sister to me). Giving up the freedom of love between women for the restrictions of heterosexual marriage. [Note: I’m going to have to track down the full original of this poem, since I’ve never encountered it before.]

Another poem with overtly queer imagery is Huw Arwystli’s 16th century poem about “a boy dressed as a girl”, in which the poet simultaneously expresses attraction to the subject’s feminine appearance while being aware of the contrast with her anatomy, yet always using female pronouns and grammatical constructions. And to further complicate the depiction, the subject of the poem is described as desiring women:

Gwell gan dda’i llun, fun feinwar,
neges â’i chares no’i char.
gwell genti serch merch no mab

(The slender shapely maid prefers her business with her female-beloved than her male-beloved. She prefers desire for a girl to a boy.) Regardless of other interpretative questions, the poem includes expressions of love and sexual desire from a female grammatical subject to a female grammatical object, which gives it an unerasable queerness.

Traditional scholarship treated this poem as simply depicting a boy in temporary female costume, aligning the language to the appearance, but assuming a steadfastly heterosexual desire. Perhaps a participant in play or a pageant. (Keep in mind that this is an era when female characters on stage were played by young male actors.) But reading the poem through a queer lens invites an interpretation that completely disrupts gender and sexuality expectations, depicting a trans woman with lesbian desires.

The remainder of Morgan’s article engages with 20th century literary depictions of homosexuality and how they supported or challenged homophobic attitudes. [Note: I’ll add one last grumble on gender imbalance in that Morgan notes the lesbian themes of prominent Welsh short story writer Kate Roberts, and then declines to examine them, saying, “so much good work has already been carried out on this important figure in queer Welsh literature” that he feels compelled to spend his attention instead on a male (of course) writer whom he considers a possible influence on Roberts’ work.]

Event / person: 
Tuesday, June 19, 2018 - 07:47

I offered to host guest-blogs for the LGBT+ SFF Storybundle that Melissa Scott organized this year -- only a little over a week left to take advantage of this great bundle! -- and she sent the following along for me to post. (It previously appeared on her own blog.)

I'm not sure if Mighty Good Road is the oldest book in this summer's LGBT+ Storybundle, but it's close: it was published in 1990, the last book I published with Baen. (Don't get me wrong, Baen didn't drop me because of queer content — or anything else, for that matter. I'd had a good run with Baen, but they weren't willing to match Tor's offer on Dreamships, and Betsy Mitchell, who had been my editor, had moved on - the usual publishing round.) Some things have held up pretty well — I think "interstellar trains" remains cool regardless — and other bits of the technology haven't, but one thing, I think, remains unusual. It's a novel with a queer protagonist in which queerness is in no way the focus of the story.

Gwynne Heikki is a lesbian, in a long-term, stable, happy relationship with her business partner, Marshallin Santerese. She's also half-owner (with her lover) of a salvage company, and as far as the story goes, that matters far more than her sexuality. That's not to say that her sexuality is erased; far from it! Everyone knows that she's half of a female couple, but their reactions to that depend on their feelings about her and Santerese as individuals, not on their feelings about queer people. Heikki is respected, and at times disrespected, for the complex person that she is.

And that, I think, is something that's still uncommon even in SF/F: a queer protagonist for whom queerness is part of a whole, another version of normal — where queerness is highly present, and a queer person is the point of view character, but queerness is not a contested social issue. Of course, SF/F is one of the best media for trying to imagine that, offering writers the freedom of every imaginable future and universe, but it's not been as common a choice as I had always expected. 

When I wrote Mighty Good Road, this seemed like a radical act of imagination: what would the world look like if there were no social conflict over being any flavor of queer? What would a queer woman look like if she had never been oppressed, either as a woman or a lesbian? There is, of course, always a place in literature to confront oppression, to show its effects and mourn out losses, but it is also valuable, I think, to imagine oppression’s absence, its utter defeat. I still believe we need to consider the question: what might the world look like — what might we look like — when we win?

--Melissa Scott

Major category: 
Saturday, June 16, 2018 - 08:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23c - Book Appreciation with Lise MacTague - (no transcript available)

(Originally aired 2018/06/16 - listen here)

In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.

In this episode Lise MacTague recommends some favorite queer historical novels:

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Thursday, June 14, 2018 - 08:10
2018 Storybundle Covers

Twice in the past, Melissa Scott has invited me to participate in a Storybundle promotion, which has been a great opportunity to reach new readers. But for readers, it's even a greater opportunity to try out authors you might not have encountered before in the company of authors you already love. I don't have a book in the Storybundle Melissa put together this year (it's focused on science fiction, which I haven't written...yet) but I'm pretty sure that my readers are likely to be interested in the sorts of books that she's included, so I offered to do some cross-promotion. Today I'm offering the basic Storybundle information and Melissa will be letting me echo a blog she wrote for the promotion. I've offered to cross-host material from other included authors, so we'll see what else comes in. Check out these books--I think you may find it a great deal!

Melissa writes:

Last year, I asked the folks at StoryBundle if I could do a queer fantasy bundle to celebrate Pride. They were more than happy to oblige, so this year I'm back with another queer-themed bundle for Pride, this one focussed on science fiction. Once again, there was an embarrassment of riches: I found dozens of new queer stories and as many writers for whom intelligent, sensitive, nuanced, queer writing is simply their normal range. Once again, there was no easy way to winnow things down to a dozen books.

So I've made some arbitrary decisions. First, no novels in which being queer means you're evil, nor any in which it's a doomed and tragic fate. There are places for the latter, but this is June and Pride Month, and I want to share books that celebrate queerness. I've also decided to focus on small press offerings, as they are more likely to be overlooked than books from the mainstream houses. I've tried to pick newer novels, and to reintroduce some older writers. Unfortunately, this didn't narrow things down very much at all. In the end, I went with books I loved, books that showed me new facets of the LGBT+ experience, books that made me feel proud of being queer, and of being an SF/F fan. This is an admittedly eclectic group — you'll find space opera, steampunk, cyberpunk, dystopian futures, a superhero novel, and the best lesbian zombie novel ever written (imho, anyway). There are books where sexuality matters profoundly, where it is literally life and death, and others where sexuality is an uncontested issue, books where sex is the heart of the story, books where sex stays off-screen, and books where sex is defined in very different ways, but these are all queer visions, visions that celebrate our multitudes, all written by authors at the top of their game. You'll also find a diverse group of characters, an equally diverse range of styles, and stories that will hold you entranced until the very last word.

I don't claim that this is the (or even "a") definitive LGBT+ collection. The field is far too large now for anyone to claim that. What I can promise is that this is a celebration of queerness, a range of stories — gay, lesbian, bi, trans, and just plain queer — that shows off some of the best writers working in science fiction today.

StoryBundle has always allowed its patrons to donate part of their payment to a related charity, and once again, we're supporting the Rainbow Railroad, a group helping LGBT people escape persecution and violence worldwide. If you choose, you can donate part of the bundle's price to them. They are currently concentrating on helping the victims of the attacks on gay men in Chechnya; your donation will be a potentially life-saving gift. – Melissa Scott

The initial titles in the The 2018 LGBT+ Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:

  • All Good Children by Dayna Ingram
  • The Remnant Fleet by Geonn Cannon
  • Smoketown by Tenea D. Johnson
  • Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
  • Murder on the Titania by Alex Acks

If you pay at least the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus EIGHT more!

  • Eat Your Heart Out by Dayna Ingram
  • Railroad Spine by Geonn Cannon
  • Sacred Band by Joseph D. Carriker, Jr.
  • Worlds Afire by Don Sakers
  • Mighty Good Road by Melissa Scott
  • Medusa's Touch by Emily L. Byrne
  • The Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron by A.C. Wise
  • Cythera by Jo Graham

This bundle is available only for a limited time via It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub and .mobi) for all books!

It's also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.

Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.

  • Get quality reads: We've chosen works from excellent authors to bundle together in one convenient package.
  • Pay what you want (minimum $5): You decide how much these fantastic books are worth. If you can only spare a little, that's fine! You'll still get access to a batch of exceptional titles.
  • Support authors who support DRM-free books: StoryBundle is a platform for authors to get exposure for their works, both for the titles featured in the bundle and for the rest of their catalog. Supporting authors who let you read their books on any device you want—restriction free—will show everyone there's nothing wrong with ditching DRM.
  • Give to worthy causes: Bundle buyers have a chance to donate a portion of their proceeds to Rainbow Railroad!
  • Receive extra books: If you beat the bonus price, you'll get the bonus books!
Major category: 
Monday, June 11, 2018 - 08:00

Since I created an "accidental mini-theme" of primary source documents in the current series of assorted journal articles and book excerpts, I thought I'd toss in a fascinating--if regularly offensive--source that is referenced in many works on the history of lesbianism. Brantôme's treatise is not intended to be a sober sociological study of women's same-sex relationships among his contemporaries in later 16th century France. The work is steeped in the male gaze and riddled through with patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes. But at the same time, it presents an unblinking look (indeed, an outright stare) at both the attitudes of elite men of that time, and most likely some version of the reality of women's lives. We also get information on the everyday language of sexuality, including clear examples of lesbienne used as a noun for the author's contemporaries (not simply an ambiguous reference to ancient Greeks who might or might not have been exclusively interested in same-sex love), and slang for various sex acts described in clear detail, such as tongue-kissing and tribadism. This is a different level of evidence than one gets from medical manuals or regurgitations of classical authors (though we get that as well).

The text also turns up some amusing surprises, such as the assertion that women used images of weasels (or even kept weasels as pets) to indicate their interest in same-sex love.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Brantôme (Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme). 1740. Vies des Dames Galantes. Garnier Frères, Libraires-Éditeurs, Paris.

Publication summary: 

An excerpt from a more extensive memoir about women of the 16th century French court.

Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme (commonly referred to as “Brantôme”) was a French writer of the 16th century. He was a soldier and courier and wrote several volumes of memoirs and biography, but the most well-known (or at least, notorious) section is known as Vies des Dames Galantes (The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies) which, contrary to the rather positive title, is a scurrilous gossip-rag focusing on women’s sexual escapades and especially on the topic of women cuckolding their husbands. Because, of course, this being a male writer working within the patriarchy, sex outside of marriage is all the fault of the woman and only women’s sexual escapades are worthy of condemnation. Though Brantôme couches his condemnation as back-handed praise at many points.

Within this text, there is an entire section exploring the question of whether women having sex with women can result in such cuckoldry. And although the discussion is framed with mockery and the assumption that sex between women could not possibly be as satisfying as sex involving a penis, Brantôme’s forthright and--let us go so far as to say pornographic--discussion of the subject provides evidence of beliefs about, and attitudes toward, women’s same-sex relations that would be hard to retrieve from other types of texts.

Brantôme’s memoirs were written toward the end of the 16th century he directed his heir to have them printed after his death. After various delays, this happened 1665-6. The French text below is taken from Project Gutenberg’s transcription linked here, which is based on an edition published in 1740. Project Gutenberg is an invaluable resource of crowd-sourced transcription and proofreading of public domain material, and I strongly encourage people to donate to support its efforts.

Because my French is not in the slightest up to producing my own translation of the work, I’ve used as my base text an English translation produced by A.R. Allinson (published in 1922, in public domain, and made available through the Internet Archive which, alas, does not involve the same high quality of proofreading as Project Gutenberg, but I’ve cleaned up the major issues in this version). For links see: volume 1 and volume 2. Allinson’s edition offers the following apologia regarding his translation choices:

“This very fine and accurate translation of The Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies was made by Mr. A. R. Allinson and because of its merit must be considered one of the great English translations, equalling in every quality those of the 16th and 17th centuries. The text of Brantome's great work is given practically complete in these volumes and the only modifications are based upon good taste and not on any fearful prudery. A few of Brantome's examples that illustrate his points belong more in a treatise on abnormal pathology than in a book of literary or historical interest and value, so nothing of any value is lost by omitting them. The rare charm, shrewd wisdom, amusing anecdote, literary merit and historical and social information will be appreciated by intelligent readers.”

One may triangulate on Mr. Allinson’s distinction between “good taste” and “fearful prudery” based on the sections he has left in the original French or omitted entirely and which I have supplied from other sources as noted. In addition to omitting or leaving in French the passages that contain explicit descriptions of sexual techniques, he regularly bowdlerizes or omits certain words, such as fricarelle (which can either generally refer to any sex act between two women, or to the specific act of rubbing the genitals together), instead making vague references to “doing this” or the like.

To make the relationship of the various texts clear, I’ve interleaved them at natural stopping places, in general based on the paragraph breaks in the Project Gutenberg edition. Each interleaved section will be separated by a line of asterisks. Within each section, I’ve used typeface to distinguish the sources as follows:

The 16th century French text (from Project Gutenberg) will be given in plain type (but including italics where the source has them). The English translation by Allinson (from will be given in bold type (but including italics where the source has them). The section(s) where Allinson has left the text in French or Latin, or where his translation is lacking, will be followed by a translation taken from some other source. These supplementary translations will be set off with {curly braces}, will also be in bold type, and will cite the specific source of the translation. The most common source for these additions will be Merrick & Ragan 2001 (Merrick, Jeffrey & Bryant T. Ragan, Jr. 2001. Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510257-6), which will be abbreviated “M&R”. Trivial translations of my own will be cited as “HRJ”. Other than these minor glosses, my own commentary will always be in a separate paragraph, will be in [square brackets], will be labeled with “HRJ comments”, and will always be in italics.

Confused yet? Here we go.

* * *

Si feray-je encore cette question, et puis plus, qui possible n'a point esté recherchée de tout le monde, ny possible songée: à sçavoir mon, si deux dames amoureuses l'une de l'autre, comme il s'est veu et se voit souvent aujourd'huy, couchées ensemble, et faisant ce qu'on dit, donna con donna, en imitant la docte Sapho lesbienne, peuvent commettre adultere, et entre elles faire leurs maris cocus. Certainement, si l'on veut croire Martial en son Ier livre, épigram. CXIX, elles commettent adultere; où il introduit et parle à une femme nommée Bassa, tribade, luy faisant fort la guerre de ce qu'on ne voyoit jamais entrer d'hommes chez elle, de sorte qu'on la tenoit pour une seconde Lucrèce: mais elle vint à estre descouverte, en ce que l'on y voyoit aborder ordinairement force belles femmes et filles; et fut trouvé qu'elle-mesme leur servoit et contrefaisoit d'homme et d'adultere, et se conjoignoit avec elles, et use de ces mots: geminos committere cunnos. Et puis s'escriant, il dit et donne à songer et deviner cette énigme par ce vers latin:

Hic ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium.

Voilà un grand cas, dit-il, que, là où il n'y a point d'homme, il y ait de l'adultere.

NOW will I further ask this one question only, and never another, one which mayhap hath never yet been enquired into of any, or possibly even thought of, to wit, whether two ladies that be in love one with the other, as hath been seen aforetime, and is often seen nowadays, sleeping together in one bed, and doing what is called donna con donna {HRJ: woman with woman}, imitating in fact that learned poetess Sappho, of Lesbos, whether these can commit adultery, and between them make their husbands cuckold. Of a surety do they commit this crime, if we are to believe Martial in Epigram CXIX of his First Book. Therein doth he introduce and speak of a woman by name Bassa, a tribad, reproaching the same greatly in that men were never seen to visit her, in such wise that folk deemed her a second Lucretia for chasteness. But presently she came to be discovered, for that she was observed to be constantly welcoming at her house beautiful women and girls; and 'twas found that she herself did serve these and counterfeit a man. And the poet, to describe this, doth use the words, geminos committere cunnos {HRJ: joining twin cunts}. And further on, protesting against the thing, he doth signify the riddle and give it out to be guessed and imagined, in this Latin line: Hie, ubi vir non est, ut sit adulterium, "a strange thing," that is, "that where no man is, yet is adultery done."

[HRJ: Here we get a full dose of historic context: Sappho, explicitly associated with sex between women, and the writings of classical Latin authors, as well as a slang phrase, evidently from Italian, for the act. This presents a clear image of a culture that is aware of same-sex possibilities and of a broader history for them. And Brantôme can be assumed to be referring to material that was in common knowledge among men of average learning, not only among serious scholars of the classics.]

* * *

J'ai cogneu une courtisanne à Rome, vieille et rusée s'il en fust oncques, qui s'appeloit Isabelle de Lune, Espagnolle, laquelle prit en telle amitié une courtisanne qui s'appeloit la Pandore, l'une des belles pour lors de tout Rome, laquelle vint à estre mariée avec un sommeiller de M. le cardinal d'Armaignac, sans pourtant se distraire de son premier mestier: mais cette Isabelle l'entretenoit, et couchoit ordinairement avec elle; et, comme desbordée et désordonnée en paroles qu'elle estoit, je luy ay souvent ouy dire qu'elle la rendoit plus putain, et lui faisoit faire des cornes à son mary plus que tous les ruffiants que jamais elle avoit eus. Je ne sçay comment elle entendoit cela, si ce n'est qu'elle se fondast sur cette épigramme de Martial.

I knew once a courtesan of Rome, old and wily if ever there was one, that was named Isabella de Luna, a Spanish woman, which did take in this sort of friendship another courtesan named Pandora. This latter was eventually married to a butler in the Cardinal d'Armaignac's household, but without abandoning her first calling. Now this same Isabella did keep her, and extravagant and ill-ordered as she was in speech, I have oft times heard her say how that she did cause her to give her husbands more horns than all the wild fellows she had ever had. I know not in what sense she did intend this, unless she did follow the meaning of the Epigram of Martial just referred to.

[HRJ: Although Brantôme introduces his anecdotes variously with “I knew” or “some say” or “I was told by so-and-so”, I think we can err on the side of caution and consider that the stories, while common gossip, need not always be taken for literal fact. Still, with this one anecdote, we see a snapshot of the sort of international culture he was dealing with. A Spanish courtesan living in Rome had a female lover who then married a servant of a French Cardinal (though perhaps also living in Rome at the time). Keeping this in mind, we need not assume that Brantôme’s observations apply only to French women.]

* * *

On dit que Sapho de Lesbos a esté une fort bonne maistresse en ce mestier, voire, dit-on, qu'elle l'a inventé, et que depuis les dames lesbiennes l'ont imitée en cela et continué jusques aujourd'huy, ainsi que dit Lucian, que telles femmes sont les femmes de Lesbos, qui ne veulent pas souffrir les hommes, mais s'approchent des autres femmes, ainsi que les hommes mesmes; et telles femmes qui aiment cet exercice ne veulent souffrir les hommes, mais s'adonnent à d'autres femmes, ainsi que les hommes mesmes, s'appellent tribades, mot grec dérivé, ainsi que j'ai appris des Grecs, de τρἱβω, τρἱβειν, qui est autant à dire que fricare, frayer, ou friquer, ou s'entrefrotter; et tribades se disent fricatrices, en françois fricatrices, ou qui font la friquarelle en mestier de donne con donne, comme l'on l'a trouvé ainsi aujourd'huy.

Tis said how that Sappho the Lesbian was a very high mistress in this art, and that in after times the Lesbian dames have copied her therein, and continued the practice to the present day. So Lucian saith: such is the character of the Lesbian women, which will not suffer men at all. Now such women as love this practice will not suffer men, but devote themselves to other women and are called tribads, a Greek word derived, as I have learned of the Greeks, from τριβο, τριβειν, {tribo, tribein} that is to say fricare. These tribads are called in Latin fricatrices, and in French the same, that is women who do the way of donne con donne, as it is still found at the present day. {HRJ: The translation has omitted a phrase and the whole should read, “...called fricatrices, in French fricatrices, or those who do the ‘fricarelle’ in the art of donne con donne...}

[HRJ: I’ll comment at various points about category labels and how they’re handled, since translations may be misleading about when and how certain vocabulary was in use. For example, here the original text has “Sappho of Lesbos” while Allinson translates it as “Sappho the Lesbian” which then becomes ambiguous regarding how “Lesbian” is intended to be understood.]

* * *

Juvenal parle aussi de ces femmes quand il dit: frictum Grissantis adorat, parlant d'une pareille tribade qui adoroit et aimoit la fricarelle d'une Grissante.

Le bon compagnon Lucian en fait un chapitre, et dit ainsi que les femmes viennent mutuellement à conjoindre comme les hommes, conjoignants des instruments lascifs, obscurs et monstrueux, faits d'une forme stérile, et ce nom, qui rarement s'entend dire de ces fricarelles, vacque librement partout, et qu'il faille que le sexe féminin soit Filenes, qui faisoit l'action de certaines amours hommasses. Toutesfois il adjouste qu'il est bien meilleur qu'une femme soit adonnée à une libidineuse affection de faire le masle, que n'est à l'homme de s'efféminer; tant il se monstre peu courageux et noble. La femme donc, selon cela, qui contrefait ainsi l'homme, peut avoir réputation d'estre plus valeureuse et courageuse qu'une autre, ainsi que j'en ay cogneu aucunes, tant pour leurs corps que pour l'ame.

Juvenal again speaks of these women, when he saith: ...frictum Grissantis adorat {HRJ: she loves the rubbing of Grissas} talking of such a tribad, who adored and loved the embraces of one Grissas. The excellent and diverting Lucian hath a chapter on this subject, and saith therein how that women do come mutually together. {HRJ: The translation omits “...come together like men, coupling with lascivious, secret, monstrous instruments made in a sterile form...} Moreover this name of tribad, which doth elsewhere occur but rarely as applied to these women, is freely employed by him throughout, and he saith that the female sex must needs be like the notorious Philaenis, who was used to parody the actions of manly love. At the same time he doth add, 'tis better far for a woman to be given up to a lustful affection for playing the male, than it is for a man to be womanish; so utterly lacking in all courage and nobility of character doth such an one show himself. Thus the woman, according to this, which doth counterfeit the man, may well be reputed to be more valorous and courageous than another, as in truth I have known some such to be, as well in body as in spirit.

[HRJ: In the translation “...loved the embraces of one Grissas...” the original, clearly sexual, word “fricarelle” has been rendered with the more tame “embraces”. We continue to be given a tour of the opinions and anecdotes of classical writers on the subject.]

* * *

En un autre endroit, Lucian introduit deux dames devisantes de cet amour; et une demande à l'autre si une telle avoit esté amoureuse d'elle, et si elle avoit couché avec elle, et ce qu'elle luy avoit fait. L'autre luy respondit librement. «Premièrement, elle me baisa ainsi que font les hommes, non pas seulement en joignant les levres, mais en ouvrant aussi la bouche, cela s'entend en pigeonne, la langue en bouche; et encore qu'elle n'eust point le membre viril, et qu'elle fust semblable à nous autres, si est-ce qu'elle disoit avoir le cœur, l'affection et tout le reste viril; et puis je l'embrassay comme un homme, et elle me le faisoit, me baisoit et allentoit (je n'entends point bien ce mot), et me sembloit qu'elle y prit plaisir outre mesure, et cohabita d'une certaine façon beaucoup plus agréable que d'un homme.» Voilà ce qu'en dit Lucian.

En un autre endroit, Lucien introduit deux dames devisantes de cet amour; et une demande a l'autre si une telle avait ete amoureuse d'elle, et si elle avait couche avec elle, et ce qu'elle lui avait fait. L'autre repondit librement: "Premierement, elle me baisa ainsi que font les hommes, non pas seulement en joignant les levres, mais en ouvrant aussi la bouche, cela s'entend en pigeonne, la langue en bouche; et, encore qu'elle n'eut point le membre viril et qu'elle flit semblable a nous autres, si est-ce qu'elle disait avoir de coeur, l'affection et tout le reste viril; et puis je 1'embrassai comme un homme, et elle me le faisait, me baisait et allentait (je n'entends point bien ce mot), et me semblait qu'elle y prit plaisir outre mesure, et cohabita d'une certain façon beaucoup plus agreable que d'un homme." Voila ce qu'en dit Lucien.

[HRJ: Here, the translator has declined to perform his work at all and retains the original French. In the translation below, the word “allantait”, that Brantôme says he doesn’t understand, is annotated by Merrick and Ragan as “panted”.]

{M&R: In another place Lucian presents two ladies chatting about this love, and one asks the other if so-nd-so had been in love with her and if she had slept with her and what she had done to her. The other answered her freely, “First, she kissed me as men do, not only in joining her lips, but also in opening her mouth (this means like a female pigeon, with the tongue in the mouth), and although she had no virile member and was like the rest of us, even so she said that she had a manly heart, love, and everything else. And then I embraced her like a man, and she did the same to me, kissed me, and allantait (I don’t understand this word well), and it seemed to me that she got pleasure beyond measure out of it. And she coupled in a certain way that was much more pleasant than with a man.” That is what Lucian says.}

[HRJ: The quotations from Lucian come from his Dialogues of the Courtesans, #5, the one about Leana being hired for a threesome with Demonassa and Megilla/Megillus. Note that Lucian’s text describes the kiss as “not simply bringing their lips to mine, but opening their mouths a little” and it’s Brantôme who glosses this as “like a female pigeon, with the tongue in the mouth”. From this we may interpret that “kissing like a pigeon” (here, “en pigeonne”, and in a later passage, “s'entrebaiser en forme de colombe”) is 16th century French slang for tongue-kissing, as opposed to being taken from the Greek source. It’s interesting to notice that when the lovers are described as “kissing/embracing someone like a man” it doesn’t necessarily mean overt gender role-play, since both are doing it in turn. We may possibly instead understand “like a man” to mean “to take an active role and initiate the kiss/embrace”, though this is my speculation.]

* * *

Or, à ce que j'ay ouy dire, il y a en plusieurs endroits et régions force telles dames lesbiennes, en France, en Italie et en Espagne, Turquie, Grèce et autres lieux; et où les femmes sont recluses et n'ont leur entière liberté, cet exercice s'y continue fort; car telles femmes bruslantes dans le corps, il faut bien, disent-elles, qu'elles s'aydent de ce remède, pour se rafraischir un peu ou du tout qu'elles bruslent. Les Turques vont aux bains plus pour cette paillardise que pour autre chose, et s'y adonnent fort: mesme les courtisannes qui ont les hommes à commandement et à toute heure, encore usent-elles de ces friquarelles, s'entre-cherchent et s'entr'aiment les unes les autres, comme je l'ay ouy dire à aucunes en Italie et en Espagne.

Well, by what I have heard say, there be in many regions and lands plenty of such dames and Lesbian devotees, in France, in Italy, in Spain, Turkey, Greece and other places. And wherever the women are kept secluded, and have not their entire liberty, this practice doth greatly prevail. {M&R: + For such women, burning in their bodies, surely must, as they say, make use of this remedy to cool off a bit or else they burn all over.} The Turkish women go to the baths more for this than for any other reason, and are greatly devoted thereto. Even the courtesans, which have men at their wish and at all times, still do employ this habit, seeking out the one the other, as I have heard of sundry doing in Italy and in Spain. {M&R are more explicit: “Even courtesans, who have men at their disposal at all hours, yet have recourse to these fricarelles, seek each other out and love each other, as I have heard...”}

[HRJ: Increasing contact with the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century stimulated an Orientalist fascination with both the concept of female seclusion and with communal--but gender-segregated--bath houses. Europe had a tradition of semi-public bath houses since the middle ages, in some cases with group baths that were gender-segregated, but also involving “hot tubs for two”, which were popularly associated with prostitution. So regardless of the actual sexual activity in Turkish baths, westerners were primed to associate group bathing with sex. Note the use of “Lesbian” in the first sentence. The original French has “dames lesbiennes” which Allinson turns into “dames and Lesbian devotees”. In either case, “Lesbian” here is clearly separate from an ambiguous reference to Sappho and the women of the isle of Lesbos. And in both the original and translation, it appears to be used as an adjective. This may seem a trivial point to emphasize, but the question of identifying a woman as having the quality of being lesbian versus having the substance of being a lesbian is relevant to concepts of “acts versus identity” that play out in theories of sexuality. I think there’s far more evidence in texts like this for understandings that include “identity” than many social constructionist theories allow for.]

* * *

En nostre France, telles femmes sont assez communes; et si dit-on pourtant qu'il n'y a pas long-temps qu'elles s'en sont meslées, mesme que la façon en a esté portée d'Italie par une dame de qualité que je ne nommeray point.

In my native France women of the sort are common enough; yet it is said to be no long time since they first began to meddle therewith, in fact that the fashion was imported from Italy by a certain lady of quality, whom I will not name.

[HRJ: Brantôme may decline to name her, but the reference is generally understood to be to Queen Catherine de Medici, who married Henri II of France in 1547 and so became queen of France. All manner of “foreign” practices were atrributed to her influence, though many were viewed positively, such as her importation of Italian high cuisine.]

* * *

J'ay ouy conter à feu M. de Clermont-Tallard le jeune, qui mourut à La Rochelle, qu'estant petit garçon, et ayant l'honneur d'accompagner M. d'Anjou, depuis nostre roy Henry troisiesme, en son estude, et estudier avec lui ordinairement, duquel M. de Gournay estoit précepteur, un jour, estant à Thoulouse, estudiant avec son dit maistre dans son cabinet, et estant assis dans un coin à part, il vid, par une petite fente (d'autant que les cabinets et chambres estoient de bois, et avoient esté faits à l'improviste et à la haste, par la curiosité de M. le cardinal d'Armaignac, archevesque de là, pour mieux recevoir et accommoder le Roy et toute sa cour), dans un autre cabinet, deux fort grandes dames, toutes retroussées et leurs caleçons bas, se coucher l'une sur l'autre, s'entrebaiser en forme de colombe, se frotter, s'entrefriquer, bref, se remuer fort, paillarder, et imiter les hommes; et dura leur esbattement près d'une bonne heure, s'estant si très-fort eschauffées et lassées, qu'elles en demeurèrent si rouges et si en eau, bien qu'il fist grand froid, qu'elles n'en peurent plus et furent contraintes de se reposer autant; et disoit qu'il veid joüer ce jeu quelques autres jours, tant que la Cour fut là, de mesme façon; et oncques plus n'eut-il la commodité de voir cet esbattement, d'autant que ce lieu le favorisoit en cela, et aux autres il ne put. Il m'en contoit encore plus que je n'en ose escrire, et me nommoit les dames. Je ne sçay s'il est vray; mais il me l'a juré et affirmé cent fois par bons serments; et, de fait, cela est bien vray-semblable; car telles deux dames ont bien eu tousjours cette réputation de faire et continuer l'amour de cette façon et de passer ainsi leur temps.

[HRJ: Allinson has omitted this section entirely. The translation is supplied from Merrick and Ragan.]

{M&R: I heard it told by the late Monsieur de Clermont-Tallart the younger, who died at La Rochelle, who as a young boy, having the honor to be the companion of Monsieur d’Anjou, later our king Henry III, in his study and studying with him customarily, whose tutor was Monsieur de Gournay, that one day, being in Toulouse, studying with his master in his cabinet and being seated in a corner by himself, he saw, through a little crack (in as much as the cabinets and rooms were made of wood and had been built quickly and in haste thanks to the cardinal d’Armagnac, archbishop of the place, to receive and accommodate the king and all his court better) in another cabinet, two very tall women, with their clothes all tucked up and their drawers down, lie one on top of the other, kiss each other in the manner of pigeons, rub themselves, caress each other, in a word, move their hips vigorously, copulate, and imitate men. And their sport lasted almost a full hour. They were so overheated and tired that they were worn out and were obliged to rest for as long. And he said that he saw this game played on several other days, in the same way, as long as the court was there. And he never again had the convenience of seeing this sport, in as much as the room facilitated it on this occasion and on the other occasions he could not see. He told me even more about it than I dare to write about it and named the ladies. I do not know if it is true, but he swore it to me and vouched for it a hundred times with sincere oaths. And, in fact, this is quite probable, for these two ladies have in fact always had the reputation of making and prolonging love in this way and spending their time so.}

[HRJ: It may not jump to the attention of the average reader, but I immediately spotted the reference to the women wearing “drawers” (caleçons bas). The wearing of drawers as underwear by women was a fairly recent innovation in the 16th century. It seems plausible that the description of the sexual encounter given here could well be an accurate eye-witness account, if only for lacking any outrageous features.]

* * *

J'en ay cogneu plusieurs autres qui ont traité de mesmes amours, entre lesquelles j'en ay ouy conter d'une de par le monde, qui a esté fort superlative en cela, et qui aimoit aucunes dames, les honoroit et les servoit plus que les hommes, et leur faisoit l'amour comme un homme à sa maistresse; et si les prenoit avec elle, les entretenoit à pot et à feu, et leur donnoit ce qu'elles vouloient. Son mary en estoit très-aise et fort content; ainsi que beaucoup d'autres martyrs que j'ay eus, qui estoient fort aises que leurs femmes menassent ces amours plutost que celles des hommes (n'en pensant leurs femmes si folles ny putains).

Several others have I known which have given account of the same manner of loves, amongst whom I have heard tell of a noble lady of the great world, who was superlatively given this way, and who did love many ladies, courting the same and serving them as men are wont. {M&R have this as “serving them more than men do”, and made love to them as a man does to his mistress.”} So would she take them and keep them at bed and board, and give them whatever they would. Her husband was right glad and well content thereat, as were many other husbands I have known, all of whom were right glad their wives did follow after this sort of affection rather than that of men, deeming them to be thus less wild.

[HRJ: This is a regular theme throughout this discussion--that men were tolerant of their wives’ same-sex adventures because they found then less threatening to their dignity than if their wives had taken male lovers.]

* * *

Mais je croy qu'ils sont bien trompez, car ce petit exercice, à ce que j'ay ouy dire, n'est qu'un apprentissage pour venir à celuy grand des hommes; car après qu'elles se son eschauffées et mises bien en rut les unes les autres, leur chaleur ne se diminuant pour cela, faut qu'elles se baignent par une eau vive et courante, qui raffraischist bien mieux qu'une eau dormante, ainsi que je tiens de bons chirurgiens, et veu que, qui veut bien panser et guérir une playe, il ne faut qu'il s'amuse à la médicamenter et nettoyer alentour ou sur le bord, mais il la faut sonder jusques au fond, et y mettre une sonde et une tente bien avant.

But indeed I think they were much deceived; for by what I have heard said, this is but an apprenticeship, to come later to the greater one with men. {M&R: + For, after they have warmed up and sent each other into heat, their warmth not decreasing on account of this, they must bathe in cool running water, which refreshes much better than still water. Thus I have it from reliable surgeons, and considering that, if anyone wants to dress and cure a wound well, he must not waste time medicating and cleaning around it or along he edge but must probe it to the bottom and apply a syringe and bandage to it well before that.}

[HRJ: Allinson has omitted the rather metaphoric description that forms the larger part of the previous section. Brantôme has a number of very colorful metaphors for sexual excitement and satisfaction, though “cleaning a wound” isn’t among the more attractive.]

* * *

Que j'en ay veu de ces Lesbiennes, qui, pour toutes leurs fricarelles et entre-frottements, n'en laissent d'aller aux hommes! mesme Sapho, qui en a esté la maistresse, ne se mit-elle pas à aymer son grand amy Phaon, après lequel elle mouroit? Car, enfin, comme j'ay ouy raconter à plusieurs dames, il n'y a que les hommes; et que de tout ce qu'elles prennent avec les autres femmes, ce ne sont que des tiroüers pour s'aller paistre de gorges-chaudes avec les hommes: et ces fricarelles ne leur servent qu'à faute des hommes; que si elles les trouvent à propos et sans escandale, elles lairroient bien leurs compagnes pour aller à eux et leur sauter au collet.

How many of these Lesbian dames have I seen who, for all their customs and habits {HRJ: Allinson’s “customs and habits” is translated more closely and literally by M&R as “fricarelles and rubbings together”}, yet fail not at the last to go after men! Even Sappho herself, the mistress of them all, did she not end by loving her fond, favourite Phaon, for whose sake she died? For after all, as I have heard many fair ladies declare, there is nothing like men. All these other things do but serve them but in the lack of men. And if they but find a chance and opportunity free from scandal, they will straight quit their comrades and go throw their arms round some good man's neck.

[HRJ: The question of the chronology of terms for women who love women can often hang on the details of translation. Brantôme’s “Lesbiennes” which, in this passage, is used clearly as a noun, is translated by Allinson as “Lesbian dames” turning it into an adjective, and by M&R as “women of Lesbos”, implying reference to ancient Greeks rather than the clearly implied reference to Brantôme’s contemporaries in France. This is a great example of why it’s important to return to examine original source texts. Neither of the translations clearly supports “lesbian” as a nominal category for women in 16th century France, while the original text clearly does. This passage also illustrates another of Brantôme’s regular themes: that women will inevitably find lesbian sex to be unsatisfying and will eventually turn to men. He holds on to this thought even in the face of several of his anecdotes indicating the contrary.]

* * *

J'ay cogneu de mon temps deux belles et honnestes damoiselles de bonnes maisons, toutes deux cousines, lesquelles ayant couché ensemble dans un mesme lit l'espace de trois ans, s'accoustumèrent si fort à cette fricarelle, qu'après s'estre imaginées que le plaisir estoit assez maigre et imparfait au prix de celuy des hommes, se mirent à le taster avec eux, et en devinrent très bonnes putains, et confessèrent après à leurs amoureux que rien ne les avoit tant desbauchées et esbranlées à cela que cette fricarelle, la détestant pour en avoir esté la seule cause de leur desbauche: et, nonobstant, quand elles se rencontroyent, ou avec d'autres, elles prenoient tousjours quelque repas de cette fricarelle, pour y prendre tousjours plus grand appetit de l'autre avec les hommes. Et c'est ce que dit une fois une honneste damoiselle que j'ay cogneue, à laquelle son serviteur demandoit un jour si elle ne faisoit point cette fricarelle avec sa compagne, avec qui elle couchoit ordinairement. «Ah! non, dit-elle en riant, j'ayme trop les hommes;» mais pourtant elle faisoit l'un et l'autre.

I have known in my time two very fair and honourable damsels of a noble house, cousins of one another, which having been used to lie together in one bed for the space of three years, did grow so well accustomed to this {M&R have “this fricarelle”}, that at the last getting the idea the said pleasure was but a meagre and imperfect one compared with that to be had with men, they did determine to try the latter, and soon became downright harlots. {M&R: + They confessed afterward to their lovers that nothing had corrupted them so much and incited them to it but this fricarelle, detesting it for having been the only cause of their corruption. And for all that, when they ran into each other, or with others, they always made some snack of this fricarelle and thereby always increased their apptetite for the other with men.} And this was the answer a very honourable damsel I knew did once make to her lover, when he asked her if she did never follow this way {M&R: “this fricarelle”} with her lady friend {M&R: + with whom she usually slept}, "No, no!" she replied {M&R: + laughing}, "I like men too well." {M&R: + but she nevertheless did it with both.}

* * *

Je sçay un honneste gentilhomme, lequel, désirant un jour à la Cour pourchasser en mariage une fort honneste damoiselle, en demanda l'advis à une sienne parente. Elle luy dit franchement qu'il y perdroit son temps; «d'autant, me dit-elle, qu'une telle dame, qu'elle me nomma, et de qui j'en savois des nouvelles, ne permettra jamais qu'elle se marie.» J'en cogneus soudain l'encloüeure, parce que je sçavois bien qu'elle tenoit cette damoiselle en ses délices à pot et à feu, et la gardoit précieusement pour sa bouche. Le gentilhomme en remercia sa dite cousine de ce bon advis, non sans lui faire la guerre en riant, qu'elle parloit ainsi en cela pour elle comme pour l'autre; car elle en tiroit quelques petits coups en robbe quelquesfois: ce qu'elle me nia pourtant.

I have heard of an honourable gentleman who, desiring one day at Court to seek in marriage a certain very honourable damsel, did consult one of her kinswomen thereon. She told him frankly he would but be wasting his time; for, as she did herself tell me, such and such a lady, naming her, ('twas one I had already heard talk of) will never suffer her to marry. Instantly I did recognize the hang of it, for I was well aware how she did keep this damsel at bed and board {M&R: + for her pleasure}, and did guard her carefully {M&R: + like a treasure}. The gentleman did thank the said cousin for her good advice and warning, not without a merry gibe or two at herself the while, saying she did herein put in a word or two for herself as well as for the other, for that she did take her little pleasures now and again under the rose. But this she did stoutly deny to me.

[HRJ: This anecdote, of course, contradicts Brantôme’s position that women will always prefer sex with men to that with women, for even if he implies that the “very honorable damsel” is being constrained to avoid marriage by her lover, that doesn’t explain the lover’s obvious continued preference for women.]

* * *

Ce trait me fait ressouvenir d'aucuns qui ont ainsi des putains à eux qu'ils ayment tant, qu'ils n'en feroient part pour tous les biens du monde, fust à un prince, à un grand, fust à leur compagnon, ni à leur amy, tant ils en sont jaloux, comme un ladre de son barillet; encore le présente-t-il à boire à qui en veut. Mais cette dame vouloit garder cette damoiselle toute pour soy, sans en départir à d'autres: pourtant si la faisoit-elle cocue à la dérobade avec aucunes de ses compagnes.

This doth remind me of certain women which do thus {M&R: instead of “which do thus” they have “who have their own whores in this way”} and actually love these friends so dearly they would not share them for all the wealth in the world, neither with Prince nor great noble, with comrade or friend. They are as jealous of them as a beggarman of his drinking barrel; yet even he will offer this to any that would drink. But this lady was fain to keep the damsel all to herself, without giving one scrap to others. {M&R: + Nevertheless the gentlewoman cuckolded her on the sly with some of her companions.}

[HRJ: It isn’t clear to me whether the “gentlewoman” of the last sentence is the jealous and possessive women or her carefully guarded beloved.]

* * *

On dit que les belettes sont touchées de cet amour, et se plaisent de femelle à femelle à s'entreconjoindre et habiter ensemble; si que par lettres hiéroglyfiques les femmes s'entr'aimantes de cet amour estoient jadis représentées par des belettes. J'ay ouy parler d'une dame qui en nourrissoit tousjours, et qui se mesloit de cet amour, et prenoit plaisir de voir ainsi ses petites bestioles s'entre-habiter.

'Tis said how that weasels are touched with this sort of love, and delight female with female to unite and dwell together. And so in hieroglyphic signs, women loving one another with this kind of affection were represented of yore by weasels. I have heard tell of a lady {M&R: + who dabbled in this love} which was used always to keep some of these animals, for that she did take pleasure in watching her little pets together {M&R: instead of “together” have “couple in this way”}.

[HRJ: This very curious reference is even more fascinating when you dig a bit. Brantôme appears to be referencing the 5th century Greek author Horapollo in his Hieroglyphics, which has semi-incoherent explanations of the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphs, including this passage: “When they wish to show a woman who has acted like a man (andròs érga), they draw a weasel. For the female of this animal has sexual organs like a little bone.” (Cited from Bettini, Maurizio. 2013. Women and Weasels: Mythologies of Birth in Ancient Greece and Rome. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.) The connection seems in part to come from a belief that weasels were hermaphroditic, but also from an association of the male weasel’s bacculum (a bone that stiffens the penis) with the use of a dildo for sex between women. But the reference to keeping a weasel as a pet--which is certainly plausible--also brings to mind several portraits of women posing with members of the weasel family, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine”, where the animal is likely to be symbolic, but also the “zibellino”, a Rennaissance fashion accessory typically in the for of a whole mustelid pelt with a jeweled head and sometimes paws (for more details see: Sherrill, Tawny. 2006. "Fleas, Furs, and Fashions: Zibellini as Luxury Accessories of the Renaissance", in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editors, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 2. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.). One wonders how many merely fashionable women were suspected of loving women on this basis!]

* * *

[HRJ comments: Here begins the larger of the sections that Allinson has declined to translate from the French, and which also has some text omitted. Compare the original from Gutenberg to Allinson’s quotation of the French to get a sense of the differences.]

Voici un autre poinct, c'est que ces amours féminines se traittent en deux façons, les unes par friquarelle, et par, comme dit ce poëte, geminos committere connos.

Cette façon n'apporte point de dommages, ce disent aucuns, comme quand on s'aide d'instruments façonnés de....., mais qu'on a voulu appeler des g.........

Voici un autre point, c'est que ces amours feminines se traitent en deux fa^ons, les unes par fricarelles, et par, comme dit ce poete, geminos committere connos. Cette faon n'apporte point de dommage, ce disent aucuns, comme quand on s'aide d'instruments façonnes de..., mais qu'on a voulu appeler des g....

{M&R: Here is another point: it is that these feminine loves are handled in two ways, some through fricarelle and, as this poet says, through uniting twin cunts. This way does not cause any harm, some say, unlike when one makes use of instruments made of [missing word], but which people have chosen to call dildos.}

[HRJ: Although the French text has only the first letter of the word being translated as “dildo”, the context makes it clear what object is intended. I don’t know whether the later French term “godemiché” is otherwise documented in use this early.]

* * *

J'ay ouy conter qu'un grand prince, se doutant de deux dames de sa cour qui s'en aydoient, leur fit faire le guet si bien qu'il les surprit, tellement que l'une se trouva saisie et accommodée d'un gros entre les jambes, gentiment attaché avec de petites bandelettes à l'entour du corps, qu'il sembloit un membre naturel. Elle en fut si surprise qu'elle n'eut loisir de l'oster; tellement que ce prince la contraignit de luy monstrer comment elles deux se le faisoient. On dit que plusieurs femmes en sont mortes, pour engendrer en leurs matrices des apostumes faites par mouvements et frottements point naturels. J'en sçay bien quelques-unes de ce nombre, dont ç'a esté grand dommage, car c'estoient de très-belles et honnestes dames et damoiselles, qu'il eust bien mieux vallu qu'elles eussent eu compagnie de quelques honnestes gentilshommes, qui pour cela ne les font mourir, mais vivre et ressusciter ainsi que j'espere le dire ailleurs; et mesmes, que, pour la guérison de tel mal, comme j'ay ouy conter à aucuns chirurgiens, qu'il n'y a rien plus propre que de les faire bien nettoyer là-dedans par ces membres naturels des hommes, qui sont meilleurs que des pesseres qu'usent les médecins et chirurgiens avec des eaux à ce composées; et toutesfois il y a plusieurs femmes, nonobstant les inconvénients qu'elles en voyent arriver souvent, si faut-il qu'elles en ayent de ces engins contrefaits.

J'ai oui conter q'un grand prince, se doutant de deux dames de sa cour qui s'en aidaient, leur fit faire le guet si bien qu'il les surprit, tellement que l'une se trouva saisie et accommodee d'un gros entre les jambes, si gentiment attache avec de petites bandelettes a l'entour du corps qu'il semblait un membre naturel. Elle en f ut si surprise qu'elle n'eut loisir de l'oter; tellement que ce prince la contraignit de lui montrer comment elles deux se le faisaient. On dit que plusieurs femmes en sont mortes, pour engendrer en leurs matrices des apostumes f aites par mouvements et frottements point naturels. J'en sais bien quelques-unes de ce nombre, dont ç’a ete grand dommage, car c'etaient de tres belles et honnetes dames et demoiselles, qu'il cut bien mieux valu qu'elles eussent eu compagnie de quelques honnetes gentilhommes, qui pour cela ne les font mourir, mais vivre et ressusciter, ainsi que j'espere le dire ailleurs; et meme que pour la guerison de tel mal, comme j'ai oui' conter a aucuns chirurgiens, qu'il n'y a rien de plus propre que de les faire bien nettoyer ladedans par ces membres naturels des hommes, qui sont meilleurs que des pessaires qu'usent les medecins et chirurgiens, avec des eaux a ce composees; et toutef ois il y a plusieurs femmes, nonobstant les inconvenients qu'elles en voient arriver souvent, si f aut-il qu'elles en aient de ces engins contrefaits.

{M&R: I have heard it said that a great ruler, having suspicions about two ladies of his court who made use of them, had them watched so well that he surprised them, so that one was found possessed of and fitted with a large one between her legs, neatly fastened with little bands around her body, so that it seemed to be a natural member. She was so surprised that she did not have a chance to remove it, so that the ruler compelled her to show him how the two of them did it. They say that several women have died from it, from engendering abscesses in their wombs caused by unnatural motions and rubbing. I am well acquainted with some of this number, to whom serious harm was done, for they were very beautiful and respectable ladies and gentlewomen, for whom it would have been much better if they had kept company with some respectable gentlemen, who for all that would not make them die, but live and revive, as I hope to relate elsewhere. And furthermore, it is said that, for the cure of such illness, as I have heart it said by some surgeons, there is nothing more proper than to have them well cleaned inside there by men’s natural members, which are better than the suppositories that doctors and surgeons use, along with waters prepared for that purpose. And nevertheless there are some women, in spite of the misfortunes that they often see follow from them, for whom it is necessary that they have these imitated devices.}

[HRJ: It’s possible that the belief that dildos caused internal injury is mere hostility to an inanimate rival, but it’s not implausible that some of the materials used were a bit more abrasive than modern synthetics. The notion that such injuries were best treated by heterosexual intercourse is...doubtful.]

* * *

J'ay ouy faire un conte, moy estant lors à la cour, que la Reyne-mere ayant fait commandement de visiter un jour les chambres et coffres de tous ceux qui estoient logés dans le Louvre, sans épargner dames et filles, pour voir s'il n'y avoit point d'armes cachées et mesmes des pistolets, durant nos troubles, il y en eut une qui fut trouvée saisie dans son coffre par le capitaine des gardes, non point de pistolets, mais de quatre gros g........ gentiment façonnez, qui donnèrent bien de la risée au monde, et à elle bien de l'estonnement. Je cognois la damoiselle: je croy qu'elle vit encores: mais elle n'eut jamais bon visage. Tels instruments enfin sont très dangereux. Je feray encore ce conte de deux dames de la cour qui s'entr'aimoient si fort, et estoient si chaudes à leur mestier, qu'en quelque endroit qu'elles fussent ne s'en pouvoient garder ny abstenir que pour le moins ne fissent quelques signes d'amourettes ou de baiser, qui les escandalisoient si fort, et donnoient à penser beaucoup aux hommes. Il y en avoit une veufve, et l'autre mariée; et comme la mariée, un jour d'une grand magnificence, se fust fort bien parée et habillée d'une robe de toile d'argent, ainsi que leur maistresse estoit allée à vespres, elles entrèrent dans son cabinet, et sur sa chaise percée se mirent à faire leur fricarelle si rudement et si impétueusement, qu'elle en rompit sous elles, et la dame mariée qui faisoit le dessous tomba avec sa belle robe de toille d'argent à la renverse tout à plat sur l'ordure du bassin, si bien qu'elle se gasta et souilla si fort, qu'elle ne sçeut que faire que s'essuyer le mieux qu'elle peut, se trousser, et s'en aller à grande haste changer de robbe dans sa chambre, non sans pourtant avoir esté apperceue et bien sentie à la trace, tant elle puoit: dont il en fut ryt assez par aucuns qui en sceurent le conte; mesme leur maistresse le sceut, qui s'en aidoit comme elles, et en rist son saoul. Aussi il falloit bien que cette ardeur les maistrisast fort, que de n'attendre un lieu et un temps à propos, sans s'escandaliser.

J'ai oui faire un conte, moi etant lors a la Cour, que la reine mere ay ant fait commandement de visiter un jour les chambres et coffres de tous ceux qui etaient loges dans le Louvre, sans epargner dames et filles, pour voir s'il n'y avait point d'armes cachees et meme des pistolets, durant nos troubles, il y en cut une qui fut trouvee saisie dans son coffre par le capitaine des gardes, non point de pistolets, mais de quati'e gros g.... gentiment façonnes, qui donnerent bien de la risee au monde, et a elle bien de l'etonnement. Je connais la demoiselle: je crois qu'elle vit encore; mais elle n'eut jamais bon visage. Tels instruments enfin sont tres dangereux. Je ferai encore ce conte de deux dames de la cour qui s'entr'aimaient si fort et etaient si chaudes a leur metier, qu'en quelque endroit qu'elles fussent ne s'en pouvaient garder ni abstenir que pour le moins ne fissent quelques signes d'amourettes ou de baiser; qui les scandulisaient si fort et donnaient a penser beaucoup aux homines. II y en avait une veuve, et l'autre mariee; et comme la mariee, un jour d'une grande magnificence, se fut fort bien paree et habillee d'une robe de toile d'argent, ainsi que leur maitresse etait allee a vepres, elles entrerent dans son cabinet, et sur sa chaise percee se mirent a faire leur fricarelle si rudement et si impetueusement qu'elle en rompit sous elles, et la dame mariee qui faisait le dessous tomba avec sa belle robe de toile d'argent a la renverse tout a plat sur l'ordure du bassin, si bien qu'elle se gata et souilla si fort qu'elle ne sut que faire que s'essuyer le mieux qu'elle put, se trousser, et s'en aller en grande hate changer de robe dans sa chambre, non sans pourtant avoir ete aper^ue et bien sentie a la trace, tant elle puait: dont il en fut ri assez par aucuns qui en surent le conte; meme leur maitresse le sut, qui s'en aidait comme elle, et en rit son saoul. Aussi il fallait bien que cette ardeur les maitrisat fort, que de n'attendre un lieu et un temps a propos, sans se scandaliser.

{M&R: I have heard a story told, being then at court, that the Queen Mother having ordered an inspection one day of the rooms and chests of all those who were housed in the Louvre, without excepting ladies and girls, to see if there were any hidden weapons, and especially pistols, during our troubles [civil wars], there was one who was found by the captain of the guards in possession in her chest not of pistols but of four large, neatly made dildos, which gave everyone a good laugh and caused her a good deal of astonishment. I knew the gentlewoman. I believe she is still alive, but she never looked well. Such instruments, in the end, are very dangerous. I will tell yet this story about two ladies of the court who loved each other so much and were so ardent about their business that wherever they were, they could not keep or refrain from at least making some sign of toying or kissing, which discredited them very much and gave men much to think about. One of them was a widow, and the other was married. And when the married one, on a day of great sumptuousness, was very well adorned and dressed in a gown of silver linen, since their mistress had gone to vespers, they went into her cabinet and began to perform their fricarelle so roughly and so violently on her close stool [toilet chair] that it broke under them. And the married lady, who was the one underneath, fell backward in her lovely silver linen gown, flat down in the filth from the chamber pot, so that she spoiled and soiled herself so much that she did not know what to do but wipe herself off, as best she could, tuck up her skirt, and go with great haste to change her gown in her room, not however, without having been noticed and indeed smelled along the way, so much did she stink, about which some who knew the story laughed a lot. Even their mistress, who relieved herself as they did, knew that they did not wait for a suitable place and time wihtout discrediting themselves.

[HRJ: If Brantôme can’t convince the reader that women will inevitably turn to men, he pulls out the mockery and ridicule. But reading between the lines, keep in mind that there is no indication that women’s same-sex relations were prosecuted through the courts or considered any more hazardous to one’s future and reputation than other sexual adventures might be. In fact, in the sections of this work that cover women’s adultery with men, there is an acceptance that a jealous husband might punish his wife by killing her, but this is not raised as a possibility regarding a female lover. Though, no doubt, this was because a woman was not considered a serious rival.]

* * *

Encore excuse-t-on les filles et femmes veufves pour aimer ces plaisirs frivoles et vains, aimans bien mieux s'y adonner et en passer leurs chaleurs, que d'aller aux hommes et de se faire engroisser et se deshonorer, ou de faire perdre leur fruict, comme plusieurs ont fait et font; et ont opinion qu'elles n'en offensent pas tant Dieu, et n'en sont pas tant putains comme avec les hommes: aussi y a-t-il bien de la différence de jeter de l'eau dans un vase, ou de l'arrouser seulement alentour et au bord. Je m'en rapporte à elles. Je ne suis pas leur censeur ny leur mary, s'ils le trouvent mauvais, encore que je n'en ay point veu qui ne fussent très-aises que leurs femmes s'amourachassent de leurs compagnes, et qu'ils voudroient qu'elles ne fussent jamais plus adultères qu'en cette façon; comme de vray telle cohabitation est bien différente de celle d'avec les hommes, et, quoy que die Martial, ils n'on sont pas cocus pour cela. Ce n'est pas texte d'Évangile, que celuy d'un poëte fol. Donc, comme dit Lucian, il est bien plus beau qu'une femme soit virile ou vraye amazone, ou soit ainsi lubrique, que non pas un homme soit féminin, comme un Sardanapale et Héliogabale, ou autres force leurs pareils; car d'autant plus qu'elle tient de l'homme, d'autant plus elle est courageuse: et de tout cecy je m'en rapporte à la décision du procès.

Still excuse may be made for maids and widows for loving these frivolous and empty pleasures, preferring to devote themselves to these {M&R: + and relieving their passions in this way} than to go with men {M&R: + and getting pregnant} and come to dishonour, or else to lose their pains altogether {M&R render “lose their pains altogether” as “aborting their offspring” though this seems to be more explicit than the original text}, as some have done and do every day. Moreover they deem they do not so much offend God, and are not such great harlots, as if they had to do with the men, maintaining there is a great difference betwixt throwing water in a vessel and merely watering about it and round the rim. However I refer me to them; I am neither their judge nor their husband. These last may find it ill, but generally I have never seen any but were right glad their wives should be companionable with their lady friends {M&R: + and who wished that they would never commit adultery except in this manner}. And in very deed this is a very different thing from that with men, and, let Martial say what he please, this alone will make no man cuckold. 'Tis no Gospel text, this word of a foolish poet. In this at any rate he {M&R: for “he: have “Lucian”} saith true, that 'tis much better for a woman to be masculine and a very Amazon and lewd after this fashion, than for a man to be feminine, like Sardanapalus or Heliogabalus, and many another their fellows in sin. For the more manlike she is, the braver is she. But concerning all this, I must refer me to the decision of wiser heads.

* * *

M. du Gua et moy lisions une foi un petit livre italien, qui s'intitule de la Beauté, fait en dialogue par le seigneur Angello Fiorenzolle, Florentin, et tombasmes sur un passage où il dit qu'aucunes femelles qui furent faites par Jupiter au commencement, furent créées de cette nature, qu'aucunes se mirent à aymer les hommes, et les autres la beauté de l'une et de l'autre; mais aucunes purement et saintement, comme de ce genre s'est trouvée de notre temps, comme dit l'auteur, la très-illustre Marguerite d'Austriche, qui ayma la belle Laodamie, forte en guerre; les autres lascivement et paillardement, comme Sapho Lesbienne, et de nostre temps à Rome la grande courtisanne Cécile vénétienne; et icelles de nature haissent à se marier, et fuyent la conversation des hommes tant qu'elles peuvent. Là-dessus M. du Gua, reprit l'auteur, disant que cela estoit faux que cette belle Marguerite aimast cette belle dame de pur et saint amour; car puis qu'elle l'avoit mise plustost sur elle que sur d'autres qui pouvoient estre aussi belles et vertueuses qu'elle, il estoit à présumer que c'estoit pour s'en servir en délices, ne plus ne moins comme d'autres; et pour en couvrir sa lasciveté, elle disoit et publioit qu'elle l'aimoit saintement, ainsi que nous en voyons plusieurs ses semblables, qui ombragent leurs amours par pareils mots. Voilà ce qu'en disoit M. du Gua; et qui en voudra outre plus en discourir là-dessus, faire se peut. Cette belle Marguerite fust la plus belle princesse qui fust de son temps en la chrestienté. Ainsi, beautez et beautez s'entr-aiment de quelque amour que ce soit, mais du lascif plus que de l'autre. Elle fut remariée en tierces nopces, ayant en premieres espousé le roi Charles huitiesme, en secondes Jean, fils du roi d'Arragon, et le troisiesme avec le duc de Savoye qu'on appeloit le Beau; si que, de son temps, on les disoit le plus beau pair et le plus beau couple du monde; mais la princesse n'en joüit guierre de cette copulation, car il mourut fort jeune, et en sa plus grande beauté, dont elle en porta les regrets très-extrêmes, et pour ce ne se remaria jamais. Elle fit faire bastir cette belle église qui est vers Bourg en Bresse, l'un des plus beaux et plus susperbes bastiments de la chrestienté. Elle estoit tante de l'empereur Charles-Quint, et assista bien à son nepveu; car elle vouloit tout appaiser, ainsi qu'elle et madame la régente au traité de Cambray firent, où toutes à deux se virent et s'assemblèrent là, où j'ay ouy dire aux anciens et anciennes qu'il faisoit beau voir ces deux grandes princesses.

Monsieur du Gua {M&R: have “du Guast”} and I were reading one day in a little Italian book, called the Book of Beauty, writ in the form of a dialogue by the Signor Angelo Firenzuola, a Florentine, and fell upon a passage wherein he saith that women were originally made by Jupiter and created of such nature that some are set to love men, but others the beauty of one another. But of these last, some purely and holily, and as an example of this the author doth cite the very illustrious Marguerite of Austria, which did love the fair Laodamia Fortenguerre, but others again wantonly and lasciviously, like Sappho the Lesbian, and in our own time at Rome the famous courtesan Cecilia of Venice. Now this sort do of their nature hate to marry, and fly the conversation of men all ever they can. Hereupon did Monsieur du Gua criticise the author, saying 'twas a falsehood that the said fair lady, Marguerite of Austria, did love the other fair dame of a pure and holy love. For seeing she had taken up her rather than others which might well be equally fair and virtuous as she, 'twas to be supposed it was to use her for her pleasures, neither more nor less than other women that do the like. Only to cover up her naughtiness, she did say and publish abroad how that her love for her was a pure and holy love, as we see many of her fellows do, which do dissemble their lewdness with suchlike words. This was what Monsieur du Gua did remark thereanent; and if any man doth wish to discuss the matter farther, well! he is at liberty to do so. This same fair Marguerite was the fairest Princess was ever in all Christendom in her day. Now beauty and beauty will ever feel mutual love of one sort or another, but wanton love more often than the other. She was married three times, having at her first wedlock espoused King Charles VIII. of France, secondly John, son of the King of Aragon, and thirdly the Duke of Savoy, surnamed the Handsome. And men spake of them as the handsomest pair and fairest couple of the time in all the world. However the Princess did have little profit of this union, for that he died very young, and at the height of his beauty, for the which she had very deep sorrow and regret, and for that cause would never marry again. She it was had that fair church built which lyeth near Bourg en Bresse, one of the most beautiful and noble edifices in Christendom. She was aunt to the Emperor Charles, and did greatly help her nephew; for she was ever eager to allay all differences, as she and the Queen Regent did at the treaty of Cambrai, whereunto both of them did assemble and met together there. And I have heard tell from old folk, men and women, how it was a beauteous sight there to see these two great Princesses together.

[HRJ: Brantôme is accurately quoting Firenzuola’s book, but he has entirely mistaken the “Marguerite of Austria” who is mentioned in it. Based on the list of marriages, he is thinking of Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy (1480-1530). That Margaret was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose illegitimate daughter was the Margaret of Austria who loved Laudomia Forteguerri. The correct Margaret was married (briefly) to Alessandro de Medici, Duke of Florence, and thus sister-in-law to the previously mentioned Queen Catherine de Medici. Rennaissance royal family relationships were complicated.]

* * *

Corneille Agrippa a fait un petit traité de la vertu des femmes, et tout en la loüange de cette Marguerite. Le livre en est très-beau, qui ne peut estre autre pour le beau sujet, et pour l'auteur, qui a esté un très-grand personnage.

Cornelius Agrippa hath writ a brief Treatise on the virtue of women, and all in panegyric of this same Marguerite. The book is a right good one, as it could not but be on so fair a subject, and considering its author, who was a very notable personage.

[HRJ: To continue the historical clarification, Agrippa’s treatise was dedicated to the elder Margaret of Austria.]

* * *

J'ay ouy parler d'une grande dame princesse, laquelle, parmi les filles de sa suite, elle en aimoit une par-dessus toutes et plus que les autres: en quoy on s'estonnoit, car il y en avoit d'autres qui la surpassoient en tout; mais enfin il fut trouvé et descouvert qu'elle estoit hermaphrodite, qui lui donnoit du passe-temps sans aucun inconvénient ni escandale. C'estoit bien autre chose qu'à ses tribades: le plaisir pénétroit un peu mieux. J'ay ouy nommer une grande qui est aussi hermaphrodite, et qui a ainsi un membre viril, mais fort petit, tenant pourtant plus de la femme, car je l'ay veu très-belle. J'ay entendu d'aucuns grands medecins qui en ont veu assez de telles, et surtout très-lascives.

I have heard a tale of a certain great lady, a Princess, which among all her maids of honour did love one above all and more than the rest. At first were folk greatly surprised at this, for there were plenty of others did surpass her in all respects. But eventually 'twas discovered she was a hermaphrodite. I have heard a certain great lady also named as being hermaphrodite {M&R: + who gave the princess recreation without any inconvenience or scandal It was something else indeed than among those tribades: the pleasure penetrated a bit better. I have heard a great lady named who is also a hermaphrodite and} She hath a virile member, but very tiny; yet hath she more of the woman's complexion, and I know, by having seen her, she is very fair. I have heard sundry famous doctors say they have seen plenty such {M&R: + and especially very lewd ones}.

[HRJ: And now Brantôme brings in the last of the popular Rennaissance myths about sex between women--that women who engage in it have an enlarged clitoris and thus can succeed in penetrative sex to at least a small degree.]

* * *

Voilà enfin ce que je diray du sujet de ce chapitre, lequel j'eusse pu allonger mille fois plus que je n'ay fait, ayant eu matière si ample et si longue, que si tous les cocus et leurs femmes qui les font se tenoient tous par la main, et qu'il s'en peust faire un cercle, je crois qu'il seroit assez bastant pour entourer et circuir la moitié de la terre.

Well, this is all I shall say on the subject of this Chapter, one I could have made a thousand times longer than I have done, having matter so ample and lengthy, that if all the cuckold husbands and their wives that do make them so, were to hold hands, and form a ring, I verily believe this would be great enough to surround and encircle a good half of the globe.

[HRJ comments: Brantôme’s reference to “the subject of this chapter” refers to the topic of cuckoldry in general, not the specific topic of same-sex relations.]

Time period: 
Saturday, June 9, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 23b - Interview with Lise MacTague - (no transcript available)

(Originally aired 2018/06/09 - listen here)

A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.

In this episode we talk about

  • The world-building of Demon in the Machine
  • The Industrial Revolution and bargains with the devil
  • Why Lise did not become a medieval historian and what sparked her interest in historical settings
  • Steampunk inspirations
  • Researching demons and steam-powered carriages

Publications mentioned:

More info



  • @LiseMacTague




Major category: 
Friday, June 8, 2018 - 22:55

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:

Les Do Books: Heather Rose Jones Shares 5 Books (and Reasons!) that Prove the English Regency is the Perfect Setting for Romances Between Women

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: 

Major category: 
Guest Posts
Monday, June 4, 2018 - 07:00

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.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

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.

Publication summary: 

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.

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.

[530] 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.

[marginal note]

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.

[marginal note]

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.

[marginal note]

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.


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Saturday, June 2, 2018 - 07:00

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.

Author Guest

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.”

Ask Sappho

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

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