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Saturday, May 26, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22d - Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/05/26 - listen here)

Queer Women’s Communities and Meeting Places

When you compare the history of men’s and women’s experiences of same-sex desire, there are many places where those experiences are not merely different in the details, but can fail to align at all. In many ways, the expectation that homosexual women and men have a shared experience is a product of the medicalization of homosexuality that began in the later 19th century with the invention of homosexuality as a unified and distinct concept. Throughout most of history, the experience of same-sex desire has been shaped and overshadowed by the different experiences of gender itself.

In some contexts, this has been to women’s advantage, as they were free of some of the consequences of restrictive models of masculinity. But when it comes to researching queer history, those differences have been a stumbling block. To vastly oversimplify the scope of history, men have generally had more power and freedom to act within the public sphere and to arrange their interpersonal relationships to their own satisfaction regardless of their official familial bonds. When you combine this with the knee-jerk tendency of (mostly male) researchers to take men’s experiences as the default and norm, and to understand women’s experiences in relationship to male models, it has meant that those researching lesbian history have often found themselves looking in vain for data and evidence that corresponded to the male experience.

So when I was asked about queer women’s communities and queer spaces for women throughout history that paralleled what we can find for men, my immediate reaction was to caution that the question itself held the seeds of failure. We only have to look back within my own lifetime in the United States to see that the ways in which queer women and queer men organized themselves in public social spaces have had relatively small overlaps. And when you go further back into history, those differences are even more pronounced. As a gross over-simplification, women have tended to organize their romantic and sexual lives via private networks in private spaces, while men have been more able to use public spaces and institutions as a context for making personal connections of all types.

So a search for the equivalent of the sexual cruising grounds in 16th century Venice or 17th century Paris, or the equivalent of English “molly houses” in the 18th century raises the risk of concluding that there has been no public culture of lesbianism at all before the 20th century. So is there evidence for such a public culture, even if only in the popular imagination?

Here are the parameters of what I’ll be looking at today. In the past, I’ve talked about some of the social spaces that coincidentally provided opportunities and a relative “safe space” to develop same-sex romantic and sexual relationships. These can include gender segregated religious communities, gender-segregated educational institutions, or even simply gender-segregated spaces in private homes in a context when women were encouraged to form emotional and affective bonds with each other. But today I want to look at spaces and institutions where women came together for the specific and overt purpose of engaging in same-sex romantic relationships, and in some cases for engaging in sexual activity. That’s a much narrower focus.

I’m going to expand that focus a bit by including fictional lesbian communities: imagined organizations or contexts in which women came together to enjoy romantic or sexual relationships. In many cases, these communities were a product of male fantasies--whether born of prurient desire or of a deep-seated fear of missing out. And in some cases, it can be hard to tell whether a particular description was mere fantasy and scandalous rumor or whether it reflected actual social institutions.

Fictional and Conceptual Communities

I’ll come back to the topic of fictional communities at the end of this essay when I talk about sex clubs. For much of European history, the most obvious examples of queer female spaces come from fictional depictions, often drawing on classical mythology such as imaginings of Amazon societies or the followers of the goddess Diana as discussed in last month’s podcast. In some cases, such all-woman societies were depicted as being sexually frustrated due to assumptions that sex, of course, required the presence of a man, but in many cases there was a recognition that women in an all-female society would form romantic bonds and that there was a potential for erotic relationships as well. We saw this in several fictional depictions of the legend of Callisto in last month’s essay, but the motif of Amazonian societies and their romantic and erotic potential was also popular in drama of the 16th and 17th centuries, as discussed in Walen’s survey of female homoeroticism in that medium. An example would be the mid-17th century play The Female Rebellion which uses a mythological Amazonian setting to examine various relationships between women. The Amazon Queen Orithya is being plotted against by her generals, but supported by the loyal Nicostrate who infiltrates the rebels. The rebels believe (and are allowed to believe) that the bond between Nicostrate and Orithya is sexual, requiring Nicostrate to create a plausible reason for Orithya to have discarded her (and so turned Nicostrate against the queen), but in the end it is made clear that their love is pure, noble, and non-sexual. The villainous Amazon generals, however, are portrayed as openly erotic with each other. 

While fantasies of Amazonian sex were often written by men, with all the distortion that brings, female authors of the early modern period were more likely to imagine separatist societies that included romantic potential but perhaps shied away from a direct admission of sexual possibilities.

Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure, published in 1668, portrays the deliberate construction of a women-only community in which resistance to heterosexual marriage is one of the organizing principles. The result includes what is most efficiently described as butch-femme romantic pairings. As another character describes it, “some of your ladies do accoustre themselves in masculine habits, and act lovers-parts; I desire you will give me leave to be sometimes so accoustred and act the part of your loving servant.” Within the text, overtly erotic activity such as kissing and embracing is considered a potentially scandalous addition to these loving relationships. But we shouldn’t take this as a description of the contemporary view of women’s displays of affection. Kisses and embraces were considered a normal element of female friendships at the time. Within the context of the play, the surprised reaction to this physical affection functions to signal the subconscious understanding that their women-only community has been penetrated by a man in disguise.

A more accurate view of the 17th century English view of affective bonds between women is seen in the poetry of Katherine Philips, who wrote a series of passionate poems addressed to women and argued for the primacy of female friendships over the bonds of marriage. She comes into this discussion of fictional communities based on her creation of a semi-real, semi-imagined network she called a “Society of Friendship”, meant to promote social, political, and artistic bonds between women. As for many of her contemporaries, this Society existed more as an unrealized ideal than a lived reality. Philips’ pastoral imagery operated within the theme of "amor impossibilis" (impossible love) in the tradition of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, though it focused, not on the alleged impossibility of same-sex love, but on the pain of the barriers to achieving it. Her vision of a women’s Society of Friendship in which same-sex romantic relationships could flourish remained a fiction for the most part, but it represented an ideal that would be realized in later centuries.

I’ll be going further into the place of personal social networks as a venue for queer women’s community a bit later, but another fictional--or at least, fictionalized--example that directly addresses romantic and erotic possibilities was Delariviere Manley’s 1709 roman-à-clef Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, an Island in the Mediteranean. (This is, by the way, the typical length of book titles in the 18th century.) This example straddles the line between fiction and real life because many of the characters in the novel can be identified with the author’s contemporaries and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the homoerotic elements in the text are not entirely fictional.

But while Manley may have depicted a real-life “community of the mind” formed by the women she modeled her characters on, The New Atalantis creates an actual geographic location--a place where women with same-sex interests meet, interact, and live out those relationships--and a named social institution “The New Cabal”. The same-sex community aspects are only one section of a larger narrative, and they are coyly softened by the authorial voice asserting that such relationships could have no “irregularity” because what could women do together after all? In the publishing context of the day, an emphasis on the fictional nature of the narrative was necessary to avoid libel charges, given how transparent the portrayals were. And the work was undeniably political in nature, choosing as its targets prominent members of the Whig party, while Manley herself supported the Tories.

The descriptions of what women do together in the novel mostly go no further than “kisses and embraces”, but the organizing principle is clearly lesbian. The rules of the community not only exclude men, but also exclude women who have voluntary romantic relationships with men. Marriage is grudgingly tolerated as a necessary evil, as long as it’s off-stage, but male lovers are right out.

The women of The New Atalantis join in loving couples who pledge not only devotion and secrecy but a sharing of property and wealth between them. Gender role play or cross-dressing was not the norm, but there are a few exceptions. One woman is described as mannish in style (though not in dress), and another is described as preferring to “mask her diversions in the habit [that is, the clothing] of the other sex”. This is not quite an example of “butch-femme” role play, for her female partner also cross-dresses and together they are said to wander through the seedy parts of the city picking up prostitutes for their shared enjoyment.

The exclusively female nature of the group is only emphasized by a grudging allowance for one bisexual member who is intended to represent Lucy Wharton who, in real life, had a female lover in opera singer Catherine Tofts. This couple (along with other of Wharton’s lovers of both sexes) also appear in Manley’s fictionalized Memoirs of Europe. Another real-life couple in The New Atalantis represents Catherine Colyear, Duchess of Portmore and Dorchester who is paired with a character representing playwright Catharine Trotter, whose work Agnes de Castro also has themes of passionate friendship between women.

The formal organization of this lesbian community as a geographic space is fictional, but we can see the shape of what these women’s real-life lesbian community was like in the emphasis in the book on the need for secrecy from the outside world (and especially from husbands), the difficulties of pursuing erotic relationships that had no social standing or protections, and the extensive network of connections across gaps of class, status, and age. The accuracy of the specifics must be suspect, though, due to the political satire that inspired it.

Public Meeting Places

Outside of fiction, the evidence for physical public meeting spaces for women seeking same-sex encounters is sparse. (Keep in mind that you can assume the limitation “before the 20th century” in anything I write, unless I specify otherwise.) Emma Donoghue refers to a study of legal records from late 18th century Amsterdam that suggests there were small groups of women there who came together for same-sex encounters, but with no clear mention of specific locations where they might have met. And there are regular references in various times and places to prostitutes engaging in same-sex encounters, so one might add whorehouses to the list of hypothetical meeting places, though that seems a bit contrary to the spirit of the question we’re addressing today.

I’m cautious about drawing any strong conclusions about gender-essentialist differences in women’s and men’s sexuality along the lines of “well, men go to specific locations for sexual hook-ups while women develop long-term emotional relationships,” because gender influences the types of data that have come down to us. For example, much of the evidence for male homosexual cruising places--such as those documented in Merrick and Ragan’s collection of French primary source documents--come from arrest records. If women were far less likely to be arrested and prosecuted simply for sexual activity--whether because there was no applicable law, as in England, or because it wasn’t considered noteworthy without some other criminal element--we can’t take the absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Perhaps there were similar meeting places for women that simply weren’t recorded.

Donoghue quotes a translation from a German visitor to London in the 1780s who writes, “There are females who avoid all intimate intercourse with the opposite sex, confining themselves to their own sex. These females are called Lesbians. They have small societies, known as Anandrinic Societies, of which Mrs Y--, formerly a famous London actress was one of the presidents.” The similarity of the description with the French Anandrine Society--which is unlikely to have been factual--prompts a touch of skepticism. But if the German visitor reported accurately, this is a rare reference to a sex club outside of the pornographic imagination. More about those French Anandrine societies later.

There may be an implication of a more informal meeting place for women in 18th century London in a poem titled “Two Kissing Girls of Spitalfields” which describes two women meeting by St. Katherine’s Docks to make out.

Although I’ve mostly confined myself to Europe in this episode, there are some interesting discussions of women’s same-sex meeting places in the Islamic world, though a certain caution is necessary regarding accounts from European travelers.

That caution doesn’t apply to medieval Arabic texts that discuss women’s same-sex relationships. A 13th century treatise titled "On the Literature of Grinders and their Grinding" by Ahmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi describes what seems to be an identifiable social community of women who love women--identified by the Arabic term “sahhaqa” meaning “one who grinds or rubs” referring to the motion involved in sex. This community is defined by yet another term: tharaf or “wit”, but used as a slang term. As Tifashi writes, “They call themselves the witty ones. If they said that so-and-so is tharifa, a witty woman, then it becomes known among them that she is a grinder. They romance each other like men, but more intensely.” And he goes on to describe an identifiable subculture with customs and characteristics of its own.

We might want to be more careful about taking at face value the accounts of 17th and 18th century visitors to Ottoman Turkey who wrote somewhat sensational accounts of women seeking erotic encounters at bath houses--which by definition meant same-sex encounters due to the gender-segregated nature of the institution. There was an Orientalist fascination with lesbian activity in “exotic foreign lands” where it could be safely dissociated from respectable western society. But given the more sex-positive attitude seen in Arabic writings, it seems likely that the basics of accounts like Busbeq’s Travels into Turkey are accurate. He wrote: “Ordinarily the Women bathe by themselves, Bond and Free together, so that you shall many times see young Maids, exceeding beautiful, gathered from all Parts of the World, exposed Naked to the view of other Women, who thereupon fall in Love with them, as young Men do with us, at the sight of Virgins. By this you may guess, what the strict Watch over Females comes to, and that it is not enough to avoid the Company of an adulterous Man, for the Females burn in Love one towards another; and the Pandaresses to such refined Loves are the Baths; and, therefore, some Turks will deny their Wives the use of their public Baths, but they cannot do it altogether, because their Law allows them.”

Small Personal Communities

By far the greatest evidence for lesbian-like communities in the European cultures I’m familiar with consists of relatively small personal networks of friends and lovers that existed primarily in private spaces, either within the women’s homes or created and maintained through correspondence. If we consider these to constitute a type of lesbian community--and it’s a type that I’d argue was still a major part of lesbian social dynamics in the 20th century--then this is a fertile ground for research.

In the 16th century, we may see a rare working-class example of this type of community in the description in Michel de Montaigne’s travel journal. He describes how a group of eight women in north-eastern France decided to cross-dress and travel together as men to make their way in the world. At least one of the group had sexual relationships with two women, one involving marriage, so it’s not entirely implausible that this was an interest shared by others in the group. Of course, as with any pre-modern example of gender passing, we need to acknowledge that a transgender reading is equally plausible to a lesbian reading.

The 16th century scandal-monger Brantôme tells a number of stories of the French court that imply the existence of networks of women who engaged in sex together, though Brantôme is more interested in being salacious than being truthful and the stories are mostly told at second or third hand.

England in the 18th century saw a profusion of female social circles associated at the very least with romantic attachments, and sometimes more boldly rumored to be sexual. We could be cautious and exclude clearly malicious accusations, such as William King’s defamatory poem The Toast, which accused Myra--a pseudonym for his enemy the Duchess of Newburgh--of being at the center of a circle of lesbians. But that still leaves a number of famous social sets, and some that were not-at-all famous but more informative.

One of the key names from this era is that of sculptor Anne Damer whose reputation as a lesbian and focus of a social circle of women with same-sex interests was well enough known that other women’s sexuality was hinted at by saying that they were “visiting Mrs. Damer.” A more prominent, though less provably sexual circle centered around Queen Anne and her succession of female favorites. But these were only a couple of the many, many small social networks in London that included same-sex romance as part of their shared interests.

Far from London and nowhere near prominent enough to have raised significant public comment, we have the social circle described in the diaries of Yorkshire gentlewoman Anne Lister, from the early 19th century. Using a discreet code, that hid unambiguously erotic descriptions, Lister detailed a complex network of female friends who either engaged in or wanted to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with each other, and who were all clearly aware of being part of an extended circle of such women.

The emerging public acceptance and celebration of the concept of female romantic friendship in the 19th century means that we have plentiful records of women’s social circles that encompassed romantic relationships, though we rarely have solid evidence regarding a sexual component. There are far too many examples to go into detail, but I’ll point you to the show I did on 19th century actress Charlotte Cushman and her circle as one with a clearly erotic component

Lesbian Sex Clubs

Perhaps the topic where it’s most difficult to sort out fact from fiction is that of organized lesbian sex clubs. That German visitor’s description of a lesbian sex club in London in 1780 exists within a fascination with the topic that reached its peak in France around the time of the revolution.

As Lanser points out in The Sexuality of History, this trope arose in a context where social clubs of all types had become popular--organizations focused not on class or family ties, but on a similarity of interests that cut across lines of class and blood. Politically oriented social clubs were a major force before and during the French Revolution and their excesses contributed to a sentiment against secret societies of all kinds in post-revolutionary France. The Freemasons were one target of this hostility, but another target were supposed secret societies of women who met to initiate women in to lesbianism and to engage in group orgies. Lanser dismisses the possibility that these societies actually existed. It’s highly improbable that if they had, they would have left no trace in legal records, but only in sensational and highly pornographic pamphlets.

The most common label for these fictional clubs was “The Anandrine Sect”, where “anandrine” derives from the Greek for “without men”. In addition to sexual activities, this group was depicted as carrying social revolution further to disrupt the heterosexual organization of society entirely. Although hostility to social clubs often focused on the mixing of the classes, attacks on secret lesbian clubs more typically portrayed them as a symbol of aristocratic excess and decadence, in England as well as in France. Remember that word “decadence,” which I’ll come back to. The epitome of this image of aristocratic lesbian excess was the rumors circulated that Queen Marie Antoinette entertained a wide and diverse selection of female lovers and favorites, whose influence contributed to the corruption of the court.

This association of fictional lesbian orgies with aristocratic excess, combined with rising sentiment against secret societies, and the usefulness of lesbian accusations in attacking feminist organizations, may have contributed to the growing caution on erotic topics among the intellectual and aristocratic classes of women in the 19th century. Lesbian eroticisim was shifted conceptually toward lower class women, theatrical performers, and prostitutes. Toward the middle of the century, the trope was taken up by the French decadent writers. One of the goals of the Decadents was to attack what they saw as a hypocritical focus on respectability among the middle class by using art and literature to shock and titillate. The image of the lesbian became one of their favorite tools for this purpose and decadent literature took up the task of creating and depicting lesbian sex clubs in sensational detail.

Two women in a private boudoir were, of course, another of the favored settings for these scenes, but lesbians were described as meeting and recruiting new lovers in public settings such as cross-dressing balls, cabarets, and music halls. Of course, there was an actual public lesbian culture developing in Paris at the turn of the century--including the salons of the famous Natalie Clifford Barney and others, and no doubt including the balls, cabarets, and cafes featured in decadent novels and poetry. But so much of the image of that public culture has been shaped in its details by a prurient male imagination that one must dig deeply to decipher the experiences of actual lesbians of the time.

And that is, of course, the difficulty throughout history: to work from the observations and opinions of outside observers, who were often hostile to the topic, to piece together what a lesbian community or lesbian culture might have looked like in any particular time and place.


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Thursday, May 24, 2018 - 09:49

I'm belatedly catching up with the requirement to make my Mailchimp newsletter sign-up GDPR compliant. If you're currently on the mailing list, you should have received a verification email. If you want to remain on the mailing list, please click through and respond. (It's very simple.) I'll do some sort of giveaway drawing as an incentive for those who respond promptly.

In the mean time, if you aren't yet receiving the newsletter and want to sign up, for now, please use this link. I haven't figured out how to modify the form on this website to include the GDPR opt-in buttons. (I've changed the link on my site and on the facebook page, but my web gurus set up the Drupal-based form here and I haven't had time to work out how to change it yet.)

What does the newsletter get you?

  • Updates on what I'm writing (or what I think I should be working on, at least)
  • Reminders of my upcoming publications and appearances
  • A regular "Who's Who in Alpennia" feature that gives you back-stories of minor characters and a glimpse at the reference images I used to visualize them
  • Some sort of bonus content, which has included short fiction, Alpennian recipes, worldbuilding information, notes from my first-draft diary for Daughter of Mystery showing how the story developed, or other material based on reader requests
  • Being on the mailing list also means that I'll sometimes send you an alert about special limited-time sale prices. In general, I'll only send these if it's a really significant discount (like: half-price or better), but not the ones that are only a couple dollars off. If you want to be notified of all the Bella Books sales, you can subscribe to the Bella newsletter (toward the bottom of this page).
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018 - 16:42

There have been a couple changes to my BayCon programming schedule. A couple of queer-interest items were added and one that I wanted to support conflicted with a panel I'd been scheduled for but didn't feel as strongly about. Remember: you can make an author (or simply a fellow human being) happy by coming up and talking to me. Conventions are a weird mix of enjoying the socializing but also constantly being at the balance between "I must make the effort to reach out to people" and "who would want to talk to me anyway." It really helps to have people be glad to see me.

On another note, it's been really gratifying to see the Spectrum Award news go rippling through online fandom. I got my name in a Locus Online news item! Why that's practically as good as getting your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone! And feeling lots of love from the community at File770 and other places. Tangible things: they really do help. I'm tryin to store some of this away for the next time that I get the book blues.

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Mother of Souls
Monday, May 21, 2018 - 07:00

In following up on references to gender transgression in medieval Arabic literature, I’ve been struck by the way certain motifs align differently from what we see in the literature of Christian cultures. In European romances, “Amazonian” characters who dress and act as men are often a context for accidental homoeroticism. Cross-dressing in general also provides this opportunity. But as we saw in Rowson’s article on categories of cross-dressed entertainers in medieval Baghdad, the social signals and assumptions around gender-crossing were different in the Islamicate world, in part because of the greater normalization (if not actual approval) of male homosexuality. I chose Kruk’s article to cover to illustrate some of these differences even though it touches on female homoeroticism only very tangentially.

There is a long history in western culture of projecting female homosexuality onto the Other, and especially onto an Orientalist fantasy of harems and odalisques. Lesbian historical fiction is not immune to this projection. That makes it all the more important to familiarize ourselves with how issues of homoeroticism and gender performance were understood within the cultures we may consider as fictional settings. The "woman warrior" motif was popular in medieval Arabic epics, but she represented different things from the woman warrior of European chivalric romance, and the gender dynamics of these stories are very different. Historical fiction that wants to use motifs like these as a jumping off place either needs to engage with those differences or risk being nothing more than yet another Orientalist fantasy.

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Full citation: 

Kruk, Remke. 1998. “The Bold and the Beautiful: Women and ‘fitna’ in the Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma: The Story of Nūrā” in Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, ed. Gavin R. G. Hambly. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-21057-4

Scholarship on medieval Arabic literature has tended to focus on scholarly works or on the specific set of stories that has come to western attention as the Thousand and One Nights. Only recently has the enormous corpus of traditional popular epics begun to receive more attention and analysis. This article looks at one specific episode in a longer epic that illustrates the popular motif of the warrior woman, and how she becomes a force either for disruption or stability.

The role of women in the popular epic tradition is very different from how they are depicted in the more literary traditions. Female warriors are a popular stock figure in the epics (not only in Arabic language traditions, but also in Persian and Turkish). Female characters are typically portrayed as clever and resourceful. Sometimes the female warrior will be a close relative of the male hero and serve as a counterpart, sometimes she will begin as an antagonist and eventually be incorporated into the social structure through marriage. Often she is a link to “outside” cultures. There is a common motif (as in the story discussed here) of female Christian warrrior figures being brought into Islamic society not only through marriage but through conversion.

Kruk is interested in examining how the image of women in epic literature differs from the image of men, but in the present paper is only examining one specific example to explore the different roles women may play. The specific figure in question is the Princess Nūrā, a Byzantine princess who figures within a story cycle about conflict between Muslim forces, led by a woman, Dhāt al-Himma, and her son, against seven Byzantine castles. The superficial male focus of the epic is belied by the way the story revolves around how desire for Nūrā disrupts the social stability of the Muslim forces and the struggle between Dhāt al-Himma and Nūrā to neutralize her effect by means of pairing her off to one of the men.

Nūrā is introduced as the daughter of the king of one of the Byzantine fortresses. She and her female companions live in a monastery apart from the fortress where they engage in all sorts of revelry including wrestling matches, at which Nūrā excels. They are listening to tales about the wars between the Arabs and Byzantines and especially about one particularly heroic Arabic warrior. Nūrā expresses a desire to meet the warrior (the summary notes “even though until now she has only been interested in women”--take that as you will) and by strange coincidence he’s been spying on them and makes himself known. He immediately falls in love with Nūrā. In fact, pretty much every many in the story falls in love with Nūrā--Muslim and Byzantine alike, which provides much of the conflict. Eventually (and it’s a very long, drawn-out eventually) Nūrā is married to this Arabic hero, converts to Islam, and continues to play a major role in the epic as a warrior.

The article takes a detailed look at two repeating themes during the adventures that form that “eventually”: the ways in which men lose all responsibility, dignity, and judgement when driven by obsessive desire for Nūrā, and the relationship between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma as the latter attempts to control the disruption caused by the former. Although Dhāt al-Himma expresses admiration and sympathy for Nūrā, her primary concern is to maintain social stability.

There is a continuing theme throughout the epic of how Nūrā is considered an existential danger (her prospective husband is so terrified of her on their wedding night that he orders her to be tied up and drugged), and Nūrā’s willingness to use this as one of her weapons in battle, including uncovering her face or breasts to distract her opponents and defeat them. Many of the adventures involve captures and escapes and competition among various men for the right to Nūrā. If Nūrā isn’t exactly given a choice in these matters, her resistance to being married off against her will shapes a great deal of the narrative.

While much of the interactions between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma have a flavor of shared exasperation at the antics of the men, there are indications that Dhāt al-Himma is not entirely immune to Nūrā’s attraction. We can overlook one episode where the matriarch participates in a combat over who will “get” Nūrā as being intended to keep the princess still in play, but there are other episodes where Nūrā seems to appeal to a sense of female solidarity that transcends other loyalties, and some where Dhāt al-Himma herself experiences the force of Nūrā’s sexual attractions, as in one case where they embrace and kiss when Dhāt al-Himma is in disguise and al-Himma expresses at least a hypothetical desire for her.

Within the epic, the existence of female warriors and their normalization on both sides of the combat is taken for granted. Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma first meet when the latter is besieging the Byzantine fortress and both women express a specific interest in meeting each other in combat. When Nūrā is first captured by the Arabic forces, it is by Dhāt al-Himma herself, who then thinks to herself that she understands why the girl causes so much disruption: “if this girl had been a man, I would have lost my head.”

But in the end, Dhāt al-Himma’s primary concern is to neutralize Nūrā’s disruptive potential, which is done by enforcing her marriage to the designated hero by a disturbing use of overwhelming force. Even so, the hazard Nūrā represents continues until she is “domesticated” by her hatred turning into love, by her conversion to Islam, and by the production of children, although she still continues her martial activities throughout the remainder of the epic.

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Sunday, May 20, 2018 - 14:51

Those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook got the first informal initial squee on this last weekend, but now the official annoucement is up at the Gaylactic Spectrum Award website, naming Mother of Souls Best Novel for 2017. I can't express how very happy this makes me, putting Alpennia on a list filled with authors like Melissa Scott, Elizabeth Bear, Ginn Hale, Laurie J. Marks, Nalo Hopkinson, and David Gerrold. The Gaylactic Spectrum Awards are given for science fiction and fantasy works with strong positive queer content. Both Daughter of Mystery and The Mystic Marriage were finalists for the award, and I have to say that the quality of the competition is such that I would have been perfectly proud to continue making that finalist list. So I'm over the moon to have Mother of Souls recognized in this way.

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Mother of Souls
Saturday, May 19, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22c - Book Appreciation with Jeannelle M. Ferreira - (no transcript available)

(Originally aired 2018/05/19 - 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 Jeannelle M. Ferreira recommends some favorite queer historical novels:

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Monday, May 14, 2018 - 07:00

The field of medieval "queer studies" has included a fascination with possible erotic and sexual interpretations of religious imagery and language. Some of the interpretations, I confess, have always felt a bit far-fetched to me. But here we look at the writings of one particular religious woman, Hadewijch of Brabant, whose language is undeniably erotic and passionate, addressing the image of "Lady Minne", whose name reflects erotic rather than platonic love. And there is just enough confusion and ambiguity in how the figure of Minne is intertwined with Christ and with Hadewijch's disciples and students, that one gets a clear impression of using ecstatic religious language as a medium for expressing romantic desire between women. This provides a different angle on the idea of women's religious networks and communities as creating the opportunity for same-sex love. Rather than images of sex-starved nuns seeking erotic fulfillment, or concerns about "special friendships" developing into inappropriate closeness, what if some religious women considered their same-sex attractions to be a positive embodiment of the devotion they also felt for God?

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Full citation: 

Wiethaus, Ulrike. 2003. “Female Homoerotic Discourse and Religion in Medieval Germanic Culture” in Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages, in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4

The author looks at texts that can be read as homoerotic  addressed between religious women in medieval Germany. She specifically rejects the approach of treating women’s homoerotic experiences as equivalent to, or subsumed under, men’s experiences. After examining this type of literature in general, she applies that understanding to the writings of a specific woman who helped develop the concept of Christian bridal mysticism: Hadewijch of Brabant (early 13th century).

In a medieval religious context, a search for texts that fit a contemporary model of homoeroticism will turn up very little. Instead one must examine the social relations and power structures within which the texts are created to identify constraints on how women are able to express homoeroticism and how these feelings can be encoded in acceptable forms both as expression and resistance.

Hildegard of Bingen’s writings about homoeroticism demonstrate this conflict. On the one hand, she repeats the official condemnatory views prevalent in theological texts of the time, while her liturgical songs and personal correspondence, which were aimed at an exclusively female audience, express strong same-sex attachments and a homoerotic aesthetic.

Elite male writings set out the accepted views and opinions on female homoeroticism that could be expressed in standard theological texts. But genres that were predominantly composed by and for women found ways to explore more positive expressions of homoerotic experience. At the same time, these texts represent only a small fraction of the more elite educated female religious community and it is difficult to tell whether they reflect the experiences of less privileged women.

These woman-centered texts supply evidence for same-sex attachments within German women’s religious communities, expressed within creative and imaginative spiritual expressions that were often wrapped in layers of metaphor. Wiethaus cautions that we have no direct evidence whether the women who created these textual expressions also engaged in homoerotic sexual acts. For that matter, we can’t always know what types of acts they would have considered to be sexual.

Much of the homoerotic expression focuses on imagined spiritual figures including the Virgin Mary and Minne or “Lady Love”, a personification of divine ecstatic love which Hadewijch used regularly in her writing. This use of a female personification of a spiritual abstraction can make it difficult to determine whether Hadewijch’s writings express a spiritual experience or passionate attraction for a fellow religious woman. The female personification of Minne is also mapped onto the figure of Christ in some contexts, resulting in the bridal language associated with Christ being transformed into expressions of one woman courting and marrying one another.

Hadewijch’s writings were primarily pedagogical, exhorting her students regarding forms of spiritual experience. In format and meter, her writing draws heavily on secular love lyrics. Manuscripts of her verses and letters were circulated widely among religious houses in northern Germany and the Low Countries, indicating her fame as an authority and teacher.

Wiethaus reviews the official Christian theological opinions about gender and sex, and how attitudes toward female same-sex eroticism were driven by patriarchal principles and a focus on condemnation of usurping male roles and prerogatives. Homoeroticism (female and male) could only be envisioned within a heteronormative structure, where one partner was identified as the active “male” role and the other as the passive “female” role. Because gender hierarchy (male above female) was viewed as a theological principle, violations of that hierarchy in the context of homoeroticism were treated as religious crimes.

The most common rationale for condemning homosexuality was that it was “against nature”--a category that also covered a variety of other sex acts. But some authors called out specific acts and behavior, either as examples or as arguments. Hincmar of Reims (9th century) cited women’s use of “certain instruments” for sexual activity. Peter Abelard (12th century) argued that sex between women was sinful because God had created women’s genitals for the “use of men”. Although the details of penances often differentiated between male and female homosexuality, writers such as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas placed them in the same conceptual category.  Homosexuality became associated with religious heresy by various means, and vocabulary shifted between the two senses.

Despite the theoretical equivalence of male and female homosexuals, penitential literature often specified lighter penalties for women, with unmarried girls or widows being punished less harshly than married women, but acts involving an artificial penis were considered the most serious. Specific references to female homosexuality in penitentials can be found in Theodore (ca. 670) and Bede (ca. 734).

Due to the association of homosexuality with heresy, capital penalties often specified death by burning, though some of the rare recorded cases involving women were carried out by drowning, as for Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477).

Secular literature tended to be less explicit on homoerotic topics. Although courtly literature includes many intense same-sex friendships between women, including visions of all-female utopias, even the idea that these relationships could involve sexual activity was avoided, in contrast to the detailed descriptions of trial records from a somewhat later date.

Moving from texts produced by male hierarchies (both clerical and secular) to texts authored by women, we find that discussions of physical same-sex attraction focus on kissing and caressing, not on the genital activity that gets the focus in male-authored works. Expressions of strong emotional attraction are common, while appreciation of physical attributes is more rare. The celibacy required of religious women might be one pressure against genital imagery, but spiritual writing was rife with heterosexual erotic imagery focused on the image of Christ as lover. When female religious authors touched on male homosexuality, then followed the party line in condemning sodomy.

The texts that most clearly express homoerotic sentiment between religious women are two (possibly three) rhymed love letters apparently written by and to nuns, dating to the 12th century. In form, they follow the conventions of love lyrics, lamenting the absence of the beloved and making references to physical attributes and suggestions of physical intimacy.

Wiethaus cautions that the letters may not literally indicate actual relationships (as opposed to being literary exercises) but neither should that interpretation be rejected. Even within some marginal theories that the poems were written by men in a female voice, there is an acknowledgement that they depict female same-sex love in a positive fashion.

The genres that women writers used most effectively to communicate with female audiences were letters, visionary writings, and devotional texts. These texts, as exemplified by the writings of Hadewijch, show a spectrum of women’s relationships, some featuring an exclusivity that is highlighted as suspicious in instructional manuals for nuns. But it is a recurring theme among elite female religious leaders to have a chosen confidante and companion whose chief attributes were faithfulness and a desire to be in close proximity to her friend. Within this context, there are blurred lines between mutual affection and same-sex desire.

Correspondence either between such confidantes or describing these relationships to others use heightened emotional language: “I would gladly have died for her”, “I never looked at her without experiencing true joy”, “I always went to her as if she were God Himself.”

Comparing these texts with the descriptions of female homoeroticism in male-authored literature, the conception of same-sex desire is radically different. Men discussed it in terms of abstract categories and genital acts, while women emphasize intense emotional experiences and attachments to a specific beloved individual.

The article concludes with an in-depth analysis of how Hadewijch’s writings develop an entirely new framework for expressing eroticized desire between women, adapting the bridal imagery of mysticism and blending explicit eroticism with spiritual imagery. Her life also illustrates a relationship-type seen for other religious women: the merging of an age-differentiated mentor-student bond into one involving an intense and eroticized bond.

One of the features of Hadewijch’s writings is the use of the allegorical figure of “Minne” (the word indicates romantic love--as in “Minnesinger”, the German equivalent of a troubadour--as contrasted with spiritual love). The figure of Minne appears in three roles: as a spiritual guide, as a symbol of love used to express female desire for another woman, and as an idealized alter ego for Hadewijch herself.

Hadewijch also employed heterosexual bridal imagery focused on Christ that was strongly erotic, and which sometimes shifts sideways into a more gender-ambiguous image, especially when emphasizing the equivalence and identity of the two lovers (worshipper and Christ). But “Lady Minne” is mentioned more often in Hadewijch’s writings than Christ and God combined, depicted as provoking an overwhelming and ecstatic emotion that was to be pursued and reveled in.

“...lightning is the light of order to show who Minne is and how she can receive and give--in the sweetness of clasping, in the fond embrace, in the sweet kiss, and in the heratfelt experience when Minne actually speaks. ‘I am the one who holds you in my embrace!’”  (There are many extensive quotations which continue this theme.)

Hadewijch’s letters to her female students provide evidence for certain specific attachments in language that evokes that of romantic love, in particular a woman named Sara. She exhorts them to “do everything with reliance on Minne” and expresses jealousy that they might turn away to other mentors. The blending of religious and personal emotions allowed Hadewijch to express same-sex desire “hidden in plain sight.” Sometimes shifts and ambiguity in reference blend Minne with her students, lending plausible deniability to passionate expressions:

I greet what I love
With my heart’s blood.
My senses wither
In the madness of Minne...
O dearly loved maiden
That I say so many things to you
Comes to me from fresh fidelity,
Under the deep touch of Minne...
I suffer, I strive after the height,
I suckle with my blood...
I tremble, I cling, I give...
Beloved, if I love a beloved,
Be you, Minne, my Beloved;
You gave yourself as Minne for your loved one’s sake...
O Minne, for Minne’s sake, grant that I,
Having become Minne, may know Minne wholly as Minne!

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Sunday, May 13, 2018 - 08:41

The Matter of Alchemy: Deciphering Medieval Practices

Organizer: Jennifer M. Rampling, Princeton Univ.

Presider: Peter M. Jones, King’s College, Univ. of Cambridge

Reading the Books of the Sages: Byzantine Hermeneutics of Ancient Alchemical Recipes Matteo Martelli, Univ. di Bologna

Byzantine alchemical texts present themselves as in a direct line from ancient sages, such as the 1st c treatise of Democritus containing works such as how to make gold, silver, and gemstones, or how to dye wool purple. Later texts often presented themselves as “rediscovering” or reinventing these techniques, usually accompanied by a citation of the “genealogy” of the text or techniques. Some alchemists such as 11th c Michael Psellus argued for the scientific, not magical, basis of their art, though the focus was still on creating gold. (He also discusses properties of gemstones.) Psellus collected 11 recipes for making gold and ascribed them to Democritus. Many collections of prior works were available to him, as a basis for his own experiments. Psellus was also interested in the making of precious stones and making pearls. E.g. Parisinus gr. 2325 13th c ms on “Deep Tincture of Stones, Emeralds, Rubies and Jacinths from the Book Taken from the Sancta Sanctorum of the Temples”. This work covered issues such as the identification of single ingredients, the interpretation of specific terminology, and discussions of methodological issues. We now look at a specific recipe.

”Take some komaris, which is difficult to find -- Persians and Egyptians give it the name of tálak, others the name of talák -- a half ounce; sulfer, a half ounce; water of untouched sulfur, 18 ounces; dilute the komaris and mix it with mercury; put the substance in a small glass vial and keep it.” The substance “komaris” appears in several different grammatical forms (or perhaps variants) and appears in several recipes. But what is it? Modern scholars point to the root of a plant Comarum palustre. But the Arabic equivalent suggested in the ms is “talc, talcum powder”, suggesting an entirely different substance. Elsewhere, komaron is glossed as “aphroselenon” (moon foam) as a cryptic identifier. The text now looks deeply into what the nature of this substance is. Does it come from multiple substances or is it a single species? Democritus says it is wine dregs and egg white and that you dilute it and rub it on a stone to turn it into a pearl. No specific textual citation for this is given, but it can be narrowed down based on the topic to a now lost volume surviving in Syriac translation. In this Syriac version, “komaris” (from Scythia) is a substance that is put into quicklime, mixed with wine dregs, and then rubbed on the stone you want to turn into a pearl. [Note that the actual nature of komaris is not indicated.] So is komaron the same thing as moon foam, or is it a separate substance that is combined with moon foam for the process? Or is the multiplicity of names and substances simply an accumulation of successive glosses and explanations?

“The Secret of Salt”: Salts and Their Use in Medieval Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Alchemy Gabriele Ferrario, Johns Hopkins Univ.

Interpreting the nature of the substances referenced in alchemical texts is hampered by the use of obscuring alias as well as a different conception of the nature of substances between the writers of the texts and modern chemical theory. Substances such as sulfer and mercury had a symbolic importance that went beyond their chemical substance, and alchemy treated them as creating other substances by means of manipulating the proportions. this paper looks at the category of salts as used in alchemical processes. Despite being less important symbolically, the proper understanding and manipulation of salts was essential to successful alchemical processes. Looking specifically at the writings of Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi. [Sorry for omitting the diacritics.] Al-Razi is said to have complied his text when reaching the end of his life when he wanted to preserve his knowledge. The contents first cover substances, then equipment, then operations. These operations are described in reference to the primary substances defined and described in the first section. Al-Razi describes 11 salts: weet (kitchen) salt, bitter salt, Andarani salt, Tabarzad salt, Nifti salt, Indian salt, egg salt, alkali salt, urine salt, lime salt, Oak ashes salt. Several of these names refer to the geographic origin but give no indication of the nature. E.g. Andarani salt, which is described as coming from a specific location, but the name is a corruption of a simple description. “Nifti salt” seems to refer to the act of splitting with an axe, suggesting a large crystal structure, but is also called “black salt”. The difficulty alchemists had in obtaining the correct ingredients derives from discontinuity in the knowledge of what these terms referred to. Later interpreters often worked backwards experimentally from the described results to identify which ingredients would produce those effects. In a later Arabic treatise “On alums and salts” we see many brief recipes that follow the same linguistic formulas as Al-Razi, hence the tendency of some translators to ascribe it to him. Latin translations of “On Alums and Salts” appear in the 14-15th centuries, as well as an Italian Hebrew translation from teh 16th century. All these point to the importance and fame of the Arabic text. The Hebrew translation has many translator’s interjections “this means” or “it seems to me” suggesting an experimenter’s commentary attempting to add value to the translation.

So what does this text say about salts? In a long discussion of the nature and varieties of salts, much of the description implies ordinary “kitchen salt”, though varieties are described as Indian, red, lime, bitter, compact, and references to geographic origin. Salt is treated as a purifying agent. The author has been trying to trace references to salt in alchemical fragments in the Cairo geniza. Most of them are recipes that can probably be traced back to translations of Al-Razi.

Getting Blood from the Stone: Alchemy as Decipherment in Medieval England Jennifer M. Rampling

In 1403-4 the alchemical production of precious metals was outlawed in England to prevent adulteration of the money supply. But at this time, an alchemist named Morton set up a workshop at Hatfield Peverel for practical production of precious metals, illustrating the conflict between alchemy as philosophical practice versus alchemy as craft. The unfortunate Morton ended up in court in violation of the aforementioned statue. This paper looks at who English alchemists talked about their ingredients. These included not only chemical substances, but also biological substances as well as salts and alums. The philosophy/craft distinction became manifested in a differential focus on metallic substances versus a broader range of natural ingredients. That is pure Aristotelian philosophy could be expressed in the pure “souls” of metals and their transformations. But this metal-based process was problematic in that it began with precious metals and therefore was expensive [and presumably, less attractive to patrons]. There was also a problem in the long manuscript tradition that included the wider descriptions of biological/natural substances. The philosophical tradition now begins to argue that references to ingredients like “eggs” or “blood” were meant only allegorically or to conceal the truth from the unlearned, and actually referred to the pure metals. The philosophical alchemists might distance themselves from the (illegal) craft-based approach, but the latter continued in popularity, focusing on “cookbook” style recipes with material goals. Getting back to Morton, although he allied himself with the philosophical alchemists, his own experimental writings included the broader non-metallic ingredient set. This is not the only example of conflict between alchemical philosophy and alchemical practice. As in the Pseudo-Ramon Llull Practica Testamenti which begins with a philosophical framing that uses an alphabetic mnemonic for ingredients but then includes not only the metallic mercury, but vitriol azoqueus, saltpeter, which then combine to form a “sticking menstruum”. [We now see the result of the paper author’s own experiments to reproduce some of these recipes.] The obscurity of texts such as this in a real sense drive experimentation, as the words themselves were insufficient for clear identification. This type of “translation” of supposedly allegorical terms, can be seen full circle in “practical” alchemists concluding that references to gold and silver as alchemical ingredients were themselves allegorical rather than literal references. This then drove further experimentation to identify what ingredients those “allegorical metals” were actually referring to. Philosophy might dictate alchemical discourse, but rarely succeeded in limiting practice.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 17:06

This year's book haul isn't as extensive as the usual. Just like for papers, the topics coming out of publishers run in cycles, and I guess we're just at a low cycle for the topics I'm currently interested in. Due to the weird interface issues I'm having with the website, I'm not going to try to post cover images this time. So here's what I bought:

Ferguson, Gary. 2016. Same-Sex Marriage in Renaissance Rome: Sexuality, Identity, and Community in Early Modern Europe. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. ISBN 9778-1-5017-0237-2

Obviously this is at least tangentially related to the LHMP, though the content is overwhelmingly male-oriented. The book primarily focuses on one particular marriage ceremony and the community of men involved in it, but there is a more extensive consideration of the social and conceptual context. I've been aware of this book since it was published but when there was more competition for my shopping dollars last year it didn't make the cut.

Netherton, Robin and Gale R. Owen-Crocker eds. 2018. Medieval Clothing and Textiles 14. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge. ISBN 978-1-78327-308-9

This is a regular purchase every year. Assorted articles on clothing and textile related topics. This year's volume includes a catalog of Byzantine and Oriental silk textiles found in early medieval Denmark, a look at late medieval female hairstyles that appear to involve depillitation, and yet one more assault on the question of exactly what the conceptual structure of the French Hood is.

Morgan, Faith Pennick. 2018. Dress and Personal Appearance in Late Antiquity Brill, Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-34395-5

I'm still a sucker for a new book on surviving garments from the Roman empire, even though I've more or less moved on from my deep focus on surviving garments. But surviving garments can still tug my heartstrings sufficiently that I'll also shell out for...

Coatsworth, Elizabeth and Gale Owen-Crocker. 2018. Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe. Brill, Boston. ISBN 978-90-04-35216-2

This is an in-depth look at 100 specific garments or accessories that illustrate interesting features not only of the clothing themselves but of the circumstances of survival.

Skinner, Patricia ed. 2018. The Welsh and the Medieval World: Travel, Migration and Exile. University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-78683-188-0

A fascinating study of medieval Welsh interactions with the larger European world. One of these days I really will do something creative again with my Welsh interests.

Fonte, Moderata (Virginia Cox, ed.). 2018. The Merits of Women Whereis is Revealed their Nobility and their Superiority to Men. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 9780226550633

An edition of a late 16th century Italian feminist treatise. The bookseller said it was a very popular purchase and I can see that it will be a fun read. (Alas, it's being shipped so I can't use it as my plane reading on my return trip.)

And that's it for this year. Not my usual super-abundance, but maybe that means I'll get caught up with reading some of the book I've brought home in previous years.

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Saturday, May 12, 2018 - 13:44

Last year there were a number of fascinating sessions on magic and occultism in the Islamicate medieval world. I’m still gathering up deep background on this topic for future fiction projects, and this one really caught my eye.

Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World II: Arabic and Persian

Sponsor: Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; Societas Magica

Organizer: Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Univ. of South Carolina

Presider: Liana Saif, Univ. of Oxford

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Hidden Secret and Islamic Occult Soteriology Michael Noble, Warburg Institute

Speaking about an early 13th century scholar. His studies included astrological themes and the creation of talismanic objects that synthesized three disciplines of natural philosophy: astrology, medicine, and spiritual discipline? [I missed the third--I’m having a little trouble hearing the speaker]. The practitioner must first establish a balanced spiritual discipline to create a connection with [???] then the following of a number of rituals to establish a connection with the desired astrological entity, then a talisman is created from materials attuned to the particular heavenly bodies being invoked. The completion of the ritual represents perfection of the soul. In theory, this discipline was not tied to any particular theology. Razi was interested in the basis for human psychic connections with the celestial spheres that enabled this process to achieve magical outcomes. This understanding draws on Avicennian philosophy regarding mystical visions. Access to these sorts of visions or abilities can be innate or can be achieved through spiritual training.

A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Al-Sakkaki’s Thirteenth-Century Complete Book Emily Selove, Univ. of Exeter

The speaker suggests a modified title for the book is “The book of the Complete One.” Al-Sakkhaki is better known as a grammarian, but this handbook ties together magical aspects of language to his better known reputation. There are questions about authorship as the book is in Middle Arabic rather than scholarly Arabic, though this could be explained by its nature as an informal handbook. The contents are an assortment of spells to create effects or control supernatural beings, including the summoning of demons. An example is shown of a spell that is functionally a cookbook recipe for a stuffed chicken, but with added requirements: a black chicken and signs included to create the magical effect (I missed the details but something like achieving a desire?).The text includes diagrams for talismanic spells -- such as one to cause hatred between friends. In three manuscripts specific talismanic diagrams are reproduced with extreme faithfulness. [This paper seems to be something of an informal guided tour through the manuscript rather than a specific thesis about it.] We get a digression about how excerpts from these spells are circulating on the internet, evidently describing current folk-magic use. The avoidance of Al-Sakkaki’s magical pursuits when discussing his work, it is suggested, is due to embarrassment about the magical field in general. We now digress into imagery about paradisical banquets in the afterlife and rituals involving cups and beautiful young boys. [I’m losing the thread here.] A discussion of how the omission of Arabic diacritics (the vowel marks -- not sure about the technical term) renders a book of spells difficult to decipher, but may also be to render them “safe” on the page? More on connections between historic magical texts and modern magical practice found in online contexts. [The manuscript sounds fascinating, but I felt the presentation was more in the mode of “look at all this weird medieval stuff”.]

“If you don’t learn alchemy, you’ll learn eloquence”: The Golden Slivers by Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s Nicholas G. Harris, Univ. of Pennsylvania

This is a lengthy poetry collection that was considered both an example of poetic excellence as well as a collection of alchemical wisdom. 43 odes, successively using every letter of the Arabic alphabet as a rhyme letter. The meter is formal, one typically used for epics. Alchemical poetry was an established poetic genre, crossing multiple themes and forms. Commentaries and expansions on the work speak to its reception, and a repeated theme is that even if you fail to learn alchemy from the poem, you will definitely learn eloquence and poetry. In the 14th century, the works of al-Jildaki created a “bottleneck” in the Arabic alchemical tradition, whereby most writing subsequent to him is based on his work., including his commentaries on earlier works such as the one considered here, which Jildaki praised highly. Currently a critical edition of this text is being prepared and will be available soon. We conclude with some questions about the author of the work. He seems to have been mentioned and praised by a number of contemporaries as a preacher and Quranic expert, but his poetic works seem to be mentioned only after his death. (?) But the early 15th century historian Ibn Khaldun, known for his anti-occult opinions, muddies the waters by deriding Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s as an alchemist, while praising him under another name for his religious scholarship, leading to theories that they were two different people.

Kāshifī’s Qasimian Secrets: The Safavid Imperialization of a Timurid Manual of Magic Matthew Melvin-Koushki

We’re concerned here with two of the “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical world in the 15-1th century. With a brief digression on modern political magic movements to bind and block the actions of certain contemporary figures, we come to the topic of what “political magic” means in a medieval context. For example a spell “to remove any ruler you wish.” You inscribe a verse on one side of an object, a picture of the target on the other side, then bury it. But the verse is oddly non-Quranic but is rather anti-Trinitarian in form, using the rejection of Christian theology as the medium of rejecting the ruler. In the relevant historic period, Islamic sovereigns were seeing a unified way to control the world, while scholars sought means for controlling the sovereigns. At the same time, Western cultures turned to the task of rooting out and eliminating occult forces in politics, in contrast to a more aligned east/west approach in previous eras. Another distinction is the shift to printed occult treatises in the west, whereas the Islamic world viewed manuscript as an essential aspect of the social role of books. [A slide lists eight titles which were “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical literary world.] The texts considered here concern numerology and lettrisim (the alphabetic equivalent of numerology). These texts transcended conflicts between Islamic sects, being written by Sufi Sunni authors, but used by Shi’a rulers as the basis for imperial political occultism. [I think we’re going to get more details of Islamic historical political conflict than I’ll be able to follow.] The political nature of these texts include spells to control and influence rulers, controlling the emotions and reactions of kings, and elevating the reputation and influence of the practitioner within the political sphere, with an expectation that the practitioner will be a courtier or member of the bureaucracy.

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