There is an unexamined thread in the inclusion of cross-dressing as one of the continuing motifs in the material I cover for the Project. As I've discussed on several occasions, I've included studies on cross-dressing in history and literature both because it provided a context in western literature for the experience or recognition of same-sex attraction, and because it is a popular theme in modern lesbian historical fiction (so it's useful to understand the phenomenon in the historical context). But at its heart, the homoerotic aspects of cross-dressing focus on a specific subset of erotic attraction and experience. Within the context of female homoeroticism, cross-dressing highlights a "difference" model of attraction. The "opposites attract" idea, if you will. It suggests that when a femme woman is attracted to another woman, it will be through the medium of masculine performance and appearance.
While this is one clear recurring theme across the ages--especially in contexts when a "similarity" model of attraction is less available--it is far from universal and is always understood within its specific cultural context. This means that we need to be hesitant about concluding that the female performance of masculinity will automatically result in female homoerotic possibilities. The current article is a good reminder of the complexities of social performance.
Rowson, Everett K. 2003. “Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism at the Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad” in Farmer, Sharon & Carol Braun Pasternack (eds). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. ISBN 0-8166-3893-4
One of the features of medieval Islamic societies, at least among the urban elite, was a strict segregation of the sexes. This might imply a clear distinction in gender roles however the approach to sexuality in these cultures--in particular regarding male homoeroticism--resulted in some approaches to gender roles that contrast sharply to those of Christian cultures. These approaches included significant allowance for specific classes of persons to transgress the accepted forms of gender expression within certain limits. In fact, institutionalized forms of both male and female cross-dressing can be traced in certain times and places. A closer examination of these two phenomena, however, reveals significant asymmetries in their motivation and treatment that revolve around the primacy of the sexual desires of elite men.
The article surveys some more recent ethnographic studies of cross/trans-gender roles in the Islamicate world, including the khanīths of contemporary Oman (men presenting as feminine who work as homosexual prostitutes) and male dancers in 19th century Cairo with feminine presentation. Similar medieval roles are less studied and the focus of this article is something of a catalog of specific identifiable roles.
The male cross-gender role of mukhannath, which can be traced at least as far back as the time of the Prophet (7th century) in Medina, functioned primarily as musicians. After a brief period of government suppression in the early 8th century ending with the fall of the Umayyad caliphate, they re-emerged as court entertainers in Baghdad in the late 8th century.
Moving into the 9th century, there are also references to a female cross-gender role of ghulāmīyāt. Although female cross-dressers can be found in passing mentions earlier, this is the earliest known reference to an established and named role that emerged under the `Abbāsid caliphate. The motivation for the ghulāmīyāt role is given as a strategy of the mother of one caliph, known for his sexual preference for male eunuchs, who presented him with women in male dress and hair styles to entice him to produce heirs. The word ghulāmīyāt means “boy-like” but the aesthetic that developed for the ghulāmīyāt aimed for the transition from boyhood to adulthood, including painting on false moustaches among other cosmetic idiosyncrasies like writing poetic verses on their cheeks.
In general, institutionalized cross-gender roles for both men and women did not aim for “passing” but for a blending of gender signifiers. For a ghulāmīyā, this included license to behave in masculine-coded ways, in addition to the visual presentation, as indicated in praise poetry addressed to them which mentions intellectual, musical, and sporting pursuits more usually associated with men.
Ghulāmīyāt were almost always slaves attached to the court or the aristocracy, though there are rare mentions of free ghulāmīyāt. This means that the role was normally an imposed one, rather than a personal gender expression, and it should not be confused with accounts of “masculine” free women who adopted male attire and pursued martial exploits (a category not associated with same-sex interests), or with accounts of female same-sex behavior (most typically mentioned in connection with enslaved women). There are no references to the ghulāmīyāt being associated with lesbian behavior.
The author now moves on to the male role of lūṭī, a man whose sexual preference is for penetrative sex with adolescent boys, discussing how the existence of this orientation created the impetus for the ghulāmīyāt phenomenon. That is, ghulāmīyāt were associated with same-sex desire but with male same-sex desire, not female same-sex desire. There follows a discussion of the sexuality of eunuchs and how it fit into medieval Islamicate sexual categories.
This leads into a consideration of the male feminine-performing mukhannath, which seems to have represented both a professional and personal expression in some cases. Mukhannathūn seem to have worn a mixture of female and male clothing styles, with feminine jewelry, and were treated as falling outside the category of “male” with regard to gender-segregated spaces. In addition to their traditional profession of musician, where they were associated with specific musical styles and instruments, they commonly functioned as marriage go-betweens.
Although mukhannathūn were assumed to have no sexual interest in women, they were not assumed to take a passive homosexual role. And their relationship to women was sometimes looked askance. Some were married to women, and some authority figures challenged their access to women-only spaces. One caliph during the period of their suppression ordered all mukhannathūn in Medina to be castrated. The class eventually rebounded from this persecution and re-emerged under a new dynasty in their traditional roles as musicians and entertainers. The period of suppression seems to have coincided with the emergence of a public culture of male homosexuality, and the shift back to acceptance under the Umayyads was noted as being surprisingly abrupt even at the time.
The article goes into a great deal of detail about mukhannathūn, their status, and attitudes toward them, which is not relevant to the purposes of this Project. The conclusion of the article reiterates the parallels and contrasts between mukhannathūn and ghulāmīyāt in being entertainers and being defined in reference to fashions in elite male sexual interests, but with differences in the consequence to personal reputation relating to differential gender expectations and voluntary versus non-voluntary membership in the respective categories.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 22a - On the Shelf for May 2018 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2018/05/05 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2018.
This is a special month--not because of anything to do with the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast or blog, but because I’m having one of those big round-number birthdays. Like most years, I’ll be spending my birthday in the midst of a couple thousand historians at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, held in Kalamazoo Michigan. I rather like the idea that they throw this big medieval birthday party for me every year.
If I’m lucky, there will be a handful of papers relevant to the history of sexuality that I can hear presented, along with all the other topics I enjoy following. And I always spend time in the display room where the academic publishers have their books out, and end up bringing home some fascinating books to add to the project’s to-do list. I usually live-blog summaries of the sessions I attend, so you can follow along on my website if you like--though it’s nothing at all like the thrill of being there in person.
I’ve presented papers at the conference several times in the past and there are a few topics based on my reading for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project that I plan to work up into proposals some time in the future. It’s sort of like going to a major science fiction convention except for historians.
Publications on the Blog
In April, the blog presented a couple of articles from the collection Queer Renaissance Historiography. One was about the overlap of personal and professional duties of secretaries in 16th and 17th century England and how female secretaries to important women could create a sort of shadow government. This may seem a bit distanced from the topic of same-sex relations, but at that time close companions often shared a bed as a sign of their intimacy. And though this was not automatically understood in a sexual sense, the overlap of intellectual and physical intimacy was always a possibility.
The second article from this collection tied in with April’s essay on the figure of the goddess Diana in early modern culture as a symbol of marriage resistance and chastity, but a chastity that allowed for same-sex intimacies between women. The essay about the figure of Diana and especially how the myth of Diana and Callisto created a space for the imagining and depiction of sex between women, led sideways into the topic of cross-gender performance by men in historic texts--a topic that can be problematic when viewed through modern interpretations of transgender identity. While that topic was on my mind, I covered the article “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History,” which looks at the contexts in which medieval knights used a female presentation as part of tournament culture or theatrical performance.
The month of May starts off with two articles from the collection Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages and continues the theme of cross-gender performance. A woman cross-dressing as a man--either as a complete disguise, or simply as a way of breaking gender rules--is a very popular trope in modern lesbian historical fiction. But that motif isn’t historically accurate for many times and places. An article by Everett Rowson looks at cross-gender performance at court in medieval Baghdad, where both men performing femininity and women performing masculinity were driven by the sexual tastes of elite men and had nothing to do with female same-sex interests.
The second article in this collection, by Ulrike Wiethaus, is on the very different topic of homoerotic language used between religious women in medieval Germany.
Next we return to the motif of the mannish “Amazonian” women in medieval Islamic literature in an examination of a complex heroic tale that features two strong women and the image of a woman skilled in the arts of war who resists marriage and defeats the men competing for her. There are no overt lesbian themes in the story, but I include it as part of the continuing interest in martial women and cross-dressing.
The month of May finishes up this series of articles on cross-gender performance with a catalog and analysis of women recorded as appearing in male clothing in late medieval London.
This month’s essay will be on the topic of queer women’s communities in history. That is: what are some contexts where women interacted in social groups that were either organized around same-sex desire, or that aligned closely with those desires. There has been a great deal of interest in historical studies of how men created communities and meeting places to pursue same-sex desire, but such studies generally either dismiss the female equivalent as non-existent or blithely assume that women’s experience was identical to men’s. Which, of course, it almost never was.
I originally put together the notes and materials for this essay for someone else who was interested in the topic and wanted to do a show on it, but she never took it further and I recently got confirmation that it was ok to use them for my own show.
This month’s author guest will be Jeannelle M. Ferreira, author of the brand new Regency romance The Covert Captain, which shot to the top of my list of favorite lesbian Regencies. I’d delighted to be able to use the podcast to let more people know about this really fun, yet deeply thoughtful story.
I’ve been trying to get my author guests lined up a bit further in advance so it doesn’t feel like I’m always scrambling. I’m looking for people who are writing within historic settings, though not limited to strictly historical stories. And it’s always a bonus to be able to feature an author around the time they have a new book coming out. If you’d like to suggest someone you think would fit into the podcast’s scope, drop me a note with contact information. I’m trying to reach across genre boundaries and include authors with all sorts of publishing backgrounds. You may have noticed that I’ve featured some people from mainstream science fiction and fantasy lately, as well as authors publishing romance outside the lesbian presses. One of my goals is to expand people’s awareness of the books that are out there--ones that you might not have heard about if you primarily follow one specific part of the market.
There are also opportunities for non-authors or authors who don’t write historicals to feature on this podcast. Usually we have our author guest do the Book Appreciation segment, but not everyone chooses to do so. I’m trying to put together some Book Appreciation shows from readers so that I can fit them in when there’s an opportunity. If you have some favorite historical novels featuring women who love women,--whether it’s your all-time favorites, or favorites within a particular genre--I’d love to have you on the show to talk about them.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
When I first started putting together the forthcoming books list for this show, I had only two titles--well, more like one and a half. I’ve turned up a couple more at the last minute, but remember that I can only announce books if I know about them. So if you’re aware of any upcoming publications that you think would fit the topic of the podcast, please drop me a note.
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The first book was an April release that I didn’t hear about until after it came out. It’s The Potion by R.G. Emanuelle from Dirt Road Books. Here’s the blurb.
Vera Kennedy, widow of Professor James Kennedy, wants to be a scientist, but in Victorian Boston, that isn’t an option for women. Nevertheless, after assisting her husband in the laboratory with his experiments, she has learned everything she could through his unintended tutelage. After his death, she continues his work until she veers off onto a different path with her own experiments, which threaten to consume her to the exclusion of all else.
Georgette Harris, widow of Professor Roland Harris, has been left destitute in the wake of her husband’s death. He had amassed mountains of debt. When a medicinals company wants to purchase a formula that Roland had proposed to them, Georgette searches for it without success, and then discovers evidence that her husband had worked with James Kennedy. Armed with this information, she seeks the help of Vera in uncovering the missing formula.
However, Vera is not one to give up secrets easily, though she is inexplicably drawn to Georgette. Despite her reservations, she considers Georgette’s request, and they soon discover that both their husbands were involved in an experiment layered in deception and danger. Together, they sort through mysterious clues and discover in the process something far stronger between them.
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The second book teeters on the edge of the historical category. The author notes that it’s a vaguely Victorian-ish, somewhat post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy. I figured I’d give it the benefit of the doubt and include it, since this month’s list is so short. The book appears to be the beginning of a series, titled:A Touch of Truth, Book One: Raven, Fire and Ice by Nita Round from Silver Dragon Books. Here’s the blurb:
Lucinda Ravensburgh sees the truth in everything she touches. When Captain Magda Stoner of the airship Verity, asks for her help in a very strange and messy crime, Lucinda cannot refuse. From that moment on, Lucinda’s life is changed forever. She discovers, no matter what the obstacle, nor the troubles they encounter, finding the truth is paramount.
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The author Vanda called my attention to the third book in her Juliana series: Paris Adrift from Sans Merci Press. I can’t find clear information about a release date: the author’s Amazon page says March, in an interview she says April, but as of this writing I don’t see a definite date yet. So at least May, but keep your eyes peeled. Here’s the blurb:
Paris-bound, 1955. Alice “Al” Huffman can’t wait to reach the City of Light. As soon as their ship arrives, Juliana’s singing career will get the spotlight it deserves. Before the SS United States hits land, a stranger approaches Al with a Broadway contract for Juliana. But the offer comes with a threat that can destroy them both. If Al can’t find a way out, Juliana’s comeback will come crashing down around their heads. As she hides the awful truth from Juliana, Al searches for an answer before another obstacle destroys their last chance for happiness…
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The last book for this month is one I just became aware of and again the release status isn’t entirely clear. The author’s website indicates it’ll be available through Smashwords and Amazon, but the links aren’t live yet so I’ve put her website in the show notes. The setting for this book is a lot earlier than our usual listings. The book is Thora: A Spartan Hoplite’s Slave by Red Hope from Little Red Wings. Here’s the blurb:
She is the only female hoplite in Spartan history. She is a royal guard to King Leonidas. She is the Iron Edge. In an age when men rule, Halcyon rises above and is the master of her own life. At home, Halcyon controls her lands and her personal slaves with a strict hand, until the day she purchases an unusual slave. Thora is a fair skinned woman who stands taller than the Greek gods, with hair the color of gold, and blue eyes that rival the skies. Halcyon must own the unusual woman, but she is hardly prepared for the thunder that follows. Step back into the glory of Ancient Sparta when the city-state becomes a formidable military power. Learn about Sparta’s unique social system including women’s dominant roles in both the house and in public affairs, and follow one slave owner’s journey as she learns to accept her slave’s spirit.
I have to confess that, reading this blurb, I’m a little bit uneasy about how this book is going to handle the topic of “romance” between an owner and a slave, even in a historic setting. But it does look like an interesting premise. Check it out and let me know what you think.
The “Ask Sappho” segment is where I take questions and requests from readers. It could be a question about some particular historic person or phenomenon. Sometimes I’ve had requests for book lists with a specific setting. It’s a chance for you, dear listeners, to take a hand in shaping this podcast and getting tailor-made content that speaks directly to your individual interests.
This month...this month, I’ve got nothing. I regularly put the word out looking for questions on facebook, on twitter, in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog, and of course every month in this On The Shelf show. I can’t do the Ask Sappho segment without your requests. I hope you’ve been enjoying this Question and Answer series, but I can’t do it without you. There are lots of ways to contact the show with your requests and questions: drop by the Lesbian Talk Show Chat Group on facebook, or drop me a note on Twitter, or stop by my blog and leave a comment or email. I hope to hear from you for next month’s Ask Sappho segment.
As I note below, I originally picked this up because I thought it would cover all types of cross-dressing in the context of chivalric romances and tournaments. But even though it's restricted to contexts where men perform femininity in a public context, it's still quite relevant to understanding medieval attitudes toward gender crossing and gender performance. In particular, it's a strong reminder that men and women lived in entirely different universes with regard to how cross-gender performance and gender transgression were received.
Putter, Ad. “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and History” in Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome & Bonnie Wheeler (eds). 1997. Becoming Male in the Middle Ages. Garland, New York. ISBN 0-8153-2836-2
[Note: I originally picked this up thinking that it would cover literary female cross-dressing knights as well as male ones. Although the article is entirely about men cross-dressing as women, it helps to round out the picture of how medieval people viewed clothing as a gender signifier and some of the asymmetries of cross-gender behavior.]
Putter looks at the phenomenon of (male) cross-dressing knights, both in historical records and in chivalric romances and considers how the topic contributes to our understanding of gender and sex categories in the middle ages.
A key starting point is an understanding that--then as now--gender was a performance and one only tangentially connected with physiology. The official position on cross-dressing, both from the law and from moralists, was condemnation and persecution, which makes it all the more startling to find cross-dressing as a regular motif in medieval romances and even in real-life tournaments. Male cross-dressing is often, though not always, used for humorous purposes or to demonstrate power dynamics. But at a more basic level, the use of gender disguise in these contexts, rather than undermining the distinction between the sexes, is used to emphasize it. The chivalric cross-dresser is not necessarily a directly comic figure, but is typically placed in a context that safely contains his transgressive potential and diverts it to humor.
Social prohibitions on cross-dressing took their authority from the Bible: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment” and this was taken up in secular law codes in the first millennium, as well as in treatises of religious philosophy. But concerns around clothing and social categories were not limited to gender. There are parallel concerns about using clothing similarly to blur the distinction between the clerical and secular worlds. Transgressions of multiple types of categorical distinctions were often mingled in the same contexts.
The condemnatory tone around cross-dressing had two significant exceptions. Men were allowed to portray women on stage during those eras and cultures when it was considered inappropriate for women to be actors. And women were forgiven temporary instances of gender disguise for the purpose of protecting their chastity, especially in order to escape marriage to enter a religious life. (The female “transvestite saints” were a special case of this.)
In general, there was more tolerance for women disguising themselves as men due to the relative social status involved: it was more understandable for women to “elevate” themselves to men, than for men to “degrade” themselves as women.
Examples of male cross-dressing in ordinary life are extremely rare, which makes the motif of the cross-dressed knight all the more curious. What was it about this context that allowed for crossing gender boundaries in this way?
One major factor is that the cross-dressing occurred in the context of tournaments--an activity focused on the performance of extreme masculinity. And in the middle ages, tournaments themselves because quasi-theatrical performances, modeling themselves on the tournaments described in chivalric literature. An example would be a tournament held in 1286 to celebrate the coronation of Henri II of Lusignan as King of Jerusalem. As one chronicler notes, “they imitated the Round Table and the reign of Femenie, that is, knights dressed as ladies, and they jousted together. Then they played nuns that had with them monks and they jousted with each other; and they impersonated Lancelot and Tristan and Palamedes, and played many other splendid, delectable, and pleasinge games.” That is, the knights jousting in the guise of women were playing fictional roles, just as they did when taking on the personas of Arthur’s knights.
A similar diversity of disguises is seen in the life of the famous 13th century Bavarian knight Ulrich von Lichtenstein, who took on the personas of King Arthur and Lady Venus at different tournaments, and inspired others to take on similar roles, crossing gender and clerical lines. The boundary between tournament and theatrical role-playing is more blurred in a performance reported from the marriage feast of Edward I of England and Margaret of France, which involved one of the king’s squires impersonating the “Loathly Lady” of Chretien’s Perceval.
When pieced together from various sources, the phenomenon of chivalric cross-dressing is seen to be surprisingly common, as if one counts “crossing” that includes not only gender boundaries but crossing between social classes (knights vs monks) and crossing between the world of reality and that of myth or legend. In turn, the popularity of this sort of real-life chivalric cross-dressing may have inspired or popularized the use of the motif in chivalric literature.
In a literary context, transvestism is somewhat more likely to be done in a context of mockery, as in the Tournament of Surluse when Sir Dinadan’s reputation for jokes is turned around on him by Lancelot who appears on the tournament field disguised as a maiden, as if to be the prize of the combat. The disguised Lancelot then charges Sir Dinadan and unhorses him. Dinadan’s shame at being defeated by “a maiden” is compounded when he is forced to wear a woman’s dress on his return to the court.
This is the contradiction of chivalric transvestism: as long as a knight engages in it voluntarily, it doesn’t affect his masculinity or reputation, in particular, if he does so in the context of “proving” his masculinity by victory in a tournament. The tournament context creates a presumption that all participants are male, thereby undermining the subversive nature of cross-gender play. Moreover, the more general practice of semi-theatrical disguise in the context of tournaments, undermines the specifically gendered aspect of putting on female garments. These theatrical displays also typically have “unmasking” as part of the climax, reaffirming the essential masculinity of the knight. What the author proposes is that in both chivalric romance and actual tournaments, knights “prove” that they are not women specifically by pretending to be women and then contradicting it, both by deeds and by a public revelation of male identity.
Further, the association of female identity with “performance” and artificiality creates a contrast with the “naturalness” of male identity. As in Raoul de Houdenc’s 13th century Arthurian romance Meraugis de Portlesguez, it is right to mock and punish those who are deceived by the gender disguise, for the “reveal” demonstrates the truth that was always present under the disguise.
The negative side of gender disguise in romances is seen in the motif of the man who uses it to gain sexual access to an otherwise-forbidden women. [Note: the roots of the “trans women are invading your bathrooms” motif run deep.] This is seen in the 13th century fabliau Trubert where the protagonist disguises himself as his sister to deflower the Duke of Burgundy’s daughter, or in several other romances: the Vulgate Merlin, the Roman de Silence, the Prose Tristan and others where men are disguised as handmaidens or nuns to have unquestioned access to a (consenting) noble woman for sexual purposes.
One other literary context for cross-dressing is mentioned in the footnotes to the article. In Arthurian romance, the role of messenger is normally assigned to women. Male strangers entering the court are framed negatively. The general rule is that a female visitor is a messenger but a male visitor is either a challenger or a prisoner. Within this context, knights are depicted specifically as dressing up as a “messenger girl” in order to be met with acceptance rather than hostility.
The same-sex erotic potential of gender disguise is introduced more rarely. In the 13th century romance Witasse le Moine the cross-dressed hero has to fight off the amorous advances of another man (and the narrator feels the need to reassure us that our hero is not a “sodomite”). A similar episode occurs in the 13th century romance Claris et Laris where the hero is magically changed into a “maiden” until he can find the two best knights in the world. But unlike episodes where a change of body results in a change of desire (as in Tristan de Nanteuil), he retains heterosexual male desires while in the maiden’s body and fights off male sexual assault.
Real-life examples of men cross-dressing as women outside of a tournament/theatrical context are rare in the record. The most notable English exception is the 14th century case of John Rykener who was taken in custody as “Eleanor” on suspicion of prostitution. (The law seemed at a loss to figure out what Rykener’s offence might be once the gender disguise aspect was apparent.)
In literary contexts, the potential for male same-sex interactions was raised only for the purpose of vehemently denying it, often violently. More often, the potential is not raised at all and the cross-dressed figure is either the perpetrator or butt of a joke. (The article goes into some detail on the theoretical analysis of transvestite-centered humor.)
I've decided to discontinue my series of mini-stories for the Lesbian Book Bingo Challenge event. Although it was a fun idea, there simply wasn't enough interest for it to be worth the time and effort I was putting into it. If you were one of the small handful of people who were enjoying the series, I'm sorry for disappointing you.
Writing free fiction is a tricky enterprise. As a rule of thumb, it either has to be a project that gives me immense personal joy, or a project that serves to draw attention to my work in general, or a project that will bring me significant positive feedback and make me feel good about my writing. The Bingo Mini-Stories were meant to be the second, as a context for continuing to promote the reading challenge throughout the year without feeling stale. But it's clear that participating in the Bingo Challege has been a flop in terms of bringing new readers to my work. If the stories themselves had drawn sufficient interest, apart from their use in promoting the challenge, it still would have been worth continuing. But in the last month, the project has felt more and more like a burden that's pulling me away from my other writing projects. It was a voluntary burden--one I invented on my own, with no external commitment chaining me to its completion. I've learned some hard lessons in the past about being careful about inventing rules for the Game of Life that don't allow me to win. I invented the burden, I picked it up all on my own, and here I am laying it down, also of my own accord.
If you like, you may imagine that Lena, Martijn, Laura, Isabel, Marie, Lisette, Hélène, and all the rest whose stories were never told all eventually found their happy endings.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21d - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/04/28 - listen here)
The search for representation in history and historic art and literature is, in one sense, always doomed to failure because our identities are a complex product of a specific historic and cultural context. We can find echoes of individual details of our identities, but never the exact whole. And sometimes, to find those echoes, we need to excavate the features we identify with from a pit of stereotypes, disapproval, and hostility.
Today’s show looks at a topic that offers both some surprising examples of representation and some uncomfortably problematic features of how that representation was framed.
Ovid, Diana and Callisto, other mythic themes
The Roman goddess Diana (and her Greek counterpart Artemis, as well as other divinities treated as equivalent or related) is a complex figure with several prominent attributes. She is associated with the moon (corresponding to her brother Apollo’s association with the sun). She is associated with hunting and with wild spaces. She is associated with virginity or chastity and famous for harsh treatment of male intrusions into her all-female circle of followers, which makes it interesting that she was also associated with childbirth and was petitioned to assist both with becoming pregnant and with an easy delivery. Diana was often depicted in male-coded hunting garments, wearing a short tunic and boots, while carrying a bow and quiver and accompanied by hunting dogs or by a deer.
The artistic and literary treatments of Diana that had the most significant presence in later Western culture revolve around two stories, both of which are relevant for Diana as a lesbian icon. One is the story of the hunter Acteon and his fate. Acteon was out hunting and came across Diana while she was bathing naked. In punishment for this transgression, she changed Acteon into a stag and set his own hounds on him to hunt and kill him. This is part of a continuing theme depicting Diana’s band of followers as constituting a women-only space and enforcing that requirement with harsh penalties.
The other story, about Diana and Callisto, is more complex. In brief, Callisto was one of Diana’s followers, one of a band of nymphs who were sworn to reject men just as Diana herself had. Jupiter had the hots for Callisto--as he did for so many women in classical mythology--but there was no way to get close to her because of Diana’s big sign on the clubhouse saying, “No Boys Allowed.”
So Jupiter got around this problem by disguising himself as Diana. A number of the medieval and early modern versions of the story go into great detail about how Callisto became persuaded that a sexual relationship with the goddess Diana was not only ok, but was a great idea, though other versions depict her as being more consistently reluctant about it. At some point, of course, Jupiter revealed himself, but it was too late for Callisto to protest at that point. She became pregnant as a result, and although she tried to conceal the fact, her condition was discovered one day when the nymphs were bathing together. There’s that “naked nymphs bathing together in the woods” motif again. Callisto was expelled from Diana’s band and transformed into a bear, although the details of just who performed the shape-change vary depending on the version of the story. In any event, we aren’t so much concerned with that point.
The key aspects of these two stories that created resonances through the medieval and Renaissance periods were the following. The goddess Diana rejected romantic and sexual interactions with men and expected her followers to do the same. Both stories involve scenes of women bathing naked in wilderness settings. And Jupiter’s seduction of Callisto assumes a context in which Callisto responds positively to what she believes is same-sex desire. These motifs combined to create an unusually public culture of depicting female homoeroticism in a context where, if not exactly approved of, it was safely removed from everyday life enough to be acceptable.
It is undeniable that the popularity of artistic depictions of the story were, in large part, driven by the male gaze and an appetite for female homoerotic scenes created for men’s consumption. But at the same time, the depiction in both art and literature of a separatist society of women who resisted marriage or any other relations with men and who openly embraced physical affection and pair-bonding between women, created a conceptual space that welcomed women who desired women not only as consumers but as producers of those stories and images.
The concept of chastity and heteronormativity
A key feature to understanding the reception of Dianic art and literature is the shifting interpretations of the concepts of chastity and virginity. Diana was a virgin goddess and one whose followers were sworn to chastity, but for much of western culture these concepts were understood within a heteronormative framework in which “sex” was defined as what happened between men and women. During many historic eras in the west, erotic activity between women was not seen as threatening to society because it wasn’t categorized as “sex”.
Within this framework, there was no inherent conflict between Callisto swearing to be chaste and Callisto accepting the erotic advances of someone she believed to be a woman. This position is laid out explicitly in texts based on the Diana myths. For example, in William Warner’s poem Albion’s England written in 1586 Jupiter’s assault on Callisto is described as follows:
And Nymph-like sits him by the Nymph, that took him for no man,
And after smiles, with nearer signs of Loves assault began.
He feeleth oft her ivory breasts, nor maketh coy to kiss;
Yet all was well, a maiden to a maiden might do this.
From a similar era, Thomas Heywood’s play The Golden Age, lays out the expectations for the women in Diana’s band. When Callisto arrives begging to join them, Diana asks the hero Atalanta, “Is there no princess in our train as yet unmatched to be her cabin fellow and sleep by her?” And Atalanta answers, “Madam, we are all coupled and twinned in love, and hardly is there any that will be won to change her bedfellow.” So Diana tells Callisto, “You must be single till the next arrive: she that is next admitted of our train must be her bed-companion; so ‘tis alotted.” It is this uncoupled state that leaves her vulnerable to Jupiter’s advances when he arrives pretending to join Diana’s band. There’s an ironically humorous scene where Diana lays out the rules for her followers, which the disguised Jupiter has no problem promising to:
You shall vow chastity.
You never shall with hated man atone,
But lie with woman, or else lodge alone.
With ladies only you shall sport and play,
And in their fellowship spend night and day.
Consort with them at board and bed,
And swear no man shall have your maidenhead.
But despite this talk of bedfellows and sporting with the ladies, Callisto takes some convincing when the false maiden gets her alone and begins kissing and fondling her, asserting, “so a woman, with a woman, may.” This type-scene of a man in disguise working to convince a woman that same-sex erotics are perfectly acceptable also shows up in works not directly involving Callisto or the goddess Diana, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia.
In an expansion of the specific myths involving Diana’s maintenance of an all-female band, she became a key symbol of marriage resistance in general. There are many literary examples of women being depicted as being “followers of Diana” in the context of rejecting marriage as a life path. For example in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Knight’s Tale, the character of Emily prays to Diana for help in avoiding marriage to either of the two men competing for her hand. Chaucer took this tale from Boccaccio--or at least from the same source as him--who also feature Diana as the patroness of marriage resistance. The same story shows up in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, and in several plays Shakespeare’s characters make regular references to Diana as a symbol of a voluntary unmarried state. But it is a state in which love and even physical affection may flourish as long as only women are involved.
The problem of Callisto-type stories for transgender representation
The myth of Diana and Callisto and they ways in which it was represented in medieval and early modern culture--as well as other stories with similar tropes, such as The Convent of Pleasure and the Arcadia--highlight two examples of the pitfalls of reaching into history to find representations of modern identities. One hazard is illustrated by viewing the Callisto story through a transgender lens, the second hazard comes from recognizing the key role of male objectification in depictions of female homoeroticism.
In looking through western history for transgender representation, it is inescapable that pervasive misogyny makes examples of transfeminine representation far more problematic than examples of transmasculine representation. Female-bodied persons who took on a masculine presentation were, historically, treated as admirable. Both in medical theory and in literary representation, the motif of the spontaneous change of physiological sex is nearly always from female to male, and philosophers argued that this was as expected because nature would only support a change from less perfect to the more perfect--that is, from female to male. In contrast, western literature treated male-bodied persons who take on a feminine presentation almost invariably as engaging in deceit, often for the purpose of sexual predation, with the exceptions to this generally being when the feminine presentation is either done for comic effect or as humiliation.
This is an expected consequence of a cultural context in which being female is considered lesser than being male. There was no framework in western culture prior to the 20th century in which to view a transition from male to female as a positive and desirable thing. Therefore when done deliberately, the assumption was that it was from ulterior motives.
Plots and motifs like these were considered edgy and amusing in early modern literature, but they are problematic when viewed from the point of view of modern audiences. And since the organizing principle of this podcast is to look at history and literature as inspirations and sources for modern historical fiction, we need to deconstruct this motif a bit more deeply to map out the minefields.
Within the historic context, gender-disguise stories--whether of a woman disguised as a man or a man disguised as a woman--could create a context for imagining and visualizing homoerotic relationships, but with a “safety valve” in which they normally resolved into heterosexual couples at the end. Occasionally, this safety valve was in the form of a magical sex change, as in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe and its many descendents such as Yde and Olive or the play Gallathea. But at the heart of these motifs lies the erasure of the reality of queer experiences. Female couples were allowed to achieve a happily-ever-after ending, but only if one of them became a man. However much a story like Gallathea may tease the audience with the possibility of a committed romantic relationship between two women, in the end it erases the validity of that possibility to restore mandatory heterosexuality. But just as importantly, such stories erase the validity of the transgender experience even while appearing to support a transgender reading of the story.
A magical physiological sex change may have resonances with modern hormonal and surgical approaches to addressing gender dysphoria, but the motif doesn’t address the realities of trans experience any more than stories about miraculous cures of the blind and lame address the realities of people’s experience of disability. Characters such as Iphis, or Yde, or Gallathea and Phyllida, or Blanchandine in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil do not express gender dysphoria prior to their physiological transformations. Iphis and Ide and the dual protagonists of Gallathea express frustration at not being able to imagine how to successfully carry out their erotic desires within a same-sex relationship. And Blanchandine is looking for an escape from the predicament that gender disguise has led her into precisely because her desires are heterosexual and because she experiences life as a woman, whatever her outward appearance. Conversely, the few female-bodied characters who are described in terms that suggest gender dysphoria, such as the knight Silence in the romance of that name, have their stories resolved by being maneuvered back to living conventional female lives and, as always, being married off to men.
So just as there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for lesbian identification, there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for transgender identification, but in neither case do the motifs, the character motivations, and the story resolutions align for fully satisfactory representation.
I should emphasize that I’m talking specifically of self-consciously fictional representation here. There are plenty of real life biographies involving cross-gender behavior that evoke transgender interpretations--lives such as Catalina de Erauso or Eleno de Céspedes. But literature took a less nuanced and less ambiguous approach to the question because it was concerned with making the characters make sense within the social framework of the times.
In considering transgender intersections with characters and themes that have lesbian resonance, I’m almost always talking about transmasculine figures. When physiologically male characters appear in literature presenting themselves as female, it is almost universally within one of two contexts: for the purpose of humor, or for the purpose of gaining illicit sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society.
These two contexts not only erase the validity of transgender identity but reinforce two of the most hurtful myths about trans women that are present in modern culture: that transfeminine identity is inherently ridiculous, and that claims of transfeminine identity are made by cis men in order to sexually assault women in gender-segregated spaces. In other words, Jupiter’s rape of Callisto is the defining myth of the modern “bathroom panic” issue.
In searching through history and literature for scraps of identification and representation, I can get a bit numb to the stuff one has to slog through in order to find those scraps. But I think it’s important to examine the question of representation from many angles. Not just looking at motifs both from the context in which they were produced and from the context in which we are now examining them. But also looking at them from all the different angles of potential identification and representation.
Even though pre-modern literature could accept that a “chaste Diana” might engage in same-sex erotics, chastity most often implied an avoidance of all erotic activity. The fact that images of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto offer a superficial representation of lesbian desire doesn’t negate the fact that they also reinforce a pernicious stereotype of transgender motivations.
The same contradictions and ambiguities that offer the fleeting chance for identification for some readers and viewers, can remove the chance for identification for others. I don’t have any answers here, only the reminder that not only is history never neutral, but the study of history is never neutral. If I often seem to embrace only interpretations that address lesbian representation in history, it’s because this project was never intended to be a neutral presentation of historic fact. If, indeed, there is such a thing as a neutral presentation. But I will regularly acknowledge the specific filters I bring to this topic and remind my audience of other possible ways of engaging with the same material.
Female homoerotic art and the male gaze
This same honesty requires me to acknowledge that pretty much all the female homoerotic art we have from the medieval and early modern period was inspired by the fact that some men get off on seeing two women getting it on together.
Depictions of the goddess Diana and her followers in art can be found in a variety of standardized genre scenes, but by far the most popular were those that included the two bathing scenes: Acteon coming across the bathing Diana, and the pregnant Callisto being found out when the nymphs were bathing together. These scenes dwell lovingly on the revealing of naked female bodies in a public space, showing the women embracing or tending to each others’ physical needs. The scenes invite the viewer to become Acteon in his forbidden act of spying on the virgin goddess, without invoking the fatal penalty that was imposed on that figure.
Given the economics of artistic patronage in the medieval and early modern periods, when the majority of professional artists and the majority of those paying for their work were male, it’s an inescapable conclusion that these two scenes were popular mostly for their pornographic appeal. Not that artists necessarily needed much of an excuse for depicting naked female bodies.
Scenes from the Callisto myth can be found in western art beginning as early as the 14th century, in illuminated manuscripts that re-told stories from Ovid with commentary that gave them a Christian moralizing spin. Due to this moral angle, the illustrations often focus on the disgrace of Callisto’s pregnancy and her expulsion from Diana’s company, but there are also images of Jupiter’s seduction of her that provide the superficial appearance of two women in erotic embrace. In addition to kissing and embracing--which could be depicted without erotic intent--often the figures are shown with the disguised Jupiter holding Callisto’s chin--a formalized symbolic gesture known as a “chin-chuck” that always indicated romantic or sexual desire.
[Image: Woodcut in Giovanni dei Bonsignori's Ovidio Metamorphoseos vulgare (1497). Br. Lib. IB.23185]
In contrast to Rennaissance depictions, often the pair are clothed during these seduction scenes, while the bathing scenes involve nudity. Book art was not the only context for depictions of the Callisto myth. It seems to have been a popular topic for decorating Italian wedding chests in the 14th and 15th centuries.
As we move into the 16th through 18th centuries, the seduction scenes are depicted with more overt eroticism. In 1613, the painter Peter Paul Rubens--who gave his name to the lush depiction of curvaceous women as “rubenesque”--shows a naked Calliso receiving the embrace of a semi-clad false Diana who uses the same “chin-chuck gesture” used in medieval art to convey eroticism.
["Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. From Wikimedia.]
François Boucher, working in the mid 18th century, painted several versions of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto, including the one used as a logo for this podcast. The figures are either nude or semi-clad to expose torsos and legs, and lie entwined on draperies in a natural setting. In one of Boucher’s paintings, Diana again uses the chin-chuck gesture to make the sexual nature of the interaction clear.
["Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743, from Wikimedia]
Even when painters of the early modern era are depicting the bathing scene where Callisto’s pregnancy is discovered, the homoerotic context is shown in how Diana and the other nymphs are in close flesh-to-flesh contact, draping arms across shoulders, or washing and drying each others’ naked bodies. Some of the famous artists depicting these type-scenes include Titian in the 15th century and Rembrandt in the early 17th century.
["Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556, from Wikimedia]
It’s hard to talk about artistic depictions on a podcast, but if you’re really interested, I’ve included a selection of examples in the transcript of this podcast on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. Follow the link in the show notes to see them.
Diana as lesbian literary symbol
As noted earlier, references to being a follower or worshipper of Diana were sometimes used in early modern literature to indicate a disinterest in marriage or even active resistance to marriage as a life path. Continuing through western literature, Diana becomes a code-word for love between women that is exclusive of men--either using a clear reference to the goddess, or simply by the use of the name.
Jorge de Montemayor’s romance Diana from the mid 16th century uses the goddess’s name to set the stage for a Callisto-like tale of desire between women in a pastoral and mythic setting and gender disguise, but with the twist that this time the seduction really is between two women, but where one of them later claims to have been a man in female disguise in order to play a trick on the other.
Several 19th century works pair the name Diana with motifs of separatist female households. The novel Diana Victrix, published in 1897 by Florence Converse, has an unusually happy ending for two women engaged in a Boston Marriage--as the author herself was. Neither protagonist in the story is named Diana, so the “victorious Diana” of the title may be understood as the goddess’s ideal of a women’s separatist society. Louisa May Alcott’s unfinished story “Diana and Persis” may be making this allusion as well, telling the story of two women artists who pledge to support each other in ways that a heterosexual marriage never could. But while the story’s Diana remains unmarried and dedicated to her work, Persis succumbs to a man’s proposal and even though he promises not to interfere with her artistic career, the daily grind of marriage and motherhood leads her to abandon her art. A similar story of two devoted and loving friends whose happiness is destroyed by the intrusion of marriage occurs in George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.
And, of course, the choice of the name Diana for the superhero Wonder Woman is an obvious reference to her origins within the women-only Amazonian society of Themyscira.
Despite some of the uncomfortable aspects of the use of the goddess Diana as a symbol of marriage resistance, of a female separatist society, or of same-sex erotics between women, she has remained an enduring symbol across two millennia, standing beside Sappho as an icon of lesbian possibilities, even when those possibilities were otherwise hard to imagine.
Publications and Links
The following topic tags are the most relevant to this episode. I haven't listed tag-links to all the specific works mentioned in the episode.
So there I was this morning with the brain-weasels running non-stop in my head telling me, "Nobody actually cares about your stupid podcast. Nobody listens to it except by accident because they're subscrbed to the whole Lesbian Talk Show group. That's why nobody's sent you any questions for your silly 'Ask Sappho' segment. Because they Just. Don't. Care. Here, I'll prove it to you." And I ran a google search on the exact phrase "lesbian historic motif podcast" and scrolled through all the entries that are just podcast venues or my own website. And...wait. The Guardian? Must be some sort of aggregation glitch.
I guess I'll even take "You need to focus but, god, you learn a lot." as a compliment.
A Note on Commenting
Before getting into the topic of today's post, I wanted to mention that I'm currently dealing with the disappearance of my previous comment-spam filter (Mollom) and my web gurus and I are trying out some new approaches. Unfortunately, the one we're currently trying still lets about a dozen spam comments through every day that need to be manually whacked. So I've temporarily set all comments to manual approval, which means that there may be a few hours delay between posting and approval. (Given that I get an average of one "real" comment per week as compared to the dozens of spam comments per day, this isn't likely to even be noticeable, much less annoying. But just in case...)
My goal is to have 1) No spam comments get through (because they tend to be nasty things with malicious links or at best porn/viagara/etc. links); 2) No captcha requirements (because I know your opinions on these); and 3) Allow for the optimistic possibility that real-time conversations might occur on occasion (so the current manual approval is not optimal). One possibility would be to block all comments that have live links in them. (Sometimes my real commenters leave links, but they could be text-only and be relatively functional.) Another possibility would be to allow people to set up guest accounts on the website and then let people with accounts comment without manual approval. The website software has this functionality, but I don't know how people would feel about needing yet one more online account to do something they're used to doing more easily. One approach that I've absolutely vetoed is the "use your fb or twitter account to comment" approach because I don't want to require my commenters to link their activity here to Big Brother's attention.
At any rate, if you run into any oddities, that's likely what's going on (and if you spot a spam comment, don't worry, I'll smash it).
The Main Event
I may very well have posted something on this in the past--sometimes I forget whether I've actually written about something or only thought it through. Having literary interests that cut across a number of different communities from various angles, I'm fascinated by the nuances of genre labels that purport to indicate the same concept. In this case: books focused on women who love women. And being a cognitive linguist, I've paid close attention to the ways people use the various terms: the contexts they're used in, the subsets of material they're applied to, and especially the types of books people will most closely associate with them when they're being unselfconsious about genre categories.
This is not a rigorous scientific study, but these are my general conclusions about the functional meanings of several of these terms. The fascinating thing is that if people are discussing their meanings self-consciously, you usually get claims that they all mean the same thing and cover the same scope of books. And it's true that any of these terms can be used for almost every book that features a female character who has romantic or sexual interest in women. But it's sort of like when people are trying to define the category "filk music".[*] You'll certainly hear people say, "Anything someone performs at a filk sing is filk. End of story." But when you pay attention to how people use the word across a large corpus of examples, it's clearly more particular and nuanced (though far from unanimous) than that. So I'm interested in the meanings that emerge from usage, not the definitions the words can be forced into.
[*] If the word "filk" is unfamiliar to you, don't worry about it too much. Or Google it. You may be fascinated.
The terms I'm going to talk about today (though far from all of them in use) are: lesfic, f/f, wlw, queer [applied to books], LGBTQ+ [applied to books]. Append the hedge "in my perception based on how I've encountered the term" to everythign I post below. I'm not going to repeat it for every statement. The descriptions below are prototype feature clusters, not hard-and-fast "necessary and sufficient conditions." (See comment about working from a cognitive linguistics framework.)
Lesfic - The core meaning focuses around the presence of the following characteristics: Protagonist(s) is clearly identified in-story as a lesbian or bisexual woman. Protagonist(s) is not in a romantic or sexual relationship with a man within the scope of the story. There is a default expectation that the author will be female and identify as queer in some fashion and that the publisher will primarily focus on the lesfic genre (unless self-published). The most prototypical members of this category will be contemporary realistic erotic romance. In general, the more differences there are from that prototype (e.g., non-contemporary, or paranormal rather than realistic, or non-erotic, or non-romantic mystery/thriller/etc.) the less likely readers will be to reflexively consider a book lesfic. (As demonstrated by things like spontaneous inclusion as examples.) To some extent, the term lesfic is associated with reader communities in which the majority of members (though not all) self-identify as lesbian. It is not uncommon for someone who identifies as a lesfic reader to read primarily or solely within that genre and to be unaware of or uninterested in books from large publishers even when they include lesbian content.
F/F - This label comes out of the terminology of fan fiction, indicating "female /female" as contrasted with m/m=male/male, or f/m=female/male, or other possible combinations and longer strings. In general, the term implies that a story is focused centrally on a sexual relationship that is usually, although not necessarily, also romantic. F/f can also encompass stories about isolated sexual encounters by women who don't identify as lesbian or bi. The use of this category label creates an expectation of some degree of erotic content. It is very common for authors who identify their work with an f/f label also write stories about other gender pairings. (And, in general, when an author who writes across a spectrum of gender pairs writes a story about two women, they are more likely to identify it as "an f/f story" than as, for example, "a lesfic story".) The use of f/f tends to imply a character-focused genre work, though the genre may be romance, mystery, sff, paranormal, etc. There is no specific expectation as to the gender or sexual orientation of either the author or reader of a work identified as f/f. The use of the term f/f in relation to publisher type is complex. Within category romance, I rarely see it used to describe books from major publishers, but major romance publishers rarely if ever publish romances involving two women. It's used for romances published by small presses or self-published. I do see it used sometimes for books from major sff publishers, and it's used for small/self-published books in all genres.
WLW - I have seen statements that this particular term (standing for "Woman Loving Woman") originated among black authors and readers. I haven't seen a correlation in usage that corresponds to that, but I may simply not be seeing the conversations that would provide the data, given that I'm not part of the relevant communities. I encounter this term much less commonly and so I don't have as strong an impression of the nuances of usage, but it feels to me as if it conveys many of the same genre features as Lesfic, but without the same implication of a specific author/reader community context. It feels similar to f/f in the sense of identifying the gender (but not necessarily the sexual orientation) of the characters, with the default expectation of romance as a significant plot element. I don't have a good sense of whether the use of wlw correlates with the author's sexual orientation, but I don't think I've seen it used in relation to male authors (whereas I definitely see f/f used by and for male authors).
Queer - In general, this label seems to correlate with stories that include a variety of genders and sexualities among the characters, or at least for works by authors who cover that wider scope in their body of work. There is a sense that the works identified as queer are not targeting a specific readership (other than "readers who aren't put off by the word "queer"). There is also a correlation with authors who are less likely to identify themselves using more specific terms like "lesbian". In general, I tend to see this as a genre category label more in the context of SFF than, for example, for categories like contemporary romance. However this may be due to skewing in my data collection. There seems to be a tendency for books by major publishers to use/be described using queer or LGBTQ+ rather than any of the previous terms.
LGBTQ+ - (For "+" read: any possible continuation of the acronym of whatever length and specificity.) This is a bit of an odd one and I'm going to be a bit provocative in my description here. In general, I see books, publishers, and authors use the category label LGBTQ+ to indicate philosophical adherence to broad-spectrum inclusion, while in practice I find that it signals a primary (and often overwhelming) focus on gay male characters. So, to some extent, this label is out of place within a list of terms used to identify books featuring women in homoerotic relationships. Perhaps oddly, LGBTQ+ is more likely to have this male-skewing than "queer" does. I haven't observed LGBTQ+ to corespond to any particular expectations in content, authorship, or publisher.
So that's my fuzzy cumulative impression of the emergent definitions of these words in a publishing context. Does it match your impressions? Are there other correlations that you've noticed?
Hey, look! I actually got my BayCon schedule up on the blog a month before the convention starts! I'm going to be on some really intriguing panels. The one about "What did it look like when our ancestors created and wore costumes?" looks particularly intriguing and a refreshing take on historic costuming. (Going to have to dig up my references on Italian Renaissance pageantry, on felted animal masks from early medieval Scandinavia, and all the other fun stuff.) The one on healing magic in fantasy could get exciting--I hope the panel includes at least one person who's dealt with significant real-life medical issues. I've seen some interesting discussions online about the intersection of magical healing motifs with disability issues in fiction and I hope we get to cover that angle. And, of course, the panels on brainstorming and research are always fun.
I haven't applied to do a reading because the email indicated that they want to prioritize people who have a new book out or coming out. As always, if you're planning to be at the convention and would like to meet up with me at some point, I always like to have some meal plans set ahead of time to help mitigate my social anxiety. So please feel free to ping me if you're interested.
While one of the underlying purposes of the LHMP as a resource for authors is to find examples of women in history who engaged in same-sex relationships, when clear examples from women's lives are not available, a second purpose is to identify cultural experiences that women could have recognized as reflecting their same-sex desires. Or, in simpler terms, if a character in a historical fiction didn't have direct experience of same-sex love, what might she encounter that would validate the concept? What was there in her environment that could "give her ideas"?
This is exactly the sort of phenomenon that Drouin discusses in her concept of a "public" focused on the representation of the goddess Diana in early modern culture. Could Diana have served as an inspiration and validation for women attracted to the idea of an all-woman society that shunned male contact and enjoyed erotic relationships with each other? Even though the historic context made it unlikely that such women could live out such an ideal, simply being able to conceive of it could be a step toward embracing (*cough*, as it were) same-sex desires.
I know that the idea has certainly spawned some plot-bunnies in my own head!
Drouin, Jennifer. 2009. “Diana’s Band: Safe Spaces, Publics, and Early Modern Lesbianism” in Queer Renaissance Historiography, Vin Nardizzi, Stephen Guy-Bray & Will Stockton, eds. Ashgate, Burlington VT. ISBN 978-0-7546-7608-9
A collection of articles generally on queer approaches to literary history in 16th century England.
Drouin, Jennifer. 2009. “Diana’s Band: Safe Spaces, Publics, and Early Modern Lesbianism”
The article takes a critical look at the concept of “chastity” as an attribute of the mythical goddess Diana, especially as interpreted in early modern literature and art, and at the depiction of Diana as the focus and leader of a community of women who reject romantic and erotic interactions with men, but engage in those interactions with each other. It is not entirely anachronistic to claim that across multiple texts and contexts, Diana has a stable identity as the leader of a “lesbian separatist” community, and that she functions as a signifier of homoeroticism between women in the same way that the figure of Ganymede does for men.
The article considers three types of contexts that provide opportunities for female homoeroticism (the author labels them “safe spaces” but the reader should beware of interpreting this term according to current pop culture use). Drouin labels them--I believe with deliberately provocative intent--“the closet”, the nunnery, and Diana’s band.
By “closet” Drouin means the private domestic space belonging to the mistress of a household (about which more later). The concept of the nunnery in early modern literature went beyond the literal religious institutions and included use of the term for any deliberately gender-exclusive community of women, as in Margaret Cavendish’s Convent of Pleasure. And the specific focus on this article--the motif of Diana’s band--provides a conceptual space for homoeroticism from two angles: within the text itself, and within the context of the text’s creation and consumption. This productive context is seen among a variety of authors across an extended period who create an intellectual “public” of writers, readers, and playgoers centered around the figure of Diana. [Note: while this article is focused on textual depictions, the same cultural context created a wealth of artistic depictions of female homoeroticism revolving around the figure of Diana.]
While the “closet” incidentally afforded a private gender-segregated space, and the nunnery created an all-female community in part defined by the negation of heterosexual expectations, the image of Diana and her followers constituted a deliberate creation and depiction of same-sex eroticism. The acceptability of this depiction was enabled by the heteronormative definition of “chastity” that focused solely on an avoidance of extra-marital penetrative sex. If non-penetrative erotics between women were not “sex” then they did not violate the requirements of chastity. Thus Diana could be celebrated as “the virgin goddess”, stories involving her could emphasize her ruthless requirement for chastity among her followers, and yet still allow scope for the unambiguous depiction of erotic activity within her community.
Drouin suggests that the alleged “invisibility” of female same-sex eroticism in early modern Europe was, in part, a product of the patriarchal fixation on the control of women’s bodies and actions very narrowly within the scope of reproduction and paternity. Discussions of fornication and unchastity were unconcerned with issues of love and affection, but only with the potential for illegitimate pregnancy that challenged patriarchal kinship structures. Within this context, women’s intimate friendships and even erotic relationships could be considered “innocent”. And the structures for controlling women’s interactions with “forbidden” men in fact created and enabled same-sex opportunities. Diana’s band creates an ideal fictional location for imagining same-sex erotics as the emphasis on (heterosexual) chastity deflects accusations of impropriety.
Drouin justifies her choice to use the term “lesbian” in discussing this topic, noting that not only was the word in circulation by the 16th century (see e.g., Brantôme), but that it clearly identifies the sexual activities under consideration even if there was no concept of a personal identity defined by those activities. She notes various textual references in Italy and England that support the existence of a conceptual category of “women who have sex with women”. At the same time, these (male-authored) sources support the concept that sex between women did not fall within the category of adultery. A woman could not make her female partner’s husband a cuckold. And conversely, to the extent that some women who engaged in lesbian sex were seen as “masculine”, this could be treated as a positive character trait in a way that a man appearing “feminine” could not be.
Returning to the concept of the “closet” as lesbian safe space, Drouin explains the layout of the early modern domestic space. The word closet did not have its modern sense of a small storage space, but referred to an inner, private room generally entered off the bedchamber (which was a more public space) that served as a sitting room also used for dining and reception of guests. It also typically served as a bedchamber for (female) servants. The most relevant function was that of a space where the (female) occupant of the bedchamber could retire in the expectation of privacy for pursuits like reading, studying, writing, or to entertain her closest friends. (This is in contrast to spaces like the hall, which were entirely public.) The closet was also set apart in being one of the rare rooms that was kept locked. These features made it a convenient space for extramarital sexuality (as detailed in a couple of Brantôme’s stories).
The nunnery goes one step further in not only removing women from the male gaze and in the creation of a structured separate community, but by removing women entirely from the marriage economy. Male discomfort with these aspects was reflected in the symbolic sexualization of convents by appropriating its terminology for prostitution (a woman-focused space of a different kind). But the vocabulary of the convent was not only transferred to the brothel, but was used for other types of literary female separatist spaces. In turn, the nature of those spaces re-created the potential for lesbian erotics, as in Margaret Cavendish’s play The Convent of Pleasure though, as in some of the Diana myths, the transgressive nature of the enactment of those erotics is deflected by introducing a man in disguise as the instigator. Even so, such literary works create a space for imagining lesbian erotics. Lady Happy and her beloved princess “embrace and kiss and hold each other in their arms” and not until the final act is the audience informed that the “princess” is a man in disguise. The lesbian space has been established and enjoyed, despite the later contradiction.
Both the closet and the convent had drawbacks in terms of creating an actual community of same-sex erotic affiliation. The closet was a private space, the convent subject to (male) hierarchical authority. In contrast, within the internal context of the Diana stories, lesbian eroticism was both public and authoritative.
Drouin now goes into an explanation and definition of the concept of a “public” (in some sort of specialized jargon sense) which I am going to quote at length. “Publics are voluntary, usually not essential to members’ livelihood, and based on taste and on interest. These conditions of membership distinguish publics from other forms of association whose members are bound together by rank, vocation or profession, religion, parentage, or investment. Each public seeks a voice, exercises or seeks to exercise some measure of agency, has an implicit political dimension, has a normalizing function, seeks to imagine and define what it is, and is non-official but has some relation to the official. Publics aspire to grow and are therefore open to strangers. Since they grow and evolve, publics can come into and out of being, ceasing to be a public once they achieve recognition and become institutionalized. Each public has a spatial dimension, as it exists and functions in a more or less delimited space, and each has a characteristic form of expression as defined by a particular medium.”
[Note: I am really really tempted to just go ahead and substitute the word “fandom” for Drouin’s use of “public” here. Even if there are technical differences between this concept of a “public” and the usual sense of “fandom”, I think it’s a useful tool for understanding what’s being talked about.]
Within this theory of publics, the motif of Diana’s band creates a public space in which lesbian desire and erotic acts can be expressed and become intelligible within society. Art historican Patricia Simons observes that paintings of Diana’s band in the 15-16th centuries consistently represent the women engaging in homoerotic activity with each other. And even though the best known examples are produced by male artists, presumably for male consumption, they were equally available to female viewers as a source for imagining erotic possibilities. Diana’s “chastity” was solidly associated with female same-sex eroticism in late medieval and early modern Italy. In addition to the art, Simons cites folkloric practices of women “gathering in the forest to practice ‘the games of Diana’.” (Some of the examples suggest a conflation or at least ambiguity between lesbianism and witchcraft here.)
English examples of this association appear in William Warner’s 1586 history Albion’s England and Thomas Heywood’s 1611 play The Golden Age. Both treat the Ovidian myth of Calisto, a member of Diana’s band who is seduced/raped by Jupiter in disguise as Diana (or in some versions simply disguised as another nymph).
Both texts include detailed descriptions of the erotic activities of Diana’s nymphs. (Drouin suggests a possible sexual pun in that “nymph” was also an early modern medical term for the labia minora.) A supposedly female same-sex encounter includes fondling of the breasts, kissing, reaching under the skirts to “tickle”. In The Golden Age, Atalanta lays out the social rules and expectations of pair-bonded nymphs who are “bed-fellows” that “sport and play and in their fellowship spend night and day.” The only strict requirement being that they may not engage in sex with men.
Thus, within Diana’s band, the “chaste” opposite of heterosexuality is not an absence of sexual activity, but an embracing of lesbian sexuality. The band is also regularly emphasized as a socially separate space. It is a woman-only community that keeps itself physically apart from men, often in an arcadian natural space.
Drouin diverges from Traub’s take on Diana motifs in early modern English literature such as Two Noble Kinsmen and Gallathea. Traub sees them as positioned “always already in the past, and hence irrecoverable” but Drouin sees the works and characters as creating a “public of lesbian separatists”. The devotees of Diana in these works resist marriage, express erotic desire for women in general and specific, and express a sense of lesbian identity in references to same-sex desire as a “persuasion” or “faith”. Even when the plays require heterosexual resolution for the characters it is not from a change in desire but a surrender to political reality. Emilia in Two Noble Kinsmen is captured in war and forced into marriage. The two protagonists of Gallathea want only to continue their romantic and erotic relationship, it is the social framework that imposes a heterosexual shape on their relationship.
In Gallathea the conflict between Diana and Venus is labeled a conflict between chastity and love, but “love” is consistently defined in terms of heterosexual penetration while the chaste restrictions on Diana’s band do not preclude same-sex erotic desire. And there is a further association within the text between Diana and Sappho that emphasizes same-sex desire.
Drouin sums up her primary theses: “Diana” was consistently used as a euphemism for female same-sex love; the in-story image of “Diana’s band” meets the functional criteria for a “public” in that it is a voluntary association of women who share tastes and interests defined by lesbian erotics and separatism; and on an extra-textual level, the production and reception of works referencing Diana’s band create a real-world “public” implying similar interests. The fact that the production of these texts and art was often done by men with a male audience in mind does not undermine the fact that they also had a female audience. (One of Brantôme’s anecdotes involves a woman being erotically stimulated by viewing a painting of naked women bathing together which may well have been a depiction of Diana’s band.)
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21c - Book Appreciation with Liz Bourke
(Originally aired 2018/04/21 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured guest (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting.
In this episode reviewer Liz Bourke recommends some favorite queer historical novels:
Many of Liz’s reviews can be found at the following sites:
Liz has a collection of some of her past SFF reviews which, since the time we recorded the interview, has been announced as a finalist for the Hugo Award in the Best Related Work category.
No transcript is available for this episode.