Although this article only briefly notes the same-sex examples of Egyptian love magic that suggested potential relevance, it's an example of how the specific anecdotes and texts discussed in articles that focus on sexuality need further elaboration to be used effectively in building stories. Brooten's focus is on how same-sex desire was a recognized part of the social landscape in Roman-era Egypt, with the magical texts being used as evidence. This is useful as fictional inspiration, in and of itself. But if one were to plan a story set in that time and place that actually employed a magical working within the plot, then a greater depth of knowledge about the mechanics and social context of those practices is desireable. In general, I might have passed over this article as insufficiently relevant to the Project, but since I actually do have a file folder for a historic romance novel set in the Roman era and involving a character of Egyptian origin... Well, it doesn't hurt to take notes.
Frankfurter, David. 2001. “The Perils of Love: Magic and Countermagic in Coptic Egypt” in Journal of the History of Sexuality vol.10 no. 3/4 480-500.
This article is interesting for the context it provides for Brooten’s (1997) discussion of Coptic Egyptian love magic directed from one woman to another. Although there is only a passing mention of Brooten’s work and of same-sex love magic, the background understanding is useful.
One particular story of a love magic is used as a lens to examine the larger topic: the legend of how the thaumaturge Macarius of Egypt removed a love spell from a young woman that had transformed her into a horse. Frankfurter asks, why a horse? What purpose was the spell meant to serve? What was the social context that made such a spell desirable? And how does this particular story fit into the context of Egyptian and Greco-Roman magic?
Egyptian magical spells typically use the language of binding and constraint, either to do or be unable to do something. Love magic in particular typically takes the form of disrupting an existing relationship (and thus making the person available to another) or imposing overwhelming desire for the person working the spell. The horse-transformation spell would appear superficially to be a disruptive one--making the woman unavailable to her existing husband/love due to the animal form. But as Frankfurter later demonstrates, the horse form is more likely to be a stranded remnant of a typical desire-inducing spell.
Interestingly, Macarius focuses his counter-magic (framed as Christian ritual) on reversing the transformation but does not engage directly with the sorcerer who imposed it. This isn’t uncommon in stories of magical conflicts. The use of magic by enemies or rivals to achieve their purposes was treated as normal and expected. What was important was to counter it and restore the original state.
These types of binding spells acted not only in the realm of erotic interest, but against athletes, business rivals, lawsuits, and politics. There was an entire industry of Coptic magic that has left many specific examples as well as generic templates to be filled in as needed. Examples in the context of relationships might include a mother cursing a woman “who has separated my son from me,” or one woman desiring another woman to be disfigured before her marriage takes place, or the breaking up of a marriage (to make one partner available). One generic template includes a long list of bodily organs that are to be filled with “burning desire and hot longing” until the target comes to the user to seek sexual relief. The language is often filled with violent and coercive imagery. Frankfurter suggests that this may represent the internal emotional state of the person using the magic--a way to express the frustration of thwarted desires.
The cultural context of Egyptian love-magic in the Roman era involves complex strong family bonds that are typically viewed as being a barrier to the desired relationship. To achieve the desired relationship, the spell user must disrupt an existing marriage, or remove the target from a protective family environment, or at least inspire them to remove themselves from it willingly. While women were frequent targets, men could be targeted as well and, as seen in Brooten, same-sex desire could be the context as well as heterosexual desire.
The question of “why a horse” is explored in terms of the Greco-Roman use of non-human animals’ sexuality to represent erotic desire unconstrained by rationality. Such representations often worked through long lists of animal couples, with both the male and female being framed as desiring participants. But the underlying purpose of the image metaphor was to invoke a state of overwhelming erotic desire and dependency, similar to that observed in animals in heat. Horses and asses were considered epitomes of sexual desire in Roman tradition. But while animal sexuality was a strong motif in Egyptian traditions (including symbolic meanings for human-animal copulation, whether in ritual contexts or as dream imagery), Egyptians tended to associate the horse with the foreign (Greco-Roman) ruling aristocracy and with military, rather than sexual prowess.
In the Macarius story, the woman who has been transformed into a horse is not depicted as acting in a state of arousal, rather the transformation represents her unavailability as a human lover and a cause for wasting away due to being unable to live successfully in either the equine or human contexts. This seems, in part, to be due to the somewhat different image of the horse in Egyptian contexts. But it may also be due to the way the Macarius story focuses on the monk as a counter-magician, as a defeater of sorcerers, rather than on the mechanics of love spells. Frankfurter notes that in the hagiography of early saints, extended intense magical duels with the local sorcerer were a standard motif. (Though the Christian figures in these stories typically use practices that are every bit as magical as their opponents’.) Thus the problem to be solved is the horse-woman’s unavailability to her husband, not the desired purpose of the spell placed on her, with its implications of animalistic desire.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 34a - On the Shelf for May 2019 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2019/05/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for May 2019.
May is always a very busy month for me--busy enough that even though my birthday falls in May, I generally wait to have a party in June. Though I always joke that the annual medieval conference in Kalamazoo is just one big birthday party for me, since that’s usually where I am when it happens.
This year I’m presenting a paper at Kalamazoo that comes directly out of my research for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, although it isn’t specifically about sexuality. The paper is titled “Passing and Failing: the Role of Clothing in Gender-Disguise Narratives.” I’m looking, not so much at the social context of records and stories of women disguised as men, but specifically at whether and how clothing is mentioned in those texts. Is it as simple as saying that a person “put on men’s clothing” or are specific garments mentioned? If the gender disguise fails, does clothing play a part in that? And are there distinctions in how clothing is discussed between disguise narratives and incidents of gender transgression? If, by some chance, any of my listeners will be at Kalamazoo this year, be sure to say hi, even if you aren’t able to get to my paper.
This past month I finally did something I’ve been dithering about for a couple of years. The Lesbian Historic Motif Project now has a Patreon so people can sign up to support the show. It's a bit of an impulse thing. Evidently Patreon is changing it's contract structure this month to something a bit less beneficial to users, but people with an account set up prior to that are locked in to the current structure. Since I'd been toying with the idea of a Patreon for a while, this information made me think it might make sense to set up an account, even if I didn't seriously intend to push it.
You see, I feel a bit weird about soliciting financial support through venues like Patreon because I don't need the money. Even with the added expenses of the audio fiction series, what with royalties and narration fees, and the expense of commissioning podcast transcripts, I'm quite capable of funding the thing out of pocket. But on the other hand, having a Patreon gives people an opportunity to make a concrete statement that they find what I'm doing valuable and worth supporting. And since I've currently set up only a single support tier (at $1 per month) with no benefits other than good will and thanks, it's not like I'm going around begging people for more than a token statement.
In theory, between the fiction series and commissioning transcripts of the interview shows, I'm out of pocket about $150 per month. This doesn't count general overhead for the blog. I certainly wouldn't ask people to underwrite my rather extravagant book-buying habits. And the podcast hosting is currently covered by The Lesbian Talk Show which has it's own Patreon. If you’re interested in supporting the podcast, I’d urge you to begin with the Lesbian Talk Show Patreon which supports the whole group of shows.
I'm not asking people to support the LHMP Patreon because I'm in financial need, or because the blog and podcast won't continue without the support. Trust me, they'll keep going as long as it makes me happy to do them. But if you support things on Patreon already, and you find the LHMP (and especially the podcast) of value to you, and you wanted a concrete and low-effort way to give me that feedback. Then pledging a dollar a month on Patreon is one way to send me that message. The message that you find what I do valuable is far more important to me than the money.
If you have any ideas for Patreon benefits for higher support tiers (that wouldn't involve significantly more time for me), feel fee to suggest them. The Patreon account is “LHMP” and you can find a link in the show notes.
Believe it or not, it’s almost time for me to start talking about next year’s fiction series. Several people have suggested that one reason for the low number of submissions this year may have been that I didn’t talk it up enough in advance. There’s a fine balance between “enough publicity” and “publicity fatigue”. So maybe this year I’ll try erring on the side of too much. Keep your ears open and start thinking about what sorts of historical lesbian short stories you might be interested in trying.
Publications on the Blog
The blog is winding up our long series of articles taken from the Journal of the History of Sexuality with several articles looking back on Carolyn Dinshaw’s Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern, a look at the medieval church-state interface around accusations of sodomy among religious personnel, and odd topics like love magic in early Egypt and formal cross-gender roles in the Balkans. I haven’t lined anything up for the last couple weeks in May, so it’ll be a surprise--maybe even a surprise to me!
But I’ve been picking up several new publications that will make their way onto the blog at some point. The first is:
Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890–1918 edited by Lizzie Ehrenhalt & Tilly Laskey, which I’ll also be reviewing for The Lesbian Review. Here’s the cover copy:
"You are mine, and I am yours, and we are one, and our lives are one henceforth, please God, who can alone separate us. I am bold to say this, to pray and to live by it."—Rose Cleveland to Evangeline Simpson, May 6, 1890. In 1890, Rose Cleveland, sister of President Grover Cleveland, began writing to Evangeline Simpson, a wealthy widow who would become the second wife of Henry Whipple, Minnesota's Episcopal bishop. The women corresponded across states and continents, discussing their advocacy and humanitarian work—and demonstrating their sexual attraction, romance, and partnership. In 1910, after Evangeline Whipple was again widowed, the two women sailed to Italy and began a life together. The letters, most written in Cleveland's dramatic, quirky style, guide readers through new love, heartbreak, and the rekindling of a committed relationship. Additional correspondence by the women's friends and relatives supplies valuable perspectives. An introduction and annotations by editors Lizzie Ehrenhalt and Tilly Laskey provide the context for same-sex relationships at the time, discuss the women's social and political circles, and explain references to friends, family, and historical events. After Rose Cleveland's death, Evangeline Whipple described her as "my precious and adored life-long friend." This collection, rare in its portrayal of LGBTQ nineteenth-century history, brings their poignant story back to life.
The other two new acquisitions are both electronic texts freely available online. There is finally a edition and translation available of the medieval romance of Yde and Olive. This is only one of the three versions of the story that appear with slight differences in the plot, but it’s the primary text, part of the extended medieval genealogical romance of Huon of Bordeaux. The translation is by Mounawar Abbouchi, published by the Medieval Feminist Forum in 2018. The entire work is available for free online and I’ll have a link in the show notes.
The other text is a little less accessible! While working on the script for last month’s essay, I discovered that the primary source for the trial records of Anne Grandjean is available through Google Books. It is, of course, in 18th century French. It’s short enough (and very long out of copyright, of course) that I hope to be able to post the original text and translation as a blog entry at some point. Again, I’ve put a link to the downloadable file in the show notes.
I totally screwed up last month when I announced that the April interview would be with Molly Tanzer. I’d intended to organize the interviews around the special episode 100 show, so in April I needed someone who’d done the regular interview and not the book appreciation show. So the April guest was actually Zen Cho, talking about her wonderful new historic fantasy, The True Queen, set in early 19th century Malaysia and England. And Molly Tanzer will be this month’s guest, really truly. But of course, you come to listen to all my wonderful author guests, no matter who they are, right?
So what’s this month’s essay going to be? OK, I confess, I have no idea at this point! I’ve been scrambling to meet deadlines so much that I haven’t had a chance to think about it. And if the month goes on as it currently does, I may end up pulling another of the early podcasts to reprise.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Time for recent, new, and forthcoming books! Not quite as long a list as last month’s marathon. They all take place in what might be called the long 19th century and all set in either England or the USA. Half of the books feature women of color as protagonists, which adds some longed-for diversity to the lesbian historical fiction field.
We start off with Penny Mickelbury’s Two Wings to Fly Away from Bywater Books. I’m really looking forward to reading this book.
In 1856 Philadelphia, runaway slave Genie Oliver uses her dress shop as a front for her work with the Underground Railroad; and reluctant heiress Abby Read runs a rooming house not just because she hates the life of the idle rich society woman, but because she has no intention of ever marrying a man. When the daughter of Abby's free black servant is grabbed by rogue slave catchers, an unlikely group of people come together, first out of necessity, and then, gradually, in friendship. And in the case of Abby and Genie, something much more.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins from Harper Collins gives us a murder mystery with a touch of horror.
All of London is abuzz with the scandalous case of Frannie Langton, accused of the brutal double murder of her employers, renowned scientist George Benham and his eccentric French wife, Marguerite. Crowds pack the courtroom, eagerly following every twist, while the newspapers print lurid theories about the killings and the mysterious woman being tried at the Old Bailey. The testimonies against Frannie are damning. She is a seductress, a witch, a master manipulator, a whore. But Frannie claims she cannot recall what happened that fateful evening, even if remembering could save her life. She doesn’t know how she came to be covered in the victims’ blood. But she does have a tale to tell: a story of her childhood on a Jamaican plantation, her apprenticeship under a debauched scientist who stretched all bounds of ethics, and the events that brought her into the Benhams’ London home—and into a passionate and forbidden relationship. Though her testimony may seal her conviction, the truth will unmask the perpetrators of crimes far beyond murder and indict the whole of English society itself. The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a breathtaking debut: a murder mystery that travels across the Atlantic and through the darkest channels of history. A brilliant, searing depiction of race, class, and oppression that penetrates the skin and sears the soul, it is the story of a woman of her own making in a world that would see her unmade.
Popular author of gay male historicals, K.J. Charles gives us a spin-off from one of her existing series featuring a female couple in Proper English, which is self-published.
A shooting party at the Earl of Witton’s remote country house is a high treat for champion shot Patricia Merton—until unexpected guests turn the social atmosphere dangerously sour. That’s not Pat’s biggest problem. She’s visiting her old friend, the Earl’s heir Jimmy Yoxall—but she wants to spend a lot more time with Jimmy’s fiancée. The irrepressible Miss Fenella Carruth, with her laughing eyes and lush curves, is the most glorious woman Pat’s ever met, and it quickly becomes impossible to remember why she needs to stay at arm’s length. But while the women’s attraction grows, the tensions at Rodington Court get worse. Affairs, secrets, betrayals, and blackmail come to light. And when a body is discovered with a knife between the shoulder blades, it’s going to take Pat and Fen’s combined talents to prevent the murderer destroying all their lives.
The Railroad of Threads self-published by Riva Zmajoki comes back to the topic of slavery in America and women coming together to take action. [Note: after the podcast aired, the author let me know that the title has been changed to Darkest Pattern: The Door.]
Belva is a runaway criminal running from justice. In colonial America, her face is light enough not to be seen as a slave at first glance. She uses this advantage to help slaves escape on the railroad to freedom. Josephine is a bored wealthy widow who's playing a hostess to equally bored young ladies. When two of them meet their lives will change revealing hidden adversaries. Their lives were plagued by misery. The question is, is there freedom, or love, for them down the road.
This next book is from a publisher named Illustrated Romance which looks like it’s an erotica publisher that includes photography alongside the text. The book is The Lady and Her Secret Lover: a Lords of Time story by Jenn LeBlanc.
Much to her father’s dismay Lady Louisa Kathryn Alice Present is quite solidly on the shelf. She shows no interest in finding a husband after three long seasons of, well, not particularly trying. She begins this season anew, somewhat jaded and uninterested in yet another season and the annoyance she’ll certainly face from her family when she remains with them, yet again. But a single glance from one of the new set has her reeling— straight back into a potted palm. Maitland Alice Elliot-Rigsby has trained to be the wife of a Duke... Or perhaps a Viscount, an Earl at the very least. She has only her training — and a rather healthy dowry — to recommend her. So when she catches the eye of a viscounts daughter her own mother is thrilled at the prospect. Louisa hasn't ever trusted anyone the way she trusts Maitland and it frightens her, but how will they survive a world in which the both of them must marry?
[There is a content warning for sexual assault. And advance reviews suggest unexpected sexual elements. Part of a series that appears to be primarily male-female.]
The last of the May books is the non-fiction work Precious and Adored mentioned under the blog acquisitions above.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been reading recently in the world of lesbian-relevant historical fiction? Given that it’s been a shorter time than usual between scripting up last month’s On the Shelf and writing this one (and my fiction reading time has been curtailed this month because: reasons) I’m just finishing up Zen Cho’s The True Queen. It’s a delightful historic fantasy with a largely female cast.
For this month’s Ask Sappho segment, I’m going to answer an anonymous question that fits in with last week’s essay on gender and sexuality categories. It’s a topic that might be worth an entire essay on its own, but I’m not sure that I’m the right person to tackle it. The question is: “The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast spends a lot of time talking about the historic figures who could be interpreted either as cross-dressing women in lesbian relationships, or as trans men in straight relationships. But I’ve never heard you talk about historic examples of trans women in lesbian relationships. Why is that?”
The simple answer is that in the pre-20th century period that I’m focused on, examples of trans lesbians are extremely difficult to find. And the historic motifs that most closely resemble that identity pretty much all turn out to be examples of “a straight cis man disguises himself as a woman to gain access to a women-only space in order to pursue a romantic or sexual relationship with an otherwise inaccessible woman.” You can understand why I’m not exactly excited about dwelling on this pernicious trope. I touched on it a little in my podcast about the Greek myth of Callisto and Diana.
But--you ask--surely there were trans women throughout history (or at least people who would have identified as trans women if the concept were available to them), and surely at least some of them had same-gender desires. So how is it possible that we have no records of them?
My answer (as usual) is going to be drawn primarily from western history and culture, largely because I don’t have the knowledge and resources to discuss other contexts in an appropriate fashion. In cultures that had socially recognized “third gender” roles for people assigned male at birth, it’s quite likely that examples could be found. So preface all the following generalizations with “in the context of western culture, especially Europe.”
To answer this question seriously and sensitively, it’s important to consider two major issues. The first is the different practicalities in a pre-modern world for trans men versus trans women to live unquestioned lives. I invite correction and elaboration on this point from those more knowledgeable than me, but in a context where hormonal treatments haven’t yet been invented, it is more difficult for a trans woman to be accepted on a long-term, unquestioned basis than for a trans man to do so. There was, of course, a rather drastic surgical option available for suppressing testosterone. I’ve seen some discussion that in certain historic contexts, persons who were assigned male at birth may have voluntarily chosen castration as a means of gender re-assignment, though it appears that this would most often be re-assignment to a culturally accepted “third sex”--as with classical Roman devotees of Cybele, or with India’s hijras. That “third sex” category might be considered female-coded in certain ways, but usually in a cultural context where the gender binary was constructed as “male and not-male” and anyone in a “not-male” category was classified as feminine to some degree.
This brings us to the second important consideration. The deep-rooted misogyny in western society (and here I’m not going to restrict it to “ in historical western society”) means that cultural attitudes toward trans men versus trans women had very little in common before the 20th century. When a society is structured around the idea that men are better than women in deeply essential qualitative and quantitative ways, there’s a big difference in how that society views people who move from “lower” to “higher” versus people who move from “higher” to “lower” on that social scale.
When pre-modern medical and philosophical writers discussed the possibility of spontaneous change of physical sex, they asserted that it could only happen that a female body could change to a male one because, to quote Pliny, “Nature always goes from the imperfect to the more perfect, but not basely from the more perfect to the imperfect.”.
A person assigned female at birth who was discovered to be presenting or living as male tended to provoke two reactions: admiration for aspiring to be a more perfect (that is, male) being, and disapproval for claiming higher status and privileges than they were entitled to. There were ways in which it was viewed as transgressing class barriers just as much as transgressing gender barriers.
In contrast, for someone who was assigned male at birth to choose to present or live as female was almost incomprehensible within official philosophical frameworks. Why would someone choose to become a lesser being, that is, a woman? And on a less philosophical level, why would someone who had access to the legal and economic advantages of being male in a horrifically patriarchal and misogynistic society choose to abandon those advantages. (Of course, there are ways in which this question still holds true today, to which the answer is that it’s a testimony to the position that it isn’t a choice. But I’m talking about the reactions of the society, not the motivations of the individual.)
A third factor, which I discussed extensively in last week’s show, is that classical, medieval, and to a lesser extent, early modern European society had such a hard time conceiving of same-sex desire as a possible thing, that the expression of same-sex desire was considered all by itself to be a basis for challenging someone’s gender assignment.
So now imagine yourself in the position of a pre-modern person in western society who was assigned male at birth, has an internal gender identity that aligns more with femininity, but also experiences romantic or sexual desire for women. There are significant practical barriers to changing your public gender expression and maintaining a female life on a long-term basis. Those barriers are not only psychological, but economic and legal, due to men’s greater privilege. Successfully changing your gender category will have massive implications for your position in society, your physical and legal safety, and the ability to maintain an economic standing to achieve your other social goals. If you make the transition, you will have moved from a gender category where your desire for a female partner can be easily realized and creates a recognized and stable social and economic unit, to a category where your relationship with a female partner will have no official status and where you two will have significant economic and legal disadvantages as a couple.
Such a life is certainly possible. It involves building blocks that can individually be documented and justified. And if someone wanted to write a work of historical fiction involving a person with that life story--and did it well--I would find it plausible. But it may be no wonder that it’s hard to find actual historic examples.
To be clear, there are plenty of historic examples of people in western history who can be very approximately categorized as trans women. But overwhelmingly, they are expressing that gender in the context of sexual relationships with men. There are also a significant number of examples--both literary and historical--of people assigned male at birth who pursue romantic or sexual relationships with women while presenting as female. And almost universally they are depicted as engaging in deception to gain sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society. That is, they’re the historic equivalent of the accusation that straight cis men will pretend to be trans women for sexual access. Literary examples include the myth of Callisto, the figure of Zelmane the “amazon” in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia, or the 18th century novel The Reformed Coquette by Mary Davys.
But there are a very few possible exceptions. One interesting literary example is the 18th century novel Anecdotes of a Convent by Helen Williams, in which a girl at an all-girls convent school forms a deeply romantic and erotic (though not sexual) bond with a fellow student. Their relationship is depicted within the framework of intense romantic friendships between women. Except it turns out that the other student is a boy who has been raised as a girl. Voila! Now his “true” gender is revealed. It turns out their love is just the same as before but now they can get married. I don’t know how the novel depicts the character’s internal gender identity but as far as I can tell from summaries the situation is depicted in reasonably positive terms.
The closest I’ve come to a historic example is the case of John or Eleanor Rykener from 14th century England. Rykener was a sex worker who presented as female for male clients but also had sexual encounters with women while presenting as male. (It isn’t clear whether Rykener’s relationships with women were professional or personal.) Interestingly, the law appears to have treated Rykener as at least a part-time trans woman in terms of considering their legal offense to be prostitution rather than sodomy. But as Rykener’s relationships with women involved a male presentation, they don’t precisely fit the category of trans lesbian.
If anyone knows of any historic or literary cases that better fit the category of trans lesbian, I’d love to get leads on looking into them more closely.
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When writing a series, there's always the tricky question of how to bring readers up to speed on the characters' back-stories without brining the narrative to a screeching halt for an info-dump. But when writing a book that's meant to be able to stand alone but exists within a series, the issue of back-story becomes even trickier. You need to provide readers enough information so they understand why these minor characters are wandering in and out of the book, but without setting up expectations that they will be important to this particular story. One failure mode is "egregious fan service" where back-story is included primarily for the eyes of readers of the full series. Another failure mode is misdirection, where people and events are referenced in an intriguing way but not followed up on. A third failure mode is "orphan characters" where references to people or events are just dropped in without clear connection to the current narrative.
It was a very deliberate choice to set Rozild up in a context where the central events and characters of the previous books would be relatively peripheral to her life...for all that she'll be employed by Margerit Sovitre and spending much of the book in her household. Some of the previous viewpoint characters will intersect her life briefly--perhaps in a single scene--others, not at all. Luzie Valorin is never mentioned by name. Antuniet appears in a single scene, though she is mentioned a couple times prior to that so that we'll know who she is. Jeanne pops into the dress shop and chats with Roz on one occasion...before which Roz had no idea that Jeanne had been her benefactor.
But since Roz is working in Tiporsel House, and will be interacting significantly with a few of the other inhabitants, I needed to dump some info on the reader in a concentrated way while signalling that it wasn't crucially important. Fortunately, when someone starts a new job, it feels natural for them to spend a few moments mentally sorting through the players on the stage...
* * *
Then it was up and down stairs again following Ailis to find all the folk who did for the family and let them know what I was to look to. I tried to remember all the names and hoped Ailis would help me sort them out later.
A stern older woman gave me a small bundle, saying with a sniff, “There’s Maisetra Pertinek’s caps. Get them as white as you can and don’t tear the lace!”
Next a younger woman with a country accent—not like from Sain-Pol but more eastern—looked me over and said she’d wait and see if I was good enough to wash her mistress’s things, but she gave me a man’s shirt with a rip in the sleeve. “The Mesnera tore that during her sword-practice, mind you do it up strong so it doesn’t tear again, but it needn’t be pretty.” She said it as if it were an everyday matter for a lady to go off in shirt and breeches to a fencing salle.
I worked out the family from bits and pieces like that. At the Fillerts it had only been Maistir and Maisetra Fillert and their daughters, and a guest or two sometimes. But old households like this one were filled with relatives and people with odd connections, like a little village under one roof. There was Maisetra Sovitre. I figured the house must be hers because she’d hired me. The man of the house was Mesner Pertinek, and I knew he couldn’t be the maisetra’s father because he was noble. But “the mesnera” wasn’t Mesnera Pertinek. She was only Maisetra Pertinek because he’d married beneath him. Even though she was Maisetra Sovitre’s aunt, she was more like a lady’s companion, like rich old widows sometimes had. The mesnera was a baroness—and didn’t that make me stare! To think I was serving in a house that had a baroness. But it wasn’t Baroness Saveze’s house either? Ailis gave me a strange look when I asked about that, like I was stupid. She explained that before she was a baroness, she was Maisetra Sovitre’s armin, to protect her because she was rich. There was some long story about that. But when she found out she was a baroness they were fast friends and Maisetra Sovitre invited her to stay on as a guest but more like a sister. I figured I’d work it out in time but my head was spinning too much to remember it all at once.
This is an admission that I'm not going to manage to translate the French article on cross-dressing heroines in medieval romances for the foreseeable future...ironically, because I've been spending all my time on writing an article about medieval cross-dressing narratives including the ones covered in the article. Life is complicated. But enjoy this tidbit on the belated inclusion of lesbians in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Examining the OED - Case Study: Terms for Lesbian(ism) - http://oed.hertford.ox.ac.uk/main/content/view/435/485/index.html accessed 2019/04/28
This article examines the history of inclusion--or more to the point, deliberate exclusion--of vocabulary relating to lesbians and lesbianism in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the “reference of record” for the history of word usage in English. When publication after publication repeats the false statement that vocabulary for lesbians didn’t exist before the late 19th century, one of the reasons is that people are using the OED as if it were simply factual, and not part of the long tradition of erasing women’s same-sex sexuality. The article provides historic citations of some key words and phrases that point out these gaps in the OED’s word entries, as well as discussing the consequences of those omissions for the usefulness of the OED for sociological research.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33d - Policing Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe - transcript
(Originally aired 2019/04/27 - listen here)
Within the past couple of months, there’s been some buzz in the book world about an upcoming fictionalized account of the life of 19th century physician Dr. James Barry that frames Barry as a heroic gender-transgressive woman who passed as a man in order to pursue a medical career. This framing was countered by many voices pointing out that Barry provided clear indications that he identified as male and tried to prevent that understanding from being challenged after his death.
Beyond the desire of modern people with a variety of identities to identify with the past, there is always a challenge to trying to decipher categories of gender and sexuality in the past, not only in terms of how individuals understood their own identity, but how that understanding was shaped by the models and categories offered to them.
The lazy way out is to sidestep the whole question by saying, “We can never really know how people in history identified” -- ignoring the fact that nobody ever says this about people who live normative lives. Or to say, “Well, understandings of sexuality and gender were different in the past” while silently assuming that straight cis people in history understood themselves identically to straight cis people today. But then we’re left with the question of just how we can sort out innate identity from strategic performance from culturally-imposed categorization.
Today’s essay continues the discussion I began two months ago in the episode on Unpacking Gender and Sexuality Categories. If you haven’t listened to that show yet, you might want to check it out before continuing with this one. In that show, I started from a very abstract consideration of how we interact with complicated categories of meaning and reference. How can we “translate” categories from one context to another when the categories are composed of bundles of independent features? In the realm of sexuality and gender, what are the different features that have been considered relevant in different cultures for determining both category structure and category membership?
This time, we’ll jump from the general to the very specific and look at a few particular cases of real people in history who came into conflict with their culture’s models for gender and sexuality. How did those conflicts shed light on those cultural models? How did people’s reactions demonstrate the specific ways in which the models failed to fit?
I chose individuals whose category membership was challenged in a legal context--or at least a legalistic one. That is, cases where people’s gender or sexuality were literally being policed by their culture. Due to the focus of this project, and therefore the nature of the data I have to work from, these examples will primarily focus on people who were assigned as female at birth, but where that categorization was challenged either by their behavior, their presentation, or their expressed self-identity. My focus here will not be on trying to determine their “true” gender and sexuality, as if that were a question with a simple and obvious answer. But rather to look at the types of evidence that were used at the time to try to answer those questions. I will, however, highlight parts of the data that suggest aspects of their internal identity.
I do want to give a content advisory here for some possibly disturbing discussion of persecution, legal punishments, forced medical examinations, and for the use of historic terminology such as “hermaphrodite” that would be offensive today. In general, when discussing people appearing in the historic record, I follow the pronouns used in the original documents, but this time I will use surnames or they/them pronouns to refer to the central figures being discussed here in order to provide a more neutral context for considering the evidence.
A good example to begin with--if only because it contradicts some of our expectations for historic western societies--is that of Anne Grandjean, in 18th century France. Grandjean was born in 1732 and assigned as female at birth, was raised as a girl, and presented as female both in terms of dress and behavior. Around age 14, Grandjean began experiencing sexual desire for women. They confessed this desire to a priest, who told them that sexual desire for women meant that one was really a man. Grandjean was then instructed to wear male clothing and live as a man.
This attitude--that gender identity could be diagnosed via the object of sexual desire within an obligatory heterosexual paradigm--dates back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle recommended this method of determining the “true gender” of a hermaphrodite (in this context, most probably meaning an intersex person).
Grandjean followed their confessor’s instructions regarding dress, began using their father’s name, Jean-Baptiste, moved away from home, and--living as a man--married a woman named Françoise Lambert in 1761 after which the couple moved to Lyon. A year or so later, Grandjean’s gender identity was challenged by someone who apparently had known them as a child, and they were brought before the court.
A doctor performed an anatomical examination and testified that Grandjean’s genitals were female. Contradictory testimony was presented in court regarding whether Granjean experienced menstruation, with Grandjean’s lawyer presenting the case that they were a hermaphrodite. In this case, we appear to be seeing the term “hermaphrodite” used, not for ambiguous physiology, but for an overall combination of traits that were assigned to different sexes: including anatomy, desire, and presentation. (There is a very detailed discussion of hermaphrodite theory in a contemporary summary of the case published in 1765. I’m still working my way through the French text but will put it on my to-do list for the blog in my primary sources series.)
This time, the conclusion of the court was that anatomy, not desire, was the deciding factor and Grandjean was judged guilty of “profaning the marriage sacrament” by entering into a same-sex marriage. After being whipped at the pillory, further sentencing of banishment was appealed successfully and was converted to a requirement that Grandjean return to wearing women’s clothes. They were prohibited by law from cohabiting with Françoise Lambert or any other woman. Evidently the deciding factor in the appeal was that Grandjean argued they had entered into the marriage “in good faith,” having been re-assigned as male based on factors including their desire for women and lack of desire for men, and that the change in gender presentation had been done openly with the knowledge and approval of their parents and community.
I chose Anne Grandjean to lead off because of the wealth of factors the case illustrates.
One key element for understanding historic attitudes toward gender and sexuality is to know that certain societies--to different degrees and with differing levels of credulity--accepted the possibility of spontaneous change of physiological sex. (Or, in some variants, the possibility that individual behavior could cause a change of physiological sex.)
In western culture, this generally was restricted to the possibility that persons originally interpreted as physiologically female could spontaneously develop male characteristics. But the other direction was sometimes acknowledged as possible. Before rejecting this concept as ignorance and myth, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of intersex conditions that present as an initially female-appearing body that develops male-appearing genitals later in life. Without knowing the chromosomal or hormonal basis of such conditions, it wasn’t unreasonable for people in the past to think that such a change could happen randomly to anyone.
So, if a person was observed to have behavioral or emotional characteristics that were considered at odds with their original assigned sex, it was not uncommon to attribute it to a spontaneous physiological change and to investigate that possibility by medical examination. Combine this with a fair amount of ignorance regarding the significant variation in the appearance of “normal” genitals of all sexes, and there was a lot of room for conflicting or erroneous diagnosis.
In Grandjean’s case--as in a number of other cases where the possibility of ambiguous genitalia was investigated--the conclusion was that Grandjean’s anatomy was consistent with the understanding of “normal” female anatomy. But there were other cases where having a clitoris that was larger or more prominent than the examiner expected, resulted in a diagnosis that the subject was partially male in nature.
So what does Grandjean’s case tell us about 18th century French models of gender and sexuality? The biggest thing it tells us is that there wasn’t a single, universal understanding of how to categorize people. The same person, in two different contexts, was assigned to two different gender categories based on prioritizing different characteristics. In one model, anatomy, behavior, and social presentation were all considered less relevant than the object of desire. In the other model, anatomy was the only acceptable evidence for gender categorization, and even the slightest hint of male anatomy might be sufficient for assignment as male.
Grandjean’s case also tells us that gender was considered more negotiable than sexuality in this context. The court was willing to hear and consider evidence and arguments regarding the correct assignment of Grandjean’s gender. But there was no framework for authorizing non-normative sexuality. In the first category conflict, the concept of same-sex desire was so unthinkable to Grandjean’s confessor, that he was more willing to authorize a behavioral gender change than to recognize the possibility that a woman could desire a woman.
In the second category conflict, when Grandjean was re-assigned back to being a woman, the possibility of same-sex desire was acknowledged by having its expression prohibited. Not only was Grandjean required to separate from their wife, but they were forbidden from cohabiting with any woman after that.
This erasure of same-sex possibilities is a theme that co-exists with the often prurient interest in women’s same-sex desire. The law can authorize gender re-assignment but it declines to license same-sex relations, and sometimes declines to acknowledge their possibility.
This theme must be kept in mind any time we encounter someone in western history who was assigned female at birth but who presents as male in the context of a romantic or sexual relationship with someone presenting as female. Sometimes we have evidence for transgender personal identity apart from the available cultural scripts for sexual relationships. But often we need to consider that the superficial appearance of a heterosexual relationship may have been the only script offered to two women who desired each other. Not only in terms of what would be acceptable to society, but in terms of how they understood their own identity and desires. If your society has a category “people who desire women” and aligns that category exactly with the category “men”, what are the pathways open for challenging that equation?
Of course, we also have plenty of examples of two people with feminine presentation enjoying romantic or sexual relations. A clear example is the early 15th century French case of Jehanne and Laurence. In the trial records for that case, there is no indication that either woman was suspected of having male physiology or a male personality. Though it’s true that when describing their sexual activity, the act was framed as them acting “like a man with a woman”. The heteronormative script was still there, but neither woman felt the need to re-categorize herself in order to fit that script in the course of their relationship. Neither did the courts raise the possibility of a gender category change as a way to avoid acknowledgement of same-sex acts. It’s possible that this difference is a matter of shifts in the cultural understanding of sexuality, but the fact that both women were in heterosexual marriages at the time may have gone some way toward viewing the sexual acts as an isolated issue of behavior, not a matter of categorization.
Do we have evidence for Grandjean’s internal gender identity? Quite possibly. 18th century France was not exactly lacking in examples of gender-crossing performance. Any yet Grandjean is not recorded as having any aspects of male gender performance until after being instructed to change gender presentation in order to resolve the problem of their unacceptable same-sex desire. We don’t have any evidence of what sort of life Grandjean lived after the trial and appeal were completed. There are some parallel cases where the subject returned to masculine presentation later, and others where the subject is known to have remained female-presenting after the dust settled. In this particular case, the preponderance of the available evidence does suggest an internal female identity.
Elena/Eleno de Céspedes
Our second case comes from 16th century Spain and again involves the intersection of performative gender, questions of anatomy, and the motivations of desire.
Elena or Eleno de Céspedes was born to an enslaved black woman in mid-16th century Spain and gained their freedom at age 12. They married a man at age 16, left him permanently shortly after, and bore a child that they left in a neighbor’s care and had no further contact with. De Céspedes later testified that the exertion of the birth resulted in the emergence of a penis-like organ that would thereafter emerge when they were sexually aroused, but was hidden otherwise. De Céspedes asserted that they later had successful sexual relations with women using this organ. Around this time, they began dressing in men’s clothing and pursuing male-coded professions, culminating in training as a surgeon, which included education in classical medical literature which they would later use to argue regarding gender re-categorization.
Due to a lack of facial hair, de Céspedes was sometimes thought to be a eunuch, which they denied. But evidently there was enough question on the point, that de Céspedes sought and received a judgment from the archbishop’s court of Toledo that they were a man and authorized to marry a woman. The evidence offered to receive this judgement is not recorded. But there was a specific marriage partner in question: shortly thereafter de Céspedes married María del Caño.
For some reason, de Céspedes’ gender category came up for question again and this time two medical examinations were required, one performed by a group of midwives who focused only on the genitals and proclaimed that de Céspedes had clearly female anatomy. The other was performed by a group of male physicians who examined both anatomy (with the same conclusion) and behavior, including facial features and speech mannerisms, proclaiming them clearly feminine as well. At this point, the court segregated de Céspedes from both the male and female areas of the prison and changed to using a grammatically female form of their name and using female pronouns in the records.
The charges against de Céspedes highlight the various category boundaries they were considered to have violated. They were charged with being an “unruly woman”, that is, with behaving in ways considered inappropriate for someone in the category “woman” (though perfectly appropriate for someone categorized as a man). They were charged with contempt for the sacrament of marriage by engaging in a same-sex marriage. And they were charged with committing sodomy by use of a dildo, contrary to their testimony that they had engaged in sex using a natural organ.
But was that possible? De Céspedes argued that it was. That they had indeed been female up until after the birth of their child, but thereafter had changed into a man--including the development of male genitals--but an injury had caused that organ to wither and fall off shortly before the legal charges were raised. The plausibility of this story was supported with citations from a wide range of respected medical texts, all of which considered a spontaneous physical sex change to be possible and natural.
The legal charges, de Céspedes argued, all depended on the category assignment of “woman”. But, they insisted, they had been a man at the time of the actions in question and so were innocent, even if they currently appeared to be a woman again.
Did the court take this defense seriously into account? In the end, the gender-based charges were dropped. The final conviction was for bigamy, because de Céspedes had failed to establish that their original husband was dead before marrying María. The shift from a charge of “contempt for the sacrament of marriage” to a charge of “bigamy” is suggestive. Either the court considered a marriage between two women to be sufficiently valid as to constitute bigamy, or the court considered that--at the time of the second marriage--de Céspedes was, in fact, classifiable as a man.
The central conflicts in the trial demonstrate that anatomy was considered the most important factor in gender categorization, though with some element of social performance. Even the shift to a bigamy charge supports this category structure. Presenting and performing as a man was never in doubt and was the basis of the gender-transgression charges. The shift in charges suggests the possibility that gender categories could be crossed and re-crossed by means of a change of anatomy.
De Céspedes was punished for bigamy by whipping and a public confession, followed by a period of public service as a physician at the Royal Hospital of Toledo. What happened after is unknown.
What remains is the question of why de Céspedes re-categorized themself originally.
Was there, in fact, an anatomical feature, later lost, that caused them to re-categorize themself? And then to enter into the difficult and elaborate process of performing a male life due to the appearance of that feature? Or was that an invention--perhaps one that de Céspedes convinced themself was true--in order to align their self-identity with their lived experience? The category shift was immediately followed by taking up male-coded professions and engaging in sexual relations with a woman. While the economic attractions of male professions have been a lure for many, sexual desire is a different matter. Apart from any other factors, it’s clear that de Céspedes experienced sexual desire for women. Was that desire the primary motivation for changing gender performance? Not only is it impossible at this remove to tease apart the possible contributing motivations, there’s no reason to assume that they can be separated.
Two other cases that share certain similarities make an interesting contrast to the outcome for de Céspedes. Half a century later, also in Spain, Catalina de Erauso ran away from a convent at age 15, put on men’s clothing, and began to engage in male-coded professions especially including travel to the New World as a soldier. Later in life, when in serious legal trouble, de Erauso confessed their life history to a bishop and returned to Spain to sort out the legalities of their life. This included traveling to Rome and getting explicit permission from the Pope to continue wearing men’s clothing and living as a man. This is a rare case where official sanction was given for a gender category change. Possibly one factor in this resolution is that sexuality never came into the question. Although de Erauso had engaged in some flirtations with women, they had never entered into a serious romantic or sexual partnership and never attempted to marry.
The other interesting contrast is the 17th century English case of the marriage of Arabella Hunt and Amy Poulter. Poulter was wearing men’s clothing and performing socially as a man at the time of the marriage, but testified, in essence, that their gender presentation had been a ruse for the sake of the marriage and denied being “a hermaphrodite”. That is, Poulter did not claim a change of gender category as the basis or justification for desiring and marrying a woman, although the courts offered this as a possible out. Similarly to de Céspedes, the court case involved a charge of bigamy as Poulter was still married to Arthur Poulter at the time they married Arabella Hunt. Although there are other motivations that muddle the evidence, it appears that the English court was willing to endorse gender re-categorization on the basis of any possible hint of ambiguous anatomy--although that re-categorization would have upheld the bigamy charge--but Poulter rejected that approach and clearly distinguished social gender performance from internal gender identity, incidentally upholding the existence of same-sex desire as a sexuality category.
Greta von Mösskirch
Greta von Mösskirch provides another example where the social models of gender leaned heavily on imposing compulsory heterosexuality at the expense of other data. Around 1514, in the region of Germany ruled by the counts of Zimmern, von Mösskirch came to the attention of a chronicler due to their disdain for the romantic attentions of men and their interest in romantically pursuing young women. The specific behaviors mentioned are loving them, following them, and giving them gifts. The chronicle then interprets this as “employing all behavior and manners, as if she had a masculine affect.”
What did that mean? Were there additional masculine behaviors other than the object of von Mösskirch’s romantic interest? Did they swagger around? Speak in a low voice? Adopt other cross-gender habits? There is no mention of cross-gender clothing. In the bare text we have, the implication seems to be that it was the romantic pursuit of women, by itself, that was interpreted as masculine behavior.
Von Mösskirch was spared formal legal investigation, but was the subject of an anatomical exam by the women of the town who suspected that their romantic desires must indicate an underlying male identity, or at least physical hermaphroditism. This suspicion was not upheld by the exam.
Only at this point does the chronicler, unable to deny the conjunction of female anatomy and desire for women, turn to alternate explanations. Perhaps it was fated in their stars. Perhaps it was simply bad morals. In any event, the possibility of a category of “women who desire women” was acknowledged in this case.
No formal action was taken to legislate von Mösskirch’s presentation or behavior. Anatomy was treated as the final word in determining their correct gender category, but there were no confounding behavioral or social factors other than romantic desire. In contrast to Grandjean’s case, the possibility of same-sex desire is not considered so threatening as to require correction, though we know nothing of von Mösskirch’s later behavior or life.
As with the case of Anne Grandjean, the experiences of Thomas or Thomasine Hall in early 17th century Jamestown, Virginia highlight contrasting and conflicting requirements for gender category membership.
To summarize a long and complicated life history, Hall was most likely intersex and had been categorized as female at birth but by later adulthood had developed a small penis and evidently had a very small, or no, vaginal opening. Hall lived a normative female life through childhood and adolescence. But when Hall was 24 and their brother was pressed into military service, Hall cut their hair short, dressed in men’s clothing, and went to join the English army in France. On returning home to England, Hall return to women’s clothing and took up the female-coded profession of needlework.
In connection with deciding to emigrate to the colony of Virginia, Hall again wore men’s clothing and engaged in male-coded professions there, but sometimes switched to wearing women’s clothing. The precipitating incident that brought Hall to history’s attention was an accusation of a sexual relationship with a neighbor’s female servant. At the time, Hall was presenting as male, which rendered this the ordinary moral crime of fornication. However--possibly as an attempt at defense--a former employer of Hall (at a time they were presenting as female) testified that Hall was actually a woman, despite the male clothing.
The various legal inquiries that followed evaluated Hall against two different gender category standards. Was Hall sufficiently male on a sliding scale to be categorized as such? Or did the presence of any male characteristics at all define membership? One curious feature of the debate is that neither behavioral presentation nor erotic desire seem to have come into the evidence. Hall’s desire for a woman--however problematic for moral standards--does not appear to have been considered evidence of masculinity. It is, perhaps, more understandable that Hall’s choice of clothing was not considered decisive, as they seem to have had no clear preference. But when interpreting the anatomical evidence, no clear standard was applied. The first judicial decision was that masculinity was defined by the ability to successfully perform penetrative sex. Hall had a feature interpreted as a small penis but evidently it was not functional for this purpose. They were a little bit masculine, but not sufficiently so to be awarded category membership. Hall was ordered to wear female clothing and perform female-coded labor.
But other community members considered that minimal anatomical feature to be sufficient to define masculinity and weren’t satisfied with this decision. One approach considered that the important outcome was for an ambiguous person to choose one binary gender and stick to it. Another approach demanded that it be the correct binary gender. The case was re-opened and this time, rather than evaluating Hall’s masculine credentials, the judge evaluated their feminine ones. This time the absence of anatomy for receiving vaginal penetration was considered the deciding factor. Hall was categorized as male.
But then the judge did something unusual: he required Hall to wear a hybrid outfit with elements of both male and female clothing. Hall had lived a life of serial alternating gender performance; but now they were required to settle on a fixed but ambiguous presentation. This left open the question of what gender-coded economic roles Hall was allowed to participate in, and which socialization rules they were to follow, and what potential sexual relationships were licensed. These are not recorded.
And what was Hall’s position on all this? When Hall was asked directly, “whether he were a man or a woman” they replied, “both.” Hall switched between gender presentations on multiple occasions when there seemed to be no social need or economic advantage--though there were some occasions when presenting as male was a clear advantage for both opportunity and safety. When Hall testified with their own life story, no reasons or excuses were given for these shifts, with one mystifying exception. When asked about the women’s clothing, Hall replied, “I go in women’s apparel to get a bit for my cat.” But what that might mean is unclear.
The combination of Hall’s ambiguous anatomy and their blithe disregard for fixed gender performance seems to have broken the ability of their contemporaries to achieve categorization. The existing category standards could not be clearly applied, and so Hall was not so much allowed to be non-binary, as required to advertise this state.
My final example, like the case of Greta von Mösskirch, did not technically come before a court of law, but came under the scrutiny of an authority figure who considered the issues of categorization and had some power of enforcement.
In 18th century Italy, Catharine Vizzani, having grown up assigned female and pursuing female-coded activities like embroidery, found themself in love with a young woman. After courting her in a female presentation, Vizzani began wearing men’s clothing and pursuing the courtship using a heterosexual script, including nighttime visits to her window. Vehement parental objections to this courtship--though it’s unclear whether gender issues came into it--led Vizzani to leave town hastily and take up a full-time masculine presentation, which included romantic and sexual relations with a number of women.
Vizzani’s parents supported and abetted them in this course of action, only mentioning Vizzani’s original gender assignment when they were berated for their “son’s” wild and dissolute habits by Vizzani’s employer. The parents had long been aware of Vizzani’s romantic desire for women, and had helped Vizzani establish themself in a male-presenting life, but had not recategorized Vizzani in their own minds as a man. Vizzani’s employer, having this information, chose not to interfere with either their social presentation or their romantic pursuits.
Vizzani’s adventures were eventually brought to a tragic end when one of their amours resulted in being fatally wounded by an agent of their lover’s guardian. Vizzani revealed their birth gender to the nuns giving them medical care and requested to buried in women’s clothes. After death, an attending physician investigated the possibility that Vizzani’s behavior and desires were caused by partially masculine anatomy, but the conclusion was negative.
Here we see a whole series of figures who had social authority over Vizzani--parents and employers--choosing to accept some degree of masculine categorization purely on the basis of social presentation and on erotic desire for women, even with the understanding that Vizzani’s anatomy was categorized as female. Vizzani, on the other hand, gives a certain amount of evidence for not categorizing themself as male, despite a long-term social performance as such.
Only after death was the question of anatomy raised as a potential causal factor. But on the other hand, among all of Vizzani’s romantic encounters, the question of marriage never came to a head, which might have reframed the concerns. That final fatal elopement was meant to have ended in marriage, but the possibility was cut short. So is this a case of category change being accepted on a basis other than anatomy? Or is it a case where gender-transgressive behavior and illicit sex were tolerated without full re-categorization? Did Vizzani change gender performance primarily to pursue their erotic inclinations? Or did they also have some degree of non-binary identity?
I hope these examples provide a way of looking at and thinking about the ways that cultures in history understood categories of gender and sexuality. I’ve looked at a very narrow range of data here: real-life cases where the correct assignment of a person to specific gender or sexuality categories came under the concern of the authorities, and where the conclusions of those authorities might be enforced on the person in question.
There are many other types of examples that can shed light on how people understood gender and sexuality. Medieval romances give us examples of characters who perform across genders and then are bodily changed to match that performative gender. One could see these as an acceptance that category membership could be established by performance and internal identity, with the miraculous anatomical change being merely a recognition of that. But one could also view such scenarios as treating anatomy as essential--that an anatomical change was necessary to make the category shift “true.”
Because of my focus on official challenges to category membership, I’ve excluded the formalized gender-crossing role described in the Balkans in the 19th century, where individuals assigned as female could, in certain circumstances either choose or be chosen to be re-categorized as men and were accepted and treated as such by their cultures.
Also excluded by my focus on specific individuals is the extensive medical and philosophical literature dealing with the categorization of persons with ambiguous anatomy. Nederman and True’s study on this topic in the 12th century, which I covered recently in the blog, notes a variety of approaches, that take into account how one’s anatomy best accommodates heteronormative sex, which gender the person is sexually aroused by (with assumed heterosexuality), or even which gender the person chooses to align with. What was required in all cases was that the person choose one gender to identify with and stick to it, and express their sexuality only within a heterosexual framework.
In summary, what we see in early modern Europe are a number of strong trends in categorization, all of which are contradicted in certain cases or certain circumstances. As a general trend, anatomy was considered the strongest aspect of gender categorization, but that could be contradicted by performative presentation, as in the case of Catherine Vizzani, or be trumped by the heterosexual imperative, as in the case of Anne Grandjean, or be granted special dispensation, as in the case of Catalina de Erauso. As a general trend, the heterosexual imperative was held to be so inviolable that apparent same-sex desire was seen as a reason to investigate gender re-categorization. We see this in the case of Greta von Mösskirch and Anne Grandjean, and it may possibly have been an internal motivation for reclassification in cases where desire preceded a change in gender presentation, as with Catharine Vizzani, Elena de Céspedes, and possibly Amy Poulter. But against this we have the case of Jehanne and Laurence where erotic attraction doesn’t seem to have raised questions about their gender identity. And we have cases where ambiguous anatomy created a category crisis when the individual diverged from a normative gender presentation, as in the case of Thomasine Hall.
There is no conclusion to this essay, no decision of which categories or classifications were “correct”. The message I want to leave you with is that gender and sexuality categories in history don’t always align clearly with modern understandings. And that the ways that people fit themselves into those categories--or broke out of them--could be individual and complicated. Yet they left these traces of that struggle, not for us to judge, but to appreciate in their variety.
Previous podcast in this series: Unpacking Gender and Sexuality Categories.
Jehanne and Laurence
Elen@ de Céspedes
Catalina de Erauso
Amy Poulter and Arabella Hunt
Greta von Mösskirch
The issue of character motivation weaves deeply through chapter 3 of Floodtide. Why did Dominique reach out to Jeanne to help Roz? Why did Jeanne agree to see what she could do? (These were covered in last week's teaser blog.) Why did Jeanne approach Margerit? (“Who did she know who kept a large enough staff that there would always be a place for one more? And who could not possibly object to the reason for the girl’s fall? The answer was obvious.” Mother of Souls ch. 12) Why did Margerit agree to give her a try? (In truth, Jeanne guilted her into it.) These are all questions that fall outside the reader's knowledge in Floodtide.
Rozild doesn't know that Maisetra Sovitre had to be guilted into offering her a position. But her initial reaction considers an entirely different motivation:
* * *
The lady’s voice was soft and kind but my mind started running over all the things a thaumaturgist might need a girl like me for. They did real magic with the mystery guilds, not just charms like the old women in the market did, or like Celeste had used to fix my leg. Mostly thaumaturgists were men. Men didn’t do charm-work, at least, you didn’t want to go to the ones that did. I’d never met a thaumaturgist before. But you knew about them from stories—the sort you told at mid-winter.
I must have looked afraid because when I managed to say, “Yes, Maisetra,” she laughed a little. A pleasant laugh that made me feel a little easier.
* * *
And Maisetra Sovitre can turn on the charm when she's not distracted.
* * *
She had a nice smile—the sort that made you think she didn’t know there were bad people in the world. Certainly that she didn’t think you could be one of them.
* * *
But in every good cop/bad cop scenario, there needs to be a bad cop. What does Margerit Sovitre's housekeeper, Charsintek, think of the new prospect?
* * *
She looked stern and sour like housekeepers always did. I wondered if the work did that to them or if you had to be that way to get hired for the position.
“So. What can you do, girl?” she asked. No questions about why I was looking. That would come later, I thought.
“I was a laundry maid,” I recited. “And helped out downstairs. I can do mending and fancy sewing. I’d like to learn dressmaking,” I added. “That’s why I came to Mefro Dominique.”
She harumphed and began quizzing me on the work, asking me how I’d deal with this stain or that kind of tear in a dress. I showed her the place on the sleeve of my chemise where I’d mended it so tiny you couldn’t even see it had been torn, except that the thread was a little darker.
I kept waiting for her to ask, Why were you let go? What did you do? Let me see your references. She never did, so I knew Mefro Dominique must have told them about all that. But then why would they consider me at all? A woman who dressed like Maisetra Sovitre could have her pick of maids. The housekeeper gave another harumph and left me standing there while she went out into the front of the shop.
* * *
For that matter, what does Charintek think of her employer's personal life in general? Charsintek was part of the Old Baron's staff. She watched Barbara grow up. Once things had sorted themselves out in Daughter of Mystery I suspect she was happy to integrate the almost motherly affection she'd always felt for Barbara with the respect she owed her new employer. As for their personal lives...
* * *
“I want you to be certain of one thing Rozild Pairmen,” she said softly, but I could tell from the way she used my whole name that there was nothing soft about what she was about to tell me. “Maisetra Sovitre has a kind heart. Nobody’s going to bother you about why you left your last place.”
I knew she didn’t mean at Mefro Dominique’s. I’d expected this warning since we first set out.
“But don’t you do anything, I mean anything to dirty the maisetra’s good name. If I hear you’ve been causing trouble in the household, you’re gone. Like that.” And she snapped her fingers in my face.
* * *
The essence of Charsintek's attitude is loyalty and protectiveness. Does she approve of same-sex relationships in general? No--or rather, the question is irrelevant. Margerit and Barbara's relationship isn't her business to approve or disapprove; but Roz's past is a potential source of discord and scandal. The two aren't the same at all. Charsintek is loyal to the family of Tiporsel House and that's what's important.
Roz isn't in that same place of loyalty yet--she doesn't know if she'll ever get there, but her brain has already recalibrated to her sudden good fortune...
* * *
The maisetra left in her little town-carriage—I’d already started thinking of Maisetra Sovitre as “the maisetra” —and Mefro Charsintek set a good pace from the shop up along the river [toward Tiporsel House].
There are always at least two layers of historic information about non-normative sexuality: the normative, prescriptive narratives of authorities, whether religious, medical, legal, or other; and the individual, concrete, descriptive accounts of everyday experience. It can be enlightening to see where and how these come into conflict. The cases where records acknowledge that actual human beings often fail to follow the paradigms the experts have set out. Or where we see the disconnect between the official model of how society was supposed to respond to sexual transgression, versus actual experiences and outcomes. Big picture histories too often lean entirely on the former and fail to represent the true variety of experience.
Puff, Helmut. 1997. “Localizing Sodomy: The ‘Priest and sodomite’ in Pre-Reformation Germany and Switzerland” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 8:2 165-195
As can be expected from the reference to priests in the title of this article, it focuses mostly on relations between men. But there is some information on women within the more general context of “sodomy” involving clerical personnel.
The article focuses on the church’s role in persecuting “sodomites” during a period roughly between the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 and the Reformation (ca. 1517). Puff demonstrates that there were a variety of approaches taken, depending on context and contradicting the impression that the chuch was uniformly hostile. As a rule, church personnel didn’t participate actively in sodomy trials and there is little evidence for systematic purging of sodomites from clearical or monastic positions. The bulk of the article reviews a number of individual case histories that shed light on the everyday reality that contrasted with the more theoretical evidence of penitential literature, among other sources.
Although there had been increasing concern about sodomy in penitentials during the 5th through 11th centuries, the consolidation of institutional power in the church that increased in the 12th century and later made it possible to address a number of deprecated practices, including simony, priests keeping concubines, and the poor level of priestly education. Also at this period, we see the first introduction in law codes of a death penalty for sodomy, although there is little evidence that it was implemented.
What Puff identifies in this research is that the picture described by earlier historians of church officials acting in concert with lay courts to deliver sodomites for prosecution and execution turns out to be a myth. That picture may have been true for heretics, but although sodomy was sometime conflated with heresy, sodomites were excluded from this church-state partnership of persecution. And even when theoretically included, actual court records paint a different picture than these normative records.
The titular phrase of this article “priest and sodomite” was not an established “social type” but rather emerged from certain specific points of conflict that reflect specific local and political circumstances.
[There is a great deal of fascinating detail in this article, but most of it is irrelevant to the theme of this blog, so I’m going to jump and skim to hit the points relevant to women.]
One contributing factor to the image of the “priest and sodomite”, as well as to accusations against nuns of sexual deviancy of various types, was the popular trope of the morally corrupt clergy. Anti-clerical sentiment, and especially anti-monastic feelings, were regularly expressed in popular tales, satire, and reform propaganda. While corrupt clergy certainly existed, the motif had the attraction of transgression against the clergy/lay social boundary. And the real-life transgression of the boundary between clergy and secular persons seems to have generated a disproportionate number of the legal actions against sodomites. If such relationships remained entirely in one group or the other, they were less likely to cause notice.
While the majority of Puff’s examples involve relations between priests and laymen, one case of a religious recluse, Katharina Güldin in Rottweil in 1444 involves an accusation that she practiced the “vice against nature which is called sodomy” with an unnamed lay woman. The case was recorded because city officials lodged a complaint to the deacon of Rottweil. The outcome of the case is not recorded.
[That, alas, is the extent of the relevant information in this article.]
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 33c - Interview with Zen Cho - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2019/04/19 - listen here)
A series of interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer women.
NOTE: This month’s On the Shelf incorrectly announced this month’s guest as Molly Tanzer. The Molly Tanzer interview will appear at a future date.
In this episode we talk about
A transcript is pending
Links to Zen Cho Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/TheLesbianTalkShow
It's a bit of an impulse thing. Evidently Patreon is changing it's contract structure in a few weeks to something a bit less beneficial to users, but people with an account set up prior to that are locked in to the current structure. Since I'd been toying with the idea of a Patreon for a couple of years, this information made me think it might make sense to set up an account, even if I didn't seriously intend to push it.
You see, I feel a bit weird about soliciting financial support through venues like Patreon because I don't need the money. Even with the added expenses of the audio fiction series (royalties + narration fees), and commissioning podcast transcripts, I'm quite capable of funding the thing out of pocket. But on the other hand, having a Patreon gives people an opportunity to make a concrete statement that they find what I'm doing valuable and worth supporting. And since I've currently set up only a single support tier ($1 per month) with no benefits other than good will and thanks, it's not like I'm going around begging people for more than a token statement.
In theory, between the fiction series and commissioning transcripts of the interview shows, I'm out of pocket about $150 per month. (This doesn't count general overhead for the blog. I certainly wouldn't ask people to underwrite my rather extravagant book-buying habits. And the podcast hosting is currently covered by The Lesbian Talk Show which has it's own Patreon.) This is, if you will forgive me, only slightly less than my coffee shop budget.
So I'm not asking people to support the LHMP Patreon because I'm in financial need, or because the blog and podcast won't continue without the support. Trust me, they'll keep going as long as it makes me happy to do them. But if you support things on Patreon already, and you find the LHMP (especially the podcast) of value to you, and you wanted a concrete and low-effort way to give me that feedback. Then pledging a dollar a month on Patreon is one way to send me that message. The message that you find what I do valuable is far more important to me than the money.
Oh, and here's the link.
If you have any ideas for Patreon benefits for higher support tiers (that wouldn't involve significantly more time for me), feel fee to suggest.
Because Floodtide is written solely from Roz’s point of view, there are a lot of details that she (we) don’t have access to. Like why in the world Dominique would go out on a limb to try to get Roz another position in service? And how did she arrange for Margerit Sovitre, of all people, to consider her?
Fortunately, if one has read Mother of Souls, the answer to the second question is laid out there, although purely in passing.
* * *
[from Mother of Souls]
Jeanne skimmed over the contents of her own messages with a broadening smile but she waited until Antuniet sat back and looked up before sharing them.
“This is curious, Toneke. My dressmaker begs the favor of a word with me. You remember Mefro Dominique? I wonder what that could be about? It certainly isn’t a dunning letter!”
* * *
But the question of “who” Dominique approached for help doesn’t entirely answer the question of “why”. Why did Dominique think/know that Jeanne would be a soft touch to help a girl who’d gotten in trouble for a bit of same-sex hanky-panky? And what gave Dominique the impression that appealing to her would be taken kindly as opposed to being seen as a great impertinence?
It’s one thing to have a reputation that “everyone knows, but everyone pretends not to know,” though at the time of that scene in Mother of Souls, Jeanne and Antuniet were cohabiting and had visited Dominique’s shop together on several occasions. But it’s quite another thing to have your dressmaker make it clear that she’s well aware of the truth of the rumors about your personal life.
When I was writing Mother of Souls I was thinking that perhaps it was rather forward of Dominique to approach her. But while putting together this month’s Alpennia newsletter, something else clicked into place. (By the way, if you aren’t subscribed to my monthly author newsletter, you’re missing out on some fun stuff.) Dominique was featured in this month’s “Who’s Who in Alpennia” item and it forced me to pin down some details of her chronology.
In 1798, Dominique has been in Rotenek for about 4 years and is about 16 years old. She has recently become independent of the French family who brought her to Alpennia, and is struggling to set herself up as a dressmaker, handicapped by being outside the Rotenek professional organizations. (Craft guilds lingered as an economic force in Alpennia well past their era in our timelime due to the strong connection between professional guilds and secular mystery guilds as social clubs.) In 1798 it is a year after the events of “Gifts Tell Truth,” Jeanne is coming out of her multi-year funk, she is starting out on developing her reputation as a social “influencer,” and she has come to the understanding that she prefers women over men in bed (though she enjoys both).
Jumping ahead to the era of Daughter of Mystery and later, Dominique is clearly Jeanne’s favorite dressmaker, and Jeanne throws a lot of business her way (enough that she can ask for the occasional discount for a needy friend). I think it’s not unreasonable to conclude that Jeanne’s patronage and connections were a big factor in helping Dominique get established at the beginning of her career. And it might not be beyond the allowable limits of speculation to guess that they might have briefly enjoyed a somewhat closer relationship...
A past history of that type might excuse certain liberties. (And would go some way to explain Dominique’s perhaps surprising broadmindedness regarding Roz’s indiscretions.)
Now you know one of the secrets of my complex character histories: half of it isn’t planned at all! This would not be the first or tenth or twentieth time that I’ve looked at my characters from a new angle and realized I’d planted the seeds for some aspect of their lives two books earlier without noticing.