Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110h Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 9)

Full citation: 

Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Chapter 9: The Sapphic Renaissance

Several previous publications have taken note of the revival of interest during the Renaissance of both the poetry and life of Sappho--both those scraps of her life that can be gleaned from her verses (including her obvious erotic interest in women), and the popular fiction that "redeemed" her from lesbianism via a doomed romance with a man. One might, in fact, think of her as the the original archetype of the "tragic lesbian" who must be both converted to heterosexuality and punished with death for her previous sexual transgressions. These attempts to claim her for the straight team were consistently unsuccessful, given how pervasive she continued to be as an icon of desire and love between women. Many object (in many cases, quite reasonably) to the use of "lesbian" and "sapphic" as anachronistic when applied uniformly across the entirety of Western history. In counter-argument, in every age that was aware of Sappho as a historic and literary figure, she became a nexus for understandings and criticisms of emotional and sexual relationships between women.

* * *

The revival of interest in, and knowledge of, the works and life of Sappho as part of the general revival of classical culture in the Renaissance created a major context for discussing female homoeroticism, although the myth of Sappho’s abandonment of women for a fatal desire for Phaon was also popular.

As a symbol, Sappho became a site of contestation regarding not only female friendship and desire, but regarding the place of female poets and intellectuals in general. However much some may have wanted to convert Sappho into a more conventionally sexual figure, there was a general acceptance and acknowledgement, in works of the late 15th and 16th centuries, of her association with sexual love between women.

Beginning around the 1540s, there was a systematic effort to identify, compile, and publish the surviving works of Sappho. The fact that this effort (like most literary endeavors) was largely the province of men, significantly affected the debate over Sappho’s image and reputation. It was impossible to deny that classical authors such as Ovid accepted her sexual love for women, so the emphasis was put on how--given this--Sappho’s final turning away from women in favor of heterosexuality was an even greater rejection of the possibilities of desire between women. That is: given that she had loved women, the Phaon story was held up as proof that love between women was unsustainable.

Several approaches were taken to appropriate Sappho’s image under the flag of normative sexuality: by transferring her voice to a male point of view, by male poets appropriating her image to address female subjects in a pseudo-feminine voice, or by asserting Sappho’s inherent “masculinity”. (I.e., the argument “she’s not like other girls”.)

This chapter excerpts a number of 15-16th c. biographies of Sappho, all of which undertake this appropriative work to some degree, while yet finding it impossible to omit or entirely erase her status as an icon of sexual desire and activity between women. (It’s impossible to excerpt representative material, but the whole chapter is well worth reading for those interested in the image of Sappho in Renaissance Europe.)

Event / person: 

Add new comment