Bennett, Judith M. 2011. “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9
A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.
Bennett, Judith M. 2011. “Remembering Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge”
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[I’ve also covered a more extensive article by Bennett on this monument that focuses more on the details of the artifact, its manufacture, and untangling the genealogy and relationships of the two families. This present article goes into more detail of the social interpretation.]
The central topic of this article is a 15th century brass memorial located in a small parish church in Sussex that shows two women turned toward each other, with an explanatory inscription. Elizabeth Etchingham (on the viewer’s left) is the smaller figure, shown with loose flowing hair. Agnes Oxenbridge (on the viewer’s right) has tightly pinned up (but uncovered) hair and is shown larger. The two are dressed identically. Elizabeth’s text identifies her as the first-born daughter of Thomas and Margaret Etchingham, died December 3, 1452. Agnes’s text identifies her as the daughter of Robert Oxenbridge, died August 4, 1480, and asks God’s mercy on both women.
Bennett takes us on a consideration of the context of the monument, the women, and the iconography of memorial brasses to show the evidence for situating this story within a lesbian history.
The use of a brass memorial indicates a good birth, and both women came from land-owning gentry. Their families lived in the neighborhood of the church where they are buried, which belonged to the Etchingham family.
The usual pattern for young women’s lives for this time, place, and class would be to be raised at home until the beginning of adolescence and then be placed out into another household as part of their social training and to form bonds between families that would shape their later lives. It’s quite possible that the two women lived in the same household as part of this sort of arrangement. The usual expectation would be to marry in the late teens or twenties, although perhaps 5% of women (in this time/place/class) remained single life-long. Only a few of those singlewomen became nuns; others remained with their families.
Despite the lack of contemporary records for the two women (other than the memorial) we can know that neither married, based on the absence of references on the memorial to husbands, and from their depiction with uncovered hair. Both likely were born in the 1420s, with Elizabeth dying in her mid 20s and Agnes three decades later.
The Oxenbridge family mausoleum was in Brede, so the choice to bury Agnes next to Elizabeth in Etchingham with a joint memorial is unusual and indicates the joint approval and cooperation of both families, in the persons of the heads of the households: Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Etchingham and Agnes’s brother Robert Oxenbridge. But the arrangement is unlikely to have been driven by anyone other than Agnes herself as expressed in her will (which has not survived). Implementing this desire required the support and approval, not only of both families but also the workshop that made the memorial. As such, it’s unlikely that anyone involved considered whatever relationship the women had to be scandalous or unacceptable.
The design of the brass provides clues to how that relationship was viewed. There is a symbolic vocabulary for the layout of memorial brasses. Paired memorial images conventionally involved a married couple. The husband is usually placed on the viewer’s left in the more prestigious location, the place Elizabeth occupies, perhaps because the burial was done in her family’s church, but perhaps because the Etchinghams were a more prominent family than the Oxenbridges. The difference in size and hairstyle of the women most likely is intended to reflect their age difference at death. Loose, flowing hair was associated with young women, whereas Agnes’s pinned-up style is seen on mature women. The lack of a head covering is a strong symbol of unmarried status. The third aspect of visual symbolism indicates the relationship that motivated the joint memorial. Here, from among various possible arrangements of the figures, the brassmakers chose the one that represented an affectionate marriage-like bond. This is shown not simply in the joint memorial itself, but by having the women face each other, looking directly into each other’s faces. (Elizabeth’s head is tilted up slightly to gaze at the taller figure of Agnes, whose head is bowed slightly.)
The majority of joint effigies have both figures front-facing, reflecting the earlier style of sculptural effigies with reclining figures. The facing-in-profile style was relatively new at the time this brass was made. Scholars of memorial symbolism see it as a development to express “the intimacy of marriage” (as well as to better display newer fashions in headwear on the female figures--a consideration not relevant in this case). But the Elizabeth-Agnes memorial avoids two features that could undermine this impression of intimacy. The workshop that produced the brass more typically showed the facing figures leaning slightly backward, away from each other, depicting a static and immobile pose via the arrangements of the folds of skirt drapery. Instead, Agnes and Elizabeth appear to be in motion towards each other, with their skirts spread backwards and their bodies angled forward.
As brasses are not portraits and these details were unlikely to be specified by Agnes herself, they are more likely to reflect the communal understanding of their relationship by their families. Commemoration of same-sex friendships in joint memorials is widespread (though not common) but the overwhelming majority are male pairs and have later dates than the 15th century. Alan Bray’s work on the history of friendship cited no female examples before the 17th century, so the Etchingham/Oxenbridge memorial and others like it expand the scope of this data considerably. The emphasis of Bray’s study is on emotional intimacy but not necessarily sexual love. Similarly in this case, we can solidly understand Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as commemorating a close, intense, lasting emotional bond, but we have no evidence one way or the other regarding whether that bond was also erotic.
Bennett pauses to discuss why she created the concept of “lesbian-like” to discuss examples like this (Bennett 2000), without having to apply some rigid standard of evidence and definition to whether they “counted” as lesbians by modern identity-based definitions. Resistance to viewing examples like Elizabeth and Agnes via a “lesbian-like” category are often overtly driven by a horror that it “slanders” the women involved. It also leads to convoluted interpretation of the evidence, such as the counter-factual claims that Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorials were actually separate objects coincidentally placed side by side. Bennett asks why we should demand a greater stability and clarity of definition of “lesbian” in history than we have at the present time. She points out that some scholars argue that medieval European society only recognized one gender--male--with women being considered “imperfectly male”, while other historians view the evidence as showing a rigid two-gender system. Similarly, some scholars argue that the medieval world had no concept that would correspond to heterosexuality, no sense of “normal” against which to define “abnormal” sexuality. In this context, viewing the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial as “lesbian-like” doesn’t close off interpreting the women as heterosexual, if that is a category that has no validity in the medieval context in the first place.
Coming back to the theory focus of this collection, Bennett argues that viewing the memorial as lesbian-like helps break free of anachronistically modern assumptions about the women’s lives (rather than identifying them by anachronistically modern identity labels). Using the word “lesbian”, which has carried through the centuries with unstable but related senses, helps with this process, Bennett argues, more than the deliberate avoidance of the word “lesbian” does. She points out that singling out “lesbian” as problematic while using similarly unstable terms such as “housewife” [or for that matter “household”] is suspect. Identifying Elizabeth and Agnes’s memorial as “lesbian-like” does not claim them as “lesbian” but as exploring a related set of affinities between women. “Lesbian-like” refuses to privilege sexual relations and our knowledge of them as a definition for the borders of lesbian history. In the face of historical claims that the middle ages were hostile to medieval lesbianism--or at best indifferent to it--examples like the Etchingham-Oxenbridge memorial suggest other intriguing possibilities.