Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 49a - On the Shelf for August 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/08/01 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for August 2020.
We’re all allowed the occasional frustrated regrets of quarantine. I was supposed to be in New Zealand right now, attending the World Science Fiction Convention. I’ve still been attending it through the magic of online media, but believe me, it isn’t the same. I really enjoy using the peripatetic nature of Worldcon as an excuse to travel. Last year in Ireland, three years ago in Finland, and this should have been my first visit to the southern hemisphere.
But there are other things to celebrate. August means the turning of another year of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast. We’ve finished up four years now, which is a quite a while in podcast-years. Every year I’ve added or changed something about the show: whether it’s expanding to weekly or adding the fiction series. There are definitely some changes coming down the pike, but it’s a little too soon to talk about them yet. I’m always interested in hearing what listeners most enjoy about the show, or what you’d be interested in having me add.
Publications on the Blog
The Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog was all over the map in July, quite literally, starting with a 17th century Armenian astrological illustration of two women having sex, then a brief look at a sourcebook of texts on the history of sexuality designed to be readings for a college course. Next there were two articles venturing outside the usual western European stomping grounds of the blog, with a set of case studies of lesbians in 19th century Russia, and a study of women’s same-sex relationships in 1930s Japan. This theme continues in August with an article on sexuality and gender in 18-19th century Egypt, which I confess is more deep-background research for a character in the next Alpennia book than strictly for the blog. Then we go to India for another of Ruth Vanita’s fascinating articles on women’s same-sex relations within the context of historic patriarchal systems. And then...oops, I realize that I’ve come to the end of the material I already have written up for the blog and I’m going to need to hit the books again!
No exciting history book acquisitions for the blog this month, alas. The only things that have arrived on my doorstep in the last month are a couple of collections of papers on medieval textiles and clothing, and more closely related to my writing projects, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833by Daniel Livesay. I’ve made a personal pledge that, when writing historical fiction, I will strive to make my casts and settings diverse. But diversity can’t just be tacked on -- it has to come from familiarity with the historic realities of marginalized people. So I often pick up books like this with the purpose of populating my imagination with just who the non-white people in my settings were, how they got there, and what they were doing. That way the characters will be there waiting for me when the story strikes.
I didn’t have an author guest lined up for this month, so when inspiration struck for my essay topic, I decided to work backwards to set it up.
My essay inspiration was some discussions on Twitter on the theme of artificial scarcity of representation and how it’s possible to write fiction based on historic persons or characters from historic literature that explores one interpretation of their identity without that being an erasure of other equally valid interpretations.
One of the threads that sparked this topic was interpretations of the Greek goddess Artemis variously as asexual or lesbian. It would be lovely if I could make it a roundtable with a couple of guests. That’s very hard to pull off when I don’t have anyone specific in mind to ask, but I can dream.
So to set up the topic, I plan to reprise my show on the myth of Diana and Callisto, and then follow it with a book appreciation show on books with mythic Greek and Roman legendary settings, especially featuring Artemis or Diana. Then the discussion of representation will finish it off.
It’s a month with five shows, so the end of August will feature another piece of original fiction. This time it’s “Your Fingers Like Pen and Ink” by Jeannelle M. Ferreira. Jeannelle was a guest of the podcast two years ago, and I’ve been waiting impatiently for the promised sequel to her Regency romance The Covert Captain. But I’m happy to have some short fiction to fill in the waiting.
Remember that in January we’ll be open for fiction submissions again. It’s never too soon to start looking for inspiration. There’s a link in the show notes to the call for submissions with all the details on what we’re looking for.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
The recent, new, and forthcoming book list is very short this month. Only four titles! Surely there must be more? If so, I hope they turn up in my search next month before they miss the window for inclusion. I’m always adding older books to my database when I find them, but this podcast segment focuses on publications that have come out within the last few months.
There’s one additional July book: The Miseducation of Evie Epworthby Matson Taylor from Scribner UK. The cover copy only hints a little at the queer content promised by the Amazon keywords. A couple of Goodreads reviews confirm it’s there, though vaguely enough that I’m not sure that the title character is the queer rep. This evidently is a BBC radio book club pick, so I suspect you should expect a story on the literary side.
July, 1962 Sixteen year-old Evie Epworth stands on the cusp of womanhood. But what kind of a woman will she become? The fastest milk bottle-delivery girl in East Yorkshire, Evie is tall as a tree and hot as the desert sand. She dreams of an independent life lived under the bright lights of London (or Leeds). The two posters of Adam Faith on her bedroom wall (‘brooding Adam’ and ‘sophisticated Adam’) offer wise counsel about a future beyond rural East Yorkshire. Her role models are Charlotte Bronte, Shirley MacLaine and the Queen. But, before she can decide on a career, she must first deal with the malign presence of her future step-mother, the manipulative and money-grubbing Christine. If Evie can rescue her bereaved father, Arthur, from Christine’s pink and over-perfumed clutches, and save the farmhouse from being sold off then maybe she can move on with her own life and finally work out exactly who it is she is meant to be.
The August books start with another literary book: All Men Want to Knowby Nina Bouraoui (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins) from Viking. The book traces a fictionalized account of the author’s childhood:
...a blissful childhood in Algeria, a wild, sun-soaked paradise, with hazy summer afternoons spent swimming, diving, and driving across the desert. Her mother is French, her father Algerian; when racial tensions begin to surface in their neighbourhood, her mother suffers an unspeakable act of violence that forces the family to flee the country. In Paris, eighteen-year-old Nina lives alone. It's the 1980s. Four nights a week she makes her way to The Kat, a legendary gay nightclub, where she watches women from the sidelines, afraid of her own desires, her sudden and intoxicating freedom. In her solitude, she starts to write - and finds herself writing about her mother. All Men Want to Know is a haunting, lyrical international bestseller about mothers and daughters, about shame and sexuality, about existing between two cultures and belonging to neither. A phenomenon in France, this is a defining portrait of womanhood from one of Europe's greatest living writers.
The other two August books fall more solidly in the traditional historic romance genre. Guarding Heartsby Jaycie Morrison from Bold Strokes Books, part of her World War II series.
Sergeant Bett Smythe and Lieutenant Gale Rains are building a life together, despite the risks in the tightly closeted world of the Women’s Army Corps. When another couple, Captain Kathleen Hartley and Lieutenant Victoria Whitman, invite Bett and Rain to a dinner party, they’re introduced to the lesbian underground on the base. Kat and Whit have had a turbulent relationship, and as a budding friendship deepens, Kat’s attraction to Rain threatens both couples’ futures. When Whit’s friend is accused of sexually assaulting a recruit, the ensuing investigation impacts them all, professionally and personally. As the Battle of the Bulge rages overseas, the bounds of love and friendship are tested. Whit will do almost anything to preserve what she has with Kat, but who is the real threat? And can Bett protect her relationship from the very real dangers close to heart and home?
And in a grammatical coincidence of titles,Guarding Heartsis followed by the last August book, Keeping Secretsby McGee Mathews from Sapphire Books, also set during wartime, but the Civil War in this case.
What would you do if, after finally finding the woman of your dreams, she suddenly leaves to fight in the Civil War? It’s 1863, and Elizabeth Hepscott has resigned herself to a life of monotonous boredom far from the battlefields as the wife of a Missouri rancher. Her fate changes when she travels with her brother to Kentucky to help him join the Union Army. On a whim, she poses as his little brother and is bullied into enlisting, as well. Reluctantly pulled into a new destiny, a lark decision quickly cascades into mortal danger. While Elizabeth’s life has made a drastic U-turn, Charlie Schweicher, heiress to a glass-making fortune, is still searching for the only thing money can’t buy. A chance encounter drastically changes everything for both of them. Will Charlie find the love she’s longed for, or will the war take it all away?
What Am I Reading?
So what am I reading? I’m still mostly in my reading slump. I read a short story in Claire O’Dell’s Janet Watson series that circles back to Janet’s youth via her love of journaling. It’s always fun to see the roots of a favorite character before they hit the crises that will change them forever.
Since my coping mechanism has shifted over to Netflix and Needlework, I’ve seen a couple of shows with queer female interest. The violent thriller The Old Guard, featuring Charlize Theron as leader of a near-immortal mercenary squad gives us some glimpses of historic settings and Theron’s character Andromache fighting side by side with another female immortal with a very strong girlfriends vibe. The show is definitely more focused on extended fight scenes than I tend to prefer, but the character actions in between are definitely worth it. And given that two other characters are very much openly a male romantic couple, you know that wherever they go with the show if it continues, they won’t shy away from queerness.
My other delightful Netflix surprise was in Anne with an E, the most recent and rather loose interpretation of Anne of Green Gables. While female friendship is a core element of the story, one of the additions in this interpretation is a clearly signaled Boston Marriage type couple involving the spinster aunt of Anne’s friend Diana. We see it only after the aunt’s partner has died, but not only is the nature of their lifelong partnership clearly laid out for the viewer, the aunt discusses it with Anne and gives her some broader ideas of possible life paths. It was very sweet and feminist and utterly unexpected.
What have you been reading or watching lately that gave you a window on queer women in the past?
Notes and Links
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
What even is time? I have entirely lost track of it being Monday, today. A large part of that is because I'm attending the virtual Worldcon in New Zealand where it's tomorrow already. My entire week is going to be like this.
I've been keeping my eye peeled for data in my reading for the blog that might be useful to readers, but that doesn't fit well into the blog format. I want to find more "bonus content" to provide for my patrons on Patreon, and this type of information seems to fit. So Patreon members will have access to a vocabulary list of Japanese terms relating to same-sex relations and relationships, as extracted from Robertson's article. If you'd like to become a patron of the blog and podcast, you can sign on here.
Robertson, Jennifer. 1999. "Dying to Tell: Sexuality and Suicide in Imperial Japan" in Signs vol. 25, no. 1 1-35.
When I was originally sorting out the current crop of journal articles into thematic groups for scheduling purposes, I’d put this one (like last week’s) into a “tragedy and crime” group. But in each case, once I started reading, I realized that those aspects were the smallest part of the thematic content. My planned “tragedy and crime” grouping has evaporated, while the “non-European topics” group has benefitted. I feel like that isn’t entirely coincidental. There’s a message in there somewhere about the intersection of sexual, social, and cultural othering. Maybe about how we are most likely to hear about marginalized identities when the people behave in what are considered antisocial ways? Or that no matter what marginalized people do, they are only considered worthy of note if they can be framed as antisocial? Or that we are most likely to have access to information about marginalized people in non-Western cultures when their own cultures consider them to stand outside normativity? Or just perhaps, it was my own knee-jerk stereotypes that interpreted suicide as falling within a tragedy/crime theme rather than a “culturally significant behaviors” theme? In any case, the present article wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
[Note: I was a bit concerned when I started reading about an author with a non-Japanese name tackling a subject as culturally fraught as suicide in Japan. But my impression is that Robertson is aware of those hazards, and the variety of resources listed in the bibliography gives me confidence that this isn’t a drive-by lookie-loo approach. In fact, she starts off by quoting another author stating, “To mention suicide and Japan in the same sentence is to bring to bear a set of stereotypes that continue to shape Western perceptions of non-Western culture.” At the very least, there’s a self-awareness of the pitfalls.]
The article is centered around a relationship between two women in Japan who planned a double suicide to address what seemed like unresolvable problems in their lives. Both survived the suicide attempt and appear to have continued their relationship more successfully afterward. This study also focuses on the various popular culture and media responses to the suicide attempt, to “love suicides” in general, and to the question of women’s same-sex relationships in Japanese culture.
The article opens with a number of satirical and mocking commentaries on the women’s suicide attempt, illustrating the deep and complex cultural context for the event, and then moves on to the cultural and historical context of 1930s Japan and how it contextualizes the event.
Early 20th century Japan was in the midst of a cultural crisis around positive and negative attitudes to, and effects of, Westernization. One way in which those conflicts were balanced was to gender Westernization as belonging to men, while women were assigned the role of maintaining traditional culture. Thus the same issues prevalent in the West around the “New Woman” (emancipated, pushing for full citizenship and voting rights, rejecting or renegotiating marriage) were also overlaid in Japan with this burden of preserving traditional culture against the Westernization that men and the national economy were embracing.
Saijo Eriko was a performer in an all-female revue company, taking “feminine” roles in the context of theatrical presentations where women played both the male and female roles. Masuda Yasumare (her chosen name) was from an upper class family and sported male-coded clothing and hair styles. Masuda initially began courting Saijo as a “fan” of her performance and this moved on to a romantic relationship.
We digress now for a lot of cultural background.
Double suicides of heterosexual couples were an accepted motif, inspired not only by Japanese attitudes toward suicide as a form of social protest but also by a culture of arranged marriages and generational obedience. If marriage was impossible, then suicide together was viewed as the ultimate proof of love. Female couples, however, were not granted the same acceptance or praise for such a choice. In the Saijo/Masuda suicide, Masuda was portrayed as being the casualty of a broken and disfunctional family, and Saijo as the victim of an overzealous fan obsession on the part of Masuda.
Robertson provides a detailed background on intersections of gender and sexuality in Japanese culture, including both traditional Japanese, and borrowed Western, terminology for different types of identities and relationships. [Note: I’m not going to list the terminology here because individual terms should be understood within a much more complex web of social nuances that it’s possible to explore here. But this article looks like a rich source of leads for understanding coded language as well as those with more literal use. For those who are interested, a fairly simple vocabulary list drawn from this article is available on Patreon.] There was a recognition that gender and sex were linked but separate axes, but reactions to those who crossed gender lines varied depending on context and sex.
Among the social changes with the shift to the Meiji era (1868-1911) and later was a developing understanding and vocabulary for women’s same-sex relations, which were considered distinct from men’s same-sex relations for which there was a longer history of acceptance. With the introduction Western sexological ideas, there was conflict over how those might be interpreted with respect to the long tradition of male-only theater in which men played women’s parts.
As it fell out, those were “grandfathered” as part of Japanese traditional culture, while the growing visibility of women’s same-sex relations and “masculinized” modern-leaning women were viewed as the embodiment of destabilizing Western depravity. “Traditional Japanese womanhood” was in the process of being invented as part of the stabilization of Japanese national identity, and these women represented the most extreme rejection of what was considered women’s proper role. Gender ambivalence was discouraged on a state level and increasing militarization also pushed for a distinct separation of gender roles. Women were the primary targets of this gender-policing.
Within this context, Western and European cultural influences were framed as “feminizing” in a negative sense (i.e., in their influence on men) even as the “feminine” was equated with positive aspects of Japanese tradition.
Robertson now turns to a discussion of the place of suicide, and especially double suicides, within Japanese culture. Within the context of relationship-driven male-female double suicides (which were considered noble and admirable--as a vast oversimplification), for female couples to enact “love suicides” was seen as a “public claim for sexual citizenship”. It was in this context that such actions were sensationalized and mocked, as a rejection of that claim.
There is a detailed exploration of the history, context, and dynamics of “love suicide” as well as other multi-person suicide pacts. General cultural anxieties in the 1930s are a possible driver for a general increase in both solitary and paired suicides in Japan, and the prominence of female couples engaging in “love suicide” is to some extent only a special case of the general trend.
We return now to the specific case of Saijo and Masuda. The press treated Saijo more leniently, not only because she was the “female-presenting” member of the couple, but because, as a professional entertainer, there were lower expectations for her sexual behavior. Masuda, in contrast, not only was viewed as more transgressive and threatening as the “masculine-presenting” member, but was blamed for breaking the social rules for an upper class woman, whose assigned role was the be a traditional “good wife and mother.”
Their initial courtship in the context of Saijo’s theater performances gave rise to a passionate correspondence, and then to traveling together as a way of spending time alone and enjoying a sexual relationship. When Saijo pressed to return home, Masuda became increasingly anxious and shared the story of her unhappy family life. Saijo became ill, which concluded the struggle between then, but on returning to Tokyo, Masuda began discussing suicide, initially as an individual intention.
Meanwhile, Masuda’s mother had hired an investigator to find them, viewing Saijo as a gold-digging instigator of the relationship, and this along with public interest in Saijo as an entertainment figure brought the attention of the press.
Their families separated them, but they arranged by phone to meet at a hotel and there (as is indicated the resulting events) took sleeping pills together to attempt suicide. Masuda left several suicide notes for various parties (as was typical for love-suicide events). It appears to have been the intrusive interest of the press that interrupted the attempt and brought medical help.
In the aftermath, Saijo wrote a personal (and somewhat self-serving) account of the relationship and suicide that disavowed romantic investment on her part--she was “just looking after her friend”--although it’s clear that she also took the sleeping pills. And once the dust had settled, Saijo negotiated with Masuda’s family to allow her to set up an independent household (as if she were a man). Saijo left the live revue to become a film actress and continued with a successful (but lower profile?) career. [Note: the article is unclear on whether they continued as a couple. Saijo vows to “keep a close watch” on Masuda, which could imply cover for a continuing romance.]
Robertson discusses Japanese familiarity with, and use of Western sexological literature. As in Western interpretations, it was not the fact of a relationship between women that was seen as problematic, but the usurpation of a masculine social role by one of the women, or the way in which such a relationship might interfere with expectations for marriage. Relationships between feminine-presenting women that were considered transitory or life-stage were not treated as deviant. But also, in Japanese engagement with sexological studies, there seems to have been a certain intentional overlooking of practices that were felt to be at odds with the image Japan wanted to project. When Japanese researchers claimed not to be aware of any female homosexuals, they may have been classifying familiar practices in ways that avoided that category.
Robertson presents a survey of other well-documented cases of female “love suicides” in the early 20th century, showing a variety of backgrounds and interpersonal dynamics. In one case, one suicide survivor published an autobiographical account that not only pushed back against the sensational versions of her story that had appeared in the press, but argued for the validity of women forming independent households together, and against the tendency to assign a “man’s role” to one participant. Robertson comments on how the “cultural intelligibility” of suicide in Japanese culture created an effective means to make such arguments as part of public discourse.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48d - Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/07/25 - listen here)
Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality.
Today’s topic explores two fields in which people in Western history and adjacent cultures expressed ideas that connect in some way to our modern idea of inherent sexual orientation. But the ways in which those concepts in the past differ from our ideas about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are just as fascinating as they ways in which they overlap.
These two topics certainly aren’t the only theories that Western people have had about sexual preference--they appear side by side with theories based on anatomy, moral concepts, among many others. But the fields of humoral theory and astrology intersect in interesting ways. Besides which, it’s hard to resist an alliterative title.
Both astrological and humoral theories of sexual desire arose within an understanding of sexual categories often called the “one-sex theory”, that is, a framework in which male and female existed on a continuum rather than being discrete categories, and where one’s gender identity could exist anywhere within that continuum or could shift within it. While this may sound very modern and progressive, we shouldn’t mistake it for an understanding of gender as subjective and value-neutral. At the same time that the one-sex continuum was an established philosophical concept, people were also quite certain that male and female were qualitatively different things, that male was better than female, and that stepping outside the part of the gender continuum one had been assigned to was a Bad Thing.
I’m going to tackle astrology first because it’s likely to be more familiar to my listeners. I would make a guess that most of you know the basics of astrology. It’s still common for newspapers and magazines to have a regular feature with simple advice or predictions based on the zodiac sign one was born under. And you’ll hear a lot of perfectly rational people talk about personality types associated with zodiac signs with sincerity--if not always actual belief. The basic idea is that the relative positions of the stars and planets at the exact time of one’s birth--sometimes also at the time of conception--will have an influence on one’s character, one’s strengths and weaknesses, and one’s life path. Apparent contradictions in the reading can generally be explained as secondary influences or conflicting forces: rising signs, waxing and waning planetary influences, and so forth.
For someone who takes astrology seriously -- and many people throughout history have done so -- it would seem fairly obvious that the alignments at one’s birth could influence what type of person one would desire sexually, or what type of sexual activity one would most enjoy. What is less obvious is what forms that influence would take.
Types of Astrological Influence
As an example of the sorts of topics that might be considered relevant, here’s a passage from a 4th century astrology manual by the Roman author Firmicus Maternus which shows the complicated web of factors that were considered to affect one’s life. One should understand that the default client indicated in these texts is male unless otherwise specified and when the text references a “native” it means the person whose nativity--whose birth--is being analyzed.
“Those who have Venus in [the second] house by day will have great reverses of fortune and also late marriage; they will have lawsuits over another woman. Some will be several times widowed. If the Sun or Saturn are in opposition, square aspect, or conjunction with Venus the natives will be sterile, never successful in sexual activity, will never marry, and always be lovers of boys. The misfortunes are less if Venus is in the house or terms of Saturn, Mars, or Mercury.”
That’s quite a variety of different effects that don’t have an obvious connection. But if we can understand the connections that the authors saw in these systems, then we can gain a key to how they structured sexual experiences within their societies.
The reference to a man being a “lover of boys” is set in parallel with being sterile or impotent, not marrying, or perhaps marrying late, or being widowed multiple times. These are all disruptions of the social ideal of a successful male life. Note that loving members of the same sex--which we might consider a sexual preference--is set in parallel with being sterile (which we would consider a medical condition), or with not marrying, which might be due to economic circumstances. And these are all identified as “misfortunes.”
In a different passage, still focusing on men, a particular conjunction “often makes them lovers of boys or of women from the stage, or they become manager of houses of prostitution.” Again, we see that the categories don’t align simply with gender of the sexual partner but follow an entirely different common thread, perhaps having to do with sexual options that are incompatible with marriage, or a desire for partners from a specific occupational class.
When Maternus addresses how women are affected, there is less complexity in his description. “If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love impurely and unchastely to other women.” Or, for a different conjunction, “If a woman has this combination she will always imitate the behavior of men,” a description that can imply sex with women, although it can also imply other male-coded behaviors.
The earliest astrology manuals we have are from an era when the practice was already long established, and it’s clear that each era interpreted and framed the material according to its own culture. Astrology manuals in circulation in Europe during the middle ages had often made their way from classical Greek and Latin origins through the Arabic tradition, picking up interpretations along the way. And classical texts were translated, adapted, and republished in the Renaissance and later. So as we take this tour through some interesting passages, we shouldn’t treat them as belonging to a unified, coherent, logical system, even though they all operate within a relatively continuous tradition of practice.
Stars that Make a Woman Masculine
Astrological alignments that cause women to “act like men” sometimes indicate pursuing sex with women, but sometimes it is a more general comment on assertive and dominant behavior. Such as: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men.” But also, “Mars and Venus in conjunction in a morning rising and in a masculine sign make women viragosand sterile.” That is they are made unfeminine in personality, but without necessarily pursuing women sexually.
If a variety of references to same-sex behavior are analyzed together, we see that there isn’t really a unified concept of homosexuality being expressed, but something more like a notion of fixed gender roles that include expected sexual behaviors for that role. Women’s same sex desires are most often discussed in a context of being masculine in behavior, which can include desiring women as a sexual partner and taking an active role in sex--both traits that were coded as male. In contrast, influences leading to men’s same-sex activity fall into two distinct groups: men who desire to be the passive partner in sex, and men who prefer partners not suitable for marriage, which can include both male partners and women of an unsuitable class or occupation. These are key factors in understanding some of the differences from a modern concept of sexual orientation.
The Arabic Tradition
While texts in Greek or Latin or the later European languages often refer to sex between women only in terms of one partner “acting like a man”, Arabic texts had a more specific vocabulary available that didn’t necessarily imply masculinity.
A medieval Arabic translation of Dorotheos of Sidon, who originally wrote in the 1st century, translates whatever language he used with the completely unambiguous word sahaqato mean a woman who has sex with women. He writes that when Venus and the Moon are in a particular location, the female subject will be a sahaqa, while men with a similar conjunction will be “desirous of males”. But in another passage, Dorotheos discusses astrological causes of excess lust in women, giving the conjunctions that lead to adultery, to “perform the act of men with women”, or to simply to excessively indulging in sex with men. Here we see another historic view of sex between women: that it results from an excess of desire that may be expressed in a variety of ways, where the gender of the partner is simply one type of inappropriate context.
Influences other than Gender of Partner
The choice of partner isn’t the only sexual factor being influenced, not even the choice of an active or passive sexual role, which is often a more accurate way to interpret these descriptions. The stars can affect your preference for sexual partners of a specific age, social status, or race. It can cause you to prefer specific sexual positions, as in a text by Guido Bonatti that claims that if a male child is conceived with Venus in a certain position, he will later participate in sex with the woman on top.
The stars also determine whether you will pursue illicit sex secretly or openly, which is one of the factors discussed in the following passage by Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in 2nd century Egypt. He also combines discussions of astrology with humoral theory, a common feature in the early texts, as the planets were often thought to have their effects through changing one’s humoral balance. But more on that in a moment.
We see in Claudius Ptolemy’s system that conjunctions that reinforce “natural” sexual behaviors in men are thought to cause unnatural behavior in women because they have caused her to be more masculine in nature, and vice versa. “If the luminaries are unattended in masculine signs, males exceed in the natural, and females exceed in the unnatural quality, so as merely to increase the virility and activity of the soul. But if likewise Mars or Venus as well, either one or both of them is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the female are lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades, for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, [they do them] without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’.”
Your stars may affect your personality, or your behavior, or your body. So it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly on the passages that talk about same-sex interactions as if that were the most salient feature of the astrological influence. Astrology couldinfluence you to prefer partners of a specific type, or to prefer certain types of sex acts, but gender was only one of many possible features involved, and even when gender was involved, it might be as part of a gender system that considered age and social class to be categories as important as male versus female.
Astrology in Other Texts
So were astrological explanations of sexual preference purely an intellectual game? A literary genre? Or simple superstition? Evidently not, because we can find astrology offered as a possible cause for desire between women in specific cases during the middle ages and later. The 16th century German Zimmern Chroniclerelates the story of a young working class woman who courted and loved other women. The chronicler considers several possible reasons for her behavior, working through popular theories of the time. Perhaps she had masculine-leaning physiology and that caused her to desire women? No, the local women checked her out and found her to conform to expected female norms. Perhaps she was born under a “perverted, unnatural constellation”? Or perhaps her desire was just something that happened sometimes given that “according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans.” Though the Zimmern chronicler comes to no solid conclusion, he considers the stars to be a possible causal factor alongside the others.
There wasn’t a bright dividing line between how humoral theory affected human lives and the effects of astrology, for the latter was sometimes described as operating by changing the balance of heat and cold, wet and dry. Unlike astrology, humoral theory has largely fallen out of popular familiarity in modern Western culture, though its roots were just as long and deep. Westerners today may be more familiar with the basic principles via similar philosophies in various Asian traditions. The last trace of the Western Galenic tradition of humoral balance that people are likely to have heard of is the medical practice of blood-letting, either by direct bleeding or through the use of leeches. But the philosophy was far more complicated than that.
Most later writing on humoral theory traces to the works of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen, although he simply codified ideas that were in common circulation at the time, including a large body of work attributed to Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. And humoral theory was only one part of a larger philosophical system that focused on the principles of balance and imbalance, moderation, and characteristics that existed in polarity. Hot, cold; wet, dry; living, inert. Specific combinations and gradients of these factors defined the nature of everything in existence. These principles applied in chemistry, where a specific balance of principles determined the nature of the elements. But of more immediate interest today is the application of humoral theory in biology and health.
In this context, “Humoral theory” visualizes the two binaries of hot/cold and wet/dry in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Each living being also had an inherent humoral balance depending on their nature, as can be seen in the alternate names for personalities reflecting the humors: sanguine, phlegmatic, choloric, and melancholic. Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, and by behavior and activity. Health, well-being, and proper function according to one’s nature come from having the humors in the proper balance. Medicine is designed to correct an imbalance.
In addition certain humoral balances were associated with the genders, with life-stage, and with many other human characteristics. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this supposed “fact.”
So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. Humors were generated by the body’s metabolism and could change in nature. For example, blood could be converted to milk when a woman was nursing, which provided the explanation for why lactation suppressed menstruation and fertility.
Humoral Theory and Sex
Fertility--and of course, sex--were always of interest when considering health. The general theory of humoral dynamics during sex goes something like this. The constant accumulation of certain humors in the body increases heat in the genitals, which causes irritation and draws moisture. This irritation motivates a person to engage in sex to relieve it, which results in the entire body heating up, which transforms the residues into semen. The expulsion of seed during orgasm then removes the surplus of heat and moisture and--if conception occurs--provides nourishment for the fetus. One interesting feature of medical theory at the time was that both sexes ejaculated seed at orgasm and therefore women’s sexual satisfaction was necessary for conception.
This cycle was considered to contribute to proper balance and good health, but sex was not the only means of achieving that balance. The accumulation of the humors that caused desire (and therefore the degree to which the body desired sex to expel them) depended on diet, as well as other personal factors. The sex of a resulting child depended on the mixing and strength of the seed of both parents, the woman’s being more cold and wet and the man’s being more hot and dry.
One Italian medical treatise of the 13th century shows the detailed and convoluted reasoning by which humoral theory was thought to cause particular sexual habits. It describes how virginal women are continually aroused, because the narrowness of their womb prevents emission of their seed, therefore they can’t rid themselves of excess heat in this way. The heat drives them to stimulate themselves, which draws moisture to the genitals, but cannot be expelled and they are in a constant state of frustration.
Humoral Influences on Same-Sex Desire
But how do same-sex activities come into the question? Now we get a diversity of answers. The theories for why certain imbalances of humors might cause a man to get pleasure from being the passive partner in male-male sex are fascinating, but not relevant to this essay. And note that no argument was needed for what motivated the insertive partner in a male couple because the dynamics followed the usual expectations for male metabolism.
The most straightforward explanation for how humors could drive a woman to same-sex love is simple lack of satisfaction with a male partner. If the women is not brought to orgasm, her humors remain out of balance causing continued irritation and, as Avicenna argues, they may “have recourse to rubbing with other women in order to achieve amongst themselves the fullness of their pleasures” and rid themselves of the build up of seed caused by arousal.
Indeed, some medical manuals, such as that of Nicholas Fontanus in mid-17th century England, prescribed that if a woman suffered from an “abundance of the spermatick humor” and has no husband to help relieve her, balance might be restored by “the hand of a skilfull midwife and a convenient ointment” rubbed into the genitals to achieve orgasm.
Humors and Gender Identity
But outside of this situational desire, humoral balance was considered to affect desire through a heteronormative model of innate nature. As with astrology, the effects of the humors on sexual behavior were often interpreted as being due to their influence on one’s gender expression. Men were considered to have a more hot and dry nature, women tended to be more cold and moist. As a high degree of sexual desire was considered to be a masculine characteristic, excess sexual desire in women was associated with conditions that made them more “hot”, and this was thought to result in a variety of male-coded characteristics. For example the medieval author Michael Scot claims that a woman with a hot nature, as well as being more lustful, will have small, hard breasts, smaller periods, and an excess of pubic hair.
If a woman had more of a hot, dry nature than was typical for women -- a more masculine nature -- it would affect both her ability to conceive and her personality with regard to sex, making her more bold and aggressive and inclined to take a masculine role in sex with other women. European texts are less obsessed with a precise mechanism of how this would work than they are for what might motivate a man to desire a passive role in sex.
But one exception is a 16th century Spanish text by Juan Huarte de San Juan who discussed how, if a fetus that began as one sex was subjected to the temperature that caused the other sex early in development, it could result in a contrast between nature (based on conditions at conception) and body (influenced by conditions during development). So a female fetus influenced by heat to develop male physiology, would still have a feminine personality and desire for sex with men, while a male fetus subjected to cold would develop a female body but have masculine behavior and desires, including sexual desire for women. In modern terms this description fits more with how transgender identity is envisioned, but this sex-change version isn’t the only process that can result in same-sex desire. Elsewhere Huarte discusses how a woman whose humors tend toward the hot and dry (that is, a masculine balance) will have an assertive personality, a low voice, will be more muscular, and will have difficulty becoming pregnant. (Though, in this passage, a tendency toward same-sex desire isn’t mentioned.)
Same-sex Desire Unrelated to Gender Identity
Although discussions of the influence of the humors on sexuality in the European tradition tended to be relatively value-neutral to the extent that they approached it as a medical topic, Arabic texts could be even less judgmental about sexual matters, as well as being more explicit.
The 9th century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote, “Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolves and becomes cold through friction and orgasm. When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.”
As a mathematical equation, this explanation requires a premise that female same-sex desire is a different physiological process than a woman’s desire for a man. Arousal makes her hot but orgasm results in the production of a cold liquid that cools the heat, whereas a man’s orgasm produces a hot liquid that cannot cool her. (Presumably heterosexual sex included some other means of balancing the woman’s hot/cold nature.) Al-Kindi’s explanation was quoted in the 13th century by Tifashi, who included it among a longer list of reasons why a woman might prefer sex with women over men.
But humoral explanations are not always consistent. A 12th century Arabic writer, al-Maghribi--again, among other unrelated reasons for preferring same-sex love--claims that a woman “whose womb is dominated by coldness” finds more pleasure in sex with women because the friction increases temperature, which evidently sex with men didn’t, in his system. Don’t be too distracted by apparent conflicts between texts regarding the underlying principles. A strict logical consistency was not always a feature of humoral literature.
Advice from Health Manuals
Health manuals based on humoral theory offered extensive catalogs of the nature of items in everyday life that could affect one’s humoral balance, from food, to activities, to clothing, to sensory experiences. Eating cherries is cold and wet in the first degree. The season of summer is warm in the third degree and dry in the second. Roses, gathered for their scent, are cold in the first degree and dry in the third. Linen clothing is cold and dry in the second degree while woolen clothing is warm and dry.
In addition to sexual appetite being influenced by one’s humoral balance, the sex act itself could change one’s humors, as discussed previously. Sexual arousal increased heat and orgasm took heat away. Therefore, both abstinence or excessive sexual activity could cause a harmful imbalance. One health manual notes that it may be harmful to those who are cold and dry.
The goal in changing one’s diet and habits was to achieve the balance proper to one’s nature. An imbalance could cause disease or inappropriate behavior. But that “proper balance” wasn’t the same for all people. As discussed previously, gender was considered to be a byproduct of different humoral balances. But further than that, the desired humoral profile for a military leader would be different from that of a clergyman, the proper balance for a young unmarried woman who was expected to be chaste would be different than that of a married woman hoping to conceive a child. The use of sexual pleasure to adjust one’s humoral balance could be considered a type of medical treatment, even when it didn’t conform to accepted moral principles.
Humors and Horoscopes in Historical Fiction
How do the topics of astrology and humoral theory speak to queer historical fiction? It is always tricky to represent how a character in a historic novel understands their own nature and desires, or how those around them perceive them. The models that people in history had for understanding themselves were far more complex than the image of sin and immorality one finds in Christian literature, or the psychological model we’ve inherited much more recently from the sexologists. While not everyone had access to the learned texts that I’ve quoted in this essay, the basic principles were part of popular culture and familiar to people at all levels of society. Within those complex and contradictory models, there can be room for a fictional character to understand their same-sex desires as being an innate and predetermined feature of their personality, even if that understanding differs in significant ways from modern ideas of orientation and identity.
References and Links
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I'm always delighted to get my eyeballs on material from outside western Europe and Anglophone cultures. This article is particularly interesting for letting us into the everyday details of language and domestic arrangements around female couples. One does, however, need to filter out the judgmental commentary, even though it's milder than what we might see in western European sources.
Engelstein, Laura. 1990. "Lesbian Vignettes: A Russian Triptych from the 1890s" in Signs vol. 15, no. 4 813-831.
While the study of homosexuality was developing in Europe in the later 19th century, theories and publications on the topic made their way to Russia, but did not necessarily shape how Russian culture and medical/psychological professionals viewed people in same-sex relationships. Direct evidence about female homosexuality in Russia is scanty, but a collection of three case studies were written up by a Russian gynecologist in 1895, based either on direct contact or on documentary evidence.
This article summarizes those cases and notes ways in which the Russian attitudes revealed in the document differ from those of Western Europe. In the few 19th century Russian texts that discuss homosexuality (e.g., in a criminal context), references to lesbianism are even rarer than they are in Western texts. The Russian commentaries (including these case studies) appear to discount the idea of connections between lesbianism and criminality that are made in European studies. The case studies also make a significant point of excluding either physical, intellectual, or psychological abnormalities as being associated with the specific individuals being discussed. The case studies make a point that homosexuality is found among all social classes and that the women engaged in it were “normal” by all other measures. One peculiarly Russian attitude that he contradicted was the idea that the “common people” were free of sexual excess or “corruption” that was thought to be characteristic of the urban elites, influenced by Western (foreign) values.
This is not to say that the doctor approved of the women he described. His attitude is inconsistent in some areas, considering homosexuality to be “abnormal” while a the same time emphasizing the normality of his subjects. Engelstein notes that the resistance to overtly stigmatizing homosexuality may be due to a discomfort among Russian medical professionals to being co-opted as part of authoritarian practices by the government.
Case 1: the peasant Shashnina (1886)
[Note: the narrative is somewhat circuitous and follows the revelations of the legal investigation, but I’m going to reorganize it somewhat for brevity.]
In a rural community, Mariia Pavlovna Shashnina was popularly known to be “double-sexed” or “double-rigged” (dvukhpolaia, dvukhsbruinaia), i.e. with both types of sexual organs, and that she associated only with girls and avoided men. She had some masculine habits, such as smoking, and resisted the authority of her mother and brother. She engaged in sexual relations with women by tribadry (techniques are discussed in detail) and several of her lovers testified that she had penetrated them with a sexual organ similar to a penis.
Shashnina had engaged in sexual relationships with multiple women, including one named Ekaterina prior to the latter’s marriage and Ekaterina testified that she had lost her virginity to Shashnina by means of “something resembling a male member”. After Ekaterina’s marriage, Shashnina began encouraging her to poison her husband, arguing that she was a better partner because she would never get Ekaterina pregnant, as well as being richer and more clever than the husband. Together they procured poison and killed him.
While in prison for this crime (or maybe before trial?) Shashnina began a love affair with another prisoner, courting her with gifts and pledges of affection. This led to a physical examination in the prison hospital, which was one of several examinations recording contradictory evidence, meant to determine if there were some physical explanation for her behavior. Although the various examinations differed on some details (such as whether Shashnina was a virgin), they all concluded that there was no evidence of abnormal genitalia, in particular no penis analog as described by her lovers. In view of these conclusions, she was released from the hospital. [There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of her legal fate, but that may not have been of interest to the author.]
Case 2: the prostitute (1888)
[Note: again, I’m condensing and rearranging the case study from it’s original rambling structure.]
Pelageia Kuritsyna was living in a brothel run by a man named Neiman in the area of St. Petersburg, accompanying her friend Ida Chernova. (There seems to have been a form of debt-servitude involved.) The two women were discharged shortly thereafter due to complaints that the two were lovers and were neglecting their clients in favor of each other, with Pelageia playing “the man’s role.” [Note: the text says that the two were called koshki, she-cats “as such women are usually called.” I believe this is an ordinary term for a cat, so the slang term may not have been overtly vulgar.]
While Pelageia was employed at the brothel, Nikolai Krasavin (one of the clients?) fell in love with her. When she was discharged, he paid her debt to Neiman and installed her in his apartment until, a year and a half later, he decided to marry her. The marriage broke up shortly thereafter and Pelageia returned to one of Neiman’s brothels, this time as a housekeeper. In her initial position, the tried to initiate a relationship with some of the other prostitutes unsuccessfully, but after being transferred to a different location, she began a sexual relationship with a prostitute there named Mania. Evidently her erstwhile husband, Nikolai, was still visiting her there and the other women said that Pelageia would pay them off to entertain him while she spent her time with Mania. This was all reported to Neiman who fired her, after which Mania quit as well.
Nikolai seems to have been in denial about his wife’s sexual preferences, despite the fact that Pelageia and Mania had moved in together with one of Mania’s relatives. But he became convinced when he intercepted letters between the two which “were filled with tender names and expressions of love.” [Note: I wish we could have transcripts of the letters, which were later presented as legal evidence. But I get ahead of myself...] Pelageia offered to earn money for her husband by renting an apartment and taking in boarders...by some coincidence including Mania and another prostitute. Nikolai would visit her there and sometimes spend the night until, suspicious of how his wife would go to bed with Mania (and not him) he spied on them and saw them engaged in sex.
Nikolai thereupon decided to murder his wife and--after bolstering his intent with significant amounts of alcohol--stabbed her to death, also wounding Mania which she came to Pelageia’s defense.
Pelageia was autopsied as part of the investigation and a detailed description of her physiology and sexual organs is included, pronouncing her anatomy to be that of a normal woman. The author adds his commentary that she “was not a stupid woman but crafty and completely in command of her mental faculties... All her actions...were entirely expedient and rather well thought out.” That is, he concluded that her homosexuality was not due to anatomical, mental, or psychological defects.
Case 3: the widow and her lover (1889)
[Note: Based on the description of the behavior and reactions of the person identified as N, I would suggest that N might identify today as a trans man, rather than a lesbian. Or perhaps not, if N had access to other social models for their experiences and identity, though I think the transgender case is much stronger. The Russian author of the original account, and the author of this article use female language to refer to N. I am going to follow the practice I have been developing and use they/them for N in order to highlight the uncertainty. But read my summary with the understanding that I am both misrepresenting the text and probably misrepresenting N’s gender with this compromise. As with the previous two cases, I’ve rearranged the narrative somewhat.]
The doctor met this couple through V (N’s partner) who came to him for treatment of a gynecological issue. The case study of V (at the end of the article) describes her as a “passive tribade” who had always presented in a feminine manner. At school, she had fallen in love with a number of girlfriends, and at age 15, one of those girlfriends had "taught her to masturbate” [note: a common way that f/f sex was described in historic literature] V was attracted to N at their first meeting and soon fell in love. V has also been attracted to men and felt that she was capable of falling in love with a man and getting married, but since she is completely happy and satisfied with her relationship with N, she has no intention of doing so. V saw the doctor (author) for an infection of the vulva. When he suggested that it might be due to masturbation, V became embarrassed but was eventually pursuaded to answer questions about it in writing, explaining her relationship with N.
The doctor procured an introduction to N and treated them for a non-gynecological issue, then pursuaded N to write a detailed autobiography in response to questions. The doctor notes that N is “well-educated, sensible, dependable, and serious,” that they are feminine in appearance but has some mannerisms that are considered masculine. Later in the article, the doctor notes that he was able to examine N’s external genitals and found them small but otherwise normally female. N refused to allow any more invasive examination. [Note: Good for N!]
The rest is based on N’s reported autobiography. N enjoys reading and literature and attending the theater and opera, but doesn’t care for needlework or attending public balls, though they enjoy private dancing among friends in which they always take the male role. N dresses in feminine garments but doesn’t follow stylish fashions and chooses garments that have slightly masculine overtones in style.
As a child, N preferred the society of boys and active play. They disliked dolls and thought girls were timid and listless. When N was 9 their mother died, leaving three children: N and two younger boys. After this N’s father included them in masculine activities such as riding and hunting and N acquired the masculine nickname “Misha” rather than feminine “Masha”. [Note: “Misha” is a nickname for Mikhail, “Masha” for Maria. The doctor’s shorthand of N is presumably from their surname.]
N was then sent to boarding school and attached themself to an older girl who had a reputation for daring active escapades. Later N acquired a girlfriend who enjoyed kissing and caressing, which N found pleasant and reciprocated such that they became known as “the inseparables.” Their affection evolved into sexual activity, but the girlfriend developed emotional problems and was taken home by her parents. N enjoyed relationships with several other girls after that and began wondering if they might be a man.
While N was at school their father and brothers died within a short period and N went to live with their aunt. At first N’s girlfriend visited and they shared a bed in a separate room, but N was inconsolable when the girlfriend had to leave. N met another young woman and fell in love again. (This was V.) N’s aunt encouraged the relationship as N’s emotional outlook was much improved and V was encouraged to join their household.
N’s aunt tried to encourage male suitors for N but N rejected them. One refused to be put off and gained the friendship of N and V over conversation and intellectual pursuits. When N’s aunt began a fatal decline she urged N to marry the man in order to stabilize her future, as life for a wealthy unmarried woman would be precarious. N initially disagreed but then concluded it was good advice. N laid out the necessary conditions: it would be a friendly relationship but not sexual. N and V would continue to share a bedroom and N’s husband would have a separate bedroom and study.
N’s husband agreed and the marriage proceeded, but he soon began initiating physical affections which “enraged and irritated” N who was frustrated that the situation had become dissatisfactory. Then one evening N’s husband accidentally(?) walked in on N and V in the middle of making love. He withdrew in embarrassment and confusion. N and V spent that night discussing the situation and concluded the only answer was for them to leave. But on rising, they found that N’s husband had committed suicide, leaving a note for the police and a separate note telling N “I was convinced that my happiness was impossible; I am removing myself in order not to interfere with yours.” Now N was a (wealthy) widow and free to continue life with V.
N dicusses their gender identity. [Since this is a direct quote, it uses female pronouns.] “When only fifteen she first became aware that she was made to be a man, though mistakenly endowed by nature with female sexual organs. She experienced a man’s attraction for girls and women but none at all for men, whom she merely found pleasant and intelligent to talk to. She long ago recognized her peculiar condition, as she calls it. Though she realizes she does not resemble other women, she does not consider herself a monster but only an error of nature. All her feelings are exclusively masculine; she unconsciously, instinctively does everything in a masculine way. She would very much like to dress as a man and restrains herself only for the sake of propriety. She does not wear her hair in a feminine way and always dreams of herself as a man, sometimes even with whiskers. In the company of women she knows well, she feels entirely manly and is always in excellent spirits. In the company of men, by contrast, she feels shy and constrained, like a school child in the company of preceptors and teachers.”
N notes that all their acquaintances are women, though she only feels love for some of them. Since their husband’s death, they interact with men rarely and only for business. “She has tried several times to imagine herself involved with a man, in particular with her late husband, but is seized each time by a horrible, repulsive, unbearable feeling of disgust.” When asked whether they wanted to be “liberated” from their condition, N answered, “What for? I am happy the way I am. Transformed into an authentic woman, I might not be as happy; indeed that would be impossible. To change in that way, I would have to be reborn in either body or soul.”
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48c - Book Appreciation with Luci Dreamer - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/07/11 - listen here)
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Luci Dreamer Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
I should probably set up a topic-tag for the LHMP for books that are intended either as textbooks or general reference works (e.g., encyclopedia-type texts) because I'm starting to get a number of them and it seems like a category that people might find useful. Not sure how to handle that, because it doesn't really fit with the types of tags I already have set up. But, hey, I can just add it to the "topics" list and sort it out later if I decide to do it differently.
For me, personally, this sort of basic reference work isn't very interesting at this point. I'm always looking for new ideas and new information that I haven't encountered before. But for someone who wants to get a basic grounding in the structure and source materials available for the history of sexuality? This sort of reference may be just the thing.
Kuefler, Mathew (ed). 2007. The History of Sexuality Sourcebook. Broadview Press, Ontario. ISBN 978-1-55111-738-6
This book would make a good companion to Crawford’s European Sexualities, 1400-1800, covered a couple weeks ago. While Crawford offered an analytic textbook on sexuality in history, Kuefler provides a collection of readings of historic texts (though covering a larger geographic and chronological scope) that demonstrate how sexuality was described, experienced, and managed. Note that, as with Crawford’s work, this is “sexuality” in the broadest sense, encompassing all types of desire and activity, and not “sexuality” in the narrow sense of sexual orientation.
This is an encyclopedia-style collection of texts that speak to specific topics in the history of sexuality. It is far from exhaustive, either in intent or execution, but rather picks specific works to use as discussion or thinking points. It was compiled for use as a set of study texts for a college course on the history of sexuality and that purpose can be seen in the inclusion of study questions after each text.
This summary will note the texts that include content relevant to the LHMP, but I won’t discuss those texts in detail. (Most of them have been covered in other entries in a more analytic form.)
#19 - Plato (5th c BCE, Greece): Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium that includes the “two halves seeking their other part” model of desire that includes same-sex desire.
#30 - Sappho (7th c BCE, Greece): Several fragments of poems, especially those expressing desire for women.
#68 - Penitential manual (7-8th c CE, England): Examples of penances for fornication, including ones from same-sex activity.
#83 - Bieiris de Romans (12-13th c CE, France): Troubadour love song apparently by a woman to a woman.
#115 - Misc. (19th c France): Medical case studies on the theme of masturbation, including same-sex activity classified as masturbation. Medical interventions to prevent masturbation, including genital mutilation and torture.
#116 - Misc. (19th c France): As a counterpoint to the preceding, recommendation of sexual stimulation to orgasm (including use of a vibrating dildo) as a treatment for “hysteria” in women.
#119 - Krafft-Ebbing (19th c Germany): Case studies of psychological issues attributed to sexual history or to family history of “nervous taint.” The examples include references to cross-dressing, female same-sex desire, and transgender feelings.
#160 - Rekhti erotic poetry (17-18th c India): Excerpts from a genre of erotic poetry describing female same-sex love by traditionally written by male poets.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48b - Interview with Luci Dreamer - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/07/11 - listen here)
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Luci Dreamer Online
The year is half past and it's not too early to start thinking about next year's fiction series. The call for submissions is essentially identical to the one for this year's series. You are encouraged to publicize this Call widely. My goal is to have so many excellent submissions that it breaks my heart that I can only pick four.
Full details on the Call for Submissions can be found here (and will be prominent on the drop-down menu for the duration).
I hope to see even more wonderful story submissions in January than I did last time!
The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast will be open for submissions in January 2021 for short stories in the lesbian historic fiction genre, to be produced in audio format for the podcast, as well as published in text on the website.
What We’re Looking For
Please feel free to publicize this call for submissions.
Use your favorite standard manuscript format for short fiction with the following additions:
If you don’t have a favorite manuscript format, here are the minimum essential elements it should have:
As I will be reading stories electronically, there is no need to include page numbers or a header on each page. (If this is part of your standard format, you don’t need to remove them.)
Notes on Sensitivity
I strongly welcome settings that fall outside the "white English-speaking default". But stories should avoid "exoticizing" the cultural setting or relying on sterotypes or colonial cultural dynamics. What does that mean? A good guideline is to ask, "If someone whose roots are in this culture read the story, would they feel represented or objectified?"
What do I mean by "stories that involve cross-gender motifs should respect trans possibilities"? I mean that if the story includes an assigned-female character who is presenting publicly as male, I should have confidence that you, as the author, have thought about the complexities of gender and sexuality (both in history and for the expected audience). It should be implied that the character would identify as a woman if she had access to modern gender theory, and the way the character is treated should not erase the possibility of other people in the same setting identifying as trans men if they had access to modern gender theory. This is a bit of a long-winded explanation, but I simultaneously want to welcome stories that include cross-gender motifs and avoid stories that could make some of the potential audience feel erased or mislabeled.
Consider today's entry as a teaser for this month's podcast essay, entitled "Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality." I'm always happy to sieze on convenient inspiration.
Armenian astrology text (British Library Ms. Or. 6471)
Today’s item is a bit outside of how I usually cover material. An image showed up in my Twitter feed posted by Dr Alex MacFarlane (@aghvesagirk) who was perusing Armenian manuscripts held in the British Library. It’s rare to find pre-modern art showing women in same-sex erotic encounters, so I asked further about it and Dr. MacFarlane was able to provide me with some additional background, as well as gracious permission to use the image and to cite them.
So this is really just a brief squib--not even a squib in the usual sense--to point to further information.
There is a long tradition, starting with the ancient Greeks, of attributing particular sexual tastes to specific astrological alignments. This wasn’t as simple as heterosexual versus homosexual, but included things like whether one preferred sex within marriage or outside of it, what type of partner one preferred in terms of class, age, etc., whether one preferred to take a sexual role that aligned with social expectations or contradicted them (in terms of active/passive participant). Within this context, some astrology texts discussed conditions that would predispose a woman to take the active role in sex with another woman.
One should be wary of interpreting this as “a woman who prefers sex with women” in the modern sense because the focus was often on the question of gender expression. If a woman’s stars aligned to give her a more masculine nature with regard to sex, then she would naturally prefer to be the active partner (by the gender models of the time) and therefore would default to engaging in sex with “normal” women who were expected to default to taking the passive role. (Such a “masculine woman” might also engage in sex with a man, but in that case he would also be acting against gender role expectations in accepting a passive role.)
You can find LHMP entries that I’ve tagged as discussion of astrological texts here. I plan to do a podcast that looks more closely at both astrology and humoral theory with regard to sexual desires/orientation, so I won’t go into the history in detail here, but suffice it to say that the astrological tradition persisted over time, including adaptations and translations into many different languages.
Thus we come to Ms. Or. 6471. It’s cataloged in A Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the British Museum, by Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare (London, 1913) starting on page 320. (The book is available through the Internet Archive here.) The basic description is: “The MS. is a treatise on Magic, Astrology, and the Calendar.” It includes something resembling a table of contents which also explains how the author collected the contents and their sources, as well as naming the author and the man who commissioned the work and giving the date it was written (1610 CE, but recorded in a different calendar system). The catalog describes the language as follows: “Parts of it, especially the first paragraphs of the early sections, are written in a fairly correct, if vulgar, Armenian, but the greater part of the text is a jargon of popular Armenian dialects of the sixteenth century, mixed with Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.” This gives you a sense of the culture context in which the author was working.
Dr. MacFarlane offers some additional information on the source of the 17th century text, suggesting that the name given (Sěṙi Mak't'um) can be connected with an Arabic text Al-Sirr al-Maktūm, which is discussed in Michael Sebastian Noble’s 2017 doctoral thesis (University of London) abstracted here and soon to be published by DeGruyter (see link). (It isn’t entirely clear that Noble’s book is concerned with the specific part of the manuscript in which this image appears.)
As described in the catalog, the astrology section of the manuscript includes a number of full-page illustrations of the planets and the Zodiac signs, primarily in the form of human figures with symbolic accessories.
This is followed by a series of pages with multiple smaller pictures that appear to depict the consequences of particular astrological alignments. And it’s here that our attention is caught:
Dr. MacFarlane provides a transcription and transliteration of the caption for the second image from the bottom:
կինմիորզկինմիկուպղծէ("a woman who defiles a woman")
This image shows two women, with their upper garments hiked up around their waists and their legs bare. One is lying on her back with the near (visible) leg elevated and the other woman is kneeling between her legs, pressing their vulvas together. Their hands are touching each other and they are gazing at each other.
The exact context would require identifying and translating the context of the other images, as well as looking at the the other parts of the text associated with the image. But given the usual context of astrology manuals, we can guess that it describes the planetary alignments that would predispose a woman to behave this way.
It is tempting to connect the sexual position shown in this illustration with the 13th century description in Al-Tifashi.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 48a - On the Shelf for July 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/07/04 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2020.
How are you all holding up through the quarantimes? Are you finding enough fluffy comfort reads to get you through? Or are you surviving on unleashed rage alone...against all the shitty things going down in the world?
For me, the rhythms of my life keep turning upside down. It used to be I had no time for television and now I’m binging costume dramas on Netflix. I used to complain that my commute meant I rarely saw my house in daylight except on weekends, and now I rarely leave the property except for my daily bike ride. There have been two main beneficiaries of my day-job shifting to home: my yard and garden is in the best shape it’s been since I bought the place almost ten years ago, and I’ve made massive progress on a piece of needlepoint I started in college and left languishing for decades, barely started.
But I’m finally getting my reading brain back for the history blog, at least.
Publications on the Blog
June seems to have been the month for the blog to cover articles that I’ve already included in a different form. It started with a primary source article on John or Eleanor Rykener, a 14th century English transvestite prostitute, who raises a lot of questions about medieval categories of gender, though Rykener is tangential to the topic of female same-sex love.
Anna Klosowska’s study of same-sex encounters in medieval French literature, in Queer Love in the Middle Agesis a bit more literary criticism than history for my taste. And the two relevant articles in the collection Queering the Renaissanceare mostly rehashing material I’ve already looked at, especially Valerie Traub’s article ,which turned into a chapter in her book The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England, previously covered in the blog.
June closed with a re-visitation of a different type: Catherine Crawford’s European Sexualities 1400-1800is intended as a college textbook on the history of sexuality and lightly skims through many familiar topics.
I had a whole theoretical schedule set up for the next several months which is being messed up by my inability to go to a library. So July is going to start with a spontaneous substitution of an image from an early 17th century Armenian astrology manual which shows two women having sex. With the help of the woman who posted the image on twitter, I’ll be able to give it a little context. After that comes a very brief survey of the relevant contents of Kuefier’s History of Sexuality Sourcebook, followed buy a couple of articles on non-European material -- one on case studies of lesbian or transmasculine women in 19th century Russia, and one on female same-sex “love suicides” in early 20th century Japan.
No new hardcopy book purchases, for the blog, which is probably just as well, given how much I have stacked up. But I did pick up an e-book copy of Ruth Morgan and Saskia Wieringa’s study of contemporary female same-sex traditions in Africa: Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, and Ancestral Wives.
2021 Fiction Series
Since the year is half-gone, it’s time to confirm that yes, I’ll be continuing the LHMP fiction series in 2021. I’ll be continuing this year’s modification in accepting historical fiction with certain types of fantastic elements as well as regular historical stories. There’s a full explanation of the call for submissions on the website -- see the show notes for a link -- but the short version is that I’ll be buying four short stories of up to 5000 words at the benchmark rate of 8 cents per word. The story should be set in some actual specific time and place, any where in the world, before 1900. And the central character should identify as a woman who feels attraction or desire for other women, although the story itself need not be a romance. And, in fact, if the central plot is the formation of a romantic couple, the story should have some other strong non-romantic plot element as well. I accept submissions from all genders and orientations, and I especially welcome submissions by marginalized authors.
Check out the full description on the website and start brainstorming. Submissions will be open in January, as usual, and expect me to keep talking about it from now until then.
This month’s author guest hasn’t been recorded yet and I’m superstitious enough not to announce names until I have the recording in the can. But I put out a call for authors interested in appearing on the show and have some really great guests lined up for the next half year.
I didn’t have an essay topic picked out yet, but in writing up this script, I think I’ll be inspired by that Armenian astrology manual and talk about historic theories of how astrology and the balance of humors affected one’s sexual desires. In some ways, it’s an analog of modern ideas about innate sexual orientation.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
Are you ready for the recent, new and forthcoming books? We have eight titles to talk about this month. Two of them are books published in May that didn’t turn up in my search until now--both of them set around World War II.
Love, Wherever it Fallsself-published by Katherine Chandler is the sort of cross-time story that could be an entire genre by itself, in which a contemporary woman finds correspondence that reveals a historic same-sex romance.
In pre-war 1936, two women fall in love and begin a long-distance love affair between London and Paris. Seventy years later they help an overwhelmed 21st century woman make a decision. After the death of the writer Cleo Brierley her great-niece inherits a remote stone cottage nestled deep in the wilds of Dartmoor. In the attic she finds a worn cardboard box containing diaries and love letters dating from the mid 1930s. She begins reading and a story of passion, joy, heartbrea,k and resilience emerges as Cleo grows from a naive young woman inevitably towards and through the Second World War.
Do you like horse stories? This next one might be up your alley: I Love You, Nora Whisperedby Kathy L. Salt from Triplicity Publishing.
England, 1948. Nora Lakes suffers from post polio syndrome and very low self-esteem. She has spent her entire life in the chaos of her huge family, always feeling less than and without any future dreams. When her sister Martha manages to get her a job at Waterhouse Acre Stables, she can hardly believe it. She had never imagined that anyone would have employed her, damaged as she is. She also never imagined she would meet anybody like Katherine. Katherine Waterhouse was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She has a mean streak and doesn't like people in general. What she does like, is horses. She wants to be a professional rider but growing up in a conservative house where her choices are limited by her sex, Katherine has always been trapped in her role as a woman. Nora and Katherine - two women with very different backgrounds, drawn to each other with an intensity neither of them are prepared for. Do they stand a chance?
There are three June books, the first two of which are very short--barely novelettes.
Budding Romanceself-published by Lara Kinsey has a Victorian setting.
A budding romance between a sweet-talking gardener and a spinster headmistress blooms to full flower in this steamy lesbian love story. On the cusp of the 20th century, France is where libertines indulge poetic desires. Dorothea has fled the structure of dreary old England for a place in the sun. She’s opening a school for elegant young ladies, but it’s an experienced lady gardener who has caught her eye. Madame Laurent works with her hands, but it’s her words that cultivate Dorothea’s fallow heart.
I somehow missed the precursor to Resurrectionist: The Diary of Doctor Du, Book Two, self-published by M.S. Linsenmayer, probably because it isn’t tagged as having queer content. This is a very tongue-in-cheek fantasy historical with a protagonist that I might guess started life as a gender-flipped version of real-life Elizabethan astrologer and alchemist John Dee.
Imprisoned for crimes she absolutely committed, Astrologer Jan Du plots her escape, determined to save the world from the Horrible Demonic Armies... oh who am I kidding, it's Jan. She mostly just wants a decent sandwich before her just and well deserved execution. So join her now as she battles drunken wyverns, vegetarian demons, and the worst threat of all: the 16th-century legal system.
Another historic fantasy that came out in June is A Matter of Blood (The Unlikely Adventures of Mortensen & Spurlock Book 2)by Lucy True (aka Jea Hawkins) from Persephone Press. The first book in the series came out just a month earlier, so this may be something in the way of a serial?
It takes little effort to save the world from power-obsessed madmen when you’ve been doing it for years. For once, however, it’s not an artifact hunt that has Alice Mortensen vexed. It’s her beloved Nora’s mother, Lady Spurlock. With their dissimilar Aetheric natures called into question, Alice and Nora undertake a journey halfway around the world for answers. Whether by railway, steamer, or airship, Alice and Nora will not rest until they can allay Lady Spurlock’s concerns about their union. Nor will they realize the unimaginable discovery or danger to which their inquiries will lead until a chance meeting leads to a long overdue reunion… All our heroines want is a happy ending, but will they encounter too much danger—and not enough cake—to save the day in the finale to their unlikely adventures?
I found three July releases, all of them from mainstream publishers.
Girl, Serpent, Thornby Melissa Bashardoust from Hodder & Stoughton is based on Persian legends. Trust me when I tell you that the cover copy gives you entirely the wrong impression of where the romantic relationships go in this book.
There was and there was not, as all stories begin, a princess cursed to be poisonous to the touch. But for Soraya, who has lived her life hidden away, apart from her family, safe only in her gardens, it’s not just a story. As the day of her twin brother’s wedding approaches, Soraya must decide if she’s willing to step outside of the shadows for the first time. Below in the dungeon is a demon who holds knowledge that she craves, the answer to her freedom. And above is a young man who isn’t afraid of her, whose eyes linger not with fear, but with an understanding of who she is beneath the poison. Soraya thought she knew her place in the world, but when her choices lead to consequences she never imagined, she begins to question who she is and who she is becoming...human or demon. Princess or monster.
The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (Feminine Pursuits 2)from Harper Collins is the follow-on to Olivia Waite’s immensely popular The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics.
When Agatha Griffin finds a colony of bees in her warehouse, it’s the not-so-perfect ending to a not-so-perfect week. Busy trying to keep her printing business afloat amidst rising taxes and the suppression of radical printers like her son, the last thing the widow wants is to be the victim of a thousand bees. But when a beautiful beekeeper arrives to take care of the pests, Agatha may be in danger of being stung by something far more dangerous… Penelope Flood exists between two worlds in her small seaside town, the society of rich landowners and the tradesfolk. Soon, tensions boil over when the formerly exiled Queen arrives on England’s shores—and when Penelope’s long-absent husband returns to Melliton, she once again finds herself torn, between her burgeoning love for Agatha and her loyalty to the man who once gave her refuge. As Penelope finally discovers her true place, Agatha must learn to accept the changing world in front of her. But will these longing hearts settle for a safe but stale existence or will they learn to fight for the future they most desire?
And lastly, Emma Donoghue -- who, in her academic guise, is a significant reason the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast exists -- has a new novel out: The Pull of the Starsfrom Little, Brown and Company. Some day I dream of having Emma Donoghue as a guest on the podcast.
Dublin, 1918: three days in a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu. A small world of work, risk, death, and unlooked-for love, by the bestselling author of The Wonderand ROOMIn an Ireland doubly ravaged by war and disease, Nurse Julia Power works at an understaffed hospital in the city center, where expectant mothers who have come down with the terrible new Flu are quarantined together. Into Julia's regimented world step two outsiders -- Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a rumoured Rebel on the run from the police , and a young volunteer helper, Bridie Sweeney. In the darkness and intensity of this tiny ward, over three days, these women change each other's lives in unexpected ways. They lose patients to this baffling pandemic, but they also shepherd new life into a fearful world. With tireless tenderness and humanity, carers and mothers alike somehow do their impossible work.
What Am I Reading?
And what am I reading? I’m still having trouble concentrating on books, but I finished N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Becamein audiobook, which is a gripping fantasy of the living avatars of New York City in their struggle to be born. It’s very queer-inclusive and I highly recommend the audio version to get the real feel of the voices. I’m halfway through the audiobook of The Deepby Rivers Solomon, inspired by the song of the same name by the band Clipping, headed by Daveed Diggs. It’s an alternate fantastic history of the water-dwelling descendents of enslaved Africans thrown overboard during the Atlantic crossing.
But I may have some actual text-on-the-page books consumed by next month because I have couple of fluffy romances lined up and they feel like just my speed. What have you been reading lately?