Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #82b Lanser 2014 - The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (Ch 2)

Full citation: 

Lanser, Susan S. 2014. The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 978-0-226-18773-0

Publication summary: 

Lanser looks at how certain public preoccupations with women’s sexuality correlate with other historical phenomena, preoccupations, and movements.

Chapter 2 - Mapping Sapphic Modernity, 1565-1630

One challenge I'm finding in summarizing this book is that central thread stands at a couple removes from the individual historic facts. In similar publications that I've covered previously, I've tended to extract the historic facts and leave the theoretical framework for those who want to read for themselves. This is more difficult with Lanser due to the interpretive nature of her focus. At various points in my summary, I'll note when the text includes a wealth of literary citations that I am not listing individually. Otherwise, I'm going to try to stick to summarizing the analysis. Although this is a very dense book with an emphasis on the symbolic rather than personal meanings of sapphic imagery, it is chock full of citations of poetry, plays, polemics, and other publications that the interested party might find worth tracking down.

* * *

The chapter begins with a survey of the types of published materials that led Lanser to identify the late 16th century as a shifting point in the discourse around sapphic topics. In 1566 a Swiss writer provides an account of a French woman who disguised herself as a man, worked as a stable groom and then a wine grower, married another woman, was eventually unmasked, and was executed. He notes “how our century can boast that beyond all the evils of the preceding ones” and explicitly disclaims any connection between events such as this and the “tribades in ancient times”. This is a repeating theme: where classical writers often situated sapphic activity in a nebulous past, the 16-17th century writers repeatedly characterize it as “new” and “never seen before”. Lanser notes that the use of “tribade” in vernacular languages (as well as other vernacular terms for female homoeroticism) as arising in this era. [Since authors have made similar claims for the modern development of “lesbian” that turned out to be inaccurate, I’m a little dubious, especially about the word "tribade".]

Contrasting with this focus on a “new sin/crime”, there is also a strain of admiration for female same-sex desire as representing an epitome of equal and honorable love in an age when men, perhaps, are no longer worthy of women’s love, e.g., the 1573 poem “Elegy for a Lady enamoured of another Lady” (written by a man). Several authors wrote with varying degrees of admiration or titillation of the spread of love between women in the royal courts, covering behaviors that might range from isolated encounters to a permanent orientation. This is also the era of the cross-dressing (possibly transgender) Catalina de Erauso, and of decidedly queer cross-dressing motifs in theater such as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Lyly’s Gallathea. Portrayals in drama of female-female relations were common in both Spain and England, often centering around a “manly woman” who pursues other women, or cross-dressing as a context of unexpected same-sex desire.

During this era it was also possible for intimate friendships between women to be publicly celebrated, as when the son of Mary Barber of Suffolk memorialized both his mother's marriage and her friendship with Ann Chitting by burying her between husband and “friend” with an inscription noting that the women would be united in heaven’s embrace as they had “lived and loved like two most virtuous wights”. And the children of the poet Modesta Pozzo published her work that celebrated women’s intimate attachments and declared that women “are only ever really happy when we are alone with other women.”

A number of travelogues of this era locate sapphic activity as a foreign practice, with anecdotes about Turkish harems and Moroccan witches. There is also a rise of focus on the equation of female same-sex activity with anatomical hermaphrodism or at the very least enlarged clitorises. This plays out not only in medical literature, but in fictional motifs of women spontaneously acquiring penises in the context of same-sex sexual activity. This is also the period when we begin to find legal records of marriage between women (leaving aside the question of whether the marriages are new during this period or if only the legal concern with them is new). Revivals of classical literature bring renewed interest in Sappho.

While there is certainly evidence for female same-sex erotic activities before this period, what is new is an increased attention and anxiety around the topic, as contrasted with the way previous eras talked around the subject in a way that came close to erasing it. The repeated insistence that women “cannot live without men” and that intimate relationships between women are “impossibilities” only serve to highlight a dawning awareness that the opposite might be true. The insistence on some affections between women as being “chaste” and “innocent” raises the specter of others being not. And there is an increasing attention to sapphic behavior as a “habit” or pattern, sometimes verging on a permanent orientation, as opposed to being viewed as isolated actions.

It can easily be demonstrated that even when parallel phenomena occur in different locations, such as the rise of theatrical plots based on female cross-dressing in Spain and England, they do not have a directly causal relationship. Rather than this diffuse set of preoccupations being driven by a single underlying cause, they seem to arise independently as a symptom of common underlying anxieties about disruption of the traditional social hierarchies, with female same-sex relations symbolizing the most disruptive situation that could be imagined.

Four “explanatory” frameworks emerge from the discourse around sapphic activity, tracing it to anatomy, circumstance, inclination, and contagion. Anatomy: “she desires women because she’s really physiologically a man or at least has male-like attributes.” Circumstance: “she desires women because there aren’t any men available.” Both of these framings support the heteronormative status quo as the first resolves into “really” being an opposite-sex couple, the second because it is disrupted easily by making a man available. Inclination and contagion are less common around 1600 but become more so later, attributing desire between women to an innate preference or to the consequences of seduction (after which a preference for women is only natural, evidently). These models are much more disruptive to heteronormativity and consequently reflect different anxieties. “Contagion” in particular raises the possibility that any woman might abandon men and come to prefer women.

Part of Lanser’s thesis is that discourse about relations between women functioned as a limitation on new social ideals and models. At a time when ideals of marriage were shifting from a family-controlled business relationship to an affective bond between the spouses themselves, it was possible to imaging two women as partaking of a marriage-like affective bond. In this context, the repeated insistence that erotic relations between women are impossible or at least futile seems more desperate than rational. Thus, for example, when relations between women are portrayed, one may be framed as inherently “masculine” to restore the “natural” hierarchy. Lanser calls this approach the “metamorphic” strategy: set up the possibility of homoeroticism then reshape the players into a heterosexual couple (a magical sex change, a convenient twin brother, etc.).

In contrast is the “ethnographic” strategy which identifies sapphic activity as “other” but conveniently locates it in a foreign culture or region.

The greatest challenge to social order, combined with the logical extension of existing ideals is the “leveling” strategy for understanding same-sex relations. That is, an emphasis on the "same" aspect of "same-sex". A growing admiration for egalitarianism (within limits) and an idealization of equal companionship created a challenge to traditional notions of hierarchies of all types. Female couples simultaneously represented the ultimate in a partnership of equals and the nightmare specter of making men entirely irrelevant to their lives. Fictions of female relationships or even all-female societies become a trial ground for exploring (and perhaps safely undermining and dismissing) the more radical possibilities of leveling.

The chapter concludes with a consideration of the geographical distribution of sapphic preoccupation during this period. Examples are found in England, France, Spain, and to some extent from Italy, Portugal, and the Netherlands. (There is, of course, the problem of differential availability of and access to records.) It is absent, however, from the German states and Scandinavia. One possibility is that sapphic preoccupation was present in nations with women in positions of political power, either as rulers or regents. It also correlates with regions where women were active participants in print culture. The presence of powerful, publicly-articulate women could not be dismissed as an aberration or insignificant, but it could be undermined by associating women and their relationships with dangerous sapphic imagery. Interestingly, the preoccupation also correlates with colonial powers. Lanser speculates that speculations on sapphic consequences may sometimes stand in for reactions to encounters with “difference” in general.

Time period: 

Add new comment