(Greek origin) “One who rubs.” Tribade is actually the English version of the word, taken from Latin tribas, which in turn was taken from the Greek verb tribein. See also tribadism for the activity. A variety of words meaning “to rub” are found to label lesbian activity, testifying to the general knowledge of one common sexual technique.
Early modern Europe had quite a fondness for encyclopedic works that defined and classified the entire known world (and much that was imaginary). Theodor Zwinger (1533-1588) wrote Theatrum vitae humane (Theater of Human Life) in something of a biographical dictionary form, in groupings according to the characteristic that provided their fame. Under the section “Tribades” he notes “Here we say nothing which has not been said before, and collect only a few items.
Renaissance philosophy tackled the question of friendship: who is an appropriate friend, what behavior should a friend exhibit, what is the relationship between the love of friends and sexual desire? Given the times, the majority of texts addressing this topic were concerned with friendships between men, though a nod was often given to Sappho as a proponent of female friendships, or to the possibility of “Platonic love” between women, which is given explicit license in the Symposium as well as by Renaissance writers commenting on it, as Agnolo Firenzuola did.
One of the premises of astrology is that it predetermines various personality traits, as well as aspects of the course of one’s life. As applied to sexual preference, astrology provides at least a vague analog to the notion of an inborn orientation toward certain types of sexual activities and partners, although the ways these activities and partners are categorized don’t necessarily align with modern categories.
Medical references to sex between women include several on the “rediscovery of the clitoris” theme as well as pseudo-medical explanations for same-sex desire, plus some titillating orientalism. Several of the texts cited here are classical but formed part of the corpus of standard medical literature in the Renaissance.
In general, theological texts make no explicit reference to female homoerotic activities, though coverage may be inferred (with varying degrees of confidence) by the inclusion of women in discussions of sodomy or under vague general references to inappropriate sexual behavior. Some authors, when presenting theological discussions of sexuality, include less ambiguous examples, as in the following.
While the academic “queer studies” movement has analyzed a great many “high culture” works in literature and art, looking for evidence of same-sex impulses, this approach has been less useful for (or perhaps less interested in) an understanding of the ordinary lives of average people who might have had those same impulses. For this purpose, identifying lesbian motifs in works like the Roman de Silence or interpreting nuns’ adoration of vulva-like images of the wounds of Christ as homoerotic is somewhat beside the point.
Homoeroticism cannot be identified in historic contexts without letting go of modern notions of what it would look like or what other relationships it would be compatible or incompatible with. There are few explicit images of sexual activity between women in Roman art. Brooten (1996) gives two examples of female homoeroticism, only one of which is sexual: a grave relief of two freedwomen clasping hands (dextrarum iunctio) in a manner normally used to symbolize marriage, and a wall painting from Pompeii that appears to show two women engaging in oral sex.