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Full citation: 

Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. 2001. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3

Contents summary: 

This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.

But what was the context in which a 17th century French aristocrat understood the ancient poet’s life? The article looks at four questions. Why did Scudéry choose to work with Sappho as a subject? How as Sappho understood and represented in 17th century France? How did Scudéry adapt the story for French  salon culture? And how did Sappho’s sexuality influence the depiction of female friendship and heterosexual love in the work?

Hinds references DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho ( for a detailed answer to the first question. Scudéry uses Sappho as an entry to women’s role as author of heroic fiction (a newly popular genre at the time). Scudéry’s Sappho exists in a utopian space where a woman can not only claim the role of author, but can define the terms of her relationship with a man. But while the plot of the narrative accepts (a version of) the Phaon story, in which Sappho turns from the love of women to a man, the representation of sexuality and gender identity are complicated.

Taking up the second question, Hinds reviews the French translations and interpretations of Sappho available in the 17th century. Rémi Belleau’s 16th century translation of Fragment 31 (“he seems like a god”) retains the original’s female voice and female beloved, but other versions of the era substitute a male narrator, turning the triangle into two men in conflict over a woman. While many other French works allow Sappho to voice her same-sex desire, there is often a moralizing overlay, suggesting that pursuit of pleasure will be her downfall. By the late 16th century, Sappho is often depicted as a woman whose love of sensual pleasure has ruined her.

French law of the time included lesbian acts under the rubric of sodomy, and Sappho’s name comes up regularly in discussions of historic context for the laws. Though poetic texts may depict Sappho as indiscriminately licentious, legal texts focus specifically on her lesbian reputation. The application of these legal prohibitions appears to have been rare, certainly in comparison to prosecutions of male homosexuality. But several case studies, especially ones involving cross-gender presentation, appear repeatedly in medical literature of the time.

At the same time, Sappho’s role as a respected poet was being revived in the early 17th century, also including Ovid’s episode in the Heroides of the Phaon myth. The depiction of Sappho ashamedly turning from desire for women to the pursuit of Phaon resonated with French moral attitudes of the time toward same-sex desire.

Scudéry does not simply accept this interpretation of the Phaon episode, but rather models Sappho’s relationship with Phaon on female friendship bonds. Scudéry’s Sappho may be seen as a reflection of the author herself (she used Sappho as a nickname on occasion) and so we can see in the Histoire Scudéry’s vision for ideal relations between women and men, as well as her idealized understanding of female friendship.

Scudéry’s ideal friendship is steeped in the précieuse culture of propriety and decency, the use of refined language and adherence to proper behavior. Given this context, the Histoire focuses on emotion and sentiment as expressions of love, not on erotic desire, regardless of the genders of the participants. Traditionally-gendered characteristics and virtues are distributed to characters of both sexes in the word. Sappho is ascribed “male” virtues (as defined at the time) while Phaon is described in terms more conventionally reserved for women, focusing on refined physical beauty, while not being framed as effeminate.

In the Histoire, Sappho surrounds herself with women with whom she has intense platonic friendships, based on a free and equal sharing of thoughts and confidences. This alone, she asserts, is the basis for genuine love and friendship. Sappho confides to her friends that she prefers their company to a husband, who would be incapable of providing the same type of devotion.

It is Phaon’s ability to conform to these ideals of (female) friendship that allows Sappho to love him, while it is the passionate poems Sappho has written to her female companions that convince Phaon she is capable of the intense love he seeks. But Sappho recognizes that their love would be doomed within a conventional marriage and could not remain equal and true. The solution is found in a utopian land ruled by Amazons whose laws prescribe faithfulness between lovers. Phaon must swear never to ask for marriage, but also to remain always at Sappho’s side. He must become the “inseparable companion” so prized among female friends.

So Phaon wins over Sappho, and she accepts his love, only when he moves into the role of female friend, companion, and confidant, and abandons the framework of heterosexual marriage.

Contents summary: 

Right at the turn of the 18th century (ca 1700), a Parisian police official collected a series of reports on the scandalous behavior of Henriette de Castelnau, countess de Murat. The official noted that it was particularly shameful for a noblewoman to have engaged in such actions. While a number of offences were detailed, the core accusation was her sexual relations with other women. In addition to “a monstrous attachment to persons of her sex,” the reported noted profanity, singing dissolute songs at all hours, pissing out her window into the street after a drunken carouse, and a blasphemous conversation with a vicar. The sexual relationships included an ongoing tempestuous affair with one Madame de Nantiat, and a violent attack on Murat’s portrait by a jealous ex-girlfriend.

The point of this report was a request that the king either exile her from Paris or put her in prison. (Though one wonders whether a man of similar rank singing drunken songs, pissing out a window, or blaspheming to a churchman would have been similarly harassed, absent sexual crimes.)

Setting aside the extremely negative tone of the references to lesbianism, the reports are intriguing for the details of the relationships and the difficulty the police had in obtaining testimony from witnesses.

In literature of the time, such as Nicolas Chorier’s Académie des dames, Delarivier Manley’s The New Atalantis, or Antoine Hamilton’s Memoirs of the Count de Gramont, the attitude toward lesbian sex is more one of amused condescension. Authors and their audiences were quite aware of lesbian possibilities, but give the appearance of considering it as of little importance. Something to mock, but not to be concerned over.

In contrast to both the horrified reaction of the police official and the mockery of libertine literature, there were also texts that treated lesbian encounters almost neutrally, such as Madame de Villedieu’s novel Memoirs of the Life of Henriette-Sylvie de Molière, in which the queen mother takes the protagonist under her protection, noting that she “loved passionately beautiful women” and had befriended her in order to be able to kiss her regularly. Robinson also cites Aphra Behn’s “To the Fair Clorinda” as a positive expression of female erotic desire.

But possibly Madame de Murat has left us another such positive text, to contrast with her police record. Her presumably autobiographical novel, The Memoirs of Madame the Countess de M—,” while primarily focusing on refuting alleged heterosexual misconduct [which we note is not mentioned in the police report], include an episode where an enemy of hers wrote letters accusing Madame de Murat ad her friend Mademoiselle Laval (in somewhat vague but significant terms) of “horrible things,” bringing them to the attention of both women’s husbands as well as the queen. While the nature of the “horrible things” is not specified, the language and context strongly implies sexual improprieties. The parallels in language and the desired punishment (imprisonment through royal intervention) with the police report (which was written several years later) are noteworthy. [Note: Mademoiselle Laval is not one of the women named in the police report as one of de Murat’s lovers, instead listing Madame de Nantiat, though the vengeful ex-lover is not named.]

In de Murat’s Memoirs the two women thus accused are advised to retreat temporarily to a convent until the accusations can be settled. But in the police report, when the possibility of confinement in a convent is raised, the official advises that he is doubtful of the morals of any convent willing to take her on, alluding to the contradictory reputation of convents both as a place of chastity, and as a hotbed [ahem] of lesbian desire, as reflected in pornographic literature of the time. [Note: lesbian encounters by secular women staying in convents are noted in the biographies of women such as Hortense Mancini and Julie d’Aubigny.]

De Murat and de Nantiat were eventually placed under house arrest in separate chateaus as a result of the accusations, though de Murat is reported as continuing her former behavior there and corresponding freely with all her existing acquaintances.

Robinson suggests that the brief episode in de Murat’s memoirs—when combined with the more detailed and explicit accusation in the police report, as well as the larger social context of how lesbian activity was discussed, and the reputation of convents—is a lightly veiled in-joke, acknowledging the (likely) truth of the relationship with Laval and using it as an excuse for a temporary retreat to an all-female space where the relationship could be continued. This suggests a new context in which positive depictions of lesbianism might be found, if they can be decoded.

The article concludes with a discussion of the problems of reading “closeted texts” as Robinson suggests this to be, and the asymmetric effects of dismissing authorial intent when interpreting texts when the author may be constrained to speak obliquely. These effects create particular problems for queer history and the erasure of neutral or positive depictions of queer sexuality when historians insist on taking texts only at face value.

Contents summary: 

(A great deal of this article focuses fairly specifically on male same-sex relations, so I have cherry-picked the details relating to women. Some of the generalizations included her may not be applicable tom women.)

This article looks at the topic of “libertinism” in the definition of “sexual relations outside marriage” during the era of Louis XVI in France. There is a problem with sources in that significant rapid shifts in public morals in the aftermath of the revolution meant that later memoirists often self-censored events of the author’s youth. And contemporary writings often had political motivations for satire and exaggeration. But there are also more reliable records, including legal contracts drawn up between lovers that gave some sort of formal standing to non-marital relationships.

Ca. 1780, extramarital relations were common and practiced publicly within the court and urban centers such as Paris, by both men and women. For the nobility and the wealthy, marriage was for economic and dynastic purposes, with little concern for personal emotional fulfillment. In contrast, the common people tended to follow traditional moral teachings under which adultery was discouraged and carried on in secret. This was even more the case for same-sex relations, which were condemned among the middle and lower classes but tolerated among the aristocracy.

While the terminology of same-sex relations generally had a negative tone, one phrase “the Italian taste” treated them positively, alluding to the sophisticated history of Italy. And the existing legal statutes against homosexuality were often bypassed when the offender was of high enough social status. (Most of the specific persons mentioned in this discussion are male, perhaps due to the major focus of legal persecution being male same-sex relations.)

Despite the prevalence of same-sex relations among the court and nobility, Louis XVI himself was more conservative and often had to be dissuaded from dealing more severely with offenders, as detailed in the often scandal-filled records of the royal court.

Certain salons were known for attracting those of “Italian taste” and publications of their habitués sometimes included support for same-sex desires. Among the salons, the duchess de Villeroy (Marguerite-Henriette d’Aumont) was known for organizing dinners for women and for her patronage of the actress Mademoiselle Clairon with whom she had a sexual relationship. De Villeroy was known for hosting a wide circle of aristocratic women known to have sapphic relations. (Once again, the vast majority of this section deals with men.)

In addition to the semi-private space of the salons, libertinism flourished in public spaces such as clubs, cafes, bath-houses, gardens, bookshops, and theaters (though many of these may be relevant only for men). Women such as Madame Joly de Fleury (the “Madame de Furiel” of the pornographic novel L’Espion Anglois which started the “Anandrine Sect” motif) and the actress Mademoiselle Raucourt appeared in public in men’s clothing accompanied by their female lovers. In addition to Raucourt, other actresses known for taking female lovers included Carline (Gabrielle Malacrida).

Somewhat contradictorily, under the Empire, although homosexuality was decriminalized, it also became less socially acceptable, along with the decline in tolerance for heterosexual libertine relations. The tide had turned and bourgeois morality became the norm for those in power.

(The footnotes for this article reference a great many primary sources for the details, in case the reader wish to follow up…and reads French.)

Contents summary: 

The article opens with a discussion of how 16-17th c French discourse around sex between women contradictorily emphasizes the similarity of the couple (woman with woman) then describes what they do as “like a man with a woman.” (Brantôme “give themselves to other women in the very way that men do”, Richelet 1680 “a tribade is one “who mates with another person of her sex and imitates a man”.)

Lanser’s argument in this article is that during the 18th century, this understanding shifted from tribades being “man-like’ to an awareness and concern that female homoeroticism might be an alliance of like with like, excluding the male entirely. As part of the shift in how gender was conceived of during the Age of Enlightenment, the ideology of sexual difference implied and required that women could not act “like a man” because the sexes were inherently different.

This developing view of female homoeroticism operated in parallel with the libertine depiction of female same-sex intimacy, which treated it as operating in relation to heterosexuality: women engage in lesbian sex because of proximity to women and the unavailability of men, but the act exists either to prepare them for heterosexual relations or as entertainment for a male voyeur (either within the text, or the reader). Libertine philosophy proposed that all women were capable of enjoying sex with women, but that it inevitably existed in relation to men.

This shift in understanding begins to be reflected in dictionary definitions of “tribade” in the mid 18th century where, in contrast to earlier definitions, the word is defined as the “name given to lascivious women who try to obtain among themselves pleasures they can receive only from the other sex.” (1755). The tribade is no longer behaving “like a man” but she also is no longer allowed the possibility of achieving or providing full sexual satisfaction (as that would require the presence of a male analogue). Even that partial satisfaction is denied in the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française which defines tribade as “a woman who violates another woman” introducing a predatory theme. Other texts of the era describe “an inexplicable passion”.

Lanser asserts that this represents a change in understanding from the tribade as a man-like figure to the tribade as rejecting men and creating exclusively female spaces. In the 17th century, sapphism was attributed to women due to “masculine” ambitions and intellectual accomplishments, and especially to those holding feminist positions. But by the later 18th century, rather than feminism implying sapphic interests, sapphism is treated as essentially feminist. This manifests in the 1770s and 1780s in texts that depict tribades not as isolated individuals or couples, but as voluntary communities and secret societies.

The foremost example of these is the story within Mairobert’s L’Espion anglois in which the woman-only sapphic Anandrine sect is presented and described. The word “anandrine” (literally “without men” or “without husbands”) reflects this image of tribades as not simply lovers of women but haters or rejectors of men. They form societies to support each other and to protect other women from men by bringing them into the sect.

 The Anandrine sect is envisioned as a complex expansive community, given an ancient history, and with a clearly defined mandate to expand its influence. Sapphism is no longer a matter of isolated sex acts but has become an entire way of life in a separatist society. (Keep in mind that this text is almost certainly fictitious, as Lanser notes.) But the realism of the narrative, and its references to actual women known to have had sapphic relations, encouraged widespread belief in the truth of the Anandrine sect at the time and after.

The image of the organized and collective Anandrine society was taken up in fiction at the end of the 18th century, appearing as a positive and supportive experience for the characters (though within either a pornographic or satiric context for the overall narrative). Underlying this positive experience for the female participants was the implication of hostility toward men. But the narratives undermine the attraction of separatist society either by revealing it to be a lie, or by having the young accolytes leave for the attractions of heterosexuality (even though those attractions may turn out to be treacherous).

In contrast to previous associations of female power with sapphism, in which same-sex attraction was depicted as a hazard of all-female societies, this late 18th century trope depicts sapphism as an essential foundation for a feminist utopia. Lanser explores the connection of these texts with the political polemics against Marie-Antoinette that depicted her (supposed) sexual relationships with women as being founded on destructive impulses toward society in general, in revenge for their love being despised.

Another connection the pre-revolutionary sapphic texts make is with the place of women in Freemasonry. Although 18th century Freemasons generally excluded women, France authorized some women-centered lodges whose ceremonies sometimes invoked Amazon symbolism and called for rejection of the patriarchy. There are symbolic parallels between the women’s lodges of the mid 1770s to 1780s and the Anandrine rituals depicted in texts of a similar era. A direct connection was made in a 1775 reference to a Masonic “Lodge of Lesbos” that implied same-sex erotics via a reference to Roman author Juvenal.

Lanser suggests that the use of Masonic imagery to describe sapphic societies reflects anxiety about both groups. The female Masonic groups were, in actual fact, carefully managed to maintain male supervision and control, and were never exclusively female. But the fictitious sapphic separatist societies could be viewed as the hazard that control was meant to ward off in the face of hypothetical principles of equality. But in some ways, the homosocial nature of organizations like the Freemasons may have precipitated a gender segregation, in contrast to the gender-integrated salons, which resulted in both the reality and the fantasy of women banding together in separatist organizations. In combination with the rising theory of gender difference that viewed men and women as inherently incomprehensible to each other, the same principles meant to support modern patriarchal structures may have inadvertently promoted the conditions for sapphic separatism.

Contents summary: 

The 19th c, far from being an era of sexual repression (as the “Victorian” age is often depicted) saw an increasingly diverse and intense focus on sexuality, including homosexuality. This paper looks at depictions of homosexuality in Paris from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century, in printed and visual media. From this, we see the obsessions, anxieties, and taboos about public behavior.

There are key differences in how male and female homosexuality is depicted. Medical and legal experts focused on both, but depictions of lesbianism were far more common in literature, and dominated the visual arts portraying homosexuality. This was largely due to male voyeuristic interest in such depictions. However taboos around class dynamics meant that in the mid-century, lesbian imagery focused on sex workers and the demi-monde, not acknowledging upper class women’s participation until the 1880s, correlating with the fall of the French Second Empire and a shift in public attitudes toward social elites.

However skewed the literary and artistic representations are, they add a valuable dimension to the details of police reports, or the analysis of medical professionals. The initial medical interest in lesbianism viewed it as a criminal byproduct of prostitution and prevalent primarily in gender-restricted spaces such as brothels and prisons. In the mid-century, this image began to be challenged by first person accounts that depicted the emotional and social dynamics of lesbian relationships, the rise of social venues catering to lesbians, and sartorial signifiers used to communicate and advertise within the community.

(The article also discusses male homosexuality, but I’m skipping over those parts.)

The male and female homosexual communities intersected both in the context of sex work and the theater, especially around drag performance. As lesbian characters began to appear in works of fiction and art in the 1870s, they combined actual locations (such as the Rat-Mort café) and persons drawn from the community with the development of a symbolic vocabulary. This vocabulary included such things as cross-dressing, smoking, café life, intersections with sex work, and an aura of decadence and doom.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the initial ventures into representing lesbian culture turned into a flood, riding a tide of gender anxiety and a turn toward artistic naturalism. This included works such as Émile Zola’s Nana and Guy de Maupassant’s “La Femme de Paul”. These male authors were writing from observation of the lesbian culture in places such as the Bréda quarter of Paris or the resort of Grenouillère. [Note: One must keep in mind that they were writing as outside observers, and often overtly hostile ones, who viewed their subjects as sexual rivals or despised them for having rejected their own sexual advances.]

Another view on Parisian lesbian culture came through the memoirs of police officials, who included anecdotes about both male and female homosexuals drawn from their professional encounters. These were naturally skewed toward criminal contexts such as prostitution and tended to create or reinforce a connection between homosexuality and criminality in the popular imagination.

The culture of the traditional masked Mardi Gras ball had become adopted by the lesbian and gay male communities of Paris by the last quarter of the 19th century, and this was another context that began appearing in fiction.

In the 1880s, writers depicting Parisian lesbian culture began to recognize and represent the cross-class nature of the community (rather than depicting it as involving only prostitutes and theatrical performers). Earlier depictions of upper class lesbians had shown them only in private contexts, but works such as the memoirs of Marguerite Bellanger, the cross-dressing former mistress of Napoleon III, included stories of elite women visiting brothels for lesbian liaisons, and mingling with the demi-monde. By 1885, the figure of the mannish (but not necessarily cross-dressing) upper class woman mingling with working class lesbians everywhere from brothels to cafés to the theater to fancy restaurants. The Bréda quarter (now renamed Montmartre) remained the geographic center, but it now attracted a more fashionable clientele. An accepted “costume” had evolved for depicting lesbians: short curly hair, a stiff collar and a man’s jacket or frock coat, and an androgynous style of dress.

The 1890s saw homosexual culture becoming even more visible. A new type of gathering place, the brasserie (a type of cheap café-cum-bar) included many catering specifically to a lesbian clientele. Art depicting lesbians and gay men in such contexts became a staple of certain types of magazine publications. In both art and literature, the iconic locations for lesbians became music and dance halls such as the Folies-Bergère and the Moulin-Rouge in Montmartre, as in the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. While gay male culture was equally present in these contexts, it was less commonly emphasized in art and literature. Writers were now more likely to mention the names of specific establishments and persons, rather than simply using them as inspiration for more fictionalized depictions.

By the end of the century, lesbian gathering places had become tourist attractions for upper class voyeurs who wanted a taste of decadent Paris. This presentation of lesbian culture as entertainment for outsiders may help explain the disparity of focus away from gay male culture.