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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #110d Borris 2004 - Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance (Chapter 4)

Full citation: 

Borris, Kenneth (ed). 2004. Same-Sex Desire in the English Renaissance: A Sourcebook of Texts, 1470-1650. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-1-138-87953-9

Publication summary: 


As indicated by the sub-title, this is a collection of edited texts relevant to same-sex desire in England in the two centuries centered around the 16th. These are not necessarily texts of 16th century England, but texts available to people in that time and place. In covering these chapters, I will tend to give a topical summary of the mentioned works, but may sometimes quote the sources more extensively as my whim takes me. I will also only cover the texts with female relevance. Therefore my coverage of some chapters may much briefer than others.

Chapter 4: Astrology

Brooten (in Love Between Women) uses classical astrology texts as significant evidence for a Greco-Roman concept of "inborn sexual orientation". That is, a predisposition fixed arbitrarily at birth toward sexual attraction to specific categories of people, or toward particular types of sexual expression. Those categories and expressions were different, in many cases, from the ones we find salient today. But this specific set of texts refutes the notion that historic societies viewed same-sex desire or activity as a matter purely of behavior rather than identity.

Attitudes towards astrology changed over the centuries, and it isn't clear that simple access to these classical texts (or even their translation and propagation) indicates a similar attitude toward inherent same-sex orientation in early modern England. Astrology was taken seriously enough that casting the horoscope of a monarch could, in some cases, be considered treasonous. But the view of sexual orientation in astrological texts competed with a number of other competing views. The most we can say is that this is an approach that people in 16th century England could have known about.

* * *

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. Beginning with classical Greek and Roman texts on the topic, the influence of the heavens was thought to determine not only a homerotic or heteroerotic predisposition, but an orientation towards exclusive or nonexclusive preference, pederastic or generationally indifferent, “active” versus “passive”, or some mixed position on any of these scales.

The characteristics that were considered the unmarked norm were different for men and women. So, for example, women were considered naturally to be “passive” sexual partners, and so the “passive” member of a female same-sex relationship was given little attention in these texts as she was considered “normal”.

That isn’t to say that writers considered astrology to give one a free pass with regard to morality. Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) argued that an astrological predisposition to burglary, murder, or fraud did not excuse their commission, and neither should a conjunction associated with disparaged types of sexual congress be allow to excuse those actions.

Geographic location was considered to interact with astral alignment (as certain regions were considered to be located more closely to specific constellations or heavenly bodies). So, for example, Claudius Ptolemy (fl. 100-178) wrote that “those who live in Bithynia, Phrygia, and Colchica ...most of the women, through the influence of the moon’s oriental and masculine aspect, are virile, commanding, and warlike, like the Amazons...” And further, that the influence of masculine signs on women makes them “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, without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives.’” In a section discussing astrological effects on marriage, he discusses how a wide variety of influences make women inclined toward partnering with various specific types of men or “if the planets are made masculine they are so depraved as actively to have commerce with women.”

Julius Firmicus Maternus (fl. 330-354) notes “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 [due to lust]. These vices will be stronger if this combination occurs in Capricorn or Aries.”


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