Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #112b Castle 2003 The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall Part 2: 17th Century (first half)

Full citation: 

Castle, Terry (ed). 2003. The Literature of Lesbianism: A Historical Anthology from Ariosto to Stonewall. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-12510-0

Publication summary: 


This is a massive (over 1000 pages) collection of works and excerpts of literature relevant to lesbian history. I’ve broken my coverage up in fractions of centuries that produce very roughly similar numbers of items, rather than according to the organization in the book itself.

Part 2: 17th Century (first half)

One of the interesting (and frustrating) aspects of this collection is how--by collecting up a great deal of "big name author" material--the reader can easily see how the dominance of the literary landscape by men has skewed the type of lesbian representation that comes under the spotlight. Male voices are not uniformly hostile, but are overwhelmingly so. Women's voices are not uniformly positive, but the most positive representations do tend to come from female authors. When literary collections select purely for "famous" authors, the gender bias in that category will have consequences for content, even when that content is neutral or positive. This set of selections includes poems by Anne de Rohan and John Donne that make (positive) reference to Sappho's homoerotic reputation. Guess which author you wouldn't have read if the collection had been organized as "famous 17th century European poets" rather than "literature on lesbian themes"?

* * *

The themes of this set of selections might be: the re-discovery of Sappho, men lamenting that women who love each other aren’t available for them, and the use of queer-baiting for socio-political purposes. The significance of the suppression and erasure of women’s own voices from the record is seen in the one item known to have been written by a woman, which presents a positive and personal view of same-sex love. We also continue the literary motif of same-sex desire being due to confusions caused by gender disguise. The rise of anti-lesbian attacks on social trends (Hic Mulier) or specific public figures is noteworthy, particularly at the same time that the renewed interest in Sappho’s poetry (including her love for women) leads to male authors appropriating her imagery for their own purposes.

William Shakespeare from As You Like It (1600), from Twelfth Night (1602) -- Excerpts from two of the plays that involve women falling in love with cross-dressed women.

The King James Bible The Book of Ruth (1611) -- The Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, as an example of overwhelming love and loyalty between women.

Anne de Rohan “On a Lady Named Beloved” (1617) -- (Translated) Possibly the first French poem written by a woman to directly invoke the poetry of Sappho. The context is clearly that of love between women.

Anonymous from Hic Mulier: or, The Man-Woman (1620) -- Excerpts from a polemical pamphlet decrying women who take on the clothing and behavior of men.

George Sandys from Ovid’s Metamorphosis Englished (1626) -- A translation of the story of Iphis and Ianthe.

John Donne “Sappho to Philaenis” (1633) -- A poem in the persona of the poet Sappho, with a positive emphasis on her homoerotic desire for Philaenis.

T. W. “To Mr. J.D.” (1633) -- A poem, understood to be addressed to John Donne (JD), who had addressed several poems to a man identified as “TW”. The imagery of the poem depicts the two men’s poetic muses as engaged in lesbian sex with each other.

Ben Jonson “Epigram on the Court Pucelle” (1640) -- A somewhat nasty poem, believed to have been aimed at the courtier Cecilia Bulstrode, depicting her as a “tribade” and satirizing her for daring to present herself as an intellectual. Part of a long literary tradition of attacking female intellectuals by accusing them of lesbianism.

Edmund Waller “On the Friendship Betwixt Two Ladies” (1645) -- A poem complaining that two women scorn male suitors because they love each other.

François de Maynard “Tribades, or Lesbia” (1646) -- A crude satirical poem accusing an unnamed woman of performing manual sex on other women.

Andrew Marvell from Upon Appleton House (1650) -- A poem combining anti-Catholic and anti-lesbian themes, about the “rescue” of a young woman from a convent.


Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin “Two Beauties, Tender Lovers” (ca. 1650) -- A short poem in the genre of “it isn’t fair for these two women to have sex with each other and refuse us men.”

Time period: 

Add new comment