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Full citation: 

Livia, Anna and Kira Hall, eds. 1997. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press, New York. ISBN 0-19-510471-4

Publication summary: 


A collection of linguistics papers relating to queer and feminist theory. From a historic context, the coverage is somewhat shallow and oddly focused (most likely due to having been written by linguists rather than historians). In particular there are regular gaps in knowledge about this history of terminology, or confusion about linguistic transmission and equivalence across languages. I have only included the three papers with relevance to the Project.

Contents summary: 

This paper starts with a rather poetic framing of the French language of sexuality in the 16th century as “cornucopian in abundance”. The general theme is that this is an era when popular and slang terminology for same-sex and gender-transgressive behavior reflected this sense of expansive abundance in its variability and prevalence.

There is a brief review of various myths of same-sex origins know in 16th century France, such as neo-Platonic interpretations of Plato’s “other half” myth. This is followed by a discussion of the varied and shifting meanings of “sodomite”. The article explores contexts in which “sodomite” is narrowed to cover specifically same-sex activity, including the account by Henri Estienne where he applies it to women. There is a focus on contexts where male and female same-sex activity were treated equivalently. Next there is a consideration of terms that distinguished “active” and “passive” participants, focusing primarily on men, especially the origins and uses of “bardache”.

Vocabulary used for female same-sex relations is taken from Montaigne’s journal and from Brantôme, who provides a wealth of examples including tribade, lesbienne, fricarelle, fricatrice, as well as terms for the sex act such as “donna con donna”. Brantôme specifically uses “lesbienne” for women in same-sex relationships, not only in reference to France but elsewhere in Europe as well as in Turkey. He also equates it with “fricarelle”, a derivative of Latin “fricatrix”. There is a list of historic women from classical to Renaissance times thought by the early modern French to have had lesbian relations (from authors such as Juvenal, Martial, Lucian, Brantôme, and Sappho).

There is an extensive discussion of the terminology of male same-sex relations in naval contexts, including piracy. There was a French perception that same-sex relations were introduced to France from Italy, especially by the court of Catherine de Medici. Court life was generally associated with cross-gender behavior and gender transgression. The article concludes with a list of the terminology discussed in the article with contextual definitions, although it should be understood that the sexual sense may not have been the primary meaning of the words.

Contents summary: 

This article looks at French historical terminology for women who loved women to consider whether changes in the prevalent terminology reflected social shifts in attitudes toward such women, on the basis that “naming grants recognition”. Unfortunately the article is deeply flawed by unfamiliarity with earlier examples of some terms, and by overlooking terms that were as common as the ones considered (if not more so). This results in conclusions based on faulty premises.

For example, the author fails to consider Brantôme’s 16th century use of “lesbienne” in the modern sense and identifies only “tribade” as being in pre-modern use in French, dating it only to the mid 16th century. She entirely ignores the distribution of “fricatrice” and “fricarelle”.

When considering language deriving from Sappho and Lesbos, she mistakes iconicity with causation, calling Sappho “the founder of lesbian love”. She considers the early absence of terminology derived from Sappho to be due to patriarchal suppression of the idea of egalitarian female same-sex love.

The author is also unfamiliar with the complex semantic history of “sodomy” and related terms and erroneously claims that there is “no specific term for women’s [same-sex] sexual practice in the Middle Ages”. She views the medieval church as uninterested in women’s same-sex behavior unless there is appropriation of male attributes (ignoring penitential evidence for that interest).

She attributes to Henri Estienne the first use in French of “tribade” and see this as a consequence of the revival of interest in Greek and Latin texts (as opposed to reflecting a shift from Latin to French for the types of records discussing such topics). She seems to accept at face value the claims by writers such as Estienne that displaced lesbian relationships into the classical era, asserting that such behavior in the 16th century was novel and unheared of. Rather than tracing the continued use of derivations of Greek/Latin “tribade” through the ages, she considers it a Latin invention (from Greek roots) with no Greek antecedent. And--noting that all the classical citations of the word “tribade” are from male authors, in combination with the absence of Sappho-based terminology, interprets this as a specific preference for male antecedents for sexual models. While a preference for male sources is quite possibly true, she overlooks medieval and Renaissance references to Sappho in the context of same-sex love, which would contradict this interpretation. This curious blindness also appears when she quotes Brantôme extensively while failing to note that he contradicts her claim that “lesbienne” was a later invention.

Brantôme’s discussions of lesbian love make it clear he considered it a “harmless game”, but she notes that women who made more transgressive life choices, such as marrying women in male disguise (see e.g., Montaigne) were punished more harshly. In this context, she considers that the focus on condemning only the “active” sexual partner and the alleged preference for the term “tribade” (which she sees as reinforcing an active/passive distinction) was a deliberate program to undermine a hypothetical egalitarian same-sex love associated with Sappho.

The author considers the changing dictionary definitions of “tribade” during the 18th century to reflect an ongoing philosophical debate around the meaning of the term and sees the driver of these changes as the rise of socially and culturally elite women who openly expressed their passion for othr women. [It seems odd to me that a linguist would treat dictionary entries as a reflection of contemporary usage and debate, rather than being conservative, prescriptive sources.] She considers expressions of passionate friendship in the 18th century as presumed to indicate sexual relationshps. She views the French revolution as constituting a cultural break between Renaissance culture and 19th century women who led a new wave of sexual openness that shifted into decadence and scandal. George Sand’s Lelia is presented as a turning point.

The author attributes the modern sense of “lesbienne” to Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century, suggesting that it was the association of the word with decadence and damnation that made it acceptable for general use (by men, presumably). Unfortunately this theory is undermined by the documented earlier use of the word as far back as the 16th century. She reviews lesbian terminology that has connotations focusing on the absence of men, such as “anti-homme” in L’Espion Anglais and “anandrine” in Revolutionary-era literature, and compares these terms to the root senses of “virgo” and “parthenos”. And finally, the author traces the rise of the word “homosexual” in parallel with the medicalization of sexuality in the early 20th century.

The article cites an early example of a prosecution for cross-dressing that I don’t think I’ve seen published elsewhere, so I thought I’d quote it here. It appears to refer to two separate events and there is no indication that there were sexual transgressions involved.

“In the thirteenth century, two women were burned at Péronne by Robert le Bougre for having porté l’habit d’homme (worn men’s cothing).” [Cited in the notes as: “These events ocurred between 1235 and 1238, notes Michèle Bordeaux, Professeur de Droit at the University of Nantes, to whom I am endebted for providing me with this information.”]

Contents summary: 

This article examines the context of the phrase “clippyng and kyssyng” that occurrs to describe physical interactions between the female protagonists in the early 16th century English translation of the tale of Yde and Olive (in the Huon of Bordeux cycle). The translation is from an early French text, but this article is specifically concerned with the 16th century English context.

Although “clipping” (hugging, embracing) and “kissing” could occur in non-sexual contexts generally without erotic implications, in the tale it is juxtaposed with the emperor’s reaction that, if the two individuals engaging in it are indeed both women (which is true, but an unproven accusation at this point in the tale), then what they are doing is “boggery” (buggery) and deserves the death penalty. The article summarizes the context of the story (for which, see items tagged with Yde and Olive) and discusses the general context of women crossdressing in religious and secular literature. In general, the disguise is a means to an end, especially one that inolves freeing oneself from female roles and hazards. But Watt considers Yde and Olive to stand outside this tradition to the extent that it overtly creates a context for homoerotic feelings and actions, especially Olive’s choice to continue as a loyal and loving wife after she discoveres Yde’s female identity.

“Clipping and kissing” are common as an activity in Middle English texts and both words can cover both sexual and non-sexual contexts. In heterosexual contexts the phrase can be used as a eupehmism for sexual intercourse. The actions occur in this tale in a context where physiology is not revealed--Yde’s identity as a woman is disclosed verbally later. But the emperor’s assignment of the word “buggery” makes it clear that he sees the clipping and kissing as sexual. At the time of the original French text (which also uses a form of the word buggery) the word buggery had implications of heresy as well as sodomy.

Watt discusses the oft-proposed idea that a lack of terminology for female same-sex relations indicates their non-existence. She notes the OED as a basis for the late entry (late 19th century) of the words “lesbian” and “sapphist” into English but then gives a nod to Emma Donoghue’s work that identifies earlier examples of both words. Watt indicates that no similar vocabulary survives in English from the 16th century but notes that texts such as Yde and Olive demonstrate that the concept of sex between women didn’t require specific terminology. As another example, she cites Brown’s work on the trial of Benedetta Carlini (early 17th century Italy) where a wide variety of language is used to refer to same-sex acts that--from the descriptions--are clearly sexual.

The artcile has a survey of European medieval and Rennaissance penalties for women’s same-sex activity but Watt notes the significant differences between continental and English legal traditions. She concludes with a discussion of how, based on the evidence, women’s same-sex relations were considered transgressive to the extent that the women were considered to be claiming male prerogatives, rather than for the sexual acts themselves.