Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44d - Bertolina Guercia - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/28 - listen here)
When we look for queer women in history, how do we know what we’re looking for? How will we know when we find them? If we go into the historic record with a preconceived idea of what queer people’s lives were like--what their hazards and joys were--will we recognize what we find?
When we start to depict queer women in historical fiction, how do we imagine their lives? What did their families, their neighbors, their lovers think about them? Were they closeted or open? Were they accepted or persecuted? Did they find like-minded community or lead solitary lives?
Attitudes and reactions around people with non-normative sexuality could be highly local and individual, even within general large patterns. And just as in current media with queer characters, the challenges they faced were not necessarily directly related to their sexuality.
Today I’d like to explore the small amount we know about a woman in 13th century Bologna named Bertolina Guercia. As is all too often the case in this era, the reason we have concrete data about her sexuality is because she ran afoul of the law. But don’t assume you know how that encounter played out.
The legal record that mentions Bertolina was studied and published by Carol Lansing in an article in 2005. The record had always been there to find, but it took someone noticing it, recognizing its significance, and considering it worth bringing it to public attention. There are a lot--and I mean a lot--of surviving historical archives with records about obscure, unimportant--dare I say, mostly boring--people. When scholars comb through these archives--most of which have never been published, or even necessarily cataloged in detail--they’re usually looking for information on a particular topic. The vast background material that they have to wade through to find that topic may be fascinating on its own, but the distraction of shiny things is the bane of academia. Any number of researchers may walk past an entry without comment because it doesn’t speak to their particular topic before one picks it up and weaves it into a larger picture.
All of this is in preface to saying that there are undoubtedly many more stories like Bertolina’s waiting to be noticed. The scholarly catalogs of evidence for women’s same-sex relations in the past are often condemned as scanty--and too often interpreted as meaning that either there is little to be found, or that queer women were, in fact, relatively scarce in the past. In addition to the value of stories like Bertolina’s for their own sake, they remind us of what is still out there to be discovered.
But let’s move on to Bertolina’s specific story. The record mentioning her is from 1295. As I noted earlier, she lived in Bologna, Italy--though keep in mind that “Italy” was mostly a vague idea at this time, not a coherent nation-state.
What was going on in Europe in 1295? King Edward I was busy building castles to support his military adventures in Wales and Scotland; this is the era of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame. The 9th Crusade finishes with the Egyptian recapture of Acre, effectively ending the Christian colonial occupation of the Holy Land. In Italy, Marco Polo has just returned to Venice from his travels in China and Dante Alighieri is hard at work on his poetry, though yet to write his greatest works. The Italian Renaissance isn’t quite a twinkle in its parents’ eyes, nor has the Black Death touched Europe yet. We’re pretty solidly in the middle of the “middle ages”.
Bologna was at that time a “commune”--an independent political entity--having escaped domination by the Holy Roman Empire a century earlier as part of the Lombard League. It was a thriving commercial and artistic center with a population in the tens of thousands, though becoming politically unstable due to squabbling among the ruling families. Infractions against the law--the context of Bertolina’s story--were judged in the civic court by appointed judges who were typically outsiders, in place for a limited term. Perhaps this was specifically to avoid having trials influenced by local squabbles and loyalties. Charges were brought, not by anything resembling a police force, but by private citizens, who might make an anonymous report of something that should be investigated, or could make a public accusation. In either case, it was the court’s responsibility to call witnesses, draw conclusions, and assign sentences or fines.
But before we come to the charges, what does the record tell us about Bertolina Guercia?
We know that her father is dead, that she lived in the parish of Santa Cecelia, next to the old city wall--an area that may have had a somewhat seedy reputation. There is no mention of a husband, nor is she identified as a widow--both of which would almost certainly be considered relevant in the legal records, so we can assume she never married. We don’t know what profession she followed, though she was comfortable enough that she could hire singers for an evening’s entertainment. It’s worth noting that nowhere in the trial records does anyone suggest that she was involved in sex work, which was commonly used as an all-purpose charge against unruly women. She is accused of being known to be a magician and fortune-teller, and said to claim that she could cause people to love or hate, and that she used these activities to extort money from people. Charges of this sort were fairly common “add-ons” to other accusations, and the court records indicate that they were rarely taken seriously or mentioned in verdicts and sentencing.
We can also guess that she had, in some way, angered a more powerful neighbor, Guilelmo of San Biagio, who had the good fortune to have friends or patrons among the nobility and whose charges were therefore taken seriously.
This brings us to the specific charges that make Bertolina of interest to us today. The original anonymous report stated that she “is and long has been, especially for the last six months, a public and well known sodomite, using a certain mancipium with two silk testicles, conducting herself lustfully with women with this mancipium as men do with women.” The charge also uses some formulaic language, most likely derived from clerical writings about sodomy, calling the act “unspeakable” and contrary to human nature. And, as noted previously, the charge added that “she is a public and well known magician and diviner, deceiving the men and women of the city of Bologna, extorting money from them, saying that she was able to make people greatly and entirely love her, and make others hate, in the manner of a magician and idolator.” What did it mean for a woman to be called a sorcerer “afacuratris”? How did 13th century Bolognese people understand these alleged abilities? We don’t have examples of what Bertolina was supposed to have done, but of one of her fellow citizens of Bologna, a woman named Monna Necha, it was said she “casts spells on men and women and is a fortuneteller and...can teach how to make transfigurations of people to extort money...[who says she] can make the person you want love you at your will ... [and can] bring up tempests and hailstorms so that no one could escape death”. Another woman who was labeled an “affaturatrix” like Bertolina was said to keep an image of a human figure with spines stuck in it. So the charges against Bertolina were meant to evoke the image of similar acts and abilities. But the records indicate that such charges often seem to have been made as leverage when the true dispute was unrelated, and in the above cases, the women were not convicted of the charges of magic.
The judge assigned to Bertolina’s case, a man named Lantelmo of Aliate, followed standard legal procedures and held an inquest, at which four of Bertolina’s neighbors were questioned regarding the charges. Had they heard anything by vox or fama, that is, by direct information or by public reputation, that would corroborate the accusation?
Each testified in the negative. At this point, our understanding of the case must split in two possible directions, as we shall see. Either the later, detailed, testimony was a complete fabrication--an unusually explicit and specific one--or Bertolina’s neighbors had no particular problem with a woman “conducting herself lustfully with women” and performing love magic for pay. (It is, of course, also possible that they did have a problem with it, but not enough to report it to the law themselves, and not enough to be worth the trouble of getting personally involved.)
Those denials might have put an end to the matter--and if so, would have deprived us of some of the more interesting details of the case--but Bertolina’s anonymous accuser came forward in person to pursue the case and bring his own witnesses. We can tell that this Guilelmo was a man of some standing because when you appeared in the court you had to provide references who would back you up, and his were three powerful noblemen of the city. Who was Guilelmo and what did he have against Bertolina? That we can’t tell. He wasn’t an immediate neighbor, and seems to have run in a different social stratum, but from the language of the original accusation--that Bertolina “extorted money from people through her magic”--he may have been an unsatisfied customer. Or--and here is an intriguing possibility--he may have been a romantic rival, thus the focus on Bertolina’s sexuality.
In any event, Guilelmo produced two witnesses, only one of whom directly addresses Bertolina’s actions. Bertolina was also summoned to appear, but declined. In the following testimony, the witness, Ugolino Martini, refers to Bertolina by her nickname Guercia. This is the translation Lansing provides in her article.
“One evening [I was] at supper in my house in the parish of Yeme, in the past though I don’t remember whether it was this year or last year, nor the day or month, but it was after the third bell. I heard two men singing and I went out of my house and went to where they were singing. I did not know them, nor do I know them. They were singing near the church of San Tomaso where they were making a serenade, but I don’t know to whom. When they had sung, I said to them that they should come with me and serenade my lady. They said that they did not wish to come unless it was with the agreement of Gueercia, who was present, and at whose request they said they were there. Guercia said that she did want them to come with me.
“The men and Guercia came along with me, and I led them to the house of Lady Dolzebone in the parish of San Biagio and had them sing there. Guercia said to me, ‘Are you interested in this widow?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘I have been interested in her for two years.’ I replied to her, ‘Unlucky you, how can you be interested in women?’ She said, ‘It is because I--
Here we must pause for some tricky vocabulary. The record has the verb “tifuo” which is not a known word. Lansing believes it may be either a deliberate or accidental mangling of “futuo”, that is “fuck”. The text is also about to refer to an object called a “virilia” which, from context, we can understand as a dildo. So I’ll just use both those words, with the understanding that the translation is approximate.
“She said, ‘It is because I fuck them with these dildos of silk that I have.’ I said to her, ‘May I see some of these dildos?’ She said yes and drew one from her purse and showed it to me. It was made of silk, but I do not know what kind of silk. She showed me a number of them though I don’t know how many because I did not count them, but some were great and large and some small, and I am not sure whether she showed me ten.”
Ugolino testified that he didn’t actually see her using the virilia, and that he knew nothing at all about the other charges. The magic and divination were not mentioned.
Bertolina was summoned to appear in her own defense, but declined to appear. The judge assigned an improbably large fine as an alternative to being banned from the city. There is no further mention of her in the records and she is unlikely to have been able to pay the fine, so she may have left town. Or it may be that her accuser was satisfied with the moral victory and didn’t pursue the matter further.
Although the conviction appears to have been entirely on the charge of sodomy, the outcome should not be taken as evidence that 13th century Bologna was tolerant of homosexuality in general. In that same decade there are records of men being executed for the same charge, though legal records suggest that men were most likely to be accused of sodomy if violence or an underage boy were involved. But Bolognese laws discussing sodomy are explicitly concerned only with men.
It’s noteworthy that Ugolino’s testimony--assuming we can take it at face value--suggests an atmosphere of acceptance and perhaps even sympathy for women’s same-sex relations. He tells a story about love and courtship, not about unspeakable and unnatural passions. Bertolina apparently felt no qualms about disclosing her sexual interest in Dolzebone to her rival in love, nor about boasting of how she satisfied female lovers when he suggested she was unfortunate to have fallen for a woman. We may, perhaps, guess that the target of her hired serenaders may have been another woman she was courting.
The court appears to have taken no interest in her potential partners. Dolzebone was not summoned to testify. And although the original accusation and Ugolino’s testimony show a lurid fascination with the use of an artifical penis, this doesn’t seem to have been a point of particular outrage. Ugolino--again, assuming we can take his testimony at face value--know about Bertolina’s boasting for quite some time before he was induced to provide that information to the court. He certainly hadn’t felt the need to make an accusation on his own. And Bertolina’s neighbors--who were initially interrogated and must have been aware of her proclivities if she were as open about them as it seems--were willing to cover for her by disclaiming any knowledge.
But Bertolina’s refusal to appear before the court--indeed, she appears to have gone into hiding to avoid those sent to summon her--suggests that there were limits to tolerance in the face of an outright accusation. Her accuser, Guilelmo, presumably had enough power and a sufficient grudge to make her life unpleasant regardless of the outcome in court. But all the evidence suggests that the charge of sodomy may have been a convenient dodge rather than his primary grudge.
Let us sum up the most rosy--though quite plausible--scenario here. A single woman of comfortable means, though not high social status, is open about her romantic and sexual interest in women, even to the point of discussing it with a relative stranger. She boasts of satisfying her female lovers with an artificial penis, but is not otherwise masculine in her presentation or habits. Her neighbors, though presumably aware of all this, not only make no complaint of her, but keep silent when asked to testify against her. When the court is forced to consider sexual charges against her, due to the status and persistence of her accuser, it goes through the motions, offers a very lenient (if expensive) judgment, and does not pursue either her or her lovers beyond that.
This sheds a different light on the general absence of women in medieval legal records concerning sodomy. One of the frustrations of researching sexuality in legal records--not the theoretical treatises such as penitential manuals, but records of actual accusations and trials--is that an absence of evidence is highly ambiguous. Does it mean that the practice in question wasn't regarded as a crime? Or that it didn't occur? Other articles on the subject, such as Puff's "Female Sodomy: The Trial of Katherina Hetzeldorfer (1477)" and Crompton's "The myth of lesbian impunity: Capital laws from 1270 to 1791" have addressed this question by focusing on cases with more dire consequences. But Bertolina’s case suggests that women’s same-sex relations may have not simply flown under the radar for the most part, but been considered of trivial importance even when brought to official attention.
This case provides a relatively even-handed glimpse into a casual acceptance of romantic and sexual relations between women being similar and parallel to those between men and women. Like extra-marital heterosexual relations, they might provide an excuse for the exercise of malice for other reasons. But for every Bertolina Guercia, we can easily envision any number of Dolzebellas who evidently carried on with their girlfriends with no interference or harrassment.
Show Notes and Links
Ordinarily, I don't put a lot of my personal life into the blog here. That's what twitter and facebook and my Dreamwidth journal are for. But on the off chance that I have readers of this blog who don't follow me elsewhere, here's a quick update. I'm entering my third week of working from home as a epidemic-slowing measure. I don't know if the language is common elsewhere, but here in California it's being referred to as "shelter in place"--a term more often used for things like chemical releases, wildfire air quality emergencies, and the like. Not quite as absolute a concept as quarantine. (And, of course, much different from the standard protocol for earthquakes, which is "duck and cover, then exit the building".)
I've been tracking my activities, daily temperature, and potential contacts in my Dreamwidth journal. At this point, any potential exposure from pre-shelter days can be ruled out but I have made a couple of grocery excursions since then. At this point, I'm pretty well set to completely isolate (other than a daily bike ride for exercise) for the duration, even if the duration lasts over another month. I don't think anyone can predict how this is going to play out at that timescale. There are many possibilities and most of them involve catastrophizing. At this time, I do know people who are infected, though all of them are online friends rather than face-to-face. At this time, I don't yet have any direct social links to anyone who has died (that I know of), but statistics says that will happen. In my immediate circle, I worry most for my 90-year-old father and my brother-with-the-heart-condition who live together an hour's drive away. (Close enough that if they needed me to run errands for them, I could.) And periodically, people remind me that, at age 61, I fall in a statistically more-at-risk group, despite being generally in robust health with no significant other risk factors.
So much of my day-to-day social life is online that there are long stretches when it scarcely feels different. Writing a blog like this is like living in a room with one-way glass. For the most part, I never know whether my writing is touching people, or serving to entertain or educate. I know I put out this plea on a regular basis, but when face-to-face contacts are even further reduced, it means a lot to me when people let me know that the work I put out has created a relationship between us. That there's a face on the other side of that glass, even if I can't see it.
Lasser, Carol. 1988. "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" in Signs vol. 14, no. 1 158-181.
I have tried to organize this cluster of articles on friendship in a natural progression, but that wasn't always possible for logistical reasons. But it is very useful to read them as different takes on a central theme. The authors don't always agree and they always emphasize different aspects of the topic. I have plans to do a podcast essay that brings together the different threads of women's friendships--especially in the 18-19th centuries at the height of the Romantic Friendship era--and explores both the realities and the myths. Women's friendship was never just one thing. It operated on several continuums. It is neither accurate to say that friendship never had an erotic componant or that it always did. The one doens't negate the other. Even when considering the effusive language of romantic love that was "just the way women addressed each other" it is not accurate to claim it is always purely conventional, nor always reflecting what we would understand as a romantic bond, nor always something between where genuine emotional bonds are envisioned with the symbols of heterosexual romanctic love.
In this present article, it is important not to let the language of blood-family relations call up a spectre of incest taboos. The language of kinship is regularly used between (heterosexual) spouses, especially in contexts where brother/sister were used to identify fellow members of a religious or social group. (Though I've recently identified an article on the topic of erotic "romantic friendships" between genetic sisters that does cross the line into incest. It'll be a while before I get to it, though.)
Among the various models for how close female friendships were viewed in the 19th century, that of sisterhood plays a regular role. The concept of sisterhood represented a close supportive bond between equals in age and status. Sororal relationships were expected to include a component of physical affection, as well as emotional closeness. In addition to echoing bonds of blood family, the language of sisterhood was common within religious communities and charitable organizations. Thus it was a natural option for intimate friends to use with each other. In some cases, pseudo-sororal bonds might achieve legal status by means of one member of the pair marrying the other’s brother or by both friends marrying a pair of brothers.
Such fictive sisterhood existed within a culture of sex-segregated social networks and gendered social roles. (See Smith-Rosenberg 1975, once it's posted, for far more detail on this point.) Various scholars have hotly debated whether intimate friendships of this type should be understood as containing an erotic element or whether they should be understood as entirely non-sexual, following familial bonds such as mother-daughter or “natal” sisters. These debates tend to polarize the topic in a way that distracts from a consideration of just why sisterhood appears so commonly as a framing for intimate friends.
One motivation is an emphasis on the specifically female nature of women’s same-sex friendships, often combined with an idealization of the relationship of natal sisters. But what were the expectations for such family bonds that made them attractive as a model? And does the use of sisterhood as a model contradict the homoerotic possibilities of female friends who use that language? Or might the use of sororal language be a means of negotiating the erotic potential of intimate friendships?
Natal sisterhood in the 19th century came with expectations of mutual emotional and financial support, embedded within larger familial networks, with a lifelong obligation to maintain those networks. The expectation was that sisters would provide mutual care and intense love. The use of sister terminology among religious and activist communities drew on these same expectations. None of these expectations erase the simultaneous reality that not all families were free of conflict, but even within those conflicts was an expectation of continued relations.
All of these features were invoked when women used the model of sisterhood for intimate friendships. It was an intensely emotional model that contrasted with the “cool and rational” relations expected by male friendships. [Note: But is it true that men's friendships were expected to be "cool and rational" at this era? Or is true that they were in fact, regardless of the social model? It's outside the scope of my study, but given how much I see a contrast between the supposed non-erotic nature of women's friendships and their frequent reality, I wonder how much the myth and reality of men's friendships could also differ. But certainly the pubic archetype of women's friendships as intensely emotional provided scope for them to be erotic as well.]
Sisterhood models might be enhanced by paralleling other attributes of natal families: naming children after the friend, co-residence, sharing beds while visiting, and integrating other members of the natal family into the friendship relationship, the ultimate example of which would be marriage to a brother or other family member.
Kinship networks were essential for a successful and happy life, and those from the natal family could be supplemented (or even replaced) by fictive ones. Even heterosexual marriage could be made unnecessary with sufficiently supportive networks. As one woman wrote to her adopted sister, she didn’t have a particular problem with men, but found the institution of marriage to be a barrier to her goals. She felt no inclination to marry as she could never expect to find a man who would sympathize with her plans and support them in the way that a sister would. (Other women expressed a more focused disinclination for marriage if it would interfere with their intimate friendships.) Even if heterosexual marriage were accepted, a fictive sisterhood might remain the most important relationship in a woman’s life.
Although much of the documentary evidence for fictive sisterhood comes from the white middle class, the phenomenon was also important to working class women and in the African American community..
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44c - Movie Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/21 - listen here)
When Portrait of a Lady on Fire came into the local theaters, my first choice would have been to find movie buddies to watch it with. My second choice was to find one or two people for an online chat, like I did for The Favourite. But, alas, no one responded to my call for interested participants. So here I am, talking to myself in front of a microphone about a movie that you definitely should go see if you’re a fan of the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast.
It feels a bit silly to try to do a movie discussion show all by myself, so this is going to be more of a rumination on loving uncomfortable history, and the question of whether we’ve arrived at a point in time when even bittersweet depictions of lesbians are a joyful thing. When we don’t have to feel that anything less than unicorns and happy-ever-afters feels like tragedy.
This is already getting dangerously close to spoiler territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put up the spoiler alert. I’m going to talk about what happens in Portrait and I’m also going to talk about what happens in a book I recently consumed, The Mercies, which got me to thinking on many of the same themes. So if you’re a person who is averse to spoilers and if you have plans to watch or read either of those properties, then bookmark this podcast to come back to after you’ve done so.
Are we clear on that? No coming after me complaining that I gave things away? Is this enough time for you to hit “skip” on the podcast app if that’s what you need to do? Ok, then.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French film, written and directed by Céline Sciamma. It’s set on an island off Brittany, in the north-west of France, in the late 18th century, though since we don’t see any hints of the French Revolution, it’s not the very end of the century. A widowed countess hires the young painter Marianne to create a portrait of her daughter Héloïse as a present--or perhaps better characterized as a job application--for the man chosen as her prospective husband. If he likes the painting, he’ll agree to marry her. The one hitch? Héloïse mustn’t know she’s being painted. The last painter gave up in despair when she refused to let him see her face. So Marianne takes on the role of attendant companion to the young noblewoman, observing her closely enough to be able to begin the painting in secret.
The movie is visually ravishing, taking advantage of locations in Brittany as well as several chateaus. The costuming is similarly lovely, featuring a few glimpses of rich court gowns, but more often the women’s everyday wear from aristocrat to peasant. At some point in the film, I realized how thoroughly focused on women it was. There are some sailors in an early scene, but the story is so completely feminine that when a male messenger arrives toward the end, it feels like a shock, and is no doubt meant to do so.
The countess becomes a background figure after explaining Marianne’s task to her and the story becomes focused on Marianne, her subject Héloïse, and the housemaid Sophie who sees to their needs. Even contact with the nearby villagers comes in the form of a women’s festival. Gradually they become a family in miniature with class differences set aside, though of course, not erased.
Romantic and sexual tension develops slowly but insistently between the two women, impeded by Marianne’s guilt over the deception about the painting and the looming knowledge that the entire purpose of her project is to further Héloïse’s marriage prospects. Their mutual confession of love and the initiation of a sexual relationship comes when you’re almost starting to be afraid you’ve been baited, but their span of idyllic happiness makes up for that tease.
OK, and here’s the real spoiler part, but an essential element for some of the themes I want to talk about. In the end, the portrait is completed with Héloïse’s cooperation, the countess approves of it, it is sent off to the prospective groom, and Marianne leaves to return to Paris and teaching painting to young ladies (the framing story at the opening of the film). In a postscript, Marianne spots another portrait of Héloïse in a gallery, showing her with her young child. Then she sees her alone at the opera, weeping at the beauty of the music (a motif that came up earlier in the film). These experiences are bittersweet but both women had accepted how the course of their lives would run.
So is this a film that draws back from embracing a happily-ever-after ending for its lesbian protagonists? Is this meant to be tragic? Here’s why I don’t see it that way.
One of the things that this film depicts solidly and authentically are class relationships between the characters. Marianne’s unmistakable status as an employee. Sophie’s unremarked duties to see to everyone else’s needs. The countess recounting her own marriage to a stranger in a foreign land, and how her goal is to see her daughter’s life follow the patterns of her own.
Let us, for a moment, imagine an 18th century story in which a young, handsome, middle-class male painter spends an extended period in the company of the young woman he is painting. In which they gradually fall in love. The ending of that story would be the same: he would complete the painting, showing the depth of his love on the canvas, then he would watch her leave to marry the foreign nobleman and be strangely comforted glimpsing her later in her married life, knowing that she found some measure of happiness and that it would never have been possible for them to be together forever.
That’s the context in which I see this movie, not as a failure to give queer characters a happy ending, but as a triumph of the normalization of queer characters in historical cinema, where they get exactly the same range of types of experiences as a straight character would. Yes, there were happy queer stories in history that could be made into movies...and I certainly hope we’ll see many of them. They’ll be different in some ways from happy straight stories, but they’re out there. But this specific story could only realistically end the way it did. It embraced that. And what that means is that we get to be normal in movies, just like everyone else.
That brings me to the other property I want to discuss, which is The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I included this in the new book listings in February and I’m going to repeat the cover copy that was included then.
Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves. Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil. As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence. Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
When I read an excerpt to do my micro-review post on Patreon--you do remember that I’m doing micro-reviews of the new book listings as a Patreon benefit, right? When I read it, I thought the writing was gorgeous but there was something in the rhythm of the prose that made me doubt I’d get through reading it. So on impulse I bought the audiobook and it was the best decision because the narrator made both the language and narrative style of the Norwegian setting come alive. Listening in audiobook also made it easier to keep going when I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out, or whether the hints and promises of a sapphic relationship were going to be fulfilled.
So, again, there are going to be spoilers here.
As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there are elements in this plot that can only go in certain directions. But that doesn’t preclude some of those directions from avoiding outright tragedy. Maren has lived in the isolated fishing village of Vardø all her life. She has found a man she doesn’t feel too bad about marrying, though it’s clear that she has some unrecognized homoerotic urges floundering for expression. Mostly they’re expressed in something of a crush on an older, somewhat butch woman who scoffs at following gender norms when the loss of almost all the men in a storm leaves the women of Vardø to fend for themselves.
But 17th century Europe wasn’t very forgiving of overt gender non-conformity, even when necessary for survival, and when the new commissioner arrives at Vardø to hunt down heresy and sorcery, such nonconformists are an obvious target, second after the Sámi who, as non-Christians, are marked for vicious persecution.
The commissioner, very pragmatically, has picked up a Norwegian wife, but failed in some of his practical aims by choosing the sheltered daughter of a ship-owner, fallen on hard times. Ursa barely knows the basics of an urban housewife, to say nothing of being in sole charge of a rural household with no servants. She can’t turn to her husband for help--even in marriage he’s a complete stranger to her. Her need combines with Maren’s loneliness to form a fast, if unbalanced friendship. There is a sensual component to that friendship that the two women are unsure how to express until the aftermath of the emotional crisis of the witch trials and executions, which include the execution of Maren’s crush.
OK, here’s the serious spoiler section for this book. In a cathartic moment, the women engage in a sexual relationship and recognize what they’ve been leading toward for the previous year. Ursa’s husband, the commissioner, becomes suspicious and attacks Maren. In a panic, Ursa kills him. (It all feels very triumphant in the moment. He’s a real bastard.) But that act will have consequences. To protect Ursa, Maren decides to leave -- to take to the wilderness and possibly find and join her Sámi sister-in-law -- so that the blame will fall on her and no one else in the village will be punished. Ursa will be free to return to her father’s house. Although there is a hint of space left open for the possibility that they will find each other again later, they cannot be together at the end of the book as it stands.
As with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though perhaps more emphatically, the structure of the plot doesn’t allow for a romantic happily-ever-after ending, but it does allow for passion, agency, revenge, and hope. Same-sex love is not punished with death, although it feels touch-and-go for a bit. And though I felt put through the emotional wringer, The Mercies left me feeling validation that the field of queer historical fiction is strong enough to tell stories like this. Stories that tackle the rough parts of history and include us in them without needing either to coddle us or to punish us for existing.
Romances with guaranteed, formula-driven happy endings are important--essential even. But they aren’t the only important type of story to tell. What I long for is the day when any story I encounter could potentially have queer characters included in it. We can’t have that if we require guarantees and promises.
And a romantic couple in a permanent bond is not the only possible way for queer people to be happy in history. Sometimes you find it in recognizing and acknowledging your desires. Sometimes you find it in holding close and then letting go, knowing the joy you took will stay with you. Sometimes you find it in hefting up a stone rolling pin and claiming your freedom.
One of my twitter friends (who is also a beta reader), Maya Chhabra conceived the idea of doing a "modern Decameron" to entertain those avoiding the plague, and she was quickly joined by Jo Walton who is providing coordination and a framing story. I am proud to be a contributor to the series with my queer Arthurian story "All is Silence" which is posted today. Check out the whole series at Patreon. The posts are free to read by subscriber/contributors will support either the authors or charities of their choice.
It's a tribute to how disrupted the normal patterns of my life are at the moment, that I failed to post this on it's sheduled Monday (though I did remember I needed to at several points in the day). As of last Wednesday, I'm under direction to work from home until this whole pandemic thing sorts itself out. I have the privilege and good fortune not only of having a job that can be performed in this way, but in having an employer who was ahead of the curve in setting up guidelines and structures, not only to comply with what is now a government mandate, but to protect our supply chain and patient-customers. (We produce biologically based pharmaceuticals. It isn't a production line you can stop and re-start arbitrarily. And even an unplanned shutdown of a couple of months would mean failing to provide our customers with lifesaving medications.)
On the one hand, not spending 1.5-2 hours commuting every day is giving me time to get some household projects done that usually get crammed into weekends. Even under our current "shelter in place" directive, there's an allowance for getting out for exercise as long as social distancing is maintained. I've taken up a routine bike ride on my lunch hour. And I have sufficient supplies that I haven't had to expose myself to grocery-hunting crowds in this initial realignment phase.
But it's a scary and unsettling age we live in. I'm not sure anyone can foresee what the long-term consequences of this pandemic will be on social and political structures. We can hope that there's a lesson to be learned about collective action for the collective good, and about how infrastructure that protects the poorest and most vulnerable is actually in the selfish self-interest of even the wealthy and powerful. Maybe there's a lesson about how intersecting the groups "wealthy" and "powerful" so completely is part of what got us here in the first place. Do I sound like a radical? Probably not as radical as I should be. I long to be able to do something concrete to support those who don't have the advantages my specific employment gives me. I comfort myself that while I may not be directly supporting Covid19 health care, I do support vital health care in my everyday job. But outside of that, the only concrete things I seem to be able to do is targeted shopping at small businesses who don't have reserves to fall back on. (I'm still feeling uncertain about the risk involved in ording take-out from small food service businesses whose employees may not be able to afford to admit health risks.)
In any event, here is your regular weekly Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog. A day late, but never a dollar short.
Verini, Alexandra. 2016. "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe" in Feminist Studies vol. 42, no. 2 365-391.
In reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the network of female friendships I've written into my Alpennia series--my "web of women." It has the same layered, multi-valent nature as what Verini describes. This is no accident, as I'm basing my world-building on my research into the lives of actual historic women, and that feature shines through as you read about women's lives. It may not be entirely fair to compare the prototypical ideal of men's friendships (focused on a single pair, viewed as being a bond of equals who share everything freely between them) with the emergent images of women's friendships extracted from tangential data (multi-faceted, distributed, often asymmetric, rarely exclusive to a single pair). The realities of men's and women's lives dictated some of the differences. A woman was rarely as free as a man to pledge all her resources to be shared in common with a friend (especially if married). But as Alan Bray notes in The Friend, celebrated male friendships often had an asymmetry of status or power, rather than the ideal of equality. And men, like women, had a wide variety of non-kin networks that included a friendship component. But I think Verini hits on some useful observations in this analysis that help us envision women's lives in the past.
Both historic treatises on friendship and academic studies of the concept have primarily focused on male friendships -- the historic treatises because they were written by men in the context of patriarchal societies, and the academic studies, because they largely focus on those treatises and their context. Male-oriented concepts of friendship typically focused on a bond between two men of relatively equal status and standing that represented a sense of “complete identity of feeling about all things” (Cicero) and that often was given formal standing within social and political structures. Historic authors often doubted that “true” friendship was possible either between women or between a man and a woman. Friendship scholar Alan Bray asserted that he could find no evidence for formal, publicly-recognized friendships between women before the 17th century.
Verini challenges this understanding, noting that while some female authors adopted the classical language of amicitia (friendship) for themselves, it can be more productive to identify concepts and philosophies of women’s friendship within texts whose focus is on other topics. For this purpose, she studies concepts of friendship within two 15th century texts: Christine de Pizan’s allegorical The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe’s autobiographical and visionary The Book of Margery Kempe. These very different texts approach concepts of friendship from different directions but evolve a number of similar understandings that contrast sharply with male-centered models of friendship.
Pizan develops a proto-feminist allegory of a city built and inhabited by virtuous women drawn from across the ages, while Kempe describes a wide variety of communal interactions--primarily with women, but also with men--that sketch a model of network-based communal reciprocity. Both--working with no formal guidelines for how to imagine women’s friendships--describe flexible, multi-faceted models that reflect their historic realities.
Pizan’s project is overtly a formal challenge to literary misogyny. It adopts some of the language of classical amicitia in viewing friendship as a “mirror of the self” that must be rooted in the virtuous nature of the participants. When applied to men, this was viewed as a complete intellectual unity accompanied by a willingness to share all material resources. (Male) humanist scholars excluded women from the possibility of such bonds on the basis that “their soul [does not] seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot” (Michel de Montaigne). But within the allegorical world of Pizan’s City, this focus on the ideals of sameness and virtue is claimed by women.
The importance of similarity is represented by the tutelary figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice who instruct the author’s textual persona and who are described as resembling each other so closely they could scarcely be distinguished. The elitist nature of true friendship is ensured in the City by admitting as inhabitants only “women who have loved and do love and will love virtue and morality.” But alongside this appropriation of the sameness/virtue model, Pizan critiques classical forms by describing a community founded on multiplicity and difference, creating a diverse network of women who exercise their virtue in individual ways. Friendship within the City avoids the absolutes of the classical model by depicting variation between public and private spheres and emphasizing the relationship of individual personal affairs to communal interests. This structure envisions multiple sets of friendship bonds between different pairs or groups of women within the City, constantly intermingling and reassembling in different configurations.
This same multi-layered, diverse network of friendships is represented in another of Pizan’s works The Book of the Queen, which invokes a community of women drawn from different classes, eras, and geographic locations. This model, Verini suggests, reflected the everyday reality of women’s networks of female friends and relatives that typically operated across boundaries of geography, family, class, and the public/private divide.
Kempe’s book has an entirely different purpose, being represented as something of an autobiography/memoir of a woman who entered a solitary religious life in middle age, having been a wife and mother. Kempe describes her relationships and interactions with a wide variety of figures, both human and sacred, male and female, across economic and class divides, and for a variety of immediate purposes and goals.
Kempe relates to various sacred figures with a sense of equality and reciprocity: they provide her with life examples while she provides them with praise and publicity. But the diffuse, reciprocal nature of Kempe’s model of friendship is seen in more detail in her relationships with contemporaries of all classes and levels of religious dedication. These are depicted as involving a sense of equality even when the immediate material or spiritual circumstances of the women differ. What is exchanged may be material (charity, nursing), spiritual (prayer, inspiration), or intellectual (advice, guidance) and need not be returned in kind or even returned directly to/from the same pair of women. Instead of direct reciprocity, a network of friendships is woven from a sort of distributed gift exchange in which acts of friendship may be “paid forward” rather than returned directly.
Both texts meet in this model of a web formed by multiple types and degrees of friendship of different natures, rather than envisioning friendship as inherently limited to a binary pair and resting on identity of nature and interests.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44b - Interview with Catherine Lundoff of Queen of Swords Press - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2020/03/14 - listen here)
An interview with Catherine Lundoff about her small publishing house, Queen of Swords Press
An interview with the founder of Queen of Swords Press about the process of starting a publishing company.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Queen of Swords Press and Catherine Lundoff Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
When I wrote a story about an epidemic, complete with administrative mismanagement, I hadn't intended it to be immediately relevant to the world the book was released into. (Though, of course, all fictional themes can have metaphorical resonances with contemporary life.) The elite of Rotenek respond to periodic bouts of river fever by "social distancing" -- i.e., by leaving town for their country properties. In Floodtide, a further quarantine measure was to block traffic across the river, in the belief that the source of the disease was the poorer quarters of the city. As today, these measures provide protection to some at the cost of abandoning others to the disease We don't have Celeste's magic charms to protect us against fever, and some of the bravest people out there are the health care workers who risk their own lives to stay at their posts.
Other than the cancelation of a couple of events in my near future, my life is being relatively unaffected. I'm working from home for the indefinite future because the pharmaceutical company I work for needs to reduce risk for the hands-on workers who are keeping our supply chain going to deliver life-saving medicines to the patients who depend on us. (Not directly related to Covid-19, although this morning's corporate update noted that other divisions are donating drugs being used for experimental treatments of the virus.)
I've only been working from home for two days now, and except for the isolation I could really get used to this. A 15 second commute, an entire garden to look at during my breaks rather than a single desk-rose. But in addition to the "what next" dread that hangs over us all, there's an unsettled sense of being off my habits and rhythms. I hope I settle in quickly to be able to put the extra time to productive use, but I hope even more that we all find ways to mitigate this epidemic and use the lessons in the future.
Be safe; wash your hands; and remember that you can read books in the safety of your sealed underground bunker!
Today's post kicks off a series of publications that revolve around the concept of friendship, especially same-sex friendships.
Bray, Alan. 2003. The Friend. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-07181-7
Although Bray does discuss women’s friendships at various points, the book is overwhelmingly focused on men and doesn’t always recognize the societal differences men’s and women’s experiences and possibilities. As usual with studies that purport to be inclusive but focus primarily on men's experiences, it isn't clear whether Bray even considered the possibility that women's experiences took a sufficiently different form that they would require a different approach to find. If women are overwhelmingly excluded from formal institutions of learning and from church institutions, then a study that finds a wealth of men's friendships in those institutions would be wrong to conclude that the absence of parallel female examples means that women didn't form friendships. If women are largely excluded from a publicly-performed life, then evidence for their friendships may need to be sought in more private records. And so on, and so forth. The reverse can occur in studies that look at the "romantic friendship" phenomenon through the lens of female-only institutions and activities and somehow conclude that men in that era were incapable of forming deep personal bonds with other men, just because they weren't necessarily using the same language and the same symbolism.
Bray’s book was inspired by trying to understand the meaning behind various joint funeral memorials of pairs of non-related men. The study expanded to “the distinctive place friendship occupied in traditional society” in Europe from the 11th to the 18th centuries. The focus is on friendship as a public rather than a private phenomenon. He also touches on the relationship of homosexuality to same-sex friendship.
The core of the book’s topic, and the image that Bray returns to in each section, is co-burial with symbolism reminiscent of that used for married couples. His study focuses on England and there are aspects of the English experience (especially around religious issues) that don’t necessarily track to other cultures. He stakes out a position that, before the 17th century, he could find no evidence for women possessing the specific type of “kin-like” friendships that he is studying. [Note: As in many similar studies, he doesn’t appear to question deeply whether this is because they didn’t exist or because they existed in forms that left a different type of evidence than men’s friendships did.] For this reason, I’ll skim over many of the details of his study and focus more closely when women are involved.
Chapter 1: Wedded Brother
The focal point in this chapter is the joint tombstone of two 14th century English knights buried in Byzantium. The helmets and coats of arms on the stone are arranged to turn to face each other. Each image bears a shield with both their arms impaled together, as might be done for a married couple. In the 15th century, a heraldic treatise commented on two Spanish knights who were “sworn brothers” and similarly impaled their arms as a sign of the relationship. Also in the 15th century we have a record of two English squires swearing an oath of brotherhood in a church. [Note: Compare this with Boswell’s study of “same-sex unions” which focuses on a specific type of liturgical ceremony for similar relationships and thus may overlook some of the examles Bray considers.]
There are references in medieval romance of sworn brothers sealing their pact with a “kiss of peace”. [Note: it’s important to be aware that kissing was used as a formal symbolic gesture in many non-romantic and non-erotic contexts in this era.] Bray discusses various examples of similar sworn brotherhood in various contexts. One example for which we have significant commentary, due to its prominence and political implications is that between Edward II and Piers Gaveston, who swore brotherhood “after feeling love [amor] for each other at first sight.”
Bray discusses the supposed “purposes” claimed for sworn brotherhood, all of which can be shown not to apply in many cases.
Chapter 2: Friend to Sir Philip Sidney
This chapter begins by describing the planned joint memorial for Fulke Greville and Philip Sidney in the early 17th century, although the memorial was never built. Again, the description matches what would be expected for a married couple in that era: a double tomb arranged as two beds (set vertically) with statues of the two.
Greville and Sidney described their friendship in a more private way than earlier examples of “sworn brothers.” They used pastoral imagery and discussed it in private letters.
There is a detailed discussion of Greville and Sidney’s history and context together, as well as the context of how friendship between men was represented at the time. Such sworn friendships almost inevitably involved inequity of rank, but bonds of patronage and service between them allowed a high level of closeness and trust.
The language of friendship partook of fancy rhetoric in part to negotiate the dangers of the bond, due to conflicting bonds and obligations external to the friendship. Friendship carried obligations that were not easily ignored. And friendship assumed a level of privacy that could easily be betrayed.
Chapter 3: Families and Friends
The chapter opens with more examples of joint memorial brasses of pairs of unrelated men, focusing on a 14th century example with two tonsured clerics at Merton College. Comparative examples of m/f married couples on memorial brasses are provided from the same era.
Bray compares the language of brotherhood oaths with the language of marriage and betrothal. [Note: it’s important to recognize that much of the vocabulary we now consider to be specific to marriage derives from language that had more general applications. Those general applications were not a metaphoric extension of the vocabulary, but the original core meanings. Thus heterosexual marriage was seen as a subset of a larger variety of formal bonds between people that included same-sex bonds.] This language included phrases like “to plight troth” or “wed-brothers” where both “troth” and “wed” are related to the swearing of formal oaths. “Wed” means a pledge or covenent. “Wedded” can apply to any act of commitment. There is also regular use of kinship terminology for sworn friends.
Studies of Byzantine adelphopoiesis rituals [the ones Boswell studied] note that such rituals were considered ordinary in secular society but began to be viewed critically within the church (for clerics) around the 12th century, though it continued to be practiced.
Finally a female example! Mention of the early 17th century joint memorial for Ann Chitting and Mary Barber in Suffolk, which was described by Ann’s son Henry. (The memorial no longer survives.) Does this mean that co-burials of unrelated women were a new thing in the 17th century? Or are they simply more visible then? [Note: or were they less likely to survive? Many of the male examples were preserved in academic institutions where there may have been more active conservation. Judith Bennett’s study of the 15th century joint memorial brass of Elizabeth Etchingham and Agnes Oxenbridge was not published until 5 years after Bray’s book. So he may not have known about it. But this is an illustration of the overall problem of male-centered research.]
The chapter provides many biographical details of m/m pairs of friends and discusses the religious context around the Reformation. More discussion of terminology, illustrated with letters between King James I and the Duke of Buckingham that refers to their friendship as “marriage.” A broader discussion of this history of royal favorites as “sworn brothers” who might act in the king’s name and were often attacked or disapproved of for that authority.
A discussion of kinship structures and anthropological concepts of “family” that extend beyond genetic links. There was a greater diversity of non-genetic bonds being recognized than in modern life where marriage is the only major recognized example. Pre-modern individuals existed within a potential multitude of “families.” Some such bonds automatically brought in other connections, while some were more narrowly construed as applying only to the specific bond.
We return to the Chitting/Barber tombs, now lost, but described by contemporary documents. Barber was the niece of the Chitting family’s patron. The inscriptions for the two women both recognize their marriages. Anne Chitting is buried next to Mary Barber (whose husband is buried on her other side). It’s unclear if Ann’s husband was still living when the memorial was created or was buried elsewhere.
Bray discusses the “uses” of friendships of this type, including inheritance, patronage, mentoring, family support, and legal surrogacy.
The chapter moves on to a discussion of the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for creating adelphopoiesis (sworn siblinghood). The Franciscan order had a similar rite (a 14th century example is given). The original texts and translations are provided.
Chapter 4: The Body of the Friend
This chapter focuses on physical aspects and expectations for friends. The beginning example is a mid-17th century co-burial describing the two men’s relationship as “animorum connubium” (a marriage of souls) in the inscription. Would this phrase have been interpreted by their contemporaries as a “sworn brotherhood” as in earlier centuries?
The chapter discusses Jeremy Taylor’s Discourse of Friendship (1657) and how it describes a mingling of interests, fortunes, and counsels. Symbols of the physical closeness of friendship include the kiss of peace and the joint location in the tomb, but what else? Taylor exhorts “so must the love of friends sometimes be refreshed with material and low caresses, lest by striving to be too divine it become less humane.” That is, a physical aspect of friendship was considered not only ordinary, but necessary.
Between the pair of men that is the focus of this chapter, one served as the other’s secretary and go-between. (A not uncommon inequality between the pairs of friends discussed in this book.)
We return to the example of James I, this time in his relationship with the Earl of Somerset, with a description of their physical displays of affection and how these were viewed negatively. These included the earl kissing the king’s hand and how James “hung about his neck, slabbering his cheeks.”
The language of kisses and embraces was common as a sign of friendship and goodwill between same-sex pairs. Examples of friendship gestures included arranging/adjusting the other’s clothing. Such actions conferred social status and power on the less ranking recipient and were meant to be understood as conferring that status.
Dining together was another sign of friendship, especially as we move into the 17th century when high-status diners were moving from the common hall into a private chamber. The bedchamber and bed were another place where friendship bonds could be publicly demonstrated. Giving someone an audience in the bedchamber was a mark of closeness and favor. Sharing of beds was expected and was another context where the choice of who to share with indicated closeness. One’s bed-partner was also public knowledge, given that bedchambers were not a “private” space--the lack of corridors in domestic architecture meant that one necessarily moved through rooms to get from one place to another. The term “bedfellow” reflected such choice of closeness but in this era did not assume a sexual relationship as it acquired later. Within the context of a status-differentiated friendship, performing personal service for the friend’s body is another sign of closeness.
These signs of closeness were both sincere and capable of being used strategically on both sides. Bray discusses how overwhelmingly male the environments in which these friendships took place. [Note: That is, how overwhelmingly male men’s environments were.] This is obvious in the context of colleges, but also in the context of the servants and attendants of a man of high status. Women, even when supplying the needs of great houses, tended to “live out” and reside in all-female groups rather than being an integrated part of the household. [Note: Bray doesn’t entirely make clear here how the picture changes in a household that includes a wife and children, rather than the household of a man who is either single or living separately from his immediate family.]
Friends at all levels of society marked their bond (especially at separations) with an exchange of tokens: rings, knives, caps, etc. But letters and books also formed a type of gift exchange. Letters were treasured, not only for the content, but as a symbol of the friend’s presence. Great men, who had secretaries to write for them, might write in their own hand as a special gift.
There is a discussion of suggestively sexual jokes and humor between friends, noting that it can occur between male friends who elsewhere express conventional horror of sodomy. Bray takes the position that such jokes are about affirming masculinity, but could not possibly(!) be about sexual relations. (And yet, the enemies of those friend-pairs clearly might read sexual meanings into the relationship.)
There is a brief admission that little has been said about women, who also formed similar pseudo-kin bonds, shared beds, etc. Bray notes that women left fewer traces in the historic record due to having less property and influence. But in literature, how do women figure in relation to same-sex friendships? His answer is that they appear primarily as the enemies of men’s same-sex friendships. [Note: once again, there is plenty of data on women’s positive same-sex friendships in literature if you are specifically looking for it.]
Chapter 5: Friends and Enemies
The chapter begins as usual with the biography of a specific pair of friends, this time two Catholic priests who fled England together in the 16th century during the religious struggles of the Reformation. There had long been a popular association of Catholic religious orders with sodomy, in part because of the prohibition on married clergy, but in part because of the association of sodomy with effeminacy. In the 16th century, sodomy was considered something everyone was capable of, not a fixed orientation. In contrast to earlier uses of the term, it had become strongly gendered, applying only to men and indicating effeminacy. The term was also more vague than “anal sex” and was considered to go hand in hand with other moral defects.
Thus, the association for Protestants of sodomy with Catholic priests was in part as a symptom of their general immorality. In England, in particular, Catholics were associated with treason and violent opposition to the government.
Pairs of close male friends, especially in universities or religious institutions, were ripe for accusations of sodomy. This connection then extended to the sense that sodomites (especially male friends) were more likely to turn traitor because of the overall immorality that was associated with that term.
There is more discussion of the overlap of male friendships and the idea of betrayal, but as there is no discussion of female topics I’m skipping the rest of this chapter.
Chapter 6: Friendship and Modernity
The chapter example is a joint memorial in Merton College. There is a discussion of shifts in domestic space in the 18th century that created “privacy” as a concept. The sharing of bed and board was no longer a public performance. [Note: it still happened, it just didn’t have the same public symbolism as an open act.] Physical intimacy changed in significance. Men of rank were no longer served by other gentlemen but by servants separated by a class divide. Up and down the social ladder, there was a sense that physical privacy was expected between non-family. Bray is talking here about a narrowly English development that continental visitors found odd.
Formal non-sexual kissing began to disappear. The Enlightenment and a shift away from personal bonds as the basis of commerce and government changed the economic function of close friendships. “Friend” became a more general and diffuse concept, rather than an intimate bond.
In parallel with this formalization of friendship, marriage became more rigid and formal, requiring the presence of clergy and documentation. Bray notes the marriage in 1680 between James Howard (Amy Poulter) and Arabella Hunt. [Note: see Crawford and Mendelson 1995] The evidence is confusing whether this marriage was intended to be sincere or was intended as a joke. Was this the formalization of a female same-sex friendship that was disavowed when things went awry? How might the clandestine Hunt/Poulter bond compare to the open Chitting/Barber bond that was celebrated? Another example of a female joint memorial is presented from 1710 between Mary Kendall and Catharine Jones. Bray discusses their biographical background and connections, showing how friendships were used to connect extended families.
Similar family bonds via same-sex friendship are demonstrated for men in the 18th century with multiple examples given. If such evidence of friendship bonds connecting families became harder to find by the 19th century, is it because they were less common or less visible?
Bray raises the example of Anne Lister to argue for the “less visible” option and points out that without the evidence of Lister’s diaries, her same-sex friendships would be invisible. He reviews evidence for how some of Lister’s family accepted and approved of her “union” with Ann Walker. The diaries go into details of various ceremonial signifiers for her different bonds, including exchanging rings, taking communion together, and pledges of fidelity. These all have echoes of how the language of marriage was incorporated in the tradition of “sworn friendship.”
Bray has a long discussion of the symbolism in the windows of the church where Lister and Walker took communion together. But this section is all very abstractly philosophical and involves a lot of putting thoughts into the heads of historic people.
Another joint memorial for two women--Anne Fleming and Catherine Jennis in 1795--is not technically a co-burial but references the proximity of the two graves in the church as a sign of their friendship.
Bray considers how the wealth of detail in the Lister diaries can shed light on the nature of less well documented same-sex friends. The erotic potential of such friendships goes in and out of focus. Only in rare cases, such as Lister’s, do we have access to the interior of such a bond. But we also know how Lister’s family treated that bond while being unaware of its sexual component. [Note: Or at least, while not leaving any documentary trace that they were aware.]
See also Lister’s opinions about the Ladies of Llangollen, whose public reputation was a non-sexual friendship while Lister suspected that it was sexual. Lister sometimes refers to her erotic interactions as a “weakness.” Might other same-sex friends have integrated their bonds in similar ways? The discussion concludes with a the legal and inheritance aspects of Lister’s union which reinforce the marriage-like aspect.
Chapter 7: Coda
The co-burial example for this chapter is from the late 19th century of two Catholic clergymen who explicitly requested to be buried together. There is a detailed documentary trail of how the one who died later re-emphasized multiple times this wish, evidently out of fear that his body would instead be memorialized in a more prominent and important location. Their memoirs emphasize the closeness (and even marriage-similarity) of their friendship. There is an involved discussion of the social politics of burials at the chapel. Bray creates a scenario in which the two are part of a long lineage across time of sworn friends who were commemorated with co-burial.
Afterword: Historians and Friendship
A discussion of the role and importance of studying friendship in history, with a survey of key studies of the topic and some of the major strands of disagreement among scholars, especially regarding the intersection of same-sex friendship and homosexuality.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 44a - On the Shelf for March 2020 - Transcript
(Originally aired 2020/03/7 - listen here)
Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2020.
No matter what’s going on in the world, the seasons turn. Here in the northern hemisphere I’m enjoying the days getting longer and spending the extra daylight madly getting my garden in order for the new season. My interest in history includes a rather practical fascination with historic cookery, and since I also love gardening, I’ve incorporated a number of less common plants and trees to support that fascination. Did you know you can grow apple and cherry varieties that have been in continuous use since before 1600? I also love growing old roses and I’m just about to enjoy the explosion of gallica roses--the kind used for millennia to make rosewater and attar of roses for perfume. There’s an extra pleasure in reading or writing historical fiction that draws in all the senses, including taste and smell.
If you love reading historical fiction, have you ever participated in re-enactment or living history activities for your favorite time periods? Does it add an extra dimension to enjoying stories if you can imagine how one moves in the clothing, what the food tastes like, or imagine the soundscape of those streets? I spent a lot of my life doing medieval and Renaissance activities, and it’s all woven in with why I love studying history: to get a glimpse of what other lives might have been like. The days are past when I had the time to participate in creating an aristocratic banquet in 15th century Burgundy, but I can sit here and enjoy a Renaissance-era marmelade recipe on my toast, made from an ancient variety of oranges growing in my own garden.
Publications on the Blog
In February, spilling into the beginning of March, the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog featured a series of articles that revolved around Sappho in some way, though perhaps only by allusion. I start with Harriette Andreadis a “The Sapphic-Platonics of Katherine Philips” about the 17th century English poet. Then Susan Gubar’s “Sapphistries” discussing how Sappho’s work and image have been adopted and reworked over the ages. Judith Hallett’s “Sappho and her Social Context” is a bit dated, and I included a follow-up response to it by Eva Stehle Stigers. The article "Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece" by Marilyn A. Katz ended up being not to the point, simply using Sappho’s name for a review of publications on women in classical Greece.
In March, I start on a sequence of publications about friendship and the overlap it has with relationships that either are--or are perceived as--romantic or erotic. This kicks off with Alan Bray’s The Friend, which primarily concerns male friendships, but takes a deep look at relationships that use the forms and language of romantic love. Next is Alexandra Verini’s article "Medieval Models of Female Friendship in Cristine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies and Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe". Two very different women show some intriguing similarities in how they depict female friendships. The 18th and 19th centuries are a hotbed of female friendship themes, drawing on a number of different models for how those friendships were imagined. Carol Lasser’s article "'Let Us Be Sisters Forever': The Sororal Model of Nineteenth-Century Female Friendship" looks at friendship envisioned as a familial bond, or even made familial by means of marriage to a close relative. Lisa Moore, in "'Something More Tender Still than Friendship': Romantic Friendship in Early-Nineteenth-Century England,” analyzes various understandings of romantic friendship. The friendship series of blogs will continue on into April, but we’ll leave it there for now.
There hasn’t been any book shopping this month for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, but I did pick up a copy of Brian Copenhaver’s Magic in Western Culture: From Antiquity to the Enlightenment which goes onto my shelf of deep background research for my historic fantasy series.
This month’s interview guest will be Catherine Lundoff, who was my very first author guest back when I expanded to a weekly schedule. This time, she’s returning to talk about her publishing house, Queen of Swords Press, and all the joys and tribulations of tackling the business side of publishing. I’ve been hoping to do a series of interviews with publishers of f/f historical fiction. To the best of my knowledge, there is no publisher who focuses specifically on f/f historicals, but it would be interesting to hear from a variety of sources about how that topic fits into all types of genre publishing.
For this month’s essay, I plan a fairly brief biographical sketch of a woman in 13th century Italy who got in a bit of a legal squabble over her sex life with women. We know nothing about Bertolina Guercia except what ended up in some court records, but those provide a glimpse of a life that may be rather different from what one might imagine in that time and place.
Recent Lesbian Historical Fiction
How about new and forthcoming books? The February books that I haven’t previously mentioned are fairly wide-ranging in setting. First up is a book--or rather a collected set of books--that would have fit into my episode on Viking-inspired fiction, though like most of the books in that episode it falls more on the fantasy side than the historical. This is Tooth and Blade: Collected edition (parts 1-3) self-published by Julian Barr
Two worlds. One destiny. Dóta has dwelled sixteen years among the trolls. She knows nothing but the darkness of her family’s cave. Her mother says humans are beasts who would slay them all. Yet the gods of Asgard whisper in the night: Dóta is a child of men, a monster unto monsters. To discover her human side, Dóta must take up her bone knife and step into the light above. Secrets await her in the human realm—beauty, terror, the love of a princess. Soon Dóta must choose between her clan and humankind, or both worlds will be devoured in fire and war. A monster sheds no tears. Norse mythology meets historical fantasy in TOOTH AND BLADE. Step into a realm of haunted meres, iron and magic.
This next book is book three in a series, but doesn’t appear to share characters or a setting with the earlier books, and is the only one that fits into the broad category of lesbian-relevant fiction, stipulating that one of the characters is identified as non-binary, though assigned as female by society. The book is The Flowers of Time (Lost in Time Book 3) by A.J. Lester from JMS Books.
Jones is determined to find out what caused the unexpected death of her father whilst they were exploring ancient ruins in the Himalayas. Along with a stack of books and coded journals, he’s left her with the promise she’ll travel back to England for the first time since childhood and try being the lady she’s never been. Edie and her brother are leaving soon on a journey to the Himalayas to document and collect plants for the new Kew Gardens when she befriends Miss Jones in London. She’s never left England before and is delighted to learn the lady will be returning to the mountains she calls home at the same time they are planning their travels. When they meet again in Srinagar, Edie is surprised to find that, out here, the Miss Jones of the London salons is “just Jones” the explorer, clad in breeches and boots and unconcerned with the proprieties Edie has been brought up to respect. The non-binary explorer and the determined botanist make the long journey over the high mountain passes to Little Tibet, collecting flowers and exploring ruins on the way. Will Jones discover the root of the mysterious deaths of her parents? Will she confide in Edie and allow her to help in the quest? The trip is fraught with dangers for both of them, not least those of the heart.
The title of the next book is self-explanatory -- Red Kate: a tale of lesbian piracy self-published by Sarah Tighe-Ford.
A tale of lesbian piracy set at the height of the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the heart of the Caribbean. In a world of piracy, even trust can be stolen… but can it be reclaimed? Navigating the deadly seas of the Caribbean, Captain ‘Red’ Kate’s pirate life should grant her all the freedom she desires: no rules, no restrictions, no consequences. Yet betrayal and a chance encounter leave her at the mercy of two women: Morgan, her bold but unreliable lover, and Will, a quicksilver former thief who appears from nowhere to join her crew. We all have to choose which life to live.
The first of the March books is set in the 18th century, but the rest skew a bit more recent in setting.
Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn from Zephys describes itself as:
The first in a dazzling, commercial, historical adventure series set in the extravagant and deadly world of the French Revolution. A whirlwind of action, science and magic reveals, with a diverse cast of fearless heroines, a band of rebels like no other. Camille, a revolutionary's daughter, leads a band of outcasts – a runaway girl, a deserter, an aristocrat in hiding. As the Battalion des Mortes they cheat death, saving those about to meet a bloody end at the blade of Madame La Guillotine. But their latest rescue is not what she seems. The girl's no aristocrat, but her dark and disturbing powers means both the Royalists and the Revolutionaries want her. But who and what is she? In a fast and furious story full of the glamour and excesses, intrigue and deception of these dangerous days, no one can be trusted, everyone is to be feared. As Camille learns the truth, she's forced to choose between loyalty to those she loves and the future.
This next book might be better thought of as a fictionalized biography, because it’s about two real and fascinating women. Never Anyone But You: A Novel by Rupert Thomson from Other Press.
In the years preceding World War I, two young women meet, by chance, in a provincial town in France. Suzanne Malherbe, a shy seventeen-year-old with a talent for drawing, is completely entranced by the brilliant but troubled Lucie Schwob, who comes from a family of wealthy Jewish intellectuals. They embark on a clandestine love affair, terrified they will be discovered, but then, in an astonishing twist of fate, the mother of one marries the father of the other. As “sisters” they are finally free of suspicion, and, hungry for a more stimulating milieu, they move to Paris at a moment when art, literature, and politics blend in an explosive cocktail. Having reinvented themselves as Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, they move in the most glamorous social circles--meeting everyone from Hemingway to Dalí--and produce provocative photographs that still seem avant-garde today. In the 1930s, with the rise of anti-Semitism and fascism, they leave Paris for Jersey, and it is on this idyllic island that they confront their destiny, creating a campaign of propaganda against Hitler’s occupying forces that will put their lives in jeopardy.
Although the cover copy for this next book only hints at f/f content, I’ve received confirmation that it isn’t just teasing. Is it simple history, or perhaps something more fantastic? The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In August 1939, thirty-year-old Hetty Cartwright arrives at Lockwood Manor to oversee a natural history museum collection, whose contents have been taken out of London for safekeeping. She is unprepared for the scale of protecting her charges from party guests, wild animals, the elements, the tyrannical Major Lockwood and Luftwaffe bombs. Most of all, she is unprepared for the beautiful and haunted Lucy Lockwood. For Lucy, who has spent much of her life cloistered at Lockwood suffering from bad nerves, the arrival of the museum brings with it new freedoms. But it also resurfaces memories of her late mother, and nightmares in which Lucy roams Lockwood hunting for something she has lost. When the animals start to move of their own accord, and exhibits go missing, they begin to wonder what exactly it is that they might need protection from. And as the disasters mount up, it is not only Hetty’s future employment that is in danger, but her own sanity too. There’s something, or someone, in the house. Someone stalking her through its darkened corridors…
Next we have a fairly straightforward historic romance: Behind the Bandstand self-published by Theresa J. Everlove
Club owner Jo falls head-over-heels for the gorgeous singer who has taken her jazz club by storm. But Delilah is leading a dangerous double life. Will Jo be able to show the world the stunning talent Delilah possess or will Delilah's complicated world keep them apart? While their romance burns bright, it might not be enough to protect them in the strict social structures of post-war Chicago.
Robin Talley has been specializing in stories that teeter just on the edge of what might be considered historical fiction. This one is Music from Another World from Inkyard Press
It’s summer 1977 and closeted lesbian Tammy Larson can’t be herself anywhere. Not at her strict Christian high school, not at her conservative Orange County church and certainly not at home, where her ultrareligious aunt relentlessly organizes antigay political campaigns. Tammy’s only outlet is writing secret letters in her diary to gay civil rights activist Harvey Milk…until she’s matched with a real-life pen pal who changes everything. Sharon Hawkins bonds with Tammy over punk music and carefully shared secrets, and soon their letters become the one place she can be honest. The rest of her life in San Francisco is full of lies. The kind she tells for others—like helping her gay brother hide the truth from their mom—and the kind she tells herself. But as antigay fervor in America reaches a frightening new pitch, Sharon and Tammy must rely on their long-distance friendship to discover their deeply personal truths, what they’ll stand for…and who they’ll rise against.
I dithered a bit about including this last book, The Mail Order Bride by R. Kent from Bold Strokes Books because the cover copy makes it clear that this is a romance between a cis woman and a trans man. So I want to emphasize that by deciding to include it, I am not claiming that this is an f/f romance, but rather--given the fuzzy and nebulous edges of the gender categories that fall within the scope of this podcast--it is a story that might appeal to readers who also enjoy gender-disguise romances. I’m not going to include this title in my cumulative database of f/f historicals, but books that fall between the popular identity categories often have a hard time finding an audience and I thought I’d give this one a hand.
Austin’s killed a man. Escaping his nefarious past and running from those who would force him to live as a woman, Austin dreams of becoming an upstanding man and homesteading alone on the fringes of the wild frontier. The burgeoning tent township of Molasses Pond is clenched in the bloody fist of the deadliest gunslinger the country has ever known, Lightning Jack McKade. McKade knows who Austin is. In fact, McKade knows more about Austin’s past than Austin does. He had a hand in creating it. On the last stagecoach until spring, a mail order bride, Sahara Miller, arrives in Molasses Pond. She claims to be Austin’s and has the documentation to prove it. But McKade’s gang will do anything to have her. Now Austin must choose: Strap on his twin six-shooters to protect the bride he never wanted, or turn a blind eye and keep his dream alive
At this point, my planning spreadsheet doesn’t list any f/f historicals coming out in April. I’m sure I’ll find a few when I do my keyword search in Amazon next month, but if you have, or know of, a book coming out that fits the podcast’s scope, don’t assume I’ll magically be aware of it--let me know! Last month, an author whose book was listed on the podcast tweeted about how honored they were for their book to be “on my radar.” I’d like to be clear about something. These book listings aren’t something you have to earn. They aren’t a prize to be won. They aren’t meant to be a difficult achievement. Quite honestly, they aren’t even an endorsement. The book listings are meant as a public service. A place to find out about f/f historicals you might want to follow up on and check out. Because to the best of my knowledge there is no other single place that is assembling this specific set of information. So if you have an f/f historical coming out, don’t sit there in a corner whispering to yourself, “Oh please Heather, please mention my book, please.” Because that’s not what this is about. Send me a link, a press release, a carrier pigeon with a promotional bookmark tied to its leg, anything. That’s all it takes to get your book mentioned. Really.
What Am I Reading?
So what have I been consuming lately? I saw an absolutely gorgeous f/f costume flick: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 18th century France, it’s an intensely psychological story about a reclusive young woman and the woman who comes to paint her portrait as a gift for the woman’s prospective husband. It doesn’t have a traditional romance ending, but is overall a positive story with beautiful costuming and sets. The story is very woman-centered. It’s in French with subtitles and you may need to hunt around for an art-house theater or wait for it to come out on video.
Similar in tone, in that it is a very woman-centered story but with an unflinching look at unpleasant aspects of history, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which I mentioned in last month’s book round-up. When I was checking out the preview for my mini-reviews write-up (available to Patreon supporters of the show) I found myself describing it as beautifully written, but out of sync with the sort of prose I was likely to enjoy reading. But even as I wrote that, it occurred to me that it was exactly the sort of prose that I enjoyed in audio narration--a text with a strong, idiosyncratic story-telling voice. And so I bought the audiobook and was on the nose in thinking I might enjoy it that way. It’s a very dark story, focusing on an episode of witch trials in 17th century Norway, though it has a lovely same-sex romance between the viewpoint characters. I haven’t finished it yet, so I don’t know whether it will end in tragedy or relief. When I review it, I’ll hide a spoiler on that point for those who need that information to know whether they want to read it.
In text, I just finished Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Sundering Flames, the final book in her very-alternate historical fantasy series set in a magically devastated Paris with fallen angels warring with Vietnamese dragon princes. It’s relevant to the podcast, not only for the sort-of early 20th century setting, but for the inclusion of casually queer characters all over the place. It’s a delight to read a story where you can relax and know that you’ll find your identity reflected somewhere, without any fuss being made about it.
I also started reading Edale Lane’s Merchants of Milan, set among warring factions in Renaissance Italy. It isn’t quite hitting my sweet spot yet, but we’ll see.
For a complete change of pace, I’ve started reading the graphic novel Rose of Versailles about a gender-bending swordswoman in the court of Marie Antoinette. My understanding is that there’s a fair amount of same-sex flirtation, though not actual serious romance, but the art is lovely though I’m struggling a bit with the manga reading layout. I’m not used to the formatting of graphic novels designed for Japanese publication and I keep tracking the panels in the wrong direction!
What are you reading, watching, or listening to with queer women in history? Would you like to come on the podcast and talk about it? I’m always looking for people who’d like to share their favorites on the book appreciation segments.
Links and Notes
Recent and upcoming publications covered on the blog
New and forthcoming fiction
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This article winds up my topical group of articles related in some way to Sappho. Next week I plunge into a two-month series of books and articles focusing on the topic of friendship and how it relates to women's same-sex relationships.
Katz, Marilyn A. 2000. "Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece" in Signs vol. 25, no. 2 505-531.
I added this to the list on the basis of “Sappho” in the title, but there’s very little directly-relevant content. While this sort of “survey of the field” article is useful to mine for my to-read list, in general I’ve tried to avoid scheduling them as actual entries. In this case, I’d done the review before realizing it should have been in that category.
This is a publications survey essay, talking about recent (as of 2000) publications on the topic of women in classical antiquity. It starts by noting that a similar survey in 1976 found it possible to survey the entire topic in the form of a half-dozen or so publications, and that the current state of the field is much more satisfactory.
This much material focusing on classical women is especially remarkable, given the generally conservative state of the academic field of classical studies. A great deal of the expansion is due to scholars taking a women’s studies approach to Classics, reanalyzing existing material from new angles.
Within this general survey, there is a section specifically looking at “Sappho Studies”. Two collections are noted: Reading Sappho (critical studies) and Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs (including explorations of Sappho’s work in relation to a world “female-centered by contrast with the male domain of ‘hierarchical, agonistic relations.’” Also noted is Jane Snyder’s edition and analysis of Sappho’s work from a thematic point of view, Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho (see here for my summary). Similarly Margaret Wiliamson’s Sappho’s Immortal Daughters reviews her poetic technique and contextualizes the poems with their social milieu. Also mentioned is Joan DeJean’s analysis of how sexism and homophobia affected interpretations of Sappho’s life (Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937)
Another collection of studies is E. Greene’s Re-reading Sappho that looks at readings and interpretations of Sappho from the 17th century on. (I have this on my list but haven’t read it yet.) A more post-modern approach to interpreting and contextualizing Sappho is found in Sappho is Burning by Page DuBois.