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Covering the region equivalent to modern Italy in southern Europe, but also used for topics within the cultural scope of the Roman Empire, if a more specific region is not indicated.

LHMP entry

Chapter 1: Sex and the Middle Ages

This chapter looks at evidence regarding lesbian activity that can be found in specific court cases, as well as perceptions of the role of lesbian relations in criminal activities and contexts. The point here is not that lesbians were inherently criminal in early modern Spain (though some official opinions were that one type of deviant behavior was expected to lead to other types), but that the nature of legal records can provide a wealth of detail that is not available for other contexts.

Mills asks (rhetorically) why medievalists rarely discuss transgender frameworks of interpretation, given that medieval people had much clearer ideas about that topic than anything that might be called “sexuality.” Moral polemics focused less on sex acts themselves, than on disruptions of gender, in particular those that violated the strict binary contrast of “male = active, female = passive.” Androgynous (or intersex) persons were recognized as existing, but were required to choose a consistent binary gender identity (or celibacy).

In this chapter, Faderman explores the types of sexual activity between women that were portrayed in literature written by men. Authors such as Brantôme describe tribadism, with one woman atop another rubbing the genitals together, or the use of a dildo to perform penetrative stimulation.

Crompton provides an in-depth study of European and American laws addressing homosexual acts between women, from 1270 on. Prior to this study, the general historical understanding was that lesbians were ignored by the law, based mostly on an unwarranted generalization from English law. In fact, lesbian acts were criminalized in legal systems in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Switzerland, and were considered equivalent to male sodomy.

This is an extensive study of Roman art depicting sexual activity, much of it overtly pornographic. Of the entire (enormous) corpus of material, Clarke has only identified two images that may depict or imply sexual activity between women. Both are part of a series of wall paintings at the Suburban Baths in Pompeii (ca. A.D. 62-79), and the physical condition of the paintings makes interpretation difficult and uncertain.

This is primarily a literary analysis paper, comparing the structure and themes of 13/14th c French romance Yde et Olive with one of its possible inspirations, Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. It begins with a brief reference to other medieval French romances with cross-dressing themes (e.g., Tristan de Nanteuil, as well as an outline of the entire Huon de Bordeaux cycle of which if forms a part.

“In June 1295, a woman named Bertolina, nicknamed Guercia, was accused in the Bolognese civic court of sodomy with other women.” Given that previous surveys of legal accusations of sex between women had not turned up any European examples earlier than the 15th century, this Italian case is a reminder of how much data may still be out there to be found in archives and records that have not yet been studied (or not studied by people for whom this topic would be of interest).

Male and anonymous authors continue to focus on lesbians in male-gaze pornography and crude sexual satire. The female authors in this group are instead writing of their own lives, whether the continuing poems on the theme of intensely romantic friendship, or the somewhat banal diaries of the most famous female romantic couple of the age, or the somewhat more transgressive (and likely sensationalized) memoirs of the cross-dressing/genderqueer Charlotte Charke.

Unsurprisingly, the material here is (with one possible exception?) filtered through male authors. We have literary tales of same-sex desire under the cover of gender disguise. There are medicalized case studies that--to a modern reader--sound more like intersex and transgender individuals, but those concepts were inextricably tangled with understandings of lesbianism at that time. And we have two poems, placed in the voice of a female narrator who is trying to come to terms with desiring another woman (though one is known to have been written by a man).


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