This was a surprisingly hard question to answer. It wasn’t hard because of lack of evidence: there are trial records, poems, theological writings, as well as a visual record (and we are still at the beginning of these discoveries!)
It was hard because nobody seems to know what to call these women. Can we call them “lesbians”?
Call Me By Your Name
Today in 2020 “lesbian,” though still a fluid identity, seems easier to define. Mainly it seems easier because we can ask: if someone says they identify as “lesbian” then… they are a lesbian. Generally, it is used to refer to women, femmes , or non-binary babes whose primary affectional or sexual interests are in other women/femmes/non-binary babes.
I want to be EXPLICITLY CLEAR that my use of the word lesbian — whether historical or contemporary — leaves NO ROOM for TERFS. This history and this contemporary community are for all women, femmes, non-binary babes, and any otherwise queer humans.
With all of that established there remains the question: can we call premodern humans by our contemporary names? And why does it matter what we call them?
Let There Be Lesbians
I want to address three points here:
- “Lesbian” has actually been around for a loooooong time
- We need to use our own words to discuss history so that we understand each other (and we do this all of the time!)
- My definition of “lesbian” is targeted for a premodern context (ie. a context where I cannot ask them if they identify as lesbian because they died centuries before I was born)
Using the term “lesbian” when talking about history has sometimes been seen as an anachronistic action (meaning to project something into the past that does not belong there). Even today “lesbian” remains a fluid, hard to define identity, and as a category of social construction it is not static across time or space. However, subjective lesbian desires and identification have existed, and societies have historically had their own understandings of queer identities that also reject our contemporary cis-heteronorms.
Maybe expecting the heteronormative from the past is anachronistic!
What does it mean that queer identities were constructed differently in the past? How have those constructions informed our present ideologies? Who were they constructed to serve?
The term “lesbian” was used to refer to sexual-intimacy between two women as early as 1,000 years ago when it was recorded by the Byzantine commentator Arethas. Similarly, Sappho — despite history’s best attempts at straight/ening her intentions — wrote poems that were, in all likelihood, inherently queer and certainly easily queered. These examples form an essential part of the lesbian canon to this day.
Likewise noteworthy — but often forgotten — is the female sodomite. Medieval notions of female sodomites existed, though more scarcely recorded than their male counterparts. We see them manifest in the character of Eupheme in Roman de Silence (one of my case studies, stay tuned!), as well as in medieval moralized discourse such as that written by Albert the Great.
I will talk a lot about “sodomitical” bodies as well. This is because representations that by contemporary terms seem “lesbian” are interwoven in the medieval imagination with other forms of non-procreative sexual pleasure and subverting gender roles.
There is power in this: the cis-heteronormative is not validated by the past.
- Bernadette J. Brooten’s book: Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism. It was published by University of Chicago Press in 1996.
- Giffney, Noreen, Michelle M. Sauer, and Diane Watt. The Lesbian Premodern. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- Lochrie, Karma. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality when Normal Wasn’t. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005.
- Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Duke University Press, 1999.
They Didn’t Know They Were Medieval Either
“Medieval” is a perfect example of an identifying word that has been projected backwards into history. It was first used centuries after “lesbian” — the first records we have are from the 19th C. Even the idea of a “middle age” didn’t come about until the early Renaissance in Italy with Petrarch.
Judith Bennett gives other examples of frequently historicized words, including: Capitalist; Catholic (in the post-Reformation sense); and even King.
This raises the question: why does “lesbian” — which has been around for over 1,000 years — raise such a fuss? Judith Bennett’s answer is: “homophobic anxiety.”
In my project I take the position that “lesbian” can be responsibly historicized just like all of the other words listed above.
In My Own Words….
My working definition of “lesbian” in premodern European contexts is: traces of affectional or sexual interest or intimacy between those who by contemporary terms would be identified as: women, femmes, or non-binary/gender queer individuals.*
*Adapted from the work of Lillian Faderman.
It is long and wordy, but also — I hope — inclusive of all contemporary folxs who might seek collective memory in a visual lesbian history. It is also broad enough to include Medieval categories of sexuality that don’t fit within our cis-heteronorm.
For example, there is a small image from a manuscript copy of Yde et Olive. It tells the story of two women, Yde and Olive, who get married while Yde is cross-dressed as a man. Yde tells Olive she is a woman and they decide to stay married. It’s accepted in the end because God gives Yde the “gift of humanitae” (the ability to reproduce), and the gendered hegemony (power structure) is maintained.
For the sake of clarity and my word count, I will use “lesbian” everywhere else on this website, and you can bear this more nuanced definition in mind!