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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004) 612-615

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The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. By Valerie Traub. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xvi + 492 pp.

The history of early modern studies has been influenced by a number of critical and theoretical streams that clearly emerged from the political. Joan Kelly-Gadol's early essay "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" ushered feminism into the discipline and put pressure on the notion of "Renaissance" as a time of the rebirth of classical learning when it was applied to a segment of the population that was, for the most part, illiterate in any language. Similarly, Alan Bray's book Homosexuality in Renaissance England pointed out that not all the men whom the Renaissance celebrated were what we would designate today as heterosexual.1 While the strains of feminism and gay studies precipitated by these works produced an array of theoretical and critical texts that changed the discipline as regards the study of both gender and (male homo-) sexuality, few critics challenged the notion that all homosexuality in the early modern period was male.2 Happily, the imbalance between studies [End Page 612] of male versus female homosexuality has been somewhat rectified by Harriette Andreadis and myself,3 and now by Valerie Traub.

Some may ask why it has taken so long for studies of female homosexuality to find a place in early modern studies. Part of the answer may be that the studies needed to wait for the scholars. But a larger part is that the scholars needed to decide where to look for examples of female homosexuality. The critics of male homosexuality were dealing—as we all are in early modern studies—with texts primarily written by men. Some of those men—Christopher Marlowe is a prime example—baldly stated that they preferred boys. Words existed, moreover, that specifically defined the boys they preferred: ingle, catamite, ganymede, and later molly. These words appeared in legal descriptions of the crime of sodomy as well as in other texts literary and nonliterary. Yet while legal texts state that women can be equally guilty of sodomy, only the word sodomitess—used as often to describe a common whore as a woman who engaged in more perverse sexual practices—suggested that they might be guilty of an English crime. Given the paucity of women writers, the lack of overtly homosexual female characters in literary texts of the period, and the seeming exclusion of women from English legislation that prosecuted homosexual activity, it is not surprising that sex between women was invisible.

Traub acknowledges this apparent invisibility by indicating that her way of looking for female-female eroticism is a method of "practicing impossibilities." She "attempt[s] . . . not only to demonstrate the existence of a cultural awareness of women who desired other women in the early modern period, but to detail the complex and often contradictory modes of representation through which such desire was articulated" (6). As for terms of analysis, "'lesbian' refers to a representational image, a rhetorical figure, a discursive effect, rather than a stable epistemological or historical category. . . . Throughout this book, lesbian functions as a strategic anachronism as well as an ongoing question: how does it function, what investments does it carry with it, what aims does it achieve?" (15-16).

Traub searches for lesbianism primarily in two places: medical texts and "chaste" friendships between "femmes." Her medical analysis focuses on the rediscovery of the clitoris by Gabriele Falloppia and how this organ purely of pleasure "fit" into the predominantly male medical literature. When demurely hidden—as it should be?—under the folds of the labia minora, the [End Page 613] clitoris usually poses no threat. Yet if it is large enough to be readily visible, and if it grows even larger when aroused, then by inference the woman who possesses it can imitate or perhaps even become a man. She may be able to pleasure another woman by penetrating or rubbing her. The tribade, like the hermaphrodite, is an intersex figure (209-24) who upsets the...


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