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Lesbianism and the Libertines
In a sixteenth-century French work by Pierre de Bourdeille, Seigneur de Brantôme (1540-1614), entitled Lives of Fair and Gallant Ladies, which deals primarily with the amorous exploits of the females of the court of Henri II, the author includes a lengthy section on lovemaking between women. He tells of having gone with a group of ladies and their lovers to a gallery of the Comte de Chasteau-Villain where they saw many beautiful paintings. Among them was one that portrayed "a number of fair ladies naked and at the bath, which did touch, and feel, and handle, and stroke, one the other, and intertwine and fondle with each other, and so enticingly and prettily and featly did show all their hidden beauties." The painting was so sexually stimulating to a certain great lady of the group that, according to Brantôme, she lost all restraint of herself and, "maddened as it were at the madness of love," demanded that her lover take her home immediately, "for that no more can I hold in the ardour that is in me. Needs must away and quench it: too sore do I burn." Brantôme ends this section without any hint that he (or his readers) would find it unusual that a woman could be sexually aroused by a picture of other women fondling each other. He says only, "And so she did haste away to enjoy her faithful lover."
In Brantôme's view women are usually ready to be sexual playmates -- which is always delightful if you are a lover, but worrisome if you are a husband. Brantôme displays his and his society's ambivalence toward women's venerealappetite by describing all their sexual exploits with great excitement and gusto, but repeatedly calling women who engage in illicit heterosexual relations whores. Although he appears seldom aware of the reason for this ambivalence, it seems to come down to the question of legitimacy, which for the upper classes at that time involved the issue of inheritance. A woman who cuckolded her husband could try to pass off as his a son conceived with her lover, a son who could make false claim to the husband's property. The fear of cuckoldry and men's apparent pleasure in giving other men horns was a virtual obsession in the sixteenth-century French court of Henri II and for centuries to follow.
Since donna con donna (Brantôme's words for lesbian lovemaking) cannot result in illegitimacy, there are many husbands, Brantôme claims, who "were right glad their wives did follow after this sort of affection rather than that of men, deeming them to be thus less wild." In the next breath, however, he assures those men who are not husbands but who wish to cuckold that women who are permitted to indulge in donna con donna are not lost to them forever. Even Sappho herself, the mistress of them all, ended by loving young Phaon, for whose sake she died. To many women, Brantôme says, lesbianism is only an apprenticeship to sex with men. To others, it serves when men are not available and becomes uninteresting once they are. Most women who make love with other women will "if they but find a chance and opportunity free from scandal... straight quit their comrades and go throw their arms around some good man's neck."
Donna con donna is also harmless because it does not involve penetration by a penis or insemination -- "there is a great difference betwixt throwing water in a vessel and merely watering about it and round the rim," Brantôme quotes defenders of lesbianism as saying. He believes that widows and unmarried women especially may be excused "for loving these frivolous and empty pleasures, preferring to devote themselves to these than to go with men and come to dishonour," by which he presumably means to find oneself with an illegitimate child.
The libertine poets of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century France mirror Brantôme's attitudes. Sonnet XXXIII of Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin (1595-1670) describes, in terms borrowed from heterosexuality, two beautiful women loving each other, each trying desperately to satisfy the other: "Sometimes the lover is the mistress,/ Sometimes the mistress is the lover." Saint-Pavin calls them "These Innocents who deceive themselves,/ Searching in vain, in their loves,/ The pleasures which they refuse us." There is a tacit understanding that the women will soon escape from their frustrations to the arms of men, where they will finally find real sexual pleasure.
"Elegy for a Woman Who Loves Another Woman" by Pontus de Tyard (1521?-1605) also emphasizes the frustration of lesbian love. The poem begins with the female speaker's discourse on how she wishes it were possible to join both beauty and honor in love. She had rejected the love of men because of her high ideals:
I know our century too well:
Men love beauty and laugh at honor.
The more beauty pleases them, the more honor is lost.
But Cupid has ironically punished her disdain of heterosexual lust by forcing her to love another woman unrequitedly. In the beloved's hair he has tied an invisible ribbon which pulls the speaker to her; he enflames the speaker, and then he makes the beloved shun her after briefly encouraging her. Pontus de Tyard shares with Brantôme the attitude that love between two women cannot last long. One or the other woman will soon tire of it -- and perhaps for that reason it need not be viewed with alarm by men.
But while de Tyard sees lesbian love as ephemeral and makes it clear that one cannot safely scoff at Cupid and heterosexual lust, he portrays the speaker as being poignantly if quixotically heroic. She had hoped with her beloved to ennoble love between women as Damon and Pythias, Hercules and Nestor, Aeneas...Surpassing the Love of Men. Copyright © by Lillian Faderman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.