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Saturday, July 13, 2024 - 19:00

This article points out that the position "women didn't act on the English stage until the Restoration" leans heavily on some very specific definitions of "act" and "stage." In particular, it erases non-commercial performances such as masques performed by ladies of the court.

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Gough, Melinda J. 2005. “Courtly Comédiantes: Henrietta Maria and Amateur Women’s Stage Plays in France and England” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Gough - Courtly Comédiantes: Henrietta Maria and Amateur Women’s Stage Plays in France and England

When we think of dramatic performance by courtiers, masques tend to be the first image, but this article examines the performance of stage plays by the English court under Henrietta Maria, Queen to Charles I. The queen was French and imported French attitudes and expectations to the sphere where she could set the rules. In particular, she greatly increased women’s performance on the court stages, and amateur women’s theatricals became a regular feature of the court.

But to understand that dynamic, we must look at the French court’s interactions with professional actresses, including those from Italy. Henrietta Maria’s background was rooted in the court of her mother, Marie de Medici, in which young women of the court participated in theatrical performance as part of a broadly cultured and cosmopolitan social context.

Unfortunately, we have a little direct evidence for the specifics of her theatrical activities there. As an example—though one, Henrietta Maria was too young to have participated in herself—the article looks at the 1611 performance at the French court of Bradamante, directed by and starring Henrietta Maria’s older sister Elizabeth, who was 9 years old at the time. Elizabeth modeled her performance on that of celebrity Italian actresses, who regularly toured France. These precedents enabled aristocratic women performers to be praised for their performance skills, rather than being criticized for immodesty. They were seen as adding to the prestige and magnificence of the court.

Elizabeth was the instigator of the staging of Bradamante, not simply assigned the role. This was no casual “showing off the kids.” Her mother, the queen, only permitted the performance with the requirement that Elizabeth know and perform her part suitably. (Bradamante is an Amazon character featured in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.) The title role included androgynous cross-dressing, and the performance included girls playing male parts, all familiar tropes from Italian commedia.

There is a discussion of the evidence for various Italian troupes playing at the French court of Maria de Medici, as well as other mentions of performances by court ladies. This would be part of an array of entertainments presented for special occasions. (Ariosto was popular source material for short plays and interludes.)

Why were Italian actresses the inspiration for performance by court women rather than French actresses? French actresses had been participating on local stages as early as the 15th century (there is documentary evidence of a tradesman’s daughter performing in a mystery play in 1468), and by at least 1545 there is evidence for professional performance by women. But women did not regularly perform professionally in Paris until the 1610s. This difference may be related to genre distinctions, with Paris focusing on bawdy farce, which was more hazardous to an actress’s reputation. The introduction of women to the Parisian professional stage accompanied the performance of more elevated works. Even so, Parisian actresses didn’t achieve the same respect and status as Italian ones, well into the mid-17th century. Therefore court women looked elsewhere for models that would situate them as part of an intellectual tradition, rather than one associated with loose morals.

Correspondence by foreign visitors to the French court note Henrietta Maria’s theatrical performances at a time when it must have been part of “showing her off” for potential suitors in the 1620s. There’s a reference to Henrietta Maria later staging a performance for Charles I’s birthday of a play she had previously performed in Paris. The plays she staged as queen were typically performed by her ladies-in-waiting (and herself). Women performing in court masques and visiting foreign actresses had been part of the English performance scene since the reign of Elizabeth I. Queen Anna (wife of James I) was particularly active in promoting a female masquing tradition at the court.

Though masques typically involved dance and acting but not verbal performance, a rare early example of female vocal performance in masques was a 1617 performance by a girls’ school in honor of Queen Anna. So the change that Henrietta Maria brought was not formal performance as such, but an expanded scope and variety of the types of roles and performances women engaged in.

The article details various performances that Henrietta Maria directed and participated in. As the queens “troupe” were all female, these performances often involved cross-dressed roles. English commenters tend to overlook the actual skill of the performances and instead grumbled about the propriety of women—to say nothing of the queen—appearing on stage at all. In contrast, foreign correspondents in England made more favorable comments. (This contrast may speak to why historians have tended to treat Henrietta Maria’s performances as trivial and amateurish, taking their tone from stuffy English disapproval.)

Henrietta Maria sometimes used plays as political activism or commentary, choosing subjects, and even the language of performance as a message to political rivals or allies. She demanded professional standards from her troupe, delaying performances if they were not up to snuff, and bringing in well-known stage actors to coach them.

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Friday, July 12, 2024 - 20:00

So I picked up Women Players in England for the general background on the history of women in theater, but it does have one article directly touching on female homoeroticism on stage. And how Shakespeare's Twelfth Night is a pale echo of the Italian material that inspired it.

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Poulsen, Rachel. 2005. “Women Performing Homoerotic Desire in English and Italian Comedy: La Calandria, Gl’Ingannati and TwelfthNight” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Poulsen - Women Performing Homoerotic Desire in English and Italian Comedy: La Calandria, Gl’Ingannati and TwelfthNight

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night draws on two prominent motifs of Italian theater: a cross-dressed heroine who provokes female desire, and the ideal of the Italian actress, who combined beauty and rhetorical skill. Shakespeare and other English playwrights backed off somewhat on the lesbian eroticism, but retained the image of a female character claiming power through performance and improvising, as manifested in Viola/Cesario’s ambiguous teasing banter with Olivia.

The central dramatic motif (cross-dressing and F/F desire) appears from the early 16th century in Italian plays, such as La Calandria and Gl’Ingannati (commonly seen as the most direct inspiration for Twelfth Night). When I first introduced, the Italian precursors—like Shakespeare’s performances— would have been performed by all-male companies. But by the time Shakespeare was creating Twelfth Night, female performers were a mainstay of Italian theater. This shift changed the transgressive and erotic potential of cross-dressed characters. The cross-dressed woman plot was often combined with a twin plot, such that the female lead (and sometimes her male twin) is not simply taking a random male disguise, but taking on the sibling’s role. Their similarities and equivalence are emphasized.

The Italian plays are far more overt about the possibility of the disguised heroine to stand in for her brother sexually as well as socially. Where Shakespeare’s cross-dressed heroines often emphasize their conventional feminine natures and desires, the Italian heroines focus more on the social constraints and expectations of gender roles, and the potential legal consequences of carrying the role into another woman’s bed. In these plays, the homoerotic tension is resolved via the “convenient twin brother” motif, but also by creating a familial bond between the two women, typically mediated by marriage of one to the other’s relative. Homoerotic desire is not repudiated, but is diverted to an acceptable form. (The article notes tangentially that, although it focuses on two specific Italian plays, the central motif of cross-dressing and resulting homoerotic desire is present in many other 16th century plays in Italy, France, and Spain.)

The article explores the multi-valent nature of the audience reception (including other characters in the plays as audience). Is the audience aroused by the depiction of superficially m/f erotics? By the underlying “true” f/f erotics? (Or in English theater by the sex of the male actors playing the parts?) Is the transgressive nature of the f/f encounter undermined via the disguise or is it deliberately played for the titillation of a (presumed) male audience? The article notes that the performance of Gl’Ingannati was produced and dedicated to a primarily female audience. So scenes of f/f eroticism must have been expected to entertain and please women. And some scenes in the play imply that f/f eroticism could be accepted and excused.

In both plays, the women initially cross-dress for the safety and mobility it affords them, or even in support of heterosexual desire, which gives them a realistic and excusable motivation. The plays embrace both tragic and comedic potential in the motivations and consequences. The desiring women of the Italian plays express more physicality, where Shakespeare’s heroines feel a more diffuse, romanticized yearning. English spectators of Italian plays, often commented on the “wantonness” of the female characters (and by extension, the actresses playing them). In Gl’Ingannati Isabella, in her desire for the disguised Lelia, is described as being “in heat”, not merely restless, but masturbating when thinking of her beloved. F/f erotics are treated more openly in Italian theater, but are more closely policed in Italian culture and law, giving them a clear vocabulary and substance. English society and law expressed anxieties about cross-dressing and gender roles, but shy away from acknowledging female homosexuality. [Note: And had no laws specifically addressing it.]

But another difference is that Shakespeare’s Olivia has far more social power and freedom than her Italian counterpart. Olivia has power over her potential suitors, while Isabella (in Gl’Ingannati) is under others’ control and seeks her goals through deceit. In the Italian plays, the cross-class nature of the forbidden relationships is more highlighted than the cross-dressing. Thus the Italian cross-dressing comedies are transferred for an English audience in a variety of ways, while still retaining the central motif and ambiguous f/f desire.


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Thursday, July 11, 2024 - 20:00

A bit tangential to the reasons I'm blogging this collection -- although not as tangential as some of the later articles will be. Stay with me.

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Campbell, Julie D. 2005. “’Merry, nimble, stirring spirit[s]’: Academic, Salon and Commedia dell’arte Influence on the Innamorate in Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Campbell - ’Merry, nimble, stirring spirit[s]’: Academic, Salon and Commedia dell’arte Influence on the Innamorate in Love’s Labour’s Lost

The premise of this article is that Shakespeare’s Loves Labors Lost is inspired by, and reflects, the prominence of women in Italian theater and in French salons who—as in the play—treated serious philosophical questions via banter and wit. Thus, even with no actual women on stage, Loves Labors Lost creates a strong female presence in English theater. The “French salon culture” of this era refers to the courts of Marguerite de Valois and Catherine de Medici, and predates the era most closely associated with the term “salon” beginning in the later 17th century.

The importance of Italian commedia actresses, participating fully in the improvisational bantering humor of that genre, can be seen in the introduction of Shakespearean characters such as Beatrice, Rosalind, and Viola, but is less commonly acknowledged to be present in Loves Labors Lost. In Loves Labors Lost the philosophical interests of the court ladies and the disorderly assertive nature of female commedia roles are combined in a comedy that declines to resolve in tidy marriages.

The body of the article expands on these points, and on the reception of both continental theater, and what was perceived as the more risque behavior of French and Italian court women that supported the plausibility of the play’s plot.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 - 21:00

This may have been my favorite article in the whole collection. Not only were actresses hitting it big on stage in Italy in the 16th century, they took the show on the road and influenced the reception of women on stage across western Europe.

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Katritzky, M.A. 2005. “Reading the Actress in Commedia Imagery” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Part III Beyond the Channel; Katritzky - Reading the Actress in Commedia Imagery

Actresses were an integral part of the early modern Italian stage, though the focus in theater history on commedia masks has tended to sideline that point. But female stage participation in Italy, not only transformed theater there, but had ripple effects elsewhere, including England.

Stage actresses are first recorded in Italy around the 1560s. Here we focus on women as members of professional troupes. Indeed, they were not simply participants, but celebrities and a major attraction for the audience. The nature of commedia, which relied on outline scenarios, elaborated by improvisation and stock characters, as well as works performed from full scripts, means that visual depictions are important in researching demographics. Pictorial evidence is the focus of this article.

Commedia derived from a blending of the traditions of humanist comedy and popular entertainment, such as carnival and mountebank performances, resulting in a variety of performance types. The earliest formal record of women in commedia is a contract of 1564 in which Lucretia of Siena and six men joined to form an acting company in Rome. This era saw mixed gender companies arising across Europe. For example, the earliest known French record is from 1545 for one Marie Ferré.

(The article includes a large selection of images from 16th century sources, showing scenes from performances that include women in various roles. In addition to the Italian material, there are works by German, French, and Dutch artist, though, in some cases they may be depicting the Italian stage.)

The premier female role was the "inamorata” requiring a skilled, beautiful, elegant performer, who could declaim, sing, dance, and jest. (Women were also writers and troupe leaders.) Leading actresses might also gain fame as poets, in addition to writing plays.

Although Italian theater had its roots in carnival, by the later 16th century, theater was popular enough to supply a year-round living. In addition to performing for general audiences, troupes would be hired by nobles to perform at court or in private houses, as part of elaborate spectacles for weddings or holidays. Mixed troupes existed alongside the older tradition of all-male casts during this period. Mixed-gender Italian troupes traveled throughout Europe to perform in England, France, Spain, and the Low Countries, though some criticized them as “shameless” and derided actresses as little better than courtesans. In general, English writers considered women on stage to be unusual and noteworthy, even when viewing them on the continent. A comment in 1608 by an English traveler mentioned an Italian actresses playing the part of a boy on stage.

Italian productions, often featured song and well-known actresses were generally accomplished singers. Acceptance of women on stage was variable, even within Italy, and some performances are noted as being required to be all male. Religious leaders in particular often censured the use of actresses, considering them a hazard to morals. These visiting troupes put women on professional stages in England well before English troupes added female actors. Looking more broadly for female performers, female acrobats are noted as performing in Germany, Italy, England, etc. in the mid-16th century. But by around 1600, women were an expected part of the Italian stage.

Interpreting pictorial evidence for women on stage is not entirely straightforward, even once the provenance of the work has been established. The regular use of cross-dressing means that the gender of a depicted character can’t always be assumed to be the gender of the player. Apart from this, illustrations are created for purposes, and are not candid snapshots of reality.

The article then does a deep-dive analysis of various artistic depictions that include women on stage, sometimes making up a substantial proportion of the troupe being depicted, and in a variety of stock rules: the inamorata, wives, servants, courtesans. The women in these images may be labeled by character role, or they may be identified as a specific named actress, emphasizing the “celebrity culture” aspect of Italian theater.

Far more numerous are depictions of unnamed players. Sometimes the costuming and staging can help identify the dramatic characters being depicted, although this can be more difficult than for male stock roles that he had highly stereotyped depictions, usually involving exaggerated masks. Women players fall in four main groups of costume, though this isn’t a sure guide to the roles: elegant upper-class clothing, indicating a respectable position; plain and simple clothing, indicating a servant; sexually provocative outfits indicating a courtesan; and costumes indicating the character is a foreigner, or is in disguise, often using “Oriental” features. The article discusses the features of these costume groupings, and the overlap with depictions of non-commedia performers of various types.

Cross-dressing was a regular motif on stage, especially for courtesan characters, mirroring the references to courtesans in real life sometimes wearing male outfits. Costumes indicating disguise were often drawn from Turkish or Romani (the article uses g*psy) clothing styles, and Turkish inspired outfits were also popular as female Carnival wear. The depictions of actresses in Romani outfits points out of the complex relationship between Romani participants in public performance, and their status as aliens embedded in the culture.

In contrast to male commedia characters who were associated with stereotyped masks, specific to the role, female characters were more rarely and inconsistently masked. It can be questioned whether the black velvet half-mask sometimes worn by the inamorata or courtesan roles is a “character mask” or simply a reflection of ordinary female dress accessories. But women’s theatrical masks could be more extensive than the everyday accessory.

In summary, although Italian women had previously been performing in less “professional” contexts, or in background functions, over the 16th century women actors became common and celebrated, especially in commedia, displacing the older tradition of men and boys playing female roles that was part of more literary theater. With the growing prominence of women actors, plays begin to focus more strongly on women-centered stories.

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Tuesday, July 9, 2024 - 21:30

This is a fascinating article drawing connections between early modern "traveling medicine show" performers and more commedia traditions, as well as simply recognizing the mountebank tradition as a form of theater. And, of course, we're intersted in the parts women played in this profession.

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Mirabella, Bella. 2005. “’Quacking Delilahs’: Female Mountebanks in Early Modern England and Italy” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Mirabella - ’Quacking Delilahs’: Female Mountebanks in Early Modern England and Italy

In the era before, women were accepted on the professional stage, they performed in less formal venues – squares, fairs, street corners, inn courtyards, and such – the venue of mountebanks. Typically, this was not as the primary performer, and therefore we must search more carefully for the evidence. The underlying purpose of these vaudeville-like mountebank performances, was to sell non-professional, medical treatments: folk or “quack” remedies. [Note: in this write-up I’m going to use “quack” to cover the entire range both of products and vendors, but the term had a broader sense of “traditional medicine” rather than the specific implication of fake and ineffective cures that it has today.]

Performance had the multifaceted role of drawing and holding potential customers, convincing customers of the efficacy of treatment, and offering spectacles of cures as entertainment. Performances could include dancing, music, acrobatics, and (always) glib patter. It might include faked illnesses or injuries, healed before the audience, and even spectacles such as snake handling. [Note: Also toad-eating, whence, by analogy, the term toad-eater, or toadie for a fawning, obedient follower.] Mountebanks usually traveled and performed in groups, and women are depicted participating as dancers, musicians, and participants in physical comedy.

Mountebanks (by various names) were common throughout Europe – the word mountebank coming from Italian montimbanco “to mount the stage”. (This article covers research into mountebanks in both England and Italy, so some observations may apply only to one or the other.) They made their living by selling quack cures, but part of the audience might buy them, not for their efficacy, but in exchange for the performance. Sometimes the sales portion of the event would be followed by a play. In Italy, there was overlap between mountebank performances, and Commedia dell’ Arte, both in personnel/context and in dramatic content, with commedia plays often using the themes of quack doctors and cures.

The popularity of the Italian commedia/mountebank performances was due in part to the presence of female performers. One famous performer La Vettoria is described as dancing and doing acrobatics “dressed like a trim and neat boy”. Female performers were – in popular thought – considered to sideline as whores, using the sales portion of the event to set up assignations. In turn, male mountebanks were considered to turn their glib tongues to seduction as well as sales. But female participants were not always treated as sex-workers on the side. The aforementioned La Vettoria went home under escort after performances to protect her from her fans.

Other women are described simply as performing, or in some cases, as selling their own quack cures, as well as serving as sales personnel for a male quack. In some cases, a husband and wife team formed the core of a mountebank troupe. There are cases of a mountebank’s widow continuing the trade on her own. Female sellers were especially useful for a female clientele, offering advice and cures for gynecological issues, as well as cosmetics and cures for bad breath, and “the ill scent of the arm pits”. (There is a discussion of how women’s economic and social activities have been erased in much scholarship, which treats them as accessories to their husbands rather than equal partners.)

Civic authorities treated quack doctors and mountebanks as an essential part of the healthcare landscape. Acts were passed authorizing them, and local authorities permitted and licensed their performances. At the same time, medical professionals criticized their trade, and legal penalties for traveling performers were applied to unlicensed mountebanks. Legal records thus provide another source of data for identifying specific female quack/performance.

Both the public image and the reality of mountebanks ranged from knowledgeable folk healers to harmless entertainment to dangerous fraud. Women were, of course, excluded from the formal medical professions so, however knowledgeable and efficacious they might be, they were automatically classified with mountebanks and quacks. Female practitioners came in for especially vicious criticism from professionals, as they not only infringed on the medical profession, but on male spheres of authority.

In addition to traveling mountebanks, some providers of quack or folk remedies offered similar performances in the context of a fixed shop, or from their homes. A fixed location provided the opportunity for more elaborate “stage dressing” for the performance, including anatomical displays of skeletons and such.

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Monday, July 8, 2024 - 08:00

Some of the articles in this collection are of insufficient relevance to my interests that I probably won't cross-post them on social media. This one comes close, although Moll Cutpurse is always on-brand for the LHMP. Not quite so much on-brand for a collection of articles about theater, in this case, as the occupations being discussed are rather tangential to the topic.

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Korda, Natasha. 2005. “The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the ‘All-Male Stage’” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Part II Beyond Elites; Korda - The Case of Moll Frith: Women’s Work and the ‘All-Male Stage’

Even scholarship that examines women’s participation in English theater has tended to overlook the role of ordinary women except as audience. One notable exception is studies of Mary (Moll) Frith who, in 1612, is recorded as having appeared on the stage in men’s clothing, playing the lute and singing. This may have been directly connected with performance of the play The Roaring Girl in which she appears as a character, and which advertised her forthcoming appearance on stage in its epilogue. While Moll was certainly exceptional, this article challenges the idea that she was an exception, at least in terms of women’s participation in the supporting activities behind stage performances.

Looking for women’s work only within the formal guild structures overlooks the heterogeneous and ad hoc nature of many women’s livelihoods. In the early 17th century, commercial theater was transitioning from a guild structure to more innovative and unstructured forms to created new, unregulated opportunities. In many trades, women took advantage of loopholes in trade regulations to escape gender-based restrictions, e.g., in secondhand goods, as peddlers, and victualers, and as pawnbrokers and small-scale money lenders.

The article has an extensive exploration of evidence for people involved--directly or peripherally--in theater as pawnbrokers and dealers in secondhand clothing, sometimes overlapping with thievery and fencing of stolen goods. Frith was several times accused of the latter. From this, Frith branched out into thief-taking and something of a protection racket for the return of stolen goods.

Overall, I feel this article strains to create relevant connections to the topic and doesn’t really address “women in theatre” other than Moll herself.

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Sunday, July 7, 2024 - 14:00

The source material project that this article draws from--Records of Early English Drama--is far more complete now than it was 20 years ago when this was written. It was being produced on a county-by-county basis and I suspect that some priority was given to locations of significant importance in early drama, such as York. Similar information to what is presented here, but for other English counties, would probably yield much of interest regarding women's performance history.

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Williams, Gweno, Alison Findlay, and Stephanie Hodgson-Wright. 2005. “Payments, Permits and Punishments: Women Performers and the Politics of Place” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Williams, Findlay & Hodgson-Wright - Payments, Permits and Punishments: Women Performers and the Politics of Place

This article moves away from the traditional focus on professional urban theater companies (in which women had no role prior to the Restoration) to look at regional performance traditions that were more varied. The differences between and among these regional traditions are as important for a closer picture as the quest for continuity and similarity. Local practices were shaped by differences in proximity to London and the court, to prevailing religious attitudes, and to the degree of participation of the local noble families.

The documentary evidence for regional performance traditions often revolves around authorities (of various types) acting to control, limit, or support specific practices, though other records also exist. These official concerns raised questions about “what is theater?” when applied to performance spaces in context. The article focuses on several specific regions, drawing heavily on the extensive documentary project Records of Early English Drama.


York functioned as something of a “second capitol” after London for cultural, political, and ecclesiastical concerns. The annual cycle of “mystery plays” collaboratively staged by the craft guilds were performed from the 14th through 16th centuries. Similar play cycles were performed elsewhere, but the York records are the most extensive. Historians have sometimes made unsubstantiated claims that women did not participate in the York cycle (despite the presence of female characters) but a closer look finds women participants in a variety of functions.

One (theoretical) argument for women’s participation involves the sheer scope of the work required year-round in preparing for and producing the pageants, as well as the female membership in the craft guilds that organized specific components. Women’s participation in funding the pageants is clearly documented in the records. Women were responsible for providing props and infrastructure. Plays focusing on the Virgin Mary were typically sponsored by female-dominated guilds. (Note also the importance of women as spectators, including providing viewing stands.) Women participated equally in processions and feasts that were associated with the pageant performances.

But a key question remains under dispute: whether or to what extent women performed on stage in the mystery cycles. With little or no direct evidence (such as cast lists), secondary evidence must be brought to bear. One study notes a proportional relationship between female guild membership and the number of female roles in the pageants produced by the guild. There are some specific records of women playing the role of the Virgin Mary. Another argument focuses on the detailed and personal awareness of childbirth and pregnancy found in the scripts, suggesting female involvement.

The article discusses gendered divisions in the conflict between protestants and Catholics, with women more likely to support Catholicism. It is suggested that certain performative aspects of women’s religious resistance drew on themes and scripts from the cycle plays, especially Christ’s passion, suggesting that this supports women’s direct participation in acting in those pageants.


Records contain no direct reference to payments for women’s performance, although there is one intriguing reference to a woman who was “Mr. Atherton’s fool”. But when looking outside commercial performance, women were regularly (and sometimes primarily) involved in ceremonial performances with religious associations that had come to be treated as seasonal festivals under Protestantism. These activities could involve dancing, singing, disguising, “playing at parts”, and the gathering of fruits or other harvest (e.g., “rush gathering”) to present in the church or to ceremonial figures.

These festivals were considered by religious authorities to have “Papist” associations, and were discouraged or repressed on that basis, especially because churches and churchyards were the usual location for the activities. Not all such festival activities were officially discouraged. In 1617 James I granted official permission for Maypoles, rush-presentation, Whitsun ales, and Morris dancing.

The noble Stanley household in Lancashire were patrons of two troupes of professional players (presumably not including women) and regularly held masques in which women performed, including performance by female aristocrats. These masques were, for all intents and purposes, plays, often on seasonal, symbolic, or classical themes, involving rhymed speeches and dancing. These masques often echo themes seen in communal festivals. There is occasional evidence that the women performing also participated in shaping the script.


A combination of significant forces of religious reform and a dearth of noble patronage shaped both the nature of dramatic activity in Gloucestershire and the less-documented participation of women. This wasn’t the case in the 15th and early 16th century. There we find aristocratic women patronizing players and minstrels, and a record of a Christmas entertainment involving men and women on stage as well as a female tumbler. But by the mid-16th century patronage of players was reduced, and there are no records of women in either role.

While direct evidence is scanty, records of plays and performances in Gloucestershire, interpolated with evidence of women’s participation in neighboring counties, suggest that female players may be considered probable. Legal complaints about dancing and music in church include female participants (where the complaints focus on the activity in general, and not on the specific performers).

In the later 16th century, there are records of traveling professional dramatic troupes visiting Gloucestershire every year, some of whom he had female patrons (though not local ones). Such traveling players would need a license from the local authorities to perform.

Royal progresses which often included entertainment offered by the local hosts also seem to have been sparse in Gloucestershire. There is a lone record of a dramatic sketch presented to Elizabeth the first in 1602 on the theme of Daphne and Apollo, in which Daphne may well have been played by a member of the hosting family.

Saturday, July 6, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 290 - On the Shelf for July 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024-07-06 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for July 2024.

It’s the middle of summer and all those summer plans are galloping down upon us like a herd of migrating wildebeest! Ok, not sure where that simile came from. Too much Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom in my youth, I think.

This time next month I’ll be off on my travels and I will either have pre-loaded the August podcasts or I’ll have decided I get a vacation. Those who pay close attention may have noticed that our second fiction episode should have gone live last week. Never fear—everything will happen in its own time. The quest for the right narrators has meant some rescheduling but I’m working with some great possibilities and I think you’ll consider the wait to be worth it.

Publications on the Blog

Without wanting to jinx things, I seem to have broken through my block on getting new blogs written.  Mostly I’ve been focusing on materials for my trope episode on plays and actors, but I also slipped in Vivien Ng’s “Looking for Lesbians in Chinese History” which takes more of a “how I became interested in this subject” angle than an extended survey. I got some great feedback on Ng’s subject from commenters on social media and have a couple more sources on Chinese history to track down. I also covered yet another rebuttal to Bernadette Brooten’s Love Between Women, this one by A. Cameron  in the article “Love (and Marriage) Between Women.”

But as I said, most of my current reading is in the field of drama, either specifically touching on female homoeroticism or simply on women’s participation on the stage. First up was Pamela Cheek with "The 'Mémoires secrets' and the Actress: Tribadism, Performance, and Property" looking at the popular obsession with sapphism among 18th century French actresses. Next was two articles by Theodora A. Jankowski. “ the Lesbian Void: Woman-Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s Plays” which strains a bit to find lesbian-like themes in Shakespeare, and then “’Where there can be no cause of affection’: Redefining Virgins, Their Desires, and Their Pleasures in John Lyly’s Gallathea” which examines my favorite early modern English play and how it challenges gender expectations.

I’m currently reading and writing up articles from the collection Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage edited by Pamela Allen Brown and Peter Parolin, which has only one article specifically focused on sapphic themes, but a great deal of information about women’s participation in the theater across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Book Shopping!

No book shopping directly for the Project, but I added a couple titles to the background research for my Restoration-era projects: Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House and Peter Thornton’s Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France & Holland.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

…which gives me the lead-in to note that the first of my Restoration-set sapphic romance stories will come out this month in Whispers in the Stacks: An Anthology of Library Love Stories edited by M.J. Lowe from Bella Books. I think mine is the only non-contemporary story in the volume but of course you’ll be picking it up even if only to read “Bound in Bitterness” in which a book thief gets more than she bargained for when caught red-handed.

From pragmatic librarians finding unexpected connections to visitors discovering more than just books, Whispers in the Stacks: An Anthology of Library Love Stories explores love in quiet corners and among towering bookshelves. Whether it’s the charm of a late-night study session turning into a subtle flirtation, or a librarian uncovering a spy lurking between the stacks, this anthology proves that even in the most orderly places, romance can write its own unpredictable story.

But now let’s dip back a bit to mention a May book that I missed previously: Meridian Bay: A Linked Collection by A.L. Duncan, McGee Mathews, and Nancy Sparks.

In the midst of the Gilded Age and the contentious stormfronts of the Suffragette movement, we enter a world where privilege is paramount in a reforming Boston, and there is no room for error or the weak at heart.

A time when women are regarded as little more than good company, Dr. Magdalena Brockton is left her parents estate with less than an expected inheritance to maintain it. Convinced to sign Meridian Bay as a lodge, one by one she rents the rooms of her once too quiet Queen Anne manor house. Unbeknownst to everyone at Meridian Bay, their lives are about to be connected to one basic need; one which knows no boundaries of privilege or passion.

June provides an overflowing list of Pride Month romances to catch up on. A number of them are relatively short, and Regency settings are a favorite. So they should be perfect for your summer beach reads.

Cupid's Trap (Cupid's Favorites #1) by Jaye Vincent is one of the bite-sized Regencies.

Miss Mae Griffin did not plan to come to Bath to stay with her elder sister’s best friend. She did not intend to be invited to Lady Flora Neville’s salon, and certainly did not imagine that she would come face to face with the most enigmatic woman she had ever encountered… one she cannot stop thinking of no matter how hard she tries. And yet, this is precisely what has happened.

As she discovers that there is more to Lady Flora Neville than she ever expected possible, Mae begins to wonder if there is another life available to her—one that defies the expectations placed upon her by her dear Mama and the rest of polite society.

Like Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick, might the very deepest love be hiding behind something that Mae has never considered: that her own pride might be standing in the way of what she wants most in life.

But can she push aside the threat of ruin to capture some of the Bard’s timeless love story for her own?

The Earl's Wife by Jessica Dalvin offers a lot of mysteries in its brief cover copy. Who is Amelie and what part does she play in Elizabeth’s forthcoming marriage?

What happens when an arranged marriage goes terribly wrong?

Elizabeth has been betrothed to the Earl of Stacks, but there are those who are determined to stop the mixed-class marriage and Elizabeth’s life is in danger.

But when her father organises discreet protection for her, another danger becomes apparent. Elizabeth is falling for Amelie and now her life and her future with the Earl are on the cusp of a terrible ending. Can Elizabeth survive the engagement? And what will she do about her feelings for Amelie?

The Lady's Secret: A Regency Affair by Adela Vesper is another short Regency tale that provides only hints of the story within.

In a time of social upheaval and reform, two brave women, Evelyn and Cassandra, stand united in their fight against corruption and tyranny. Their unwavering love and commitment to justice form the backbone of a movement that challenges the very foundations of power and privilege.

In contrast to the previous two blurbs, the cover copy for Aven Blair’s three 1920s French Quarter Sapphic Series books is maybe a bit too extensive? I’ve condensed things down a little.

In Claire's Young Flame, the proprietor of the Creole Crown Hotel is distracted from her strict focus on business by a visiting photo journalist who brings a whirlwind romance in her wake amid the intoxicating backdrop of jazz and decadence.

Evan's Entanglement brings together a Prohibition-dodging wine importer and a young artist. Romance blossoms late one night in the quiet of an art gallery, but the shady side of Evan’s business plunges them both into danger.

And, finally, Julian's Lady Luck offers an age-gap romance between a casino owner and young roulette player who gambles at the tables…and with hearts, hoping to win big but risking a devastating loss. I feel like I’m not doing proper justice to the lush descriptions in the cover copy for this trio, but a certain amount of condensing was necessary.

World War II is a popular setting for sapphic romance, but Love in the Shadows by Emma Nichols from J'Adore Les Books tackles some of the darker side of the setting.

Johanna Neumann, a once-acclaimed pianist, is forced to leave her high-society life in Berlin to support her military husband, the newly appointed Kommandant of Erstein. With her son enlisted in the Hitler Youth and her dreams of music silenced by the clamor of conflict, she grapples with the harsh realities of her new existence in a place where she is neither welcome nor trusted. Haunted by loss and loneliness and disillusioned by her husband's transformation, she, like many, yearns for an end to the war so she can go back to her beloved homeland before her young daughter, Astrid, is recruited into the Nazi regime.

As Johanna tries to navigate her restricted life in the heart of war-torn 1943 Alsace, a flicker of hope emerges in the form of Fabienne Brun, a spirited dairy farmer turned French Resistance fighter. Their connection is undeniable, and that is more terrifying than the war, but is Johanna delusional in hoping for a future together, if they survive the war?

This next book—also set around World War II—falls on the edge of what I normally include, as it mixes in paranormal parallel worlds and vampires into its history. So…not strictly a historical but maybe of interest? Death Has Golden Eyes (Dizzy Dixon Mysteries #1) by Cameron Darrow.

1948. Newly discharged from the British Army, Desdemona “Dizzy” Dixon returns to Britain after four years in a Europe shattered by Nazi occult magic and the atomic weapons that ripped a hole into a parallel dimension known as the Realm. Her plans? Unpack, and make sure her two Realmic companions don’t kill each other.

A tall task when one of them is a vampire.

But adjusting to life in their new home may have to wait. Only a few hours after moving in, she encounters two werewolves—one alive, one dead. Did one kill the other? Or was it a local with everything to fear? Or hate? To the people of the village of Moorhead, these beings of legend are synonymous with Nazi magic—so what if one of them winds up dead?

As Earth’s foremost expert on the Realm and the greatest champion of its strangely-familiar inhabitants, it will be up to Dizzy to separate fact from fairy tale and uncover the truth, for the sake of the living and the dead.

Seductive vampires with a taste for more than blood, local cops out of their depth, small town politics, members of Dizzy’s own fan club and… a talking fox? More than murder and blackmail are afoot on the mist-shrouded moors of the North of England—alive, dead, and everywhere in between!

The July books start off with the conclusion to Tasha Suri’s Burning Kingdoms trilogy: The Lotus Empire from Orbit Books. This is a series with a lot of complex world-building so I advise starting at the beginning, and if you’ve been reading along so far, then you’ve probably already pre-ordered it!

Malini has claimed her rightful throne as the empress of Parijatdvipa, just as the nameless gods prophesied. Now, in order to gain the support of the priesthood who remain loyal to the fallen emperor, she must consider a terrible bargain: Claim her throne and burn in order to seal her legacy—or find another willing to take her place on the pyre.

Priya has survived the deathless waters and now their magic runs in her veins. But a mysterious yaksa with flowering eyes and a mouth of thorns lies beneath the waters. The yaksa promises protection for Ahiranya. But in exchange, she needs a sacrifice. And she’s chosen Priya as the one to offer it.

Two women once entwined by fate now stand against each other. But when an ancient enemy rises to threaten their world, Priya and Malini will find themselves fighting together once more – to prevent their kingdoms, and their futures, from burning to ash.

Although A Rose by Any Other Name by Mary McMyne from Redhook is tagged as having sapphic elements, it appears that the protagonist’s main romantic relationship is with a man (or maybe more than one). It isn’t clear and the reviews I can find aren’t much clearer. Why does everyone seem to think that the existence of queer relationships in a book is a massive spoiler about which details must never be divulged in advance?

England, 1591. Rose Rushe’s passion for life runs deep—she loves mead and music, meddles with astrology, and laughs at her mother’s warnings to guard her reputation. When Rose’s father dies and a noble accuses her and her dear friend Cecely of witchcraft, they flee to the household of respected alchemists in London. But as their bond deepens, their sanctuary begins to feel more like a cage. To escape, they turn to the occult, secretly casting charms and selling astrological advice in the hopes of building a life together. This thriving underground business leads Rose to fair young noble Henry and playwright Will Shakespeare, and so begins a brief, tempestuous, and powerful romance—one filled with secret longings and deep betrayals. In this world of dazzling masques and decadent feasts, where the stars decide futures, Rose will write her own fate instead. 

The previous books in Juno Dawson’s Her Majesties Royal Coven series have had contemporary settings, but in Queen B from Penguin Books she takes us back to the origins of her fictional organization.

It’s 1536 and the Queen has been beheaded. Lady Grace Fairfax, witch, knows that something foul is at play—that someone had betrayed Anne Boleyn and her coven. Wild with the loss of their leader—and her lover, a secret that if spilled could spell Grace’s own end— she will do anything in her power to track down the traitor. But there’s more at stake than revenge: it was one of their own, a witch, that betrayed them, and Grace isn’t the only one looking for her. King Henry VIII has sent witchfinders after them, and they’re organized like they’ve never been before under his new advisor, the impassioned Sir Ambrose Fulke, a cold man blinded by his faith. His cruel reign could mean the end of witchkind itself. If Grace wants to find her revenge and live, she will have to do more than disappear. She will have to be reborn.

Secret organizations are also the focus of Daughters of Chaos by Jen Fawkes from The Overlook Press, which also has a touch of the supernatural.

The year is 1862. After a tragedy at home, 22-year-old Sylvie Swift parts ways with her twin brother to trace the origins of an enigmatic playscript that’s landed on their doorstep. This text leads her to Nashville, the Union Army’s western headquarters, bustling with soldiers and saboteurs, partisans and powerful men––and powerful women. Sylvie works on a translation of the playscript by day, but at night, under the direction of the Army’s Secret Service Chief, she acts as Union spy. Both endeavors acquaint her with an ancient sisterhood whose members – including Hannah, a fiery revolutionary to whom Sylvie is increasingly drawn – possess uncanny, and potentially monstrous, powers. Sylvie soon becomes entangled in the Cult of Chaos, a mystical feminist society steadfast in their age-old mission to confront and eradicate the violent injustices enacted by men.

I often organize each month’s books in chronological order, simply because I have to pick some sort of order, though sometimes a different grouping makes more sense. But that chronology is why it irks me when I have no idea exactly when—or where—a book is set. Doctor's Bitter Pill by Sharon G. Clark from Flashpoint Publications gives no specific clue to the setting. It might be 18th century, or 19th, or maybe even 20th. Nor can I figure out from the cover copy where it’s set, although either England or the US seems the best bet, based on the names.  So this one’s sort of a random grab bag.

Giselle Saunders has a relatively happy life, until her benefactor, Preston Muir dies a horrible death. Giselle has no sooner come to grips with her “uncle’s” death, when the rest of the family begins dying one-by-one from an epidemic. She turns to Elspeth, a nurse hired to assist Colonel Gardner after an injury, and the rest of the family during this medical emergency. Other than Preston and the Colonel, Elspeth is the only person Giselle has ever trusted, and the only one who has ever created the strange feelings in Giselle’s body and heart.

Elspeth Keillor believes something sinister is happening at the Gardner mansion. When the Colonel enlists her assistance in keeping an eye on Giselle when the family falls ill, Elspeth realizes she may be in over her head—and over-her-head-in-love with the much younger Giselle. Elspeth suspects foul play by the son-in-law, Dr. Edwin Merrick, but is dismissed when she starts questioning his procedures on the patients. Her distress increases when Elspeth learns Giselle has taken it upon herself to prove Edwin the murderer.

 Will Giselle and Elspeth be able to come to terms with their attraction to one another, before they are the next victim?

Forever Fields by Josh Hill from Wicked House Publishing is a supernatural—maybe verging on horror—mystery.

Wounded WWI veteran Elsie Everly returns home to find out her late father left her a mysterious house in the middle of nowhere Utah. Elsie hires the young and enigmatic handywoman Harriet and together they struggle against the strange and increasingly dangerous happenings connected to the house, her father, and the dark and malevolent hole that appears in her field. They must solve the mysteries and fight for their lives, and their love, to defeat the ghosts of the house and what awaits them in the hole in the ground before it's too late.

The Harlem Renaissance series by Nekesa Afia, from Berkley Books, makes it clear in earlier volumes that the protagonist has had romances with women, so don’t let the lack of clear sapphic signals for A Lethal Lady put you off as this series looks highly intriguing.

Louise Lloyd is finally living the quiet life she’d longed for, working in a parfumerie by day and spending time with her new friends every night at the Aquarius club in Paris. When a desperate mother asks for help locating her artist daughter, Louise initially refuses to keep her hard-won but fragile peace intact. But the woman comes with a letter of introduction from an old friend in Harlem, and Louise realizes she has no choice but to do what she can to find the missing young woman.

The woman’s daughter, Iris Wright, is part of an elite social circle. Louise soon finds herself drawn into a world of privilege and ice-cold ambition—a young group of artists who will do anything to get ahead—but would they murder one of their own? With the help of some friends from home, Louise must untangle a web of lies, jealousy, and betrayal to find out what really happened to Iris while fighting to keep her new life from crashing down around her.

Other Books of Interest

I’ve put two books in the “other books of interest” category this month.

A Shore Thing by Joanna Lowell from Berkley Publishing includes a romance between a woman and a trans-masculine character. A decade or two ago, a story like this would probably have been presented as sapphic, which is why I consider it “of interest” to listeners. I consider it a very positive thing that overtly trans stories are coming into their own, though it can sometimes make it tricky to figure out categories in a historic context if the cover copy is ambiguous. (Note that this cover copy is not ambiguous.)

Former painter and unreformed rake Kit Griffith is forging a new life in Cornwall, choosing freedom over an identity that didn't fit. He knew that leaving his Sisterhood of women artists might mean forfeiting artistic community forever. He didn’t realize he would lose his ability to paint altogether. Luckily, he has other talents. Why not devote himself to selling bicycles and trysting with the holidaymakers?

Enter Muriel Pendrake, the feisty New-York-bound botanist who has come to St. Ives to commission Kit for illustrations of British seaweeds. Kit shouldn’t accept Muriel’s offer, but he must enlist her help to prove to an all-male cycling club that women can ride as well as men. And she won't agree unless he gives her what she wants. Maybe that's exactly the challenge he needs.

As Kit and Muriel spend their days cycling together, their desire begins to burn with the heat of the summer sun. But are they pedaling toward something impossible? The past is bound to catch up to them, and at the season’s end, their paths will diverge. With only their hearts as guides, Kit and Muriel must decide if they’re willing to race into the unknown for the adventure of a lifetime.

The second “of interest” book is The Hollywood Governess by Alexandra Weston from Boldwood Books. It was very frustrating to try to research the content of this book. It’s tagged as “lesbian romance” but the cover copy and reviews are too coy for words, suggesting that providing specific details of the romance would be a "spoiler." When it comes to “is this book sapphic or not” I don’t believe in spoilers, so I’ll make a stab at it. Reading between the lines, I think the sapphic romance is between a minor background character and the dead woman who looms over the plot. I’ll be interested to know if I was right, if anyone reads it and gets back to me.

Hollywood, 1937

Hester Carlyle has no wish to look after the pampered offspring of the rich anymore, in spite of being a highly sought-after governess. But with her elderly father frail, and the roof of their rundown cottage in dreary Yorkshire falling in, she has no choice but to accept a dazzling new placement.

Movie star Aidan Neil is box office gold, but after the tragic death of his wife Dinah Doyle, he needs Hester’s help to raise their young daughter Erin. Aidan and Dinah were once the perfect Hollywood couple, but stars don’t shine forever…

At Aidan’s glittering Hollywood mansion, Hester finds a family struggling with their grief. Hester knows she can help little Erin, but Aidan’s torment is palpable. Brooding and reclusive, he is far from the picture-perfect hero Hester's seen in films. There’s an edge to him that makes Hester wonder if he’s hiding a dark secret of his own....

Was the marriage between Aidan and Dinah as perfect as it appeared to be? Was Dinah’s death really a tragic accident?

When it finally comes, the truth is more shocking than Hester could ever have imagined. And she knows that if revealed, it will destroy the family she has grown to love and ruin Aidan's Hollywood dream forever...

What Am I Reading?

And what have I been reading? Evidently reading for the blog was not the only context where I was devouring things this past month. All audiobooks, as is often the case.

I finished The Chatelaine by Kate Heartfield. This is a revised version that was previously published as Armed In Her Fashion. While I had bought the original, I hadn't gotten to it yet, so this was the updated one. So… This is a dense and layered historic fantasy set in the Low Countries in the early 14th century. The fantasy elements are essentially "what if Hellmouth paintings and the fevered imaginings of Hieronymous Bosch were real?" In the midst of that, a bitter, opinionated woman determines to seek justice for herself and her daughter even if she has to petition Hell for it directly. The worldbuilding is vivid and the resolution is both heartbreaking and triumphant.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up the first three of T. Kingfisher’s Saint of Steel series: Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength, and Paladin’s Hope . These are delightful, if formulaic, fantasy romances in which broken people find wholeness with each other. The characters are Kingfisher’s usual type – good-hearted, self-deprecating, and generally good at what they do. There's a series through-line, and other books and characters in the world get passing references. Just so you know what you’re getting into, the romance threads involve significant amounts of people obsessively thinking about sex, destructively pining, and then enjoying significant amounts of on-page sex. None of the pairings so far are sapphic, alas.

I’ve been reading some things for my Hugo Award voting, which led me to pick up some books outside my usual. (Which is always a good thing to do periodically.) This included Rose House by Arkady Martine a suspenseful mystery about an AI-controlled house. I found it interesting (and it wasn’t so far into horror as to put me off) but it didn’t entirely grab me. I had a similar reaction to The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, another mystery, this time set on living platforms suspended over a gas giant planet. This one does include a sapphic relationship (that presumably carries over to the sequel) but I was a little disappointed in the low level of sensory writing, given how exotic the setting is. It didn’t quite feel as alien as I expected.

And that pretty much winds up my Hugo reading, since the voting deadline is approaching quickly. Which means my Worldcon travel is right behind, sneaking up on me and I need to finalize my post-convention sightseeing plans pretty soon.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
Friday, July 5, 2024 - 20:00

The collection kicks off with a detailed look at the wide variety of performance contexts in 16-17th century England and picks apart the notion that women were not performers.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Stokes, James 2005. “Women and Performance: Evidences of Universal Cultural Suffrage in Medieval and Early Modern Lincolnshire” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.

Part I Beyond London; Stokes - Women and Performance: Evidences of Universal Cultural Suffrage in Medieval and Early Modern Lincolnshire

Early systematic research into the many types of dramatic performance – civic, religious, and popular — written beginning around 1895 was curiously oblivious to the extensive participation of women, while more recent work has solidly established that presence. This oversight was not so much deliberate as a byproduct of how early research was conducted, in particular, a presumption that civic pageants formed a unified and uniform tradition, with the best known examples focusing on male guild performers.

But civic entertainments formed a rich diversity of performance types and traditions, many of which included women performers, such as performances sponsored by socio-religious guilds, which included women and men equally. Many of these traditions ended with the destruction of religious guilds in the 16th century, though some pageant traditions continued through the 1580s. (There are references in Shakespeare to women participating in these types of pageants.)

To some extent, the official campaign against a wider array of cultural performance traditions perceived as Catholic paralleled an assault on women’s participation in performance culture, both via the church and through secular courts. This campaign provides some of the clearest evidence for the traditions that were being erased, in the records of commissions investigating matters associated with them.

Parish guilds nearly always had both male and female members — evenly balanced among the non-clerical membership, and including both married and single women. As the performers in traditional entertainments were drawn from these guilds, they too were of mixed gender, though specific activities or roles might be for one gender or the other.

Celebrations were often focused around a local patron saint, the namesake of the parish guild. Local dignitaries, and their wives might have prescribed regalia they were required to wear for these ceremonial occasions, constituting a sort of “costume”. These local pageants could also have participation from craft guilds, who provided specific entertainments, usually religious in nature.

Some traditions, such as May Day customs, have evidence as late as 1660 (in the context of prohibiting them). Traditional parish festivals in the 18th to 19th century may be survivals of pre-Reformation traditions or deliberate revivals of abandoned traditions, but some traditions are recorded as surviving into the early 18th century. Many of these later remnants/revivals include women, sometimes in the form of naming a “lord and lady” to preside over the occasion, but sometimes involving female-specific traditions.

Pre-Reformation convents might hold their own entertainments (although sometimes this is documented via prohibitions on them). “Disguisings” were another form of entertainment, and in addition to playing character roles (such as Robin Hood pageants) they could involve cross-gender play and parody. [Note: see also the gender-panic literature of circa 1600, such as Hic Mulier, which describes gender play during festivals.]

Household accounts of the upper class in the 16th century show payments to a wide variety of performers of both sexes. The children of the aristocracy are also recorded as performing in plays. Aristocratic households might have their own formal “company of players” who were traveling performers, as well as performing for their patrons. (These are the sort of “professional” company that would not include women.)

Time period: 
Misc tags: 
Thursday, July 4, 2024 - 10:00

Now that I've read and written up all the articles in this collection, I'm ready to roll them out in the blog, one per day. Not all of them are directly relevant even to my interests in the history of women in theater, but I've taken at least a few notes on all the articles. Despite being focused on England, these articles provide a lot of background on women in theater elsewhere in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. I suspect that my "women on stage" trope podcast is going to be rather longer than the usual for the trope shows. I might even decide to break it into two parts, depending on how long it gets, which would be a bit of a help around my month-long vacation in August. (This is for the value of "vacation" that means "traveling constantly and with no time for Getting Things Done.) Another thing that will help on that point is that one of the fiction episodes is now ready to go (after missing the 5th Monday in June), so I can schedule that for the regular July show, then a 2-part trope episode could not only take care of August but get me set up for September as well. A nice breathing space, given how much intense work I'm putting into the theater episode!

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Brown, Pamela Allen & Peter Parolin. 2005. “Introduction” in Women Players in England, 1500-1660: Beyond the All-Male Stage, edited by Pamela Allen Brown & Peter Parolin. Ashgate, Burlington. ISBN 978-0-7546-0953-7

Publication summary: 

Although this collection does have one paper addressing female homoeroticism on stage, I have covered it primarily as background reading for exploring role-playing and stage theatrics as a context for romance tropes involving female couples.


During the 16th and earlier 17th century, women were not members of professional acting troupes, but did participate in class-appropriate performances at all levels: masques and plays at court, pageants and parish plays in towns, and traveling performers at the poorest level. In addition, women were patrons and spectators. All of these undermine the idea of the “all-male stage”. At the same time, women players were often heaped with scorn. This could be hazardous to the critic when the attacks were on court ladies participating in masques and plays.

Identifying when women “first” acted on the English stage depends on how one defines “act” and “stage”. Restricting the question to paid performers is necessary to exclude court ladies. The question must be restricted to the secular stage to exclude women performing in religious drama.

The claim that women actors first appeared on the Restoration stage erases a vast array of dramatic contexts and players. This collection takes a broader definition and looks at “women players” in a wide variety of contexts, up to the point when the professional, secular, stage actress emerges.

Time period: 


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