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Response to Review no. 701

We thank Professor Gladfelder for his interest in our book, detailed commentary, and advocacy of its importance for the history of sexuality and gender. We undertook this venture, which took over four years from its conception to the manuscript’s completion, because we believed that the historiography of sexuality had still to reckon sufficiently with the early modern sciences, and we wished to expedite their greater interaction. The former has depended too much on theology and law in framing its generalisations about how same-sex desire and sexual relations could be conceived before the 19th century. The sciences enabled the circulation of diverse other views, so that study of them yields a more complex and nuanced view of early modern sexual culture, and invalidates many assumptions that have been taken for granted. Our book includes a detailed index to enhance its long-term utility in its field.

Some points in the review can be usefully clarified. The Introduction does not quite ‘challenge the validity of the “acts paradigm” in favour of a “minoritizing view” … by which deviant or dissident sexual acts are linked to “distinctive sexual natures and hence identities”’. Rather, it opposes to the universalising ‘acts paradigm’ an altogether more complex early modern cultural model, drawing on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in which both universalising and minoritising views circulate to varying extents among different individuals and social groups (e.g., pp. 4–5). In early modernity, the sciences were an especial locus of minoritising perspectives and helped authorise them, which is why those intellectual disciplines have such importance as a counterweight to law and theology in defining the potential capacities of former sexual thought. Of course advocates of the ‘acts paradigm’, particularly dominant in the 1980s and 1990s but still widely current, can adduce much apparent evidence for their universalising standpoint. But that does not justify it, for there is also much evidence for the early modern currency of minoritising views, and the culture was characterised by the co-existence and interaction of both kinds of perspective.

The volume’s 40-page Introduction draws some material from the following essays, as it should, but not ‘much’ of that relative to its other content, pace our reviewer. It mainly seeks to provide a critical assessment of current understandings of early modern sexual history, particularly same-sexual (pp. 1–9), and a concise account of that history’s relation to the former sciences (pp. 9–30). In its latter aspect, the Introduction compactly surveys the volume’s subsequent chapters while much expanding their context in the sciences by addressing matters beyond their scope, citing the relevant scholarship, and adding many further citations of primary scientific sources. That is particularly necessary in the particularly expansive and complex medical domain (pp. 11–20), and least so for astrology and alchemy, where the Introduction can briskly summarise the relevant chapters (pp. 25–8), which themselves provide an overview of those particular fields. Yet even for astrology, the Introduction presents significant information beyond what appears in the two relevant chapters, and for all the sciences addressed, it defines their differences and inter-relations as they affect sexual history.

To the reviewer’s summary of the chapter “Sodomizing Science,” we would like to add an essential qualifier. Both it and the Introduction, he says, argue ‘that same-sexual acts are, for early modern scientists, “signifiers of corresponding intrinsic constitutions indicated also by other identifiable bodily signs”’ (p. 143). We would say, ‘for some early modern scientists.’ The context of the chapter’s quoted comment on such signifiers deals only with those early modern physiognomists, as well as some contemporary sex researchers, who interpret the bodies of same-sex lovers in that particular way. The sentence prior to the quoted one says, ‘From both these contemporary and early modern scientific viewpoints, same-sexual acts express the distinctive natures of the actors’ (p. 143). The point is restrictive and applies to some former and current scientists, and some such scientific viewpoints, not all. It is not a generalisation about scientists, but rather about some, in some particular disciplines. That is also the Introduction’s position, which advocates the former cultural interplay of universalising and minoritising viewpoints. We cannot know what Copernicus and many other early modern scientists thought about the possibilities of distinctive sexual natures of various types; but we can know what some others thought, such as Cocles and Giambattista della Porta, because they wrote about it. So we make no claim that minoritising views ruled the sciences, and there is evidence that some, such as Ludovico Settala, deplored and sought to suppress such scientific information (p. 62). We do claim that those scientists who expressed such minoritising views reflected and enhanced their real cultural circulation, and that some former scientific disciplines and paradigms were especially conducive to those views, such as physiognomics and Galenic physiology.

We must finally address the reviewer’s ‘one real fault to find with this volume’: ‘there was much more scientific interest’ in ‘female same-sex sex and desire … than this book would lead one to think’.

Here the fundamental concept of the volume needs to be borne in mind. What the development of same-sexual historiography needed at this juncture, we determined at the outset, was a volume that would present essays surveying the range of relevant sciences within a reasonably practical scientific time-span for one volume to cover, in this case around 1450 to 1650. Various sciences of that period had been little addressed in this way, and a survey could helpfully offer a comparative conspectus of relevant views across scientific disciplines. The composition of any scholarly collected volume or monograph is a pragmatic exercise that depends on the state of its discipline at the time the work is undertaken. Scholars must determine what has been so far covered relatively well on their subjects, and what most needs to be done, hence where the emphases should be placed according to the limited scope allowed by their publishers.

When we began designing this collection in 2004–5, we contacted many leading researchers in its field to consult them on research opportunities and whether they themselves had anything new they would wish to contribute, or could recommend anyone whom we should further contact. So we consulted leading researchers on scientific implications of female same-sex sex and desire during our main period of concentration, from around 1450 to 1650, including of course Valerie Traub and Katharine Park. That research has primarily addressed tribadic anatomical essentialism: the association of assertive female same-sexual desire with certain types of genital hypertrophy. From those exchanges we concluded that any new contributions on that particular subject at this time would not likely add much to current knowledge. Both Traub and Park said they had nothing further to say on it, nor could they recommend to us anyone who might. The volume would have been very different if this matter had not already been fully dealt with.

Moreover, as our book explains, the early modern sciences of physiognomics, astrology, and alchemy say so little about female same-sex attractions and sexual relations that in them the topic is almost an absence. Those five chapters address it insofar as the primary sources permit–and many indeed were canvassed. This research is valuable for female same-sexual history because it newly identifies and documents that culturally significant gap in those sciences as well as the rare exceptions. Most would now expect that insofar as interest in tribadic anatomical essentialism had become fashionable circa 1600, it would have encouraged correlative topics of discussion in at least physiognomics and astrology around that time too. But in early modernity those former sciences remained relatively silent on sexual and other loves between women, and our volume offers some explanations.

On female same-sexual desires and relations, the Introduction cites and reviews the prior research on their interactions with the early modern sciences, while adding as much as practically possible, within its scope, to that previous knowledge. Each subsequent chapter addresses that topic as much as its subject and primary sources permit. And a particular section, ‘Science and Sapphisms’, presents the best available options for fresh contributions on that theme (pp. 245–67). The book thus has much to say specifically about ‘scientific interest’ in ‘female same-sex sex and desire,’ and its general arguments about the implications of scientific minoritising views for sexual historiography are also relevant. We invite readers interested in lesbian prehistory to consult our Index under the headings ‘sapphism’, ‘tribadism’, ‘viragos’, ‘women’, ‘clitoris’, ‘lesbianism’, ‘fricatrices’, ‘genitals’, ‘prostitutes,’ ‘pox, woman-to-woman transmission’, ‘masturbation, women and’, ‘femininity’, and ‘same-sexual relations, female’. While the extent of references varies for each heading, they cumulatively represent a wealth of fascinating material.

There was no point in repeating what had already been done superbly by others, such as tribadic anatomical essentialism, except to summarize that work in the relevant contexts (e.g., p. 13). As the Introduction states at its outset, while ‘medical accounts of tribades have been fundamental for recent study of lesbianism’s precursors’ (with a note citing the major prior studies by Park, Traub, and Karma Lochrie), ‘premodern complexional physiology, embryology, astrology, and physiognomy … still have much to reveal about the relation of apparent viragos to lesbian prehistory’ (p. 3). The Introduction proceeds to indicate how that is so, and thus identifies the most promising area for further research into the intersections of the premodern sciences with that aspect of the history of sexuality (pp. 9–28). Our volume shows that much thought was given to these and other matters to ensure that its usage of space effectively advances understanding of its general subject.