I saved this piece for last – not because it’s my best or my worst, but to stall for time. I was hoping I would be able to find more of relevance.
Researching lesbian history is almost proverbially difficult. Most of our knowledge of male homosexuality comes from court records. Female homosexuality has rarely been illegal. Where it has, the laws have only occasionally been enforced. Authorities have generally been more obsessed with male homosexuality.
Perhaps not surprisingly, so have historians. I have yet to come across a single book, article, or even reference to female homosexuality in New France, with one possible exception that I’ll get into in the second part.
France’s educated elite wasn’t exactly ignorant of lesbianism, although censors had done their best to make sure they were. Translations and writings on Sappho tended to either ignore or deny the homosexuality of the famous Greek poet from the island of Lesbos.
Then the Seigneur de Brantôme wrote a book called simply Ladies, published in 1666, that gives us one of our first serious modern descriptions of the lives of women who love women in Europe. It also introduces a new word into the European languages: lesbienne, or lesbian, meaning female homosexual or bisexual. The previous word in use had been tribade.
Brantôme argued that female homosexuality was a better alternative for unmarried women than sex with a man – not only because it wouldn’t lead to pregnancy, but because Brantôme believed it was a lesser sin than heterosexual fornication. This wasn’t the view of the law or the church, of course. The forces of authority generally agreed that women, like men, should be burnt for same-sex sexuality.
Still, Brantôme view may have won out – trials for female homosexuality were rare, convictions rarer. Two women were brought to trial in Bordeaux in 1533, and found not guilty. On the other hand, one woman from Fontaines not only married a woman, but also dressed as a man, and was burnt at the stake in 1535. The French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne records a tragic story of a woman hanged in 1580 at Monter-en-Der, France, because she had dressed as a man, taken a wife, and used a sex toy to satisfy her wife. She was given the choice of conforming to the roles expected of women, or dying. She chose death.
In the few cases I’ve been able to find that ended in execution, the problem was not only sex between women, but that a woman had also claimed male privilege by dressing and living as a man. Beyond these cases, we know very little. I have yet to come across a trial in France for female homosexuality any time after the colonization of New France had begun in 1608, and yet to come across a conviction that did not involve cross-dressing.
The queerest story I’ve been able to find about women in New France is the tale of Esther Brandeau. Coming back from her aunt’s home in Amsterdam to rejoin her parents in France, she was shipwrecked, rescued by a crew member, and took refuge in the home of a widow named Catherine Churiau. She left soon after, wearing men’s clothes, and got a job as a ship’s cook. Afterwards, according to her own testimony, she lived with a (male) tailor for months, and spent awhile living – as a man – with the nuns of the convent of the Recollets at Clissay. For awhile, she was a baker’s assistant, and worked for an infantry captain for the city of Vitré, in Brittany. Then she went back to being a ship’s cook and made her way to New France in 1738. She was exposed accidentally after she’d been in New France for awhile.
Asked by the intendant’s second-in-command Jean-Victor Varin why she was dressing in men’s clothes, Brandeau – who was Jewish – explained that, while living with the widow Churiau, she was forced to eat pork and other meats once forbidden to her. Now, she said, she could never go back to her parents, where she would have to keep kosher, and she wanted “the freedom of Christians” to eat whatever they chose.
I’ll leave the reader to read between those lines however they wish. In any event, Varin took her claim literally. Her refusal to eat kosher gave him high hopes she could be converted to Catholicism. The attempt failed – the nuns turned her out – and Brandeau’s place in the colony became a political issue. King Louis XV himself offered to pay her passage back to France, so the colony could remain completely Catholic.
Brandeau was deported to France, and there set free. After that, history loses track of her.
Brandeau’s case and that of another woman – Anne Émond, who dressed as a boy as part of a plan to rescue her boyfriend – tell us something interesting about New France. Remember that in cases where queer women were burnt at the stake in France, cross-dressing was a major reason for their execution. In New France, cross-dressing seems to have earned Brandeau a simple deportation, and Émond a public whipping – light punishments by the standards of the day.
No record exists of any woman tried in New France, however, for homosexuality. It’s possible that there were early trials – record-keeping was a lot more haphazard before 1663. However, I strongly suspect no such case existed. I doubt any woman was ever brought to trial in New France for having sex with another woman, though some nuns may have wound up in ecclesiastical courts.
As I mentioned in the section dealing with male homosexuality, New France was a tolerant, though not necessarily accepting, society. Women did get called “bougresse” – “dyke” – however. In one particularly vile example, the Sovereign Council heard testimony that a man accused (and later convicted) of attempted rape, a soldier named Philippe Portier dit Lafontaine, had called one of his victims “a little dyke” for refusing to have sex with him. Another word for “dyke,” – “gouine” – was also used around this time.
On a more positive note, men and women who went out as far as the Great Lakes area on missions would’ve seen the “women who carried the bow.” These were physically-female Two-Spirit women who had wives. As the French explorer Baron de Lahontan says:
“…but I ought to have added that some young Women will not hear of a Husband, through a principle of Debauchery. That sort of Women are call’d Ickoue ne Kioussa, i.e. Hunting Women : for they commonly accompany the Huntsmen in their Diversions. To justify their Conduct, they alledge that they find themselves too indifferent a temper to brook the Conjugal yoak, to be careless for the bringing up of children, and too impatient to bear the passing of the whole Winter in the Villages. thus it is that they cover and disguise their Lewdness. Their Parents or relations dare not censure their Vicious Conduct ; on the contrary, they often approve of it, in declaring, as I said before, that their Daughters have command of their own Bodies, and may dispose of their Persons as they think fit ; they being at their liberty to do what they please.”
Lahontan goes on to tell us that “the Jesuits do their utmost to prevent the Lewd Practices of these Whores, by Preaching to their Parents that their indulgence is very disagreeable to the Great Spirit,” and that hellfire awaits parents who cannot control their children. According to Lahontan, the Illiniwek women’s response to this lecture was that “if their [the Jesuits’] Threats be grounded, the Mountains of the other World must consist of the Ashes of Souls.”
Explicitly lesbian and bisexual women among the Europeans in New France, however, seem impossible to locate. The church and the courts tell us nothing. Bishop Saint-Vallier, who was engaged in a moral crusade that included a fight against male “sodomy,” simply didn’t register the possibility of female homosexuality. In a letter of advice to the governor’s wife about her daughter, the bishop said “one could permit modest and honest dancing, but with persons of her own sex only … not in the presence of men or boys, this mix of sexes being, properly speaking, the cause of inconveniences and disorderliness….”
Surrounded by silence, some speculation is necessary. If a woman wanted to or was at least willing to be with a man, she could blend easily into this society, whatever her other desires. Such desires had to be confessed to the parish priest, but these confessions were kept confidential.
For a woman who did not want to have sex with a man, however, the options were limited. The Sovereign Council was so eager to get women married off that in 1670, it offered a reward for women under 16 who married. This law also required fathers of daughters 16 and older to submit a report every six months to the Council itself, explaining why their daughters weren’t wedding. Not surprisingly, the civil records are filled with women married young and who had more than ten children.
Any time after 1642, one possibility for women who didn’t want to marry would be that imposing stone building in the heart of Quebec City. This was the convent of the Ursuline nuns.
Many Catholics dislike the popular association of their celibate orders with homosexuality, but there are plenty of examples to back it up. Certainly, some women were drawn to monastic life for religious reasons alone, and others for the chance at a better education. Yet, we have examples throughout European history of female couples in convents.
This is an area that scholars have only just begun to turn toward, so these stories are still emerging. Yet, we’ve unearthed things such as love-letters between medieval nuns in Europe. Historian John Boswell translates several in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, one of which is quite explicit:
”Everything pleasant and delightful
Without you seems like mud underfoot.
I shed tears as I used to smile,
And my heart is never glad.
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you.
(Translation by Boswell)
There’s no reason to believe that the situation for nuns in New France was any different from that of Europe. The problem is getting at the proof. The Catholic Church, unfortunately, conducted its own trials for homosexuality among its clergy. These trials took place in its own ecclesiastical courts. While some of the records of these courts have fallen into secular hands in other countries, I have not been able to locate any declassified ecclesiastical court records from New France. I’m guessing that records of trials, for example, of Ursuline nuns could tell us a lot about love between women.
For my next instalment, I’m going to bring the section on New France to an end, and try to draw some conclusions about the lives of homosexuals and bisexuals in la Nouvelle France.
Sources: For the situation in the mother country, I leaned heavily on Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization. Esther Brandeau’s story can be found in both E. Z. Massicotte’s article “Le travesti sous le régime français” in Bulletin des Recherches Historiques, volume 38, pp. 60-61; or in the online Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Anne Émond appears in Massicotte, and the handwritten summary of her trial can be viewed on the PISTARD digitized archives. I took the Baron de Lahontan quote from an uncredited 1703 edition of Lahontan’s voyages, and the poem of course is from John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.