Ashley Douglas: ‘Marie Maitland’s poetry is a profound testimony to the power of queer love’

This week we’re delighted to welcome Ashley Douglas to The Scots Curator. Ashley is a researcher, writer and translator, specialising in the Scots language. In February 2021, as part of LGBT history month, she published her fascinating research into The Maitland Quarto, a 16th-century East Lothian manuscript containing some of Scotland’s earliest known writing about queer love.

Ashley tells us that Poem 49 of the manuscript, likely written by Marie Maitland, has been ‘hiding in plain sight’, with its lesbian meaning often overlooked by the academic world. As Ashley explains in this interview, the poem is ‘one of the very earliest – if not the earliest – example of Sapphic verse in Europe, in any language, since Sappho herself’ – quite a remarkable claim for both Scots and Scotland.

Ashley’s research was first published last month as part of the Wee Windaes project for the National Library of Scotland.

Could you first of all set the scene for us? Who is writing this poem, and what kind of time were they living in?  

The Maitland Quarto manuscript is dated 1586, which places us in the turbulent political and religious climate of late 16th-century Scotland. It is a time of rumbling discontent and reformatory zeal.   

We are just two years into the adult rule of King James VI, after a troubled minority period. The trial against his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, begins in 1586 – the year that the manuscript is dated – and she is beheaded the next year.  

Scotland, like the rest of Europe, has been swept up in the reformation movement that started with Luther in Germany. The Scottish Parliament formally adopts Protestantism in 1560, but tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism still very much define Scottish society.  

The Union of the Crowns, in which James will also inherit the crowns of England and Ireland, is still nearly two decades away. Scots is the official language of the independent Scottish kingdom.  

This is the backdrop to the compilation of the Maitland Quarto manuscript, which is put together at Lethington Castle in East Lothian, home of the Maitlands of Lethington - a prominent family at the heart of Scottish politics. The manuscript is dedicated to Sir Richard Maitland (1496-1586), who is Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland under Mary, Queen of Scots.  

However, we are interested in one of Sir Richard Maitland’s daughters, Marie Maitland: the likely compiler of the manuscript and the likely author of the anonymous lesbian love poem, Poem 49. Naturally, we know far more about her father and brothers than we do about her or her sisters, as is the typical fate of women throughout history. We do not, to our knowledge, have so much as a portrait of her.  

Turning to what we do know, Marie is widely understood to have acted as literary secretary to her father, who suffered from very poor eyesight, which eventually resulted in his turning blind. Her name appears twice on the title page of the manuscript along with the date 1586.   

Clearly, she was an elite, educated and literate woman. What’s more, one of the other anonymous poems in the manuscript compares her directly to known female poets, including the historical Greek poet Sappho of Lesbos – famous as a woman poet and (in)famous for her romantic entanglements with other women. This all points to Marie having had a reputation as a female poet – and one in the image of Sappho.  

“Marie had a reputation as a female poet – and one in the image of Sappho.”

In August 1586, she married Alexander Lauder, son and heir to Sir William Lauder of Hatton. (It is perhaps worth noting that the manuscript, and the poetry in it, date to before her marriage).   

Of course, this tells us very little about her sexuality and does not repudiate her having been romantically attracted to other women. Although some historians will point to marriage, and children, as “evidence” of a person’s heterosexuality, this betrays – at best – heteronormative bias and privilege, and a complete lack of understanding of the reality of queer lives, past and present.   

It overlooks entirely the fact that women and men, across social classes, had little choice but to follow rigid heterosexual norms in centuries past, not least due to the real dangers attached to being gay, let alone openly so and leaving records of this. Indeed, we would do well to reflect on the fact that it is only in the past decade that equal marriage has been legal in 21st-century Scotland. And there are still many living examples today of people who have entered into heterosexual relationships or marriages, and had children, only to come out later as gay.   

To return to the 16th-century context, similarly, just because James VI was married to Queen Anne, it doesn’t mean that he wasn’t – to use modern terminology – gay or, at the very least, bisexual, given his well-attested romantic and sexual interest in and relations with several other men.   

At worst, of course, we encounter not just heteronormative bias in our study of the past, but outright homophobia, in the form of barely disguised revulsion at the notion of, and active aversion to accepting, the reality of queer lives in history. We must be wary of this heteronormativity at best, homophobia at worst, masquerading as historical objectivity – which serves only to erase and undermine queer history.  

You’ve said that writing was mostly the preserve of men at this time – so the fact that the writer is a woman is interesting enough, but she also talks about same-sex love. How did you feel coming across something so rare and unusual?  

It was hugely exciting – because you are absolutely right that it is doubly radical. Even if it had been a poem just about female friendship, it would still have been way ahead of its time and worth getting excited about, because only male friendship was written about and only men were thought capable of forming meaningful friendships – women not being emotionally developed enough for that, of course.   

So, the fact that it’s not just about female friendship (radical in itself) but also lesbian love is really off-the-scale remarkable for its 16th-century context. Poem 49 in the Maitland Quarto manuscript is one of the very earliest – if not the earliest – example of Sapphic verse in Europe, in any language, since Sappho herself. A pretty cool claim to fame for both Scots and Scotland, I’d say!   

“It’s really off-the-scale remarkable for its 16th-century context.”

On a more personal note, finding out about the poem was also really moving and inspiring for me, as a gay woman. There is somehow real comfort and validation to be found in knowing that women who love women have always existed – to see yourself represented like that in the past.  

At the same time, however, I was also surprised that the poem wasn’t already better known or celebrated. The poem’s existence has long been acknowledged in academic circles – this was by no means a brand new discovery – but its significance as a very early lesbian poem almost definitely written by a woman has been utterly undersung. 

What commentary there is on it is largely lukewarm and equivocal. For example, some have been reluctant even to accept female authorship of a lesbian poem, let alone to accept Marie Maitland as the most obvious candidate for its author, despite the substantial evidence for both – and the fact that, quite frankly, it is by far the most simple explanation, rather than conjuring up anonymous male poets or whatever else.   

It is the “gal pals” approach to history, if you will, which we can now, charitably, find humorous, but which is really deeply disturbing. The (straight, white and male) 18th-century editor of the manuscript, John Pinkerton, did not even print Poem 49, dismissing it as “a song of friendship from one lady to another of sufficient insipidity” - a solid “gal pals” take of an obviously lesbian situation if ever there was one!  

At its most extreme, of course, resistance to anything queer in history takes the form of destroying or hiding the inconvenient evidence of queer lives. For example, consider how the diaries of Anne Lister, the iconic lesbian who lived between 1791 and 1840, were very nearly burned because of their lesbian content; in the event, Lister’s ancestors opted to simply hide them instead. They now form part of the register of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, but how much else has been lost to history as a result of past homophobia? How much else is currently hidden, behind walls or behind secret codes, waiting to be discovered or deciphered?   

Where we do have evidence of queer history, resistance to it takes the form of either simply ignoring or, more subtly, undermining it. We firstly see this in the insistence on seeking out heternormative or at least non-queer solutions – however ludicrous they may be. When Anne Lister’s diaries were finally published in the late 20th century, some thought them too sexually graphic to be anything but a hoax; likewise, Poem 49 has been explained away by some academics as nothing more than a male-authored experiment in the lesbian voice. We also see it in the demanding of unattainably high levels of evidence – what often feel like far higher standards than are required elsewhere in historical scholarship – instead of simply accepting that, if something looks queer and sounds queer, it in all likelihood is queer.  

As they say, the most obvious answer (in this case, Marie Maitland’s authorship of a lesbian poem) is usually the correct one, and if there is a reluctance to accept the obvious answer, we must interrogate why that is.  

This seemingly heteronormative academic resistance to reading the poem for what it truly is has been an important, if regrettable, part of its story. It was therefore a real privilege for me to write about and celebrate this amazing lesbian poem in the way that it deserves, and to share it with a much wider audience. And it felt especially appropriate to do so in LGBT+ History Month 2021 – which, of course, we only need to have at all because of the homophobia that has plagued our study of the past, resulting in the neglect of queer lives and queer history, for too long.  

Listen to Ashley Douglas reading from Poem 49:

Just how courageous was this poem? Was even writing it down privately a brave or radical thing to do?  

That’s a very interesting question. My immediate response is to say,  absolutely yes, when you consider that we are talking about a time during which social, moral and religious orthodoxy – which was far more uniform and oppressive then than these things are now – permitted only opposite-sex attraction and relations.  

Even if female same-sex activity was not formally criminalised in the same way as male same-sex activity (in Scotland the crime of sodomy was, until 1889, punishable by the death penalty; same-sex relations between men were not fully decriminalised until 1981), it is clear that deviation from norms was not well tolerated, and so it nonetheless appears incredibly brave for the poet to articulate such clearly romantic and sexual desire for another woman.  

However, although wildly radical and ahead of its time in many respects, the poem is simultaneously, ultimately, conformist. The female poet expresses her desire to marry the female object of her desire, but ultimately resigns herself to its impossibility – because of fate, “nature”, and the institution of marriage; in this sense, she accepts and defers to the heteronormative limitations of her day.   

Equally, on a formal level, the poem articulates their female-female love using well-established poetic tropes in a well-established poetic friendship tradition. Even though it subverts these forms for unique ends, you can see how, on first glance, it could look like a standard friendship poem. In both form and content, it is therefore both conformist and radical, both challenging and accepting of contemporary norms.   

Perhaps the poet calculated that the superficial commonplaceness and perceived insipidity of her “friendship poem” would avoid attracting too much attention or censure?   

It is almost as if the poet has consciously and cleverly concealed the poem’s true meaning in plain sight. Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, this is exactly how 18th-century Pinkerton read it: as “a song of friendship from one lady to another of sufficient insipidity”. This offers us a solid example of how a heteronormative male mindset would read the poem, and that was a whole two centuries later. 

Ironically, therefore, perhaps the fact that it has been so easily dismissed is what has allowed it to “sneak through” the historical record to us today? So, I guess the poet is nonetheless very brave in committing her lesbian love to writing, but does so in as safe and self-protecting a way as possible?  

As a final reflection on this, although the poem is anonymous, the private, family-and-friends nature of the manuscript hints that those who would have been reading it at the time, some of whom likely contributed other of its poems, may well have known that Marie Maitland was its author. This is suggested not least by the presence of another poem praising her poetic skills and comparing her to Sappho. 

They may well even have known the identity of the woman to whom the poem is addressed as well. Perhaps Marie felt safe and able to express herself in that private circle of family and friends, with the ultimate anonymity of the poem, and limited circulation of the manuscript, protecting her from wider societal scrutiny or censure? This can only be conjecture, however.   

This question of how brave the poet was being is a great one to ponder! It’s a shame that we can’t really know how she felt or whether she was at all uneasy or worried what the consequences of its penning might be.   

What does this tell us about gay history in Scotland more broadly?  

The poem tells us something that we already know, but which it is often extremely difficult to find evidence for in the historical record – that gay people in Scotland have always existed, just as they have always existed elsewhere. Of course, people in earlier centuries did not have the same vocabulary or conceptions of sexuality that we do now. But what’s irrefutable, and what’s important, is that it shows us that there have always been people who experience romantic and sexual attractions to those of the same-sex – whatever they called, or didn’t call that, and whatever their identities might or might not have been.   

“Gay people in Scotland have always existed, just as they have always existed elsewhere.”

We should also take a wee step back here and reflect that, even in times when it was incomprehensibly difficult and dangerous to do so, queer people have always been compelled to immortalise their romantic and sexual connections in writing – a profound testimony to the truth and power of queer love across the millennia.  

As mentioned above, we actually have another striking and much more high-profile example of Scotland’s queer history during this era in the form of King James VI of Scotland (1567-1625) and I of England (1603-1625). Although we will never know how a hypothetical modern liberated James would identify (whether as gay, bisexual, queer or any other way) a mountain of evidence attests to his sexual interest in and relations with several men throughout his life – from his teenage romance with Esmé Stuart to his later favourites, prime among them Robert Carr and George Villiers.  

It’s interesting to note that James called Villiers his “wife” in a letter to him, an inversion of what we see in our 16th-century lesbian poem, where the female poet conceptualises herself as her female beloved’s husband. These two examples show that, even when subverting heterosexual norms, these 16th-century individuals were sorely confined by heteronormative language and concepts.  

Of course, it’s also notable that these two examples both stem from the very upper echelons of early modern Scottish society; from literally the very top, in the case of King James, and from not too far below, in the case of Marie Maitland and her circle of family and friends, who were very much the landed elite. There is a point to be made here how about the status and security – social and financial – of the upper classes, not to mention of the King himself, can be seen as having allowed for greater risk taking. 

When you have status and power, your societal scope for non-conformity is far greater than that of the lower classes. As is, of course, your practical scope for expressing yourself; the lower classes would not have had the luxuries of learning and literacy, and of leisure time, that allowed upper-class individuals to be writing poetry. (Anne Lister is another case in point, as a rich upper-class woman, several centuries later.)  

“Absence of queer evidence is not evidence of queer absence.”

There can be no doubt that there will have been same-sex attraction among the lower classes of Scottish society as well, but it is extremely difficult to find any traces of this in the historical record. We are far more likely to know about the richer classes, which applies as much to their sexuality as it does to everything else. That is not to detract from the courage it must nonetheless have taken to give voice to lesbian love in the 16th century, but all of these issues of intersectionality – as well as the general undermining and erasure of queer history – need to be taken into account when studying the past today.  

Absence of queer evidence is not evidence of queer absence. But where we do find queer evidence – such as, I would say, Poem 49 of the Maitland Quarto manuscript – we need to highlight and celebrate it all the more.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s