A lesbian rule was historically a flexible mason's rule made of lead that could be bent to the curves of a molding, and used to measure or reproduce irregular curves. Lesbian rules were originally constructed of a pliable kind of lead which could be found on the island of Lesbos.
The rule is alluded to by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (bk V, ch. 10) as a metaphor for the importance of flexibility in equitable justice: "For what is itself indefinite can only be measured by an indefinite standard, like the leaden rule used by Lesbian builders; just as that rule is not rigid but can be bent to the shape of the stone, so a special ordinance is made to fit the circumstances of the case."
In the 17th and early 18th centuries the term was often used figuratively (as Aristotle had used it) to mean a pliant, flexible and accommodating principle of judgement. Thus Samuel Daniel in 1603 described equity as "that Lesbian square, that building fit, Plies to the worke, not forc'th the worke to it". In the later 17th century, the antiquary John Aubrey used the metaphor in a more pejorative sense, implying the distortion of evidence to fit a preconceived theory. He accused Inigo Jones, who had interpreted Stonehenge as a Roman monument, of having "made a Lesbians rule, which is conformed to the stone: that is, he framed the Monument to his own Hypothesis, which is much differing from the Thing it self".
- "lesbian, adj. and n.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
- Loughlin, Gerard (2007). Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Blackwell.
- Magee, Maggie; Miller, Diana C. (1997). Lesbian Lives: Psyschoanalytic Narratives Old and New. Routledge. p. 36.
- Aristotle (1934). Rackham, H. (trans.), ed. "Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5 Chapter 10".
- Daniel, Samuel (1603). "To Sir Tho: Egerton Knight". A Panegyrike Congratulatorie delivered to the Kings Most Excellent Maiestie at Burleigh Harrington in Rutlandshire ... Also certaine epistles. London. p. C3v. (subscription required)
- Vine, Angus (2010). In Defiance of Time: antiquarian writing in early modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-19-956619-8.
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