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A flexible curve: the modern counterpart of a lesbian rule

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.[1][2][3] Lesbian rules were originally constructed of a pliable kind of lead found on the island of Lesbos.[4]

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."[5]

In the early modern period the term was often used figuratively (as Aristotle had used it) to mean a pliant, flexible and accommodating principle of judgment[1] – sometimes with overtones that were positive, but sometimes in a more pejorative sense. In his famous letter to the Louvain theologian Martin Dorp, Thomas More referenced it when reproving Dorp for his attack on Erasmus' In Praise of Folly: "You praise Adriaan for being unbiased, yet you seem to suggest he is no more unbiased than a Lesbian rule, a rule made out of lead which, as Aristotle reminds us, is not always unbiased, since it bends to fit uneven shapes."[6] Samuel Daniel in 1603 described equity as "that Lesbian square, that building fit, Plies to the worke, not forc'th the worke to it".[7] In the later 17th century, the antiquary John Aubrey used the metaphor to imply 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".[8]

See alsoEdit

  • Flat spline – A long flexible batten used to produce a fair curve through a set of points
  • French curve – Template made from metal, wood or plastic composed segments of smooth curves
  • Profile gauge – A tool for recording the cross-sectional shape of a surface


  1. ^ a b "lesbian, adj. and n.". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
  2. ^ Loughlin, Gerard (2007). Queer Theology: Rethinking the Western Body. Blackwell.
  3. ^ Magee, Maggie; Miller, Diana C. (1997). Lesbian Lives: Psyschoanalytic Narratives Old and New. Routledge. p. 36.
  4. ^ "The Online Etymological Dictionary". Retrieved 29 August 2015.
  5. ^ Aristotle (1934). Rackham, H. (trans.) (ed.). "Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5 Chapter 10".
  6. ^ Thomas More to Martin Dorp, in Kinney, Daniel, ed. (1986). The Complete Works of Sir Thomas More. 15. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-300-03161-4.
  7. ^ 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)
  8. ^ 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.