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Queer Themes in Medieval French Literature

Monday, June 8, 2020 - 07:00

One of my newer side projects while reading and summarizing books for the Project is to pull out specific data that makes for a boring blog, but a useful resource. My eventual goal is to make these excerpts available in more organized form through my Patreon. From Klosowska's book, I've extracted three sets of data: a list of medieval French romances that include cross-dressing motifs (both male and female), a discussion of the language of desire and sexual activity differentiated by whether a same-sex or opposite-sex pair are involved (though the same-sex language is primarily male), and a catalog of the language in Yde et Olive specifically about desire, sexual activity, and love between the two women, both before and after Yde's sex is known by Olive.

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Klosowska, Anna. 2005. Queer Love in the Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 1-4039-6342-8

With a title like "Queer Love in the Middle Ages" my hope is always for a broad, general discussion of the stated topic. But academic publishing lives and dies by focused, specific, theory-filtered studies of narrow topics. So while there was some fascinating information in this book (especially close readings of certain vocabulary fields), I found it less interesting on a personal basis than I'd hoped. It isn't a book that I'd recommend to the non-specialist, not only for the very dense framework of literary and psychological theory that fills every corner, but because it assumes a fairly detailed familiarity with the specific medieval texts that are under discussion.

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Introduction: History of Desire, Desire for History

The general topic of this book is a queer studies look at medieval French literature. It’s inspired by looking at the contrast between the medieval theory of friendship in philosophical and conduct texts, and fictional depictions of friendship. The former exclude women entirely from the possibility of “true friendship” while the latter focuses on autonomous characters, including women, for whom true friendship is possible. But although that theme was the inspiration for the book, the content looks at a handful of specific motifs and their context.

A contrast is noted in the manuscript of the Roman du comte d’Anjou between the male-focused central text and the female-focused illustrations. Does this relate to the primarily female book owners and audience? There is a close relationship between friendship and passion, and readers may shift in interpreting one for the other. Among modern scholars, there has been a push by some authors to read depictions of passion in the text as friendship. This led to Klosowska’s refocusing this book explicitly on the topic of same-sex love.

She looks at “thematic sites” that regularly provide representations of same-sex desire -- sites that may be over- or under-specified with respect to that theme.

There is an extensive discussion of literary theory and motifs as background for the examination.

Question: were the same-sex aspects of these themes as evident to medieval readers as they are to modern ones? Pejorative readings of same-sex desire are common and obvious. But should we consider the medieval reader to include or exclude positive readings of same-sex relationships as well?

How did literary culture relate to the experiences of ordinary medieval people who might never interact directly with literary texts? There is a discussion of the dynamics of post-modern and queer theory studies of medieval topics.

What is the importance of sex acts to the study of the history of sexuality How do ideas about orientation/desire fit with historical acceptance of situational and life-stage same-sex relations? As an example, there is a discussion of classical Roman (male) same-sex social dynamics.

If contexts with homoerotic potential (such as bed-sharing between close friends) were not targeted as problematic, why not? Perhaps because they usually strengthened rather than undermined the social structure? See, e.g., Alan Bray's discussion of the contexts where these thematic sites were used as social/political weaponry.

The author discusses the theoretical context of Judith Bennett’s “lesbian-like” concept. There is a discussion of theoretical problems in studying homosexuality in past eras when that concept is ill-fitting to conceptual realities.

Chapter 1 - Grail Narratives: Castration as a thematic site

This chapter focuses on male topics and is not relevant to the Project.

Chapter 2 - Dissection and Desire: Cross-dressing and the fashioning of lesbian identity

The chapter begins with appreciation of the sensory experience of medieval manuscripts as objects: the manipulation of these objects via disassembly and recombination. The author compares that process to the segmentation of meaning and identity created by cross-dressing, whereby clothing, social status, gender performance, behavior, emotions, roles in romantic scripts, bodily configuration, all can be manipulated and combined independently to create new identities. [Note: This discussion is very theory-centered.]

The author wants to create an alternative model to understand medieval cross-dressing fictions in order to challenge existing interpretations such as “carnival reversals” or the creation of an “other” to contrast with the norm. But those models presuppose a relatively modern view of gender such that contrasts could define or contradict it. Given that fictions of female cross-dressing can’t be understood either via models of heterosexual couples or as female friendships, the author suggests a direct parallel with the cutting up and reassembly of medieval manuscripts: a violent process that leaves the marks of seams.

[Note: This is the point where the author began to lose me. She returns regularly to this "cutting up and re-assembling" motif, though it isn't the only focus of the analysis.]

Texts such as Yde et Olive are created to “fulfill erotic needs and social fantasies rather than being mere accidents of narrative.” That is: the homoerotic consequences of cross-dressing narratives are the point, not a side-effect.

The author discusses the illustrations in the manuscript of Yde et Olive in which the two women are married and in bed together.

There is a review of the legal evidence for f/f relationships and the explanations offered for why there is comparatively less evidence than for men.

Can characters like Yde and Olive be explained purely in terms of plot requirements? Or as an intense female friendship with no erotic component? This is hard to reconcile with the details of the text. (Which, in fact, requires a later change of sex for plot purposes.)

There is a very useful catalog of female cross-dressing episodes in medieval French literature. This is followed by an analysis of cross-dressing episodes (for both sexes) and their contexts, such as the motif of the cross-dressed woman being accused of rape. But in Yde et Olive the audience is set up to sympathize with the couple, not to condemn them.

Some authors see a “progression” from ambiguous/sympathetic portrayals of cross-dressed women in f/f relationships, to a focus of the purpose of the cross-dressing on achieving a heteronormative destiny. Thus cross-dressing becomes just one more “feminine trick” to achieve the woman’s goals. But while cross-dressing and consequent same-sex encounters often serve as humor, or to reinforce gender norms, Yde et Olive is well positioned to suggest a function of expressing f/f fantasies.

The chapter returns to a symbolic discussion of manuscript mutilation. [And I’m skipping over large section that are mostly playing with symbols.]

The chapter concludes with a very detailed discussion of the exact language used in the bedroom scene in Yde et Olive. It looks at how a literal reading of Olive’s thoughts and verbal responses portray a woman desiring and enjoying sex with a female partner in specific preference to intercourse with a man. [Note: this part of the chapter is perhaps the most useful for the purposes of the Project, though it requires a familiarity with medieval French and with the story to be fully understood.]

Chapter 3 - The Place of Homoerotic Motifs in the Medieval French Canon

While the previous two chapters took a deep dive into specific themes and works, this one surveys a selection of motifs, such as the false accusation of same-sex preference. Such an accusation might be in reaction to apparent indifference to a heterosexual advance, or as a shield against unwanted attention. These motifs occur in texts as varied as an adaptation of Aeneas, a collection of courtly anecdotes, and the chivalric allegory The Romance of the Rose.

In some, there is a contrast between a “literal” same-sex interaction being used to allegorically represent an opposite-sex one. Within a homosocial society, same-sex playing-out of romantic scripts becomes ambiguous.

[Note: consider this in the same context as the use of heterosexual forms and scripts in single-sex school crushes, or the assertion that pairs of young women may “practice” with each other for marriage, in contexts where mingling of the sexes is discouraged.]

Another repeating motif is the disguise of a noblewoman’s male lovers as waiting women. In this context, there is an explanation of hair as a distinguishing gender marker--or in age-differentiated m/m relationships, as a sexual role marker. The young, beardless, long-haired cinnaedus of Roman age/status-differentiated pairs creates a split contrast of male/effeminate performance with m/m bodies. Whereas the medieval “disguised waiting woman” motif creates a different split contrast between f/f performance with underlying f/m bodies.

There is a discussion of the gendered vocabulary of hair in various medieval languages with a highly speculative connection made between effeminate curled/kinky hair and the use of “kinky” for non-normative sexual acts. [Note: Even the author indicates this is highly speculative, and there’s a distinct lack of receipts.] In general, there is a sense that deliberately ostentatious and excessive hairstyles were associated with effeminacy, luxury, and sexual wantonness.

The author discusses a medieval version of Aeneas that depicts the titular hero as sexually wanton with both men and women, though always in the “active” role.  This discussion includes more interesting vocabulary analysis regarding which expressions for sexual desire/pleasure are used for which gender combinations. The overall tone of the Aeneas text is one of disparaging him for his sexual tastes and a female complaint at being set aside in favor of male lovers -- disguised to some extent as a concern the failure to produce a next generation.

The next motif is how the attractiveness of ideal, but non-gendered, features disturbs the boundaries of gender and heterosexuality. Both men and women may express appreciation for an attractive body, as long as the attractiveness is not described in specifically gendered terms. A shapely leg is beautiful because it is “noble,” not because it is “manly.”

This theme is explored in Lanval, via the courtship-like symbolism of the lord-vassal relationship, but embodied in the vassal relationship of Lanval to his secret fairy-queen lover. Lanval has sworn to keep their relationship secret, so when he refuses Queen Guinevere’s advances, she accuses him of preferring boys.

The chapter concludes with brief discussions of other texts. [Note: there is very little attention given to f/f motifs, even when they involve men disguised as women. Which is odd since texts that include them, such as Silence, are mentioned.]

Conclusion

The author discusses how medieval and modern readers view the homoerotic themes, placing the reading within various theoretical contexts. The existence of overt accusations of same-sex preference in medieval literature only works as a plot device if medieval readers had an understanding that such a preference was possible. This understanding must be dealt with, no matter what theory of sexuality one uses to interpret it.

[Note: There is much discussion of the themes of the book within various theoretical contexts, but by now you probably know that I get bored easily with theory for the sake of theory.]

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