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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #10 – Krueger 1999, “Transforming Maidens: Singlewomen’s Stories in Marie de France’s Lais and Later French Courtly Narratives”

Full citation: 

Krueger, Roberta L. 1999. “Transforming Maidens: Singlewomen’s Stories in Marie de France’s Lais and Later French Courtly Narratives” in Bennett, Judith M. & Amy M. Froide eds. Singlewomen in the European Past 1250-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-1668-7

Publication summary: 

While, no doubt, many lesbians in history made their peace with the need to accommodate marriage and family life, when designing a character who has the freedom to refuse marriage to a man, it helps to know what social and economic options would have been possible (or even normal) within your setting. There have been several excellent collections of papers (and even more monographs) on the topic of singlewomen, but I believe this was the first significant one to appear.

Krueger, Roberta L. “Transforming Maidens: Singlewomen’s Stories in Marie de France’s Lais and Later French Courtly Narratives”

The phrase "damsel in distress" conjures up an entire tradition of medieval story (and its modern echoes) where a female character exists primarily to spur the (male) hero on to action. But self-rescuing princesses aren't only a modern counter to that trope. This article looks at several groups of medieval romances in terms of the roles played by unmarried women in the stories, and especially by the primary female characters during the part of the story where they are unmarried. (And, to be sure, most of the end up married before the curtain closes.) In the most extreme version of these stories, the "hero" functionally disappears from the story while the damsel goes about solving her own problems, often by forming alliances and partnerships with other women she encounters on her journey.
I have fallen in love with several of these stories because of the open-ended interpretations one can put on them. It takes very little -- sometimes only drawing that final curtain a few scenes early -- for en entirely different spin to be put on their adventures. One might well imagine Aelis setting up permanent housekeeping with her beloved female friend as they bask in the acclaim of the noble ladies they entertain and provide embroideries to. Later in this series, I'll be looking at an entire set of articles covering the romance of Ide and Olive and related stories, which has even more potential for lesbian appropriation. (Oh, and by the way … dibs on that one!)

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A survey of unmarried female characters in medieval French courtly romances. The article begins with a consideration of the character of Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999) who, having been raised as a boy for inheritance purposes, debates whether to retain the social privileges of a male role. The focus of Silence’s story is on her exploits in a male role and her eventual return to a female role at the resolution is perfunctory. Using this as a starting point, Krueger explores representative scenarios involving characters who have adventures as women. Their single state may be temporary--most of the characters end up wed and in most cases their adventures while single are focused on the goal of obtaining their desired marriage partner. But the stories themselves focus on the single period. The article begins with a consideration of characters in the Lais of Marie de France, compares them with women in Chretien de Troyes and the Vulgate cycle, and then looks at a sampling of other stories with strong independent women having adventures.

The unmarried women in Marie’s stories are typically young, poor, or otherworldly, Marie herself stands in the literary tradition as an independent woman (whether she was unmarried or not) and her work often focuses on women's stories. The stories often revolve around barriers to marriage or the resolution of a blocked or nullified marriage, thus focusing on the actions of a woman who is single, whether in truth or functionally. The maidens typically employ strategy and alliances with other female characters to solve their problems, rather than focusing on martial exploits. These stories may involve transgressive sexuality, most often in the form of pre-marital sex which must then be resolved by marriage. Female allies along the way typically include powerful independent women.

The romances of Chretien de Troyes are typically more hostile to the female characters, who have less power and autonomy than Marie’s. While they do include some female “clever ally” roles, most female roles are secondary to the action (helping or interfering with the hero’s quest). In the Vulgate Cycle stories (Arthurian tradition) the only strong singlewomen tend to be fairy/otherworldly characters, such as Lady of the Lake or Morgan, who represent maternal support and dangerous sexuality respectively. There is an abundance of unattached "damsels" serving roles as helpers, damsels in distress, victims requiring justice, guides, etc. These are not their stories; they only serve as props in the men’s stories.

Outside the preceding collections, there are several “roman réalise" stories with an adventurous woman as protagonist. Those considered here are L'Escoufle, Roman de la Rose ou de Guillaume de Dole, Galeran de Bretagne [Note: this “Roman de la Rose” is an entirely different tale from the more commonly-known work of that title.]

These tales focus on the stories of young women who overcome great obstacles to achieve their goal (in the end, marriage, but more immediately survival and social status), by virtue and cleverness and hard work. These characters enjoy even more autonomy than Marie's. The characters enjoy strong support from and form attachments to female allies. These are very much “quest" stories but with female protagonists.

L'Escoufle (the kite, in reference to the falcon-like bird, not the toy) - Aelis, an emperor's daughter, is forsaken by her lover Guillaume who leaves her sleeping to pursue a kite (escoufle) that has stolen his purse. Left to her own devices, Aelis takes up work as a seamstress, forges a series of close mutually-supportive relationships with women of various classes, and engages in physically affectionate activities with some of them in the course of this. Aelis and her primary companion transform business success into something approximating a social salon, attracting the attention and affection of a noblewoman who aids her cause. Aelis is eventually reunited with Guillaume and takes her rightful social place again but this resolution is oddly disjointed from the meat of the story.

Lienor in Roman de la Rose is less interesting in the present context, lacking the motifs of female allies, households, and physical affection.

Galeran de Bretagne expands on Marie's tale of Frene, involving separated twin sisters. Frene, like Aelis, forges her own way in the world, forming an alliance and household with two other singlewomen to their mutual benefit and achieves her goals through creativity and industry.

Common motifs among the three stories are the loss of parental protection, the exploration of new spaces and activities, and success via virtue, creativity, and intellect. Female alliances and households are a strong theme but not always present.

Time period: 

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