Amer, Sahar. 2008. Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-8122-4087-0
This is a fabulous book. I've covered a couple of Amer's articles previously and there is some overlap in material, but this study lays out the entire framework of her research into the interactions of French and Arabic influences in certain medieval romances with themes of female same-sex desire. Her work is a prime example of both the difficulties and rewards of digging deeply into some of the less-studied literary works with lesbian-like themes.
Chapter 1 - Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Same-Sex Love Between Women
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Amer looks at the interactions between medieval French and Arabic cultural and literary traditions as they touch on love between women. She begins with a review of Western literature concerning lesbian activity, with all the usual observations regarding the way in which it was written out of the record even in the act of condemnation. There is also a discussion of theoretical issues in sexuality studies, in particular the influence of Foucault, and the problems of distinguishing activities from identities from labels from vocabulary. We get a summary of specifically French texts that have been identified as addressing the topic of desire between women.
The material specific to Amer's work begins with a historical review of the cultural and political interactions between Western (Christian) Europe and what she refers to as the Islamcate world. (I haven't encountered this word before but evidently it means "associated with regions and cultures where Islam predominates but not specifically related to Islam itself.") These interactions took place both in the crusader kingdoms of the Middle East and in Europe via cultural nexuses such as Spain and Sicily. This provides the context for the literary cross-fertilization seen in medieval French literature that is the main topic of Amer's book.
Literary influences in fields such as medicine and hard sciences are well documented, but in the field of literature study has primarily focused on the courtly love poetic tradition and the fable tradition. The discussion then shifts to reviewing the longstanding popular association during the medieval period of Islam with homosexuality (or generally with sexual deviance). This created a context where orientalist themes licensed the depiction of actual or apparent same-sex activity in French romances.
A review of medieval Arabic literature on sex proves a great contrast. Although still male-centered, the absence of Christian taboos on sexuality as a topic allows for a wide variety of unambiguous commentary on sex and love between women. There are superficially-neutral medical explanations for same-sex desire, technical descriptions of sexual techniques, and positive references to notable female couples and relationships. Sexual openness came in some eras to be associated with sophistication. There are also many nods to the position that sex between women did not constitute adultery or unchastity, and so was tolerated or even encouraged as a "safe" outlet for women's desires.
Several genres of Arabic literature touch on same-sex practices; the adab tradition of collections of poetry and anecdotes, which includes a specific subgenre of sex manuals, the wasf tradition of epigrammatic verse, including the virtues of various sexual partners or practices, and the "framed story collection" of which the most famous is the Thousand and One Nights.
Amer finishes this introduction with the practical difficulties of obtaining these historic texts for study, given the modern climate regarding variant sexuality in the Islamic world, and the particular difficulties for a female scholar who may be explicitly refused access to material even when it exists. Censorship, obscurity, de-contextualization, and barriers to access all made the research more difficult.