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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #86 Westphal 1997 "Amazons and Guérillères"

Full citation: 

Westphal, Sarah. 1997. "Amazons and Guérillères" in Medieval Feminist Newsletter, No. 23: 24-28.

The Medieval Feminist Newsletter of the '90s was still a relatively young publication (it began publishing in 1986) and hadn't quite outgrown the "mimeographed in the basement" look. The articles tend to be short and often are aimed at pedagogical concerns rather than "pure" research, as well as leaning strongly to the literary criticism side. Westphal's article here seems relatively typical of that era, taking a somewhat simplistic look at amazon motifs in medieval romance and then setting up a comparison with the modern novel Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig. The medieval image of amazons has an immense fascination for those writing woman-centered medieval fantasy not, of course, for historic veracity, but for the attitudes and images that medieval people had about female warriors and women who rejected the norms of heterosexual marriage. Other writers look at these themes in more depth, but as I noted previously, this week's theme is "early ventures into the field".

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Westphal looks at the motif of the amazon in medieval literature and the fascination and challenge they present for feminist historians. In this short article, she examines the most salient distinction amazons have for patriarchal medieval society: that they presented women as the adversaries of men rather than as their dependents and property.

This examination takes as a given that medieval warfare was nasty, brutal, and unending. [I find this a somewhat troubling start to the article, given the lack of nuance.] A comparison is made to the figure of the "lady knight" in Renaissance epics where characters like Britomart represent a feminized version of elite martial masculinity in the context of an era when non-military diplomacy was becoming as important as warfare. It is postulated that these literary female knights used the motif of "women's changeability" to support the values of expediency over a more rigid (and less useful) code of honor.

Westphal is here citing the work of Lillian S. Robinson who contrasts the amazon characters with the lady knights, where the latter participate in the romantic plotlines of the stories while the former do not. Amazons, in contrast were presented as something of a more "pure" military model, efficient and dedicated and undistracted by the chaotic individualism of male knights. She compares them with the real-life Knights Templar in being idealized as singlemindedly devoted to their profession to the exclusion of personal relationships. Amazons also represented "total mobilization" for war, where the class typically excluded from that activity is centralized. [The discussion asserts that only "able-bodied men of the ruling elite" were classed as combatants and though mentioning siege warfare seems to overlook its consequences.]

Passing reference is made to a tangential intersection of the allegorical experiences of literary amazons with the activities of individual medieval women who were military leaders or participated in defensive warfare "in th absence of male relatives." The article speculates on "how literary amazons connected to the lives of medieval women" and then moves on to their reception by modern audiences. Westphal considers Monique Wittig's novel Les Guérillères which builds a mythic story out of deliberately fragmentary texts depicting women fighting to establish a post-patriarchal utopia. Wittig's novel is something of an extreme wish-fulfillment fantasy of violent anti-patriarchy. The implication of this juxtaposition with the medieval amazon motifs is that the latter may have served a similar wish-fulfillment purpose in the imaginations of the medieval women who heard/read their stories.

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