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Full citation: 

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

Publication summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 1

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.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 2

This chapter covers the same material as Amer 2001 covering the 12th century Livre des Manières by Etienne de Fougères. (See also Clark 2001 for more details on the poem's language.)

This "estates" poem is part of a genre of moral literature addressing the various classes of society. It is unusual in including verses about women (who were typically entirely omitted from the genre) and more so in including a verse specifically and explicitly concerning lesbians. As this is the earliest such clear reference in French literature, it has been the subject of debate, even leading to questioning the poem's authorship.

Amer lays out her evidence and reasoning for considering this inclusion to have been inspired by and directly based on descriptions of lesbian activity in contemporary Arabic sources, such the 10th century Encyclopedia of Pleasure and an 11th century anthology of metonymic and literary devices. A key image in the poem is the military metaphor of sexual activity between women as "shield beating against shield with no lance." For other parts of the verse, comparisons to Arabic descriptions and theories of lesbian sexuality suggest interpretations for ambiguous or obscure language, as in the suggestion of reading "Sanz focil escoent lor feu" as "they deliver themselves from their fire without the use of a poker" (based on Arabic medical theories of sexual relief) rather than Clark's suggested reading "without a poker to stir up their fire".

The chapter includes a substantial body of examples of imagery from Arabic literature to support the strongest parallels and moves on to considering interpretations of the more obscure language that gain plausibility once Arabic connections are established. Despite the literary connections, the French and Arabic texts that are being compared show major differences in attitude toward sexual activity in general and lesbian sexuality in particular. The Arabic influences and material in the Livre des Manières were filtered though French and Christian culture and attitudes, transforming the content in the process.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 3

This chapter compares similarities and differences in a related group of stories from both French and Arabic sources that use cross-gender disguise as a bridge to the possibility of same-sex relations. The French tales and their Arabic counterpart share enough themes and tropes to suggest a common inspiration, but the attitudes of the characters and the resolutions reflect their respective cultural differences.

There are a number of French romances where female cross-dressing creates homoerotic potential, though none resolves into an actual same-sex relationship at the end: Le Roman de Silence, the story of Blanchandine in Tristan de Nanteuil, and the story of Grisandole in L'Estoire de Merlin. But the motif is taken farthest in the tale of Yde and Olive, which exists in a 13th century verse epic, a 14th century drama, and a 15th century prose epic, each with its own variations in the plot.

The Islamicate world offers its own traditions of cross-dressing women beginning in pre-Islamic times, whether as individuals, as social categories such as the literary genre of ghulamiyyat, or in the many Amazon-like characters in the 1001 Nights. It is in this last source that we find the tale of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour that is considered in this chapter. Amer reviews the historic background of both French and Arabic stories and shows the basis for her conclusions that they are linked by more than a coincidence of plot.

I will skip the more theoretical parts of the analysis (which are well worth reading) in favor of a simple plot summary, starting with the French tales. The main character is named Yde in the 13th c, Ide in the 15th c, and Ysabel in the 14th c drama. Her beloved is Olive in all three. Yde is the daughter at king Florent of Aragon and his Queen Esclarmonde who dies in childbirth. When Yde is 15, her resemblance to her mother inspires her father to decide to marry her. Horrified at the thought of incest, she flees in male disguise. After many adventures (the details of which differ in the three texts) she arrives in Rome (or Constantinople) and successfully leads the king's army there against attacking Spaniards. In some versions, one goal of the attack is pursuit of the king's daughter Olive. In reward for this victory, Yde is named the king's heir and given Olive's hand in marriage.

This is where the texts begin to diverge somewhat. Olive has fallen in love with Yde. Yde is somewhat panicked at the coming wedding but goes through with it rather than revealing her true sex. In the verse and prose epics, Yde puts off her wife on the wedding night, pleading illness, but after two weeks confides her secret to Olive who promises to keep it. But their conversation is overheard and they are accused before the king. To verify Yde's sex, the King commands that she bathe naked before him, but at the last minute an angel announces that Yde has been transformed into a man. The story then proceeds with Yde and Olive as a heterosexual couple with no further comment.

The play resolves the dilemma more complexly. Yde (or rather, Ysabel, in this version) confesses her secret to Olive on their wedding night in a scene that could be read as erotic. Ysabel says, "I am a woman, like you. And I have breasts, feel them." Olive swears to honor her as if she were a husband. As in the other texts, they are discovered and the bath test is required, but as Ysabel is disrobing, Saint Michael appears as a white stag and distracts the witnesses while giving Ysabel the appearance of a man. But this is a temporary illusion, and the final resolution arrives in the form of Ysabel's father, at which point Olive is married off to him while Ysabel is married to Olive's father. [Can I just say, Ew!]

The texts play up the temporary homoeroticism of the setting by highlighting Olive's romantic and sensual response to Yde when she first arrives, and then in the descriptions after the wedding of how the two women kiss and embrace in bed, using the same vocabulary and imagery as is used for opposite sex couples in the same genre. But this apparent acceptance of same-sex desire is undermined by a careful avoidance of showing reciprocal desire in a context where both parties know the truth of their relationship until after the heteronormative resolution.

The Arabic story of Qamar al-Zaman and the princess Boudour is most strikingly different in how it treats the relationship between its female protagonists after the marriage and in achieving a resolution in which they continue to share a household, albeit as co-wives of the same man. Boudour is traveling with her husband Qamar. When he suddenly disappears, she puts on his clothes and takes his name to protect herself. She arrives at the Isle of Ebony, whose king wishes to retire and forces Boudour to marry his daughter Hayat al-Nefous and became his heir. Boudoir puts off revealing her secret to Hayat for several days after the wedding, but in the mean time satisfies her erotically with caresses and kisses. After the reveal (which again involves an explicit display of breasts and genitals as proof) they stage a fake proof of defloration and continue living happily as a married couple until the real Qamar al-Zaman shows up. At that point, Boudour explains all and abdicates in her husbands' favor, after which Qamar takes Hayat as his second wife with Boudour stipulating that they (the wives) will share a house together.

I have skipped over the rich discussion of how these various themes relate to each other and yet reflect the norms and preoccupations of their own cultures, which is the major theme of Amer’s analysis. Anyone with even a passing interest in the topic of lesbian themes in medieval French romances should get their hands on this book.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 4

The interrelationships between French and Arabic texts are somewhat more diffuse in the romance L'Escoufle (the kite). The opening motif of a maiden embarking on adventures when abandoned by a male companion echoes the tale of Princess Boudour but, more pervasively, the focus on rich and luxurious fabrics and clothing evokes Eastern themes, both as a source of the textiles and as a reference to Arabic cultural traditions. The text also contains scattered allusions to motifs such as an "unfastened robe" that are traditional sexual motifs in Arabic literature. But primarily, L'Escoufle is the story of female economic, social, and affective bonds as an alternative parallel to the formal social hierarchy, one that allows the primary character to recover from her initial plight when she steps outside the traditional story-structure and enables her to make her way successfully in the world.

Aelis, daughter of the emperor of Rome, flees in company with Guillaume for his home at Normandy when her father forbids their marriage. When they stop to rest in Lorraine, a kite (the predatory bird, not the toy) flies off with a silk purse containing a ring that Aelis received from her mother. Guillaume takes off in pursuit of the kite, leaving Aelis alone, and disappears from the story until the very end.

Finding herself alone, Aelis meets a working class girl named Ysabel and her mother and persuades them to take her in. She establishes a close friendship with Ysabel, sharing her bed and giving her a gift of clothing. In bed they kiss, embrace, and hug, and Ysabel promises to do whatever Aelis wishes. Their friendship is described as giving Ysabel "so much solace, so much pleasure" such that Aelis "enjoys herself in so many ways." The search for Guillaume is still paid lip service at this point, but after some travels in search of him, Aelis gives up and settles down in Montpellier to make a new life for herself. Aelis is skilled at silk embroidery and uses that skill as a means to support herself. Together with Ysabel she establishes an embroidery workshop.

Aelis's embroidery flourishes but when she fails to gain the business of the lady of Montpellier, she resolves instead to establish a friendship, by means of the gift of a purse and belt, embroidered with the symbols of the lord of Montpellier her husband, thinking that would please the lady. This gift is reciprocated by the lady's grant of protection and friendship. She seats Aelis at her side at dinner "in place of her lord" and expresses a desire (perhaps only to herself) to have Aelis share her bed, and finds excuses to keep Aelis at her side when they are alone. She gives Aelis a gift of "a coat that has never had a fastener" (echoing an Arabic sexual metaphor of an open robe) suggesting that she can easily complete the garment. But the lady of Montpellier is not focused solely on Aelis. She has already, in her mind, decided to give the purse and belt that Aelis gave her to her lover the Count of Saint-Giles.

When the Countess of Saint-Giles sees her husband with these gifts, marked with the symbols of Montpellier, it confirms his adultery in her mind and she confronts him. There follows a series of suggestions from him, first that she "do likewise" (with an ambiguously dual implication that she get her own lover or her own purse), then that she obtain a çainturiere (female maker of belts), and finally when she accuses him of dishonoring her, he suggests that she invite the belt-maker (Aelis) to come live with her as her pucele (maiden, lady in waiting). The implied parallels, both within the text, and in the usual patterns of "ill-married" characters in romances, set Aelis in the position of potential lover. The countess greets Aelis as "friend" (amie), receives her with kisses, takes her to her bedchamber and bed to be comfortable, and soon "they are all one heart and soul, they no longer remember Guillaume."

Remember Guillaume? Heteronormativity is restored at the last minute when Guillaume reappears, with purse and ring, at which point he and Aelis are married and become rulers of both Rome and Normandy. In the overall structure of the story, this resolution seems almost an afterthought. The primary focus of the action is on Aelis's social and economic success by forming a series of egalitarian social bonds with women who can further her goals and who interact with her under the label of "friend" but with the actions and vocabulary of lovers.

(More details of the types of social relationships and activities that Aelis enters into, both at Montpelier and Saint-Giles, are discussed in the next and final entry.)

Contents summary: 

Chapter 5

This chapter looks more deeply into motifs in L'Escoufle that show how Aelis constructs her new life as a woman alone. Once Aelis gives up the quest to travel in search of Guillaume and settles down into an urban domestic partnership with Ysabel in Montpellier, a number of boundaries are crossed. In adopting Ysabel as friend, business partner, and perhaps lover the two are leveled socially. Aelis's abandonment sets her apart from the noble rank she inherited, and her taking up a craft cements her new position in the middle class. Conversely, in giving Ysabel new, rich clothing in place of her original rags, Aelis elevates her from her lower status to becoming the equal of Aelis's new rank.

In contrast to the cross-dressing romances, Aelis's independence and enterprise cannot be dismissed as taking on a temporary male role. This makes the women's actions in some ways even more subversive, Sewing and fine embroidery are not the only trades the women take up and Amer suggests that some of their activities and the ways their success are described imply they may have established something akin to a high-class brothel. (Embroidery workshops were sometimes a cover for such establishments.) Aelis's success as a wealthy independent businesswoman stands in contrast to the economic status of most non-fictional single women of the time who were typically domestic servants or unskilled laborers, although certain cities had female-dominated guilds that provided better opportunities. In addition to the needlework, the women provided personal services such as hair washing, and their house became a fashionable meeting place for "bourgeois and knights" offering games, entertainments, and conversation. Something of a salon, in other words, or perhaps the services of a courtesan. Despite the implications of a business that focuses on providing "pleasure and delight" there is no overt suggestion of sexual activity or any impugning at Aelis's reputation. And indeed there are several episodes where she is notably careful with respect to her reputation regarding men.

It is in the context of this popular salon that Aelis notes the standoffishness of the lady of Montpellier and decides to make overtures of friendship to her. When that friendship brings Aelis entrée to the household of the Countess of Saint-Gilles, she moves into another salon-like space among the Countess's entourage. This is a woman-dominated space, but not women-only, as the Count (evidently turning away from his affair with the lady of Montpellier) is depicted hanging out with the ladies, enjoying food and company, and--in a very suggestive scene--being undressed down to his braies for comfort and lounging around with his head in Aelis's lap. This is not a clandestine affair; it occurs in the context of a group at women attending to a man's pleasure, and the Countess is present at the time. Amer notes the resonances with harem scenes in Arabic stories, a resonance that need not contradict the homoerotic potential between the women themselves, as in the tale of Princess Boudour.

Throughout the text are motifs such as this that directly contradict Christian moralizing literature of the time (e.g., warnings against maidservants taking a wife's place, or against single women wearing fine clothes and walking around looking people immodestly in the eye. In very many ways, Aelis disrupts the conventional structures of medieval society and literature. These disruptions make far more sense when examined from the point of view of contemporary medieval Islamicate social traditions.

The anomalous social and economic position Aelis inhabits can also be viewed in the context of the concepts of zarf (courtliness, elegance) and munjun (libertine) literature, and social roles such as the qaynas (singing slave-girls). Zarf encapsulates the general concepts of refinement, elegance, and courtliness, extended to one's person and environment (clothing, furnishings, grooming), behavior (conversation and debate, performance), and to the literature and themes that were the topic of that performance The zarf tradition began in pre-Islamic Medina and spread to Baghdad and later to Spanish al-Andalus, which strove to outdo earlier centers. The influence of zarf can be traced in the courtly love tradition of Occitania.

Although women of all classes participated in zarf culture (a notable example being the 11th century Princess Wallada of Spain), a prominent role fell to the class of "singing slave-girls" (qaynas) who were trained and educated to be accomplished in conversation, entertainment, games such as chess, composition of poetry, and other refined arts. Being slaves they were more free to participate in the mixed-gender gatherings devoted to zarf culture than a "respectable" free woman may have been--as well as participating in its more erotic manifestations. Amer notes the similarity to geishas and hetairae. One feature of zarf culture was the salon-like majlis, where people would gather to relax in pleasant surroundings, such as a garden, for intellectual discussion and debate. Amer provides a detailed and extensive exploration of zarf culture that is well worth reading on its own. Same-sex relationships were an integral-though not essential-part of zarf culture, that is, all relationships could be expressed in an elegant way and same-sex ones are explicitly included among the literature.

With all this as background, a different possibility emerges for understanding Aelis's salon at Montpelier, as well as the somewhat sybaritic entertainments within the Countess of Saint-Giles' household. The focus on intellectual activities within an environment of sense-pleasing luxury reflects a Majlis, even to the telling of stories and playing at chess. The scenes in the Saint-Giles household have an unmistakable air of the harem in the friendship between the women even as they attend to the same man. And, as we see in the tale of Princess Boudour, such an arrangement does not exclude the existence of erotic relationships between the women.

But just as Aelis does not fit the standard Western tropes, she does not entirely fit in the role of qaynas. She is a free and independent woman who established her own Majlis-equivalent rather than participating as a servant in one established by someone else. Amer goes into detail showing how L'Escoufle blends Western and Arabic elements, but inevitably views them through Western literary and cultural expectations, leaving the Arabic layer as exotic and sometimes confusing traces in the narrative. Then, just as we appear to be setting up a triad marriage between Aelis, the countess, and the count, the latter recalls a strange story his falconer told him about a young man's violent killing of a kite, and Guillaume is whisked back onstage to return Aelis to a standard Western narrative. 

Contents summary: 


The concluding chapter at the book sums up the themes and conclusions.