Skip to content Skip to navigation

Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #24 - Sautman 2001 “What Can They Possibly Do Together? Queer Epic Performances in Tristan de Nanteuil”

Full citation: 

Sautman, Francesca Canadé. “What Can They Possibly Do Together? Queer Epic Performances in Tristan de Nanteuil” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (ed. By Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn), Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Sautman, Francesca Canadé. “What Can They Possibly Do Together? Queer Epic Performances in Tristan de Nanteuil”

Even though I'm relaxing my one-a-day rule now that June is past, I didn't want to start off on the wrong foot by skipping a day. But since Tuesdays are a combination of lunch with the BFF day (which means I can't work on an entry over lunch) and dragonboat practice day (which means I don't get home until 8:30 at the earliest) I've skipped a little ahead in the collection to cover an article for which I already had a substantial summary prepared from a previous project.

Cross-dressing and gender disguise were popular motifs in medieval romances and created a context for brushes with same-sex attraction and erotic activity, whether or not the characters involved were both aware of it. To complicate the matter, like Ovid's much earlier story of Iphis and Ianthe, these fictional treatments had the option of resolving society's need to masculinize one of the pair with a literal bodily transformation. Although these last-minute heterosexual resolutions are required by the literary conventions of the time, the underlying stories create intriguing models for stories with entirely different endings. In a world where a woman is capable of loving and feeling desire for another woman who happens to be in male disguise, how very little it would take for her to discover that she loved the person and not simply the superficial facade? I've long had the ambition to write a version of Yde and Olive (who will appear many times in these entries) that came out "the right way" in the end.

* * *

In the chansons de geste, women might don male garb for a variety of reasons, especially for safety, but also to be able to participate in masculine activities or join male groups. There is a repeating motif of the woman who disguises herself as a knight and succeeds in winning great renown in that guise. A common twist then has her dealing with the amorous or matrimonial desires of another woman, as in the story of Yde and Olive. Yde goes out into the world to escape the incestuous advances of her father, disguises herself as a man and wins fame as a knight, and is offered the hand of Olive in marriage. Different versions of the tale resolve this problem into heterosexuality in different ways, but leave the transitory state where a woman disguised as a man is married to another woman (with her knowledge).

In the 14th century story Tristan de Nanteuil, the character Blanchandine, having disguised herself entirely too well as a man in order to accompany her lover Tristan on adventures, is loved and courted by the noblewoman Clarinde. Believing Tristan to be dead, she finds herself forced to agree to marry Clarinde but successfully delays consummation until a miracle transforms her into a man. Blanchandine's erotic feelings are dictated entirely by the form of her body: uninterested in Clarinde before the change, but in love with her afterward, and after the change denying any trace of attraction to poor Tristan who turned out not to be dead after all.

Another tale with similar structure is Silence (see Roche-Mahdi 1999) where the heroine lives as a man and wins fame as a knight and courtier, however in Silence’s case, there is no same-sex marriage but rather she attracts the adulterous attention of the queen.

Sautman examines this group of stories in terms of shared motifs and tale types, arguing for an interrelation between them at a structural level, as well as exploring how the disruptive possibility of same-sex love is acknowledged, framed, and eventually resolved into heterosexual order again.

Time period: 

Add new comment