It is no secret at all that any number of the more...apocryphal saints in the historic Catholic tradition were adopted from extra-historical sources. In many cases, extra-Christian sources. The church has gone though a gradual process of pruning away those for which a solidly historic basis can't be established. But in many cases, those discarded traditions evolved and grew and set deep emotional roots in the hearts of worshippers. During my recent research on cross-dressing narratives in medieval history, I spent a lot of time combing through the Acta Sanctorum, a ca. 1600 encyclopedia of every saint on the calendar that reviewed and evaluated the evidence both for their historicity and their sanctity. (Spoiler: many of the legends of cross-dressing saints are apocryphal.) It's a fascinating field both for religious history and for folklore and the processes by which both develop.
I don't remember exactly when I first got the idea that the Rotein River might have its own survival of this type. There was a time early in the plotting of Daughter of Mystery where I envisioned a system of ancient tunnels and catacombs under the city that the characters might use as an escape route and where they might encounter interesting antiquities. That specific image and event was left on the cutting room floor, but I held on to the image of intriguing ancient survivals and hidden tunnels.
As I developed the theme of the centrality of stories and images involving the Rotein in Mother of Souls, I knew that somewhere in Alpennian history, the river must have had a clear personification of some sort. If you go far enough back, pretty much all major European rivers had their own local deity. And I'd established through various passing references (to say nothing of simple historic inevitability) that Alpennia was part of the Roman Empire and that some of its towns and cities had architectural relics of that era. So I knew it was perfectly possible that there might be Roman-era shrines to the Rotein's deity still lying around somewhere. And it was reasonable that an important deity of that sort might have been Christianized at some early date.
But the Alpennia series is set in an era when that pruning away of spurious saints had been thoroughly accomplished for the most part. So what might survivals look like in the early 19th century? For one, a "saint" associated with the river might be clung to by those whose lives and livelihoods most depended on the water. And traditions associated with that saint might well survive in contexts of peril and danger associated with the river: flood, drought, fever.
I knew that the Rotein would be an even larger "character" in Floodtide and--simply given the way the worldbuilding has developed across the series--I knew that the patron saint of the river could not be part of high-culture worship or traditions (because she hadn't been mentioned in any of the high-culture magical discussions to that point). But knowing this, I planted two minor seeds in Mother of Souls. In the "prelude" text, when I describe the usual course of the river's behavior, I note, “For those who can leave the city, floodtide signals an exodus to the pleasures of country estates. Those who remain light a candle to Saint Rota against the fever.” And at a later point, when Serafina is arguing with Margerit about whether Luzie's opera counts as a miracle or a mystery, she protests, “It doesn’t matter that the opera doesn’t invoke any saints. If it works, it doesn’t matter. Lots of market charms don’t call on saints. Or they call on people who aren’t saints, like Mama Rota.”
But how would a foreigner like Serafina know about the apocryphal Saint Rota? She heard about the tradition from Celeste, of course, who lives well within the flood zone in the western part of the city, and whose collection of market charms would certainly include ones that invoke her. In my mind, Saint Rota developed as a saint of the people, of the working class and especially those whose lives and fates were most influenced by the whims of the river. They would be well aware that Rota wasn't an accepted saint, but she was theirs. And half the time, she wouldn't be "Saint" but "Mama," a very personal figure whose recognition verged on admitted heresy. Her rejection by the church authorities would make her even more special and personal to those who felt overlooked and rejected themselves.
I envisioned more details of her cult: a connection would have arisen with Rotenek's patron saint, Mauriz. And because Mauriz was depicted as a black man, a Moor, Rota might be envisioned similarly. But Mauriz was a military saint, martyred while commanding an army--how might a sister be worked into his legend? Well, Rota was always and ever associated with water, and what better miracle for her than to have created a spring of pure water for her brother's soldiers to drink? Thus, the idea of Saint Rota's well passed into legend, and the idea of water from her well having miraculous properties became a motif, even when it also became a metaphor for the unobtainable. Because there was no "Saint Rota's Well" was there? So the associations for her well were transferred to the river itself.
In the first encounter when Roz meets Liv on the river, she notices her habit--as automatic and unthinking as crossing oneself--of dipping her fingers in the river and bringing them to her mouth as she pushes out into the current. And Roz, in her usual well-meaning but clumsy way, asks about why she's "tasting the river."
* * *
I was startled when Liv dropped the oars for a moment, sending us spinning loose in the water. She grabbed my wrist. “Don’t mock Mama Rota,” she said. She was real serious, like the Orisule sisters at school had been about taking God’s name in vain. She let me go and grabbed the oars again and had us back on course in three strokes. “Show respect. If you want Mama Rota to keep you safe on the water, you say thanks every time. And if you don’t know what you’re talking about, then keep your mouth shut.”
I wanted to ask who Mama Rota was, but Liv wasn’t the right person to ask just now. So I kept my mouth shut.
[later Roz asks one of the other housemaids about Mama Rota]
“Folks on the river call her that, but others call her Saint Rota. They say she was Saint Mauriz’s sister and she watches over the river like he watches over the city. There’s a picture in one of the cathedral windows that some people say is Saint Rota but I don’t know about that. If she were a real saint, wouldn’t she have a feast day?”
The next time we were at services in the cathedral together, I asked Ailis to show me the window. It was above one of the side altars. You could see Saint Mauriz in the center window, with his armor and a white turban almost as big as his halo. One of the side windows had a whole group of his soldiers. The people in the other side window included a lady who looked dark like Mauriz, though they weren’t either of them as dark as Mefro Dominique. The lady was pouring water out of a pitcher, so maybe that was why folks thought she was Mama Rota. She was pretty but she didn’t have a halo.
* * *
Keep that image in mind: a dark-skinned holy woman bringing safety and salvation to the city's downtrodden using water from a miraculous spring. It will be a couple more books before that image comes back to haunt the city that Saint Rota watches over.
I'm very aware of how the content of the LHMP tends to revolve around white, Christian, western European defaults. I try to counter that tendency by seeking out publications outside that academic gravity well. I think of it as a "gravity well" because of the way authors and publications link to and lead to each other in connected ways, building a body of shared interests that reinforce each other. When I find new publications by searching the bibliographies of work I've already covered, I'm absorbing all the biases--both explicit and implicit--of the authors I've already covered. Even when I happen across a work whose topic is outside that "gravity well", much of the existing literature it draws on for context and connection will pull the reader back in. Because academics working on marginalized topics still need to "prove" their standing in the field by reference to the accepted canon (even when that accepted canon is trying to pull free of the dense core of Old White Men, such as this article's touchstone in Judith Butler's work).
All of that is to say that I'm always delighted when I find articles covering topics outside the white, Christian, western European gravity well that also are clearly written by people deeply familiar with the topics in question, and that go beyond a superficial survey. This article is particularly interesting in how it contextualizes actions that give the appearance of being culturally transgressive and points to the ways in which they may actually be working to maintain and reinforce boundaries. In that conflict lie many intriguing story possibilities.
Roos, Lena. 2017. “Cross-dressing among medieval Ashkenazi Jews: Confirming challenged group borders” in Nordisk judaistik / Scandinavian Jewish Studies vol 28 no. 2. 4-22
Roos examines an interesting Jewish legal commentary from 13th century Germany that discusses the contexts in which Jewish people are permitted to cross-dress, either in terms of gender or in terms of religious affiliation. The thesis of her study is that, rather than being seen as transgressive, these licensed contexts serve to reinforce category boundaries, both of gender and of religious community.
The 13th century ethical tract, Sefer Chasidim, discusses a variety of contexts in which Jewish people are granted permission to dress and behave in ways that disguise their identity. The clause of clearest relevance to the Project is one that permits women to disguise themselves as men (even to take up weapons), or to disguise themselves as gentiles (even as nuns) in order to avoid assault, and in particular sexual assault. Perhaps surprisingly, this allowance includes permission to assume Christian disguise as protection against assault by Jewish men, even if it results in the death of the Jewish attackers.
These cross-category disguises appear to be in conflict with existing Jewish law, especially Deuteronomy 22:5 (also cited by Christians against cross-dressing) which states “A woman shall not put on a man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment.” Roos examines the dynamics of this allowance via Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance--that is, the theory that gender categories must be created and maintained by performance, rather than existing on their own.
The cross-category allowances were not offered only to women. Preadolescent boys are also given permission to disguise themselves as women for protection, though in this case the threat seems to be robbery rather than assault. The picture that emerges is that Jewish men were perceived as targets of robbery (and were granted allowances to protect against that possibility) while Jewish women--more as women than specifically as Jewish--were perceived as targets of sexual assault, with their allowances aimed at deflecting that possibility.
The article looks at the evidence and context of gendered distinctions of clothing around the 13th century, as well as distinctive elements of dress that identified the wearers by religion. A key distinction is made (for both the gender and religious contexts) between cross-dressing purely as a disguise to escape oppression, versus cross-dressing as an expression of identity or a desire to explore other identities.
Roos examines the text from Deuteronomy in linguistic detail and suggests that it is less clearly an absolute prohibition on cross-dressing than the usual understanding. But regardless of the nuances of interpretation, the Sefer Chasidim allowance is clearly a special exception to a general prohibition.
Christian versions of the Deuteronomy text erased the possible nuanced readings and turned it into a clear and simple prohibition on cross-gender clothing. But even so, similar allowances for women to dress as men for protection are noted, e.g., for travel. And the motif of cross-dressed saints is discussed. Reasons for why Joan of Arc was not considered to be covered by these allowances are discussed. Other accepted (though disapproved) forms of cross-dressing included those associated with carnival and theater. There was no similar license in Christian society for situational cross-dressing by men, and male cross-dressing was associated with witchcraft or with deception to gain illicit access to women’s spaces.
A similar consideration is given to texts discussing Jewish prohibitions on wearing gentile clothing, including what types of transgressions might result (for example, mixed fibers) and under what circumstances they would require atonement. Roos presents historic data on both the existence of distinctions in dress between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the exact nature of those distinctions.
The use of cross-gender clothing as a protective disguise, within a larger context that prohibits cross-dressing can be seen to reinforce gender (and religious) categories by precluding an ambiguous territory between them. Clothing disguise requires that clothing be accepted as an unquestioned gender marker, and this is only possible if ambiguous clothing is forbidden. Similarly, protective pretense to a different religious identity is only effective if boundaries between religious communities are considered inviolable.
But if this combination of prohibition and situational allowance for gender disguise is a reaction to strengthen a gender binary (which Roos suggests), were there challenges to the gender binary that it might have been reacting to? The author explores a number of shifts in gendered behavior that occurred during the middle ages, such as women adopting traditionally male ritual responsibilities within the Jewish tradition (with some interesting parallels in Christian traditions at the same time). In the same texts that discuss permitted cross-dressing practices, these shifts in religious participation by women are criticized, as well as criticizing practices that appear to blur the boundaries between Jewish and Christian religious practice. Thus cross-dressing allowances are firmly embedded in a conservative (and even reactionary) response to an era when the blurring of those categories was perceived as a threat.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35c - Book Appreciation with Anna Clutterbuck-Cook (part 2) - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2019/06/15 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting. This time we had so much to talk about we split it into two episodes.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Anna Clutterbuck-Cook Online
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My girlfriend pointed me to the following interesting article on the historic and social context of Anne Lister, specifically examining the promotional claim (for the series Gentleman Jack) that she was "the first modern lesbian."
While I spotted one minor error of fact (regarding the fate of Mary Diana Dods) the article is generally excellent and quite accessible. Check it out.
Back when I introduced the profession of armin in Daughter of Mystery, it was to some extent a means of creating a social context in which Barbara would make sense. It also became an aspect of developing Alpennian society as its own thing. Other societies had a dueling culture. Other societies had systems for guarding the virtue of young unmarried women. Other societies had personal bodyguards. But somehow in Alpennian culture those elements had come together in a recognized profession that acted as proxies for their employers in the public performance of "honor culture."
In Daughter of Mystery, we're introduced to the types of things an armin might be called on to do in a very immediate fashion through Barbara's actions and responses, as well as a passing reference to the consequences of a duel she fought on the baron's behalf. But in Floodtide, Roz hasn't had any interactions with armins on a personal level. She knows stories--probably the same sorts of stories that Iulien elaborated on in her fiction. But where Iulien (and the prior viewpoint characters) engage with armins from a superior social position as potential employers (or at least as the friends of potential employers), Roz comes from a different angle.
In the servants' hierarchy, armins are both very high and functionally outside the usual structures. Roz's first concern is to know how she's supposed to act toward them, her second, to avoid having to do so as much as possible. Because armins are perilous. They don't follow ordinary rules. They're allowed to kill people. And some of them seem like they might enjoy doing so.
* * *
I didn’t know much about armins when I came to Tiporsel House—not about what they really did, just the old stories. The Fillerts hadn’t had an armin. Mostly folks didn’t. Just the titled folks, or maybe unmarried ladies if they were really rich like Maisetra Sovitre was and wanted an armin to protect them from the wrong sort of men. The wrong sort weren’t just rough men from the south side of the river. Sometimes they were men you weren’t supposed to marry, or men who wanted your father’s money more than they wanted you. You heard stories about that sort of thing and they weren’t the sort with happy endings. It’s funny how everyone says an armin’s duty is to protect your honor, but if you’re a girl that means not letting you marry the wrong man and if you’re a man it means fighting duels for silly reasons.
The maisetra’s armin, Marken, reminded me of my father. Papa never got in fights or arguments at the tavern, but he once made a vicious dog back down just by staring at it. I figured Marken would be like that. He’d never even need to draw his sword. He’d just stare at you until you felt foolish and stopped what you were doing. That was the sort of protection Maisetra Sovitre needed: just someone to keep silly men out of her way so she could get her work done.
Then there was Maistir Chamering—the downstairs folk called him Maistir Brandel like he was just a boy. He was the baroness’s cousin, and he wasn’t an armin for anyone yet, just learning. Because he was family, he lived upstairs.
Tavit was a lot younger than Marken and didn’t look much older than Maistir Brandel unless you looked at his eyes. There was something all tight and fierce inside him, like a wildcat you mistook for the neighbor’s tabby until it turned on you. That’s how Tavit made me feel when I bumped into him in dark hallways. Especially if he was all got up for working. It was like, if he picked up his sword he suddenly got even more quiet and watchful and he looked at you like he wanted a reason to stab you. Maybe that was what the baroness needed him for because everyone was still talking about how he’d had to kill a man for her in a duel at the New Year. The last thing I ever wanted was to have him look at me like that.
“Thus Yde, daughter of Florent of Aragon, married Olive, daughter of Othon the emperor of Rome.”
As a queer woman looking for identification in the past, and especially as an amateur medievalist active in medieval re-creation events, try to imagine how the simple existence of this sentence in a 13th century French manuscript affects me. In my research and my re-interpretation of the past in fiction, I've learned to cherish moments like this, and not to dismiss them for failing to be a perfect reflection of my modern identity. The medieval French imagination was not capable of encompassing the possibility of two women marrying and living happily ever after as female spouses...but it was capable of encompassing the possibility that a woman might fall in love with and profess her loyalty to another woman. It was capable of encompassing the possibility that--if carefully manoeuvered into an inescapable choice--two women might marry each other. It was capable of imagining them kissing and embracing and taking joy in that.
Yde and Olive cannot truly be considered a "lesbian story" in a modern understanding of the term. This is true, even if we set aside the Foucaultian position on sexual identity. The "lesbian" reading exists for a few brief lines when both women know each other's truths and before their "outing" demands a different resolution. At the same time, Yde and Olive cannot truly be considered a "transgender story" in a modern understanding of the term. Yde never expresses a sense of male identity prior to the transformation, only an embracing of male performance. I haven't read the next episode regarding Croissant to know for certain, but if Yde's self-identity follows that of our other transgender French romance protagonist, Blanchandine, we can expect an unquestioned change to male self-identity. Function follows form. In one of the other variants of Yde's tale, the resolution of the conceptual conflict of same-sex marriage is to disrupt the marriage of Yde and Olive and marry both women off to each other's fathers. The change of physical sex is not, itself, embedded in the romance's essential structure. Rather it is one of the possible outcomes to avoid an acceptance of "impossibilities," like the outcome of bringing two identical magnetic poles together.
But in the same way that I find identification and validation in the moments of the story that align with "lesbian," those who look for transgender identification and validation in the past will find similar moments in Yde and Olive, perhaps in "God in his benevolence has given him everything that makes a man." Yde can be both a wave and a particle, and perhaps that makes the story even more delightful in its ambiguity.
Abbouchi, Mounawar. 2018. “Yde and Olive” in Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality, vol 8.
Abbouchi tackled creating this edition and translation of the more complete of the two versions of the romance as a master’s thesis. [There are three related texts of the core story of Yde and Olive, two variants as part of the Huon of Bordeaux romance cycle, and one adapted (with different character names) as a miracle play. The second version of the romance is more abbreviated. The three vary in the details of how the relationship between the two women is presented, and in how the “problem” of a same-sex relationship is resolved.]
The story of Yde and Olive is a stand-alone episode consisting of 1062 lines of verse within the larger 13th century genealogical narrative of Huon of Bordeaux. In brief, Yde is the granddaughter of Huon and the daughter of Florent whose story is given in the preceding section of the overall romance. Yde’s mother dies at her birth and Florent refuses to re-marry out of grief, until Yde approaches marriageable age and he decides to marry his daughter. Horrified by this prospect, Yde flees in male disguise and engages in a number of military adventures as a man, finally coming to the attention of the emperor of Rome. Yde’s efforts on the emperor’s behalf inspire him to offer his daughter Olive’s hand in marriage and to make Yde his heir. Yde is conflicted about the marriage but agrees. After putting off consummating the marriage for two weeks, Yde reveals her secret to Olive, who agrees to be loyal to her and maintain the marriage. They are overheard by a servant who tells the emperor. The emperor prepares a test to force Yde to reveal her true sex, but she prays for salvation and an angel appears to the court and tells them that God has transformed Yde into a man. That very night, Yde and Olive’s son Croissant is conceived (who will be the hero of the next section of the romance).
The motif of the female knight or the cross-dressing woman is not uncommon in medieval French literature, but stories of sex change are rare. [Note: The motif was most likely adapted from Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe.] The ambiguity of Yde’s gender identity and gender presentation are handled in the text by alternating feminine and masculine forms of her name, and by using gendered pronouns that reflect the appearance or point of view being highlighted in the scene. This approach is not always consistent, however, and sometimes is overridden by poetic considerations. In addition, the author sometimes deliberately highlights Yde’s feminine identity in the midst of masculine-coded activities (like battle) for narrative effect. Yde’s ability to perform as a man is never questioned or dwelt on. Function follows form.
The translator specifically acknowledges the transgender themes in Yde’s story and supports the choice to refer to the pre-transformation Yde as female as this is how the character herself identifies in internal monologues and when telling her story to Olive. Yde never expresses a male identity or desire to become a man, only a fear of punishment for entering into a same-sex marriage. The sex change is not presented as a re-alignment of personal identity, but as a mechanism to escape execution. [In this version, the change is also presented as being necessary to produce the next generation of the heroic lineage. A different mechanism for this is used in other versions of the story.]
Abbouchi discusses other cross-gender figures in medieval and Renaissance literature and how they treat gender difference as performance. The abilities, habits, and appearance of a man all follow from the initial disguise, rather than being deliberately learned. Her prowess in battle is automatic. Despite being initially described as a beautiful girl (though one still young enough that her breasts haven’t developed), Yde is perceived by others (after her disguise) as being physically masculine. In particular, Olive perceives Yde as a handsome and desirable man and enthusiastically consents to the marriage.
Abbouchi contrasts the treatment in medieval literature of women disguised as men (who always pass successfully) with that of men disguised as women (who are presented as always failing in some essential way, with the disguised treated as comic).
Language is another key element of how Yde’s gender is perceived. Not only the way the narrator plays with pronouns and gendered descriptions, but in how the other characters accept Yde as male until it is contradicted verbally: by the servant overhearing Yde’s confession, and by the rest of the court hearing the servant’s accusation. Even the sex change in the resolution relies entirely on verbal assertion (by the angel) that Yde now has “everything that makes a man” with no bodily confirmation being required or received. A close reading raises the question of whether a bodily transformation has, in fact, occurred. (Apart from the conjectural evidence of Olive’s son Croissant.)
There is discussion of the three elements of transgression that are central to the narrative: incest, cross-dressing, and same-sex marriage. The proposed incest is not only forbidden in itself, but is not consented to by Yde. (Consent by both parties had only recently been recognized as essential to a valid marriage contract at the time of composition.) This contrasts with the proposed marriage between Yde and Olive, where Olive’s father explicitly seeks her consent and she enthusiastically gives it.
There is a discussion of philosophical/theological texts that make allowance for women cross-dressing “without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.” (Thomas Aquinas) This certainly fits Ydes original impulse to cross-dress, though not necessarily her continued practice of it.
The text frames Yde as a reluctant participant in the same-sex marriage, and excuses the emperor on the basis that he believed Yde to be a man. The narrative treats the (somewhat unintentional) same-sex marriage much more sympathetically than the attempted incestuous one, though there are references in the text to fatal consequences for discovery of the former (whereas King Florent appears to have been only imperiling his soul, not his life). This highlights that the potential for consequences derives more from the gender of the participants than the seriousness of the “sin”. As an apparently heterosexual married couple, Yde and Olive operate at the highest levels of social and political power; once Yde is known/believed to be female, both women lose their agency and sexual freedom and do not regain it until after the transformation.
The remainder of the introductory matter discusses the poetic structure, the relationship and history of the various manuscripts of the Huon of Bordeaux cycle, the physical nature and history of the key manuscripts, and the illustrated miniatures that accompany key scenes (including one relevant to the story of Yde and Olive).
The remainder of this entry will be detailed descriptions of passages specifically relevant to the motif of cross-dressing and to the romantic and sexual relationship between Yde and Olive.
* * *
When King Florent summons his daughter to inform her of his decision to marry her (which she is entirely ignorant of at that point), there is an extended description of her appearance and clothing. Details include “blond hair that fell in curls on her back” and that she “was a full fifteen years of age yet had no breasts that could be seen.” (This is the only concession to physical attributes that might support an inability to identify her sex visually.)
Once Yde knows what her father plans, she waits until he is distracted by the arrival of an important guest, at which “she quickly put on some men’s clothing, and so disguised she went to the stables and made for a destrier, mounting it without delaying one moment, nor was she seen or spotted by anyone. So she left Aragon.”
There are scattered references to her appearance during her initial adventures (though none to cutting her hair, which is often a trope in this sort of story). “Dressed in men’s clothing out of fear ... She was well disguised as a boy and had bought hose and hood and the finest linen breeches. She wore her sword at her side, and also carried a rod.” “She will suffer greatly if she is found out. ... She who was dressed after the fashion of men.”
Yde takes service with Oton, Emperor of Rome. “The king of Rome regarded Yde; he saw that he [sic] was big, brawny, and well built. For this reason he immediately grew to like him [sic]. At that moment, crowned King Oton’s daughter entered the hall. There was none so beautiful in all the kingdom. Her name was Olive, and she was full of kindness. ... She sat next to Oton affectionately and looked sweetly at the squire [i.e., Yde].”
After some conversation in which Oton discovers they are distantly related, he says, “Olive, daughter, did you hear? I will retain this praise-worthy squire for you. He will serve at your pleasure.” And she replies “Five hundred times thank you, I have never heard anything that pleased me so much.” Oton confides to Yde, “I have a daughter who is very beautiful and who will inherit my land and my kingdom. Be mindful of how you conduct yourself. If you serve her well, you will be well rewarded.”
There hasn’t been discussion of marriage yet, but we are shown Olive’s growing attachment and Yde’s growing discomfort.
“From that time, Yde remained in Oton’s house, and the good king of Rome rewarded her, for she was always mindful of serving well and worked so tirelessly day and night, that everyone was pleased with her service. Olive gladly watched her. Yde prayed to the Holy Virgin to protect her from being suspected, lest she be put to death.”
After winning a major battle on behalf of Oton, Yde returns from the battlefield: “Yde was much beheld and admired, for Olive watched her return from the battlements. Her whole body tingled with joy, and she waid softly to herself, ‘He will be my love. I will speak to him tomorrow. I have never been so taken with a man, so it is fitting that I should tell him so.’” There is, of course, a possible double-meaning here that Olive “had never been so taken with a man” but that may be only in the mind of the modern audience.
After more battles: “The king’s daughter was so enamored of him that she confessed it to him, for she could no longer hide it.” And then King Oton calls together his nobles and tells them, “I have a daughter who is most worthy of praise, I want to see her married before I die, so I will give her to my knight, Yde. And with her [i.e., Olive], Rome and my vast kingdom, for I know no other man like him.” Another double-meaning, perhaps intentional. He tells Yde, “I wish to reward you. I have a very beautiful daughter; you will have her as your wife and companion, as well as my kingdom, when I am gone.”
Yde protests, pleading her poverty, but King Oton insists and Yde says, “I will take her gladly and willingly, if that is her wish. Call the maiden here right now.” Perhaps Yde was hoping she’d say no? But Olive’s response is, “Now my wishes are fulfilled. Indeed my time on this earth will not have been wasted since I will be granted what I have so desired. ... Father, please consider making haste, for every day, it feels like he will leave.” Definitely no shrinking maiden here!
But when Yde hears the confirmation of the marriage offer “her blood ran cold, she did not know what to do, for she had no member with which to touch/live-with/have-sex-with her.” (The word has multiple possible meanings in French.) And she begs God, “Have pity on this wretch who is being forced to marry. ... Better to have had me burned!” (This may be a reference to burning as a punishment for heresy, under which same-sex relations were sometimes categorized.) “...the king’s daughter has fallen in love with me; I do not know how I can escape this. If I tell them that I am really a woman, they will tear me to pieces...for despite everything else, I have told lies.” But she resigns herself, “I will marry the crowned king’s daughter, and put myself in God’s hands.”
There was a month of feasting and then the wedding. Notice that in this passage, the text gives Yde male pronouns. “...they went to the church...Yde was in the front, sighing heavily; nevertheless, he proceeded until they reached the church, and that day they had him marry the maiden. He took Olive for his wife and companion. The king had given his daughter to a woman because he thought Yde was a man.” This passage is illustrated with a miniature with two scenes: a marriage ceremony and a couple in bed with a witness standing at the foot of the bed. There is a caption stating, “Thus Yde, daughter of Florent of Aragon, married Olive, daughter of Othon the emperor of Rome.”
After the marriage feast, the two are taken to the bedchamber. “And they led Olive to the paved chamber, laying her down and reclining her on the bed. Yde came into the chamber, in tears. Securing and locking the room, she came to the bed where her wife lay and spoke to her privately thus: ‘My sweet love and faithful bride, I must bid you good night, for mine will be difficult, I believe; I have an ailment that troubles me greatly.’” The implication here is that some illness has made her impotent. “With these words she embraced Olive, who, being very wise, answered, ‘Fair, sweet friend, we are here in private, and you are what I have desired most of all because of the goodness I have seen in you. Do not think that I have thought about wanting to take our pleasure. I have never had an interest in such things.’” The literal phrasing of what Olive rejects is “that I wish to play with raised feet” which is an amusing euphemism.
But Olive is also thinking of the expectation that the wedding guests will expect some evidence of consummation. She continues, “Rather I ask that you give me a reprieve of fifteen days until the guests have left, so that I won’t be teased and chided for it. By then we will have recovered our spirits.” There is an implication that Olive simply thinks Yde is shy and that she’s trying to protect her husband’s self-image by pretending that she’s the one who wants to put off sex. She offers, “If you please, I would be exempted from everything but kisses. I would like to be embraced, but as for that love they call intimate, I ask you to release me from it.”
Yde agrees, “And with that they kissed and embraced one another.” At breakfast the next morning, “Oton examined his daughter closely that morning to see if she was at all altered or changed. ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘how do you find yourself married?’ ‘Sire,’ she said, ‘exactly to my liking.’ At that, there was a great burst of laughter in the palace and Olive was showered with gifts.” Olive has succeeded in acting like a newly sexually awakened bride to convince the wedding guests.
But after a fortnight, when Yde still maintains a non-sexual relationship, there is a suggestion that Olive takes the initiative, “she pressed and prodded her companion.” Yde sees that she can’t keep up the pretense any longer “so she turned toward her and no longer hid the truth from her. She told her the whole story from beginning to end: that she was woman--begging for mercy--that she had run away from her father...”
Olive is alarmed at this, but she comforts Yde, swearing, “I will not tell my father King Oton...take comfort, for you are safe in loyalty. I will face my destiny together with you.” That gives us a brief glimpse of an entirely different possible story, but at that very moment, a servant overhears their conversation and tells Oton. The emperor is outraged and decides to get proof by demanding that Yde undress to share a bath with him. When Yde demurs, he hints and what he’s been told and warns Yde, “If what I was told is true, I will have you both burned at the stake.” A second reference to burning as a potential punishment for same-sex marriage.
Just as the entire court is crying, “Burn them! Burn them!” an angel shows up and announces, “I am telling you the truth, that you have a good knight in your vassal, Yde. God in his benevolence has given him everything that makes a man. And let the boy go.” That is, the servant who carried tales. The angel continues, “He spoke truthfully to you, but all that is past. This morning she was a woman, but now he is a man incarnate. For God has power and might over everything.” Although, interestingly, the angel continues to refer to Yde with the feminine form of the name while finishing the prophecy of the birth of Croissant. And with that, the story is finished.
There is an interesting ambiguity in the gender resolution. One view might be that God has magically transformed Yde into a man physiologically. Another view might be that the angel is simply saying, “God considers Yde to be a man; get with the program.” To be sure, the conception of their son might argue for the magical transformation, but if God could change a person's biological sex God could also arrange for a magical pregnancy. (Hey, it's been known to happen.) The first interpretation is more of a transsexual resolution than a transgender one, but even the second sidesteps the matter that Yde has not expressed gender dysphoria, simply an aversion to being killed for being pressured into what turned out to be a same-sex marriage. Conversely, Olive--who at first is framed as a woman falling in what she believes to be heterosexual love--is the one who renews her pledge of love, devotion, and loyalty knowing Yde to be a woman (as Yde at that time considers herself). Those looking for resonances with modern understandings of gender and sexuality will find a complex picture, susceptible of a variety of readings.
What I knew about this book going in was that it concerned a young woman and a mechanical chess-playing automaton in the early 19th century. I expected intrigues and hoaxes and--given that I bought it though a lesbian book distributor--some amount of queer identity. What I didn’t expect was a dark psychological thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat right up to the end. This is not a fluffy, feel-good comfort read. It’s a gripping adventure and mystery that left me both satisfied and emotionally wrung out.
All the content advisories: psychological, physical, and sexual abuse, alcoholism, agoraphobia, dissociation, and in case it needs mentioning, this is not a romance novel. (Which sometimes needs mentioning as readers default to expecting lesbian books to be romance.) The sexual abuse is not presented graphically on the page but everything else is.
What grabbed me from the start was the excellence of the writing. Not only is Lawrence’s prose brutally exquisite, but she has the knack of portraying complex psychological experiences without falling back on modern medical terminology that would be out of place in a historic setting. The first-person protagonist, Kit, lets us know from the start that she will be an unreliable narrator. This leaves plenty of space for uncertainty as the plot twists and turns in ways reminiscent of a Sarah Waters novel. The historic details are both sharp and unobtrusive. I highly recommend this book for those who are up to the tension and the depictions of abuse.
* * *
Note: This next discussion isn't part of my book review proper. I vary in whether I look at other reviews before reading a book, so it wasn't until after I'd read the book and written my review that I ran across a couple reviews that interpreted the portrayal of sexual abuse by a woman against a woman to be homophobic. It is certainly true that in a historic context, one of the tropes associated with female same-sex desire is the "predatory lesbian"--the implication that same-sex desire is inherently controling and abusive. Here's my take on that within the context of this story.
This is a story that focuses entirely on female characters, and those characters encompass a number of different personalities and actions. All of the interpersonal interactions in this story--both bad and good--are between women. So the fact that the abuse is from one woman to another doesn't (to me) single out the same-sex aspect as saying something essentialist about same-sex interactions. The story does not set up predatory same-sex desire in contrast to redemptive and positive different-sex desire. (There is no heroic male rescuer waiting in the wings.The background references to heterosexual relationships mostly involve prostitution.) And the one central redemptive and hopeful relationship within the story (being vague to avoid spoilers) is also between two women. Within the context of the story, it is only potentially romantic and is definitely not erotic (and I'd find it implausible it it were immediately erotic, given the character's history) but it's there.
Secondly, the abusive character is pathologically abusive on all axes. The story would be equally horrific if the sexual element were not in play. (And I want to emphasize that the actual details of the sexual abuse are not described, unlike the other aspects.) Her personality is clearly shown to be about control and not about desire, as such. She is not depicted as having same-sex desire lead to abuse, but rather as being an inherently abusive person for whom sexual abuse is only one part of her toolbox.
This is a powerful book and an angry book, but I don't in any way interpret it as a homophobic book.
Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 35b - Book Appreciation with Anna Clutterbuck-Cook (part 1) - transcript pending
(Originally aired 2019/06/09 - listen here)
In the Book Appreciation segments, our featured authors (or your host) will talk about one or more favorite books with queer female characters in a historic setting. This time we had so much to talk about we split it into two episodes.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to Anna Clutterbuck-Cook Online
If you enjoy this podcast and others at The Lesbian Talk Show, please consider supporting the show through Patreon:
I've decided to give myself persmission to DNF (did not finish) books if they don't grab me in the first couple chapters (or first couple stories for a collection). With that as preface, you can guess that The Caretaker's Daughter ended up falling in that category. So why didn't it grab me? This is a f/f Regency-era romance featuring the abused wife of a disabled gentleman ("gentleman" as a class label, not a personality description) and a woman who works on her husband's estate (hoping no one notices that the father whose duties she took over has actually died quite some time ago). The first elements that made me realize the book was going to be a tough sell were the cartoonish villainy of the husband (plus the unfortunate trope that physical disability makes you bitter and abusive), plus the fact that both women have been assigned surnames as their given names: Brontë(!) and Addison. I'm not going to apologize for the fact that improbable naming in a historic setting grates on me.
The book could have risen above those flaws and held my attention if the writing were better. Unfortunately it relies heavily on info-dumps and shifts point of view too abruptly on a regular basis. There's also slut-shaming of a secondary female character (apparently for no other reason than that she isn't the love interest but wants to be so). Maybe the book gets better after the first two chapters, but I'm afraid I'm not going to stick around to find out.
The book also features italicization of random half-sentences but that's the publisher's fault, not the author's, since it's clearly a formatting glitch not an intentional technique.
I'm still stretching the definition of "Kalamazoo books" a little here. The first book was neither purchased nor marked for purchase at the conference, but I was given the reference by someone at my session for inclusion in the expanded version of my paper.
Sturges, Robert S. (trans). 2015. Aucassin and Nicolette: A Facing-Page Edition nd Translation. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing. ISBN 978-1-61186-157-0
Owen, Morfydd E. and Dafydd Jenkins (eds). 2017. The Welsh Law of Women. (Second edition) University of Wales Press, Cardiff. ISBN 978-1-78683-159-0
Morrison, Susan Signe. 2017. A Medieval Woman's Companion. Oxbow Books, Oxford. ISBN 978-1-78570-079-8
Still waiting on the backordered books from Boydell, and the books from University of Toronto Press.