The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 15d - Female Knights in Shining Armor - Transcript
Does your heart thrill at the image of a woman dressed in shining armor, striding out onto the tournament field to engage in combat for the honor of a fair lady? OK, I confess that there was a time during my long years in the Society for Creative Anachronism that I had a secret hankering to be either one or the other of those figures. It was never to be alas.
But in this episode, I’d like to take a look at the motif of women knights in shining armor in medieval and Renaissance Europe, especially when their stories introduce homoerotic elements. This is a much narrower topic than simply that of women in combat in general. For example, I won’t be talking about pre-medieval warrior-woman figures such as those in early German and Norse sagas, or the many women who passed as men to engage in combat in armies starting from the Renaissance onward. Nor will I be looking at classical stories of the Amazons--though Amazons are going to come up in a bit. This episode is going to be focused specifically on the image of medieval chivalry, on tournaments and quests and King Arthur and all that sort of thing, including how they were portrayed in Renaissance literature.
One of the women that comes to mind first when you mention medieval women in armor is the 15th century French heroine Joan of Arc. From very early in her divinely-inspired campaign to support the French crown against the English, Joan wore men’s clothing and armor openly as a symbol that she was leading an army. When she gave testimony in her eventual trial, she argued that wearing men’s clothing was an order given her by God--that she wasn’t trying to become a man, but simply that it was what you wore when you were in combat. Joan carried a sword but testified that in battle she only carried her banner, so that she wouldn’t kill anyone herself. But it’s clear that her physical presentation was important in gaining the support and loyalty of the military forces she meant to lead. Her adoption of male dress also ended up being one of the lynchpins of the English accusations that led to her execution. There was little else they could pin on her, other than being a member of an enemy army.
Order of the Hatchet
In the middle ages, women were involved in most aspects of warfare, purely from necessity, though rarely in an officially recognized fashion. Men had their tournaments and Chivalric orders like the Garter and the Golden Fleece. But on at least one occasion, the valor of women fighting in defense of their city was so outstanding that it was recognized officially. In the mid 12th century in Spain, during the ongoing struggle between Islamic and Christian forces for the control of Iberia, the women of the city of Tortosa took up arms to withstand an attack when troop movements had left the city otherwise undefended. Taking up axes and any other weapons they found to hand, they held off the attackers successfully and with such valor that Count Berengeur who was leading the Christian forces created the Order of the Hatchet to honor them and bestowed it on the women who had fought. This wasn’t purely a symbolic honor, for it came with an exception from taxes, with the right to take precedence over the men of the town in public ceremonies, and the right to style themselves as Knights.
The Tournament Ladies of Berwick
Many social rules were relaxed or abandoned entirely in wartime, and if the women of Tortosa were knighted after the fact for their valor, it didn’t set a general precedent that opened up opportunities for others. But sometimes women don’t wait for permission to cross gender boundaries. A story is given from the 14th century history called Knighton’s Chronicle of a group of women dressing as men to take part in tournaments in Berwick on the Scottish border in 1348.
Tournaments served many purposes: as pageantry, as an opportunity to gather the nobility together for state business, as well as a chance to evaluate the equipment and battle-readiness of the king’s vassals. It also had a touch of the purpose that is more prominent in chivalric literature: as a grand sporting event where there were prizes and fame to be won. The tournaments being held in this time and place were a mixture of those purposes. In the chronicle, the event is titled “A Tale of Women at Tournaments.” The original text is in Latin and this is a modern translation.
“In those days a rumour arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as though they were a company of players, dressed in men's clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom's better sort. They were dressed in parti-coloured tunics, of one colour on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes wound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies, as the rumour ran. And thus, neither fearing God nor abashed by the voice of popular outrage, they slipped the traces of matrimonial restraint.”
It isn’t clear from the description that the ladies put on armor and participated in the combats themselves, as opposed to simply showing up and parading around. But just imagine the ladies riding on their chargers, with bright garments, swaggering around with daggers at their belts! The chronicler claims that God displayed his displeasure at their antics by sending a thunderstorm, but we’re talking about the British Isles here, so rain isn’t exactly unexpected.
A Tournament of women
In literature, women might participate in knightly tournaments with--if not approval--at least somewhat more admiration and tolerance. A 13th century German story opens in a community where the men have all gone off to negotiate a peace treaty with an invading force, and in their absence, the women decide to hold a tournament. They take on the clothing, armor, and heraldry of their absent men-folk as a means of doing them honor. Some of the women dissent, arguing that they should stick to feminine forms of honor, but those in favor of the challenge hold the day and many valiant deeds of arms are performed.
When the men return, they praise the women for this event, though evidently they get teased for it by men in other regions. One impoverished young woman who participated had no male relatives to honor. So she competed using the name of a famous knight. When he learns of this and comes to investigate the story, he’s so impressed by her that he gives her money for her dowry. (Note how this diverges from fairy-tale expectations--he doesn’t outright marry the girl, but rather he gives her the means to establish her own future.
The women’s adoption of armor and chivalric activities in this story is temporary and overt, with no intent to pass as men. And it is for the specific purpose of engaging in a masculine activity (that is, jousting). One might see it as a limited form of dressing for the job. These limitations may have muted the transgressive power of the activity, allowing the men to see it as praiseworthy rather than threatening.
Yde and Olive
The medieval French romance of Yde and Olive is probably my favorite story of the genre. The central motifs trace back to the classical Greek story of Iphis and Ianthe, as told by Ovid, but the details and the framing story belong solidly to medieval chivalric romance. The story exists in several variants that differ in how the plot is resolved at the end, but since the resolution is kind of disappointing for someone looking for a proto-lesbian love story, I’ll gloss over that part for now.
Like many other medieval romances, the tale of Yde and Olive is part of a long, epic genealogical tale that tells of many generations of heroes and kings. But the part we need to know is that Yde’s mother, who was the most beautiful woman in the world, died at her birth. Yde grows to so resemble her mother that her father develops an incestuous desire for her and to escape him, she runs away and disguises herself as a man.
And, in taking on the disguise, Yde acquires the abilities and mannerisms of a young nobleman. In various adventures, Yde gains a reputation as a valiant knight. She is the sole survivor of a company of the German army in battle with Spanish troops. She successfully defends herself against a band of robbers, assaulting them with coarse language that is in direct contrast with the text continuing to identify her as a beautiful damsel. And when she arrives at Rome to find the King of Rome under siege, she defeats his enemies, resulting in being offered the hand of his daughter Olive in marriage.
Yde offers some protest, largely centered on her own apparent lower social status (although remember that she’s actually a king’s daughter herself), but eventually she capitulates with only a lingering anxiety about how she will successfully perform as a husband. Olive is at first persuaded to wait to consummate the marriage, but eventually Yde confesses her true sex. Olive is willing to go along with the masquerade with various degrees of acceptance or enthusiasm depending on the version of the story you’re reading. I’ll leave the two of them suspended at this point in the story, with the valiant knight Yde being rewarded with the hand of the princess who loves her...because the stories go in various peculiar directions after that. Some day I’ll come back and do an entire episode about Yde and Olive.
Given the context and motivations of Yde's cross-dressing, and the prowess she brings to male-coded activities, it is clear that the presumed relationship between sex and gender is decoupled for most of the story. Unlike in Ovid’s story of Iphis or the story of Silence, which I’ll get to in a moment, Yde is not raised in a male role. It isn't until she is of marriageable age and the specter of incest emerges that this behavioral transformation occurs. Before that, Yde is described in conventional terms for female beauty, but with an emphasis on aspects of her youth (for example, slim hips and barely-developed breasts) that will help enable her male disguise.
One interesting feature of the conventions of medieval romance that adds a twist to stories like this is that the physical ideal of the noble (male) hero is framed in fairly androgynous terms. The ideal heroic knight is young, fair-faced, beardless, tall, slender, and well-shaped in the limbs. Thus, although characters like Yde are given masculine prowess and bravery when they put on armor, there is no need for them to change their physical appearance to be consistent with the ideal knight.
After Yde changes clothing, now her entire psychology, behavior, and abilities shift toward the masculine. Clothing makes her a man. She also follows the standard masculine quest motif: exile from the land of her birth, apprenticeship in martial accomplishments, a rise to prominence, and success in courtship. Yde is automatically brave and skilled in battle--perhaps due to her noble (rather than male) birth--but simultaneously she performs some female-coded behaviors such as mercy (but again, perhaps these acts are coded as noble rather than female). Given the structure of the story, it cannot escape attributing to Yde physical prowess, but this is balanced by continually reminding the reader of her underlying sex by means of feminine reference (calling her demoiselle, pucelle, and other grammatically female descriptions).
This literary depiction perhaps glosses over the physical difficulties of someone raised as a woman who takes up masculine physical activities. But we can compare this with the real-life biographies of women in the early modern period who passed as men in physically demanding roles and were not considered suspect based on their ability to perform them.
The Romance of Silence
In contrast, the romance of Silence--that’s her name, “Silence”--depicts a character identified as female at birth but raised in a masculine social role of a count’s son, skilled in arms and the courtly arts of a knight. But rather than taking for granted a woman’s ability to perform these things simply by virtue of putting on the right uniform for it, one of the major themes of this story is the competing forces of nature and nurture in shaping a person. This is, in fact, played out by personifying Nature and Nurture as speaking characters in the story who show up and hold debates in Silence’s presence at crucial points in the narrative.
Here we have Nature taking delight at Silence’s birth in how she has created the most beautiful girl that ever lived.
Then Nature says, "I would be sorry if anything were lacking." Then with her thumb she forms the space between the two eyes beautifully, and quickly makes the whole face, and traces a well-turned visage and colors it most beautifully. Nature says, "This will be my girl!" The more she applies color to the face, the more the girl's beauty will be enhanced, and the color on her cheeks deepened. She designs the mouth, makes the opening small, and forms the lips to match, places the teeth well and forms the chin--you will never see a more beautiful face. And then she makes a long white neck, and forms the curve of the shoulders along with it. And she makes the arms very straight, the hands small, the fingers long, the bosom well-turned, slender sides; neither serf nor freeman ever saw better. And she makes the hips rounded, the thighs soft and shapely. Nature makes the legs straight, and feet and toes in proportion. Why should I go on like this? You'll probably think it's all a dream. But never, in truth lived a more beautiful creature in this world, nor was anything more lovely ever born.
But the king has passed a decree saying that women aren’t allowed to inherit, so Silence’s parents conceal her sex and raise her as a son. Nature isn’t very happy about this and lets the reader know it.
When Nature realized that they had tricked and deceived her by turning her work into the opposite of what she had turned out, you can imagine how disturbed she was and how much she wanted revenge upon them for changing her daughter into a son, and how much she despised their plan. Oh yes! You can be sure of that right now! "They have insulted me," said Nature, "by acting as if the work of Nurture were superior to mine! By God, by God! We'll see about that!”
But Silence is taken off and raised in isolation, given the schooling necessary for her future. The original text plays with gender regularly in the references, sometimes calling Silence “she” sometimes “he” depending on context. And as the original text is in French, there are other linguistic markers of gender that are brought into play. It should also be noted that the ways in which this medieval text tackles the issue of gender identity is rather different than what’s considered polite in modern society, where phrases like “the he’s a she beneath the clothes” could be considered offensive. But note also that although Silence spends much of the story choosing to move through the world as a man, in the end she chooses to return to living as a woman.
When the child was old enough to understand he was a girl, his father sat down to reason with him and explain the circumstances which had led them to conceal his identity this way. "If, dear son, King Evan knew what we are doing with you, your share of our earthly possessions would be very small indeed. For the king, dear son, disinherited all the women of England on account of the death of two counts in a battle they fought over twin heiresses they had married. Dear sweet precious son, we are not doing this for ourselves, but for you. Now, son, you know the whole situation. As you cherish honor, you will continue to conceal yourself from everyone." And he replied very sweetly, briefly, as befits a well-bred child, "Don't worry the least little bit. So help me God, I will do it. I will conceal myself from everyone."
In order to build up his endurance and teach him to ride, the seneschal took him through woods and streams, which were plentiful in the countryside. He took him out often in the scorching heat, in order to make a man of him. He was so used to men's usage and had so rejected women's ways that little was lacking for him to be a man. Whatever one could see was certainly male! But there's more to this than meets the eye--the he's a she beneath the clothes. ... And by the time he was in his twelfth year, none was his master any more. When they practiced wrestling, jousting or skirmishing, he alone made all his peers tremble.
So here, in contrast to Yde, we see the belief that masculine virtues and abilities are something that must be taught, but yet that a female body is still able to excel at. Silence’s adventures begin when she has the encounter in the woods with Nature and Nurture resulting in something of a crisis of identity. Nature berates her for abandoning all the gifts of beauty and grace she had been given and urges her to return to life as a woman. Nurture plays up the consequences of the misogynistic world Silence has been born into arguing to go on living as a man. And now the personification of Reason comes along with the persuasive argument.
“Believe what I say, friend Silence, and forbear! Fortify your heart, for if Nature, who is now pressing you so hard, takes it from you, believe me, you will never train for knighthood afterwards. You will lose your horse and chariot. Do not think the king will go back on his word and acknowledge you as rightful heir, when he finds out your true nature. Reason stayed with him for so long and admonished him so severely that Silence understood very well he had listened to bad advice ever to think of doing away with his good old ways to take up female habits. Then he began to consider the pastimes of a woman's chamber--which he had often heard about--and weighed in his heart of hearts all female customs against his current way of life, and saw, in short, that a man's life was much better than that of a woman. "Indeed," he said, "it would be too bad to step down when I'm on top. If I'm on top, why should I step down? Now I am honored and valiant. No I'm not, upon my word-I'm a disgrace if I want to be one of the women. I was trying to make life easy for myself, but I have a mouth too hard for kisses, and arms too rough for embraces. One could easily make a fool of me in any game played under the covers, for I'm a young man, not a girl. I don't want to lose my high position; I don't want to exchange it for a lesser, and I don't want to prove my father a liar. I would rather have God strike me dead! Whatever Nature may do, I will never betray the secret!"
These thoughts may undermine our sympathies for Silence a trifle, since she seems to have bought into the idea that women live a lesser life and are less perfect beings. But although modern retellings of female knights aren’t always so blatant about it, there’s often a strong streak of “not like the other girls” to the martial heroines. We haven’t entirely risen above the idea that women’s lives in history are simply less interesting and less virtuous than masculine lives, and therefore that historical lesbian fiction requires at least one woman to play a masculine role to make the story worth telling.
In any event, having decided to keep to her masculine role, Silence goes out into the world to have adventures. She becomes both a minstrel and a knight, fights valiantly for the king of France, then arrives in the royal court of England--before the king whose proclamation about women inheriting started this whole thing--and wins great fame there as well. Her plans only start to fall apart when the queen falls in lust with her and makes sexual advances. They kiss: the queen passionately and Silence trying to maintain a chaste response. The reason Silence gives for rejecting the advances is that it would be treachery against the king, though it is also noted that Silence wasn’t interested in responding due to her “nature”. That is, her erotic responses are heterosexual regardless of her outward appearance. The rest of the story goes into some unfortunate tropes about the spurned queen wanting revenge. Unlike the story of Yde and Olive, there is no self-aware same-sex desire here, only something that comes uncomfortably close to transgender panic. Another topic that might be worth examining on its own in a future show.
Somewhere between the depictions of women putting on armor as women and women in male disguise are the various Amazon characters in medieval and Renaissance chivalric literature. The role of the Amazon is a woman whose nature is to take up arms and participate in battle, not in male disguise, but fulfilling a role that those around her often assume to be exclusively male. Because of this assumption, it’s a regular motif for a woman to fall in love with an Amazon believing her to be a man. What makes the story more interesting is those times in which the romantic desire survives knowledge of the Amazon’s sex. Given the conventions of the literature, we are assured that this desire is vain and futile in the end.
In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso we find the story of the Amazon Bradamant (and her convenient twin brother Ricciardetto). Ricciardetto is accosted and mistaken for his sister for, as he notes, “we two are so alike (for we were born on the same day) that who is which, our parents cannot say.” This resemblance is enhanced by Bradamant having had her hair cut short as part of treatment for a head wound. The man who accosted Ricciardetto asks him to expand on this.
And thus he did: "My sister, not long since,
Was riding through these woods, unhelmeted:
And, overtaken by some Saracens,
By one of them was wounded in the head.
A passing hermit, using his good sense,
Observing how extensively she bled,
Cut off her golden hair; then on she rode,
Close-cropped as any man, about the wood.
"Thus wandering, she reached a shady fount.
Her wound had weakened her, so she drew rein,
And when she had descended from her mount
She pulled her helmet off and on the green
Young grass soon fell asleep. I'll now recount
The most delightful tale that's ever been:
Out hunting with her friends that very day,
Fair Fiordispina chanced to pass that way.
"She saw my sister as she rested there,
In armour fully clad, save for her face;
A sword was at her side, where women wear
A distaff; as she views the manly grace
Of one she takes to be a cavalier,
Her heart is vanquished, and to join the chase
She first invites her, then contrives ere long
To separate her from the merry throng.
"My sister understood the maid believed
She was a man, and it was evident
Such burning love could never be relieved
By her. 'Better' (so ran her argument)
'This damsel should at once be undeceived
Than she should think me so indifferent.
Better a woman I should prove, and kind,
Than seem a man for love so disinclined.'
Now if Bradamant had returned her love, the story might have taken an entirely different direction. But not feeling the same emotion in return, she figures it’s better to straighten things out promptly.
“Alone with her, where no one could surprise
Them in that leafy, solitary nook,
Her anguished soul reflected in her eyes,
The damsel then began to show with look
And words and gestures and with ardent sighs
Her passion for my sister, whom she took
To be a man; she pales, then, blushing red,
She steals a kiss, so greatly she's misled.
"And this was right, for base it were and weak,
And worthy of a statue, not a man,
When such a lovely maid her love should speak,
So sweet and melting in her languid pain,
To sit inertly by, as mild and meek
As a young owl by day; so she began
To tell the maid she was a woman, not
A manly cavalier as she had thought;
This revelation does not have the desired effect. As the poem notes, “no spark of love is quenched.” And Fiordespina reflects,
"That face on this account is no less fair;
That glance, that grace of manner are the same.
The damsel's heart does not return from where
It sunned itself in the beloved beam
Of those entrancing eyes; seeing her wear
That manly armour which has earned such fame,
Her longing may be yet fulfilled, she thinks,
Then sighs and into deepest sorrow sinks.
Fiordespina, then does what any sensible lovelorn maiden would do: she promptly invites the object of her desire to her house, gives her fresh clothes to wear, and takes her to her bed. Well, maybe that’s not the sensible thing to do after all.
"They lay together in the selfsame bed,
But not the same repose; for while one sleeps,
The other groans and, still uncomforted,
With longing is on fire, the more she weeps;
And if she slumbers, by her dreams she's led
To Fancy's realm, where promises Love keeps,
Where Fate's decrees fond lovers do not vex,
And where her Bradamante has changed sex.
"As when a sick man with a raging thirst,
If he should fall asleep, will toss and turn
And, with his lips as fevered as at first,
Will dream of drinking deep at beck or burn,
So in her dreams, when grief has done its worst,
Her longings gain the boon for which they yearn;
But on awaking, with her hand she gropes,
And finds once more that vain are all her hopes.
"The day arrived when more reluctant yet
Fair Fiordispina from her couch arose,
For Bradamante said, with feigned regret,
She must depart (from this impasse she knows
There is no other exit than retreat).
The damsel offers her before she goes
A Spanish horse, with trappings all of gold,
A surcoat also, broidered gay and bold.
The motif of an Amazon inspiring a woman’s desire that outlasts the revelation of her sex also appears in Spencer’s Faerie Queen, regarding the Amazon Britomart and the lady Amoret. Now, Britomart in theory has a boyfriend, Artegal, and she is the embodiment of honor and chastity. On the tournament field, everyone takes her for a male knight. Her chivalry and prowess is unparalleled. But after the tournament when it’s time to take off armor...
And eke that straunger knight emongst the rest;
Was for like need enforst to disaray:
Tho whenas vailed was her loftie crest,
Her golden locks, that were in tramels gay
Vpbounden, did them selues adowne display,
And reached vnto her heeles; like sunny beames,
That in a cloud their light did long time stay,
Their vapour faded, shew their golden gleames,
And through the persant aire shoote forth their azure streames.
She also dofte her heauy haberieon,
Which the faire feature of her limbs did hyde,
And her well plighted frock, which she did won
To tucke about her short, when she did ryde,
She low let fall, that flowd from her lanck syde
Downe to her foot, with carelesse modestee.
Then of them all she plainly was espyde,
To be a woman wight, vnwist to bee,
The fairest woman wight, that euer eye did see.
Many many verses later, Britomart--her identity concealed--finds herself in the position of jousting for the honor and liberty of the lady Amoret. It’s one of these rather anti-feminist situations where the victor gets the lady and the most the lady can hope for is the least awful result. But fortunately for her, Britomart is victorious!
With that her glistring helmet she vnlaced;
Which doft, her golden lockes, that were vp bound
Still in a knot, vnto her heeles downe traced,
And like a silken veile in compasse round
About her backe and all her bodie wound;
Like as the shining skie in summers night,
What time the dayes with scorching heat abound,
Is creasted all with lines of firie light,
That it prodigious seemes in common peoples sight.
Such when those Knights and Ladies all about
Beheld her, all were with amazement smit,
And euery one gan grow in secret dout
Of this and that, according to each wit:
Some thought that some enchantment faygned it;
Some, that Bellona in that warlike wise
To them appear'd, with shield and armour fit;
Some, that it was a maske of strange disguise:
So diuersely each one did sundrie doubts deuise.
But that young Knight, which through her gentle deed
Was to that goodly fellowship restor'd,
Ten thousand thankes did yeeld her for her meed,
And doubly ouercommen, her ador'd:
So did they all their former strife accord;
And eke fayre Amoret now freed from feare,
More franke affection did to her afford,
And to her bed, which she was wont forbeare,
Now freely drew, and found right safe assurance theare.
Where all that night they of their loues did treat,
And hard aduentures twixt themselues alone,
That each the other gan with passion great,
And griefull pittie priuately bemone.
The morow next so soone as Titan shone,
They both vprose, and to their waies them dight:
Long wandred they, yet neuer met with none,
That to their willes could them direct aright,
Or to them tydings tell, that mote their harts delight.
Once again, we get a rather ambiguously erotic scene in which the damsel shares her bed with her adored Amazon warrior. The text plays with the relative transgressions of Amoret flirting with a strange man versus flirting with a woman. The “frank affections” and the passions they bemoan with each other are passed off as platonic and the shared sympathy of two women who are, in theory, both trying to find their missing boyfriends.
Amadis of Gaule
One feature of these Amazon tales is that there is no condemnation for the women who fall in love with them. It is considered right and proper that chivalric prowess should earn the reward of love. This is addressed directly in a similar incident in the French romance of Amadis of Gaule and its later Spanish elaborations. Here the cross-dressing female knight assures the lady who loves her that she wishes she could properly return that love and that the lady is clearly worthy of being so loved. It was only the limitations of the medieval imagination that settled for their mutual declarations being framed as platonic. But we, as authors, are not so limited. And in these true--and literary--stories of female knights, we can find inspiration for imagining a different ending to the tale.