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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 8 "Medieval Love Poetry"

Saturday, March 25, 2017 - 10:44

It's the last Saturday of the month, so it must be Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast time! This month I'm talking about romantic relations between women in poetry and stories of the courtly love era in Europe. I also talk about how female same-sex desire is erased in academic discussion by setting up entirely different goalposts than are placed for heterosexual desire.

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Now with transcript!

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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 8 - Medieval Love Poetry - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/03/25 - listen here)

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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)

Today I’d like to talk about two related themes in medieval literature: love poetry, and relationships in romances. Now, keep in mind that when we use the word “romance” to talk about genres of medieval literature, it doesn’t mean stories centering around a specific love relationship, as it does modern use, but rather stories of heroic adventure and courtly deeds, that have love as one of several themes. Medieval romances usually included fantastic elements and otherworldly settings. So we can’t interpret them as representing actual historic behaviors and cultures. But they do give us a glimpse into the beliefs and attitudes of the people who created and listened to the stories.

The romance genre arose in the same context as the idea of “courtly love” as expressed in the songs of the troubadours. The courtly love movement was, in part, a reaction to the stark reality among the upper classes that marriage was a business transaction with nothing of individual attraction or affection. In fact, when the rules of courtly love were written down, they stated baldly that love was impossible between married couples because there could be no love where there was coercion. Instead, one was expected to perform a fiction of romantic desire for a person one could not possess. A fiction of adultery, as it were, where extravagant language and pledges of undying devotion were understood as representing sexual desire without ever being allowed to fulfill it.

As a result, the language used in acting out courtly love can be highly ambiguous in terms of how it related to behavior. Was it all play-acting or was it a way of expressing frustrated desires that might otherwise work out in less socially acceptable ways? When the language of courtly love appears in poetry or prose to express interactions between men and women, few scholars deny that it was intended to represent actual sexual desire, even if in a formal and stylized manner.

But when we find the language of courtly love used between women, there is often a greater hesitancy among scholars to attribute it to actual romantic or erotic attraction between women, as opposed to being mere literary convention. I’m going to look at three works that were written around the 12th and 13th centuries in western Europe in which the language of romantic love is used between women.


The first is a 13th century French romance titled L’Escoufle or, the kite -- referring to the bird, not to the child’s toy. The story centers around a young woman’s adventures after a man persuades her to elope with him and then abandons her--pretty much for the majority of the remainder of the story. The “kite” of the story comes in shortly after Aelis (our heroine) rides off with Guillaume. The bird swoops in and steals Guillaume’s fancy silk purse and Guillaume chases after it, abandoning Aelis to her own devices in a strange land.

But Aelis is a resourceful young woman and gradually betters her situation by a series of alliances and personal relationships with other women. What is most interesting to us at the moment is that these relationships are described with language and using situations that would be unambiguously sexual if a man were involved.

When she finds herself alone, Aelis promptly takes up with another young woman named Ysabel. And shortly after being taken in by Ysabel and her mother, “Fair Aelis began thinking that the two of them could well spend the night in one bed together.

Now, spending the night in bed together is no big deal. It was something that travelers often did even when they were complete strangers. The implication is primarily one of friendship and probably of social protection, since Ysabel is an established member of the local community while Aelis is a stranger and alone. But as the two start up an embroidery business together, their relationship becomes more physically ambiguous. Aelis “moves closer to her, she kisses her, embraces and hugs her” and Ysabel “tells her that she will accomplish completely her wish, whatever it is.

This is language that, in mixed-sex contexts could indicate either sexual or non-sexual interactions, but the language continuing to describe their relationship is framed strongly in the conventions of romance. Ysabel provides Aelis with “so much solace, so much pleasure” and Aelis “enjoys herself in so many ways.”

These same-sex romantic descriptions are balanced by how the story focuses on their combined search for Aelis’s missing boyfriend, Guillaume.

In this quest, Aelis encounters two further intimate friendships with women in the story, using the same ambiguously suggestive language about sharing a bed and, in the second case sharing a friendship so close that, “they are all one body/heart and soul; they no longer remember Guillaume … No other woman was ever treated in the way the noble countess did [Aelis]; She kisses her, then let the other young women kiss her. Then she takes her to relax in her bedroom, holding her with her naked hand.”

Other medieval romances include episodes of desire between women, but more commonly it is excused by having one of the women be in disguise as a man at the time, such as in the story of Yde and Olive, or the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil. In L’Escoufle there is no such plausible deniability. These are women who know each other to be a woman. One can only try to explain away the interactions as using conventional formulaic language that used the forms of romantic love without intending the substance. can believe that they may have intended the substance.

Bieiris de Romans

This same argument has been used in regard to the lyrics of the 13th century troubariz --or female troubadour -- Bieiris de Romans. The bare facts are that Bieiris, a woman, wrote a love song addressed to a woman named Maria, using the conventional language of courtly love poetry. Where scholars come into disagreement is the question of what it means. (The show notes mention two articles that discuss this question from different points of view.) Before considering that question, let’s take a look at the lyrics themselves. I wish I could recite the original in Provencal, but I’ve never studied the language and would only make a hash of the pronunciation.

Lady Maria, in you merit and distinction, joy and intelligence and perfect beauty, hospitality and honor and distinction, your noble speech and pleasing company, your sweet face and merry disposition, the sweet look and the loving expression that exist in you without pretension cause me to turn toward you with a pure heart.

Thus I pray you, if it please you that true love and celebration and sweet humility should bring me such relief with you, if it please you, lovely woman, then give me that which most hope and joy promises, for in you lie my desire and my heart and from you stems all my happiness, and because of you I'm often sighing.

And because merit and beauty raise you high above all others (for none surpasses you), I pray you, please, by this which does you honor, don't grant your love to a deceitful suitor.

Lovely woman, whom joy and noble speech uplift, and merit, to you my stanzas go, for in you are gaiety and happiness, and all good things one could ask of a woman.

Within the genre of troubadour song, the romantic and erotic desire that is expressed is often something of a literary game, composed in the framework of the “courtly love” genre where unconsummated desire for an unobtainable beloved was a default trope). But when the sentiments are expressed between a man and a woman, no one questions the sincere underlying emotions. For this work, modern commentary has attracted unique skepticism with some scholars dismissing it as a mere literary exercise, or as an expression of platonic friendship in the language of romantic love (charges which are not used to question the heterosexuality of other authors), or as being the pen-name of a male author (which leaves open the question of why a male author would represent love between women).

When one is determined to avoid interpretations of lesbian desire in literary works, it's easy enough to point to the formulaic nature of many genres. Even the language of personal correspondence can be composed of stock phrases and meaningless formulas. (After all, think about how many letters you’ve written that begin “Dear So-and-so” and ask yourself how many of the people are genuinely "dear" to you?)

It is impossible to argue that all written compositions should be taken at absolute literal face value. But at the same time, it’s important to consider whether we interpret literalness versus literary style differently based on pre-existing assumptions. No one would argue that the formulaicness of troubadour love poetry means that there’s no such thing as romantic love and sexual desire between men and women. But when a woman writes in the genre of love poetry or writes love correspondence to another woman, you will often encounter circular arguments of the following format:

  • There is no evidence for lesbian expression in medieval European literature
  • Therefore, even though we would interpret this same language as romantic or erotic if addressed from a male author to a female subject
  • Because it is addressed between two women it must be purely formulaic,
  • And because this language is purely formulaic, it can’t be counted as evidence for expressions of lesbian love,
  • And therefore we have no evidence for lesbian expression.

You see how it ties up so neatly?

The Tegernsee Manuscript

Bieris was writing a work for public performance, and therefore it’s reasonable to analyze it within the conventions of that type of public performance. But similar arguments fall short when considering private poetry that was never meant for any eyes but the one it was written for.

It is reasonable to assume that this was the case for a poem found in a 12th century manuscript that was preserved at Tegernsee Abbey in southern Germany. Again, we know little of the context in which this was written except that it is clearly addressed from one woman to another. The writer laments the absence of her beloved and longs for her return from a journey. Given the context in which the poem was preserved, it is possible that the women were nuns. There are a number of biblical allusions in the poem that would suggest that possibility.

This translation is by Ann Matter, whose article on expressions of love between medieval religious women is cited in the show notes. Again, I’d love to be able to present the original so that you could hear the poetry of the sounds, as well as the meaning, but I’ll take pity on my listeners. The women’s names are abbreviated as G and A, so we don’t even have that much identity for them, although I’m tempted to go by the most popular German women’s names of that era and think of them as Gertrude and Anna.

To G., her singular rose,
From A. -- the bonds of precious love.
What is my strength, that I should bear it,
That I should have patience in your absence?
Is my strength the strength of stones,
That I should await your return?
I, who grieve ceaselessly day and night
Like someone who has lost a hand or a foot?
Everything pleasant and delightful
Without you seems like mud underfoot.
I shed tears as I used to smile,
And my heart is never glad.
When I recall the kisses you gave me,
And how with tender words you caressed my little breasts,
I want to die
Because I cannot see you.
What can I, so wretched, do?
Where can I, so miserable, turn?
If only my body could be entrusted to the earth
Until your longed-for return;
Or if passage could be granted me as it was to Habakkuk,
So that I might come there just once
To gaze on my beloved’s face--
Then I should not care if it were the hour of death itself.
For no one has been born in to the world
So lovely and full of grace,
Or who so honestly
And with such deep affection loves me.
I shall therefore not cease to grieve
Until I deserved to see you again.
Well has a wise man said that it is a great sorrow for a man to be without that
Without which he cannot live.
As long as the world stands
You shall never be removed from the core of my being.
What more can I say?
Come home, sweet love!
Prolong your trip no longer;
Know that I can bear your absence no longer.
Remember me.

Given the ways in which women’s writing--and writing that centers women--has been erased from the historic record, it is a treasure to find literature of this sort. I won’t fault scholars for being careful and skeptical about interpreting such material at literal face value, but I will always fault people for placing an extra burden of proof on representations of same-sex love that is not placed on heterosexual expressions.

And in the context of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project, the importance of works like this is not whether there was an actual woman named Bieris who loved a woman named Maria, or whether there was a real Gertrude--or whatever her name was--who kissed and caressed Anna’s breasts with tender words. The importance is that people in the 12th and 13th century could imagine such things, and had language to express them. That some woman reading about how Aelis and Ysabel kissed and embraced each other in bed, or listening to the voice of Bieris longing to be given “that which most hope and joy promises”, might have thought to herself, “This is what it means--this feeling I have for the woman I cherish. This is real and others have felt it too.”

Show Notes

This episode looks at examples of courtly love--both in poetry and in prose--expressed between two women, or by two female characters.

In this episode we talk about:

  • The context and conventions of the “courtly love” genre
  • The problems of relating the sentiments expressed in courtly love literature to everyday lives and experiences
  • Scholarly blind spots when interpreting same-sex expressions of courtly love
  • Love, desire, and friendship between women in the 13th century French story L’Escoufle
  • The 13th century troubariz (female troubador) Bieiris de Romans and the love poem she wrote to a woman named Maria
  • A passionate poem of love and longing written by one anonymous 12th century German woman to another

Books mentioned

  • The full text of Na Maria by Bieris de Romans can be found in: Bogin, Meg. 1976. The Women Troubadours. Paddington Press, Ltd., New York. ISBN 0-8467-0113-8
  • The full text of the Tegernsee MS poem can be found in: Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.

This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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