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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #31 – Rieger 1989 “Was Bieiris de Romans Lesbian? Women’s Relations with Each Other in the World of the Troubadours”

Full citation: 

Rieger, Angelica. 1989. “Was Bieiris de Romans Lesbian? Women’s Relations with Each Other in the World of the Troubadours” in The Voice of the Trobairitz: Perspectives on the Women Troubadours, ed. by William D. Paden. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 0-8122-8167-5

(In the original version of this blog post, the following editorial comments appeared after the discussion of the publication.)

I’m going to step out of the role of summarizer here and become a critic. I feel that Rieger discounts too strongly the acceptability of eroticized language between women as expressing genuine desire, though in part much of the scholarship on that topic post-dates this article. I also feel that she overlooks the continuum of emotional expression in medieval literature that seamlessly merges conventional expressions of friendship into that of romantic and erotic desire. In this context, consider the juxtaposition of conventional -- even formulaic -- praise and desire in the poetry of Laudomia Forteguerri against the recognition of Laudomia’s contemporaries that the poems arose from a romantic impulse. (Eisenbichler 2001) Compare also Bieris’s expressions “my heart and my mind are set on you and I get all the happiness I have from you” with the strongly erotic correspondence of two sets of 12th century women, "Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, loves you with soul and body, who sighs for you every hour, at every moment ... you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart." (Murray 1996) and elsewhere, “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.” (Matter 1989 - not yet blogged)

Within this larger context, it’s hard not to see Rieger as employing a somewhat circular logic: Because there is no evidence for lesbian expression in literature of the time, even though we would interpret this same language as romantic/erotic if addressed from a male author to a female subject, because it is addressed between two women it must be purely formulaic, and therefore it can’t be counted as evidence for lesbian expression, and therefore we have no evidence for lesbian expression.


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While Bogin was primarly an edition of the texts of the works of the Trobairitz, this is a collection of scholarly papers by various authors. Rieger considers the question of the relationship of the text of “Na Maria, pretz e fina valors” to the nature of the relationship between the text's author and addressee. While there are other troubadour lyrics addressed from a woman to a woman, these either fall in the conversational genre of the “tenso” or are explicitly framed as a woman speaking as a go-between for an absent male lover. To consider the hypothesis that this work expresses lesbian desire, Rieger looks at: evidence for the existence of lesbian relations at the time; evidence for attitudes toward homosexuality in troubadour lyrics in general; the linguistic basis for the poem’s “persona” being interpreted as female; possible textual corruptions that could have turned a male authorial persona into a female one or that might undermine the erotic aspects of the text; and the context of conventional language used between female friends in poetry where no romantic intepretation is suggested. There are significant weaknesses in the first two items in this list in that Rieger’s analysis (and her sources) rely too much on an assumption that evidence regarding male homosexuality can be extrapolated to women. (As seen in other articles in my blog series, it was normal for male and female homosexuality to be treated very differently not only in law but in popular opinion.)

Rieger considers the arguments that Bieiris was the pen-name of a male author to be unsupported, and then applies the evidence to consider three hypotheses: 1) that the poem is an expression of lesbian love; 2) that the interpretation of the poem as being erotic in nature rests on potentially corrupt elements in the text (and thus is being "read in" by modern editors); and 3) that the poem is indeed addressed between women but represents only the conventional and stylized language of friendship within that genre. A significant part of the article involves adducing literary examples of women praising each other in language similar to that of Bieiris’s lyric. Rieger settles on the third hypothesis, concluding that there is enough doubt in the manuscript transmission of three key words to question the most overtly erotic passages in the text, and noting the commonness of laudatory language between women in Provencal literature.

Time period: 

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