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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #34 – Westphal-Wihl 1989 “The Ladies’ Tournament: Marriage, Sex, and Honor in Thirteenth-Century Germany”

Full citation: 

Westphal-Wihl, Sarah. 1989. “The Ladies’ Tournament: Marriage, Sex, and Honor in Thirteenth-Century Germany” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 14/2: 371-398

Medieval romances that involve women dressing as men and taking up arms typically involve a lone individual who is venturing into the world unrecognized. Disguise is normally a key factor. The example in this article is unusual, not only in that the women’s activities are open and public, but that the entire community of women participates.

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The article examines an unusual motif in the context of chivalric literature: the activities and adventures of a community of women in the absence of their men, where the story does not focus on the resolution of that absence. The work was composed in Germany slightly before 1300 and presents a community of noble families whose men are engaged in tournaments and the pursuit of honor. When the men all leave the town to negotiate a peace treaty with an invading force, the women organize a self-sufficient community in their absence and decide to hold a tournament, taking on the clothing, armor, and arms of their departed men-folk to do them honor. Although some women dissent, arguing that they should stick to feminine forms of honor, the challenge holds the day. When the men return they praise the women for this event, though evidently they get teased for it by others. A great deal of the article then concerns a minor event in the story, where a poor young woman with no male relatives had taken on the name of a famous knight, and when he learns of it and comes to investigate the story, he’s so impressed by her that he gives her money for her dowry. Westphal-Wihl looks at the dynamics of dowry in this context and how the story expresses anxieties about social status and the economics of marriage. The crossdressing in this story is temporary, overt (i.e., with no intent to “pass”), and for the specific purpose of engaging in a masculine activity (jousting). The transgressive power of the activity is limited and for this reason the men choose to see it as praiseworthy rather than threatening.

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