Perret, Michele. 1985. “Travesties et Transsexuelles: Yde, Silence, Grisandole, Blanchandine” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 25:3 pp.328-340
* * *
This article looks at four heroines in French literature of the 13-14th centuries whose stories involved either transvestite or transsexual elements or both. What the stories dance around, without treating it directly is homosexuality, both male and female. Cross-dressing motifs, either men disguised as women or women disguised as men are not rare, and create an ambiguous situation where homosexual possibilities can emerge.
The ambiguity, in both cases, revolves around relations with a woman. The man disguised as a woman wins her love with the appearance of homosexuality but the underlying “reality” of heterosexuality, while the woman disguised as a man wins a woman’s love with the appearance of heterosexuality but the underlying “reality” of homosexuality. In the first case, the plot typically resolves with proof of the heterosexual nature of the union in the birth of a child. But in the second case, the resolution may take one of two forms: either the disguised woman becomes, in truth, a man, or she returns to her original sex and thus loses her autonomy in marriage. The social freedom that the cross-dressing woman gains creates a problem of identity that can only be resolved by reinforcing the status quo by one means or another.
In literature, the reasons for male and female cross-dressing are different. The male characters take on the disguise to facilitate access to the desired woman. The cross-dressing women seek masculine privileges: the right to inherit, to travel alone, to have autonomy. While the cross-dressing episode for men is a period of intense sexuality, for women the disguise requires a non-sexual life.
In the case of Silence, the cross-dressing is for the purpose of inheritance. She attracts female desire but does not respond. For Yde it is to escape her father’s incestuous desire. When she is forced to marry the emperor’s daughter Olive, she laments that she has no means of fulfilling the duties of marriage. Silence, like the figure of Grisandole in l’Estoire de Merlin, returns to her original gender presentation. But Yde doesn’t return to female garments, as God transforms her into a man. A similar divine miracle resolves the case of Blanchandine in Tristan de Nanteuil. Her disguise was originally to facilitate escaping her family to stay with Tristan, but believing him dead, she is pressured into marrying the daughter of the sultan and accepts a transformation of sex to resolve the conflict.
The change of sex is signaled not only by taking on male clothing but also by a change of name. Blanchandine, Yde, and Silence use only a grammatical transformation from feminine to masculine, while Grisandole is the male name taken on by Avenable. There is a discussion of how these name changes are treated in the text, with particular attention to the case of Silence, where there is also a secondary adoption of the pseudonym “Malduit” for part of her adventures.
The author compares these heroic figures with a different genre of crossdressing women in fabliaux, such as the woman in Berengier au lonc cul, who takes revenge on her cowardly husband by disguising herself as a knight and tricking him into kissing her ass (literally).
There is a technical discussion of the complexities of gender reference in the texts and how word play is used to emphasize the multi-layered identities and relationships of the disguised women. In the story of Silence, this duality is highlighted by the disputes between the personifications of Nature and Nurture who each claim the right to define Silence’s identity.