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Full citation: 

Durling, Nancy Vine. 1989. “Rewriting Gender: Yde et Olive and Ovidian Myth” in Romance Languages Annual 1: 256-62.

Contents summary: 

This is primarily a literary analysis paper, comparing the structure and themes of 13/14th c French romance Yde et Olive with one of its possible inspirations, Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe. It begins with a brief reference to other medieval French romances with cross-dressing themes (e.g., Tristan de Nanteuil, as well as an outline of the entire Huon de Bordeaux cycle of which if forms a part.

In brief, Yde’s mother dies at her birth and Yde grows to so resemble her that Yde’s father falls in love with his daughter and decides to marry her. This spurs Yde to flee, disguised as a man. In various adventures, Yde gains a reputation as a valiant knight resulting in the king of Rome offering Yde the hand of his daughter Olive in marriage. After some protest, Yde capitulates. 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 but an eavesdropper reports back to the king (Olive’s father), who orders Yde to take a bath with him to determine the truth of the matter. An angel appears to defend Yde and in the process Yde is transformed physically into a man.

Although the parallels with Iphis are strong (gender disguise due to threat from a father, impending marriage to a woman, and a divinely-mediated sex change), the differences are also noteworthy. While Yde gives no sign of feeling desire for Olive and is trapped into the marriage, Iphis and Ianthe are childhood sweethearts, and Iphis’s problem is seeing no means of realizing that love. Yde is transformed after the marriage, while Iphis is transformed before it. Yde’s mother is dead (and in some ways the trigger for her initial peril) while Iphis’s mother is the one who initiates the disguise to protect her daughter.

The incest theme is absent from the story of Iphis (instead the paternal threat is due to demanding a son on pain of the infant’s death) but is present in a number of other 12-14th c. French romances. The genealogical imperative in Yde and Olive is threatened both by incest and by the impossibility of offspring from a marriage between women. Yde’s physical transformation resolves both threats.

The article continues to examine the treatment of four themes: the role of the mother, the gender disguise, the threat of homosexuality, and the gender change.

Iphis’s mother is the driver of her gender disguise, as well as of the eventual resolution, as her mother is the one who takes her to Aphrodite’s temple and prays for a miracle. Yde, in contrast, drives her own story, making the choice to disguise herself, and being the one who prays for help, resulting in the angel’s intervention. At each crucial moment of Yde’s story, a bath figures prominently. When her father announces his intent to marry her, he arranges for a bath to be prepared for her, which precipitates her disguise and flight. After her betrayal to the king of Rome, a bath once more figures in the context of her physical gender transformation. While Ovid’s version of Iphis and Ianthe makes no mention of bathing relating to her transformation, medieval references to the character do sometimes make reference to fountain that produces a sex-change—a motif originally borrowed from Ovid’s myth of Hermaphroditus.

Iphis’s disguise becomes a source of homoerotic anxiety for her precisely because she desires Ianthe but considers it impossible to act on that love. Yde, in contrast, is anxious because of Olive’s desire for her, but gives no indication that she returns the desire. Rather, her problem is that Olive’s love threatens her disguise. In Iphis and Ianthe, the narrative purpose behind the transformation is to enable the triumph of love, but for Yde it is to enable the triumph of genealogical continuity. (Although, somewhat undermining this goal, it is Yde’s immortal grandmother who produces a son to continue Huon’s line into the next segment of the story.)


As an appendix to this analysis, the author notes a medieval French version of the Iphis myth, appearing in the poem “Ovide moralisé”, which offers as support for the plausibility of the story, an anecdote about a woman who disguised herself as a man, with her mother’s support, and who married the woman she desired “deceiving her with an artificial member”, but who was “brought to shame” when the deception was revealed by her wife.