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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #67e Amer 2008 Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures - Chapter 5

Full citation: 

Amer, Sahar. 2008. Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. ISBN 978-0-8122-4087-0

Publication summary: 

This is a fabulous book. I've covered a couple of Amer's articles previously and there is some overlap in material, but this study lays out the entire framework of her research into the interactions of French and Arabic influences in certain medieval romances with themes of female same-sex desire. Her work is a prime example of both the difficulties and rewards of digging deeply into some of the less-studied literary works with lesbian-like themes.

Chapter 5 - Crossing Social and Cultural Borders: Jean Renart's Escoufle and the Traditions of Zarf, Jawaris, and Qaynas in the Islamicate World

In the final chapter, Amer positions many of the apparently anomalous aspects of L'Escoufle within the Arabic tradition of zarf (refined culture) and shows how the story uses and subverts motifs from both Western and Arabic literary tradition to form a rich, but sometimes awkward blend.

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Chapter 5

This chapter looks more deeply into motifs in L'Escoufle that show how Aelis constructs her new life as a woman alone. Once Aelis gives up the quest to travel in search of Guillaume and settles down into an urban domestic partnership with Ysabel in Montpellier, a number of boundaries are crossed. In adopting Ysabel as friend, business partner, and perhaps lover the two are leveled socially. Aelis's abandonment sets her apart from the noble rank she inherited, and her taking up a craft cements her new position in the middle class. Conversely, in giving Ysabel new, rich clothing in place of her original rags, Aelis elevates her from her lower status to becoming the equal of Aelis's new rank.

In contrast to the cross-dressing romances, Aelis's independence and enterprise cannot be dismissed as taking on a temporary male role. This makes the women's actions in some ways even more subversive, Sewing and fine embroidery are not the only trades the women take up and Amer suggests that some of their activities and the ways their success are described imply they may have established something akin to a high-class brothel. (Embroidery workshops were sometimes a cover for such establishments.) Aelis's success as a wealthy independent businesswoman stands in contrast to the economic status of most non-fictional single women of the time who were typically domestic servants or unskilled laborers, although certain cities had female-dominated guilds that provided better opportunities. In addition to the needlework, the women provided personal services such as hair washing, and their house became a fashionable meeting place for "bourgeois and knights" offering games, entertainments, and conversation. Something of a salon, in other words, or perhaps the services of a courtesan. Despite the implications of a business that focuses on providing "pleasure and delight" there is no overt suggestion of sexual activity or any impugning at Aelis's reputation. And indeed there are several episodes where she is notably careful with respect to her reputation regarding men.

It is in the context of this popular salon that Aelis notes the standoffishness of the lady of Montpellier and decides to make overtures of friendship to her. When that friendship brings Aelis entrée to the household of the Countess of Saint-Gilles, she moves into another salon-like space among the Countess's entourage. This is a woman-dominated space, but not women-only, as the Count (evidently turning away from his affair with the lady of Montpellier) is depicted hanging out with the ladies, enjoying food and company, and--in a very suggestive scene--being undressed down to his braies for comfort and lounging around with his head in Aelis's lap. This is not a clandestine affair; it occurs in the context of a group at women attending to a man's pleasure, and the Countess is present at the time. Amer notes the resonances with harem scenes in Arabic stories, a resonance that need not contradict the homoerotic potential between the women themselves, as in the tale of Princess Boudour.

Throughout the text are motifs such as this that directly contradict Christian moralizing literature of the time (e.g., warnings against maidservants taking a wife's place, or against single women wearing fine clothes and walking around looking people immodestly in the eye. In very many ways, Aelis disrupts the conventional structures of medieval society and literature. These disruptions make far more sense when examined from the point of view of contemporary medieval Islamicate social traditions.

The anomalous social and economic position Aelis inhabits can also be viewed in the context of the concepts of zarf (courtliness, elegance) and munjun (libertine) literature, and social roles such as the qaynas (singing slave-girls). Zarf encapsulates the general concepts of refinement, elegance, and courtliness, extended to one's person and environment (clothing, furnishings, grooming), behavior (conversation and debate, performance), and to the literature and themes that were the topic of that performance The zarf tradition began in pre-Islamic Medina and spread to Baghdad and later to Spanish al-Andalus, which strove to outdo earlier centers. The influence of zarf can be traced in the courtly love tradition of Occitania.

Although women of all classes participated in zarf culture (a notable example being the 11th century Princess Wallada of Spain), a prominent role fell to the class of "singing slave-girls" (qaynas) who were trained and educated to be accomplished in conversation, entertainment, games such as chess, composition of poetry, and other refined arts. Being slaves they were more free to participate in the mixed-gender gatherings devoted to zarf culture than a "respectable" free woman may have been--as well as participating in its more erotic manifestations. Amer notes the similarity to geishas and hetairae. One feature of zarf culture was the salon-like majlis, where people would gather to relax in pleasant surroundings, such as a garden, for intellectual discussion and debate. Amer provides a detailed and extensive exploration of zarf culture that is well worth reading on its own. Same-sex relationships were an integral-though not essential-part of zarf culture, that is, all relationships could be expressed in an elegant way and same-sex ones are explicitly included among the literature.

With all this as background, a different possibility emerges for understanding Aelis's salon at Montpelier, as well as the somewhat sybaritic entertainments within the Countess of Saint-Giles' household. The focus on intellectual activities within an environment of sense-pleasing luxury reflects a Majlis, even to the telling of stories and playing at chess. The scenes in the Saint-Giles household have an unmistakable air of the harem in the friendship between the women even as they attend to the same man. And, as we see in the tale of Princess Boudour, such an arrangement does not exclude the existence of erotic relationships between the women.

But just as Aelis does not fit the standard Western tropes, she does not entirely fit in the role of qaynas. She is a free and independent woman who established her own Majlis-equivalent rather than participating as a servant in one established by someone else. Amer goes into detail showing how L'Escoufle blends Western and Arabic elements, but inevitably views them through Western literary and cultural expectations, leaving the Arabic layer as exotic and sometimes confusing traces in the narrative. Then, just as we appear to be setting up a triad marriage between Aelis, the countess, and the count, the latter recalls a strange story his falconer told him about a young man's violent killing of a kite, and Guillaume is whisked back onstage to return Aelis to a standard Western narrative. 

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