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LHMP #170 Klosowska 2011 Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections

Full citation: 

Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections” in The Lesbian Premodern ed. by Noreen Giffney, Michelle M. Sauer & Diane Watt. Palgrave, New York. ISBN 978-0-230-61676-9

Publication summary: 


A collection of papers addressing the question of what the place of premodern historical studies have in relation to the creation and critique of historical theories, and especially to the field of queer studies.

Kłosowska, Anna. 2011. “Medieval Barbie Dolls: Femme Figures in Ascetic Collections”

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While some “queer readings” of medieval texts examine how God replaces a carnal beloved in courtly poetic forms, this article looks at an example of courtly images of women used to illustrate pious texts, and what the motivations and consequences of that might be. These manuscripts read as “queer” via the gaze of the women the texts are intended for [note: this is not speculation, we know who the original owners/patrons of the books were] and the use of female bodies of objects of desire and fantasy for a female viewer.

Like the Barbie doll, the images become private playthings for the viewer to engage with harmlessly. The “Lives of the Desert Fathers” (a collection of saints’ lives covering early ascetics) might be an unexpected text for plentiful illustrations of elegant women, even when the collection is expanded to include Desert Mothers. Here, the saints are not depicted as ascetics but as consumers and enjoyers of elegant culture. The women themselves are stylized to represent the ideal of beauty and sensuality of the day.

The article also considers manuscripts of various romances and a luxurious illustrated New Testament with commentary. The romances include Yde and Olive and the romance of the Comte d’Anjou. The illustrations create a world of women’s bonds that can be stronger than their presence in the text itself, with contexts ranging from homosocial to homoerotic. 

This set of manuscripts were created in Burgundy and ended up in Turin, Italy via the ducal collections at Savoy. The article has a general description of the contents of the Lives, highlighting the presence and context of these female figures.

Regardless of the male-focused subject matter, the illustrations create a strong female presence and orientation for the books. There is a similar female presence in a manuscript of the Roman du Comte d’Anjou, with the scenes chosen for illustration skewing to those involving women.

The unique manuscript of Yde and Olive (from the Huon de Bordeaux cycle) includes an illustration of the central female couple in their marriage bed. The bed scene is the only illustration from this section of the longer Romance. The text also focuses on this marriage/bed scene, with extensive descriptions of the interaction between the women, including both verbal bonds (repeating the marriage vow) and physical interactions (kissing and hugging). The author makes a point that the text as the conclusion of the tale, which is typically interpreted as a divine sex-change, literally involves God giving Yde “all that a man has of his humanity (umanite)” which is more ambiguous regarding bodily consequences.

The author’s discussion of the illustrated Biblical commentary focuses on the sensual feel and appearance of the pages and the significant presence of noble women in the book’s provenance.

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