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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #67b Amer 2008 Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures - Chapter 2

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 2 - Crossing Linguistic Borders: Etienne de Fougères's Livre des Manières and Arabic Erotic Treatises

Before addressing the romances that form the core of her analysis, Amer looks at a French poem that is unusually specific and poetic in its description of lesbian activity.

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Chapter 2

This chapter covers the same material as Amer 2001 covering the 12th century Livre des Manières by Etienne de Fougères. (See also Clark 2001 for more details on the poem's language.)

This "estates" poem is part of a genre of moral literature addressing the various classes of society. It is unusual in including verses about women (who were typically entirely omitted from the genre) and more so in including a verse specifically and explicitly concerning lesbians. As this is the earliest such clear reference in French literature, it has been the subject of debate, even leading to questioning the poem's authorship.

Amer lays out her evidence and reasoning for considering this inclusion to have been inspired by and directly based on descriptions of lesbian activity in contemporary Arabic sources, such the 10th century Encyclopedia of Pleasure and an 11th century anthology of metonymic and literary devices. A key image in the poem is the military metaphor of sexual activity between women as "shield beating against shield with no lance." For other parts of the verse, comparisons to Arabic descriptions and theories of lesbian sexuality suggest interpretations for ambiguous or obscure language, as in the suggestion of reading "Sanz focil escoent lor feu" as "they deliver themselves from their fire without the use of a poker" (based on Arabic medical theories of sexual relief) rather than Clark's suggested reading "without a poker to stir up their fire".

The chapter includes a substantial body of examples of imagery from Arabic literature to support the strongest parallels and moves on to considering interpretations of the more obscure language that gain plausibility once Arabic connections are established. Despite the literary connections, the French and Arabic texts that are being compared show major differences in attitude toward sexual activity in general and lesbian sexuality in particular. The Arabic influences and material in the Livre des Manières were filtered though French and Christian culture and attitudes, transforming the content in the process.

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