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
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 3 - Crossing Sartorial Lines: Female Same-Sex Marriage in Yde et Olive and The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Boudour from the One Thousand and One Nights
As a novelist who loves working within and playing with historic literary traditions, stories like the ones covered in this chapter are a gold mine of inspiration. And as someone looking for lesbian themes in historic literature, it's startling just how little tweaking these tales would take to become actual "lesbian romances" (in the modern sense) with happily ever after endings (within the limits of the framing cultures). But these same inspirations could work equally well to create other queer fictions. In many ways, medieval gender-disguise stories are even more easily adapted to be transgender stories, given medieval attitudes towards gender essentialism and appropriate plot resolution, although many of the essentialist themes would be considered more problematic today. Every time I come across another piece of historic literature with such rich possibilities for re-telling, I add another item to my writing to-do list.
* * *
This chapter compares similarities and differences in a related group of stories from both French and Arabic sources that use cross-gender disguise as a bridge to the possibility of same-sex relations. The French tales and their Arabic counterpart share enough themes and tropes to suggest a common inspiration, but the attitudes of the characters and the resolutions reflect their respective cultural differences.
There are a number of French romances where female cross-dressing creates homoerotic potential, though none resolves into an actual same-sex relationship at the end: Le Roman de Silence, the story of Blanchandine in Tristan de Nanteuil, and the story of Grisandole in L'Estoire de Merlin. But the motif is taken farthest in the tale of Yde and Olive, which exists in a 13th century verse epic, a 14th century drama, and a 15th century prose epic, each with its own variations in the plot.
The Islamicate world offers its own traditions of cross-dressing women beginning in pre-Islamic times, whether as individuals, as social categories such as the literary genre of ghulamiyyat, or in the many Amazon-like characters in the 1001 Nights. It is in this last source that we find the tale of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour that is considered in this chapter. Amer reviews the historic background of both French and Arabic stories and shows the basis for her conclusions that they are linked by more than a coincidence of plot.
I will skip the more theoretical parts of the analysis (which are well worth reading) in favor of a simple plot summary, starting with the French tales. The main character is named Yde in the 13th c, Ide in the 15th c, and Ysabel in the 14th c drama. Her beloved is Olive in all three. Yde is the daughter at king Florent of Aragon and his Queen Esclarmonde who dies in childbirth. When Yde is 15, her resemblance to her mother inspires her father to decide to marry her. Horrified at the thought of incest, she flees in male disguise. After many adventures (the details of which differ in the three texts) she arrives in Rome (or Constantinople) and successfully leads the king's army there against attacking Spaniards. In some versions, one goal of the attack is pursuit of the king's daughter Olive. In reward for this victory, Yde is named the king's heir and given Olive's hand in marriage.
This is where the texts begin to diverge somewhat. Olive has fallen in love with Yde. Yde is somewhat panicked at the coming wedding but goes through with it rather than revealing her true sex. In the verse and prose epics, Yde puts off her wife on the wedding night, pleading illness, but after two weeks confides her secret to Olive who promises to keep it. But their conversation is overheard and they are accused before the king. To verify Yde's sex, the King commands that she bathe naked before him, but at the last minute an angel announces that Yde has been transformed into a man. The story then proceeds with Yde and Olive as a heterosexual couple with no further comment.
The play resolves the dilemma more complexly. Yde (or rather, Ysabel, in this version) confesses her secret to Olive on their wedding night in a scene that could be read as erotic. Ysabel says, "I am a woman, like you. And I have breasts, feel them." Olive swears to honor her as if she were a husband. As in the other texts, they are discovered and the bath test is required, but as Ysabel is disrobing, Saint Michael appears as a white stag and distracts the witnesses while giving Ysabel the appearance of a man. But this is a temporary illusion, and the final resolution arrives in the form of Ysabel's father, at which point Olive is married off to him while Ysabel is married to Olive's father. [Can I just say, Ew!]
The texts play up the temporary homoeroticism of the setting by highlighting Olive's romantic and sensual response to Yde when she first arrives, and then in the descriptions after the wedding of how the two women kiss and embrace in bed, using the same vocabulary and imagery as is used for opposite sex couples in the same genre. But this apparent acceptance of same-sex desire is undermined by a careful avoidance of showing reciprocal desire in a context where both parties know the truth of their relationship until after the heteronormative resolution.
The Arabic story of Qamar al-Zaman and the princess Boudour is most strikingly different in how it treats the relationship between its female protagonists after the marriage and in achieving a resolution in which they continue to share a household, albeit as co-wives of the same man. Boudour is traveling with her husband Qamar. When he suddenly disappears, she puts on his clothes and takes his name to protect herself. She arrives at the Isle of Ebony, whose king wishes to retire and forces Boudour to marry his daughter Hayat al-Nefous and became his heir. Boudoir puts off revealing her secret to Hayat for several days after the wedding, but in the mean time satisfies her erotically with caresses and kisses. After the reveal (which again involves an explicit display of breasts and genitals as proof) they stage a fake proof of defloration and continue living happily as a married couple until the real Qamar al-Zaman shows up. At that point, Boudour explains all and abdicates in her husbands' favor, after which Qamar takes Hayat as his second wife with Boudour stipulating that they (the wives) will share a house together.
I have skipped over the rich discussion of how these various themes relate to each other and yet reflect the norms and preoccupations of their own cultures, which is the major theme of Amer’s analysis. Anyone with even a passing interest in the topic of lesbian themes in medieval French romances should get their hands on this book.