It's the last Saturday of the month, so it must be Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast time! This month I'm talking about romantic relations between women in poetry and stories of the courtly love era in Europe. I also talk about how female same-sex desire is erased in academic discussion by setting up entirely different goalposts than are placed for heterosexual desire.
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Now with transcript!
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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 8 - Medieval Love Poetry - transcript
(Originally aired 2017/03/25 - listen here)
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(Transcript commissioned from Jen Zink @Loopdilou who is available for professional podcast transcription work. I am working on adding transcripts of the existing interview shows.)
Today I’d like to talk about two related themes in medieval literature: love poetry, and relationships in romances. Now, keep in mind that when we use the word “romance” to talk about genres of medieval literature, it doesn’t mean stories centering around a specific love relationship, as it does modern use, but rather stories of heroic adventure and courtly deeds, that have love as one of several themes. Medieval romances usually included fantastic elements and otherworldly settings. So we can’t interpret them as representing actual historic behaviors and cultures. But they do give us a glimpse into the beliefs and attitudes of the people who created and listened to the stories.
The romance genre arose in the same context as the idea of “courtly love” as expressed in the songs of the troubadours. The courtly love movement was, in part, a reaction to the stark reality among the upper classes that marriage was a business transaction with nothing of individual attraction or affection. In fact, when the rules of courtly love were written down, they stated baldly that love was impossible between married couples because there could be no love where there was coercion. Instead, one was expected to perform a fiction of romantic desire for a person one could not possess. A fiction of adultery, as it were, where extravagant language and pledges of undying devotion were understood as representing sexual desire without ever being allowed to fulfill it.
As a result, the language used in acting out courtly love can be highly ambiguous in terms of how it related to behavior. Was it all play-acting or was it a way of expressing frustrated desires that might otherwise work out in less socially acceptable ways? When the language of courtly love appears in poetry or prose to express interactions between men and women, few scholars deny that it was intended to represent actual sexual desire, even if in a formal and stylized manner.
But when we find the language of courtly love used between women, there is often a greater hesitancy among scholars to attribute it to actual romantic or erotic attraction between women, as opposed to being mere literary convention. I’m going to look at three works that were written around the 12th and 13th centuries in western Europe in which the language of romantic love is used between women.
The first is a 13th century French romance titled L’Escoufle or, the kite -- referring to the bird, not to the child’s toy. The story centers around a young woman’s adventures after a man persuades her to elope with him and then abandons her--pretty much for the majority of the remainder of the story. The “kite” of the story comes in shortly after Aelis (our heroine) rides off with Guillaume. The bird swoops in and steals Guillaume’s fancy silk purse and Guillaume chases after it, abandoning Aelis to her own devices in a strange land.
But Aelis is a resourceful young woman and gradually betters her situation by a series of alliances and personal relationships with other women. What is most interesting to us at the moment is that these relationships are described with language and using situations that would be unambiguously sexual if a man were involved.
When she finds herself alone, Aelis promptly takes up with another young woman named Ysabel. And shortly after being taken in by Ysabel and her mother, “Fair Aelis began thinking that the two of them could well spend the night in one bed together.”
Now, spending the night in bed together is no big deal. It was something that travelers often did even when they were complete strangers. The implication is primarily one of friendship and probably of social protection, since Ysabel is an established member of the local community while Aelis is a stranger and alone. But as the two start up an embroidery business together, their relationship becomes more physically ambiguous. Aelis “moves closer to her, she kisses her, embraces and hugs her” and Ysabel “tells her that she will accomplish completely her wish, whatever it is.”
This is language that, in mixed-sex contexts could indicate either sexual or non-sexual interactions, but the language continuing to describe their relationship is framed strongly in the conventions of romance. Ysabel provides Aelis with “so much solace, so much pleasure” and Aelis “enjoys herself in so many ways.”
These same-sex romantic descriptions are balanced by how the story focuses on their combined search for Aelis’s missing boyfriend, Guillaume.
In this quest, Aelis encounters two further intimate friendships with women in the story, using the same ambiguously suggestive language about sharing a bed and, in the second case sharing a friendship so close that, “they are all one body/heart and soul; they no longer remember Guillaume … No other woman was ever treated in the way the noble countess did [Aelis]; She kisses her, then let the other young women kiss her. Then she takes her to relax in her bedroom, holding her with her naked hand.”
Other medieval romances include episodes of desire between women, but more commonly it is excused by having one of the women be in disguise as a man at the time, such as in the story of Yde and Olive, or the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil. In L’Escoufle there is no such plausible deniability. These are women who know each other to be a woman. One can only try to explain away the interactions as using conventional formulaic language that used the forms of romantic love without intending the substance. Or...one can believe that they may have intended t