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My Favorite Medieval French Romance

Monday, June 10, 2019 - 07:00

“Thus Yde, daughter of Florent of Aragon, married Olive, daughter of Othon the emperor of Rome.”

As a queer woman looking for identification in the past, and especially as an amateur medievalist active in medieval re-creation events, try to imagine how the simple existence of this sentence in a 13th century French manuscript affects me. In my research and my re-interpretation of the past in fiction, I've learned to cherish moments like this, and not to dismiss them for failing to be a perfect reflection of my modern identity. The medieval French imagination was not capable of encompassing the possibility of two women marrying and living happily ever after as female spouses...but it was capable of encompassing the possibility that a woman might fall in love with and profess her loyalty to another woman. It was capable of encompassing the possibility that--if carefully manoeuvered into an inescapable choice--two women might marry each other. It was capable of imagining them kissing and embracing and taking joy in that.

Yde and Olive cannot truly be considered a "lesbian story" in a  modern understanding of the term. This is true, even if we set aside the Foucaultian position on sexual identity. The "lesbian" reading exists for a few brief lines when both women know each other's truths and before their "outing" demands a different resolution. At the same time, Yde and Olive cannot truly be considered a "transgender story" in a modern understanding of the term. Yde never expresses a sense of male identity prior to the transformation, only an embracing of male performance. I haven't read the next episode regarding Croissant to know for certain, but if Yde's self-identity follows that of our other transgender French romance protagonist, Blanchandine, we can expect an unquestioned change to male self-identity. Function follows form. In one of the other variants of Yde's tale, the resolution of the conceptual conflict of same-sex marriage is to disrupt the marriage of Yde and Olive and marry both women off to each other's fathers. The change of physical sex is not, itself, embedded in the romance's essential structure. Rather it  is one of the possible outcomes to avoid an acceptance of "impossibilities," like the outcome of bringing two identical magnetic poles together.

But in the same way that I find identification and validation in the moments of the story that align with "lesbian," those who look for transgender identification and validation in the past will find similar moments in Yde and Olive, perhaps in "God in his benevolence has given him everything that makes a man." Yde can be both a wave and a particle, and perhaps that makes the story even more delightful in its ambiguity.

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Full citation: 

Abbouchi, Mounawar. 2018. “Yde and Olive” in Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality, vol 8.

Abbouchi tackled creating this edition and translation of the more complete of the two versions of the romance as a master’s thesis. [There are three related texts of the core story of Yde and Olive, two variants as part of the Huon of Bordeaux romance cycle, and one adapted (with different character names) as a miracle play. The second version of the romance is more abbreviated. The three vary in the details of how the relationship between the two women is presented, and in how the “problem” of a same-sex relationship is resolved.]

The story of Yde and Olive is a stand-alone episode consisting of  1062 lines of verse within the larger 13th century genealogical narrative of Huon of Bordeaux. In brief, Yde is the granddaughter of Huon and the daughter of Florent whose story is given in the preceding section of the overall romance. Yde’s mother dies at her birth and Florent refuses to re-marry out of grief, until Yde approaches marriageable age and he decides to marry his daughter. Horrified by this prospect, Yde flees in male disguise and engages in a number of military adventures as a man, finally coming to the attention of the emperor of Rome. Yde’s efforts on the emperor’s behalf inspire him to offer his daughter Olive’s hand in marriage and to make Yde his heir. Yde is conflicted about the marriage but agrees. After putting off consummating the marriage for two weeks, Yde reveals her secret to Olive, who agrees to be loyal to her and maintain the marriage. They are overheard by a servant who tells the emperor. The emperor prepares a test to force Yde to reveal her true sex, but she prays for salvation and an angel appears to the court and tells them that God has transformed Yde into a man. That very night, Yde and Olive’s son Croissant is conceived (who will be the hero of the next section of the romance).

The motif of the female knight or the cross-dressing woman is not uncommon in medieval French literature, but stories of sex change are rare. [Note: The motif was most likely adapted from Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe.] The ambiguity of Yde’s gender identity and gender presentation are handled in the text by alternating feminine and masculine forms of her name, and by using gendered pronouns that reflect the appearance or point of view being highlighted in the scene. This approach is not always consistent, however, and sometimes is overridden by poetic considerations. In addition, the author sometimes deliberately highlights Yde’s feminine identity in the midst of masculine-coded activities (like battle) for narrative effect. Yde’s ability to perform as a man is never questioned or dwelt on. Function follows form.

The translator specifically acknowledges the transgender themes in Yde’s story and supports the choice to refer to the pre-transformation Yde as female as this is how the character herself identifies in internal monologues and when telling her story to Olive. Yde never expresses a male identity or desire to become a man, only a fear of punishment for entering into a same-sex marriage. The sex change is not presented as a re-alignment of personal identity, but as a mechanism to escape execution. [In this version, the change is also presented as being necessary to produce the next generation of the heroic lineage. A different mechanism for this is used in other versions of the story.]

Abbouchi discusses other cross-gender figures in medieval and Renaissance literature and how they treat gender difference as performance. The abilities, habits, and appearance of a man all follow from the initial disguise, rather than being deliberately learned. Her prowess in battle is automatic. Despite being initially described as a beautiful girl (though one still young enough that her breasts haven’t developed), Yde is perceived by others (after her disguise) as being physically masculine. In particular, Olive perceives Yde as a handsome and desirable man and enthusiastically consents to the marriage.

Abbouchi contrasts the treatment in medieval literature of women disguised as men (who always pass successfully) with that of men disguised as women (who are presented as always failing in some essential way, with the disguised treated as comic).

Language is another key element of how Yde’s gender is perceived. Not only the way the narrator plays with pronouns and gendered descriptions, but in how the other characters accept Yde as male until it is contradicted verbally: by the servant overhearing Yde’s confession, and by the rest of the court hearing the servant’s accusation. Even the sex change in the resolution relies entirely on verbal assertion (by the angel) that Yde now has “everything that makes a man” with no bodily confirmation being required or received. A close reading raises the question of whether a bodily transformation has, in fact, occurred. (Apart from the conjectural evidence of Olive’s son Croissant.)

There is discussion of the three elements of transgression that are central to the narrative: incest, cross-dressing, and same-sex marriage. The proposed incest is not only forbidden in itself, but is not consented to by Yde. (Consent by both parties had only recently been recognized as essential to a valid marriage contract at the time of composition.) This contrasts with the proposed marriage between Yde and Olive, where Olive’s father explicitly seeks her consent and she enthusiastically gives it.

There is a discussion of philosophical/theological texts that make allowance for women cross-dressing “without sin on account of some necessity, either in order to hide oneself from enemies, or through lack of other clothes, or for some similar motive.” (Thomas Aquinas) This certainly fits Ydes original impulse to cross-dress, though not necessarily her continued practice of it.

The text frames Yde as a reluctant participant in the same-sex marriage, and excuses the emperor on the basis that he believed Yde to be a man. The narrative treats the (somewhat unintentional) same-sex marriage much more sympathetically than the attempted incestuous one, though there are references in the text to fatal consequences for discovery of the former (whereas King Florent appears to have been only imperiling his soul, not his life). This highlights that the potential for consequences derives more from the gender of the participants than the seriousness of the “sin”. As an apparently heterosexual married couple, Yde and Olive operate at the highest levels of social and political power; once Yde is known/believed to be female, both women lose their agency and sexual freedom and do not regain it until after the transformation.

The remainder of the introductory matter discusses the poetic structure, the relationship and history of the various manuscripts of the Huon of Bordeaux cycle, the physical nature and history of the key manuscripts, and the illustrated miniatures that accompany key scenes (including one relevant to the story of Yde and Olive).

The remainder of this entry will be detailed descriptions of passages specifically relevant to the motif of cross-dressing and to the romantic and sexual relationship between Yde and Olive.

* * *

When King Florent summons his daughter to inform her of his decision to marry her (which she is entirely ignorant of at that point), there is an extended description of her appearance and clothing. Details include “blond hair that fell in curls on her back” and that she “was a full fifteen years of age yet had no breasts that could be seen.” (This is the only concession to physical attributes that might support an inability to identify her sex visually.)

Once Yde knows what her father plans, she waits until he is distracted by the arrival of an important guest, at which “she quickly put on some men’s clothing, and so disguised she went to the stables and made for a destrier, mounting it without delaying one moment, nor was she seen or spotted by anyone. So she left Aragon.”

There are scattered references to her appearance during her initial adventures (though none to cutting her hair, which is often a trope in this sort of story). “Dressed in men’s clothing out of fear ... She was well disguised as a boy and had bought hose and hood and the finest linen breeches. She wore her sword at her side, and also carried a rod.” “She will suffer greatly if she is found out. ... She who was dressed after the fashion of men.”

Yde takes service with Oton, Emperor of Rome. “The king of Rome regarded Yde; he saw that he [sic] was big, brawny, and well built. For this reason he immediately grew to like him [sic]. At that moment, crowned King Oton’s daughter entered the hall. There was none so beautiful in all the kingdom. Her name was Olive, and she was full of kindness. ... She sat next to Oton affectionately and looked sweetly at the squire [i.e., Yde].”

After some conversation in which Oton discovers they are distantly related, he says, “Olive, daughter, did you hear? I will retain this praise-worthy squire for you. He will serve at your pleasure.” And she replies “Five hundred times thank you, I have never heard anything that pleased me so much.” Oton confides to Yde, “I have a daughter who is very beautiful and who will inherit my land and my kingdom. Be mindful of how you conduct yourself. If you serve her well, you will be well rewarded.”

There hasn’t been discussion of marriage yet, but we are shown Olive’s growing attachment and Yde’s growing discomfort.

“From that time, Yde remained in Oton’s house, and the good king of Rome rewarded her, for she was always mindful of serving well and worked so tirelessly day and night, that everyone was pleased with her service. Olive gladly watched her. Yde prayed to the Holy Virgin to protect her from being suspected, lest she be put to death.”

After winning a major battle on behalf of Oton, Yde returns from the battlefield: “Yde was much beheld and admired, for Olive watched her return from the battlements. Her whole body tingled with joy, and she waid softly to herself, ‘He will be my love. I will speak to him tomorrow. I have never been so taken with a man, so it is fitting that I should tell him so.’” There is, of course, a possible double-meaning here that Olive “had never been so taken with a man” but that may be only in the mind of the modern audience.

After more battles: “The king’s daughter was so enamored of him that she confessed it to him, for she could no longer hide it.” And then King Oton calls together his nobles and tells them, “I have a daughter who is most worthy of praise, I want to see her married before I die, so I will give her to my knight, Yde. And with her [i.e., Olive], Rome and my vast kingdom, for I know no other man like him.” Another double-meaning, perhaps intentional. He tells Yde, “I wish to reward you. I have a very beautiful daughter; you will have her as your wife and companion, as well as my kingdom, when I am gone.”

Yde protests, pleading her poverty, but King Oton insists and Yde says, “I will take her gladly and willingly, if that is her wish. Call the maiden here right now.” Perhaps Yde was hoping she’d say no? But Olive’s response is, “Now my wishes are fulfilled. Indeed my time on this earth will not have been wasted since I will be granted what I have so desired. ... Father, please consider making haste, for every day, it feels like he will leave.” Definitely no shrinking maiden here!

But when Yde hears the confirmation of the marriage offer “her blood ran cold, she did not know what to do, for she had no member with which to touch/live-with/have-sex-with her.” (The word has multiple possible meanings in French.) And she begs God, “Have pity on this wretch who is being forced to marry. ... Better to have had me burned!” (This may be a reference to burning as a punishment for heresy, under which same-sex relations were sometimes categorized.) “...the king’s daughter has fallen in love with me; I do not know how I can escape this. If I tell them that I am really a woman, they will tear me to pieces...for despite everything else, I have told lies.” But she resigns herself, “I will marry the crowned king’s daughter, and put myself in God’s hands.”

There was a month of feasting and then the wedding. Notice that in this passage, the text gives Yde male pronouns. “...they went to the church...Yde was in the front, sighing heavily; nevertheless, he proceeded until they reached the church, and that day they had him marry the maiden. He took Olive for his wife and companion. The king had given his daughter to a woman because he thought Yde was a man.” This passage is illustrated with a miniature with two scenes: a marriage ceremony and a couple in bed with a witness standing at the foot of the bed. There is a caption stating, “Thus Yde, daughter of Florent of Aragon, married Olive, daughter of Othon the emperor of Rome.”

After the marriage feast, the two are taken to the bedchamber. “And they led Olive to the paved chamber, laying her down and reclining her on the bed. Yde came into the chamber, in tears. Securing and locking the room, she came to the bed where her wife lay and spoke to her privately thus: ‘My sweet love and faithful bride, I must bid you good night, for mine will be difficult, I believe; I have an ailment that troubles me greatly.’” The implication here is that some illness has made her impotent. “With these words she embraced Olive, who, being very wise, answered, ‘Fair, sweet friend, we are here in private, and you are what I have desired most of all because of the goodness I have seen in you. Do not think that I have thought about wanting to take our pleasure. I have never had an interest in such things.’” The literal phrasing of what Olive rejects is “that I wish to play with raised feet” which is an amusing euphemism.

But Olive is also thinking of the expectation that the wedding guests will expect some evidence of consummation. She continues, “Rather I ask that you give me a reprieve of fifteen days until the guests have left, so that I won’t be teased and chided for it. By then we will have recovered our spirits.” There is an implication that Olive simply thinks Yde is shy and that she’s trying to protect her husband’s self-image by pretending that she’s the one who wants to put off sex. She offers, “If you please, I would be exempted from everything but kisses. I would like to be embraced, but as for that love they call intimate, I ask you to release me from it.”

Yde agrees, “And with that they kissed and embraced one another.” At breakfast the next morning, “Oton examined his daughter closely that morning to see if she was at all altered or changed. ‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘how do you find yourself married?’ ‘Sire,’ she said, ‘exactly to my liking.’ At that, there was a great burst of laughter in the palace and Olive was showered with gifts.” Olive has succeeded in acting like a newly sexually awakened bride to convince the wedding guests.

But after a fortnight, when Yde still maintains a non-sexual relationship, there is a suggestion that Olive takes the initiative, “she pressed and prodded her companion.” Yde sees that she can’t keep up the pretense any longer “so she turned toward her and no longer hid the truth from her. She told her the whole story from beginning to end: that she was woman--begging for mercy--that she had run away from her father...”

Olive is alarmed at this, but she comforts Yde, swearing, “I will not tell my father King Oton...take comfort, for you are safe in loyalty. I will face my destiny together with you.” That gives us a brief glimpse of an entirely different possible story, but at that very moment, a servant overhears their conversation and tells Oton. The emperor is outraged and decides to get proof by demanding that Yde undress to share a bath with him. When Yde demurs, he hints and what he’s been told and warns Yde, “If what I was told is true, I will have you both burned at the stake.” A second reference to burning as a potential punishment for same-sex marriage.

Just as the entire court is crying, “Burn them! Burn them!” an angel shows up and announces, “I am telling you the truth, that you have a good knight in your vassal, Yde. God in his benevolence has given him everything that makes a man. And let the boy go.” That is, the servant who carried tales. The angel continues, “He spoke truthfully to you, but all that is past. This morning she was a woman, but now he is a man incarnate. For God has power and might over everything.” Although, interestingly, the angel continues to refer to Yde with the feminine form of the name while finishing the prophecy of the birth of Croissant. And with that, the story is finished.

There is an interesting ambiguity in the gender resolution. One view might be that God has magically transformed Yde into a man physiologically. Another view might be that the angel is simply saying, “God considers Yde to be a man; get with the program.” To be sure, the conception of their son might argue for the magical transformation, but if God could change a person's biological sex God could also arrange for a magical pregnancy. (Hey, it's been known to happen.) The first interpretation is more of a transsexual resolution than a transgender one, but even the second sidesteps the matter that Yde has not expressed gender dysphoria, simply an aversion to being killed for being pressured into what turned out to be a same-sex marriage. Conversely, Olive--who at first is framed as a woman falling in what she believes to be heterosexual love--is the one who renews her pledge of love, devotion, and loyalty knowing Yde to be a woman (as Yde at that time considers herself). Those looking for resonances with modern understandings of gender and sexuality will find a complex picture, susceptible of a variety of readings.

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