Clark, Robert L.A. “Jousting without a Lance: The Condemnation of Female Homoeroticism in the Livre des Manieres” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York, 2001.
Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.
Clark, Robert L.A. “Jousting without a Lance: The Condemnation of Female Homoeroticism in the Livre des Manieres”
This and the article to be posted tomorrow both consider the same text: a moralizing poem of 12th century France that lectures various classes of society on their characteristic vices, including an intriguing section on lesbians. Clark looks at it as expressing the author's attitudes towards women, sex, and gender roles, while Amer (tomorrow's article) considers it as a possible borrowing from medieval Arabic erotic imagery, filtered through a disapproving European lens.
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This article looks at an unusual 12th century text: Etienne de Fougères’ Livre des Manières, a catalog-in-verse of different classes of people. The inclusion of women who have sexual relations with other women is unusual for touching on the subject at all and valuable for the reflection of the author's attitude. The concept of classifying and ordering the parts of society has a long tradition, whether the older Dumézilian division into priests, warriors, and farmers, or the medieval division into various "estates". The Livre uses various divisions and contrasts to address distinct groups. Each is lectured on their proper characteristics and duties and the relationships that should hold between them, first cataloging their virtues and then noting the sins that each group is prey to.
Women are excluded from the traditional social classifications except as connected to men in the categories. And when women are critiqued, their sexuality in general comes in for scrutiny. De Fougères’ work is systematically misogynistic, and only when discussing women does his poem treat first of vice and secondly of virtue. It is in this context--condemning both women and sex--that the verses on lesbians must be understood. But the tone of the condemnation is more mocking than virulent. Depictions of lesbian sex in medieval texts in general divide between those where an artificial penis is used (which are condemned as trespassing on masculine prerogatives) and those where the absence of a penis is emphasized (which are framed as ludicrous and pointless). De Fougères employs a number of visual metaphors for female-female sex that not only imply the absence of a penis but define the activity by that absence: two coffins (boxes) banging together, stirring up a fire without a poker, joining two shields without a lance, a mortar without a pestle, thigh-fencing.
This imagery of activity defined by the absent penis is consistent with the tone at the text but is unusual in the larger context of sexual commentary of the time.