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Yde and Olive

Medieval French romance (several variants fom the 13-14th centuries) involving a gender-disguised woman who wins the love and hand of a king’s daughter. Depending on the variant, the story either resolves with a divinely-mediated sex change or by marrying both women off to each other’s fathers.

LHMP entry

The article begins by defending the use of the term "lesbian" by citing Brooten's evidence for a medieval sense of a woman who "behaves like a man" and "is oriented toward female companionship for sex" while raising several issues with that usage. But the author is examining a similar apparent contradiction in medieval texts to the one found by Brooten in early Christian texts: an acceptance (to some degree) of female same-sex unions combined with hostility toward female appropriation of male roles.

Images of women-loving-women were established enough in 16th century England to appear as a character type that was not so much defined as simply assumed, and therefore was available for reference both explicitly and obliquely. Within this general type, there were clear distinctions made between the motifs of desire between women and sexual acts between women. This chapter explores evidence for this character type in non-dramatic sources that were available to early modern English playwrights and their audiences.

In the chansons de geste, women might don male garb for a variety of reasons, especially for safety, but also to be able to participate in masculine activities or join male groups. There is a repeating motif of the woman who disguises herself as a knight and succeeds in winning great renown in that guise. A common twist then has her dealing with the amorous or matrimonial desires of another woman, as in the story of Yde and Olive.

This review will necessarily be somewhat cursory, as the entire book is relevant to the LHMP project. In general, I will summarize data not covered in detail elsewhere, and include references to the rest.

“Travesty” comes literally from “cross-dress” with the theatrical term later picking up its sense of general transgression. Anyone familiar with theater and opera from Shakespeare onward is aware how popular it was to include gender disguise in its many forms and consequences. The two most common expressions both revolve around anxiety about female-female desire: a woman disguised as a man who attracts female romantic attention, or a man disguised as a woman to gain intimate access to a woman who then worries about the ensuing “wrong” erotic attraction.

In the context of an increased interest in the cultural role of theatrical cross-dressing in the Renaissance through modern times, these authors extend the analysis backward to look at similar themes in medieval theater.

Chapter 3

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.

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