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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #67d Amer 2008 Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures - Chapter 4

Full citation: 

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

Publication summary: 

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 4 - Crossing the Lines of Friendship: Jean Renart's Escoufle, Saracen Silk, and Intercultural Encounters

If Yde and Olive directly addresses the motif of same-sex marriage, while covertly undermining the possibility of female romantic relationships, L'Escoufle turns this somewhat on its head, never establishing formal marital bonds between any of the female characters while continuously portraying them in activities and relationships that are coded as romantic and sexual. I desperately want to study the original of this tale, even if it means hacking my way through medieval French (which I've never studied) to do it.

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Chapter 4

The interrelationships between French and Arabic texts are somewhat more diffuse in the romance L'Escoufle (the kite). The opening motif of a maiden embarking on adventures when abandoned by a male companion echoes the tale of Princess Boudour but, more pervasively, the focus on rich and luxurious fabrics and clothing evokes Eastern themes, both as a source of the textiles and as a reference to Arabic cultural traditions. The text also contains scattered allusions to motifs such as an "unfastened robe" that are traditional sexual motifs in Arabic literature. But primarily, L'Escoufle is the story of female economic, social, and affective bonds as an alternative parallel to the formal social hierarchy, one that allows the primary character to recover from her initial plight when she steps outside the traditional story-structure and enables her to make her way successfully in the world.

Aelis, daughter of the emperor of Rome, flees in company with Guillaume for his home at Normandy when her father forbids their marriage. When they stop to rest in Lorraine, a kite (the predatory bird, not the toy) flies off with a silk purse containing a ring that Aelis received from her mother. Guillaume takes off in pursuit of the kite, leaving Aelis alone, and disappears from the story until the very end.

Finding herself alone, Aelis meets a working class girl named Ysabel and her mother and persuades them to take her in. She establishes a close friendship with Ysabel, sharing her bed and giving her a gift of clothing. In bed they kiss, embrace, and hug, and Ysabel promises to do whatever Aelis wishes. Their friendship is described as giving Ysabel "so much solace, so much pleasure" such that Aelis "enjoys herself in so many ways." The search for Guillaume is still paid lip service at this point, but after some travels in search of him, Aelis gives up and settles down in Montpellier to make a new life for herself. Aelis is skilled at silk embroidery and uses that skill as a means to support herself. Together with Ysabel she establishes an embroidery workshop.

Aelis's embroidery flourishes but when she fails to gain the business of the lady of Montpellier, she resolves instead to establish a friendship, by means of the gift of a purse and belt, embroidered with the symbols of the lord of Montpellier her husband, thinking that would please the lady. This gift is reciprocated by the lady's grant of protection and friendship. She seats Aelis at her side at dinner "in place of her lord" and expresses a desire (perhaps only to herself) to have Aelis share her bed, and finds excuses to keep Aelis at her side when they are alone. She gives Aelis a gift of "a coat that has never had a fastener" (echoing an Arabic sexual metaphor of an open robe) suggesting that she can easily complete the garment. But the lady of Montpellier is not focused solely on Aelis. She has already, in her mind, decided to give the purse and belt that Aelis gave her to her lover the Count of Saint-Giles.

When the Countess of Saint-Giles sees her husband with these gifts, marked with the symbols of Montpellier, it confirms his adultery in her mind and she confronts him. There follows a series of suggestions from him, first that she "do likewise" (with an ambiguously dual implication that she get her own lover or her own purse), then that she obtain a çainturiere (female maker of belts), and finally when she accuses him of dishonoring her, he suggests that she invite the belt-maker (Aelis) to come live with her as her pucele (maiden, lady in waiting). The implied parallels, both within the text, and in the usual patterns of "ill-married" characters in romances, set Aelis in the position of potential lover. The countess greets Aelis as "friend" (amie), receives her with kisses, takes her to her bedchamber and bed to be comfortable, and soon "they are all one heart and soul, they no longer remember Guillaume."

Remember Guillaume? Heteronormativity is restored at the last minute when Guillaume reappears, with purse and ring, at which point he and Aelis are married and become rulers of both Rome and Normandy. In the overall structure of the story, this resolution seems almost an afterthought. The primary focus of the action is on Aelis's social and economic success by forming a series of egalitarian social bonds with women who can further her goals and who interact with her under the label of "friend" but with the actions and vocabulary of lovers.

(More details of the types of social relationships and activities that Aelis enters into, both at Montpelier and Saint-Giles, are discussed in the next and final entry.)

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