Banging Shield and Shield Together: Lesbians in Medieval French Literature

That got your attention, didn’t it?

Instead of writing up my Gawain paper, and instead of doing any real blogging; and in between learning how to be an efficient receptionist, and giving my patent Twitface Look to first the incoming Principal of Women’s College and then to our soon-to-be Head of State, The Governor-General Designate, I’ve been perusing one of the gems of Awesome’s bookshelf, the Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Bullough and Brundage. I particularly enjoyed Jaqueline Murray’s article ‘Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages’. I give her the highest praise I can give to a theory-dense article: she works through the historiography and the Theory background systematically, making it clear at every step just how the Theory relates to historical study, and she gives you big clear pointers for further reading. And, as if that wasn’t enough, as the article goes on, she demonstrates a good range of primary source work (although I guess I’d have to go and look at the primary sources in question and particular scholarship on them in order to evaluate her use of them properly).

I could give you a run-down of Murray’s theoretical approach, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to give you a titilating segment from Etienne de Fougères’ Livre des manières, translated by Robert L.A. Clark and appended to Murray’s article.

These ladies have made up a game:
“trutennes” they make an “eu”,
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker to stir up their fire.

They don’t play at jousting,
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They don’t need a pointer in their scales,
nor a handle in their mould.

Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum in their see-saw.

They do their jousting act in couples
and go at it full tilt;
at the game of thigh-fencing
they lewdly share their expenses.

They’re not all from the same mould:
one lies still and the other makes busy,
one plays the cock and the other the hen
and each one plays her role.

*p. 210 in Bullough & Brundage. Words in italics have not been successfully translated.

This passage follows a comparison of the ‘beautiful sin’ of heterosexual fornication with the ‘vile sin’ of homosexuality and instructions to kill homosexual men ‘like any cur’, so I doubt we’re meant to look favourably upon ‘these ladies’ either. However, some features Murray notes:

* de Fougères shares with canon and secular law a phallo-centric approach to sex: lesbian sex is defined by the absence of a penis.
* HOWEVER, unlike the canon and secular law, he doesn’t presume that lesbians must grow or manufacture penises as substitutes for manly apparatus. If you look at the stanzas above, he’s obviously pointing and laughing at the futility of ‘banging coffin upon coffin’, but he presents his Ladies as perfectly happy without a pestle in their mortar. He think’s they silly and unnatural for not desiring a penis in their sex act, but he does grasp the fact that they don’t want one.

and something I noticed myself, from the last stanza:

* de Fougères also shares with the legal examples Murray gives the assumption that sex involves an active and a passive partner. This meshes nicely with David L. Boyd’s side note, in ‘Sodomy, Misogyny and Displacement’, that medieval sexuality is defined by an active/passive binary, which, for men, meant that the recieving partner in homosexual penetrative sex was debased and shamed, for being made passive and therefore feminised. I wonder how this binary transfers over to lesbian sex? Murray may have addressed it, I’ll have to have a closer look at the article sometime…

In the meantime, happy innuendo, everyone!


8 Responses to “Banging Shield and Shield Together: Lesbians in Medieval French Literature”

  1. JLJ Says:

    That poem is amazing. I definitely need to check out that book!

  2. goblinpaladin Says:

    Me too! I intend to read it during these holidays- I’m going to get it from Fisher tomorrow.

  3. steve muhlberger Says:

    Well, that should be good for your visitor count!

    Genuinely interesting.

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    Steve- you’ve uncovered my devious design! Visitor counts *had* dropped off lately (probably due to my lack of interesting posts), radical measures were necessary in order to salve my ego!

    I’m glad it’s genuinely interesting as well 🙂

  5. april Says:

    the active/passive thing is interesting. In Renaissance Italy, the active was always the “doer” – in male/male sex, this meant that the one giving fellatio was the “man”, the one receiving was the “woman”. Interesting how that has turned completely around these days.

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    Now, THAT I hadn’t thought of… COOL. Very cool. 🙂

  7. goblinpaladin Says:

    Odd. In Rome, the ‘inserter’ was always regarded as the dominant partner. So in fellatio, the chap who can’t whistle is the ‘woman,’ the one who can is the ‘man.’ [My Latin professor’s phrase.] There are several interesting invectives and insulting phrases for this, which are worth studying in their own right.

    I have a slightly more detailed post on this coming up, but I’m curious how it reversed for renaissance Italy…

  8. magistra Says:

    The active/passive issue is basic to classical Roman thought. Amy Richlin, ‘Not before Homosexuality: The Materiality of the Cinaedus and the Roman Law against Love between Men’ Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1993) p 538 has a classic quote from Tacitus Annals 11.2.2 where someone called Valerius Asiaticus is accused of being soft and replies ‘Ask your sons, they’ll testify that I’m a man’.

    That that response seems so alien to us shows how much Christianity condemned both active and passive roles. As far as I know, the penitentials, for example, don’t distinguish between the two, even though they have lots of details on different offences. But I wonder whether there is a more informal medieval tradition that does still think the distinction is important and that’s what we see occasionally in such texts. I’d be interested by other evidence for the medieval use of the distinction.

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