How to insult a man who turns you down (in the late 12th century)*

* Insult only applicable if you are not yourself a man.

A medieval painting - woman throwing snowballsThis morning I had the great delight of translating a chunk of Marie de France’s Lanval. I present, for your edification, the insulting of Sir Lanval, by Guinevere, whose advances he has rejected:

Lanval, fet elle, bien le quit,
Vus n’ames gueres cel deduit.
Asez le m’ad hum dit sovent
Que des femmes n’aves talent!
Vallez avez bient afeitiez,
Ensemble od eus vus deduiez.
(ll. 277-82 – Lanval, she said, well do I believe it: you do not love this pleasure much. Very often men [lit. a man; generic] have said it to me, that you do not have a desire for women! You have much preferred young men, with whom you take your pleasure.)

Apparently I have picked a side in the Great Gay Debate of pre-modern history, vis, it does not seem sensible to argue that there can be no concept of same-sex-preference as an identity prior to the invention of the handy terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’. We see enough of this trope, women accusing men of preferring young men to women, in vernacular literature that evidently it made sense to authors an audiences: one reason a man might not be into you is that he’s into young men. Which means we have a mental category for ‘men-who-prefer-young-men’. And, for added bonus points, we can go around shaming men by implying that they’re in that category of men-who-prefer-young-men.

There’s two such fabulous passages in the Roman d’Eneas, in which first Lavinia’s mum warns her that, if she shacks up with Eneas, he will bring hot young men into their marital bed (this is not supposed to be an incentive; perhaps Lavinia takes it as one? She marries him, anyway); and then, after Eneas buggers off on her, Lavinia soundly denounces him for being insufficiently heterosexual.

I’m sure someone’s written on this trope in particular, but I’m having a mental blank and can’t remember who (Simon Gaunt touches on it, but he doesn’t deal with Lanval, so far as I can recall). At any rate, it seems to be a conceivable response, in 12th century French lit, for a woman to accuse a man who’s rejected or abandoned her of preferring to seek his pleasure with young men.

Accordingly, it’s really intriguing to me that Lunette does not launch this accusation against Yvain, despite the fact that Gauvain has basically single-handedly coaxed Yvain away from his wife and ‘distracted’ him so much that he forgets to return home. I really don’t think it’s because the concept didn’t exist: manifestly, it did.

Sir Gawain: as gay as christmas. ESPECIALLY at Christmas.Also, for bonus points, guess who Lanval had been hanging out with immediately prior to being propositioned by Guinevere?

YOU GUESSED IT. GAUVAIN AND YVAIN. This is pleasing to the part of me that likes to pretend all Arthuriana is contiguous, even when it clearly isn’t.

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5 Responses to “How to insult a man who turns you down (in the late 12th century)*”

  1. Annelise Says:

    M’m, from the little I’ve read and heard it would be hard to argue that there was no aspect of identity attached to same-sex preference in at least some medieval European communities (and some others, both ancient and closer to the present).

    Maybe the really interesting question is what comprised that identity in each case? And how did that affect a person’s identity all up? Whether there a higher sense of reproof or pride (or both, depending on the viewer), and how conventions of gender played in with that. How often we find evidence of sexual ‘inclination-as-identity’ in insults, as opposed to neutral or positive portrayals; whether one sex or the other is more likely to be seen in this way, and what that says about the social context; how it affected an individual’s status and relationships with same-sex peers…. Things like that. Even the extent to which this could be considered a social identity ‘group’, rather than descriptive of an individual. The debate is probably just the first part of this conversation and the way it applies to all the conversations of sexuality (many which have been reactive to the past or imagined past) that have come after.

  2. Andrea L Says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen it, but just in case you haven’t, there’s an article on Lavinia and her mother (I think) accusing Eneas of queerness in Tomasch and Gilles, Text and Territory.

  3. T Says:

    Ha! The last couple of lines of your post made me laugh. Oh, those boys.
    I’m actually writing on the Lais/Lanval for my coursework…if only I’d thought of this for my essay topic. I have to say, after spending all my time with Chretien, Marie is a breath of fresh air.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      My boys. I luff them. *pats them on the head*

      Marie is pretty awesome. And so much less rape! It’s like a whole new world.


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