I was inspired to begin this project while reading one of the poems, or lais, of Marie de France (111-1150) entitled “Lanval” (the notion of giving each of these lais a title was something that came around later than when Marie de France was putting them to paper, hence the quotation marks.) It features a character who embodies a mixture of masculine and feminine traits; she is identified as a female, yet she rides a horse, wears armor, and speaks in an authoritative tone (comprised of words and verb tense)–all attributes atypical of women in her time. Granted, this woman also hailed from the land of Avalon, the home of fairies and other magical figures of Arthurian legend. But her story made me wonder: was it her magic that allowed her to adopt and combine masculine and feminine traits, or was this combination part of what made her magical? Or was her gender expression entirely separate from her identity as a magical being? Were there other characters with stories like hers, and in what ways?
Once I had been introduced to this woman’s story, more and more examples of masculinity and femininity coexisting in single entities appeared during my studies. In another of Marie de France’s lais, there was a female deer with antlers who prophesied misfortune for the hero of the story. In prose works, there are several instances in which the bodies of characters identified as women are physically changed so that they present as men. And there are numerous moments within the sung poetry of the first women composers of France where they adopt the roles typically assigned to men composing during the time. Exciting stuff!
My mission now is to gather as many instances of this kind that I can find and hopefully draw conclusions not only on the conceptions of binary gender identities in France at the time, but the general opinion of gender identities that fell outside of the binary. Have you come across anything like this in work from the Middle Ages in France? Do you know of anyone who might have done so? Recommendations are more than welcome! Thanks!