When a Rose is Not a Rose: Homoerotic Emblems in the Roman de la Rose

This is the first of the essays I’ve read in Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature–and I love it. Unfortunately, what makes the article so great is what makes it irrelevant to my thesis project: it is an alternate reading of the canonic text the Roman de la Rosepositing that the central romance of the work occurs between two male figures rather than between a male and female figure. The argument is made chiefly by decoding the undoubtedly coded language used in the work, chiefly words like rose (literally “rose” but possible code for “penis”) and baiser (literally “kiss” but possible code for “sex” or “fuck”) and citing instances that attest to a deep love between the two allegorical male characters. The argument is presented very well, but the fact remains that sexuality and gender are two distinct concepts that I will need to keep separate in my mind. There was a clear benefit to the article, though, in that it challenged the automatic gendered assumptions people make that affect their conception of how a story is supposed to grow. This was more in reference to heteronormativity and European conceptions of gender roles in romance, but it was helpful nonetheless.

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New Friends!

Five new books have come into my possession, thanks to my college’s library. They are:

  • Medieval French Literature: An Introduction by Michel Zink, trans. Jeff Rider
    • Seems like a useful primer for all of the genres and sub-genres of literary and musical composition during le Moyen Âge. Only slightly upset that my library doesn’t carry the original French edition.
  • Women readers and the ideology of gender in Old French verse romance by Roberta L. Krueger
    • Will likely deal with the “female gaze” (is that a thing?) vis-à-vis literary works from this time; I flagged several chapters having to do with gender politics, sexual identity (which I understand is distinct from gender identity but bear with me here) and how issues of gender are raised in the work of the first professional writer of le Moyen Âge in France who just happened to be a woman (her name is Christine de Pisan and she has a cult following to this day.)
  • Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature, ed. Karen J. Taylor
    • The title says it all–supremely excited about this one.
  • Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures by Sahar Amer
    • This was recommended to me by my thesis advisor–it was the search for this book that brought three of the other four books into my life. Again, while I realize that sexual and/or romantic identity are not indicative of gender identity, I can’t help but wonder what I may find that will have bearing on my thesis. The author may also prove an invaluable contact.
  • Before and After Gender: Sexual Mythologies of Everyday Life by Marilyn Strathern
    • This “lost novel” was written by a prolific scholar on gender studies, and there’s an afterword by the one and only Judith Butler. Can’t wait to give this a try.

 

 

Inspiration

I was inspired to begin this project while reading one of the poems, or laisof 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!

So what is this project?

It’s an attempt at bridging the arbitrary gaps between my fields of academic interest and creating something of importance to me personally, to my college, and to interdisciplinary scholarship in general. I believe that this project has the potential to be relevant to today’s world, but I flatter myself to think it will ever reach that level.

For now, it’s an enquiry into the body of work composed in France during the period known as the Middle Ages, or le Moyen Âge. This includes prose, poetry, and poetry set to music–where I will focus within this body of work remains to be seen. I will be combing the work of this place and time in search of instances of gender role reversal, androgyny, and other cross-gender behavior. I use the term “cross-gender” rather than “transgender” because the latter has come to refer to an identity which I doubt will be reflected in all of the material I include in my thesis. I welcome your feedback on the term and suggestions for improving it, as well as any other questions you may have!