Crossing Borders

Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures

Sahar Amer
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Crossing Borders
    Book Description:

    Given Christianity's valuation of celibacy and its persistent association of sexuality with the Fall and of women with sin, Western medieval attitudes toward the erotic could not help but be vexed. In contrast, eroticism is explicitly celebrated in a large number of theological, scientific, and literary texts of the medieval Arab Islamicate tradition, where sexuality was positioned at the very heart of religious piety. In Crossing Borders, Sahar Amer turns to the rich body of Arabic sexological writings to focus, in particular, on their open attitude toward erotic love between women. By juxtaposing these Arabic texts with French works, she reveals a medieval French literary discourse on same-sex desire and sexual practices that has gone all but unnoticed. The Arabic tradition on eroticism breaks through into French literary writings on gender and sexuality in often surprising ways, she argues, and she demonstrates how strategies of gender representation deployed in Arabic texts came to be models to imitate, contest, subvert, and at times censor in the West. Amer's analysis reveals Western literary representations of gender in the Middle Ages as cross-cultural, hybrid discourses as she reexamines borders-cultural, linguistic, historical, geographic-not as elements of separation and division but as fluid spaces of cultural exchange, adaptation, and collaboration. Crossing these borders, she salvages key Arabic and French writings on alternative sexual practices from oblivion to give voice to a group that has long been silenced.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0108-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: A Cross-Cultural Approach to Same-Sex Love Between Women
    (pp. 1-28)

    Same-sex sexual practices between women in the medieval West were perceived to be a sin “against nature, that is, against the order of nature, which created women’s genitals for the use of men, and conversely, and not so women could cohabit with women.”¹ If this is how Peter Abelard (d. 1142) glossed Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans (Rom. 1:26), he was only reiterating what church fathers had been claiming and echoing the difficulties they had in imagining the very possibility of lesbian sexuality. In fact, Anastasius (d. 518), bishop of Antioch, is said to have asserted: “Clearly [the women]...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Crossing Linguistic Borders: Etienne de Fougères’s Livre des Maniéres and Arabic Erotic Treatises
    (pp. 29-49)

    Ironically, it is to a twelfth-century Anglo-Norman bishop and chaplain that we owe the earliest extant and most explicit depiction of lesbian sexual practices in French literature. Etienne de Fougères is indeed credited with writing the least ambiguous portrait of same-sex sexual practices between women in the entire French literary Middle Ages. The most striking elements in Etienne’s account of lesbianism are undoubtedly the erotic military metaphors and unfamiliar linguistic terms that permeate seven stanzas of his Livre des manières (ca. 1174). As I decipher the eroto-military tropes and linguistic innovations of Etienne de Fougères’s depiction of lesbian sexuality, I...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Crossing Sartorial Lines: Female Same-Sex Marriage in Yde et Olive and The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Boudour from the One Thousand and One Nights
    (pp. 50-87)

    In comparison to the explicitness that characterizes accounts of lesbian sexual practices in the Arabic tradition, very few French medieval literary texts explicitly treat lesbianism or lesbian sexuality.¹ Much more frequently, the medieval French literary tradition addresses the question of homosexuality and lesbianism via cross-dressing, a phenomenon that Michèle Perret has dubbed second-degree homosexuality.² My goal in this chapter will be to investigate these indirect manifestations of same-sex desire between women in medieval writings. By focusing on instances of cross-dressing in a selection of Old French texts, we will see that female transvestism functioned as a textual/sexual strategy that permitted...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Crossing the Lines of Friendship: Jean Renart’s Escoufle, Saracen Silk, and Intercultural Encounters
    (pp. 88-120)

    If lesbianism was staged via cross-dressing and same-sex marriage in the Yde and Olive narratives, it is ushered in by a predatory bird (a kite) and its theft of a silk purse in Jean Renart’s thirteenth-century romance Escoufle (The Kite; ca. 1200–1202). The scene of the kite’s robbery is so crucial to the entire romance, and to the lesbian episodes that soon follow it, that the narrator calls attention to it specifically, as he defends in the epilogue his choice of the romance title (Escoufle) and justifies it against those detractors who consider it inappropriate (“c’on en tient a...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Crossing Social and Cultural Borders: Jean Renart’s Escoufle and the Traditions of Zarf, Jawaris, and Qaynas in the Islamicate World
    (pp. 121-160)

    Because representations of same-sex love and desire are intrinsically linked to constructions of social identity, my cross-cultural reading of medieval lesbianism cannot conclude without an investigation of the medieval lesbian’s social identity, as it is depicted in literary texts. This topic remains hardly broached in either literary or historical scholarship, even in studies devoted to marginal groups (including women). And yet, as we will see, just as they determine the social identity of marginal groups, Western clerical presuppositions about women and single women especially play an important role in the production of the social identity of the medieval French literary...

  10. CONCLUSION: Beyond Orientalist Presuppositions
    (pp. 161-166)

    If Crossing Borders has demonstrated that love between women is more prevalent in medieval French writings than hitherto believed, it is because we have situated Old French literature in the multicultural context of medieval Europe and read it through the lens of the cross-cultural contacts between France and Islamicate civilizations and cultures in the Middle Ages. Old French literary discourses on lesbianism have emerged as prime examples of East-West hybridity, cross-fertilization, as well as cultural and literary exchanges. As polyphonic, dynamic constructions, and despite a heterosexual veneer, they do not privilege one form of sexuality at the expense of another...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 167-216)
    (pp. 217-238)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 239-250)
    (pp. 251-253)