One of the many harmful legacies of the male domination over medieval studies has been the way that the achievements of female writers have been downplayed and erased. Contrary to popular belief, women in the middle ages were not universally illiterate, and many extremely valuable texts were authored by women. Julian of Norwich, for example, was not only a brilliant writer but also a proficient theologian.
The idea that people who worked didn't know how to read or write is another harmful misconception. The plays written in England in the 14th and 15th centuries, for example, constitute an incredible literary achievement, and were written exclusively by workers. William Langland, who wrote one of the greatest poems in Middle English, was somewhere between a peasant and extremely poor cleric.
In this thread, I'd like to talk about a poem by the earliest known female writer in vernacular, Marie de France. Marie was most probably a member of the French nobility who travelled between France and England in the second half of the 12th century. Her poems, which she sang, were called "lays" and proved extremely popular in England.
Marie's poems are written from an unmistakably female perspective: her stories are almost exclusively controlled by the actions of women. Themes such as childcare and, most prominently, the sexual frustration of young women forcibly married to older men are a central concern of her lays.
I'd like to focus on one particular lay, called Lanval, not only because it's a great poem, but also for the fascinating role that homosexuality plays in its story.
"Lanval" tells the story of a knight called Lanval, one of the best members of Arthur's court. One day, when Arthur distributes a bunch of lands around the members of his court, he forgets Lanval because Arthur's a complete fucking tool (this is a recurrent theme in Arthurian romance).
So Lanval, depressed, travels into the woods and lies down for a nap. But as he is about to fall asleep, he is approached by a lady, the most beautiful he's ever seen.
The lady tells Lanval that she's in love with him, Lanval tells her that he loves her back, they have sex pretty much on the spot. Lanval's mistress tells him that she will grant him infinite wealth, and that whenever he finds himself in a hidden place, all he has to do is say her name and she will come to him. However, he must swear never to speak of her to anyone, or she will vanish from his life. Lanval swears, and goes back to Arthur's court.
On his way back to the castle, Lanval is noticed by Guinevere, Arthur's wife. She approaches him and comes on to him pretty much instantly. Lanval politely declines, saying that he cannot betray his faith. Guinevere flips her shit, and tells him "I have been told enough that you have no desire for women. You have well-trained young men and enjoy yourself with them."
This causes Lanval to flip his shit in return, and say that he does have a lover, and that she is ten bazillion times more beautiful than Guinevere could ever dream of being. As you might imagine, this does not go down well. Guinevere goes off to tell Arthur that Lanval came on to her and that when she rejected his advances he told her that his lover was ten bazillion times more beautiful than her. Arthur begins the trial of Lanval.
Quickly, the court decides that Lanval will be found innocent if he is able to produce his lover and she is as beautiful as he claims. Unfortunately, because he broke his promise to this lover, she does not arrive when he calls for her. After some time spent building the tension, Lanval's lover does show up, and she does prove to be more beautiful than Guinevere, so Arthur is like "that's alright then" and Lanval and his (still unnamed) lover go on to live happily ever after.
The first fascinating thing to notice about this poem is that even though it's Lanval's story in theory, the only thing Lanval does is break his promise. Every other action in the story is carried out by a woman. It is his lover and Guinevere who ask him out, Guinevere who accuses him and effectively triggers his trial, and his lover who eventually saves the day. The men in this poem are pretty much entirely passive.
The second interesting element is Guinevere's accusation of homosexuality against Lanval. It seemingly comes out of nowhere, and while it is what triggers the story's central event (Lanval breaking his promise), it is never mentioned again. Why does Guinevere choose to accuse Lanval of insulting her instead of accusing him of sodomy? Lanval's trial would have been almost exactly the same had this been the charge, it would also have been disproven by the appearance of his lover.
There is one difference, however, between the sodomy trial that doesn't take place and the lese-majeste trial that does. By accusing Lanval of falsely boasting about his lover, it becomes necessary for him to prove not only that he has a lover, but that she is the most beautiful woman in all the land.
Indeed, the lover's arrival in Arthur's court is the poetic climax of the lay: it is the poem's only truly lavish description.
"The lady was dressed in a white tunic and shift, laced left and right so as to reveal her sides. Her body was comely, her hips low, her neck whiter than snow on a branch; her eyes were bright and her face white, her mouth fair and her nose well-placed; her eyebrows were brown and her brow fair, and her hair curly and rather blond."
You read this and tell me this was written by a straight girl.
Granted, this kind of description is expected in Arthurian romance, but no such description is afforded to the men in the story. In fact, the men are not described at all. Compare this, for example, to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the poet spends a ridiculous amount of lines gushing about Gawain's muscly hips and shiny armour. It's very clear that the appearance of Lanval's lady is of great importance to the poet, and so we might ask, when she enters the palace, who is watching her?
Everyone. Everyone is watching her.
"There was no one in the town, humble or powerful, old or young, who did not watch her arrival [...] No one who had looked at her could have failed to be inspired with real joy."
This lady, Marie wants us to know, is really, really something. Her long description (33 lines!) is the climax of the poem. This woman's beauty is both what brings us the poem's happy ending, and the final, explosive display of the poet's skill.
But the one reason *why* the lady's beauty is so important, why she rides into the town to bring everyone joy through the sheer power of her hotness, is not what we assume it is. We've been tricked into thinking that because she's showing up to save Lanval, her description is through his eyes, that the lady's beauty exists for the man's sole pleasure.
The very opposite is true. Even though everyone watches her ride into town, she's only there for one pair of eyes: Guinevere's.
Guinevere had a perfectly good case against Lanval when she accused him of homosexuality. It was not uncommon for single men to be the targets of such accusations in the 12th century. What's more, by claiming that Lanval lied about her looks, Guinevere is setting herself up for embarrassment by asking to be presented with a better-looking woman than herself.
And why would she ever want to see a woman even hotter than she is? What possible reason would she hav-
Here's how good a storyteller Marie de France was: When Guinevere accused Lanval of being gay, that was both a red herring *and* foreshadowing. It was a red herring because it led us to expect that the story would be about Lanval proving his straightness, and it was foreshadowing because it can retrospectively be read as Guinevere projecting her own homosexual feelings onto Lanval in a moment of heightened emotion.
The accusation is, in theory, a complete waste of time. It is dropped as soon as it is introduced, and contributes nothing to the actual plot of Lanval. But, thematically, it is the key to find out what is really going on in this poem.
This is a poem written by a woman who always wrote about women, and which is structured entirely by female desire. It is about female desire.
@garfiald theyre only active enough to fuck up 😂 both him and arthur
@garfiald some great replies to this thread, folks
@garfiald hell yea gay
@garfiald did you know there was some dude that trained fruit flies to cum whenever they saw red light
@garfiald everyone is making jokes but this analysis honestly rules
@garfiald did you know? when vultures are too hot for comfort, they excrete on their own legs to cool off!
@garfiald pretty sneakily gay, it seems
@garfiald actually, do you have a link to read the whole piece, for the folks in the back?
@garfiald I will repeat my statement from the 17th of December 2018:
hell yea gay
@garfiald but seriously thank you for writing these threads I love them an unspeakable amount
@garfiald horny on main gauche
@garfiald poo pee pee poo
@garfiald when you see Garf dropping a thread on the TL
@garfiald god i ride or die for the anchoresses
@garfiald real talk tho the only reason the pope didn't declare a lot of their writing heretic is only because he never heard about it
@garfiald semi serious question - how much does the Renaissance project of masculinizing Europe tie into this? I'm much more familiar with Asia and only really know European history via colonialism, but this was something more Europe oriented historians talked to me about in brief.
@_ampersand Hmm well it depends on what precisely you're talking about, every era of European history has had its own construction of the "middle ages". So that the idea of the Middle Ages as this dark, regressive era which was reversed by the renaissance didn't really appear until the late 17th century. But if I had to assign blame to a single group for the erasure of female authors in particular, it would have to be the Romantics.
@garfiald Interesting! So even in the 16th century, there wasn't a self-consciousness about the Renaissance as a "break" with the middle ages?
That's a little more consistent with my understanding of historical subjectivity than the narrative I'd heard growing up.
@_ampersand Oh absolutely 100%. Every single piece of the narrative I was personally taught at school about the Renaissance being a sudden upheaval of previous ways of living and thinking was at best exaggerated, at worst completely made up. The people of the Renaissance were not interested in erasing the Middle Ages, rather, they engaged with medieval ideas a writers very directly
@garfiald Ok cool, good that I'm following.
So the narrative I grew up on, "cyclical time vs linear time," was it just never really "cyclical" in the middle ages or is it more like the divide just starts centuries later than pop historians claim?
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