Lynn T. Ramey

title.none: de Weever, Sheba's Daughters (Ramey)

identifier.other: baj9928.9901.002 99.01.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lynn T. Ramey, Vanderbilt University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: de Weever, Jacqueline. Sheba's Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Epic. New York: Garland, 1998. Pp. xxxvii, 253. $55.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-33018-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.01.02

de Weever, Jacqueline. Sheba's Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Epic. New York: Garland, 1998. Pp. xxxvii, 253. $55.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-815-33018-9.

Reviewed by:

Lynn T. Ramey
Vanderbilt University

Ja cqueline de Weever's book, Sheba's Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Literature, enters the academic market at an opportune moment. The Saracen woman, representing the intersection of race and gender in medieval French studies, has been receiving constant attention since the early part of this century. Recent studies have brought her further into focus, as medievalists seek to understand why one French epic in three included a Saracen princess among its cast of characters. Since the French were battling Muslims both in Spain and the Holy Land, the mere presence of these women might not be so intriguing. However, the Saracen woman could embody many fascinating and unanticipated attributes. She is white when we expect her to be dark. She is sexually forward rather than reticent. She instigates and facilitates the narrative impetus of the epic. She is not at all what modern readers would expect of medieval Muslim women, and therein lies our obsession with her, an obsession that comes to rival that of the medieval poet. The subject of many an article, the Saracen woman has finally merited a book-length study, one that was arguably overdue.

De Weever focuses on the most perplexing question surrounding the Saracen princess. Why is she so often described in terms of the Western aesthetic for beauty? How could the author have pictured her as white? The introduction of her book explores the roots of the meaning of 'black' in medieval western thought. The Song of Songs, where the Black Bride or Queen of Sheba is said to be "black and beautiful," caused problems for medieval interpreters. According to medieval Western aesthetic, black and beautiful would be contradictory. Thus the framework of de Weever's book: what was the basis of medieval views of beauty, and how did the popular literary figure of the Saracen princess play into this perception?

Chapter 1 shows that the white Saracen princess followed closely the rhetorical models of Western beauty. She is light-skinned, blond and has lively features. She is inevitably described as the most beautiful of all women. Geoffrey of Vinsauf and Matthew of Vendome both give idealized portraits of women that reinforce this ideal. More importantly, they and other medieval writers agree that beauty is a sign of internal goodness, whereas bad characters should be described as ugly. The Saracen princess poses a particular problem, according to de Weever, for she embodies a trait especially despised in the medieval period -- treachery. White Saracen women (and 17 of the 21 Saracen women fall into this category), almost universally betray their kinsmen in order to help the French army. Orable, eventual wife of Guillaume d'Orange, typifies their treachery as she tricks her Saracen husband over and over until his death, at which point she marries Guillaume, delivering her familial lands to her father's archenemies, the French.

The black Saracen woman earns center stage in Chapter 2. Usually a formidable warrior, the black Saracen woman actually embodies traits that medieval society prized, like fierce loyalty to her family and military prowess. Nonetheless, the black Saracen woman is hideous to behold. Amiete, the giantess in Fierabras, proves to be the mirror opposite of Floripas, a white Saracen princess. As Floripas was white as a flower, Amiete is blacker than pepper. Like Floripas, Amiete's portrait follows the rhetorical prescription of medieval literary theorists; her ugliness, and indeed blackness, reach hyperbolic proportions. Part of a monstrous race, the black Saracen woman, unlike her white sister, is demonized. Her image is more satisfying for we expect a writer from a culture at war with another to distort and render grotesque the enemy. In his allegorical war Psychomachia, Prudentius describes Discordia in terms similar to those used to portray the black Saracen woman, de Weever notes.

De Weever's third chapter delves into the question she raises by comparing the white and black portraits of the Saracen princess. The grotesque black warrior woman serves to underscore the treachery of the white princess. For though she is ugly, the warrior woman remains an admirable foe, true to her cause. The white woman betrays her family and friends for an unknown cause. De Weever finds a parallel in Western history; Alice, heir to the kingdom of Jerusalem, reportedly tried to make a pact with the Muslims, helping to overthrow her own father in return for rule of Antioch. According to de Weever, the French found her action so reprehensible that they needed to "replay the traumatic situation," making it acceptable by turning Alice into a Saracen.

In the fourth chapter, de Weever brings up the curious existence of the protester. This is the man, usually a relative of the treacherous Saracen woman, who denounces the princess as untrustworthy even before she betrays her people. The protester decries the princess as a loose woman who will shame her parents. Inevitably, the protests fall on deaf ears. Guillaume laughs when Orable's stepson says he does not trust her, and marries her anyway. Most protesters are silenced by death before the resolution of the epic. For de Weever, the protester embodies the doubts of the French audience. Because breaking family ties and treason were intolerable to the French, the protester releases the tension caused by welcoming the white Saracen women into the French fold. The conquest of Saracen lands and women satisfied the political agenda of the epic, but the jettisoning of basic morals and values had to be addressed within the text itself. The protester cries out against the women in place of the audience, so that the French knight is free to marry the woman that will grant him land and fortune. This study, the only of its kind, is clearly of great importance to studies of Muslim representations in medieval French literature. It is especially strong in its analysis of Western aesthetics and the history of blackness in Western culture. However, de Weever's book suffers from incomplete bibliographic materials. Work by scholars, including feminist approaches to the Saracen woman, are missing from her study. Articles by Sarah Kay, Kimberlee Anne Campbell, Sharon Kinoshita, Micheline Combarieu, and Caroline Casanave provide important readings of the Saracen woman in medieval literature, and, even if they do not accord with de Weever's reading, they need to be included in any comprehensive scholarly study.

De Weever's view of the medieval world as black and white tends to obscure the interesting subtleties in Muslim-Christian relations of the period. She refuses to read the treachery of the white Saracen as positive, whereas it is conceivable that the French could make a distinction, saying that treason of a wrong cause is not treason at all. Likewise, by making all Saracens appear to be either overtly or subversively despised by the French, she washes over cases not so simple to categorize. Rainouart, Orable's brother, is black, but he still manages to be hugely popular. One of the white Saracen princesses remains faithful to her family, betraying the French. Some patterns do emerge, as de Weever's study points out, but deviant models need to be examined as well. While de Weever's book is essential reading for those interested in Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages, she leaves room for much work to be done.