09.11.10, Amer, Crossing Borders

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Zrinka Stahuljak

The Medieval Review 09.11.10

Amer, Sahar. Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 264.
Reviewed by:
Zrinka Stahuljak
University of California-Los Angeles

Just by virtue of being the first and only book-length study of lesbianism in Old French literature, Sahar Amer's book should grab a scholar's attention and prompt the interrogation of why and how medieval lesbianism could have been neglected in literary history for this long. [1] Amer's book furthermore masterfully engages with two sets of thorny issues in two major fields: queer studies and postcolonial studies. It intervenes in the medieval queer studies debate of acts versus identities that has split scholars of the pre- modern in the aftermath of Foucault's definition of homosexual identities as modern that supposedly relegated the Middle Ages to the realm of homosexual acts. Amer transcends this divide by mapping the acts versus identities debate onto a larger postcolonial medievalist terrain. By expanding the contours of the queer debate, she shows both its original limitations--its inscription exclusively in the Western European, nationalized Middle Ages--and the path to overcoming them: performing the cross-cultural analysis of French and Arabic texts and giving the French Middle Ages its queer postcolonial due. The juxtaposition of the French and Arabic texts reveals the hitherto unnoticed discourses of same-sex desire and alternative sexual practices in Old French texts and the unsuspected role that medieval Arabic erotic tradition and culture played in the Old French literary constructions of female same-sex desire and sexual practices; in isolation from their multicultural context, these texts have successfully occulted their subtexts and their hybrid, queer identities. In the process, Amer also engages with the medieval postcolonial debate, namely, what is the role of the literary in the cultural analysis. The adoption of a synchronic, along with a more traditional diachronic view of tracing the textual lineage of Arabic texts into the French tradition, displaces the literary versus cultural debate onto a wider historical-cultural context of exchange and transmission in the medieval Mediterranean, in which Amer produces analyses of cultures both material (fabrics, spaces of sociability) and literary (rhetorical devices, literary themes). Amer attempts and succeeds in a delicate balancing act that is also a provocation to medieval queer studies as well as to the history of sexuality, and, more pointedly, to French literary scholarship that "seems to have been resistant to the idea that Old French literature may have also been marked by the cross-cultural exchanges of the period" (13). The book crosses many borders and, in addition to the presentation of the Arabic erotic tradition and texts to the Western audience, one of its many merits is that it seeks to combat the censorship and neglect in the contemporary Arab world of the depictions of homosexual desire and practices in the pre-Islamic and Classical Arabic world of the early Abbasid period (ca. 750-850), the rule of the Umayyads of al-Andalus (756-1031) and the Mamluk period (1249-1517).

The Preface and Chapter 1, "Crossing Disciplinary Boundaries: A Cross- Cultural Approach to Same-Sex Love Between Women," outline and historicize the aims of this study of cross-cultural representations of gender and female same-sex practices. Intertextuality, expanded to the notion of interculturality, is the methodology that Amer applies: she expands the definition of intertextuality as purely linguistic to include socio-historical and cultural codes inscribed in texts. Thus the absence of a name denoting lesbianism in Western European literary texts is no longer an obstacle that signifies absence of lesbianism. Interculturality reveals an indebtedness of Old French texts to Arabic literary and cultural traditions that allow the author to submit that "[l]esbianism in medieval French literature...was denoted by a wider affective language, a broader range of behaviors, and a more expansive configuration of gender trouble than has traditionally been thought" (7). For a complex number of reasons, all compellingly justified, Amer chooses to speak of the French or Arabic "lesbian" (attenuated by "lesbian-like" for literary lesbians) and of "an actual consciousness" (6) among audience members (especially women) of the pre-modern period. By having recourse to the much more outspoken Arabic erotic tradition--"Arab lesbians were both named and visible in Classical Arabic literature" (19)--Amer can therefore locate and unveil these moments and sites of consciousness and recognition, and perhaps even identity, that otherwise remain hidden and distorted in medieval French texts. The basic premise of all the chapters is that "if...medieval French literature lacked an established vocabulary to speak about female homoeroticism...the expression of same-sex desire between women in Old French textuality was expressed through a detour. While at times, the detour was Arabic rhetorical devices (Chapter 2), at others, it was Arabic thematic motifs (Chapter 3). In the Escoufle [Chapters 4 and 5], the strategy involves the recourse to Arabic thematic parallels, Eastern material goods (silk and precious stones), as well as the mimicking and subversion of Western conventions associated with the most legitimate model of sexuality, namely heterosexual relations" (99).

Chapter 2, "Crossing Linguistic Borders," focuses on rhetorical devices and juxtaposes seven stanzas on lesbian practices in Etienne de Fougères's Livre des manières (ca. 1174) with two Arabic erotic treatises, the tenth-century Encyclopedia of Pleasure by Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib and the eleventh century philological work by Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhamad al-Jurjani, An Anthology of Metonymic Devices Used by the Literati and Allusions in Eloquent Speech. The rhetorical devices in Fougère's text are military metaphors of the "joust" and "tournament" without the "lance" but with two "shields," tropes that are uncommon and atypical in the late twelfth century, according to Amer. In contrast, as early as the tenth century, the word "shield" represented "vulva" in Arabic literature and the rest of the eroto-military tropological field naturally followed. In Fougère's text, Amer argues, "lesbian sexual acts are understood in terms of heterosexual relations"--they joust without a lance--but they nevertheless "elaborate a type of sexuality that is inherently idiosyncratic and lesbian" when "two 'shields' [are] banging against each other" (33), an influence imported from the Arabic world into Henry II's court from scholarly centers in Sicily and Spain. However, what I find most convincing in Amer's argument is not the coincidence of the metaphors in the French and Arabic traditions, for the "love is war" metaphor that is present in the Western tradition can by extension easily become a sexual one, especially when a text, as Fougère's does, depicts lesbian acts within heterosexual referentiality; in fact, Amer later notes as much on the development of the eroto-military metaphors in Western literature (192, note 42). Rather, I believe the strength of the author's argument lies in the conjunction of the eroto-military metaphors and the description of lesbian sexual practices, unique in Old French literature and that can hence be traced back to the Arabic tradition. This intercultural insight undoes the Western heteronormative framework of lesbian relations in which "Sanz focil escoent lor feu" was previously translated as "Without a poker to stir up their fire" and allows Amer to provide us with a new translation, "They deliver themselves from their fire without the use of a poker" (38).

Chapter 3, "Crossing Sartorial Lines," turns to cross-dressing practices, dealing less with the linguistic than the transmission of themes and tales from the Arabic culture which permitted the encoding of same-sex desire between women. Three versions of Yde et Olive serve as the primary Old French texts, the mid-thirteenth century sequel of the verse epic poem Huon de Bordeaux, the late fourteenth-century dramatic adaptation, Miracle de la fille d'un roy, and the fifteenth-century French prose epic adaptation. As their origin, Amer points out a suspicious preference in French scholarship for Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid's Metamorphosis, even though The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Badour is one of the core stories from the One Thousand and One Nights that "a growing body of evidence suggests...circulated much earlier in the East and in the West, both orally and in writing" (53). The Arabic tale allows us to read clearly same-sex desire in the Old French romance, whose inscription of the homosexual desire in the conventional heterosexual courtly scenario might otherwise justify skeptics' claims that Olive falls in love with a woman, Yde, only because she is cross-dressed as a man.

One of the greatest insights of Chapter 4, "Crossing the Lines of Friendship," one that departs from most queer readings of medieval female sexuality, is that "same-sex relations between women [in the Escoufle] do not depend on cross-dressing" (98). It is a compelling and enticing corrective to most other studies that "have opted for a nonsexual analysis" (97). Amer's analysis of Jean Renart's Escoufle (ca. 1200-1202) rests on the moment pivotal to the romance, "the kite's theft of the silk purse (aumosniere)" (89), when the two lovers, Guillaume and Aelis, are separated-- Guillaume leaves Aelis to capture the kite and recover the purse that contains the ring she just gave him as a token of her love. Abandoned, Aelis embarks on a journey that will lead her through a series of three female friendships and to a successful commercial venture of an embroidery workshop. Put differently, the breakup of the heterosexual couple, occasioned by the loss of the silk purse to a rapacious bird, opens up the homoerotic space of alternative emotional attachments between women. Amer returns to The Story of Qamar al-Zaman and Princess Badour from the One Thousand and One Nights, in which the separation of the couple also turns around the bird's theft of a ring on a silk ribbon. The importation of luxurious silks and other material goods (precious stones) in the Escoufle thus parallels, in Amer's argument, the hybridization of the Old French romance that creates an alternative homoerotic space and "hybrid gender identities" (94). Silk fabric of the aumosniere and the kite are central to Amer's cross-cultural analysis but the emphasis on "Saracen Silk and Intercultural Encounters," from the chapter's subtitle, also obscures an element that seems obvious to this reader; namely, that the aumosniere is a borse, one of the terms for "coilles" or "coillons" (testicles), best known to us from The Romance of the Rose: "Chascune qui les va nomant / les apele ne sai conmant, / borses, harnais, riens, piches, pines, / ausint con ce fussent espines." [2] Guillaume, after all, once he recovers the silk purse, will have it sewn in his pants! It would thus seem that it is not the kite's theft of the silk object, but rather the kite's theft of the purse that opens up the space for lesbian desire and relations. Later in the romance, the count of Saint-Gilles displays the aumosniere and the belt given to him by his mistress (the lady of Montpellier) but made by Aelis. His offensive and aggressive display of the purse made by Aelis ultimately results in the invitation to Aelis to become a companion to his wife, the countess of Saint Gilles (the third of Aelis's female "friends"). Amer herself points out that the conjugal dispute that will create a harem-like situation, with Aelis at the center of female relationships and an ambiguous relationship to the count, foreshadows Reason's discourse in the Romance of the Rose "and her discussion of the complex dyad coilles and reliques" (113) in ll. 7080-81, but she does not go as far as reading the Rose's "purse" (l. 7113). However, a reading of the silk aumosniere as "borse" complicates and reinforces Amer's argument that "the line demarcating friendship from love is not drawn as neatly as we might have expected" (108), perhaps precisely because of the contingent nature of verbal signs that Reason will lay bare in her discourse.

Chapter 5, "Crossing Social and Cultural Borders," provides a fascinating analysis of places of sociability and locales of commerce and explores striking parallels between Jean Renart's Escoufle and the Arab Islamicate urban culture and social customs, which, I believe, make Amer's case irrefutable. "The blurring of gender identities and of binary constructions of emotional attachments (love versus friendship)...is accompanied by the development of alternative and highly marginal social spaces, at least seen from a Western perspective" (122). Aelis's embroidery workshop, that also serves as a hair-washing salon and a literary salon with its conversations, tales and games, are all examined against the backdrop of Arabic tradition of zarf (refinement; courtliness), qaynas (singing slave-girls) and ziyarat (visitations). In short, "[t]he role and function of qaynas resonate clearly with Aelis's sexually ambiguous Montpellier business" (148), possibly one of high-end prostitution. "The hybridity is no longer interlinguistic or intertextual as was the case of the other Old French lesbians discussed in earlier chapters, but it is primarily intercultural, sitting at the crossroads between European and Middle Eastern cultures and forming an intriguing conjunction of Arabic courtly motifs and Western urban and courtly elements" (160). Appropriately, the final chapter leads into a brief conclusion on "Beyond Orientalist Presuppositions" that reaffirms the centrality of the cross-cultural approach that "calls into question the West's own view of itself and undermines its contemporary discursive self-presentation as secular, sexually liberated, and firmly positioned in the first world" (164).

The breadth of coverage in the book is impressive. Amer mobilizes an imposing number of literary Old-French and Arabic studies, an array of queer, historical, and cultural scholarship, and overcomes the nearly prohibitive difficulties of access to original Arabic texts. Given the range of scholarship, certain more recent publications could only have strengthened some of the arguments in the book, notably the analysis of cross-dressing in Chapter 2, where some of the conclusions on same- sex desire could have been complicated by the reading of the clothes that make the beloved's gender. [3] There are also several editorial lapses. The "Preface," a lucid and succinct presentation of the book's aims that functions as the book's introduction, mentions, in the summary of book's chapters, only Chapters Two to Five, but it skips any reference to Chapter One that follows it. The end of Chapter One gives the summary of Chapters One to Four [sic], instead of Chapters Two to Five that follow it. Hence, the reference to "Chapter 1" is really a reference to "Chapter 2," "Chapter 2" is "Chapter 3," and so forth. I imagine that what is now "Chapter 1" was originally titled as "Introduction," which would explain both lapses.

These oversights take nothing away from the overall quality of Sahar Amer's study. This is an important book whose strength and innovation lie in the successful cross-fertilization of queer studies and postcolonial medievalism. In the final analysis, cross-cultural analysis does not simply reveal queer relations where none were previously noticed, but also shows us to what extent the entire Old French literary project is of the hybrid, indeed queer, nature.



1. Neither Francesca Canadé Sautman's and Pamela Sheingorn's Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York: Palgrave, 2001), nor Karma Lochrie's Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn't (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), absent from the bibliography, focus on Old French literature and history.

2. "All the women who come to name them give them all kinds of names, 'purses,' 'harness,' 'things,' 'prickles,' 'pricks,' just as if they were thorns." Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Félix Lecoy, t. I (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1965), ll. 7111-7114.

3. James A. Schultz, Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Sharon Kinoshita, "Almería Silk and the French Feudal Imaginary: Toward a 'Material' History of the Medieval Mediterranean" in E. Jane Burns, ed., Medieval Fabrications: Dress, Textiles, Clothwork, and Other Cultural Imaginings (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 165-76.

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Author Biography

Zrinka Stahuljak

University of California-Los Angeles