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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #92 Watt 1998 "Behaving like a man? Incest, Lesbian desire, and gender play in 'Yde et Olive' and its adaptations"

Full citation: 

Watt, Diane 1998. "Behaving like a man? Incest, Lesbian desire, and gender play in 'Yde et Olive' and its adaptations", Comparative Literature, 50, 4 (Fall 1998): 265-85.

This week's coincidental theme is "medieval European literature", which some may have noticed is a favorite topic of mine. There are enough ambiguities around many of the gender-transgressive female characters in medieval romance to provide plenty of inspiration for lesbian fiction. In fact, I'm currently working on a story inspired by the romance of Silence, although my particular take in this instance interprets the character as non-binary/genderqueer rather than as lesbian. Yde and Olive has always been a great favorite of mine, especially since the multiple versions of the story seem to invite additional variants.

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The article begins by defending the use of the term "lesbian" by citing Brooten's evidence for a medieval sense of a woman who "behaves like a man" and "is oriented toward female companionship for sex" while raising several issues with that usage. But the author is examining a similar apparent contradiction in medieval texts to the one found by Brooten in early Christian texts: an acceptance (to some degree) of female same-sex unions combined with hostility toward female appropriation of male roles. The text under consideration is the several versions of Yde and Olive: a story that overtly contains a marriage between two women, one of whom appropriates male roles.

Watt's basic conclusions are that the same-sex relationship is treated far more sympathetically than the father-daughter incest that triggers the story's events, though both fall within officially prohibited relationship. Similarly, the texts are inconsistent but generally positive with regard to the cross-gender protagonist, though whether this is privileging male-coded behavior or aristocratic behavior is not always clear. [The basic outline of the story has already been covered in Amer 2008, Hotchkiss 1996, Sautman 2001, and Clark & Sponsler 1997, among others, and I will not repeat the summary here.]

The threat of father-daughter incest is framed with sufficient disapproval and horror in the story that it justifies the otherwise transgressive actions of Yde.The author reviews and discusses various medieval sources on religious and social attitudes towards consanguinity prohibitions, as well as the in-story justifications given for it in the various versions. With regard to the justification regarding inheritance (as a daughter, Yde's inheritance would result in the kingdom falling into the hands of her husband's family), there is contrast between the situations of Yde (keep it in the family through incest) and Olive (whose father the emperor seems similarly possessive at first) who is given in marriage -- but into a marriage that turns out to be of questionable nature. Key in this comparison is the use of the word "bougrenie" (buggery) as a comparison to incest (incest is worse) but also as a label for same-sex marriage (when it is considered unacceptable). In this, Watt finds a parallel with the context of Ovid's Iphis and Ianthe, where the tale immediately follows one involving brother-sister incest. And, again, the two transgressive unions are compared with the female-female union being treated much more sympathetically, but not being allowed to stand as such.

Olive--when unaware of Yde's biological sex--reacts to Yde in conventionally sexual terms, appreciative of Yde's physical appearance and heroic deeds. When the truth is revealed, Olive is completely sympathetic to Yde's past and motivations and continues to use the language of romantic love in addressing her. In contrast, when the truth is more generally revealed to others, the popular outcry against the women's union is more extreme than that represented as happening in response to the proposed incest that initiated the tale. But the language of this outcry is not simply moral outrage but also focuses on the barrenness of the union -- inheritance issues outweigh all others. And the sympathetic framing of the women's attraction for each other and erotic interactions may be allowable due to the way in which the tale's resolution erases their disruptive potential. With Yde's magical transformation into a man, both the moral issues and the questions of patrilineal inheritance are resolved.

Moving past the issues of marriage and its related activities, Watt considers how the story addresses the more general performative aspects of gender. Given the context and motivations of Yde's cross-dressing, and the prowess she brings to male-coded activities, it is clear that the presumed relationship between sex and gender is decoupled for much of the story. Unlike Iphis, Yde is not raised in a male role. It isn't until she is of marriageable age and the specter of incest emerges that this transformation occurs. Before that, Yde is described in conventional terms for female beauty, but with an emphasis on aspects of her youth (e.g., slim hips and barely-developed breasts) that will help enable her male disguise. But formulas describing beauty in the literature of this age often treat male and female attractiveness in strikingly parallel terms, so the transition from "beautiful girl" to "beautiful boy" is not an enormous leap to make.

After Yde changes clothing, now her entire psychology, behavior, and abilities shift toward the masculine. Clothing makes her a man. She also follows the standard masculine quest motif: exile from the land of her birth, apprenticeship in martial accomplishments, a rise to prominence, and success in courtship. Yde is automatically brave and skilled in battle--perhaps due to noble (rather than male) status--but simultaneously performs some female-coded behaviors such as mercy (but again, perhaps noble rather than female). Given the structure of the story, it cannot escape attributing to Yde physical prowess, but this is balanced by continually reminding the reader of her underlying sex by means of feminine reference (demoiselle, pucelle, and grammatically female descriptions). Not until the "bath test" literally unveils her biological sex does the narrator return to describing her body in female-coded terms.

The linguistic treatment of Yde's gender, however, is variable and contradictory. Both male and female pronouns are used, as well as male and female adjectives, in some cases reflecting whether direct or indirect speech is reported, but in some cases purely for the demands of the poetic meter. Along with this linguistic instability, physical descriptions of Yde variously reflect a masculine or feminine ideal depending on the context and needs of the narrative.

Yde herself expresses no anxiety or conflict over performing a masculine role (only over performing it in line with noble ideals) until the question of marriage to Olive arises. But here Yde neither rejects the idea of desire for Olive (as other cross-dressing female heroes do) nor laments the impossibility of such desire (as Iphis does) but rather is concerned with the practical difficulty of not being able to consummate the marriage as a man. (The story describes them as kissing and embracing, but clearly this is inadequate to the task of consummation by the standards of the narrative, which contrasts what they do enjoy with what is absent, described in multi-valent vocabulary that can mean touch/poke/taste/enjoy. Thus the hypothetical potential for penetrative sex between women is raised, but not performed. And, in the end, it is not penetrative sex as such that is the sine qua non, but the ability to engender heirs.

The several versions of the story resolve the question of woman+woman differently. The magical sex-change version confirms the plot-arc that brings the two women together but removes the taboo aspect. The alternate ending in which Yde's father shows up unexpectedly and the two women marry each other's fathers resolves the forbidden union in a somewhat more brutal fashion.

In summary, Watt concludes that "it is neither Olive's longing nor even Yde's cross-dressing that is condemned. Instead, just as both the lack of male heirs for Florent and Oton [the fathers] and the former's incestuous plans threaten the established social order, so too does the women's marriage. What we might now think of as lesbian desire cannot be tolerated if it threatens to disrupt the laws of patrilineage." Yde's success at performing masculinity on the battlefield is secondary as the resolution of the marriage conflict subsumes it.


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