Hild is still prepubescent, but I’m already turning my research attention to sexuality. (In writing terms, I need to have facts about four years ahead of character and plot development so my unconscious brain can be knitting things together without having to worry about taking things to places my conscious brain later finds impossible.) So a couple of weeks ago I started asking around regarding academic opinions of how people in early 7th C. Northumbria might have regarded women and their sexuality.
A friend of mine, who used to be a medievalist before turning her attention to queer theory and film and literature, contacted an expert in the subject. We’d all read the usual suspects (both medieval and queer studies texts*) but, really, there wasn’t anything specific about the people and times I’m interested in. As with a lot of my work, I have to just take a lot of guesses and then make shit up. At least I’m not contravening what is known to be known.
Anyway, between the three of us we decided that the most likely scenario was that all women (that is, royal women before the founding of nunneries) got married, and that if they then wanted to have sex with other women no one would much care as long as they were discreet. After all, the point of marriage was alliance, household management, and the provision of heirs. Married girls loving other married girls wouldn’t have any impact on any of these points.
So Hild will marry, she will have children. But if I want, she can also notice women. What she’ll do after she notices them I haven’t yet decided.
Anyway, one of the books I read while pondering this subject was the Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage (Garland, New York and London, 1996). In that book I came across two pieces that I thought readers might enjoy. The first is a poem:
Etienne de Fougeres. Livre des manières
translated by robert L.A. clark
There’s nothing surprising about the “beautiful sin”
when nature prompts it,
but whosoever is awakened by the “vile sin”
is striving against nature.
Him [sic] must one pursue with dogs,
throw[ing] stones and sticks;
one should give him blows
and kill him like any cur.
These ladies have made up a game:
With two “trutennes” they make an “eu,” **
they bang coffin against coffin,
without a poker to stir up their fire.
They don’t play at jousting
but join shield to shield without a lance.
They don’t need a pointer in their scales,
nor a handle in their mold.
Out of water they fish for turbot
and they have no need for a rod.
They don’t bother with a pestle in their mortar
nor a fulcrum for their see-saw.
They do their jousting act in couples
and go at it at full tilt;
at the game of thigh-fencing
they lewdly share their expenses.
They’re not all from the same mold:
one lies still and the other makes busy,
one plays the cock and the other the hen
and each one plays her role.
** The meanings of the words trutennes and eu are unknown and unattested to elsewhere.
The second is an anonymous letter between two twelfth-century nuns:
translated by peter dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric, II. 479.
To C——, sweeter than honey or honeycomb, B—— sends all the love there is to her love. You who are unique and special, why do you make delay so long, so far away? Why do you want your only one to die, who as you know, Icves you with soul and body, who sighs for you at every hour, at every moment, like a hungry little bird. Since I’ve had to be without your sweetest presence, I have not wished to hear or see any other human being, but as the turtle-dove, having lost its mate, perches forever on its little dried up branch, so I lament endlessly till I shall enjoy your trust again. I look about and do not find my lover—she does not comfort me even with a single word. Indeed when I reflect on the loveliness of your most joyful speech and aspect, I am utterly depressed, for I find nothing now that I could compare with your love, sweet beyond honey and honeycomb, compared with which the brightness of gold and silver is tarnished. What more? In you is all gentleness, all perfection, so my spirit languishes perpetually by your absence. You are devoid of the gall of any faithlessness, you are sweeter than milk and honey, you are peerless among thousands, I love you more than any. You alone are my love and longing, you the sweet cooling of my mind, no joy for me anywhere without you. All that was delightful with you is wearisome and heavy without you. So I truly want to tell you, if I could buy your life for the price of mine, [I’d do it] instantly, for you are the only woman I have chosen according to my heart. Therefore I always beseech God that bitter death -may not come to me before I enjoy the dearly desired sight of you again. Farewell. Have of me all the faith and love there is. Accept the writing I send, and with it my constant mind.
I like the second better than the first, perhaps because I’ve always disliked the nod-nod wink-wink style of poetry, perhaps because the first is all about what’s ‘missing’–an irritatingly phallocentric view of lesbianism–and perhaps because one is by a woman in love and the other isn’t.
* I can’t be bothered to list them all. I’ve read dozens and dozens, and they all have such grindingly long and dull titles. But here’s a random sample (the ones that came to hand first when I went to the shelf):
– Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, John Boswell (Vintage, 1995)
– Gender in the Early Medieval World: East and West, 300-900, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Julia M.H.Smith (CUP, 2004)
– Queens, Concubines and Dowagers: The King’s Wife in the Early Middle Ages, Pauline Stafford (Leicester University Press, 1998)
– Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (SUNY, 1996)
– Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism, Bernadette J. Brooten (University of Chicago, 1996)
5 thoughts on “The Beautiful Sin”
So lesbians were into self-sacrifice even before The Well of Loneliness?>>Tara
tara, that “I’ll lay down my life for you” stuff made me roll my eyes, too. But I interpret is more as the lovers’ urge (of all sexes) to prove themselves to the beloved via mighty deeds. And given the lack of agency of 12th C nuns (comparatively speaking), perhaps laying oneself down was the best they could do.>>Sexual love, in the first hectic stages, is like that: the lovers brains are swimming in so many hormones they’re probably clinically insane. I’ve certainly been through the walk-though-fire, kill-dragons, drink-the-ocean stage more than once 🙂
I’d have to check it better, but there’s some medieval document in Catalunya about the monthly cost of having a midwife masturbate the queen while the king’s away.>>Not saxon, but at those times there were contacts with the nobility in both countries [I can think of a particular writer who was knighted by the King of England, but that’s early Ren].>>Ferran [BCN; just found this one _and_ that I had forgotten the space in Le Guin; sorry for the eyesore, back then; be well]
I’m very curious: how much was the monthly cost in terms of, say, the price of a pig? (Saying n shillings or x ounces of silver means nothing to me if I don’t know what that buys in the world at the time.) And do they mean pay per month or cost per once a month, er, treatment?
I’ll have to look at this one, and it’ll take a while. It’s something my wife was supplied as background when doing one of her medieval Catalan literature subjects. The data comes from the Crown Archives, but it’s been published somewhere else –now I just have to find where–.>>BTW, I missed kings: the lady in question –María– was the grandmother of Fernando II, the Catholic.