Forbidden Loves and Forgotten Legacies

One of the most beautiful things about doing my MA on lesbian representation has been gaining a sense of legacy, and an understanding of how historical cultural representations have led us to this point.

Something I’ve been thinking about more and more recently is that intergenerational learning in lesbian communities, and queer communities more broadly, can be hard to come across. Ageism certainly contributes to this reality, as does the erasure of queer histories from mainstream archives and curricula.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to learn about the history I am researching, but I think that those of us with that privilege have a responsibility to share it until it is accessible to everyone in every generation of queers.

On that note, I made a short video engaging with a film I watched recently (and wish I’d seen sooner) called “Forbidden Loves: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives.” What does it mean as a dyke living in this generation to sit with the words of someone who came before me?

Introducing Female Satan

In heeding the wisdom of Hannah Gatsby, I am going to give you a little road map before I start: I will begin by talking about burlesque and nipple-loving deities, and then miraculously come back around so that I am talking about my case studies and premodern sodomites.

This is a miniature on folio 222v. This miniature shows Silence standing naked on the left with her hands raised revealing one breast located — in truly medieval fashion  — closer to her shoulder than her chest. King Evan stands fully clothed in blue with a golden crown making a dialogic gesture towards Silence.
Silence standing nude before Kind Evan, WLC.LM.6, Roman de Silence, f. 222v. Used with permission from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections.

Pop a pastie, love!

Often at burlesque shows we proclaim “thank you Stripper Jesus” when a performer “pops a pastie.” There is a lot of in-community debate around this, and I am not writing this with any pretence of decisive authority. However, some SWers ask that burlesque dancers think about a different burlesque deity since we are not strippers. I’ve thought about it a lot since it was brought to my attention by a friend.

I give this introduction because, after careful consideration, I would finally like to propose an alternative with the introduction of my case study for my MA project. I propose we credit “Female Satan” (or any of your preferred non-binary alternatives, of course 💋 ) for all burlesque miracles.

I propose this title because “Female Satan” (Cis Sathanas in Old French) is one of the descriptors given to the character Eufeme in Roman de Silence. She is a favourite pre-lesbian lesbian of mine.

The lady was wearing a magnificent gold brooch at her neck. She unfastened it/… she was round and smooth and soft/This lascivious lady said to the youth/”Take a look at these arms! Look at these curves!” (3791-3799)

Heldris, de Cornuälle, Silence: Roman De Silence. 13th century. Edited and translated by Sarah Roche-Mahdi. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.

Cis Sathanas: An Origin Story

Eufeme is the queen in the narrative told in my case study, WLC/LM/6, which is a 13th century manuscript containing a copy of Le Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence) by Heldris de Cornuälle. Finding this surviving, illuminated copy of the narrative was a dream for me. It confounds our contemporary categories of sexuality and gender, and simultaneously it shows the institutional roots of homophobic, transphobic, and sexist ideologies in the Medieval Church. That last bit is for a future blog post.

The narrative (both textual and visual) of Le Roman de Silence has three characters I would put forward for you as “queer.” I use various gendered pronouns here to discuss the narrative, and do not want to negate any trans/non-binary interpretations, which I think abound. Please playfully interpret them in whichever ways resonate for you. This process of interpretation is something I refer to a lot as “queer remediation.”

Silence

Silence is initially described as a woman, but raised as a man after the king decrees that daughters can no longer inherit.

He travels to the court of King Evan, where the rest of the narrative unfolds.

Silence is revealed to be a woman by Merlin at the end of the narrative, and she is then married to the king.

Silence’s body had taken on physical masculine features before being revealed, though, which are described as being “refinished” by Nature (ll. 6457–6460).

It is also worth noting that Silence had desires to make the transition permanent. He sought out Merlin to that end, but was foiled by Eupheme (ll. 6457-6460).

He is also accused of liking “young men a lot” and being an “herite” (ll. 3945-3947).

“Heretic” came to be synonymous with “sodomite” in late medieval France.

Eupheme

Eufeme/Eupheme is sent to marry King Evan to stop a war. She arrives with her black hair on a boat which also carries black horses to be gifted to the king (ll. 231-233).

She falls ill upon arrival delaying the wedding, but it happens three days later.

She tries to seduce Silence, and is described as being “highly skilled in such matters” (l. 3713). She is also described as loving and feeling “anguished yearning…/for this young man who was a girl (ll. 3698-3704).

Another of Eupheme’s lovers is a nun who is revealed to be “a man” near the end.

This plot point has been referred to by other scholars as further suggesting her preferences for women.

The gendered hegemony is perpetuated at the end of the narrative when Eufeme is executed by equine quartering (l. 6656). This was a common sentence for sodomy.

Adjectives used for Eufeme include: “female satan/cis sathanas” and “lady harlot/la dame fole” (l. 6273).

The Nun

A nun is in Queen Eupheme’s entourage when they intercept Silence bringing Merlin to the king.

While dressed as a nun, she/her pronouns are used for this character.

ex. she said/fait ele (l. 6250).

The nun is then revealed by Merlin in his long, riddle-like speech to be “Eufeme’s lover/…
deceiving [the king] in woman’s dress” (ll. 6531-6532).

The hegemony is reinforced once again when the nun is made to strip before the king (ll.6570-6571), and then executed with Eufeme (ll. 6655).

After Nature/had recovered her rights/she spent the next three days refinishing/Silence’s entire body, removing every trace/of anything that being a man had left there.

11. 6669-6673

Cis Sathanas and Lesbian Self-Definition

A miniature showing Queen Eufeme sitting on a throne in her private chambers with Silence beside her. the private apartments are represented through a distinctive architectural frame, which here manifests as two arches. The two are seated with Eupheme on the viewer’s right and Silence on the left. This miniature, consistent with the illustrative program, emphasizes Eupheme’s position in court through hierarchical scale and a golden crown.
Queen Eupheme (right) seducing Silence (left), WLC.LM.6, Roman de Silence, f. 209r. Used with permission from University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections.

I offer these characters and illuminations to you as a piece of the history of the representation of queer bodies. The original narrative was condemnatory, certainly. Sodomitical bodies were often made explicit only to frame them as threats and further justify the reach of the Church. There were not happy queer endings for these characters, and I will explore the long history of queer dismemberment in a later post. For now, do what you will with this piece of history, and by all means continue to queer it. As well, remember that contemporary cis-heteronorms are not validated by these heterogenous realities of our queer past even if they too were condemnatory.

Eupheme, in my eyes, was a self-possessed, passionate figure who loved women and gender non-conforming characters. She was framed as the antithesis of ideal “womanhood” by Heldris, but I find that makes reclaiming her all the more pleasurable.