Medieval Love Poetry

This is a reprise of Lesbian Historic Motif  Podcast Episode 8 which originally aired on 2017/03/25.

Listen to this episode here.

This episode looks at examples of courtly love–both in poetry and in prose– expressed between two women, or by two female characters.

  • The context and conventions of the “courtly love” genre
  • The problems of relating the sentiments expressed in courtly love literature to everyday lives and experiences
  • Scholarly blind spots when interpreting same-sex expressions of courtly love
  • Love, desire, and friendship between women in the 13th century French story L’Escoufle
  • The 13th century troubariz (female troubador) Bieiris de Romans and the love poem she wrote to a woman named Maria
  • A passionate poem of love and longing written by one anonymous 12th century German woman to another


  • The full text of Na Maria by Bieris de Romans can be found in: Bogin, Meg. 1976. The Women Troubadours. Paddington Press, Ltd., New York. ISBN 0- 8467-0113-8
  • The full text of the Tegernsee MS poem can be found in: Matter, E. Ann. 1989. “My Sister, My Spouse: Woman-Identified Women in Medieval Christianity” in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, eds. Judith Plaskow & Carol P. Christ. Harper & Row, San Francisco.
  • This topic is discussed in one or more entries of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project here:
  • A transcript of this podcast is available here.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Transcript for today’s show

Please note this transcript has not been edited and is automatically generated meaning certain words will be incorrect.


this is Heather Rose Jones with a lesbian historic motif podcast this weekly podcast looks at lesbian themes in history and literature and historic research into gender and sexuality we talk about current historical fiction with queer female characters including fantastic versions of the past and have interviews with authors who write those stories and in months when we have a fifth show we’re proud to present new original lesbian historical fiction for your enjoyment I needed a breather for recording and editing new episodes this month so I’m reprising a series of episodes on poetry about love between women if you’ve been a podcast listener from the very beginning I hope you enjoy them just as much as you did the first time and this is the first time you’ve heard these episodes you have a real treat coming today I’d like to talk about two related themes in medieval literature love poetry and relationships and romances now keep in mind that when we use the word romance to talk about genres of medieval literature it doesn’t mean stories centering around a specific love relationship as it does in modern use but rather stories of heroic adventure and courtly deeds that have love as one of several themes medieval romances usually included fantastic elements and otherworldly settings so we can’t interpret them as representing actual historic behaviors and cultures but they do give us a glimpse into the beliefs and attitudes of the people who created and listen to the stories the romance John arose in the same context as the idea of courtly love as expressed in the songs of the troubadours the courtly love movement was in part a reaction to the stark reality among the upper classes but marriage was a business transaction with nothing of individual attraction or affection in fact when the rules of courtly love were written down they stated baldly that love was impossible between married couples because there could be no love where there was coercion instead one was expected to perform a fiction of romantic desire for a person one could not possess a fiction of adultery as it were where extravagant language and pledges of undying devotion were understood as representing sexual desire without ever being allowed to fulfill it as a result the language used in acting out courtly love can be highly ambiguous in terms of how it related to behavior was that all play-acting or was it a way of expressing frustrated desires that might otherwise work out in less socially acceptable ways when the language of courtly love appears in poetry or prose to express interactions between men and women few scholars den ythat it was intended to represent actual sexual desire even if in a formal and stylized manner but when we find the language of courtly love used to be in women there is often a greater hesitancy among scholars to attribute it to actual romantic or erotic attraction between women as opposed to being mirror literary convention I’m going to look at three works that were written around the 12th and 13th centuries in Western Europe in which the language of romantic love is used between women the first is a 13th century French romance titled the scuffle or the kite referring to the bird and not to the child’s toy the story centers around the young woman’s adventures after a man persuades her to elope with him and then abandons her pretty much for the majority of the remainder of the story the kite of the story comes in shortly after Alice or heroine rides off with Guillaume the bird swoops in and steals guillaumes fancy silk purse and Guillaume chases after it abandoning Alice to her own devices in a strange land but Alice is a resourceful young woman and gradually betters her situation by a series of alliances and personal relationships with other women what is most interesting to us at the moment is that these relationships are described with language and using situations that would be unambiguously sexual if a man were involved when she finds herself alone Alice promptly takes up with another young woman named Isabelle and shortly after being taken in by Isabelle and her mother and we quote here fair Alice began thinking that the two of them could well spend the night in one bed together now spending the night in bed together is no big deal it was something that travelers often did even when there were complete strangers and the implication here is primarily one of friendship and probably of social protection since Isabelle is an established member of the local community while Alice is a stranger and alone but as the two start up an embroidery business together the relationship becomes more physically ambiguous and I’ll quote again here from the translation of the original work Alice moves closer to her she kisses her embraces and hugs her and then Isabelle in return tells her that she will accomplish completely her wish whatever it is this is language that in mixed text contexts could indicate either sexual or non-sexual interactions but the language continuing to describe the relationship is framed strongly in the conventions of romance isabell provides Alice with and I quote so much solace so much pleasure and Alice quote enjoys herself in so many ways these same-sex romantic descriptions are balanced by how the story focuses on their combined search for Alice’s missing boyfriend Guillaume in this quest Alice encounters to further intimate friendships with women in the story using the same ambiguously suggestive language about sharing a bed and in the second case sharing a friendship that is so close that and I quote they are all one body and soul they no longer remember Guillaume no other woman was ever treated in the way the noble countess did for Alice she kisses her and then let other young women kiss her then she takes her to relax in her bedroom holding her with her naked hand other medieval romances include episodes of desire between women but more commonly it is excused by having one of the women being disguised as a man at the time such as in the story of eda and Olaf or the romance of tristan de Nantou in the scuffle there is no such plausible deniability these are women who know each other to be women and one can only try to explain away the interactions as using conventional formulaic language that use the forms of romantic love without intending the substance or one can believe that they may have used the substance the same argument has been used in regards to the lyrics of the 13th century trooper eats or female troubadour VRS to romance the bare facts are the B eros a woman wrote a love song addressed to a woman named Maria using the conventional language of courtly love poetry where scholars come into disagreement is the question of what it means the show notes mentioned two articles that discuss this question from different points of view before considering that question let’s take a look at the lyrics themselves I wish I could recite the original in Provencal but I’ve never studied the language it would only make a hash of the pronunciation lady Maria in you Barrett and distinction joy and intelligence and perfect beauty hospitality and honor and distinction your noble speech and pleasing company your sweet face and merry disposition the sweet look and the loving expression that exists in you without pretension caused me to turn toward you with the pure heart thus I pray you if it please you the true love and celebration sweet humility should bring me such relief with you if it please you lovely woman then give me that which most hope and joy promises for in you lie my desire and my heart and from you stems all my happiness and because of you I’m often signing and because merit and beauty raise you high above all others for none suppresses you I pray you please by this which does you honor don’t grant your love to a deceitful suitor lovely woman whom joy a noble speech uplift and merit to you my stanzas go for in you our gaiety and happiness and all good things one could ask of a woman within the genre of troubadour song the romantic and erotic desire that is expressed is often something of a literary game composed in the framework of the courtly love genre where unconsummated desire for an unobtainable beloved was a default trope but when the sentiments are expressed between a man and a woman no one questions the sincere underlying emotions for this work modern commentary has attracted unique skepticism with some scholars dismissing it as a mere literary exercise or as an expression of platonic friendship in the language of romantic love charges which are not used to question the heterosexuality of other authors or as being the pen name of a male author which leaves open the question of why a male author would represent love between women when one is determined to avoid interpretations of lesbian desire in literary works it is easy to point to the formulaic nature of many genres even the language of personal correspondence can be composed of stock phrases and meaningless formulas after all think about how many letters you’ve written that begin dear so-and-so and ask yourself how many of those people are genuinely dear to you it is impossible to argue that all written compositions should be taken at absolute literal face value but at the same time it’s important to consider whether we interpret literalness versus literary style differently based on pre-existing assumptions no one would argue that the formulaic nests of troubadour love poetry means that there’s no such thing as romantic love and sexual desire between men and women but when a woman writes in the genre of love poetry or writes love correspondence to another woman you will often encounter circular arguments of the following form at first there is no evidence for lesbian expression in medieval European literature therefore even though we would interpret the same language as romantic or erotic if addressed from a male author to a female subject because it is addressed between two women it must be purely formulaic and because this language is purely formulaic it can’t be counted as evidence for expressions of lesbian love and therefore we have no evidence for lesbian expression you see how it ties up so neatly the heiress was writing a work for public performance and therefore it’s reasonable to analyze it within the conventions of that type of public performance but similar arguments fall short when considering private poetry that was never meant for any eyes but the one it was written for it is reasonable to assume that this was the case for a poem found in a twelfth century manuscript that was preserved at Tegernsee abbey in southern Germany again we know little of the context in which this was written except that it was clearly addressed from one woman to another the writer laments the absence of her beloved and longs for her return from a journey given the context in which the poem was preserved it is possible that the women were nuns there are a number of biblical allusions in the poem that would suggest that possibility this translation is by an matter whose exported on expressions of love between medieval religious women is cited in their show notes again I’d love to be able to present the original so that you could hear the poetry of the sounds as well as the meaning but I’ll take pity on my listeners the women’s names are abbreviated as G and a so we don’t even have that much identity for them although I’m tempted to go by the most popular German women’s names of that era and think of them as Gertrude and Anna to G her singular rose from a the bonds of precious love what is my strength that I should bear it but I should have patience in your absence is my strength the strength of stones that I should await your return I who grieves ceaselessly day and night like someone who has lost a hand or a foot everything Pleasant and delightful without you seems like mud underfoot I shed tears as I used to smile and my heart is never glad when I recalled the kisses you gave me and how with tender words you caressed my little breasts I want to die because I cannot see you what can I do where can I so miserable turn if only my body could be a trusted to the earth until your longed for return or if passage could be granted me as it was to have a cook so that I might come there just once to gaze upon my beloved’s face then I should not care if it were the hour of death itself for no one has been born in the world so lovely and full of grace or who’s so honestly and with such deep affection loves me I shall therefore not cease to grieve until I deserve to see you again well has a Wiseman said that it is a great sorrow for a man to be without that without which he cannot live as long as the world stands you shall never be removed from the core of my being what more can I say come home sweet love prolong your trip no longer know that I can bear your absence no longer farewell remember me given the ways in which women’s writing and writing that centers women has been erased from the historic record it is a treasure to find literature of this sort I won’t fault scholars for being careful and skeptical about interpreting such material at literal face value but I will always fault people for placing an extra burden of proof on representations of same-sex love that is not placed on heterosexual expressions and in the context of the lesbian historic motif project the importance of works like this is not whether there was an actual woman in Paris who loved a woman named Maria or whether there was a real Gertrude or whatever her name was who kissed and caressed Anna’s breasts with tender words the importance is that people in the 12th and 13th century could imagine such things and had language to express them that some woman reading about how Alice and Isabelle kissed and embraced each other in bed or listening to the voice of BRS longing to be given that which most hope and joy promises might have thought to herself this is what it means this feeling I have for the woman I cherish this is real and others have felt it too I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the lesbian historic motif podcast if you want to follow up on anything we’ve covered see the show notes for links and to contact me with questions book announcements or topic suggestions if you enjoyed this podcast please read it and subscribe on itunes stitcher or pod bean and consider supporting our patreon and if you’re on facebook check out the lesbian talk show chat group [Music]