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Acting Like a Man: Performing Gender in Tristan de Nanteuil


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2017

Kimberlee Campbell
Harvard University
Cynthia J. Brown
Professor of French, Department of French and Italian, University of California, Santa Barbara
Ardis Butterfield
Professor of English, UCL
Mark Cruse
Assistant Professor of French, School of International Letters and Cultures, Arizona State University (possibly Associate Professor by publication date)
Kathryn A. Duys
Associate Professor, Department of English and Foreign Languages, University of St. Francis
Sylvia Huot
Reader in Medieval French Literature and Fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge University
Marilyn Lawrence
Marilyn Lawrence is a Visiting Scholar of the French Department at New York University, USA.
E. Jane Burns
Curriculum in Women's Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
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For scholars of the Middle Ages, the old French chanson de geste has traditionally served as the benchmark for one extreme of a continuum of representation, a genre expressing the distilled essence of the medieval masculine. This reading of the epic presumes a transparent equivalence of the masculine with the body and actions of the knight, constructing the “male” as a necessary element in an ideology of chivalric caste and power. Furthermore, this definition of the masculine is, in Simon Gaunt's words, “monologic,” meaning that “in the chansons de geste male characters are defined as individuals in relation to other men, whilst women are excluded from the genre's value system.” Sarah Kay would seem to agree, seeing the chanson de geste as the literary embodiment of Georges Duby's model of a feudal power that reduces “women to the status of transparent objects via which transactions between men, such as dynastic alliances and inheritance, are vehicled.” The feminine “other” is restricted to a transactional function, serving, in Kay's words, as a “prop to the ideal of masculine collectivity,” in a system in which the indissolubility of the constituent terms of the identity of the male knight is taken for granted.

However, the chanson de geste is a long-lived genre; later poets are not unaware of the tensions generated by the silencing of plurality inherent to the epic articulation of the male-as-knight. Problematizing this monologic masculinity, these poets express repressed alterity through characters who not only “diagnose what is wrong with the male order,” as Gaunt suggests, but more importantly deconstruct maleness as articulated through the lens of knighthood. One of the most interesting chansons de geste in this regard is the fourteenth-century Tristan de Nanteuil, in which a triptych of disruptive knightly performances ranging from the cowardly to the crossdressed restages maleness, forcing the reconsideration of gendering through social role. As we shall see, the performances of Tristan as cowardly warrior and of Aye and Blanchandine as transvestite knights disrupt conventional expectations about gender roles and unsettle the epic paradigm.

The issue of crossdressing, both as a general theme in medieval literature and, specifically, in the case of Tristan de Nanteuil, in which two female characters perform as crossdressed knights, has received a good bit of critical attention in recent years.

Cultural Performances in Medieval France
Essays in Honor of Nancy Freeman Regalado
, pp. 79 - 90
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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