Monday, May 14, 2012

‘made [into] a eunuch’: Masculinity in Medieval Romance

Earthenware tile, Northwestern Iran, 17th century
I have blogged previously about Floris and Blancheflur, a popular Middle English romance dating from the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which today survives in four manuscripts. The romance tells the story of Floris, the pagan son of the King of Spain, who travels to Babylon to rescue his beloved, Blancheflur, the Christian daughter of a slave woman, who has been sold to the Emir of Babylon and is being kept in his harem. I have already discussed the virginity testing in this romance, however, this post focuses on a different aspect of the romance: the unusual masculinity of the hero. 

Romance heroes are usually brave, handsome, and in search of adventure: not so different from the alpha male of today’s popular romances. Yet Floris, the hero of this romance, is not constructed in this way as a typical romance hero. He weeps, swoons, and spends all of his time with Blancheflur, with whom he shares a common name: ‘flower’. While weeping, swooning and being compared with a flower do not in themselves connote femininity, by consistently comparing the two, this romance suggests that Floris is feminine because he looks and acts like a woman: like Blancheflur. 

The lovers are almost physically identical: an innkeeper’s wife notes that Floris and Blancheflur are ‘alike in all aspects / Both in outward appearance and in sorrowful emotion’ (lines 419-420). Furthermore, in contrast to typical knightly conduct Floris does not fight. Yet, while Floris and Blancheflur might be ‘alike in all aspects’, at this stage their gender differentiation is still evident; the innkeeper’s wife recognises that ‘[Floris is] a man and [Blancheflur] is a woman’ (421). Floris might be effeminate, but he is still recognisably male at this point. It is not until later in the romance, in the Emir’s harem, that Floris becomes unidentifiable as a man:

The chamberlain has set out
Into [Blancheflur’s] bedroom he has come
And stands before her bed
And finds these two [Floris and Blancheflur], face to face,
Face to face, and mouth to mouth:
[…] Into the tower he climbs up
And told his lord all that he had seen.
The Emir commanded his sword to be brought
He wanted to know about this occurrence.
Forth he goes, with all his company,
He and his chamberlain,
Until they come to where those two lie
Yet did sleep still fasten their eyes.
The Emir ordered their bed clothes pulled down
A little below their chests
Then he saw, surely indeed
That one was a man, the other a woman (lines 984-995).

Here, the Emir does not know, until he pulls down the bed clothes, that Floris is a man. So at this point, Floris is performing femininity to such an extent that he is actually mistaken for a woman: neither the Emir nor the chamberlain can tell from Floris’ face that he is male.

Previous studies of this romance have tended to argue that Floris’ effeminate masculinity is an indication of his youth (for example, Gilbert's article). Indeed, all four versions of the Middle English romance consistently refer to both Floris and Blancheflur as children. However, I do not think that Floris’ youth explains why his gender should suddenly become unreadable in the Emir’s tower. 

I think that Floris’ lack of typical romance masculinity is here being affected by the eunuchs who guard the Emir’s harem. We are told: ‘[…] no servant may be therein / Who in his underwear bears the device / Neither by day nor by night / Unless he be made a eunuch’ (629-632). Floris is informed that if any man is caught attempting to enter the Emir’s tower unauthorised, that the gatekeeper ‘will both beat and castrate him’ (638). Evidently no man can enter the tower (except the Emir) with his genitals intact. 

While Floris’ presence in the harem might be enough to suggest an aligning with the eunuchs ‘therein’, there are further similarities between the masculinity performed by Floris and that of eunuchs. Eunuchs were widely considered to display a feminised masculinity in the Middle Ages. They were not considered to be women, but due to the removal of their primary male organs (testes) they gained female characteristics (McCracken, pp. 137-138). 

Those eunuchs castrated before puberty looked more like women as they had higher voices, hairless faces and bodies and larger breasts (Kuefler, p. 34). Eunuchs were perceived as ‘lacking courage and bravery, as being weak and feeble like women’: there was a theory that eunuchs were like women because they spent so much time with them (Tougher, p. 95). Finally, having a beard was one of the primary distinctions between men and women: Isidore of Seville, whose encyclopedia Etylomolgiae was popular throughout the Middle Ages, listed the soft face of a woman and a man’s beard among the anatomical features which function to distinguish between the sexes (Cadden, p. 182). As well as symbolising, as Cadden argues, ‘the completeness of the real man’, the beard was a key signifier for performative, sexual masculinity; indeed, Tougher notes that men wore fake beards in the Byzantine Empire to distinguish themselves from eunuchs (Tougher, p. 94).

Many of these identifiers of eunuchs map onto Floris. He too lacks courage and bravery, according to a typical modelling of romance hero behaviour. Floris’ parents are also concerned about the amount of time Floris and Blancheflur spend together, although the reason for this is based more upon disapproval of their relationship rather than fear of a feminine influence. Finally, when the Emir discovers Floris and Blancheflur in bed together, he does not know immediately that Floris is a man. This suggests, I think, that Floris, like the eunuchs which guard the harem, does not have any facial hair.  

This point is made clearer in the Old French romance Floire et Blancheflor, the immediate source for the Middle English Floris and whose composition has been dated to 1200-1225. In Floire, the description of the discovery of the lovers reads as follows:

Floire lay next to his girlfriend; there was no sign that he was a man, for on his face and chin there was neither beard nor moustache: apart from Blancheflor, no maiden in the whole tower was lovelier. The Emir did not realise the truth… To the chamberlain, he said, ‘Uncover the two girls’ chests for me. First we’ll see their breasts, and after we’ll wake them up’. The chamberlain uncovered them, and realised that one of the pair was a man (lines 2377-2392, my emphasis).
While in both versions of the romance it is the exposing of Floris/Floire and Blancheflur/Blancheflor’s chests which exposes their true gender identities, in the Old French romance, Floire’s lack of a beard is the main characteristic of his effeminate masculinity. It is no coincidence, I believe, that this is also the primary signifier of eunuch masculinity. In the extended analysis of this romance in my thesis I have considered what it might mean for masculinity in this romance if we consider Floris’ masculinity to be eunuch-like. However, I might have to leave that for another post…

The image is from Wikimedia Commons and shows an earthenware tile, painted on slip and under transparent glaze from northwestern Iran, and which dates from the 17th century. Currently held in the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre Museum. 
Quotations from Floris and Blancheflur are taken from Floris and Blancheflour, in Sentimental and Humorous Romances, edited by Erik Kooper, originally published (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006) available online at All modern English translations are my own. 

The quotation from Floire et Blancheflour is from Floire et Blancheflour, ed. Du Méril (1856) and the translation is from Jane Gilbert (see below).

Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
Jane Gilbert, ‘Boys Will Be…What? Gender, Sexuality, and Childhood in Floire et Blancheflor and Floris and Lyriope’, Exemplaria 9.1 (1997): pp. 39-61.
Matthew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).
Peggy McCracken, ‘Chaste Subjects: Gender, Heroism, and Desire in the Grail Quest’, in Queering the Middle Ages,   edited by Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), pp. 123-142.
Shaun Tougher, ‘Images of Effeminate Men: The Case of Byzantine Eunuchs’, Masculinity in Medieval Europe, edited by Dawn Hadley (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998) pp. 89–100.