Chivalry and Gender Non-Conformity

I think I've been reading too much and have gotten too much in my own head, so this is an attempt to straighten out my thoughts a bit, yeah? So, the major questions of the day are:

  • What's the difference between "female-masculinity" and "male-masculinity"?
  • Moreover, is there fundamentally a difference between male and female psychology to begin with?

I briefly mentioned in the intro how I'm really into the idea of "knights," yeah? Personally, I think this interest likely comes from various fandoms I liked when I was a teenager – namely, the Fire Emblem series and Steven Universe (particularly the dynamic between Rose and Pearl). On top of this, there was a popular quote that was floating around Tumblr around the same time, from author Karleen Pendleton Jiménez's contribution to the 2011 essay anthology Persistance: All Ways Butch and Femme:

My definition of butch involves chivalry. I want to be courageous, gallant, to show the highest respect for a woman. I think of an idealized knighthood, where such characteristics are valued and groomed. I would protect my lover from an enemy, risk physical harm.

I was nine years old the first time I held another girl. It was nighttime around the campfire, and the counsellors were telling gruesome stories to freak out the kids. The girl beside me – with hazel eyes and long braided hair – asked if I would hold her because she was scared. I had never imagined such a request. My instinct kicked in immediately. I wrapped my arms around her. I ceased being frightened myself because I could only think about how proud I felt to protect her. It didn’t matter if I was cold, or if the rock that I was sitting on was hard and uncomfortable. Everything, for an instant and for the first time in my life, felt right. I was a little knight beside the campfire. (46)

As a sheltered kid who was more than a little bit addicted to Tumblr, this pretty much became my definition of "masculinity," in general. I found it, then and frankly even still now, to be a very idyllic quote that I wanted to aspire to: putting other's safety and comfort ahead of my own, even if it's just in little ways, like walking my friends home.

But, before we look more into that, we should probably examine the origin of this archetype: the medieval courtly knight. In the modern era, our stereotypical image of a knight has him coming up on a white horse to slay a dragon and free the lady from a tower, but the medieval view seems quite a bit different.

To better observe this, let's start with Chrétien de Troyes' twelfth century epic poem Lancelot, or the Knight of the Cart (Lancelot, le Chevalier de la charrette). Like, yes, Lancelot saves the abducted Queen Guinevere, but his whole schtick is more about going to extreme lengths to prove his love, rather than his actual heroism. From being forced to ride in the same cart that takes criminals to jail (which is explained to be a major taboo and makes everyone he meets along the way treat him as less than human) to crawling in his underwear across a bridge literally made of rusty swords, nothing can deter our dear Lancelot from his one track, direct path to the Queen; no matter what he must suffer through, "Love, while guiding him and leading, / consoled him, so his pains were sweet" (de Troyes 87). His level of devotion to the Queen gets pretty extreme and even weirdly religious at times, with him literally praying to a lock of her hair he found at one point. Still, when he actually reaches her, she still chastises him for "hesitating" to enter the cart at the beginning of his journey and refuses to see him at first.

It's this crazy, excessive dynamic that "courtly love" (amour courtois) is all about and, in fact, the term was coined in the 1880's specifically to refer to the relationship between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. As scholar Joachim Bumke explains in his 1991 book, Courtly Culture:

  1. Courtly love is illegitimate, illégitime, and therefore necessarily secretive. It includes total physical surrender.

  2. Courtly love manifests itself in the submissiveness of the man, who considers himself the servant of his lady and seeks to fulfill her desires.
  3. Courtly love demands that a man strive to become better and more perfect in order to be more worthy of his lady.
  4. Courtly love is ‘an art, a scene, a virtue’ with its own rules and laws that lovers must master. (360)

Rather extreme, right? With the prevalence of these stories and their continuing impact on modern culture, it can be pretty easy to believe that this sort of relationship was common, but it most definitely was not! Instead, the whole courtly love-thing was considered a weird countercultural movement in its day and these stories were often depicted as happening outside of traditional society, away from the overbearing influence of the Church. In fact, in the introduction to her 1990 translation of Lancelot, Ruth Harwood Cline explains that courtly love was the antithesis of traditional Christian marriage, not only often featuring extramarital affairs (which was itself a sin, not to mention a capital offense) but also showing women who were specifically not subservient to men (xvii).

To further symbolize this disconnect from the rest of the Christian world, these stories sometimes would even take place in a literal 'gated garden of love,' like in Roman de la rose, a French poem from the mid thirteenth century, where all sorts of negative things, ranging from hatred and greed to old age and poverty, were banished. In other words, to its fans, courtly love embodied a utopia, a new society built on peace and free love – a society that "could exist only in the poetic imagination" (Bumke 376). In this new society, men would find meaning not through the Church's teachings or through waging war like past generations, but rather through Love itself.

So, how does a man go about earning a Lady's Love?

There were several self-purported guidebooks written during this time explaining how to go about it, but they are mostly of varying relevance or reliability. For example, in Andreas Capellanus' late twelfth century book De amore ("On Love"), the author tries to explain the rules of courtship to a young ward. It consists of three books: the first shows example dialogues where men of different social classes try to convince noblewomen to sleep with them; the second shows the proceedings of likely fictional "Courts of Love," where Eleanor of Aquitaine and several of her female relatives create the "Rules of Love"; and concludes with reasons to dismiss love entirely, namely because all women are evil, etc etc. This work has been subject to extensive study over the years, but Bumke notes that we can't really take any of the arguments presented at face value or assume that that's actually what the author or anyone else believed at the time, not to mention that fact that different parts of the book directly conflict with each other (Bumke 362).

There are some sources that seem more helpful, though, like the aforementioned Roman de la Rose. It instructs potential suitors to "serve all ladies and honor them," "be pleasant and wise in speech," wear nicely tailored and stylish clothes, have a cheerful and playful disposition, and even to scrub under your fingernails (Bumke 374-5). It still doesn't really go into specifics, though, or even explain what it means by "serving ladies."

To Lancelot, this apparently means doing whatever any woman tells him to do (up to and including murder or ceasing to fight back in the middle of a duel while the other guy is still actively trying to kill him), but more in-depth discussion of this topic can be found in Ulrich von Liechtenstein's early thirteenth century, aptly named poem, The Service of Ladies (Frauendienst). The narrator (presumably Ulrich's alter ego?) is, on paper, the archetypical chivalric hero: he serves as a page to his Lady in his youth, writes her beautiful poetry, and, when he's older, becomes a celebrated jouster and wins several tournaments under her flag to try to win her approval… but, there's a fine line between being the 'perfect, courtly gentleman' and a pathetic incel sex pest – and, namely, that line is if the Lady you're obsessed with is just not into you. She even tells him several times that the best way for him to "serve" her is to stop his service entirely and leave her alone. Still, he never listens and continually threatens to commit suicide if she doesn't have sex with him.

In her 2003 book Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature, author Lisa Renée Perfetti argues that The Service of Ladies is meant to be a parody of the typical Minnesang (the German equivalent of courtly poems), with Ulrich serving as a sort of puppet who acts automatically according to defined tropes, rather than the world as it actually exists, resulting in him running around like a Love-drunk fool. Similarly, in these stories, the Lady was basically expected to reject her potential lover to protect her honor and dignity; at least, that is, until he was arbitrarily deemed "worthy" of her Love. In other words, while women were arbitrarily put on a pedestal and sometimes literally worshipped, they weren't actually treated as individual human beings, instead being reduced to passive objects or little more than trophies symbolizing men's prowess on the battlefield or used as a carrot on a stick for his spiritual journey or whatever else. The joke here is that this Lady isn't just politely, temporarily declining the male love interest's affections as she would be expected to by the genre, but instead outright rejects him, and all other potential suitors, as well.

The genre's not-so-hidden complete disregard for women's humanity is put much more succinctly in this example discussed in Bumke's book (mentioned earlier):

In the French Lai du lecheor, the ladies at court debated why the knights were so courtly and so brave: "Why are they good knights? Why do they love tournaments? Why do the young lords arm themselves? Why do they wear new clothes? Why do they hand out their jewelry, their ribbons and their rings? Why are they noble-minded and kind? Why do they beware of doing evil? Why do they love to woo, to caress, and to embrace?" The answer was: "for a single thing only," and that was con (from Lat. cunnus "vagina") "All good deeds are performed for it." (406-7)

This actually made me gag when I read it and I think it encapsulates what I've been agonizing over in writing this essay: while I do feel a certain draw towards "masculinity" / "chivalry" or whatever you want to call it, I cannot get over the fact that these men really just do NOT see women as fully human!

Every medieval story (and frankly still every part of modern-day life, as well) is saturated with this background radiation of misogyny, that you're just expected to somehow ignore or forget to be able to enjoy anything. Even with Lancelot, Ruth Cline tells us in her introduction about the "old custom" of Arthur's Kingdom, where "a knight who wins a lady in combat from her defender is entitled to possess her without consideration of her wishes or marital status" (xxv). The only thing that saves Queen Guinevere from this fate is that the foreign King (whose son abducted her) is personally against this practice (namely because he's against adultery). Still, when Lancelot rescues her, he too expects to be "rewarded" for his efforts…

So, the horribleness of medieval men is well established, but what does this have to do with modern women and their relationships with other women?

We've already talked about the modern butch identity a bit, but let's go back a bit further than that: in turn of the century Paris, Anglo-French author Renée Vivien, along with fellow author Natalie Clifford Barney, aimed to create a new woman / lesbian-focused literary canon, based off various tropes and archetypes from history or mythology. As feminist author Karla Jay explains in her 1988 double biography of the women, The Amazon and the Page, both were particularly interested in the role of the medieval page (which was basically one of the earlier stages on the path to become a full-fledged knight).

Again, like the medieval chivalric heroes we just talked about, their idea of the archetypal page seems to more resemble what we'd consider a Bard, in modern ttrpg terms, than a Knight or Paladin: that is, both fantasized about kneeling before a powerful, unattainable woman and ceaselessly yearning in a show of "devotion, humiliation, and unquestioning subservience," focusing more on drama than combat or anything like that (Jay 89). While Barney was apparently more interested in the theatricality of dressing up and loudly declaring your love for a woman (sometimes even with a full orchestra in tow (14)), Vivien was attracted by themes of mixed submission and despair.

Here's an excerpt from Vivien's 1904 roman à clef, A Woman Appeared to Me (Une femme m'apparut…), showing how her persona responds when first meeting Barney's stand-in, Vally:

"You aren't at all the person I dreamed of, and yet I find in you the incarnation of my most remote desires. You are less beautiful and more strange than my dream. I love you and I am already certain you will never love me. You are the suffering that makes happiness contemptible. I saw you today for the first time and already I am the shadow of your shadow. How I love your moonstones, those jewels that fall on your breast like tears of light. Beneath the folds of your silver gauze gown I divine the beauty of your naked body. Everything to which you have lent your enigmatic grace enchants me. I adore your mysteriously pale hair. I shall be whatever you make of me. For you are the marvelous Priestess of some faith I do not yet know." (1-2)

There's no dueling for the Lady's honor going on here or anything like that, but it's certainly the same vibe of religious devotion and poetics that we saw with Lancelot and Ulrich! We see similar themes through a lot of Vivien's poetry; like, in "This House of the Past," the narrator lives in a dilapidated house waiting for her love to return, promising to worship her and obey her every command. Also, in her aptly named, "I was a smitten page," the narrator talks about her past life and romance with a haughty Florentine dame, as well as "singing under her balcony." Personally, like I said before, I'm a big fan of these sorts of romantic tropes and angst, honestly!

Still, the problem here from a feminist perspective, Jay argues, is that you cannot effectively separate symbols from their social contexts and underlying assumptions (xv). This is still putting women on a pedestal, and it is just as dehumanizing as you see in earlier courtly stories; the object of the narrator's affections is incidental, and we care more about the narrator's actions and thoughts than the Lady herself. Still, although the inherent unequal power dynamics adapted from courtly epics are still harmful, the fact that this scenario is being played out by two women means that the roles are "potentially reversible," which Jay believes mitigates some of the damage (93). There's one hitch in this idea, though: both women wanted to be the supplicant page, but neither wanted to be the ethereal maiden. As Jay continues to say:

It is little wonder that Barney and Vivien chose for themselves the role of the page and the suitor, for while it offered little in the way of direct satisfaction, at least it implied the possibility of choice and change. (Jay 94) [1]

Certainly, I don't have to detail how disadvantaged women have been throughout history, right? Although in the western world, a lot of progress has been made on this front, we still can't escape the cultural baggage of this. For example, in media, female characters tend to be portrayed very shallowly, demonized for the smallest things, are outright non-existent or unimportant, or any number of other issues, ultimately culminating in young women finding it difficult to relate to fictional women and turning to male characters instead. This is particularly noticeable if you look at fanfiction: according to centeroftheselights' summer 2023 report of the top 100 all-time most popular ships on Archive of Our Own, only 24 names out of 202 belonged to women (a little under 12%). I will probably end up writing more about this in the future, but I still just find this self-alienation to be really sad, all around.

We get a different view of "female masculinity" in Renée Vivien's 1904 short story, "Prince Charming" (Prince Charmant), where a woman, pretending to be her brother, is shown to be the ideal suitor, having a unique understanding of what other women want – that is, the true "Prince Charming" is another woman, particularly an androgynous one whose "masculine attire permits her to pursue adventure while her underlying female nature allows a level of gentilesse impossible to a male knight" (Jay 96). I'm… not quite sure what to make of that assessment at this time and I'm gonna outsource that to the future me, writing the next chapter.

Still, there's one more old book I wanted to bring up before we close up shop tonight: book two of Anna Elisabet Weirauch's The Scorpion (Der Skorpion) trilogy (1919 – 1932), follows Metta, extremely introverted and basically the human embodiment of anxiety, as she reluctantly accepts an invite to a gay bar in Berlin, then ends up going to a subsequent house party. Having been sheltered her whole life up to this point, she is obviously out of sorts here and a woman in a page outfit offers to bring her to visit Nora, the de facto 'Queen' of the group, to help her calm down. This initial visit is eventually cut short when Metta becomes overwhelmed by all the commotion and music going on (as well as the revelation that the elegant Nora, the Queen who presides over these parties from her throne in the balcony is in a wheelchair and chronically ill – again, she's very sheltered), but Metta soon finds herself drawn back to the house, its inhabitants becoming intertwined with her life.

These new friends seem fine and happy on the surface, but are all secretly suffering from some sort of deep, burning angst: for example, one guy is prostituting himself to pay for his lover's education, one woman is passionately in love with a heartless, cruel woman, etc. So, what is happening with Nora and her cheerful page, Sophie? Metta asks about this and is told that Sophie's "mania," the one thing that keeps her going, is her connection to Nora and, since she never leaves the other woman's side, she's the happiest a person can be. But no one is really sure about Nora's state of mind…

There's a part later, in Chapter XIV, where Metta and Sophie go for a walk through the woods after Metta comes by to vent about being stalked. It starts with them talking about the role Nora plays in Sophie's life; not only giving her a reason to wake up in the morning and return home at night after work, but helping her control all the little things in life, as well, like finding coping mechanisms besides resorting to drugs and alcohol like she did before she met Nora. Then, Sophie says that Metta should leave this town and see what else the world has to offer; possibly even find her own Nora, or at least another closeknit group of friends where she won't have to deal with anymore crazy, lovesick women breaking into her room, high on opium and threating to shoot herself. (This is a wild book, by the way, my dudes…)

As they continue their walk in the woods, though, they have an amazing time and start imagining their future lives together with Metta moving into the house nearby theirs. The night culminates in an accidental yet incredibly passionate kiss, after Sophie saves Metta from tripping over some tree roots. Metta is so warm and happy and in love, daydreaming about snuggling on the train back home together… But Sophie has completely withdrawn:

“I told you something this morning, Mettie,” she began awkwardly, stammering, and yet it sounded as if she had spent the last hour learning it by heart. “Just recollect it as if it were the only thing I had said or done. I told you to go away from here! And now I beg you if you bear me the least—good will—'Go away from here!' I've known for almost thirty years that I cannot live without Nora. I've proved it to myself. I went to the bad in every sense when I lost contact with her, and I became a human being and a worker at the moment she came to me. I have lived for five years in the conviction that I am unequivocally happy. I dare not let anything shake that conviction. I dare not ever think that there is another possibility in life for me than Nora. She would feel it and she would go. She endures her sufferings solely because she is an absolute necessity to me. She would end it all if she knew that I was happy for as much as an hour without her. Perhaps you like us so well that it will be a real sacrifice to give up your friendly relations with us. I would almost say, I hope so.” She bowed her head very low so that Metta should not see the quivering of her lips. "But I know that you will make this sacrifice because you have an intimation of what is involved."

They take on these roles of the all-knowing Queen and her supplicant page in a circle of endless love, mutual devotion and self-sacrifice, where Sophie exists solely for Nora, because Nora exists solely for Sophie... Gah, this dynamic just really gets me! [2]

There's something else we should take note of here, also: Meghan C. Paradis’s article, “Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany,” explains how this novel was written during a time with a critical shift in the conception, both personal and societal, of lesbians. One of these major beliefs was Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s idea of sexual inversion, in which homosexuals were either a “third sex” or “souls born in the wrong body” – this is what we see with Sophie (in her page outfit, often going interchangeably by the masculine form of her name, Sophus) and many other denizens of the Weimar gay bar scene, shown throughout this trilogy. The other was Freud’s belief that homosexuality comes from psychological factors, such as being mistreated or traumatized as a child (Paradis). I think Paradis summarizes it really nicely, at the end:

In early contemporary Germany, a lesbian could only explain herself as either a damaged woman or not a woman at all.

As painful as this is, it is critical to remember that these understandings resonated with many contemporary lesbians, and helped them make sense of themselves, when no other explanations were imaginable.

Future chapters will go into this in more detail, but I think that idea's just a nice way to end us off for now...


  1. Oh, by the way, did you catch that bit about "offering little in the way of direct satisfaction" in the above quote? That's another aspect that has been added to the courtly myth at some point in the modern age, especially in regard to chivalrous female figures: chastity and sacred virginity. This is quite literally the exact opposite of what we saw with medieval courtly poets, and yet, this obsession with chastity has become pretty much the defining trait of courtly romance! This becomes a whole weird Catholic-thing, by the way – I'll be talking about it more in the next chapter, but it's also a major factor in everything else we're going to talk about today, so keep that in mind.

  2. Seriously, I have been insane about this couple and this scene in the woods and, like, everything else in this book for years now, but it seems like no one else has read it and I just think that's so sad!! Like, if you want to read about Sophie and Nora's mutual, loving codependence, unbelievably toxic lesbians, and a painfully relatable, anxious narrator who eventually comes into her own, please please please read this, holy shit! I really do think about it a lot, even years later…

Works Cited

Bumke, Joachim. Courtly culture : literature and society in the high middle ages. University of California Press, 1991. Online.

Jay, Karla. The Amazon and the Page: Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien. Indiana University Press, 1988. Online.

von Liechtenstein, Ulrich. The Service of Ladies. Translated by J.W. Thomas. University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Online.

Paradis, Meghan C. "Shifting Understandings of Lesbianism in Imperial and Weimar Germany," Scholarly Undergraduate Research Journal at Clark (SURJ): Vol. 2, Article 4. 2016. Online.

Perfetti, Lisa Renée. Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature. University of Michigan Press, 2003. Online.

Persistence: All Ways Butch and Femme. Edited by Ivan E. Coyote and Zena Sharman. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011. Online.

de Troyes, Chrétien. Lancelot, or the knight of the cart. Translated by Ruth Harwood Cline. University of Georgia Press, 1990. Digital.

Vivien, Renée. A Woman Appeared to Me. Translated by Jeanette Foster. Naiad Press, 1982. Online.

Weirauch, Anna Elisabet. The Scorpion. Translated by Whittaker Chambers. Olympia Press, 2007. Digital.