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Kissing Cousins: Incest and Sex Change in Tristan de Nanteuil

Chansons de Geste
Chansons de Geste
Chansons de Geste

Kissing Cousins: Incest and Sex Change in Tristan de Nanteuil

Karen Adams

Newberry Essays in Medieval and Early Modern Studies: Volume 7, (2013)

Abstract

How can a Saracen woman become a Christian man? The anonymous author of the late chanson de geste Tristan de Nanteuil depicts just such an imaginary situation through the character Blanchandin(e), who begins as a young Saracen princess and ends as Blanchandin, a Christian man. In this text, Blanchandine‘s sex change does not simply alter gender and sexual identity, but is closely intertwined with religious and family identity. Tristan de Nanteuil and the cycle of poems to which it belongs place great importance on a genealogical narrative and the idea of an identity based on family, and each successive generation is featured in installments of the geste de Nanteuil. The expansive plot of Tristan de Nanteuil (over 23,000 lines of verse) details the family‘s trials and tribulations and manages to cover the adventures of four generations living at the time of Charlemagne. Family members constantly disperse, reunite, and disperse again, all the while fighting Saracens, with whom they sometimes intermarry as well.

Given that the text depicts two instances of cross dressing and one miraculous female-to-male sex change (Tristan‘s grandmother, Aye d‘Avignon, also cross dresses), Tristan de Nanteuil has particularly interested scholars of French and gender studies since the 1980s. While numerous scholars have interrogated the text‘s representation of sex, gender, and same-sex desire, few have studied the sections of the narrative that depict cross dressing and sex change in relation to the themes that populate the text as a whole, and the further plot developments that follow after the sex change. In this paper I re-examine Blanchandine‘s sex change in light of its relation to the issue of incest; as I will show, incest is directly related to the sex change and also punctuates the narrative at other points. Tristan de Nanteuil depicts two sexual and/or romantic relationships between cousins: Blanchandine/Blanchandin marries her first cousin once removed, Clarinde, when she is still female but cross dressing as a man. After their marriage, Blanchandine miraculously becomes male through God‘s intervention.

Click here to read this article from Newberry Essays in Medieval and Early Modern Studies

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