Ide and Olive

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Ide and Olive

La chanson d'Yde et Olive or The Song of Ide and Olive is a late medieval French verse narrative centering on incest, a cross-dressing, transgendered protagonist, female same-sex erotic desire, and a marriage between women. The story is analogous to the Ovidian narrative of Iphis and Ianthe. However, it appears in a quite different context as a continuation of the epic poem Huon de Bordeaux. Consequently the focus on metamorphosis is subordinated to a preoccupation with genealogy.

The Song of Ide and Olive begins with the flight in male guise of the beautiful Princess Ide from the incestuous desire of her father, the King of Aragon. She eventually enters the service of the emperor in Rome. After performing great feats of bravery, she is knighted and rewarded with the hand of his daughter. After Ide submits to the emperor's command to marry, the couple make love (critics debate the extent to which the relationship is consummated), and, following Ide's revelation that she is a woman, Olive vows to keep Ide's secret and to remain true. Their conversation is unfortunately overheard but they are saved by divine intervention: Ide is miraculously transformed into a man. Olive conceives and gives birth to a son. Ide is crowned emperor and eventually returns to Aragon where he also inherits his father's kingdom.

Within this text, inheritance and class play crucial parts in the construction and containment of transgressive sexualities and gender play. Incest is represented as disrupting patrilineage and thus as threatening the established social order. Florence's behavior is depicted as monstrous and condemned out of hand. In contrast, female cross-dressing and female same-sex desire are presented sympathetically, if not entirely positively. Ide has no choice but to run away and to live in disguise and her success on the battlefield is akin to that of any chivalric hero. In the Old French text, Ide's gender change is signalled by the adoption of the masculine form of her name both by Ide herself and by the narrator. Remarkably, Ide seems to alter in more than just her appearance; her values, attributes, and body metamorphose as well. Olive's desire for the valorous knight (reciprocated by Ide) is unexpected in a medieval context and also troubling but, strikingly, not represented as damnable. Yet, when it becomes evident to the emperor that the union of Ide and Olive cannot produce an heir, the transvestism and amorous relationship between the women become problematic and the narrative reaches a crisis. However, with Ide's transformation, normative gender roles and heterosexual structures reassert themselves.

Later adaptations include: a dramatic adaptation from fourteenth-century Paris; a French prose text produced in 1454 (during Joan of Arc's [1412–1431] rehabilitation) and printed in the early-sixteenth century; and a very close English translation of the French prose text published in the first half of the sixteenth century, twice reprinted in 1570 and 1601. The existence of these various versions illustrates not only the popularity of the narrative, but also its problematic status, as the adapters and translators develop different strategies to try to resolve the perceived confusions in gender and sexuality and to dispel its subversive potential.

see also Body, Theories of; Gender Roles: I. Overview; Gender, Theories of; Incest; Manliness; Middle Ages.


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                                                  Diane Watt