English Literature

Gender, Sexuality, and Difference Amazons

Gender, Sexuality, and Difference Amazons

Christine de Pisan, Boccaccio, and many medieval Troy stories told and retold the ancient tales about Amazons. In them the land of “Femynye” is said to be located (to the modern mind in typically inconsistent fashion) beyond China and near the Caspian Sea. Though similar to many other marvels in romances and travel narratives (see “The Far East,” p. 99), Amazons are distinguished in some accounts because they guard the ten lost tribes of Israel, Gog and Magog, from escaping the high hills that enclose them, and they refuse Alexander the Great (356–323 bce) entry to their land. According to the extant manuscripts of Sir John Mandeville’s Book and several other fifteenth-century sources, Mandeville was an English knight who left his native St. Albans to travel to the East in 1322 and returned near the time of writing his account, 1356 or 1357. However, it seems more likely that the text originated in France about this time, its author making extensive use of available pilgrimage narratives, romances, and encyclopedias. The Book was quickly translated into English, Latin, and several other languages; its popularity enormous, it survives in approximately two hundred and fifty manuscripts and many early printed versions.

About forty English manuscripts and fragments survive as well as several early printings. The Prose Life of Alexander is primarily based on the pseudo-Callisthenic Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni, written by Leo, archpope of Naples, in the tenth century. It is one of several versions of the popular story of Alexander to survive in English. A kind of mirror for princes, romance, and epic, Alexander narratives attracted medieval writers and audiences because of Alexander’s heroic and human qualities: his wisdom, his success in defeating eastern kings, and his spectacular feats, but also his rise and premature death, a confirmation of the fleeting presence of worldly glory and enjoyment of sensuality. wil not suffre no men amonges hem to ben here sovereynes. For sumtyme ther was a kyng in that contrey, and men maryed as in other contreyes. And so befelle that the kyng had werre with hem of Sichie,3 the whiche kyng highte Colepeus4 that was slayn in bataylle and alle the gode blood of his reme. And whan the queen and alle the othere noble ladyes sawen that thei weren alle wydewes and that alle the rialle blood was lost, thei armed hem and as creatures out of wytt thei slowen all the men of the contrey that weren laft, for thei wolden that alle the wommen weren wydewes as the queen and thei weren. And fro that tyme hiderwardes thei nevere wolden suffren man to dwelle amonges hem lenger than seven dayes and seven nyghtes, ne that no child that were male scholde duelle amonges hem lenger than he were noryscht and thanne sente to his fader. And whan thei wil have ony companye of man, than thei drawen hem towardes the londes marchynge next5 to hem.

And than thei [have] here loves that usen hem, and thei duellen with hem an eight dayes or ten, and thanne gon hom ayen. And yif thei have ony knave child, thei kepen it a certeyn tyme and than senden it to the fadir whan he can gon allone and eten be himself or elles thei sleen it. And yif it be a femele, thei don awey that on pappe6 with an hote iren. And yif it be a womman of gret lynage, thei don awey the left pappe that thei may the better beren a scheeld. And yif it be a womman on fote, thei don awey the [right] pappe for to scheten with bowe Turkeys, for they schote wel with bowes. In that lond thei have a queen that governeth alle that lond, and alle thei ben obeyssant to hire. And alweys thei maken here queen by electoun that is most worthy in armes, for thei ben right gode werryoures and orped7 and wyse, noble, and worthi. And thei gon often tyme in sowd8 to help of other kynges in here werres for gold and sylver as othere sowdyoures9 don, and thei meyntenen hemself right vygouresly. This lond of Amazoyne is an ile alle envirouned with the see saf in two places where ben two entrees. And beyonde that water duellen the men that ben here paramoures and hire loves, where thei gon to solacen hem whan thei wole.

Fra theine Alexander sent a lettre till Talifride,10 quene of Amazon, of this tenour: “Kyng of kynges, and lorde of lordes, Alexander, the son of Godd Amon and the Quene Olympias, un-to Talifride, the quene of Amazon, joy. The grete bataylles that we hafe hadd wit Kyng Darius, and how we hafe conquered all his rewme and his lordchipes, we trowe be noghte unknawen un-to yow.11 And also how we hafe foghten with Porus, the kyng of Inde, and his cheeffe citee wonnen. And also wit many other folkes, and thay ware never of powere to agaynestande us, the whilke we suppose be noghte unknawen un-to yowe. Whare-fore, we sende yow worde and commandeth yow that ye sende us tribute if ye will that wee com noghte to yow to do yow disesse.” And un-to this lettre Talifride made ansuere by lettre one this wyse: “Talyfride, quene of Amazon, wit other grete ladys of oure rewme, un-tille Alexander, kynge of Macedoyne, joy. We hafe wel herde telle of the hye witt that es in the, thurgh whilke thou hase in mynde thynges that ere passede, and disposeth thynges that ere present, and knaweth thynges that ere to come. Avyse the wele tharefore are thou come till us, what trebulacionnes and disesse may falle the in thi commynge.

For thare was never nane yit that werreyed agaynes us that ne he had schame thare-offe at the ende. And thare-fore take hede to thi last ende. For grete schame it es till a wyse man thurgh indiscrecion to falle in mescheffe. “Bot if it be lykynge to the to knawe our conversacyon and oure habitacion, we declare it un-to the be oure present lettres that oure habitacion es in ane ile that es closede aboute wit a grete rever that nother hase bygynnynge nor endynnge. Bot on a syde we hafe a strayte entree. And the nowmer of women that duelleth ther-in es 214,000 that ere noghte filed wit12 men. For oure husbandes duelleth noghte amangeth us ne no nother man, bot on the tother syde of the rever. And ilke a yere we make a solempne feste in the wirchipe of Jubiter thirty days. And than we go till oure husbandes and duelleth wit tham other thirty dayes, and hase oure luste and oure disporte to-gedir as kynde askes. And if any of us consayfe and bere a childe, if it be a male, the modere kepis it seven yere and than sendes it to the fadere. And if scho bere a mayden childe, the moder haldes it with hir and teches it oure maners. “When we goo to werre agayne youre enemys, we ere one hundred thousand rydand one horse wele armede. And sum of us hase bowes and arowes, and sum speres, and other diverse wapyne. And the remanent kepeth oure ile. And when we come wit the victorye, oure husbandes does us grete wirchipe. “And thare-fore if thou come agaynes us, we late the witt that we will feghte wit the at all oure myghte. And if it happen that thou hafe the victory of us, wirchipe sall it nane be to the bi-cause thou hase discomfit13 women. And if we discomfit the, it sall be an heghe wirchippe till us that we may discomfit so wirchipfull an emperour, and to the it sall be a hye reprove. Where-fore, we sygnifie un-to the by oure lettres that thou come noghte agaynes us for sekerly thare may grete dysese come thare-offe, that peraventure thou knaweth noghte now offe at this tymme.” When Alexander hadd redd this lettre, he began to lawghe.

And onane he garte14 writte another lettre and sent it to Talyfride, whare-offe the tenour was this: “Alexander, kyng of kynges and of lordes, the son of Godd Amon and the Qwene Olympias, to Talyfride, quene of Amazon, and the other ladys of the same rewme: joy. We late yow weite that thre parties of the werld – that es to say, Asye, Affric, and Europe – we hafe conquered and made subjects un-till us, and thare was never nane of tham that myghte agaynstande oure powere. And if we now suld noghte be of powere to feghte with yowe, it ware ane heghe schame till us. Never-the-lesse, for als mekill als we lufe your conversacion, we consell that ye co[m]e forthe of your ile and your husbondes wit yow, and appere in oure presence. For we swere yow bi God Amon oure Fader and by all oure goddes, that ye sall hafe na disesse of us. Bot gyffeth us sumwhat in name of tribute, and we schall fynd yow and youre Amazonns that come wit yow horse ynowe. And when you listees for to wende hame agayne, ye schall hafe gude leve.” And when the Amazons hadd redd this lettre, thay went to consell and thoghte it was beste for to ascent un-till hym. And than thay sent hym ten stedes, the beste that myghte be funden in any cuntree, and ten other horse, the beste that myghte be geten, and a grete sum of golde. And Talifride hir selfe and other ladys wit hir went un-till hym and accorded wit hym, and went hame agayne wonder glade and blythe.

3 thoughts on “Gender, Sexuality, and Difference Amazons

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.