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Songs of the Women Trouveres
Yale University PressCopyright © 2001 Yale University
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IntroductionThe Case for the Women Trouveres
We bring together here the songs of all medieval women whose names are recorded in the rubrics or tables of contents of various Old French manuscripts as composers of songs or as participants in jeux-partis and tensons (debate poems). The songs by women whose names are known are relatively few in number, but there were undoubtedly many more women composers, and whereas their names are lost to us, some of their songs are probably still extant, though bereft of proper attribution. Accordingly, we have chosen to include a generous sampling of anonymous works-chansons de femme (women's songs), rondeaux, and motets-both because they offer a wide variety of female voices and because some of these pieces may well have been composed by women. We hope in this way to rectify a situation that for many years has denied women their rightful place in the pantheon of Old French medieval lyric poets.
For, as surprising as it may seem, the very title of our anthology, Songs of the Women Trouveres, makes a bold, even controversial, statement. Although nearly all scholars now acknowledge the existence of medieval women who composed poetry in other romance languages (Occitan, Spanish, Italian, Galician-Portuguese), most have accepted without question Pierre Bec's contention that none of the songs composed in northern France in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries are the product of a woman trouvere (Bec 1979: 236). A number of Old French songs feature women's voices (feminite textuelle), particularly in the lyric type known as the chanson de femme. However, feminite textuelle does not necessarily imply female authorship (feminite genetique), to use a distinction introduced by Bec himself (1979: 235-36). The majority of these songs are anonymous, but because most of the ones that are attributed in the manuscripts are credited to a male author, Bec has concluded that no Old French songs of the period in question were composed by women. Although many have agreed with Bec, the literary history of the past 125 years includes a few dissenters who base their opinion on evidence that until recently was either ignored or not seriously considered. A brief summary of that history is instructive, as it highlights the major arguments for and against the historical existence of the women trouveres.
One of the first scholars to enter the fray was Alfred Jeanroy (1889). Stating that medieval sources mention French women trouveres only infrequently, he went on to express his conviction that none had actually existed. Citing the unreliability of manuscript rubrics and the probability of false attribution, he found it implausible, moreover, that a woman should have surrendered so wholeheartedly her traditional role by deciding to compose poetry. Why should she have wished to step down from the pedestal to which the male courtly poets had raised her? In any case, he thought, women poets would have infused their poems with more tenderness, emotion, and especially discretion. Clearly, Jeanroy's refusal to acknowledge the existence of women poets reflected an attitude he owed to his time-the Victorian conception of a woman's place in society. Joseph Bedier apparently shared that attitude: he offered specious arguments similar to Jeanroy's to deny the existence of women trouveres, and he worked hard to explain away certain manuscript attributions to women (Bedier 1910: 912-15).
Some scholars have simply abstained from debating the issue, seeing no reason to question the validity of manuscript attributions. As early as 1581, the humanist Claude Fauchet entered "Doete de Troies chanteresse & Trouverre" and "Damoiselle Sainte des Prez" in his repertory of French poets living before 1300 (Fauchet 158, 192). In 1780, Jean-Benjamin de Laborde listed "Diegnau, de Lille, (Marotte on Marie)" among the known trouveres. He presented the text of "Mout m'abelist quant je voi revenir" (our song no. 15) by matter-of-factly noting: "Il nous reste une seule chanson d'elle, que l'on trouve dans le manuscrit du Roi & dans celui de Noailles" (Only a single song of hers has come down to us; it is found in the manuscrit du Roi and that of Noailles) (Laborde 1780, 2: 185). In 1839, Arthur Dinaux was pleased to include in his anthology of trouveres from Flanders and Tournai "Marie Diegnau" (Maroie de Diergnau), whom he characterized as one of the few women who had been willing to take up "the bards' lyre." Although he regretted that only one piece had been preserved (song no. 15), he was convinced that Marie must have composed several others. Arthur Langfors, who published his edition of jeux-partis in 1926, expressed even greater confidence in the existence of women poets, for he believed that all the parts in jeux-partis giving voice to both sexes had been composed by actual male and female poets alternating as speakers and interlocutors.
Manuscript rubrics and tables of contents indicating female authorship have seemed credible as well to a few scholars publishing in the late twentieth century. In his study devoted to the lyric death-lament, Samuel Rosenberg (1983) included an analysis of a plainte attributed to the Duchesse de Lorraine (song no. 18); the piece appears in all three of his anthologies (Rosenberg and Tischler 1981; Rosenberg, Tischler, and Grossel 1995; Rosenberg, Switten, and Le Vot 1998). The first two also incorporate two jeux-partis featuring three named women participants: the Dame de la Chaucie and Sainte des Prez (song no. 3), and the Dame de Gosnai (song no. 4).
Musicologist Maria Coldwell (1986), secure in her knowledge of documentary evidence attesting to the existence of female musicians in France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, accepts as a natural corollary that there were women who composed songs, and she sees no reason to question the manuscript attributions of various songs and jeux-partis to women trouveres. Because her focus is primarily on music, she highlights the songs for which music is extant and publishes transcriptions of the melodies of a love lyric by Maroie de Diergnau (song no. 15), a prayer to the Virgin by Blanche de Castille (song no. 36), and a jeu-parti between Dame Margot and Dame Maroie (song no. 1).
In the late 1970s and the 1980s, in the midst of the debate regarding the existence of the trobairitz (women troubadours in Occitania), a new wave of predominantly French critics challenged the validity of female authorship in medieval France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and endeavored to prove not only that there had been no women trouveres but even that all female voices in the lyric poetry of northern France during that period were constructs by male poets. In a highly influential article on the trobairitz, Pierre Bec formulated two apparent paradoxes: first, that women wrote "troubadour" songs (that is, songs in conformity with a male-dominated lyric system) while men wrote women's songs (chansons de femme); and second, that there were in Occitania several women poets but very few chansons de femme, while in northern France there were a number of chansons de femme but no women poets (Bec 1979: 236). Bec's argument aimed not only to erase the women trouveres but also to diminish the accomplishment of the women troubadours, because he sought to prove that the trobairitz' originality resided almost exclusively in their exploitation of themes from chansons de femme-and all these pieces, according to Bec, were composed by men. Although Bec cited isolated cases of women who composed poetry in other Romance languages, he was adamant about the absence (or at least silence) of women trouveres in northern France; indeed, he did not so much as allude to the cases where a few songs and jeux-partis are attributed to women, nor did he mention the anonymous women partners and named judges in several jeux-partis. In his anthology of the lyric poetry of northern France, which he had published a year earlier, not only did he not attribute a single song to a woman, he failed to mention in his notes cases where the various manuscripts containing a particular song offered contradictory attributions. For example, if a song was attributed to a woman in one manuscript, to a man in another, and remained anonymous in a third, he routinely chose to attribute it to the male poet and did not mention the other manuscripts.
Like Bec, Peter Dronke states in his Women Writers of the Middle Ages (1984: 97) that there are no extant poems by women from northern France, England, Spain, or Portugal. (As he does not mention the manuscript attributions to women, it is not clear whether he finds this evidence unconvincing or is simply ignorant of it.) Nevertheless, he asserts that because there were jograresas in the Iberian peninsula, there must have been women who composed poems, adding that if these pieces were not chosen for preservation, it is because "we are much at the mercy of the selectors-the predominantly male world of chroniclers and copyists" (98). Apparently, he did not know about the French jougleresses discussed in Coldwell's essay (which postdates his book by two years), but if he had, presumably he would have had to posit the existence of women trouveres in northern France. For although he notes that the extant cantigas de amigo from Spain and Portugal were composed by male trovadores, he is convinced that such pieces were often performed by women (jograresas), adding that "it seems wholly unlikely that the jograresas did not compose as well: nowhere in Europe do we know of any hard and fast demarcation between composing and performing" (98). Indeed, Dronke believes that women of all classes composed poetry, and he laments that the "love-poetry that women of the people composed" is lost to us: "Yet it is certain that they too composed, as well as recited and sang" (105). Nevertheless, he hesitates to attribute to women poets the female voices of the Occitan debate poems (tensos) that alternate male and female voices or feature only female voices, because "it is hard to identify characteristic women's thoughts and feelings or to distinguish these from the role-playing which is inseparable from genres of poetic debate" (98). He does not mention the northern French jeux-partis featuring women's voices, but if he had known of them, he would presumably have had the same hesitation about attributing those voices to women trouveres.
For some reason, the role-playing to which Dronke alludes seems in the minds of most scholars to be the province of male poets only, as Carol Nappholz and Simon Gaunt point out. Nappholz argues that the anonymous female voice in troubadour poetry was often the product of unacknowledged women poets (the "unsung women" of her book's title); she builds on Gaunt's observation that critics display little objectivity when assessing the status of anonymous voices in male-female tensos: male voices are considered to be real, while female voices are dismissed as fictional (Nappholz 1994: 7-8; Gaunt 1988: 302). Yet if men were able to invent women's voices, it stands to reason that women were just as capable of doing so (Bruckner et al. 1995: xli). After all, the trobairitz, according to Bec (1979, 1995), drew on themes they found in the chansons de femme-a natural choice, as these songs evoked situations of women in love. Most critics, even those who believe that the chansons de femme were all composed by men, concede that these songs were originally inspired by more archaic forms composed by women (Jeanroy 1889: 445; Dronke 1984: 98) and that women must have played an important role in the preservation and propagation of songs in which they were the central figure.
Although Bec's 1979 article on the trobairitz and the chansons de femme has attracted much attention over the past twenty years, it has been cited mostly by trobairitz scholars. Not until the 1990s did scholars begin to challenge Bec's contention that there were no women trouveres. This initiative was fueled in part by the appearance of a number of studies and critical editions devoted to the trobairitz. Indeed, it was in an article entitled "Some Recent Studies of Women in the Middle Ages, Especially in Southern Prance" that William Paden issued his plaintive challenge: "Who will provide us with a monograph on the women trouveres, including a study, all the texts (edited from the manuscripts), and the music?" (Paden 1992: 117 n. 24). In an article published that same year, Madeleine Tyssens made a major step in that direction. Noting the remarkable resurgence of interest in the women troubadours, she turned her attention to the women trouveres, whom she, too, felt had been unjustly neglected. Specifically, she objected to Bec's reduction of the Old French corpus of women's voices to the category of feminite textuelle, with utter disregard for the information furnished by the texts and the manuscript rubrics and indices that point occasionally to a female author (Tyssens 1992: 377). After analyzing this evidence, she came up with a corpus of twenty-five texts (thirteen chansons d 'amour and chansons de departie and twelve jeux-partis and tensons). It is curious that while protesting Bec's reduction of historical women to the abstraction of feminite textuelle, she chose to exclude from her corpus any texts that feature a male narrator or that do not include linguistic evidence (for example, inflections) of female authorship.
Another promising sign that the women trouveres are gaining recognition is that although they were not included in the twenty-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Sadie 1980), the more recent Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers devotes separate entries to five of them (all contributed by Maria Coldwell), namely, Blanche de Castille, the Duchesse de Lorraine (identified by Coldwell as Gertrude, wife of Thibaut I, Duke of Lorraine), Dame Margot and Dame Maroie (localized as "trouveres from Arras"), and Maroie de Dregnau de Lille (Sadie and Samuel 1994: 66, 289, 313, 315).
Our anthology, Songs of the Women Trouveres, which is at least a partial response to William Paden's challenge, is the latest contribution to the modest corpus of studies devoted to the women trouveres. Although this brief history has identified only a few scholars who have affirmed the existence of women poet-composers in northern France, a number of studies published in the past few decades on behalf of their counterparts in Occitania have prepared the way.
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