Beyond Debate: Gender in Play in Old French Courtly Fiction

  • Roberta L. Krueger
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Many courtly fictions, thought of as a site for articulating and promulgating normative gender roles, also debated, and sometimes (temporarily) destabilized, gender identities. Just at a time when formal debates about women circulated in Latin and Old French, a number of courtly texts questioned the nexus of gender, language, and power. Marie de France’s Guigemar, the chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette, and Heldris de Cornualle’s Roman de Silence serve as illustration.


Burning Europe Posit Hunt Triad 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    On medieval notions of sexual difference, see Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Differences in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On romance’s literary complexity in its twelfth-century origins, see Matilda Bruckner, Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth, and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions (Philadelphia: University of Pennyslvania Press, 1993).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See for example Kathryn Gravdal’s study of the normalization and aestheticization of rape in French lyric and narrative, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Studies emphasizing the complexity and instability of gender roles in Old French narrative include E. Jane Burns, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Burns, “Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or as Lady/Man,” in Constructing Medieval Sexuality, ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 111–34; my own “Questions of Gender in Old French Courtly Romance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, ed. Roberta L. Krueger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 132–49; Simon Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); and the collection of essays edited by Karen J. Taylor, Gender Transgressions: Crossing the Normative Barrier in Old French Literature (New York: Garland, 1998).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Studies of cross-dressing in Old French literature include Michèle Perret, “Travesties et transsexuelles: Ydes, Silence, Grisandole, Blanchandine,” Romance Notes 25.3 (1985): 328–40; Valerie R. Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe (New York: Garland, 1996); Michelle Szkilnik, “The Grammar of the Sexes in Medieval French Romance,” in Gender Transgressions, ed. Taylor, pp. 62–88; Keith Busby, “Plus acesmez qu’une popine: Male Cross-Dressing in Medieval French Narrative,” in Gender Transgressions, ed. Taylor, pp. 46–59; and the articles cited below on the Roman de Silence.Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See Catherine Brown, “Muliebriter: Doing Gender in the Letters of Heloise,” in Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Jane Chance (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), p. 25–51. I use the example of Heloise advisedly, since the Latin text in which her letters appear is neither francophone nor courtly. But Heloise might arguably have been familiar with vernacular courtly traditions. The rhetorical sophistication and self-consciousness of her work find parallels in the writings of her successors, authors of courtly fictions.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    For example, Robert de Blois’s books of conduct for princes and ladies are compiled in the same manuscript as Floris et Lyriopé, a narrative in which a man cross-dresses as a woman to seduce his beloved, thereby explicitly bringing sexual difference into play, as I demonstrated in “Constructing Sexual Identities in Robert de Blois’s Didactic Poetry,” in Women Readers and the Ideology of Gender in Old French Verse Romance, pp. 156–182. The critical function of the literature of conduct is further examined in an anthology edited by Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark, Medieval Conduct: Texts, Theories, Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    See Burns, “Refashioning Courtly Love: Lancelot as Ladies’ Man or as Lady/Man?” and Burns, “Speculum of the Courtly Lady: Women, Love, and Clothes,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 29:2 (1999): 253–92.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Helen Solterer, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995); see especially chapter 4, pp. 97–130.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    For editions and translations of selected texts that praise and blame women, see Three Medieval Views of Women, ed. and trans. Gloria K. Fiero, Wendy Pfeffer and Mathé Allain (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989), and Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. Alcuin Blamires, Karen Pratt, and C. W. Marx (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). A critical study of profeminine arguments in formal “defense” texts and in other literary manifestations is Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    See Rupert T. Pickens, “The Poetics of Androgyny in the Lais of Marie de France: Yonec, Milun, and the General Prologue,” in Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture, ed. Donald Maddox and Sara Sturn-Maddox (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), pp. 211–19; and Matilda Bruckner, “Of Men and Beasts in Bisclavret,” Romanic Review 82 (1991): 251–69.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    “Guigemar,” Lais de Marie de France, ed. Karl Warnke, tr. Laurence Harf-Lancner, Lettres Gothiques (Paris: Librairie Générale Française, 1990), ll. 229–45.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    R.W Hanning, “Courtly Contexts for Urban Cultus: Responses to Ovid in Chrétien’s Cligès and Marie’s Guigemar,” Symposium 35.1 (1981): 35.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Nancy Vine Durling, “The Knot, the Belt, and the Making of Guigemar,” Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts 6 (1991): 35.Google Scholar
  16. 22.
    Critics who have commented upon the symbolic importance of this word-play include Durling, “The Knot, the Belt, and the Making of Guigemar,” 39–46; Milena Mikhailova, Le Présent de Marie (Paris: Diderot, 1996), pp. 78–80; and R. Howard Bloch, “The Medieval Text—‘Guigemar’—as a Provocation to the Discipline of Medieval Studies,” Romanic Review 79.1 (1988): 72–73.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    The sexual ambiguity of Guigemar’s story has been analyzed by Pickens, “Marie de France and the Body Poetic”; the story’s inscrutability as a self-destructive fiction has been emphasized by Bloch, “The Medieval Text—‘Guigemar’—as a Provocation”; its “extraordinary self-reflexiveness” by Durling, “The Knot, the Belt, and the Making of Guigemar,” 46; and its open-ended nature by Joan Brumlik, “Thematic Irony in Marie de Frances Guigemar,” French Forum 13.1 (1988): 5–16.Google Scholar
  18. 25.
    On Marie’s stance as female author, see Michelle Freeman, “Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio,” PMLA 99 (1984): 860–83; on Marie’s affirmation of woman’s moral authority in other work, see Sahar Amar, “Marie de France Rewrites Genesis: The Image of Woman in Marie de France’s FablesNeophilologus 81. 4 (1997): 489–99; and for a view on the gender of the author as expressly problematized, see Miranda Griffin, “Gender and Authority in the Medieval French Lai,” Forum for Modern Language Studies 35, 1 (1999): 42–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 26.
    Rupert Pickens, “Poétique et sexualité chez Marie de France,” in Et c’est la fin pour quoi sommes ensemble: hommage à Jean Dufournet: Littérature, histoire et langue du Moyen Age (Paris: Champion, 1993), p. 1129.Google Scholar
  20. 28.
    Aucassin et Nicolette, ed. Jean Dufournet (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion), 1984, p. 84.Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    The passage is a pastiche of the formal courtly portrait analyzed by Alice M. Colby [Colby-Hall], The Portrait in Twelfth-Century French: An Example of the Stylistic Originality of Chrétien de Troyes (Geneva: Droz, 1965).Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    Nathaniel B. Smith notes the physicality of Nicolette’s representation as an aspect of her “uncourtliness,” which makes of her an “anti-heroine,” in “The Uncourtliness of Nicolette,” Voices of Conscience: Essays on Medieval and Modern French Literature in Memory of James D. Powell and Rosemary Hodgins, ed. Raymond J. Cormier (Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1977), pp. 169–82.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    Critics who note the remarkable activities of the heroine include Smith, “The Uncourtliness of Nicolette”; Eugene Vance, “Aucassin et Nicolette as a Medieval Comedy of Signification and Exchange,” in The Nature of Medieval Narrative, ed. Minnette Grunmann-Gaudet and Robin F. Jones (Lexington, Ky.: French Forum, 1980), pp. 57–76; and Kevin Brownlee, “Discourse as Prouesces in Aucassin et Nicolette,” Yale French Studies 70 (1986): 167–92.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    The long-held notion that Aucassin et Nicolette is a parody has been refuted by Tony Hunt; “La Parodie Médiévale: Le Cas d’Aucassin et Nicolette,” Romania 100 (1979): 321–81. For an overview of the critical debate, see Rudy S. Spraycar, “Genre and Convention in Aucassin et NicoletteRomanic Review 76 (1985): 94–115. For Spraycar, the text’s “dominant mocking character” directs itself against “the abstract notion of conventionality out of all measure” (115).Google Scholar
  25. 34.
    In addition to Vance, Brownlee, and Spraycar, see R. Howard Bloch, “Money, Metaphor, and the Mediation of Social Difference in Old French Romance,” Symposium 35 (1981): 18–33; more recently, Jane Gilbert, “The Practice of Gender in Aucassin et NicoletteForum for Modern Language Studies 33.3 (1997): 217–28; and the excellent article by Maria Rosa Menocal, “Signs of the Times: Self, Other and History in Aucassin et NicoletteRomanic Review 80.4 (1989): 497–511.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Among the many studies that discuss the romance’s textual ambiguities, its complex representation of sexuality, and its problematization of gender, we are particularly indebted to Michèle Perret, “Travesties et transsexuellles: Ydes, Silence, Grisandole, Blanchandine,” op. cit.; Peter Allen, “The Ambiguity of Silence: Gender, Writing, and Le Roman de Silence,” in Signs, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature, ed. Julian N. Wasserman and Lois Roney (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1989), pp. 98–112; and Simon Gaunt, “The Significance of Silence,” Paragraph 13.2 (1990): 202–16. For an astute reading of the romance’s representation of gender in the light of Butler’s theory of performance, see Peggy McCracken, “‘The Boy Who Was a Girl’: Reading Gender in the Roman de Silence,” Romanic Review 85.4 (1994): 517–36.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    Le Roman de Silence: A Thirteenth-Century Arthurian Verse-Romance by Heldris de Cornualle, ed. Lewis Thorpe (Cambridge: Heffer, 1972). An English translation (with facing-page edition) is Silence: A Thirteenth-Century French Romance, ed. and trans. Sarah Roche Mahdi. Medieval Texts and Studies 10 (East Lansing, Mich., 1992). See also Heldris de Cornualle, Le Roman de Silence, trans. Regina Psaki (New York: Garland, 1991). All translations within this article are my own.Google Scholar
  28. 40.
    See R. Howard Bloch, “Silence and Holes: The Roman de Silence and the Art of the Trouvère,” Yale French Studies 10 (1986): 81–99. On the way that Heldris has feminized the portrayal of Nature, see Suzanne Conkin Akbari, “Nature’s Forge Recast in the Roman de Silence,” in Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture; Selected Papers from the Seventh Triennial Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society, ed. Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994), pp. 39–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 42.
    See Sharon Kinoshita, “Heldris de Cornuälle’s Roman de Silence and the Feudal Politics of Lineage,” PMLA 110 (1995): 397–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roberta L. Krueger

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations