The Strains of Defense: The Many Voices of Jean Lefèvre’s Livre de Leesce

  • Karen Pratt
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Although in his Livre de Leesce Jean LeFèvre enters the debate about women apparently supporting the female cause, his playful use of voice and intertextual allusion undermine the authority of his female advocate for women and reveal a tongue-in-cheek approach, no doubt designed to amuse a male audience rather than the ladies of Paris he invokes.


Fourteenth Century Grammatical Gender Good Woman Male Audience Male Author 
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  1. 1.
    Apart from Christines correspondence with the Col brothers and with Jean de Montreuil (see Le Débat sur le “Roman de la Rose,” ed. Eric Hicks [Paris: Champion, 1977]), her Epistre au dieu d’Amours, Cité des dames, and Livre des trois vertus may also be regarded as defenses of women; see Rosalind Brown-Grant, Christine de Pizan and the Moral Defense of Women: Reading beyond Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a survey of relevant texts, see Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. Alcuin Blamires with Karen Pratt and C.W. Marx (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), and Alcuin Blamires, The Case for Women in Medieval Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), chapter 1.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Blamires, The Case for Women, pp. 36–7. See also Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, “Jean le Fèvre’s Livre de Leesce: Praise or Blame of Women?” Speculum 69 (1994): 705–25 in which she states that LeFèvre “falls, perhaps despite himself, into the trap of misogynist stereotypes” (p. 724).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 5.
    LeFèvre’s importance has recently been shown by Blamires, The Case for Women; Blumenfeld-Kosinski, “Praise or Blame of Women?”; and Helen Solterer, The Master and Minerva: Disputing Women in French Medieval Culture (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), chapter 5. In the late seventies his influence on Chaucer was discussed by Zacharias P. Thundy, “Matheolus, Chaucer, and the Wife of Bath,” in Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives, ed. E. Vasta and Z. Thundy (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), pp. 24–58.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    See Jean LeFèvre, Les Lamentations de Matheolus et le Livre de Leesce, ed. A.-G. van Hamel, 2 vols. (Paris: Bouillon, 1892, 1905). According to the editor, the Lamentations has survived in eleven manuscripts, the Leesce in six (four of which contain both works), thus attesting to the popularity of LeFèvre’s writings. Throughout this essay the terms “pro-” and “antifeminist,” when applied to medieval authors, texts and audiences, denote attitudes for or against women, feminism being an anachronistic concept in the fourteenth century.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    Jill Mann, Apologies to Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    The rarity of the good woman is a commonplace of misogyny; see Blamires et al., Woman Defamed, p. 106 n. 31. On generalization as an antifeminist strategy, see R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) and my “Analogy or Logic.”Google Scholar
  8. 13.
    See Michel-André Bossy, “Woman’s Plain Talk in Le Débat de l’omme et de la femme by Guillaume Alexis,” Fifteenth-Century Studies 16 (1990): 23–41. Bossy notes interestingly that in Alexis’s Blason de faulses amours the debating monk clinches the argument with a misogynistic diatribe. Thus Alexis was another writer who produced both a literary attack on and a defense of women.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    See Jean Batany, Approches du “Roman de la Rose” (Montreal: Bordas, 1973), pp. 40–5; and Simon Gaunt, “Bel Acueil and the Improper Allegory of the Romance of the Rose,” New Medieval Literatures 2 (1998): 65–93.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    See Guillaume de Machaut, The Judgement of the King of Navarre, trans. and ed. R. Barton Palmer (New York: Garland, 1988), in which the editor argues that the Navarre “constructs the problems of Guillaume the protagonist for the purpose of generating a playful and entertaining text” (p. xxix).Google Scholar
  11. 20.
    Prudence claims erroneously that the knight revealed the chastelaine’s secret to the duchess (ll. 2935–6). The arguments of both male and female characters in the poem are faulty and Machaut demonstrates amusingly how exempla can be interpreted in various ways according to the needs of the speaker. Consequently, the king’s final judgment seems arbitrary in the absence of persuasive logic leading to an obvious conclusion. See Jean-Louis Picherit, “Les Exemples dans le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre de Guillaume de Machaut,” Lettres romanes 36 (1982): 103–16.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    The juxtaposition of opposing views, a fundamental characteristic of debate poetry, is shown by Catherine Brown to be fundamental to medieval heuristic practice. LeFèvre’s assertion, however, that he will use the dialectical method (universally practiced in medieval schools) to arrive at the truth about women is mere pretense. Although he may share Andreas Capellanus’s message (as defined by Brown) that “one who knows cannot be deceived” (p. 112), LeFèvre’s ultimate aim is ludic rather than didactic, and his desire is to entertain rather than enlighten. See Catherine Brown, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism (Stanford, Calif: University of Stanford Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    Ovid, The Art of Love, and Other Poems, ed. and trans. J. H. Mozley (London: Heinemann, 1947).Google Scholar
  14. 27.
    Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Félix Lecoy, 3 vols. (Paris: Champion, 1965–70), ll. 829–33.Google Scholar

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© Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees 2002

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  • Karen Pratt

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