The Daughter’s Text and the Thread of Lineage in the Old French Philomena

  • Nancy A. Jones
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The Philomela-Procne myth persists through the Western tradition as a disturbing narrative in which sexual violence and revenge intermingle with aesthetic self-consciousness. In Ovid’s treatment the myth takes on a specifically self-conscious literary quality. Philomela’s tapestry functions in the Metamorphoses as the symbol for art’s resistance to a barbaric and destructive world that would dismember and silence the self. More recently, feminist interpretations view the myth as an emblem of women’s victimization and resistance within literary history.1 Perhaps more than any other Western myth, Philomela’s story articulates the link between sexual violence, the silencing of women’s voices, and the alternative discourse women fashion in weaving and embroidery.2 Western literary aesthetics have also privileged the arts of weaving and embroidery as emblems for narrative art and textuality itself. This essay traces the uneasy merger of these themes in a twelfth-century French adaptation of Ovid known as the Philomena.3 Since 1884, when Gaston Paris discovered it embedded within the Ovide Moralisé, the debate over the Philomena’s authorship has obscured the intrinsic interest of the text itself. Paris and later scholars identified the 1,468-line verse adaptation as none other than the early work mentioned by Chrétien de Troyes in the prologue to Cligés under the title of La Muance de la hupe et de l’aronde et del rossignol.4


Sexual Violence Twelfth Century Latin Text Feudal Society French Text 
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  1. 3.
    All quotations have been taken from the edition by C. De Boer, Philomena: Conte Raconté d’après Ovide (Paris: P. Geuther, 1909). De Boer explains that the shift in the spelling of the heroine’s name from the original Greek form “Philomela,” meaning “nightingale” to the form found in the romance is a result of the dissimulation of the vowels 1 and n and of the confusion between the original form and the Greek proper name “Philumena” meaning “she who is loved,” associated with the virgin martyr of this name. The author of the Old French Philomena would have found the heroine’s name already spelled with an ‘n’ in the Latin manuscripts of Ovid copied in France (pp. 97 and 123).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Paris’s article, “Chrétien Legouais et autres traducteurs ou imitateurs de Ovide,” Histoire Littéraire de France 29 (1885): 455–517, first attributed the interpolated text to Chrétien, and De Boer (1909) produces lengthy arguments to support this attribution in the introduction to his edition (pp. i–cxx). A general bibliography on the ensuing debate about authorship appears in Raymond J. Cormier, ed. and trans., Three Ovidian Tales of Love, Garland Library of Medieval Literature 26 (New York: Garland Press, 1986), pp. 193–98. More recently, Elizabeth Schultze-Busaker has argued in favor of the attribution, based on the links she sees between the use of proverbs in the Philomena and other works by Chrétien. See “Philomena: une revision de l’attribution de l’oeuvre.” Romania 107 (1988): 459–85.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Metamorphoseon Libri I–XV, ed. B. A. van Proosdij et al. (Leiden: Brill, 1982).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel (New York: Peter Lang, 1985), p. 136.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    On the Old French and Middle English instances of the call of the nightingale as “Oci” or “Ocy,” see Otto Glauning, Lydgate’s Minor Poetry: The Two Nightingale Poems (Millwood, NY: Kraus Reprint, 1987), pp. 35–38; F.J. F. Raby, “Philomena praevia temporis amoeni,” Mélanges Joseph de Ghellinck (Gembboux: Ducubot, 1951), vol. 2, pp. 435–48; and Pfeffer, op. cit., pp. 39–41 and 134–40. Pfeffer discusses the nightingale’s cry of “Oci! Oci” in two songs by the thirteenth-century trouvère, Guillaurne beVinier, “Li louseignoles avrillouz” and “Mout a mon euer esjoi.” According to Pfeffer, Guillaume le Vinier “appears to be the first to put an imitation of the bird song into lyric poetry” (136). She follows Guillaume’s editor, Philippe Ménard, in citing the Old French Philomena (which she ascribes to Chrétien de Troyes) as Guillaume’s source. She interprets the romance’s epilogue, quoted above, as a cautionary discourse on how not to love.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Charles Segal, “La tela di Filomela e i piaceri del testo: il mito diTereo nelle Metamorfosi,” in Ovidio e la poesia del mito (Venice: Marsilio editori, 1991), pp. 190–91.Google Scholar
  7. 24.
    R. Howard Bloch, Medieval French Literature and Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), pp. 53–57.Google Scholar
  8. 25.
    Many elements in my reading of this text parallel the anthropological approach to Old French literature outlined by R. Howard Bloch in Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Bloch uses the term “poetics of disruption” to represent the lyric project of the troubadour Marcabru, whose songs, he argues, show an obsession with the “deleterious effects of adulterous desire” upon the lineage, and his sense of his own role, qua poet, as “a défiler of language” (p. 111).Google Scholar
  9. 26.
    M. Natalis Rondot, L’industrie de la soie en France (Lyon: Imprimerie Mougin-Rusand, 1894); Charles Foulon “Les Serves du Chateau du Pesme Aventure,” Mélanges offerts à Rita Lejeune (Gembloux: J. Duculot, 1969), II, p. 1004. For a more comprehensive study of the medieval women’s workroom, see David Herlihy, Opera muliebria: Women and Work in Medieval Europe (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), pp. 75–102. According to his survey of this medieval institution, this female labor force consisted primarily of slaves, half-free tributaries, and free women condemned for crimes. The workshops were also associated with “slavery, imprisonment, and illicit sex” (84–85). Herlihy notes that the typical textile workroom contained between 10 and 40 women, far fewer than the 300 girl workers found in Chretien’s story.Google Scholar
  10. 28.
    For an analysis of this passage, see Alice M. Colby-Hall, The Portrait in Twelfth-Century Literature (Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1965), pp. 123–38.Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Nancy A. Jones

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