Seeing Women Troubadours without the “-itz” and “-isms”

  • Francesca Nicholson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Although scholars of Old Occitan have long been aware that there were women composing troubadour poetry in southern France (Occitania) from the thirteenth century onward,1 the idea of the woman troubadour still troubles them. It is now generally accepted that courtly reverence for the lady did not entail reverence for the female, and that courtly structures are as much about homosocial bonds as they appear to be about heterosexual love. Leaving aside the question of the socioeconomic circumstances that may have given Occitan women the freedom to be poets,2 how, many scholars have asked themselves, could they compose within such a seemingly masculinist tradition? Critical opinion is thus frequently divided into two camps: those who believe the identity of these women poets to be a fiction created by male troubadours, and those who imagine them as the Virginia Woofs of their day, creating embryonic feminist poetic practices of their own. In either case there is a problem in seeing the women troubadours as troubadours. My concern in this essay is the latter, and especially latter-day, tendency to over-feminize the women troubadours and to read their poetry as expressive of a steadfast female identity. Readings of this sort, which claim to be gender-conscious, turn gender into a stricture, a normalizing filter through which a group of “troublesome” texts can be reclassified.


Subject Position Person Subject Single Stroke Feminine Identity Secondary Identification 
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  1. 1.
    The earliest edition of the women troubadours was Oscar Schultz-Gora, Die provenzalischen Dichterinnen: Biographien und Texte nebst Anmerkungen und einer Einleitung (Leipzig: Foch, 1888).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    One of the concerns of Jennifer Lynne Smith’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Subjects of Desire,” has been to examine this widely held but largely unsubstantiated “truism” regarding the women troubadours. She argues convincingly that socioeconomic factors alone do not account for why women began to write poetry. I am grateful to Simon Gaunt for drawing my attention to this dissertation. See Smith, “Subjects of Desire: Relocating the domna in the Lyrics of the Trobairitz” (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Australia, 2001).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Manuscript H (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana MS Vat. lat. 3207) has a particular concentration of texts by the women troubadours and miniatures of them on fols. 43v–53v, leading some critics to view this as a trobairitz section, or even a micro-chansonnier of trobairitz poetry within H. These folios nonetheless contain texts by male troubadours interspersed among those of the women troubadours, interpreted idiosyncratically by Elizabeth Wilson Poe as a satirical denigration of the latter because she equates misogyny with anti-trobairitz sentiment. See Poe, Compilatio: Lyric Texts and Prose Commentaries in Troubadour Manuscript H (Vat. Lat. 3207) (Lexington: French Forum, 2000), chap. 3.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Matilda Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White (eds.), Songs of the Women Troubadours (New York: Garland, 2000)Google Scholar
  5. Angelica Rieger (ed.), Trobairitz: Der Beitrag der Frau in der altokzitanischen höfischen Lyrik (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1991).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Pierre Bec, “‘Trobairitz’ et chansons de femme: contribution à la connaissance du lyrisme féminin au moyen âge,” Cahiers de Civilisation Médievale 22.3 (1979): 235–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Antoine Tavera, “A la recherche des troubadours maudits,” Senefiance 5 (1978): 135–62.Google Scholar
  8. Sophie Marnette, “L’expression féminine dans la poésie lyrique occitane,” Romance Philology 51.2 (1997): 170–92. Even though both Marnette and Ferrante aim for impersonal linguistic assessments, they nonetheless equate feminine discourse with the women troubadours and masculine discourse with the male troubadours and present them contrastively, for example Ferrante: “Most of the women use a higher number of negatives than the men” (“Notes,” p. 65); Marnette: “Les trobairitz donnent deux fois plus d’ordres à leur amant que ne le font les troubadours” [The trobairitz give twice as many orders to their lovers as do the troubadours] (“L’expression,” p. 177).Google Scholar
  9. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Vintage, 1998), p. 256.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    More precisely, the assumption of sexual identity is not a direct outcome of secondary identification, but of the castration complex. Both the male subject and the female subject are defined by Lacan in relation to the phallus, and it is the difference in their relation to this object that accounts for sexual difference. See Jacques Lacan, Encore: le séminaire livre XX, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1975) and the entry on “sexual difference” in Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 178–81.Google Scholar
  11. 15.
    Sarah Kay, Subjectivity in Troubadour Poetry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 86. As indicated in the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, ed. Walther von Wartburg, 8 vols. (Bonn: Klopp, 1925–83), 3:126, “domna” is derived from the Latin “dominam,” meaning “lady, mistress.” The lady could also be designated as “midons,” which poses greater etymological problems. (Kay considers the terms “domna” and “midons” equivalent designations from the point of view of their gender indeterminacy.) William Paden has questioned the long-held belief that “midons” is derived from “meus/mi dominus,” “my lord,” and instead proposes “mihi domus” (“my home”), which is gendered feminine in Latin and has obvious semantic associations with the feminine. In this way, Paden can argue that there is gender consistency between the term’s etymology and what it signifies in Occitan. How he arrives at this derivation is plausible, but he does not manage to discredit altogether the masculine root, “meus/mi dominus.” See Paden, “The Etymology of Midons,” in Studies in Honor of Hans-Erich Keller, ed. Rupert Pickens (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1993), pp. 311–35. That “midons” could have derived from a masculine or a feminine noun-phrase in Latin only reinforces the polyvalence of the expression.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 17.
    See Raymond T. Hill and Thomas G. Bergin (eds.), Anthology of the Provençal Troubadours, 2nd edn., 2 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), table of personal pronouns at 2:88Google Scholar
  13. William Paden, An Introduction to Old Occitan (New York: MLA, 1998), pp. 296–302 (a more extensive explanation of personal pronouns, although Paden only mentions the gender ambivalence of the dative pronoun “li”).Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Kelly Oliver, Subjectivity without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to Desiring Mothers (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. xvi.Google Scholar

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© Emma Campbell and Robert Mills 2004

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  • Francesca Nicholson

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