Let me tell you a story.
Let’s say we have a girl, born in France, oh, around 1150. She’s the daughter of nobility; not royalty or the daughter of a duke, but well-established baronial class. Let’s say she’s not the eldest daughter; perhaps the second or third child. Let us suppose that she also has at least one uncle well-placed in the secular clergy, or perhaps female relatives in a nunnery. Let’s suppose that she spends some time with these religiously-inclined relatives. Perhaps she even considers taking vows herself, but just as they lack money for a dowry right now, her family don’t have the money to make the substantial donation required. Or perhaps they have a falling-out with the religiously-inclined relative and their institution. Maybe they need her in order to broker a treaty-and-marriage arrangement with a former enemy, but the former enemy decides he’d rather be a current enemy, and the deal falls through.
One way or another, our young noblewoman – let’s call her Helene, for no particular reason – never enters the church, but she picks up a knack for Latin (she’s always been good with languages) and a passing familiarity with bits and pieces of Christian doctrine. What Helene likes best, though, is poetry. She really, really likes Ovid.
Mind you, Helene has always liked poetry. Picture Helene as a child: she has a knack, she remembers things easily, she learns nursery rhymes and folk songs and charms from her nurses. When she’s old enough to join her mother and older sisters, she learns the stories women tell one another, folk stories from here and there, and the songs the troubadours come to tell them. She’s not always a part of her father’s court, and she doesn’t get to join him at the county court, as her mother sometimes does – so her chances to hear really good singers and storytellers are limited. Helene likes stories and songs; Helene’s sisters and friends enjoy stories and songs. So what they do, when they hear particularly good chansons or the newer songs, the romans of with heroes and damsels and magic – what they do when they hear them is memorise them. They don’t get everything right; they don’t have the training in metre and mnemonic skills that the troubadours have. But Helene has a knack. When they try to retell the stories to themselves, Helene is the one who’s best at putting it all together in her memory, and making up new bits to paste over the gaps.
The time Helene gets to spend with her religiously-inclined aunt, or possibly uncle, sharpens her skills. She memorises Ovid and learns the rudiments of Latin poetic metre. When she returns to her family, her mother is taken into the Countess’ retinue, and Helene goes with her. Here, she has access to some of the finest poets and artists in France. She hears several different variations of the Song of Roland and gets all excited when she finds out that there’s a poet in town who knows a new song about William of Orange and his relatives. The other ladies in the Countess’ retinue think she’s a bit weird in her fixation, but they’re happy enough to listen to the exciting bits she’s memorised and can recite for them. Sometimes she tells silly versions, makes up daft stories about Charlemagne and William when they were children. Her mother laughs and says she’s a real poet. Helene knows mama is joking, but the idea sticks anyway.
What Helene *really* likes, though, is the stories of King Arthur, and King Mark and Tristan – and Queens Guinevere and Iseult, and all the adventure and magic of the Matter of Britain. She listens to as many of them as she can, annoys as many troubadours and bards as she can, but there just don’t seem to be many such stories.
So she makes up her own. Helene makes up stories about King Mark and Tristan, and sometimes it seems like no one can tell the difference between her stories and the ones the Countess has read out of her big, beautiful books. And one day, one perfectly normal, perfectly nice day toward the end of summer, when Helene is sitting with the Countess and the rest of her ladies in the gardens, the Countess gets snappy, and sends the court poet away.
‘I think I’ve heard all his stories five times by now,’ the Countess says. She’s almost petulant. Helene’s never been very good at knowing when to keep her mouth shut.
‘I know a new story,’ she says. ‘A roman, one no one’s told at this court, at least not since mama and I came here.’
‘Go on,’ says the Countess. ‘What is it called?’
‘The Shoulder Bite,’ Helene says, and a few of the ladies’ raise their eyebrows.
The Countess looks sceptical. ‘And who composed this… Shoulder Bite?’
Helene is suddenly stuck. She hadn’t thought this far, not at all. ‘A man from Troyes,’ she says, and Mama, at least, will know at once that she’s lying. ‘A Christian man, from Troyes.’
When, some time later, the Countess says to her that she would not mind hearing more romances by this ‘Christian from Troyes’, Helene is certain the Countess knows she’s lying, too. The name sticks, though.
Why, yes, that was an exercise in sophistry and extremely unlikely chains of events. I don’t actually think – not even in a wishful-thinking maybe-possibly-at-least-we-should-consider-it kind of way – that Chrétien de Troyes was actually Christina de Troyes. It’s just too unlikely: the co-incidences which would have to line up to produce a young woman with the right linguistic training and literary background (to say nothing of the author’s apparent familiarity with the squishy grey bits of canon law – but note, they are the bits to do with marriage) to produce the extant romances are phenomenal. And, perhaps more telling, the length of career under the one name, and the association with two different patrons, raises the chances of pseudonymous writing from ‘quite unlikely’ to ‘extremely improbable’.
But consider for a moment the co-incidences which lined up to produce Heloise. Unlikely co-incidences but possible ones. Consider Marie de France. Consider that what’s more unlikely than Heloise, or Marie de France, is that Heloise and Marie de France are one-offs.*
It is, when you come down to it, pretty unlikely that a woman wrote any given piece of surviving medieval literature. But it’s very unlikely that every single one of the extant anonymous romances, and every single one of the extant male-attributed romances, was written by a man. Not when we know that women are more likely to write anonymously/pseudonymously, and more likely to have their authorship denied when they do write. Marie de France knew that – somewhere in one of her prologues or epilogues** there’s that fabulous rant daring any man to appropriate her words.
Y’know, we could talk about conventionally ‘girly’ literature. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle (except apparently that’s Malory now?). Ywain and Gawain, in which the ladies are a bit more prominent than in Chrétien’s original. Silence, if you want to pick a named-man-author who could be a pseudonym (I dunno about you, but the idea that Maistre Heldris was a cranky old woman amuses me no end). And you could pull out counter-arguments – the Gawain-poet is misogynist, clearly he’s a man! There’s too much hunting in this poem, ladies don’t hunt!*** And you’d probably be right, but also, you’d have made the bizarre assumption that ladies only write about lady-things, and all ladies – even in the twelfth-century – are forward-thinking in their assumptions about gender.
I’ve heard people suggest that the Wife’s Lament was written by a wife (logically enough), but no one ever suggests that the Wanderer-poet might have been a woman. You’d laugh me out of the internet if I said the Song of Roland was written by a woman, but we know nothing at all about the author. Would you consider it, though, for something like Floire et Blanchefleur? After all, F&B is less impressive, literary-wise; and it’s about ladythings, where by ladythings we mean… heroes. And heroines, but mostly heroes.
Last I checked, women live with men, care about men, read books about men, write books about men – it seems to me that this is only more likely to have been true in the Middle Ages, not less. If you need evidence that women are interested in men, and masculinity, and stories about men look at the genre of medieval romance. If you can hold down the simultaneous beliefs that romance, as a genre, catered to women *and* that ladies aren’t interested in stories about dudes, I… think you need to read some 70s feminist criticism of romance. Viz, it is, to a great degree, about dudes.****
I have nothing resembling an argument that any given text was written by anyone other than Standard Author Dude. It’s probable I never will have any such evidence. On a case-by-case basis, dude authors are usually more likely. Universal dudely authorship, or universal dudely authorship except where clearly stated otherwise and even then we’ll argue that she had a man helping her, though – that’s unlikely. And it bugs me that we have no way of talking about that. Some of these anonymous poems are probably by women! We don’t know which! There’s no secret formula for detecting ladywriting! But ladywriting certainly did happen, and probably some of it got preserved!
* Two-offs? Also note that Heloise is surely not the only pretty, clever girl seduced by an arrogant-but-attractive academic in the 12th century; she’s just the one we have a manuscript record for. Someone tell me why Heloise, respectable Abbess of the Paraclete, happily put down in writing (which was hardly a private mode of communication in that day and age) that she regularly thought about shagging when she should’ve been thinking about Mass? Understandable thoughts, but I’m curious as to why she didn’t think that would damage her standing when it became public knowledge!
** Can anyone give me a citation to the lai for this? All I have to hand is my year nine assignment on Medieval Women, which took the quote from a children’s book. I’ve seen it quoted enough times to know she did in fact write something to this effect, but have never got the text to hand when I want it.
*** Bullshit they don’t. They might not do the cutting-up themselves, but they’d have seen animals butchered. I am also informed by one of my students, who’s both a very bright medievalist and a re-enactor, that its’ easier to use a bow when you’re mounted side-saddle. I think it’s because you’re already in the side-on stance? And you’re basically wedged in and can’t fall off. I didn’t know this until I decided to be a horrible shit and ask my class why they thought Sir Gawain was written by a man. That was a fabulous class full of cackling and glee. Mostly on my part.
**** Joan M. Ferrante, Woman as Image. Except not in quite those words. Like a good scholar, I have paraphrased and interpreted!