Improbable story time, or, Highly grumbles about dude-centric assumptions

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 Medieval: a woman readingfor 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 Manuscript image - a pipersongs; 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.

Gwen, with crown

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.

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingThe 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’.

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzBut 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.****

Well behaved women rarely make history

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 Citation needed [XKCD]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!


15 Responses to “Improbable story time, or, Highly grumbles about dude-centric assumptions”

  1. Annelise Says:

    “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.”

    You’re so right- in terms of authors’ genders, and also of many other things regarding who they were, what their contexts were and all the spheres of meaning and experience that their words originally interacted with to become what they are now to us. This is especially the case with ancient texts, or texts from less-known cultures, where the context and undestanding of the author are even more generalised than usual.

    I suppose that being a reasonable, non-conspiracist thinker means you have to assume the simplest answers for any given set of evidence, but history and humanity are simply full of unexpected, new and unusual events and possibilities. We tend not to leave much room for things not to be as we’d expect when we feel we’re getting to know a period, or culture, or piece of literature, or even a person… Especially when research is being done by a long chain of commenters in different fields, whose generalisations we rely on for our own new assumptions and findings. The result is an intricately layered cultural synthesis- obviously much closer to the historical details they claim to retell than legends are, but not complete. Reality and imagination work brilliantly hand in hand, and it would be amazing to get at the hidden stories behind and within the snippets of history and literature we know.

    We do need a way of talking about both likelihoods and less-likelihoods together… But scholarship and our capacity to think aren’t complex enough to hold it all! Regardless, really good scholarship comes largely from tapping into the intention; being able to challenge assumptions by retracing the steps and the evidence that led to them.

    As do stories like Helene’s! I do love the way you combined your awareness of the cultural context with the sense of the literature in question, your interest in gender-and-authorship, these questions about why we seem bound to generalisations even in the language we have for talking about the past, and under it all your own similar knack for storytelling. As well as being a charming story, I enjoy how well it illustrates the many unseen, strange stories that we’ll never get to hear, but would love to explore if we could.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      Part of the problem here is that *no one* studies the entire canon of medieval lit all at once, or even the entirety of a single genre. When it comes to individual texts, Occham’s Razor – the simplest answer (a dude) is usually going to be the correct one. But no one except, I guess, teachers in survey courses and authors of first-year textbooks, talks about All Medieval Lit Ever, so no one has the chance to say “hey, some of this stuff was probably written by women”. And even if they did, that wouldn’t filter down to individual studies because… well, because of Occham’s Razor, and because of the grammatical convention of ‘he’ for unknown persons, and because of cultural wossnames which would make us all look like mad conspiracy theorists if we went around calling Chretien de Troyes ‘he, or possibly she’.

      Helene was a pretty cute story to tell! She’s such a ridiculously unlikely character – classic Mary Sue – but she’s probably going to sit in the back of my head anyway, right next to the mental picture I have of Chretien. (Actually, Helene’s character would get *far* more interesting if I spent enough time with her to accomodate and build in the really quite icky gender assumptions Chretien has going. It’s a lot easier to deal with Dude Author being such a consistent rape apologist than it is to think of my cute hypothetical-Helene doing the same…)

      • Annelise Says:

        Exactly… It would be fascinating to see what differences there are in contexts where the language of academia has no gendered ‘he’ or ‘she’. Obviously there would be many other cultural influences, along with other ways of including gender assumptions in one’s study of a canon of literature, but that element of the language would probably influence the way works of literature (and the culture, the idea of the past behind them) are read, in a significant way.

        As to Helene’s consistent rape apologetics, no doubt there could be a suitable (albeit unlikely) explanation consistent with her character- if only you had suffient evidence to actually believe it! Or perhaps, since you’re less the historian here and more the author, if you had some desirable theme for her character to reflect, and to which Chretien’s work already speaks. Maybe just not in your thesis (unless it conveniently appears that one of Helene’s secular clergy uncles made numerous journeys to Oxfordshire, for some excellent reason known to him).

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Would you like a cite for this argument? It’s not for high medieval literature, but for early medieval writing of any type, and it is: Janet L. Nelson, “Women and the Word in the Earlier Middle Ages” in W. J. Sheils and D. Wood (edd.), Women in the Church, Studies in Church History 27 (Oxford 1990), pp. 53-78, where she more or less does the same hey-guise-ur-assumptions-r-showin line of attack. There is also her “Gender and Genre in Women Historians of the Early Middle Ages” in Jean-Paul Genet (ed.), L’historiographie médiévale en Europe (Paris 1991), pp. 149-163. I’m less happy with this one, because she tries to create a ‘type’ of female writing (and then finds it in several other texts for which male authorship has always been assumed)—like you I would like to assume that clever people from either side of the gender barrier could learn to imitate the other in text—but it is still interesting, and right at the end it cites a volume that might be more help to you directly, P. Labalme (ed.), Beyond their Sex: learned women of the European past (New York City 1980). That one I’ve never seen so can’t speak for it, but the two Nelson articles are reprinted in her The Frankish World, 750-900 (London 1996), pp. 183-197 & 199-221.

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      I love citations! Nom nom nom citations. Janet L. Nelson is a familar name, but I don’t think I’ve read any of those articles.

      *frowns* The idea that women’s writing can be typified is such a fraught one. I have a pretty visceral reaction against it, but I’ll freely admit that’s based more on my political leanings than any empirical evidence. I don’t like that type arguments get used more often to argue *against* women’s authorship than for it (she couldn’t have written this, it’s too manly! See also, Anna Komnenina). I don’t like a system which is going to invalidate the womanhood women who ‘write like men’ any more than I like systems which give literary gongs exclusively to women who write like men. And what, in either of those cases, do you do with a man who writes like a woman?

      Yet there are… themes? Issues? Perspectives? General traits, anyway, which are apparently more commonly found in women’s writing than men. You see that in modern literary discourse when you get to things like arguments about why women don’t get nominated for the Miles Franklin award. Apparently women don’t write on Literary Topics, and Literary Topics are the topics of the DudeCanon. That’s… a lot of that is about reader perception more than the writing itself (and it *does* apply in academia too – apparently women who submit articles/books under Initial Initial Surname are more likely to be published, respected, and cited on again than those who publish under their first and surnames. I don’t have the citation for that, though, I’ve lost it). But that logic, if you were looking for ladywritten things in the middle ages you should start with things held by 20th cenutry scholars to be less ‘literary’, but… I really don’t trust that logic. And without a large body of women’s writing in several genres, and a broad study of it in comparison to men’s writing, I’m not going to trust type logic any time soon.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        Well, Jinty will be at Leeds so I can introduce you to her. She is a useful person to know, and you already have one thing in common. One or two of the early medievalists I know do like to occasionally throw in an “or she, as it might be” about their authors just to startle people. It’s not done widely enough by half, though.

        And what, in either of those cases, do you do with a man who writes like a woman?

        Typically, you invent him to explain Margery Kempe, don’t you? Well, not you, obviously. But the blame-the-chaplain-because-the-woman-can’t-have-done-it argument that you’ve surely met does involve that hypothesis.

        Type logic is I think especially doomed to failure in any field—like writing!—where the highest rewards are for standing out and being unusual. Yes, the best way to shift novels generally is probably to write cookie-cutter romances or thrillers, but very few writers start out to do that and very few of those writers get remembered. So those who stand out are probably unusual and the surviving sample ought by definition to be the stuff that stood out. At which point, generalisation is in trouble. I mean, someone like Hrotsvita even tells us she’s weird. Then you get whole conferences trying to work out how weird so she can be fitted back into a box. Argh! etc.

        • highlyeccentric Says:

          the blame-the-chaplain-because-the-woman-can’t-have-done-it argument that you’ve surely met does involve that hypothesis.

          It does. And it bizarrely presumes that the only time a man would write about ladythings, whatever they are, is if he’s ghostwriting a lady. Odd, since we have quite a number of domestic manual type things written by dudes.

  3. Chris Says:

    I’ve run across this same sort of gender thinking in quite modern times. I was involved with a religious organization whose men tended to assume (without even thinking about it) that (1) *only women* ever write about women’s spirituality, and (2) a woman writing about spirituality would naturally write *only* about women’s spirituality. (To give them credit, they agreed that these were silly assumptions when someone pointed it out to them, but I don’t know if they made any effort to change their thinking.)

  4. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Well, as the saying goes, albeit mostly about other things, ‘none of we ent arrive as yet’, more’s the pity.

  5. Annelise Says:

    Oh, I think the Ents are one of my favourite parts of the whole trilogy. That clip is disturbing! Its aberrance is good, though, in showing how Tolkien handled chaos, destruction and suffering in light of personal loyalty and goodness in his characters- both resonating sincerely in a single (though intricate) vision. No matter how wrongly things go with Mordor, Treebeard is not and will not be a lumberjack!

    Such good story-telling, the humanity in it feels rather earthy and true for something so epic. (Though trees talking in non-fiction might be a bit odd.)

  6. 38th Down Under Feminists’ Carnival Says:

    […] at The Naked Philologist writes about the problematic assumption that all medieval authors are male, that no women wrote […]

  7. To help remember all your kings, I’ve come up with this song… « The Naked Philologist Says:

    […] note – to whomever it was who entered this post in the Down Under Feminists Carnival, ta muchly. Sorry I didn’t say anything about it before […]

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