Lynda Garland

title.none: Perfetti, Women and Laughter (Lynda Garland)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.007 04.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lynda Garland, University of New England,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Perfetti, Lisa. Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 286. $58.00 0-472-11321-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.07

Perfetti, Lisa. Women and Laughter in Medieval Comic Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. Pp. xiii, 286. $58.00 0-472-11321-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Lynda Garland
University of New England

In this discussion of how to read for women's laughter in male-authored texts within medieval comic literature, Perfetti undertakes the daunting tasks of not only attempting to outline the function of women's laughter within a number of medieval works but also of considering the ways in which this can inform us of women's humor, and the way it was viewed, within medieval society. Using a methodological basis of contemporary feminist theory, comic theory, and anthropological humor she asks why male authors created the laughter of their female characters and why men found this literature amusing. The book's strength is the depth of knowledge displayed about a wide-ranging period of European cultural history, during which Perfetti considers that the fact that so much medieval comic literature centred on the battle between the sexes suggests that gender formed "a central part of the tensions, dilemmas and worst fears of medieval culture" (17). The weakness is perhaps in the range of texts employed "chosen for their geographical and chronological diversity and for the specific questions each raises about this complex web of relationships" (26), the discussion ranging from Chaucer's Wife of Bath to Boccaccio's Decameron, William Dunbar's Tretis of the Tua Marrit Wemen and the Wedo, Ulrich von Lichenstein's Frauendienst, French connubial farces, and the Thousand and One Nights. Selections from the literatures of England, France, Italy, Scotland, Germany, and the Arabo-Islamic World are thus drawn upon, ensuring a wide-ranging comparative study of medieval humor, which has been based on works from widely different genres and linguistic traditions created with a variety of aims and audiences over a period of several centuries.

The specific focus within each chapter discusses the ways in which each text features one or more female characters who laugh and make jokes about men or joust with men verbally, and this is the factor that unites the volume as a whole. With each text Perfetti considers "how the female character's laughter engages with medieval discourse on gender; how the narrator portrays the female character and invites readers, as men and women, to judge her; how the reader's perspectives, based on marital and social status, daily work and leisure activities, and knowledge of other texts might bear on his or her interpretation" (19). Clearly much medieval literature represents women joking and laughing and we must inquire why they are so depicted and what kind of jokes they are described as telling and/or responding to. A more pertinent inquiry, too, should perhaps be addressed to the function their laughter serves within the work. The society in which these works were created was grounded in antifeminist traditions, which generally featured female characters as targets of laughter. As women were traditionally considered irrational and subject to bodily passions, their immoderate laughter was inevitably linked in their contemporaries' minds with sexuality and women's lack of control in such areas. When, therefore, women are shown laughing in literary texts we must assume that the author is conveying a specific message about his 'unruly' female characters (though this begs the question about the composition of the audience for whom the work was primarily intended and the extent to which authors created gendered positions for their readers).

Chapter 1 explores the "game of antifeminism" through the way the Wife of Bath participates in the game of antifeminist discourse in her use of sarcasm and irony to ridicule men's pretensions. Presented as a "perverse parody of a serious clerical exemplum" (55), the wife's teaching delivers a mock sermon in response to the injury of antifeminism that has determined her life (57). While herself a reminder of the woes of marriage, thus undercutting her own seeming defence of women, Chaucer also uses her to respond to the tradition of antifeminism by staging a woman's humorous response to the logical inconsistencies of the authoritative tradition.

Chap 2 looks at women's wit and the problem of modesty in Boccaccio's Decameron. Despite the fact that it was difficult for medieval women, especially noble women, to laugh without compromising their modesty (70), Boccaccio, who states in the prologue that the work was especially written to please women, gives his unmarried female characters the chance to laugh at many different kinds of risque stories, thus exposing the conflict between sexual humor and women's modesty, while entertaining a readership used to games of verbal repartee. Despite the pressure to maintain the appearance of modesty, which implies the inability to understand sexual humor, Boccaccio's women laugh along with the men (except at a tale of wife-beating), and use joking as a way of saying indirectly what women cannot say openly (98). Indeed, they are encouraged to respond with wit rather than remaining passive onlookers, with Pampinea's argument that modesty and wit need not be mutually exclusive, while it is suggested that wit can get women out of unpleasant and awkward situations and work as a strategy in protecting their chastity and respectability.

The discussion of William Dunbar's The Tretis of the Tua Marrit Wemen and the Wedo ("Women's Community of Laughter and the Woes of Marriage") deals with a more explicitly anti-feminist text in which a women-only group meet, as they think privately, in a garden to laugh over their husband's inadequacies, particularly anatomical ones. In language more explicit than appropriate for ladies of their time and class, their discussion emasculates men by ridiculing their sexual performance. While the ladies are themselves the object of the poem's satire, Perfetti points out that we can perhaps see here the kinds of things that medieval men worried might make their wives laugh (100). Furthermore, like the Wife of Bath, the women parody male teachings and authoritative discourse to subvert male power through laughter. While men are invited at the close of the poem to laugh at these women, it both "provides us with a clear example of a medieval antifeminism that laughs at women's presumed carnality and deceit and allows us a glimpse into a feminine space of laughter, or counterculture" (125).

Chapter 4, "The Performance of Gender and Genre in Ulrich von Lichenstein's Frauendienst," features a noblewoman, unwillingly courted by Ulrich, who in her responses to this suitor ridicules the pretence and exposes the contradictions of courtly love. Faced with a lover who is incapable of taking "no" for an answer, she makes him disguise himself in a community of lepers, responds to his flatteries with acidulous comments, and even drops him out of the window. Her refusals and witty "put-downs," including parodies of his poetry, are an essential element within the work, as is her intelligence which prevents the "hero" from raping her on one occasion. Perfetti argues (158-9) that, despite the "theme" of courtly love, the work focuses heavily on what it means to be a man and affirms (male) gender solidarity over class boundaries. Yet the self-deprecating humor of the male narrator invites the laughter of men and women alike, especially those of a higher class than this rather third-rate suitor, and was presumably read by literate German noblewomen.

Northern French farces are the subject of chapter 5 ("The Loquacious Farce Wife and Laughter in the House"), in which the humor of such works is shown as deriving from the triviality of the marital conflicts which frequently result in the victory of wives over their husbands. In Le Chaudronnier and Les Drois de la Porte Bodes, on which the discussion primarily focuses, women are presented in public performances as talkative and libidinous, while the characters themselves appear to be questioning such cliches directed at women. Perfetti also sees an emphasis on women's contribution within the household and their husbands' failure to appreciate this (190-8). Both texts allow women to have the last word, while demonstrating anxiety about female dominance. While conditions of performance (whether all roles were played by male actors, for example), and reception are unclear, it must be remembered that such texts were controlled by men even if women formed part of the audience. Though the farces in some ways justify female unruliness though foolishness of the husbands, it is not altogether clear that "women with their own wit and sense of humour may have turned the dramatic performance into a comic performance of their own, telling jokes to each other at the well..." (202), and audience identification may not have played a major part in responses to the farces (except in so far as everyone can recognize the couple from "down the road").

In chapter 6, which features the tale of the "Porter and the Three Ladies" from the Thousand and One Nights, Perfetti maintains that the humor is focused not so much on the sexuality inherent in the bodies of the three wealthy sisters from Baghdad in their teasing of the porter, but on the words used in this story to describe female anatomy. The sexually alluring women are shown in an all-female world without men and yet, despite their licentious joking, cannot be securely classified as "good" or "bad" in the way possible within European texts, though significantly all are found husbands at the end of the tale. Perfetti asks (237) whether this bifurcated nature of women's status (spouse versus singing girl) in the Arab Middle Ages may help to suggest avenues of investigation within medieval European literature. While, however, it is difficult to assess the reception/audience of the text because of the ways in which the tales orally circulated, certainly Shahrazad and the three sisters are shown as directing their performance to a male audience (234), and one well used to being entertained by obscene tales and the much greater licence of speech and wit allowed to singing-girls and cup-companions than to spouses, and it is unlikely that married women would have formed part of the audience (208-9).

While women's laughter allowed male authors to articulate a spectrum of concerns, Perfetti considers (239-40) that these fictional creations give us glimpses of a culture of medieval woman's laughter which may have resembled that of actual women, their jokes allowing them control over mental space (as opposed to their lack of control over social space). Female communities in these works are shown as engaging in shared rituals and communal laughter and not surprisingly such laughter is often linked to subversive strategies rather than open confrontation (240).

Although we must remember that, given the communal and oral nature of medieval literary culture, women were likely to have been sharing their responses with others (241), what is not so clear is that these male-authored texts, written in some cases for a predominantly male audience and in which men are often invited to join in laughing at other men, reflect the humorous responses of women of their times. Some may have functioned as springboards for male/female discussions after the performance (242), but the more intimate reality of the stories exchanged by all-female gatherings remains largely unrevealed. Similarly, it would be optimistic to hope that the fictive laughter of women in medieval texts spurred on "uppity" women in everyday life to use similar jokes to subvert the dominant system (244-5). Perfetti's final comment on the relationship between medieval and modern humor highlights the survival of the same jokes and stereotypes from the thirteenth to the twentieth century and begs the question of the degree to which stock jokes reflect contemporary social concerns and realities. Indeed, when women are shown as laughing for their own pleasure (247) in works written by men, who ultimately has the last laugh?