02.09.29, Doss-Quinby et al., eds., Songs of the Women Trouveres

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Carol Symes

The Medieval Review baj9928.0209.029


Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubrey, eds.. Songs of the Women Trouveres. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. Pp. iv, 256. ISBN: 0-300-08413-7.

Reviewed by:
Carol Symes
Bennington College

The demure title of this book is deceptive, for it is only in the last decade or so that a handful of scholars have argued that female trouvères existed, and that some of the songs preserved in medieval anthologies were actually composed and performed by women. Of course, the adoption of a feminine perspective or use of a woman's voice is no guarantee of gender; nor can it be assumed that all lyrics attributed to female poets in the manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were, in fact, the work of women. But in Songs of the Women Trouvères, some salient evidence is collected and presented for the first time: a selection of the many Old French songs ascribed to women, or which identify a woman as the author, or which feature a female subject (the "I"), are presented here in new critical editions with translation and commentary. What is more, those lyrics originally accompanied by notation are provided with editions of the music: four of the thirteen jeux-partis, eleven of the twenty-seven chansons, one of the twelve rondeaux, and all but four of the twenty-three motets. In all, thirty-one manuscripts have been consulted, in addition to the standard collections and catalogues. A concordance matches the number assigned to each song with corresponding designations in other major editions, most of which ignore the musical dimension of medieval lyric. Individual selections are then followed by a compressed but valuable summary of the manuscript testimony, textual variants, dialectical differences, and key musical features. Translations are adequate, if bluntly utilitarian. There is also a rather inadequate bibliography (it is highly selective, and makes no distinction between primary and secondary sources) and an index.

The result is a volume that combines cutting-edge editorial techniques and some of the latest scholarship on the transmission of medieval performance practice with a thoughtful consideration of the methodological and critical challenges that complicate the reconstruction of medieval women's artistic endeavors. While some might quarrel with the editors' decision to treat all of these voices as equally "authentic," and thus equally representative of women's experience, it does redress the balance rather neatly. Both implicitly and explicitly, this collection contradicts two species of argument: that medieval women never produced any songs (the contention of Pierre Bec and others) or that, if they did, none are extant (Peter Dronke). More fundamentally, it advances discussion by making these materials readily available to professional medievalists, their students, modern performers, and enthusiasts of early music.

A substantial introductory essay, entitled "The Case for the Women Trouvères," is divided into sections authored by one or more of the volume's editors. Joan Tasker Grimbert is responsible for the review of past scholarship and overview of critical approaches to the lyric texts, also for a brief introduction to the langue d'oïl and the dialects of Picardy and Lorraine; these are very impressive contributions. Elizabeth Aubrey, Eglal Doss-Quinby, and Grimbert collaborate to summarize the evidence for women's participation in the poetic and musical traditions of the Middle Ages; Doss-Quinby further comments on what can be inferred about the women named as authors in the various texts and, with Wendy Pfeffer, describes the features of the lyric genres represented; Pfeffer also elaborates on the concept of fin'amors. Aubrey, who has become the acknowledged expert on medieval vernacular song, introduces the music; and finally, Aubrey and Doss-Quinby outline the process of the songs' transmission in manuscript, and articulate the book's editorial policy.

Like the volume as a whole, the introduction aims to inform an audience of specialists and amateurs. But inevitably, representatives of the former will detect some inaccuracies and encounter differences of interpretation and opinion, even among the editors. For my part, I was frustrated by the sections devoted to the historical milieu of the trouvères, and the disturbingly uncritical acceptance of the same old-fashioned scholarship whose tenets are elsewhere called into question. If one rejects the premises and methodology of earlier generations, it should follow that one questions the conclusions reached by way of that methodology, even when it yields what looks like useful data. Too much of what has been concluded about the authors of these songs, and the world in which they lived, is derived from a too literal reading of the lyrics themselves or an essentialist view of the literary fictions that grew up around them. It is absurd, given this book's mission, to credit the view of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century philologists who posited the historical existence of a single "Dame Margot" or solitary "Dame Maroie" (pp. 5, 27 -28, and passim), as though only two women bearing those names can be conceived to have participated in the lively poetic and musical scene of the entire thirteenth century. Maroie de Diergnau of Lille is almost certainly not the Maroie of Arras involved in the first jeu-parti printed here, and there is no reason to suppose that the latter is Andrieu de Contredit's Marote. The Margot named in the funerary register of the confraternity of Notre-Dame d'Arras (not the so-called "puy," but the Carité des jong leurs et des bourgeois) is, almost by definition, not the same person as the Margot of Metz addressed by Perrin d'Agincourt; whether she is the interlocutor named in the same jeu-parti is open to debate.

As I noted above, Songs of the Women Trouvères is organized according to genre: jeux-partis and tensons, chansons (d'amour, de plainte, d'ami, de croisade, d'aube, de malmariée, pieuses), rondeaux, and motets in two, three, or four voices (motets lacking musical notation are placed at the end). While the reasons given for this generic focus are clearly expressed (by Doss-Quinby, on pp. 33-35), this is another respect in which the book fails to take account of some innovative approaches to the analysis and understanding of medieval texts, i.e. those emphasizing the manuscript context of a given piece and rejecting modern habits of categorization. In a sense, the very arrangement of these materials gives the lie to the anthology's stated goals, since it tacitly supports the assumption that the identification of a song as a "woman's" is a relatively easy business -- that it depends on the identification of "feelings and behavior said to be characteristic of them" (Grimbert, p. 6]) -- and that contemporary sources somehow support distinctions of genre, as well as of gender. This is hardly the case, as Grimbert demonstrates (pp. 6-11). And if men are capable of imitating women's voices, a premise of traditional scholarship which has never been questioned (and is allowed to stand here), then surely women are capable of imitating the voices, opinions, lyric styles, and artistic postures "said to be characteristic of" men? Is it really safe to conclude, as Doss-Quinby does, "that women did not write lyrics in response to social concerns or historico-political events unless that had a direct effect on them as women and as lovers" (p. 34)? This assessment is not only jarringly offensive, it is anachronistic: none of the composers and poets active in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries had yet learned to think of themselves as "writers" (both Grimbert and Aubrey make this point in their respective introductory essays); moreover, "such notions as register and genre are relatively fluid and likely to lead to erroneous perceptions when rigidly defined and applied" (Grimbert, p. 9). Just because the only crusading songs with overtly female subjects tend to reference "the feminine experience of the separation motif" (p. 34), it does not follow that some of the anonymous songs extolling warfare, or even some of those now attributed to specific male trouvères (like Conon de Béthune), could not have been composed or at least performed by women who claimed, for any number of reasons, a masculine-sounding authority. If women are regarded as expert players in the lyric game, we must learn to entertain all sorts of possibilities: our understanding of "courtly love," to take but the most obvious example, will be radically altered if we grant the full participation of women in its construction and discourse.

Like a jeu-parti or motet, then, this volume speaks with more than one voice. It embraces the twinned legacies of feminism and post-modernism, but it does not always use their analytical tools with consistency or sophistication. It does not always consider the implications of its own argument. On the one hand, the reader (better yet, the prospective performer) is encouraged to think differently about women's song in the Middle Ages; to question the limitations of the woman's sphere; to regard women as equal partners in the dissemination and reception of these artifacts. On the other, such excellent ideals do not fully inform the way these songs are framed, interpreted, and presented to a new generation of students and scholars. The attitude toward Latin elements in the motets is, perhaps, indicative. Whether or not the verbal fragments accompanying musical quotations from the Mass and Office were sung (p.190), it does not follow that their abstraction from the specific liturgical moment robbed them of meaning for the composer, singers, or listeners. At any rate, it is telling that the Latin incipits of motet tenors are not translated into English here, even though the plainchants to which they are tied have been provided. When the incipit is in the vernacular, however, a translation is given (i.e. Nos. 69 and 70), suggesting that the musical subtext of a tenor from the corpus of vernacular song is somehow more relevant than one drawn from the Latin liturgy. Is not this a step backward, to the time when women's song was wrongly seen as "popular" and anti-intellectual (Grimbert, pp. 6-7)? But if we envision a group of composers and singers learned in this complex polyphonic form, wise in the ways of mensural notation, capable of having their compositions properly recorded (the high incidence of surviving motets accompanied by their music is indicative of the reliance on specialized modes of transmission and performance), we must surely allow that vision to guide investigations into the creativity of medieval women.

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Carol Symes

Bennington College