It is never easy to critique a collection of essays, since rather than receiving a gradually developing argument in a consistent authorial style, as one would expect from a monograph, what we have is a string of fast paced virtuosic displays of thought, approaching a common area, in a variety of styles. It is made doubly challenging in this case because it addresses material very broad in its reach, namely, woman's song of Western Europe using texts dating between A.D. 900 and 1500. As well, it gives consideration to the "affinities of European woman's song with Jewish and Arabic literature, and to parallels with woman's songs in the ancient world" (1). The main aim of the collection is to examine progress in research of the area of woman's song in the twenty years since the publication of the landmark essay collection Vox Feminae: Studies in Medieval Woman's Song, ed. John F. Plummer (Kalamazoo, 1981).
While reflecting on the developments of the last two decades the volume also purports to address the issue of the musical performance of woman's song, "a subject too often ignored" (1). While I agree it is a subject all too often ignored, it is not one of the best features of the collection. In fact there is only one essay, Susan Boynton's "Women's Performance of the Lyric Before 1500" which centres on it, though Judith Cohen's contribution "Ca no soe joglaresa: Women and Music in Medieval Spain's Three Cultures," draws on her own experience as a performer of this repertoire at several points in her argument. Even so, there is no consideration at all of the relationship between melody and lyric in the songs that survive with both elements intact. Naturally, it is hard to make general statements about the nature of the relationship between word and tone when there are so few secure examples surviving, but nonetheless this was not explicitly addressed in this collection of essays.
The introduction (1-14) provides an excellent thumbnail capture of each of the ten essays and I quote it here: "Anne Klinck looks at the manifestations of woman's song from ancient times on, showing how, though the mode may be ultimately attributable to male fantasy, in ancient Greece as in medieval Europe it could be adapted by sophisticated poets -- male and female -- for their own particular agendas. Pat Belanoff examines the two Old English poems, seeing in them an intensity of focus on the present moment, the impossibility of consolation, and a marginalized voice which cannot attain harmony because it is marginalized. Susan Boynton considers the question of whether medieval women actually composed music, and concludes that the distinction between women performing songs by men and women singing their own songs is a problematic binary that needs to be reexamined. Judith Cohen assesses women's roles in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Spain, tracing some parallels with contemporary oral tradition. Esther Corral offers a morphology of the femininity created by the male-authored Galician-Portuguese cantigas de amigo. Jane Burns sees love in the Old French chansons de toile as working like needles through cloth, pulling desirous partners into mutual embrace. Matilda Bruckner examines the individuality of the women troubadours, with particular reference to the Comtessa de Dia and Na Castelloza. Ingrid Kasten compares the assertiveness of the Comtessa with the timid womanhood depicted in the Frauenlieder of the German Reinmar der Alte. Ann Marie Rasmussen focuses on Walther von der Vogelweide's construction of the discerning lofty lady. And, finally, Judith Bennett explores some anonymous Middle English lyrics to see whose interests are being served by their sexual admonitions" (14).
Beyond that, if there is only one more paragraph you can read from this collection of essays it must be the following: "In fact, woman's song is a literary type, too loosely defined to be termed a genre. Constructed in a supposedly "popular" rather than courtly mode (we will return to this issue below), poems of this type were composed for oral delivery, and most of them were sung with musical accompaniment. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases the musical notation has not survived. Woman's song is characterized by strophic structure, often with repeated lines or phrases creating parallelism or refrain; simplicity of vocabulary and syntax; lack of narrative and descriptive detail; emotional, often exclamatory language; focus on certain natural objects -- water, trees, birds, animals -- which assume a symbolic function; and a strong physical element in the speaker's account of herself and her feelings. The mode of woman's song is frequently signaled at the opening by grammatical markers of feminine gender, and by an apostrophe to the speaker's mother, lover, or confidante(s). The theme always relates to love, typically, but not universally, in terms of loss or longing. These features apply especially to monologue, but they also appear in dialogue, and in narrative-framed speech" (2). When I read it first I was overcome by its density, and, while not doubting its veracity, felt that the characteristics described could well apply more broadly to other literary types. Now at the end of the book, I still think that these characteristics could apply to other literary types, but it matters less. This paragraph provides a compact distillation of the book itself. Each of these characteristics is presented elegantly with eloquent argument and copious illustration in the various essays. Looking back now to the introduction, it seems that this paragraph rather steals the thunder of the book and I would have preferred to come across this summary statement in a conclusion rather than at the start of the journey through the book.
In the twenty years since the publication of Vox Feminae, we have learnt to absorb the female-voice lyric under the heading of woman's song and not restrict our gaze to securely attributed female-authored works. Medieval Woman's Song celebrates this broadening of the canon and qualifies it thus: "The distinction between female-authored and female-voice woman's song is a vexed one, though it is still respected by most scholarship. Defining the type by textual rather than authorial femininity allows us to include poems authored by known men and women, as well as many anonymous works" (2). The explanation that this approach is particularly relevant for woman's song in the medieval period covers the expected issues like the prevalence of anonymity and idiosyncratic attribution practices but also alerts the reader to the persistence of oral delivery which "makes the audience often more conscious of performance than authorship" (2). Though this comes as a rewarding revelation, I am nonetheless surprised and a little regretful that the securely attributed composer Hildegard von Bingen is given such a wide berth in this essay anthology.
All feminist readers will hear alarm bells when they encounter binary polarities, and in general the essays included here, successfully avoid them. The brief discussion in the introduction which questions the antitheses of popular/courtly and popular/elevated successfully demolishes the underlying assumptions but does not examine its own assumption of the linking of popular and feminine. The trap is that polarities will always work against the feminine and thus if the popular is feminine it cannot be either courtly or elevated which then becomes the masculine province. More overtly aware is the argumentation developed by Boynton to establish the polarity between amateur/elite/private and professional/non-elite/public (60). Though she warns of the dangers of being too rigid in using this polarity as an analytic tool, it is nonetheless fascinating to apply these connections to man's song. Though not stated overtly, I believe Boynton is reaching here for the proposal that the amateur woman performed the lyric as if it spoke personally to her and for her. The professional woman performer, on the other hand, was less present in the performance and thus "professional entertainers are not assumed to express their personal sentiments through their art." This issue of what we might call "performative reality" is picked up in Bruckner's essay that warns us to be careful not to reflexively assume that lived experience is projected in song (128).
Susan Boynton's essay "Women's Performance of the Lyric Before 1500" is simultaneously revelatory and problematic. She rightly points out that literary and historical accounts suggest that women "played an important role in the creation, performance, and transmission of lyric poetry" (47) and she takes mainstream music historians to task for neglecting to include a consideration of gender in the composition and performance of secular song. I find she is on less secure ground with the following statement, however: "Since composition was not entirely distinct from performance until the later Middle Ages, the existence of female performers automatically implies the existence of female composers" (47). This is a statement that is certainly contestable and requires careful discussion. The reader would need a clear explanation of what is meant by "composition" in this context and would also need to be led to an understanding of how song-writing was conceptualised in the medieval period. These explanations are not provided in the essay. Boynton quickly makes up for lost ground, however, with the statement of her credo: "Investigating women's performance of the medieval lyric entails broadening the scope of the evidence beyond the musical score, rejecting the author function, and placing performance, and thus performers, at the center of the inquiry" (48). The essay is brought to a convincing conclusion with a more direct expression of the same essential idea: "Given the documentary evidence available, it seems more productive to study women's performance of medieval song within its cultural and historical context than to pursue a traditional musicological approach based on the analysis of musical scores" (63).
The methodologies of ethnomusicology are much more appropriate to a study of medieval woman's song than are those of musicology, as Judith Cohen, author of "Ca no soe joglaresca Women and Music in Medieval Spain's Three Cultures" points out. She synthesises her academic training with performance skills as she explains: "As an ethnomusicologist, I add some speculation drawn from oral traditions to complement the available documentation, though with the caution which is obviously required. My work as a performer of medieval music and oral traditions gives me another perspective on the image of women ion the songs and on what it means to a woman to sing them...On a different, practical level, my performing activities enable me to apply the medieval technique of contrafactum, in this case setting medieval women's poems without accompanying notation to appropriate contemporaneous melodies" (67).
There is little one can say about Esther Corral's "Feminine Voices in the Galician Portuguese cantigas de amigo" as it is a survey style essay, which, while it provides much valuable information on a little known area, does not develop an argument or position. The final paragraph (98) is a very punchy summary, which, if you are pressed for time, is all you really need to read.
"Sewing like a Girl -- Working Women in the chansons de toile" is a very clever essay by E. Jane Burns which examines the relationship between loving, singing and sewing in the chansons de toile. In the courtly love tradition the acts of singing and loving cross over so seamlessly that they are almost entirely synonymous. Burns adds sewing to this complex and by intricate argumentation demonstrates that "for the women figured in the chansons de toile...the acts of loving and singing are equally imbricated with sewing." The "Sewing like a Girl" part of the essay title, refers to the phrase of derision "throw like a girl" when the right way is to throw like a boy. Burns points out that the analogy is not exact, in that, unlike modern sports, medieval sewing is not "coded as a stereotypically male endeavor" and by this device leads the reader to the revelation that singing a love song is most commonly within the male preserve. This understanding allows us "to alter our own critical focus...[and] move away from asking whether women in the chansons de toile can sing successfully "like men" or only problematically "like ladies" and investigate the significance of the fact that these skilled, working women know how to "sew like girls" (104).
"Fictions of the Female Voice: The Women Troubadours" by Matilda Tomaryn-Bruckner has as its aim, to "pay close attention to the subtle, even elusive, concept of voice -- its relation to the identity of the poet and the poem's speaker(s), the elements that characterize its expression, the multiplicity of images created by different voices, and so on...[The trobairitz] songs demonstrate with intricate complexity the way poetic fictions play with cultural, literary, and social definitions of man and woman, masculine and feminine" (127). This is a considerable challenge, which I think is managed uncommonly well. Nonetheless it does not provide an easy read and displays an almost virtuosic use of complex language and expression which the following passage amply illustrates: "While I am thus inclined to avoid the Scylla of naïveté, I am at the same time rebuffed by the Charybdis of the Other -- that is, readings like that of Jean-Charles Huchet in which the historical reality of the trobairitz is denied in favor of a Lacanian Other" (128). It is, nonetheless, an essay that offers the reader a satisfying depth of analysis along with frequent inspirational revelations. It is the sort of work which you end with the feeling that the author has expressed your own thoughts on the topic but with considerably more elegance.
Judith Bennett's "Ventriloquisms -- When Maidens Speak in English Songs c.1300-1550" is full of conceptual realignments not the least of which is held within its title. The concept of the lyric I, the maiden, being a sort of ventriloquist's dummy through which society's predominantly male view is thrown, is key to understanding the realm of woman's song. The first example Bennett draws on is the dance carol "Ladd Y the daunce" which she uses convincingly to develop the analogy between the dance and sexual intercourse. "The dance of the song -- as both told and performed -- was itself a medieval colloquialism for sexual intercourse" (188). She keeps a broad view when she categorises these songs into three groups, each depicting young women predominantly as sexual objects. According to Bennett's reading of these songs, the women could be 1) lusty maidens who welcomed the embraces of men 2) abandoned maidens who foolishly loved and lost, and 3) maidens who were victims of rape (190). We are forced by her fresh reading of these lyrics to accept that these songs narrate clearly frightening tales which normalize rape (198). The author smartly points out the awful contradiction at the root of these dance songs -- that they "grow out of the very activities -- singing and dancing on holidays -- that they script as dangerous for young women" (203).
The chanson de toile is touched on several times in this collection of essays. It is typically associated with women and suggests an aura of antiquity as a popular lyric genre preserved in a stylized form. Boynton successfully proposes that the chanson de toile serves as a "paradigm for the association of woman's song with archaic lyric poetry" (53). The evidence she provides demonstrates that woman's song often operates within popular culture and may be seen to draw on an archaic tradition. Judith Bennett alludes to the connection between the oldest woman's songs and songs that are '"popular in origin" -- that is, they were sung, danced, and enjoyed long before any version happened to be copied into a manuscript that has survived to this day" (190). Bruckner too makes connections between the woman's voice and the "popularizing" genres of chanson d'ami, chansons de toile, albas, chansons de mal mariee (133). This connection between the archaic and the popular which woman's song forges, however tempting it may be, is still an assumption, and as far as I know, an untested one. Questions that lie at the back of this observation include "what is the connection between the archaic and the popular and why do we presume that archaic practices are particularly the preserve of women?" and "is woman's song more likely to have a link to the archaic and operate within a popular arena than man's song?" Perhaps it is questions of this sort that will be addressed in the next two decades of scholarship on woman's song.