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13.11.03, Lie and Kuiper, eds., The Secrets of Women in Middle Dutch

13.11.03, Lie and Kuiper, eds., The Secrets of Women in Middle Dutch

Nothing says "I love you" quite like a didactic gynecological treatise in rhyming couplets. This, at least, seems to have been the view of the anonymous author of this fascinating text from the medieval artes tradition of the medieval Low Countries. [1] Writing at the request of his lady-love, the poet of Der Vrouwen Heimelijcheit (The Secrets of Women) provides her with some highly personal instructional material about women and their sexuality, albeit from a decidedly male perspective. Based ultimately on the Latin De secretis mulierum, this Middle Dutch adaptation constitutes a striking departure from what we have come to expect in such didactic, scientific texts in that the poet weaves a personal love complaint to his lady into the work in lyrical verses, inserting them at regular intervals throughout his exposition of "women's secrets." This remarkable text is preserved in Ghent University Library Ms 444, a paper manuscript copied (according to the colophon) in 1405, but based ultimately on an exemplar dating to the early fourteenth century (40). The manuscript contains a second work exhibiting the same hybrid nature; here the poet inserts his lines of lyrical lament into a treatise on physiognomy, the Fysiognomieleer, based ultimately on a tract attributed to Aristotle (30). In the first main text in this manuscript, the total number of lines of lyrical verse comes to 232 out of 1785, or some 13%. In the second work, there are 26 lines of lyrical verse out of 288. The structure and presentation of the works indicates that they were intended to appear together.

How common was this combination of didactic materia and lyrical verses in the Middle Ages? Following a section entitled "About this Book" by one of its two editors, Willem Kuiper (more on this toward the end of this review), Orlanda Lie takes up this question in the first section of the Introduction. The practice, it appears, was not limited to these two main texts in this one manuscript. Lie notes that three fragments from another manuscript (Royal Library Brussels 19571) have come down to us, as well as fragments from a now lost manuscript from Oudenaarde.

Lie analyzes the contents of these membra disjecta and compares them to the Ghent manuscript in the next section of the Introduction. She then provides an extensive analysis (16 of the 42 pages comprising the Introduction to this volume) of the interwoven lyrical intermezzi in the Ghent manuscript, and in the next, much briefer section she does the same for the manuscript's treatise on physiognomy. In the remainder of this introduction, Lie devotes space to the following subjects: further consideration of the hybrid nature of the two texts, Artes literature for women in general, the possible French analogues for the combination of courtly poetry and didactic literature, a brief survey of the critical reception of the Secrets of Women in Middle Dutch, the Latin De secretis mulierum tradition, the related witnesses of Der vrouwen heimelijcheit in German (the latter are thought to be based on a Middle Dutch exemplar, and moreover the creator of the Middle High German version has stripped away all of the lyrical intermezzi), and concluding summary comments.

The evidence presented by Lie in the Introduction to this book suggests that the combination of artes matter interspersed with love lyrics was a form that may have originated in the medieval Low Countries:

Taking stock of our findings, the following reconstruction is possible. There was at one time a phase in the history of Middle Dutch artes literature during which a particular category of artes knowledge was made available for a female audience. It largely concerns general encyclopedic medical knowledge that might be put into practice by women in the everyday healthcare of the family and members of their community. The extant corpus shows that the technique of integrating lyrical poetry with informative matter was applied to such subjects as anatomy, embryology, planetology, the complexions, physiognomy and women's medicine (48).

A corpus of such texts arose, then, and the Ghent manuscript and Brussels and Oudenaarde fragments point to the existence of at least one miscellany manuscript. The contents of this miscellany cannot be determined with any certainty, though Lie argues that at a minimum it would have included the subjects listed above (48-49).

Drawing on the work of codicologist/paleographer Hans Kienhorst, Lie notes that the original (parchment) dedication copy of the original collection of texts (which included the Der vrouwen heimelijcheit) was probably intended "as a useful manual for a special lady" (49). According to the 'acrostic' appearing in the text, that lady was one Margareta Godevartse from Udim. As an aside, it must be mentioned here that this reader sought in vain for more specific information about this important acrostic: where does it appear in the text or manuscript? It is mentioned in passing in several places (pp. 7, 37, 38 n. 38, 40, 48, 54, 55), but it is only on p. 48 that one gets a clue as to where the letters that make up the acrostic appear-- "24 small initials which, together with the initial M, yield the name Margareta godevartse wt udim" (48). They are, in fact, the 24 small initials that stand at the beginning of as many sentences throughout the text, in this volume represented by larger initials in the edition of the Middle Dutch text only, appearing on the lefthand pages. Only one large initial is found in the Fysiognomieleer, namely the first letter of the first word of the first sentence of that text, a 'G' (p. 146, and Fig. 7 at p.144). It would have been handy had the editors explained this at some point, either in Lie's introduction, or in Willem Kuiper's section on the manuscript at pp. 53-55.

Be that as it may, our anonymous poet, assuming the roles of both teacher and lover, has responded with this hybrid text to a request from his lady-love to "write something that might be useful" for her (l. 3). In the course of his adaptation of what was most likely the Old French Secres de Dames, itself a translation of the Latin Secretis mulierum (43-44), he invokes such authorities as Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, Rhazes, Solinus, and Trota in presenting a wide-ranging series of subjects pertaining to women's 'secrets': menstruation, vaginal discharge, the growth of the foetus, the moment when the soul enters the body, the influence of the planets on the foetus and the human body in general, the seven chambers of the uterus, the chances of survival when children are born, post- partum disorders of the uterus, complications attending childbirth, lessons for midwives, the nature of the membrane protecting the unborn child (freckles are caused by menstrual blood dripping onto it!), monster births and malformed children, how to know when a woman is pregnant, how to determine the sex of an unborn child, the heat of the body and its effect on fertility and sex, advice and recipes for improving one's chance of getting pregnant, the discomfort felt by women during their first experience of intercourse, a second discourse on menstruation, ailments of the womb, and, finally, instruction on the nature of male seed. The text ends with a message in code: Explkckt sfcrftxm mxlkfrks which, when deciphered, reads: Explicit secretum mulieris (Here ends the secret of a woman).

Again, what makes this text so remarkable is that the poet interrupts this didactic narration with lyrical laments of his unrequited love at the hands of his beloved. These passages are of varying length, but they always appear at the end of a section and are followed immediately by text set off with the small initials. In this facing- page, dual language edition, the lyrical intermezzi are printed in an italic font in both text and translation, and they are further set apart from the rest of the text with yet another visual clue, one original to the manuscript, i.e. a paraph (¶). For example, in the section beginning at l. 1007, the poet first cites Aristotle and then pseudo-Albertus Magnus in describing the various causes of monstrous or atypical births, concluding at ll. 1076-1082 that the most powerful influence of all is exerted by the planets. What comes next is one of the poet's lyrical insertions:

Woude zij mi beteren mijn mesval, diet wel vermach, so waric vroe. (l. 1085) Ay, en staet mi niet alsoe. Sij laet mij al int doeghen bliven. If she would remedy my misfortune, who has the power to do so, I would be happy. But alas, that is not how it is. She continues to keep me in a state of suffering. [2]

The text immediately following this is set off with one of the small initials, the capital 'R' of Rhazes, whom our poet cites in his description of how a woman may know if she has conceived. Perhaps the most striking of these is described in lines 1103-1112: "You may notice another sign:/ in the case that the man thinks that something/ is at the same time sucking and tugging at his penis,/ and it is firmly held in the vagina,/ and no menstruation finds place/ as it usually does,/ and her legs hurt,/ and the womb readily moves/ with wicked desire that lasts for a long time, then she has conceived a child." But there are other signs, as well. The last one mentioned by the poet is a craving for unusual foods (apples, pears or coals!), but this could also be a sign that she will soon fall gravely ill. It is with this lack of transition that the poet now shifts from teaching mode to lament:

O wi, sal ic altemale (l. 1130) aldus bederven sonder raet? Al doe ic goet, het dunct haer quaet, Die goede. Si doet overdaet Dat sij haeren dienstman niet ontfaet. Alas, must I thus Perish dismally without relief? If I do, she thinks it bad, the good lady. She commits a great wrong By not receiving her servant.

And so he continues, now offering sage advice to his beloved, now lamenting her coldness toward him. Somewhat later on in the poem (ll. 1461-1521), he covers a number of different topics from his reading in Latin, including the pain women have during their first experience of intercourse, the nature of their urine while menstruating, and where the lust is situated in a woman (in her navel; in a man it is the kidneys). It is best, he advises, for women to avoid intercourse with their husbands until they have stopped menstruating: "If they did not do that, God knows,/ suffering would come of it" (ll. 1520-1521). Fairly typical of the poet's transitions between didactic material and lyrical intermezzo is what comes next; note in particular the proof of devotion he offers in ll. 1527-1528, which he seems convinced will win him her heart:

Hoe salsijs ghelaten moghen, sij en sal vertroesten dat herte mijn, Als ic peinse omme die vrouwe fijn. (l. 1525) Die ic te haerwaert draghe al stillekine, Mijn dienst sal werden in scine. Vriendelec lief, is segghe u voert Van menstrue noch ander wort. How can she possibly hold back and not offer solace to my heart when all I can think of is my dear lady. My devotion will become evident Which I now bestow on her in secret. My dear love, I will tell you something more about menstruation.

But the lover's situation is ultimately resolved, and his love does not remain unrequited. At ll. 1672-1675 he tells us that she has consoled him, at 1750-1753 he notes that she truly comforts him now for she could not bear to see him suffer, and at ll. 244-261 of the Fysiognomieleer we encounter a longer expression of his devotion, both in private and in public, to the woman who has relieved him of his misery.

Even this succinct overview of the work's contents and themes should be enough to demonstrate that this facing-page edition and translation of a most unusual text will be of interest to students of medieval courtly love lyrics and didactic medical treatises alike. In addition to the preface and introduction, there is a section describing the manuscript, another laying out editorial principles and listing textual variants and emendations, a brief statement concerning the translation, a select bibliography and short biographical sketches of the three scholars involved in producing this very handsome volume.

It should be stressed that translator Thea Summerfield has succeeded admirably in her aim at presenting an English translation that "may be read as an independent text, but will also provide easy access to the corresponding Middle Dutch lines on the parallel page" (61). The translation is extremely accurate, and at the same time it reads exceptionally well.

Finally, in the opening section entitled "About this Book", Willem Kuiper describes how the subject of this book had formed the basis of a Master's thesis by one of his students at the University of Amsterdam, Mieke van Doorn. Graduating in 1981, she had plans to produce a new edition of the text. Unfortunately, she fell ill and passed away before she could complete the project. This reader can only conclude that the authors of The Secrets of Women in Middle Dutch have with this volume produced a fitting tribute to the original (now deceased) researcher. This is collaborative research at its best, and thanks to their collective efforts, a much wider audience now has access to this fascinating text.



1. As Lie explains in a note on pg. 9, artes texts are those that belong to "the medieval corpus of scientific and technical writiings, dealing with the artes liberales, the artes mechanicae and the artes magicae."

2. The text and translation in this book appear side by side on facing pages, original text on the left, translation on the right. It has been necessary to reformat the text to fit this review.