It is always a matter for rejoicing when a hitherto-untranslated medieval work becomes available in an affordable English translation that we can in good conscience require students to buy for a course. This laetitia is multiplied by a factor of ten in the case of a work that can illuminate a perennially burning question across a broad spectrum of medieval languages and cultures. In this case, the burning question is the discourse of misogyny on the one hand and of its opposite philogyny on the other--along with the general status of women that might both underlie these discourses and be explained and perpetuated by them. Linda Burke has published a translation of Jehan Le Fèvre's Livre de Leesce (c. 1380-1387), his putative recantation of his earlier translation of the Lamentationes Matheoluli, a widely-known and influential misogamous and misogynous treatise. The Livre de Leesce has represented a regrettable lacuna in the texts available in English, particularly for undergraduate or comparative graduate teaching. The evident utility of Burke's project is that it can bridge the medieval texts in praise and blame of women that are amply available in translation with the writings and the specific arguments of Christine de Pizan and of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century authors, particularly in French, who brought the discussion into a larger arena with more diverse interlocutors than the twelfth- and thirteenth-century (particularly Latin) discussants of the woman question.
Jehan Le Fèvre proceeds by recapitulating, in thematic clusters, the accusations against women contained in his c. 1377 translation of the Latin source. After each cluster the narrator explains how Lady Leesce (Lady Gladness) refutes those accusations. She contests their foundation, recontextualizes the evidence adduced, and reframes the conclusions drawn in the Lamentationes. Thus in one convenient volume Jehan can restate and refute the case against women familiar to the medieval misogynous corpus, while claiming to repent of his earlier project.
For all these reasons I am grateful to Linda Burke even before addressing the specific merits of her translation and critical apparatus. The translation is readable and lively, and nonspecialists will benefit from the detail and the breadth of its annotations. These cover a breadth of ground, glossing tone and word-play which the casual reader might otherwise miss; historical and legendary figures often invoked in misogynous texts and whom the casual reader would otherwise probably miss; and scholarly interpretations and disagreements that the casual reader would otherwise certainly miss. An example of the vigorous voice for the defense:
In women there is no guilt at all, but they are right to despise every man who disparages them, since the bravest and the wisest of men were caught by women. I see not one woman who wounds her lover or rapes him.... [...] And so it seems to be the depravity of males, if they act sinfully because of female beauty and can't keep themselves to keep their behavior in line and control their tongues and restrain themselves through reason, in order to guard and maintain their constancy, which is very weak because of lust, which drives them mad" (107).
Burke takes care to footnote Jill Mann's observation that while Le Fèvre does not develop the argument that women do not rape men, Chaucer develops the issue of rape in comparing justice between men and women (p. 131, n. 486). I appreciate that Burke alerts the reader to translation uncertainties she encountered, such as uncertain grammatical subjects; to translation choices that result from emendations or alternative manuscript readings; and to idiomatic expressions (particularly those with sexual connotations) and the translation solutions she offers. It should go without saying that while I disagree with many of her translation choices, that is inevitable and is no reason to denigrate those Burke has made.
There is a great deal to praise in this project overall, beyond the accuracy and energy of the translation. Burke's bibliography, for example, is much more informative than most bibliographies are these days. She identifies which manuscripts contain only the Livre de Leesce, which contain only the Lamentations, and which contain both. The bibliography of primary and secondary sources offers brief but helpful annotations that give information on editorial history and interrelations, and summarize critical interpretations and controversies. Burke does careful justice to the school of thought that reads the Livre de Leesce as a self-subverting satire rather than an earnest defense of women, although her own interpretation tends toward the latter. These features enhance the book's usefulness to readers and students who have not spent hundreds of hours mapping out the terrain of how misogyny has been studied. (By contrast, limiting the index to the proper names and works actually mentioned in the Livre de Leesce sharply limits its utility.) Burke's introduction gives a good overview of a few major topics, including the question of authority, and questioning the auctoritates; the Livre de Leesce's interrogation of the Roman de la Rose; and the enduring uncertainty about the sincerity of the author's recantation.
In two areas however the book falls short. First and most importantly, Burke has reproduced and translated Van Hamel's antiquated edition, which was based on only five of the eight manuscripts now known to preserve the Livre de Leesce. She has not reproduced his critical apparatus, either. This is no small defect. Between the rival manuscript readings which Van Hamel discarded, those of which he was ignorant in making his edition, and his necessarily imperfect understanding of the textual tradition, the Livre de Leesce produced in this edition and consequently in this translation is of limited utility for specialists, who will have to await Karen Pratt's edition and translation in progress. Again, however, there is quite a large audience of readers who will be able to benefit greatly from Burke's work.
The second defect, which actually had me pulling out my hair, is not to be laid at the author's door. A series of publishing choices make the book quite unwieldy to use. I am baffled by the decision to publish the French text and the English translation in two separate blocks rather than in a facing-page format. I literally had to use two copies of the book to make any workable comparison of the French and the English. Burke has not inserted parallel footnote numbers into the French text, whereas to the English translation she has provided copious notes; this decision would have made more sense in a facing-page format than in the current one. Burke's observation that Von Hamel's original edition makes for quite cumbersome cross-checking is humorous, given that her own book could give lessons in cumbersome cross-checking. Consulting the French, the English, and the footnotes, I found myself flipping backwards and forwards among three sections of the book, muttering predictable and quite unprintable imprecations. Finally, a note on elder abuse. Heading down life's sunless hill, I am no longer among those who can contemplate with serenity a microscopic type font for the French text and for the footnotes. It's enough to convert a person to the Kindle, where at least the type can be enlarged for the elderly and the myopic.
Burke ends her introduction hoping for more discussion of the the Livre de Leesce:
"Now that the book is available in a translation and format designed for clarity, there is hope that its author's desire for a spirited reader response, or to use his own expression, a "dialogue," can be more fully realized in the years to come" (23).
I suspect that she is right. Her own engagement with the misogynous tradition in Middle French and Middle English (and to some degree in Latin) can usefully be supplemented with comparisons to narrative verse texts in Old French and in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian, texts which are reflected in the Livre de Leesce. The Chastiemusart, the Proverbia quae dicuntur super natura feminarum, and Antonio Pucci's 1371 Contrasto delle donne can all illuminate the Livre de Leesce, in terms both of influence and of simple parallel, both formally and thematically. Medievalists who compare primary and secondary texts across a dozen different languages are as rare as hen's teeth nowadays. Burke's project, which purveys a prominent text to a larger audience in Middle French and in English, at a cost accessible to students, with decent distribution, is a laudable contribution to Medieval Studies.