- Sounds of Silence:The Translation of Women’s Voices from Marie de France to the Old Norse Strengleikar
In De vulgari eloquentia, Dante Alighieri traces the origin of language to the moment of God’s creation of Adam.1 As he does so, Dante daringly rewrites his Biblical source in order, he protests, to correct an erroneous account of Eve’s role in the founding moment of human expression:
Secundum quidem quod in principio Genesis loquitur, ubi de primordio mundi Sacratissima Scriptura pertractat, mulierem invenitur ante omnes fuisse locutam, scilicet presumptuosissimam Evam, cum dyabolo sciscitanti respondit. … Sed quanquam mulier in scriptis prius inveniatur locuta, ratio-nabilius tamen est ut hominem prius locutum fuisse credamus, et inconvenienter putatur tam egregium humani generis actum non prius a viro quam a femina profluxisse. Rationabiliter ergo credimus ipsi Ade prius datum fuisse loqui ab Eo qui statim ipsum plasmaverat.
(According to what it says at the beginning of Genesis, where sacred scripture describes the origin of the world, we find that a woman spoke before anyone else, when the most presumptuous Eve responded thus to the blandishments of the Devil. … But although we find in scripture that a woman spoke first, I still think it more reasonable that a man should have done so; and it may be thought unseemly that so distinguished an action of the human race should first have been performed by a woman rather than a man. Therefore it is reasonable to believe that the power of speech was given first to Adam, by Him who had just created him.)2
For Dante, the suggestion that the first woman spoke before the first man is inconveniens (unseemly, ill-fitting); the Biblical narrative thus requires revision in order to conform to a more appropriate gender hierarchy. Strangely, however, this is not a problem posed by the Biblical text itself, in which God speaks first, followed by Adam. The Italian poet seems either to have misremembered his Biblical source, or to have deliberately [End Page 279] misquoted it.3 Thus, as the medieval author gallantly rides to the aid of the misguided text, he paradoxically raises the possibility of female linguistic superiority even as he seeks to suppress it.
Dante’s “exegetical acrobatics,” as a recent editor has called these comments,4 are an idiosyncratic but illuminating example of the tension between women’s voices and male authorship that is so often played out in medieval literature. In raising the possibility of Eve’s role in the originary moment of speech, Dante betrays a deeply gendered anxiety about his own relationship with language: if a woman spoke first, how can language form a fitting subject for his scholarly ambitions? If a woman spoke first, must the male author acknowledge a feminine lineage in his creative use of language? Is moulding language into text an effeminizing act? Dante’s solution to such problems is to replace Eve with a patrilineal model of language origin in which God and Adam establish a suitably male-gendered pattern for later male authors to follow. Dante’s substitution of the female speaker with male authority figures is not the focus of this article, but it provides a useful analogue for the fraught relationship between women’s voices and male authors found not in the lyric poetry of southern Europe but in the courtly prose of Scandinavia. This article explores similar interactions between male and female voices in the Old Norse collection of Breton lais known as Strengleikar (Songs for Stringed Instruments). It argues that a fascination with literary origins permeates the collection, but that this fascination is tempered by anxieties about the role played by women in the production of literary texts. Mirroring Dante’s story of Eve, the Old Norse Strengleikar repeatedly portray women as the originators of language and story, but their literary and linguistic authority is carefully delimited by the presence of male authors, translators, and patrons. However, just as Dante’s suppression of Eve paradoxically emphasizes her power to destabilize male images of authorship, so too does the manipulation of women’s voices in Strengleikar reveal the powerful challenge such voices pose to those who seek to contain them.