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The Centrality of Margins: Medieval French Genders and Genres Reconfigured

From: French Forum
Volume 30, Number 1, Winter 2005
pp. 1-23 | 10.1353/frf.2005.0023

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French Forum 30.1 (2005) 1-23

Medieval French Genders and Genres Reconfigured

Amy V. Ogden

University of Virginia
[The Emperor] had [the saint's] feet pierced with nails in order to cause much more pain. Blood ran from the feet as water from a pipe. These torments were cruel, but God was very courteous; for, know this well, without falsehood, [the saint's] body could feel no pain. As painful as [the torturer] made the torment, God made it very sweet to [the saint].

[The saint] was very beautiful, the flower of all the [young people] of the country [...]. [The saint] had blond ringlets, skin as white as milk, laughing eyes, a shapely nose, bright teeth, a beautiful mouth [...]. [The saint] had beautiful hands and white fingers. [...] Never had Nature made a more beautiful creature. [The saint's parents...] dressed [their child] very richly, but [the saint] gave the most beautiful of these clothes to the poor. [The saint] had no thought for clothing, but rather delighted in loving God.

[The saint] says to the pagans: 'Now look at your god whom you adore; it will be thrown into this field and none of you will trust it any more.' [The saint] releases [the demon] and lets it go, making it fly in the direction of the field and, right in front of their eyes, makes it land in the rankest part. With a resounding smack, the demon hits the ground so hard that it shakes.

Stripped of the nouns and pronouns that would definitively identify the sex of the protagonists, the epigraphs above seem nonetheless to offer quite predictable portraits of saintly women and men. In fact, the citations, chosen randomly from saints' Lives, do exemplify the typical language and concerns of early medieval Francophone hagiography. However, they also challenge the most prevalent modern ideas, at least in French literary studies, about the genre's treatments of gender. Consequently, these passages call into question the findings of the many studies of gender in secular literature that treat all religious works as the Other against which they define their subject, as well as the conclusions of those that, while integrating hagiographic and secular literature, still posit a simple patriarchal hierarchy as the determining logic of medieval culture.

The evidence of hagiography's central role in the literature enjoyed by the Francophone nobility still bears reiteration, despite an increasing number of incontrovertible demonstrations to this effect. First, the indications that remain concerning hagiographers' intended audiences show them to have included both noble laypeople and religious. Records of patronage are relatively strong for Anglo-Norman works, and both insular and continental Lives contain direct and (even more abundantly) indirect references to their audiences' literary tastes. Denis Piramus is not alone in his well-known boast that he can provide more delightful entertainment than that furnished by Marie de France or Partonopeus de Blois: Gautier de Coinci, for one, similarly implies that his Vie de sainte Cristine is superior to Renart. Many more Lives, including those in the epigraphs above, appropriate the same techniques and characterizations as romance without explicitly citing their intertexts. Second, the numbers of Lives and of manuscripts attest to the genre's importance relative to secular texts. There are approximately as many extant saints' Lives as there are romances, and quite likely more: the most recent tallies list 278 Lives and over 200 romances; the most popular of the Lives, the Vie de sainte Marguerite, survives in fourteen distinct versions, in over 100 manuscripts of the most popular of these versions, and in translations into most contemporary languages (some multiple times), including back into Latin, while 310 manuscripts and the translations into three languages remain of the most popular romance, the Roman de la Rose.

The extent to which modern scholarship concerning mainstream medieval French culture has disregarded hagiography's prominence also merits substantiation. Nearly ten years ago, Simon Gaunt remarked that the neglect of hagiography is symptomatic of a larger problem:

The understandable preference of modern readers for genres which their own aesthetic and ideological predilections render accessible distorts their view of medieval culture. As every art historian, historian or medieval Latinist knows, the Middle Ages were...



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