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When a Woman Says "Yes," She Really Means "No": The Subversive Rape Rhetoric of Domna H

From: Tenso
Volume 27, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Fall 2012
pp. 1-24 | 10.1353/ten.2012.0002

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A true lover and true man should rape his beloved. This assertion, made by the trobairitz Domna H in her tenso with the troubadour Rofin, is of the kind that raises eyebrows and compels scholars to question the biological femininity of the poet in question. It appears to be the sort of provocative statement that would be found only in the genre of the debate song, chosen both for its shock value and the opportunity it offers to create a piquant debate in which each participant seems to be arguing against the best interests of his or her gender. For these reasons, the tenso "Rofin, digatz m'ades de quors" ('Rofin, now tell me from the heart') (PC 249a,1) has received little scholarly attention, and scholars in general have assumed that this is a fictive tenso, like so many others in which a troubadour debates with God, his horse, or his cloak; in other words, that Rofin invented Domna H in order to give more spice to the debate. After all, what woman would state categorically that rape is appropriate? And yet, that is exactly what Domna H appears to contend in her share of the tenso. The key word being "appears," for all is not what it seems in this debate song. In fact, Domna H is arguing the reverse, consistently using irony and sophisticated rhetoric to turn her arguments for rape into a scathing condemnation of male desire and sexual domination. In so doing, she reveals herself to be far more in line with the views expressed by the trobairitz in other mixed tensos than one might first think.

In contrast with the fairly wide range of topics found in exclusively male-authored tensos, the mixed tensos—those composed by a troubadour and a trobairitz—tend to be far more limited in scope, focusing primarily on issues of gender and sexuality. The tenso, by far the preferred genre for the trobairitz, seemed to offer them a literary arena in which to challenge widely held stereotypes about men, women, gender and sexuality, all of which are addressed in "Rofin, digatz m'ades de quors."

In their debate Domna H and Rofin disagree upon how a lover ought to conduct himself with his beloved. While Rofin takes a courtly stance, insisting that the lover should respect his lady and do only what she permits, Domna H argues that one who is truly consumed by the power of love should flout social mores and disregard his lady's wishes, forcing her if necessary. She thus appears to argue that rape, ordinarily seen as a serious crime in the Middle Ages, is justifiable, acceptable, and even necessary. Her assertions, however, can be read as subversive commentary on the representation of male and female sexuality in troubadour lyric found most notably in the troubadours' cansos. Through her seeming advocacy of such extreme misconduct, Domna H calls into question dominant gender constructs of her time.

One of the most striking aspects of the troubadours' cansos is the way in which female sexuality is constructed and female bodies are deconstructed. As the lady has no voice in the cansos and no physical presence beyond that with which she is endowed by the troubadour, both her sexuality and her body are up for grabs, so to speak; the troubadour can present both in the best, or worst, light possible, depending on his intent. Female sexuality at its best is constructed as completely passive, welcoming, and unthreatening to men, and the female body, when viewed in its entirety, is typically seen as immobile, in a reclining (and thus welcoming) position. However, the female body is more typically seen deconstructed in the troubadours' cansos. In these love songs, the poets' beloveds have a Cheshire-cat-like physical presence, often appearing only as a pair of eyes or a smiling mouth. The goal of this deconstruction of the female body, as Sarah Kay remarks, is to bring the female body under male control and make it serve male needs and desires:

Often...the domna's body is chopped up into tempting mouthfuls, a smile here, an eye there. The point seems to be to maintain the sexual interest...



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