In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Essays in Medieval Studies 21 (2005) 81-96

[Access article in PDF]

Crossing Generic Boundaries:

The Clever Courtly Lady

University of Auckland, New Zealand

An important boundary marker for the beginning of the High Middle Ages, in the area of literary studies at least, is the emergence of "courtly" narrative with its remote and lovely "courtly" lady, a figure that modern literary criticism constructs as the ideal against which all other feminine types, particularly the "fabliau" lady, are posed as "deviations" or as parodies.1 Feminist criticism has begun to acknowledge more complicated varieties of the feminine in medieval narrative. Still, most studies of feminine figures in medieval literature assume that the "courtly" lady, the unattainable object of unreciprocated desire, represented the standard for medieval audiences—contested, but the standard, nonetheless.2 One scholar wrote recently that "we have begun to see that within and around the courtly paradigm of unrequited male desire and putative devotion to women, other models productively contest its premises and erode its hegemonic hold on heterosexual amorous coupling."3 Based upon the same assumption of the "courtly" lady as paradigmatic is the widespread view of the fabliau as parodic. Another scholar refers to "Le Chevalier qui fist parler les cons" as "a critique of the elevation of women in romance and of romance's mystification of women's nature (as the fableor sees it)."4

Thus the modern reader of medieval literature is trained by literary criticism to perceive "courtly" and "fabliau" ladies as type and anti-type, a perception reinforced by edited collections of romance and fabliaux, which present long stories singly and short ones in groups based upon genre.5 However, manuscripts tend not to group romances only with romances and fabliaux only with fabliaux, but often mix both of them together with a great variety of other works, in a sort of collection popular throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, known today as the fabliau anthology.6 Although the Mary/Eve binary is a commonplace in religious thought, and although when "courtly" and "anti-courtly" ladies are considered in the context of modern editions, they seem to be easily distinguishable types, when [End Page 81] they are reinserted into their manuscript environments—in other words, into a context where the generic boundaries separating romance, courtly lai, and fabliau reified by modern literary histories have no purchase—the distance between them disappears. Where there were two distinct types a single more flexible type remains, a woman who relies upon a combination of charm and intelligence to overcome the disadvantages that society puts in her way.7 Moreover, nothing indicates that in the vibrant literary universe of the court, where all manner of tales would have been read aloud and commented upon, the "courtly" lady reigned as the ideal of womanhood, definitively separated from her riotous sisters. Given the absence of evidence for such an ideal, it seems reasonable to imagine that the dichotomous notion of the feminine represented just one of many possible models, each with its own social agenda and purposes, available to medieval writers for thinking about women.

In this essay I will argue that one important model of the feminine in medieval narrative that has been neglected because of the prevalence of the "courtly" lady paradigm is that of the clever woman. To argue this point, I will examine one fabliau anthology, manuscript 19152 of the Bibliothèque Nationale's fonds français, suggesting that this collection explicitly invites its readers to focus upon its characters' cleverness, a trait defined in the manuscript's first two works. Refusing categorization within a "courtly"/ "anti-courtly" hierarchy, cleverness evens out relationships between unequal partners, whether those partners be animals, merchants, or lovers. In such a manuscript environment, the women of the individual stories appear as disadvantaged partners exercising their wit, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully, to achieve their goals. The possibilities for reading women against this interpretive framework are myriad. In what follows, I will simply suggest some directions, examining three female characters typically analyzed with reference to the "courtly" lady type to suggest that when they...