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Essays in Medieval Studies 20 (2003) 75-84

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Gender as Conduct in the Courtesy Guides for Aristocratic Boys and Girls of Amanieu de Sescás

Mark Johnston
DePaul University

In the introduction to their collection of essays on medieval conduct literature, Kathleen Ashley and Robert Clark propose the construction of gender roles, distinctions of class, and the relationship of theory to practice as three major questions posed by these texts. 1 For the analysis of gender roles, among the most obviously relevant works are those paired texts—sometimes by the same author but often simply circulated together—that offer separate advice for men and for women. Most of these paired works, in all languages, date from the later Middle Ages. In an essay from Ashley and Clark's volume, Anna Dronzek finds that most late medieval English conduct texts offer very different advice for each sex, thanks to disparate expectations for their future social roles (boys will go out into the world, girls will stay at home) and even because of diverse assumptions about their innate capacities for learning (males are more rational than females). These expectations and assumptions evidently engage distinctions in class, as well. Their readership was probably wealthy urbanites seeking advancement to a higher social sphere; aristocratic children, Dronzek speculates, had less need to study courtesy from books, since they could learn courtly behavior by imitating their peers around them. 2

Among the earliest paired texts of advice for each sex are two poems on courtesy addressed specifically to aristocratic readers. These are the Old Occitan poems Enssenhamen de l'escudier ("Advice to a Gentleman") and Essenhamen de la donzela ("Advice to a Lady"), written by one Amanieu de Sescás in the early 1290s. 3 Amanieu's two treatises certainly do prescribe different roles for boys and girls, but the presentation of these roles does not separate social expectations or intellectual capabilities as much as it correlates their performances of courtesy as a common code of aristocratic conduct. The distinctive behaviors assigned to boys and girls in Amanieu's two guides function as mutual responses to common [End Page 75] economic and social imperatives, such as maintaining family status, strengthening feudal alliances, and sustaining noble privilege.

From the numerous historical references in his writings, we know that Amanieu de Sescás was a Gascon or Catalan nobleman whose literary career extended from 1278 to 1295. 4 He was therefore not one of the original troubadours but rather one of the many, typically upper-class writers from Languedoc and Cataluña who by 1300 were cultivating the old troubadour lyric as a kind of classicized vernacular tradition. We know little else about Amanieu de Sescás: most scholarship on him has not advanced beyond the disputes regarding his birthplace that Irénée Cluzel summarized over forty years ago. 5 Amanieu was a common name in thirteenth-century Gascony, and contemporary records even mention several individuals from the Gironde named "Amanieu de Sescars." Nonetheless, the final section of our poet's "Advice to a Lady" refers to the king of Aragon as "my lord" (line 672), and so modern Catalan historians have claimed him as one of their own.

Whether Amanieu came from north or south of the Pyrenees, he was clearly an accomplished courtier, familiar with many aristocratic households throughout the Crown of Aragon and the Midi. His two poems explicitly claim to impart the wisdom acquired from that familiarity. Both texts, along with his several other compositions, survive only in the Chansonnier d'Urfé, one of the great collections of troubadour poetry compiled around Toulouse in the early fourteenth century, when the upper classes of Languedoc sought to institutionalize the classical troubadour lyric as their native literary tradition. 6 The chansonniers of this era created the genre classification of ensenhament for poems of advice, and are also the only source for the works of two twelfth-century troubadour poets, Garin Lo Brun and Arnaut Guilhem de Marsan, 7 who wrote similar poems before Amanieu de Sescás. Consequently...