- Constructing Virtue and Vice: Femininity and Laughter in Courtly Society (ca. 1150–1300) by Olga V. Trokhimenko
Olga Trokhimenko’s monograph makes for fascinating reading and represents an important contribution to our understanding of the cultural significance of laughter in the (German) Middle Ages. Laughter is a provocative social gesture [End Page 89] that unsettles and invariably demands interpretation, and its historical meaning can be very hard to pin down. Trokhimenko does a better job than most in doing precisely that by focusing on women’s laughter in courtly aristocratic culture and showing that clerical and secular attitudes towards women’s laughter in particular were “inseparable from debates about the body, sexuality, and the erotic” (20). Her chosen method of close textual analysis is, on the whole, persuasive, and her knowledge of broader discursive contexts (whether theological or medical) enables her to talk with some authority about the bigger picture at various key points in her argument. Thus, Trokhimenko is able to show how female behaviour in the courtly culture of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was governed by a set of contradictory ideas that demanded that women be (seen as) both virtuous and desirable. In other words, although ladies were not meant to laugh aloud, more often than not they were supposed to smile alluringly.
Trokhimenko develops her argument over five main chapters, all of which contain insightful observations as well as some very nice turns of phrase. Chapter 1(“‘You Are No Longer a Virgin’: The Two ‘Mouths’ of a Medieval Woman”) explores the essential link between laughter and virtue for women by uncovering the (male) preoccupation, in a wide range of discourses, with female orifices; thus, in even the most refined of literary contexts, beautiful mouths are not necessarily just beautiful mouths. Chapter 2 (“A Deeply Serious Matter: Laughter in Medieval Ecclesiastical Discourse”) reminds us of the notoriously anti-gelastic character of much religious thought without losing sight of its ambiguities and complexities when examined in detail (with reference to Hildegard of Bingen, for example). Chapter 3 (“‘Men Are Not of One Mind’: Conduct Literature for Women”) gets to the heart of the matter by highlighting courtly precepts that aim to control female laughter and smiling; didactic texts for aristocratic women rehearse one ideal in particular, “according to which women are respected, as long as they themselves are respectfully silent, and obeyed, as long as they themselves are obedient” (129). However, as chapter 4 (“‘The Pleasure Never Told’:Men’s Fantasies and Women’s Laughter in Love Lyric”) makes clear, the “limitations of propriety and virtue” could not eradicate the “need for eroticism” that is articulated in the courtly love lyric and encapsulated by its thematization of female mouths, smiling, and laughter. Finally, in chapter 5 (“‘She Is Beautiful and She Is Laughing?’: Courtly Smiling in the Iconography of Virtue and Vice”), Trokhimenko casts an eye on certain cathedral portal sculptures (depicting the parable of the wise and foolish virgins [Matt. 25:1–13]) to show how smiling – as the “trademark of the secular, courtly world” (172) – came to be used to characterize both foolish (Strasbourg) and wise (Magdeburg) femininity.
For all of this book’s many notable strengths, there are moments when this study is rather less convincing, and the author’s handling of narrative literature (irrespective of her command of narratological terminology) can be clumsy. Thus, Trokhimenko is quite content to use Old French fabliaux to draw conclusions about gender and literary obscenity in German courtly society in the High Middle Ages (58f., 192); and it is very odd indeed that in her detailed discussion [End Page 90] of Enite’s deceitful smile (?) in Hartmann von Aue’s Erec (“und lachete durch schoenen list”; 3842), no mention is made of the deceived count’s (laughing?) response (“lachende antwurte er ir sô”; 3897), this being the perfect opportunity, one would have thought, to lay bare gender-specific differences in literary laughter. This passage also throws up the thorny issue of...