Apologies for this segue into material only tangentially-related to my thesis research, but I’ve had a really exciting development in regards to my French term paper.
A professor at a neighboring college (and the director of an Early Music group I sing with) has just linked me to a project he and several other scholars undertook with help from the National Endowment for the Humanities some years ago. It’s called “Teaching the Medieval Lyric with Modern Technology” and it basically involves uploading texts, recordings, source materials, and research on composers within the wide category of French medieval lyric (everyone from the troubadors to Guillaume de Machaut.) In other words, a goldmine for the kind of material I’ll need for my term paper (and possibly my thesis.) The term paper will be focused on the one example of a woman troubador, or trobairitz, with a poem that survives with its original music. I had the honor of performing part of it last Friday, and giving an oral presentation on my own musical analysis of the song. And now it’s the focus of my term paper, and I have access to one of the original manuscripts, some scholarly papers, and recordings of the song. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store right now.
And the best part is that the database of information will still be there if I ever need it for thesis research. I’m so grateful I showed up to rehearsal early and had the conversation with my director that ended with him sharing this project with me.
I was inspired to begin this project while reading one of the poems, or lais, of Marie de France (111-1150) entitled “Lanval” (the notion of giving each of these lais a title was something that came around later than when Marie de France was putting them to paper, hence the quotation marks.) It features a character who embodies a mixture of masculine and feminine traits; she is identified as a female, yet she rides a horse, wears armor, and speaks in an authoritative tone (comprised of words and verb tense)–all attributes atypical of women in her time. Granted, this woman also hailed from the land of Avalon, the home of fairies and other magical figures of Arthurian legend. But her story made me wonder: was it her magic that allowed her to adopt and combine masculine and feminine traits, or was this combination part of what made her magical? Or was her gender expression entirely separate from her identity as a magical being? Were there other characters with stories like hers, and in what ways?
Once I had been introduced to this woman’s story, more and more examples of masculinity and femininity coexisting in single entities appeared during my studies. In another of Marie de France’s lais, there was a female deer with antlers who prophesied misfortune for the hero of the story. In prose works, there are several instances in which the bodies of characters identified as women are physically changed so that they present as men. And there are numerous moments within the sung poetry of the first women composers of France where they adopt the roles typically assigned to men composing during the time. Exciting stuff!
My mission now is to gather as many instances of this kind that I can find and hopefully draw conclusions not only on the conceptions of binary gender identities in France at the time, but the general opinion of gender identities that fell outside of the binary. Have you come across anything like this in work from the Middle Ages in France? Do you know of anyone who might have done so? Recommendations are more than welcome! Thanks!
It’s an attempt at bridging the arbitrary gaps between my fields of academic interest and creating something of importance to me personally, to my college, and to interdisciplinary scholarship in general. I believe that this project has the potential to be relevant to today’s world, but I flatter myself to think it will ever reach that level.
For now, it’s an enquiry into the body of work composed in France during the period known as the Middle Ages, or le Moyen Âge. This includes prose, poetry, and poetry set to music–where I will focus within this body of work remains to be seen. I will be combing the work of this place and time in search of instances of gender role reversal, androgyny, and other cross-gender behavior. I use the term “cross-gender” rather than “transgender” because the latter has come to refer to an identity which I doubt will be reflected in all of the material I include in my thesis. I welcome your feedback on the term and suggestions for improving it, as well as any other questions you may have!