Medieval Female Writing

These are some pieces of a much larger project I am working on. It began with my Female Scribe sequence that has moved into other forms of female writing, and is constantly shifting as my attention becomes redirected. Some of these findings are nothing more than different avenues that I have explored along the research path and they were interesting enough that I wanted to share, while others are budding projects of their own.

The Female Scribe

My research interests have always been on the process of writing, and I am generally concerned with how the manuscripts we have, have come into existence (scribal authority, authorship in general, codicology, paleography, etc). A more or less recent development in manuscript studies has been scribal identification, while scholars trace their contributions to different manuscripts and make predictions about their lives in order to better attribute intentions to their emendations. However, something that I had not encountered, and for whatever reason hadn’t considered was the idea of the female scribe. As can be seen, this is still a preliminary exploration of the role women played within the scribal community. Even as I find instances of their activities there is yet more to be found on the extent to which they participate within the complicated editing process of their respective manuscripts.


(Christine de Pizan, De claris mulieribus, BnF MS fr. 598, folio 143)

The Female Scribe II

My ultimate goal for this project is to look into one of the earliest dated Lancelot manuscripts from 1274 (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS fr. 342) which indicates its author as female. I want to determine to what extent (if any) the story was influenced through having a female scribe.  I think this calls for a close comparison between this telling of this story and several others to mark the differences. However, before I can draw any conclusions, or even begin work with the primary texts I think it is important to first identify and understand the different ways women interacted with books and writing. In the meantime, I found another interesting piece that could perhaps be applied in a more universal sense to women of the time period. First, from what little I could find out about the Lancelot female scribe, it appears the manuscript may have been produced in Douai. After much digging around, my findings on the town of Douai along with my speculation that the Lancelot scribe could have been a nun could lead to an investigation into what being a nun at the time, and in that region meant.


(The Lancelot manuscript attributed to a female scribe, Paris, BnF MS fr. 342, folio 89v)

The Female Scribe III

This is a rather large leap that will require quite a bit more research, but in looking at what it meant to be a woman in the Middle Ages I found a reference to Aethelberht’s laws. I want to address the connection  between the significance of these laws, being a nun, and the ramifications of partaking in scribal endeavors. Essentially, the laws are concerned with defining a woman’s worth, and notably “maegpbot sy swa friges mannes” (a maiden’s worth is equal to that of a man), and a “friwif” is, as her name indicates, independent for one reason or another. A nun would fall under either of these conditions, either a maiden from the start, or released from relations with men at a later time. In the hierarchy of worth, according to Aethelberht, these would be the highest ranked women. Basically I want to explore how (or if) perceiving themselves according to this value system would imbue these women with the necessary assurance to commit words to paper (or parchment, or vellum) in a mode uncharacteristic of women in different stations or spheres.


(The first page of the only manuscript copy of Aethelberht’s Law, Textus Roffensis)

The Female Scribe IV

My most recent find was another book by Michelle Brown in line with her previous one, but illuminating another piece of female agency within scriptoria. Consequently this lead me down a whole new path of research. The primary focus relied on excavations where numerous whole and fragmented styli were found in Anglo-Saxon nunneries. While the best indication of manuscript creation is typically the manuscripts themselves, tools for such endeavors often survive just as long and can in some cases be even more indicative – a manuscript may not always have a clear, paleographically traceable provenance, whereas the tools were there for a distinct purpose.


(An early medieval stylus found in North Yorkshire dated to be from around 900-1000 AD)

De la jeune Dame et Coindeta sui

In my reading I came across a mention of Clement Marot, and his “De la jeune Dame qui a vieil mary.” I looked up the poem, and it is quite lovely, but more importantly it instantly reminded me of another poem someone had mentioned over a year ago, the anonymous 13th century female troubadour ballad, Coindeta sui. Both of these poems provide insight into the female plight of arranged marriage, but the latter, presumably written by a woman, offers a glimpse into an authentic female thought process.


(Initial “C” with festivities in the middle, Antiphonary for Abbess of Sainte-Marie of Beaupre)

Magisterium vocis Within Medieval Women

During the middle of the eleventh century the Gregorian Reforms were introduced as a method of expunging certain less than pious practices from the clergy. However, the reforms carried other consequences that extended into the laity, a portion of the population that included even the ranks of religious women from nuns to abbesses. While the Church was always a male oriented institution, before the reforms female members also benefitted – it was a locus of education, and provided women with a certain amount of freedom and safety unknown in the secular world. With the reform women were systematically stripped of their roles within the church, and mixed, or dual monasteries became a thing of the past, further depriving women of venues for learning, scriptoriums, substantial libraries, or even opportunities for collaboration. Thus women navigated a rather tricky plane as they elided a fixed categorization. Even within the church multiple debates arose in regards to what their function should be, and to what extent they could practice their calling.


(The Burnet Psalter, University of Aberdeen, MS 25)

The Trobairitz Tradition

A previous post on the Coindeta sui poem sparked a Twitter discussions where we began wondering whether Troubadour poetry about women was really written by women, or if the females simply performed words created by men. I am hesitant to believe one or the other and felt there was probably a mixture of authentic female voices, and those that only mimicked feminine sentiments. Despite numerous sources that referred to these poets as female, I remained skeptical as no actual proof was offered, and it appeared that the subject matter of the poems (women’s lives) informed the way the anonymous poets were regarded. Simply because feminine plight was at the center of these works did not absolutely point to a female writer, which should have been immediately apparent from one of the poems I translated by Clement Maron, “Of the Young Lady With An Old Husband,” that was clearly written by a man. Per usual this lead to further research. Where did women stand within the Troubadour tradition? As it turns out, right in the center, playing a rather prominent role in not just reciting, but creating many of the works that have come down to us today.


(Beatritz de Dia, an infamous Trobairitz – Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale MS fr. 12473)

The Trobairitz Tradition, Continued

This is yet another post that humbly attempts to broach yet one more meager inch into understanding the trobairiz and what they meant to the even larger tradition of female writing. Scholarship over the last twenty years has sought to find the names of the trobairitz – to understand their place in society, and make sense of their words and songs in terms of their various lifestyles. In a nutshell, the vast amount of critical attention the trobairitz have elicited in recent years constantly seeks to historicize them, privileging a biographical  component to their writing. As is, the number of names attributed to the trobairitz are few, and there is little evidence to even play around with, much less debate. However, I feel the debate started in earnest when the trobairitz’s very existence was challenged, practically erased from the history of the larger Troubadour tradition.


(Azalais de Porcairagues, BnF MS fr. 12473, f. 125)

Castelloza – A Medieval Mystery

Here I share a piece of my current project, my translation of one of Castellozas songs with a brief analysis. While the personal histories of the trobairitz were very interesting, their songs are the keys to a broader understanding of their culture, and perhaps even more importantly, a gateway to how their songs and society influenced poetry and the concepts of love for centuries to come.


(Castelloza, BnF MS 843 f. 125)

“Mout avetz faich long estatge”

This is my latest (ever small) contribution to the Trobairitz tradition of a translation of Castelloza’s “Mout avetz.” First, the poem follows Castelloza’s general style of the five stanza format while also maintaining the stricter style and subject of Trobairtiz poetry. She laments the loss of her love, his betrayal, and her subsequent suffering, but she places no blame upon him and proceeds to forgive him for the pain he has inflicted upon her. Yet once again her forgiveness is laced with anger towards his abandonment as she indirectly chastises him for his neglect. Nevertheless she delivers her poem with a dose of sarcasm that does not escape detection, and also conveniently allows us a glimpse into her society. Nevertheless she delivers her poem with a dose of sarcasm that does not escape detection, and also conveniently allows us a glimpse into her society. The time of greatest activity for the Trobairitz coincided with an overall renaissance in women’s rights since in the middle of the twelfth century in France, especially in the southern regions and Occitania, women regained much of the power they had not seen for nearly two hundred years. Thus when Castelloza steps into the dominant role, generally reserved for her male counterpart in poetry, she does so from the vantage point of a woman in possession of not just her quill and voice, but uses that voice to echo her position in society.

MS A f. 168v

(Castelloza and an anonymous chavalier, Vatican Library lat 5232 MS A f. 168v)

Ne Reprenez, Dames, si J’ay Aymé…

Louise Labé was known for various reasons, all centered around the corpus of poetry attributed to her. Many believe her poetry had been the fabrication of notorious contemporary male poets seeking an outlet for their creativity. However, recent scholarship has decidedly credited Labé with her work, even as the specifics of her perhaps tumultuous life remain unaccounted for. However, I am less concerned with the details of her personal life, as I am with the message in her works, specifically her sonnets that recall earlier female writing, namely the trobairitz and their unprecedented chansons.



(Engraving by Pierre Woeiriot)

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