Woman As Riot
If the above title seems redundant, it is because the topic of misogyny, like the mace or chastity belt, participates in a vestigial horror practically synonymous with the term medieval , and because one of the assumptions governing our perception of the Middle Ages is the viral presence of antifeminism. The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature. Like allegory itself, to which (for reasons we do not have time to explore) it is peculiarly attracted, antifeminism is both a genre and a topos, or, as Paul Zumthor might suggest, a "register"—a discourse visible across a broad spectrum of poetic types. Excellent examples are to be found in Latin satires like John of Salisbury's Policraticus , Walter Map's De nugis curialium (especially the Letter of Valerius to Rufinum), Andreas Capellanus's Art of Courtly Love (book 3), as well as in the .XV. Joies de mariage and what is perhaps the most virulent antimatrimonial satire in the vernacular tongue, Jehan Le Fèvre's translation of the Lamentations de Matheolus . Misogyny is virtually synonymous with the works grouped under the rubric of "les genres du réalisme bourgeois": the comic tale or fabliaux (including Middle English and Italian versions); the animal fable (Roman de Renart ); the comic theater or farce; but also certain mixed or unclassifiable forms like the chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette or Adam de la Halle's Jeu de la feuillée ; and, of course, Jean de Meun's portion of the Roman de la rose .
So persistent is the discourse of misogyny—from the earliest church fathers to Chaucer—that the uniformity of its terms furnishes an important link between the Middle Ages and the present and renders the topic compelling because such terms still govern (consciously or not) the ways in which the question of woman is conceived by women as well as by men. Misogyny is not so much a historical subject as one whose very lack of history is so bound in its effects that any attempt merely to trace the history of woman-hating is hopelessly doomed, despite all moral imperative, to naturalize that which it would denounce (more on this later). This is not to imply that there have been no changes in the ways misogyny has
through time been received, understood, assimilated by particular cultures, implemented, or pressed ideologically in the service of repressive social practice. Rather, it suggests that the very tenacity of the topoi of antifeminism is significant in and of itself and, in fact, provides one of the most powerful ways of thinking the phenomenon, since the extreme complexity of defining just what misogyny is remains indissociable from its seeming ubiquity or from the essentializing definitions of woman apparent in the writings of just about anyone who has touched the subject from Tertullian to Nietzsche.
The endurance of many of the earliest formulations of the question of woman means that the question of where to begin to understand the Western current of woman-hating must first respond to the question of why it is possible to begin just about anywhere—which I propose to do with a passage, selected almost at random, from among the many misogynistic tirades of Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose :
Ha! se Theofrastes creüsse,
Ja fame espousee n'eüsse.
Il ne tient pas homme por sage
Qui fame prent par mariage,
Soit lede ou bele ou povre ou riche,
Car il dit, et por voir affiche,
En son noble livre Aureole ,
Qui est bonz a lire en escole,
Qu'il y a vie trop grevainne,
Plene de torment et de painne.
[Ha! If I had only believed Theophrastus, I would never have taken a wife. He holds no man to be wise who takes a woman in marriage, whether ugly or beautiful, poor or rich. For he says, and you can take it for truth, in his noble book Aureole , which is good to read in school, that there is there a life too full of torment and strife.]
Though the Theofrastes referred to (identified alternately with the author of the Characters and with a pupil of Aristotle) and his "livre Aureole " are otherwise unknown, both are cited by almost every misogynist writer of the Middle Ages. Together they constitute an absent locus classicus of misogyny "read," as Jean maintains, "in schools." Further, the passage at hand is less a true example of misogyny, a denunciation of the essential evil nature of woman, than a subgeneric topos known as the molestiae nuptiarum or antimarriage literature: "Il ne tient pas homme por sage/Qui fame prent par mariage."
Of what, it may be asked, do the pains of marriage consist?:
Qu'il y a vie trop grevainne,
Plene de torment et de painne,
Et de contenz et de riotes
Par les orguelz des femes sotes,
Et de dangiers et de reprouches
Que font et dient par lor bouches,
Et de requestes et de plaintes
Que truevent par ochoisons maintes.
Si ra grant pene en eus garder
Par lor fos voloirs retarder.
[That there is there a life too full of torment and strife and arguments and riotousness because of the pride of foolish women—and dangers and reproaches which they do and say with their mouths, and requests and complaints which they invent on many occasions. It takes a great effort to keep them and to hold back their foolish wills; lines 8569–78.]
Women are contentious, prideful, demanding, complaining, and foolish; they are uncontrollable, unstable, and insatiable: "Si ra grant pene en eus garder/Por lor fos voloirs retarder." To push a little further, one cannot help but notice the extent to which the pains of marriage involve verbal transgression, that the reproach against women is a form of reproach against language itself—"that which is said by the mouth"—to be more precise, contenz (contention, garrulousness, bickering, and quarrels), reprouches (criticism, reproach), requestes (demands), orguelz (pride). Woman is depicted as a constant source of anxiety, of dissatisfaction, but of an anxiety expressed—or, as the text suggests, "composed"—within language itself: "Que truevent par ochoisons maintes." I say this because the reproach against women, addressed to "anyone who marries," is posited as universal and a priori, but also because there is no position of innocence possible. Woman is conceived as a perpetually overdetermined signifier with respect to which man is always at risk. To wit: if she is poor, one must nourish, clothe, and shoe her: "Et qui vuet povre fame prendre,/A norrir la convient entendre/Et a vestir et a chaucier" (lines 8579–81), but if she is rich, she is uncontrollable:
Et se tant se cuide essaucier
Qu'il la prengne riche forment,
A soffrir la ra grant torment,
Tant la trueve orguilleuse et fiere
Outrecuidie et bobanciere.
[And if one thinks he can escape by taking a rich one, he will suffer great torment again—so arrogant and prideful will he find her, so outrageous and full of presumption; lines 8582–86.]
If a woman is beautiful, all desire her (lines 8587–96), and she will in the end be unfaithful; yet if she is ugly, she will need all the more to please and, again, will eventually betray: "Maintes neïs par eus se baillent,/Quant li requerreor defaillent" (Many will give themselves willingly when suitors lack; lines 8658–59). If she is reasonable, she is subject to seduction: "Penelope neïz prendroit/Qui bien au prendre entenderoit;/Si n'ot il meillor fame en Grece" (One could take Penel-
ope herself, and there was no better woman in Greece; lines 8605–7); yet if she is irrational, she becomes the victim, as in the example of Lucretia, of madness and suicide (lines 8607–10). Nor is such a view restricted to the Romance vernacular. John of Salisbury is just as precise: "A beautiful woman is quick to inspire love; an ugly one's passions are easily stirred. What many love is hard to protect; what no one desires to have is a humility to possess." Chaucer echoes virtually the same motif in the Wife of Bath's reproach of all such reproaches: "Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief/To wedde a povre womman, for costage;/And if that she be rich, of heigh parage/Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie/To soffre hire pride and hire malencolie." Woman by definition finds herself in a position of constant determination, movement. She is, as Jean contends, "contenz et riotes," and, as Jehan Le Fèvre adds, of "tençon rioteuse."
Woman as riot is a topos in medieval literature and has a special sense in Old French. The word riote itself, meaning "chaos" or "upset," also refers to a kind of poetic discourse belonging to the rich tradition of nonsense poetry—the fatras, fatrasie, dervie, sotie , and farce as well as to the more specific type known as the riote del monde , of which one example is the prose Dit de l'herberie and another the fabliau entitled "La Rencontre du roi d'Angleterre et du jongleur d'Ely." After a series of nonsensical parries capped by the poet's reminder that "one often hears a fool speak sanely, and the wise man is the one who speaks wisely," the crafty jongleur—in anticipation of the fool of Renaissance drama—seeks to teach the king a lesson about language in general:
Et tot vus mostroi par ensample
Qu'est si large et si aunple
Et si pleyn de resoun,
Que um ne dira si bien noun.
Si vus estez simple et sage houm,
Vus estes tenuz un feloun. . . .
Et si vus les femmes amez,
Et ou eux sovent parlez
Et lowés ou honorez . . .
Donques dirra ascun pautener:
"Veiez cesti mavois holer,
Come il siet son mestier
De son affere bien mostrer."
Si vus ne les volez regarder
Ne volenters ou eux parler,
Si averount mensounge trové
Que vus estes descoillé!
[And I will show you by examples that are so general and compelling and so full of reason that one cannot fail to agree. If you are a simple and wise man, you are taken for a rogue. . . . If you like women and speak often with them, frequent them, and praise and honor them . . .
someone will say: "Look at that evil pimp who knows his work and shows it." If you do not look at them or willingly talk with them, they will find the lie to prove that you are castrated! Recueil , 2:249–65.]
The example with which we began, Jean de Meun's vision of women as overdetermined, is complicated by the fabliau's positing of the problem of overdetermination in terms of vision itself. There is, the anonymous poet asserts, no possibility of an objective regard upon the opposite sex and, therefore, no innocent place of speech. The mere fact of speaking to women makes one a pimp; a refusal to speak or even to look is the sign of a castrato.
This changes somewhat our paradigm, since the inadequacy of women to Being, expressed as an ever-present overdetermination, becomes, in the passage cited, indissociable from the inadequacy of words, or, as the anonymous author of La Ruihote del monde suggests, of speech:
S'il se taist, il ne set parler;
S'il parole, vés quel anpallier,
Il ne cese onques de plaidier. . . .
S'il cante bien c'est un jongleres;
S'il dist biaus dis, c'est uns trouveres.
[If a man is quiet, he is accused of not knowing how to speak; if he speaks, of being a loudmouth who never shuts up. . . . If he sings well, he is taken for a jongleur; and if he uses nice phrases, for a trouvère.]
The riotousness of woman is linked to that of speech and indeed seems to be a condition of poetry itself. And if the reproach against woman is that she is a bundle of verbal abuses (contenz, riotes, reprouches, requestes, plaintes ), such annoyances make her at least the fellow traveler of the trouvère. Because of the inadequacies of language that she embodies, she is in some fundamental sense always already a deceiver, trickster, jongleur. Here the king's attempt to buy the poet's horse and the image of the horse sale are central:
Vendras tu ton roncyn à moy?
—Sire, plus volenters que ne le dorroy.
—Pur combien le vendras tu?
—Pur taunt com il serra vendu.
—Et pur combien le vendras?
—Pur taunt come tu me dorras.
—Et pur combien le averoi?
—Pur taunt comme je recevroy.
[Will you sell me your horse? —Yes, more willingly than I would give it. —For how much will you sell it? —For as much as it will be sold. —And for how much will you sell it? —For as much as you will give me. —And for how much will I have it? —For as much as I shall receive; Recueil , 2.244–51.]
Woman, as deceiver, is like a horse that one cannot inspect before the sale; and, like language, she is, as Jean de Meun implies, pure cover who hides "that she might not displease before being wed." Chaucer concurs: "Thou seist that oxen, asses, hors, and houndes,/They been assayed at diverse stoundes. . . . But folk of wyves maken noon assay,/Til they be wedded" ("Wife of Bath's Prologue," lines 285–91). Nor, as Innocent III contends, is it possible to separate the motif of horse trading from that of overdetermination: "There are three things," Innocent writes, "Which keep a man from staying home: smoke, a leaky roof, and a shrewish wife. . . . If she be beautiful, men readily go after her; if she be ugly, she as readily after them. It is hard to keep what many want, and annoying to have what no one cares about. . . . When you buy a horse, an ox, a dog, clothes and a bed, even a cup and a pitcher, you get the chance to look them over. But no one displays a bride, lest she displease before the marriage."