If the above quotations seem repetitious to the point of monotony, it is because misogyny as a discourse is always to some extent avowedly derivative; it is a citational mode whose rhetorical thrust is to displace its own source away from anything that might be construed as personal or confessional and toward the sacred authorities whose own source, as often as not, is the absent (and possibly nonexistent) Theophrastus with which we began. The misogynist speaks of the other in terms that bespeak otherness, and this through the voice of the other. This defining tautology emphasizes the elusiveness of misogyny as well as the pertinence of the question of reading. To be more precise, I think that it can be shown that where antifeminism is concerned the question of reception is crucial, and work like the Roman de la rose , for example, may be less important for what it might actually contain than for what surrounds it. Indeed, the history of the reading of Jean's text not only offers a key to our understanding of misogyny at the end of the Middle Ages; it constitutes the most meaningful sense in which woman-hating can be historicized. The history of misogyny, as a citational mode, resides primarily in the radical difference in what has been said over time about such texts, or in the problem of interpretation. Hence the negotiation of the parameters for discussion of the misogynistic work is a map of a certain kind of sexually charged misreading that serves at any given cultural moment to define the permissible limits of gender relations.
It is, first of all, around the question of woman that questions of language and of literature are debated passionately between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The so-called "Querelle de la rose" was not only France's first literary debate but one that turned specifically around the enmeshed issues of woman and interpretation which strike to the core of the issue at hand. Christine de
Pisan, for instance, poses the delicate questions of authorial intention, voice, and the relation of poetic representation to social base in a sarcastic response to Jehan Johannez a propos of the Rose :
Et la laidure qui la est recordee des femmes, dient pluseurs en lui excusant que c'est le Jaloux qui parle, et voirement fait ains comme Dieu parla par la bouche Jeremie. Mais sans faille, quelxque addicions mençongeuses qu'il ait adjoustees, ne peuvent—Dieu mercy!—en rien amenrir ne rendre empirees les conditions des femmes.
[And many say in excusing the ugly things that are said there of women that it is the Jealous Husband who talks, as if truly God were speaking through the mouth of Jeremiah. But without a doubt, whatever untruthful things he has added to the pile cannot—thank God!—either improve or render worse the condition of women.]
Or, as in the letter of Jean de Montreuil to Gontier Col, the questions of women and of reading are so thoroughly intertwined as to displace the phenomenon of misogyny away from any definable, stable, textual reality toward the reading subject:
Nonetheless our censors curse, hate, scorn, and attack him in a shameful way, having read him, studied, and understood him badly: this is what is intolerable! What arrogance! What rashness! What audacity! These people who admit themselves to only having read superficially, by bits and with no concern for context: here is how they rush in, like drunks arguing at the dinner table, to blame, reproach, and condemn arbitrarily and at their whim such an important work, conceived and edited in so many nights and days, at the price of so much effort and with such constant application, as if such an important text weighed no more in the balance than the song of a jongleur, the work of one day.
Jean de Montreuil's concern is not only merely a rhetorical strategy; it poses what remains a key issue with respect to the study of misogyny: that is, how to recognize it, how to read it—which is not fundamentally different from the problem of how to read medieval literature or, for that matter, any literary text.
Is misogyny a matter of the portrayal of women or a more specific discourse? If a question of how women are portrayed, does one such portrayal suffice? Is it still misogyny if men are also so depicted? Is it misandry? Is there a masculine equivalent of misogyny? Are we still dealing with misogyny if good women are presented alongside of negative examples? Or, as some maintain, does such a balance constitute merely another misogynistic ruse? Is an obsession with women, in other words, misogynistic? Is the designation of misogyny as a topic for academic discourse ultimately a misogynistic gesture?
In attempting to identify misogyny one is to some degree always dealing with a problem of voice, the questions of who speaks and of localizing such speech. If misogyny is a topos, a virtual element, found potentially in almost any work (including those that are overwhelmingly profeminine like Aucassin et Nicolette ), how ascribable is it to something on the order of individual authorial intention? What does it mean to say that someone like Jean de Meun, about whom relatively
little of a biographical nature is known, is a misogynist? Does it matter who speaks? How are we to read obvious delegations of voice as in the example cited by Christine? How are we to disentangle the assumed "truth of misogyny" from a literary topos that as often as not performs exactly what it ascribes to, projects upon, women—that is, seeks to deceive? Any answer to this question is, as we shall see, even further complicated by the association of women with writing and poetics.
Is misogyny an exclusively male phenomenon or is it part of a larger cultural discourse in which women also participate? This in turn raises the question of whether or not there is an essential distinction between male and female writing. Is there, for instance, a difference in kind between the Lais of Marie de France (about whom little is known except that she was a woman) and the anonymous Breton lais written presumably by men, or between the writing of Marie and that of Chrétien de Troyes?
Is misogyny restricted to the domain of literature? What is its status in the other arts? Is the question of misogyny the same as that of woman? If so, we are forced to incorporate conflicting images of woman—Eve and Mary, woman as seducer and redeemer—within the essentially negative field of antifeminism and to deal with a paradox of history: that the periods of greatest misogynistic activity can also be periods of intense woman worship, as in the example of twelfth- and thirteenth-century mariolatry. Then too, the mysticism current in the High Middle Ages would be unimaginable without such figures as Angela of Foligno, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Sienna, Saint Gertrude, Hildegard of Bingen, Juliana of Norwich, who were the equivalents of female prophets. It has been argued that the adoration of women, whether the Holy Virgin, the courtly lady, or the prophetess, is but another form of misogynistic investment. This returns us to the subject of whether or not idolatry is merely another form of misogyny, taking us in turn into complex issues of reading that are not fundamentally different from the interpretation of any text. What is different, and here the present essay departs from all previous discussion, is, as we shall see, the extent to which the practices of medieval hermeneutics and the discourse of misogyny are bound up in each other.
Any study of misogyny must, it seems to me, begin from two fundamental assumptions. The first is a recognition of the very real disenfranchisement of women in the Middle Ages. Such a premise is based upon careful work over the last fifteen years within the realm of social history. Few would dispute, for example, that there were from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries essential differences in men's and women's rights to possess, inherit, and alienate property; in their duties to pay homage and taxes; in their qualification for exemptions. To these are added differences in men's and women's civil and legal rights: in the rights to bear witness, collect evidence, represent oneself (or others) in judicial causes; to serve as judges or lawyers, as oath helpers; to bring suit or
to stand for election. Legal penalties for the same crime often differed substantially, as, for instance, in the punishments for adultery, for bearing children out of wedlock, for beating one's spouse. Even the mode of execution was in certain cases not the same for women as for men. Social historians in conjunction with demographers have raised radically the question of whether sons were treated better than daughters to the extent of creating a higher infant mortality rate among females. Moreover, the questions remain of whether those who survived participated equally in urban privileges such as membership in guilds and opportunity of employment; whether, when employed, wages were equivalent; whether women were allowed a role in affairs of state and especially in those of the Church, which, its ideological commitment to the equality of all Christians notwithstanding, still excluded women from participation in certain offices like preaching or setting Church policy or doctrine.
All of these, and the list of material recrimination is by no means complete, are real and unavoidable issues. But they are not the same as misogyny, and one has to be careful not to move too easily between the domain of institutions and the discourse of antifeminism. For the risk, in neglecting the complicated series of intervening mediations, is entrapment in the movement of the very phenomenon one seeks to expose. The unqualified and unreflective equation of the two is tantamount to a ritual recitation of tort—yet another speaking or citation of the traditional topoi—that serves less to redress historical injustice than to naturalize it in terms of an ineluctable rule of relation between the sexes.