Women’s Voices in a Fourteenth-Century Chansonnier: Representation and Performance in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308

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The chansonnier, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308, contains over 500 Old French lyrics, many unica, and numerous chansons de femme. Scholars of medieval lyric have associated the female voice with repetition and simplicity, but I demonstrate that representations of women in the Douce 308 lyrics instead bend formal conventions and subvert genres. Using case studies from the chansonnier’s pastourelles, ballettes, motets, rondeaux, jeux-partis, and grands chants, I examine the representations of women as shepherdesses, nuns, beguines, malmariées, maidens, and debate participants, and demonstrate how their voices resist genre norms while reinforcing courtly behaviors and female stereotypes.

In the pastourelles, shepherdesses’ refrains express resistance within male-framed narratives; when refrains are absent, the shepherdess is subject to violence. The contrast of registers and social relationships in the pastourelles is mirrored by the poem preceding them, Jacques Bretel’s Le Tournoi de Chauvency, where women act as arbiters of chivalry during the day, and at night act in scenes that juxtapose courtly and popular culture through characters and intertextual references. Chansons de malmariée and chansons de nonne show religious women desiring love in higher and lower registers and borrowing refrains from the fabliau, grand chant, pastourelle, chanson d’ami, romance narrative, and Biblical texts. Unmarried women’s voices in the ballettes resist stereotypes of the female voice by manipulating narrative expectations and citing ambiguous refrains. In jeux-partis, women rewrite discourses of chivalry by expressing desire.

My case studies, here within the courtly contexts of Bretel’s Tournoi, contribute to our understanding of the woman’s voice in Old French lyric and demonstrate that female-voiced lyrics participated in the late-thirteenth-century shift from courtly to popular genres in French song through the manipulation of refrains and juxtapositions of register, genre, and gender by their poets. I show how the texts of Douce 308 also contribute feminine fantasies of pleasure and power in love within a lyric tradition that privileged male pleasure and perspectives.