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Disabusing Women in the Old French Fabliaux


Natalie Muñoz

Disabusing Women in the Old French Fabliaux provides a much-needed reevaluation of the role of women in the fabliaux. Spanning the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the fabliaux are short, ribald tales written in verse by mostly anonymous male authors. Their varied portrayals of female characters have traditionally been considered simply misogynistic. Despite recent scholarship contending that the fabliaux are not as anti-feminist as previously thought, there has been until now no full-length study of women in the fabliaux.
Serving as critics of medieval institutions such as courtly love and knighthood, women in diverse roles affirm their agency as subjects through the manipulation of language. The depiction of these women asserting their subjectivity within medieval literary and cultural conventions often distorts the normal relations between the sexes, putting into question the very gender framework within which the fabliaux operate. Written by men for men, the closing moral frequently serves to reassert traditional male dominance, thereby reducing any uneasiness the audience may have felt. Thus the fabliaux cast women as powerful users of language all the while acknowledging the limits of their subversion.
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Chapter Two. Designing Women: Women’s Use of Manipulation in the Fabliaux


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Chapter 2 Designing Women: Women’s Use of Manipulation in the Fabliaux

Women are capable of using engin, wit and ingenuity, to extricate themselves from difficult situations or to obtain what they desire. Language, being one of their most useful tools, gives them a subjectivity that is often ignored by readers and critics of the fabliaux. We will show how the portrait of women in the fabliaux, constructed through ruse and language, allows for moments of subversion in the medieval, male dominated society. We contend that women are able to break out of the misogynist mold, however temporary these moments and break-outs may be and create their own agency.

The women of the fabliaux have a genuine subjectivity, however partial it may be. The status of the subject in western philosophy has traditionally been that of the homo loquens, the male speaking subject, seeking an “other” outside himself, desiring to appropriate the object of his gaze, the female “other.” Women act here as receivers of male discourse and objects of it which creates a binary system of power of subject and object (Irigaray 133-59). Luce Irigaray asserts that “silent allegiance” on the part of woman is both the symptom and guarantor of historical repression. She wonders: “but what if the “object” started to speak?” (Irigaray 135). Precisely in the fabliaux, women speak and manipulate language and the situation around them.

“Let not the hen crow before the rooster” says a popular medieval...

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