Between the twelfth and fifteenth century, the form of the lyric was founded in and became very popular within England. Few of the lyrics that were composed remain in existance today. This is mainly due to the fact that these lyrics were transferred orally. This meant they were never printed or published. The ones we do have paint for us a vague but sufficient picture of life as it was in these times. Particularily they give us a peek into the lives of the women of the medieval era and how they were viewed by their patriarchal society.
The ways women were portrayed in much of the poetry can be expressed in two broad categories: courtly and uncourtly. The former of these categories developed from the lyrics of the Provenc-al troubadours. The latter is, in relation, a more modern view of women, one that sees them as irritating and stupid. Courtly poetry, as I said, developed from the lyrics of the troubadours. Although there are many similarities, such as the woman’s high status, there are also many dissimilarities. One of the most obvious of these is these poets acceptance of the real world.
It is difficult to find references to other women in the troubadours’ poetry let alone other relationships as one would find in the Middle English courtly lyric. An example of such a reference can be found in the refrain: “An handy hap ich habbe ihent! / Ichot from hevene it is me sent; / From alle wimmen my love is lent, / And light on Alisoun”(Luria, 27). This poet tells his lady that his heart is set on her and no other woman can pull him away. To a troubadour saying that there was anything but his lady would be abominable.
There is little of the intensity of devotion and the analysis of love that is characteristic of the Troubadours. Nor are these personal lyrics of private, intimate love. On the contrary, they are public poems operating through well-recognized conventions. These conventions are a little different from those of the troubadours as well. The lady has hair of gold, a long neck, a slender waist and is often described as being prudent and wise. But these poems focus not on the lady but on the lover and his suffering for derne love or secret love.
The lover’s day is spent sighing and begging his lady to pity and have mercy on him. His night is spent lying awake, thinking unending thoughts of her. He often tells us that he feels condemned to death because his heart aches so badly for her. The poets of the courtly lyrics often use literary devices to express their anguish and desire as well as to entertain the readers. An example of this is the alliteration found in, “Brid one brere, brid, brid one brere! / Kind is come of love, love to crave”(Luria, 22). The repetition of br’ and k’ give this quotation and very harsh sound.
Another is the oxymoron found in, “Ich unne hire well and heo me wo; / Ich am hire frend and heo my fo”(Luria, 31). The poet of this quotation is expressing the relationship between he and his lady through opposites, his wishing her well and her wishing him woe and his being her friend and her, his foe. The appeal of these lyrics comes from their song-like form. They celebrate love through motif and convention, which is pleasing because of its familiarity, and they are in language that finds its music in a harmony of rhyme and alliteration.
The above-mentioned conventions do not make the poetry dull and repetative though, in fact they have the opposite effect. Because the poets play with the conventions, every poem seems new and fresh. An example of variation on the common conventions can be found in the fourth lyric in Luria and Hoffman’s compilation, “Wormes woweth under cloude, / Wimmen waxeth wounder proude”. This poet is expressing the irony in nature. He marvels at the fact that even worms are wooing but women make life so difficult for men that they are not.
The uncourtly poetry follows many of the same structural rules as the courtly but portrays women in a very different manner. The women of these poems can be divided into two groups, the married nag and the naive, unmarried maiden. The latter are often the speakers of their poems. Usually they are lamenting over being abandoned by a lover and in worst case senerios are with child. They say they were promised love and loyalty, but once the lover had taken advantage of their innocence they were left alone to deal with the aftermath.
They are portrayed as innocent and trusting and usually, when reading these poems, we feel that this is how she saw the wooing and love making described by the man in the courtly poetry. An example of this type of portrayal of women can be found in lyric eighty-three in Luria’s compilation. The speaker of this poem is presented as both “ingenuous and of rustic-cunning”(Cartlidge 397) – “on one hand, a weak and easy victim to the lascivious clerk and on the other a resourceful and strong-willed young woman”(Cartlidge 397).
Cartlidge also mentions holidays and parties as being particularily bad times for young women’s virginity. He uses a lyric found in Luria’s compilation as an example. He says of lyric eighty-eight: “this text clearly portrays her as having been a giddy and gullible young woman. Its attention to the details of her occupation as a milk-maid and country serving-woman also reveals its implicitly hostile social perspective. The song makes a conspiratorial appeal to the audience’s worldliness, cynicism and sense of social distance from the clumsy peasant-girl.
At the same time, by stressing her low rank and ignorance, the lyric also provides her at least with an excuse for her folly. It hardly seems fair to blame her entirely for her fall, when society seems to have fitted her so well to be a victim. Dependent and without the protection afforded by either rank or education, serving-girls were clearly extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation”(403). Many other poems follow the same theme of young women of lower status, often servants of upper-middle class folks, being wooed by and taken advantage of by upper class men.
In cases such as these, where the woman comes out of the sexual encounter pregnant, the speaker often reveals herself to be foolish, vulgar, coarse and silly rather than wicked, cruel or tragic (which could be insinuated given that some of them imply infanticide or abortion). It is the men who are portrayed as sexually predatorial, violent and unscupulous. Even women who are not innocent and naive are seen as sex objects in these lyrics.
Often in poems where the woman is of equal or higher status than the lover, the poem sounds very courtly up until the point that the lover cannot control his desires anymore, usually near the end of the poem, and expresses them openly. For example, in the thirty-third lyric in Luria’s collection the poet describes the woman in a very conventional way, with a shining complexion, perfect body and lovely features but we are surprised once we reach the second to last stanza where he expresses his true desires: “beh him to me over bord, / And bed me hente that hord”.
There are other similar poems but the one that interested me most revolved around the same situation but with different viewpoints. In the lyric of which I speak there is a conversation between the lover and his lady and we hear both sides of it. He is begging for her to allow him to stay with her for the night but she is refusing for fear of the shame it could bring upon the two of them. After many persuading words, she eventually agrees to his request and we assume he gets what he desires. This poem could represent the events leading up to the sexual relationships that lead to pregnancy and abandonment that I described in other poems.
The woman in those poems talks often of the clerk’s sweet words and unceasing begging that woo her and convince her of his loyalty. Besides being seen as promiscuous and naive, women were also seen as nagging, gossipy and stupid. There were several lyrics composed, more than likely in pubs or at male-gatherings for comedy, that warn against marriage and “cursed” women in general. The most blunt of these poems can be found in Luria’s collection. The message is simply this, “Holde thine tunge stille / And have all thine wille”(61) or Keep your mouth shut’. This is a message that flows through all such poems.
The men wish to do as they please and when their women tell them not to they complain that women are becoming too disobedient. The poets also used sarcasm and their higher knowledge to degrade the women of their lyrics. For example, one lyric of this type sounds as though it is a courtly poem, saying how lovely and wonderful women are except in two lines, one of which is in Latin, which, due to the fact that they were not allowed to be educated, women wouldn’t understand. This poet seems to rub women’s noses in the fact that they are dumb and can’t survive in the outside world.
As I said earlier, many of these poems warn against marriage. They warn against young wives because they are chattery. They warn against old wives because they are insolent and disobedient. These poems take the absolute opposite view to the courtly poetry. The courtly poetry expresses all of the good attributes that women have, where these poems express all of the bad attributes. There are few similarities to be found between the courtly and uncourtly poetry. This is due mainly to the fact that there are so many conventions used in the courtly and so much freedom taken with the uncourtly view.
But one of these few similarities can be found in the way women were seen and portrayed. Because all of the poems, courtly and uncourtly alike, were written by men, the women in the poems are very similar. In all but the last type of poem, the women were portrayed as meek, quiet, and obedient. In the mysogynistic poetry, the women’s disobedience was subject of the poetry and she wasn’t looked at very kindly. And in all of these poems the woman is made to seem rather dumb and illogical. There was no room left for individuality. So although the courtly may sound nicer, the view of women remains the same.