Femininity and Laughter in Courtly Society (ca. 1150–1300)

978-3-8471-0119-2

Source : V&R unipress

Olga V. Trokhimenko

Constructing Virtue and Vice. Femininity and Laughter in Courtly Society (ca. 1150–1300)

2014
253 pages
ISBN 978-3-8471-0119-2
V&R unipress

Transatlantische Studien zu Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit – Transatlantic Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Literature and Culture (TRAST) –

The study examines textual representations of women’s laughter and smiling and their imagined connection to female virtue in a wide variety of discourses and contexts of the German Middle Ages, including medieval epic, ecclesiastical texts, conduct literature, lyric, and sculpture. By engaging with the competing, and at times contradictory, views of female laughter, it reaffirms a disputatious nature of medieval culture, in which multiple views of femininity, sexuality, and virtue stood in a conflicting, yet productive, dialogue with one another. The society that emerges when one looks at medieval German texts is always ambivalent: it thrives on and enjoys talking about sensuality and eroticism, while being constrained by the conventions of polite behavior and the fear of sin; it relies on the ritual use of laughter, while marking it as a sign of lust and perdition. Women’s laughter thus offers an important way into understanding medieval views of gender because it combines physicality with shifting and conflicting cultural norms.

Compte-rendu de lecture paru dans The Medieval Review (août 2015) :

Trokhimenko, Olga V. <i>Constructing Virtue and Vice: Femininity and Laughter in Courtly Society (ca. 1150-1300)</i>. Transatlantische Studien zu Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit, 5. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014. Pp. 253. €39.99 (hb). ISBN: 9783847101192.

Reviewed by Adam Oberlin
Universitetet i Bergen/Atlanta International School
oberl024@umn.edu

Olga Trokhimenko’s study, as the title indicates, examines matters of gender construction, enforcement, and emotional expression from the perspectives of opposing societal forces and views toward behavior in medieval German courtly society. With a large bibliography and eighteen figures, the remaining text is relatively brief (196 pp. before the appendices, which include a table and images). Nevertheless five chapters present a thorough and wide-ranging survey of the social and gendered role of women’s laughter. Bodies, body parts, eroticism, and their regulation are discussed within simultaneously overlapping and contradictory medical, theological, literary, and visual discourses.

An introduction offers examples from the German tradition of court literature (Tristan, Parzival, Erec, etc.) in which feminine smiles and laughter herald abuse and vilification and serve as narrative turning points obvious to audiences. Trokhimenko, however, is careful to outline her subject both as a study of gesture and emotion (rather than textual representation only), and one that on the theoretical side counters a simplistic understanding of medieval emotion as unsophisticated and spontaneous via Elias and Huizinga. The linguistic polysemy of MHG <i>lachen</i> and its semantic field and the negative connotations carried over from Latin <i>risus</i> mirror for the author the conceptual ambiguity (but mostly negative aspects) surrounding the policing of women’s emotions, a thread that is woven throughout the chapters that follow.

The first chapter, « ‘You Are No Longer a Virgin’: The Two ‘Mouths’ of a Medieval Woman, » examines the genital symbolism of the female mouth and the sexual connotations of laughter and smiling within that milieu, from the MHG literary trope of the <i>roter munt</i> (red mouth) to premodern medical discourse, primarily relying on the work of Thomas Laqueur and Monica Green. Trokhimenko notes rightly that the sexual association of the two ‘mouths’ has been well studied from a number of perspectives, but she provides a compact survey, supported by contemporary evidence, of medieval German connections, punning swaps, and kissing as a logical immediate precursor to intercourse rather than an opening maneuver and symbol of sexual availability. The mouth-as-vagina image may appear in more or less nuanced guises (e.g., the courtly tradition versus the <i>Mären</i> and <i>fabliaux</i> genre) but is sufficiently widespread to anchor one side of the medieval attitude toward things women do with their mouths in a conceptual space easily understood from the unavoidable post-Freudian perspective we share in modernity.

The second chapter, « A Deeply Serious Matter: Laughter in Medieval Ecclesiastical Discourse, » begins with an unnecessary apology for stepping outside the author’s comfort zone in philological and literary study to examine the heterogeneous and diachronically unstable ecclesiastical opinions on laughter in a variety of texts. With Le Goff’s tripartite model of the stages of medieval laughter as suppression, controlled allowance, and unfettered allowance as a starting point, Trokhimenko complicates each stage with examples of beliefs held over from monastic discourses or other areas of medieval thought, though also surveying the periods with a similar two-part chronological analysis, i.e., from the Greeks and patristic writers to the high Middle Ages. Even in the early period, however, the rigidity of ideology yields to the exigency of lived experience and the monk who cannot control his laughter should therefore learn to control it. Likewise, the laughter of martyrs unsettles at the same time that it inspires. Conversely, the author demonstrates that the Church Fathers and others with repressive approaches enjoyed great popularity in the high medieval period (see the examples from <i>Von des todes gehugde</i> and <i>Die Nonnenregel</i>) and debates about their ideas found expression in literature also dealing with a seemingly increased permissiveness. Unsurprisingly the battle is fought mainly over the bodies of women, who were expected to perform virtue coded within the monastic milieu of corporeal mastery, despite what the author accurately identifies as a recognition of the Aristotelian idea that laughter is a natural human expression.

The third chapter, « ‘Men Are Not of One Mind’: Medieval Conduct Literature for Women, » opens with an episode in <i>Erec</i> where Enite and Erec are waylaid and Enite escapes the nefariously amorous intentions of their captor through the <i>schœnen list</i> of a smile, rather than the lengthy speech of Chrétien de Troyes’ French version. The sexual connotations and accompanying lack of virtue in this act, softened somewhat by Hartmann von Aue’s insistence on Enite’s cleverness, facilitate a discussion of conduct literature broadly, i.e., <i>Erziehung</i> in and through literature, which encompasses many more texts that conduct manuals alone, though the latter are also represented. The instructive texts <i>Der Winsbecke</i> and <i>Die Winsbeckin</i> of the thirteenth century allow for a gendered comparison: the former educates chiefly on activities and behaviors and the latter on the interior world of principles and emotions. <i>Der Welsche Gast</i> of Tomasin von Zerclaere addresses male laughter from the perspective of discernment and appropriate balance, while the passages on female laughter in <i>Die Winsbeckin</i> highlight control, physicality, and modesty. The chapter ends with a discussion of Ulrich von Liechtenstein’s <i>Frauenbuch</i> as–subversively in its apparent celebration of female agency–a conservative conduct lesson for women with an emphasis on obedience and silence. This text straddles both worlds that Trokhimenko wishes to illuminate while belonging firmly on the traditional side, a chartable ambiguity promised in the introduction and previous chapters.

The fourth chapter, « ‘The Pleasure Never Told’: Men’s Fantasies and Women’s Laughter in Love Lyric, » treats the previously theorized concepts within the genre of <i>Minnesang</i> from a diachronic perspective that moves beyond the typical <i>Minnesangs Frühling</i> corpus and into the wider lyric field, here mostly from Karl von Kraus’ <i>Liederdichter</i>. This welcome scope provides a view of the transition in male fantasies of women’s mouths from symbols of the unattainable lady and the poet’s secret longing where ambiguity reigns to a later, rather straightforward object of desire. Here the <i>roter munt</i> motif reaches saturation among the restricted set of features described in the lyric corpus. Within that narrow range the smile and laugh become symbolic of the male fantasy of reward and accessibility, as Trokhimenko argues; they are also gestures and linguistic expressions of gestures (kinegrams) that physically perform the fantasy in an often static setting.

The fifth and final chapter, « ‘She is Beautiful and She is Laughing’: Courtly Smiling in the Iconography of Virtue and Vice, » brings together the strands of theoretical writing and literary representation from the other chapters in an art historical examination of these themes in portal sculpture, namely of parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1-13). While the biblical story is sparse in detail, it grew in the commentary tradition to the point that its representation in statuary « juxtaposes not only watchfulness and carelessness, but also modesty and vanity, asceticism and worldliness, chastity and lack of moderation » (171), and clearly attempts to convey emotional expressions in the face. The foolish virgin smiles the welcome of courtly, worldly society, her virginal belt already at her feet and hand prepared to loosen her garment; in this context her smile or smirk conveys vice rather than jubilation, as may be found in sculpted angelic male countenances. Innovatively, the virgins of the <i>Magdeburger Dom</i> depict this very contrast of sexualized smiling versus jubilation in a way that Trokhimenko argues may be influenced by another native of Magdeburg not carved from stone, namely Mechthild and her book <i>Das fließende Licht der Gottheit</i>. There one does not need to extend the argument too far from the mystic conflation of worldly and spiritual joy as a means of expressing the ineffable and the expressions of the unique Magdeburg Cathedral virgins, even if it is difficult to draw a firm line from one to the other.

An epilogue summarizes the unstable foundation upon which the theorizing of smiling and laughter rested, and to a certain extent still rests, itself laid down over the natural human behaviors that are visible no matter how much they are suppressed: dynamics of power, sexuality, virtue, and courtly society are mirrored, distorted, mocked, and reinforced in the gesture or its linguistic expression. Following the epilogue are appendices containing a table of references to laughter in ‘medieval works’ in a timeline format from the early patristic authors of the third and fourth centuries to literature and iconography of the fifteenth century, as well as the eighteen figures of the wise and foolish virgins in portal sculpture discussed in chapter five. As an aid to reading, these figures would much better serve the reader if they were distributed at appropriate points throughout the text of the chapter, but they follow closely enough to make the necessary and frequent leafing only a minor irritation. The bibliography is extensive and split into several sections: primary sources and translations, lexica and reference works, and criticism and history, the last of which has three subdivisions (laughter and humor, medieval studies, and other). On the one hand, this structure complicates finding particular references in any particular section, but on the other, it makes consulting references on laughter and humor much simpler.

While <i>Constructing Virtue and Vice</i> may be situated generally within interdisciplinary studies of emotion, it is specifically concerned with the physicality of linguistic, iconographic, and gestural representations of emotion in a social context and within the gender dynamics of medieval courtly society. It is greater than the sum of its parts in that the individual chapters often cover topics that have been studied, sometimes extensively, from other perspectives, but not together and rarely from the texts of the German literary tradition that form Trokhimenko’s corpus. The author’s prose is readable and her argumentation clear, and the book would serve well in a course on medieval German literature and society or gender in history. Finally, it is refreshing to see a hardcover book offered at such an attractive price compared to the frightful heights of so many academic publishing houses.