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Louise O Vasvari:
Retrieving The Power Of Women's Voices In The Frauenlied

State University of New York at Stony Brook
Stony Brook, NY ll794-3355

In this paper I want to speak about women's voices which have been both silent and silenced because we have access to them, if at all, only through almost exclusively male textual cultures. Specifically, I want to examine the international phenomenon of the Frauenlied, or ‘woman’s song,anonymous female-voiced folkloric love poetry, where woman is the active lover rather than the passive loved one.

After a brief historical introduction in the first part of my paper, I aim to illustrate women's voices from a range of historical periods, Ancient Hebrew, Ancient Greek, medieval Welsh, and medieval Hispanic dialects, and, finally, very briefly, through living oral tradition in Hungarian. I will discuss how through the millenia the active subject position of women in Frauenlieder has been repeatedly silenced -- "explained away" --through various textualizing and recontextualizing strategies. As I will illustrate, these include such ideological forms of rewriting as translation, allegorization, ventriloquizing of the female voice by male writers, and, not the least, the attribution of female voiced oral texts to male authors. Nevertheless, because in all languages learned poetry is always in part a continuation of earlier oral forms, I believe that through historical and comparative work, it is possible to unearth at least shards of a poetics of the traditional female voice.

In medieval Europe from the fifth century on we possess indirect confirmation of the existence of Frauenlieder in that ecclesiastic authorities proscribed the singing by nuns and by secular women of cantica amatoria, which they judged to be disgraceful, obscene and even "diabolic." Similarly, complaints of churchmen against the "lewd songs of dancing women" can be heard from the sixth century onward, as, for example, in a capitulary of Charlemagne from 789, which strictly forbids nuns to compose or send winileodas 'friend songs’. Such prohibitions are precisely an indicator that amatory and erotic songs were being performed. Additional evidence for the existence of women's songs is provided by lyrics in the Carmina Burana, which speak of the dance and its songs as a feminine activity. (Voretzsch l905: 62-63; Plummer l981: 137).

The Frauenlied forms part of the universal oral (sub)culture of women's discourses in village life, where women have charge of rituals of birth, marriage, and death. Songs sung my women might include anything non-heroic: ballads, laments, lullabies, love songs, wedding, and other festive songs. This division into men's and women's genres reflects a pervasive division in traditional society between the public/men's and the private/women's domain, in which prestige, authority, and power accrue to the former (Coote l992).

Frauenlieder are characterized by the woman's often audacious speaking voice, where she is the active, desiring subject rather than the object of desire. The description of love in these songs is based on a sense of equality and erotic mutuality. Women's lyrics, which make the feelings of young girls and women their organizing principle, retain their voice over many centuries, fostered in part by the extreme economy of their poetic resources, which Reckert (1970) has referred to as their 'lyra minima'. Like other folk poetry, Frauenlieder are characterized by their brevity (usually two to four lines) and musicality, and by colloquial diction, with the exclamations and interrogatives of direct speech, usually spoken with a tone of such striking intensity that it produces a markedly dramatic, or even melodramatic, effect. A typical example is the following two-verse French refrain:

Les mamelettes me poignent
Je ferai novel amors.
(Van de Boogard l969: 201)

which, with an attempt to maintain its earthy register, might be rendered in English as: 'My nipples as standing firm,/It's a new love's turn', and in Hungarian: 'melbimbóm égnek áll,/szivem új szerlmet vár’.

Although women's songs include dialogues and various narrative types, the monologue form, as in the above example, is so common that it has been seen as their central feature. The I-speaker is a female persona, usually an adolescent girl on the edge of full sexual initiation, who speaks of the pleasures of sexuality without showing concern for attendant moral responsibilities. Monologues include pure monologues and "truncated dialogues," where we hear only half of the conversation. The second, actual or implied, interlocutor is often the mother, who is occasionally a sympathetic listener to her daughter's direct or veiled confession of love or of loss of virginity, but most often, as we shall see, she is portrayed as a hostile and repressive vigilant figure.

Frauenlieder deal with the psychodynamics and emotional consequences of sexual love, depicting a whole cycle of love and sexuality from impatient virginity to experience with its attendant pleasures and deceptions. Traditional motifs, shared symbols, and conventional situations serve as a kind of shorthand, giving each song an intensity beyond its own limits. Only a little need be said but much can be implied through allusion, suppression and compression, with many poems moving back and forth between symbolic and literal meaning (Olinger l985, Reckert l993). This semiotic condensation is possible because of the ancient poetic identification of elemental forces such as wind, waves, water, and certain animals, and plants as universal sexual symbols of passion. Songs live in variants and cluster together in families, so that their meaning can best be deciphered if the corpus of songs and fragments are treated as thought they were one large text, one song commenting on others.

Oral poetry is unwritten poetry, with the criteria for "orality" being those of oral composition, transmission, and performance. But these criteria are relative and elusive, and oral poetry cannot be totally separated from written. A text may be orally composed and later transmitted in writing, as is precisely characteristic of the first period of literacy in all vernacular languages. In medieval Europe the twelfth century was the most significant period of the battle between voice and text, during which literate and non-literate societal norms coexisted, clashed, were integrated, and eventually transformed through the transition from orality to textuality. In the emerging vernacular literatures the question of who speaks became an urgent issue of gender politics. Since literate women, with the rarest exceptions, like Hrotsvit of Gandesheim, Hildegard von Bingen and Marie de France, were, for all intents and purposes, so few as to be invisible, women were not normally in a position to textualize their own experiences (Skinner l993: 49-51). Nevertheless, feminine consciousness and female voices became indirectly inscribed within official literacy, since the poetic agenda of the first trouvers and Minnesänger in the vernaculars included the appropriation of women's oral performance. The issue of the silencing of women's voices thus is shown to be fundamental to the orality-literacy debate. It illustrates that writing is not merely a neutral technology, enabling new types of text-constructing and communication, but that it produced fundamental changes in allowing men to use that new technology to exclude women from authorship of love poetry (Lemaire 1988). The survival of the names of twenty trobairitz ‘female troubadours’ in Provence in exceptional. They wrote, or, more likely, dictated, in their own voice, in a style seemingly more personal and straight-forward than their male counterparts, and at least one among them, Bieiris de Romans addressed love poetry to another woman (Rieger l989, l991; Bruckner et al. l995, Langdon 2001).

The usurping by male poets of women’s voices raises many problems about how we can attempt to retrieve "authentic" women's voices from the poetic fictions in which male poets manipulate women as a speaking figure of desire, by ventriloquizing the female voice. The question is, then, when does the female I-speaker in the surviving Frauenlieder likely represent echoes of an authentically female voice, and when does she rather reflect a male fantasy? Frenk (Frenk et al, l987) judges, based on her extensive studies of the popular lyric in the Iberian dialects, that it is ultimately very difficult to distinguish the "uncontaminated" primitive from adaptations and imitations that what wants to appear to be so. Compare also the findings of Lemaire (1986), who in a study on the medieval Portuguese cantigas de amigo posited that 100 were authentic woman's songs from oral tradition while 400 were mediocre songs of a later date composed in writing by men. Ultimately, the only recourse of the specialist is to study a very large corpus of folk poetry, preferably across languages, in order to develop the kind of specialized linguistic competence to be able make an informed intuitive judgment of what "sounds" popular.

It was the Romantics (Herder, Jakob Grimm, A. W. Schlegel, among others) who first postulated that the Frauenlieder are remnants of a pre-courtly, oral, and traditional culture. In folk lyric they celebrated, as Herder put it, the lebendige Stimme der Völker ‘the living voice of the people. The exaggerated and somewhat mystical attribution of collective authorship of folk lyric to das Volk, became an easy target for the tenacious anti-romantic reaction of a later generations of scholars. Gaston Paris, among others, countered that even if such poetry ever existed and served as ferment for the development of vernacular lyric, it has left no trace in surviving texts. Later scholars reacted even more vehemently against the Romantic hypothesis. They proclaimed that the existence of popular song was absurd because das Volk was incapable of creating anything but could only imitate cultural goods that had "descended" from higher classes (gesunkene Kulturgut). Since the idea of popular origins was unacceptable, scholars posited on the basis of superficial parallels between the classical and vernacular poetry that the latter was the imitation in the vulgar tongues of Classical or medieval Latin models, whether secular or liturgical. This exclusive emphasis on high culture origins of all poetry was used to reinforce the central myth, that there is only one history of literature, that of the written work (Lemaire l988: 737-39). Accordingly, Frauenlieder were not accepted as a vestige of earlier oral forms but were assumed to be simply a literary mode created by the troubadours to add variety to their public performance. Medieval poets who wrote in a woman’s speaking voice were assumed to be merely mimicking the Classical rhetoric trope, prosopopeia (for a review of the history, see Spitzer l952; Frenk Alatorre l975: 12-43, 134-45).

The theory of popular origins and the dependence of courtly love poetry on a preexisting tradition of women's love songs was revived by Theodor Frings in his brief (60-page) l949 Minnesinger und Troubadors (cf. Frings, l957, l960). Frings reaffirmed the basic correctness of the views of the then generally deprecated romantic school of scholars. Without denying the influence of Latin poetry and liturgy and even the possible influence of Arabic poery, Frings pointed to the universal woman's songs "from Portugal to China," the latter some 2,000 years earlier, as the source of courtly poetry. He asserted that stylized male-authored courtly love poetry by poets like Marcabru and Walter von der Vogelweide in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are learned re-elaborations of a fertile, female-voiced, universal folk lyric (einfache Formen) (l949: l14). Frings posited that the twenty to thirty oldest German Frauenstrophen, like the following example with its typical equation of nature symbolism and sexuality, reflect oral tradition (18):

Gruonet der Walt allenthalben,
Wâ is min geselle alsô lange?
der ist geriten hinne.
O wî! Wer sol mich minnen?

('The forest is turning green everywhere, /Where is my lover tarrying? /He rode away from here./ Oh, woe is me, who will love me [now ]?')

Frings (1960: 5) exemplified the uninterrupted continuity of this folk tradition from the earliest literature by pointing to the similarity between verses like this Frauenlied and a two-line Egyptian example (given in German translation), some 3,000 years earlier: Wenn der Wind kommt, will er zur Sykomore, / Wenn Du kommst, Willst Du zu mir? ('When the wind comes, it'll caress the sycamore, / when you come, will caress me?'). Frings then proceeds to follow the traces of the popular Frauenlied through the medieval Portuguese cancion d’amigo , the Provencal alba and pastorela, the Northern French chansons de toile and the refrains, and the Italian strambotti.

Unlike the Romantics and their attackers, both of whom had a nationalistic interest in defending their theories, Frings sought to erase geographic frontiers, and spoke of a primitive Romance and even European lyric. His ideas were dismissed as sentimental neoromantism by the reigning "bookish intelligensia," such as Erich Auerbach and Ernst Robert Curtius (Spitzer l952: 3). Even Leo Spitzer, the one major scholar of the period who claimed to support Frings hypothesis of the existence of the oral Fraunlieder, could only envision oral culture where women as a group were mute, having their thoughts and feelings attributed to them by men:

a primitive world of women dancing and chanting stanzas provided for them by the poets, who thus achieve a vicarious pleasure: that of hearing their own conceptions of woman (as a passionate being who voices only her own uninhibited desire) echoed by women who sing the stanzas composed for them. We owe primeval lyricism to men, who have ever known how to impersonate their own passion in the form of woman's desire. Thus woman has in primitive world literature a role imposed upon her by man, answering him with the very words of longing he has suggested to her" (Spitzer 1952:22).

The modern reevaluation of women’s songs has only begun during the last two decades. Davidson (1975)argued that some Old English poems and some Latin woman's songs in the mid-eleventh-century Cambridge Songs show the possibility of a woman’s culture separate from the men's warrior world depicted in heroic poetry. But it was the l981 collection Vox Feminae: Studies in Women's Song, edited by John Plummer, which marked the real beginning of a throve of studies, augmented in the nineties by work on non-Western women's songs (see Randel l982; Whetnall l984; Frenk, 1990-91, l994; Lemaire l986, l988; Earnshaw l988; Coote l992; Robertson l992; Birrell l993; Dunn & Jones, eds. l994; Wilson l996; Marnette l997-98; Vasvari l999a:7-10; Klinck & Rasmussen, 2001, argue, in contrast, for a “textual femininity for many female-voiced poems, where the gender of the actual authors cannot be resolved).


The Song of Songs, the only book of love poetry in the Bible, is really a collection of over thirty songs, which was orally composed and transmitted over an extended period before being transcribed, compiled, and finally canonized. The Song is not a structural unity but a compilation of a collection of secular love lyrics, female monologues, male monologues, and female-male dialogues, characterized by brevity, sensuality, and musicality. Its intimate formal and stylistic features suggest that it is part of a very old tradition of erotic songs common to many people of the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. These include both ancient songs, such as the earliest love songs of the New Kingdom of Egypt, ancient Tamil songs, and songs in still living oral traditions from Greece to Palestine (Rabin l973; Foster l974; White l978; Mariaeselvam l988; Hague l983: 138; Meyers l986).

Both Jewish and Christian tradition have tried very hard to un-sex the Song of Songs through fanciful spiritual interpretations in order to justify the place in the biblical canon of its erotic imagery and audacious female voices. Besides divorcing the Songs from their original oral context and reframing them in the sacred frame of the Hebrew Bible, the earliest compilers provided paratextual glosses to control listener/ reader interpretation. They sought to explain away the anonymous female and male lyric voices by attributing them to the more culturally acceptable "Bride" and "Bridegroom," or to Solomon and his bride. Solomon was alternately considered the protagonist or the author of the Songs. Integrating the invented figures of bride and bridegroom into an allegory of spiritual love, Jewish exegesis re-contextualized the Song as an allegory of love between God (Yahweh) and the Chosen People. Christians, who needed another interpretation, made it represent the mystical union between Christ and the Church or between Christ and the individual soul. A basic characteristic of allegorical interpretation is that it is never how a listener with normal communicative competence in a language would understand the text; it is necessary precisely to direct the audience's attention away and upwards, towards a more acceptable meaning. Another feature of allegory is that while the text remains constant, it always changes, so that, for example, the line your breasts are like two fawns can represent Moses and Aaron in Jewish hermeneutics and the Old and New Testament for Christians. The aim of allegorical interpretations is to remove the poem from the sexual realm altogether, following the fundamental principle that anything in the Bible that seems embarrassing, unbelievable, or contradictory must have a deeper meaning. Allegory masquerades as an idealist literary manifestation, but is, in reality, a form of violent textual colonization. It has always been imposed on works that for some historical reason have been admitted to the "classics" but yet are threatening to the mores of a later age and need to be reduced to a featureless substance imprinted by the will of the allegorist (cf. Tesky l994).

The erotic voices of the Song have been silenced not only by being allegorized, that is, trans-lated upward to the spiritual level, but also by the act of linguistic translation. The Vulgate, whether St. Jerome's translation, which was the Bible of Christianity for the next thousand years, or the sixteenth-century King James Version, the most widely read English Bible, erase the oral and poetic quality of the voices of the Song and of other folk materials. The King James Bible, traditionally designated as the Authorized Version, suggesting that it is in some way the authentic biblical text, treats the Song no differently from biblical prose, making the original two to five line Hebrew verse sound extenuated and oracular, rather like the style of a Whitman. In her poetic translation directly from the Hebrew into English, Falk (1990: 117) seeks to recapture the sense of the poem as traditional poetry, at the same time giving back to the Song's female speaker(s) the power of their voice. She notes that the female, the principal speaker in the Song, speaks assertively, even uninhibitedly, expressing deep, rich, varied, and complicated emotions, and she initiates sexual encounters at least as often as the man. As noted earlier by Shelomo Dov Goitein: "In the majority of verses it is a woman who speaks, who acts, and most significantly, who reflects. The book is conveyed to us mostly from the meditation of a woman's heart and not a man's" (quoted in Falk 1990:ll7).

It is a woman's voice that speaks the opening words of the Song: O for your kiss! For your love/ More enticing than wine..., a powerfully sensual evocation of her beloved, whom she then invites to Take me away to your room / Like a king to his rooms --/We'll rejoice there with wine.... A typical example of a verse-by-verse Christian allegorical exegesis of these lines would be that the female voice represents the longing of the Church to touch the lips of Christ himself, which, in turn, makes God hear the cry of the soul and send his Son into the world. When Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, was composing his series of eighty-six sermons of mystical exegesis on the Song of Songs he managed to devote ten sermons in this style to re-textualizing this eight-line woman's song (Mancor l995).

We can follow through the Song of Songs all the stages of erotic experience, from aroused expectation, as this first song, to the woman's initiation of the sexual advance, and to her prideful assertion after the fact to her "right to her own body." Recurrent collective symbols tie together the imagery of the songs. In the following two songs Heb. gefen 'vine' and kerem 'vineyard' (which reappear in eight poems) stand on the literal level for the location where the sexual encounter takes place and on the symbolic level for the woman and her fruitful sex organ:

Turning to him, who meets me with desire--
Come, love, let us go out to the open fields
And spend our night lying where the henna blooms,
Rising early to leave for the near vineyards
Where the vines flower, opening tender buds,
And the pomegranate boughs unfold their blossoms.

There among blossom and vine I will give you my love,…
And returning, finding our doorways piled with fruits,
The best of the new-picked and the long-stored,
My love, I will give you all I have saved for you.
(Falk 1990: no. 24)

Another song, although it does not grammatically specify the gender of the speaker in Hebrew, is clearly also in an analogous female voice:

The king has a vineyard
Whose fruit is worth silver
I have a vineyard--
Its fruit is my own. (Falk l990: no.30)

This four-line song is a typical monologue of the "truncated dialogue" type, or what Bakhtin (1984:181-204) called a double-voiced discourse, or discourse as a response to some else's discourse, even if that other's discourse is outside rather than within the utterance in question. The girl's prideful confessional self-utterance needs to reckon with an absent interlocutor or is defined by anticipation of another person's words. What we hear in another lyric, perhaps the most familiar song in the collection, is, essentially, a longer version of the same situation, in this case the condemnation of her relatives:

Yes, I am black, and radiant!--

O city women watching me--
As black as Kedar's goathair tents
Or Solomon's fine tapestries.

Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

And I have faced the angry glare
Of others, even my mother's sons
Who sent me out to watch their vines
While I neglected all my own. (Falk l990: no. 2)

The first verse of this lyric has traditionally been translated as the apologetic I am swarthy but comely or I am dark but beautiful. Falk is the first translator to go against centuries of canonized readings and render it as a defiant self-assertion: I am black and radiant. While both translations are linguistically plausible, the Hebrew conjunction we means 'and' far more commonly than 'but.' Falk's reading also fits much more neatly with the other self-affirmative first-person female-voiced songs in the Song, as well as with similar songs in other oral traditions. In boasting about her dark skin, "pierced by the eyes of many morning suns," the I-speaker is using natural metaphors to describing her consensual loss of virginity. Her rebellious language is a muffled challenge of self-affirmation, disruptive of the totalizing morality represented by "city women." Her voice becomes a dialogic entity, who questions the validity of the monologic and prescriptive place designated for female desire by the dominant male discourse:

The last verses of the previous song, with their distancing reference to the girl's brothers as her "mother's sons', lead us to another song, the single strongest woman's voice in the collection. The girl's double-voiced discourse in the song we have just heard alludes to fraternal interest groups, which in traditional societies are charged with taking drastic measures to safeguard their women's virginity before marriage (Paige & Paige l981). But in another song what we hear first is the public chorus of punitive older brothers, who represent the patriarchal defense of family honor. They declare their sister to be as yet unripe, and, using typical masculine military imagery, they threaten her if she opens her "door" prematurely.

We have a young sister
Who has no breasts.
What shall we do
When the time comes for suitors?

If she's a wall
We'll build turrets of silver,
But if she's a door
We will flank her with cedar.

Only after the brothers’ sadistic threat do we hear the girl's silent monologue, where she aggressively asserts the primacy of her own desire and with pride asserts that it is already too late:

I am a wall
And my breasts are towers!
So I have found peace
Here with my lover. (Falk 1990: no 29)

We see in this song the traditional image of women's penetrability represented as their most significant feature, with their bodies as gateways that any man may enter. The image of the girl as a sealed wall of a fortification, along with other similar traditional images, such as "putting a lid on the bride," "[un]sealing the wine jug", all equate virgins with vessels whose contents are sealed against dirt and loss, testifying to their purity, but which can be opened up and made available by penetrating the protective barrier (Stallybras l986; Carson l990: 160-64). The status and reputation of a family rests on the degree to which its women are protected from penetration by the woman's own sense of sexual shame, by her isolation, and by the courage of family men in repelling seducers.

While the archaic lyrics of the Song of Songs are anonymous, some two and a half millenia ago we have in Sappho (born ca. 630 B.C. on the island of Lesbos) the first named female voice in the West. She not only composed love monologues but did so within a woman-centered framework, speaking about other women as the object of her erotic attention. Her poetry is replete with traditional sexual images based on natural metaphors (Winkler 1981; l990: 162-87; Greene l996; Snyder l997; my translations are amended versions of those in Barnstone l965):

Love shakes up my heart
like a mountain wind smashing into oaks.
(Fragment 130v.)

Love, bittersweet, untamable --
loosens my limbs and I tremble.
Yet, Atthis, it has become hateful
for you to think of me/
to chase Andromeda, you leave me.
(Fragment 144v.)

Sappho's songs have survived in fragmentary form, so that most translations are also re-constructions, which makes it particularly tempting for some translators to mute her voice by turning it into into written poetry. For example, the first song above loses all its musicality and oral quality by the simple change of rendering Love shakes up my heart as Eros shakes my heart (Bing & Cohen l991: no. 47). While eros is the original Greek word, to use it in English in preference to “love” is to raise the poem to a higher, literary register.

Sappho’s most famous poem Sappho is a challenge to the Homeric inheritance. In it she specifically addresses the gender politics of literature when she compares the system of values of earlier male-centered heroic poetry, which sees beauty in warfare but considers women's beauty (like that of Helen of Troy) as destructive. In Sappho’s version Helen is a subject, not merely the object of desire, a positive figure in pursuit of her own erotic fulfillment. Sappho’s authorial self a new way of seeing the world, through a female-centered perspective, where “the most beautiful thing on earth” is to contemplate the beauty of her female beloved:

Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is
the one you love. And easily proved.
Did not Helen -- who far surpassed all
mortals in beauty -- desert the best
of men, her king,
and sail off to Troy and forget
her daughter and dear kinsmen? Merely
the Kyprian's gaze made her bend and led
her from her path;
these things remind me now
of Anaktoria who is far,
and I
for one
would rather see her warm supple step
and the sparkle of her face -- than watch
all the dazzling chariots and armored
war chariots of Lydia. (Barnstone l965: l6v.)

The fascinating history of the critical fortunes of Sappho illustrates the curious attempts through the centuries to explain away her lesbian speaking voice. She has been continually transformed, in the process of transmission. The poet we call “Sappho” is essentially an artifact of Victorian poetics, an overdetermined and contradictory trope of nineteenth-century discourses of gender, sexuality, poetics, and politics (Prins l999: 131). There is the attempt to "normalize" her by creating a biography for her ex nihilo, where she is made a noblewoman, wife, and mother. Source after source repeats that she was married to one Kerkylas of Andros, even though this is clearly a joke name, something like "Dick Allcock from the Isle of Man." Other sources try to explain away Sappho's songs about sexual passion for women by claiming that she was head of a cult of thiasos and wrote the songs as epithalamia 'wedding songs' for the edification of her charges before they married. Alternately, it is claimed that she was a spinster schoolmistress who ran a kind of finishing school, who assuredly had only non-physical passion for her "girls" (Parker l996; Wilson l996).

For my final historical examples of woman-voiced poetry, I will consider two areas of medieval Europe: the poetry of Gwerful Mechain, the one named Welsh woman by whom any corpus of poetry has survived, and the much larger body of anonymous female-voiced poetry in Hispanic tradition. In an exchange of insult poetry with the male poet Dafydd Llwyd of Mathafarm, Gwerful shows that she is not bound by any conventions of femininity, matching and topping Dafydd’s obscenities, as in the following passage:

Here’s a hairy pit until you get tired,
Dafydd, to tame your prick; here’s a
seat for your balls.

In another poem, in praise of female genitals, she complaints that male poets in their description of female bodies ignore the most important part (Johnston l998; see Larrington, l995: 71-2, for a slightly more demure translation):

...All you proud poets, let songs of cunt circulate without
fail to gain reward. Sultan of an ode, it is a silk little seam, curtain on a fine bright cunt, flaps in a place of
greeting, the sour grove, it is full of love, very proud
forest, faultless gift… lovely bush. God save it!

The corpus of medieval Hispanic female-voiced poetry is of particular importance in proving the historical existence of such a tradition. In l948 Samuel M. Stern made a fantastic discovery in a synagogue in Cairo, which essentially proved the preliterate origins of female-voiced lyrics. He found twenty lyrics, mostly of two to four lines written in Hebrew characters (hence without vowels) but in the mozarabic Spanish dialect spoken in the South of Spain, embedded as the final refrain of learned Hebrew poems on the Arabic model called muwasha (plural muwashahat). A few years later Emilio García Gomez published another group found in Arabic muwashahat, to bring the total number known to date to sixty-one. The harg’as are thus the oldest surviving lyrics in the Romance vernacular, dating from first half of XI to the beginning of XIV, but with the earliest perhaps from the tenth century. While the mozarabic harg’as are feminine love songs that project the voice of a young woman avowing a sensual passion without circumlocution, the muwashahat into which they are integrated exclude a feminine perspective. These learned poems may not even address the issue of love, or they may deal with homoerotic love. The greater the distance between poem and its harg’a, the greater the ingenuity the poet must show to negotiate the daring feat of harmonizing elements that flaunt their incompatibility. In the muwashahat, as in much medieval poetic discourse, the divergence of languages -- between Classical Hebrew or Classical Arabic and a romance vernacular -- is amplified as a sign of literary function. A deliberate rupture is created within the elaborate poetic discourse by the abrupt fall of linguistic register with the incursion of the female lyrical voice that derives from oral tradition. The contrast of discursive registers is further enhanced by the contrast of two languages and cultures and by the contrast of the gender of the speaking voice (Vasvari l999a: 23-31 on bilingualism as a literary artifice in medieval erotic poetry). Deploying a citation in another language and in the female voice within the formal unity of the poem, creates the illusion that it is the Hebrew or Arab learned poet who continues to express himself, although he has borrowed that second voice from the female-voiced oral tradition.

Some harg’as are love laments, as this earliest surviving fragment (where habib is Arabic for 'lover'):

Tant' amare, tant' amare,
&&habib, tant' amare;
enfermiron welyos nidios
&e dolen tan male.

(So much loving, so much loving,' my lover, so much loving,' healthy eyes became sick / and hurt so badly')

Other voices are as audacious as the lyrics in the Song of Songs:

que fare, mamma
Meu al-habib est'ad yana (Garcia Gomez l965: l4)

('What should I do, mother, /my lover is at the door')

Mio sidi Ibraim,
ya, nuemne doljie!
vente mib
de nojte.
In non, si non queris
ireme tib:
garme a ob
legarte (Garcia Gomez l965: l8) ).

('My lord Ibrahim, oh sweet name! come to my at night. If not -- if you don't want to -- I'll go to you; tell me where to find you.')

It seems likely that the harg’as of Andalusia and the folk poetry of the rest of Iberia, as well as the refrains of northern France (the first example in this paper), are all of common oral ancestry. The surviving texts have, however, been transmitted and sometimes reworked by men (Monroe 1975; Lemaire l986). Frenk (1994;l996) has shown, through the example of Spanish, that still one more way that women's lyrics have been reworked is by anthologies privileging the more chaste songs, even though traditional lyric had many more happy, self-affirmative and sensual than sad songs. Let's look at a brief representative selection, arranged roughly in the order of "before, during, and after: (all in Frenk et al: l987):

No quiero ser casada,
sino libre y enamorada

('I don't want to be married/ but to be free and in love')

no se que me bulle
en el calcañar..
no se que me bulle
entre las faldas

('I don't know what's burning in my knee bone, /I don't know what's burning between my skirts')

Levantose un viento
que de la mar salia,
y alcome las faldas
de la mi camisa.

('A wind blew in from the sea / and lifted the hem/ of my nightshirt')

La niña que los amores ha,
sola ¿cómo dormirá?

('A girl who has a lover, / how is she to sleep alone?')

Dámelo, Periquito perro,
Periquito, dámelo

('Give it to me, Petey, Peter,/ Petey, give it to me')

En el ayre de la sierra
tornéme morena

('In the [hot dry] air of the mountain / I turned dark')

A la sombra de mis cabellos
mi querido se adurmió
Si le recordaré o ¿no[n]?

('In the shade of my locks,/ my love fell asleep. Should I wake him?)

No me firáys, madre,
que os lo diré
mal d'amores he.

('Don't hit me mother, / I'll tell you: I am sick with love')


We have seen that in the ancient world and continuing in medieval European oral tradition there existed a specifically woman’s discourse on love, whose specificity has been eroded by the imposition of “scriptocentrism”. Nevertheless, vestiges of the female voice, within the overwhelmingly male-dominated literary tradition in written form can still function as a carrier of undercurrents or social values not generally permitted or approved. It can complement the masculine-identified dominant side of the social psyche, becoming a vehicle for heterodoxy of many kinds, with female speech sometimes expressly coded in the oral vernacular mode in order to contrast it with textualized male speech.

Women's songs also continue in living oral tradition in many languages. For example, Bartok and Lord (1951) recorded approximately 11,000 dictated and 250 recorded women's songs. My own next project will be to study the corpus of folk lyric collected in Hungarian for a detailed examination of its women's voices. My preliminary studies show that Hungarian girls often seem more than eager to ease the way for their lovers (see also Vasvari l999b):

Erre gyere rozsám, nincsen sár.
Nincsen az ajtómon se[mm]i zár. (Kodály l973: no. 224)

(Come in this way, my love, there is no mud; / there is no lock on my door.)

Kinyillot az ajtó magátol,
Kisangyalom gyenge karjátol. (Kodály l973: no. 305)

(The door opened all on its own, / from my little angel's weak arm.)

Because of lack of gender distinctions in Hungarian, the sex of the speaking voice, as in the following, cannot always be ascertained, but other native speakers I have consulted agree that the following is a female voice:

Azér, hogy a szeretöm elhagyott,
En azér egy csöppet sem búsulok
A rozsa se nyilik ki eccere
Lesz szeretöm vasárnap estére
(Bartok 1961: 121, no. 70)

(‘Just because my lover left me/ I am not a bit sorry./ The rose doesn’t open all at once either./ By Sunday night I’ll have a [new]love’)

It will be necessary to ascertain if voices as audacious as the following young girl's, impatiently awaiting her lover on her sexual threshold, are authentic or figments of male imagination. In any case, they are excluded from the authoritative collections:

Oh! edes anyam!
Nincsen olyan zar,
Kit a baka
A faszaval
le nem taszigal. (Fohn l905: no. 128)

(Oh! my dear mother, / there is no such lock / that a [common] soldier / can't knock of with his cock.)


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