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8 - Gender Trouble? Fabliau and Debate in MS Digby 86

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2019

Neil Cartlidge
Affiliation:
University of Durham
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Summary

SEVERAL of the items in Oxford, BodL, MS Digby 86 provocatively insist on, or assume, the inevitability of conflict or competition between men and women, especially in the context of sexual and/or marital relationships. Within the composition of the manuscript as a whole, these texts weigh at least heavily enough to suggest that the Digby compiler-scribe was consciously interested in gender conflict as a literary theme. Some of these texts are explicitly presented as debates about gender or gendered experience, or else implicitly as contributions to such debates. Others are principally narratives, but narratives driven by the assumption that relationships between men and women are necessarily and universally mutually exploitative or antagonistic. Such narratives include The Four Wishes of Saint Martin (in French), Dame Sirith (in English) and the Lay of the Horn (in French). Digby 86 also contains two debate poems that focus specifically on gender and gendered perspectives: The Strife between Two Ladies (in French), which assesses the value (to women) of marital fidelity, and The Thrush and the Nightingale (in English), in which two birds play the part of advocates for and against women in general. In addition, there are several texts that present accounts of gendered experience that are so conspicuously one-sided as to seem to be relying on, or even implicitly contributing to, an ongoing debate about the nature of the relationship between men and women. These include texts like The Little Fable of the Jealous Man, The Lad Who Sided with Ladies and Damsels and The Life of a Lusty Lad (all in French). In this chapter, I offer brief characterisations of each of these texts (some of which deserve to be much better known than they are), emphasising in particular their shared intertextuality – by which I mean the sheer complexity of the ways in which they seem to borrow from each other or from a shared set of sources. This intertextuality is sometimes so pronounced as to suggest that each of these texts, whatever its particular literary form, was imagined as a contribution to a wider tradition of literary ‘talk’ about gender. A question I particularly try to answer here is: what social function(s) would such texts have served? And, correspondingly, what kind of audience/readership should their association in Digby 86 be taken to imply?

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Interpreting MS Digby 86
A Trilingual Book from Thirteenth-Century Worcestershire
, pp. 130 - 161
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2019

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