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Cultural Contexts/Female Voices.

Cultural Contexts/Female Voices. Ed. by LOUISE M. HAYWOOD. London: Queen Mary and Westfield College. 2000. 78 pp. 7 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-90418-869-8.

This collection of essays, part of the increasingly influential 'Papers of the Medieval Hispanic Research Seminar', fills a gap in Spanish medieval studies. Cultural Contexts/Female Voices draws together a series of analyses of the female voice in late medieval Spanish literature.

In the first contribution, Vicenta Blay Manzanera presents what is commonly known as 'work in progress'. This essay is part of a greater study of the female voice in the cancionero corpus. She classifies the different ways in which female voices can appear in the corpus studied. From high-born damsels to poor 'villanas', all social classes are represented in the texts. In the same way, the mood ranges from comic overtones to the ferocity of 'serranas', from submission in some dialogical compositions to a vindictive tone when a vilified woman needs to be defended. In most compositions, woman is valued for her virtuosity and beauty, as expected. There are some exceptions, of course, as Blay Manzanera shows us, but they do not express the prevailing view of male society. As the author says, she does not yet have definitive conclusions in her work, but surely a further analysis of the many contradictions in these texts (women being passive but also active, being insulted but also defended, etc.) will give us more clues about female cancionero voices. Finally, Blay Manzanera analyses linguistic practice in dialogic compositions, developing a subject already addressed by Alan Deyermond.

Louise Haywood also presents work in progress. She wants to discover if 'there was a living tradition of lament which may have been mediated into literary depictions of mourning practice; and the extent to which the oral and written traditions influencedeach other' (p. 27). She centres her focus on secular laments made by Casiiian women, suggesting a classification of their components. What seems to be clear from her work is: first, that these laments are characterized by adjustment motifs which do not appear in other, male laments, and secondly, that the deceased are rarely called by their names, a feature which can indicate a greater emotionalism than we encounter in the laments of men (there is a lot of cursing and anger) or can be explained by the narrative contexts in which they are produced. These uses, according to Haywood, may reflect widespread mourning habits (not only Castilian), since even today we have similar examples of lamenting in rural Greek communities.

Nancy F. Marino studies the last medieval courts of love, drawing a comparison between the Aragonese court at Naples and the Valencian, focusing on the appealing figure of Germaine de Foix. The Neapolitan Question de Amor has many parallels with the Cancionero de Valencia (both from the fifteenth century). The pre-eminence of dialogue in this cancionero is similar to the approach of the Question, since this last work 'seems to fit within the parameters of both the medieval debate poem and prose works that concern issues and responses about love and chivalric behaviour' (p. 44). Marino holds the opinion that in both cities real courts of love were cultivated. She points out that in Valencia and Naples theatrical performances of various lengths were a popular diversion and that this deserves further investigation.

Eloisa Palafox's essay is also extremely refreshing. She analyses Melibea's voice in the additions made to Celestina (from Comedia to Tragicomedia). She underscores how Melibea develops more enjoyment in the pleasures of the flesh, relating them, curiously enough (but maintaining a long tradition), to food (as Calisto also does). Melibea's pleasures are envied by Arasa and Elicia, who contribute to provoking the sad ending of both lovers. We can question, then, if Rojas really wanted to be a stricter moralist in his additions (as argued by Severin, for example) or if he indulges in seducing the readers with the joy of loving sex. Whether or not he wanted to underline the malefic effects of black magic, the Tragicomedia nevertheless presents us with the positive fruits of fleshly love, even if they lead us to damnation.

Finally, Dorothy Severin produces a thoughtful study of two different versions of Grimalte and Gradissa, providing a great example of the importance of reception theory. Thus, she demonstrates that the first version was written for a male literary circle at the University of Salamanca, whereas the second and final one targets a wider audience. This has to do with the consequences of the spread of printing. From the feminist point of view, the interesting fact is that 'the message received by the female audience may have been rather different from the moral intended for the male audience' (p. 70). But, as Severin says, even if the message was probably received differently by women, Juan de Flores, an ambivalent writer, may not have been conscious of the feminist subversion that some of his comic touches imply, but may rather have conceived them as instances of academic sophistication.

These papers were first presented during conferences at Leeds and Vancouver, and, as the editor says in her preface, many of them retain some marks of oral delivery, which could perhaps have been avoided when converting them into the written medium. What is clear from this valuable volume is that much is still to be done, the subject is broad, and, even if there are not many examples of women writing in the Middle Ages, their voice can be appreciated in multiple contexts. Of course, we have to be careful, since in the majority of cases it is men who pretend to speak on behalf of women ('el varon que finge voz de mujer', as the title of Blay Manzanera's paper illustrates), and that can lead to many misunderstandings. Men take with them when writing all the handicaps of their milieu. At the same time, one can argue that it might have been appealing to read the corpus studied (and the female bodies depicted) in the manner of E. Jane Burns's brilliant book Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993). This does not mean that we need to deconstruct every sentence referring to women by Spanish monks or knights, but to look at the discontinuances and contradictions that their way of reasoning leads to. I only mean to suggest that this focus, or the one sustained by R. Howard Bloch in his famous understanding of misogyny as a form of discourse ('Medieval Misogyny', Representations, 20 (1987), 1-24), would have proven to be fruitful alternative methods of reading all the rhetorical devices that cancionero poems or the laments of sentimental romances display.

But these are only suggestions, and it is thanks to the existence of this book that we can begin to formulate them. We should be grateful to Louise Haywood and the other contributors to this volume for launching us on such a suggestive path, illustrating so acutely the context in which medieval Spanish female voices were produced.


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Author:Bastida, Rebeca Sanmartin
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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