Rethinking the chansons de toile : critical evaluation and editions




Jamison, Flannery Hope

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The genre appellation “chansons de toile” generally refers to approximately twenty poems written in Old French during the second quarter of the thirteenth century. They are short narrative lyrics which describe the romantic struggles of young women, usually pining for an absent lover or dealing with an unhappy marriage or betrothal. The genre’s name refers to toile, a type of fabric, as usually the heroines are occupied with weaving as they lament. While it is a contemporary descriptor, the genre is mostly a twentieth-century construction; however, it is remarkable to find a substantial number of poems which share so many thematic and structural elements composed over such a short period of time.

The attention given these songs is largely dedicated to the centrality of women, particularly their desires and their active role in solving their plights. This, coupled with the archaic flavor of the verse (structurally as well as thematically), has historically inspired scholars to attribute these songs to actual women, or at least to claim that they are strongly and perceivably influenced by women’s songs, particularly working women’s song. However, despite the best efforts of twentieth-century scholarship, the idea that these represent “genuine” women’s song or folk song has been demonstrated as tenuous at best and fanciful at worst. The patina of court culture is indelible, and the few which are attributed to composers are attributed to literary men.

This, however, presents a new problem: why then were these imitation women’s songs written? Analyzing the pastiche of archaic and courtly elements contained in these poems, particularly the anachronistic agency of their female protagonists and their close association with the chansons de geste, I argue that these poems demonstrate a nostalgia for a semi-mythic lyric past with egalitarian gender relations and happy endings. Additionally, I examine the equivalencies made between women, the past, and the folk, arguing that many of the problematic conflations made by the Romantics have a thirteenth-century precursor in the chansons de toile.



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