COMMENT

Ladies' lib of yore? Not quite. There were a number of experiments in post-knightly literature, as for example the first story of this collection, with fitting woman into more active roles, the message being again that valor could not fail of reward, even when practiced by a woman. But the circumstances had to be adjusted. The author here charitably lends masculine heroism to the poor maiden for a day, with which she proves herself a duke among her peers, but then real men and dukedom have to return and put substance into her triumph.

Still, once her valor is unmasked, she continues her career at her husband's side. The world was indeed turning upside down, although only one man sensed the great tilt, and he, a true conservative, saw no humor in it. He better than his amused companions had caught a glimpse of what was coming: not gender-neutral jousting, but knighthood domesticated. An epilogue, added later by another scribe in one of the manuscripts, also sounds a rather hostile note, as though he were scribbling graffiti. "The ladies," he remarks impolitely, "even though they always go under, do break the stiffest lances, wonder of wonders!" (it rhymes better in German).

The source of this story is an Old French lay, dated 1189, by Huon d'Oisy, one of the first poets to introduce the art of the troubadour from Provenše into northern France. Huon's cast of characters included the Queen of France, Isabelle de Hainaut, and all the princesses of French nobility. There are perhaps another half-dozen reworkings in Old French and Old Provenšal, the intent being to titillate the highborn. But by 1292 the poet Pierre Gencien had produced a version in which the ladies were all wives of Parisian citoyens. They had learned their fighting prowess not at elegant tourneys but in the kitchen.

The present story, while retaining the French setting ("far beyond the Rhein . . ."), still plays within the latter days of the knightly aristocracy. We can see the poet hard at what he had to do for a living, translating and remodeling a stock tale to gratify a patron, this one, no doubt, ranking high in the Duchy of Limburg. A lineage of dukes, among whom the name Walraven was traditional (spelled variously Walrabe, Valeran, and the like), died out there in 1280.

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