aspects of women’s privilege in the Old French jeu-parti

battle at medieval castle of love

In northern France in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, men and women poet-singers known as trouvères composed lyric debates. This type of song, called the jeu-parti, involved two voices defending in alternate stanzas alternate responses to a question set out for debate in the first stanza.[1] Jeux-partis involving women trouvères depict significant aspects of women’s privilege in medieval France.

Like most women today, women trouvères in medieval France rarely assumed the emotional risk of soliciting an amorous relationship. A jeu-parti between Dame Margot and Dame Marote debates a case involving a woman and man who love each other dearly. The man dares not declare his desire to the women. The debate question is whether the woman should assume a man’s typical burden and declare her love to him. Dame Margot argues against the woman taking the initiative to establish an amorous relationship. Dame Marote argues for the woman taking the initiative.

In their arguments, both Dame Margot and Dame Marote recognize women’s privilege in relation to men. Dame Marote declares that “she should not be proud {pas ne doit cele estre fiere},” as if a woman telling a man that she loves him in some way injures her pride and lowers her worth. Dame Margot counters Dame Marote’s position, but confirms women’s privilege:

You are not heading the right way,
Dame Marote, I believe.
A lady makes a grave mistake in courting
her beloved first. Why
should she thus demean herself?
If he lacks courage,
I do not think it proper
that she should then solicit his love.
She should rather conceal her feelings
and suffer love’s pains
without ever disclosing them,
because a woman should have such high merit
that no word would come from her
that could diminish her worth.

{ Vous n’ales pa droite voie,
Dame Marote, je croi.
Trop mesprent dame ki proie
Son ami avant. Pour koi
S’aveilleroit elle si?
Se cil a le cuer falli,
Ne di jou pas k’il afiere
Por ce k’ele le reqiere,
Ains s’en doit chovrir
Et les fais d’Amours soufrir
Sans ja fiare percevoir;
Kar feme doit tant valoir
Que n’en doit parole issir
Ki son pris puist amenrir. } [2]

Underscoring that women equally sharing men’s burdens is inconceivable to gynocentric reason, Dame Marote argues that true love should make a woman act insane. While a sane woman would retain women’s privilege, a woman insane with love would take the initiative to solicit an amorous relationship. Dame Marote concludes:

Better it is to live in joy
for having pleaded than now to languish
for having been silent and then die.

{ Miex vient en joie manoir
Par proier q’adés langir
Par trop taire et puis morir. }

Dame Marote’s point seems indisputable. Yet many women today would rather be coerced into a having an abortion or even die rather than relinquish their gynocentric privilege.

Another jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates women’s preference regarding how men bear the burden of soliciting an amorous relationship. In this case, two knights both love one woman. One knight seeks to communicate his love through the woman’s friends. The other declares his love to her directly. According to women’s preference, which knight behaves better? One woman trouvère argues that a man who directly declares his love to her would make her seem shameful and weak. The other woman trouvère disputes that claim:

Sister, you are in error,
of that I do not doubt in the least.
When this one tenderly
humbles himself before you
and requests your loyalty,
you feel contempt for him.

{ Suer, vous estes en errout,
Je ne m’an dout mie.
Cant celui par sa dousor
Ver vous s’umelie
Et vos requiert loialteit,
Vos lou teneis an vitei. } [3]

As if that would justify him soliciting her love, the man humbles himself before the woman. In actuality, if he approached her as an arrogant jerk, she would more likely feel her loins tingle. Men must be learned enough to reject women’s privilege in prescribing how men should behave.

Women’s privilege prompts women to look down on men as if men were inferior human beings afflicted with “toxic masculinity.” A jeu-parti between two women trouvères debates whether a woman should allow a man to declare his love to her. One woman trouvère proposes listening to the man. College administrators evaluating sexual assault charges today generally reject the practice of listening to an accused man. But this medieval woman argues:

By listening to him you will be able to decide
if it pleases you to accept him or refuse him,
and you will know if he speaks wisely or foolishly.

{ Qu’en lui oiant porrez vous bien eslire
Se il vous plaist l’otroi ou le desdire,
Et si savrez s’il dist sens our folour. } [4]

What could be wrong with listening to a man? At least with respect to men, everyone isn’t required to listen and believe. Yet the other woman trouvère vehemently argues against even just listening to a man:

a woman should really not
listen to a man; she should rather fear
being seduced by the words she hears.
For men are consummate flatterers
and their arguments they so beautifully describe
that simply by listening to them she could well agree
to something that would quickly dishonor her.

{ fame ne doit mie
Home escouter, ains doit avoit paour
Qu’ele ne soit a l’oir engignie,
Quar home sont trop grant losengeour
Et leur raisons sevent tant bel descrire
Qu’en eulz oiant puet a cele souffire
Chose dont tost cherroit en deshonour. }

For women’s safety men must not be allowed to speak. That such ridiculous claims about women’s safety are taken seriously exemplifies women’s privilege.

Medieval scholars have recognized that these women-exclusive jeux-partis closely engage relational reality. One eminent medieval scholar observed:

it is the practical, level-headed outlook of both {women} speakers, calculating the respective roles of the emotions and social niceties, which is notable. Even if these debates are about questions of love, they are not romantic, or erotic, lyrics. … The jeux-partis were among the games devised for that {mixed-sex castle} hall, diverstissements of a society that thought such topics up in order to amuse as well as wittily to provoke. Yet the range and subtlety of emotion and argument that we glimpse in some of the debates involving women suggest something more. Here were poets who, even if they lived lightly — at least in the imagination — could also reflect searchingly. [5]

One doesn’t need to reflect searchingly to recognize women’s privilege in the jeux-partis involving women. Two knights seek one woman’s love. One is rich and worthy, the other is wise and worthy. Which man should the woman choose? A woman again has the choice of two knights. One extensively offers his warrior skills in knightly combat. The other generously shares his money and goods. Which man should the woman choose? Between an arrogant knight and a quarrelsome knight, which man should a woman choose?[6] Men’s choices are much more narrow than women’s choices. Men are burdened with responsibilities while women are privileged with choices.

At least medieval women recognized women’s privilege and men’s hardships. Regarding men’s sexual labor for women, one woman trouvère frankly observes:

You know full well that back pain sets in
that keeps old men from laboring as long.
Beyond the age of forty, he does nothing but decline;
he is then hardly suited to partake in pleasure.

{ You saveis bien ke li maus tient en rains,
Dont li vielars an sont ovriers dou moins;
Puis .xl. ans ne fait hons fors c’aleir,
Pou vaut on puis por deduit demeneir. } [7]

Men’s sexual service to women is a matter of life and death, yet it’s often undervalued, disparaged, and criminalized. Men deserve more choices in how they sexually serve women. Men deserve reproductive freedom. Women’s special privilege must end. Women and men must share equally privileges and hardships.[8]

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[1] Jeux-parti typically have six stanzas. The final stanza often appeals to an external judge for a decision regarding the winning position. For extensive discussion of the historical definition of jeu-parti, Mason (2018) Ch. 1. Debate poems in Old Occitan are known as tensos or partimens.

Trouvères composed and performed jeux-partis primarily in Arras in northern France in the thirteenth century. Arras was a center of commercial trade and artistic activity. The trouvères of Arras were associated with the literary academia Puy d’Arras. On Arras in relation to jeux-partis, Barker (2013) pp. 6-9, 52. About 175 jeux-partis have survived, 60% of which come from Arras. Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 73  (total number 182), Barker (2013) p. 4 (total number 170), p. 52, n. 92 (Arras share 60%, citing Symes estimate).

Most surviving jeux-partis involve only men trouvères. Mason (2018) p. 298. Jeux-partis in which women trouvères participate as debaters have survived mainly in the Oxford Chansonnier (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 308), known by the siglum I.

Jeux-partis could be aggressive contests, but such symbolic violence has far different effects on human lives than does actual violence. In medieval Europe, elite men had a life expectancy nine years less than that of women. Medieval literature depicts horrific violence against men. The enormous masculine gender protrusion in suffering violent injury and death reflects in part women’s privilege.

Literary scholars have tended to ignore and trivialize the reality of violence against men. Mason’s thesis, for example, shows no awareness of the actual gendered facts about violent victimization. In accordance with prevailing academic fashion, Mason suggests violence against men is about misogyny and the exclusion of women:

In applying the metaphor of single combat to the jeu-parti, Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod invoked the homosociality of combat prevalent in Europe before the First World War. The paradigm of the duel is demonstrably at work in the ‘footnote quarrels’ of German and French musicologists at the start of the twentieth century, whose blows and counterblows in their retaliatory publications and footnotes are reminiscent of verbal sparring. Jeanroy, Fiset and Nicod defined the jeu-parti as a combative, robustly masculine genre, in which poetic skill could be equated with bravura and violence. The misogyny of late romantic duellers could map neatly onto the subject of many dilemma questions in jeux-partis: how best to please one’s Lady. In defining the genre in this way, women were excluded as possible interlocutors and, as a result, the genre has since been treated as principally masculine.

Mason (2018) p. 54. Women, including during the First World War, have played a important role in promoting violence against men. Men and women scholars should show more love for men and less eagerness to please “the Lady.”

[2] Dame Margot & Dame Maroie, Jeu-parti, “I entreat you, Lady Maroie {Je vous pri, dame Maroie}” st. 3 (vv. 29-42), Old French text (Picard dialect) and English translation (with my modifications to follow the Old French more closely) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 76. Within this jeu-parti, Dame Maroie is subsequently called Dame Marote. I use the latter name consistently above. The previous short quote above is similarly from v. 22; the subsequent quote above is vv. 82-4 (ending stanza 6 of 6). Here’s a performance of “Je vous pri, dame Maroie” by Musiktheater Dingo (2012).

Many women today have never contacted an man, expressed amorous interest in him, and invited him to dinner and evening entertainment, with the clear understanding that she would pay for the cost of the whole evening. Of course the man for a variety of reason might reject the woman’s proposal. Most men have many times had the experience of paying for dates and being romantically rejected. Today is long past the time for women to share that experience equally.

[3] Lorete & Suer, Jeu-parti, “Lorete, sister, in the name of love {Lorete, suer, par amor}” vv. 57-62 (from st. 5 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 80. This jeu-parti survives only in the Oxford Chansonnier. The 26 jeux-partis in that chansonnier have been dated to 1310. Barker (2013) p. 43.

[4] Sainte des Prez & Dame de la Chaucie, Jeu-parti, “What shall I do, Lady of Chaucie {Que ferai je, dame de la Chaucie},” vv. 12-4 (from st. 2 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 81. The subsequent quote above is similarly from id. vv. 15-21 (in st. 3).

The woman trouvère who opposes the man making known his love through the woman’s friends figures a man acting that way as being like Renart the Fox:

he is Renart the Fox,
who pursues his intrigue until he has seized his prey.

{ s’est Renars li Werpis,
Ke quiert ses tors tant ke il soit saixis. }

Id. vv. 64-5. The man trobairitz Pèire de Bossinhac in his song “Quan lo dous temps d’abril” uses Renart as a figure of being shrewdly vengeful. See note [7] in my post on medieval women’s strong, independent sexuality.

[5] Dronke (2007) pp. 330, 335. Dronke concludes with flattery for gynocentric authority:

And it certainly looks as if some of these poets — perhaps indeed, the most perceptive of them — were themselves women.

Id. p. 335. Similarly conforming to academic orthodoxy, Barker concludes her chapter on women’s desire with gynocentric panegyric: “these feminine voices are able to carve out space in which they resist the pressure to conform.” Barker (2013) p. 313.

[6] The four jeux-parti described in the above paragraph (in order of description above, with page citations in Quinby et al. (2001) are: Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Advise me, Rolant, I entreat you {Concilliés moi, Rolan, je vous an pri},” pp. 87-8; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, do respond {Douce dame, respondex},” pp. 89-1; Dame & Rolant de Reims, “Dear lady, I would gladly {Douce dame, volantiers},” pp. 92-4; and Dame & Perrot de Beaumarchais, “Dear lady, let this one be your call {Douce dame, ce soit en vos nomer},” pp. 97-8.

[7] Dame & Sire, Jeu-parti, “Tell me, lady, who has better discharged his debt {Dites, dame, li keilz s’aquitait muelz},” vv. 29-32 (from st. 4 of 5), Old French text (Lorraine dialect) and English translation (with my modifications) from Doss-Quinby et al. (2001) p. 104.

[8] The term “women’s privilege is preferable to “female privilege.” Infants in laughing, crying, pooping, sleeping, etc., typically do not act with gender privilege. Gender privilege emerges through human development. Brothers and sisters as children, however, can experience analogues of women’s privilege. Consider, for example, the childhood experience of U.S. politician Joe Biden:

According to Biden’s own words his sister regularly beat him in his childhood and adolescence. “And I have the bruises to prove it,” he said, at a senate hearing on violence against women, December 11, 1990. To make sure the audience knew this wasn’t a joke, he added, “I mean that sincerely. I am not exaggerating when I say that.”

In Biden’s brief tell-all, he acknowledged that the beatings he received were condoned and sanctioned by his parents, and that he was prevented from defending himself; That he was literally, in fact, powerless to make the abuse stop.

“In my house,” he stated, “being raised with a sister and three brothers, there was an absolute. It was a nuclear sanction, if under any circumstances, for any reason –even self defense– you ever touched your sister, not figuratively, literally.”

“My sister, who is my best friend, my campaign manager, my confidante,” he continued, “grew up with absolute impunity in our household.”

From Elam (2010). While such behavior should be a matter of serious social concern, “women’s privilege” seems to me nonetheless a more reasonable term than “female privilege.”

[image] Women occupying the castle of love from above assail men confined outside the castle and besieging it. Excerpt from design on a side panel of an elephant ivory coffret made in Paris between 1310 and 1330. Preserved as accession # 17.190.173a, b; 1988.16 in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City, USA). Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917; The Cloisters Collection, 1988. Image derived from an image that the Metropolitan Museum has made available under a public spirited public domain dedication (CCO license).


Barker, Camilla. 2013. Dialogue and Dialectic in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Occitan and Old French Courtly Lyric and Narrative. Ph.D. Thesis, King’s College, London.

Doss-Quinby, Eglal, Joan Tasker Grimbert, Wendy Pfeffer, and Elizabeth Aubery. 2001. Songs of the Women Trouvères. New Haven: Yale University Press. (review by Carol Symes)

Dronke, Peter. 2007. “Women’s Debates in Medieval French Lyric.” Ch. 18 (pp. 323-336) in Dronke, Peter. Forms and Imaginings: from antiquity to the fifteenth century. Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura.

Elam, Paul. 2010. “VAWA — Corrupt Law and Joe Biden’s Abusive Sister.” A Voice For Men. Online.

Mason, Joseph W. 2018. Melodic Exchange and Musical Violence in the Thirteenth-Century jeu-parti. D. Phil. Thesis, Faculty of Music Lincoln College, Oxford.