Amours & Machaut’s Voir Dit: failed medieval gender revolution

Marginalized medieval French literature depicts strong, independent women who initiated amorous relationships with men. These weren’t unattractive, self-centered women merely seeking someone, anyone who would talk with them and spend time with them. The French lay Loves {Amours}, written roughly about the year 1200, and Guillaume de Machaut’s True Poem {Voir Dit}, probably written about 1365, both depict beautiful, generous women who joyously desired and deeply appreciated men’s sexuality and men’s gender-distinctive human being. But their beloved men focused on arranging letters rather than providing masculine fleshly presence. Amours and Voir Dit represent men’s failure to support a gender revolution affirming the value of men’s persons.

In the French lay Amours, an “eminent man {haut home}” met at a conference an “eminent, very noble woman {haute dame molt noble}.” Conferences in relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe didn’t impose highly repressive codes of conduct. The male gaze wasn’t pathologized and criminalized, and neither was the female gaze:

As soon as they saw each other,
they set their hearts and bodies and eyes
to gazing, and thus they stared at each other.
But in the looks they bestowed on each other
love struck, and the fire of love
was kindled, which burns and ignites
hearts and bodies, and it captivated them.
And love, which has seized many persons,
pursued them, stuck them, and harried them.
Each looked at the other and became bound to the other.

{ Aussi tost comme il s’entrevirent
Les cuers, les cors, o les elz mirent
Por esgarder, si s’entresgardent;
Mes en l’esgart qu’il se regardent
S’i fiert Amors, et li feus prent
D’amors qui alume et esprent
Lor cuers, lor cors, et a sorpris.
Et amors, qui mains en a pris
Les chace et fiert et les destraint.
Chascuns se regarde et estraint }[1]

The woman recognized women’s privilege in requiring men to solicit amorous relationships:

She thought and said: “O God! What would I say?
I would be going against all other women.
I shall not speak to him; I must remain silent.”

{ Pense et dit: “Dex! Que diroie?
Contre toutes dames feroie.
Nu dirai pas ; tere m’estuet.” }

But the woman ultimately rebelled against that gynocentric imperative. Not knowing whether her amorous advance would be welcomed or unwelcomed, she went up to the man and said:

My lord, be fully aware, without any doubt
that in this land I should like to have
your love and your friendship,
if it pleases you, and be truly aware
that I am yours — do not doubt it.

{ Sire, sachiez bien sanz doutance
Vostre amor et vostre acointance
En cest païs voudroie avoir,
S’il vos plet, et sachiez de voir
Que vostre sui, n’en doutez point. }

The man didn’t report to conference organizers that a creepy woman was weirdly harassing him. However, there was some misunderstanding between the two:

He thanked her tenderly for her words,
then replied: “My lady, without hesitation
my friendship and my love
I grant you, for I would do
for you whatever I could.”
She replied immediately:
“What I am thinking, you are not thinking the same?
Understand the situation is this —  I am telling you
that I love you passionately with my whole body.”
“Passionately?” he said. “Yes, indeed,” she said.

{ Del dit doucement la mercie,
Puis respont: “Dame,sanz demor
De moi l’acointance et l’amor
Vos otroi ge, car je feroie
Por vos qanque fere porroie.”
Ele respont isnel le pas:
“Ce que pens, n’i pensez vos pas?
Einz est einsint, que tot a cors
Vos di que je vos aing d’amors.”
“D’amors?” fet il. “Voire,” fet ele, }

Modern applied theorists of amorous relationships would classify the women’s words as an “apocalypse opener.”

The man responded receptively. He explained that he wanted to say what she said, but didn’t dare. As has been all too common throughout history, the man then foolishly expressed his willingness to be the woman’s servant, apparently in the expectation that she would then have sex with him:

Entirely and without reservation
I give myself to you, at your command.
I ask God as a reward
that he grant me such a noble gift
over time to show gratitude for it,
for that is the thing I most desire.

{ Tot entiers sanz nul contredit
M’otroi a vos, a vos commant.
A Dieu en guerredon demant
Que il me doint de si haut don
En tens rendre le guerredon.
Que c’est la riens que plus desir. }

Men shouldn’t exchange servitude to women for sex. Fortunately, that wasn’t this man’s destiny. News came that he needed to return home immediately on an urgent matter. He explained to her that he needed to depart immediately. The woman was filled with sorrow, but she didn’t rave violently like Dido.

medieval author Machaut writing

The man and woman’s love affair subsequently was only the exchange of love letters. They seemed to have become a book:

The eminent man summoned
his clerk to write the letter
and he put his whole heart into describing
the looks, the laments, the words
point by point, just as I have told them;
with the letter he put them into the book.

{ Li hauz hom a fet demander
Son clerc por le salu escrire,
Qui tot son cuer mist el descrire
Les regarz, les plaintes, les diz,
Point a point, si con jes ai diz;
O le salu les mist el livre. }[2]

The narrator is Girart, the eminent man’s clerk. Girart insists that the tale of the woman and man’s love depends on their letters:

I shall not continue this tale,
whatever may happen,
until the messenger returns.
I have refrained from speaking
until the return of the messenger
bringing me the material
I need to speak new words.
What does the messenger say? Now let it be heard.

{ De cest conte plus ne diroie,
Par aventure qui aviengne,
De si la que li mes reviengne.
Je me sui de dire tenuz
Tant que li mes est revenuz
Qui m’en aporte la matire
Dont il m’estuet noveaus moz dire.
Que dit li mes? Or soit oi. }

The woman wrote back declaring that the man’s letter filled her with great joy. But she sought love words enacted in the flesh:

I would like nothing better,
fair lover, than to be in your arms
to bring about joy and solace.
One whole night I would hold you,
naked flesh against naked flesh, so to feel
your body, your sweet breath,
the sweet, the pure, the wholesome,
which I desire to experience so much.
And God be willing to consent
that in my arms, as my heart drives me to do,
I could embrace for comfort
your body, the most beautiful in the world.
My lord, to bring about such joy,
come and visit without delay
her who in sweet hope
is awaiting your sweet arrival.

{ Rien ne vodroie avoir,
Biaus amis, qu’estre entre vos braz
Por joie fere et por solaz.
Une seule nuit vos tenisse
Si nu a nu que je sentisse
Vostre cors, vostre douce alainne,
La doce, la fine, la sainne,
Que je tant désir a sentir,
Et que Diex vosist consentir
Qu’a mes braz, dont cuers me semont,
Vostre cors, le plus biau du mont,
Estrainsisse por conforter.
Sire, por tel joie aporter,
Venez veoir sans demorance
Cele qui en douce esperance
Vostre douce venue atent. }

Her lover responded with a letter filled with abstract fawning over her and academic reasoning about love. He didn’t promptly visit her in person. She apparently never sent a letter in response.[3]

medieval author Machaut writing for woman

Like Amours, Guillaume de Machaut’s Voir Dit centers an exchange of love letters. In Amours, the clerk Girart presents himself as a loyal writer-servant for the eminent man in love. In Voir Dit, Machaut himself takes over the role of Girart. Machaut makes a book from love letters and poems he exchanges with the beautiful, young woman Peronne:

Woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
I cannot overpraise you.
My heart grants you without reserve
its song in your honor,
woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
and if with a lover’s heart
you ever deign call me darling,
I would ask no more of you.
Woman beautiful, good, and charming,
pleasant and sweet beyond compare,
I cannot overpraise you.

{ Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Je ne vous puis trop loer
Mes cuers tous a vous sottrie
Son chant pour vous honnourer
Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Et se amy de cuer damie
Me daingniez iamais clamer
Je ne vous weil plus rouver
Bele bonne et envoisie
Plaisant et douce sans per
Je ne vous puis trop loer }[4]

Machaut justifies compiling this and much other literary work through a compelling argument within gynocentric society:

And if anyone should reproach me
or consider to be ill-served
that I record here our messages,
the pleasant ones as well as the bitter,
which one ought rightly call letters
— that’s their true name and correct title —
I respond thus to them all:
it is at the sweet command
of my lady, who gives the order.

{ Et sil est nuls qui me repregne
Ou qui mal a paiez se teingne
De mettre cy nos escriptures
Autant les douces que les sures
Que len doit appeller Epistres
Cest leurs drois noms et leurs drois titres
Je respons a tous telement
Que cest au dous commandement
De ma dame qui le commande }

Machaut declares that he must “make this book for her love {faire pour samour ce livre}.” Men have often failed to understand the worth, not of their doing, but of their very being.

Peronne herself spurred Machaut’s literary and musical composing. She asked him to write poems and music for her. She sent him her own poems and asked him to help her with writing them and to set them to music. She corrected Machaut’s work on Voir Dit, which he frequently called “her book”:

You may be pleased to learn that I have been very occupied with composing your book and am still … I will send along quite soon what has been completed of your book and your rondel as well. Now I beg you by the affection you have for me not to show the book to anyone who isn’t close to your heart. And if anything therein needs correcting, please note it. For you have been pleased that I put there everything pertaining to our affair, and I don’t know if I’ve included too much or too little.

{ Plaise vous savoir que iay este si embesongniez de faire vostre
livre, et sui encores … ie vous envoieray bien tost et par certein message ce qui est fait de vostre livre, et vostre Rondel aussi, Mais ie vous pri si chier que vous mavez que vous ne moustrez le livre que a gens qui soient trop bien de vostre cuer, Et sil y a aucune chose a corrigier que vous y faites enseingnes, Car il vous a pleue que ie y mette tout nostre fait, si ne say se ie y met ou trop ou po }[5]

A literary relationship isn’t what Peronne most ardently sought.[6] The first news of this beautiful, young woman’s love for Machaut urgently conveyed her request that he abide with her:

And she has never in all her life seen you,
but this is her very great desire.
And, sweet lord, were it possible
for you to go where she is,
she would offer you a welcome
so full of love and sincere affection
that it should very nicely satisfy
the greatest lord in the empire.

{ Et se ne vous vit en sa vie
Mais elle en a trop grant envie
Et dous sires sil pooit estre
Que vous venissiez en son estre
Elle vous feroit tele chiere 165
Si amoureuse et si entiere
Quelle devroit tresbien souffire
Au plus grant signeur de lempire }

Like the eminent man in Amours, Machaut didn’t understand the answer to the question, “What are you seeking {quid quaeritis}?” Machaut constantly had excuses for not being with Peronne and was timid in physically expressing love for her. But he worked strenuously on producing her book, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit}.[7]

Machaut and Peronne in bed

Words of love aren’t the same as love made in flesh. The sexual feudalism of men-abasing courtly love isn’t the love of embracing another human being like oneself. These false understandings of love have supported gender inequality, misandry, and anti-meninism. With enough study of medieval literature, we shall overcome some day.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Old French lay Loves {Amours} vv. 59-68, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Burgess & Brook (2010). A prose translation, without the Old French source, is available in Burgess & Brook (2016). Paris (1878) provides a freely accessible, quite good Old French text. Amours has survived in only one manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, nouvelles acquisitions françaises 1104, f. 66rb-69va. This lay “was probably composed in the late twelfth or the first half of the thirteenth century.” Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 199.

The man is called an “eminent man {haut home}” thirteen times in Amours, with the first such reference in v. 10. The lady is called an “eminent, very noble woman {haute dame molt noble}” in v. 31. Those different referents suggest that the man is a prosperous merchant, while the woman has the higher status of noble birth. Poe (2011) p. 366. The woman thus transgresses gender norms not only in initiating an amorous relationship, but also by engaging in a non-hypergamous relationship while treating the man as personally equal to her.

Unlike other lays, Amours has realistic circumstances throughout and a temporal setting in the here and now. Poe (2011) pp. 365-6, Beston (2015) pp. 7, 15. That distintive literary feature of Amours suggests that its love letters represent an alternate, unrealized version of the present world.

Subsequent quotes from Amours are sourced as above. Those quotes above are from vv. 115-7 (She thought and said…), 127-31 (My lord, be fully aware…), 136-45 (He thanked her tenderly…), 152-7 (Entirely and without reservation…), 282-7 (The eminent man summoned…), 290-7 (I shall not continue this tale…), 338-53 (I would like nothing better…).

[2] Love letters as literature weren’t an innovation in Amours. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Byblis wrote a love letter to her brother Caunus. Metamorphoses 9.530-63. Ovid’s Heroides consists of women’s letters concerning love. Lavinia sent a love letter to Aeneas in the twelfth-century Roman d’Eneas. Love letters are central to Marie de France’s lay Milun. On Milun and the literary history of love letters, Poe (2006). In Milun, like in Amours and Voir Dit, the lady initiates the amorous relationship with Milun.

In Amours, like in Voir Dit, love letters {saluts d’amour} dominate the poem. Poe observed:

In devising a narrative to tell the story surrounding an exhange of saluts d’amour, Girart was doing nothing new. What is unique about this exchange of saluts is that it is not just one episode among many. It is the main event, indeed the only event. The narrative exists for the sake of the saluts d’amour, not the other way around.

Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 203. Elizabeth W. Poe wrote most of the introduction to Amours in id. See id. p. 202, n. 3.

[3] In Amours, “Particularly notable are the forthrightness of the lady and the comparative timidity of the nobleman.” Burgess & Brook (2016) pp. 244-5. “The essential character that Girart creates is of a man who wants the lady, but is too indecisive to advance their relationship.” Beston (2015) p. 10.

Beston asserts that Amours ends unresolved: “The most enduring appeal of the story, however, is the fact that the love story is unresolved.” Id. p. 15. In fact, Amours hasn’t had much enduring appeal. Scholars have written little on it. Poe at Burgess & Brook (2010) p. 202. Most persons have never heard of Amours.

Amours seems to me best interpreted as resolved through the woman’s frustration and resulting apathy. The lay ends after the man sent her his love letter replying to her love letter replying to his love letter. The last verses of the lay:

The messenger who journeyed to her
departed, and this tale comes to an end
until the time when necessity brings back
the messenger who took the letter.
If he returns and brings him
news that differs from before,
Girart will tell more of the lays.

{ Li mes s’en va qui s’avoia
A li, et cis contes remaint,
Jusqu’a tant que besoinz ramaint
Le mesage qui l’escrit porte;
Car s’il revient et il aporte
Autres noveles que devant,
Girarz dira des lais avant. }

Amours, vv. 512-8. That no more was written suggests that the love affair ended through lack of contact. Writing about love, or talking about love, is no substitute for incarnating love.

[4] Guillaume de Machaut, The Book of the True Poem {Le Livre dou Voir Dit} vv. 536-50 (a rondel), Old French text and English trans. (with minor changes) from Leech-Wilkinson & Palmer (1998). Kline (2020) provides a freely accessible English translation of Voir Dit.

Voir Dit includes intimate details of Machaut’s relationship with Peronne. Leech-Wilkinson observed:

the lover is hesitant, even fearful about including so much improper detail; he provides every 2000 lines or so a disclaimer that he does so only at her explicit command (lines 490-517, 2158, 4262-73, letter 33).

Id. p. xxxviii. On the historicity of Voir Dit, see note [2] in my post on Abishag and David. Huot attributes to Voir Dit “fictionality.” Huot (1987) p. 286. Fictionality is consistent with Voir Dit being based on an actual romantic relationship and with Voir Dit containing historical documents of that relationship.

Subsequent quotes from Voir Dit are sourced as above. They are from vv. 490-8 (And if anyone should reproach me…), v. 1681 (must make a book for her love), L33 after v. 6281 (You may be pleased to learn…), vv. 161-8 (And she has never in all her life seen you…).

[5] In his literary work on Voir Dit, the eminent Machaut strove to please the beautiful, young Peronne:

My sweet heart, my dear sister, and my very sweet love, I beg you to guard my book well and show it to as few people as you can. And if there is anything in it that displeases you or seems to you that it might be improved, make a mark near that passage, which I will remove and then make what improvements I can.

{ Mon dous cuer, ma chiere suer et ma tresdouce amour Je vous pri que vous gardez bien mon livre, et que vous le monstrez a meins de gens que vous porrez, Et se il y a aucune chose qui vous desplaise, ou qui vous samble qui ne soit mie bien, si y faites .j. signet, et ie losteray et amenderay a mon pooir }

Voir Dit, L37 after v. 6541.

[6] Machaut’s Voir Dit is similar to the thirteenth-century Old Occitan romance Flamenca in emphasizing exchange of literary words in establishing a love affair. Another commonality is the use of irony and satire. In Flamenca, Guillem outrageously misconceives words of Psalm 116:1: Dilexi quoniam. In Voir Dit, Machaut outrageously misconceives the kiss of peace within the Mass:

But a very happy chance befell me
when the “Agnus Dei” was being said.
By the faith I owe St. Caprais,
she sweetly gave me the kiss of peace
between two pillars of the church.
And this I needed very much
because my lover’s heart became
troubled when she departed so soon afterward.

{ Mais trop richement me chei
Que quant on dist agnus dei
Foy que ie doy a saint crapais
Doucement me donna la pais
Entre .ij. pilers dou moustier
Et ien avoie bien mestier
Car mes cuers amoureus estoit
Troubles, quant si tost se partoit }

Voir Dit, vv. 2947-54. Both Flamenca and Voir Dit lightly satirize the men-abasing cult of courtly love.

[7] At the end of his Lay de Plour, Machaut has a woman in love declare:

But before I do die,
my heart humbly begs
the true God to look upon us
with such a loving countenance
that in a book we’ll find life.

{ Mais einsois que je devie,
Humblement mes cuers supplie
Au vray Dieu qu’il nous regart
De si amoureux regart
Qu’en livre soiens de vie. }

Machaut, Lay de Plour vv. 207-10 Old French text and English translation from Palmer et al. (2016). With the hope, “in a book we’ll find life {en livre soiens de vie},” Machaut ironically refers to a book of love poetry, not the Bible. That’s not the Biblical idea of love. Huot astutely observed:

Machaut’s sublimation of love — what we might call “love for love’s sake” — is an essential quality of his poetic oeuvre and is related to the primacy of writing in Machaut’s concept of poetic process. … Within the Voir Dit, Guillaume’s difficulties as lover are associated not only — perhaps not even primarily — with his old age and his nonnoble status but with his identity as writer. … What Guillaume discovers is that writing does not reenact or enable lovemaking but, rather, replaces it entirely.

Huot (1987) pp. 237, 284, 285.

Men authors tend to be delusional about the importance of their literary work for their personal relationships. The man trobairitz Bernart de Ventadorn wrote:

But there’s one thing that comforts me:
that she knows letters and them understands,
and I’m pleased to write the wording
so if she finds all this pleasing,
she can read it for my deliverance.

{ mais d’una re me conort be:
ela sap letras et enten,
et agrada·m qu’eu escria
los motz, e s’a leis plazia,
legis los al meu sauvamen. }

Bernart de Ventadorn, “In care and in dismay {En cossirer et en esmai}” vv. 52-6 (from stanze 7), Old Occitan text from Corpus des Troubadours, English translation (modified) by James H. Donalson. Here’s a performance of “En cossirer et en esmai” by Véronique Chalot. Bernart’s song almost surely didn’t deliver the woman to him.

[images] (1) Guillaume de Machaut writing. Illumination from Machaut’s Poésies, a compilation of his work made between 1372 and 1377, possibly under Machaut’s direction. Detail from folio Fv in MS. Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Français 1584. On this compilation, Huot (1987) Ch. 9. On its illuminations, Leo (2016). (2) Machaut writing for Peronne. Illumination for Voir Dit on folio 242r in MS. Français 1584. (3) Machaut in bed with Peronne under the auspices of the goddess Venus. Illumination for Voir Dit on folio 255r in MS. Français 1584.


Beston, John. 2015. “The Role of the Secretary Girart in the Old French Lay of Amours.” Le Cygne. 2: 7-16.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, eds. 2010. The Old French Lays of Ignaure, Oiselet and Amours. Gallica 18. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Burgess, Glyn S., and Leslie C. Brook, trans. 2016. Twenty-Four Lays from the French Middle Ages. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Huot, Sylvia. 1987. From Song to Book: the Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Kline, A. S., trans. 2020. Guillaume de Machaut: The Book of the True Poem (Le Livre dou Voir Dit). Poetry in Translation. Online.

Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel, ed. and R. Barton Palmer, trans. 1998. Guillaume de Machaut. Le Livre dou Voir Dit / The Book of the True Poem. New York: Garland Publishing.

Leo, Domenic. 2016. “BnF, fr. 1584: An Art Historical Overview.” In Palmer et al. (2016).

Palmer, R. Barton, Yolanda Plumley, Domenic Leo, and Uri Smilansky, ed. and trans. 2016. Guillaume de Machaut, the Complete Poetry and Music. Volume 1, The Debate Poems: Le Jugement dou Roy de Behaigne, Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, Le Lay de Plour. Kalamazoo, MI: Published for TEAMS (Teaching Association for Medieval Studies) in association with the University of Rochester by Medieval Institute Publications.

Paris, Gaston. 1878. “Un lai d’amours.” Romania. 7 (27): 407-415.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2006. “Marie de France and the Salut d’amour.” Romania. 124 (495-496 (3-4)): 301-323.

Poe, Elizabeth W. 2011. “Lai d’Amours as Lai.” Pp. 357-368 in Catherine M. Jones, and Logan E. Whalen, eds. “Li premerains vers”: essays in honor of Keith Busby. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

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