E. Jane Burns’s ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies’, or the Gender of Words

I read an interesting start to an article by E. Jane Burns, whose writing I love as she has wonderful things to say about gender in medieval literature (and therefore indirectly about modern constructions of gender and the vocabulary we use to describe it). Her article reminded me of a discussion in one of the Old French classes I audited at the Ecole nationale des chartes last year, where people were discussing how to translate a word in a passage from Chrétien’s Arthurian romances, I think ‘Erec et Enide’. I’ll first quote Burns’s introductory paragraph to her article ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot before discussing the word it reminded me of.

As the translators of the Lancelot-Grail cycle worked together over the past few years, hammering out solutions to some of the more difficult transitions from Old French to modern English, we struggled over many problematic terms. One of the most troublesome translation snags, for which we never found a satisfactory solution, involved the terminology for medieval undergarments, most specifically, the words chemise and braies. Although these terms do not occur frequently in the Lancelot-Grail corpus, their occasional appearance did send us on a hunt for adequate English equivalents. How were we to describe, for example, the temptress who is said to be dressed only in a chemise when trying to seduce the wayward Lancelot? The word ‘shirt’ bears connotations that are obviously too masculine. To say that the seductress was wearing a ‘shift’ suggests outer clothing rather than the garment often described in medieval French texts as lying next to the skin. The word ‘slip,’ which readers would readily recognize as underwear, describes a tight-fitting sleeveless garment, whereas the medieval chemise was loose-fitting and had long sleeves. What about the word ‘chemise’ itself, defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘a woman’s loose, shirt-like under-garment?’ It seemed a perfect solution. And yet how many speakers of English would in fact know what the English term ‘chemise’ meant? (152)

The issue of gender connotations when translating a word 1) either from Old French to modern French, or 2) from Old French to modern English, reminded me of a discussion at the ENC about the Old French vaillant which still exists in modern French as vaillant(e) and the English is ‘valiant’. If my memory serves me correctly, I seem to remember that in translating a line of Erec et Enide the word vaillant was said to be more appropriate to knights, being a male word. The character whom it described in this instance was a woman, and therefore an alternative in modern French had to be found. Unfortunately, I can’t remember what word was suggested instead. However, it got me thinking. In modern English, in my opinion, the word has become more gender neutral, for example it works to describe either men or women who ‘make a valiant effort’ at something. Therefore, when the word is used by the author of Escanor to describe Eleanor of Castile I have kept close to the original and translated her character as ‘valiant’.

This issue of words being considered as predominantly describing ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics is, of course, an ancient one. Having given a paper at Kalamazoo last week on the idea of the ‘gender-free being’ as inspired by the Roman de Silence which boasts one of the few female knights in medieval romance, I suppose ideas around the subject are still very fresh in my mind. I think words are best when describing characteristics, not when describing notions of gender. After all, anyone – regardless of their sex or gender – can be ‘strong’, ‘weak’, ‘determined’, ‘daring’, ‘loud’, ‘angry’, ‘meek’, etc. So why can our commissioning queen of Escanor not be ‘valiant’?

Works Referenced

Kibler book

Burns, E. Jane. ‘Ladies Don’t Wear Braies: Underwear and Outerwear in the French Prose Lancelot.’ The Lancelot-Grail Cycle: Texts and Transformations. Ed. William W. Kibler. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1994: 152-174.



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