Category Archives: women

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

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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Filed under criticism, gender, language, Old French, scholarship, translation, women

Re: ‘aucun’ in Old French

Having spoken to a colleague in Old French, and consulting further dictionaries better suited to Escanor’s period (such as the Godefroy and Hindley/Langley/Levy’s Old French-English Dictionary), I have confirmed that in deliberating with the two translation possibilities for the passage previously posted, I in fact chose the wrong one! The passage does mean that ‘some people’ not, ‘no one’ who displeased the princess Andrivete could receive sharp words from her in return. ‘Mais’ is not a strong enough negative to mean ‘no one’, so this will be useful in future. I am pleased, because this gives her a more interesting character. It does seem more in keeping with her seemingly argumentative, or certainly more vocal, nature suggested by later passages. For example, there is competition between the ‘Queen of Traverse’ as I am presently calling her, and Andrivete. The issue of female jealousy and political competition is something I am looking forward to considering in this romance. Andrivete also expresses her dissatisfaction in other instances. Moreover, women besides Andrivete frequently challenge male members of the court in this romance, so it will be interesting to compare them with the main heroine. The love story between Andrivete and Kay features prominently as a thematic strand, and their love is eventually rewarded. So it will be interesting to see how a more vocal woman is dealt with by the text in comparison to other medieval romances which question issues around female silence, for example Enide’s speech in Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide. I am looking forward to analysing the tone of Andrivete’s conversations with Kay, as they have several ‘interviews’ or meetings together before eventually marrying.

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Filed under Andrivete, female speech, language, Old French, translation, women

The problem of translating positives and negatives and the impact on characterisation

One interesting aspect of translation and the transmission or copy practice of stories between manuscripts is how just one word, translated as a positive or as a negative, can affect the portrayal of a particular character. I came across such an example first in my research on the figure of Igraine, King Arthur’s mother, in Arthurian literature. In one manuscript of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, after Ygerna’s marriage to Uther, he appears to say that they lived in ‘no small amount of love’ as translated into English from the Latin non minimo. Siân Echard notes that in another manuscript the Latin is instead cum minimo, which changes the meaning drastically to ‘joined by no love at all’ (emphasis mine). Echard remains aware that this could be an accidental scribal error, but finds it more interesting to consider the implications about their relationship if this represents a conscious choice, designed to increase the ambiguity that colours the marriage of Ygerna and Uther (commentary on this line in Arthurian Narrative 54-55).

I was reminded of this positive/negative comparison in deciding on a translation when reading line 84 of Escanor. It forms part of a description of a princess’s virtues:

Elle refu bien enseingnie

Et de mout gente compaingnie

A trestouz ceuz qui li plaisoient;

Mais aucun qui li desplaisoient

La retrouvoient anieuse

Et de parler un peu crueuse (Trachsler 81-86).

Here, the Old French aucun has the potential to change the character of the princess described; she could appears as having two opposite temperaments, depending on whether this is translated as ‘someone/those who’ or ‘no one’. The Dictionnaire du Moyen Français (DMF) explains the word as meaning certain, or ‘anyone’ in a positive phrase. Similarly, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND) gives multiple examples of the indefinite pronoun meaning ‘any’, ‘anyone’, ‘someone’, ‘certain [people]’. Translated with this in mind, the passage would read thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but anyone who displeased her

found her disagreeable

and a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

To me, this came across as slightly strange, given the usual formulaic construction of heroines in folklore and romance as perfect, indiscriminately kind and accommodating. The AND includes the negative for ‘no [one]’ in its list of definitions of aucun and although there is a lack of a clear negative ne preceding its use in line 84, I wonder whether the word could safely be translated as ‘no one’ due to the negative implication of mais. In the context, the negative ‘no one’ fits a positive portrayal of the princess better.  If Girart d’Amiens wants to portray a flawless woman ‘qui . . . n’avoit pareille’, ‘who had no equal’, her character is more sympathetic if she is equally kind to those that displease her as to those she loves. So I have translated the following lines thus:

She was well educated

And of the most genteel company

to all those who pleased her;

but no one who displeased her

found her disagreeable

or a bit cruel in her words (81-86).

In line 86 I have changed the ‘and’ to ‘or’, simply to fit the phrase better in English. This kind of example of how to translate just one word is quite a good demonstration of the effect a tiny change can have on the characters and text as a whole.


Echard, Siân. Arthurian Narrative in the Latin Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.


Filed under Andrivete, competition, female speech, language, Old French, translation, women