Performing Women in the Middle Ages

Sex, Gender, and the Medieval Iberian Lyric
Filios, Denise K.
Wheeler, Bonnie
Date published: 
April 2005

Unruly women constantly speak out in lyric poetry, their voices brought to life in the bodies of female singers, dancers, and instrumentalists. Performing Women is the first book-length study of female performers in Galician-Portuguese and Castilian comic-satiric poetry. Filios reconstructs medieval women's oral performances by bringing modern ethnographic work and performance theory to bear on literary and historical evidence. Filios explores how women's performances (and men's impersonations of women) contributed to the construction of the court, the marketplace, and the countryside as cultural spaces defined by certain acts, discourses, and conflicts. She argues that poetic portraits of sexually aggressive courtesans, bread sellers, and mountain women allowed elite men to portray their own sexuality as transgressive and to adopt temporarily a female identity, enabling them to speak and act as a degraded other. While these portraits may be misogynistic, they also demonstrate that poets appreciated marginalized women's characters, placing speeches overtly critical of dominant power structures in their mouths and constructing imaginary communities around them. Men wrote these characters, women appropriated them, ironically performing as themselves. By situating medieval lyric poems in their dialogic performance context, this study demonstrates the centrality female performers in poetic spectacles.