Fifteenth-Century French Women's Role Names

by Ann Tukey Harrison
Fifteenth-Century French Women's Role Names
Ann Tukey Harrison
The French Review
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Fifteenth-Century French Women's Role Names

by Ann Tukey Harrison

INJULY, 1486, Lil Danse Macabre des Femmes was published in Paris by the firm of Guyot Marchant, located at Champ Gaillart, on the Montagne Sainte-GeneviPve and under the auspices of the Grand HBtel du College de Navarre. The 800-line poem was an addition to a successful volume from the preceding year, which had contained a Danse macabre des hommes and another didactic text, Les Trois morts et les trois vifs (published June, 1485). Marchant, the publisher, had decided that including the symmetrical Dance of Death devoted exclusively to women would not only complement the all male composition but would complete a satisfyingly balanced tryptich (Danse Macabre des Hommes-Trois Morts et Trois Vifs-Danse Macabre des Femmes). The entrepreneurial printer's instincts proved correct and a second edition was produced five years later, in 1491.

The poem survives in five manuscripts as well as the two printed editions, ranging in date from 1482-1519.' The author of the text has traditionally been assumed to be Martial dlAuvergne, a prominent jurist from an old Parisian family, because the cleanest manuscript (B.N. 25434) cites him by name. But the earliest manuscript of the poem (B.N. 1186 dated 1482) bears no author attribution at all, and the latest manuscript (Arsknal 3637 dated 1519) has the name of Denis Catin as its redactor. Although Martial dlAuvergne cannot be absolutely refuted as author, neither can he be accepted with certainty. It may be more likely that someone else wrote the verses and both Martial dlAuvergne and Denis Catin edited or revised them slightly. The printed editions, without author attribution, received the widest circulation and therefore may be considered appropriate for this study of role names, a socio-linguistic question.

This version of the poem opens with brief moralizing prologues from four minstrels of Death and Acteur, an authority figure. Then, in succession, Death's representative calls thirty-four women. She addresses each woman for eight lines, and the victim replies for another eight lines, providing the reader with a sixteen-line cameo portrait of over thirty women's roles from the end of the fifteenth century. Above the little eight- line stanzas, there appear titles: "La Morte" over the stanza spoken by Death's representative and the name of the woman's role over her reply. The thirty-four role names are a mixture of simple and compound terms,

Table I

  1. royne "queen"


  2. duchesse "duchess"


  3. regente "regent"


  4. femme du chevallier "knight's wife"


  5. abesse "abbess"


  6. femme de l'escuier "squire's wife"


  7. prieuse "prioress"


  8. damoiselle "debutante"


  9. borgoise "city woman" 
    10.femme vefve "widow" 


  1. marchande "merchant woman"


  2. ballive "magistrate's wife"


  3. espousee "bride"


  4. femme mignote "darling wife" 
    15, pucelle vierge "virgin" 


  1. theologienne "theologian"


  2. nouvelle mariee "newly wed"


  3. femme grosse "pregnant wife"


  4. chamberiere "chambermaid"


  5. recommanderesse "recommending woman"


  6. vielle damoiselle "spinster"


  7. cordelere "Franciscan nun"


  8. femme d'acueil "friendly wife, gossip"


  9. nourrice "wetnurse"


  10. bergiere "shepherdess"


  11. femme aux potences "old woman on crutches"


  12. femme de village "village woman"


  13. vielie "old woman"


  14. revenderesse "resaleswoman"


  15. femme amoureuse "whore"


  16. garde d'acouchees "nurse"


  17. ieune fille "girl"


  18. religieuse "nun"


  19. sorciere "witch"


approximately half individualizing nouns and the rest analytic phrase compositions. (Table I lists the role names, in their order of appearance, with a gloss or translation.)

One of the individualizing nouns (theologienne) is not attested at this early date in etymological dictionaries; one (cordeliere) is defined incorrectly, probably through oversight. Two others (recommanderesse, regente) are described as performing activities other than those given by conventional dictionary definitions. Further, four phrase terms (garde d'acouchees, femme amoureuse, femme d'accueil, femme mignote) are absent from dictionaries as role names, though one or both of their principal constituents may be listed. This corpus of terms offers several additions to our existing lexicographical inventory from the late fifteenth century and provides insight into phrase formations of this period.

Gamillscheg does not include theologienne; von Wartburg cites Middle French theologien (masculine) from 1370, defined as "celui qui s'occupe de theologie." In a footnote, mention is made of theologienne, from 1508, without definition. If necessary, the feminine term might have been defined as "celle qui s'occupe de th&ologie," although the functions of the role (study, teaching, preaching) in pre-Reformation France remain uncertain.

La Grant Danse Macabre des Femmes implies an active preaching role, based upon study and exegesis. La Morte opens the summons with this query:

Nous direz vous rien de nouveaux Ma dame la theologienne Du testament vieulx ou nouveau

The theologian replies:

Femme qui de clargie respond Pour avoir bruit ou quon lescoute Est des morues de petit pont Qui ont grans yeulx et voyent goute Sage est qui rondement si boute Et qui veult scavoir: est bugle. Le hault monter souvent cher couste. Chascan en son fait est a~eu~le.~

Women were not licensed to preach on the Petit Pont of Paris in 1486, but they could stand in the audience, calling out questions. This text goes far beyond listening and inquiring, to an informal, professional, practicing role, recognized and recognizable by the public, as represented by the readers of the poem. The woman speaks as amember of the clergy, commenting on Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. She is not a member of an order; there is a nun (religieuse) in the text, as well as a cordeliere (Franciscan nun), an abbess, and a prioress. The reason why the theologian preaches may be suspect, like the motives of many participants in the Dance of Death: does she speak merely to attract a following, or to be listened to? Nonetheless, the fact that she preaches or speaks publicly is not debatable.

One of the manuscripts of this poem, B.N. 995, contains full figure portraits of each woman's role, in heavily gilded illuminations. The theologian wears a dark blue gown, not any kind of habit or distinctive garb indicating any affiliation; her dress is no more somber or less drab than the merchant woman's costume. She also wears a couvre-chef of dark material, velvet-like, with some kind of underlying hat form, over her head. Other women in this set of illuminations also wear this type of head piece. She holds a large book with metal clasps, but the title is not visible. She wears no symbolic ornamentation of any kind.

22. Cordeliere

The second new term, cordeliere, does not represent a previously unknown role or a new word; rather, it is a lexicographer's oversight. All dictionaries commonly glosscordeliere as the "corde 2 nceuds, portke surtout par leas Cordeliers," and the word is dated from the late fifteenth century. The masculine cordelier, defined as "frere mineur franciscain," is cited as early as 1265. Perhaps because the Poor Clares are currently the sister order to the Franciscans, nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars missed the obvious feminine derivation from the popular and frequent cordelier. The text of La Grant Danse Macabre des Femmes ascribes contemplative activities to thecordeliere (prayer and meditation), and twice the poem mentions matins. Death's representative reminds the nun that good works are essential for salvation, suggesting that the cordelieres were not secular in 1486; the cordeliers were considered regular clergy from the sixteenth century on.

20. Recommanderessr

Recommanderesse, related to the verb recommander ("charger quelqu'un de quelque chose") and noun commanderesse ("femme qui commande, maitresse,") both of which are attested in the thirteenth century, is defined by etymological dictionaries differently from the role description given in the Women's Dance of Death. Von Wartburg offers a rather late date of appearance, 1564, when the term meant "celui qui fait metier de placcer les nourrices, les servantes." Robert Estienne's Dictionaire Francois Latin of 1549 defines recommanderesses as "Commendatrices, qui annoncent les chamberieres."

In one of the most ironic stanzas of the 1486 text, La Morte seeks from her a place to stay:

Savez vous recommanderesse: 
Poit ung bon lieu pour moy loger 
Jay bien mestier que on madresse: 
Car nu1 ne me veult heverger. 
Mais ien set ay tant desloger 
Que on cognoistra mon en~eigne.~ 

The woman answers with reference to wages or payments she usually receives:

En la mort na point de amite 
Et si ne fait rien pour requeste. 
Or argent priere pite. 
Pour neant on sen rompt la te~te.~ 

The 1491 printed edition is copiously illustrated with woodcuts, and the recommanderesse is clearly portrayed as a hosteler, bending down to consult sheets of lodging possibilities. Normally hostelers plied their trade in the outskirts of the city, to be most readily available to ariving travelers. B.N. 995, completed up to twenty years later, does not depict the recommanderesse as a hosteler, as neither her costume nor her accoutrements are note- worthy. It would seem that the term recommanderessedesignated a woman who accumulated and dispensed several types of information, not merely names of servants or nurses, for a fee.

Definitions of regente also differ from the role's depiction in La Danse Macabre des Femmes. Lexicographers call her a reine, "ruler," "governess," "regent," or "queen regent," and 1316 is the traditional first occurrence, from Gormond et Isembard. Von Wartburg also includes the phrase regente de l'es~ital,defined as a nurse orgouvernante in 1507.

Madame la regente, as she is addressed by Death's representative, comes immediately after the two titled leaders of the dance, the queen and duchess. La Morte notes that she has the reputation for bien dire, danser, gringuer, estre gente, and it is her custom to make people laugh, have a good time, get together (rire, festier, ralier). The regent replies with a catalogue of musical instruments (tabourines, harpes, trompettes, doulcaines, clarins), festivities (nopces, festes, cheres) and musicians(menestrels)that fill her earthly life. She recognizes the cost of her entertaining noting that such affairs turn into bad bargains at the time of death. Exclusively a hostess, she has nothing to do with ruling or governing in the political sense.

None of the compound terms is included in any etymological dictionary, although for many, the primary constituents of the phrase can be found separately (femme, veuve, grosse, mariee, vierge, pucelle). Yet for four role names (femme amoureuse, femme d'accueil, femme mignote, garde d'accouchees), the term is sufficiently unclear to require explanation.

30. Femme amoureuse

Femme amoureuse is a gentle substitute for putain, a much more harsh, pejorative label. Although Death's representative condemns her sinful life in no uncertain terms ("Femme de petite value 1 Mal vivant en charnalite 1 Menez avez vie dissoule 1 En tous temps yver et este"), she offers an apology to justify her error-filled ways:

A ce peche me suis soubmise Pour plaisance desordonnee: Pendus soient ceulx qui my ont mise Et au mestier habandonnee Las: se ieusse este bien menee: Et conduite premierement Jamais ny eusse este tournee5

It is possible that the phrase term, based on the adjective amoureuse (glossed in contemporaneous French-English dictionaries as "she lover"), was chosen to correspond to the rather sympathetic tone of the prostitute's portrait. She is to pitied as she repents the inordinate pleasures of her misspent youth and curses her seducers.

23. Femme d'accueil

The femme d'accueil has erred more innocently by wasting her time in idle gossip with her "amis de table" around the big kitchen table. Sainliens's French-English dictionary of 1593 glosses the noun accueil and its derivatives as follows:

accueil, il m'a fait un buon accueil, he hath re- ceived me friendly accueillier, to approach a man, to come neere, to welcome one accueillez-le, welcome him, receive him courteously

7. Femme mignote

The femme mignote is apparently a delicate, pampered, or darling wife, living in luxurious circumstances which permit her to sleep until noon and to devote all of her waking hours to her slender figure and appearance. The adjective is attested as early as the twelfth century (Gamillscheg, 1928 edition), and alternated with mignon in a whole cluster of terms. A French- English dictionary of 1570 lists four variants from this word family:

ma mignonne, my mynion, my trulle mignonnement vestu, mynionly cladde mignonneite, trimness, neatness, finenesse mignotise, niceness

In 1593, Sainliens added to the above list the verb mignoter, meaning "to use one as his darling, to dandle."

3 1. Garde d'acouchees

Although garde d'acouchees is an unattested term, acouchee is cited from 1321, always feminine, meaning woman in childbed. Gamillscheg (1966 edition) lists garde,"watcher," from the tenth century, von Wartburg includes garde-malade from 1754 and garde-couche (glossed as "eunich") from 1594. Robert Estienne translates garde ascustodia (1549) and follows that noun with its derivatives garde manger and garderobbe. Sainliens defines la garde d'un malade as "a keeper, he or she that keepeth a sicke person," (1593), and although the French is exclusively feminine, one must assume an invariable noun with gender-identifying singular article. Sage femme is the regular term in Middle French for a midwife.

The garde d'acouchees of La Danse Macabre des Femmes has nothing to do with childbed, but rather the 1486 text describes the functions of a bath house attendant. Death's representative speaks of baths, bed curtains, and bouquets hung up. The woman confirms the baths drawn for men and women, and then goes on to speak of delicate foods: quince pastries, spicy cheese pies, tarts, and a thousand big dinners. She condemns gourmandise for three of her eight lines:

Sitost quon a oster la table 
In nen souvient a nulluy gueres. 
Joye de menger est peu durable. 

The illumination of B.N. 995 shows a servant with tight white forearm sleeves, white apron, white head covering, and business-like demeanor. (Another woman in the text, the nourrice or wetnurse, wears similar garb although she also holds a baby in swaddling clothes in her portrait.) The term garde d'acouchees is puzzling because the activities described are those of the etuviere, and that word was current in the late fifteenth century. Two of the five manuscripts show garde d'acouchees for this role and the other three have garde alone.

Phrase Formation

Fourteen of the thirty-four role names are compound terms, of three types: noun plus noun; noun plus adjective; noun plus preposition plus noun. All of these patterns of phrase formation are common in Middle French.

The first group, noun plus noun, includes only two members: femme vefve, pucelle vierge. Although veuve was a well established simply noun in its own right by 1486, compound formations are also attested in the medieval period. Grisay, Lavis and Dubois-Stasse record pucelle vierge as relatively common in Middle French, where they conclude the second term specified "virgin" as a sub-class of young girls. For both of these compounds, the first noun describes a general group and the second a more limited sub-set.

Nouvelle mariee, jeune fille, vieille damoiselle are regular compounds which have become, even in 1486, conventional terms for "newly wed," "girl," and "spinster." These three adjectives regularly precede their nouns at this time. Femme grosse ("pregnant wife") found its way into permanent currency, while femme mignote and femme amoureuse, though grammatical formations, did not survive.

Femme du chevalier, femme de l'escuier, femme aux potences contain the

prepositional article in an adjectival function, while femme de village, femme

d'accueil, garde d'accouchees show the adverbial modification structures.

Altogether nine compound terms contain the word femme as head of phrase. The first two, in the upper cadre of the hierarchy, femme du chevalier and femme de l'escuier,are phrases designating the wives of two male feudal roles. No individualizing terms existed for the female counterpart (e.g. *chevaliereor *escuiere),and each prepositional phrase describes the woman's official status. Femme here means wife. As the poem proceeds through the middle class, the use of femme becomes more frequent: 10. femme vefve, 14. femme mignofe, 18. femme grosse, 23. femme d'acueil, 26. femme aux pofences, 27. femme de village, 30. femme amoureuse. The widow and pampered wife refer to their husbands in the text, and it would seem that femme in their cases also denotes married woman or wife. Although the femme grosse makes no mention of her spouse, because she is not in a state of disgrace, it may be likely that she was married, and not a pregnant woman but a pregnant wife. For the last four roles, the head term of the descriptive phrases probably means woman and not wife. The femme d'acueil is a friendly woman, and the phrase emphases her welcoming attitude, not an activity such as gossiping (bavarde, attested fifteenth century) or a place for socializing (voisine, attested 1180). The femme aux pofences is not only on crutches, she is old as well, a quality made clear by the poem and her portrait illustration. In other versions of the text, she is named la vieille aux pofences. The femme de village is called villageoiseelsewhere (analogous to bourgeoise); femme amoureuse is a more polite circumlocution for pufain (attested 1120). Descriptive phrases with femme as head of the compound formation account for one quarter of all role names in this text.

Of the twenty simple terms, fifteen are either derived from a masculine term directly (duchesse, marchande, prieure) or are part of a symmetrical pair of terms (uieux-vieille, damoiseau-damoiselle); but only two of the fourteen compound terms can be related to masculine roles (femme du chevalier, femme de l'escuier). The compound forms rely on seven generic words (femme, fille, garde, mariee, pucelle, uierge, veuve) which are not members of symmetrical masculine-feminine pairs or which are themselves the base of a masculine derivation (veuve-oeufl.

La Danse Macabre des Hommes, published by the same printer in 1485, contains forty-one male role names, nine of which can be paired with female counterparts: roi-reine, duc-duchesse, chevalier-femme du chevalier, baillif-baillive, escuier-femme de lkscuier, abbe-abbesse, marchant-marchande, bergier-bergiere, cordelier-cordeliere. Of the forty-one terms, only two are compound formations: maisfre d'escole and homme d'armes. Neither has a feminine analogue.

La Danse Macabre des Femmes is unique because of the great number of women's roles which it contains and also because of the preponderance of middle and lower class roles. More than a third of the women represented are poor; six are old. The text thus appears to offer a more realistic depiction of the population, and its language may be closer to vernacular usage as well. It is not a complete listing of all women's roles at this period, especially not in Paris, where the municipal archives register brewmis- tresses, bakers, printers, among others.

The contributions of this text to our knowledge of Middle French are three: first, it provides earlier citations for several lexical items; second, it offers sociological information about the meaning of the role names; finally, it shows the process of new term formation.

Notes . 1186; N.A.f. 10032; 25434; 995; Arsbnal 3637.

Z(Translations mine.) Won't you say anything new, I Madam Theologian, I About the Old or New Testament? A woman who speaks for the clergy, I To have a following or to be listened to, I Is one of the codfish on the Petit Pont 1 Who have large eyes and see nothing. 1 Wise is the one who sails smoothly around, I And the one who wants to know too much is a noisy calf. I Rising high often costs dearly. I We are all blind in our own deeds.

3Do YOU know, Hosteler, I Any good place for me to stay? I I ned an address from someone: I Because nobody wants to take me in. I But I will make so many move out IThat they will recognize my sign.

4Death has no friendship I And does nothing at your request. I Gold, silver, prayer, pity, I You break your head in vain.

sI gave in to this sin I For unbridled pleasure: I Hang the ones who led me there I And left me to the trade. 1 Alas: if I had been well brought up I And guided in the first place I I would never have turned out like this.

.As soon as the table is cleared I Scarcely anyone remembers it. I The joy of eating does not last.

Works Cited

A Dictionarie French and English. London, 1570. 
Estienne, Robert. Dictionaire Fran~ois Latin. Paris, 1549. 
Gamillscheg, Ernest. Etymologisches Worterbuch der franzosichen Sprache. Heidelberg, 1966. 
Grisay, A,, G. Lavis, M. Dubois-Stasse. LPS Dinominations de LA FEMME dans les anciens 

textes littiraires francais. Gembloux, 1969. Sainliens, Claude de. A Dicfionarie French and English. London, 1593. von Wartburg, Walther. Franzosisches etymo1ogische.s Worterbuch. Bonn, 1928~.

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