By Benjamin M. Liu
REEL: Revista Eletronica de de Estudos Literarios, No.5 (2009)
Abstract: The frequent jokes in the cantigas d’escarnho e de mal dizer about female sex workers, or soldadeiras, reveal courtly preoccupations concerning labor as well as gender. These repeated poetic games among men, shared within a symbolic economy of jesting (Freud’s joke-work) that targets women’s sexual labor, reproduce the social dispositions of masculine domination, while also concealing, through negation and comic displacement, the courtiers’ own self-interest in material gain and social advancement.
Introduction: The Medieval Iberian cantigas d’escarnho e de mal dizer (CEM), songs of mockery and insult, are playful texts that record one of the pastimes of Iberian courts in the Middle Ages: a poetry of jokes that spans a gamut from highly sophisticated verbal games to outright insults and obscenities. They frequently use, to borrow a phrase from Octavio Paz, “palabras malditas, a cuya mágica ambigüedad confiamos la expresión de las más brutales y más sutiles de nuestras emociones y reacciones”. Thematic studies of this corpus have long noted that a frequent target of the brutality and subtlety of these joke poems are soldadeiras: that is, sex-workers, courtesans or prostitutes. Graça Videira Lopes identifies at least 43 cantigas involving soldadeiras, and Denise Filios has analyzed a number of these in terms of courtly staging, performance and play.