Turnabout is Fair Play: Cross-Dressing and Female Tricksters in Medieval French Texts

Turnabout is Fair Play: Cross-Dressing and Female Tricksters in Medieval French Texts

By Maerian Morris

Published Online (2009)

Introduction: In examining Old French literature of the Middle Ages, a significant change occurs with the birth of courtly narrative. As medieval narrators become more complex and selfreflective, as they begin to explore underlying psychological motives, there is a concomitant flowering of the idealized courtly lady—constructed both in the medieval period, and often in modern literary criticism, as an archetypal representative of the pure and perfect woman. These remote ‘courtly ladies’ are held up as the standard against which more ‘earthy’ feminine types, such as the pastourelle peasant girls and most particularly the fabliaux women are compared and found wanting. These latter women, along with the literature they inhabit, are often viewed as parodies of more ideal and romantic types—the characters and the genres are juxtaposed.

It would be easy to assume that since these characters occupy opposing categories; their traits would naturally be similarly conflicting. In this view, less elevated tales such as the fabliaux provide opportunities for feminine characters to possess active wit, cunning, and cleverness while the romantic and idealized heroines of the courtly literature are not characterized in this way. Instead, these latter Dames demonstrate passivity, nobility, purity, and beauty.

In this paper I don’t wish to criticize or negate the existence of these important divisions which can certainly be seen to accurately characterize much of medieval literature. Instead, I will examine similarities between genres and types, shifting focus from the usual binary oppositions between the courtly lady and the virago, the romance and the fabliau, Eve or Mary, virgin or whore. Rather than viewing the characters in the fabliaux as dialectical opposites contextualizing and providing low counterparts to those of the elevated Romans, I particularly want to focus upon medieval feminine agency as it is revealed through a tertiary type—a woman who appears at the margins and between the boundaries, is found in a number of genres, and can be characterized as intelligent, often striking, and very resourceful and capable.

I will be examining a very particular version of this woman. In each case she appears, at least for a time, in disguise, in male garb. Whether she emerges from an obscene and humorous fabliau, an uplifting and noble roman, or even from a religious tale of a saint’s life, she can be seen as willfully utilizing her skills and gifts to overcome hardships, abuses of power, and social restraints and proscriptions, while achieving specific changes which can ultimately be viewed from within the medieval literary and social context as just outcomes.

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