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Art. 8, ABC a femmes: Introduction

ABBREVIATIONS: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CCC: Corpus Christi College (Cambridge); CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); IMEV Suppl.: Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse (Robbins and Cutler); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

The ABC of Women provides an alphabetic list of the virtues of women. The narrator claims he wants to protect women from the slanders of misogynistic and deceptive men: such men, he says, debase their breeding whenever they speak ill of women. Literate women are asked to convey this message to other women who cannot read so as to spread the truth that women, who are ever honorable and good, deserve men’s respect. The speaker directs his argument, however, mainly at men, wishing to convince them it is wrong to disparage women’s nature. The central rationale is that God chose a woman, that is, Mary, by whom to be born. Therefore Jesus and his mother offer the perfect model for understanding the abundant worth of women.

The piece has a playful tone that deftly equates the sexual pleasure women hold for men with the heavenly delight, healing, and salvation ushered in by Mary’s role in God’s incarnation. Several stanzas operate in a double register, blending the amorous play of lovers with the religious comfort God worked by entering Mary’s body. Maintaining this light tone, the author eventually draws several brief, sharp vignettes of women suffering the risks and pains of pregnancy and labor, acting selflessly on our behalf (pur nous), much as Jesus suffered on the cross pur nous.

R. Dean suggests that this poem was composed to be sung “to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument” (ANL 201). For further commentary, see Revard 2007, pp. 103–04; and Kuczynski 2000, pp. 155–56. For comparisons to its analogue in Middle English, Alphabetical Praise of Women, see Dove 2000, pp. 331–36; and Pickering, pp. 287–304. The two poems are related, but it is not known which one was written first.

[Fols. 49r–50v. ANL 201. Långfors, p. 310. Vising ?280. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 5. Initials: Opening Q and A–Z stanza initials are each two lines high; initials of last two stanzas — A (Ave) and A (Amen) — are marked with paraphs and slightly enlarged. Meter: Thirty 11–line stanzas, ababababcdc. Lines 1–8 are octosyllabic. Line 9 is two or three syllables. Lines 10–11 (proverbial in tone) have, together, twelve or fourteen syllables with the caesura marked. Layout: No columns, each stanza is copied on five lines, lines 1–8 bracketed, ninth line written to the right. Editions: Wright 1842, pp. 1–13 (no. 1); Holthausen; Dove 1969, pp. 95–102; Kennedy, pp. 74–94 (no. 5). Other MSS: None. Middle English Version: Alphabetical Praise of Women, in the Auchinleck MS (Edinburgh, NLS MS Advocates 19.2.1), fols. 324ra–325vb (ed. Kölbing, pp. 101–10; Holthausen, pp. 288–301; Burnley and Wiggins, online facsimile). Translation: Kennedy, pp. 74–94.]

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