Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Policing the Boundaries of Masculinity in la Fille Du Comte De Pontieu

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Policing the Boundaries of Masculinity in la Fille Du Comte De Pontieu

Article excerpt

Clovis Brunel describes the medieval conte, La Fille du Comte de Pontieu, as the first French novelle (iii). Its style is a mixture of chronicle and narrative (Crow 16; Vitz 96-125) and its subject matter is the family history of the Counts of Pontieu, although as Danielle Regnier-Bohler argues, it is more a "fable biographique" (75) than a strictly historical account. There are three different versions of the work, two of which date from the thirteenth century and a third from the fifteenth (Crow 1). I concentrate on the shorter thirteenth-century text. Based on the earlier, more detailed thirteenth-century narrative, it omits much of the religious overtones and chivalric concerns of its prototype (Crow 3-10). (1) Its style, furthermore, is extremely spare. As Joan Crow points out, "In presenting scene and characters ... [this version] ... confines itself to facts that are essential for our understanding of a given situation" (3). Since the narrator's lack of interest in analyzing the state of mind of the characters at crucial points makes possible "endless critical speculation" about motive (Crow 4), the tighter focus of the shorter work offers a wider interpretative horizon.

The bizarre plot of La Fille certainly invites narrative analysis. The work begins with the marriage between Tiebaus, the nephew of the Count of Saint Pol, and the daughter of his lord, the Count of Ponthieu, a woman known only by the title of "the Fille." Their marriage is happy but childless and in order to remedy this situation, the couple sets off on a pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostella. They are ambushed en route and the Fille is raped multiple times while Tiebaus lies bound and helpless. After the attackers leave, she tries to strike down her husband with a sword left behind by one of their assailants, but instead inadvertently cuts through the ropes binding him. Other than placing the Fille in a nunnery before continuing on his journey, Tiebaus shows little reaction either to her rape or to her attempt to kill him. When they return home, he is persuaded by his father-in-law to recount his unfortunate adventure. The enraged count seals his daughter in a barrel and casts her into the sea. She is rescued by Flemish merchants and taken to the kingdom of Aumarie, where she marries the sultan. Some years later, after she has given birth to a son and a daughter, Tiebaus, her father, and her brother appear in the sultan's court as prisoners. After the three men express remorse for their treatment of her, she manipulates the sultan into letting her leave Aumarie with them, taking her son with her but abandoning her daughter. The reunited family journeys to Rome, where the pope reconfirms the Fille as a Christian, baptizes her son, and ratifies her marriage to Tiebaus. In due course, she gives birth to two more sons, who become the heirs of Saint Pol and Pontieu. The daughter she leaves behind eventually becomes the grandmother of the medieval hero Saladin.

Regnier-Bohler argues that the narrative motor of La Fille is the heroine's infertility (89). (2) The text centers around the trials she undergoes before she can provide Tiebaus with two sons. Her rape, her abandonment at sea, her second marriage, and her apostasy are all necessary epreuves before she can escape her sterility (Regnier-Bohler 85). For Donald Maddox, on the other hand, the Fille's marriage to the sultan is the most significant of her adventures. He maintains that the wide variety of matieres of which La Fille is composed can be explained by the work's desire to connect the house of Pontieu to the medieval hero Saladin (100). (3)

On the surface, the Fille's oscillation between two men would seem to invite explication by Rene Girard's theory of triangular desire, (4) but the Fille's independence problematizes the applicability of Girard's paradigm. Rather than being a passive vessel used to channel the subject's desire for the mediator (Girard 46-47, 50-51), she uses Tiebaus and the sultan to pursue an agenda in which their wishes are of no account. …

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