How were medieval noble women involved in the transmission of secular literature? Stephanie Hathaway shares an example with us to celebrate Women’s History Month.
The Chanson de la reine Sébile exists in 13th-century alexandrine fragments, which are the oldest and only known metrical version of the story in existence. They were found in bindings and MS covers, some heavily damaged. Most are at the Bibliotheque Royale in Brussels. These fragments comprise varying dialects, mostly Lorraine and Anglo-Norman. Much of the content of the text can be attested in the Spanish historia. A prose translation of this story into German, in the form of Königin Sibille, was written by a woman: Elisabeth von Nassau-Saarbrücken.
Born Elisabeth of Lorraine-Vaudémont between 1429-1453, she was the daughter of Marguerite of Joinville whose parents were the heirs of Champagne and Marie of Luxembourg. Elisabeth’s father was the multi-titled lord of Lorraine, Baron of Vaudémont who also held land in Picardie and died in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt.
About 1412, Elisabeth was married to Philipp, Baron of Nassau-Saarbrücken lord of Commercy on Maas and Merenberg in Taunus. In 1425, when her son, Baron Johann III, was only 11, Philipp died at 61 and Elisabeth became regent. She excelled at the task, strengthening political and religious ties and securing the inheritance for her son during a precarious time for the barony, caught between French, English and German interests. Much of her correspondence survives, attesting to her involvement in administrative affairs, as well as to her literacy.
Elisabeth was familiar with literature from an early age. When she was 11 her mother had Lohier et Malart translated from Latin into French for her. She was fluent in both French and German. Elisabeth was already forty years old when she produced prose translations of four chansons de geste, as a cycle from the life of Charlemagne to Hugh Capet, intended for her son. Alone among the sparse German versions of Reine Sébile that exist, Elisabeth’s is the only one in the ‘French family’.
The surviving text that we have from Elisabeth helps fill in gaps in the reception history of the epic material, as well as attesting to the mobility of this material across linguistic, political and cultural boundaries of the Middle Ages. Elisabeth’s legacy leaves us a picture of not only the literacy of noble women, but their ability to participate in the arena of politics and administration that has been generally, and perhaps incorrectly viewed as an exclusively male domain.