Histoire imparfaite
The counterfactual lessons of Gilote et Johane
in Harley manuscript geographies
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Counterfactualist approaches to the past are standard in certain subdisciplines of history, and prevalent in film and fiction. But literary criticism and medieval studies have only begun to consider the phenomenon, despite counterfactual history’s potential for opening up the past in new ways. Chapter 3 risks the censure of ‘responsible’ historians by asking what implications an interweaving of genre prescription, gender ideology, and historical contingency may have for the practice of counterfactual literary medievalism. Its case study, drawn from an eclectic quire of Harley 2253, is an obscure Anglo-Norman bourde (jest, tale) known as Gilote et Johane: a genre-bending hybrid in which two damsels debate sexual mores, take lovers, outwit fathers, confound priests, advise passing wives, preach their audacious ‘lesson’ to churches full of femmes, then burst forth to spread their mobile erotic doctrine ‘across all England and Ireland’. As our narrator frames it, the tale is designed to provoke outrage and redoubled vigilance; however, Gilote et Johane's imagination of an alternative social future enables other, less deterministic species of response. Taking seriously the radical counterfactual vision presented by this rollicking ‘cautionary tale’ allows readers to re-map medieval gender relations, while reassessing Harley 2253’s place in Anglo-Norman and English literary history.

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