Flyte of fancy
The first wife’s response
in The narrative grotesque in medieval Scottish poetry
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In this chapter the first response, delivered by the ‘first wife’, is examined in detail. Her response is shown initially to inhere with the conventional demande d’amour, despite veering towards sexual innuendo and humour. Her fantasy of free love and female sovereignty is compared to medieval conduct literature, especially the Scottish poem The Thewis off Gud Women. Her response, however, abruptly shifts tone, subject matter, and form in order to deliver an excoriating flyting against her husband. The Scottish poetic invective form depends on a vivid and horrifying vocabulary of abuse in order to deride opponents. The wife ably employs this in her attack on her husband, which reveals explicitly the sexual and emotional abuse to which she is subject. Her fluid discourse once again shifts as she casts herself as manipulating her husband with sexual favours in exchange for luxury material items. The complex and uncomfortable tone and subject matter created by the trio of themes is explicated by the narrative grotesque: William Dunbar destroys conventional ‘languages of love’ and perceptions about eloquent emotional expression and replaces them with discourses that meld horror and humour. This displacement of one pole of expression for another, however, is shown to be equally problematic in terms of subjectivity, authenticity, and veracity.

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