Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in Medieval Art and Literature

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WOMEN AND WOMEN'S WRITINGS FROM ANTIQUITY THROUGH THE MIDDLE AGES: WOMEN IN MEDIEVAL ART AND LITERATURE

CHRISTA GRÖSSINGER (ESSAY DATE 1997)

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CORINNE SAUNDERS (ESSAY DATE 2001)

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DAVID SALTER (ESSAY DATE 2002)

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ON THE SUBJECT OF…

MARIE DE FRANCE (FL. 12TH CENTURY)

The earliest known female French writer, Marie de France is considered one of the finest poets of her century. She is best known for her Lais, a collection of twelve verse tales written in octosyllabic rhyming couplets. Historians speculate that Marie may have been the originator of the form, but they concede that the absence of extant Breton lays, upon which Marie claimed to have based her lais, makes it difficult to determine the extent of her originality. Very little is known for certain of Marie's life, and much of the information cited by biographers is conjectural. Biographers generally agree that Marie was born in France in the last half of the twelfth century and that she lived for many years in England. Many critics have held that her vocabulary, style, end knowledge of Latin, French, and English indicate that Marie belonged to an aristocratic, perhaps even noble, family.

Marie's lais are undoubtedly romances and share certain elements with the traditional love tales of her day. Yet they differ from the prevailing forms of medieval romance, especially the chivalric tales of courtly love, in that Marie informs her work with an unprecedented feminine sensibility and writes about women as significant characters, not just as objects of devotion. Contemporary critics describe Marie as a storyteller of great charm and imagination, who wrote with wit, intelligence, and economy. In her narratives Marie conveys not only style of dress and manner of speech, but also the behavioral codes and societal attitudes of the late twelfth century. Her vivid portrait of life in the medieval Anglo-Norman court, as well as her insightful and vigorous treatment of love and human relationships, have earned her both critical attention and acclaim.

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SUSAN CARTER (ESSAY DATE 2003)

SOURCE: Carter, Susan. "Coupling the Beastly Bride and the Hunter Hunted: What Lies behind Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale?" Chaucer Review 37, no. 4 (2003): 329-45.

In the following excerpt, Carter elucidates the critical feminine subjectivity of Chaucer's "loathly lady," the Wife of Bath, as seen in her tale of King Arthur's court in The Canterbury Tales.

We do not know where Chaucer found the loathly lady motif. Whatever source he encountered, whatever transmutation to it had occurred, he evidently appreciated the more immediate destabilization of gender roles that springs from the loathly lady seen as a personification of the kingdom. Jill Mann pinpoints exactly what is so powerful in the Wife of Bath's Tale when she notes that "[t]he 'anti-feminist' elements … constitute the force behind the tale's challenge to male domination. When the knight surrenders to female 'maistrye', he surrenders not to the romanticized woman projected by male desire, but to the woman conceived in the pessimistic terms of anti-feminism."1 To her observation I add that the loathly lady contributes pagan weight to this task of turning misogyny back upon itself. Acceptance of what is repulsive about women is inherent in the motif. Chaucer's loathly lady directly relates to the Wife of Bath's obsession with the dynamics of heterosexual commerce: the manipulation of power ratios by desire, pleasure, and frustration. Moreover, vestiges of the earlier tales' framework brings the anagogic force inherent in the Irish tales into the courtly English work. The sense of a deep truth, a truest truth, such as that underlying the testing of the true king, is poetically imprinted in these vestiges and brought into the Wife's field of interest in the background details of Chaucer's tale.2

Before the hag appears at the forest side, manifesting herself as a dance of ladies to lure her venial knight into her clutches, the Wife sets the scene of her tale by establishing "Kyng Arthour" in apposition with a fairy queen who once danced upon "many a grene mede" (III 861), a nostalgic reminder of fairy influence over natural space.3 "Greet honour" is reportedly attributed to Arthur, but the fairy queen dances "with hir joly compaignye," so that high esteem for the male is countered by something more communal, lively, and attractive for the female. The subtle privileging of the fairy queen over Arthur—syntactically, with just a little more word space and more movement—accurately establishes the appositional pattern that the hag will develop fully. Just as the Irish Sovranty Hag takes her authority from the land of which she is a personification, so the fairy aspect of the loathly lady takes strength from outdoor space.4 The opening emphasis on the female at home in the green meadow sets up a paradigm that the hag will fully realize.

Despite the acknowledgment of Arthur's reputation for honor, his court is flagrantly subverted by the Wife of Bath's subjective narration.5 Once the Wife has set the stage in "th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour" (III 857), that specifically British king, she does not valorize the knights of the Round Table. Chaucer precedes Malory with a redaction that is conspicuously more sophisticated in licensing a wry female perspective. Malory's knights are often bunglers of the adventure God gives them, such as when Sir Gawain returns from his first episode with a maiden's head, having botched the principle of mercy, but Malory expresses straight-faced regret for such misadventure with a tone of authorial respect: living by the sword simply has a bit of a downside. In contrast, the Wife presents the house of Arthur as unquestionably the source of sexual "oppressioun" (III 889). The male lead is a young knight who belongs to Arthur—"And so bifel that this kyng Arthour / Hadde in his hous a lusty bacheler" (III 882-83)—and who launches the tale by raping a maiden.

This event contrasts startlingly with the Irish tales and most other loathly lady tales—for example the Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and the ballad King Henry—which begin with a knight hunting, engrossed in that aristocratic masculine pastime.6 Like the forest, the hunt is a topos grounded upon actuality, but with a literary life of its own. Marcelle Thiebaux likens the hunt to "the familiar narrative framework of the Journey."7 This observation makes sense of the Bildungsroman quality of many of the loathly lady tales (arguably, Chaucer's included) in which the male protagonist makes a journey through conflict and harrying to self-realization. In the Wife of Bath's Tale the motif is suppressed, although when we first meet the knight he may be riding from the river, as Christine Ryan Hilary suggests, because he is hawking for waterfowl.8 Anne Rooney notes that "The noble hunt in England was especially limited in its scope," and that "hunting manuals paid no attention to the utilitarian trapping of animals … for food."9 Perhaps hawking for waterfowl is also unworthy of mention, being at a remove from the hunter, as well as less dramatic than the killing of larger animals, and thus Hilary's assumption is in keeping with literary convention. But I suspect that it is based on her sensitivity to the formula by which, in the earliest versions, the male is out hunting when he encounters the hag.

Although the audience may be meant to presume that any knight by a river is hunting fowl, as Hilary proposes, Chaucer's tale slips away from the hunt—with its resonance of fate, magic, and the testing of prowess—to displace the contestation onto the female person: the maid whom the knight rapes. The knight's hunt is transposed to the rape of the "mayde walkynge him beforn" (III 886)—like a stalker he approaches from behind—in keeping with Chaucer's more significant relocation: the placing of sovereignty within the personal power politics of marriage rather than in the kingship which the word sovereignty literally signifies. Since the knight is a sexual predator rather than an aristocratic sportsman, the turning of the power ratio to make him a sexual victim is acutely appropriate. The rape, so inappropriate for a true hero, signals that Chaucer's tale is more interested in gender power imbalance than in the qualities that make a good king.

The Wife's subjective voice is also authenticated by her sharply critical view of the reality of knights and maidens. The Wife sees that maidens are grist for the mill in the chivalric scheme—objects with the limited option of being either rescued or raped—and her response is to rewrite the script, allowing the hag to oppress and reeducate the errant knight. Her cynicism goes so far as to displace the males from the central position and to promote instead the women of the court.10 The reaction to the rape is "swich clamour / And swich pursute unto the kyng Arthour" (III 889-90) that the knight is condemned to death through "cours of lawe" (III 892). In theory, Arthur is the ultimate adjudicator, pressed by the people to punish his own, a reminder that his knights provide an elite-military system of justice. However, the last we see of Arthur is when he concedes jurisdiction over the knight to the queen, who has prayed for his "grace" in this matter for "[s]o longe," along with "other ladyes mo" (III 894-95). The sense of a full court surrounding the king and queen is thus achieved only by the inclusion of these ladies, who beg the king for control with a persistence that seems to match the earlier clamor for his punishment. Although Arthur is named and Guinevere is not, and although his household looses the "lusty bacheler" into the countryside, it is women who people the Arthurian court interior.

The feminization of Arthur's court, and of justice, is compounded when the knight returns to either answer the riddle correctly or submit his neckbone to iron. "Whan they be comen to the court" (III 1023) to judge the knight's response, "they" are made up entirely of women: "Ful many a noble wyf, and many a mayde, / And many a wydwe" (III 1026-27) assemble. Although Gower's and Chaucer's unknown source is likely to have come through a French filtration, the sense that Chaucer's hag is related to the Celtic triple moon goddess tales is reinforced in the three stages of womanhood assembled with life-or-death power over the knight.

The head to this feminine body politic is the queen, "hirself sittynge as a justise" (III 1028). When Arthur relinquishes the matter to his queen, his surrender is complete, and she is authorized to take over the king's power as ultimate judge. Malory's Guinevere is isolated from feminine company, never given legitimate power, and resented as a breaker of male bonds; she is a single representation in the court of the dangerous sexuality of the female species. The Wife, in contrast, places Guinevere in the seat of judgment, surrounded by a court of curious women, who "Assembled been, his answere for to heere" (III 1029). This feminine jury will help her to decide the knight's fate. The Wife thus briskly usurps the male prerogative of justice, redistributes it to the women of the court, and puts the knights of the court in the shadows off the edge of the narrative, the spot usually reserved for the ladies.

Even in the closure of the tale, patriarchy is not restored to the court, despite the fact that the loathly lady offers her groom ultimate jurisdiction over her person, declaring somewhat excessively, "Dooth with my lyf and deth right as yow lest" (III 1248). Her problematic concession of will is made in a narrow world peopled by two who share "parfit joye" (III 1258), thus in the context of consensual sex. Is it too essentialist to assume that what is said in intimate play may not be a definitive statement on power relations, but an indulgence, equivalent to Mars allowing his lover to wear his armor during dalliance? The unequal power balance between the hag who can change shape and the knight who remains nameless is well-established by this stage; the bride hands over phallic power to a man she has selected, won, and is bedding in a private moment of pleasure, presumably so that her own pleasure will be enhanced by his empowerment. For the purposes of this tale, the court is represented by what women want; the bedchamber in which a husband is rendered as subservient as a lover subsumes the usual representation of the court, its hall, and Round Table, as the seat of masculine power. As well as creating a sense of authentic feminine subjectivity in the Wife's assessment of the Arthurian court, her regendering is sympathetic to the Sovranty Hag's ultimate jurisdiction over the male court.…11

Notes

  1. Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer (New York, 1991), 92.
  2. The Wife of Bath's Tale is a lai in the romance genre. Louise O. Fradenburg considers whether this makes it a "regressive fantasy" and finds that, conversely, it makes the Wife seem "progressive or modern" ("The Wife of Bath's Passing Fancy," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 [1986]: 31-58, at 34-35). Fradenberg observes that "The very escapism of romance thus points, paradoxically, to the genre's potential as an instrument for change" (41). Sarah Disbrow conversely finds the Wife's genre to be an "antiquated fairy tale" and proposes that the Wife is intended to be "an allegorical figure representing human carnality much like her male counterpart, January" ("The Wife of Bath's Old Wives' Tale," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 8 [1986]: 59-71, at 59-60). Disbrow speculates that, by giving this tale to the Wife, Chaucer "hoped to discredit Arthurian romance" (61). However, Chaucer is building up a convincing feminine perspective when he allows the Wife to deconstruct Arthurian romance, and, since I agree with Mann's summation of the Wife as finally likeable (as January is not), I am not convinced by Disbrow's argument.
  3. Angela Jane Weisl briefly notes the spatial significance of this outdoors dance, proposing that "by moving the outside inside, the friars have chased away those who lived in the natural world" (Conquering the Reign of Femeny: Gender and Genre in Chaucer's Romance [Cambridge, Eng., 1995], 90), although she is more interested in the temporal comparison that the Wife sets up than in the implications inherent in the interior and exterior spaces.
  4. This contrasts with the mortal women in medieval literature, who are typically confined to the domestic interiors of narrative settings and are vulnerable to danger when they are found outdoors, as are, for example, Dame Herodis of Sir Orfeo and Guinevere (kidnapped while out on a May picnic) of Malory's "The Knight and the Cart" episode.
  5. Weisl declares that WBT is "an essentially court-based one," since all within it speak the "language of courtly romance" (Conquering the Reign, 91). Granting this, the court within the poem is no ordinary one, being insistently feminized.
  6. In the "Lughaidh Mal" the seven sons of Daire are all called Lughaidh, "In hopes the prophecy in them would be fulfilled" (["Appendix A to The Genealogy of Corca Laide," Miscellany of the Celtic Society, Dublin, 1849] 69). Daire's deer is immediately introduced as though bound into the prophecy: "Daire had a magical fawn as a familiar / In the shape of a yearling deer" (69). Four of the sons meet the deer, who "passed on swiftly, / Until he reached the stream" where "the fawn was slain / By the four noble and very comely youth" (71). Iteration of the youth's nobility and comeliness counters the possibility that the slaying of a father's familiar is loutish behavior. In "Lughaidh Laidhe" king-making begins with Lughaidh's capture of a golden fawn. Niall, too, in the Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid, is a hunter out in the forest with his brothers when he encounters the hag.
  7. Marcelle Thiebaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, N.Y., 1974) 21.
  8. Gloss to ryver, Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston, 1987) 117.
  9. Anne Rooney, Hunting, in Middle English Literature (Suffolk, 1993) 3.
  10. Susanna Fein notes that in the "faery realm" of WBT, "[a] maternal presence supersedes the laws fixed by the king" and that "maternal justice … takes a more flexible view of women's bodies" ("Other Thought-worlds," [A Campanion to Chaucer, ed. Peter Brown Oxford, 2000] 337): "woman with her permeable body is the archetypal shape-shifter" (340). My consideration of the Irish Sovranty Hag's contribution endorses Fein's interpretation of the effects of "the full force of mystical 'femenye'" (341) on the rapist knight.
  11. Fein notes that "It is almost as if, figuratively, the realm of feminine faery surrounds, womb-like, the masculine world of Arthur and his virile knights" ("Other Thought-worlds," 340), without underscoring the Irish Sovranty figure's control of the king as the model for this dynamic.

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in Medieval Art and Literature

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Women and Women's Writings from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages: Women in Medieval Art and Literature