24 August 2015

Medieval Monday: Conclusion to the Role of Women

So we are finally at the end of our look at the role of women in medieval literature, a summary of my final research paper in Grad Studies in Medieval Literature.

Some of the female characters in medieval literature spend their time easing tensions, creating bonds, and smoothing out rough edges; others insert wedges, deceive artfully, or ruffle feathers. Whether mischief-makers or peace-weavers, the female characters discussed played active and integral roles in their stories, suggesting a level of engagement and control often denied them. Contemporary, popular opinion seems to perceive medieval women as oppressed, passive damsels in distress who languish helplessly behind castle walls while big, brawny men run about conquering, rescuing, and pillaging. According to Scott Farrell, this perception is in part due to 19th century authors and painters who “melded the stories and images of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with a Victorian sense of gallantry, which delineated a passive role for women.” Despite the contrary portrayal in medieval texts, this image of medieval women as inactive persists.

Farrell argues that “this role would have been quite alien to the audiences of the Middle Ages, for whom tales of Arthur and Guenevere were not wistful reminiscences, but evocative and timely social commentaries.” Even Sir Gawain’s strange, seemingly out-of-place rant about women suggests that women were influencers and initiators:
But no wonder if a fool finds his way into folly
And be wiped of his wits by womanly guile –
It’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman,
And Solomon because of several, and as for Samson,
Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David
Was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief. (2414-2419)
In his angry diatribe, Sir Gawain provides a substantive list of influential women who “charmed and changed” (2425) the - rather powerful - men in their lives. If literary representations of women are a reflection of the female role in society, then one must wonder why the passive female paradigm persists despite textual evidence to the contrary.

One truth stands out, the female characters were carefully placed within the texts as active agents. Women such as Wealhtheow, Lanval’s Faerie Queen, Lady Bertilak, Morgan Le Fay, and Grendel’s mother are not mere ornamentation. Their influence rivals that of the male characters.Through their marriages, their words, and their actions, these influential women have substantial effects on the world around them for good or ill, for peace-weaving or mischief-making.

Thanks for reading!


For more information, I highly recommend the following sources:

Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in “Beowulf”. PMLA 21.3 (2006): 702-716. Web. 5 June 2015.

Armstrong, Dorsey. “Supernatural Women.” Women and Gender in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Margaret Schaus. Routledge, 2006. Web. 19 June 2015.

Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Masculine Queen of Beowulf.” Woman and Language 21.2 (1998): 31-38. Web. 1 June 2015.

Horner, Sheri. “Voices from the Margins: Women and Textual Enclosure in Beowulf.” The Discourse of Enclosure: Representing Women in Old English Literature. SUNY Press, 2014. 65-100. Web. 22 June 2015.

Jones, Samantha. “The Loathly Lady and the Margins of the Middle Ages.” University of Cincinnati, 2001. Web. 20 June 2015.

Kliman, Bernice W. “Women in Early English Literature, “Beowulf” to the “Ancrene Weiss”. Nottingham Medieval Studies (1 Jan. 1977): 32-49. Web. 29 May 2015.

Morgan, Gerald. “Medieval Misogyny and Gawain’s Outburst Against Women in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Modern Language Review, 97.2 (April 2002): 265-278. Web. 28 May 2015.

Oswald, Dana. “Unnatural Monsters, Invisible Mothers: Monstrous Female Bodies in the Wonders of the East.” Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art 2 (June 2010): 1-33. Web. 5 June 2015.

17 August 2015

Medieval Monday: The Mischief-Makers

For the past two weeks, I've been posting pieces of my final research paper for Grad Studies in Medieval Lit on the role of women. Last week, I covered the peace-weavers, so this week we move on to the mischief-making females of medieval literature.

Perhaps one of the most studied versions of the female medieval mischief-maker is that of the loathly lady, “a character whose special knowledge and social position combine with her physical undesirability to mark her as marginal” (Jones). Within the texts studied for this paper, appearance can certainly coincide with a woman’s role as either peace-weaver or mischief-maker. For example, the Faerie Queen, a peace-weaver of these tales, is described in great detail, over 34 lines are dedicated to her beauty. Her body “well shaped and elegant” (100) combined with her “eyes bright, her face white / a beautiful mouth, a well-set nose” (565-566) create a woman who is so beautiful “the lily and the young rose / when they appear in the summer / are surpassed by her beauty” (94-96). On the other side of the spectrum, we have Morgan Le Fay who is “noosed and knotted at the neck” (957), “withered by years” (951) with cheeks “wattled and slack” (953) and “buttocks bulged and swelled” (967) who is so unattractive that she is referred to as a “sorrowful sight” (963).

The “special knowledge” and “social position” referred to in Jones’s definition are also evident in females from the analyzed texts. Morgan Le Fay is a witch who occupies a position of power within a family not her own; Grendel’s mother is a powerful woman-beast who is isolated from civilization. Both of these women are privy to knowledge outside of normal human understanding, and both live outside normal societal structure. As Jones argues while classifying the loathly lady as Other, she is an outsider “in part simply because she is female-but more than her gender, her physical constitution and lack of societal connectedness illustrate the multiple, systematic oppressions inherent in medieval culture”. What role could an unattractive, intelligent, non-conforming woman have other than mischief-maker?

Unlike peace-weavers, mischief-makers are easily identified as active agents within their stories. “Through spells, gifts, and shrewd manipulation of conventional gender roles, such female characters often function to produce – rather than merely participate in – the narrative action” (Schaus 786). After all, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight relies entirely on Morgan Le Fay’s desire to irk her sister Guinevere without which there would be no story. As Miyares points out, “men were puppets in the hands of Morgan Le Fay to grieve another powerful woman, Guinevere” (186). Her action starts the narrative. Likewise, without Grendel’s mother, Beowulf would be a much different tale. Her desire to avenge her son’s death launches the longest subplot within the text. Finally, in our third text, The Lay of Lanval, the Faerie Queen is the foundation of the action: she initiates the relationship with Lanval which leads him to insult Guinevere. These women are catalysts, creators (creatures) of action, and rather mischievous; however, they are not all quite the same level of mischief-maker. Some are tricksters; some are a bit more evil.

Lady Bertilak, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is the most pure example of a female trickster within the texts being discussed in this paper. Lady Bertilak’s true nature as trickster is not revealed until the end of the poem when Lord Bertilak tells Sir Gawain that she has been functioning as a co-conspirator: Bertilak says “I know of your courtesies, and conduct, and kisses / and the wooing of my wife – for it was all my work! / I sent her to test you” (2360-2362). Prior to this point, Lady Bertilak could be construed as an evil temptress as she attempts to seduce Gawain on three separate occasions. While her actions appear immoral while reading, they are excused when the reader finds out her attempt at seduction was sanctioned, even ordered, by her husband. Earlier in the paper, Lady Bertilak is referred to as a moderator due to Lord Bertilak’s promise to Sir Gawain that the lady will serve to comfort him in Lord Bertilak’s absence. This promise of comfort fulfills a function of a peace-weaver; however, the promise made is flawed. Lady Bertilak is not a comfort to Sir Gawain; she deceives him and disingenuously seduces him. Represented by her husband as a peace-weaver, she is in fact a mischief-maker.

Another character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Morgan Le Fay, illustrates the role of female trickster. Morgan turns Bertilak into the Green Knight in an effort to frighten her sister, Guinevere. According to Lord Bertilak, Morgan sent him to Arthur and the Round Table “to muddle [their] minds” (2459) in the hopes that “grieving Guinevere would go to her grave / at the sight of a specter making ghostly speeches / with his head in his hands before the high table” (2460-2462). Morgan clearly has control over Lord Bertilak and her actions create a conflict and quest for Sir Gawain, but her influence is not reminiscent of a peace-weaver or even a great beauty who affects the lives of men by her desirability. Her control manifests itself in the game she is playing with her sister in which Lord Bertilak and Sir Gawain function as mere chess pieces. In fact it is possible that “Morgan’s presence expresses an essential feeling in the plot, that woman, a witch, is responsible for it all, rather than the hero himself” (Miyares 186). When her influence over the events is seen in this way, the question becomes: is Morgan a trickster or is she actually evil? After all, Morgan and Lady Bertilak’s “game” could have had dire consequences, Sir Gawain’s death which would certainly push her over from trickster to evil manipulator. Then again, if Morgan controlled the game and knew Bertilak’s axe swing would not harm Gawain, she remains a trickster.

The best example of the evil female, rather than the trickster, is Grendel’s mother. “Identified only by her biological function of having given birth to Grendel,” she fulfills a role in the poem that is significantly larger than her son’s (Horner 82); however, despite her crucial role to the action of the poem, Grendel’s mother is not given the respect of a name. Not only does this reveal the speaker’s and the culture’s indifferent view of her as an individual, but by not having a name, she remains “uncontained…she alone remains outside of the peace-weaving economy of exchange, and thus outside of any kind of physical or cultural enclosure” (Horner 82). She is unmarried and uninterested in maintaining the peace. Another detail that marks her as different from the peace-weaving women of her tale is that Grendel’s mother uses violence instead of words to fulfill her purposes. While Wealhtheow’s careful manipulation of words allows her to subtly influence her husband’s actions, Grendel’s mother’s direct violence seems rather more effective – except of course, that in the end, Grendel’s mother dies because of her difference.

In part, this difference is due to a simple fact of medieval society: gender defined life. Men and women functioned in distinct spheres, and any cross-over was aberrant. Adopting characteristics of the opposite sex did not change one’s sex or gender, as it can today, instead “women who transgressed the expectations for their gender did not thereby become not-women; they became deviant women”; to use this paper’s term, they became mischief-makers (qtd. in Oswald 9). This deviance was deemed monstrous, and the woman was seen as part male; this “collapse of two sexes into one body is perhaps even more troubling” than the monsters in literature who were part man and part animal (Oswald 8). As Oswald states, “while threatening to smash the distinction between man and animal is frightening, eliminating the distinction between male and female would lead to the collapse of the medieval social order” (Oswald 8-9).

Two male characteristics displayed by the vilified females in our texts are vengeance and violence. For example, Grendel’s mother “acts aggressively, arguably in a fashion reserved for men” (Acker 705). Her actions are actually remarkably similar to that of her son, a fact which is emphasized in the poem when the poet remarks that one of the warriors will die “just as had often happened before when Grendel preyed upon the hall” (qtd. in Acker 705). The impropriety of her actions are directly related to gender expectations as her actions would be seen as admirable and even necessary if she were male. If a son was killed, a father would by necessity have to avenge his death. When Grendel’s mother completes the same action, she is vilified, possibly because she “threatens not just an individual man's dominance but the whole system of male dominance” (Acker 708). Jane Chance states it clearly: “It is monstrous for a mother to avenge her son as if she were a retainer, he were her lord, and avenging more important than peacemaking” (qtd. in Horner 84). Her status as a woman makes her revenge monstrous rather than honorable (Acker 705).

Jane Chance draws a connection between the three mothers in Beowulf in relation to this system of vengeance: "The past helplessness of the first mother, Hildeburh, to requite the death of her son counter points the anxiously maternal Wealhtheow's attempt to weave the ties of kinship and obligation, thereby forestalling future danger to her sons. Later that night, Grendel's mother, intent on avenging the loss of her son in the present, attacks Heorot, her masculine aggression contrasting with the feminine passivity of both Hildeburh and Wealhtheow" (qtd. in Acker 704).

Acker then identifies Grendel’s mother as a female antitype (704), an argument well supported by her adoption of male characteristics. Similar to Grendel’s mother, albeit in a less aggressive way, Modthryth from Beowulf, displays male characteristics. Again, she wields power and “her masculine performance manages to subvert the usual use of women as objects in exchanges between men” (Dockray-Miller 32). While Grendel’s mother kills directly, Modthryth merely orchestrates death. This may appear to make her less monstrous than Grendel’s mother, but while Grendel’s mother killed to avenge the murder of her son, Modthryth orders the death of many, apparently just for looking her in the face. Modthryth is presented as the antithesis to Queen Hygd, a mediator and peace-weaver in the tale: "A woman should weave peace, not punish the innocent with loss of life for imagined insults" (1942-1943). Initially, Modthryth is similar to Grendel’s mother, “violent, unviewable in daylight, and fatal for men to encounter” (Horner 89). Eventually both women are tamed, so to speak; Grendel’s mother is slain by Beowulf, and Modthryth becomes docile when she is married off to King Offa. Her marriage reinforces the belief that a woman must be contained within a peace-weaving role and that marriage is “essential for conventional femininity” (Horner 89).

Similar to Modthryth, Guinevere in The Lay of Lanval has her husband dole out her punishments. In this case, she manipulates her husband into punishing the man who refuses her advances. When her attempted seduction of Lanval fails, Guinevere is disappointed, but his subsequent insult to her beauty pushes her past the point of logic. Originally, Lanval merely tells Guinevere that he has “no desire to love [her]” (270) because he has “served the king a long time” (271) and he doesn’t want to “betray [his] faith to him” (272). Guinevere, unhappy with Lanval’s answer, gets angry and “in her wrath, she insulted him” (276), suggesting he is homosexual, saying he is a “base coward, a lousy cripple” (283) and that God may punish Arthur for letting Lanval stay at Camelot (284-286). Understandably upset by Guinevere’s words, Lanval tells Guinevere that even “the poorest girl of all [in the employ of his Faerie Queen] / is better than you, my lady queen / in body, face, and beauty / and in breeding and in goodness” (299-302). In response, Guinevere tells her husband, Arthur, that Lanval tried to seduce her and “insulted and offended her” (319). Her manipulations cause Arthur to arrest Lanval. While Lanval’s incarceration may seem trivial and not worth classifying Guinevere as ‘evil’, readers must realize that her deceit could cost Lanval his life. After all, Arthur states that if Lanval “could not defend himself in court / he would have him burned or hanged” (327-328). Guinevere is willing to architect Lanval’s death solely from injury to her pride. Pride, of course, being an emotion and motivator reserved for men…and mischief-makers.

For the thrilling conclusion, see next week's Medieval Monday!

10 August 2015

Medieval Monday: The Peace-Weavers

As I said in last week's Medieval Monday post, I wrote my final research paper in Grad Studies in Medieval Lit on the role of women, focusing on how medieval literature portrays women as either peace-weavers or mischief-makers. This week, I focus on the peace-weavers.

The term peace-weaver itself suggests action. The term is a kenning, a literary trope common to medieval literature. A kenning “consists of two words, usually hyphenated, to describe something instead of using the customary noun” (“How is a Kenning Used”). The choice of words attaches specific connotations to the referent (the noun the kenning is replacing). For example, the kenning peace-weaver suggests a delicate threading through the use of the term “weaver” expressing the skill needed to keep the peace. It also suggests a woman by the use of the term “weaver” as this was typically a female role. Similarly, mischief-maker is a kenning; although unlike peace-weaver, it is not gendered.

According to Andrew Welsh in his article “Branwen, Beowulf, and the Tragic Peaceweaver Tale”, the peace-weaver’s role carries two purposes: “to create by her marriage peaceful bonds between two previously or potentially hostile kin-groups, or tribes, and after her marriage to encourage and support peaceful and harmonious relations among the members of the kin-group…that she has joined” (7). The first purpose is admittedly passive; the woman is merely moved from father to husband with little or no action or approval on her part. The second purpose, however, requires a great deal of effort. Keeping the peace, especially in a warrior society, is no small feat.

In Welsh’s first purpose, a woman joins two tribes together through marriage when she becomes “the invisible solder which wields man to man” (Kliman 33). It seems ironic that the marriage between man and woman has as its ultimate purpose the binding of two men rather than the couple getting married. This role is clearly seen in Beowulf through Hildeburh, Wealhtheow, and Freawaru and other smaller female roles. Hildeburh’s story is related in the Finnsburgh Episode of Beowulf. The daughter of a Danish King, Hildeburh “was married to Finn, king of Friesland, presumably to help end a feud between their peoples” (Greenblatt 63). Wealhtheow, King Hrothgar’s wife, is referred to as the “frithu-sibb folcu” translated as “the peaceful tie between nations” (Kliman 33), clearly indicating her role as peace-weaver. Hrothgar plans on marrying his daughter to Ingeld in the “hopes [she] will heal old wounds and grievous feuds” (2027-2028). All three women are used as a visible, emotional link between tribes, a symbol to each man in her life – father and husband – that their two peoples are connected and should live peacefully.

While marriage is certainly one way a woman could create a bond between two nations, other methods also exist. One way a woman could foster peace between tribes other than marriage was through the giving of gifts. Wealhtheow gives Beowulf gifts of her own outside of those provided by her husband Hrothgar (1215) showing she has an active role – or at least can take an active role – in maintaining close relationships with foreign nations. Wealhtheow gives Beowulf a necklace and simultaneously entreats him to “treat [her] sons / with tender care” (1226-1227) combining her role as a mother and a peace-weaver as she appeals to Beowulf to maintain peace between their respective nations even through her children.

Another example of a woman maintaining the peace between two tribes is the Faerie Queen in Marie de France’s Lay of Lanval. Markedly different from the examples in Beowulf, the Faerie Queen operates outside the influence or control of a husband. She asserts her own authority and rescues her lover from King Arthur’s court after he is unjustly accused of grievously insulting Guinevere. While the threat of violence between the two nations is more focused in this instance – on one individual, Lanval – the mediator of peace between the two nations is still a queen, a woman. What is truly interesting in this particular case is the question of how the Faerie Queen’s role is modified by her being a faerie. Written differently, the Faerie Queen could easily fall into the mischief-maker category as she defies traditional gender roles in her relationship with Lanval. She is the instigator of their romance, she is the one who sets the terms of their relationship, and ultimately she is the knight-in-shining armor who rescues her lover from imprisonment and possibly death. Despite all of this, Marie de France sets up the Faerie Queen as a peace-weaver rather than a mischief-maker, and this distinction may be allowed due to the Faerie Queen not being a human woman.

Welsh’s second purpose of the peace-weaver states that women not only created and maintained peace between nations but were also the architects of peace within the household. Women kept the peace through calming their husbands and the other men in the house, reminding men of the necessity for civilized behavior, and creating bonds of friendship among the men in their care.

The most obvious method of calming one’s husband in medieval literature appears to be sex. A wife is “a balm in bed” (63) like Onela’s queen in Beowulf, a poem which also references the marital relations between kings and their wives as a way for the husbands to de-stress in trying times. Twice in Beowulf, the author references Hrothgar’s heading off to or coming from the bed he shares with Wealhtheow in what can clearly be construed as a veiled reference to the sexual relationship the two share.

Wealhtheow’s ability to calm her husband extends beyond the bedroom though as seen when she gently reminds her husband, King Hrothgar, to dole out presents wisely to Beowulf. Hrothgar, in his effort to reward Beowulf for killing Grendel, adopts Beowulf “as a dear son” (946) and promises Beowulf that “there’ll be nothing [he’ll] want for, / no worldly goods that won’t be yours” (948-949). In her fear that Beowulf may replace her sons as heir to Hrothgar’s throne and fortune, Wealhtheow skillfully manipulates her speech to subtly remind Hrothgar to remember his sons, suggesting that Hrothgar “be open-handed, happy and fond” (1171) with Beowulf and the Geats, but to “bequeath / kingdom and nation to your kith and kin” (1178-1179). As Kliman argues, “nothing could so poignantly illustrate the diplomacy which is born of impotence than [Wealhtheow’s] disjointed statements unconnected to any request or demand of her own” (Kliman 33). While she can’t directly command her husband to stop giving away all of the goods to Beowulf, she can make simple statements reminding him of his obligation to his offspring. To calm her exuberantly generous husband, Wealhtheow is subtle in her protestation.

A woman’s skills in fostering collaboration are mirrored in her ability to foster other admirable traits in the men around her. According to Scott Farrell, writer for Chivalry Today, a knight’s first stop after accomplishing a quest or feat was the Queen and her ladies. The knight would recount his tale for the women, and they would pass judgement on his actions: “it was the job of the Queen and her ladies to either praise the knight for adhering to the true spirit of chivalry, or rebuke him for succumbing to the temptations of vanity, pride or greed” (Farrell). They were the moral authority and their judgement could bring honor and wealth to the knight or dangerous quests and shame. Farrell contends that this role provided “a needed balance within the literature of chivalry,” a yin-yang dynamic.

Along with presiding over rituals and festivities, women (primarily wives) could help foster peace within the household through the distribution of gifts; similar to the way Wealhtheow creates a bond between the Danes and the Geats through gift-giving in Beowulf. While the lord of the house was the common giver of gifts, his queen could also pass out money and jewels. For example, Hygel distributes gifts to her own people (1929). Through her participation in this activity, a woman not only strengthened the bond between warrior/knight and household/lord, she also increased a warrior/knight’s fidelity to her specifically, in this way encouraging him to behave in a civilized manner.

The civilizing effect of women on men is often exemplified in medieval literature. Gerald Morgan defines a knight as “a warrior who has been civilized by the life of courts and above all by the company of ladies” (267). Simply by being present, the female characters influence male behavior, particularly at meals and social gatherings involving both sexes. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Guinevere, and to an extent Lady Bertilak and Morgan Le Fay, function as a calming presence as they remind men of the necessity for civilized behavior. This particular female duty can also be a more active effort. For example, Wealhtheow actually speaks in order to remind men of appropriate social behavior as when “her gentle words calm those whose spirits have been inflamed by the bitter flyting of Unferth and Beowulf” (Kliman 33). These women and their “gentle words” are only one representation of women in medieval literature; some women’s words are not so gentle.

For more on these not-so-gentle women, check on next week's Medieval Monday.

04 August 2015

Top 10: Fairy Tale Retellings

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Have Read
Fables series by Bill Willingham
Beastly by Alex Flinn
Lost Voices by Sarah Porter
"Snow, Glass, Apples" by Neil Gaiman
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Want to Read
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Stork by Wendy deSol
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
Deathless by Cathryn Valente

There were so many more I could have included here, but alas only 10 were asked for.

03 August 2015

Medieval Monday: Peace-Weavers and Mischief-Makers Intro

For my final research paper in Graduate Studies in Medieval Literature, I analyzed the role of women in medieval literature, and I determined that women are basically divided into two categories: peace-weavers and mischief-makers, a predecessor to the virgin-whore dichotomy that comes in later literature. Over the next few weeks, I will share my insights with you in my Medieval Monday posts. First, an overview:

In the Middle Ages, the role of a queen was quite simple: “A queen should weave peace” (Beowulf 1942). Her function was to ensure peace between nations and people and this expectation carries over to all females within medieval literature; however, the reality is that not every female character fulfills this more positive role; some take a darker route. Women, in texts such as Beowulf, The Lay of Lanval, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, seem to fulfill one of two roles: the peace-weaver or the mischief-maker, meaning the female characters are either trying to foster peace or they are trying to stir up trouble.

What is truly interesting is that, regardless of which role they are fulfilling, the women are active Lanval definitely had their work cut out for them as well. Some recent criticism has suggested that women such as Wealhtheow and other peace-weavers are “fundamentally passive figure[s] in [their] story” (Welsh 12); however the ability to maintain peace may require more effort than these critics realize. After all, “the strenuous and delicate balance of behavior which [these female peace-weavers] must daily execute seems to be more difficult to achieve than the warrior’s bold plunge into destruction” (Welsh 13). While brandishing a sword appears more active and maybe even more effective on the surface, the artful and delicate manipulation required to assert control over a situation in which these women are culturally subordinate is admirable.
participants, suggesting a level of engagement generally denied them in popular conceptions regarding medieval gender roles. The mischief-makers such as Grendel’s mother, Morgan Le Fey, and Lady Bertilak may seem like more active participants, but peace-weavers like Wealhtheow and the Faerie Queen from

Still the sword-brandishers and deceivers deserve their just due as well. Instead of weaving peace, they foster discontent. Instead of calming men down, they rile them up. They are the mischief-makers, the tricksters and evil manipulators, of medieval literature. Whether mischief-maker or peace-weaver, the female characters discussed in this paper played active and integral roles in their stories, suggesting a level of engagement and control often denied them. Contemporary, popular opinion seems to perceive medieval women as oppressed, passive damsels in distress who languish helplessly behind castle walls while big, brawny men run about conquering, rescuing, and pillaging. According to Scott Farrell, this perception is in part due to 19th century authors and painters who “melded the stories and images of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with a Victorian sense of gallantry, which delineated a passive role for women.” Despite the contrary portrayal in medieval texts, this image of medieval women as inactive persists. Farrell argues that “this role would have been quite alien to the audiences of the Middle Ages." Why, oh why, does the misconception still exist?

For more information on this topic, check out my next few Medieval Monday posts as I will be putting pretty much my entire paper up here. :)

30 July 2015

Book Review: Tales of Innocence and Experience

Tales of Innocence and Experience by Eva Figes first came to my attention on things mean a lot when Ana wrote a wonderful review that stuck in my mind.

The main thematic focus of the book is the loss of childhood innocence we all suffer and the varied forms that loss can take. For our narrator, a grandmother, the loss was sudden, inexplicable, and difficult. The story is told through fairy tales, how they help us make meaning, how they connect adult to child, how they teach children fear, darkness, and survival.

One of my favorite sections in the book is a collection of three consecutive chapters that reveal Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty in the after, the demons and nightmares and challenges that face them once their tale is over. Figes's predictions of these heroes' lives feel authentic and are certainly evocative and melancholy.

I don't think I've ever read a book and marked so many passages. These pages are full of beauty, in thought and word. A few gems:

"Absolute innocence is absolute trust, which is so horrifying."

"The forest, I think but do not say, represents darkness, that which cannot be civilized, or brought under control. Cut down the trees, tame the landscape, but its shadow will always lurk on the edge of human consciousness...the heart of darkness still beats in its modern guise.

For obvious reasons, this quote truly speaks to me: "For days my daughter looks bruised and battered by the experience...She knows what she did not know before, that she is merely a link in the chain, to be used and discarded. Women lose their innocence, not with the loss of virginity, but with childbirth...our eyes meet in a new understanding...Now the shock of the oldest law, spoken by God to the first woman, is in her eyes...the purpose of birth is also the purpose of death".  There is nothing quite like children to remind you of your inescapable death.

The one quote that truly sums up this book: "How old is old enough for a child to know the world for what it is?" A question I struggle with almost daily.

Even after revising this review, I'm just not pleased. I can't seem to find the right words to convey how powerful I found this book. Apparently this will be one of those books that I just can't talk about properly. I guess I'll just leave you with: I heartily recommend reading this one. It's beautiful in form and content.

28 July 2015

Top 10: Book Nerds in Stories

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. To learn more about Top Ten Tuesday or see the list of future topics click here.

Ten Characters Who Are Fellow Book Nerds

Hermione Granger in Harry Potter

Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Road

Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Aibileen in The Help

Mary Katherine Blackwood in We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey

Liesel from The Book Thief

Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Tyrion Lannister from Song of Fire and Ice

Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice


Belle from Beauty and the Beast

27 July 2015

Medieval Monday: Description of the Wife of Bath

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is one of the most studied books of all time in my experience. I seriously have looked at bits and pieces of this text over and over again throughout my education and my career. This time I read it in very time bites and analyzed it piecemeal.

First up, the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue. I really enjoyed this description. A deaf, gap-toothed, red-stocking-wearing woman, the Wife of Bath sews like a pro, rides well, talks easily, and travels widely. Most importantly, she is well known for her love of men. She has been married five times, and that’s not including the men she’d gone with when she was younger. These experiences made her quite knowledgeable about “remedies of love” (477).

The whole description of the Wife suggests sex. The red stockings and red face, the many men she married or kept company with, even her gap-toothed grin. Apparently, this physicality was “thought to be a sign of amorousness” (Greenblatt 254).  Hilariously – and horrifyingly – “a gap-toothed devout virgin had to fill the space cosmetically, or refrain from smiling” (Cosman 476). That. Is. Hilarious.

Even the juxtaposition of certain phrases were designed to indicate a sensual nature and a wealth of experience. Take the following two lines for example: “She coude muchel of wandring by the waye: / Gat-toothed was she, soothly for to saye” (469-470). On initial reading, the first line seems to simple say that the Wife was a skilled traveler; but coupling it with the following line which is suggestive of sensuality, the line could be reinterpreted. Perhaps the Wife was skilled at wandering from man to man or was adventurous romantically or sexually.  This subtle suggestion is reinforced when the speaker says “she coude of that art the olde daunce” (478), again indicating the Wife is highly experienced in the ways of the flesh. Phrases like this today would have a “hint, hint” or a “wink, wink” to go along with them. Or maybe a more amusing ‘that’s what she said’.

This focus on sexuality carries over into the very naming of the Wife. While the other pilgrims are named by profession – Miller, Franklin, Cook, etc. – the Wife is not called Seamstress. Barbara Daniels argues that this change in the naming system “makes her more personalized”, but I argue that this also highlights the importance of sexuality to the character. Even though her trade is in sewing, her true profession is Wife.

I remember the first time I read this back in high school. I was surprised by how bawdy it all was, and I wasn’t even catching half of the suggestions or double entendres. Was/Is anyone else surprised by this? Do you see any other indications of sexuality in this passage? What do you think Chaucer meant, specifically, by the phrase “remedies of love” (477)?

Side Note: Do you know how many sexy women of today have a freaking gap between their teeth?!?!? Check it out.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue”. Trans. Simon Armitage.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 243-263. Print.

Cosman, Madeleine Pelner, and Linda Gale Jones. Handbook to Life in the Middle Ages. Infobase Publishing, 2009. Google Books. Web. 17 June 2015.

Daniels, Barbara. “The Wife of Bath: Her Description from the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Classics of English Literature. Web. 17 June 2015.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.