Throughout the texts we have read in class, including in the ones examined closely in this paper (namely Lanval, The Wife’s Lament, and Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale) women consistently appear as powerful beings. This introduces a certain amount of threat simply because the woman’s position in medieval society was largely guided by the principles in the Bible – and thus, women were treated as “lesser” according to writings that stated that they weren’t allowed to teach, were to submit to the men in their life, and were to avoid “playing the whore” (Leviticus 21:9).
The texts, then, will often attempt to rid those women of their powerful status or explain why they do not deserve it. At the very least, their threat must be carefully contained or controlled. It is an interesting situation, and those women can often be observed in two different lights depending on how you read them; as antifeminist or as feminist writings (this topic, particularly, will be discussed as it pertains to the story in The Wife’s Lament and The Wife of Bath’s Tale).
Women’s status as threats in the literature examined is shown through three major indications; their appearance, their approach to love, and their deviation from traditional femininity – in all these ways, they challenge traditional female ideals well established and ascribed to at the time. Women stand as threats due to one unlikely factor; their appearance. They challenge traditional female ideals of blonde, flowing locks, rosy cheeks, and a voice like song – in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale Alison is described closely, “Bold was hir face and fair and reed of hewe” (General Prologue, 460).
In Lanval it is not the fairy queen’s appearance itself that disturbs the placidity of female expectations, but the contrast between her beauty, which “not rose nor lily could surpass… when they bloom in May” (Lanval, 94-95), and her actions. The fairy queen’s status is suggested by her surroundings and clothing; on top of her tent was “an eagle of gold,/The cost of which cannot be told” (Lanval, 87-88) and she was dressed in ermine, “White fur with the lining dyed/Alexandrian purple” (Lanval 103-104). Ermine is often seen as a symbol of purity, and both ermine and the color purple are indicative of royalty.
These descriptions alone give an idea of her high status. Lanval and the fairy queen fall instantly in love, as per courtly love guidelines. Their love, however, is based purely on superficial attraction and an instantaneous longing for one another. The fairy queen uses her body to procure Lanval’s love, which is another indication of her power and her knowledge of that power. At the end, as well, it is Lanval who plays the damsel in distress, saved by the fairy queen, whereupon he, “Sprang the horse to straddle/And sat behind her on the saddle” (Lanval 641-642).
However, it is also the fairy queen that brings Lanval to the king’s court on charges of adultery, and although she appears to love and is loved by Lanval, it is she who forces him into circumstances that persuade him to leave King Arthur’s court. Once again, it is the woman’s power and seduction that proves dangerous to man. Marie de France does attempt to turn the traditional story on its’ head by giving Lanval the choice to leave court or stay, and for him to gladly accept leaving if it allows him to be with the fairy queen, thus reducing her villain status.
He turns against chivalric values, and accepts the help of a woman more powerful than himself. With that reading in mind, it is clear that Lanval is meant to be a feminist text, and it achieves this purpose. In The Wife’s Lament, the wife is not described at all. Far from being unimportant, that omission is actually a clue as to the wife’s character. She doesn’t focus on menial details such as appearance; rather, her thoughts are taken by her circumstances, and her reaction to them (as discussed further in this essay).
It is not only through descriptions of their appearance, however, that medieval authors challenge traditional ideals regarding women and turn them into threats to ideal femininity as it was ascribed to at the time. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, women were shown to partake in the type of love that focuses on the sexual and humorous aspects, and in Lanval the love between the lady and Lanval is a prime example of the exaggerated, overwrought courtship idealized in “courtly love.
Chaucer is mostly described as an antifeminist author, due to the placement of superiority he puts the Prioress in (mostly because of her courtliness and elegance), especially over Alison (who, despite her scholastic knowledge and a successful business, is frequently delineated as a sexual predator). Alison has had five husbands, and Chaucer specifically mentions that she was “gat-toothed… soothly for to saye” (General Prologue, 470). In Chaucer’s time, having a gap between your front teeth was an indication of a very sexual nature, which Alison takes great pleasure in.
Even now, there is a stigma against women who enjoy sex, and yet in her story Alison was unapologetic about it in a time when, as lean Mason states frankly in her essay about female sexuality in the middle ages, “Enjoying sex too much was viewed as a sin” (Views on Women and Women’s Sexuality). Chaucer posits these details as allegations against her character, but Alison can also be seen as a feminist paragon. She is powerful, wise (in both life and love), and thinks for herself.
She is also a threat to the men in her life; she rules over them and they are at her mercy as long as she keeps them happy (with sexual favors). However, her power is contained by circumstance. Her husbands are still superior to her in status; until they die, she must keep them content with sex and subservience (as when she listened to her husband read about how evil women are) in order to live happily. She is at the mercy of her husband’s mood, and it was hinted that she had been beaten in the past by her spouses. As is shown by Lanval, the authors of the major texts from the medieval time period were not only men.
Women were also writing this material (and sometimes, as Marie de France demonstrates, they were attempting to deliver a message through the literature), and thus while we think of the medieval populace as completely in agreement with traditional textually and religiously determined “womanhood” (that is, in opposition to women in positions of power, learning, or having authority) the fact that there were popular women writers producing literature that people enjoyed reading shows that this couldn’t have been completely the case.
The situation in the medieval ages probably did not “feel” the way that it is portrayed by “the authority” (the Bible, the law, etc. ). While it was stated in many places that women were expected and required to be obedient and subservient, that they were the property of their husbands or male relatives, and many other ideas that we would scoff at today, it might not just be us scoffing – just because they were portrayed a certain way in the texts that have survived, doesn’t mean that their reality was really that unfair (though it undoubtedly was, to an extent).
It is not clear whether the author of The Wife’s Lament is female, but the narrator obviously is. That, in itself, is a feminist move, and it puts the woman in the position of power; the narrator is in control of the story, and the reader sees the world through her eyes.
The wife’s proclamation that those who feel, “harsh pain at heart,” should, “put on/a happy appearance while enduring/endless sorrows” (The Wife’s Lament, 43-45) can be read in two ways; on one hand, it could be a critique of a society that expects women to mindlessly follow their husbands, disregarding their own sorrow and instead pretending to be happy in order to make the ordeal better for the man – however, it can also be read as a celebration of brave women, who despite their circumstances “put on a happy appearance” so as not to betray their emotions to those who have forced them into exile.
One reading is a feminist interpretation, while the other is more indicative of a woman at the mercy of her husband, who, “must/bear the malice of the man [she] loved” (The Wife’s Lament, 25-26). Should the reader choose to interpret the wife’s portrayal as feminist, the story takes on a different angle; one that gives the wife power over how her husband’s kin (who had “hatched a plot/conspiring secretly to separate us” (The Wife’s Lament, 11-12) see her.
She makes the best of her only opportunity to control how she is viewed, by not letting her exilers know how much pain she is in, though she can never, “obtain comfort for all [her] cares/nor all the longing this life brought [her]” (The Wife’s Lament, 40-41). Although she utilizes her only chance at taking control, however, ultimately she is left in exile due to the restrictions imposed upon women at the time. Women writers in the medieval ages relied on their attraction to the lower class (almost in the way underdogs appeal to us as a society now, because it is easy to relate to them).
The female author knows the difficulty of being devoid of power and status in the eyes of the authority, and can build her female characters up past where she, the author, stands in reality. Women in literature can be used to challenge traditional ideals, to provoke, and to send a message (either feminist or antifeminist). Chaucer describes women unequivocally as caricatures. Alison, from The Wife of Bath’s Tale, acts in extremes. Today, however, we might see her as being very positively liberal, with regards to her rights as a woman, and possibly even a feminist icon.
In all of these examples, however, it is shown that women’s actions, status, and appearance (or lack of description of the last) are used strategically in the text to give important information about how women are portrayed and viewed in literature – both in feminist and antifeminist ways, and acquiescing to or bucking “traditional” female ideals. One thing is for certain, however: women’s placement in medieval literature is never an accident, and by analyzing this placement in medieval literature the reader can further understand women’s place in society.