Women in Medieval Literature and Society

Character Tropes of Women in Medieval Literature
Throughout the Medieval period, women were viewed as second class citizens, and their needs always were an afterthought. They were either held to be completely deceitful, sexual, innocent, or incompetent. Therefore, women were mostly withheld from positions of power or speaking their voice; males made decisions for them, and their lives were dictated by the men that ran the society. Despite their lack of validation and suppression, however, women in Medieval literature were certainly present in many works and in various forms. Some tropes feed into the idea that women are subservient and inferior to men such as the Virgin, which portrays females as passive and weak, or the mother whose very life circles around making a better life for her family and especially for her husband, or even the whore who has no power in her sexuality and must give it away for the well being of her family or the men in society. However, there are some archetypes that break this cycle like the Trickster or Witch who break the social norms and stand out, displaying qualities of cunning intelligence, intimidation, and power. The sections below will dive deeper into the disparity between how women were viewed in Medieval society and how they were portrayed in the literature of the time.

“The Virgin”
Perhaps the most common, and most positively looked upon character trope to be affiliated with women in literature is “The Virgin”. According to the majority of early literature, women’s primary function was to remain “pure” until they are wed and then permitted to produce children. If an unwed woman were to appear in literature back in Medieval times, she would almost indefinitely be made into a virtuous, pure woman.

Like many tropes in literature, this character ideology originated in The Bible. Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, also called The Virgin Mary, is the first notable person recorded with this all around encompassing identity. St. Mary took a vow of virginity and remained faithful to it her entire life, despite giving birth to a child. Mary was so pure of character that her pregnancy was an immaculate conception. The angel Gabriel came to her and told her she would bear the son of God. St. Mary lived her life completely within the parameters of being a perfect Christian woman. It is her life and her behavior that created this “ideal” religious woman.

In Medieval literature, The Virgin is often the voice of reason. She is rational, down-to-earth, and guiding (as far as guiding the main character towards the path that God has set out for them). Telling the hero what God has in store for them is The Virgin’s primary job. She tires to keep the hero on their quest. She is often described as beautiful, graceful. Though still generally a secondary or even tertiary character in Medieval literature, The Virgin is still important to the plot. She is respected and protected in some way throughout the story. Even when she is in trouble, the author doesn’t do any physical damage to her, often just putting her to sleep or locking her somewhere until the hero can save her.

In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Una is the saintly princess that the Red Cross Knight must protect on his journey. She appears riding right along side the Red Crosse Knight, riding a donkey “white then snow, yet she much whiter” (783). We all know that white signifies purity, and the point made about her being whiter than her ride gives us an idea about how Virginly she is. Reading further, “So pure and innocent, as that same lambe, she was in life and every vertuous lore, and by descent from Royall lynage came” (783), explaining that Una gets her virtue from her royal upbringing. During the story, Una quite literally keeps the Knight on the forest past, discouraging him from straying and finding other things to do: “‘Be well aware,’ quoth then that Ladie milde, ‘Least suddain mischiefe ye too rash provoke: The danger hid, the place unknowne and wilde,'” (785).

“The Mother”
Throughout the Medieval Period, women’s most important role was that of a mother or child bearer, whether she was rich or poor, children were her first priority. Women’s role in society was often compared to that which is written in the Bible. Real life women were subservient and oppressed due to the fact that Bible dictated they should be that way and religion was so closely adhered to. Eve, the creator of Original Sin was often seen as why women should be suppressed and obedient, though the Virgin Mary provide a contrast of Eve and was looked upon to be great. She did everything to help support the men in her family, as Alixe Bovey states, “Just as rural women helped with their husbands’ work, urban women assisted their fathers and husbands in a wide variety of trades and crafts”. Everything that a woman did related to how it would better men’s lives. Women had every loyalty to their husbands and families. Raising a son who was well suited for society was the best and most important thing a woman could do because men were true contributions to society. Richer women who were mothers did not directly raise their children, though bearing them was still their most important job in the household. Men still ruled the roost especially as C.N. Trueman states, “producing a male heir within a rich family was considered vital”. Poor women needed to bear a lot of children, preferably males, in order to create a work force for their husband. Everything circles back to the importance of men and women providing men and for men in the society.
Medieval literature often represents women in very distinct lights, and most of them are not very becoming. While the light may not always be a good one, there is always a light shining on women, as they are usually central to the story. The role of mother is often necessary, but often seen as the subservient, protective-from-afar character that classified a real life medieval woman. The women who are portrayed as mothers such as in The Second Shepherd’s Play are exemplified to reflect women in the Bible such as the Virgin Mary during the play within the play, because it is a mystery play that real life Medieval people would be able to relate to while watching. The mother who does not act as the Virgin Mary, or is not the image of perfection is seen to be failing at her only job in life. As one of the shepherds, Mak, states, “[My wife] Lies waltering, by the rood, By the fire, lo! And a house full of brood. She drinks well, too: Ill speed other good That she will do! But sho Eat as fast as she can; and ilk year that comes to man She brings forth a lakan–and some years two” (340-350). By a man’s standards she is falling down on her wifely duties, but what should be her redeeming quality, bearing a lot of children, does not even seem to cheer him up. Men dictate exactly the way that a woman should be and this man believes that if his wife is not taking what he believes to be proper care of her children, then she should not be having them. Every woman should be a mother, but only if she is a good one. This woman is defined by what her husband thinks of her and even though she is fulfilling her duty, she is not doing it well enough for him and therefore is completely belittled.
In the epic poem, Beowulf, Grendel’s mother exemplifies a different type of protectiveness. While she does take on a more masculine role, she is simply conforming to the society that she is placed in the way other mothers in medieval literature abide by all of society’s rules. “She does demonstrate an awareness and acceptance of a code of honor when she seeks revenge for the death of her son. ‘“In the European Middle Ages, as in virtually all periods of human history, warfare is see as a masculine activity;”’ (O’Pry-Reynolds). While she does not conform to the normal mother and subservient woman, she does become who she has to in order to uphold the ideals of the society. While she does not take on the normal role of women in the society, it requires that she protect her son in a different manner and therefore she does what she has to in order to be the best mother she can be.

external image f4c98d2ed2049e15975a1bc7d01f4f21.jpg
Portrait of Medieval Mother by Jeremias van Winghe

“The Witch”

Witches are women who posses knowledge and power, depending on when in history the witch is living in she could either be an important member of society, or she could live at risk of being drowned or burned alive. During the hay day of the witch hunts any women who is different than the societal expectation of a women would be at risk of being tried as a witch. Because of this fear of those who are different witches are often viewed as villainous people.

Origin of trope
Witchcraft, folk magic, and magical figures have been a part of human life dating all the way back to the paleolithic era with illustrations in caves of shamans. As time progressed and people moved around the world and evolved so did their magic. During the Medieval period there were two types of witches, white witches and black witches. White witches were often wise old women who worked with herbs (such as mandrake, datura, cannabis, belladonna, henbane, hemlock, etc) to try to fin cures, or at the very least aid ailments that have no cure. These women were incredibly important members of Medieval European society.
Black witches however, were not viewed so highly by society. They practiced the secret art of witchcraft that causes harm to others.

Characteristics of trope
Witches are women, usually older women, many of them were wise women and their craft was passed down from generation to generation. Black witches are the witches who we often think of today, with dark spells and ominous potions.
The distinction between these two categories of witches was lost during the Bubonic Plague, during this time filled with death, despair, and confusion people were seeking to find a scapegoat for all the death. Witches were one of the groups of people who are “different” and are to blame for the deaths of the plague. Then Malleus Maleficarum (or the Hammer of Witches) was written about a century later in 1486 by Jacob Sprenger, and Heinrich Kramer. In this book witches were described as “satanic and sexual abominations”, and while the black death may be over this was still a time filled with famines and death. The people suffering wanted a scapegoat; so they turned to witches who were now the blame the all the misfortunes in people’s lives such as: animals dying, a bad harvest, houses being burnt down, and curdled food. Around the writing of the Hammer of Witches Pope Leo X made a bill decreeing that all those convicted with witchcraft were to be executed.

Examples in literature
Witches have been an inspiration in literature for hundreds of years, whether they are just characters, or are the inspiration for a whole literary piece. Morgan la Fey is a part of many literary works, and has been an inspiration for many young girls in the Mists of Avalon series. She is always Arthur’s older sister, is always present in the story line, and is often has a very prominent role in Arthurian story lines, but in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight she has a minimal role where the audience sees her. She is introduced in the beginning of the story line as an old crone in great detail, and does not have a major appearance again until the end of the story line when the characters who inhibit the castle reveal themselves as who they truly are and we see the the crone is in fact Morgan la Fey and was using magic to turn King Bertilak into the Green Knight and is the heart of this magical adventure.

Witches do not only appear in epic tales but in the Bible as well (this is one of the many instances of Pagan and Christian ideologies influencing each other). In the Bible those who practice witchcraft, or magic of any variety are seen as sinners who are worthy of death. Although in early Catholic Christianity having Saints and relics was a step from the plethora of pagan religious deities, and there was magic used by Christians. This magic did not focus on demons but on spells and mechanical remedies for ailments, and the lord’s prayer was often said while mixing potions for these remedies.

Significance/impact of trope
During a time when there were no doctors are we know them today, no clean water, or hospitals, witches were expected to help those with diseases that have no known cure. These women were helping to move medical knowledge forward from the Greek ideas of the balancing of the humors. But once witches were being blamed for the problems in people’s lives, and the church encouraged the prosecution of witches, the definition of who was a witch broadened to anyone who worked with herbs to find a cure. It has been said that “
those who used herbs for cures did so only through a pact with the Devil, either explicit or implicit”, this fear of women with intelligence and power put a stall on medical advancements.

external image witchcraft1.jpg

Portrayal of Witchcraft by Ulrich Molitor
A short play featuring Arthurian characters

“The Whore”
Upon the many character tropes to be associated with, when discussing Medieval literature, “The Whore” is probably the most negative. In the Middle Ages, Women were widely considered lower than men, thus not worthy of performing the same task or activities that men typically did.

Most of the medieval social structure made it very hard for women to find their place in society. Women did not have the same rights as men, or same privileges as men, so many of them just did whatever society told them they were supposed to do. Overtime, as women were constantly told their place in society, many women started fulfilling their taught role of the Medieval Prostitute, otherwise known as “The Whore” of Medieval society. As time progressed into the 16th and 17th century, Female prostitution became a huge issue for Europe’s nation, where women commonly solicited their bodies for money on the streets of Europe’s countries. The “Medieval Prostitute” became a popular topic for profound writers of the century to explore and incorporate into their works of literature.

The history of Medieval Prostitution stretches far back in the European time line, dating back to almost the beginning of the middle age era. According to an online article, “Prostitution was not necessarily a woman’s sole career choice and there are many examples of women who used prostitution to supplement their everyday income” (Fantaesque). Most women did not want to become prostitutes or “whores” of Europe’s streets, but they acknowledged the fact that they needed to make money to support themselves and survive when times were tough. Due to poor living conditions and poverty stricken lives, many women were left with no choice into becoming Medieval prostitutes. Many women, particularly of poverty, in the Medieval society were always put down on the intellectual scale, compared to Men. Eventually these women of poverty started to conform into the ideas about their purpose and place in society that they were told by officials and the world, thus medieval prostitutes were born. Just as we have had numerous amounts of prostitution issues evident in our present society, many females back in the middle ages who engaged themselves in prostitution were heavily looked down upon and some were even killed for their soliciting practice.

Despite the representation of medieval prostitution industry as a “dirty business”, the practice of Medieval prostitutes caught the eye of many people, and eventually was seen by a large percentage of Europe as a form an institutional money making business. At first most of Europe disapproved of the prostitution industry and gave it a negative label early on towards the beginning of its existence. However, somewhere along the line of the medieval prostitution industry expansion, certain countries of Europe started to recognize the sexual desires and needs of married and unmarried men. Many Medieval city leaders and town officials started to accept the idea and practice of prostitution and ultimately created designated places where women were legally permitted to solicit their bodies. They started to use the activity to their advantage in making profits. These specified areas “where women were allowed to ply their trade without interference or harassment.” (Fantesque) were referred to as “brothels” and were created in both public and private environments. According to some research on the history of Medieval Prostitution, the law making decisions that put these “brothels” in operation actually gave the authorities of either the city or town some level of control over the soliciting practice.

In literature, writers use their language and literary devices to bring our attention to worldwide themes. One of the biggest themes we have been exposed too in the works of literature we have read over the course of this semester is women’s role in society.

Many of the female characters in the literature we have read, have been perceived as weak and incompetent. Writer’s, such as Chaucer, allude us to the thought of women’s purpose and place in society. In his sub story of “The Canterbury Tales”, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Chaucer makes multiple references to the traditional ideas of women culture, and what women want. The old woman in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” symbolizes much of “The Whore” trope. In the context of the tale, the old woman, the wife, presents herself as an authority figure on marriage. However her behavior throughout much of the prologue gives us the inclination that she is fulfilling the role of “The Whore” trope of Medieval women in literature. Specifically the lines from the prologue of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” below serve as a great example of Chaucer’s allusion to Medieval Prostitution and how the old woman is displaying some of “The Whore” characteristics.

“They hadde me yiven hir land and hir tresor/Me needed nat do lenger diligence/To wine hir love or doon hem reverence” (Lines 210-213)
These lines from the tale strongly illuminate the traditional idea of the woman prostitute only caring about their man’s money or riches. From an analytical point of view, Chaucer seems to use these lines in this particular story of the Canterbury Tales to reinforce the idea that this old woman is saying that she doesn’t even care that these men she sleeps with are able to do whatever they want to her, and cheat on her, because they already gave her their riches and land. This idea can be compared to the traditional behaviors of Medieval prostitutes back in this time period. The old woman in this tale is initially perceived as a deception like trickster, as she manipulates her first three husbands, but her character also display’s characteristics of the medieval literature trope, “The Whore”. The old woman in this tale is only after the riches and wealthy land properties of her husbands and agrees to sleep with them to obtain their wealth. Although the thought of women only engaging into sexual activities with men to obtain their money does not apply to all women, this behavior was traditionally known to lie with many prostitutes back in the Middle Ages, and is still the widely considered a big characteristic of modern day prostitutes. Similarly Chaucer provides more evidence to

“Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith/Lat go, farewell, the devel go therwith!/The flour is goon, ther is namore to telle:/The bren as I best can now moste I selle;” (Lines 481-484)
These lines from The Wife of Bath’s tale of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales demonstrate Chaucer’s allusion to “The Whore” trope of women in Medieval literature. Through the language used in this line, Chaucer provides us with the knowledge of the old woman getting her pay back against society by making her fourth husband think that she is sleeping around too. Many women in the early centuries of Europe, particularly England, were discriminated by much of society and were always labeled as a “whore” for sleeping around with other men. Sleeping around in the Medieval society, for women, was looked upon as a huge sin and a crime in many parts of Europe during the Middle ages. With this being said and considered, Chaucer seems to be conveying his allusion to women both fighting against and conforming to traditional views upon Medieval prostitutes by mentioning these lines in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”. Chaucer seems to use the old woman in this tale as a symbol of women’s strive to fight against the traditional values and purpose that Medieval Society told them they hold and serve. The woman’s character in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ultimately displays early medieval contradiction on to the given idea that women weren’t suppose to have more than one husband in a lifetime. Interestingly enough, Chaucer also uses her character to deliver his message of what “all” women must want, which is riches and wealth.

external image 5444c202a583835bb60f59e514bda22b.jpg

Portrait of the Medieval Prostitute by Marten Van Cleve

“The Trickster”
As Lisa Perfetti states, “Tricksters and pranksters are among the most common characters of Medieval comic literature” (633). Within this literature, women commonly assume the trickster trope, which has its roots in The Old Testament of the Bible. The archetype formed in response to the actions of Eve, who committed the first sin in eating the fruit of knowledge, and “convinced” Adam to do the same. When confronted by God, Adam recalls, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit from the tree, and I ate” (qtd. in Perfetti 633). Eve is shown as the reason for humanity’s downfall, deceptive and deceitful. Sarah S. Forth writes, “No one gets more bad press than the First Woman who is accused of getting herself and her partner kicked out of paradise and starting humankind on a downward spiral” (57). This portrayal deeply influences how Medieval society viewed the role of women as the Church was deeply embedded in their culture and guided their ways of life. It led to a cycle of distrust, preventing women from assuming powerful positions or gaining too much control over decisions for the family and community. People figured that women were ultimately going to make a choice that would contribute to the downfall of society, just as Eve committed the sin that “ruined” Paradise. This is explained in “Medieval Women,” “Medieval society would have been very traditional. Women had little or no role to play within the country at large. Within towns, society would have effectively dictated what jobs a woman could do and her role in a medieval village would have been to support her husband.The freedom of women was greatly limited. They were not allowed to marry without their parents’ consent, could own no business without special permission, and could not own property of any kind” (Trueman 1). If women had any of the above powers, it was determined that they would abuse them or make an unfavorable, uneducated decision. Since the church was the authority in society, men were expected to control all affairs in order to prevent women from committing any sins or leading to downfall and mayhem. People believed, “When women exercise power, they frequently are viewed as ‘manipulative, deceptive, illegitimate or unimportant. This accounts for the prominence in the Bible of female trickster figures . . .” (Forth 217). They considered that it would be in God’s favor to keep women out of all policies and powerful positions, as Eve was the one who originally disobeyed him. However, in Medieval literature, women were not always portrayed as being incompetent or ill-prepared. They were portrayed as tricksters who exhibited cunning qualities, but also, being true to the Eve role, tricked men and were extraordinarily deceptive.

Portrait of Eve.jpg

Portrayal of Eve by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

There is a distinct purpose for the trickster archetype in Medieval Literature. It “served a conservative function in serving to reassert social norms . . . valued for innate wit, an asset for surviving in any society. They act as a creator and a destroyer, transgressing boundaries but also being defined by them” (Perfetti 633). This trope comes to life in the Wife of Bath’s Tale with the character of the old hag. The old woman serves as an advisor to the knight in the tale, being the source, which reveals to him what women most desire. When he approaches her, she has the power in the relationship and questions what his purpose is wandering down the road she was on. He asks, “‘My leve moder,’ quod this knight, ‘certain / I nam but deed but if that I can sayn / What thing it is that wommen most desire / Coude ye me wisse, I wold well quite you’re hire” (1012-1014). The knight seems to know that this woman possesses a unique knowledge and wit, and the fact that he places his life in her hands shows that he knows she is skilled at surviving in society. She transgresses the boundaries that Medieval society holds her to, which are silence and powerlessness, and holds the knight to a deal, stating, “‘Plight me thy trouthe here in myn hand,’ quod she / The next thing that I requere thee / Thou shalt it do, if it lie in thy might / And I wol telle it you er it be night” (1015-1018). Holding the power in this situation, she binds the Knight to a deal, putting him in a subservient position at her will. His life lies in her hands rather than the other way around. This puts her in the optimal position to trick him as he is at her mercy. When they get to the Court, the woman requests that the Knight marry her, and even though he begs her to change her mind, since she is in the position of power, he cannot. As Jonathan Blake states in his article, “Tricksters upset normal hierarchies and rules of everyday or official behavior either through cleverness or foolishness.” The old woman, using her dominant role, traps the Knight into a binding agreement. She then asks him to chose whether he would like her to be young and unfaithful or old and loyal. He replies, “My lady and my love / and wif so dere / I putte me in youre wise governaunce: / cheseth youreself which may be most pleasunce” (1236-1238). From her trickery and the position that she puts him in, the Knight submits to the old lady’s will, and she gets what women most desire.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 6.08.17 PM.png

The significance of the trickster archetype in Medieval Literature is the fact that, “Cunning or foolish or both, Trickster’s pranks and games serve the role of the equalizer, and in so doing, raise awareness” (Sutton 1). Medieval society is guided by the rule that women are to be subservient to men, not trusted with serious matters, and inadequate at decision making. Therefore, often times, women’s voices are suppressed and ignored, so therefore, they become unhappy in marriages and unfulfilled. The old woman in The Wife of Bath’s Tale gives a different picture, sharing with society that women are in fact so capable and cunning, that they can outsmart men and get their way. In fact, what they have to say is so important that it can cost a man’s life if it is not said in front of a court. The archetype of the woman trickster allowed the conclusion to be made at the end of the tale that if a woman is treated with respect and her wishes are granted, the relationship will be mutually beneficial, “And she obeyed him in every thing / That might do him pleasance or liking / And thus they live unto hir lives ende / In parfit joy. . . And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lives / That nought wol be governed by hir wives” (1261-1264, 1267-1268). This teaching, that husbands and wives should listen to each other and allow one another to have sovereignty is an important ideal. It would not have been communicated unless the woman trickster in the tale had the Knight’s life at stake because of her knowledge.

Works Cited
Alchin, Linda. “Medieval Witchcraft.” Medieval Witchcraft. Siteseen Ltd, 1 June 2014. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. Portrait of Eve. 1578. <http://www.wikiart.org/en/giuseppe-arcimboldo/portrait-of-eve-1578>.

Bovey, Alixe. “Women in Medieval Society.” The British Library . Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 282-310. Print.

Fantaesque. “The Medieval Prostitute.” History in the (Re) Making. January 6, 2015.

Forth, Sarah S. Eve’s Bible: A Woman’s Guide to the Old Testament. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. Web.

Kroch, Carl. “The Cornell University Witchcraft Collection.” Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection. Cornell University. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.
Molitor, Ulrich. De Lamiis et Phitonicis Mulieribus, 1493. <http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/w/witch/>.

O’Pry-Reynolds, Anita Kay. “Men and Women as Represented in Medieval Literature and Society.” Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

Perfetti, Lisa. “Review of Allison Williams ‘Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.” Rev. of “Tricksters and Pranksters: Roguery in French and German Literature of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Speculum 2003: 633. Web.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. E. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 162-213. Print.

Sommerville, Johann. “Holland Treatise.” Holland Treatise. Wisconsin University. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.

Spencer, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages. E. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 282-310. Print.

Sutton, Brenda. “Trickster.” Mythic Passages: The Magazine of Imagination. Mythic Passages, 2006. Web. 8 December 2015.

“The Second Shepherd’s Play.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature . Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 450-476. Print.

Trueman, C N. “Medieval Women.” The History Learning Site. The History Learning Site, 5 March 2015. Web. 8 December 2015.