There is a strong anti-feminist movement in much of Middle Ages English Literature. It could be supposed that since most of Western Europe at the time was very strongly biased towards patriarchal society models, there simply were not enough female writers to have any distinctly feminine point of view writings survive the period. From Beowulf to Shakespeare, there are constant subtle and unsubtle remarks from all of the authors of the time. Some instances of this sentiment are as indirect as the characterization of most of the noteworthy female characters as villains. Some are as blatant as a woman taking a crippling beating and being deafened in one ear for not recognizing her place.
What this essay will attempt to do is to draw out the characters and inferences made in various works in English (modern or otherwise) dating from approximately 800 A.D., the earliest possible time of the authoring of Beowulf, to the works of those like Marlowe and Shakespeare in the latter parts of the English renaissance, in the middle to late sixteenth century. It is through review of these popular and venerated works that we will see the many inferences that women seek to live better more equal lives, but men are not interested in letting them have any such thing. The burgeoning feminist movement took several hundreds of years, and this travail is evident in much of English literature throughout that time period.
Beowulf – Author Unknown
Perhaps one of the most notable and infamous women of middle ages literature is that descendant of Cane, Grendel’s Mother. The mother of Grendel is not a popular character because she is feminine. In fact, aside from her desire to wreak vengeance over the slaying of her progeny, she portrayed traits that were decidedly masculine. She is, in fact, more powerful and dangerous than her son is. Although the focus of most English Literature research is directed more at her lineage, we should also consider what is being said of women in general by the presence of such a monster as a woman, and — perhaps more importantly — as a mother.
The Danes of Beowulf place particular value on the concept of wergild. If one’s kin is killed, it is the surviving relative’s duty to make the killer pay for the death, either with his own life, or the payment of wergild (the “man price”). Apparently, that price does not extend towards monsters. Especially those that kill the Danes. Particularly, in this case, the mother of Grendel, who has been massacring the Danes for an extended period before being interrupted by Beowulf in a rather final fashion. It is perhaps not a coincidence, then that it is Grendel’s mother, rather than a father figure, who comes to claim that wergild. It could be inferred that her femininity gives her a weaker ground for making the claim against the Danes—never mind that they are claiming their own revenge against the lives lost to Grendel—and so her position as a lesser creature is reinforced by her being a female.
In one of several brief asides during the story of Beowulf, the narrator introduces us to another unusual woman named Thryth. She is also a powerful and cruel woman who is using a sword to rid her halls of intruders or unwanted hall-guests (Norton p. 74, lines 1937-1943) but barely manages to stay within societal boundaries and is less criticized for it than she might otherwise have been. It is fascinating to read of her exploits and see how they are so sharply contrasted by the well-behaved and respectful women who follow and precede her. Her character is also somewhat redeemed, when she later takes a husband and begins behaving more as a woman should, according to the narrator.
Another interesting pair of women from the epic are Wealhtheow and Hygd, two queens of the tale. Wealhtheow is the proper wife of Hrothgar, “observing the courtesies” (Norton p 45, l. 613) and quick to both defend the honor of her husband’s throne, and in turn honor those who have brought greater peace or happiness to her household. Hygd, the queen of Hygelac, is also a proper woman, “wise and well-taught” (Norton p 73, l. 1928). She later attempts to offer Beowulf the throne of the Danes, but he declines her offer of kingdom (Norton p 83, l. 2369-73). This, one could argue, may indicate a matriarchal society that is not entirely frowned upon. However, her character is really a minor one who is not given much more than an afterthought’s worth of lines in the epic. Evidently, it is all right to be a queen and have some power, but she still would not be the breadwinner, or hero of a tale. An odd distinction, to be sure, but it is there to be seen, nonetheless.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Author Unknown
Lady Bertilak is perhaps one of the quintessential temptresses of English Literature. The wife of Lord Bertilak shamelessly woos Sir Gawain night after night. Her wanton advances are instigated by yet another sinister woman, King Arthur’s wicked half-sister Morgan le Faye. This behavior might be viewed as an object lesson to women in how not to behave. This temptress is also an archetypal target of courtly love. Courtly love is not the noble sounding relationship that it sounds like, but rather a circuitous and often hypocritical series of courtships that involve trysts, love triangles, and a host of other unseemly acts. This behavior is even commented upon by the narrator: “But to take myself to the task of telling of love…It were folly, fair dame, in the first degree!” (Norton, p.190, 1540 and 1545) In this, Gawain criticizes rather strongly the act of courtly love and so-called romance.
By contrast, it would seem, the Virgin Mary plays a role as the patron saint of Gawain. Although her role is completely ancillary to the story, her presence nonetheless is a constant reminder to Gawain and the reader of what a proper (read: Christian) woman would be. The entire story could in fact be viewed as a cautionary tale against courtly love, as the women and men are on equal footing in such conflicts, rather than the normal male dominated sociology. Men like Sir Gawain might be better off without such distractions. Perhaps Lord Bertilak would not have been driven to such a cruel prank against King Arthur without the evil manipulations of Morgan le Faye.
The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer
The Wife of Bath speaks volumes about feminism during her introduction. She speaks of her five husbands, and how the fifth eventually kowtows to her after striking her deaf in one ear. The problem between Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, and her last husband, Jankin, is a classic one. Jankin wishes to know the truth about things. He is something of an armchair philosopher, whose quest for knowledge appeals to him greatly. In his pursuit of knowledge, he has come across a large number of anti-feminist works.
One text mentioned is Ecclesiastes. In this text, Solomon makes it clear how he feels about women. While he had 700 wives and 300 concubines, all of whom were no doubt well provided for, there can be little ambiguity about his lack of respect for them: “And I find more bitter than death the woman, whose heart is snares and nets, and her hands as bands: whoso pleaseth God shall escape from her; but the sinner shall be taken by her. Behold, this have I found, saith the preacher, counting one by one, to find out the account: Which yet my soul seeketh but I find not: one man among a thousand have I found; but a woman among all those have I not found.” (Bible, Eccl. 7:26-28)
It seems easy to read between the lines on this piece, and say that he’s met few men that he could respect, but never met any women that he could respect. This seems to be the general theme of all of the authors Jankin was reading. Jankin apparently couldn’t understand that his wife was not the agreeable creature that he expected her to be, simply because he believed it should be so. He appears to have thought that anyone, male or female, should be able to understand and appreciate, on at least an aesthetic level, what he considered to be great truths in literature.
It also appears not to have occurred to Jankin that Alisoun might in fact be seeking dominion over him. That is probably one of the reasons she chose to marry someone significantly younger than herself. It may also account for her statement after the violent episode was recalled. Once he had expressed his remorse for striking and deafening her, and once he had capitulated his control over the estate and all of their familial business, “After that day we hadden never debaat.” (Norton 822)
Her story after the prologue reinforces this sentiment by telling the tale of a knight-rapist who is punished by death–commuted if he can discover what women want, namely emotional and social independence from their men, and also the tale of the old hag who manages to bend him to her will, just as Alisoun has bent Jankin to hers—albeit the circumstances are not the same. The crone succeeds in saving the knight, but at the cost of his dominion over women in general, and over her in particular. The crone then rewards the knight for his capitulation by promising to be both in charge, and a beautiful and desirable wife. We must assume some magic is at work here, of course, but since this is an Arthurian tale, some measure of magic is almost required.
The Clerk tells a tale that puts women in a more traditional role sociologically. The Clerk’s Tale serves primarily to applaud the virtues of patience and noble suffering in women, as represented by Griselde. She suffers unimaginable tortures at the hands of Walter, losing her two children and finally being divorced, even being ejected naked into the countryside to return to her father’s home. All of this is done merely to prove that she is capable of bearing any burden placed upon her. However, although the story is a celebration of Griselde’s fortitude, the Clerk accurately judges that it would be impossible for any woman to legitimately withstand the suffering that Griselde faced with such resignation.
Furthermore, her extreme behavior is not even commendable to the clerk or to the reader, since she allows her husband to “’murder” her two children without struggle. The Clerk indicates that women should strive toward the example that Griselde sets, but not necessarily follow her example in such an extreme form. It is only the fact that Griselde demonstrates awareness of her plight but remains true to her love that keeps her from seeming like a complete fool to the reader, for who else but a fool would tolerate so much pain in silence? The only completely implausible moment is near the end, when Griselde returns to her place at his side without so much as an afterthought to how angry she should rightly have been. This too might be taken as an object lesson to women, that retaliation or harboring a grudge against your lord-husband is a fruitless endeavor, so why bother?
The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser
Caution against open and sensitive love seems pervasive amongst the writings of Spenser and his contemporaries, like the author of –Arcadia, Sir Philip Sidney. The Faerie Queene fairly broadcasts this as almost a sub-theme of the entire work. The entire work, which Spenser himself claimed to be merely allegorical in nature, is actually also a veiled historical allegory which refers to many people and events of Spenser’s past and present. He even shows his hand in the preface letter written in 1589, “A Letter of the Authors Expounding His Whole Intention…” –one of the longer titles this reader has been subjected to. Spenser claims his intents with regards to the main characters of the story, in that the hero, King Arthur, was to embody “the twelve private morall vertues.” (Norton 625)
The female characters, by contrast, are all fairly two-dimensional and most are not very flattering to the female psyche. By his own admission, the Faerie Queen herself was intended to be an “excellent beauty” that would draw the young Arthur to her side. Nothing about her nobility of spirit, or her gentleness comes to his mind as he’s describing the situation to his reader. (Norton, p. 625) The best character for females that Spenser introduces is Britomart—or Britomartis—who represents chastity.
In the third book of The Faerie Queene, Spenser makes a complete study of the virtue of chastity through several different characters. He departs from the formula he used previously and sets up a new tone that is more complex and sensual. In so doing, he shows how some women are made stronger and happier by practicing virtue and other females are ruined by ignoring it–thus fulfilling the didactic purpose of teaching all the virtues that create a perfect person fit for salvation, which was the ultimate goal of Spenser in his allegoric tale.
The character that Spenser uses to teach the reader of chastity is the Lady Knight Britomart. Britomart is on an unending quest to find the object of her chaste love, the knight Arthegall, whom she had “seene in Venus looking glas” (Norton p 787, l.72) which had been created or “…deviz’d / By his deepe science, and hell-dreaded might.” (Norton p. 805, l. 159-60) Her devotion and commitment to Arthegall makes her the ideal representation of chastity and sets the standard by which the rest of the characters will be compared. No matter who she meets or what situation she gets into, she never forgets her commitment to Arthegall. This kind of chastity is reflected in the character of Florimell. Florimell also searches for her love, the fallen knight Marinell, and encounters one test after another of her virtue. She gets captured by the son of a witch, and, escaping that, is chased by a hyena (Norton, p. 839). On the verge of the death in these perils her only concern is retaining her honor (chastity) so as to remain worthy of Marinell. She never willingly lets the fisherman touch her and she ignores all the wooing of the sea god Proteus. Like Britomart, Florimell remains faithful to her love. In this way, Spenser demonstrates what he views as the appropriate behavior of women. All this while, characters like the Squyre of Dames in Book III Canto vii, who is questing to woo as many women as possible (U. of Oregon, Book III, Canto vii, l. 472-514) for both successes and now failures.
There are also characters that represent the opposite of the ideal Britomart and Florimell—among others—represent. The Giantess Argante is one. Her outrageous incestuous relationship with her brother and her monstrous sexual encounters with every young male she can kidnap makes her an unpleasant example of unchaste promiscuity. The Squire Argante kidnapped also represents unchaste promiscuity. His strange quest to find as many chaste women as unchaste women results in his finding a huge number of unchaste women requesting his services and only three chaste women denying. Then there’s the couple, Paridell and Hellenore–who reprise the roles of Paris and Helen, who caused the Trojan War with their unfaithfulness. Their affair winds up in a repeat of the rape of Helen with her eventual abandonment among the Satyrs and the fall of Malbecco. This object lesson that adultery will only lead to ruin is pretty unsubtle in this presentation.
While certainly no one would ever begrudge these long-dead authors for their opinions on the matter of feminism, one does find some of these opinions slightly distasteful. In the course of research on this topic, there were simply too many references to such attitudes and opinions to include them all in this simple work. Several different summaries of Utopia, for example, suggest an intonation that the peoples of that country let their women do less physical work, because they simply couldn’t handle the effort. (Sparknotes Section 9) Aside from that minor distinction, it appears to the reviewer that all other jobs are distributed with indifference to sex. A nice sentiment that I wonder if More shared with that reader.
In all, it bears little surprise that the overwhelming sentiment of most male writers on the Middle Ages English Literature scene are biased towards male dominated society. Having nothing as an exemplar of successful matriarchal or non-gender dominant society upon which to base even a fictional account, these authors were left to mirror their own experiences, and at best to encourage the best possible behavior of each gender in its perceived strong points, while diminishing the appeal of undesirable behavior. Most of these authors appear to either discount the entire argument all together—in such writings as “The Dream of the Rood,” or the Mystery play “Everyman” for example, little interest is paid at all to gender issues—or to make their opinion clear as crystal.
Many of the most popular works of this time period are strongly sentimental towards a male dominant society in which the woman plays the part of chaste and beautiful object of desire, respectful and obedient observer, noble treasure, and to abuse a modern euphemism, trophy wife. This is perhaps one reason why modern readers, who tend to be more sensitive to such attitudes, find reading these classical works so much more challenging than reading more modern works—even those still as old as post-renaissance works like those of the Bronte sisters, or of Jane Austen.
Spenser, Edmund. (1590) “The Faerie Queene” University of Oregon. http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/queene3.html
Spenser, Edmund. “The Faerie Queene” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I of II. Ed. Abrams, M.H. et al. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version. Meridian, The Penguin Group: New York, New York.
More, Sir Thomas. (1516) “Utopia” Sparknotes: Utopia, Section 9.