Things we can expect: WOMEN TALK. In Arthurian literature (and life in general, but life in general is not the topic of this blog)

Dear internet:

Today is a day on which I need to vent my frustration! In the course of my attempt to write a chapter of my thesis (it is not going very well, because every time I get rolling I run into something infuriating) I have discovered something: if a woman character does anything interesting, ever, EVERYONE, including most of the feminist scholars, will declare that she is transgressing gender boundaries.

One which I see coming up again and again is women’s use of powerful words. Ellen Germain, in her argument that Lunette acts as a man1, argues that Lunette’s lectures to Yvain and Lunette on the appropriate course of action and on political responsibility are a masculine function (she borrows a little here from Kreuger, who argues that Lunette’s words to Laudine ‘resemble those of her male advisor’ – I presume this is a hypothetical male advisor, since I don’t recall there being a male advisor in the episode). Maureen Fries’ analysis of women’s roles in Arthurian lit, ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’ identifies a ‘female hero’ as a woman who steps outside of normative gender behavior, especially through the use of wit and powerful words. Perhaps her most interesting example is Enide, whose character she divides in two – the archetypical heroine of the opening and closing sequences of the poem, and the ‘wife-hero’ during her estrangement from Erec, during which period she exhibits a ‘loyal and loving disobedience’. Building on Fries’ work, Margaret Jewett Burland argues that Enide is concurrently both heroine and female hero (rather than either one or the other at any given time). As evidence for this, Burland notes that Enide transgresses furthest from gendered expectations *after* her reunion with Erec, when she upbraids Guivret for his unchivalrous behavior in attacking the wounded Erec.

Absolutely, yes! I am completely behind the idea that Enide’s character is a coherent whole, and that, as Burland argues, she, like her husband, undergoes an heroic crisis and subsequent transformation.

But what’s with this assumption that it’s outside of gendered expectations for a woman to exert power through words? No really, what the hell? Not all of Chrétien’s women-characters do exert power through words: Fenice does not; if Laudine does, it is primarily through her mourning speech which Yvain happens to accidentally overhear; Soredamors does not; Guinevere does, but frequently for dubious moral purposes.

But many of Chrétien’s women-characters do exert power through words: as Burland herself argues, over the course of her journey Enide learns to use her powers of speech for positive effect (at first self-defense, but later for the defense of others, and eventually as a creative act with the power to restore social harmony); Lunette talks all the damn time and without her rhetorical powers Yvain’s story simply wouldn’t happen. The two feuding sisters present their case to Arthur’s court. The weaving maidens tell their story to Yvain. Now that I think about it, Fenice *is* able to speak and exert power through words, but primarily in homosocial context – her appeals to Thessala incite Thessala to take actions which are beneficial to Fenice. The Conte du Graal is positively littered with women who turn up and upbraid one or other of the heroes and influence their actions in some way.

WOMEN TALK. Not all of the talking-women are heroines, but they are still there. It seems to me that “gendered expectations” in the mouths of scholars doesn’t actually refer to *things we can see that women do in Arthurian romance* but rather to *things we, twenty/twenty-first century scholars, expect women to do in Arthurian romance*. Maureen Fries’ ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’ shows pretty clearly that there are (at least) three common archetypes of womanhood in Arthurian lit: at yet scholars, Fries included, persist in acting as though the only set of behaviors which might be expected of a woman are those of the heroine.

Which is not to say that these three (for the sake of argument) archetypes aren’t valued differently (it seems pretty clear to me that the heroine is normally more highly valued than the female hero and the counter-hero). But if you have a set of recurring character-types – such that one can say that a woman who does this will also do that and the other; if this set of behaviors is not normally censured, or, if censured, does not normally result in the woman being treated by her fellow characters as a gender traitor:2 then what you have here is not one set of “gendered expectations” but several.


1. Disclaimer: Germain’s methodology is all over the place. I honestly can’t tell if she thinks Lunette is a man in gender, or if she thinks Lunette is a masculine woman, or if she means Lunette is “narratively male”, a term I’ve seen come up in Lacanian discussions to label any woman who does anything interesting, ever (because of how women are all passive and receptive and boring and so on, Lacan said so). Germain doesn’t seem to have read Butler, which is fair enough since her article was published in ’91, only a year after Gender Trouble. But she also doesn’t seem to have mastered the distinction between sex and gender, and I’m told *that* has been around since Simone de Beauvoir. My conclusion is that Germain’s work doesn’t tell us much about Lunette’s own gender-idenity, *or* about Chrétien’s ideas about womanhood, but a lot about Germain’s own inability to countenance the idea that women might actually do interesting things in medieval lit.
2. Some women are: consider the Malevolent Maiden, in the Conte du Graal who is “not a maiden” but instead “worse than Satan”. The Malevolent Maiden, although she speaks in her own right and has some power to manipulate other characters, is neither Female Hero nor Counter-Hero by Fries’ standards: rather, she is a potential-heroine gone wrong, a woman who occupies the place of a heroine in the narrative but refuses to conform to the heroine’s model of femininity.


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