This is a thinking-out-loud post!

Not the post I meant to make, but hey, I’m thinking! Let’s show my thoughts to the internet!

Medieval - a woman readingI’ve been (re)reading the first chapter of Susan Crane’s Gender in Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. This chapter is entitled ‘Masculinity in Romance’, and I was chasing it on the basis of some footnotes in Gaunt’s Gender and Genre. It lived up to the recommendations of said footnotes by having a nice, simple, clear explanation of the difference between the postmodern/Foucault-ian subject and the Lockean individual, with useful citations for explaining how each of these have and have not been taken to apply to the ‘individual’ in medieval romance. \o/ Definitely going on my mental bibliography for spitting out at sufficiently engaged students!

So that’s all good: the Individual has been conquered!

What’s clunking around in my braaain at the moment is her section on ‘Masculinity as a function of difference’. Let’s enumerate:

Obvious Point: Women are constructed as the opposites of men; masculinity is concieved as ‘not-feminine’, so femininity is used to set the boundaries of acceptable masculine identity and performance. YUP, GOT THAT. APPLICABLE TO MANY SITUATIONS, NOT JUST MEDIEVAL LIT.

Not-so-obvious Point: you can get a ‘counterprocess’ which ‘rehabilitates’ feminine traits and incorporates them back into idealised masculinity.


Crane’s examples for this include some from the Canterbury Tales and some historical examples. In particular, she talks about the role of women in inspiring pity and mercy in men who have been figured as aggressive, assertive manlydudes. She argues, along with someone named Jill Mann, that Chaucer is working around or perhaps against strict gender role divisions: that he wants ways for men to take on ‘good’ feminine characteristics in order to have, basically, the best of both worlds.

Crane argues that the universal ideal remains ultimately masculine – a Sensitive Late Middle Ages Guy, perhaps, a chap who has all the best manly traits and can show pity, or be passive in appropriate circumstances,  or not pursue revenge, etc, under the influence of women.* Feminine traits become part of the masculine ideal, but the reverse does not apply: masculine pursuits/traits do not become feminine when women do them. (Eg: ruling, fighting.)


Right. First problem with Crane’s argument is a result of talking about Chaucer. In talking about ‘how Chaucher plays with the genre of romance’ she’s got to reduce ‘romance’ to a discrete entity. For instance: romance polarises genders, Chaucer plays about with gender roles. Romance does X, Chaucer builds on it in this way. The Roman d’Eneas also seems to be her most-frequently cited example, which… doesn’t seem like the greatest choice to me if you want to talk about ‘what Romance does’: the romances of antiquity do quite different things, structurally, thematically and gender-wise, to the Matter of Britain and assorted other romances.

A medieval painting - woman throwing snowballsIt seems to me that one of the things that ‘romances do’ is exactly what Crane pulls out here: set up binaries and then play with them. Play with ways in which men might become objects of desire – as Yvain is to Lunette-on-behalf-of-Laudine, for example. Play with the intersections of binary systems: does the love/honour binary map neatly onto the homosocial/heterosexual binary? To me, and I’ll grant I’m biased, this is something at which Chrétien seems to be particularly skilled, but one finds it in other romances as well. There’s a whole chapter on this in Constance Brittain Bouchard’s Every Valley Shall Be Exalted, a book which makes me jump up and down and flail incoherently at undergrads. That means it’s good.

Secondly, I’m not sure about the ‘masculine traits don’t become feminine when practiced by women’ thing. Or rather, I think it’s being framed badly, and that there’s a bit of a confusion between ‘feminine’ and ‘acceptable/appropriate for women’. It might not be feminine for women to be politically active, but it was certainly held to be appropriate.  There’s an excellent Kimberly LoPrete article called ‘Gendering Viragos’ on this, and I’ve just rehearsed it all at length in my draft, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice to say: it would be an unusual politically active man in the high middle ages who hadn’t met at least one politically active and powerful woman.

LoPrete’s work does dovetail with Crane’s arguments, to some extent: LoPrete argues that masculine-women, or women doing manly things, did not become non-women in doing so. They merely became exceptional (usually in a good way). So I can see how this works: if only exceptional women possess said capacities, clearly they’re not ‘feminine’. Rightyo.

One thing Crane missed is that at times, historically (and she does use historical examples in her arguments), women-doing-manly-things would do them, or be praised for doing them, while displaying traditional feminine virtues. In a different LoPrete work, on Adela of Blois, you’ll find that that most excellent lady was praised (or arranged to be praised?) as a suitable leader for her husband’s extended family on the basis of her qualities as a loyal wife, a devoted mother, and a chaste widow. Those qualities were framed as signs of strength of character and mind, making her suitable for the extra-ordinary role of woman-doing-manly-things.

The Lion in Winter - We've *all* got knives. It's 1183 and we're barbarians.That strength of character and mind – enabling a woman to stand her ground and take initiative against men – is in fact what we see Enide develop over the course of Erec et Enide: the courage to stand up for herself and her husband; skills of verbal manipulation; and self-confidence. These skills (which Maureen Fries frames as ‘heroic’ ones, distinct from heroinely feminine traits like beauty, passivity, shyness, etc) are the ones which will make her a suitable wife for a king, and a suitable mother for a king’s heirs.** Those may not be feminine traits but nor are they exclusively masculine: they’re queenly, in this context.

Another thing which bugs me, and which didn’t come up specifically in Crane’s chapter, but to which Crane’s argument lends itself, is the classifying of all iniative-taking and active roles as masculine.  Verbal manipulation, for example, often turns up as a powerful weapon in the hands of women: sometimes, heroes like Erec need women to do their verbal manipulatin’ for them. If you read those traits as masculine, is it a critique of romance heroes that they often lack rhetorical skill? If skill with words is a woman’s power, are some kinds of power therefore feminine? For that matter: is female lust feminine? Ruth Marzo Karrass uses the word ‘hyper-Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingfeminine’ to refer to seductive women, like, say, the Lovesome Damsel of the Knight of the Cart. If that’s hyper-femininity, then is it hyper-feminine simply because the woman takes initiative (surely not – consider Blanchefleur, in assorted Perceval romances, who doesn’t seem to be at all evil for sneaking into Perce’s bed to convince him to protect her)?

And what happens when a woman possesses both masculine and feminine traits? If her masculine traits aren’t integrated into her feminine personality, as with manly men who do feminine things, what then?

Ahah. Answer: Constance Brittain Bouchard! I love Every Valley Shall Be Exalted. Can we argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ traits of an ‘extraordinary woman’ co-exist in productive tension, much as Love and Honour in the hero? I think I’d like to argue that. Watch me try to argue that!


* I’m intrigued that no connection seems to be made in Crane’s argument – I’m not sure about Jill Mann’s, not having read it – to more modern feminist theories about women being expected to ‘socialise’ men. If the King pardons criminals in the Queens name, that doesn’t actually mean that this Queen herself is merciful and this particular King is a nasty bugger, but it does seem to me that Queens generally are supposed to soften the edges of Kings generally. I wonder if the reason the connection’s not made is that it doesn’t hold up, or that it just… hasn’t been made.

** Citations: Maureen Fries, ‘Female Heroes, Heroines and Counter-Heroes’, and Margarett Jewett Burland, ‘Chrétien’s Enide’.

You might be able to teach Chrétien without talking about rape, but I shan’t

Yesterday, I talked about some ethical problems that bug me when it comes to teaching texts with a lot of sexual violence in them. As you may have gathered from that post, I don’t have a choice about what my texts are at the moment, but I do get to make some judgement calls on how to introduce them in tutorials, and about what goes into the lectures when I’m scheduled to lecture. As I noted in that post, I made this judgement calls after talking to fellow bloggers and my boss, and having read a few chapters on teaching ‘dangerous subjects’.

Since we’re talking about warnings protocol, have a trigger warning for academic discussion of rape in literary texts.

I made my judgement call  as a tutor last semester: I gave trigger warnings for the Conte du Graal and Chevalier de la Charette: I advised that there were attempted rape scenes, and suggested that those for whom that posed a problem, summaries online might help them navigate the text. This semester I did the same, with an added warning for blood and guts in the Chanson de Roland (less of a hot topic, but I do have at least one friend, a medieval studies student although not at my uni, who cannot handle descriptions of blood and guts, even in text).

Interestingly, I now know I’m not the only person doing something like this: a student mentioned to me that a tutor in a different course had emailed her personally to let her know that the following week’s content dealt with death and bereavement, which the tutor knew might be difficult for her. That was a one-to-one exchange, but nevertheless, the principle stands. The tutor in question was a formidable academic (not in my field at all) for whom I have great respect, so I took heart from this evidence that I’m not running around in circles here with a strange newbie idea all by myself.

Another judgement call was in order for the actual lecture content. In the end, I simply couldn’t talk about Erec et Enide without talking about rape, because rape – or more specifically, raptus (marriage-by-capture, which Magistra covered here) is so tied up in the marital politics of Chrétien’s romances. How do you talk about the Count of Limors and the deliberate (ironic?) contrast between him and Erec without talking about raptus? So that answered the ‘is it necessary’ question, and I gave the class a general warning last week that there was a ‘high probability of me talking about rape’.

A lecture - the art of transferring information from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the students without passing through the minds of eitherWhen I sat down to structure the second lecture, though, I ended up talking about far more rape than I’d meant to. I ended up structuring the whole lecture around ‘the two most difficult topics – rape and structuralist theory’. They’re difficult for completely different reasons, but both are topics that I wanted to walk the class through personally. I wanted to give the class a run-down of Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity, so that those who needed to deal with him could go in armed with my lecture slides. He’s difficult because of his dense prose, which is, um, useful, but not exactly undergrad-friendly, shall we say? He’s also challenging because his ‘schema’ based structuralist approach looks for commonalities across a wide range of texts, which doesn’t easily account for unique features of particular narratives. That provides a great opportunity for creative students to start with the framework and poke at how it doesn’t quite fit the text; but given that it’s taken me a year and a half to feel I can do that comfortably myself, I thought second-years deserved a walk-through before we set them loose on the essays.

And I ended up approaching the whole topic of sexual violence in the same way. I had to conclude that it would be negligent of me to teach this text without talking about what the hell is with all the rape. What I said to them at the outset is that I wanted to give them some idea of an academic way of responding to this, in addition to the perfectly understandable readerly response of throwing the book across the room and declaring that they’re all shits. So that’s what we did: we walked through each of the attempted abduction and forced marriage scenes, tied them in to a reading which focuses on Enide progressively becoming more outspoken; and talked about masculinity, rape law, and so on. I gave two different but complementary readings on why all this rape, taken from Katherine Gravdal and Tracy Adams respectively, and I really hope that by the end of it the class could go away with something to say about sexual violence in 12th century romance other than “oh god they’re all bastards”.

I don’t know if this is a right answer, but right now, I would rather be the teacher who talked about rape too much than the teacher who pretended like it wasn’t there at all. I am going to trust that, with a heads-up in advance, anyone with really devastating triggers will make whatever decisions they need to, given that attendance is not marked in lectures; and that the remaining body of students benefit in some way from a content-heavy lecture on what the hell is with all the rape.

Also, I think I deserve a cookie for managing to get the I-read-this-so-you-don’t-have-to summary of Donald Maddox to flow smoothly into a discussion of all the rape, and close readings of Enide’s speeches. Now if only my thesis were this so coherent.

[Yeah, this post gives away quite a lot about me and my institution and my job. Given that my associate supervisor reads this – hi, Lawrence – and so do a number of my former students and my postgrad peers, the discretion ship has sailed.]

Can you teach Chrétien without talking about rape?

Going to hell in a bobsled cause it's faster than a basketThere must be a special hell for anyone who gives a lecture titled ‘Erec et Enide II: Rape, and structuralist theory’. And it is to this hell that I am going, in my specially designed handbasket.

Some time ago, I had a conversation in a comment thread somewhere with Magistra about how one might handle problematic and potentially triggering material in a classroom setting. I’ve also had long conversations with people in my LJ, and a couple of conversations with my boss, and I’ve read with care the ‘Teaching Dangerous Subjects’ chapter in Elaine Showalter’s Teaching Literature, and a similar chapter in a book of essays on history pedagogy.

Background: I have participated in feminist internet spaces for long enough that it is now second nature to me to provide trigger warnings before recommending material to people. I sometimes miss things, but still, if I lend you my Sara Douglass books I will give them to you with profuse recommendations and a cautionary note for graphic rape and general misogyny on the part of the characters (but not, I believe, the author). Even if I don’t think that will bother you in particular.

The Geek Feminism wiki explain it better than I can:

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called “being triggered”.

They tend to look like this: Trigger warning for: academic discussion of rape in literary texts. (You may now consider yourselves warned for this post. You should probably consider yourselves warned for my blog at large and also any conversation you get into with me in a pub.)

There is often a lot of debate and wank about precisely how much warning is necessary, in what formats, and so on. I think we can skip over that, but one common point of contention to which the debate keeps coming back is the conflict between the desire of the creator of, say, a fanvid, to educate the audience about something (say, violence against women in TV shows), and the need of some audience members to protect themselves from just that material. Fear of censorship also runs pretty strongly there.

Personally, I wouldn’t like to work or learn in an institution where one wasn’t allowed to discuss problematic material. I would also be skeptical of any attempt to make broad policies on warnings in educational context, since it seems likely to me to swiftly become more about policing the curriculum and Thinking of The Children than extending courtesy to adults who just happen to be our students. I also see a significant difference between texts one reads for educational purposes and texts or blogs or whatever that one reads for fun. But it’s still a problem – how do you frame sexual violence in a literary classroom?

  • Do I have a responsibility to teach my students about sex and violence in 12th century literature? That’s not actually a straight forward question. They didn’t enrol in ‘Violence in Italy’ (one hopes students of Violence in Italy are prepared for, well, violence). They enrolled in a general medieval studies course.
  • Do I have a responsibility to discuss sex and violence in Erec et Enide, given that I didn’t chose the text (perhaps I would have chosen a less rape-tastic text… or perhaps not)? I’m pretty sure my boss got through last year’s lectures on same without talking for half an hour about rape. Am I banging my personal drum and potentially harming others in so doing?
  • But conversely, would it be negligent to leave out an intellectually challenging, infinitely fascinating area of study which I know a couple of students are particularly interested in, because it’s too problematic?
  • Would giving trigger warnings imply that one doesn’t need to read a text to pass the course/learn the content? And if one doesn’t need to, then shouldn’t a teacher use that class time on something more accessible and more valuable?
  • Would I handle this question differently if it were another issue, equally problematic but with less personal relevance to me? Would I handle a violently racist text differently? Would I discuss genocide differently?
  • One problem we don’t have in Chrétien studies, but I’m told we do have in other areas, especially the study of Sir Degarré, is how does one deal with secondary material which is itself problematic (a friend of mine has run into ‘but it wasn’t real rape’ type commentaries in Sir Degarré). Thus far, everyone I’ve found either handles the sexual violence in E&E fairly well, or doesn’t touch it at all: but it’s a point of pedagogical concern worth keeping in mind.

I am not speaking from a point of patronising concern here, either. The week I first read Cligés, I could do nothing and think of nothing else. My first reading of Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens also chewed up a lot of my mental and emotional energy, in a way that, say, Donald Maddox’s Fictions of Identity never does (it saps my will to live with its dense prose, but isn’t actually traumatic). Now, I dealt with that by giving a paper on sex and submission in Cligés, but I’m an odd case and I don’t expect that your average undergrad deals with upsetting material by turning it into exciting academic work.

That raises another concern – I worry about my own vulnerability. I worry about acknowledging that this material is upsetting as well as academically challenging; I worry about what that says to students about me. Conversely, I worry about being seen as callous or perverse because I’m interested in rape as a literary trope. I worry that these perceptions might detract from the academic content of my work; I worry that students might find them too self-revealing, or threatening in some way.

This post is getting long, so I shall cut it here, and tomorrow talk about the judgement calls I make as a tutor with regard to set texts, and with regard to my lecture content, which did, in the end, talk about rape rather a lot.

Discuss the Role of Women in [Thing]

You know what essay question bores the pants off me?

Discuss the role of women in [Thing].

For [Thing] insert primary text, time period, historical event, whatever. This question annoys the  hell out of me.

The Lion in  Winter - We've *all* got knives.  It's 1183 and we're barbarians.And yet I wrote that essay almost every time it came up, in my undergrad. And before, actually.  I have a twenty-something-page folio which I compiled somewhere in early high school, entitled (in metallic gel pen) Women in the Middle Ages. It concludes with a one-thousand-word essay on The Role Of Women In The Middle Ages, laid out in more or less the same format as the one I’d keep re-using in uni (answer: SEXISM, BUT.  Or sometimes, ARSE-KICKING, but SEXISM).

So this question annoys me. And yet I ate it up with a spoon as a student. I remember once going to Tutor Awesome and asking her for a Question About Women because I hadn’t done my biannual Essay About Women. Essays about women, I explained to her, were a nice sideline. A bit of a break from serious stuff. She sort of went cross-eyed, bit her tongue, and set me an essay on Ælfric’s construction of female  heroism re: Judith. And I ended up wining a prize for it. And I had to deal with scholars who understand Judith Butler and Lacan, and basically Tutor Awesome kicked my arse from here to feminism. A thing which she only got to do because I wanted to write miscellaneous essays on women.

Also, there’s the part where my current thesis is based on an essay I wrote in honours on the Role Of Women In the Chevalier au Lion. And the part where some of the best tutorial papers I had last semester were students presenting on The Role Of Women in [Text].

It still annoys me, though. As a question.

Proud to fight like a girlOne of the key problems with it is that, unless you happen upon a Tutor Awesome who wants to kick your arse, you don’t actually have to learn any new critical skills to answer The  Role Of Women In  The Middle Ages. You have to assimilate new information, yes, but you can usually answer that question with Sexism, But…

As a question, it doesn’t push you toward why answers. A clever student will find why answers themselves, but they actually have to move away from the ‘discuss the role of women’ purview a bit to do it.  Compare that to, say, Discuss the development of the character of  Guinevere across X-number of texts – that question is set up for comparisons, identification of key themes, and unless you’re very very silly, a why is this so conclusion.

The standard LadyQuestion also tends not to link in well with other key themes of the course. I’ve noticed this across history and literature units, and it’s ridiculous. If you’re talking about women in medieval literature, set genre questions about the Role of Women. Make people think about the difference between epic and romance!*

Monty Python's knights, singingThere’s also the habit of talking about chivalry and women and not masculinity and femininity, which leaves out the possibility of forcing students into comparing ideas of men’s and women’s honour, and various other fun things like that.

In Ur History - emhasizin ur wimmenzThere’s also the fact that there are lots of kinds of women in medieval literature (and life), and smart students with an interest in LadyHistory often get screwed over by the necessity of covering them all.  One could, horror of horrors, set several LadyQuestions each with narrower purviews!

And yet, students like the Standard LadyQuestion. And it does provide me with great opportunities to thwack them all over the head with Simon Gaunt and Katherine Gravdal and Joan M.  Ferrante. I am torn!


* Someone did set me that question once. I have an essay on women in the Song of Roland which talks about emerging romance tropes in the treatment of women… which is bizarre, since it wasn’t like I had  any earlier comparisons than Roland, but w/ever. I tried. Or the question-setter tried.

Improbable story time, or, Highly grumbles about dude-centric assumptions

Let me tell you a story.

Let’s say we have a girl, born in France, oh, around 1150. She’s the daughter of nobility; not royalty or the daughter of a duke, but well-established baronial class. Let’s say she’s not the eldest daughter; perhaps the second or third child. Let us suppose that she also has at least one uncle well-placed in the secular clergy, or perhaps female relatives in a nunnery. Let’s suppose that she spends some time with these religiously-inclined relatives. Perhaps she even considers taking vows herself, but just as they lack money Medieval: a woman readingfor a dowry right now, her family don’t have the money to make the substantial donation required. Or perhaps they have a falling-out with the religiously-inclined relative and their institution. Maybe they need her in order to broker a treaty-and-marriage arrangement with a former enemy, but the former enemy decides he’d rather be a current enemy, and the deal falls through.

One way or another, our young noblewoman – let’s call her Helene, for no particular reason – never enters the church, but she picks up a knack for Latin (she’s always been good with languages) and a passing familiarity with bits and pieces of Christian doctrine. What Helene likes best, though, is poetry. She really, really likes Ovid.

Mind you, Helene has always liked poetry. Picture Helene as a child: she has a knack, she remembers things easily, she learns nursery rhymes and folk songs and charms from her nurses. When she’s old enough to join her mother and older sisters, she learns the stories women tell one another, folk stories from here and there, and the songs the troubadours come to tell them. She’s not always a part of her father’s court, and she doesn’t get to join him at the county court, as her mother sometimes does – so her chances to hear really good singers and storytellers are limited. Helene likes stories and Manuscript image - a pipersongs; Helene’s sisters and friends enjoy stories and songs. So what they do, when they hear particularly good chansons or the newer songs, the romans of with heroes and damsels and magic – what they do when they hear them is memorise them. They don’t get everything right; they don’t have the training in metre and mnemonic skills that the troubadours have. But Helene has a knack. When they try to retell the stories to themselves, Helene is the one who’s best at putting it all together in her memory, and making up new bits to paste over the gaps.

The time Helene gets to spend with her religiously-inclined aunt, or possibly uncle, sharpens her skills. She memorises Ovid and learns the rudiments of Latin poetic metre. When she returns to her family, her mother is taken into the Countess’ retinue, and Helene goes with her. Here, she has access to some of the finest poets and artists in France. She hears several different variations of the Song of Roland and gets all excited when she finds out that there’s a poet in town who knows a new song about William of Orange and his relatives. The other ladies in the Countess’ retinue think she’s a bit weird in her fixation, but they’re happy enough to listen to the exciting bits she’s memorised and can recite for them. Sometimes she tells silly versions, makes up daft stories about Charlemagne and William when they were children. Her mother laughs and says she’s a real poet. Helene knows mama is joking, but the idea sticks anyway.

Gwen, with crown

What Helene *really* likes, though, is the stories of King Arthur, and King Mark and Tristan – and Queens Guinevere and Iseult, and all the adventure and magic of the Matter of Britain. She listens to as many of them as she can, annoys as many troubadours and bards as she can, but there just don’t seem to be many such stories.

So she makes up her own. Helene makes up stories about King Mark and Tristan, and sometimes it seems like no one can tell the difference between her stories and the ones the Countess has read out of her big, beautiful books. And one day, one perfectly normal, perfectly nice day toward the end of summer, when Helene is sitting with the Countess and the rest of her ladies in the gardens, the Countess gets snappy, and sends the court poet away.

‘I think I’ve heard all his stories five times by now,’ the Countess says. She’s almost petulant. Helene’s never been very good at knowing when to keep her mouth shut.

‘I know a new story,’ she says. ‘A roman, one no one’s told at this court, at least not since mama and I came here.’

‘Go on,’ says the Countess. ‘What is it called?’

‘The Shoulder Bite,’ Helene says, and a few of the ladies’ raise their eyebrows.

Medieval MSS llustration - couple embracingThe Countess looks sceptical. ‘And who composed this… Shoulder Bite?’

Helene is suddenly stuck. She hadn’t thought this far, not at all. ‘A man from Troyes,’ she says, and Mama, at least, will know at once that she’s lying. ‘A Christian man, from Troyes.’

When, some time later, the Countess says to her that she would not mind hearing more romances by this ‘Christian from Troyes’, Helene is certain the Countess knows she’s lying, too. The name sticks, though.

Why, yes, that was an exercise in sophistry and extremely unlikely chains of events. I don’t actually think – not even in a wishful-thinking maybe-possibly-at-least-we-should-consider-it kind of way – that Chrétien de Troyes was actually Christina de Troyes. It’s just too unlikely: the co-incidences which would have to line up to produce a young woman with the right linguistic training and literary background (to say nothing of the author’s apparent familiarity with the squishy grey bits of canon law – but note, they are the bits to do with marriage) to produce the extant romances are phenomenal. And, perhaps more telling, the length of career under the one name, and the association with two different patrons, raises the chances of pseudonymous writing from ‘quite unlikely’ to ‘extremely improbable’.

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzBut consider for a moment the co-incidences which lined up to produce Heloise. Unlikely co-incidences but possible ones. Consider Marie de France. Consider that what’s more unlikely than Heloise, or Marie de France, is that Heloise and Marie de France are one-offs.*

It is, when you come down to it, pretty unlikely that a woman wrote any given piece of surviving medieval literature. But it’s very unlikely that every single one of the extant anonymous romances, and every single one of the extant male-attributed romances, was written by a man. Not when we know that women are more likely to write anonymously/pseudonymously, and more likely to have their authorship denied when they do write. Marie de France knew that – somewhere in one of her prologues or epilogues** there’s that fabulous rant daring any man to appropriate her words.

Y’know, we could talk about conventionally ‘girly’ literature. Gawain and Dame Ragnelle (except apparently that’s Malory now?). Ywain and Gawain, in which the ladies are a bit more prominent than in Chrétien’s original. Silence, if you want to pick a named-man-author who could be a pseudonym (I dunno about you, but the idea that Maistre Heldris was a cranky old woman amuses me no end). And you could pull out counter-arguments – the Gawain-poet is misogynist, clearly he’s a man! There’s too much hunting in this poem, ladies don’t hunt!*** And you’d probably be right, but also, you’d have made the bizarre assumption that ladies only write about lady-things, and all ladies – even in the twelfth-century – are forward-thinking in their assumptions about gender.

I’ve heard people suggest that the Wife’s Lament was written by a wife (logically enough), but no one ever suggests that the Wanderer-poet might have been a woman. You’d laugh me out of the internet if I said the Song of Roland was written by a woman, but we know nothing at all about the author. Would you consider it, though, for something like Floire et Blanchefleur? After all, F&B is less impressive, literary-wise; and it’s about ladythings, where by ladythings we mean… heroes. And heroines, but mostly heroes.

Last I checked, women live with men, care about men, read books about men, write books about men – it seems to me that this is only more likely to have been true in the Middle Ages, not less. If you need evidence that women are interested in men, and masculinity, and stories about men look at the genre of medieval romance. If you can hold down the simultaneous beliefs that romance, as a genre, catered to women *and* that ladies aren’t interested in stories about dudes, I… think you need to read some 70s feminist criticism of romance. Viz, it is, to a great degree, about dudes.****

Well behaved women rarely make history

I have nothing resembling an argument that any given text was written by anyone other than Standard Author Dude. It’s probable I never will have any such evidence. On a case-by-case basis, dude authors are usually more likely. Universal dudely authorship, or universal dudely authorship except where clearly stated otherwise and even then we’ll argue that she had a man helping her, though – that’s unlikely. And it bugs me that we have no way of talking about that. Some of these anonymous poems are probably by women! We don’t know which! There’s no secret formula for detecting ladywriting! But ladywriting certainly did happen, and probably some of it got preserved!


* Two-offs? Also note that Heloise is surely not the only pretty, clever girl seduced by an arrogant-but-attractive academic in the 12th century; she’s just the one we have a manuscript record for. Someone tell me why Heloise, respectable Abbess of the Paraclete, happily put down in writing (which was hardly a private mode of communication in that day and age) that she regularly thought about shagging when she should’ve been thinking about Mass? Understandable thoughts, but I’m curious as to why she didn’t think that would damage her standing when it became public knowledge!
** Can anyone give me a citation to the lai for this? All I have to hand is my year nine assignment on Medieval Women, which took the quote from a children’s book. I’ve seen it quoted enough times to know she did in fact write something to this effect, but have never got the text to hand when I want it.
*** Bullshit they don’t. They might not do the cutting-up themselves, but they’d have seen animals butchered. I am also informed by one of my students, who’s both a very bright medievalist and a re-enactor, that its’ easier to use a bow when you’re mounted side-saddle. I think it’s because you’re already in the side-on stance? And you’re basically wedged in and Citation needed [XKCD]can’t fall off. I didn’t know this until I decided to be a horrible shit and ask my class why they thought Sir Gawain was written by a man. That was a fabulous class full of cackling and glee. Mostly on my part.

**** Joan M. Ferrante, Woman as Image. Except not in quite those words. Like a good scholar, I have paraphrased and interpreted!

Ok, I have a terminology problem!

I'm in ur history - emphasizin ur wimmenzWhen talking about audiences of my thesis texts, I would like to divide them along gender lines.* I want to talk about women-in-the-audience without using hyphens.

I see two commonly used terms:

Women Readers


Female audience.

Medieval: a woman readingEach of them has a significant methodological problem. Women Readers implies that the act of reading is central to being in the audience. Although I think Kreuger, in her book of the same title, did tackle this problem in her introduction, as a general term, it’s misleading.

Female audience relies on the adjective female, meaning “possessing breasts and vagina and other appropriate ladyparts”.** When actually what I care about is audience-members who are women, that is, identified by themselves and/or those around them as women; individuals performing and expected to perform femininity; and individuals who are not performing femininity and are marked as transgressing the bounds of their gender because of it. Even if most or even ALL of that audience possess female junk, I don’t actually care about their ladyparts! Their ladyparts are not relevant to this conversation.

But woman audience just sounds wrong, and rather like I think there was only one woman who received this text (which it shouldn’t; nouns in compound must be the same in number – see also bookshelf) and women audiences still sounds like I want to treat them in discrete sets. Given that it’s also foolish to assume that an audience is homogenous, women audiences might be an acceptable option. But then you’d have to also say lay audiences (pl) and men audiences (pl) – doesn’t the latter one sound RIDICULOUS?

A rainbow-coloured small fluffy creature thingSo far, I’m sticking with female audience, on the grounds that the 12th century isn’t known for its sophisticated concepts of gender fluidity; an individual born with ladyparts had even less opportunity to self-identify as anything else than do genderqueer and transgendered people today. But it’s not an entirely satisfactory solution. What if I want to have a cross-disciplinary conversation about ladies-who-consume-literature with modern scholars? How does the gender-savvy modern literary theorist refer to an audience composed of women, without excluding transwomen? Perhaps the modern literary theorist can get away with women readers – but a film theorist, or pop culture theorist, surely can’t.


Also, speaking of genitalia and gender, here is a post about Christ’s penis. Go on, you know you want to.


*But why, I wonder? I mean, I am talking about gendery stuff, so it seems natural. And I think I agree with whoever-it-was (probably Kreuger) who argued that the gender gap between Man Dude Writing Things and women in his audience is bigger than the vocational gap between Clerk Dude Writing Things and his lay audience. Although as I recall that wasn’t so much argued as stated as if it were obvious to all right-thinking feminist readers. Hmmm. Given that this is romance, the fact that we have a Celibate Dude writing about love and sex and stuff is pretty damn important. Tracy Adams goes interesting places with this, as I recall. All that stuff about sex and rape and love and more rape? Probably written by celibate dudes who, at least in theory, were not supposed to do any of these things.

**In modern terms we might also mean “possessing XX chromosomes”, and then we can get into a fun conversation about how sex isn’t really binary at the chromosomal level, or the hormonal, or the neurological, and certainly not in the what-bits-go-where level. Unless someone has citations to the contrary, I’m operating on the assumption that the “male/female” decision was usually made in the Middle Ages on the basis of whether a baby was in possession of a penis or a vagina. If anyone has read fun and exciting articles about people with ambiguous genitalia in the middle ages, I would like to hear about it!

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.