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Subversive images of women in Medieval English literature : a selective reading
By Sheikh F. Shams
BRAC University Journal, Vol. 5 No. 2 (2008)
Abstract: It is commonly assumed that medieval society is hostile to women’s power. Women are continuously contained and constrained by the patriarchal norms of medieval Europe to strengthen the heroic ideals of masculinity, while maintaining the ideals of the domestic private sphere. This study shows that even within the domestic private sphere, women exert considerable amount of power to influence men’s actions. In fact, what we see are models of powerful women capable of damaging the heroic ideals of men. Hence there is a tendency to control women’s power. This essay explores how far this tendency to control is actually successful. If not then we are witnessing a tension between dominant Patriarchal ideology and the subversive images of women. The resistance that women characters in medieval literatures pose to the hegemonic ideology is a matter of particular interest of this paper. At the same time, the nature of their containment and appropriation is also something that this paper wishes to examine.
Introduction: In many instances of medieval English writing, we observe women characters that shatter our preconceived notion about the behaviour of medieval womanhood. For our pre-conceived notion is based on the conventional assumption attacked by Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski’s edited work, Women and Power in the Middle Ages: “[m]edieval society with its wars, territorial struggles, and violence, seems particularly hostile to the exercise of female initiative and power”. But, in contrast what we see in these writings are women characters who instead of being passively confined to the domestic and private sphere, participate in adventures along with men, control men’s courtly behaviour, and even in extreme cases take arms when they need to retaliate. Even within the domestic private sphere, women exert considerable amount of power to influence men’s actions.
In a nutshell, what we see are models of powerful women capable of causing damage to the heroic ideals of men, as the heroic ideals require feminization and repression of women. Grace Armstrong in her essay “Women of Power: Chretien de Troyes’s Female Clerks” refers to the theological justification of women’s repression: “she is a powerful and dangerous foe of man; her sexuality must be firmly controlled if she is not to betray him or make him lose his soul”. This explains why “medieval society . seems particularly hostile to the exercise of female initiative and power”.
Consequently, there exists a tendency to control women’s power. The question that arises from this assumption is worth pursuing: how far is this tendency to control women’s power actually successful. If not, then what we are witnessing is reduced (castrated) masculinity; hence a subversion of heroic ideals, as masculinity is one of the important bases of heroic ideals. In other terms, how ‘manly’ are the men portrayed in these works? Do we see a complete undoing of heroic ideals, or a readjustment and negotiation? The answers to these questions—yes or no—will certainly lead us to a larger historical question: whether these women represent the actual historical womanhood of the time, which I wish to address in this paper. At the same time we need to recognize the importance of genre in creating these anomalous portrayals of women.