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A Core What is the Role of Women in Medieval Literature

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Essay answering the question 'What is the role of women in medieval literature?'
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  David JonesEnglish I Texts In Context January/February 2000 What Is The Role Of Women In Medieval Literature? Medieval literature depicts direct though non-linear elements in what Jung termed the collective unconscious . That is, dreams, folklore and myths. Generally however these are the dreams of men, where women are symbols of aesthetic beauty, conquestand (subtly, as it goes against the chivalric ideal) sexual fulfilment. Unsurprisinglyhowever, this is not the complete picture over several centuries of writing. InMedieval literature the story is tantamount, and the significance of women variesdepending on their role as  symbols pointing to the latent meaning of each tale. In thisessay, focussing on the Breton lays 1 , typical female roles will be analysed in relationto Sir Orfeo . Analysis will then progress to the lays of Marie de France and I willcontend that these are an exception in terms of the role of women. The main symbolsin these lays are often female, and the latent meaning relates to the nature of being awoman. Sir Orfeo's Queen Herodis is little more than a symbol of beauty to be rescued.Following Kibler's ascertains that Medieval characters are individualized not by psychological development, but rather by the specific situations in which they findthemselves she must exist primarily to be absent. The meaning of the lay is not Mesto love , as claimed, but is in fact the hero’s capacity for love. This is demonstrated atthe outset when eighteen lines about Orfeo's love of harping are followed by a meresix about his wife:The king hadde a Queen of priisThat was y-cleped Dame Herodis,The fairest levedy for the nonesThat might gon on body and bones,Full of love and godenisse,Ac no man may tell of hir fairnise(lines 27-32)The lack of imagery in this superlative rhetoric leaves Herodis a far less vividcharacter than Triamoure in  Lanval. The final couplet almost negates her character by  David Jones   English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom  placing closing emphasis on her reputation. She is further dehumanised by thedecontextualised modern reader. Whilst the word “priis” may be closest to our word“excellence”, we cannot help associating connotations of “price” and the historicalsense that women were a commodity 2 . Herodis only seems a real “character” in thedialogue before she is taken away, declaring ever ich have y-loved thee 3 .Female naivety contrasts Orfeo's worldly cunning and allows him to be a truehero. There is the carefree, but almost infantile image of Herodis and two maidens(for women are rarely alone in lays) going:To play by an orchardside – To see the floures sprede and springAnd to here the foules sing.(lines 42-44)There is no denying the beauty in this image, the assonance of floures/foules andalliteration of sprede/spring creating an image of innocent woman at one with nature.However the purpose of this innocence is to create vulnerability. The equally naïvemaidens' failure to wake their Queen means that a dangerous situation soon occursand a hero is required to save the day.The corruption of femininity is used in Sir Orfeo to enhance dramatic impact.The Queen's waking, coming after lines of carefree female innocence, could not bemore of a contrast:She froted her honden and hir feetAnd crached her visage – it bled wete.Hir riche robe hie all to-rett(lines 55-57)The assonance is gone, the lines are protracted, and the rhythm is disjointed asmeaning cuts across couplets. rett not only relates to tearing but also hasconnotations of red , the saturation of blood she has caused. She uses her fingernails,symbols of femininity, to destroy her beauty: Thy body, that was so white y-core,/With thine nails is all to-tore! 4 . The corruption of femininity is a visceralsymbol recurrent through literature. In Wuthering Heights the unnaturally effeminateIsabella uses her fingernails to leave crescents of red on Catherine's arm.Similarly recurrent is Le Fresne's notion of a mother killing her child, 2  David Jones   English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom such as in Macbeth . Women's mysteriousness, in the eyes of men, enhances the mystique of thefairies in the spectacle of sexty levedis on hors 5 . In medieval terms this is the naturalorder debased. The hero is powerless against a mass of unarmed women. These silentautomatons, with their brutally efficient hawks, are utterly unsettling. The inherentmysteriousness of womanhood also makes Queen Herodis more ambiguous. It isuncertain whether she is kidnapped or seduced to the fairy kingdom. That she is easilyimpressed by its splendour establishes her, beyond the classical structure and Celticaesthetic, in an Eve-facing-temptation archetype.The extrinsic role of women, with female patrons emerging in a new middleclass audience, may explain the increased femininity of heroes like Orfeo, a musicianrather a warrior. A.B. Taylor (1930) simplistically states that these women found thestance of chivalry more palatable than Anglo-Saxon heroics 6 . Yet the shift in maleideals that came with the Norman invasion, focussing on the Virgin Mary 7 , may bemore accountable. Perhaps this ties in with the attractive speculation of JosephCampell 5 . He cites an eruption in Western thought of a new sense of the feminine, anarchetype suppressed by medieval misogyny. This archetype, expressed throughfantasy as it was inherently anti-Christian, built a new sense of the individual for bothsexes. Whether he is entirely accurate or not, I feel that this idea embodies best theunusual portrayal of women in the lays of Marie de France.Marie de France's  Lanval  is a progression from the traditional role of women,whether its author was a woman or not. Female characters are still commodities andsuperlative beauties. They exist, as feminists often cite in literature by men, at polarities; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous inthe extreme [Woolf, pg.2175]. These polarities are represented by Dame Triamoureand Guinere. David Wallace characterises the lay as a tale of female power overcoming female malice . This woman-orientated meaning focuses on theimplications of female power. Women have control over both Lanval and Arthur. Thelay is built on a crescendo of temptation/redemption, with the appearance of beautifuldamsels preceding Triamour before both seducing and saving Lanval.While the central character of   Lanval  is clearly its eponym, a case can be madefor Dame Triamoure being the most interesting, and important character. She is anintrojection of Jung's anima archetype 9 , in the shape of a wood nymph. She does nothowever represent the anima of the author, nor the main protagonist, as he is not3  David Jones   English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom  psychologically developed. Instead, she is  symbolic of this exemplar that taps into auniversal form in the human psyche. This is what, pre-Jung, Derek Brewer perhapsmeant when he claimed that lays made little logical sense but felt right . His phrasingrelated to the symbolical power in certain stories .Dame Triamoure is a dynamic creature playing several roles. She is describedoutside the human sphere, in the realm of nature, she surpassed in beauty the lily andthe new rose when it appears in summer 10 . Uniquely in lays, she is aware of her sexual power and utilises semi-nudity as a seduction tool. The lay's dramatic pinnaclecomes when, in front of the court, Triamoure let her cloak fall so that they could seeher better 11 . Her wealth infers power; an exception to France's succinct descriptionscomes in the hyperbolic portrayal of Triamoure's tent: the coverlets cost as much as acastle 12 . The eastern tone here establishes her as a fantasy figure, a goddess, outsidethe court system. Triamoure plays an unusual active role in events. As a kind of  deusex machina 13 she is more important in the hero's restoration from poverty than he ishimself. She goes against T.A. Shippley's idea of lays as male and female versions of growing up in not passively attracting Prince Charming. Instead she is almost afemale hero, rescuing the knight as Orfeo did his Queen, and eclipsing him in the process. Triamoure sums up the variety of roles she plays in a request to Lanval: Iadmonish, order and beg you .Queen Gwenere is at the opposite polarity of the archetype, demonstrating that the insinuations of the anima . . . can utterly destroy a man 14 . Interestingly, she doesnot use particularly different tactics to Dame Triamoure, calling maidens to surroundher as she approaches the king. The difference is that she is playing the negative position in the story, placing Lanval in a position where he will inevitably break thecourtly code either by going against the king or the requests of a lady. Lanval's puritanstance should not elevate him as a hero. Two of the greatest medieval romance heroesof all time – Launcelot and Gawain – took Guineverre (Gwenere's more commonform) as a lover. She is a classic example of a sexually frustrated woman married off to an older man 15, in a society that saw marriage more as a business contract than arelationship of love. Unfortunately her position in the tale prevents her from beingdeveloped as a sympathetic character.In the transition from  Lanval  to Thomas Chestre's (a male author) Sir Launfal  the role of women becomes more traditional. Sir Launfal is established firmly ascentral hero, with the addition of warrior powers as part of Triamoure's gift. Queen4
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