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Women’s Stories, Male Voices: Narratives of Female Misbehavior in Medieval Europe

Women’s Stories, Male Voices: Narratives of Female Misbehavior in Medieval Europe

Women’s Stories, Male Voices: Narratives of Female Misbehavior in Medieval Europe

Margherita Vittorelli

McGill University: Master’s Thesis (2011)

Abstract: Medieval narrative accounts of female misbehaviour reflect deep social perceptions and expectations grounded in ideas of gender. The women described in the twelfth-century non-fiction narratives analysed in this thesis had not behaved in an objectively “bad” way, judged by legal or moral standards. Rather, the disapproving depiction of women’s behaviour reflects the author’s concern with the women’s goals and intentions, rather than their specific actions. In all the episodes I analysed, I found a search for autonomy and independence from social and cultural control on the part of the women. It is this wilful desire for autonomy that incurs the medieval authors’ disapproval.

The first chapter focuses on marital choice, one of the few areas of medieval social life in which young women could express a certain degree of independent judgement in spite of familial, social, and cultural constraints. I argue that female resistance to outside pressure is often depicted in exaggerated misogynistic tones. On the other hand, female behaviour which inspires the approval of an author is often transposed into masculine characteristics.

In the second chapter, the focus shifts to widowhood. In narrative depictions of widows, the deep connection between the exercise of female autonomy and medieval misogynistic discourse emerges. Medieval perceptions of gender necessarily rested on the core concept of female subordination as natural and necessary to social organization. Actions that challenged this assumption were invariably cast in a negative light. Widows seeking to sever the ties that bound them to male guardians are represented in highly critical terms.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible,
That any cleric wol speke good of wyves,
but if it be of hooly seintes lyves,
ne of noon oother womman never the mo.
(Chaucer, WBT III. 688-691)

The wife of Bath’s complaint about the misogynistic nature of large part of the medieval discourse on women is not far off the mark. Sources on medieval women are hard to come by, and the few at our disposal are rather problematic. They are usually under-representative, misogynistic, written by men (especially by religious men), addressed to men, strongly influenced by literary and cultural topoi, in addition to being narrative sources and therefore inherently problematic. Historians working on medieval women have noted more than once the problematic nature of the available sources, and new approaches have been developed in order to overcome these challenges. Joan Scott has argued in an often cited article that gender is a useful category of historical analysis. In fact, gender is the category of analysis that can help historians who are trying to understand the women of the medieval time. In the initial section of her article Scott enumerates a few of the main characteristics of gender as an analytical notion, emphasizing that, “Gender […] stressed the relational aspect of normative definitions of femininity. Those who worried that women studies’ scholarship focused too narrowly and separately on women used the term “gender” to introduce a relational notion into our analytic vocabulary.”


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