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What Women Want: Female readers of Virgil’s Aeneid in the Middle Ages
By Claire Harrill
eSharp, Vol.21 (2011)
Introduction: In this article I will consider the influence of female readers of Virgil’s Aeneid on two medieval adaptations of Virgil’s text, namely, the C11th Latin Encomium Emmae Reginae, and the C12th Old French Roman d’Enéas. In these two texts female readership of Virgil is manifested in two ways; the Roman is tailored to a female audience and the Encomium is tailored for a female patron. Virgil’s Aeneid was well known in the Middle Ages, not only to those who were not literate in Latin, but also to those who could not read themselves (i.e. the aurally literate). It was a narrative well known at court and as such could be used to exert political and social influence. While some have dismissed female patronage as no more than a literary topos, there is evidence that women commissioned works. Literary patronage was in fact one of the few spheres in which women could have influence at court.
For Emma of Normandy, the patroness of the Encomium, Virgil’s text was a tool she could use to influence politics at court. In the case of the Roman D’Eneas, written under the patronage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitane’s court and for a mixed-gender audience, rather than for a specific female figure, Virgil‟s text was a space in which women‟s place in society was both worked out, and set out, as models for them to follow. Through a comparison of these two texts, we can see that Virgil‟s epic could be used to exert influence both for, and on women. The Encomium was commissioned by Emma in order to intervene in the fraught politics of the C11th English court. Emma evidently knew Virgil’s epic, to which the text she commissioned makes explicit reference, and commissioned a Latin work modelled on it as a political tool to influence the actions of men.
The Roman was written for Henry and Eleanor’s court. Although Eleanor was known to be a patron of literary works , there is no evidence that she as an individual patronised the Roman. The Roman, as well as providing entertainment, also serves as a comment on women, who like Eleanor herself, seek erotic autonomy in a politically complex world. As such, it reflects not so much writing influenced by the desires of women, but writing influenced by the desire to control the female readers of the text. Both adaptations of the Aeneid affect a move away from Virgil’s male-centric social model. While their emphasis on the power of love and marriage to create and support empire foregrounds the importance of women in the political sphere, I will argue in this article that in the Encomium we see ‘what women want’ politically and socially, whereas in the Roman, we see rather a vision of what men want women to want, in order to further their own political ends.