Can we discuss medieval literature in terms of modern feminist discourse?
A colleague and friend, Claire Harrill, recently posted a blog ( read here) discussing the role of feminism in the critical analysis of medieval literature. She posits that it is a null hypothesis — one can’t assert or perhaps even productively discuss medieval literature in the context of modern feminism. Her argument centers around Christine de Pizan and Hélène Cixous’s ‘The Laugh of Medusa.’ Christine de Pizan calls for women to write their own stories and histories in much the same fashion that Cixous discusses women’s writing. But rather than seeing this as a signal that Christine de Pizan is a proto-feminist, Harrill concludes by asserting that feminism, as a term and concept, is too anachronistic and does not reflect the way in which medieval women either envisioned or enacted their role in their world.
Despite eschewing the terms feminist and feminism, Harrill shows that the essential questions of (gendered) authority and the place of women in literary composition are still very much in the forefront of some texts (most notably in Christine de Pizan’s writing). Essentially, the ‘big questions’ are there, but couched in different terms than those that modern feminism explores. Harrill mentions briefly the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale in her essay; this text has generated extensive debates about whether the Wife of Bath and her narrative is proto- or anti-feminist. In the following I would like to address the question of ‘feminism’ in medieval literature and its implications in the context of this medieval text in more detail.
The Canterbury Tales follows a group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury on pilgrimage. Throughout their journey they take turns telling stories in a sort of competition. The Wife of Bath’s autobiography and the tale accompanying it play with established traditions of authority by claiming to defer to male authority while simultaneously debunking it. Consequently, many scholars have found evidence for competing theories of her relative ‘feminist’ discourse. In reality, her position as a narrator and performer takes into account the predominantly male audience within the text. In so doing, she intentionally seeks to manipulate their fears of female power and sexuality. Applying modern feminist discourse to this text creates a false dichotomy between the ‘feminist’ and ‘anti-feminist’ material.
By beginning with an assumption about the relative feminism of the text much of the narrative success and nuance is lost to searching for ‘proof’ of either view. When considered as a fluid and complex storytelling performance, more compelling questions about sexuality, perception, and authority appear readily.
Crucially, we must also consider that a man composed this text. Alison is a sort of literary device; her gender is the vehicle that allows Chaucer to play with perspective and authority. Her narrative, if told by a man, would fall prey to the strident clerical anti-feminism that Alison herself playfully responds to.
By delivering this speech through the mouth of a woman more complexity and flexibility is achieved. So,
while this may not be a text by women, for women, it does successfully use gender as a means to expose the stereotypes pervading the literature of the period. Feminism, as such, does little to deepen our understanding of the narrative; rather it obfuscates the already complex tone of text. It is also too
anachronistic to lend any real insights into the psychology of the narrative. There is no real challenge to
the status quo nor is there a blistering critique of societal values, instead the narrative acts as a self-
reflexive commentary on the tropes and conventions pervading the literature of the period. While one can successfully explore the role of women, femininity, and sexuality in medieval literature, modern feminist discourse inhibits rather than aids in this critical analysis.
One thread, which unravels the commentary on perspective, sexuality, and old age, is Alison’s (the
Wife of Bath) chronicle of her love life. As she reminisces it becomes apparent that her narrative exhibits a porous chronology. Reflecting the fluid nature of time in storytelling, Alison flits between past and present with such dexterity that the audience is continually made uncomfortable with her relished
description of her sexual relationships not only as a young woman, but in her current, elderly state. It is
essential to note that in the medieval period old age was considered to begin as early as 35 years of age and that old women were considered sexually repulsive. Medieval medical writers often discuss the disgust of finding elderly women attractive, not to mention the repulsion of engaging sexually with them. Gerald of Wales observes: “who could for purposes of carnal intercourse, of licentious kisses so wantonly desire this skin (however much formerly desired) withered by sickness or shriveled into an old woman’s wrinkled by age.” (quoted from Shahar 1996: 166). Despite this, old women are constantly portrayed as sexually voracious, so much so that it was said they would resort to paying men to have sex with them.
One writer to address this is Philippe de Navarre, in his Les Quatre âges de l’homme (ca. 1260; ‘Four
ages of man’); Philippe de Navarre goes into extensive detail about the cunning ways in which elderly
women elicit sex from young men. This double-life of the elderly woman, at once sexually repulsive and
sexually voracious, is epitomized in the Wife’s speech.
As Alison recounts her youth she describes her “ragerye” (l. 455; wantonness) while recalling her
party-girl lifestyle with her “revelour” husband (l. 453). (Think of Anthony and Gloria in The Beautiful
and Damned). But just as quickly as she reflects on her youth she moves to her present. After concluding this reminisce she laments the current decay of her body — “But age, allas, that al wole envenyme, / Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.” (ll. 474-5) And although she concedes that age has poisoned her body and bereft her of her beauty and vigor, she goes on a few lines later to describe her most sexually fulfilling relationship, and also her most recent. She describes her (fifth) marriage:
But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay,
And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose;
That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
He koude wynne agayn my love anon. (ll. 508-12)
[But in our bed he was fresh and happy,
And there he could flatter me well,
When he would hold my beautiful thing;
And although he beat me on every bone,
He could win my love again.]
Problematically, especially to modern critics, is the assertion that her husband, Jankyn, badly beats her, but then wins back her affection with his sexual ministrations. More than anything Alison seems
impressed by his skill in winning back her heart after beating her “on every bon”. To compound this
apparently toxic relationship is a fact that we learn 100 lines later: she and Jankyn are separated in age by twenty years — Alison’s 40 to Jankyn’s 20. As she describes herself as past her prime and wrinkled with age, she also claims that her significantly younger husband is an attentive and persuasive lover. This surprising turn problematizes the earlier description of her sexual relationship with Jankyn even further.
More unsettling still is her extensive use of slang to describe her vagina throughout the narrative. Bele
chose, as found in this passage, is one such colloquial term for vagina that translates more literally as
‘beautiful thing,’ which, in turn, hints at a tension between the somethingness and nothingness of the
vagina. Her use of this sort of vivid and colloquial terminology adds an air of bawdy revelation to the
story. She continuously lures her audience into imagining her sexual anatomy while also reminding them that she is old, wrinkled, and envenomed. By knocking the audience off balance in this way they are kept in constant tension between enjoying her sexual escapades and colorful life while also being obtrusively reminded that she should not be the object of such imaginings.
This fluctuating chronology serves as a useful example for thinking about what feminism means or
doesn’t mean to medieval literature. Certainly, Alison is not some crusader for taking down the
patriarchy; her husbands and the social strictures of the time define her world. But she does revel in
disturbing her male audience by luring them to imagine her as a sexual figure while simultaneously
asserting the decayed and decrepit nature of her body.
She plays into both common stereotypes of elderly women – acting as the sexual predator and the decayed hag. And while it does not challenge the audience to change their thinking about what is appropriate (Alison does, after all, finally seem to be that wildly inappropriate relative at Thanksgiving), she does deconstruct and lay bare the traditions and conceptions of authority, authorship, and the role of women in literary making. She does this most persuasively by bringing the audience on side: first we get a somewhat poignant description of her deafness as a result of an abusive husband; but we also see the Pardoner (one of the pilgrims) goading her on – he explicitly asks her to “spareth for no man” (l. 186). In other words, she isn’t to coddle anyone’s feelings and instead should lay everything out without censor. By setting her speech firmly in such a performative, and boozy setting (for she alludes to the prodigious amount the pilgrims will have drunk by the tale’s end), the narrative is informed by the sort of hyperbolic and caricatured tale associated with this sort of revelry.
Ultimately, Alison’s narrative is grotesque: she takes familiar tropes that in a conventional setting provoke disgust and horror and turn them into larger than life caricatures that are related with playful and edgy humor. Bringing these two reactions together ultimately makes the audience shiver with uncomfortable laughter at the tale she weaves. In this space she can expose the shortcomings of male- dominated narrative, without challenging the status quo outright.
Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company.
Shahar, Shulamith. 1996. “The old body in medieval culture.” In Framing Medieval Bodies, edited by
Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin, 160-186. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
CAITLIN FLYNN holds a PhD in Medieval Literature from University of St Andrews, Scotland. She is currently a Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Her research interests include the theory of comedy and laughter, the grotesque, and sexuality in medieval comic verse.