Marie De France
In medieval literature women keep coming up as dynamic characters that serve a purpose. We have always been told that in medieval literature woman are just the character that sit up in the tower and wait for the heroic knight to come rescue them. It is only after reading certain selections of medieval literature that the notion that women are just there to get rescued becomes apparently incorrect. There is consistently one woman who breaks the stereotype of their only being weak woman inside medieval literature. Nicole Smith, an English scholar, says that At the beginning of the medival period, “women’s roles were very narrowly prescribed and women did not have much to do with life outside of the home,” but she goes on to say that “as this age went on, however, women gradually began to express more opinions and have a greater and more equal role in society” (Smith, Representations of Women in Medieval Literature). It is these strong and progressive woman in that make the stories so interesting and impactful in this modern age. In certain medieval literature woman break the stereotype of the damsel in distress and instead are powerful and thoughtful.
The Lais Marie de France presents a conundrum not only about who the woman in this book are but what they want, and through this she breaks the stereotype of women in medieval literature. Marie lives in a world where men are the dominate gender. Men were in charge of everything that was just the case in the twelfth century when this book is set. Marie is exposed to this form of patriarchal power, but some would say that Marie glorifies female roles and abilities which makes the women in the book more human. Women, at this time are just trophies that are placed on a pedestal for handsome, noble, and chivalrous men to claim as a prize. It is this twelfth century theme that Marie embraces and makes woman feel intelligent, strong, as well as beautiful thus empowering all women by embracing their own stereotype of oppression and un importance. In medieval romance the woman of the story are always the most beautiful thing that the main male character, usually a knight or some sort of royalty, sees and he is put in some sort of trace. All he wants is the beautiful maiden that needs to be rescued or courted. Marie shows the reader two different kinds of women. The first kind is the more traditional depiction of woman who are only beautiful and nothing more. In the section entitled Equitan the wife is described as “a beautiful woman…with an attractive figure…bright eyes in a lovely face…she hadn’t an equal in the entire kingdom” (58-59). Additionally, in Bisclavret the wife’s only description is having “a lovely appearance” (69). It is this type of woman that is traditional to the time of this book’s writing. This is the type of woman that all the knight is all the land come to fight over, court, and marry; this is not the only type of woman that we see in The Lais of Marie de France. The other type of woman in The Lais of Marie de France is one that is not only beautiful but one that also possesses other less physical qualities. In Guigemar there is a woman who is described as “noble, courageous, beautiful, intelligent” (46). It is this woman who escapes the grasps of her abusive husband. This is not the stereotypical female character that we are used to. This woman is brave and uses that bravery to escape the clutches of her husband. In medieval writing it is usually the man who faces a big problem that needs to be overcome, but not in this case. In La Fresne, Fresne is described as “wise, refined, and well educated” (62). Fresne is I respected and honored woman; the people love her. This love and respect is not because of her beauty, which would stereotypically be the reason, but because of her intelligence and integrity. Through this type of intelligent and honorable woman in Marie is showing that woman are more than just beautiful objects or trophies but humans with integrity and ideals. The book still follows the theme that women are supremely beautiful but the book more focusses on the non-physical aspects of the women in the book. These women also are keenly aware of their beauty and use their good looks to their advantage. They are fully aware of the power that their beauty gives them. It is this intelligence that makes the woman in this book noble and not just prizes for the men. Women throughout The Lais of Marie de France come across as not wholly helpless like the woman of other medieval writing. These women are not helpless and can actually make decisions and problem solve for themselves. In most of the stories in The Lais of Marie de France there is an example of a strong and independent woman who can problem solve herself. In Guigemar it is the woman who comes up with the idea of the knotted shirt. This would stereotypically be a male that comes up with this solution to the problem but here it is actually a woman who is the problem solver and savior. In Equitan the woman comes up with her own plan to kill her husband so that she can, in turn, marry the king. This is just another example of how a woman takes a problem into her own hands and uses her mind to get herself out of a predicament. This example is a little less noble but intelligent none-the-less. In the book woman are problem solvers who do not need men to same them but instead just need their wits. Something else that is different in The Lais of Marie de France is that woman have some sort of say in their love life. It is even said in Equitan that “Love is worthless if it’s not mutual” (55). This is pretty different than other medieval romances. The usual practice is that there Is a noble knight or king who becomes enthralled with a beautiful woman and does everything in his power to court her. Due to the fact that woman get a say in their own love life, the woman in this book gain power. Power is eomrthing that men are the only ones This is another example of how woman in The Lais of Marie de France are more intelligent and noble than those in other medieval romance texts. There is a very enlightening article entitled “Female Agency, Eroticism, and Empowerment in Marie de France’s Lai de Lanval” by Emma Caitlin Briscoe, an English scholar at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. In her article she discusses the Lanval section of the Lais of Marie de France. In the section od her essay that she titled “Female Agency and Empowerment” she discusses both the Queen and The Fairy Woman. Briscoe talks about how the Fairy Woman remains nameless throughout the entire story thus taking away her identity and thus her importance, but she uses this to her advantage. Knowing the Fairy Woman’s name bestows power upon those who know it. Briscoe makes a point that the Fairy Woman’s “decision to boldly seek out Lanval and overpower him with her appeal, both sexual and pecuniary, on her own terms” (Briscoe 26). This conclusion that Briscoe makes further accentuates the fact that some woman in medieval literature can break through the stereotypes that are prevalent in this time period and us some of the stereotypes to empower them more than marginalize them. Briscoe then goes on to talk about another nameless character, the Queen, in Lanval’s story. Briscoe starts off this section by asserting that the “nameless queen acts as a foil to the fairy woman character” (Briscoe 30), which is a very interesting perspective. Briscoe really backs up her assertion saying that “the queen simply lusts after Lanval while the fairy woman genuinely loves him” and that “the queen is dishonest and merciless, yet the fairy woman is honest and merciful” (Briscoe 30).The queen has power on the surface by just being the queen, but to find where her real power comes from one must delve deeper into her character. Because Lanval rejects the nameless queen she is outraged. It is the fact that she even has the gal to peruse Lanval shows that she has power. That power comes over Arthur because her “lecherous behavior is a threat to the untainted continuance of his bloodline” (Briscoe 32). This means that if the nameless queen were to court Lanval it would mess up King Arthur’s bloodline which is no doubt very important to him. Even though this nameless queen is a foil of the fairy woman she still retains some power due to her status and her brave attempt at relations with Lanval. Another example of woman breaking through their stereotypes comes in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. There are two women in Le Morte D’Arthur that specifically make a powerful impact on the story; those characters being Morgan le Fay and Gwenyvere. Morgan le Fay is very clearly the most powerful female character in this book. Her power comes from, not only the magical, but the innate power that she has over many of the nights in this tale. Morgan has powe over her husband and both of her lovers. This power is based around her sexuality. This is an excellent example of how a stereotype that is associated with woman in medieval literature is being turned on its head. This stereotype, in Morgan Le Fay’s case, is that woman are just sexual beings. Morgan Le Fay in this this book is a sexual being having a husband as well as two separate lovers but where she differs is how she uses her sexuality. Conventionally, woman who fit the medieval stereo type of being a sexual being would just simply be a sexual being. In Morgan Le Fay’s case, though, she uses the fact that she is having sexual relations with three knights to her advantage and this is how she gets power over, what is often considered, the most power characters in medieval literature: the knight. The other character in Le Morte D’Arthur that shows how stereotypes can be broken in medieval literature is Gwenyvere. Gwenyvere uses her power over her husband, Lancelot, to sway him to pay attention and act upon what she feels is important. In the paper entitled “Pawns, Predators AND Parasites: Teaching the Roles of Women In Arthurian Literature Courses” by Lisa Robeson, and English professor at Bluffon University, comes to the conclusion that “Guenevere functions as a parasite, a female presence who distracts both Lancelot and Arthur from their larger purpose of establishing a system of governance that promulgates economic justice, the protection of weak and defenseless members of society” (Robeson 33).I think that Robeson’s conclusion that Gwenyvere acts as a parasitical character is quite enlightened, and that fact that she uses the term “parasite” further shows the power that Gwenyvere has. Gwenyvere steals away the power that Lancelot has through their relationship and uses it for her own benefit. Another example of how women are given power in medieval literature is in the Old French roman in octosyllabic verse that was approximately written in the 13th century entitled Le Roman de Silence. This is a book that consists of poetry that tells a story, or prose poetry. This story is an interesting one that tackles a theme that is overtly relevant in todays climate. The main character of this piece, Silence, was born a woman but her parent raised her to be a man so that Silence can one day take the throne. The mere fact that Silence’s parents had to raise her as a man shows that, in the time that this story was written, woman were not even close to being equal to men. At the beginning when Silence was born Nature says that she will bestow the “beauty of a thousand” on her. This further shows that in this time the most important thing that a woman can have is beauty. This quite obviously is in line with the stereotypes of women in medieval literature. In Le Roman de Silence the main character, Silence, is a woman who is pretending to be a man by cross dressing as one. This is a somewhat abstract form of how sometimes in medieval literature woman, who are stereotypically lacking in power and influence in this time period, gain power in some way. In Le Roman de Silence, Silence gains power by becoming a man. This seems like cheating when it comes to gaining power, but in her defense, she earns it. Throughout the story Eufeme keeps trying to seduce Silence but because Silence is smart and strong, likely because she was raised as a man, she is able to escape Eufeme’s sexual advances. Silence also displays great, almost chivalrous, actions when she is comaded to capture Merlin by King Evan after he is persuaded by Eufeme. As everyone knows Merlin is a great and legendary magician in medieval literature, and due to the fact that he does not want to be captured it is quite a feat when Silence completes her mission. Doing things like capturing wizards is a stereotypical thing, in medieval literature, that a knight or a king would be doing. Additionally, when it is revealed that Silence is in fact a woman she ends up marrying King Evan thus making her the new queen and putting her in the most powerful position that a woman could hold in that time period. In the movie Shrek, Shrek is tasked by a king to go and rescue a beautiful and helpless maiden from a tower guarded by a dragon. This is the basic stereotype that woman have in medieval literature. That woman are just characters in stories that need to be rescued, courted, and married off to the bravest or most powerful man that they can get their hands on. There are some instances that this type of woman does exist in medieval literature but there are also quite a few examples of woman who break free of the shackles of the stereotypical medieval woman and become powerful. Some female characters become powerful through intelligence or bravery and some accrue power through using their stereotypical features, such as beauty or sexuality, to gain power over others. Some medieval woman conform to traditional stereotypes, but if one digs deep enough into certain characters it is easy to find powerful woman among all the others.