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The Dichotomy of Gender Roles in the Works of Medieval Women Writers
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    The Dichotomy of Gender Roles in the Works of Medieval Women Writers

    In his book The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England, historian Derek G. Neal suggests a polarized dichotomy of gendered characteristics that reinforce the stereotypical attributes of men and women in the middle ages. His argument claims that the masculine, positively connoted traits of open simplicity and self-command stand in polar opposition to the corresponding feminine, negatively connoted traits of deviousness and sensuality. The purpose of this essay is to examine several works from the assigned reading for this class to determine if Dr. Neal’s dichotomy is also present in the attitudes of medieval women writers toward gender.

    In Bieris de Romans’ enigmatic love song Na Maria, pretz e fina valors (Thiebaux 257) the speaker who, regardless of whether or not it was Bieris de Romans herself, in keeping with the traditional hierarchy of the canso, is a supplicant to Lady Maria because she/he is in love with the noblewoman. In Line 7, the speaker asserts that Lady Maria possesses many positive attributes “without deviousness.” According to Dr. Neal’s dichotomy, a lack of deviousness is a distinctly masculine attribute. So too is Lady Maria’s implied reticence to consummate or otherwise support a sexual relationship with the speaker. Because the speaker is in an inferior position to Lady Maria, due to both the lady’s noble status and the speaker’s beggar status as the petitioning lover, the positive connotation of Lady Maria’s attributes of honesty and chastity become idealized to the point that she defies the stereotypical gender characteristics Dr. Neal has suggested. However, the speaker’s ambition to make Lady Maria more sensuous, and to make her devious enough “not to love some suitor who’d betray you,” as the speaker says in line 20, is in keeping with Dr. Neal’s dichotomy of gendered characteristics.

    Hrotswitha of Gandersheim’s tale The Passion of Saint Pelagius, Most Precious Martyr, Who in Our Own Time Was Crowned with Martyrdom at Córdoba is more concrete in its execution. The author presents two distinct examples that both support of Dr. Neal’s dichotomy: the negative, feminine attributes of the villainous ruler Abd ad-Rahman and the positive, masculine attributes of the heroic martyr Pelagius. Hrotswitha wrote, “And Abd ad-Rahman showed his face in a jeweled helmet, and his wanton body sheathed in iron armor.” (Thiebaux 191; 114-192) The evil king embellishes himself with both a jeweled helmet and with iron armor which would not have served to adequately protect him in manly battle in a way that is both devious and feminine. Moreover, the phrase, “his wanton body,” demonstrates the character’s lack of discipline over his own body as well as a tendency towards sensuality: both negatively connoted characteristics that, in keeping with Dr. Neal’s dichotomy, are distinctly feminine.
    Of Pelagius’ appearance, Hrotswitha wrote, “He was handsome in the splendor of his body and intelligent in deliberation.” (Thiebaux 191; 143-163) The martyr possesses an aspect of open-simplicity as well as enough intelligence to deliberate before taking action; both positive attributes that Dr. Neal’s dichotomy describes as masculine. The reflective, directly comparative structures of both these descriptions, as well as the fact that they are situated so close to each other in the text, not only reinforce the contrast between the two characters but support Dr. Neal’s dichotomy of gendered characteristics as well.

    Hrotswitha of Gandersheim continues her support of Dr. Neal’s dichotomy in her play The Passion of the Holy Virgins Agape, Chionia, and Irene; or, Dulcitius. In Scene iv (Thiebaux 202), the three virgins verbally describe the villainous provincial governor Dulcitius’ comical and madly lustful behavior. His demonstrated sensuality, as well as the lack of self-command that allowed it to be manifest in such a laughably disgusting fashion, are both negative feminine behaviors in keeping with Dr. Neal’s dichotomy of gendered characteristics.

    Later in Scene xii, the virgin Irene is threatened with imprisonment in a brothel to which she defiantly replies, “Voluptuous pleasure carries a penalty. But submitting to force wins a crown. I shall not be accused of guilt unless the soul consents.” (Thiebaux 206) Irene demonstrates acceptance of her own sensuous nature by stating that sexual activity is pleasing to her: a feminine trait. Her inherent sensuous character is also reinforced by all of the dialogue in the play that shows how her beauty, and that of the other two virgins, provokes sexual desire in the men. However, Irene’s unwillingness to give consent demonstrates her self-command and her open simplicity in the face of peril: both of which are masculine traits. Irene’s contradictory dialogue, as well as the complication of the Dr. Neal’s dichotomy that arises from it, is resolved through later action. The threatened sexual peril never transpires due to the intervention of two unnamed young men who are described as angels in Scene xiii (Thiebaux 208). Given the miraculous salvation that Irene receives, her resolve is more pious than it is masculine.

    Caesaria’s letter, Caesaria to Radegund and Richild, also complicates Dr. Neal’s dichotomy by urging women to be pious. Caesaria, an abbess, wrote, “If you had been men, you would be going out, strongly and manfully, to fight your enemies so that your body might not be injured. Fight the Devil just as strongly and manfully, so that he cannot slay your souls with his councils and exceedingly evil strategems (sic).” (Thiebaux 103) Caesaria draws attention to the different roles in society that men and women play in a way that seems comparatively illogical given that men are also subjected to the wiles of the Devil. Her lack of logic indicates a biased belief that women are spiritually inferior to men because men fight and die in God’s name. Further, the contrast she draws between the external, physical combat of the men and the internal, spiritual combat of the two exceptional women to whom she wrote the letter is merely superficial. Caesaria overtly instructs Radegund and Richild to act manfully in order to attain greater self-command: a male attribute. As in Bieris de Romans’ poem, women are being told that they are capable of transcending the typical roles of Dr. Neal’s dichotomy of gendered characteristics. Moreover, as in the Irene episode in Dulcitius, it is through pious acts that women are empowered to exceed the limits of their gender roles and assume the idealized male characteristics of open simplicity and self-command.

    Anna Komnene presents several portraits of men and women in her epic history The Alexiad. The first of these portraits is that of the Empress Maria, the wife of the emperor who was overthrown by the author’s father, which begins on page 82. It is a kind of blazon in which the Empress is given a detailed description that portrays her as a superhuman work of art in keeping with classical ideals of beauty. She is feminine, both in sex and in action.

    The next description in The Alexiad is of the author’s father and the central figure of the work: the Emperor Alexis. Here, he too is described as having an overwhelming presence that is beautiful to behold in the classical way. The author hints that her father looked like the idealized Greek heroes of The Iliad but also uses a fiery description that is in keeping with the saintly iconography of Byzantine Saints. While this is historically noteworthy because it demonstrates Anna Komnene’s attempt to fuse the pagan myths with then contemporary Greek Orthodox Christianity, the only real aspect of Alexios’ character that she mentions is that his inner self corresponded with his external appearance in keeping with the concept of physiognomy. Alexios is masculine, both in sex and in action.

    Anna’s portrait of her grandmother and namesake starts on page 91 and it is far more in depth than the previous two portrayals. Anna Dalassene is described as unwilling to wield political authority, in keeping with gender roles, and she would rather have retired to a monastery than to have achieved any political power. As a result of her reticence, her son, Emperor Alexios, was forced to manipulate her into assuming his authority in his absence: an act the author claims Anna Dalassene performed out of maternal affection. The author colors her grandmother as an unwilling but devout ruler primarily to make her rule seem more palatable in the face of medieval gender roles that are in keeping with Dr. Neal’s dichotomy. However, Anna Dalassene “was blessed with a fine intellect and possessed besides a fine aptitude for governing.” (Alexiad 92) She also “had an exceptional grasp of public affairs, with a genius for organization and government; she was capable, in fact, of managing not only the Roman Empire, but every other empire under the sun as well.” (Alexiad 94) Later the author concludes her hyperbolic praise of her grandmother with, “I can sum the whole situation thus: [Alexios] was in theory the emperor, but [Anna Dalassene] had real power.” (Alexiad 95)

    The most relevant part of the author’s portrayal of her grandmother is in her narrative of how Anna Dalassene reformed the decorum of the palace on page 96. “The women’s quarters in the palace had been the scene of utter depravity ever since the infamous Constantine Monomakhos had ascended the throne, and right up to the time when my father became emperor had been noted for foolish love intrigues, but Anna effected a reformation; a commendable decorum was restored and the palace now enjoyed discipline that merited praise. She instituted set times for the singing of sacred hymns, stated hours for meals; there was now a special period in which magistrates were chosen. She herself set a firm example to everybody else, with the result that the palace assumed the appearance rather of a monastery under her influence. She was truly an extraordinary woman and a saintly one too; for in self-control she surpassed the famous women of old, heroines of many a legend, just as the sun outshines all stars.” Anna Dalassene wields power, clamps down on sensuous behavior, restores order, and demonstrates self-command: all characteristically male acts. But it is out of piety that she acts in such an admirable and masculine way; the same empowering piety that Caesaria endorsed in her letter, Caesaria to Radegund and Richild, and possessed by the virgin Irene in Dulcitius.

    A brief portrayal on pages 274-275 of The Alexiad describes the arriving European crusaders as fickle, untrustworthy, greedy and dangerous: feminine traits. The motif that Anna Komnene employs is the same one used in the anti-feminist tradition, dating back to St. Jerome, to denigrate women. The male crusaders, whom the author hates out of a combination of xenophobia and pride, are described negatively because they possess female characteristics in keeping with Dr. Neal’s dichotomy.

    Another brief portrayal, beginning on page 351, describes the alleged mother of Tancred who might also have been Bohemond’s sister. Placed in authority over the besieged town of Otranto, she also mirrors Anna Dalassene in that she rules in the stead of a male. She cunningly stalled the invaders until her son’s forces could arrive and rescue the city. Anna Komnene clearly admired this devious but impotent woman (both feminine characteristics), but also describes her as a “gladiator” on page 352: a strikingly masculine description. Here, piety can be said to have empowered her through the righteousness of her defense of her kin as well as all within the city.

    Lastly, there’s the author’s portrayal of the barbarian enemy Bohemond. A full description begins on page 383. Anna describes the foe as sexually attractive, very tall, strong, and perfectly proportioned before going on to say that “he appeared to stoop slightly” (Alexiad 384) and was very pale. This latter part of the description hints at an innate flaw in Bohemond’s body, one that reflects his villainous nature. Throughout the rest of the work, Anna Komnene recounts several episodes in which Bohemond is shown to be cunning and selfish; feminine characteristics that prevent him from being an ideal medieval man.

    In conclusion, Dr. Neal’s dichotomy is, indeed, present in the attitudes of medieval women writers. However, there is a gender based double standard in the execution of the dichotomy’s gendered characteristics. If a man is described as being feminine, he is certain to be an evil villain with easily recognized and despicable feminine characteristics of deviousness and sensuality that cause him to fail in his endeavors. Conversely, if a woman is described as being masculine, it is her righteous piety that has admirably empowered her to act with open simplicity and self-command for good and with great success. This double standard reflects the misogyny inherent in gender roles in the middle ages as both Dr. Neal’s dichotomy and the works themselves have demonstrated. Consequently, in order to properly frame these works, a consideration of the authors’ intended audience must be made.

    The female characters, be they fictitious or historical figures, who have been empowered by women writers to aspire to the positive, masculine traits of open simplicity and self-command through righteous piety are not average women. Although no average woman is discussed at length in any of these works, it still can be argued that every one of these woman writers attempted to persuade other women, the women who comprise their intended audiences, to strive to be more than their gender roles typically permitted them to be.

    ASMB Member since March 23, 2004.
    If brevity is the soul of wit, then abbreviation is the death of the soul.


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    Parenthetical citations are to the course texts. No works cited page was required.

    I got a 95 on this paper.

    As always, topical comments are welcome.

    If you just mention you didn't read it, I'm going to ignore you.

    ASMB Member since March 23, 2004.
    If brevity is the soul of wit, then abbreviation is the death of the soul.


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    I didn't read it.


  • Thunder Goddess
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    Granted, your focus is literature while I'm more interested in theology, but you might enjoy Kyle Harper's From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity.

    Also - What? No bearded virgins?

    “None of us are saints.” – Albert Fish

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  • IB
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    I didn't read it nor do I care to, but A for effort. I guess. Again, I didn't read it. It could all be gibberish for all I know.


  • SwimVIP
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    Just finished reading it. It's a pretty interesting and straightforward paper. I'd have more input if I had read all of the works mentioned, but I like how the argument is structured and formulaic, just as the argument in any effective piece of writing should be.

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    Greeny said:

    I didn't read it nor do I care to, but A for effort. I guess.

    This is how I feel about the majority of philosophical books and their authors.


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    Zenigundam said:

    Just finished reading it. It's a pretty interesting and straightforward paper. I'd have more input if I had read all of the works mentioned, but I like how the argument is structured and formulaic, just as the argument in any effective piece of writing should be.

    Yeah, the subject matter is not very widely read. There's nothing wrong with that, though.

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    ASMB Member since March 23, 2004.
    If brevity is the soul of wit, then abbreviation is the death of the soul.


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    mthor said:

    Granted, your focus is literature while I'm more interested in theology, but you might enjoy Kyle Harper's From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity.

    Also - What? No bearded virgins?

    I tend to spend more time reading actual texts from the period than scholarly literature. I checked out that title on amazon. It'd be interesting to read about the evolution of sexual mores in early Christendom if only to see how accurately it accords with the volumes written on the subject by authors, poets, and theologians that came later.

    Is it heavy on Boethius?

    ASMB Member since March 23, 2004.
    If brevity is the soul of wit, then abbreviation is the death of the soul.


  • Thunder Goddess
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    Y'know, I don't remember (time to play the "I'm old and senile" card), but I tend to think not(at least the name doesn't ring much of a bell)- a fair amount of it deals with the Church and Roman society pre-Constantine. Interesting, though - the author illustrates Roman sexual mores using examples from both life and contemporary romances, and contrasts them with Christian teachings of the same era. There's also some discussion about how, even at that early date, the Christians were already starting to differentiate their moral code from that of the Jews.

    Sorry about the bearded virgins - but when I was reading about "manly" and "womanly" characteristics, all I could think of was the many lovely maidens who prayed for God to help them protect their chastity - and how His answer was so often a beard. More Dark Ages, I think, but hey, history's a continuum.

    “None of us are saints.” – Albert Fish

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