Deviance and the Medieval Woman



The project, which we entitled “Deviance and the Medieval Woman,” seeks to explore the incidence of female defiance in Medieval Literature in the historic and the literary landscapes of the Middle Ages. The project specifically focused on the theme of defiance by analyzing how female authors seek to challenge dominant ideological, cultural, and religious discourses about gender through their engagement with courtly romance, lyric, and mysticism. We explored subtopics such as witchcraft and sorcery, marriage and sexuality, literary authority, to name a few. We wanted to explore female authorship and compare the Medieval woman as written by women with the Medieval woman as written by men. This helped us understand the effect of the male gaze in authorship and question the authenticity of different portrayals. Through this project, we aimed to identify feminine identities through the lens of intersectionality in both the narrative as well as authorship. Overall, we explored how female deviance and defiance is interpreted, explored, and received through medieval literature. We worked with a range of sources – primary and secondary (literary and critical theory essays) – that helped us delve deeper into the relevant themes. These included recordings of poetry, visual representations, and other primary works. 

The theme of defiance manifested in various characters and narratives we studied in YHU2309: Medieval Romance: Magic and the Supernatural (Spring, 2019-2020). We saw this as both a refute to male centric social structures as well as resisting literary representations of women. However, female characters were often represented through the perspective of male narrators and authors. This piqued our interest in instances of female defiance – where it was only explored for a few instances, in comparison to the mainstream narratives of male camaraderie purported in conventional medieval literature. We explored one sub-topic every two weeks and met with our professor at the end of the week to discuss our findings and questions. By the end of the project, we produced a creative assignment that encapsulated our understanding and perspectives of female defiance. This took shape of a rewriting of Morgan Le Fay in the Arthurian legend, as a reimagination of her vengeance and anger. This is found at the end of the document. 

Topics we engaged with over the semester were: 

  1. Marriage and Sexuality
  2. Humanism, Education, and the Professional Writer
  3. Women and Courtly Love
  4. Mysticism and Visionary Experience
  5. Troubadours and the female voice
  6. The Sacred and the Secular: Women write Courtly Mysticism

Some texts we read as part of the project: 

  • Chaucer, Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
  • Christine de Pizan, Book of the City of Ladies
  • The Book of Margery Kempe
  • Castelloza, la Comtessa de Dia
  • Le Roman de Silence
  • Anna Comnena, Alexiad, excerpts, in Writings of Medieval Women, ed. Thiebaux, pp. 225-239