Literature is one of the best ways to understand a culture. Through literature, in fact, it is possible to analyze the customs and traditions of a specific society and to comprehend its way of life. While the Homeric poems, for instance, offer a description of the life in Ancient Greece and an account of the social dynamics and religious beliefs of the Greeks, the tales on courtly love such as Le Morte D’Arthur and “The Tale of Dame Ragnell” present the values every Medieval knight would embody. However, not only do these texts present the way of life of a society, but they also offer a description of different gender roles and gender dynamics typical of these ages.
Gender roles in the Iliad and Odyssey, for instance, are strict and defined. While men are presented as valiant heroes who increase their value as they get older, women are divided in three main categories: goddesses, wives and daughters, and servants. Goddesses are extremely powerful and are even superior to men, who adore them and must obey to their orders. Wives and daughters are respected because of their husband and fathers’ role, but they cannot take part in public life, while servants are considered as nothing more than objects of men’s property. However, the condition of wives and daughters is particularly precarious since, in time of war, they could easily become part of the spoils of war, and, consequently, reduce to servants.
A main example of women figures in Greek literature are the Homeric characters of Athena, Penelope, and Briseis. Athena is one of the most powerful goddess of Greek’s mythology and is the biggest supporter of the Greek army during the war against Troy. She is sent by Hera to talk with Achilles to persuade him to fight again against the Trojans. She is so powerful that Achilles replies to her, “‘Goddess, a man must attend to your word, no matter how great his heart’s anger: that is right.” (Homer, 218-219). Achille’s answer provides a clear example of the power that the Goddess exercised over men. He is so enchanted by her majesty that he changes his mind by simply hearing her words. Athena, however, keeps sustaining the Achaeans even after the end of the war. In fact, she is also a main character in the Odyssey: she protects Ulysses during his voyage towards Ithaca and facilitates his hard journey. Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, personifies all the value typical of the Greek woman. She is described as a woman who is “wary and reserved” (Homer, 89), who has no freedom of choice, and whose only duties are to take care of the house and to be a good wife. This description of Penelope reflects the role of woman in Greek society: they have no active role, and they could only stay at home and accomplish their domestic responsibilities. However, in case of war women are no longer seen as people but as objects. In Ancient Greece, in fact, when an army conquered a city all the objects of the city, as well as all the women, become part of the war booty. Being part of the war booty, they automatically become servant. Briseis, who is Achilles’ “prize from the army” (Homer, 420), is a concrete example of how women’s freedom was men’s property. Before being Achilles’ servant, she was a priestess of Apollo. Because a priestess had direct contact with gods, Briseis’ social position was superior compared to the position of other women. However, even her prestige is diminished by her status of female, so that she is degraded to servant who is always under the control of a man’s authority. Twenty centuries after the publication of the Homeric poems, in the courtly love literature, gender roles are not so defined as they were before. Even if men are always described as the one who have power, women’s role starts evolving. In medieval literature, in fact, it is difficult to divide women into categories because their social roles differ from woman to woman. Yet there is also a strong connection with the past writing traditions in which woman were considered as nothing more than men’s property. On the one hand, there is the stereotypical idea of woman who is subjugated by men represented by the character of Iseult; on the other hand, there is the innovative description of a woman who wants to be independent represented by the character of Dame Ragnell.
The character of Iseult, in fact, is a clear example of how woman had no decision-making power. One of the most striking evidence of her condition is the passage in which Tristan is asking King Anguish the permission to make his uncle, King Mark, marry Iseult. King Anguish replies, “as for that […] ye shall have her with you to do with her what it please you; that is for to say if that ye list to wed her yourself, that is me liefest, and if ye will give her unto King Mark, your uncle, that is in your choice” (Malory). In this passage it is evident how Iseult could not live her own life. His father is entrusting all the decision that concern her own future to Tristan, who can freely decide who is going to marry this woman. When the narrator says, “La Beale Isoud was made ready to go with Sir Tristram” (Malory), there is a further example of Iseult’s passivity. In fact, it is not Iseult that get ready, but it is someone else who makes her ready. Being Iseult the object of the action instead of the subject, it is highlighted the submissive role she had in the society. Dame Regnall, on the contrary, represent a woman who is extremely modern. She was victim of a spell of his evil brother who could not stand her independency. Obliged to live a life in the body of an old ugly woman, Dame Ragnell lives hidden in the wood far from society. When King Arthur finds her in the wood and asks her help to defeat her evil brother, she gives him the solution to the riddle. In fact, King Arthur, in order to beat the evil wizard, needs to guess which is women’s biggest desire. The answer to this riddle is “women most desire the right to make their own choices!” (Lupack). This statement is a ground-breaking concept. During middle age women were not free to make their own choices; however, they could take part to the courtly life. In these events, women were obliged to play the role of the perfect lady, and they always had to follow the etiquette. The fact that women most sincere desire is to have free will underline the fact that women were not free at all. Moreover, in this tale, Dame Ragnell becomes young and beautiful again when she is free to make her own choices. This transformation experienced by Dame Ragnell symbolizes all the women’s potentials that is not adequately exploited. If women are not free, they cannot express their numerous capabilities.
According to the scholar E. Jane Burns, in medieval courtly love feminine characters are presented with some quality that are stereotypical associated with men. She argues that courtly ladies “[possess] a curiously hybrid gender” because they are often presented with feminine physical characteristic, but at the same time they fulfill male positions (22). Burns also explains that in mediaeval texts many women do not have a defined romantic relationship with a knight, and that the clichéd concept of courtly love is not so often presented in courtly literature (26). However, as Burns points out in her article “Courtly Love: Who Needs It?” beauty and sexuality are two characteristics that are always associated with medieval courtly women (22). Indeed, Iseult is often described as la belle Iseult, while Dame Ragnell becomes a gorgeous woman by the end of the poem. Burns also affirms that not all the courtly love narratives are male centered, but that the most famous texts focus on the character of men (30), so in the collective imaginary there is this idea of a medieval man who governs the relationship. Burns also claims that: We get a sense of ladies not as players absent or distanced from the courtly world but as protagonists operating within a sphere of love that they have substantially remapped and reshaped. These courtly ladies […] offer models of female subjectivity and desire that challenge us to rethink the terms of love and agency in both the medieval and modern worlds, not only for female protagonists but for their male counterparts as well. The medieval heroines considered here suggest a kind of agency that is not conscious, controlled, or full-blown; nor is it an expression of autonomous, individual will. […] The complex social positioning of these women in love shows that we cannot understand them as dominant, empowered, or active speakers. But neither are they merely subservient, disempowered, silent, or passive players (49). Burns explains that medieval women should not be seen just in relation with their lack of free will, but they should be considered for the new role they have in the romance. If the majority of women in these text wait for the man to accomplish the process of engagement, there are many examples of woman who actively take part to the process.
To better understand how the perception of gender has changed towards the years, it is necessary to compare the different characters of the stories. While the perception of male characters has not changed, the perception of female characters has. The male characters of the Homeric poems, as well as the male characters of courtly love literature, are heroic figures who are famous and valorous. Yet the female characters of Penelope, Briseis and Iseult are lacking in personality and change according to how people perceive them, while the character of Dame Ragnell is described as an independent woman with a strong personality. The only character that can be considered an exception is the character of Athena, who is a goddess and cannot be compared to the human.
It is evident that in the twenty centuries that have passed from the publication of the Homeric Poems to the publication of the courtly love stories the way women were described in literature has changed. Even if in medieval poems there are still many circumstances in which women have no freedom at all, there are also some example of women who start declaring their own independence. However, even when women want to be independent, there is often a male character who wants to obstacle their freedom and who transform the protagonists’ achievement of independence in a very long process. Women cannot claim that they are independent and just act as if their condition was accepted; they should fight and suffer if they really want to be free. The women self-determination is, however, a totally new concept that was not present in the Greek literary tradition. The idea that a woman could be able to make choices by her own, that she could take part to public life and act according to her free will was inconceivable for the Greek. The main difference that occurs between the way women were described in Ancient Greece literature and the way they are presented in medieval works is that Greek women were totally under the control of men authority, while medieval women are still subjected to the will of a man, but they are also claiming their need of freedom.
Burns, Jane E. “Courtly Love: Who Needs It? Recent Feminist Work in the Medieval French Tradition.” The University of Chicago Press, Signs, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2001, pp. 22-49. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3175865.
Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Alexander Pope, Duke Classic, 2012.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Lupack, Barbara Tepa. “The Tale of Dame Ragnell.” The Girl’s King Arthur: Tales of the Women of Camelot, 2010, pp. 105-119. University of Rochester, http://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/ text/lupack-tale-of-dame-ragnell.
Malory, Tomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Race Point Pub, 2017.