The Perception of Gender in the Literature of Ancient Greece and Middle Age

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.

Work Cited

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,

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, text/lupack-tale-of-dame-ragnell.

Malory, Tomas. Le Morte d’Arthur. Race Point Pub, 2017.

Subject to His Subjects: A Performative Reading of the Socially-Constructed King Arthur

Fourteenth and fifteenth century England saw significant social changes in the rise of the merchant class, the expiration of feudalism, competition over nobility, and in the nation’s struggle to form a cohesive national identity and security. All of this resulted in overall social and political instability that caused citizens to reevaluate and reconstruct internal identities and roles in society, particularly as the class structure in England was constantly altered. Sir Thomas Malory himself appeared to experience and internalize this fluctuation and consequential confusion over identity, evidenced by his turbulent public reputation and lifestyle. The confusion and struggle over one’s personal identity and the identity society imposes upon one was represented not only through discourse and social relations, but also through literature. In his work Le Morte D’Arthur, Malory indeed deals with such problems of identity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and within his own self by projecting the phenomenon of constructed identity upon his main character, King Arthur. In the following essay, I argue that Arthur’s identity is a social construct inextricably linked to his kingship that must be accepted, believed, and performed by Arthur. To do this, I expand upon Judith Butler’s theories in Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In this work, Butler claims that gender is a “constituted” or “constructed identity” that humanity feels “compelled by social sanction and taboo” to “perform in the mode of belief” (519-520). I apply and adapt Butler’s assertions to the examination of Arthur’s identity in this essay by demonstrating that his identity apart from gender similarly “suffers a certain cultural construction,” and that he too comes to believe in this constituted identity and “perform[s]” it (Butler, 520 and 523).

There are several distinct events in Le Morte d’Arthur in which Arthur’s identity is as socially constructed and constrained by cultural expectations, just as Butler argues gender is, the first occurring prior even to Arthur’s conception. Arthur’s fate and identity are prophesied and predetermined by Merlin in the first book of Malory’s work, speaking as he does of “the great importance of the child” (Malory, 4) to come (Arthur). By vocalizing what his identity must be in greatness and importance, Merlin becomes the first to construct the fundamental identity of Arthur’s being. This construction becomes a social one the moment Merlin shares these expectations with Uther, and with this discourse the initial expectations of a society for Arthur to be a great and important king, albeit only the small society of two men, are espoused and provide a slim foundation for similar future constructions that fix Arthur’s identity with his “greatness” and nobility.Succeeding this, Uther’s and Igraine’s relations, otherwise known as Uther’s seducing of Igraine under the guise of her newly deceased husband, similarly establish Arthur’s identity as king. During their time together, the two literally create Arthur’s being, but by extension also construct his identity through the rules of lineage. As Uther’s only male heir, Arthur is required by law to ascend the throne, and his identity is therefore constituted by the regulations of society that coerce him into the position of king as soon as he is conceived. Butler claims that identity is often “constrained by available historical conventions” (Butler 521), and so it is with Arthur, whose identity is constrained within the title of “king” by the traditional lines of succession. Shortly after Arthur is born, the formulation of his sole identity and birthright as king persists vocally, first as Uther is on his deathbed, as Merlin asks, “Sire, shall your son Arthur be king of this realm after you with all your appurtenance?” to which the king answers in the affirmative, saying “I give him God’s blessing and mine, and bid him pray for my soul, and righteously and worshipfully that he claim the crown upon forfeiture of my blessing” (Malory, 6), and then again as Merlin proclaims to the populace of the kingdom that Jesus himself would, at Christmas, “show by some miracle who was to be the rightwise king of the realm” (Malory, 6). In the first instance, the men who initiated Arthur’s constituted identity by discussing their expectations of him continue their work, bidding Arthur to take the throne, even assuming it of him. In the second, Merlin spreads Arthur’s identity as “king” beyond the society of the two men and into the world that Arthur will most immediately required to interact with and abide by the rules of.

The final case exposing the ongoing community construction of Arthur’s identity as king within the first few chapters of Le Morte d’Arthur is found in the inscription on the stone that holds Arthur’s future sword. It reads, “WHOSO PULLETH OUT THIS SWORD OF THIS STONE AND ANVIL IS RIGHTWISE BORN KING OF ALL ENGLAND” (Malory, 7). The inscription imparts a very specific and seemingly simple standard for the man who pulls out the sword; that he be king. This is in accordance with the aforementioned passages that legally and orally charge Arthur with the same standard.Thus the societal construct of Arthur’s identity is initiated, extended, and completed; from Merlin’s claims to Uther of the kingliness of Arthur, the “rightwise” and “great” king of England handpicked by divinity and destiny, the expectations of Arthur to maintain a certain identity connected to the title of “king” spread to include the entire society that Arthur will come into contact with as he grows and attempts to define himself apart from his nobility. In these events both preceding and following Arthur’s birth, but prior to his rise to the throne, Merlin ties Arthur eternally with kingship and causes all of society to do the same, making it clear that Arthur’s future position as the King of England is “not predetermined by some manner of interior essence” (Butler, 521), but is fabricated through social interactions. Although the British know not who is to be this divine monarch, they already have expectations of him upon his arrival, working to construct his identity before he himself is even aware of his true lineage or is obliged to assume a certain role in the world. Arthur is not born king; he is made into one by the laws and constitutions of society, just as Simone de Beauvoir says that a woman is not born a woman, but becomes one (Butler, 519). Arthur’s identity follows the formulaic construction of gender that Butler presents in her work, saying as she does that gender is “an identity tenuously constituted in time- an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (519). In reiterating Arthur’s identity throughout the numerous aforementioned instances or “acts,” Malory constructs Arthur’s identity as king in much the same way that Butler indicates gender is constructed in society.

The expectations assigned to the adolescent from before birth are finally projected on Arthur as he draws the sword from the stone; in doing so, Arthur simultaneously imposes on himself the already pre-existing identity and expectations that will forever accompany “whoso pulleth out the sword” (Malory, 7). Although prophesied and betrothed to the throne since before birth, even as God himself selects him to be king, Arthur initially struggles to accept the identity thrust upon him in this moment. Because of this uncertainty, according to Butler, Arthur’s identity is not yet “constituted.” He has not entered into “the mode of belief,” has not yet been convinced of the “compelling illusion” of his enforced identity, and hasn’t yet “performed” his identity (Butler, 519-520).He accepts his newfound role in time, but does not do so because he feels that he is the true king of Camelot or because he believes being king coincides with his interior essence, but because the only father he has ever known tells him explicitly, as the rest of society already has, that he is to be king; “I understand that you must be king of this land… because God would have it so, for never should a man have drawn out this sword except that he were rightwise king of this land” (Malory, 8). Once again, Arthur only concedes because he is “beholden” to Sir Ector, dreading the thought of “failing” or disobeying him (Malory, 8). Arthur also tentatively accepts the weight of the kingship because of his subjects’ pleas. As soon his accomplishment is recognized, society, in due form, presumes that Arthur will accept the throne, crying, “We will have Arthur as our king. We will put him no more in delay for we see that it is God’s will that he shall be our king…” (Malory, 9). Finally, Arthur buckles under the petitions of his immediate society, his subjects and his father, consenting to shoulder the identity of “a true king… from thence forth all the days of his life” (Malory, 9). These facts, in addition to the previously discussed events that construct Arthur’s identity as king initially, are further evocative of Butler’s theory that identity is fabricated by external factors rather than by internal intuition, as well as her belief that a primary reason people comply with fabricated identities is a fear of social punishment.

With all of the prior establishment of Arthur’s identity long solidified, the boy has little choice but to incur the expectations and take them upon himself after he attains the sword; as a young man, Arthur has as of yet not had the opportunity to arrive at his own conclusions about his identity, has not been allowed the time to construct it himself, to discover what his internal essence truly is. Because of this, his inexperience and youth, Arthur wholly submits to the preordained notions and identity indivisible from the kingship, making this his only identity, believing as humans are wont to do that what society tells you to be, you automatically are. Yet not only does Arthur take on the persona because of his inexperience. Butler claims that often people comply with and perform traditional gender roles and stereotypes because “those who fail to do their gender right are severely punished” with “clearly punitive consequences” (Butler, 522), and so we can assume it is for Arthur and his identity as king, particularly since he explicitly states that he accepts the kingship because he fears the consequences of “failing” either his family or his subjects. Arthur acts in this way, as Butler says we all do with gender identity, “in obedience to an historically delimited possibility,” and “in accord with certain sanctions and proscriptions” (Butler, 522 and 525), namely the standards and expectations of Arthur’s subjects as delineated above. Although Arthur’s identity has long been constituted by society and constrained by historical circumstances, and although he has grown more accustomed to his imposed identity and adopted it at least outwardly by the time of his battle with the twelve kings, Arthur’s formation is incomplete in that the identity has not been performed repeatedly and is not wholly assimilated into Arthur’s being; for the identity to be completely realized, social or cultural construction, utter individual confirmation, and performance in the identity are all necessary.In the battle that directly follows the paramount realization and tentative acceptance of Arthur of his ready-made identity, this same identity is taken in stride and performed, as Butler requires.

As Arthur’s God- and society-given identity is challenged, the king clings to the identity and fights for it, as evidenced by his “great deeds of arms,” and his becoming “mad as a lion” (Malory, 18) with effort to defend his title against the kings who question him; the more pressing the battle becomes and the more Arthur’s position is challenged, the more he accepts it as his own and and grapples for it, finally growing into the identity he was born to wear. Through his acts on the battlefield, Arthur embraces his identity, entering into the mode of belief that completes the identity, which must be both imposed and accepted. By claiming his identity as king and even going so far as to fight for it, Arthur finally participates in the socially constitutive process of identity formation; he once again acts “in obedience to and historically delimited possibility” in accepting his identity publicly, and displays his belief in this identity by performing it and exercising the power that comes with it in battle, reproducing and enacting his identity as a “sustained and repeated corporeal project” (Butler, 522). Much as the gender binary is “repeated” and “reexperienc[ed],” Arthur “reenact[s]” his role as it has been laid out by society (Butler, 526). As Butler argues about gender, Arthur’s kingship is only “real to the extent that it is performed” (Butler, 527). In taking the identity of king fully upon himself and performing his role on the battlefield, Arthur makes his fabricated identity real.

Malory’s work thus seems to be reflective of the series of identity crises that pervaded medieval England and of Malory’s personal experiences with confusion over identity, while also being evocative of Judith Butler’s future theories on gender identity; although she emphasizes the societal constitution of gender identity and the subsequent compulsion of humanity to fulfill such identities, Butler’s arguments are easily applicable to other facets of identity, including Arthur’s identity as king, depicting as Malory does the phenomenon of social construction and the human tendency to conform to societal pressures and ideals.