Throughout the course of history, women have had a variety of social roles, some of which can be seen through the lens of literature written during various different eras. Using several cantos from Inferno, part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and the frame tale The Thousand and One Nights, this paper will examine the medieval role of women as initiators and instigators of events, and will lead to an understanding of the quintessential medieval woman: one willing to maintain the appearance of passivity while still providing for herself or the people she has grown to care for in the background. This understanding is vital to interpretations of these texts, as well as to other medieval literature; however, an understanding of women’s role in the medieval period can also enrich one’s ability to examine the roles of women in all literature and promote an understanding of the ways in which these perceptions have changed and evolved with each passing era. Thus, using this knowledge, it would also be possible to analyze the contemporary roles of women, and to understand how and why certain stereotypes and thought patterns have been perpetuated throughout history, and how they have been largely overcome in some modern societies. Additionally, the contemporary roles of women in other regions (excluding the United States and Europe) can be better understood in the context of these archaic interpretations, elements of which are still found to be in existence today.
Dante Alighieri composed his Divine Comedy in the early portion of the fourteenth century, when there were strong political divisions in his home city of Florence, stemming from a religious disagreement in which he eventually chose a side. His work has strong religious undertones, stemming from the apparent journey through the stages of the afterlife, as well as from the references to several heavenly figures. However, his work also contains several female characters, despite many of them receiving only a brief mention before the attention is shifted away from the roles they played in Dante the Pilgrim’s journey. However, women’s roles in texts are not always so limited; in tales such as The Thousand and One Nights, whose inception was likely earlier than that of the Divine Comedy, women play a crucial role in furthering the plot and driving the male characters’ actions.
Despite the fact that women initiate and continue to instigate a majority of the actions within both texts, perceptions of these female characters vary drastically. In the Divine Comedy, all of the female characters are presented as being righteous, and even holy; these women have led good lives, and for that, have been admitted into heaven, where the final stage of Dante the Pilgrim’s journey is to take place. In The Thousand and One Nights, however, a majority of the female characters are lustful, promiscuous and very easily discarded. Whereas Dante the Pilgrim never forgot the love he felt for Beatrice while she was alive, both King Shahrayar and Shahzaman showed no mercy to their wives, and put them to death regardless of the favor they had once held. These attitudes show the polarity that exists with regards to women, and thus also shows the different ways in which they can prompt events to occur, even if the causation was unintentional.
In each text, it was a female character who began the main plot arch, and who contributed significantly to the events surrounding the earliest portions of the story. A key passage for discussing the early significance of female characters in the Divine Comedy begins when Virgil explains how he was led to Dante the Pilgrim, who had found himself wandering into the Dark Wood. According to Virgil, “I was among those dead … when a lady summoned me” (Inferno 2.52-3); this lady, who we come to realize is actually Beatrice, Dante’s first love, then asked Virgil to go to Dante the Pilgrim, and to guide him through the rings of hell and to eventually bring him safely to the gates of heaven. Despite her distance from him, she attempted to provide him with as much help as she could from her place in heaven while waiting for him to reach the gates, from which point she could continue to guide him on his journey. She also shows genuine concern for him, when she expressed, “I fear he may have gone so far astray / … that I may have started to his aid too late” (Inferno 2.64-6). Regardless of the fact that she no longer had an earthly or physical presence in Dante’s life, Beatrice still shows that she has continued to care for him, and that she feared for his soul and its safety after he began wandering into the Dark Wood, a place that was described as being off the “correct” path of his life.
The early female characters in The Thousand and One Nights, however, are very different from the heavenly and loving Beatrice. The first woman we are introduced to is Shahzaman’s favorite wife, who he had left behind while he was going to visit his brother; when he secretly returned to say goodbye to her, though, her true colors were revealed. Shahzaman caught her in their bedroom, sleeping with a kitchen boy; this fact infuriated him to such a degree that it drove him to kill both the other man and his favorite wife, and to cast their bodies from the palace. After his discovery, Shahzaman ordered his convoy to leave immediately, and “The drum was struck, and they set out on their journey, while Shahzaman’s heart was on fire because of what his wife had done to him and how she had betrayed him with some cook, some kitchen boy” (Thousand and One Nights 1747). His bitterness, however, soon turned into a deep depression, which settled over him even while at his brother’s palace. This depression indirectly lead to both the introduction of the second major female character, and to the terrible changes that took place within his brother, Shahrayar; when Shahzaman witnessed his brother’s favorite wife and ten of his concubines perform sexual acts with eleven slaves in his brother’s household, he immediately felt as though his fate was not the worst of all, and that he could begin functioning once more knowing that his brother’s lot was unknowingly worse than his own. Shayrayar, in seeing the changes that occurred, demanded to know what had prompted them; it was only then that Shahzaman revealed to his brother the secret trysts between his women and the slaves. In disbelief, Shahrayar demanded to see this for himself, and his brother obliged. He took his brother to the window one morning, and “When King Shahrayar saw the spectacle of his wife and the slave-girls, he went out of his mind” (Thousand and One Nights 1750). Thus, the actions of Shahrayar’s favorite wife, along with the other ten concubines, drove him to become the heartless murderer he is throughout the next portion of the tale. Women in both the Divine Comedy and The Thousand and One Nights were the catalysts for the plot to begin, and for the male characters to behave in ways that they normally would not. In the Divine Comedy, this change was shown primarily through the appearance and actions of Virgil; he would not normally have come to guide a person who wandered into the Dark Wood, but at the request of Beatrice, he offered to assist Dante the Pilgrim. In The Thousand and One Nights, this change was channeled through Shahzaman and Shahrayar, though Shahrayar was arguably affected the most, due to the fact that he underwent the greatest shift in mentality, especially toward women.
Further into both texts, we discover female characters with good motives, who are looking to do everything in their power to help either the male characters or other women. In the second canto of Divine Comedy, we are able to learn more about the true reasons behind the sending of aid to Dante the Pilgrim, when we see that Beatrice told Virgil that, “A gracious lady sits in Heaven grieving / for what happened to the one I send you to, / and her compassion breaks Heaven’s stern decree” (Inferno 2.94-6). This “gracious lady” is often assumed, especially due to the religious motifs present in the rest of the work, to be Mary. As Guy Raffa states, “This last woman, who sets in motion the entire rescue operation, can only be Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus according to Dante’s faith” (“Three Blessed Women,” Danteworlds). Thus, it is Mary who truly sends Dante the Pilgrim his guide; without her, he plausibly could have wandered through the Dark Wood and the circles of hell forever, never able to find a way back to his correct and established path. Mary, through Saint Lucia and then through Beatrice, extends her greatest possible aid to Dante the Pilgrim, initiating his journey and beginning his slow passage into the realms of heaven. In The Thousand and One Nights, we are introduced to the character of Shahrazad, a young woman willing to attempt to change the mindset of King Shahrayar, and to end his killing of the women he marries. According to Jerome Clinton, “After Shahrayar witnesses her [his favorite wife’s] debauch, he first abandons his throne altogether, then, after his encounter with the jinn and the kidnapped bride, he returns to his throne, but transformed into a monster of injustice” (Clinton 108). Despite the many risks, she insists on marrying the King, but makes sure to tell him stories every night, leaving him curious to hear the ending. Her strategy works; each night, she tells Shahrayar a new part of a story, or even a new story entirely, and this keeps him from killing her the next morning. However, each night Shahrayar promises that “[he] will have her put to death the next morning, as I did with the others” (Thousand and One Nights 1760). While she is telling him the stories, she is also using these tales as a way to hopefully alter the mindset and behavior of the king; after hearing of his promise to “marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning, in order to save himself from the wickedness and cunning of women” (Thousand and One Nights 1752), what she truly wanted was to survive, and to save other women from the horrible fate that resulted from becoming his bride.
Overall, women in both narratives play important roles in the male character’s lives and journeys. However, as is characteristic of the woman’s role in medieval society, they always operate under a veil of silence; their actions are neither bold nor outright, but are performed in secrecy and in the background, always cast behind the adventures of their male counterparts. As instigators and initiators, women could find some power in the medieval world; since they could not use their own selves to fulfill their desires, they could instead use the power of the men whom they influenced to express their general will and accomplish their goals. Thus, the women in these stories cast a very similar light on the female condition: despite the vast differences in their actions, they each showed that women could have some power, as long as it was not expressed outright, and that they could then use it to change the behavior of men either for the better, in the case of Virgil and Dante the Pilgrim, or for the worse, in the case of King Shahrayar.
Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Translated by Musa, Mark. Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Edited by Puchner, Martin. Vol. 1. W.W. Norton, 2014. pp. 1600-1719.
Clinton, Jerome W. “Madness and Cure in the 1001 Nights.” Studia Islamica, no.61, 1985, pp.107-125. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1595410
Raffa, Guy P. “Three Blessed Women,” “Inferno.” DanteWorlds, 2002. http://danteworlds.laits.utexas.edu/index.html
The Thousand and One Nights. Translated by Haddawy, Hussain and Jerome W. Clinton. Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Edited by Puchner, Martin. Vol. 1. W.W. Norton, 2014. pp. 1746-1795.