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David Jones English I

Texts In Context
January/February 2000

What Is The Role Of Women In Medieval Literature?

Medieval literature depicts direct though non-linear elements in what Jung termed the
"collective unconscious". That is, dreams, folklore and myths. Generally however
these are the dreams of men, where women are symbols of aesthetic beauty, conquest
and (subtly, as it goes against the chivalric ideal) sexual fulfilment. Unsurprisingly
however, this is not the complete picture over several centuries of writing. In
Medieval literature the story is tantamount, and the significance of women varies
depending on their role as symbols pointing to the latent meaning of each tale. In this
essay, focussing on the Breton lays1, typical female roles will be analysed in relation
to Sir Orfeo. Analysis will then progress to the lays of Marie de France and I will
contend that these are an exception in terms of the role of women. The main symbols
in these lays are often female, and the latent meaning relates to the nature of being a
Sir Orfeo's Queen Herodis is little more than a symbol of beauty to be rescued.
Following Kibler's ascertains that Medieval characters "are individualized not by
psychological development, but rather by the specific situations in which they find
themselves" she must exist primarily to be absent. The meaning of the lay is not "Mest
o love", as claimed, but is in fact the hero’s capacity for love. This is demonstrated at
the outset when eighteen lines about Orfeo's love of harping are followed by a mere
six about his wife:

The king hadde a Queen of priis

That was y-cleped Dame Herodis,
The fairest levedy for the nones
That might gon on body and bones,
Full of love and godenisse,
Ac no man may tell of hir fairnise
(lines 27-32)

The lack of imagery in this superlative rhetoric leaves Herodis a far less vivid
character than Triamoure in Lanval. The final couplet almost negates her character by
David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

placing closing emphasis on her reputation. She is further dehumanised by the

decontextualised modern reader. Whilst the word “priis” may be closest to our word
“excellence”, we cannot help associating connotations of “price” and the historical
sense that women were a commodity2. Herodis only seems a real “character” in the
dialogue before she is taken away, declaring "ever ich have y-loved thee"3.
Female naivety contrasts Orfeo's worldly cunning and allows him to be a true
hero. There is the carefree, but almost infantile image of Herodis and two maidens
(for women are rarely alone in lays) going:

To play by an orchardside –
To see the floures sprede and spring
And to here the foules sing.
(lines 42-44)

There is no denying the beauty in this image, the assonance of floures/foules and
alliteration of sprede/spring creating an image of innocent woman at one with nature.
However the purpose of this innocence is to create vulnerability. The equally naïve
maidens' failure to wake their Queen means that a dangerous situation soon occurs
and a hero is required to save the day.
The corruption of femininity is used in Sir Orfeo to enhance dramatic impact.
The Queen's waking, coming after lines of carefree female innocence, could not be
more of a contrast:

She froted her honden and hir feet

And crached her visage – it bled wete.
Hir riche robe hie all to-rett
(lines 55-57)

The assonance is gone, the lines are protracted, and the rhythm is disjointed as
meaning cuts across couplets. "rett" not only relates to tearing but also has
connotations of "red", the saturation of blood she has caused. She uses her fingernails,
symbols of femininity, to destroy her beauty: "Thy body, that was so white y-
core,/With thine nails is all to-tore!"4. The corruption of femininity is a visceral
symbol recurrent through literature. In Wuthering Heights the unnaturally effeminate
Isabella uses her fingernails to leave "crescents of red" on Catherine's arm.
Similarly recurrent is Le Fresne's notion of a mother killing her child,

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

such as in Macbeth.
Women's mysteriousness, in the eyes of men, enhances the mystique of the
fairies in the spectacle of "sexty levedis on hors"5. In medieval terms this is the natural
order debased. The hero is powerless against a mass of unarmed women. These silent
automatons, with their brutally efficient hawks, are utterly unsettling. The inherent
mysteriousness of womanhood also makes Queen Herodis more ambiguous. It is
uncertain whether she is kidnapped or seduced to the fairy kingdom. That she is easily
impressed by its splendour establishes her, beyond the classical structure and Celtic
aesthetic, in an Eve-facing-temptation archetype.
The extrinsic role of women, with female patrons emerging in a new "middle
class" audience, may explain the increased femininity of heroes like Orfeo, a musician
rather a warrior. A.B. Taylor (1930) simplistically states that these women found the
stance of chivalry more palatable than Anglo-Saxon heroics6. Yet the shift in male
ideals that came with the Norman invasion, focussing on the Virgin Mary7, may be
more accountable. Perhaps this ties in with the attractive speculation of Joseph
Campell5. He cites an eruption in Western thought of a new sense of the feminine, an
archetype suppressed by medieval misogyny. This archetype, expressed through
fantasy as it was inherently anti-Christian, built a new sense of the individual for both
sexes. Whether he is entirely accurate or not, I feel that this idea embodies best the
unusual portrayal of women in the lays of Marie de France.
Marie de France's Lanval is a progression from the traditional role of women,
whether its author was a woman or not. Female characters are still commodities and
superlative beauties. They exist, as feminists often cite in literature by men, at
polarities; "heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in
the extreme" [Woolf, pg.2175]. These polarities are represented by Dame Triamoure
and Guinere. David Wallace characterises the lay as a "tale of female power
overcoming female malice". This woman-orientated meaning focuses on the
implications of female power. Women have control over both Lanval and Arthur. The
lay is built on a crescendo of temptation/redemption, with the appearance of beautiful
damsels preceding Triamour before both seducing and saving Lanval.
While the central character of Lanval is clearly its eponym, a case can be made
for Dame Triamoure being the most interesting, and important character. She is an
introjection of Jung's anima archetype9, in the shape of a wood nymph. She does not
however represent the anima of the author, nor the main protagonist, as he is not

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

psychologically developed. Instead, she is symbolic of this exemplar that taps into a
universal form in the human psyche. This is what, pre-Jung, Derek Brewer perhaps
meant when he claimed that lays made little logical sense but "felt right". His phrasing
related to the "symbolical power in certain stories".
Dame Triamoure is a dynamic creature playing several roles. She is described
outside the human sphere, in the realm of nature, she "surpassed in beauty the lily and
the new rose when it appears in summer"10. Uniquely in lays, she is aware of her
sexual power and utilises semi-nudity as a seduction tool. The lay's dramatic pinnacle
comes when, in front of the court, Triamoure "let her cloak fall so that they could see
her better"11. Her wealth infers power; an exception to France's succinct descriptions
comes in the hyperbolic portrayal of Triamoure's tent: "the coverlets cost as much as a
castle"12. The eastern tone here establishes her as a fantasy figure, a goddess, outside
the court system. Triamoure plays an unusual active role in events. As a kind of deus
ex machina13 she is more important in the hero's restoration from poverty than he is
himself. She goes against T.A. Shippley's idea of lays as male and female versions of
growing up in not passively attracting Prince Charming. Instead she is almost a
female hero, rescuing the knight as Orfeo did his Queen, and eclipsing him in the
process. Triamoure sums up the variety of roles she plays in a request to Lanval: "I
admonish, order and beg you".
Queen Gwenere is at the opposite polarity of the archetype, demonstrating that
"the insinuations of the anima . . . can utterly destroy a man" 14. Interestingly, she does
not use particularly different tactics to Dame Triamoure, calling maidens to surround
her as she approaches the king. The difference is that she is playing the negative
position in the story, placing Lanval in a position where he will inevitably break the
courtly code either by going against the king or the requests of a lady. Lanval's puritan
stance should not elevate him as a hero. Two of the greatest medieval romance heroes
of all time – Launcelot and Gawain – took Guineverre (Gwenere's more common
form) as a lover. She is a classic example of a sexually frustrated woman married off
to an older man15, in a society that saw marriage more as a business contract than a
relationship of love. Unfortunately her position in the tale prevents her from being
developed as a sympathetic character.
In the transition from Lanval to Thomas Chestre's (a male author) Sir Launfal
the role of women becomes more traditional. Sir Launfal is established firmly as
central hero, with the addition of warrior powers as part of Triamoure's gift. Queen

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

Gwenere is demonised further as an archetypal fatal woman. It is her rather than the
king who does not give Launfal a gift (seemingly without reason) and thus causes his
descent into poverty. Whereas Marie de France allows the reader to pick up the
insinuations of "thirty knights. . .gone to relax in a garden beneath the tower where the
queen was staying"16, Chestre tells us explicitly that "she hadde lemannis under her
lord"17. The Queen's punishment in the France version – being humiliated by a string
of women more beautiful than her, the pinnacle revealing her as a liar – seems
reasonable. For her to be made blind seems unnecessarily bloodthirsty and damages
Triamoure's purity.
Triamoure is diminished in her role as a strong female figure. The sexual
content is toned down. Derek Pearsall's claims that Chestre negates supernatural
elements of the original with increased social issues is mostly true, but he does
diminish some of Triamoure's mysteriousness (and some of the mystery that makes an
anima figure most effective) with an explicit supernatural reference: "Here fadir was
King of Fairie"18. Conversely there is the addition of the daughter of a hypocritical
mayor. Like Gwenere she is a threat in revealing Launfal's greatest secret, which at
this stage is his poverty. However, once in Launfal's confidence she actually helps him
by giving him a horse. This adds suspense to Launfal's subsequent altercation with the
Queen as there is less certainty that harm will be the result.
Marie de France's Le Fresne provides the most unusual example of women's
role, as the latent meaning of the text is the nature of being a woman, the implications
of maternity and sacrifices of love. It is one of only three lays with a female main
protagonist. Sir Guroun is a relatively passive figure, who comes to love Le Fresne
gradually, and works to gain her affection. This is a total contrast to the spontaneous
seduction of Dame Triamoure. It demonstrates that while Marie de France always has
endurance for love as the route to happiness in her lays, the type of love she utilises is
Meale believes that the surrogate maid/daughter in Le Fresne "symbolizes the
redemptive power of the mother's better feelings, her capacity for maternal love".
However, this idea seems more accurate if toned down; I contend that this lay portrays
the kind of female interdependency at the centre of such modern womanist novels as
The Color Purple. Le Fresne's mother is deterred from the ultimate crime against
womanhood – murdering her child – by her maid. In the Middle English Lay Le
Freine update, this role is emphasised further by having an evil midwife opposed by a

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

"maiden fre", a surrogate daughter of Le Freine's mother who enforces family bonds
by taking on her mother's child. This maid/surrogate daughter takes the child to safety.
The theme of surrogacy continues when the porter of the abbey gives Le Fresne to his
"widowed daughter" who is first seen with another "baby she was suckling".
Le Fresne is a resourceful and unusually human heroine, capable of immense
stoicism in diligently providing for her love on his wedding night to another, giving
him the precious objects that define her identity. She goes through the social
degradation of Orfeo or Launfal in a much more affecting way. However, as her
reaction to her descent and rise is not noted (she does not even speak until the end of
the lay) I feel that she is not the central character. This is Le Fresne's mother, the
motivating force behind the story. A Freudian reading, for better or worse, seems
inescapable in relation to the text here19. This lay does not present the typical view of
women at polarities. Instead Le Fresne's Gwenere-like mother – "To ich woman sche
hadde envie" – becomes enlightened. The problem is that we do not know how this
development came about, perhaps it can only be attributed to "feeling right" as an
Ultimately then, the role of women in medieval literature is a varied category
dependent on how female characters or womanist issues relate to the main plot. It is
this plot's ironic and dynamic situations that evoke enjoyment from the listener, which
is the main purpose of the work. Female characters often conform to archetypes, as
these come with generic implications that can be left unsaid in such relatively brief
works. While applying Freud or Jung to medieval literature results in the inevitable
inaccuracies of any meta-narrative, their ideas are the closest we can come to a
glimpse at what makes inexplicable aspects of womanhood in these works so utterly
effective to this day.

2084 Words.

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

1. There are of course numerous other fields of enquiry, but generalisations must be
made in an essay of this size. Another interesting subject would be The Canterbury
Tales. Appearing in the late Fourteenth Century, it saw characterisation of female
protagonists reach new complexity and depth. Rather than attempting to pigeonhole
the intricacies of Chaucer's Prioress or, especially, his Wife of Bath, this work can
only be omitted.

2. A type of problem in decontextualised literature, identified by Welleck. It is

described in Hirsch, E.D. Jr “Objective Interpretation”.

3. Line 99.

4. Lines 81-82.

5. Line 280.

6. Taylor: "Arthurian Romance reflected what women wanted men to be". He believes
that the lays appealed to women as men hard to perform all the hardships and
suffering to achieve love.

7. Explicitly mentioned in Lay Le Freine, line 172: "For Marie love, thi moder fre".

8. Explained in Siewers, Alf "Romantic Love Lecture Outline".

9. "Every man carries with him the eternal image of woman, not the image of this or
that particular woman, but a definitive feminine image. This image is fundamentally
unconscious, an hereditary factor of primordial origin engraved in the living organic
system of the man, an imprint or "archetype" of all the ancestral experiences of the
female, a deposit, as it were, of all the impressions ever made by woman. . .since this
image is unconscious , it is always unconsciously projected upon the person of the
beloved, and is one of the chief reasons for passionate attraction or aversion." The
archetype is often represented by mermaids, lansia, succubus or other mysterious

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

femmes. It creates a sense of momentousness as it glimpses at the enormity and

complexity of the subconscious.
C.G. Jung. In Jaffé, Aniela C.G. Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pg. 411

10. Lines 77-106.

11. Lines 585-610.

12. Lines 77-106.

13. Identified in Laskaya, Anne and Salisbury, Eve ed. "TEAMS Launfal

14. Jaffé, Aniela C.G. Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections, page 212.

15. A central part of the structure of Marie de France lais, see also Guigemar

16. Lines 219-52.

17. Line 47.

18. Line 280

19. Using Sigmund Freud's Introductory Lectures On Psychoanalysis, Le Fresne's

mother would symbolise (for she is not developed enough to be psychoanalysed) the
female fear of sexual intercourse and resultant maternity. Her paranoid association
between sex and pregnancy is clear in her initial belief that a woman who gives birth
to twins has had two lovers. She is jealous of the first woman who has overcome this
fear and reproduced successfully. The woman's solution is to turn the product of
reproduction into a classic Freudian phallic symbol (page 131), by wrapping her baby
in a cloak and contemplating killing it. She is overjoyed to be disassociated with the
result of sexual intercourse, and now allows the act itself to take place again,
symbolised by the journey. Here, the phallic symbol is transferred across a landscape
(the female body), through a forest (pubic hair) into a churchyard and left in a hollow

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

tree (the female body and genitals). Paradoxically this landscape also represents the
surrogate women who have taken responsibility for her actions. Le Fresne's mother is
only able to accept the result of her having had sex some ten years later, in maturity,
when she is happy to discover her daughter.

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

Abrams, M.H. “Archetypal Criticism” in Abrams, M.H. A Glossary Of Literary
Terms: Seventh Edition
USA: Hardcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999

Brewer, Derek "Escape From the Mimetic Fallacy" in Brewer, Derek, ed Studies in
Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988

Burrow, JAW Medieval Writers and their Work

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982

Davis, Tom The Theories Of The Mind Lectures: Reading The Dream.

France, Marie de, trans. Burgess, Glyn S. and Busby, Keith The Lais Of Marie De
England, Penguin Books, 1986
Used for all translated quotations from French lays.

Freud, Sigmund trans. Riviere, Joan Introductory Lectures On Psycho-Analysis

London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1922

Hirsch, E.D. Jr “Objective Interpretation” in Newton-de Molina, ed.

On Literary Intention: Critical Essays.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1976

Jaffé, Aniela trans. Winston, Richard and Clara C.G. Jung: Memories, Dreams,
Great Britain: Fontana Press, 1995

Jung, C.G. trans. F.C. Hull The Archetypes And The Collective Unconscious
London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1959

Kibler, William W. and Zinn, Grover, ed. (1995) Medieval France: An Encyclopedia
C. Davern, Ph.D Marie-France Site

Laskaya, Anne and Salisbury, Eve, ed. (1995) TEAMS Launfal Introduction

Meale, C ed. Readings in English Medieval Romance

Woodbridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994

Pearsall, Derek "Development of the Middle English Romance" in Brewer, Derek, ed.

David Jones English I Texts In Context Sir Orfeo: A Description Of The Fairy Kingdom

Studies in Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches

Sands, Donald B. ed. Middle English Verse Romances

Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1986
Used For All Quotations From Middle English Lays.

Shipply, T.A. "Breton Lais And Modern Fantasies" in Brewer, Derek, ed. Studies in
Medieval English Romances: Some New Approaches
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988

Siewers, Alf (1998) Romantic Love Lecture Outline


Taylor, A.B. An Introduction To Medieval Romance

London: Richard Clay and Sons ltd, 1930

Wallace, David ed. The Cambridge History Of Medieval English Literature

Guilford: Cambridge University Press, 1999

Woolf, Virginia "A Room Of One's Own", 1929, in Abrams, M.H. & Greenblatt, S, ed.
The Norton Anthology Of English Literature: Seventh Edition, Volume 1.
USA: Norton, 1999.


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