Courtly Romance--Knight's, Man of Law's, Squire's Tale
Breton Lay (short romantic poem, not a song)--Franklin's Tale
Fabliaux (fable-like short story with a snappy ending)--Miller's, Reeve's, Merchant's Tale
Tragedy (through medieval eyes, at least)--the Monk's Tale
Exempla--Pardoner's, Wife of Bath's Tale
Sermon (or didactic treatise)--Parson's Tale
Beast Fable--the Nun's Priest's Tale
1. About Misogynic
Literature in the Middle Ages:
The Wife of Bath's complaint that literature is antifeminist because it is written by men has more recently been made a literary history. Feminist criticism has pointed out that literary history, though not outspokenly misogynist like some medieval literature, has nevertheless presented female experience and creativity from a predominantly male point of view. Because traditional literary history excludes many women writers from the canon and because it starts chronologically with periods when only a few highly privileged women could write at all, which did in fact prevail until very recent times, that authorship is essentially a male prerogative.
The ideal of virginity and Antifeminism:
Medieval literature reveals two diametrically opposed stereotypes of women, one represented by Eve, who caused the Fall of man, and the other by Mary, sometimes referred to as the Second Eve, who bore the Savior of man. The Latin Ave, the angel's salutation to Mary (Ave, Mary), it was noted at that time, is "Eva" spelled backward; and as the Fall was associated with Eve's sexuality, so salvation was associated with Mary's virginity. The medieval cult of the Virgin is closely connected with the ideal of chivalry. The image of Mary is pictured on the inside of Sir Gawain's shield (I, lines 648-50), and he is "her knight" (I, line 1769). Her power is a function of her purity: virginity is the force that enables the weak to control the strong. The mystery and idealism that surrounded virginity is very much in chivalric culture. At the other extreme, woman is seen as the seducer and betrayer of man. In the first shock of shame, when the Green Knight confronts Sir Gawain with knowledge of the green girdle, Gawain bitterly accuses the ladies who have tricked him and launches into a diatribe against women, starting with eve. Although the speech is a typical example of antifeminism, we need not take it at face value because, in the case of sophisticated writers like the Gawain poet or Chaucer, characters and even narrators don't necessarily speak for the author. The very existence of the extreme views, moreover, creates opportunities for irony that cuts in more than one direction. By making Sir Gawain, hitherto the model of chivalry, churlishly condemn women like a medieval clerk, the poet, with humor and understanding, lets us see his hero's human imperfections and the instinct of even the best of knights to blame his failure on a woman, just as Adam did. Sir Gawain, it should be noted, recovers his poise and accepts the blame for his own fault along with the green girdle as a reminder of it.
Complex irony also qualifies the antifeminism in the "Wife of Bath's Prologue." We can easily see the irony that, by her own account, the Wife is herself the domineering, lustful, and calculating shrew painted by the antifeminist writers. That portrait, though, has been humorously exaggerated, in part by the Wife herself, whose intention, she tells the pilgrims, "nis but for to pleye" (line 198). In addition to her less admirable traits, Chaucer has endowed the Wife with humor, generosity, an irresistable zest for life, and, not least, a stubborn refusal to let herself be exploited in a world where women have no education and few rights, and where rich old men acquire young girls as property. Her "Prologue" can be read as an indictment of the culture that caricatures women and denies them any human dignity. In the Wife's marriage to her fifth husband, the former Oxford clerk who torments her with anecdotes from his "book of wikked wives" (line 691), Chaucer humorously, but also with much poignancy, portrays the clash between Woman and "Auctoritee," the clerical establishment that condemns her.
Fabliaux such as "The Miller's Tale" stereotype women as cunning and faithless. At the same time, the comedy creates sympathy for them, and their male victims usually deserve their fate. Like Alison and the Wife of Bath in her first three marriages, fabliau heroines are often spirited young women coupled with old husbands, and the authors sympathize with their natural impulses and desires for a freer life.
In The Second Shepherd's Play (which I did not assign your class to read), the Wakefield Master has created a delightful counterpoint between the two types of womanhood. Gill's and Mak's constant breeding keeps the family poor and hungry; when Mak steals a lamb, Gill, with typical female cunning, devises the scheme of disguising it as her newborn baby. The plot of the stolen lamb is followed by the Nativity scene with Gill's counterpart, the Virgin, and the true Lamb of God, the Christ Child. This juxtaposition has none of the stern opposition of "Eva" and "Ave." In the context of Christmas play, Gill and the Virgin share a common humanity with each other and with the male characters that draws our sympathy.
Noble or gentlewomen: when the noble or gentle widow happened to survive her husband or children who had died
through violence and disease and lived herself to and advanced age, she had exceptional opportunities and motives to pursue a more consistent life of seclusion, reading, reflection, and prayer, approximating to that of a nun or a solitary, sharing their circumstances and even taking their vows.
2. Courtly love
In theory "courtly love" has been seen as the other side of the coin of antifeminism. Scholars have used the term to designate a set of literary conventions that supposedly idealizes women and makes them into objects of worship. The lady is wooed, usually at a distance, by a knight who fights in her honor, calls himself her "servant," and suffers insomnia, anorexia, pallor, chills and fever, and other symptoms that, he insists, will be his death if he does not obtain her "mercy." (Ex. St. George, the Redcross Knight, is Una's protector, her knight. Sir Philip Sidney's lyrics is based on courtly love.) The relationship between the knight and the lady is an inversion of the relationship between lord and vassal under feudalism. Because aristocratic women were married off for rank and property, and husbands enjoyed total authority over their wives, it has been argued that courtly love was incompatible with marriage and thus necessarily clandestine, although in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and "Franklin's Tale" courtly suitors woo and marry their ladies. Whether courtly love had any bearing on actual social custom in the Middle Ages is a vexed question, but one may safely assume that the literature reflects a new deference toward "ladies" that still governs much of our social behavior.
Chaucer almost always treats
courtly love tongue-in-cheek. In "The Miller's Tale" the wooing of both
Absolon parodies the language and gestures of courtly lovers, and of course the heroine is no lady. The Gawain poet stands courtly love on its head by having the lady woo the knight and reproach him with failing to behave like knights in romances (lines 1515-34). As with the antifeminist stereotype, the cliches about courtly love tend to dissolve when they are subjected to humor.
The only serious affair in the medieval section is that of Lancelot and Guinevere, but it is certainly no idealization of love or of woman. Throughout the Morte Darthur, Malory has portrayed Guinevere as imperious, passionate, and jealous. He reluctantly endorses Lancelot's loyalty to his lady, not so much because Lancelot loves her as because his honor demands it. Although forewarned, Lancelot visits her on the fatal night "Because the Queen has sent for me." On the other hand, once the adultery is made public, Arthur must have Guinevere burned at the stake because his honor requires it. Of Lancelot's rescue, Sir Gawain says, "he hathe done but knightly, and as I would have done myself and [if] I had stood in like case." What Gawain cannot forgive is Lancelot's inadvertent killing of Gawain's brothers in the course of the rescue. Lancelot's conflicting loves for Guinevere and for his brother knights ultimately destroys the Round Table. It is a conflict between love for a woman and male bonding, and the woman would be expendable were it not for the overriding consideration of honor. As Arthur ruefully confesses: "Much more I am sorrier for my good knights' loss [the loss of my good knights] than for the loss of my fair queen; for queen I might have enough, but such a fellowship of good knights shall never be together in no company."
3. The mysterious
The pentangle is a symbol of natural perfection. Gawain is said to be "faultless in his five senses" (line 640) and unfailing in his "five fingers" (line 641). (That is, he possesses the virtues of generosity or magnanimity, fellowship, chastity, courtesy, and pity or compassion). His faith in the five wounds of Christ and five joys of Mary suggests that he is the ideal Christian knight; loyalty to his lord, the cornerstone of feudal culture, is combined with devotion to Christ. Besides, it is said to be a token of truth (line 625). In accepting the magic girdle, Gawain fails a crucial test of virtue and reveals how difficult it is for a man to be the ideal Christian knight.