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Fighting Gender Roles in Literature

Page history last edited by Lindsey Bell 11 years, 11 months ago




     The dainty lady sitting modestly in a chair reviewing her prayers stopping only to attend to her husband appears to be a common image placed on women within the Middle Ages. Another construction for woman is that they could be one of two things a virgin or a prostitute. Semple expands on this idea; he looks at the way women are construed as deceitful through the Christian theologies (164-165). These damaging conceptions of women were placed within the literature and the practices at this time. Construing women as sinful and evil. Female writes such as Christine de Pizan and Marie de France challenged these views within their work by rewriting well-known myths or story lines and changing many of the more damaging instances of the stories. By critically approaching Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea and Livre de la Cite’ des Dames alongside Marie de France’s lais Guigemar and Lanval we can see the performance of women’s role that breaks from the stereotypes of the “heteronormative” mythology of their time (Sautman170). Through reviewing their writing and how they have reconstructed the gender role it will become evident that they were ahead of their time and that many of the points that they have made through their writing have many interpretations each of which cause women to be seen as more powerful the previously construed and less of sexual objects.

Within Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea there are two different forms of gender role reversals brought into play. One is taking a woman from being a sexual object and placing her into an empowering position while the other contemplates the significance of the term “bull” and the insinuations that surround its use. Starting at the beginning her work Christine de Pizan has altered each of these works to portray women in a more powerful position then they were portrayed in the original narratives. Ovid depicts Andromeda as a sexual object through the description of her being tied to a rock helpless and nude with the sea monster near by. This image gives an image of a highly sexualized “statue” rather than a true woman (Desmond 7). By doing so Ovid is giving in to the notation that women are sex objects without any power to protect themselves.

 Christine de Pizan gets rid of the image of a bound woman in the nude waiting for her rescuer to come save her and replaces it with an unbound, clothed woman holding back a monster that is trying to devour her; while Perseus comes in to save her. By doing this Christine de Pizan restructures the image of women from being completely vulnerable to asserting the power they do have. Though she is clothed the emphasis in Pizan’s piece is on the “gaze” of Andromeda and the sexual threat that she is going though (Desmond 8). She asserts her sexual power though the action of protecting herself from the sea monster, but by the visual of having her clothed and standing her ground gives the narrative the conception that she is asserting herself. This assertion of her chastity, through the confrontation of the sea monster, fights against the medieval stereotype of women being highly sexual. The gaze has been changed from that of a vulnerable woman to one that holds strength and individual power. With the simple action of having Andromeda clothed

Within the myth of Pasiphaë, Ovid creates shows a conceptualized stereotype that a woman’s sexual desire is strong enough to create desires for an animal. Within this myth Pasiphaë becomes erotically attracted to a bull with it being perceived through this myth that “female sexuality at the boundary of bestiality as a performance constitutive of the power of female desire” (Desmond 6). Using the term bestiality, or sexual desire for an animal, Ovid is fermenting the concept that women have a large amount of sexual desire. By having the desire focused toward an animal seems to go even further than just a strong sexual desire but that the desire is so strong that a woman will turn away from man and to animal to fulfill themselves. This furthers misogynistic idea that sexual woman will go out of control and therefore, the sexual desire must be restrained.

Christine de Pizan rewrites this myth and implies that the bull in which is in reference is actually a man with the name “Taurus,” meaning bull (Desmond 13). By doing so Pizan turns the idea that a woman’s desire is strong enough to cause them to look for sexual satisfaction from an animal to being a culturally accepted relationship between a man and a woman. The relationship is accepted, even though it is adultery, because the desire is for a man rather than an animal. Though Pizan does not come straight out and say that the desire was for a man with the name of bull but leaves it for the interpretation of the reader. She plants the seed for the reader to work with. If it can be seen that the bull is a man the conception of female desire is then questioned. Does this woman demonstrate the evils of how if a woman’s desire is not controlled that she will turn from a man and to an animal? With Pizan even causing this question to be posed shows how Pizan attempts to change the misogynistic view of female desire and the heteronomrative view of passion.

Looking at the overall stories placed within Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cite’ des Dames the women are placed as either a virgin or a prostitute but they are not condemned for this. By seeing the women as more than their sexual acts Pizan draws attention to their other qualities and what the reader can learn from the women through their stories. The dichotomy of the virgin and the prostitute demonstrates the “projection of a male psychical conflict onto the woman’s body” (Semple 183). This projection can be seen in many of the women’s stories, though Pizan takes this projection and changes it to empower the character rather than using it to demonstrate female shortcomings.. Pizan often will overlook a piece of information of the original myth of the woman but focuses on the woman’s action that makes them most notable. With focusing on the actions of the women Pizan is showing the importance of the woman’s  actions over a portrayal of women fulfilling the demeaning cultural view.

Saint Lucy’s story within Christine de Pizan’s Livre de la Cite’ des Dames demonstrates the reversal of gender roles. Through the story she is spared from being raped, because of her knowledge, from King Aucejas his desire for her body is replaced by a respect for her intellect (Semple 185). Through Saint Lucy educating King Aucejas the flow of education from the man teaching the woman is reveres to the woman teaching the man (Semple 182). Eucating King Aucejas she gives him knowledge that helps him to conquer his enemies. Though within her story he does not use her as a sexual object instead he attempts to treat her as if she were a divine being. If her knowledge had not inverted Aucejas’ desire for her body then the conception of the body being a woman’s primary asset would give into the conception that the female body is innately bad. This would fulfill the Medieval conception of women. For if sex and desire meant that a person was sinning, then the body being the best quality of the woman would mean that they are purely sin. By protecting herself from this, Saint Lucy’s virginity and wisdom helped to save her from condemnation from the misogynistic views around her along with projecting her into martyrdom.

Marie de France’s lai Guigemar plays with having the female body stand as a source of healing, education, and sexual desire. From the beginning, the presentation of the female body healing the male body is self-evident; Guigemar must find a woman who will “suffer as much for him as he will suffer for her” (Semple 174). Once he has found this woman his external wound is healed and the internal wound of the heart is created. To heal this wound of the heart he goes through an excursion of “Logos”, or logic, about desire of the human body (Semple 171). This conception goes along with the concept that Semple claims that “Erotic love is not simply felt: one learns how to feel it” (171). So if one learns how to feel erotic love then why is it that a woman’s body was seen as a threat? It is only after Guigemar learns of “erotic love” that he peruses her with desire and through this perused the woman is then portrayed in a different perspective. Within this portrayal of the lady Marie de France has challenged the heteronomative expectations of women. The lady is the source of healing both Gugimar’s wound and heart ache, she educated him in how to love and what love means, leading him to have desire for a woman. The woman contains the power in the story. The lady heals Guigamar’s body through touching him, and then heals his heart by loving him. Demonstrating the lady as healing Marie de France shows the culture that a woman’s power comes from a natural source. This natural source is intricate in healing and educating a man through touch and love.

Marie de France continues with many similar themes within her lais. For like the lai Guigemar the lai Lanval contains the notion of gender role reversals. For Guigemar it is self evident through Guigemar’s position as fatally wounded and in a married woman’s chamber’s placing him at the whim of the lady. Similarly Lanval is placed in a situation where his cultural role is reversed. There are two different reasoning for this reversal one is to demonstrate the dichotomy of power relations relating to gender. While another interpretation of the lai confronts the issue of misogyny toward women within the Middle Ages. By demonstrating the representation of monetary value to the conception of love Lanvals situation is giving a new perception.Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman suggest that a patron relationship was “often structured as a private erotic relationship(s)” (480). Stating this they are implying that for an artist or knight to have a patron there is a closer or even sexual relationship present. Transferring this conception to Lanval it can be seen through the relationship that he has for the fairy queen. She endows him with mass riches for his service as her lover. The fairy queen is put into a position of power because of her monetary wealth. She has wealth and is portrayed as wealthier than Authur and Guinevere. With Authur and Guinevere being the one’s that denied Lanval by not including him in the disruption of land and women at the beginning of the lai, Lanval’s patronage by them comes into question and appears non existent. Lanval is a foreign knight and without the support from a patron or his family he has no monetary support and thus needs to find a way to support himself and his servants. Though Guinevere attempts for the private erotic relationship with Lanval she is denied due to his newfound patron and lover the fairy queen. Through this change of patronage a question about sexual orentation is questioned because of the close connection of patrons and lovers, weather they are literal lovers or convey a metaphorical love. This metaphorical love can be construed as the poetry written for a patron or the loyalty of a knight.

Through his refusal of the queen Lanva’s loyalty to the fairy queen is miss construed as homosexual demonstrates a fear within the Middle Ages about single knights and their sexual orientation. Finkel and Shichtman elaborate on the fear of unwed or unclaimed knights in a congregation together has been “associated the male aristocracy with homosexuality” (485) Knowing this information the lai can be further dissected as a fear not only of the differentiation of monetary wealth but sexual orientation. While touching on the topic of homosexuality Finkel and Shichtman argue that the charges present to Lanval are for proclaiming the wealth of the fairy queen as his lover (494). A problem with this conclusion is that the scene in the lai starts with the queen attempting to seduce him and failing because of his love for another woman. This may not be an issue to many single knights but by Lanval giving reason for his sexual orientation to be placed into question he is accused of having sexual relationships with young boys. Yes the wealth of the queen is brought up later in the lai what ultimately resolves Lanval’s situation is through the arrival of the fairy queen at Authur’s court, proving that his lover is truly female and he is in her service. Through questioning the man’s sexual orientation and desire the roles are reversed from having the woman’s sexual desire questioned and prosecuted, to a man’s. Reversing the argument about sexual desire points out the treatment that women have endured through changing the point of view.

Marie de France does more with this lai than just demonstrates gender reversal through the use of the charge of homosexuality and wealth, but through flipping around the damsel in distress concept. This is done through Lanval’s trial and the fairy queen justifying his claims of her beauty. Jane Chance points out that the wording Marie de France uses in reference to the fairy queen taking Lanval to Avolon is the same as if stating he was “kidnapped” or “raped” (53). By referencing their relocation to Avolon in this way it is closely related to a conception of marriage. This conception deals with arranged marriages where the woman is forced to leave her home and forced into this relationship. The term kidnapped would then relate to the relocation of the woman and then by saying rape it would be similar to the concentration of the marriage. Simply using this term Lanval is reverted to a young woman who has just been married rather than a knight who had fought in battle. Using this term the power in the story has been switched from a man to a woman and by doing so it fights the common notion that women were without the ability to hold power.

            Through this approach to Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea and Livre de la Cite’ des Dames alongside Marie de France’s lais Guigemar and Lanval the performance of women’s role breaks from the stereotypes of the heteronormative mythology of their time. Within their work the most notable aspects of gender reversal are highly prevalent. Though this has not changed in modern times. Turing on the television one can see the sexual presentation of women from the way they are dressed to the choreography they follow. Women are still portrayed as highly sexualized. Simply comparing the clothing sold for a woman and the close sold for a man one can see the different cultural expectations for each.  If women are continual placed within this stereotype of the damsel in distress and having out of control sexual desire today what will cause this to be changed?




Work Cited

·       Chance, Jane. "Marie de France Versus King Arthur: Lanval's Gender Inversion as Breton Subversion." The Literary Subversion of Midieval Women. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2007. 40-61.


  • Christine, and Gabriella Parussa. Epistre Othea. Textes littéraires français, 517. Genève: Droz, 1999.


  • Cormier, Raymond J., and Ovid. Three Ovidian Tales of Love. Garland library of medieval literature, v. 26. Series A. New York: Garland, 1986.


·       Desmond, Marilynn, and Pamela Sheingorn. "Queering Ovidian Myth." Queering The Middle Ages. Ed. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger. Vol. 27. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 2001. 3-27.


·               Finke, Laurie A., and Martin B. Shichtman. "Magical Mistress Tour: Patronage, Itellectual Property, and the Dissemination of Wealth in the Lais of Marie de France." Chicago Journals 2nd ser. 25 (2000): 479-503. JSTOR. Milne, Geneseo. 17 Apr. 2009. Keyword: Marie de France.


·        Mason, Eugene, trans. French Medieval Romances From The Lays of Marie de France. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1924.



·                  Pisan, Christine De. The Book of the City of Ladies. London: Penguin Books, 1999.


·        Sautman, Francesce Canade’ “Just Like A Woman”, Queering The Middle Ages. Ed. Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger. Vol. 27. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota P, 2001. 168-189.


·       Semple, Benjamin. "The Male Psyche and the Female Sacred Body in Marie de France and Christine de Pizan." Yale French Studies 86th ser. (1994): 164-86. JSTOR. Milne, Geneseo. 17 Apr. 2009. Keyword: Marie de France and Christine de Pizan.


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