©2014 Mary Crockford
The Age of Chivalry is popularly perceived as a time in which bold, dashing knights pursued – and to our titillation, regularly bedded – breathless, bodice-clad maidens whilst crusading for kings and compiling an impressive portfolio of darings-do. Thanks to the popularity of Arthurian tales in their various guises even today, there is an endless temptation to romanticize this period at the expense of genuine understanding as to the societal changes taking place while tales such as “Beowulf,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “Canterbury Tales” were being written. Perhaps the most poorly understood of the factors at play in Feudal England is that of the role that women played in this rapidly changing culture. A discerning gaze into the lens of Medieval literature makes it clear that the Anglo-Saxon female was not some mere accoutrement of the man of her day, but rather a fully functioning, pivotal member of her society, whose choices and actions were shaping it on every level – privately, publicly, and politically.
For all its Germanic iconography, “Beowulf” is a quintessentially Anglo-Saxon poem, whose female characters exemplify the multivarious roles women played. The epic’s females were generally subservient to men, but they were nonetheless influential and multidimensional, and possessed attributes of what Summer Stewart, author of “Beowulf: Roles of Women,” calls “the hostess, the peacemaker, and the monster” (Para 1). While female characters in Medieval literature demonstrate aspects of all three, in varying ways and degrees, it is within the context of “peaceweaver” that actual Anglo-Saxon women are most fairly portrayed.
As the “strongest model of the peaceweaver in ‘Beowulf’,” Queen Hildeburh is “the woman responsible for “uniting tribes” and “maintaining solid relations” among her people’s neighbors. Her own ascension to Queen of the Jutes was the result of a marriage arranged for political purposes. Born into Dane royalty, the princess was “married off” as “a gift…to the Jutes in hopes to bring peace between the countries and establish an alliance” (Stewart Para 2). Such marriages were common in Anglo-Saxon society, especially in the upper and royal classes, as parents would arrange their children’s betrothals as early as birth in order to preserve inheritances of land, wealth and title. Within these arrangements, it was still codified that the choice to ultimately accept the arrangement remained with such a woman, and not only could she could not be forced to marry, but she could name many of her own terms. The Law of Crut specifically spelled out such a woman’s right to enter into a marriage contract having “chosen by herself, as to a kinsman choosing for her” (Kimberley et al. Para 3). Commentator Nicole Smith lists as among Hildeburh’s responsibilities that of the “mediator” charged with easing “tensions that arise between the men” (Stewart para 2). In fulfilling her duties as peaceweaver, Stewart points out that Hildeburh also has the power to mete out punishment in the course of “maintaining loyalties with her homeland and the land of her husband’s” (Para 2). She weeps as she gives her son’s “body to burn and on the pyre place” and commands that those who slew him burn in the flames as well, until fire, the “greediest of spirits,” had “swallowed all” (1116-1122).
Wealthow, Queen of the Geats, exemplifies another facet of the Anglo-Saxon peaceweaver – that of cup-bearer. Wealthow is Herot’s cup-bearer and hostess, renowned as a woman of wisdom and the guardian of her nation’s reputation. In his article “Anglo-Saxon Women,” Irfan Bandoo describes Wealthow as a woman who does more than “passes around cups of mead or beer to the men as they frolic and rejoice in merriment,” but that women like her serve as “memory keepers” who also “keep with them the spoils of war and destruction and carnage that have led to the death of their loved ones” (Para 3). She is helpmeet and aide-de-camp to her husband, Hrothgar, and she bolsters the spirits of her weary countrymen as she welcomes Beowulf and blesses his arrival in the company of the kingdom’s leaders and allies:
“To every division of old and of young,
Costly gifts gave, until the time came
That she to Beowulf, the ring-adorned queen,
Noble in mind, the mead-cup bore:
She greeted the Geats’ chief, thanks gave to God,
Wise in her words, that the wish to her fell,
That on any earl she might rely
For comfort in evils.” (621-628)
Wealthow later joins her people in publicly mourning Beowulf’s death. She fears for their eventual destruction, but always the gracious “Helming’s lady” (620) she honors both his name and her people’s right to grieve and celebrate their fallen king. In so doing, she preserves in them a remnant of hope that the Geat King’s death would not overshadow the greatness of his legacy, and by extension, their own:
“So then lamented the folk of the Geats
The fall of their lord, the hearth-companions,
Said that he was a mighty king,
Mildest to men and most tender-hearted,
To his folk most kind and fondest of praise.” (3179-3183)
Perhaps the most vivid example of the “complicated” Anglo-Saxon woman appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Lady Bertilak. While Queen Guinevere appears first in the poem beside her husband, King Arthur, at the feast table, her role is a minor one, and for the duration of the story she is stereotypically subservient. Morgan La Fey, Arthur’s sister and Gawain’s aunt, is the troublesome kinswoman that manipulates Gawain’s entry into Bertilak’s castle, and is established early on as the hag that is “yellow” and “ancient” and “ugly to behold” (2:18). The true hostess-peacemaker of the story is Lady Bertilak, who is allowed to demonstrate all that the other two diametrically opposed ladies of state – Guinevere and Morgan La Fey – can not. Lady Bertilak is cunning and powerful like Morgan, but she is beautiful and gracious like Guinevere. And in addition to those things she displays a sense of humor, positional confidence, and overt sexuality. All these traits wrapped up in one woman set her up as the femme fatale that Anaya Baker calls “powerful, often working behind the scenes to engineer the plot of the story and the hero’s quest” (Para 2). Gawain’s first gaze on the Lady causes him not only to swoon, but to fail to recognize the jaundiced and conniving Morgan La Fey standing beside her:
“But she was fairer than all the others in flesh and face,
in skin and form, in complexion and demeanour —
more beautiful than Guinevere, it seemed to the hero.
He walked through the chancel to greet that gracious one.” (2:18)
“When Gawain looked on that beauteous one who gazed graciously,
he took leave of the lord, and went toward them.
The elder he saluted, bowing full low;
the lovelier he took a little in his arms;
he kissed her comely…” (2:19)
Bertilak’s queen is not one of the“side characters that do not get much recognition from the readers” that populate much of the literary tradition (Para 1). Rather, Lady Bertilak runs her husband’s home in a manner that fulfills Stewart’s description of the symbolic Anglo-Saxon woman who “publicly establishes the status of the men who are in the presence of the king” (Stewart 3). She is assigned by her lord to be the domestic agent that will test Gawain’s moral certitude, elevating her role in the story’s plot to one even more indispensable than her husband’s. Thus, in terms of the story’s progression she is the character, more than all the others, who will “move the plot along and mastermind the story” (Baker para 3). It is in Gawain’s true chivalric wine press, the bedroom, that Lady Bertilak the charming hostess becomes the “sexy beast” whose flirtations will frustrate Gawain’s noble plans and supply “the testing or challenge” that is key to tales of chivalry and the hero’s quest:
“Ye are a careless sleeper when one can enter thus.
Now ye are certainly taken; unless we can make a truce
I shall bind you in your bed, ye may be sure of that!”
All laughing the lady shot those jests.” (3:4)
“…ye shall not rise from your bed;
I shall manage you better. I shall tie you up securely,
and afterwards talk with my knight that I have caught;” (3:4)
Gawain’s own teasing response of “yield me outright…for I am in straits, (3:4)” fuels the sexual tension between them, distracting him from attending to what he arguably came to King Bertilak’s castle for in the first place – diplomacy. Lady Bertilak is not simply a source of temptation and delay for Gawain, she is also the active peaceweaver and protector of her own husband’s agenda. She actually manages to solidify Bertilak’s manhood over that of Gawain, who to his eventual shame remains behind while the king is engaged in his virile Anglo-Saxon male duties, those of provider and keeper of his estate. He hears of Bertilak’s successful hunt after the fact as the king jests “full loudly,” and laughs at him. In either a clumsy slip of the tongue or reckless double entendre, Gawain praises the king’s catch as a “great bag” while he continues to share “sly stolen glances” with the lady of the castle (3:20-21).
The subject of women and marriage is also a central theme in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” one most vociferously addressed by Dame Alison, the Wife of Bath. It is her unconventional fulfillment of the peaceweaver role that Seth Cassel says Chaucer employs to “make a veiled and gentle comment to rulers about monarchies,” and urge men to “give some sovereignty to women” (Para 6). Alison is the peaceweaver who has learned through her numerous marriages the value of relational negotiation leading to a state of harmony, one that is possible only when a husband “realizes on his own accord that he must give freedom to his wife, and thus not restraint her to society’s stereotype” (Cassel Para 2) She is also a woman of sexual autonomy, who refuses to let her husbands wrest from her the right to control and use her own body as benefits her, including in the marriage bed. In furtherance of the topic, she uses the tale of a Knight who rapes a virgin, to elaborate upon the evils of unilateral male control in marriage. The Knight has not simply abused a woman’s body, but he has stolen her virtue and dignity when he “by force deprived her of her maidenhead” (888). Like Hildeburh in “Beowulf,” she contemplates a just punishment for violence against the innocent, but she instead uses the fictional King to threaten retribution, in keeping with her view that violence is the tendency of men in power:
“This knight was all but numbered with the dead
By course of law, should have lost his head…” (890)
But as the peaceweaver, the Queen exercises her womanly prerogative of mercy and spares the Knight’s life – with a condition. Her chosen instrument of justice is not violence, but comeuppance, and the Knight is conscripted into marriage with the kind of woman the Queen blames society for creating when men are allowed to subjugate their wives: a woman degraded by a hard life, and who is thus weary, and needy, and forced to settle. Like women used for their bodies and deprived of rights of ownership or wealth, it appears the Knight will now live out his life with the tables of gender having decisively turned:
“If it’s a thing that lies within his might.
Before the court I therefore pray, Sir Knight,”
She said, “that you will take me as your wife;
For you know that I have saved your life.’” (1052-1056)
“The knight replied, “Alas, how woes abuse me!
I know I’ve made the promise you’ve expressed.
For the love of God, please choose a new request.
Take all my goods and let my body go.” (1058-1061)
She then provides a denouement to her tale in which the Knight listens to the desires of his new wife, relinquishes his misogynist attitudes for her happiness, and finds her miraculously transformed into the very virtuous, desirable sort of woman he once saw fit to ravish. As a result of their mutual submission, their relationship is a mutually enjoyable one characterized by emotional fulfillment and physical passion:
“You choose which one would give the fullest pleasure
And honor to you, and to me as well.
I don’t care which you do, you best can tell.
What you desire is good enough for me.” (1233-1236)
“His heart was bathing in a bath of bliss,
A thousand kisses he began to kiss,
And she obeyed in each and every way,
Whatever was his pleasure or his play.” (1253-1256)
There is no argument that Anglo-Saxon women were limited in some respects by their society’s mores. But in exercising various aspects of their nature, both publicly and privately they could and did exert influence on the men and institutions around them. Like the women of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon female could unite family members, soothe social and political rancor, and manage wealth from one generation to the next. Like Lady Bertilak, she could act on behalf of her household even while living in what may have been a loveless marriage, choosing to engage in flirtations with younger men. Like the Wife of Bath, she could be a woman of resource and intelligence, the early feminist that some in Canterbury’s “marriage group” found so distasteful, who argues the case for the superiority of women in steering the marriage relationship. Each of these women of Medieval Literature is an example of what remains true today, that like beauty, peacemaker and monster are often in the eye of the beholder, and being a Lady never has to mean losing one’s head.
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