“Of all creatures women be best, / Cuius contrarium verum est:” Gendered Power in Selected Late Medieval and Early Modern Texts
By Joanna Kazik (University of Łódź)
Text Matters – A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture, Vol.1:1 (2011)
Abstract: The aim of this paper is to examine images of the relationship between men and women in selected late medieval and early modern English texts. I will identify prevalent ideology of representation of women as well as typical imagery associated with them. I will in particular argue that men whose homosocial laughter performs a solidifying function of their community seek to reiterate their superiority over women through seemingly playful and inclusive humour. I will attempt to show that what appears to be good-natured entertainment is actually a weapon used against women who, often accused of no sense of humour, are ridiculed and commanded to succumb to male authority. I will also discuss the triumphant tone of both poems and dramatic writings whose cheerful tone functions to marginalize women and to reinforce the misogynistic foundations of public life.
Excerpt: While conjugal love was encouraged by the medieval Church, chastising women by their husbands was commonly practised in the late medieval and early modern periods. Women, guilty “of sin and temptation, of forbidden pleasures and lusts, of needful fears and repressions, haunted by the same old shadow of Original Sin, the same ascetial ideals as their ancestors,” seemed to deserve punishment for their trespasses, actual and potential, including within marriage. Domestic violence is documented relatively well in legal and didactic literature. As a corrective measure, it was used regularly, also to obtain sexual services, an enjoyed such popularity that a sixteenth-centry London by-law had to introduce an evening time limit after which wife-beating should stop to avoid disruptive or excessive noise. Cruelty constituted grounds for medieval divorce a mesna et thoro ‘divorce from bed and board’ and was one of the most common reasons cited in legal suits. However, applications for separation or annulment of marriage were rare. Divorce was granted or marriage was declared invalid only infrequently, and the practice of domestic abuse continued in the Middle Ages and into the early modern period, with the wife sometimes silenced by the ineffectiveness of the legal process.