Function and Representation of Women in Fourteenth-Century English Arthuriana

Detail of a miniature of Lancelot rescuing Guinevere from burning at the stake, with grotesque hybrid creatures surrounding the miniature, at the beginning of the Mort Arthur - Image courtesy British LibraryFunction and Representation of Women in Fourteenth-Century English Arthuriana

By Kaci Loran West

Master’s Thesis, Valdosta State University, 2013

Abstract: Arthuriana is a plastic literary world, one that is easily manipulated and altered by an author’s social background and particular agenda, whether social, political, or religious. Thus, fourteenth-century English Arthurian texts reflect each author’s social milieu through the use and adaptation of tropes for both male and female characters. This thesis investigates the function and representation of female characters through Arthurian tropes in three fourteenth-century English Arthurian texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and Sir Launfal.

Introduction: After the Norman Conquest in 1066, England experienced vast political, legal, and social reforms and changes that led to a new and often complicated fourteenth-century culture. The intermingling of cultures before and after the Conquest created a versatile social landscape centuries later, leading great thinkers and writers of the age to write intelligent and provocative social commentary. The cultural merger of the Anglo-Norman and “English”—since England before 1066 was a melting pot of different histories, ways of life, accomplishments, and victories of one people over another, the term “English” is used to refer to those who inhabited England at the time of the Conquest—fed kings’ pursuit of power in England and led to the changing of cultural values. The Anglo-Norman kings’ struggle for legitimization was reinforced by popular texts, especially Arthuriana. Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his well-known Historia Regum Brittaniae (c. 1138), made King Arthur an ancestor of the Normans, so many features of his Arthur and Arthur’s court are recognizably Anglo-Norman French. Arthuriana even after Geoffrey remains a political tool used by kings to validate their claim to the throne of England, particularly in the fourteenth century. In many respects, England’s social history in this time period is mirrored in Arthurian texts, proving how vital the Arthurian tradition was within medieval culture. What is so compelling and what concerns this thesis is that medieval women’s roles are as often reflected in these texts as well as men’s roles. Fourteenth-century Englishwomen have been portrayed in a variety of manners, and have been considered, for the most part, marginal in the context of medieval social history, but their part in the culture, especially how their roles might be reflected in popular Arthuriana, is certainly worth further examination.

Click here to read this thesis from Valdosta State University

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