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Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance

Detail of a miniature of Medea seated, uttering a spell; Jason on horseback, and the slaughter either of Absyrtus or of one of Medea's children.

Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance

By Misty Urban

PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2008

Detail of a miniature of Medea seated, uttering a spell; Jason on horseback, and the slaughter either of Absyrtus or of one of Medea's children.

Abstract: This study uses the literary metaphor of the monstrous woman to trace the construction of a particular gender ideology in English narratives of the fourteenth through early sixteenth centuries.  Drawing on recent scholarship on monster theory, the rhetorical uses of medieval misogyny, and the reception of the Middle English romance, this study argues that the character of the monstrous woman functions as a self‐conscious literary tool that allows authors, and audiences, to reflect on the accepted conventions of misogyny, patriarchal authority, and the romance formula itself.  I analyze Middle English narratives including the early sixteenth‐century translation of the prose Melusine, the Constance tale as adapted by Chaucer and Gower, and appearances of Medea in the works of Chaucer, Gower, and Caxton’s translation of the History of Jason to discover the ways these narratives use female monstrosity—in literal and figurative form—to dramatize the anxieties arising in a patriarchal society that defines the female as a slightly aberrant category of human, yet depends on her for maintenance and reproduction of the social order.  In offering a close reading of these stories that draws on literary, visual, ecclesiastical, and didactic contexts, I explore the new possibilities in fiction offered by the Middle English romance and demonstrate how the monstrous women act as a powerful and multivalent literary trope: they offer their narratives a means to interrogate the prevailing gender ideology; expose the constructedness of and agenda behind existing ideological, political, social, familial, and physical spheres; challenge the currents of medieval misogyny; and fully dramatize the demands of a social order that, in Othering and ordering its female elements, makes women into monsters.

Like a gushing fountain, a series of authorities, whom I recalled one after another, came to mind, along with their opinions on this topic.  And I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice.  As I was thinking this, a great unhappiness and sadness welled up in my heart, for I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature. 

~ Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies

Christine’s philosophical reflections at the beginning of her famed book in defense of women suggest two worthy points: that the distance between “femme” and “monstre,” woman and monster, is not so great in the authoritative literary tradition that proclaims woman already a “ville chose;” but the connection, she also implies, is largely a rhetorical one.  Christine as narrator speaks “si comme,” as if women are monstrosities of nature—not quite ready to believe that they really are.  These observations, printed around 1405, raise the question of what one is to do with the monstrous women who surface in imaginative literature before and after her time of writing.  If women are already thought to be in some fashion monstrous, then what might the overt monstrousness of women in narrative—whether it takes the form of inter‐species hybridity, supernatural powers, spectacular displays of violence, or the slurs of gossip—actually mean?

Click here to read this thesis from Cornell University

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