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Finding Truth in the Myth of Lady Godiva: Femininity, Sex, and Power in Twelfth Century England

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897
Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897

Allison Archer

Saber and Scroll Journal: Vol. 1:2 (2012)

Abstract

Although it is now widely accepted that Lady Godiva never mounted her horse “bareback,” the infamous Domesday Book documented she was indeed a landowner in Coventry. In isolation, this tale is a pleasurable story of risk-taking. However, when viewed beneath the broader lens of gender roles and sexual mores of the Middle Ages, it leads to questions regarding English women of the twelfth century. Although fantastical, this myth hints at undercurrents of power, femininity, and sexual boundaries that defined the lives of women in this time and place. Additionally, the expectations of women were quite duplicitous with images of the chaste virgin at church and folktales such as this in the homes of both the wealthy and the peasantry. The myth of Lady Godiva provides insight into the perceptions of femininity, sex, and power in twelfth century England from a variety of perspectives.

Introduction: Traditional history, all about politics, wars, and revolutions, has devoted few pages to women because few women were prominent in those male-dominated activities. The handful who were received patronizing credit for behaving like men—a woman led an army with “a man’s courage,” an able queen ruled “as if she were a man.” —Frances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages: The Lives of Real Women in a Vibrant Age of Transition

As modern chocolatiers decided upon a name for their sumptuous treats to cater to the palettes of women, they named their temptations for Lady Godiva, whose mythical, naked ride poses more questions than answers about the perception of women in twelfth century England. Legends professed Lady Godiva (also called Godgifu) performed this naked stunt as a challenge to her husband Leofric’s relentless taxation. In fact, as legend tells it, he baited her into it with a challenge such as this, “Mount your horse and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of this town from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.”

Parading through town completely naked, except for her long tresses, she demanded that the townsfolk stay indoors thus releasing the burden of taxation from her husband’s subjects. As with all good myths, only one could not resist the urge to view her. Legend tells that during her infamous ride, her horse momentarily stopped. Lady Godiva turned to discover a tailor “whose curiosity exceeded his gratitude” peeping at her through a window. Peeping Tom was born of this myth. Although it is now widely accepted that Lady Godiva never mounted her horse “bareback,” the infamous Domesday Book documented she was indeed a landowner in Coventry. In isolation, this tale is a pleasurable story of risk-taking. However, when viewed beneath the broader lens of gender roles and sexual mores of the Middle Ages, it leads to questions regarding English women of the twelfth century. Although fantastical, this myth hints at undercurrents of power, femininity, and sexual boundaries that defined the lives of women in this time and place. Additionally, the expectations of women were quite duplicitous with images of the chaste virgin at church and folktales such as this in the homes of both the wealthy and the peasantry. The myth of Lady Godiva provides insight into the perceptions of femininity, sex, and power in twelfth century England from a variety of perspectives.

Click her to read this article from the American Public University System

Click here to read this article from Saber and Scroll Journal

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