Grief, Gender and Mourning in Medieval North Atlantic Literature
By Kristen Mills
PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 2013
Abstract: This dissertation explores the relationship between grief, cultural constructs of gender, and mourning behaviour in the literatures of medieval Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Iceland. The Introduction situates my analysis within an ongoing conversation about the relationship between gender and mourning in classical, medieval, and modern cultures. In the first two chapters I consider the representation of mourning men in medieval texts, arguing that male grief has been neglected as a field of study, and that male weeping and lament in these cultures are incorrectly assumed by modern scholarship to have been considered effeminate. Through a careful reading of primary sources, I argue that there was a broader range of mourning behaviour available to men in these cultures than is typically assumed to have been the case.
My third chapter, “Perilous Grief,” is a comparative analysis of the gendering of death from grief and suicide. I consider the portrayals of male and female deaths related to bereavement, focusing on the contexts in which suicide and death from grief occur. I conclude this chapter with a discussion of the relationship between emotional distress and the gendered body, demonstrating that the somatic response to negative emotions is heavily gendered in medieval Scandinavian texts. In female bodies the negative emotion remains centralized in the chest, often causing death by bursting, while male bodies swell outwards in their grief, permitting release. The only men who die from grief in these texts are presented as old and infirm. In contrast, medieval Irish texts show the same range of somatic responses to grief in both women and men.
My final chapter, “Envisioning the Afterlife,” offers a sustained comparison of the development of the idea of the afterlife and the otherworld in medieval Irish and Norse literature. I argue that the connection between female supernatural figures, death, and the erotic is strongly established in Old Irish and Old Norse-Icelandic texts, and that the pairing of the macabre and the erotic in these traditions is related to a well-established association between female sexuality and the pollution of death occurring in many cultures.