The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature

By Eric Jager | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
The Seducer and the Daughter of Eve

[ Eve] thought that [the Serpent] spoke the truth, believing
him through desire and beautiful words, just as do foolish
women who easily believe the beautiful words of liars who
urge them with flattery and empty promises to commit
folly against their honor and their rank.

Geoffrey de la Tour Landry

AFTER ABOUT THE year 1200, as books increasingly found an audience beyond cloister and school among the laity, there appeared in Europe certain vernacular writings about the Fall written by men expressly for women.Part of a growing body of courtesy books and spiritual guides, these writings recount and explain Genesis 3 in contemporary terms, adapting it to the everyday life—social, domestic, and religious—of medieval women.Not surprisingly, in using Genesis 3 to instruct women in manners, morals, and devotional practice, these writings dwell on Eve's actions and experience.In particular, they turn Eve's encounter with the Serpent into cautionary tales about sexual temptation, especially as embodied by eloquent male seducers.Tending to focus on the dynamics of language, psyche, and sexuality in Genesis 3, these cautionary tales assert a large degree of control over women's bodies, mental life, and conversation.Moreover, these tales typically construct their female audience, the vulnerable "daughters of Eve," according to certain ideas about language, the feminine, and the Fall that were founded by the church fathers and that descended through an exclusively male literary tradition into the Middle Ages.

The two books for women discussed in this chapter were written more than a century apart, in different countries, and for quite dissimilar audiences and purposes: Ancrene Wisse is one of the earliest

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