Feminizing Chaucer

Feminizing Chaucer

Feminizing Chaucer

Feminizing Chaucer

Synopsis

Women are a major subject of Chaucer's writings, and their place in his work has attracted much recent critical attention. Feminizing Chaucer investigates Chaucer's thinking about women, and re-assesses it in the light of developments in feminist criticism. It explores Chaucer's handling of gender issues, of power roles, of misogynist stereotypes and the writer's responsibility for perpetuating them, and the complex meshing of activity and passivity in human experience. Mann argues that the traditionally 'female' virtues of patience and pity are central to Chaucer's moral ethos, and that this necessitates a reformulation of ideal masculinity.First published (as Geoffrey Chaucer in the series 'Feminist Readings', this new edition includes a new chapter, 'Wife-Swapping in Medieval Literature'. The references and bibliography have been updated, and a new preface surveys publications in the field over the last decade.JILL MANN is currently Notre Dame Professor of English, University of Notre Dame.

Excerpt

`For al so siker as In principio,
Mulier est hominis confusio -
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.” '

(Nun's Priest's Tale 3163-6)

The polarized nature of medieval attitudes to women is notorious. Eve is set against Mary, the sensual deceiver against maternal purity, rebelliousness against meekness (Blamires, 1992). Yet this ambivalence is not a specifically medieval phenomenon; its roots can be traced back at least to Roman antiquity, where it is already visible in the two authors who contributed largely to the formation of these stereotyped images, and whose influence on Chaucer's works is readily apparent: Ovid, whose amorous poetry represents women as cunning strategists in the battle of the sexes, yet who is also ready in the Heroides to see them as helpless victims of male cruelty; and Jerome, whose treatise Against Jovinian is a major weapon in the arsenal of antifeminist texts deployed by the Wife of Bath's fifth husband, yet is also cited by the God of Love in the Legend of Good Women as a source for stories of women who were `goode and trewe' (G 270-304). In the Middle Ages, the oppositions that were the by-product of Ovid's playfulness and Jerome's polemic hardened into opposing positions in a self-conscious debate about the nature of women of which medieval writers seemed never to tire: were they good or bad, victims or predators, patient sufferers or aggressive shrews? Were their true representatives Penelope, Lucretia and Griselda, or rather Eve, Delilah and Clytemnestra? Often the same author could take up both positions in turn. The Latin writer Marbod of Rennes (c.1035-1123) followed his poetic picture of `the harlot', an attack on women as the root of all evil, with an idealizing picture of `the matron', eulogizing female virtues. In the late twelfth (or perhaps early thirteenth) century, Andreas Capellanus, `chaplain at the royal court' and author of the well-known treatise On Love, imitated the volte-face between Ovid's Ars Amatoria and his Remedia Amoris: the first two books of Andreas's work, which instruct its addressee Walter in the art of wooing, present woman as the quasi-divine goal and fulfilment of male desire, while the third urges him to reject women's love altogether, bolstering its case with the antifeminist clichés which represent the whole sex as predatory monsters. The virulently antifeminist Lamentations of one Matheolus, a cleric and native of Boulogne, written in Latin in the late thirteenth century, were translated into French by Jehan le Fèvre a hundred years later, and promptly answered by Jehan's own Livre . . .

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