Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature

Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature

Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature

Ogling Ladies: Scopophilia in Medieval German Literature


"Successfully applies modern psychoanalytic theory to analysis of medieval texts in a creative way that further enhances our reading of the older literature. A meaningful contribution to the continuing discussion of how modern readers encounter and understand older texts."--Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, author of Topographies of Gender in Middle High German Arthurian Romance

"Summers's selection of works is logical and effective and offers the reader an opportunity to compare and contrast literary representatives of the phenomenon of scopophilia."--Ernst Ralf Hintz, author of Learning and Persuasion in the German Middle Ages

In the European Middle Ages, the harm a person's gaze could cause was greatly feared. A stare was considered an act of aggression; intense gazing was believed to exert immense power over the individual observed.

The love of looking, or scopophilia, is a common motif among female figures in medieval art and literature where it is usually expressed as a motherly or sexually interested gaze--one sanctioned, the other forbidden. Sandra Summers investigates these two major variants of female voyeurism in exemplary didactic and courtly literature by medieval German authors. Setting the motif against the period's dominant patriarchal ethos and its almost exclusive pattern of male authorship, Summers argues that the maternal gaze was endorsed as a stabilizing influence while the erotic gaze was condemned as a threat to medieval order.

Summers examines whether medieval artists and writers invented the idea of "ogling," or whether they were simply recording a behavioral practice common at the time. She investigates how the act of ogling altered the narrative trajectory of female characters, and she also considers how it may have affected the regulation and restriction of women during Europe's Middle Ages.

Drawing upon contemporary gender studies, women's studies, film studies, and psychology, Summers argues that the female gaze ultimately governs social formation. The exploration of the female gaze in period literature transcends medieval scholarship and impacts our understanding of the broader problem of gender perceptions and social structuring in Western civilization.


An ogling woman featured in a recent television commercial: a mechanic in tight jeans is bending over a car engine while a woman standing across the street stares at his behind. in the next scene, the same woman appears in her living room with her husband, a balding, middle-aged man. She hands him a shopping bag containing the same jeans worn by the mechanic. She impatiently and breathlessly demands: “Put these on. Now.” I conducted an unscientific poll among friends and found that both male and female viewers of the commercial thought it funny. But what if the gender roles were reversed? What if the ogling character were a husband who surprises his wife with a skirt he had seen on a more attractive woman? Such a commercial does not exist, because it would be offensive and, more importantly, it wouldn’t sell the product. Simply put, people perceive the male gaze and the female gaze as two entirely different things.

Gazing female characters caught my eye when I translated Hartmann von Aue’s Iwein from Middle High German into English. Especially surprising was a passage describing a young girl in the act of ogling the naked, unconscious knight Iwein. I had previously assumed that the courtly lady and not the knight would be the object of the gaze. I became curious about the gender dynamics between the characters and wanted to know more. Were there other scenes where women ogled men, where male characters, knowingly or unknowingly, became scopophilic objects of the female gaze? the answer is a resounding yes. Medieval texts are inhabited by a host of females taking pleasure in ogling male bodies.

It is my belief that this exploration of the medieval female gaze transcends medieval scholarship; it affects our understanding of the broader problematic of gender perceptions and social structuring in Western civi-

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