Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Representations of Women in Chretien's 'Erec et Enide': Courtly Literature or Misogyny?

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Representations of Women in Chretien's 'Erec et Enide': Courtly Literature or Misogyny?

Article excerpt

"Chretien scholars are generally agreed that Enide is loving and. loyal, wise and good. The text is explicit about her worthiness."(1) Joan Brumlik accurately reports conventional wisdom concerning Chretien's enigmatic heroine, thus joining the ranks of Paris, Nitze and Bezzola. Scholars have also been tempted to further their praise of Enide and her creator, viewing Chretien as pro-feminist in the sense that he was able to envision a strong woman character. Certainly Enide both deserves and receives special consideration among Chretien's women characters, for she is the sole woman to gain the title role in any of his works. To what extent does Enide embody positive female attributes? If, as is believed by some, Chretien's audience was largely female, what is the message that Enide conveys concerning the medieval woman's role in society? Entering the medieval discourse on gender, like penetrating Broceliande, is fraught with peril, for one risks creating a character which, R.R. Bezzola warns us, "n'existe que dans l'imagination des critiques modernes."(2) Recent work concerning the economic and social position of women in the twelfth century gives the critic yet another optic through which to view the medieval text, one which may allow a more historically accurate view of authorial intent and audience reception.

Attempts to recuperate Chretien's story as one with a positive message about gender relations are generally based on the theory that Chretien was writing courtly love romances under the auspices of women like Marie de Champagne, and therefore he would hardly be composing offensive works. Brumlik notes that:

An audience which consisted largely of women would most certainly

have enjoyed Enide's resourcefulness in the protection of

the husband/lover who should have been her protector in either

role.(3)

In order to make sense of her theory, Brumlik has to presuppose that there was an existant (albeit curiously unrecoverable) romance tradition at which Chretien is poking fun. The audience, following this argument, would have surely seen the irony and humor in the work. Another common recuperative technique is to see Erec and Enide not as total characters but as parts of a whole. Michel-Andre Bossy views Erec and Enide as "different types of selfhood" manifested through opposing speech functions.(4) A Jungian view of the two as animus and anima of Erec has been put forward.(5) Others manage to see the romance as an articulation of how an ideal(!) marriage should work, with Enide as complement to Erec. Rather than continuing to insist upon recovering Chretien as courtly romance writer, perhaps it would be instructive to admit the possibility that Chretien's work is misogynistic and to focus instead on the economic and social implications of his writing. Chretien's Erec et Enide contains two different examples of misogyny: one involving the negative stereotypes of women which surround Enide's character and another dealing with the unsuitability of female rule. This paper will first examine how Enide is positioned with respect to the medieval discourse on what qualities the "good woman" entails, and then look at the Joie de la Cour episode to see what Chretien's view of the empowered woman implied in twelfth-century political reality.

Enide's predominant qualities are her exemplary beauty, her sensuality and her self-expression. All were traits lambasted in contemporary anti-feminist rhetoric. As R. Howard Bloch demonstrates, the relationship between woman and speech is suspect from the outset. He notes:

According to the medieval topos of talkative women, which is no

doubt motivated by the desire to silence them, wives are portrayed

as perpetual speech with respect to which no position of innocence

is possible.(6) The speech act to a large extent defines Enide. When she speaks out, conveying the thoughts of the general public on Erec's recreantise, she sets the central episodes of the text in motion. …

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