Inhabiting a broken body: female agency in the Middle Ages AND Murderous mothers: implications of filicide in Medieval literature

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Reba Katherine Beeman (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Amy Vines

Abstract: It is a common assertion in medieval studies that a woman’s religious experience was tested through the body by means of torture. Scholars, such as Elizabeth Robertson and Catherine Innes-Parker, analyze saints’ lives by focusing on the corporeal nature of the narrative: sexuality, physical torture, and death. Perhaps the focus on the torture and the death and its aftermath is because the authors of these texts seem to afford little time between the final breaking of the body and the woman’s subsequent death. Little focus is placed on the specific effects of the inflicted torture. However, I claim that it is during the period where a woman inhabits a broken body that she holds the most cultural agency. Across a variety of medieval texts, women enter a different social space when inhabiting a broken body which allows them to acquire agency over their own lives and influence others. This paper argues that these women experience so little time inhabiting their broken body because of the potentially threatening power the specific inhabitation affords them. The important “broken body” stage appears not only in the narratives of female saints like Margaret, whose story will be analyzed within this essay, but also the wife from Marie de France’s Bisclavret and Cresseid in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid. In all of these narratives, when the physical body has been destroyed or tortured women are free from the contractual marrying of their bodies and their place in society. Ultimately, this essay highlights the importance of the broken female body as it further others women to the point that they no longer operate within traditional medieval gender roles. AND During the Middles Ages women were primarily marked by their sexual and marital status—virgins, wives, widows, and mothers. Having children was central to a woman’s identity. However, as in any time, motherhood was complex and one woman’s maternal experience was defined by various factors such as class, race, religion, and culture. The centrality of motherhood helped perpetuate the masculine hegemony as women were expected to be submissive to their husbands and producing male heirs maintained patriarchal succession. However, there are instances of women destroying their maternal marker by committing filicide. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale the sultaness kills her son and Tristram’s step-mother poisons her child in Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory. These works portray these women as evil and deserving punishment. However, in the Norse Saga of the Volsungs both Signy and Gudrun kill their sons as a way to avenge their biological families. These women are not viewed as villains and Gudrun is even considered to be one of the most popular female characters in medieval Norse literature. I argue that the reason these women are portrayed very differently is because of their respective cultures and, namely, their differently religions. The English, as Christians view mothers very differently than the Norse, whose pagan roots were only a couple hundred years behind them. Further, Scandinavian laws and understanding of murder varied drastically from the English. These historical and cultural differences provide a foundation for a comparative analysis of these four texts and explains the different treatment of these women.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2018
Bisclavret Wife, Gudrun Saga of the Volsungs, Henryson Cresseid leprosy, Man of Law's Tale sultaness, Saint Margaret, Tristram Step-mother
Literature, Medieval $x History and criticism
Women in literature
Human body in literature
Gender identity in literature
Mothers and sons in literature
Motherhood in literature
Filicide in literature

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