12.04.26, Rider, The Inner Life of Women in Medieval Romance Literature

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Roberta L. Krueger

The Medieval Review 12.04.26

Rider, Jeff and Jamie Friedman. The Inner Life of Women in Medieval Romance Literature: Grief, Guilt, and Hypocricy. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 272. ISBN: 978-0-230-10514-0.

Reviewed by:
Roberta L. Krueger
Hamilton College

The complex, often inscrutable mosaic of human emotions provides rich terrain for psychologists, historians, and literary critics. In this volume of essays edited by Jeff Rider and Jamie Friedman, medieval literary scholars explore rich veins of interiority in representations of women's emotions in works by male and female medieval writers throughout Europe from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries.

Jeff Rider's first chapter, "The Inner Life of Women in Medieval Romance Literature," offers a thoughtful theoretical introduction to the collection. Drawing upon recent contemporary psychological and sociological studies as well as on the recent spate of studies on emotions by medieval scholars such as Barbara H. Rosenwein, Rider argues that representations of women's emotions in medieval narrative deserve special attention. Not only is narrative one of the most important cultural practices in which emotions are shaped and conveyed, but also, Rider maintains, women are, then as now, "more emotional" than men (11)--or, at least, more prone to display their inner feelings openly.

Rider draws upon numerous contemporary psychological studies to support his point about the prominence of women's emotions; I'm not qualified to dispute such findings. But one does wonder, at least for the Middle Ages, whether the written record of men's emotions is perhaps more remarkable than Rider admits here. One thinks of the tangled nexus of spite, envy, and anger displayed by Roland, Ganelon, and Olivier in the Chanson de Roland; of the plaintive voices of the troubadours, however formulaic or feigned their professions of love and sorrow may be; of Yvain's madness or Lancelot's love-struck state of self-annihilation for Guenevere in Chrétien de Troyes; of Galehaut's willingness to shame himself publically for the sake of a night with his male companion in the Prose Lancelot; of husband Raimondin's shock, sorrow, anger, grief, and remorse at various points of the Roman de Mélusine, whose eponymous heroine is studied in these pages; and of many more dramatic moments in medieval literature in which men give voice to their feelings, often in ways that are unbridled by modern notions of civility and restraint.

On the other hand, it may be true that female literary characters display more "intropunitive affects" (13) such as shame, embarrassment, or anxiety than do male figures in medieval narratives, since women live with greater restrictions and have less autonomy, as Rider argues. In any event, it is certainly the case that medieval literary representations of women's inner lives deserve further scrutiny, as the articles collected here richly demonstrate.

The first four chapters focus on Old and Middle French literature. In "Order, Anarchy, and Emotion in the Old French Philomena," Karen G. Casebier examines the problematic role of Procne, whose grief at her husband's rape of her sister Philomena provokes her to usurp male privilege in avenging the crime of sexual assault against female relatives. When she murders her son Itys in retribution for the rape, her unrestrained desire for personal vengeance is every bit as uncivilized as Tereus's lust; that she frames the murder within the courtly ritual of a feast serves to heighten the "conflict between civilization and barbarism, between courtly ritual and personal desire" (45) that is at the heart of Chrétien's tale.

"What Was She Thinking? Ysolt on the Edge" by Brîndusa E. Grigoriu examines in meticulous detail the love between Tristan and Iseult in the Prose Tristan; this essay performs a kind of running commentaire de texte on narrative events, from Tristan and Ysolt's drinking of the philter to Ysolt's subsequent marriage to Tristan's uncle King Mark. The author focuses on Ysolt's tumultuous inner life, which is the "story of feminine charisma" (72). Grigoriu's claims are sometimes as bold as the drama itself: "she [Ysolt] is a pure-hearted girl, intoxicated" (73); "emotionally, Ysolt is a success" (74). Although the style and structure of this piece could at times be more concise, the author offers nuanced insights into Yseult's poignant story and effectively demonstrates why the legend has remained so powerful.

Sharon C. Mitchell analyzes the cultivation of strategic hypocrisy in "Moral Posturing: Virtue in Christine de Pizan's Livre de Trois Vertus." Comparing Christine's 1405 handbook of women's conduct to books for women by the Chevalier de la Tour Landry and Le Ménagier de Paris, Mitchell notes that Christine advises women to feign emotions and manipulate social appearances in numerous instances--counsel that is absent from the male-authored conduct books. By outlining a "deliberate program of tact and manipulation" (93), Christine encourages women to promote their well-being at court, within the family, and in the larger social world. Sometimes what Christine calls a "just hypocrisy" (91) can promote virtue in other women, just as the "visible performance of virtue" (103) in women's outward movements can foster growth of virtues such as conjugal love and devotion.

In "Gesture, Emotion and Humanity: Depictions of Mélusine in the Upton House Bearsted Fragments," Tania M. Colwell studies representations of Mélusine's humanity as opposed to her fairy nature in illustrations of her story in the prose fragments of the Upton House Bearsted (UHB) manuscript. More than in other manuscript versions of the romance, Colwell argues, the five UHB illuminations depicting Mélusine's grief, Raymondin's remorse, the couple's mutual sorrow, Mélusine's dictation of her children's legacy, and her daily return to comfort her children accentuate not the heroine's marvelous, monstrous nature but rather her human maternity.

The next two chapters examine medieval Occitan literature. The emotional complexity of trobairitz lyrics is the subject of "Is She Angry or Just Sad? Grief and Sorrow in the Songs of the Trobairitz" by Hannie von Horen Verhoosel. The author compares expressions of grief and sorrow in the poems of five well-known trobairitz- -Azalas de Porcairagues, Clara d'Andusa, Casteloza, Bieiris and the Comtessa de Dia--with expression of similar emotions in the male-authored troubadour poetry. Although she finds much similarity in the male and female poets' articulation of grief--pain and sorrow abound in both corpuses--Verhoosel argues that the source of anguish differs significantly. Male poets often suffer internally because they are unable to articulate their feelings or because of projected doubts or self-reproach; female poets suffer more frequently from external causes, the neglect or abuse of a "real" lover. Similarly, male dolor and amor appear more often as abstract concepts, whereas the female poets invariably express personal and private feelings that are portrayed as arising from the cruel lover himself, a "real," direct source.

In "Between Concealment and Eloquence: the Idea of the Ideal Woman in Medieval Provençal Literature," Jennifer Rudin examines advice for and about women in the intriguing Provençal ensenhamens, twelfth- and thirteenth-century courtly didactic poems. The ensenhamens' promotion of women's ability to engage in courtly conversation in a sophisticated, learned fashion echoes the importance ascribed to women's social graces and learning in the Roman de Flamenca. This chapter, as with the earlier one on Christine de Pizan, underscores the extent to which medieval literature instructs its female readers in careful management of emotions and cultivation of proper social behaviors.

The remaining chapters turn beyond France to other European contexts--Spain, England, and Italy. Emily C. Francomano studies the relationship between the eleventh-century Riojan virgin anchoress saint Oria and her mother Amunna in "Spiritual and Biological Mothering in Berceo's Vida de Santa Oria." Although most critics focus on the daughter's life, Francomano reveals the centrality of Oria's complex relationship with her mother within the thirteenth-century Vida. The mother's initial anxiety for her daughter and her attempts to ease her suffering might be seen as obstacles to Oria's martyrdom. Yet after Oria's death Amunna receives spiritual counsel from her daughter; she learns to embrace Oria's holy sacrifice and to follow her pious example. This study not only invites us to read Oria's story as intertwined with that of her mother; it also brings welcome attention to medieval maternal saints, less numerous and often less revered than their virginal sisters or daughters, but no less exemplary in their spiritual devotion.

Victoria Rivera-Cordero explores two fascinating early Spanish female autobiographical texts, the Memorias of Leonor López de Córdoba and the Admiraçión operum Dey of Teresa de Cartagena. Both authors use their writing to defend their honor and promote their own exceptional status as women who have overcome different forms of suffering, physical disability, or social ostracism. As these women authors tell extraordinary stories of courage and resourcefulness in the face of trauma, their writing serves as an important means of self-defense. Leonor's memoir recounts, among other events, nine years spent in prison and her heroic protection of a Jewish boy. Teresa's didactic-religious treatise presents a staunch defense of her femininity and her deafness as signs that she has been spiritually blessed. Rivera- Cordero's perceptive analysis reveals how a strong, resistant feminine subjectivity emerges from these harrowing stories.

Jamie Friedman shows how an author's explicit deviation from his source can provide insights about a female character in "Between Boccaccio and Chaucer: The Limits of Female Interiority in the Knight's Tale. Looking beneath the seemingly silent, passive surface of Emelye, Friedman studies the glosses in Boccaccio's Teseida, which represent the Amazon women, Emelye's ancestors, in all their forceful, male-spurning glory. As Friedman demonstrates, Chaucer both represses Emelye's Amazon identity and subtly calls attention to that suppression. Reading Emelye's prayer to Diana with her literary history in mind provides a much fuller understanding of Emelye's "defiant, unruly interiority" (215), which a chivalric romance such as The Knight's Tale does its best to contain.

The book's final chapter examines textual suppression of female autonomy in another guise as it examines the reception of some of Italy's foremost female humanists by their male counterparts. Aileen A. Feng's "In Laura's Shadow: Casting Female Humanists as Petrarchan Beloveds in Quattrocento Letters" examines the cases of Laura Cereta, Isotta Nogarola, Cassandra Fedele, and Alessandra Scala, quattrocento female authors who exchanged letters with some of the most prominent men of their time. Looking carefully at the men's responses to the women's eloquent writings, Feng finds a disquieting pattern of condescension and objectification. Resorting frequently to Petrarchan conceits that portray the women as beautiful objects of desire, like the poet's own distant Laura, the male humanists repeatedly fail to engage their female counterparts as intellectual equals.

The final chapters of The Inner Life of Women in Medieval Literature thus remind us of the formidable obstacles that prevented medieval women from giving full voice to their "inner life" and of the necessity of volumes such as the present one. By looking beyond the surface of female representations, by re- examining well-known emotional portraits, or by highlighting lesser-known writers, this collection portrays the richness, variety, and complexity of women's emotions in medieval literature. The volume's careful attention to nuances of emotional state, to subtle shifts in feelings or perspectives, and to repressed feminine identities maps out a dynamic emotionology worthy of a closer look. Although one could question whether women's emotional states are always displayed with more intensity than those of their brothers, paramours, and husbands, this volume's focus on the "inner life" of women in medieval literature is both productive and illuminating.

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Author Biography

Roberta L. Krueger

Hamilton College