Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.10.29, Waugh, The Genre of Medieval Patience Literature

13.10.29, Waugh, The Genre of Medieval Patience Literature

If a book's score on the hypothetical Capacity for Intellectual Provocation Scale (CIPS) may be ascertained by the sheer quantity and quality of the reader's heated (marginalia) debates with the author, then, without question, Robin Waugh's The Genre of Medieval Patience Literature: Development, Duplication, and Gender would receive a high CIPS score. The question remains: Is a high CIPS score a good thing? In the present case, this reader can only say that Waugh's book PROVOKED. Or, should I say that, in particular, Waugh's readings of the Lot's wife and Griselda narratives afforded, among other salutary benefits, ample opportunity for this reader to flex her woefully under-utilized patience muscles? Nevertheless, before turning to Waugh's treatment of these two women, who could reasonably define the end-points of a generic, female patience spectrum, I ought first to offer an overview of and commentary on the book as a whole.

The virtues of Waugh's book are easy to enumerate. Broadly speaking, Waugh articulates the contours of, and then traces the development of, the larger (predominantly religious) patience literary tradition from the late Classical period through the Late Middle Ages, with a strong focus on primary texts. Within this arc, Waugh identifies the emergence of an association between the virtue of patience and the feminine, with specific attention to representative women who 'figure' patience. Waugh offers nuanced exegeses of a range of primary texts (Latin, Italian, Old French, and Old and Middle English, with quotations both in the original and in translation), amply supported by secondary sources. On the one hand, his readings throughout are informed by a veritable cornucopia of post-modern analyses and interpretations; on the other hand, he opens up avenues into the "profeminist" potentialities of the texts and authors he surveys. Thus, it is no understatement to say that, in important ways, Waugh offers up many new, interesting, and potentially productive ways to read old texts and, in particular, 'old' women.

To delve into the problematic aspects of Waugh's book, on the other hand, is no simple task. Perhaps the most obvious place to begin is with the book's structure and title. Saving the issue of the title for the moment, the book proper consists of an Introduction (Clarissimum in Feminis) and six substantive chapters, the entirety of which runs (without notes, which appear at the end) to 173 pages. It could be considered a curious thing that the Introduction (at thirty-six pages) is the third longest "chapter" in the book. It could also seem rather curious that we do not get to a medieval text until part way into Chapter 2 (The Female Patience Figure as Frozen Speaker), seventy-nine pages into (46% of the way through) the book. It could seem even more curious that Chapter 3 (The Female Patience Figure as Counterfeit) and Chapter 4 (The Female Patience Figure as Frozen Empress) are eight pages and nine pages in length, respectively. As curious as this seems on the surface, it is curiouser still that these two chapters--as opposed to the lengthy Introduction (thirty-six pages), Chapter 1 (The Female Patience Figure as Speaker, thirty-eight pages), and Chapter 2 (forty-eight pages)--are about High Medieval texts: Chapter 3 gives too-short shrift to Jacobus de Voragine's highly influential Legenda Aurea, while Chrétien de Troyes' Cligés, it could be argued, need not have had an entire (however brief) chapter (Chapter 4) devoted to it.

What cannot provoke even a glimmer of curiosity, however, are the chapter titles, as they are entirely formulaic: "The Female Patience Figure as (sole variant: at an) X." Even the 'X's are repetitive: Speaker, FrozenSpeaker, Frozen Empress (emphases added for illustration). Would that these 'types' of patient women were useful categories, but they do not seem to be; rather, there seems to be, for example, only one "frozen empress."

Having hinted earlier that the book's title was problematic, I ought now to revisit that topic. On the one hand, the main title announces that this book will be concerned with, above all else, medieval texts; yet, this is not so. In fact, the first seventy-nine pages of the book explore (in great depth and very perceptively) late-Classical Latin texts and traditions. And, as discussed above, some of the medieval texts surveyed are either treated superficially or do not warrant, relative to more central texts, the focused treatment they receive.

A separate and perhaps more problematic issue arises with the full title's final word: Gender. Though the cover art image is of a female figure (later identified as Lot's wife), nothing in the main title nor in the sub-title suggests that "Gender" is, in fact, gender-specific. This would not necessarily be quibble-worthy were it not for the fact that there are numerous important medieval texts (which Waugh largely, if not entirely, passes silently over) in which patience is, in obvious ways, connected to that other gender. In short, the main title leads one to believe something about the relative breadth and type of texts to be canvassed, which promise is not fulfilled, while the sub-title does not announce a woman-only textual focus, though the cover art points the reader's "gaze," however obliquely, in that general direction.

Before engaging Waugh's analyses of Lot's wife and Griselda as patience figures, it is worth noting that one could construct parallel, gendered patience spectra, whose end-points would be as follows: for females, Lot's wife --> Griselda; and, for males, Jonah --> Job. Furthermore, there exists an interesting correlation between each of these female-male termina, which reveals both the commonalities each dis-gendered pair shares and the traits that distinctly bind each iso-gendered pair together. Lot's wife and Jonah are similar (both in their base Biblical texts and in later, expanded retellings) because both acted willfully and rashly in disobeying a specific Divine command, for which both incurred some form of "capital" punishment. Griselda and Job likewise are similar, in that both suffered years of terrible, unjustified hardships, which each bore with uncomplaining fortitude and steadfast constancy of mien. Yet, the Jonah-Job patience spectrum is set apart from that of Lot's wife-Griselda in crucial ways: Jonah is God's prophet and Job is God's most obedient servant, whereas Lot's wife is the spouse of the nephew of one of God's chosen and Griselda has no direct connection to God. Waugh, however, touches on Job only glancingly and makes no mention of Jonah whatsoever. This, despite the fact that the Pearl-poet, who relates Lot's wife's story as part of a negative exemplum in Cleanness, devotes an entire poem (Patience) to (depending on which scholar you ask) Jonah as the quintessential impatient one or God as the ultimate (even parental) model of patience. Furthermore, several scholars (including the present reviewer) have interpreted Patience in the sorts of "profeminist" ways Waugh uncovers, such that this text could well have fit within his larger narrative of female-gendered patience literature. The "poynt" is that Waugh ignores the vibrant Late Medieval tradition of male patience figures (including Langland's allegorical Patience in Passus 13-14 of Piers Plowman), while conflating female figures of impatience with those of patience. This combined omission and elision renders the task of evaluating Waugh's principal patience paradigms/paragons somewhat perilous.

Although Waugh plumbs the Griselda narrative at a later point (Chapter 5: The Female Patience Figure at an Extreme) than he does the Lot's wife narrative (Chapter 2), because the latter so clearly becomes the fulcrum on which his larger argument depends, I will address the former (and somewhat less problematic) figure first. Waugh approaches Griselda principally from Christine de Pizan's version, found in her Book of the City of Ladies, and Geoffrey Chaucer's version, found in his Canterbury Tales' "The Clerk's Tale." (My below references to Chaucer echo Waugh's use of Larry D. Benson's The Riverside Chaucer for all CT citations.) Both Christine's and Chaucer's Griselda narratives are ultimately indebted, as Waugh discusses, to Boccaccio's version in his Decameron (Day 10, story 10). While both authors knew Boccaccio through a French translation of Petrarch's Latin translation (Epistolae Seniles, XVII 3)of it, Christine relied on that of Philippe de Mézières (Livre de la vertu du sacrement de mariage et du réconfort des dames mariées), while Chaucer's source is anonymous. For present purposes, I will focus only on Waugh's explication of Christine's Griselda narrative.

Though Waugh suggests that Christine used, for her chapter on Griselda, Petrarch's Latin and Mézières' French translations together (206-207, note 44), Earl Jeffrey Richards (the modern translator, who Waugh uses, of Christine's BCL) privileges Mézières' text over Petrarch's as Christine's source (265-266, note on BCL II.50). Thus, it would seem trenchant to consider Mézières' representation of Griselda's tale. Indeed, it would be useful to trace the Boccaccio-Petrarch-Mézières-Christine Griselda trajectory in several ways, a path Waugh only partially pursues.

With regard to the "meaning" of the narrative, Petrarch tells Boccaccio (in his letter's introduction to his Latin retelling) that he's changed the theme from one of exemplary suffering to one of exemplary constancy. Note that this already rives any Job-Griselda comparison, as they are now end-points of different virtue spectra. Mézières extends this rift, setting up Griselda as a paragon of the terrestrial sponsa et mater Christi; the chiastic structure of his text reveals her as both allegorical Holy Church and Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ. That Mézières' Griselda is not a patience figure is obvious; that Christine's Mézières-based Griselda is not ought to have been equally obvious.

Near the end of the chapter (i.e., BCL II.49) preceding her Griselda tale, Christine's allegorical narrator Droitture expresses outrage at male criticisms of women as "changeable" (BCL 170; the entire text participates in the Querelle des Femmes debate). Against such unfounded charges, Droitture offers the exemplary stories of "several very strong women," the first of whom is Griselda, "a woman strong in virtue" (BCL 170). Following Petrarch (see BCL 265-266, note on II.50), Christine aligns her Griselda with the virtue of constancy, not of patient suffering; following Mézières, Christine aligns her Griselda with the allegorical sponsa Christi, Holy Church.

It is surprising, given Waugh's commitment to post-modernisms, that he missed the significant sign-signifier change Christine effected in Griselda's name. In Boccaccio, she is Griselda; in Petrarch, Griseldis; in Mézières, (variations of) Griseldis; even in Chaucer, Griselde. But, in Christine's text, she is Gl iselidis. Though the story (and other principal characters' names) is identifiably that of Griselda, Christine's name for her is not identifiable as Griselda. Recall that Mézières makes of Griselda an allegorical, terrestrial version of Holy Church. Here is Christine's Griselda: [E]glise-li-dis--You [Mézières] call her Church. Yes, he did. And, who is a more constant (metaphorical) wife and mother on this earth than Holy Church, of whom Griselda/Gliselidis is a type?

In my view, Waugh's reading of Christine's Griselda narrative misses the mark in two ways: She is not a patience figure at all; and, if she can be made to fit into one of his rubrics, she would more properly belong in his Chapter 6 (The Female Patience Figure as Shrine). She is, after all, in Christine's text, the ever-constant, unchanging Church. I only wish I had so little to say about Waugh's reading of the Lot's wife narrative.

Both the image of Lot's wife on the book's cover and the fact that, of the ten included illustrations, eight are of Lot's wife point to her as, for Waugh, the quintessential patience figure. This impression is reinforced by the closing paragraphs (which stand in for a proper conclusion) of the final chapter, in which we, along with Margery Kempe, are brought full circle back to Lot's wife. Yet, Waugh's reading of her story (the bulk of Chapter 2) is so problematic as to undermine the emblematic potential he strives to vest in her. Lot's wife becomes a narrative tabula rasa on which may seemingly be writ almost any interpretive "glance"--not the eternal patience/eternally patient figure promised, but rather the (salten) vessel into which may be poured so many authorial hopes and desires. How do we come to such a place?

It begins--to the presumed dismay of many, but to the delight of this reader--with Old English, specifically, with the portion of Genesis A in which Lot's wife's story is told. So much of Waugh's subsequent interpretations, extrapolations, and proliferation of meanings depends, in the first instance, on his translation of the original. How very unfortunate, then, that insufficient attention to this crucial task ultimately enables rock-salt to masquerade as adamantine. A better (deliberately syntax-loyal) translation of Genesis A, ll. 2562b-2575, reads (emphasis added) as follows:

When that fire-destruction, the people's death, Lot's heard wife in/upon the city backward looked toward that slaughterfest. Scripture tells us that she into of saltstone immediately was made a figure. Ever after the infamous [stone] --that is a famous story-- fixed stood, where her a severe covered(with fluid) punishment because she the words of heaven's elite to obey/follow was unwilling. Now must the solid, vertical [stone] in that locale/place fate await, the Lord's judgment, until the reckoning of days, the world, should pass away. That is one of the miracles of those which has wrought the Lord of heaven.

First of all, it is incorrect to interpret ll. 2563b-2564a as "Lot'" (82, 100). Rather, the textual separation of "Lot" from "wife" proleptically enacts the actual (eternal) separation about to befall them; for a similar textual-actual separation, see Beowulf, ll. 1420b-1421, wherein Aeschere and his severed head are removed from each other by a full line. This strategic separation of possessive from nominal occurred earlier, when the Lot family entered Segor (bryd...his, ll.2539a-2540a), and is echoed at the moment of Lot's wife's transformation, when the material (sealtstanes, l. 2566a) into which she is translated is announced a full line before her new form (anlicnesse, l. 2567a) is revealed.

Furthermore, not only does on burgum (l. 2564a) not form part of the erroneous "city-wife," it is actually part of an apo koinou (pointing backward and forward) construction: Lot's wife both heard the fire-storm and mass death in the cityand looked backward upon the city, toward its destruction. Indeed, Lot's wife herself functions apo koinou, as she simultaneously takes the verbs "heard" and "looked." One could even read this complex textual interplay as enacting the entire transformational matrix: While Lot's wife "hears" the destruction occurring in the city, she is still Lot's wife; as soon as she turns back to "look" upon the city's devastation, she becomes Lot's wife no longer. The textual separation of Lot from his wife may also be read as marking the difference between obedience and disobedience: Lot's name is mentioned before "heard," while "wife" occurs after "heard" and before "looked." One might conclude that Lot also heard, but did not look, while his wife, having heard, then looked.

In addition, very many fascinating gender games are played out in this brief passage, but they are not those that Waugh claims to see. The gender-bending nature of Lot's wife's transformation is announced in l. 2566a, in which the feminine heo encounters the becoming masculinity of sealtstanes (the root stan is masculine). This transgender dialectic continues: anlicnesse, her transitional form, is feminine (l. 2567a), but the infamous (monlica) [stone] (l. 2568a) she has become is masculine; yet, her (hie) femininity was "covered over" (l. 2569b) because, earlier, she (heo, l. 2570a) didn't obey; all that remains, in the end, is a solid, projecting masculine [stone] (heard and steap, l. 2571b). Note that I read se monlica (l. 2568a) as the masculine form of the adjective "infamous," used substantively, for two reasons: The first is that metrical stress suggests a long initial vowel, and the second derives from the obvious ironic juxtaposition, across the line, of the alliterating words--monlica/infamous and mære/famous.

It may be noteworthy that Lot's wife's harsh/eternal punishment begeat her (ll. 2569b-2570a): begeat is the preterite singular of begeotan, which can specifically connote "to cover with fluid." As noted above, Lot's wife becomes, in essence, a salty, phallic obelisk; ejaculate is a white, salty fluid. We may want to keep in mind that God's generative acts in the Biblical Creation narrative occurred through speech; likewise, the New Testament notes that God and the Word are, and ever have been, coeval. Divine generativity proceeds from words, while generativity per se proceeds through semen/ejaculate. It is possible to read this passage as follows: Because Lot's wife would not obey Divine speech (heo wordum wuldres þegna hyran ne wolde), her female form was covered with fluid (begeat) of such a nature that it resulted in a fixed, stone-hard, vertical object of salty material (sealtstanes...stille wunode...heard and steap). Her failure to obey the word causes the Word to rain down on, and ultimately encase, her in an unmistakable image of the Word? Perhaps.

Waugh argues a similar result, but for exactly the opposite reason (93, 97, 104), one informed not by the text's begeat, but by a post-modern theory of forced auditory insemination that somehow manifests as an externalized "reverse...moment of creation" (104). The Word made stone? I fail to see why an in-through-the-ear--out-through-the-body reading ought to be privileged over a simple reading of the text: She was covered with fluid (begeat), which, having encased her, then congealed and ossified.

Overall, Waugh's mistranslation and incomplete reading of this Old English passage forms the basis for much of what follows, which, wide-ranging though it is, can be (and, by Waugh, is) reduced to proclaiming Lot's wife "a patience figure par excellence" (96). Nothing in the OE original supports such a conclusion. Beyond the truly intriguing interpretive, symbolic, and emblematic potentialities embodied in the perpetually stuck figure of Lot's wife (a broad interest I share with Waugh), I cannot agree with his central claim: A feminine figure of eternal punishment = a (paradigmatic) patience figure simply because she so happens to have been a woman who was punished--appropriately, on all accounts. Not only might many women (past and present) resist this definition of patience, one imagines Job might have a thing or two to say about this.

Nor do Genesis A or other OE texts support various sub-assertions. For example, contrary to Waugh's claim that wic evinces a feminine, domestic(ated) space (110), most often, it refers to a male dwelling/space (both Genesis A and Exodus offer numerous instances of this; in Elene, the Holy Spirit occupies a wic in Judas' heart). And, if Lot's wife stands (literally) as a model of performative political disobedience (111) in whose footsteps Waugh reckons Elene to tread, one wonders what Elene can have to do with Lot's wife that she doesn't more properly have to do with Judith, and neither with Lot's wife?

Other issues remain. One is that Waugh neither mentions nor discusses the fact that the Genesis A account entirely omits the angels' injunction against looking back; we only learn, after the fact, that Lot's wife was unwilling to obey the angels' "words," never knowing exactly what those words were. This highly unusual narrative lacuna is striking and ought to have invited comment, but did not.

Another is why only glancing reference is made to Middle English texts that engage, to varying degrees, Lot's wife. Of particular interest is the account in Cleanness (from The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, edited by Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron), which disambiguates Lot's wife's punishment: She is turned to stone because she looked back, in violation of the angels' order; and, the stone is specifically made of salt because, earlier, she had surreptitiously seasoned the angels' meal, against Lot's instructions to the contrary (ll. 994-999). After having committed this first sin, Lot's wife is described as crazy/mad (wod) and as having angered (wrathed) the Lord (l. 828). Just before she commits her second sin of looking back, she is characterized as a "baleful wife who never kept a command" (l. 979); not surprisingly, this willful (lusty) woman effects her fateful glance over her sinister (lyfte) shoulder (l. 981). Her story concludes with her as, essentially, a salt-lick for animals (l. 1000), which need not be read as "sexual [and/or]...humiliating" (93): In light of the poem's lengthy description of the (now-blighted) surrounding Dead Sea area—drawn from Mandeville's Travels, both of which stress the utter hostility and sterility of the environs--a God-provided salt-lick seems to be the only life-sustaining element around. Interesting. In a Miltonic cosmos, this would have been one among many examples of the Divine Maxim that God turns all things to good.

Beyond this, Cleanness ought to have drawn Waugh's gaze for another reason: The crowd of S/sodomite men, who threaten the angels that Lot shelters, are described (more than once) as "harlots" whose speech is "brothel-like." While the poem's editors gloss harlotez as "villains" and brothelych as "venomous/vile," Chaucer, in the Sin of Lechery portion (ll. 836-913) of his CT, "The Parson's Tale," offers evidence for a more perversely sexualized reading of these terms. Specifically, the Parson condemns "thilke harlotes that haunten bordels of thise fool wommen [i.e., prostitutes]" (l. 884)--while harlot(es) occurs elsewhere in Chaucer's corpus with its more generalized meaning, bordels occurs only here. Furthermore, the MED lists brothel as an alternative form for bordel, which means brothel/place of prostitution. The Parson's message is clear: Men who frequent brothels are harlots/lechers.

Not only is their sexual behavior sinful, it is also perverse, as they run the risk, the Parson warns, of unknowingly coupling "with hire owene kynrede" (l. 884), that is, a kinswoman or other affine. This is precisely the type of dual-category unkynde sexual behavior that characterizes the Sodomites: The Parson's "harlots" both solicit prostitution and potentially engage in sex with those proscribed by the bounds of kinship and affinity; the "harlots" in Cleanness both practice homosexuality and seek to do so with non-humans/angels. In light of the oft-discussed portrayal of the angels in this one section of Cleanness as feminine/feminized in both appearance and demeanor, Waugh might have read this text as a fascinating (con)version of the Brothel By Way trope he identifies (26-27) as endemic to the developing feminine patience literary tradition that he purports to trace. It may also be noteworthy that, unlike the OE poetic account of Lot and his family (from which Waugh derives a plethora of significations), the Pearl-poet refrains entirely from recounting the tale's Scriptural conclusion--Lot's daughters' collusion in inebriating their father so as to engage in (presumably non-missionary-position) incest with him, out of which couplings they deliver sons who later become venerated and venerable tribal patriarchs.

I feel strongly that the entire Pearl-poet's (truly medieval) opus ought to have engaged Waugh--not only Cleanness and (as I've argued) Patience, but also Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After all, the Pearl maiden clearly has the upper moral hand over the male (suffering) dreamer, while Gawain's emasculation (and subsequent status as a silent sufferer) at the hand of a Nature figure suggests something interesting, broadly, about the feminine, the masculine, suffering, and patience. Taken together, these texts offer a plethora of gender and gendered (in)versions along the axes of suffering and patience. If, for example, there exists an undercurrent of (Divine) female punitive action, could the milky, salty (ultimately, life-sustaining) matériel of Lot's wife be less symbolic of masculine semen than of feminine breastmilk? Farther than this I dare not tread; it might have been nice (not to mention, revolutionary), however, if Waugh had so dared.

Lastly, Waugh might also have drawn the ME poem Sir Orfeo--the Classical inversion of Lot and Lot's wife (i.e., looking-back Orpheus and his obedient, but therefore doomed, wife Eurydice)--into his analysis as a medieval analogue of the Lot's wife narrative, especially as Sir Orfeo, interestingly, does not include the "glancing" sin and its concomitant eternal consequences.

Without fully surveying the other chapters in Waugh's book, I must say that I found his very thorough explication of Perpetua (in Chapter 1) engaging, enlightening, and perceptive. I likewise enjoyed his discussion of Fénice (in Chapter 4) and truly appreciated his informed and informative, yet sympathetic, reading of Margery Kempe (in Chapter 6). While Waugh does not offer broad synopses of his chosen texts, which would have been an invaluable aid to the reader in contextualizing his focused analyses, in all cases (my several disagreements notwithstanding), his insights and interpretations are stimulating, thought-provoking, and nuanced. Were this not the case, I would not have been stirred to do my own investigating.

In this reader's opinion, that is the hallmark of a good book--by virtue of reading it, some things one learns, and others one is driven to learn.