Women and Romances: Medieval Women and their Books

With its intertwined episodes and challenging hurdles, romance literature of the Middle Ages gave birth to modern romance novels, but it was not exactly the same genre. For one, the main or essential ingredient of a medieval romance narrative is not the love interest, though that–or at least marriage–plays a significant part in the plot of many tales. Generally, a male hero, his chivalric (or not so chivalric) deeds, and his establishment or restoration of his identity within a family and society, which may or may not involve a relationship with a woman, are key. King Arthur, who rises from obscure origins to rule England, is a perfect example. Occasionally the focus settles significantly upon a heroine who may discover her true identity, or manage to convert a “saracen” husband of a different faith and thus render both her spouse and her new part of the world better within the Christian belief system that dominated western European literature in the Middle Ages. Again, the essential point was social, domestic and personal order: ideally the main character–usually a man–fit into the order more successfully at the end of a medieval romance than the beginning. Love was a possible catalyst, deterrent or benefit within the plot, not a requirement as it is in modern romances.
Medieval women loved books, with romances about knightly heroes, their formidable foes, and the fair maidens who inspired their deeds among the most popular.

Women as Owners and Readers of Medieval Romances

The love element of modern romance, which tends to be told from the perspective of female characters, has often been credited with the overwhelming appeal the genre holds for women. Yet the more various plots of medieval romances–some of them rather like action movies, and others more like biblical stories–do not appear to have made them any less appealing to female readers. Many romance manuscripts bear the signs of women owners, and since most books surviving from the Middle Ages do not provide us with evidence of individual owners, we can assume in reality a much larger number of women readers. Some of these are revealed to us in medieval wills, where women both inherit and bequeath all kinds of romance books.

Tales of King Arthur and his noble knights seem foremost among the romances owned by women. We know, for instance, that an early fourteenth-century collection of French Arthurian literature (London, British Library MS Royal 14.E.iii) was inherited by Alyanor Hawte in the fifteenth century. She moved in courtly circles, and appears to have given the book to Elizabeth Woodville, queen of Edward IV. Not only Elizabeth, but also her two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Cecily, signed the book, suggesting that they read it as well.

Particularly popular with women were tales of Lancelot and Tristan, the two Arthurian heroes known both for expertise in battle and undying love for women (Guenevere and Isolde) who were married to men more justly deserving of the knights’ loyalty. The large number of medieval women with whom we can associate Lancelot romances more than justifies Geoffrey Chaucer’s claim that women held “the book of Lancelot de Lake” in “ful greet reverence,” and demonstrates, too, the truth of romance tales that actually depict women characters as the capable readers of romances for their families and peers.

Women as Scribes and Writers of Medieval Romances

The social situations in which noble and gentry women are described as reading romances within the covers of those very texts may well provide us with a context for the making of a book like the Findern Manuscript (Cambridge University Library MS Ff.1.6). Findern bears the hands of more than forty different scribes, both professional and amateur, named and unnamed, and gives every impression of being copied and compiled by various contributors gradually over many years (between c.1446 and 1550), perhaps as something of a social activity or game. Among the earliest texts copied for this book was the Romance of Sir Degrevant, “one of the most female-friendly” of all Middle English romances, and it is signed by two amateur female scribes, Elizabeth Cotton and Elizabeth Francis. It is likely to these two literary-minded, Derbyshire gentry women that we should also attribute the initiation of this fascinating romance book.

So great was the attraction between medieval romances and female readers, then, that they would make their own copies, and even a saint like Theresa of Avila confesses in her sixteenth-century autobiography not only to developing such a thirst for chivalric tales as a girl that her father’s disapproval drove her to hide the books that made her “happy,” but also to collaborating with one of her brothers in writing a romance of her own. Teresa’s romance is now lost, likely because she grew to agree with her father about the value of such literature, but the romances written in the twelfth century by the female author Marie de France have survived. In her twelve Lais (one of them Arthurian, making Marie the only medieval woman known to have authored an extant Arthurian tale) she makes romance her own: strong and intelligent female characters take centre stage and the love element is essential.

Marie’s contemporary male author Denis Priamus may have intended to criticize both her writing and her audience in describing how Marie’s “lays are accustomed to please the ladies, who “listen to them joyfully and willingly, for they are just what they desire.” Yet his comment confirms for us today the central role of women as both creators and consumers of medieval romance literature.

Sources

  • Burgess, Glyn S., and Keith Busby, trans. and intro. 1999. Lais of Marie de France. 2nd edn. Toronto: Penguin Books.
  • Goodman, Jennifer R. 1995. “‘That Wommen Holde in Ful Greet Reverence’: Mothers and Daughters Reading Chivalric Romances.” In Women, the Book, and the Worldly, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H.M. Taylor, pp.25-30. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.
  • Meale, Carol M. 1996. “‘…alle the bokes that I haue of latyn, englisch, and frensch’: laywomen and their books in late medieval England.” In Women and Literature in Britain,1150-1500, ed. Meale, 2nd edn., pp.128-158. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Olson, Linda. 2011. “Romancing the Book: Manuscripts for ‘Euerich Inglische.’” In Opening Up Middle English Manuscript Studies: Literary and Visual Approaches, ed. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, Olson and Maidie Hilmo, Chapter 2. New York: Cornell University Press.
  • Riverside Chaucer. 1987. Ed. Larry D. Benson et al. 3rd edn. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Article published first time by Linda Olson on: Feb 21, 2011