Role of Women in Medieval Literature

In medieval Europe women had a very special role, which is reflected in both literary works reviewed in this research. The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are two bright examples of heroic literature of the period. It might seem that in these pieces of heroic literature men are in the center of attention and play the most significant role, but, in fact, female characters are more than worthy of attention. The study of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight shows that even in medieval Britain wise women played a valuable role in the country’s development.

From the very first glance it seems that both The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are focused on the adventures of male characters – the Knight in one and Gawain in the other. Both men have their quests and challenges that have to be completed in order to preserve honor and life. When one looks deeper into the plot, it is clear that female characters are integral elements of the stories. Without the queen who “prayed so long that the king might grant him grace” the Knight would have died, and he has lived only thanks to the old woman. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight many of the event were arranged by the powerful Morgain ie Fay. Therefore, despite men being the leading characters, women have also played important roles in the stories.

The women presented in the literary works are truly versatile. Some of them are stunning, like Guinevere, “a fairer woman might no man boast himself of having seen”, while others are truly gruesome. It is interesting that wise women in both stories are at first seen as unattractive, with Morgain’s lips being “bleared and ill to look upon” and the old woman from The Wife of Bath’s Tale is simply described as “an uglier creature no mind could devise”. Despite the diversity of female characters in the stories, they are treated with different forms of respect that derive either from their noble status and natural beauty, or from age and wisdom.

 It was already mentioned that the stories present two different types of women – young and beautiful; and old, ugly, and wise. These two types of characters present a form of contradiction between two groups of values – appearance and knowledge. Although there is no clear conflict and some characters, such as the queen in The Wife of Bath’s Tale are respected by men and the court, the emphasis is made on the knowledge of old and unattractive women. In fact, one can say that appearance and knowledge are valued approximately to the same extend.

Some might say that the role of women, as it is seen in medieval literature, is quite limited and there would even be no point in speaking of feminism. As a matter of fact, the two stories reviewed in this research show that female characters play very important roles in the lives of the knights portrayed in tales. The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both describe strong female characters that are able to manipulate men into doing what they want. Strong women can grant knights lives, make them commit, or influence the decisions of noblemen. It is clear that women and their ability to think and make decisions are highly respected by the authors. To support this idea one can memorize the advise given in the end of The Wife of Bath’s Tale: “I also pray that Jesus shorten lives of those who won’t be governed by their wives”. Therefore, despite some common beliefs, women play a truly significant and influential part in the medieval heroic literature.

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