conservative medieval women impeded progress toward gender equality

Pieter Bruegel, The Hay Chasing the Horse (engraving)

Whoever truly desires
Something is supposed to ask for it.
What? Shall I ask him to love me?
Never. And why? No woman
Makes the mistake of asking
A man for his love, unless
She’s totally out of her mind.
The world would know I was mad,
If I ever permitted my mouth
To speak such scandalous words. [1]

In addition to many other historical gender inequalities, men have long been disproportionately burdened with soliciting amorous relationships. Men are thus the gender that predominately experiences interpersonal rejection in love. Men’s disadvantage in love is deeply associated with sexual welfare inequality and men’s subordination to women. Chrétien de Troyes’s twelfth-century French romance Cligès shows the extent to which conservative medieval women resisted progress toward gender equality in love.

Gender inequality in love persists at least in part because it supports women’s rule. In Cligès, Fenice vigorously guarded the words of Cligès to her:

She kept rehearsing in her heart
Those moments when he’d said farewell,
How his color changed, and went pale,
His tears and his sorrowful face,
How he’d come before her, weeping,
And humbly fallen to his knees,
As if in adoration.

He’d told her he was hers to command.
How refreshing these few words!
They traveled straight from tongue
To heart; she set them in her mouth
To keep them forever safe,
Not daring to entrust this treasure
To some different hiding place.
Where could she hold them half
As well as deep in her heart?
She never allowed them out,
Fearing robbers and brigands. [2]

Where your treasure is, there your heart is also. Burying men’s subordination in love deep within women’s hearts prevents love from increasing.[3] That hurts women. As should also be said, that hurts men.

To achieve gender equality, the world must be set right. In Cligès, the narrator exclaims:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?
I feel as if I’m seeing
Hounds fleeing a hare,
Trout chasing after beavers,
Lambs after wolves, pigeons
Pursuing eagles. Or peasant men fleeing
Their shovels, which earn them their weary
lives. Or ducks after falcons,
Storks after hawks, minnows
Splashing after pike,
Antelope hunting lions:
The world all upside down! [4]

Writers have long used the figure of the world upside down. In seventh-century BGC Greece, Archilochus imagined impossible reversals to marvel at the willingness of men to marry. In fourteenth-century GC Italy, Boccaccio used the figure of the world turned upside down as an opportunity to discuss women’s guile.[5] Chrétien de Troyes injected into the well-known figure of the world upside down a key figure of men’s oppression: peasant men fleeing from their burdensome physical labor. That’s a natural reaction of thinking men, quite unlike images of unnatural reversal such as pigeons pursuing eagles.

To perceive social injustices obscured under dominant ideology, one must distinguish between natural and unnatural impossibilities. Women desire amorous relationships as much as men do. Women soliciting amorous relationships and accepting rejection just as men do is a socially constructed impossibility. In reality, women pursuing men and being rejected is no more impossible than paternity certainty and reproductive rights for men. The gender system constructs men to be the rejected gender so as to support women’s command over men (women on top). Women on top was the preferred position of conservative medieval women and remains the preferred position of many women scholars today.[6]

Women pretend to live in “frail, fearful, innocent silence.” Men actually live that way. When men and women reject gynocentrism and insistently, to the point of raucous disorder, speak out about issues important to men’s lives, the world will be turned upside down. That will be all for the better.

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[1] Chrétien de Troyes, Cligès ll. 992-1001, from Old French trans. Raffel (1997) pp. 32-3. Sordamour is speaking about her love for Alexander. When citing Raffel’s translation, I cite the line numbers in his English translation. Those line numbers are close to line numbers in Old French editions (which have slightly varying line numbers by edition).

The mid-fifteenth-century Burgundian prose transmutation of Cligès seems to have recognized the injustice in Sordamour’s gender privilege. That prose account inserted the story of a young woman weeping sorrowfully in the woods. In solitude she cried out to herself:

I consider myself the most wretched and, among all those complaining about their misfortune and sorrowful life, the lady who most bitterly laments the loss of her dear beloved, who left her of late to go off in search of adventure. … Oh, if only he had know my desire when he left. Alas, if I had revealed it to him, he would not have gone away

Burgundian prose Cligès, Ch. 53, from French trans. Grimbert in Grimbert & Chase (2011) p. 125.

[2] Cligès ll. 4348-54, 4370-80, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 138-9. The text concerns Fenice and her lover Cligès.

[3] Cf. Matthew 6:21, 25:14-30.

[4] Cligès ll.3828-41, trans Raffel (1997) pp. 121-2. Id. has “Or peasants / their shovels, which earn them their weary / Lives.” The Old French text for the relevant lines (ll. 3834-5) is:

et si fuit li vilains sa maigle,
dom il vit et dom it s’ahane.

Ed. Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 268. These lines clearly refer to peasant men. I’ve made that explicit above. The verb fuit echoes the figure’s first verb foïr (“hounds fleeing a hare”). Making that echo explicit helps to indicate the importance of the lines about the peasant men.

Raffel insightfully translated ll. 3827-9 (the first three lines of the above quote). All other translations I’ve examined have obscured Chrétien’s critical subtlety. Here’s Raffel’s translation:

Tell me, oh Lord, where girls’
Timidity comes from, their frail,
Fearful, innocent silence?

In a recent authoritative edition, the Old French for those lines is:

Dex!, ceste crienme don li vient,
c’une pucele seule crient {tient A},
sinple et coarde, foible et quoie?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 266. While medieval manuscripts of Cligès differ significantly (see Sturges (1994) pp. 208-11), the above text captures all the relevant variation across manuscripts. Translators have wrongly assumed that the subject of these lines is Cligès. Some leading translations:

God! whence comes this fear, that he should shrink from a lonely girl, feeble and timid, simple and mild?

Trans. Owen (1987) p. 88.

God, whence comes his fear of a single maiden, simple and timid, feeble and shy?

Trans. Staines (1990) p. 133.

Dieu!, d’où lui vient cette crainte d’une seule jeune fille, modeste et peureuse, faible et silencieuse?

Harf-Lancner (2006) p. 267. These translations, while within the range of meanings of the text, don’t recognize Chrétien’s play with reversals across the text and the relevant context. They also don’t recognize reversal relevant to women’s dominant position within the men-degrading ideology of courtly love. Within that ideology, a woman ruled over the man who loved her. The man cringed in fear of her displeasure.

With fidelity to the text of the Old French manuscripts, a translation need not anachronistically add support for the currently dominant gender structure of amorous rejection. Rather than implying a prepositional phrase, c’une pucele seule is most directly translated as “She is a single young girl.” Both crient and the manuscript variant tient make sense as third-person intransitive verbs. The best literal English translation of the three lines seems to me to be:

God!, whence comes to her this fear,
She, a single, young woman, fears {holds back},
simple and timid, feeble and shy?

This translation is consistent with Chrétien’s subtle but significant critique of the degrading gender position of men. This translation is substantially the same as Raffel’s. He deserves credit for his superior insight.

Translations of Chrétien into English are relatively significant in education about medieval literature. Sturges observed:

Chrétien’s works, the first (and, for most readers, among the best) extant Arthurian romances, are taught in virtually every {U.S.} college and university-level course on Arthurian literature, whether it focuses on the Middle Ages exclusively or surveys the entire tradition.

Sturges (1994) p. 205. Id. provides a general review of English translations. For translations of medieval Arthurian literature more generally, Lacy (2006).

[5] Other ancient examples of the “world turned upside down” topos are Isaiah 11:6-8, Acts 17:6-7, and Virgil, Eclogues 8.53.7. On the “world turned upside down” topos more generally, Curtius (1953) pp. 94-8 and Kunzle (1978).

[6] See, e.g. Davis (1978). Kunzle appreciates “discontented, lower-class elements who sought or fantasized about the subversion of the existing order.” Yet he opines that, with respect to the domestic hierarchy, “there was no (male) popular desire to change.” Kunzle (1978) pp. 40, 42. That view reflects fundamental misunderstanding of literature of men’s sexed protest. Unlike such scholars, great medieval women writers showed generous and perceptive sympathy for men’s concerns.

[image] The Hay Chasing the Horse. Illustration of proverb. Engraving attributed to Pieter Bruegel, dated 1568/69. The circular caption (in Flemish) is in English translation:

For the hay to go after the horse, is perverted, mark this, you girls who offer yourselves up so shamelessly. It is not proper for you to court the young men; but it is proper for the horse to go after the hay.

Trans. Kunzle (1978) p. 69.


Curtius, Ernst Robert. 1953. European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. New York: Pantheon Books.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1978. “Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe.” Ch. 5 (pp. 147-92) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Grimbert, Joan T. and Carol J. Chase, trans. 2011. Chrétien De Troyes in prose: the Burgundian Erec and Cligés. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Harf-Lancner, Laurence, ed. and trans. 2006. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès: Édition bilingue, Publication, traduction, présentation et notes. Champion Classiques, Série Moyen âge 16. Paris: H. Champion.

Kunzle, David. 1978. “World Upside Down: The Iconography of a European Broadsheet Type.” Ch. 1 (pp. 39-94) in Barbara A. Babcock, ed. The reversible world: symbolic inversion in art and society. Cornell University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 2006. “Translation of Medieval Arthurian Literature.” Pp.49-61 in Lacy, Norris J. A history of Arthurian scholarship. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Owen, D.D.R., trans. 1987. Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian romances. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent & Sons.

Raffel, Burton, trans. 1997. Chrétien de Troyes. Cligès. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Staines, David, trans. 1990. The complete romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sturges, Robert S. 1994. “Chrétien de Troyes in English Translation: A Guide to the Issues.” Arthuriana. 4 (3): 205-223.

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