Student B British Literature Prof. Gary Gutchess December XX, 20XX The Battle of the Sexes in British Literature, Part I Women and men have had a lot of different roles inside their communities, their political organizations, and even their families during the past 500 and 1000 years. Some of these were public, and some were private. Starting back in the Middle Ages women in general were undereducated, quiet and rarely mentioned in literature, but in the early modern period they become more able to speak for themselves, and by the 18th century there were famous female writers and women in powerful positions. The changes in the relations of the sexes throughout the three time periods are clear, and they helped shape the future for women. In the Middle Ages women had access to books, but these books that women had access to encouraged them to pray, and aided them in private devotions. During this period women were more likely to read English, or French, instead of Latin. This English was Old and Middle English. The power women had during this time generally was limited to the home or church, unless you were like Empress Matilda, who organized an army by herself, showing that women could cause havoc at any moment. Literature during the Middle Ages such as “Beowulf,” “Judith,” “Lanval,” “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “The Book of Margery Kemp,” illuminated the ideals of the sexes. Men in the epic “Beowulf” were very testosterone driven. They spoke about battles, wars, soldiering, and were the protectors of the people around them. Women on the other hand were mentioned little within “Beowulf.” There were seven women inside this story, and all but one of them were described in good terms. The only exception was Grendel’s mother, but that was probably because she was Beowulf’s enemy. Women were expected to be good subordinate wives, and inside the story you can see this loyalty when the Queen comes out with the cup of wine: she gives it to her Lord first, then to Beowulf. Women’s opinions did seem to matter to some degree. The poet noted the Queen’s reaction to the hero: “the wife was well-pleased with Beowulf’s words“ (Damrosch 45).
A poem after this that gave more light on the sexes in the Middle Ages was titled “Judith,” This an old English poem based on the Old Testament with its heroes that devote their military zeal to the glory of God. Men in “Judith” were again seen as warriors and at high ranking. They expect to get what they want. “At the point where the Old English poem begins, the “wickedly promiscuous” general, after his drunken feast, orders the beautiful Hebrew maiden Judith to be brought to his bed” (Damrosch 110). Judith sticks up for herself, however, and she beheads the general for what she says is a religious order of Christ. “Judith” puts an “emphasis on her power in contrast to the biblical source’s emphasis on God’s power to operate through the hand of a mere woman” (Damrosch 110). The poem shows that women could be heroic, even in the Old English period. Marie de France was the first women thus far that we have learned about writing her own literature. In her story of “Lanval,” “Marie swiftly brings into play elements that had been largely absent in the historicizing stories of Arthur: bodily desire and its dangers, romantic longing, the realm of the uncanny, the power of women, the force of wealth and influence in even the noblest courts” (Damrosch 181). Marie de France also reveals the women were property and a king’s gift. Using all this ammunition it is easy to understand the contrasts in “Lanval.” Guinevere tries to get Lanval to commit adultery with her, but he wants nothing to do with it. She becomes upset at rejection, and manipulates her husband’s laws to imprison him. While Lanval is on trial his mistress returns and proclaims his innocence. How revolutionary is it for a woman to save a man in trouble? When the couple are riding away, Lanval rides behind his mistress in a subordinate...
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