The Commonly Misconceived Role of Women in Medieval Literature by Tenika Seitz

Writer’s Reflection

During the course of my semester in English 112, I learned a lot about medieval cultures with a focus on the Holy Grail. While it was interesting to read about the mysteries of the Grail and the legends of the Arthurian ages, I also found myself very intrigued by the separate and distinct characterization of the women and men in nearly all of the material I studied. When given the opportunity to expand on any element I chose from our literary sources, I decided that the portrayal of the role of women and how histories can be misconceived would allow me to learn even more about medieval culture through research.

Though the project was challenging, I enjoyed writing the paper because I felt I was wrapping up everything I had learned in the class and relating it back to one specific topic. Yes, gender roles are often explored, and might seem like a tired subject to debate, but I felt that also encouraged me to take the research more seriously and approach it at more unique angles, as well as to be sure to incorporate as much evidence as possible.

Overall, I am proud of the final paper, and enjoy re-reading it to reflect on the hard work and thought I put in to it, reminding me that even something that can seem simple can move toward becoming something unexpected.


In medieval times, different stories provide evidence to us of different topics that were valid in that era. In many different ways, the relevance of each of these topics was exemplified, most of the time indirectly. These specific topics: the role of religion in Arthurian culture, courtly knights as military life, and the unity and disunity amongst various Arthurians, are all categorized as strongly reoccurring themes of this time. However, one topic I personally find to be the most interesting, and very vital to a lot of what we know today about these ancient cultures, is that involving gender relations and roles. Among men and women, society viewed rights carefully and specifically. The topic of gender was touched on quite a lot, even if sometimes just subtly, giving reason to believe there was a formal separation of roles and power. Structures within different socioeconomic classes began to develop as well with the rise of females in Arthurian households. The assumption of how genders were perceived is recognizable through evidence, found mostly describing the character of women in the medieval world. Their roles were most comprehensible, yet it seems authors of various Arthurian texts would have it differently if they could. It is strongly demonstrated in the texts we have studied in class: Le Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, and Arthurian Romances by Chretien De Troyes, that gender roles influenced Arthurian culture in a major way, especially the role of women. Towards the beginning of this time period, women were expected to play trivial roles to the great, heroic men in their lives. Later however, women began to compete more equally against men in society as they started to portray a more valuable character than ever before to the context of the stories and plots they were involved in. In spite of this, once out of the shadows, women were not necessarily praised for their rise to relevance, but they did rise, all the same.

In most of the texts and films based on Arthurian culture that we have studied in class, the main female character is usually Guinevere, or a similar depiction of her. Guinevere, wife to Arthur, was the original owner of the Round Table, which was passed along to her from her father, King Leodegrance. Upon marrying Arthur, she presented him the Round Table as dowry at their royal wedding. This might have given the impression that not only was Guinevere a kind and giving woman, but she was also a loyal and generous wife. Throughout their marriage however, Guinevere’s actions proved her true colors to be much different. She was indeed generous, but not as much to Arthur as she was to herself. She was as faithful during her marriage as she was interested in being married to her husband in the first place. Without allowing much time to have passed in their union at all, Guinevere was committed to a nearly lifelong scheming affair with Sir Lancelot, a knight of her king’s Round Table.

Eventually the inappropriateness of Lancelot and Guinevere’s scandal led to the downfall of Camelot. Based almost entirely on this situation, many more stories in medieval times involved unfaithful, enticing female characters that in some way suggested the emotional destruction of the male characters involved. As exampled in Lanval, a short story written in the late twelfth century by a poetess named Marie de France, Guinevere was unsuccessful when attempting to seduce a lord whom was not her husband. Upon failing, she then accused the lord of making unwanted advances towards her, as if to suggest she was the evil character (“Arthurian Women”). Likewise, in other common storylines, women are continually depicted as temptresses. Whether they lure men into falling in love with them, treat them as only physical beings rather than emotional, or disallow any honest connecting, then, as if to be inhuman, they supposedly carry on as they please, unaffected. Although the men directly involved with these affairs seem to appreciate the women at first, their true feelings of anger and betrayal appear as shortcomings once the love affairs end and the men are ultimately displeased with their unfortunate outcome in the situations.

As I describe these scenarios it might seem that males are the weaker species for allowing women to trespass against them so easily. However, the aforementioned stories represent the situations much differently. In fact, Le Morte D’Arthur and Arthurian Romances, both texts we read short excerpts from in class, the women are portrayed often as sinister characters, rather than positively, and the men are the ones who typically prevail in the plot. Specifically in Le Morte D’Arthur, author Malory was thought to have adopted the characters based on honest opinions of the time the story was written, rather than the actual times the story was placed. Malory noticed that in some medieval literature the female characters seem dependent on the state of the world around them, as well as the status of their lives. When the women in a story are portrayed positively, the world is likely being seen in a good place, whereas if the world is in any sort of disorder, the women are seen in a more negative light, as if the two variables have some sort of correlation to one another, the world being dependent on the women as the causation.

An essay by Marian MacCurdy, Bitch or Goddess: Polarized Images of Women in Arthurian Literature and Film, as an example of a former twelfth century province, states “trade has opened up, the arts were flourishing, and the world was generally seen in a more hopeful light, the feminine was seen as a divine goddess that could bestow her spiritual and temporal perfection on her love” (MacCurdy 5). This was one author’s way of simplifying the effects nature had on the female projection. Just as well, when the world was faced with an unhappier era, like the Black Death in Europe, the female projection also adjusted, and the other characters casted suspicion and anger towards her. “The emphasis was on the danger of the feminine” (MacCurdy 6). As women rose in recognition, the happier and courtlier images of their characters began to disappear and the females were constantly rejected in literature. Like in the era of witch-hunts and natural disasters, women seemed to begin to unwillingly take the blame for anything bad that occurred in the world.

Although this overwhelmingly negative opinion of women began to decrease during the time Malory worked on Le Morte D’Arthur, it can be assumed Malory did not attempt to portray his female characters as evil but more so as indecisive, depending on certain situations. Nonetheless, because of this previous mindset, particular characters that were merely women were still considered evil by medieval audiences regardless of their good qualities simply based upon what had always, until now, been known.

As the female characters in medieval times began to become less restricted, they inevitably came to act just as so. To outsiders however, an unconfined woman was seen as dangerous. Perhaps this was a kind of reversed situation, and a woman’s actions were predicted and justified based on the literature of the time, or some might stick to the argument that there actually was something to fear in an opinionated woman. Either way, these women who took on their advantaged roles of being liberated, submitted themselves to an order of gendered behavior where females could take on similar responsibilities, and think equivalently with men (“Representations of Women in Medieval Literature”).

Following a life of living under a shadow of men, whether he is a stainless king, or noble knight, the women of Camelot did not just appear, they began to become noticed in medieval literature. Understandably, it would be difficult during these medieval times of hindering on female characters to be a woman in society. Still, women competed against men and remained eager to be not only recognized, but to be considered differently than the previously noted perspectives such as that of Guinevere’s misbehavior. Even in earlier medieval texts the separation of males and females is clear and precise, even when it had gone unnoted. Women in this era were portrayed to be content, if not actually happy, to living a confined life as an accessory to their husband and his home. This is why the later and sudden rise of women is so prominent in medieval history, and literature. Clearly caused by an obvious expected dissatisfaction with this, the representations of women began to appear more rounded and developed, and they did not waste much time beating around the bush to do so. There came to typically be a more detailed description of women in literature, something that until it was altered, was not heavily imperative to a story. Women characters became more interesting to read about because of their personalities and characteristics, which until this era, were never really present, much less worthy of noting. Most importantly though, the female characters in the later medieval novels, legends, stories and published literature were no longer focused on solely because of their roles in influencing male love affairs (“Representations of Women in Medieval Literature”). Finally out of the negative shadow, women were able to speak for themselves and hold attention to a story without being cast off so easily by a bad representation or a misconstrued consumption based on previous trials and tribulations.


Works Cited

“Arthurian Women.” Timeless Myths. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.

MacCurdy, Marian. “Bitch or Goddess: Polarized Images of Women in Arthurian Literature and Film.” The Platte Valley Review 18 (1990): 3-24.

“Representations of Women in Medieval Literature: Margery Kempe, Gawain, and Beowulf.”Welcome to! Web. 31 Mar. 2011.


Editorial Team’s Note

The strength of Seitz’s essay lies within her close reading of medieval literature and the portrayal women, while bringing thoughts from other experts to support her reading. Seitz’s analysis is particularly striking because she takes the time to examine a common belief—the repression of women in the Middle Ages, and reveals the very complex relationships that existed between men and women — and between women and the ways they were represented. Seitz also is very aware that the representations of women in literature may be very different from the actual roles of women, particularly in this era. Seitz does a close reading of a number of different texts, and then is able to bring them together in order to pull a cultural analysis out of a literary one. Seitz’s essay demonstrates one of the diverse ways of approaching this assignment.