Monday, October 24, 2011

Engaging with Feminism through (medieval) Literature

Earlier this year, I was invited to take part in a Feminist Pedagogy Workshop. This was designed to address issues and opportunities that arise when combining teaching and feminism. Several presentations were given, for example, outlining difficulties which arose when feminist teachers came up against anti-feminist ideas from students, and exploring the idea of a specifically feminist pedagogical practice. Whilst this workshop ended far before arriving at some kind of resolution, in composing a presentation about my experiences of teaching medieval literature, I was forced to consider my teaching practises anew, particularly in their relationship with feminism.

The teaching course I focused on was a 2nd year undergraduate course in medieval literature in the English Department, consisting of eight two-hour seminars, each focused on one or two primary texts from the Middle Ages (12th-15th century) in Middle English. The issues specifically relating to pedagogy and feminism that I identified were:

1. Students were not familiar with the Middle Ages or medieval literature so often made assumptions about the period, e.g. all women are oppressed, men rule all etc

2. Students were not necessarily feminist, or familiar with feminist criticism

3. But even if they were, feminism is difficult to apply in the Middle Ages anyway because of the context – no such thing as ‘feminism’ per se in Middle Ages.

To address these issues, I tried a number of things.

1. I drew on students’ personal experiences of feminism/anti-feminism. This allowed us to consider both how our experiences related to those of medieval women, and challenged our views of women today. For example, many students had set views about ‘gold diggers’ (women who marry rich men for money), as a distinctly modern phenomenon. We read two texts in parallel which directly challenged the idea of ‘gold diggers’. These were A Young and Henpecked Husband’s Complaint,which tells the story of an old wife and a young husband, reflecting the medieval social reality of rich widows remarrying with more agency and Prohemy of a Mariage Betwixt an Olde Man and a Yonge Wife, and the Counsail,a misogynistic text advising an old man against marriage to a young woman. Reading these texts in the context of modern debates about feminism antagonised students’ assumptions that the ‘gold digger’ discourse is ‘modern’, as well as challenging our apparently rigid views about modern feminism.

2. In a related idea, I introduced ideas about women or feminism from the twenty-first century in order to engage with medieval texts. Students assumed that women were uniquely discriminated against in the Middle Ages, as opposed to today, where women enjoy complete freedom from patriarchy. I attempted to show that there are unfortunately lots of women who are still oppressed today, even in subtle, insidious ways. We discussed Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, in which Lancelot and Guinevere have an affair. We considered the representation of gender and sexual morality in this text alongside ideas in the modern media at the time which reflected the discourse that ‘if a woman sleeps around she is a slut, if a man does it he is a stud’. This nuanced students’ perceptions of the sexual morality of the Middle Ages, showing us it is as slippery as it is perceived today. I think it was surprising for students to find some of these ideas in the medieval, causing them to both redefine their ideas as ‘modern’ and challenge their assumption that the Middle Ages is irrelevant and ‘un-modern’.

3. Finally, I chose texts written by or containing interesting women. This allowed us to talk about medieval (fictional and ‘real’) women in more sophisticated ways, and to see their agency, revealing that women are not (always) just token characters for knights to fight over. We read the Boke of Margery Kempe, the account of an ordinary woman who had extraordinary experiences and religious visions, and who challenges the practises and piety of the medieval church, as well as travelling on pilgrimage by herself. Considering these kinds of texts broke down the idea that there were no women or representations of women in the Middle Ages. We also discussed authorship – Margery Kempe could not write, so her Boke was transcribed by a man. Talking about this led to an interesting discussion about men writing women, and the continued dominance of men in almost every field, socially, academically, culturally. This prompted students to consider what they thought of as particularly misogynistic medieval texts in the wider context of literary chauvinism which is still present today.

If I could teach this course again there are a couple of things I would change. First, I would compare medieval and contemporary texts. A direct comparison would be a very provocative way to discuss the position of women and feminist ideas and prompt vibrant discussion. For example, we could read medieval conduct books for young women alongside today’s magazines aimed at teenage girls to see if similar discourses arose (I strongly suspect that they might). Second, I would ask students to read feminist theory alongside medieval texts in order to compare feminist theoretical ideas and medieval texts. Hopefully this would increase students’ understanding of feminist theory and its applicability and relevance to medieval texts. For example, in the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle, the Carl essentially sells his daughter to Gawain to facilitate his social elevation and inclusion in King Arthur’s court. This could be critically read alongside feminist theory in the position of women as objects of exchange, such as Gayle Rubin’s, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex’.

So while I am not sure that my teaching method is specifically ‘feminist’, I found it fascinating to consider how my own feminist research methods, as well as my political and cultural convictions, fed into my teaching. I received good feedback on the course from students, and many chose to focus on feminist issues in their essays, suggesting that they enjoyed the module. Has anyone else had similar experiences with teaching (whether medieval studies or not)? I am particularly fascinated by the relationships between teaching the Middle Ages and feminism – fellow medievalists, have you had any interesting experiences with teaching medieval studies and/with/in conjunction with feminism? Furthermore, feminism is clearly something that we cannot ignore when teaching, but how far should we/ can we go? Has anyone come up against resistance (either from students or elsewhere in the department)?

8 comments:

  1. It sounds like a very interesting course. I haven't got anything particularly useful to add but your mention of

    the Carl essentially sells his daughter to Gawain to facilitate his social elevation and inclusion in King Arthur’s court. This could be critically read alongside feminist theory in the position of women as objects of exchange, such as Gayle Rubin’s, ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex’.

    reminded me of Michael Harney's Kinship and polity in the Poema de mío Cid which also discusses women as "objects of exchange."

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  2. This sounds like a very interesting workshop! And it looks like you have a lot of positive ideas of how to bring feminist discourse into teaching. I think it's something all students could benefit from, but since we can't unfortunately rely on all our colleagues to we have an additional responsibility, I guess! And it's part of what should be a wider discussion of intersecting privileges and kyriarchal norms.

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  3. I think the whole idea of a specifically 'feminist' teaching practice is a really important one, and brings in all kinds of issues relating to ethics, responsible pedagogy etc. And Rachel, you are totally right, we can't have conversations about feminism without also thinking about racism, disablism, homophobia, class...

    I think what I found most fascinating about this teaching was trying to indicate ways in which these 'modern' 'isms' can also be deployed and debated just as complexly in medieval texts - something I'm sure you've come across in teaching as well, Rachel and Laura.

    Laura - I don't know much about early modern literature, but am very interested in discourses of women as objects of exchange (something I have come across again in the modern sheikh romances I analyse), so thanks for the reference!

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  4. something I'm sure you've come across in teaching as well, Rachel and Laura

    Actually, I've only ever taught one seminar (on Gonzalo de Berceo) and one language class, so I know next to nothing about teaching medieval literature.

    I don't know much about early modern literature, but am very interested in discourses of women as objects of exchange

    The Poema/cantar de mío Cid isn't "early modern":

    The Cantar de mio Cid survives in the unique fourteenth century manuscript reproduced here from color slides provided by the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Spanish National Library), where it is housed. From the manuscript colophon we may surmise that it is a copy of a previous manuscript penned by one Per Abbat in 1207 (1245 of the Spanish Era). This date may represent the transcription of an oral performance of the poem, but it is just as likely a copy of yet another lost manuscript.

    The protagonist of the poem is the historical Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (c. 1045-1099), also known as Cid (a dialectal form of the Arabic word sayyid, 'lord' or 'master') and Campeador ('Battler' or 'Victor'). The poem begins with the departure of Rodrigo from his home in Vivar, the first of two exiles of Rodrigo decreed by Alfonso VI, king of Castile and Leon (1065-1109). In the poem this first exile (1081) and the second (1089) are conflated and lead to the Cid's military campaigns in the Spanish Levant, culminating in the Cid's conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Valencia (1094). Here Rodrigo will remain with his wife and children as an independent prince until the end of his life.


    It's the next bit of the PMC which involves women as objects of exchange, because the King and the Cid have been estranged and are now reconciled. As a result, the King organises the marriages of the Cid's daughters. These marriages turn out very badly, this reflects on the Cid's honour (and that of the King) and the King therefore ensures that they make second, better marriages:

    In the narration of these events the poem follows the historical later life of this extraordinarily successful warrior, the Campeador. But as the story draws to a satisfying resolution with the pardoning of the Cid by his king, another story emerges. The Cid now becomes a more passive protagonist as inexorable forces pit him in a mythological struggle against evil. In this story two well-born youths from Alfonso's court scheme to use their good name to garner marriage with the Cid's daughters. The Cid's success in warfare has made him a rich man and these young men, infantes ('heirs') of Carrión, expect that their marriages will be a quick and easy route to untold wealth. Although the Cid's natural instincts and good sense tell him not to accept these marriages for his daughters, his loyalty to Alfonso leads him straight into the snares of these evildoers.

    The Cid and his family pay a heavy price for his loyalty to the king. Once the infantes are welcomed into the Cid's court in Valencia, he no longer seems able to control events, his authority begins to erode, and eventually he allows himself to be put into a position from which he can no longer ensure the well being of his daughters. Finally it is King Alfonso who acts on the Cid's behalf in calling his kingdom to court for a trial. In the course of this judicial process the Cid ably restores his lost honor and his daughters marry again, this time to men of the highest nobility, the heirs to the crowns of Navarre and Aragon.
    (University of Texas)

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  5. Thank you for the summary Laura, that looks like a fascinating text. Oh and my bad for misreading the link - it's definitely not early modern!

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  6. I chose texts written by or containing interesting women. This allowed us to talk about medieval (fictional and ‘real’) women in more sophisticated ways, and to see their agency, revealing that women are not (always) just token characters for knights to fight over.

    Sorry to keep coming back to you with examples related to the Iberian peninsula but that's what I studied; I hope it's still relevant. It strikes me that some study of medieval legal texts can be quite illuminating. In the case of medieval Castile, for example, Heath Dillard's Daughters of the Reconquest: Women in Castilian Town Society, 1100-1300 might be useful for putting the literature into a historical/legal context. It's (a) written in English and (b) freely available online via the Library of Iberian Resources Online, which has helpfully ensured that the online version includes the "pagination of the original 1984 Cambridge University Press edition; these numbers have been inserted into the text in bold face, set off by brackets, as in [49]." It covers:

    Townswomen and the medieval settlement of Castile
    Brides, weddings and the bonds of matrimony
    Wives, husbands and the conjugal household
    Widows of the Reconquest, a numerous class
    On the margins: mistresses and abducted wives
    The daily round: activities and occupations
    In defense of feminine honour: the shield of municipal law
    Women without honour: harlots, procuresses, sorceresses and other transgressors

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  7. We did actually look at court cases in one of our classes - we read Malory's Morte d'Arthur and Chaucer's 'The Miller's Tale' alongside some cases from Jeremy Goldberg's 'Women in England 1275-1525'. It's available online: http://www.medievalsources.co.uk/womeneng.htm.

    I put students into groups before the seminar and asked them to examine one of four selected cases, summarising its main details, thinking about:

    What kind of document is it (a court case, a will)? When and where is it from?

    What does it reveal about adultery, marriage and sexual relations in the Middle Ages? Does the punishment always fit the crime?

    I asked students to compare Malory and Chaucer's depictions of 'justice' with those in the cases, asking how we might compare and contrast them. Is one source more reliable than another for telling us about ‘medieval society’? How do we ‘know’ what we ‘know’ about medieval society?

    I think students really enjoyed this class; I know I loved teaching it!

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  8. alongside some cases from Jeremy Goldberg's 'Women in England 1275-1525'. It's available online

    But it seems you need to have a password.

    I'm not surprised your students really enjoyed the class; it sounds fascinating.

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