As it becomes apparent in a few select works representing women in medieval literature, includingThe Book of Margery Kempe, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte Darthur, in the middle ages or medieval period, restrictions placed on women underwent a significant change. At the beginning of this period, women’s roles were very narrowly prescribed and women did not have much to do with life outside of the home. As this age went on, however, women gradually began to express more opinions and have a greater and more equal role in society. They became less confined in many aspects of their lives and as a result are represented as such. The problem with the confined versus unconfined woman in the medieval period as expressed in some literature of the time is that the unconfined woman is seen as dangerous. She is subverting an older order of gendered behavior and is proving that she can take on the same responsibilities and think on par with her male counterparts.
Women who adhere to the narrow roles of wives, mothers, and peaceweavers generally appear as confined. Although this word may conjure connotations of something being done against one’s will, the confined woman of medieval literature appears perfectly happy and gracious to live in such a role. She is not dangerous and poses no threat to the male power structure. Two earlier medieval texts, Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight offer readers two simple categories of women, those who are or are not confined. By presenting dual examples of each, both of these works illustrate certain notions about the role of the medieval woman and what her interactions with men should be. Later, with the writings of Margery Kempe, the strict duality begins to disappear and the reader is confronted with a woman who is blend of each of these ideas of women. While she is confined by her society, she is unconfined by its conventions such as marriage and traditional gender roles. In general, however, each text presents an example of a “proper” and confined woman as well as the complete opposite; almost so that the reader can see what evils can occur if a woman is not confined. By presenting such opposites, the paradigm is set that a good woman is one who is confined while a bad one is not and thus is allowed to act according to her own will, which is a dangerous prospect. Despite the amount of time that has passed between the writing of each of the texts used in this analysis, this pattern does not change throughout the range of medieval literature and can be found equally in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Book of Margery Kempe. In each of these, the reader is presented with a clear duality; the confined versus free woman and what each means to society. Generally, the confined woman in these medieval texts is peaceable, well-liked or respected, and does not cause any of the conflict in the story. The free or unconfined woman, however, is often the source of tension in her society and the plot revolves around correcting, recognizing the evil of, or eliminating such a woman. While it will be most worthwhile to consider Margery Kempe, it is necessary to first examine earlier depictions of women, confined or unconfined.
In Beowulf, women who are confined serve a complex political function aside from their other sexual duties as subordinates and thus it is necessary that they remain so. As a result, it is also important that each woman in the text who is meant to represent male alliances and brotherhood is behaves according to her subordinate position. The women in Beowulf, at least on first glance, might appear to be glorified waitresses and sexual objects, but their role is far more complicated than this. When it is stated in one of the important quotes from “Beowulf” that, “A queen should weave peace” (Beowulf 1913) it becomes easier to unravel the importance of the role of the confined woman. She serves as a mediator, a departure from male-dominated activities and relationships and as a result of the importance of such a role she must be well-kept and confined, even if it is in the most luxurious of ways. If a woman is not confined to the role of being a peace weaver or even as a functional sexual (or even material) object, she is on the fringes and useless in the male dominated society. Even worse, she is not simply useless; she can also be a dangerous figure. In Beowulf, she can be epitomized by the figure of Grendel’s mother; a creature who does not act as a weaver of peace, but rather follows the male-based system of revenge and war.
Aside from the example of Grendel’s mother, the women in Beowulf are confined, both in terms of physical space and in their roles as peace weavers. They are never represented as being apart from their men and generally do not serve any other function throughout the story other than to assist with the relationships of men. They are often well-dressed and decorous and seem to be well aware and accepting of their role as peace weavers and objects of beauty. For instance, when Wealhtheow enters the hall, she is a spectacle and goes about her duties of weaving peace in an almost religious or sacred way. She enters, “observing the courtesies / Adorned in her gold, she graciously saluted / the men in the hall, then handed the cup” (Beowulf 614-616). By handing the cup, she is bestowing gifts upon the men in the hall and confirming male alliances. This is the case with all the women in the text, including other queens besides Wealhtheow. Their role is limited to serving men by offerings gifts and keeping the peace. Descriptions of Wealhtheow as she “went her rounds / queenly and dignified, decked out in rings / offering the goblet to all ranks, / treating the household and the assembled troop” (Beowulf 620-624) do not give insight to her character but rather reinforce her role as a peace weaver and object for men to gaze upon. Furthermore, as one scholar notes, “Diplomatic marriages are a central feature of Beowulf’s political world, and one which the poem’s wiser characters would encourage” (Hall 81). As a result, we see as this is one of the themes in Beowulfand that a woman’s confinement in marriage and its associated duties of peace weaving are not necessarily based on romantic love but rather political alliances. Hareth’s daughter, for example, is clearly not married for love but she still observes her duties diligently and “stinted nothing when she distributed / bounty to the Geats” (Beowulf 1929-1930). Through such political marriages, women are confined not only in terms of physical space and their role as peace weavers, but they are also emotionally confined. They are not free to pursue individual notions of romance or love or else they risk becoming pariahs and will be condemned to the monstrous status of an unconfined woman. As confined in a marriage, women in Beowulf are assigned the role of peace weaver, “queen and bedmate” (Beowulf 665). They are to act like the revered Halga, who is mentioned early in the text as serving as a model queen and medieval woman as “a balm in bed to [her husband] the battle-scarred swede” (Beowulf 61-63).
All of the human women in Beowulf are queens and adhere to their duties as such with grace and obedience. The only exception to this model of medieval femininity is Grendel’s mother who is technically a woman but is so hideously described that the idea of gender becomes grossly distorted. She is a woman who is not confined to any role aside from that of a mother and does not appear to have any male authority to bow to. As an example of a completely unconfined woman, she is represented as being wild, savage, and incredibly ugly. “Seen from the social world of the Anglo-Saxon hall, a maternal avenger can only be imagined as monstrous or subhuman, carrying the male hero to the threshold of death. The abject mother returns, with a vengeance, to haunt to patriarchal stronghold” (Acker 702). In a world where only male characters are permitted to engage in acts of vengeance, her role as an avenger is even more disturbing and grotesque as she is deviating so far from what is expected from any female character. Her ability to carry out the male-dominated act of revenge makes her almost androgynous and as a result, even more grotesque, especially when compared to the genteel and highly-adorned women the text has presented thus far. Her powers in revenge are so strong that she is compared to that of a man. The narrator states, “Her onslaught was less / only by as much as an amazon warrior’s strength is less than an armed man’s (Beowulf1283-1285). Like the hero of the text, she draws her power from her lust from revenge, something that has hitherto been something reserved specifically for men. She is the epitome of the unconfined woman, living in filth underground (both literally and metaphorically) as an outcast from God and the light of day. She is the ultimate threatening example of what happens when women are allowed to run free without some kind of mediating male presence and the narrator makes certain to make her as grotesque as possible. Being wild and unconfined there is nothing redeeming to be found in her femininity as she shows no traces of what the other women in the text posses. Because of this clear duality between and the confined and unconfined woman, the reader cannot help but draw parallels between the two and see how the unconfined woman is incredibly grotesque and distorted while the woman who is kept is clean, obedient, and not the cause of problems but is rather the balm.
A dual representation of the confined versus unconfined woman is also present in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight even though it was written some years after Beowulf. In this text, the reader is first confronted with the ideal woman, Guenevere, who is confined and is serving her role as peace weaver and object for the male gaze. The descriptions used to illustrate Guenevere sound much like those roles granted to Wealhtheow and she is introduced as, “the goodly queen gay in the midst/ on a dais well-decked and duly arrayed / with costly silk curtains…all broidered and bordered with the best gems” (Gawain 74-80). As the picture of the perfect confined medieval woman, she is obviously very well-kept, clean, and decorous. She meets the admiring gazes of the crowd of men graciously and seems to accept her role without complaint. As a result, at no point is she a contentious character, but rather is more like an ornament. While there could be assertions made for other later representations of Guenevere (most notably in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur) she is the perfect medieval woman; humble, attractive, modest, and obedient.
The beautiful lady at Bertilak’s castle is an interesting combination of both the confined and unconfined medieval woman. On the one hand, she presents herself with all of the delicate mannerism and decorum of Guenevere, yet on the other, she is bold and ventures into the bedroom of a man by herself. Unlike the more genteel descriptions devoted to Guenevere and Wealhtheow, this lady is presented in a far more sexualized (thus scandalous) way while still retaining some of the delicateness of her position. For instance, the narrator relates in one of the important quotes from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, about the role of women in “Sir Gawain” “sweetly she does speak / And kindling glances dart / Blent white and red on cheek / And laughing lips apart” (Gawain 1204-1207). This description of her is at once very regal and fitting to her status as a confined woman, but because of the magical influence of Morgan la Faye, she is bordering on the “wild woman” image with her parted lips and sexualized appearance. Because of her status as a confined woman, Gawain is forced to behave in a decorous manner and, “He has indeed lacked the courage to see through the lady’s deceit and the courtesy and generosity of spirit make him wish to protect the lady from her feelings of sorrow” (Morgan 265). In other words, because he realizes she is not the kind of free (and thus dangerous) unconfined woman, he falls into the pattern of treating this woman in a chivalrous way, even though she is clearly treading on dangerous ground by her mere presence in his bedroom and accompanying seductive descriptions. What is most interesting about this lady is that she has no parallel in Beowulf, a story where women are either completely good or absolutely evil, thus she is more fully developed than any female character presented in that story. The lady in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight proves that there can be overlaps between a confined and unconfined woman.
Aside from the salacious character of the lady at Bertilak’s castle, just as in Beowulf, there is presented a direct duality between a kept and unconfined woman. Again, the notion of complete feminine duality is present. While there are the two beautiful women, with Guenevere being the most obedient and confined, there is also the opposite—a woman who is twisted and evil—in other words, an unconfined woman. The narrator makes the difference between both Guenevere and Bertilak’s lady clear, saying that, “for if one was fresh the other was faded” (Gawain 950). One cannot help but feel that since the old woman is not kept and does not have a place beside a man, she is faded and not as lustrous as the other. She is an old maid and, like Grendel’s mother, functions according to her own secret desires and passions. As a result, just as in Beowulf, the reader is aware of the paradigm of “The crone and the coquette” (Gawain 1317). The reader later comes to find out that this character is none other than Morgan la Faye who, unlike the appearance she takes on at the castle, is actually quite younger and not invested with the same ugliness that she takes on for Gawain’s sake. Morgan la Faye is an unconfined woman and as a result, is free to wreak havoc on the world of men. Unlike the peace weaving character of Wealhtheow, she is like Grendel’s mother, bent on seeking revenge or causing mischief simply because it is within her power to do so.