THE WILD WOMAN AND HER SISTERS
IN MEDIEVAL ENGLISH LITERATURE
ANNE H. LAMBERT
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .......................................... iii
ABSTRACT ............ .................... ............. iv
INTRODUCTION ........... ................................ 1
1 GRENDEL'S MOTHER ................................... 9
2 HARPIES, SIRENS, AND MERMAIDS ............................ 33
3 BIROUL'S ISEUT .... .......... ........... ........... 52
4 CHAUCER'S EMELYE ....................................... 68
5 THE WIFE OF BATH ................ ...................... 87
6 CONCLUSION ............. ........................... 113
ANNOTATED LIST OF WORKS CITED ............................. 120
NON-ANNOTATED LIST OF WORKS CITED ........................ 126
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ....................................... 135
Without Marie Nelson, my efforts would have been as naught. She
became my chairperson, inspired me, and kept me going through years of
research and struggle. I also wish to acknowledge the help and inspiration of the
other members of my committee: Patricia Craddock, M.J. Hardman, R.A. Shoaf,
and Robert Thomson.
Further, I appreciate the help of the research librarians at the University
of Florida's Smathers Library, who helped me adapt to new ways of finding and
Rob Martin, my computer assistant, was indispensable in guiding me in
the use of a medium I did not grow up with and imperfectly understood. Jim
Collis, typist extraordinaire, also deserves warm commendation.
On the home front, Robert Lambert was my severest critic, and Clyde and
Sara, the Computer Cats, my most indefatigable helpers.
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE WILD WOMAN AND HER SISTERS
IN MEDIEVAL ENGLISH LITERATURE
Anne H. Lambert
Chair: Mare Nelson
Major Department: English
The Introduction discusses subcategories of Wild Woman: the Terrible
Mother, as exemplified in Grendel's mother of the Old English poem Beowulf the
Seductress, represented here by the mermaid; the Untamable Wild Woman,
represented by B1roul's Iseut and Chaucer's Wife of Bath; and the Tamed Wild
Woman, Chaucer's Emelye and the Wife of Bath. Each individual chapter
considers one of these figures.
In Chapter 1, Grendel's mother is a figure from the depths of the psyche,
"both subhuman and superhuman, a creature of dark and cold waters." Beowulf's
psychological makeup in confrontation with this being is also examined.
Chapter 2 traces the harpy through the siren and the mermaid of folklore.
The Middle English Physiologus is used as a medieval example of a being who
lures men and kills them.
Iseut in Chapter 3 defies the conventions of court life; an adulteress, she
and her lover flee to the forest. Chaucer's Emelye in Chapter 4 also loves the
forest, but is faced with the necessity of marriage and submission.
The Wife of Bath (Chapter 5) struggles against convention through four
marriages. She and her fifth husband, the clerk Jankyn, learn that marriage must
be a compromise to be successful. The Wife is tamed-but still gets her way.
Chapter 6 is a summary bringing together all these figures, comparing
and contrasting them in the hope that this journey will prove meaningful for the
reader in understanding literature and woman.
The subject of this work is the concept and figure of the Wild Woman. The
primary focus will be on various forms this figure assumes in medieval English
literature: Grendel's mother-the second monster Beowulf faces-and
Chaucer's Wife of Bath, along with other figures.
The intended audience for this work is varied. First and foremost, it is
intended for medievalists and students of medieval literature, but it should also
be of interest to teachers and students of women's studies, and to general
readers who are interested in the topic of the Wild Woman as well.
I am not defining the Wild Woman as a not-man or a not-Wild Man. In at
least part of the long extended period from which my examples are drawn,
women were considered wild just because they were women. As Jeanne
Addison Roberts points out: "Forces outside [the] ethnic human male Cultural
core were and have been continued to be thought of as parts of the Wild"1
simply because they were "outside" (2). And Thomas G. Bergin comments, "Only
in a society prepared to appreciate and enjoy the things that the world of the
living has to offer can normal women be observed and portrayed without the
'Roberts is writing about Shakespeare's Wild Woman, but what she says is often
applicable to the medieval period as well.
distortions or sublimations of one kind or another" (169). We exclude here most
of the female characters portrayed by the otherworld-looking, celibate male
clergy (or even those who did not fall into this category, such as Gower or
Chaucer). Such characters tend to be either passive, compliant dolls (like
Chaucer's patient Griselda) or hypersexual, rampant women. Not all the figures
we shall be discussing fall into these two categories: Grendel's mother, for
example, or Iseut.
We need to begin by asking two questions: Who and what is the Wild
Woman? What does the term mean? I divide the concept into several parts,
chronologically presented as follows:
The most frightening Wild Woman of all, Grendel's mother of the Old
English heroic poem Beowulf (Chapter 1), is well described by Erich Neumann's
Jungian concept of the Terrible Mother (149-70). The Terrible Mother is a figure
evolved from the small child's split good/bad mother image. (See Melanie Klein.)
Possessing both masculine and feminine aspects, Grendel's mother fiercely
takes up her sword to avenge the mutilation and death of her son. She is both
subhuman and superhuman, a creature of dark and cold waters, evoking for the
modern reader a reluctant admiration accompanied by revulsion and fear.
The Wild Woman as Seductress is represented here by the mermaid
(Chapter 2). She is in part a subset of the Innocent type (see below), but in
reality she only looks, and pretends to be, innocent; in medieval times she was
also thought of as a dangerous seductress. I call her the "Half Human Wild
Woman" or the "Seductive Wild Woman," and find it worthwhile to call attention
to the evolution of the mermaid over the centuries, from the loathsome and
hideous harpy through the dangerous siren to the lovely and innocuous creature
of modern folklore (beginning probably with the literary tale by Hans Christian
Andersen, "The Little Mermaid," and recently evoked by the film Splash).
Type three, the Untamable Wild Woman, falls into two separate, or
separable, subtypes. One is illustrated by B6roul's Iseut, who pretends to follow
the conventions of life expected of a queen and court lady but who is, and is
determined to continue to be, wild and unrepentant. Not only does she live in the
forest for a short while, but she is adulterous and scheming, telling clever lies
that are only half lies to keep her reputation pure. She is, of course, also
seductive. She is presented here in Chapter 3. The other type, exemplified here
by the Wife of Bath, who has dominated four older husbands and won the right
to do as she pleases with the fifth, serves as the subject of Chapter 5.
The Gentle and Sweet Wild Woman, whom I call the "Innocent Wild
Woman," I do not discuss at any length here. The Innocent Wild Woman in
figure 1, a character of folklore, seems to do little but enjoy the company of her
wild family and suckle her children. Ability to live in the forest is one of her
attributes, which she shares with Iseut. However, unlike Iseut, she is not "wild" in
the sense in which I use the word for the other types. The Emelye of Chapter 4,
a character in Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," also has some attributes of the
Innocent Wild Woman in her love of the forest and its pleasures.
Fig. 1. The Innocent Wild Woman (Husband 26).
The Tamed Wild Woman is a title I apply to the woman who was originally
wild but became tame (without, I hope, losing quite all of her wildness). Emelye
is an example of this type; another is Zenobia or "Cenobie" of the same author's
"Monk's Tale," a warrior and hunter who goes into battle both with and without
her husband. Zenobia "fledde/Office of women" and "many a wilde hertes blood
... shedde" but also marries and bears children (Chaucer 245-6). Perhaps
Zenobia should be considered a partially tamed Wild Woman-although, of
course, all Wild Women cannot be tamed.
The second type of Untamable Wild Woman is one who lives in society
but can be found anywhere and who breaks social conventions for women by
her assertive and even aggressive (including sexually aggressive) behavior.
Examples of this kind of Wild Woman are such fictional characters as Godelief,
briefly introduced as Harry Bailly the innkeeper's wife in Chaucer's Canterbury
Tales, and Chaucer's Wife of Bath, a female figure to be discussed at length in
Chapter 5. I call this subtype the Worldly Wild Woman. The Wife may be
adulterous; on the other hand, she may merely be a "battle-ax," to use the
colloquial phrase for this type.
Another figure enters into the development of the Wife of Bath character:
the Loathly Lady of folklore (Thompson 259, motif D732). She appears not only
in the "Wife's Tale" but also in such works as John Gower's "Tale of Florent" in
Confessio Amantis and The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell and
Child's "The Wedding of Sir Gawain." Changing from repulsive hag to lovely
woman as soon as she is promised "her will," she is a shapechanger and the
bearer of an important truth: Women are human and deserve a voice in
marriage. In her hag shape she overlaps with the Jungian Terrible Mother.
Since my main approach in this study is a psychoanalytic one, it may be
helpful to prepare the way by considering the thoughts of two great
psychoanalytic masters-Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung--and their
followers on these types of woman.
Importantly, a follower of Freud, Wolfgang Lederer, published The Fear of
Women in 1968. As the title promises, his subject is the fear of women that men
may have and the reasons for this fear. Woman is "as much dreaded as adored,"
"a deep, dangerous and alluring space ... the vessel that cannot be adequately
filled by man." Grendel's mother is the Jungian Terrible Mother, goddess of
death and the underworld; she is a denizen of water, that feminine element
"connected with danger and with death" (Lederer 25, 235, 126-7). The Jungian
approach, however, because of Jung's emphasis on myth, has proved more
helpful to me than Freud's.
Erich Neumann, a Jungian analyst, connects the Terrible Mother with
earth rather than with water: "[T]his woman who generates life and all living
things on earth is the same who takes them back into herself, who pursues her
victims and captures them with snare and net" (149). One does not have to be a
Jungian to see that this concept is always present in the figure of the mother.
Earth is thought of as a mother, and dead bodies go into the earth or may even
In Jungian thinking, various types of woman correspond to archetypes. In
his "Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious," Jung defines archetypes, a
concept of major importance in his theory, as "primordial types ... universal
images that have existed since the remotest times" (6). In his description of the
anima, "not the soul in the dogmatic sense... but a natural archetype that
satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the primitive mind, of the history of
language and religion," Jung seems to subsume both the Innocent Wild Woman
and the mermaid type.2 The anima is "the serpent in the paradise of the
harmless man with good resolutions and still better intentions," but she can also
appear as "an angel of light, a psychopomp [guide or conductor of souls] who
points the way to the highest meaning" (28, 29).
In the same way as the Innocent Wild Woman and the mermaid are
subsumed in the anima, the Wife of Bath and the Terrible Mother are subsumed
in aspects of the mother figure. A patient of Jung's had a fantasy of a "divine
woman ... wearing a blood-red garment that covers the lower half of her body"
who "hands [a young girl] as a present to the many men who are standing by"
("Archetypes," 192). The red garment reminds us of the Wife of Bath with her red
stockings, and the role of the woman in "initiating" girls seems a not impossible
one for her. The mother figure is further developed as the loving and terrible
mother. The loving mother is characterized by solicitude, sympathy, and
helpfulness recognized by medieval writers (who were, as stated above,
2It goes without saying that Jung's use of "primitive" here would not be acceptable to
modem readers; a suitable near-synonym might be "preliterate."
primarily male), while the Terrible Mother frightens men, bringing about a strong
impact on their attitudes toward women, women's bodies, and women's
I shall be presenting, then, the stories of five Wild Women, each of whom
must be considered as an individual representation of the group. Chapter 1 goes
to the beginning of English literature with Grendel's mother and her conflict with
Beowulf, portrayed in terms made available by Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, and
Dorothy Bloch. Chapter 2 treats the harpy, siren, and seductive mermaid.
Chapter 3 presents Iseut as Beroul dramatizes her; she is seen as Wild Woman
and as Celt (Leslie Rabino). Chapter 4 discusses Chaucer's Emelye in the light
of Jungian theory, while Chapter 5 takes up in detail Chaucer's Wife of Bath,
including the figure of the Loathly Lady, and the Wife's struggle with the
conventions of her society.
In this first chapter of our study, we shall look at the nature of the oldest
Wild Woman in English literature: Grendel's mother of the Old English epic
Beowulf. Is she a monster, a fearsome mere-wife, as she initially appears? Is
she a brave figure, boldly avenging her son Grendel, who has been killed by
Beowulf? It is certainly true that in recent years she has received a better press
than formerly. Edward B. Irving, Jr., for example (70), says, "She has the
perfectly acceptable obligation to avenge [Grendel's] death" and calls her "many
readers' favorite monster" (73). And David Williams says: "Vengeance, a primary
value in Germanic society, is immediately [after Beowulf's wounding of Grendel-
AHL] undertaken by Grendel's mother with the injury to her son, demonstrating
that in her kin, too, it is a value .... [This is] one of the skillful ways in which the
fabulous world of Grendel interlocks with the historical world of the Danes and
provides an implicit didactic comment on it" (54). Grendel's mother is seen not
just as a monster but also as a mother, doing what a mother might do after the
violent death of a son.
What, then, is our direction in this, one of the many reexaminations of this
character? While we can certainly see Grendel's mother as a Wild Woman, we
need to ask two questions in our attempt to understand her: (1) What, exactly, is
Grendel's mother-monster, human being, or goddess? (2) More importantly,
what is she doing in the poem? If we need a monster, isn't Grendel enough?
Why a female monster? Why a mother?
Let us return to Irving's phrase "many readers' favorite monster." The
American Heritage Dictionary gives among its definitions of "monster" ... [a]
creature having a bizarre or frightening shape or appearance ... [a] very large
animal, plant, or object... [o]ne who inspires horror or disgust" (812). Is this
true of Grendel's mother? She and her son are like humans, but larger. They are
not giants, however, Andy Orchard (58) assures us, as the term gigant is used
only for those who were drowned in the Flood. Grendel is "larger than any other
man" (line 1353), so presumably his mother is larger than any other woman, but
they are still referred to, in the passage describing them (lines 1345-53), as
humans of a sort. Are they really so fearsome-looking? Are they partly human
and partly animal (as monsters tend to be)? Are they folk characters?
Let us look at some of the views that have been advanced. Christine
Alfano argues that Grendel's mother is not a monster but human: "Instead of
being what Sherman Kuhn calls 'a female warrior,' the modern Grendel's mother
[of contemporary translations] is a monster..... Grendel's mother disrupts
gender conventions; to the Anglo-Saxons, this made her atol, 'terrible' (line
1332), but to contemporary translators, it makes her 'monstrous'" (2). Alfano
concludes that translators have divested Grendel's mother of humanity.
.- -. w-,
Fig. 1-1. The Monster of Noves. From Jones (frontispiece).
On the monster side, Gwyn Jones uses as the frontispiece of his book
Kings Beasts and Heroes the figure of the Monster of Noves (Bouches-du-
Rh6ne, France), a not unengaging creature with a likable grin and a human arm
protruding from its mouth (fig. 1-1). Jones says: "The Monster of Noves is not
Grendel or Grendel's Mother... but he is monsterly enough even so, with a
human arm protruding from his devouring mouth and two long-visaged Celtic
heads poised with hideous precision betwixt his fore and hinder paws." He
describes Grendel as "in human form but devoid of humanity... [I]ike the Norse
draugr or animated corpse," and speculates that Beowulf himself might originally
have been half-human and half bear. In some of the Bear's Son stories the hero
is the son of a bear who has stolen his mother (xxiv, 8-9, 12). Can this bear-
father have developed into Grendel? A bear seen from a distance, standing up,
could resemble a shaggy half-human-and probably the most dangerous wild
animal is a mother bear defending her cub!
Signe Carlson (362) speculates that Grendel, and hence his mother, may
be just large "men," i.e., humans (this is indeed how they are described in the
poem), possibly cannibals (she notes that Grendel and his mother antedate
Christianity and that eoten 'giant' probably has the same root as eten 'to eat and
may have been applied to real cannibals). Perhaps, she suggests, such people
may have been real aboriginal inhabitants of England. Hrothgar states (lines
Ic baet londbOend, 16ode mine, I heard hall-counselors tell the story
seleraedende secgan hjrde, of the land-dwellers, O my people,
past hie gesAwon swylce twdgen that they saw such two [beings],
micle mearcstapan mrras healdan, great march2-wanderers living on the
'All quotations from Beowulf are from Klaeber's edition as translated by the present
ellorgaestas. Dara 66er waes, alien spirits. One of them was
bass ie hie gewislicost gewitan most likely, as far as [the counselors]
idese onlicnes; 66er earmsceapen in a woman's likeness; the other, poor
on weres waestmum wraeclastas treed, trod the paths of exile in a man's form,
naefne h6 waes mara ionne aenig except that he was larger than any
o8er.... other man....
Eoten, however, is defined in Clark Hall's Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
as "giant, monster, enemy" (107). "Monster" has been discussed above. "Enemy"
is important and sums up the way in which we first perceive Grendel. Both J.R.
Clark Hall and Fr. Klaeber (325) refer the reader to etan, eten "eat, glutton," thus
agreeing with Carison. Indeed, much of what Grendel and his mother do is to
eat, though we would hardly approve of their diet.
H. Munro Chadwick and N. Kershaw Chadwick say, "Grendel and his
mother seem to be partly anthropomorphic... although they do not speak...."
(209, 209n), and, in support of this, cite Grendel's use of a bag and his mother's
use of a knife. The "boar-imaged helmet" makes her seem half-animal, while
some have argued that she may be superhuman, a goddess in fact. The human
warriors of Beowuff wear boar helmets.
What in fact does Grendel's mother do, and what does that reveal about
her? First of all, we must go to the poem itself. In lines 1258-61 and 1277-95 we
see that she,
ides &glaecwif yrmle gemunde, warrior-woman, mind full of misery,
s e e waeteregesan wunian who by dreadful water was wont to
scolde, live ...
gifre ond galgmid gegdn wolde greedy and gloomy, wanted to go
sorhfulne si8, sunu deod wrecan.
C6m pa to Heorote, 6aer Hring-Dene
geond at saeld swafun. O& 6asr
edhwyrft eorlum, silban inne fealh
Grendles m6dor. Waes se gryre lasssa
efne swd micle, sw& bi6 msegla craft,
wiggryre wifes be waepnedmen,
bonne heoru bunden, hamere
sweord swAte fAh swin ofer helme
ecgum dyhtig andweard scire6.
DA wass on healle heardecg togen
sweord ofer setlum, sidrand manig
hafen handa fasst; helm ne gemunde,
byrnan side, b hine se br6ga angeat.
Heo wages on ofste, wolde Ot banon,
f6ore beorgan, 1& hdo onfunden
hra6e heo aebelinga anne haefde
a sorrowful path, to avenge her son's
[She] came then to Heorot, where the
along the hall slept. At once there was
reverse for the warriors, as in [there]
Grendel's mother. The horror was less
just by so much as her strength was,
the wife's war-terror than the weapon-
when an adorned sword, hammer-
shining with blood, the boar-imaged
cut through, opposing, with a strong
Then was in the hall hard-edged sword
over the seats, many broad shields
raised firm by hands; when horror
no one thought of helmet or of broad
She was in haste, wanted to escape,
preserved by fear, when she was
quickly she caught fast one of the
faeste befangen, Pa h6o t6 fenne gang. when she went [back] to the marsh.
What kind of picture of Grendel's mother does this give us? The poem,
while it describes actions, does not provide an answer. Is she a human or
humanlike warrior-woman bent on revenge and then escape? Is she a
nonhuman monster? Or can we see her as a goddess figure? Significantly, Hilda
Ellis Davidson suggests that Grendel's mother may be a hunting-goddess, a
"Mistress of the Wild to whom hunters turned for assistance," that her presence
in the poem may indicate memories of hunting-goddesses in Anglo-Saxon
England (21). Although Grendel's mother lives under a lake, she ranges over
boundaries with her son, a mearcstapa, moor-stepper or striderr over the
marches" as Davidson translates the compound word. She is described as
"associated with both the wilderness and the depths of the water":
She is called brimwylf, wolf of the lake (1566), grundwyrgen,
accursed monster of the deep (1518), and merewif mihtig, mighty
woman of the mere (1519).... Moreover, she is specifically called
the ruler or guardian of the depths, grundhyrde (2136), which
would be appropriate for a being remembered as a Mistress of the
Wild. Such a power might rule the creatures of water as well as the
forest and the mountain.... The mother of Grendel was clearly a
powerful and dangerous adversary, and she appears in the poem
to be a kind of hag, a monster-woman (aglcsc-wif, 1259), of dark
intent (galgmod, 1276). (22)
Beowulfs killing of a water-creature on the way to Grendel's mother's lake
could be the basis for the mother's ferocious attack on Beowulf, Davidson
suggests, if water-creatures are under her protection. Stags, too, may be under
her protection; the building of Heorot adorned by antlers could have angered
both Grendel and his mother even before the wounding of Grendel. Also, as
Davidson argues, Grendel's father is not known; this is traditional for sons of
Pursuing this idea further, we may wonder why the term ides 'lady' is
applied to the mother. Again, Davidson has a suggestion: "In view of the well-
established ability of the hunting-goddess to alternate between the form of a
beautiful, seductive woman and that of a fearful hag, this deliberate use of ides
would strengthen the case for taking Grendel's mother for a being of this kind"
(22). Is Grendel's mother, then, a Loathly Lady who alternates between hag and
beautiful woman, a seductress perhaps in either role? Is she a tamer of both
animals and men? Do we have another Circe here?
Others give support to the Grendel's-mother-as-goddess concept. Anne
Ross, in her Pagan Celtic Britain, points out that Celtic goddesses are often
connected with healing waters (275, 279, 455); hag goddesses (cailleachs) are
connected with sacred wells (281, 293, 421). This unites the hag figure with the
goddess. The Morrigan, a Celtic war goddess, or rather one of a trio of war
goddesses, can appear as a "terror-inspiring hag," a beautiful young woman, or
a crow or raven; this seems to unite the hag with the Valkyrie (48, 313). Thomas
D. Hill too quotes Orosius as saying that the Gothic "witch" race with its "unclean
spirit" companions "dwelt at first in the swamps" (Hill 2001; see below).
Mostly, however, Grendel's mother is seen as a monster, a hag, usually
fearful but sometimes speechless and stupid, as John Gardner describes her in
his novel Grendeland as the illustration by Fl6ki seems to present her (fig. 1-2).
The monster interpretation has been supported by many translators, as Alfano
points out (see above). John D. Niles also describes Grendel and his mother as
being "like people, with a kind of rudimentary culture," who at the same time
"have the size and appetites of giants or trolls. On one hand they recall the
night-striders of Germanic folk-belief... On the other, they are the devils of
Christian belief ...." (138) Like the Chadwicks, Niles notes the resemblance of
the Beowulf story to folktale, specifically AT301 "The Bear's Son" (401-2).
Fig. 1-2. Grendel's Mother. Drawing by Fl6ki reprinted, with
permission, from Halld6ra B. Bjornsson's Bj6lfskvida
(Reykjavik: Fjolvi, 1983), 61. From Osborn.
Let us look now at Grendel's mother in action, in the scene of the battle
with Beowulf (fig. 1-3) (lines 1497-1507, 1518-28, 1537-69):
Fig. 1-3. The fight with Grendel's mother. From Bone, unpaged.
Fig. 1-3. The fight with Grendel's mother. From Bone, unpaged.
S6na baet onfunde s6 8e fl6da begong At once he found the place of the
heorogifre behold hund missera,
grim ond gadig, baet ber gumena
alwihta eard ufan cunnode.
GrAp ba to6ganes, guorinc gef6ng
atolan clommum; n6 WPaer in gesc6d
hAlan lice; hring Otan ymbbearh,
bast hdo Pone fyrdhom 6urhfon ne
locene leo6osyrcan l&pan fingrum.
Baer P seo brimwyl[f], Ia heo t6
hringa pengel to hofe sinum....
Ongeat Pa se g6da grundwyrgenne,
merewif mihtig; masgenies forgeaf
hildebille, hond sweng ne oftdah,
bat hire on hafelan hringrnml Ag6b
graedig gudloo. DA se gist onfand,
baet se beadoleoma bitan nolde,
aldre sceblan, ac seo ecg gesw&c
O6odne aet bearfe; Oolode ar fela
hondgemota, helm oft gescaer,
jges fyrdhragl; 6a wages forma si8
d6orum madme, baet his d6m Aleg.
Gefeng ba be eaxle -nalas for fash6e
where she lived, fiercely hungry, a
grim and greedy; there a man could
explore from above the aliens'
She grasped at him, in her terrible grip
caught the warrior; not yet was his
body injured, [but] protected by
ring mail outside, so that she could not
break through the war-dress, the linked
coat of mail
with her hostile fingers. The female
bore when she came to the bottom the
ring-clad prince to her dwelling. ...
The good man saw the cursed bottom-
the mighty mere-wife; he gave a great
with his battle-sword, nor held back his
so that on her head the ring-patterned
sang a greedy war-song. Then the
that his gleaming sword would not bite
[would not] harm her life, but the blade
the prince in his need; before, he'd
many hand-battles, his helmet cleaved
and his war-coat of death; this was the
that the precious treasure failed his
The Geatish man grabbed by the hair-
GOO-Geata 16od Grendles modor;
braegd Pf beadwe heard, P he
feorhgeniSlan, P.et heo on flet geblah.
Heo him eft hrape andlean forgeald
grimman grApum ond him togeanes
oferwearp A werigmrd wigena
f6pecempa, past he on fylle wearO.
Ofsaet p bone selegyst, ond hyre seax
brad [ond] brOnecg; wolde hire beam
Angan eaferan. Him on eaxle lasg
brdostnet broden; past gebearh feore,
wid ord ond wi6 ecge ingang forstod.
Hafde O6 forsiood sunu Ecgleowes
under gynne ground, G6ata cempa,
nemne him heaoobyrne help
herenet heard, ond hAlig God
gew@old wigsigor; witig Drihten,
rodera Redend hit on ryht gesc6d
9delice, syC)an he eft Ast6d.
Geseah Oa on searwum sigedadig bil,
ealdsweord eotenisc ecgum pyhtig,
wigena weorOmynd; paet [waes]waepna
b0ton hit waas mare 6onne anig mon
to beadulAce astberan meahte,
g6d ond geatolic, giganta geweorc.
without regret-Grendel's mother;
flung in the fight's hardness-he was
at the deadly foe; she fell on the floor.
Quickly she in turn paid his reward,
with her grim grip she grabbed at him;
weary he stumbled, the strongest
the foot-warrior, so that he fell.
Upon that hall-guest she drew her short
broad and bright-edged; she would
avenge her son,
her only offspring. On his shoulder lay
his woven mail-coat; that protected his
against point and edge it forbade
He would have perished, Ecgtheow's
under the wide ground, the Geatish
if his war-corslet had not helped him,
his hard mail-coat; and holy God
wielded his victory; the wise Lord,
the heavens' Ruler, rightly decided
easily, when [Beowulf] stood up.
He saw among arms the battle-blessed
ancient and giant-worked, strong in its
warrior's glory, most choice of weapons,
but it was more than any other
might bear away to battle-sport,
good and well-adomed, by giants
H gefing Pa fetelhilt, freca Scyldinga He seized the chained hilt, the bold
hreoh ond heorogrim, hringrrml savage and sword-grim, he drew the
aldres orwena, yrringa sl6h, despairing of life; angrily he struck,
past hire wid halse heard grapode, grasped hard at her throat,
banhringas brasc; bil eal 6urhwod broke her bone-rings;3 the sword went
fagne ftschoman; hdo on flet the body with joy; she fell to the floor,
sweord waes swatig, secg weorce the sword was bloody, in its work
Here the mother is variously described as "fiercely hungry," "grim and
greedy," "the cursed sea-woman," with a "grim grip." This description recalls the
harpy figure (Chapter 2) in her terrible hunger and greed; can there be a remote
connection here through Latin literature? It seems more likely that in both the
Latin and the Old English cases, this terrifying female figure is a visualization of
There is also a likeness to the ogress figure of Grettir's Saga: "a great
she-troll" who carries "a trough in one hand and a big cleaver in the other," the
most powerful monster Grettir has ever seen. "She held him so tightly to herself
that he could not use either of his hands ..." certainly a "grim grip" (Fox and
Palsson 137). Certainly her behavior seems like that of the ogress. Another
description of her in this passage, however, is "cursed bottom-dweller"
(grundwyrgenne ). This is glossed by Klaeber (347) as "accursed (female)
monster of the deep." Klaeber, whose Christian interpretations occur with some
frequency, refers the reader to wertho, which he glosses as "damnation,
punishment in hell" (423).
This leads us to the motif of Grendel and his mother as descendants of
Cain. Orchard (58) states that they are of the race of Cain, as were the giants,
but they themselves are not giants. Martin Puhvel speculates that the tradition
of "monstrous broods descended from Cain" may be derived from "Irish
ecclesiastical writings" and compares Grendel's mother to the "demonic hag" in
Celtic lore (11, 18-23).
Williams feels that Grendel's role "cannot be evaluated outside of [the
Cain] legend" (48). Giants and other monsters were said to eat human flesh.
They lived either underground or underwater; the underwater tradition probably
arose from the scriptural account of the Flood. The evil giants surviving after that
event were descendants of Ham (not Cain), who reintroduced evil into the world.
However, there was an idea that Cain sired the monstrous race on his own
mother; "[t]he dramatic purpose of Grendel's mother in the poem is to present a
certain order within the monstrous, an inverted kin ..." (48, 34-6, 53). I shall not
treat this theme further, as to me the idea of Grendel and his mother as
descendants of Cain sounds like an after-the-fact explanation: Grendel and his
mother are so terrible, they must be descendants of Cain. (If they are indeed
descendants of Cain, they must be at least half-human, of course.)
Another suggestion, proposed by Thomas D. Hill (2001), is that Grendel
and his mother, called helrunnan in line 163, belong to the race of Haliurunnas
referred to by Orosius as the ancestors of the Huns, as Jordanes says (Mierow,
trans. 1915). Haliurunnas are women, called by Orosius magas mulieres "mage-
women" or, more prosaically, magnas mulieres "big women," "giant women," who
were expelled from the Getae by Filimer, son of Gadaric the Great. Wandering
through the swamps, they mingled with "unclean spirits" and became the
ancestresses of the Huns. We note the affinity here with water and marshlands,
and the "magic" quality of the women (if magas is not a scribal error for
magnas), but the Huns were a horse-riding race. Clark Hall (176, 177) gives for
"hellerune" the translations pythonesss, sorceress, /E[lfric]: demon, B[eowulf]
163" and for "helruna" "hellish monster, B 163." The AlEfric source is not further
We have so far seen a tangle of concepts: Grendel and his mother are
human; they are giants or monsters; Grendel's mother is a hag (a kind of
monster, but recalling the Loathly Lady [Chapter 5] in her hag avatar); Grendel's
mother is a sorceress; Grendel's mother is a goddess. It appears that several
motifs coalesce here: a folk motif of the hag or ogress; a kind of sympathy with
the two figures, which makes them seem human or quasi-human; the motif of a
witch or sorceress; finally, memory (and demonization) of a goddess figure.
We have presented above various answers to the question of who or
what Grendel's mother is. We shall now examine the role of Grendel's mother in
the poem and see what light this throws on her as a character. In doing this, we
need to attempt, presumptuous as it may seem, to psychoanalyze Beowulf, for
his progress toward heroism is bound up with the battle against the monster.
One psychoanalytic interpretation, following Erich Neumann's (1963) line
of reasoning, of Grendel's mother and Beowulfs relationship with her is that she
is the Jungian Terrible Mother-"[t]he negative side of the elementary character"
of the feminine, the positive elementary character being the "[b]ody-vessel and
mother-child situation" (147). Neumann goes on to say, "The symbolism of the
Terrible Mother draws its images predominantly from the 'inside'.... The reason
for this is that the Terrible Female is a symbol for the unconscious. And the dark
side of the Terrible Mother takes the form of monsters. .. ." (148) He compares
this figure to the Valkyrie; Medusa; and the Egyptian goddess Nut, who in her
avatar as "Nuit, the black night sky... is identified with the devouring darkness
of the earth and of water" (164-5). Here again we have the coalescence of
monster and goddess.
In a Freudian way, I at first saw the killing of Grendel's mother by Beowulf
as a rite of passage in which Beowulf is involved in a struggle with parent
figures; however, I gradually moved toward Jung and Klein in my attempt to
explain what is going on in the poem. The good and the bad mother are split, as
the analyst Melanie Klein points out: "[O]bject relations exist from the beginning
of life, the first object being the mother's breast which to the child becomes split
into a good (gratifying) and bad (frustrating) breast; this splitting results in a
severance of love and hate" (175-6). Of Beowulfs real mother nothing is known,
but Hrothgar and Wealhtheow function as his adopted father and mother
(Hrethel took him in as a boy and treated him as one of his own sons, but
Hrothgar protected Beowulf's father once). Grendel's mother then corresponds
to Wealhtheow in being a "foreign slave" (the meaning of Wealhtheow's name),
an exile. Helen Damico says: "Grendel's mother and Wealhtheow exist in an
antipodal relationship. They are contrapuntal ... in the status each assumes in
the poem.... This pairing is the most extreme example of the poet's style of
characterization, the juxtaposition of opposite" (21). She adds, later in her book,
that "this device of fragmentation-especially of mirroring" is "not foreign to the
consciousness of the Anglo-Saxon artist.... The method was apparently a
common device of characterization in Germanic poetry" (114).
Grendel has his own role to play as a double or "shadow" of Beowulf: In
Jungian terms he represents Beowulf's "shadow," the dark side of the
personality. So we have a set of pairs or triples: Beowulf and Grendel;
Wealhtheow, Grendel's mother, and Beowulfs mother; Hrethel, Hrothgar, and
Ecgtheow, Beowulfs father. Grendel's father is not known.
Beowulf kills Grendel, his Jungian shadow, but apparently this is not
enough: he has not yet reached full maturity. He must also defeat the Terrible
Mother within himself (symbolized by Grendel's mother). This killing will free him
and establish his identity as an adult man. This should, according to the usual
folktale pattern, lead to his marriage to the princess. But something is missing
here: why does Beowulf, having vanquished the Terrible Mother, not marry? Is
the split of Good and Terrible Mother not sufficient to free him? We note that
Beowulf does not achieve the triumph and the loosing of "food, energy and
grace" into the world which the hero is supposed to achieve, according to
Joseph Campbell (37-8). He returns successful, yes, but apparently mentally
We might try to untie this knot through "history"-Freawaru, Hrothgar's
daughter, is already betrothed to someone else (lines 2024-5). Beowulf is
apparently a fictional person, since his name does not alliterate with anyone
else's and he has no descendants. He cannot therefore marry a "real" person
and have "real" heirs. This way of getting out of our difficulty seems feeble,
however. All we can say from what we read in the poem is that when Beowulf
lies dying he gives Wiglaf a gift that he would have given his son if he had had a
We may now ask: Is the Jungian interpretation just sketched out valid?
Can it explain what we need to explain about the meeting with Grendel's
mother? Niles feels that it is unsatisfactory; it might not have sufficed for the Old
English audience. He does say, however: "Since archetypes are prelogical, they
cannot be explained rationally but surface only in symbolic form in myths,
dreams, fairy tales, and the like. There is no need to prove their existence; it is
enough to know that individuals have access to them through the work of
I do not know whom Niles means by "interpreters." I do not think we need
to prove the existence of the archetype; it is accepted as such in the Euro-
Semitic world. The psyche is always the same, however modified by social
conditions. As we have seen, however, the Jungian interpretation is insufficient
in this case. Folktale and myth do not explain everything. What is the
"interpreter" of this story to do?
This question poses a dilemma. In my attempt to find a solution for it, I
have had recourse to the work of Melanie Klein and Dorothy Bloch, two
practitioners who through child analysis have uncovered explanations I have not
found elsewhere. We shall take Kleinian theory first.
Juliet Mitchell, in her introduction to The Selected Melanie Klein (1987),
explaining Klein's work, says of the Oedipal situation: "A primary relationship to
the mother becomes culturally problematic at the stage or level when the child
wants to occupy the place already filled by the father, when, in a phallic and
hence competitive way, it wants to be everything for the mother, to have
everything she needs to satisfy her and thus to have exclusive rights to her"
(13). This refers, of course, to a male child. Is Beowulfs situation Oedipal? Does
he "marry" the mother as well as kill her? Is he psychologically maimed by the
encounter? (See fig. 1-4, in which the bodies of Grendel's mother and Beowulf
blend sexually and seductively.)
Fig. 1-4. Grendel's Ma & Beowulf. Drawing by Charles Keeping, reprinted
from Kevin Crossley-Holland's Beowulf(Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1982). By permission of Oxford University Press. From
Mitchell continues: "Its own destructive feelings-emanations of the death
wish-make the baby very anxious. It fears that the object on which it vents its
rage... will retaliate.... As developmentally the ego becomes able to take in
the whole person ... it [the baby] continues to rage against the mother for the
frustration she causes, but now, instead of fearing retaliation, it feels guilt and
anxiety for the damage it itself has done in phantasy." This is what Klein calls the
depressive position. In overcoming this, the baby wants to repair the destruction
it has caused in phantasyy," as Mitchell spells the word. It "takes in the damaged
and then restored mother, adding these new internalizations as part of the self's
inner world" (20-1).
This guilt and its association with the desire to make reparation, besides
being part of the child's individual development, remind me of the demonization
of the old gods and goddesses at the coming of Christianity. Indeed, Marie-
Louise von Franz feels that Christianity has "repressed out of existence" the
pagan goddess figure, leaving only the perfect Virgin Mary (84). The ancient
mother goddess, however, remains as a half-forgotten, half-unconscious figure
who is at once worshiped and feared. After the conversion to Christianity, guilt
must have been felt by some for the renunciation and demonization of earlier
deities. These deities' internal power is still great; civilization lost much in losing
them. Reparation may have been made by means of secret sacrifice to them.
Von Franz emphasizes that "an aspect of the mother goddess ... has
been very much forgotten in our civilization, but... exists in many primitive
civilizations, and in antiquity ... a feminine principle which contains a strange
kind of severity and revengefulness. .. ." (138) If this goddess-so different from
Mary, who is held to be perfect (84)-is revengeful, she could inspire great fear
not only in children but in adults, and make even adults feel not only driven to
revenge themselves on her but also to protect themselves from her rage by
Klein herself writes that when a child damages a toy, she/he feels guilt,
depression, and the wish to make reparation (42). In an earlier article, she writes
that one component of the Oedipal situation is a "particularly strong sense of
guilt." She describes a child patient who "was inwardly playing both parts: that of
the authorities who sit in judgment and that of the child who "was inwardly
playing both parts: that of the authorities who sit in judgment and that of the child
who is punished" (61, 63). This may be the kind of mental process that Beowulf
goes through after his killing of Grendel's mother: "I killed the monster; I'm
good/I killed my mother; I'm bad." Beowulf, as we have seen, does not achieve
the complete triumph required of the hero. He only achieves complete reparation
at the end of his life, when he kills the dragon and acquires its hoard-which is
at once buried in his tomb! But all we see after the battle with Grendel's mother
is the triumphant return.
Elsewhere Klein writes, in a 1928 article called "Early Stages of the
Not only by means of the anal frustrations which she [the mother]
inflicts [in toilet training] does she pave the way for the castration
complex: in terms of psychic reality she is also already the
castrator.... This dread of the mother is so overwhelming
because there is combined with it an intense dread of castration by
the father..... [The boy feels] dread of his mother whom he
intended to rob of the father's penis, her children and her female
sexual organs. (74-5)
Beowulf has robbed Grendel's mother of her child. In undertaking the task of
killing her, he may fear a symbolic castration by her and possibly also by
Hrothgar, who will, to say the least, be very upset if Grendel's mother is not
killed. After the killing, as I have suggested earlier, Beowulf feels both relief at
the removal of the dreaded Terrible Mother and guilt at the symbolic killing of his
Another analyst, Dorothy Bloch, in her fascinating book So the Witch
Won't Eat Me, explains further: The child feels guilty about everything bad that
happens in the family. The "igniting factor" is the child's own feelings of rage.
The child's aggressive feelings are forbidden both by the parents and by the
child her/himself, who thinks that aggressive feelings have "a devastating
power." The child then fears retribution (5).
The hope of eventually winning the parents' love is "the foundation of the
psychic structure." The child hopes to be loved as soon as she/he becomes
worthy of love (11). One way of becoming worthy of love, of course, is killing
dangerous monsters. Bloch points out that the terror directed onto monsters
preserves an idealized image of the parents (12). But what if the monsters you
have killed are doubles of yourself and your parent?
This has perhaps gone too far from what we can read in the lines of the
poem, but this digression-a semipsychoanalysis of Beowulf--may have value
in our struggle to understand who Grendel's mother really is. I find myself
returning to Davidson's suggestion that she is a goddess, a hunting-goddess, a
goddess of the water, a Ruler of the Wild. We may see her also as a goddess of
death, like the Nordic Hel, described by Davidson (178) as "a loathsome female
figure symbolizing physical death" and ruler of the underworld. A goddess of
death may be both loathsome and transcendent: Davidson reminds us of the
Indian Kali, "terrifying in appearance, black or dark in colour, usually naked,
adorned with severed heads or arms... her lips smeared with blood" (178), who
is nevertheless adored by many.
If Grendel's mother is a goddess, she has supreme right to avenge the
killing of animals under her protection (stags, water creatures) and of her son.
Killing a goddess would be an act of sacrilege, yet the killing of one who has
destroyed allies and endangered your whole group is a noble act. If you have
killed the goddess of death, you may have stepped outside the human realm
altogether. Beowulf will never be the same again.
The role of Grendel's mother in the poem, then, is that of the Terrible
Mother located firmly in the psyche, that of a dangerous monster who must be
destroyed, and that of a goddess whose killing is sacrilege. Folklore, myth, and
religion coalesce here.
Why does Grendel's mother appear overtly as a monster and a
subhuman, cannibalistic hag-a goddess in troll's clothing? The conflict of
Christianity and paganism coalesces here: It is sacrilege to kill a goddess of
paganism, but a pagan goddess becomes to Christians only a monster, whom it
is acceptable and even necessary to kill. This is added to the psychological split
of Good/Terrible Mother and the struggle to rid oneself of the Terrible Mother.
The act of killing this threefold being could induce a lasting psychic conflict, as it
seems to do in Beowulf. Killing her is threatening, as she is a dominant female
figure in a male-bonded society.
How, finally, can Grendel's mother be seen as a Wild Woman? Chance
points out that she is "described in human and social terms: inversion of the
Anglo-Saxon ideal of woman as both monstrous and masculine"-as sinnige
secg'sinful warrior,' mihtig manscada 'mighty evil-doer,' gryrelicne grundhyrde
'terrible keeper of the abyss' (249; the translations of the various terms,
however, are mine). This Wild Woman is infinitely more than a particular being
in conflict with established convention. She means to destroy. She is both less
and more than human, transcending and descending from the human, the
Terrible Mother in her most archetypal aspect.
HARPIES, SIRENS, AND MERMAIDS
Modem readers know the mermaid as a beautiful, fish-tailed maiden who
swims in the seas or sits on a rock or on the shore, singing and combing her
long, flowing hair. Humans often fall in love with her, or she with them, or both.
They seem less likely to remember that stories of mermaids often end with the
mermaid bride, who cannot live on land, returning to the sea.
The mermaid as she appears in medieval literature is a type of the Wild
Woman as Seductress: she is willful, beautiful, lustful, and deceitful. The sweet
mermaid we know from Hans Christian Andersen and from the films Splash and
The Little Mermaid is a modern transformation that omits half the truth. Janus-
faced, the classical mermaid is the epitome of the cliched feminine: she is both
sweet and deceitful, lovable and dangerous. She is at the core of a conception
of the feminine that has endured through the ages.
To understand the concepts of harpy, siren, and mermaid, which play a
large part in folklore and interest us for the light they throw on concepts of
woman as threatening or seducing, we need to understand medieval ideas on
female sexuality. These ideas, inherited from Greco-Roman culture, included a
perception of women as profoundly sexual. Women "embodied sexuality"; their
sexuality was "open and receptive," as Joyce Salisbury (84, 85-7) says. This
idea of woman as always receptive may sound more like a projection of male
desires than a description of female being, but the mermaid in medieval times
was seen as a supreme seductress, luring men to their doomn-that is, to
forbidden sexual experience in which they might "drown." She was certainly
unchaste. Men feared the temptation represented by seductive women, and the
mermaid came to be a symbol of that temptation, as well as of the deceitfulness
associated with women. As Carl Jung says in his description of the mother
archetype, she combines "the magic authority of the female" on the positive side
with, on the negative side, "anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is
terrifying and inescapable like fate" ("Archetypes," 16).
Although the mermaid is not portrayed in any significant text, I shall begin
with two medieval descriptions. The first of these is found in the Middle English
Physiologus, a manuscript written in Norfolk about 1300 (the edition quoted is
that of Hanneke Wirtjes, 1991). In this text we read:
In 6e se senden selcu6es manie. In the sea there are many marvels.
De mereman1 is a meiden ilike; The merman is like a maiden:
On brest & on bodi oc (al 6us 4e is In breast and in body but (thus she is
Fro 6e noule ni6erward ne is ,e (no From the navel downward she is like no
man like) man
Oc fis to ful iwis mid finnes waxen. But [from] fish grown to bird truly with
Dis under wuned in wankel stede This wonder lives in an insecure place
6er 6e water sinked. where the water sinks.
Sipes e sinke6 & scade Ous worked. She sinks ships and thus causes injury.
1In early English, "man" could refer to both male and female human beings; "mereman"
is thus "a human being of the sea," although mer-people are really only half human.
Mirie 4e singeO, 6is mere,2 & haue6
Manie & sille, oc it (ben wel ille.
Sipmen here) steringe foreten for hire
Slumeren & slepen & to late waken:
De sipes sinken mitte suk, ne cumen
he nummor up.
Oc wise men & warren aen cunen
Ofte ar atbrosten mid he[re]* best
He hauen told of dis mere, 6at Ous
Half man & half fis,3 sum 6ing tokned
Fele men hauen 6e tokning
Of 6is forbisnede 6ing:
Widuten weren [sepes] fel;
WiOinnen arn he wulues al.
He speken godcundhede
& wikke is here dede.
Here dede is al vncu6
Wi6 Oat speke6 here mu6.
Twifold am on mode:
He sweren bi 6e rode,
Bi 6e sunne & bi de money
& he de leben sone.
MiO here sae & miO here song
He 6e swiken berimong:
Din ate wi6 swiking,
Di soule wif losing.
(Modem English Physiologus 15-16)
Merrily she sings, this mermaid, and has
Many and sonorous, but they are bad.
Shipmen forget their steering because
of her voices,
Slumber and sleep and too late wake:
The ships sink in the middle of a
sucking action, nor do they ever come
But wise men and cautious turn back,
Often are escaped with all the strength
They have told of this mermaid, who
thus, grotesque one,
Half man and half fish, betokens
something by this.
Many men have the meaning
Of this allegorical thing:
Without they wear sheep's skin;
Within they are all wolves.
They speak [in] pious talk
And wicked is their deed.
Their deed is all unacquainted
With what their mouths speak.
They are twofold in behavior:
They swear by the cross,
By the sun and by the moon
And they [will] deceive thee soon.
With their words and with their song
They betray thee meanwhile:
Thy possessions with betrayal,
They soul with lying.
A short form for "mereman."
3The "half man [person] and half fish" nature of the mermaid described here leads to the
warning of the "Significacio" against the danger posed by half-human beings.
The bestiary genre goes back to Aristotle, whose approach is scientific. In
the Middle English Physiologus, however, "Nature has become a metaphor, a
book to be studied by all good Christians" (Ixix). As usual in bestiaries, the
animal or half-human creature is used as a religious example: The nature of the
creature is an allegory for the danger to religion that must be warned against. In
this case the poet warns us against the deceitful nature, not only of mer-people,
but also of human "wolves in sheep's clothing" who may try to deceive the reader
and lead her/him into unchristian ways. Appearances are misleading. "Many men
have the meaning" (tokning) means that they betoken or show forth the
"meaning" of the mermaid, the allegorical (forbisnede) thing.
Our second description comes from a thirteenth-century Latin account
attributed to Bartholomew Anglicus and quoted by Gwen Benwell and Arthur
Waugh in their book Sea Enchantress (1961). The mermaid is described in
terms of her appearance and characteristic behavior (translated by Stephen
Batman, Batman upon Bartholome ), as follows:
The mermaid is a sea beast wonderly shapen, and draweth
shipmen to peril by sweetness of song. The Gloss on Is. [Isaiah] xii
sayth that sirens are Serpents with crests. And some men say, that
they are fishes of the sea in likeness of women. Some men feign
that there are three Sirens some-deal maidens and some-deal
fowls with claws and wings, and one of them singeth with voice,
and another with a pipe, and the third with a harp, and they please
so shipmen, with likeness of song, that they draw them to peril and
to ship-breach, but the truth is, that they were strong whores, that
drew men that passed by them to poverty and to mischief. And
Physiologus saith it is a beast of the sea wonderfully shapen as a
maid from the navel upward and a fish from the navel downward,
and this wonderful beast is glad and merry in tempest, and sad
and heavy in fair weather. With sweetness of song this beast
maketh shipmen to sleep, and when she seeth that they are
asleep, she goeth into the ship, and ravisheth [seizes, captures]
which [whomever] she may take with her, and bringeth him into a
dry place, and maketh him first lie by her, and if he will not or may
not, then she slayeth him and eateth his flesh.
This is the typical mermaid, singing beautifully but deceitful and (in
Bartholomew Anglicus's account) aggressive, homicidal, and cannibalistic. What
is the historical background of this strange being?
The common notion that this legendary figure is based on sightings of
manatees and dugongs is unsatisfactory to Benwell and Waugh and also to me.
The mermaid is too firmly rooted in folklore (and too closely related to her
ancestors, the harpy and the siren) to be derived from sailors' chance sightings
of water animals. To understand her we must find her origins, and we may take a
pseudo-Darwinian approach in this search backward in time. This approach can
lead us back to the harpy of classical times, her evolution into the siren, and that
of the siren into the mermaid-the Babylonian fish goddess coalesced with the
siren, and the mermaid crossed with the animal (often a seal or swan) wife. To
understand this better, we shall first look at some pictorial representations.
The earliest figures resembling sirens or winged women seem to be the
keres or death spirits found on Greek grave jars and described in a fascinating
way by Jane Ellen Harrison (35, 43, 165-86). A grave jar (fig. 2-1, Harrison's Fig.
7) shows "two winged Keres (or souls)" fluttering upward from it, a third emerging
and a fourth diving back into it. This is, Harrison says, a comment on the
Anthesteria or spring festival, when souls departed. (There was a similar festival
at Rome, the Lemuria, when family ghosts were exhorted to depart from the
L. AJ, ,
Fig. 2-1. Keres in Greek vase-painting.
Why are the Keres or souls winged? Harrison conjectures that "the notion
of the soul as a human-faced bird is familiar in Egyptian, but rare in Greek,
art..... To conceive of the soul as a bird escaping from the mouth is a fancy so
natural and beautiful that it has arisen among many peoples" (200-201).
However, according to John Pollard (141), there is no evidence that the Greeks
ever thought of the soul as a bird. It is possible that the Keres are winged not
because they themselves are souls but because they carry off souls to the realm
of the dead (see below). John Cherry (174) describes them as "black winged
female creatures with huge white teeth and pointed talons, who tear corpses
apart and drink the blood of the wounded and the dead." He relies on the Iliad
for this. If the Keres descended to the battlefield like the Norse Valkyries, they
However that may be, the Keres soon became figures of fear in the
popular mind. They were "dreaded as sources of evil... like a sort of
personified bacilli, [they] engendered corruption and pollution. ." according to
Harrison (165-6). Some of them were said to cause nightmares, blindness,
madness, and even blisters. Harrison cites a poem attributed to Stobaeus that
... Drive far away the disastrous
Keres, they who destroy the herd of the vulgar and fetter
All things around with curses manifold. Many and dreadful
Shapes do they take to deceive.... (168)
From being souls of the dead or death-spirits, the Keres seem to have
developed into snatchers of souls (perhaps from the belief that souls of the dead
return for the living). They thus fuse with Harpies, whose name derives from
Greek harpazein, to snatch, and to which we now turn.
Fig. 2-2. Harpies in Greek vase-painting.
Fig. 2-3. Harpy as Gorgon.
On a vase-painting from the Berlin Museum (fig. 2-2, Harrison's Fig. 18),
the winged demons are clearly represented as Harpies (harpeuia) although they
form part of the scene of the slaying of Medusa, which, according to Harrison,
shows that they are Gorgons. On another vase-painting from Berlin (fig. 2-3,
Harrison's Fig. 19), a Gorgon with "the typical Gorgon's head and protruding
tongue [performs] the function of a Harpy, i.e., of a Snatcher" (177).
What is the nature of harpies? The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes
the harpy as
a fabulous creature, probably a wind spirit. The presence of
harpies as tomb figures, however, makes it possible that they were
also conceived of as ghosts [note this link with the Keres]. In
Homer's Odyssey they were winds that carried people away.
Elsewhere, they were sometimes connected with the powers of the
underworld.... (Micropaedia, 15th ed., 1992, 717)
These early Harpies were in no way disgusting. Later, however,
especially in the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, they were represented as
birds with the faces of women, horribly foul and loathsome. Accompanying this
encyclopedia article is an illustration of a "Harpy from a tomb frieze from the
acropolis of Xanthus, Asia Minor, c. 500 BC" in the British Museum (fig. 2-4); this
shows the harpy as a girl with braids or curls, bird's wings and feet, not unlike a
modern angell The bird identification may begin here.
Fig. 2-4. Harpy from a tomb frieze.
The harpies we moderns know, however, seem to have developed from
Virgil, who describes them as "horribly foul and loathsome" creatures who snatch
food. In Book III of the Aeneid, Aeneas and his men settle down for a feast upon
But instantly, grotesquely whirring down,
The Harpies were upon us from the hills
With deafening beat of wings. They trounced our meat,
Defiling everything they touched with filth,
And gave an obscene squawk amid the stench. (309-13; 73)
They are described a few lines earlier as follows:
With young girls' faces, but foul ooze below,
Talons for hands, pale famished nightmare mouths..... (299-301)
Here one may surmise an equation of these bird-women with real birds--
vultures-associated with death. This would have aided the Keres' evolution
from souls of the dead, to soul-snatchers, to more realistic and carnal food-
snatchers. The Harpies were seen as disgusting creatures because they were
associated with death and decay. Beryl Rowland remarks that
the wings and avian body symbolize feminine, nurturing
characteristics; the talons represent an infantile projection of
destructive impulses which converts the maternal figure into a cruel
predator.... For this reason nearly all the great mother-goddesses
had birdlike features. Horapollo described the Egyptian mother-
goddess as a vulture.... She possessed traits sometimes
ascribed to the Harpies--she was made pregnant by the wind, and
she had the gift of prophecy. She was also death-bringing and
corpse-devouring.... Yet references to the Harpies' flowing hair
and virginal faces as well as subsequent illustrations of firm,
seductive breasts or soft avian curves suggestive of fecundity point
to their dual role. (1987:159-60)
In another publication (1978:76) Rowland cites a Greek monument on
which a harpy holds a child in her arms in a suckling position and at the same
time clings to the child's legs with her talons. This is the nursing mother who
arouses the child's anger by weaning, and the child projects onto the mother-
the source of anger and deprivation-its own anger.4
To the Greeks the siren came to be represented as a bird-woman similar
to the harpy, with the head and bust of a woman and the body and claws of a
bird. Homer did not describe the sirens, which are only voices in the Odyssey,
'Here again, as in the Grendel's mother chapter, we see the good/bad mother split and
the evolution of the Terrible Mother.
nevertheless, early Greek artists always portrayed the sirens of Homer as
woman-faced birds. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, the sirens are daughters of
Achelous, the river-god, who were turned into birds (Benwell and Waugh 41-3).
Fig. 2-5. Harpy/siren, north side, church of Saint-Etiene,
Cahors (from Benton 1996:154).
As Janetta Benton (1992:36) delightfully remarks, the harpy "lacks the
siren's surface charm." In spite of the similarity in form, it is a little difficult to
trace the evolution of the harpy into the siren. Nevertheless, I do believe that
they are connected and that the physical loathsomeness of the harpy is
transformed into the moral dangerousness of the siren, as the harpy's snatching
of souls and of food is transformed into the siren's snatching of men whom she
captures or eats (see Bartholomew Anglicus above). Both are associated with
water, Erich Neumann's "primordial womb of life" (47), the sea or the seashore.
Both, as long as the siren is a bird-woman, hover above men. Rowland does not
see harpies and sirens as really so different, remarking that "the siren as incuba
[female demon] is the lewd demon of the nightmare" (1978:155). Both are
associated with water, as birds fly above water or swim on it (Baring and
Cashford 58-9). Both are connected with death; finally, both are frustrating
mothers and terrifying demons. (What may be a transitional figure is a gargoyle
from Cahors in France, fig. 2-5).
The Encyclopedia Britannica (Micropaedia, 15th ed., 1992) describes the
a creature half bird and half woman who lured sailors to destruction
by the sweetness of her song.... In art they appeared first as
birds with the heads of women, later as women, sometimes winged,
with bird legs.
The Sirens seem to have evolved from two elements: a
primitive tale of the perils of early exploration combined with an
Oriental image of a bird-woman. Anthropologists explain the
Oriental image as a soul-bird-i.e., a winged ghost that stole the
living to share its fate. In that respect the Sirens had affinities with
the Harpies. (843-4)
It is not clear what a "primitive tale of the perils of early exploration" could
have been: possibly simply a tale of welcoming maidens from some tribe rowing
out to meet early explorers' boats or at least singing from the shore.
As for the personality of the siren, she has the same dual nature as the
harpy, being lovely (as the harpy was in her earliest appearances) and
loathsome (Dante's Siren in the Purgatorio comes to mind), seductive and
deceiving, apparently life-giving but in reality dealing death.5
How did the siren evolve into the mermaid, similar in character but fish-
tailed rather than bird-winged? Probably two legends crossed here, as the siren
coalesced into the Babylonian fish-gods and goddesses. The first merman is Ea,
or Oannes, a Babylonian god, who is sometimes shown as fish-tailed. He is
known to have been worshiped from about 1900 BC to about 200 BC, according
to Michael Jordan's Encyclopedia of Gods (72). Ea was the god of the sea and
its spirits and demons, so it is natural that he became associated with a being of
the sea or at least of the seashore. His wife was Damkina, Queen of the Waters.
They had six sons, all fish-tailed, and a daughter, Nina, whose sign was the
House of the Fish. There was another fish-tailed god of legend, Dagon of the
Philistines; some identified the biblical Noah, as well as Dagon, with Oannes
and made him, too, fish-tailed. Damkina and Nina, Oannes' wife and daughter,
were probably fish-tailed, as was Atargatis or Derceto, a Semitic moon-goddess
(Benwell and Waugh 23-9). In most of Atargatis's cult centers there was a
sacred lake filled with fish. Her cult reached Egypt by the third century BC, and
she is mentioned by Hellenistic Greek writers (30). The bird-siren gave way only
slowly to the fish-tailed mermaid; according to Edmond Faral, "the fish tail starts
sis it possible that the harpy and the angel have the same origin but diverge, one
becoming loathsome and one semidivine?
appearing in the late seventh or eighth century" in medieval bestiaries (Wirtjes
Ixxxviii). The fish element doubtless comes from the image of fish as
representing fecundity because of their enormous number of eggs and because
of the belief that life originated in the depths of the sea (as in fact, of course, it
did), as found in Charbonneau-Lassy's Bestiary of Christ (295). Helen King
remarks that women are often associated with water and that Greek medical
writers thought women were thought to be wetter than men:
Because their spongy flesh retained more fluid from their diet,
menstruation was necessary to remove the excess. The sea is
then, in a sense, the female element, and the tradition that the
presence of women is unlucky on board ship can be seen as
expressing this belief; if the sea is female, the ship which masters it
should be crewed by men. (152)
Transitional forms ("missing links?") between the bird-siren and fish-tailed
mermaid include beings with both wings and fish tails. T.H. White, attempting to
trace this evolutionary stage, states, "The true Sirens were not mermaids" (135);
yet his illustration, from a twelfth-century bestiary, shows a buxom lass with
wings, eagle-like feet, and a fish's tail. (Since the wings are around her waist, it
is not clear how she could have flown.)
Other variants include serpent or half-serpent forms. White's translation
tells us, "[Tlhere are in Arabia certain white snakes with wings which are known
as SYRENS" (181); Melusine is a half-serpent (O'Clery 117-25), and some
sirens have a serpent's tail, identifying them with Satan and his works. Indeed,
the serpent of Eden is sometimes seen as female, in which case two women
Fig. 2-6. The temptation of Eve. Speculum Humanae Salvationis, London,
British Library, M.S. Harley 4996. fol. 4v (detail). (Reprinted with
permission of the British Library). From Flores 178.
would be responsible for the Fall! This representation begins with Peter
Comestor's Historia Scholastica in the last half of the twelfth century. Comester
felt that this was reasonable "since similar things attract one another," that is,
Eve and the virgin-like serpent (Flores 167-8, 173, 179) (See fig. 2-6, Flores'
Figure 2, from the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, written around 1324 .)
Nana C. Flores adds: "On some representations [of sirens], the scaly fishtail
looks suspiciously like a scaly serpent's tail except for the fin at the end, and
even Romanesque bird sirens (generally identified as harpies) often bore a
serpent's tail" (173). This links all three of our characters. The beauty (and lovely
French braid) of the female serpent is striking and resembles that of the
mermaid (except that the latter has long flowing hair); the character of the female
serpent is even more reprehensible than the mermaid's.
The mermaid, then, has a long history, a history not confined to classical
tradition and continuations of that tradition represented by texts like the Middle
English Physiologus and Bartholomew Anglicus's commentary. Beginning,
perhaps, with a relationship to creatures of the air, in further developments she
becomes a creature capable of entering into relationships with human beings.
This development, as Barbara Leavy demonstrates, accompanies her
association with a folklore figure known as the animal bride or swan maiden.
Leavy states that mermaid tales "frequently form subgroups among swan maiden
narratives..." as the woman (swan maiden, mermaid, etc.) is "rescued from the
wild" and is tamed and "fitted for marriage with men" (44, 45). The swan maiden
story, Leavy says, is found "in virtually every comer of the world" because in
most cultures "woman was a symbolic outsider, was the other... and marriage
demanded an intimate involvement in a world never quite her own" (2). It seems
that man deals with his fear of woman by making her in his mind at least partly
animal; the female equivalent of this process, of course, is found in tales such as
"Beauty and the Beast" or "The Frog Prince" in which the girl, fearing male
roughness and sexuality, finds that at least some male beasts, when kissed,
become princes. Leavy says that to undo the effects of sexual repression the
man must have intercourse with an animal or loathly lady, who then turns into a
beautiful woman (233); the kiss given by the Knight to the Loathly Lady (see
Chapter 5) or by a girl to the frog or beast prince may have the same effect.
Collections like Helen O'Clery's Mermaid Reader are rife with tales of
mermaids who marry mortal men but long for the sea and eventually return to it.
Some of them even have children (though how this can be done, since the
sexual organs are in the fish part of the body, remains obscure). We may recall
the English folk song "The Eddystone Light":
My father was the keeper of the Eddystone Light,
He married a mer-my-aid one night,
Out of the match came children three,
Two were fish and the other was me.
The mermaid, then, has the double nature of a castrated woman (since
the human female sexual organs are gone) and a non-castrated one (the fish tail
stands for the penis). Thus she both stirs up and allays men's fears of castration.
And, as Wolfgang Lederer (232-5) points out, man's fear of woman derives from
the incest taboo and the yearning for a return to the mother, who is not really the
actual mother but the mother-archetype, the unconscious-in-fact, the Goddess.
Lederer cites legends about bottomless lakes in which a water spirit (an Ondine,
a naiad, etc.) lives. Such creatures (and mermaids can also live in inland waters)
are a threat to men: a man tempted by these spirits may be drawn down into the
water and never reemerge.
This has been, perhaps, a long preamble to a question: Can the mermaid
be considered to fall within the class of Wild Women? Does her nature as
inhabitant of the air or of the deep preclude her consideration here? My answer
is that her half-animal, harpy-like nature (throwback to an earlier evolutionary
stage) and her seductiveness and unchastity characterize her as wild.
The mermaid of medieval and earlier times, then, was a danger to men.
But she (or he?) could also, as at least two early sightings demonstrate, be a
harmless creature. A "merman" (without a fish tail, of course) was caught in a net
at Orford, Suffolk, in 1197. He looked like a man, but could not talk and lived on
raw fish, and eventually fled back to the sea. Similarly, a "mermaid" was found in
a broken dike in Edam, Holland, after a storm. She leased to do domestic work
but never to speak, and lived fifteen years after she was found (Benwell and
Waugh 74, 81). Possibly these were autistic persons, whose social ignorance
made them incapable of living as ordinary humans do.
A greater virtue even than innocence was the mermaid's longing for a
human soul. Benwell and Waugh (61-2) tell us of the myth of Liban, the Irish
mermaid, said to have been captured in Ireland in the year 558. She was
originally a human girl who prayed to be changed into a salmon, but the prayer
was only half effective. She swam the seas for three hundred years, and
eventually was captured, baptized by St. Comgall, and died, presumably having
reacquired humanity and a soul. Another mermaid was said to have visited a
monk living on lona, begging for a human soul. The monk said that first she must
give up the sea. She was unable to do so, and swam away weeping. Her tears
were transformed into greenish-gray pebbles, still found on the shores of lona
and called "mermaid's tears" (63).
Leavy has well summed up the nature of the harpy/siren/mermaid as well
as the animal bride: "The wild woman appears in many shapes, ranging from
loathly lady to beautiful temptress, and virtually all supernatural female folklore
characters are imbued with features of the wild woman, that is, the animal side of
the human being" (221). The dangerous and even unpleasant nature of the
harpy/siren/mermaid in the Middle Ages may be related to fear of the once-
giving but later withholding mother, but it is also the product of a defense
mechanism: woman, who is so feared, and loved, and toward whom feelings are
so ambivalent, can best be dealt with by making her half-human-an easy way
of making her other, and therefore not to be considered an equal or indeed
someone who has to be really encountered at all. She can be explained away as
animal, supernatural, or even nonexistent; she can be Christianized by the myth
of her longing for a human soul; or, finally, she can be made less dangerous by
being made sweet and inoffensive. As an animal bride, she cannot fit into human
life or reconcile herself to it, and must return to the sea. The mermaid at last
comes to seem more pitiable than threatening, and yet we must remember that
even in the film Splash, the man who loves the beautiful mermaid goes down to
the sea with her: The half-animal woman is forever alienated and alienating, and
therefore forever a danger to normal life.
One of the characterizing features of the Wild Woman and Man was the
ability to live in the natural world. We find that Tristan and Iseut, the two famed
lovers best known to us as Tristan and Isolde, were during a critical time of their
development as lovers able to do this. As B6roul tells their story in his Romance
of Tristan, the two live happily in the forest after fleeing from the court of King
Mark, Iseut's husband. I am therefore, for this and other reasons, suggesting
that Iseut be considered an example of the type (though I have other reasons for
so considering her, as will be seen).
I have chosen to use the Iseut story of B6roul, a French author, rather
than that of Sir Thomas Malory, for a number of reasons. First, B6roul antedates
Malory by three centuries. Second, the Iseut of Malory (spelled "Isoud") is far
from wild. She is a pleasant and gracious lady who performs a noble action in
preventing Tristan from killing the pagan Sir Palomides: "[B]ecause he is not
christened I would be loth that he should die a Saracen" (1:358-9). Most
importantly, after Iseut is punished for unchastity by being put into a "lazar-cote"
or hut for lepers, Tristan rescues her and brings "her into a forest with a fair
manor," in which he lives with her (366)-hardly the rough life described by
B1roul. In the latter's poem, after the lovers flee:
They slept that night in the forest of Morrois on a hillside ...
[Tristan] cut branches to make a leafy bower and Yseut covered
the ground thickly with leaves .... Governal [the squire] knew how
to cook and made a good fire from some dry wood..... They had
no milk or salt in this lodging..... They were a long time in the
wood. Each morning they had to leave the place where they had
spent the night.... They were leading a rough and hard life, but
they loved each other with such true love that neither felt any
hardship because of the other. (76-8)
While romantic enough, this hardly describes life in "a forest with a fair manor."
Malory omits the dramatic scene at the ford (see below) that in BEroul
precedes the lovers' escape into the forest. In Malory, Isoud is removed from the
forest manor by Mark, eventually escapes again, and lives with Tristan at
Lancelot's castle, Joyous Gard. Although she is an adulteress, her life and
behavior are those of a courtly lady. "To speak of her beauty, bounty, and mirth,
and of her goodness, we saw never her match as far as we have ridden and
gone," two knights report to Queen Guenever. Guenever replies, "[S]o saith all
the people that have seen her and spoken with her" (2:171). When Tristan
prepares to go to court for Pentecost, Isoud refuses to accompany him, "for then
shall I be spoken of shame among all queens and ladies of estate" (2:231). If
Tristan does not go to the feast, she says, other knights will make fun of him for
"cowering" in a castle with a lady and not coming to the king's feast. "It is pity I
have my life," she says, "that I will hold so noble a knight as ye are from his
Isoud is kept at Joyous Gard three years, being finally brought to Mark by
Tristan "by means of treaties," at which time Mark slays Tristan (2:467-8). This is
Malory's last mention of Isoud. It can be seen that Malory's Isoud is a court lady
who never really lives in the wild.
We return now to BMroul's poem, considered by its editor, Alan Fedrick,
"the oldest of the Tristan romances" (12n.). First we must answer the question:
Why use a French work in a study of English medieval characters? My reason is
that Beroul's presentation of the internationally renowned character Iseut fits
well into the Wild Woman concept and is far more interesting than the Malory
presentation discussed above. Further, as Jacques Chocheyras (171) states, the
manuscript is from England; one of its owners was Antoine de Chalfont and
Chalfont was the name of a Buckinghamshire family. Hence, B6roul's work must
have been known in England; J.A. Burrow (4), in fact, feels that it was probably
composed for audiences in England. Also, although Broul seems to have been
from southern Normandy, his knowledge of Cornwall shows that he may really
have visited the Tristan-lseut area (Chocheyras 171, 187-8).
Like most of our Wild Women, Iseut defies convention; not only does she
do that, but she slyly assumes the appearance of convention. In contrast with
Malory's Isoud, she is not just a gracious lady who happens to be overcome by a
love potion, but a crafty and deceptive character. She is an excellent example of
the Untamed, and indeed the Untamable, Wild Woman. While she never repents
her adultery with Tristan, at King Mark's court she plays the virtuous wife,
feigning submissiveness. Although she spends a brief time in the forest, this time
sequence does play a part in the definition of her character, and perhaps we
might say that the wilderness of the forest is an exteriorization of her wild
character (see fig. 3-1). But what is most important to Iseut's self-realization is
the ability she acquires to define herself in opposition to established norms. As
Peter S. Noble says, she has skill with words, acting ability, and an "ability to
think on her feet" (20).
Fig. 3-1. Louis Rhead (1857-1926). La Belle Isault, Tristan and Isolde,
3 Nov. 2001
In medieval Christianity, the ideal woman was asexual, or rather stripped
of her sexuality (the virgin martyr) or (next best) chaste, having sexual relations
only with her husband. Iseut fulfills neither of these requirements. She is a bold,
assertive, fighting, convention-breaking creature. She constantly manipulates
people by her ingenious "lies," which are really truths expressed in such a way
as to make lies the truth. This kind of strategy can be linked to the "female
mimesis" described by E. Jane Burns (1993:207-8). Burns feels that Iseut, while
she "[defines] herself within the masculinized traditions of chivalry, courtliness,
and feudal jurisprudence that construct [the medieval context] ... [remains]
significantly outside them" (208). With this mimesis, she manages to get by
socially at court. She is certainly highly intelligent, in fact more so than Tristan,
as she is the one who hatches the plan to have Tristan disguise himself as a
leper while she takes an oath that is nothing but one of her adroitly disguised
truthful "lies." She recognizes that she cannot take an oath whose wording is
devised by someone else, but if she herself offers the oath, she can word it as
she wishes. In an important incident, she, on trial for adultery, asks Tristan,
disguised as a leper, to carry her over a muddy ford (Noble 20-21):
"Heavens, leper, you are fat!" [she says]. "Turn your face
this way and your back this way. I will get on like a boy."
Then the leper smiled and bent his back. The queen
mounted. Everyone was watching, kings and counts. Leaning on
his crutch he raised one foot and kept the other firmly on the
ground. Several times he pretended to fall, and looked as though
he was in great pain. The fair Yseut rode on his back with her legs
[Accused of adultery, she says:] "[M]y lords ... by the mercy
of God I see holy relics here before me. Listen now to what I swear,
and may it reassure the king: so help me God and St. Hilary, and
by these relics, this holy place, the relics that are not here and all
the relics there are in the world, I swear that no man ever came
between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back
over the ford and my husband, King Mark." (136, 141-2)
In this episode, and elsewhere in the poem, both Tristan and Iseut are
tricky opportunists with very little moral sense (Tristan is fully cognizant of Iseut's
stratagems). They know that they can be considered guilty by the Christian
church, but they are more worried about Mark's honor-and about their own
places at his court-than about God. They call on God freely, even while
violating his laws, and feel that he is on their side. An example of this is the
episode of Tristan's leap. Tristan, condemned to be burnt to death, asks to be let
into the chapel for a moment's prayer:
Tristan did not move slowly. He went to the window behind the
altar, pulled it towards him with his right hand and leaped through
the opening. He would rather jump than be burnt before that
assembly. My lords, there was a big, wide stone in the middle of
those rocks [of the ledge on which the chapel is built]; Tristan
jumped on to it very easily. The wind caught his clothes and
prevented him from crashing to the ground.... God had shown
him great mercy. (68-9)
Iseut, too, after the incident at the ford, invokes both God and St. Hilary
(as well as all the relics in the world) when she swears that "no man ever came
between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back over the ford
and my husband, King Mark" (142). The joke here, as Pierre Jonin tells us, is
that St. Hilary condemned lying, though with exceptions (343, 345-6). This must
have been intentional on the part of B1roul, who is usually on the side of the
lovers without hiding their faults from himself or the audience.
Fedrick emphasizes (18-20) that the role played by God in B6roul's story
is "both active and ambiguous." God in this story is remarkably flexible; he is
often invoked as a support for the lovers' illicit and deceptive actions. Why is he
helping them in this way? Is the action of the magic potion a satisfactory
justification for their actions? And why do they continue their affair after the
potion's effect has expired?
Beroul states that the potion was made to be effective for "three years of
love" (95). The affair does not end with the potion's expiration, I feel, because by
now the love between Tristan and Iseut has become part of their characters and
their defiance of the court and its social rules. Iseut does enjoy court life as long
as she can have things her own way, even if that means occasionally fleeing
from court. The game of deceit is a delight to her. The potion in B6roul is
perhaps never more than a literary trick; it may be derived from a more seriously
romantic plot device in some earlier version of the story. There is another
explanation for the continuance of the affair, however (see below).
With regard to the attitude to God here shown both by B6roul and his
characters, we may cite George Duby. Duby feels that there was a psychological
shift at the beginning of the thirteenth century: "[I]n the great shift that brought
about the internalization of religion, they [knights] gradually learned that rites
count for little when acts and intentions are not blameless" (283). The world of
the poem is a world existing prior to the internalization of religion: Tristan and
Iseut seem to think that they can get away with anything as long as they at least
pretend to stick to outward forms. The externalized concept of "honor" is more
important to them than the state of their souls, and yet honor is not all-important
to them either. God seems to have no importance except as he is called in to
help them in their escapades (and I call them escapades, because the lovers
enjoy them so much-even if their adventures are death-defying). The possibility
that God might actually punish them, or that they might suffer remorse later,
does not seem to bother them. The Iseut of B1roul would not understand the
Isoud of Malory, who worries about the state of Sir Palomides' soul; what would
it matter to her? God is external.
What seems to be really important to Tristan and Iseut is their passionate
love and sexual desires. In a general sense this might be considered a cause of
"wildness." They live in a society in transition between externalized and
internalized religion, as we have just seen. Perhaps they are becoming "extinct."
But I do not think their wildness lies solely in this; they are wild both because
they find they can live outside of "civilized" society (in the forest) and because
they choose to live in ways that satisfy their elemental sexual desires. What
makes Iseut's wildness apparent is the visibility of its contrast with what is
expected of her. As the wife of Mark, she could be expected to be chaste and
submissive; as the lover of Tristan, she has to think and act boldly and
assertively. What individualizes Iseut as a Wild Woman, I think, is the pleasure
she takes in playing her game with the conventions.
As we have seen, women could be considered to be wild just because
they were women. As Jeanne Addison Roberts, writing of a later (but not too
much later) period, points out in her book about the Shakespearean Wild:
"Shakespeare's women are neither male nor female but may be understood as
projections of male fantasies of the Wild female other... the male's foray into
the mysterious female forest" (14, 18). She adds: "[T]he female is not at the
center of the hero's world but in a strange, enticing, and threatening Wild
territory overlapping but not identical with his own.... The male must venture
into this territory; he may even find its terrors exciting; but he will soon return to
his familiar world" (28).
Tristan makes an effort to "return to his familiar world" when the effects of
the love potion (the duration of which in B6roul is three years [Fedrick 21-2])
come to an end; the lovers agree to return to Mark, and the hermit Ogrin writes
to Mark for them. But Iseut, when she returns to court, does not give up her inner
wildness: She sends a message to Tristan to come to her at court while Mark is
away. Tristan, reinfected by Iseut's wildness, kills two of the three barons who
are spying on the lovers and joins Iseut, who (according to Fedrick's annotation)
exchanges love tokens with him. They swear each to be always at the service of
the other (B6roul 145-8; Fedrick 148). The manuscript breaks off at this point,
but we know from other versions, as summarized by Fedrick (149-50), that
Tristan goes to Brittany and marries Iseut of the White Hands, though he is still
in love with Queen Iseut.
Iseut, the exciting lady of the forest, can be seen as a figure of male fears
and erotic fantasies given form and/or a figure of female yearnings given form.
Thus it is no wonder that the tale was so popular. While Iseut was, for the male
audience, a figure of fear and fantasy, for some of the women who read and
heard her tale, it seems entirely possible that she was a wish-fulfillment figure,
portraying the freedom they might wish for. To view this unconventional woman
and her effect on listeners/readers in more depth, we may resort to historicolegal
or psychoanalytic methods. The question becomes: What has made her the way
she is? We shall take the historical aspect first.
Joan Tasker Grimbert points out that in Celtic analogues to the legend,
the heroine is "a kind of goddess with magical powers" who casts a spell over
her mate. This spell is replaced by the potion in the Tristan-lseut story we know,
a potion that "renders both partners impotent in the face of an inexorable fate
that pits their individual desires against those of the community" (xvi). I would
add that the Circean quality of the female character in the Celtic legend has, in
the continental legend, been lost by Iseut and transferred to her mother, who
prepares the potion. The inexorability of the potion's effects in B6roul's poem is
partly-but only partly-replaced by character development. Iseut in her Circean
quality brings about Tristan's wildness as well as her own, "transforming" him
into a leper and a wild man of the forest and causing him to be as deceptive and
full of lies as she is.
It is important to remember, however, that the result of magic, provoked
by Iseut, is not really magical but comes about through her deliberate use of
deception. As E. Jane Burns has noted, "the potion ... contains the seeds of the
text's metaphors of deviance .... As victims of fol'amor... Tristan's psycho-
physical problems (his impotence with his wife, Iseut aux Blanches Mains). It is
interesting that Iseut, in contrast, seems to have no problem having intercourse
with both Tristan and Mark. Iseut is only a partially successful Circe.
It is possible to take a broader, historical approach-or approaches-to
the story of Iseut than I have presented here. Leslie W. Rabine reminds us that
the restructuring of the feudal order in the late twelfth century assigned a
subordinate place to women and established an exclusively patrilineal system;
this excluded women from active roles. To ensure the legitimacy of heirs, the
legal system stringently enforced the chastity of women. Romantic love, in this
fragmented and transitional society, came to be seen as a means of attaining
freedom. However, in Ireland, both in folklore and in history, women had more
freedom than in the rest of Europe. A woman was free to divorce under certain
conditions and to keep her property, while receiving compensation and a fine.
Her clan, which was in Ireland more important than the family, protected her.
Further, in Celtic society, boundaries between this world and the Other World
were as fluid as the boundaries between matriliny and patriliny; relationships
were multiple and ambiguous, preventing the formation of a rigid hierarchy and
dominance (Rabine 39-43, 50-57, 73-4). Considered with this context, Iseut may
be seen simply as a "wild Irish girl," which she is; she may also be seen as a
woman coming from a place of relative social freedom to a place of repression.
Looking at another aspect of history, we find that Roger Pensom, in
discussing the historical problem of "the beliefs and social institutions
surrounding leprosy," stresses that physicalcl and moral uncleanness expressed
themselves in terms of each other." Lepers were socially excluded. The bow
Tristan receives on entering the forest is a non-chivalric weapon; its acquisition
"marks a transition away from the chivalric state." The lovers are "desocialized"
as they leave the forest without bread and with tor clothes. They are also
underfed; B6roul tells us that "[f]or three years they had suffered greatly, their
flesh had grown pale and limp" (95). Their moral uncleanness and separation
from the courtly society of Mark mimics the physical uncleanness and separation
from society experienced by lepers (Pensom 40-4, 50).
Further, Pensom reminds us that Mark, when he discovers the lovers
sleeping in the forest, takes his ring from Iseut's finger (which has by now
become very thin) and replaces it with the gloves that she brought from Ireland,
which fall onto her breast (Pensom 59; B6roul 93-4). It seems that Mark is here
giving Iseut back to herself, especially if we remember that Irish women kept
their own property after marriage and at divorce (Pensom 60).
Finally, we may wish to look at Iseut from a psychoanalytic standpoint, as
with the other characters in this study. I do not see Iseut as a phallic woman, as I
do the Wife of Bath (Chapter 5), whom she otherwise strongly resembles,
especially in the Wife's cheerful defense of bigamy in her Prologue:
But of no nombre mencion made he [God],
Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
Why sholde men thane speke of it vileynye? (32-4)
Thogh maydenhede preferred bigamye. (96) (Chaucer 105, 106)
Rather, we may perhaps see her as a case of borderline personality, as
evinced by her manipulation and deception of others and her "splitting" of herself
(the good wife, the reckless lover) and of other people (Tristan, Governal,
Husdant, and Ogrin on one side, the three barons on the other). She seems
further to have the characteristic of thinking that she is always right. As Pensom
says, she "avoids accepting any responsibility for their [the lovers'] situation" and
is at best "ambiguously penitent." She prostrates herself to the hermit, but this is
"not an attitude of religious submission but a supplication to the hermit for his
good offices" (66, 67). Melanie Klein (181-9) and Susan Nolen-Hoekema (422-3)
describe this splitting of other people into "all bad" and "all good" as
characteristic of the borderline personality. Iseut sees herself and Tristan as "all
good" and everyone else as "all bad." She also controls and manipulates Tristan
and Mark (see the episode of "The Vindication of Yseut," B1roul 115-27, in
which Iseut controls Mark and then Tristan). The lovers' escapades are directed
by Iseut. Klein says:
[The relation to another person on the basis of projecting bad
parts of the self into [the other] is of a narcissistic nature, because
... the object strongly represents one part of the self... The
impulse to control other people is... an essential element in
obsessional neurosis. The need to control others can to some
extent be explained by a deflected drive to control parts of the self.
When these parts have been projected excessively into another
person, they can only be controlled by controlling the other person.
Iseut sees the good parts of herself in Tristan and projects them into him
and the bad parts into everyone else. She also uses men to do the things she
cannot as a woman do (kill barons, for example).
Fig. 3-2. Kali, goddess of destruction. Copper, southern India, xix century.
Seen from a Jungian perspective, Iseut is a dangerous goddess of
destruction like the Hindu Kali, an aspect of the Terrible Mother whom we have
seen discussed by Erich Neumann (150-3; see fig. 3-2); she brings peril and
death to herself and Tristan. Iseut is not a mother and does nothing constructive;
her only act of kindness in BEroul is her fondness for the dog Husdant (in
contrast to the episode in Malory where she saves Sir Palomides from dying
unchristened). As Carl Jung reminds us, "any helpful instinct or impulse" belongs
to the positive side of the mother archetype, while the negative side "may
connote anything ... that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and
inescapable like fate" (Jung 1959:16). And Neumann adds: "[D]eath and
destruction, danger and distress, hunger and nakedness, appear as
helplessness in the presence of the Dark and Terrible Mother" (149). The
"danger and distress, hunger and nakedness" remind us of the lovers' sojourn in
the forest; the helplessness is Tristan's, and death eventually takes both of the
lovers, Tristan from battle wounds and despair and Iseut from grief at Tristan's
death-a tender emotion or rage at the loss of her obsessional object?
But we cannot be content with only one interpretation of Iseut, her
personality, and her story. This may be one reason for the proliferation of
versions of the legend. As Edith Whitehurst Williams (125) says, Iseut is one of
the figures who reappear in literature throughout the centuries: "A composite
Isolt, gleaned from all the surviving fragments, essays duplicity, murder, escape,
repentance, endurance, and despair. But in the end she steps boldly forward to
embrace her destiny of life and death." Her character, in collaboration with the
various authors who have written about her, takes on a kind of autonomy'";
"[w]ith this powerful personality as a donn6e, a starting point, [the poet] allows
the presence to emerge." The poet must present the character "in a manner
consistent with an established identity.... [A] self-effacing or evasive Isolt is not
Isolt" (126). Like all the women we discuss here, Iseut transcends her existence
as a flat being on a page; she is a powerful figure of fantasy, fear, and
fulfillment, as well as a romantic figure lost in the forest of her audience's
Chaucer's Emelye or Emily, the main female character of "The Knight's
Tale," is often seen as a nonentity. Apparently, she does nothing but pray and
weep; she has no roles but those of love object or female dependent to be
disposed of. Because of this inactivity, as Laura L. Howes has commented,
"[M]any readers of the tale ... dismiss her as a two-dimensional character, one
who serves the Knight's plot as the object of male desire but who does not excite
sympathy or empathy from Chaucer's readers" (87). I will argue here that Emelye
is in fact an interesting character. She is a beautiful figure of romance as well as
an Amazon, a young woman about to take her place in the world. With her
Amazonian background and love of forest sports, she can be seen as a
descendant of the Innocent Wild Woman. She may grow-perhaps into a
conventional wife, perhaps into a Wild and Fighting Woman, like Zenobia
(Cenobie) in Chaucer's "The Monk's Tale" (Chaucer 246). The question to be
considered here, however, has to do with the role played by Emelye in the Tale
told by Chaucer's Knight.
To understand this character better, let us look at some of the
interpretations of Emelye found in the literature. We will first discuss Paul
Thurston's (18) view of the Tale as "a serious romance for the conventional
reader, a satire for the more perceptive (and, it may be said, more sophisticated)
reader." We must remember that Chaucer assigned this Tale to the Knight,
whose perceptions are conventional. To him, order must and can be brought
about at all costs; nothing, including love-a primary cause for foolish behavior,
according to Theseus ("Who may been a fool but if he love?" )--can be
allowed to escape from this order. Women exist for Theseus only to weep, be
conquered, or function as pretty puppets, and Theseus can perhaps be seen
throughout as a "stand-in" for the Knight, just as the Loathly Lady serves as a
projection for the Wife of Bath (Chapter 5). The Knight's and Theseus's opinions
must not be confused with Chaucer's; his treatment of these characters is indeed
spiced with satire.
Elaine Tuttle Hansen (1992) takes a different view from Thurston's. In her
discussion of the Tale, Hippolyta, Emelye's older sister and Theseus's wife, and
Emelye herself are "described as Amazons, mythical, fighting, manlike women
who have waged 'grete bataille' with Theseus." As Hansen sees Hippolyta and
Emelye, both women are "erstwhile powerful separatists, rivals to the hero who
first defeats them with martial violence and then domesticates them through
marital union" (218). She continues,
In any naturalistic account, the transformation of an Amazonian
queen into a proper wife for the Athenian king would probably be
difficult and protracted.... The Knight, however, both
acknowledges and eclipses that presumably tempestuous taming
of the wild woman. (218)
One might say that Chaucer's Knight both enjoys the wildness and feels the
taming necessary-but Chaucer has other threads of narrative to develop.
Hansen goes on to remind us that Theseus is throughout the Tale associated
with foreign women (Amazons, Theban widows) and that "the haunting subject of
Theseus's relation to the female Other is fundamental to the... story." As for
Emelye, it is clear that her sexuality must be contained by marriage if she is to
be part of the world of order (218, 220). The gentlemanly Knight "dares not tell"
how Emelye washed herself at the Temple of Diana.
Hansen feels that "there are hints that Emily is not quite as resolutely
devoted to chastity as she appears to be." She is drawn out into the garden in
May, traditionally "a time of disorder and of female sexual excess," while the
garden itself has a sexual connotation, as we shall see. She hedges her prayer
to remain chaste by adding, "Sende me hym that most desireth me" (line 2325).
She "agayn ... caste a freendlich ye" (2679) on Arcite at the tournament
(Hansen 221-2). Such observations can easily be overlooked, but drawn to our
attention they suggest that Emelye is not a saintlike and ornamental figure of
virginity, but a very human young girl.
Margaret Hallissy takes a more sociological or sociohistorical view of
Emelye. She calls to our attention the fact that "Chaucer questions what
obedience to rules might mean to women"(23; italics mine). A father, in both
Theseus's and the Knight's day, was responsible for protecting his daughter and
presenting her intact to her husband. As Hallissy explains,
Of crucial importance... is the smooth transition of a virgin from
father to husband. The young girl in the space between father and
husband is in that most threatening of situations, a borderline
state .... Disruption of any element of the transitional process ...
constitutes the plot-the only possible plot-of a virgin's story. (44)
t-u ':,.::r i
:r I IrI
Fig. 4-1. Illustration from a manuscript of Giovanni Boccaccio's II Filostrato,
ca. 1455, French. Vienna, Natl. Lib. MS 2617, fol. 53. Reprinted by
permission of Bildarchiv de Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek,
Vienna. From Howes.
And Hallissy adds, with reference to Emelye's love of the forest: "Wilderness is
always threatening in medieval literature, even to men; the unenclosed forest,
then, represents a breach in the web of protection that should surround a
woman" (48). She points out that medieval gardens consisted of a larger,
semipublic (though walled) space, often containing a smaller (also walled)
garden called the hortus conclusus, which provided more privacy (fig. 4-1).
The walled garden provides further possibilities for interpretation of
Chaucer's Emelye, as Hallissy demonstrates:
[A]rchitectural metaphors in medieval literature often refer to the
biological structure of the female body. Women not only exist in
architectural space, they are architectural space; their bodies
enclose inner space, and women are themselves enclosed for
protection of that inner space. (94-5)
It is probably the hortus conclusus, the more private and sexual space, in which
Emelye walks in lines 1846-55 of "The Knight's Tale." At this point she has just
risen from bed and dressed herself. We see as she walks in the place laid out
for her that just as she is transformed from a classical wild Amazon to a
fourteenth-century English maiden, so her space is transformed from a
wilderness to a medieval garden. The only forest that remains to her is that
which courtly society uses for hunting, and she is part of that society, subject to
the authority of her male protector, Theseus.
Three views of Emelye have just been presented. To me, only the latter
two-Hansen's of Emelye as Amazon, and Hallissy's of Emelye as lady of the
garden and of both her garden and inner space-have merit.
Chaucer's view is not that of Thurston, of Theseus or the Knight. He sees
women as people, not as puppets; he is, as Hallissy suggests, questioning what
the obedience women owed to male authority might mean to them. The question
now becomes: How can we understand Emelye as a person in her context?
A valuable insight has been provided by Linda Schierse Leonard, who
does not discuss Chaucer at all. Leonard is a Jungian analyst whose book, The
Wounded Woman: Healing the Father-Daughter Relationship, centers on the
ways in which women can be wounded by father figures and by a patriarchal
society. She states:
Whenever there is a patriarchal authoritarian attitude which
devalues the feminine by reducing it to a number of roles or
qualities which come, not from woman's own experience, but from
an abstract view of her-there one finds the collective father
overpowering the daughter, not allowing her to grow creatively from
her own essence. (10)
This "abstract view" sounds like the view Theseus has of Emelye.
According to Leonard, authoritarian men often deny their own feminine sides and
tend to focus on what they consider masculine: "obedience, duty and rationality."
"Because their emphasis is on control and doing things right, frequently they are
not open to the unexpected, to the expression of creativity and feelings... they
tend to treat such things with sarcasm and derision" (11-13). This is a good
description of Theseus at his worst, as when he, declaring love to be nothing but
foolishness, describes Emelye as a mere animal: "She woot namore of all this
hoote fare, / By God, than woot a cokkow or a hare!" (lines 1809-10; hares are
notoriously sexual animals). She is not even an animal but an instrument,
nothing but the cause of foolishness, in his following lines: "But all moot ben
assayed, hoot and coold; / A man moot ben a fool, or young or oold ..."
Leonard continues, setting forth the Jungian concept of the puella aetema
or eternal girl. This is one of the patterns resulting from a wounded relation of a
girl to her father. Another is the "armored Amazon." The eternal girl is forever a
dependent daughter. "[S]he gives over to others her own strength as well as the
responsibility for shaping her identity." The "armored Amazon" pattern, on the
other hand, develops "as a reaction against inadequate fathering, occurring
either on the personal or cultural level" (16, 17). The woman must do what her
father did not do. (For the Amazon of legend, of course, the task of self-
determination is facilitated by the fact that she had no father figure at all.) Such a
woman takes on a masculine identity, becoming alienated from her own
creativity and spontaneity.
These patterns are both possible, and surprising as it may seem, both
patterns can exist in the same woman (17, 18). In the puella's "darling doll"
pattern, woman adapts to men's fantasies of the feminine. In contrast, the
Amazon "warrior queen" "is in touch with her anger and assertion" but "forgets
her feminine feeling and softness." "If the warrior queen can rest in her feminine
center and be assertive when appropriate, she can show the way to develop
feminine strength and power" (39, 143). As Leonard further states, Jung thought
one must see the value of both sides of the personality-feminine and masculine
-and try to integrate them (21). The puella must recognize and accept her inner
strength and consciously make her choices (57-8). Is this what Emelye must
learn to do? How much opportunity for conscious choice will she have?
In my own view, Emelye is a confused young girl in a state of transition
from one society to another and from girlhood to womanhood. (She is, of course,
considered a woman by her society, since she is old enough to be married.) She
must give up the Amazonian self of her earlier life, submit to Theseus's authority,
and become a soft, yielding woman and wife, the ideal of the courtly world. What
can she do? How can she free herself?
The strength of the Amazonic woman, according to Leonard, needs "to
come out naturally from the center of her personality rather than be forced out
from an ego adaptation. What is needed is to bring that strength to the area of
which she is afraid" (81). Emelye is not quite ready to do this yet; she wishes to
avoid the conflict without and within her. As she prepares to pray to Diana, she
decides that the best way to escape from her dilemma would be to remain
chaste forever, and to become a priestess.
In praying to Diana, Emelye is at the brink of a dangerous realm: Diana is
not only "chaste goddesse of the wodes grene / To whom bothe hevene and
erthe and see is sene" (lines 2297-8) but also "Queene of the regne of Pluto
derk and lowe" whose "vengeaunce and ire" are to be feared (2299, 2302).
Emelye feels her existence as an autonomous being is at stake; the only way to
preserve her self is to be chaste all her life, to hunt (both an Amazonian and a
courtly pursuit) and walk in the woods (Amazonian; a protected young gir would
not do this) and also (she adds) to serve Diana, presumably as a priestess. But,
it is noted, she stipulates that if her destiny is such that she must marry one of
the two men who love her, she hopes Diana will "sende ... hym that most
desireth me" (2325). She keeps her options open and defines what is desirable
to her-not to be received as a trophy.
While she is praying, the fires on the altar begin to behave strangely. One
goes out and rekindles, while the other burns out, and from the "brondes
[brands'] ende" bloody drops run out (lines 2339-40). This of course prefigures
the end of the story, though the reader and Emelye do not know what that end is
yet. Nevertheless, Emelye is "soore agast" (2341) and begins to weep.
More can be said about these fires. As Howes has pointed out in her fine
study Chaucer's Gardens and the Language of Convention, the quenched
torches of Emelye's fires, with their drops of blood, are "a graphic image of lost
maidenhead following several puns on the female genitalia with the word
'queynt(e).'" "Queynt(e)" can mean "curious" or "strange" or, as a verb, "quench"
besides its meaning of "female genitals" (Howes 93; see Davis et al., 115 [two
At this point, Diana, dressed as a huntress, appears and answers
Emelye's prayer by telling her that she will marry one of the two men, although
Diana may not tell her which one; Emelye will have her venturee of love" (line
2355). Her desire to remain chaste must be "quenched," as Diana explains, by
reason of "eteme word written and confirmed" (2350; Howes 93). The word
venturer" reminds us of a knight's quest and may suggest to Emelye that
perhaps love and marriage might not be so bad. At any rate, Emelye accepts the
answer, though in bewilderment: "What amounteth this, alias? II putte me in thy
proteccioun, / Dyane, and in thy disposicioun" (2362-4). Note that word
"disposicioun": it may mean "disposal" (a sense cited by Davis et al., ,
although they do not cite this passage). If we accept this meaning, we realize
that Diana, a female deity and role model, rather than Theseus, now has the
authority to dispose of Emelye's future--at least in Emelye's mind. Diana, of
course, is not the ultimate decider: as we have seen, Emelye must marry by
reason of "eteme word written and confirmed." Her fate will be determined by the
gods, as in myth and classical epic. (We thus have three authorities: Chaucer
[who writes the tale told by his character, the Knight], the gods, and Theseus). At
any rate, Emelye goes home, apparently both resigned and comforted-perhaps
even a little excited.
Let us stop for a moment and look at what is going on. What is Chaucer
doing here? It seems even a little possible that he is both dramatizing the
quasihistorical transition from matriarchy to patriarchy and the inner conflict in
women between singleness and commitment, individualism and bondedness, as
some may see the opposing ways of life traditionally called "feminine" and
"masculine." Women must reconcile these attitudes within themselves and in
their daily lives. Emelye has accepted the necessity, in her situation, of
marriage, but we are not yet sure how far the wench is quenched, how far the
Amazon is tamed. Susan Crane (1990:49) states that "adventure's validity
inheres in that strangeness or alienness which provides occasions for expanding
and transforming the heroic self." Can Emelye look forward to this?
Before Emelye's prayer, Palamon prays to Venus, detailing his sufferings
and asking Venus for mercy ("'Mercy, lady bright, that knowest weele / My
thought and seest what harmes that I feelel'") and for possession of his lady. He
does not ask for victory, renown, or praise, only to have Emelye in his arms. If
his prayer is granted, he will worship forever at Venus's temple, offer sacrifice
and bum fires ("'Thy temple wol I worship everemo, I And on thyn auter... I
wold oon sacrifice and fires beete [kindle]'"). Note the connection between these
fires and those of Emelye; his fires will never be quenched. He addresses Venus
as he would Emelye ("'my lady sweete'"). The emphasis is on his undying love
for Emelye, devotion to Venus, and eternal gratitude for her help; the fires,
besides showing his love and devotion to goddess and lady, also refer to the
end of the story, which he does not yet know. If Venus does not wish his love to
be fulfilled, he continues, he hopes to be killed by Arcite, and he hopes that
Arcite will be happy in his love. We see a devoted lover, a devout worshiper, and
a grateful heart. Palamon subjects himself to the goddess's will, not demanding
what he wants but asking meekly. The statue shakes, confirming that his prayer
has been granted (lines 2221-65).
Arcite, on the other hand, prays to Mars for victory. He asks to be "oon of
thyne" and recalls to the god the occasion when he "[used] the beautee / Of
faire, yonge, fresshe Venus free," betraying her husband, Vulcan. Victory is the
theme of Arcite's prayer; he refers only briefly to his love for Emelye, and
concludes, "Yif me victories] ; I aske thee namoore" (lines 2373-2420). His only
descriptive phrase concerning Emelye is of her indifference to him ("'For she that
dooth me at this wo endure / Me reccheth never where I synke or fleete'"; he is
interested only in recognition. His prayer, which occupies lines 2373 to 2420,
has no sooner concluded than strife among the gods begins, and the outcome is
decided, even before the battle, by Saturn.
We note not only that Palamon is more interested in love and Arcite in
war, but also that Arcite is not really interested in Emelye as a person; she is
simply a trophy to him. He employs the word "used" for Mars's conquest of
Venus; Emelye is to be used, not to be truly known. John P. McCall has
remarked that Palamon and Arcite "fall in love in different ways" (73), and that
Palamon sees Emelye as a Venus character (lines 1101-7), while Arcite
describes her in "the deadly, impetuous language of Mars." "For Arcite the love
of Emelye is, and will prove to be, less a matter of affection than a contest," as
McCall (74) says. It is interesting that the two suitors reflect the two sides of
Emelye's character: warlikeness and committed love.
The tenderhearted reader naturally favors Palamon's suit, as does the
divine arbiter Saturn-and we learn that Palamon will marry Emelye, although
none of the mortal characters knows this yet. Emelye's prayer will thus be
answered: She will marry the man that mostt desireth" her. Saturn takes
Venus's side, not Mars's, and resolves the strife, saying to the gods, "Bitwixe
yow their moot be som tyme pees, / Al be ye noght of o compleccioun [one
temperament], / That causeth al day swich division" (2474-6). Saturn is
interested in bringing about peace and denies Arcite's and Mars's warlike hopes.
The reader may be comforted, but there is still one question: How will this come
Fig. 4-2. Judicial trial. Bibliothoque Nationale de France.
The day of the tournament, Theseus forbids any weapons but the
longsword and mace; "[h]e wilneth no destruction of blood!" (2364). As we saw
in the episode of his kindness to the Theban widows who sought permission to
bury their husbands at the beginning of the Tale, Theseus is capable of human
pity. His heart has now been moved by concern for human life. And we are now
ready for the encounter of the heroes (fig. 4-2).
Emelye and her sister ride after Theseus and the two Thebans to the lists.
Arcite wounds Palamon and is declared the winner, and Theseus announces
that Arcite will marry Emelye. As Arcite rides victorious "endelong the large
place" (2678) Emelye casts "a freendlich ye" upon him, finding him not
unattractive. Chaucer may seem to degrade her here: "(For women, as to
speken in commune, / Thei folwen alle the favour of Fortune)" (2680-2).
However, Emelye's excitement here reminds us of many a teenage girl's reaction
to the sight of a hero. Palamon is a loser, Arcite a winner; Emelye may not as yet
see beyond this.1
But Saturn has promised Venus satisfaction. With Pluto, he now sends a
"furie infernal" (2685) causing Arcite's horse to leap and stumble. Arcite is
gravely wounded ("he pighte hym [struck himself] on the pomel of his heed, I
That in the place he lay as he were deed" [2689-90]) and is brought to
Theseus's palace. People declare that "soothly their was no disconfiture. / For
fallyng nys nat but an venture ... ." (2721-2). We find in Norman Davis's and
colleagues' A Chaucer Glossary that venturer" may mean "chance," "fortune,
lot," "risk, peril," "misfortune, accident," or "event" (Davis et al., 10). Susan Crane
'Susan Crane reminds us that "[t]he couplet does not appear in several manuscripts,
including Hengwrt, Ellesmere, and Cambridge Gg 4.27; if it is Chaucer's, it seems to come to us
sous rature, or it might represent an early copyist's attempt to make sense of Emelye" (1990:53).
(1990:48) adds that adventuretur' evokes both the Boethian hierarchy of
apparent causes, as a near synonym for 'sort' and 'fortune,' and the generic field
of romance, as the term of choice for encounters with the unknown." "Aventure"
in the second sense is used for the adventures of knights in the French
romances of Chr6tien de Troyes. However, a range of possibilities emerge from
this one word; the various definitions of Davis all seem valid.
"Aventure" in the earlier passage where Diana answers Emelye's prayer
may mean either "fortune, lot" or "event." It may mean that Emelye will certainly
have her venturee of love" (event, quest) or that it is her "fortune, lot" to have it.
Are the young people to be seen as the puppets of Fate? Chaucer is using the
epic convention that the gods bring events about, but there is also the feeling
that the young men (and Emelye too) get what they have prayed for. Arcite prays
for victory and asks for "namoore" (2420); Palamon asks for Emelye's hand
(2242-3); Emelye prays to marry the man that mostt desireth" her. We
remember the saying, "Be careful what you pray for; you may get it." The three
have chosen to pray as they have; hence they are not mere puppets of Fate.
Crane, again, states that "[a]t the culmination as throughout, adventure's validity
inheres in that strangeness or alienness which provides occasions for expanding
and transforming the heroic self (1990:49). This is the possibility that awaits the
Arcite dies of his wound, and as he dies he forgets his ardent desire for
victory, takes tender farewell of Emelye, and forgives Palamon. Emelye shrieks
and weeps, as does everyone else. At Arcite's lavish funeral, she faints, but
Chaucer does not or will not tell what she speaks or feels (2944). Her behavior
here is conventionally feminine, hardly that of a Wild Woman who attempts to
determine her own destiny, but it allows Chaucer to get her off the stage while
male discussion can take place. It is left for Theseus, with his "bisy cure" or care
(2853), to decide what shall be done next.
In spite of Theseus's busyness, it takes "certeyn yeres" for everyone's
grief to be "stynted" (2968).2 Theseus now calls a "parlement" at which, among
other matters, he plans to discuss-for the last time-the subject of what is to be
done with Emelye.3 It is at this point that he delivers his famous "cheyne of love"
speech, a solemn and overlong oration reminding this reader, at least, of
The Firste Moevere of the cause above,
When he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was th'effect, and high was his entente.
Wel wiste he why, and what thereof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond
In certeyn boundes, that they may nat flee. (2987-92)
2The question of Emelye's age is puzzling. If she is about 12 when Arcite and Palamon
see her in the garden (the limit below which both secular custom and canon law forbade girls to
be married" [Duby 141]), the two knights suffer for her love for seven years, and "certeyn yeres"
have passed after that, Emelye would be over 20 when she marries-which seems an
unrealistically late age of first marriage for a medieval woman. Perhaps Chaucer nodded here, or
perhaps Emelye's age was simply not important to him.
3Here we see Emelye the Amazon forced into the role of puppet by Theseus, as male
And so on; this exposition lasts until line 3066. Paul Beekman Taylor's
comments on this speech are interesting:
It is curious that Theseus should argue an order of the universe as
a bond of love after having destroyed its natural order.... [H]e
seizes upon the occasion to strengthen his political power by
giving Emily to Palamon.... A new beginning out of the chaos of
sorrow is a fine prospect, but the transformation of social and
natural cycles of order and disorder into a perfect and eternal joy is
well beyond Theseus's ordaining powers. (86, 87)
The young people are moved like pieces on a chessboard. Neither the
woman or, as often in reality, the man has much say in the matter. Here I begin
to suspect that Chaucer is struggling with and questioning the restrictions of his
own society. When Theseus counsels that he himself, Palamon, Emelye, and
everyone else "make of sorwes two / O parfit joye, lastynge everemo" (3071-2),
he is simply directing Emelye to accept Palamon in marriage:
"'Suster,'" quod he, "this is my fulle assent,
With al th'avys heere of my parlement,
That gentil Palamon, you're owene knyght,
That serveth yow with will, herte, and myght,
And ever hath doon syn ye first hm knewe,
That ye shul of you're grace upon hym rewe,
And taken hm for housbonde and for lord .. .'" (3075-81)
Palamon and Emelye are not married, however, until lines 3094-8.
Theseus justifies himself in deciding everyone's fate by citing the "cheyne
of love," the order of the universe. As Taylor notes (20), Chaucer got this
concept from Plato's Timaeus in Latin translation. God's (whether Jupiter's or the
Christian God's, or both) authority and divine will can be seen also as Chaucer's
justification in marrying Palamon and Emelye. It does seem to me, though, that
Chaucer may again be poking fun at Theseus's obsession with order, as well as
placating the Knight-like reader.
So the tale ends. The ending is conventional, in spite of Chaucer's
questioning of conventions. We too may question what is happening: is Emelye
a happily tamed Wild Woman, or is she merely a tamed woman? Is the order
imposed by Chaucer, Jupiter, God, and Theseus a stifling and irksome one? Are
we to be disappointed in Chaucer?
It may be argued that Chaucer could do nothing else; a woman of his time
had only two choices, marriage or the service of God. It might also be argued
that if Emelye still wanted to be a priestess (nun in Chaucer's society) she would
have done so by the time "certeyn yeres" had passed.
It could, of course, be argued that Chaucer is simply following Boccaccio.
But Chaucer, as we know, was not a mere follower, though he changed plots
elsewhere, as in the Legend(s) of Good Women. The point I am making is that
the conventionality of the ending does not succeed in removing the questions
and the ambiguity-nor, I believe, is it meant to. It may seem to some that in the
final ending, where we are told that Emelye and Palamon live "happily ever after"
(3101-6), the characters pass into the realm of fairy tale, where natural human
problems are abolished. Perhaps so, but we are still left wondering if the
conventions really make everybody happy, and if Chaucer thinks they do. Taylor
(15) explains that "Chaucer's poetry exposes the visible disorder of man's
experience out of which he would find order." Find it, not impose it. Venus has
apparently conquered Mars, but what is the everyday outcome in the years
ahead? Will Emelye, like Zenobia of "The Monk's Tale," become a mighty
warrior queen in her own right (Chaucer 246)? We may hope so, but we cannot
assume that it is likely. The story of Emelye ends with what, reading from the
perspective established here, can be considered a triumph of masculine power,
consolidated by reference to the controlling force of classical tradition.
THE WIFE OF BATH
The Wife of Bath is almost too easy to write about. As a woman who
enjoys sex and is uninhibited about saying so, she seems the epitome of the
Wild Woman as envisaged by the Middle Ages-that is, a hypersexual woman.
Not only is she hypersexual (by the standards of her age, at least), she also
defies the conventions laid down for women by being aggressive, assertive, and
bold in her search for the life she wants. I argue in this chapter that she has
characteristics of all the types of Wild Woman, and also that she is not a
caricature or a stereotype, but a fully rounded female character.
First, however, it seems appropriate to provide a context; an overview of
the conventional wisdom about woman in the Middle Ages may be of use here.
This view of woman was inherited from Greco-Roman society, where women
were seen as "cold" (since they did not produce the heat and masculine virtues
depending on semen)1 and yet "profoundly sexual, insatiable in their capacity to
experience intercourse and to enjoy it," as Joyce E. Salisbury (84) states; see
also Vem L. Bullough (226). Inheriting the Greco-Roman view, medieval
Christian thinkers held that women's and men's sexual expression was
'It is interesting that we now see actively sexual women as "hot and less responsive
women as "cold" (frigid").
"profoundly different" (Salisbury 85). Men were strong and active; their "power"
was moral and spiritual, not just physical; and, since semen was believed to
come from the brain, masculinity was linked to reason and men were the rational
half of humanity. Isidore of Seville explained all this by means of etymology: A
man is called vir because he has greater force, vis, than woman, while woman,
mulier, derived her name from molites, softness (Bullough 226). Women, on the
other hand, "embodied sexuality"; their sexuality was "open and receptive."
Indeed, women were open in every way--open-mouthed and talkative, as well
as lustful (Salisbury 85-7). Augustine did feel that men and women "shared a
common sexual experience," but the prevailing view was still Greco-Roman (88).
It need hardly be added that a belief in the profound difference of men's and
women's experience must lead to psychological alienation of the sexes from
each other and to the feeling on the part of male writers that woman was alien
and to be feared. In this connection, the reader may look again at the work of
In early Christianity, as we see in Peter Brown's The Body and Society,
sexual discipline was the way of giving the Christian Church a distinctive code,
"the equivalent of the Jewish Law" (60), to separate Christians from pagans and
Jews; the ban on divorce and disapproval of the remarriage of widowed persons
strengthened this. Sexual abstinence came to be seen as one "mark of
exceptional closeness to the spirit of God"; indeed, a dazzling reputation for
sexual abstinence could make a woman or an uneducated man the equal of
anyone! Christians, as well as Jews and pagans, believed that abstinence and
especially virginity "made the human body a more appropriate vehicle to receive
divine inspiration." Possession, the "flooding of the body with an alien, divine
spirit," excluded "the warm rush of vital spirits" associated with sex. Indeed,
sexual desire was seen as the first manifestation of Adam and Eve's loss of
immortality and fall from grace (60-61, 66, 67, 86).
In the Middle Ages, stripping a woman of sexuality made her-not equal
to man, for she could not be a priest, but almost like a man. Katharina Wilson
and Elizabeth Makowski express this as follows in Wykked Wives and the Woes
[T]he chaste ideal denied the necessity of the traditional sex
roles and thus continued the revolutionary New Testament
emphasis on the baptismal equality of all.... Although woman was
less perfect and more libidinous than man and her reason for
existence more closely tied to procreation, the patristic view was
that she could rise above her subordination by becoming like a
man, that is, by denying her sexuality. (59)
Indeed, a chaste maiden might be so far ennobled as to pass for a man.
Consider the story of St. Marina (discussed by Eric G. Stanley, 59). This saint
dressed as a boy in order to enter her father's monastery, was accepted as such
(to the extent of being accused of paternity), and was only found to be a woman
when she died. St. Eugenia, in /Elfric's homily, dressed as a man and at her
death claimed to be ending the course of her life werlice (like a man) (60-61). As
Stanley remarks, "[t]he virgin martyrs are the heroines of medieval England";
they are "seen as the exception which proves the rule that women, being
weaker, have a greater proclivity to sinfulness than men" (66, 67). We may
pause briefly to note the contradiction in Greco-Roman and medieval Christian
thinking: women are feared, aggressive, and rampantly sexual, but at the same
time they are weak, "cold," and cannot help being sinful.
From the chaste virgin we pass to the married woman or widow. A woman
was often married very young; seven, most canonists agreed, was an
appropriate age for a girl to become engaged, twelve for marriage. The Church
accepted the idea that parents should determine when and whom children
married. As Paulette L'Hermite-Leclercq asks, "Did a girl affianced at seven and
slated to marry at twelve know what she was doing? Did she have any options?"
Saint Ode refused to give her consent on her wedding day; she returned home
and, to prevent any further attempt to force her into marriage, cut off her nose.
"How many women were willing to pay such a price for freedom?" (217).
Once married, the young woman had to accept the doctrine that she was
naturally inferior and hence received less "friendship" from her husband than he
did from her. As Silvana Vecchio states, "[T]he obligation to love her husband,
essential to her wifely function, turned out to be inexhaustible, the very mark of
her inferiority" (111). Vecchio adds:
Since a woman was dominated by senses and incapable of
attaining the self-control expected of the male sex, she was
condemned to an all-consuming but mistaken love in the attempt to
achieve the unachievable: the limited but perfect love her husband
gave in return. ... [S]he had to find external criteria to give
meaning to her all-consuming love for her husband. The criteria
and meaning were to be found in the husband's whims, to which
the wife... [must] bow to voluntary submission. (111, 112)
This is assuming, of course, that the wife loved her husband. Even if she
did not, obedience, submission, and fidelity were expected. Is it any wonder that
sometimes women rebelled and became adulterous? But a woman who did this
became an unchaste, badly behaved, indeed wicked, woman. A good woman
obeyed. A bad, uncontrolled, or "wild" woman refused to submit.
For a man, marriage had a different meaning. Marriage was seen as a bar
to men's professional advancement and "adultery against the first bride,
philosophy." Love, marriage, and reproduction were thought by some to trap
more souls in the "prison of matter," though this was a Gnostic, heretical view
(Wilson and Makowski 43, 93). Also, as we have seen, it was felt that abstinence
and virginity made it easier for both men and women to draw closer to God. If
marriage was to be discouraged, then, it made sense for men to denigrate and
even demonize women. An antimarriage literature arose, featuring such authors
as Tertullian and St. Jerome. To Tertullian, wicked women were loquacious,
slothful, gossipy, lustful, gluttonous, and fornicating. St. Jerome stated that
women were either odious or excessively passionate (which was probably
odious to him also). Wilson and Makowski point out that Jerome had no first-
hand knowledge of wicked wives; his examples are "biblical, historical,
mythological, or admittedly based on secondhand information" (39-40, 49, 57).
There was a hiatus in antimarriage literature for several centuries after
Jerome, as Germanic customs prevailed over classical models in society. In
these customs the bride was given gifts, rather than expected to give a dowry, so
possibly the notion of woman as commodity lessened. However, as population
increased and resources became scarcer, the goal seems to have been to limit
the acquisition of resources and power by women-which then, of course,
provided additional reason to denigrate them. The reemergence of dualist
religious sects-"antisocial, antimarriage, and antiprocreation," as Wilson and
Makowski put it (65)-led to renewed antimarriage and antiwoman writings. The
authors quote Walter Map (English, 12th century), who wrote of woman in his
Valerius: "The three-formed monster is adorned with the face of a noble lion,
polluted with the body of a stinking goat, armed with the tail of a rank viper" (65,
89). And Shulamith Shahar, quoting from a declaration of a double monastery
that decided to abolish its female section, shows the extremity of the view that
led to their action: "Since nothing is the less harmful to men than their proximity,
we hereby declare that for the good of our souls, our bodies and our worldly
goods we will no longer accept sisters into our order and we will avoid them as
we do mad dogs" (36).
The monks who wrote such things also gave woman, by implication, great
power; for any being more dangerous than a tiger, a viper, or a mad dog is
powerful indeed. This reflects fear of women (Lederer 1968), and, as seems
obvious, a defense on the part of clerics-who, from the 11th century on, as
Jacques Dalarun (16) points out, were expected to remain celibate-against
their own sexual nature.
Patriarchal defense against the fear of women and attempts to preserve
male supremacy and authority were maintained in Chaucer's day by actions as
well as literature (and modern scholarship finds that much misogynistic matter
has been added to Chaucerian texts by others). The concept of a wife as a
subordinate who had to accept authority led to the belief that a husband was
justified in wife beating, as Margaret Hallissy, Cynthia Ho, and Shulamith Shahar
show. If a superior beat a subordinate, this was "not only permissible but
necessary; God Himself is punishing the world for its sinfulness" (Hallissy 86).
Gratian's Decretum, a law book of the beginning of the fourteenth century, sets
down the rule that a man might chastise and beat his wife, "for she is of his
household, therefore the lord may chastise his own." He added, "... so likewise
the husband is bound to chastise his wife in moderation ... unless he be a clerk,
in which case he may chastise her more severely" (Hallissy 86, Ho 19). We
know that the Wife of Bath's fifth husband, Jankyn the clerk, took this to heart.
Husbands could, however, be tried and fined if they went too far. In some
places, also, men were punished for being beaten by their wives: "The husband
was seated facing backwards on a donkey, his hands clutching its tail, a
humiliating punishment also inflicted on prostitutes and fomicators" (Shahar
Jankyn takes pleasure in reading to the Wife a book called "Valerie and
Theofraste" (Valerius, i.e., Walter Map, Dissuasio Valerii Rufino ne ducat uxorem
[Dissuasion of Valerius to Rufinus that he not take a wife], 1180-90). In this
work, which takes the form of a letter, Valerius tries to dissuade Rufinus from
marrying, citing both biblical and mythological examples of the bad effects of
loving women. The "Theofraste" of Jankyn's book is Theophrastus, author of the
Golden Book on Marriage, another book attacking marriage. Theophrastus's
book included that of St. Jerome (340?-420), Against Jovinianus, Jovinianus
being "an unorthodox monk who denied that virginity was necessarily superior to
marriage." This text had much to say about the defects of wives, some of it
entertaining: "[S]he complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she;
that another is looked up to by all; 'I am a poor despised nobody at the ladies[']
assemblies.' 'Why did you ogle that creature next door?' 'Why were you talking
to the maid?'... 'I am not allowed to have a single friend, or companion'"
Chaucer develops the Wife of Bath's character by taking off from this kind
of antimarriage literature; in the "book of wykked wives" read aloud by Jankyn,
this kind of admonition of the husband, as well as many other tales of women's
defects and misbehavior, provided a well-rounded stereotype. He adds such
details as the Wife's horoscope, her clothing, and, finally, her behavior in the
altercation with her fifth husband, which left her partially deaf. With respect to
her horoscope, the Wife declares:
For certes, I am al Venerien
In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
And Mars me yaf my sturdy hardynesse;
Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.
Allas! Alias! that evere love was synnel
I folwed ay myn inclinacioun
By vertu of my constellacioun....
(Wife's Prologue, 609-16; Chaucer 113)
The Wife seems to be saying that she is naturally wild, lecherous, and
"hardy" (bold); she cannot help it; she uses astrology not only to explain but to
excuse herself. Another interpretive perspective, however, is possible. Chauncy
Wood, in his book on Chaucer's use of astrology, points out that if she follows
Nicole Oresme's Livre de divinacions ("Book of Divinations"; Oresme was a
contemporary of Chaucer), the Wife, while she might be inclined to lechery by
her stars, has free will to control her behavior. Chaucer's beliefs may have been
similar. He states in his Astrolabe that horoscopes "ben observaunces of judicial
matere and rytes of payens, in which my spirit hath no feith," and describes the
practices of astrologers as follows: "[T]hey wol caste that their [the customers]
have a fortunate planet in hir ascendent, and yit in his felicite; and than say thei
that it is wel" (Wood 11, 15; Chaucer 670-1). Astrologers tell their customers
what they want to hear, but it is possible to take a critical stance with regard to
what the astrologers say. The Wife, therefore, cannot blame her stars for what
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