The Roles of Women in Middle English Literature

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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Throughout history, women are often portrayed as sexualized objects, and ridiculed when choosing to express that sexuality on their own. In Middle English literature, there is a running theme of women in powerful positions, and using that power to their advantage, even through sexual advances. Despite women’s roles in society increasing importance during this time period, the women lived very confined lives and portrayed a personality of contemptment with this lifestyle. Middle English narrative poems such “Lanval” and “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” have women who represent both the confined and unconfined women in their works of literature.

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The women in each texts are in high status roles of power and are either confined, unconfined, or sometimes both, while still expressing their sexuality. It is important that both these works of literature express women empowerment and sexuality to exemplify their roles as confined or unconfined women during the medieval time period.

In the narrative poem, “Lanval,” the Fairy Queen represents an empowered women, who is comfortable with the exploitation of her sexuality. Lanval, a knight in King Arthur’s court, is wisped away by two beautiful woman to the enchanting Fairy Queen, who then uses her body and riches to lure him in. She is described to be the most beautiful woman in existence, yet the mere fact that only Lanval can see her and wish upon her makes her in control of her own body. Lanval is simply seduced by the Fairy Queen and her beauty, and she claims to be his lover forever and offers him the ability to wish for anything he desires, so long as he does not tell a soul of her existence. The agreement between the Fairy Queen and Lanval gives her empowerment over Lanval, as it is typically the men who are in the role of being able to provide any desire their woman may wish upon. Lanval in this case, is now in the stereotypical shoes of a woman in distress who comes into a “fairytale dream” so to speak. Typically, it is the man who woe’s the woman, but in Lanvals case, he is being wooed by the Fairy Queen.

The Fairy Queen’s beauty is what gives her empowerment over Lanval, and leads her to be seen as an unconfined woman. Some descriptors of the Fairy Queen being; “Her body was very elegant and comely,” or “any one of her servants/ even the poorest maid / is worth more than you, lady queen / in body, face, and beauty / in manners and goodness” (France lines 100, 298-302). These express how the mere appearance of the Fairy Queen is enough to make her powerful over Lanval and any other woman by seduction and grace. The Fairy Queen is quite aware of her power and beauty, which makes it even easier for her to use it to her advantage. The reason the Fairy Queen is an unconfined woman, is because she is the one who runs the show based off of the knowledge the reader knows. She has servants who are beautiful as well, and riches, even linens that are apparently “worth more than a castle”.

The only other main woman in “Lanval” is Queen Guinevere, who appears in many works of Middle English literature, as a representation of a powerful woman of this time period. Guinevere is seen in “Lanval” using this power to her advantage, when she almost gets him executed due to his undesire towards her sexual advances. This portrayal of Guinevere’s personal sexual desires is not often seen in other works of literature, but rather just the mere note that she is seen as a beautiful sexual object for men. In “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” the author presents Guinevere as the “ideal” woman during this time period, as she is powerful in her role, yet confined, since she is in fact, a woman. She still represents the ideal woman of the medieval time period due to her composure, beauty, and physical demeanor. Guinevere is often portrayed as an object for men, and more like a prized-possession to King Arthur, due to her role as a peaceweaver, which shows the idea that a woman is content with this lifestyle. However, we learn in “Lanval,” that Guinevere is clearly not content, as her sexual desires seek more, which readers see through her advances towards Lanval.

Through the narrative poem, “Lanval,” Guinevere is still portrayed in this manner of composure and beauty, but has a more unconfined side to her, which is exposed when her sexual advances are made towards Lanval. Guinevere expresses more of her sexuality and personal desires in “Lanval,” where as in another Middle English literature narrative poem,“Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” these sexual desires are not exposed. Guinevere’s advances towards Lanval is what unleashes her from confinement, and ultimately makes him reveal his love affair with the elusive Fairy Queen. Guinevere’s behavior no longer shows her in a confined woman mannerism, as these sexual advances are not often expressed due to the shamefulness of them to be coming from a woman during the medieval time period. Lanval’s rejection of her advances, makes her power feel diminished and sexuality unrecognized, as he proclaims that, “even the poorest maid / is worth more than you, lady queen,” (France lines 300-301) this maid being one of the Fairy Queen’s servants.

By Lanval expressing to Guinevere that she is not worth as much as this elusive Fairy Queen, or even the Fairy Queen’s maid, it strips her from feeling empowered. To gain that power back she feels that she must accuse Lanval of homosexuality and that he has ‘shamed’ her. Through this we see that she is still an empowered woman as she holds a higher position against Lanval, who is male, however she is still confined as King Arthur is still in power over her. By the end of the narrative poem “Lanval,” the King and judges exonerate Lanval once his elusive Fairy Queen appears before King Arthur’s court. We see that the Fairy Queen could be portrayed as even more or as equally as powerful as the King, when it states, “The kind cannot detain her; / she had enough people to serve her,” (France, lines 631-632). This clearly would have infuriated Guinevere, and while the readers are unbeknownst to her reaction of the Fairy Queen, it is clear that in beauty and power she rules over Guinevere.

Guinevere’s representation in “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” is much different than her representation in “Lanval,” as she is more poised, obedient, and confined. She is constantly objectified and seen as a beautiful sexualized object. She remains silent, which instills her role as a confined woman during this time period. Her portrayal in “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” is a much more accurate and realistic view of what a Queen in this time period would be like in the public eye. They are simply there for decoration and admiration to their King. It is noted that Guinevere is young, which plays into her youthfulness and more importantly, innocence. Innocence is a big part of the confined woman of this time period, as their sexual desires are not to be known by others or expressed by themselves.

In this work of literature, unlike Guinevere, the stunning woman in the Bertilak’s castle represents both the confined and unconfined woman during the medieval period. This woman posses the same poise and demeanor as Guinevere in this text, but also show’s a wild sexual side to her persona in the bedroom. This sexual viewpoint of women during this time period is not often seen or portrayed, as they are suppose to be seen in a pure and respectable manner. She continuously makes sexual advances towards Sir Gawain during his stay at the castle, and it could be presumed she attempts to use her power as an advantage for persuasion. Unfortunately for the lady, due to her confined status as a married woman, Sir Gawain chooses to treat her chivalrously. Her unconfined mannerisms, such as entering Sir Gawain’s bedroom in a seductive way, could lead to trouble but Sir Gawain is able to see past this and remember she is not a woman who is available, and it is later discovered that these unconfined mannerisms are due to the influence of Morgan la Faye.

Morgan la Faye, a powerful sorceress, is another representation of how a woman of power can posses complete control over everyone and everything. It is later discovered in the text that she disguised herself as the old woman in the castle, and has been causing havoc for Sir Gawain throughout the narrative poem. Faye uses her power against everybody, in spite of her half brother, King Arthur, who is portrayed as a noble King. Even though King Arthur is often depicted as a powerful man, it is clear that Morgan la Faye has much more power and ability to control what she wishes. Even though she is using this power in an evil and selfish way, it is another representation of women expressing their power and ability to be greater than men.

Through each work of literature, “Lanval,” and “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,” it is clear that women during this time period portrayed the confined or unconfined woman, or even both. It is important that each representation be shown throughout these works of literature as they pose a realistic view point, as well as an appreciation for woman empowerment and sexuality. By having woman who expressed sexual and personal desires, it shows that it is not just the men who have these desires. This puts women in a light of control over their own bodies, especially in instances where they may not have a say as peaceweavers, or women in general.

By maintaining the idea that women are not in complete control and are still in a confined position as women, allows for a realistic viewpoint that could even play into modern day. The push for acceptance in society of a women’s ability to uphold power without the assistance of a man is still not fully accepted by societal standards in our world today or the world back then. Middle English literature during the medieval time period allows us to see the role of women in society, as well as how they are portrayed through works of literature, versus how women were in reality. These works of literature give women more power and say than the average woman in the medieval time period would have ever had.

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The Roles of Women in Middle English Literature. (2021, Jun 26). Retrieved from