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George Diepenbrock
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Author studies women as political counsel in Medieval advice texts

Thu, 05/15/2014

LAWRENCE — Political prognosticators expect women candidates in a number of states to play prominent roles in U.S. gubernatorial elections this fall. And Hillary Clinton is currently in strong position to be the first woman to secure a major party's nomination for president in 2016.

As many American women have risen to positions of political power in the last decade, the possibility of the first female president has focused the spotlight on the role of women in politics. While the chance to cross an important landmark or break through a metaphorical "glass ceiling" in politics seems closer than ever before, a University of Kansas researcher examines the roles women have played in the political imagination and the stereotypes that have plagued them for centuries.

Misty Schieberle, an associate professor of English, argues that several works of literature from the late Medieval period portray women as important political counselors who could advise nobles.

As part of her book "Feminized Counsel and the Literature of Advice in England, 1380-1500," Schieberle examines important late Medieval advice texts, including John Gower's "Confessio Amantis," Geoffrey Chaucer's "Legend of Good Women" and "The Tale of Melibee," and English translations of Christine de Pizan's "Epistre Othea." All these vernacular texts portray women as essential and authoritative political counselors, in Schieberle’s view.

Gower's and Chaucer's works are foundational to the development of English literature, and in putting the two authors alongside Christine de Pizan, Schieberle’s study reveals a more progressive role for women during the Middle Ages – a period largely regarded as antifeminist.

This advocacy for women in positions of political influence runs counter to what most people expect and what most medieval readers would have expected from traditional works designed to advise princes.

"Normally in Latin advice texts for aristocrats, there are no women, or if there are, those women are temptresses who want to ruin the king or who take time away from his duties," Schieberle said.

By contrast, the vernacular texts revisit Latin narratives and classical figures, such as Achilles and Hector of Troy, and add in a balanced image of politically wise women.

"These women are much more supportive of the male ruler and often add to the limited Latinate and masculine worldview a perspective that it previously lacked," Schieberle found.

Many medieval conceptions of gender relied on binaries that represented the man as justice, the woman as mercy, or the man as intellect, the woman as impulse. In the majority of them, "feminization," or the exhibition of feminine qualities, is perceived as weakness.

But as Schieberle’s research shows, late Medieval writers were challenging these binaries to teach young politicians crucial lessons.

According to her texts, "Sometimes it's appropriate for a young ruler to be a warrior, whereas other times it would be more appropriate and smarter for his country if he aimed for peace or mercy instead of aggression. Sometimes it's more necessary to be feminized than to be aggressively masculine,” Schieberle said.

She argues that the late medieval authors she examined construct an ideal woman who is both attractive and wise, but her attractiveness derives less from physical beauty and more from her rhetorical savvy and her ability to logically and effectively direct the prince to political decisions that benefit the kingdom.

"It is significant that these texts are written for men," Schieberle said. "That makes them much more important because in theory they advocate that men must respect women or womanly qualities as good and useful for kings."

Her research also found that non-aristocratic men and women owned these texts, so these favorable images of women were widespread and permeated literate society.

As Schieberle points out, the texts she examined assert literary and historical precedents for embracing women’s perspectives as essential to a well-governed nation. 

"These texts provide models for outspoken women that would be surprising for some of their medieval contemporaries and equally surprising for modern readers," she said. "The construction of the Middle Ages as a time when women are silenced may be a broad assumption, but like many other assumptions, it doesn't hold true."

Brepols Publishers is scheduled to release the book in June. An American Association of Women American Postdoctoral Research Fellowship funded the research.



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