George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

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.

KU in the news
The Daily MailSat, 04/25/2015
CNNMon, 04/13/2015
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@NYTimes columnist @WCRhoden will speak at a symposium about race and sports April 23.
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

One of 34 U.S. public institutions in the prestigious Association of American Universities
26 prestigious Rhodes Scholars — more than all other Kansas colleges combined
Nearly $290 million in financial aid annually
46 nationally ranked graduate programs.
—U.S. News & World Report
Top 50 nationwide for size of library collection.
23rd nationwide for service to veterans —"Best for Vets," Military Times