Chastity in Renaissance Literature and Political Power
Chastity was a concept that was promoted throughout Renaissance society by the church and those in political power. Chastity was promoted not only as a virtue and measure of the worthiness of a woman at the time of her marriage, it was also utilized as a means to repress women and their ability to gain their own power in society. However, in some ways, it served as a route to power for women as well. Although chastity was promoted for both men and women by the church, in reality it was not applied equally. Men were expected to have extramarital affairs, while women were expected to may remain faithful throughout her marriage and to place all of her efforts on raising children in taking care of the home. This research will explore the ideal of chastity and political power among both the genders in Renaissance society as embodied and the character Britomart in Spenser's "Fairie Queen."
An Exploration of the symbolism of Britomart
Britomart does not appear in any significant role until Volume III. The focus of volume III begins with the tale of Britomart and her actions. However, when one examines Britomart more carefully, both in virtue, and her actions, it becomes apparent that Britomart was more than just a character in the story. Britomart symbolizes political power in many ways. Britomart is al allegorical representation of the virtue of chastity.
Britomart represents the virtue of chastity, but Britomart's chastity goes beyond merely refraining from sexual activities. Chastity in the character of Britomart means refraining from the actions that would make her of lower virtue according to the other virtues addressed in the Faerie Queene. The virtues are considered to be intertwined and dependent upon each other. St. Gregory explains the connection of chastity and power. It is likened to the ability to see God.
"I venture to affirm that, to one who has cleansed all the powers of his being from every form of vice, the Beauty which is essential, the source of every beauty and every good, will become visible. The visual eye, purged from its blinding humour, can clearly discern objects even on the distant sky ; so to the soul by virtue of her innocence there comes the power of taking in that Light; and the real Virginity, the real zeal for chastity, ends in no other goal than this, viz. The power thereby of seeing God," (St. Gregory, p. 22).
St. Gregory sees chastity as a means to connect to a higher power, In the Renaissance mindset, the ability to refrain from sexual activities is associated with the ability to refrain from other vices as well. Chastity was an outward representation of the ability to exercise self-control and restraint. In a society where kingdoms were decided by heirs, chastity was an outward symbol of the ability to use the judgment needed to manage a kingdom. Chastity was regarded as most important for the upper class for this very reason.
Perhaps the most interesting feature o Spenser's treatment of Britomart is that she was mentioned at great length. The gender role of women relegated them to the home and seldom did they participate or play any significant role in politics. Britomart is considered an equal to other knights, except for perhaps Arthur himself. She demonstrates her ability to beat other knights on the battlefield. If one looks more closely, this victory on the battlefield tests other virtues of the other knights. For instance, when she manages to unseat Guyon, Guyon's the virtue of temperance is tested. In the end they reconcile and Guyon passes the test. In order to understand the significance of this scene, one must look at not the battlefield actions, but the virtues that each character represents. As Britomart represents chastity and Guyon represents temperance, the defeat of temperance by chastity establishes a hierarchy, suggesting that chastity is a stronger virtue than temperance.
Britomart's defeat of Guyon suggests that women's chastity is a source of power that is held as a higher virtue than virtues traditionally associated with male roles. The defeat of Guyon by Britomart suggests that women can overcome the challenges presented by men's inability to control their own desires by maintaining their chastity. When one examines the character of Florimell, one finds that otherwise highly virtuous knights can be overcome by a woman's beauty. Florimell spends much of her time fleeing from her pursuers that cannot overcome their own urges. Britomart is, of course immune to Florimell's beauty, demonstrating that women have better control of their chastity and urges than men.
Malecasta is Britomart's opposite. Her name means, "unchaste." Spenser juxtaposes Britomart against Malecasta to demonstrate several points. Britomart is searching for her one and only true love. She seeks adventure on her journey to find the one with whom she expects to spend the rest of her life. Malecasta is much different. Malecasta lives in luxury and will impose her unchaste virtues upon any knight who accepts food and a place to rest from her. Malecasta is shocked when she finds that Britomart is a woman. Malecasta's six knights represent the six stages of lecherous behavior. In the end, her lecherous knights attack her, but she is saved by Redcrosse. The virtue of holiness is symbolized by Redcrosse. When Redcrosse assists Britomart it demonstrates that holiness helps chastity in the avoidance of lecherous behavior. Holiness adds strength to chastity. As one can see, Spenser slowly builds the image of an ideal woman throughout Volume III. As Britomart procedes along her adventures, the picture of an ideal woman begins to emerge. Now we know that the ideal women's role is to retain holiness as support for their ability to maintain chastity.
Britomart knows the name of her beloved. His name is Artegall, which means literally, "equal to Arthur." Although Britomart demonstrates many qualities of gender roles traditionally associated with men, she is still seeking the ultimate male partner. One advantage that Britomart has over the male characters is that she is immune to the various unchaste women who are the downfall of other knights. The fact that she is a woman and maintains her chastity gives her an advantage that she can use to defeat other knights and gain her own power.
Canto IV changes subject. In this Canto, Britomart laments that she has not actually met her beloved. Arthur also laments unrequited love for Gloriana. At first, this Canto may seem out of place. However, it plays an important role in understanding male and female gender roles in terms of power. Arthur is considered the most powerful male in the story, and Britomart is portrayed as an equally the powerful female role. In this Canto, Arthur and Britomart are given equal power by their common goals of seeking their one true love. It is important to point out that both Arthur and Britomart desire the pleasures of the flesh, but both maintain their chastity waiting for the one that is their true love. The parallels between Britomart tin Arthur are important in this Canto because it demonstrates that chastity is associated with power in either Males or females.
This brings up another point about chastity and power. The breaking of chastity means the possibility of bringing a child into the world. When this child would be heir to a throne or other dynasty, it is important to assure that only the correct mate is chosen as the sire. Chastity assures preservation of political lines and protects lineage. In a monarchy where lineage alone determines the next monarch and assures that the family fortune will continue, chastity before marriage was necessary as a political force. As Britomart later learns, the lover that she seeks is a relative of Arthur himself, it becomes even more important to assure that no unwanted pregnancies occur so that the power of the Arthurian line could be preserved. Chastity played an important role in the political landscape of the Renaissance due to the principle of heirs and social class.
Throughout the Faerie Queene, men chase after women to satisfy their wants and desires of the moment. Men would pursue sexual relations simply to fulfill their natural urge without consideration of its political consequences. Women were charged with the responsibility of preserving the lines and the social classes by practicing chastity and remaining faithful after marriage. This assured that powerful political lines would remain pure and not be diluted by less desirable progeny. Women had considerably more power to preserve lines than men in this respect. Chastity was the method that they used to accomplish this task.
This Canto also makes a point about social class. When focus shifts to Timias, pursuit of Florimell's future rapist leads him to yet another powerful, chase woman warrior figure. Belphoebe is a high class, also suggesting once again, that chastity is associated with the upper classes and those in power. Timias' falls instantly and love with her, but he must refrain…