'woman,' as was understood by a resident of Europe during the Middle Ages, was either the mother of Jesus or the physical embodiment of Eve's sin. In the rhetorical discourse of courtly love, women functioned either as representations of desire or objects of adoration for men to save. They could inspire heroic deeds in the hearts of knights yet in the Christian discourse of the lives of the saints and miracles, women functioned as representations of what was worldly, fleshy and desirable in a negative fashion. Thus, to eschew the feminine in the religious discourse of the period was evidence of saintliness, as seen through the eyes of saintly hagiographers.
Women thus occupied an ideologically precarious position within the context of Medieval Europe. They were symbolically central. They were not socially marginal as a group, as transactions and exchanges of women were significant for men in terms of passing land from one pair of hands to another along familial lines. Real women even and often administered power and territory in ways that subsumed and transcended gender norms and biases. But the symbolic and the lived social functions of women were often contradictory, in the read and lived texts of the female ideological and historical life of the period. Women remained seen as detrimental to male prowess, even though actual women functioned in positive and powerful ways.
This was seen even in the fictional and mythic fabric of Chretien de Troyes' tale of Yvain, "The Knight with the Lion." Although a singular text, it epitomized the contradictory role of women, given the predominance many women played in the tale. Firstly, the tale began with Yvain paying homage to the powerful Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur. She said to Yvain, "don't pay any heed to this attack by my lord Kay, the seneschal; he so frequently speaks ill of people that we cannot punish him for it. I urge and pray you not to be angry in your heart on his account nor fail to tell of things it would please us [ladies] to hear. If you wish to enjoy my love, pray begin again at once," she bids Yvain, in no uncertain terms as he commences his tale of valor.
The act of the knights recounting their tales of valor began at the "invitation of ladies, damsels, or maidens." Thus, the acts of masculine and knightly valor shown are evidently inspired by a female-centered audience and for female approval rather than the male-centered universe of the court. Even the evident leader of the Arthurian court in Yvain's world is not that of Arthur himself, but Arthur's queen, who feels quite confident from her position of title to rebuke a "seneschal" as she is above Kay in the court's hierarchy of status, if not of gender. Differences of social status thus could transcend gender. Guinevere is not simply symbolically important, but is an effective political actor.
This is also true of the woman whom Yvain's life recounts in greatest detail over the course of his narrative. Yvain's story is in fact multiple stories, all interrupted to some degree, as his attempts to save women are thwarted temporarily, with attempts to save other women who throw himself in his path. Yet despite the repeated proximity of women in need of the knight's aid, women also functioned in very powerful positions in Yvain's world. When Yvain killed a knight, he found himself unexpectedly dependant upon the knight's widow for shelter that evening, in a brilliant twist of narrative irony.
He was upset to see them," referring to the women of the knight's household, "burying the body, since he now had no way of proving that he had killed the knight. If he did not have some proof to show in the assembly, he would be thoroughly shamed. Kay was so wicked and provocative, so full of insults and mockery, that he would never relinquish but would keep hurling insults and taunts at him, [Yvain] just as he had the other day." In other words, Yvain was at first mainly concerned with the ethical economy of military valor regarding the death of his hostess' husband, not with the ethical question of his staying in her presence. "The wicked taunts are still rankling and fresh within him."
The knight that Yvain killed, moreover, was killed in honorable conduct, thus the knight does not regret it. Chretien de Troyes said this explicitly, so there could be no doubt in the reader's mind. "Throughout they fought most honorably, for they never struck at or wounded their horses at all, nor did they deign or desire to. They remained on horseback throughout and never fought on foot, and the battle was more splendid for it."
However, no matter how honorable the two fought, this did prevent the widow from being angry with the man who took her husband and failing to understand what can happen during a joust. "Yet how did you manage to kill my husband, if it wasn't through deceit," she implores the presumably absent murderer -- even though Yvain was listening to her rant, unknown to her. "Truly my husband would never have been defeated by you had he been able to see you, for no one in the world was his equal -- neither God nor man knew his equal, and none like him remain. To be sure, had you been a mortal man you would never have dared attack my husband, for no one could compare with him." woman, the author suggested, is too besotted to understand the true military rule and economy of the world of men, despite the Queen Guinevere's initial fairness in mediating between Kay against Yvain. Suddenly, women, symbolically, in the tale functioned as a representation of all that is against knightly valor, rather functioning as the inspiring symbols of deeds of courtly love. "But New Love," it was noted of Yvain, " has sweetened him with her sugar and honeycomb [note the personification of love in the feminine register]" and has made a foray into his lands where she has captured her prey: Yvain's enemy has led away his heart, and he loves the creature who most hates him." Let it be noted that, unlike the beginning of the narrative, the creature who most hates Yvain is not Kay, but the widow whose hospitality he is dependant upon. "The lady, although she does not know it, has fully avenged the death of her husband: she has taken greater vengeance than she could ever have thought possible had Love herself not avenged her by striking Yvain such a gentle blow through the eyes into the heart."
Women, in other words, had a power greater than the lance or shield; their beauty had the power to inspire love and devotion even when men such as Yvain would rather not feel such ardor. But the rhetoric of Chretien de Troyes belied once again a certain reality to the scenario he outlined, namely that the woman has become head of her husband's household. Subliminally this was suggested as love made inroads into the lands of Yvain's heart -- if he occupied the dead man's position, he occupied his lands. Even the female servant had a certain power, as without the servant's aid, Yvain would not have found any place to be sheltered during the night after he had killed the head of the household.
Thus also, paradoxically, Yvain's own personal attractiveness and ability to inspire love in a female social inferior gives his military prowess additional weight, although the author did not say this explicitly. The construction of the tale, namely the female servant's ability to machinate things from 'downstairs' and the woman's new responsibility in administering her dead lord's responsibilities were not overtly highlighted in the rhetoric of the story, like the ability of women to soften the hardened hearts of noble knights, but the narrative texture of the tale's reality showed how women had a social and economic role in the Middle Ages beyond inspiring military valor, like the far-off Queen who was the human stand-in for the mediating Mary of religious literature in the symbolic texture of courtly love romance, or even representing the 'softness' that hardened military men attempted to turn from, even while they road around the forests of England and France, saving damsels in distress.
Judith Bennett's recounting of the real life of a medieval woman, Cecilia Penifader of Brigstock, further underlined the important social role of women in the Middle Ages, even though overt courtly love and religious rhetoric often denied the lived reality of this aspect of medieval women's lives. Unlike the widow of Yvain, however, Penifader was a peasant woman, rather than of the noble classes. Yet Cecilia Penifader showed, in her ability to survive and make do with the lived reality of her circumstances, a similar hardiness along the lines of the servant of the lady of the…