Dr. Deborah Everhart
MVST 221, Spring 1995
Phone: 687-7091
Office Hours: 11-1 Monday, 318 New North (and via email)

World Wide Web and Internet Resouces for the Study of Medieval Women


The Wife of Bath, a literary figure familiar to most, will provide us with a bold and vivacious answer to the classical and medieval antifeminist traditions which depict women as the bane of Adam, the root of all evil, the source of temptation, or, at the opposite pole, as idealized and virginal objects of worship. The Wife brashly speaks out against the misogynistic teachings of the Church Fathers, asking,

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.

In light of this question, "Who peyntede the leon?," this course focusses on medieval women who have struggled to find a voice and write themselves, despite the constraints of an oppressively patriarchal world. The abbess Heloise, the mystics Julian of Norwich and Margery of Kempe, the poet Marie de France, and the scholar Christine de Pisan all speak out against misogynistic inscriptions of women's roles as they attempt to write their own "stories." In the process, they make vital contributions to the history of feminism.

Heloise, daughter of an influential church official and student of the philosopher Abelard, bases her famous letters on ecclesiastical and classical Latin texts. Much of her writing re-presents the misogynistic principles of these texts, particularly the idea that woman is the source of all evil, as Heloise reflects on her past passions and resolves herself to life in a nunnery. Nonetheless, we find in her letters a frank analysis of her desires and a reluctance to renounce her sexual identity, qualities that are absent from Abelard's scholarly responses. The difference in tone between Heloise's and Abelard's letters will lead us to scrutinize a recent hypothesis that Abelard wrote all of the letters in the set; the assumptions behind this conjecture tell us much about the still-prevalent attitudes toward women's intellectual abilities.

Julian of Norwich offers a striking contrast to the concerns of the abbess Heloise, since Julian literally stepped outside the Church in search of personal revelations from God. As an anchoress, Julian lived in a cell adjoining the church, cut off from all but the most essential human contact, and there she concentrated all of her energies on receiving and transmitting mystical visions. Both the style of her writing and the material of her visions reflect the beautiful intricacies of nurturing feminine spirituality: the circular repetition and gradual evolution of ideas, the belief that the meaning, source, and purpose of her showings is the love that directs the universe, and her central vision of God as a loving mother. Both by choosing the life of an anchoress and through the nature of her visions, Julian separates herself from the roles expected of medieval women.

Margery of Kempe, a wife, mother, and mystic, breaks free from her expected roles by working out a contract with her husband that frees her from her sexual "tithes" and allows her to travel and share her revelations. Unlike the reclusive life of Julian of Norwich, Margery's life is highly public, as she challenges church officials and defends her right to speak about her visions in public. She represents for us a different kind of literacy, as she cannot read or write, but is well-versed in scriptural interpretation and Church law. The fact that her book was dictated to a male intermediary provides us with a context for discussing the implications of masculine inscription.

Of Marie de France we know little, but she was most probably an educated noblewoman familiar with a wide range of French, English, and Latin texts. Her short Lais, stories of fulfilled or frustrated passion, provide a provocative counterpoint to the enormously influential Roman de le Rose. The contrast between these texts, the latter's misogyny and the former's superbly feminine perspective, provides us with an excellent example of romance tradition and counter-tradition.

Christine de Pisan, a mother and widow at the age of 25, utilized the scholarly education she had received from her father and became one of the first women since antiquity to support herself by writing. In her poetry and philosophical texts, she attacks courtly and clerkly traditions, particularly the anti-feminism of the Roman de la Rose and the Pauline doctrine that women are not to teach or speak in public. She boldly states that "God has demonstrated that he has truly placed language in women's mouths so that He might be thereby served." We will trace in detail the convoluted and painful process that eventually brings Christine to feminist conclusions.


Students will submit critical questions (short written responses to the readings) each Tuesday before class; these will serve as the basis for class discussion and will count as 15% of the final grade. Critical questions will not be accepted after the beginning of the class period on which they are due, and there will be no makeup opportunities. Regular attendance is expected, and class participation and group presentations will count as 20% of the final grade. More than three absences during the semester will negatively affect the student's grade. Throughout the semester, I will make brief computer assignments designed to introduce students to on-line research and the many uses of the World Wide Web; these assignments will constitute 10% of the final grade. The midterm essay will constitute 25% of the final grade. A second research paper due at the end of the semester will constitute the remaining 30% of the final grade.

Critical questions: 15%
Class participation and group work: 20%
Internet and World Wide Web work: 10%
Midterm essay: 25%
Final essay: 30%


Burgess, Glyn, and Keith Busby, eds. The Lais of Marie de France. (New York: Penguin, 1986).

The Writings of Hildegard of Bingen (Bear and Co.).

Lemay, Helen Rodnite, trans. Women's Secrets. (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1992).

Radice, Betty, trans. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. (New York: Penguin, 1974)

Willard, Charity Cannon. The Writings of Christine de Pizan. (New York: Persea Books, 1994).

Windeatt, B.A. The Book of Margery Kempe. (New York: Penguin, 1985).

Wolters, Clifton, trans. Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love. (New York: Penguin, 1982).


Jan. 17 - Introductory Material
Jan. 19 - The Wife of Bath's Prologue (Blamires)

Jan. 24 - "Introduction" and "Ancient Satire" (Blamires)
Jan. 26 - "Physiology and Etymology" (Blamires) and "Destiny is Anatomy" (Laqueur)

Jan. 31 - Women's Secrets
Feb. 2 - Women's Secrets

Feb. 7 - Selections from Scripture
Feb. 9 - "The Church Fathers" (except Jerome) and "Rule for Anchoresses" (Blamires)

Feb. 14 - Jerome: "Against Jovinian" and "To Eustochium"
Feb. 16 - Abelard and Heloise

Feb. 21 - World Wide Web Introduction, Reiss 238
Feb. 23 - Abelard and Heloise

Feb. 28 - Abelard and Heloise

March 7 & 9- No Class, Spring Break

March 14 - Andreas Capellanus (Blamires) and Marie de France
March 16 - Marie de France

March 21 - Hildegard of Bingen
March 23 - Hildegard of Bingen

March 28 - Hildegard of Bingen
March 30 - NO CLASS

April 4 - Julian of Norwich
April 6 - Julian of Norwich

April 11 - Margery Kempe
April 13 - NO CLASS, Maundy Thursday

April 18 - Margery Kempe
April 20 - Jean de Meun (Blamires) and Christine de Pizan

April 25 - Christine de Pizan
April 27 - Christine de Pizan

May 2 - Final class- Conclusions

May 9 (Tuesday)- FINAL ESSAYS DUE


Bloch, Howard. Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love.

Burgess, Glyn. The Lais of Marie de France: Text and Context.

Cixous, Helene. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Signs I (1976).

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer's Sexual Poetics.

Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages.

Ennen, Edith. The Medieval Woman.

Gies, Frances and Joseph. Women in the Middle Ages.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "Literary Paternity." Cornell Review (1979).

Heimmel, Jennifer P. "God is our Mother": Julian of Norwich and the Medieval Image of Christian Feminine Divinity.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language.

LaBarge, Margaret Wade. Women in Medieval Life.

Lochrie, Karma. Margery Kempe and Translations of the Flesh.

Qulligan, Maureen. The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan's "Cite des Dames".

Shulamith, Shahar. The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages.

Vinck, Jose D., ed. Revelations of Women Mystics: From the Middle Ages to Modern Times.