What Sort Of Love Did Medieval Women Want?

14/02/2017 17:09 GMT | Updated 15/02/2018 10:12 GMT

Above an image of a bare-shouldered young woman gazing pensively out of frame top right, expensively groomed but otherwise stripped of any signs of social involvement and seemingly waiting for something to come her way, the lifestyle section of the Independent recently asked 'Valentine's Day: What do women really want?' The answers--jewellery, cosmetics and lingerie--are less paradigm-shattering than that 'really' might suggest.

Six hundred or so years ago, Geoffrey Chaucer ended his poem The Parliament of Fowls by asking his audience to think about what a woman--or, in the poem, a female eagle--wants and with a song in praise of St Valentine, which might be the first time love and Valentine's saint's day on 14 February were associated. Chaucer's poetry, however, is often seen as the exception that proves the rule in medieval culture and, anyway, it is not clear that his eagle will be allowed to want anything except one of the three male suitors who is vying for her wing in Nature's parliament, where birds convene to find their mates. Medieval culture was strongly patriarchal and, looking beyond Chaucer, we might not expect its main stream to think too deeply about women's desires. We certainly wouldn't start by looking in popular chivalric romances, the stories which have given us the enduring image of questing knights who, as Nicola McDonald of the University of York has put it, go forth and 'do' while ladies 'wait to be undone'.

It is all the more fascinating, then, to find such texts imagining female desire and imagining it strikingly and unsettlingly. In endlessly surprising ways, popular medieval stories recognize that women have understandable erotic desires. Even where they ultimately decree that those desires had best be circumscribed by men, these stories vividly imagine independent female desire and admit that patriarchal interests can encourage coercion. In a romance of the early 1300s called Sir Degare, which was popular throughout the late middle ages and beyond, a princess wanders in a forest and is raped by a fairy knight. The story's happy ending involves the marriage of the princess and the knight.

Is it possible that such a story can have any interest in what women want? Perhaps; if we see the knight at his first, mysterious fairy appearance, when he announces that he has loved the princess 'mani a yer', as desirable through the princess's own gaze and as some external manifestation of her own repressed desire which forces itself on her conscious self, her law-of-the-father-abiding ego. This seemingly perverse, 'no means yes' reading makes more sense when we realise that the knight, and the son, Degare, to whom she subsequently gives birth, free the princess from the grasp of her possessive father. There are insinuations of incest in that possessiveness and, significantly, Degare finds his own happy ending and reunites his parents only after he has helped a lady against another lord who is trying to coerce her into marriage. It is true that the poem's noble ladies both end up married to their violent protectors and, in warning against coercive patriarchy, the poem is chiefly seeking to strengthen 'caring' patriarchy; but it is a warning nonetheless.

About the time Sir Degare was being printed for the first time, in the early 1500s, the same printer, Wynkyn de Worde printed a much newer romance, Undo your Door, later titled The Squire of Low Degree. In this poem, another princess falls in love with a (relatively) low-born hall servant of her father, a squire, and takes it upon herself to plan and fund a crusade which will literally earn the squire his spurs and turn him into an eligible bridegroom for her royal person. An envious steward discovers their love and, after a skirmish, the squire ends up imprisoned and the steward ends up dead. At this point, the princess is fooled into thinking that the mutilated corpse of the steward, dressed as her lover, is the squire himself and, in a remarkable passage, she takes the body into her bedchamber, eviscerates and embalms it, and spends the next seven years tenderly worshipping and kissing it until it has crumbled into 'powder small'. Only then does her father reveal that he knew where the squire was all along, that he had himself sent him to win his spurs and that the couple will now be married. All the princess can do is ask 'Father, why dyd ye so?' before falling unconscious.

On the one hand, this romance ruthlessly misdirects and crushes out its female protagonist's independent desire. On the other hand, the princess's necrophiliac devotions are by far the most compelling and abiding rendering of emotion in the poem, easily overshadowing any of the squire's adventures, which are logged in the most summary fashion.

During the centuries between Degare's composition and Undo your Door, a ballad about forbidden love was being sung in numerous different versions across Europe. The English ballads are usually grouped under the title Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. In one core version, Isabel hears an elvish horn and as soon as she expresses yearning for horn and elf-knight (with suggestive resonances with Degare's father's appearance), the elf-knight leaps in at her window and leads her away. In the greenwood, he declares that she will die, but Isabel lulls him with song or a charm and kills him with his own dirk.

As with the romances, this ballad is centrally concerned with female desire and there is a tension between the highly evocative expression of that desire and the moves the piece makes to contain it. The lady Isabel violently cuts short her own flirtation with mysterious desire and it is telling that she longs for her parents when the elf reveals his lethal purpose: the ballad implies that a woman needs to tame her own desires to her family's indoor agenda. The fairy/elf treatments of female desire face in opposite directions in Isabel and Degare.

Lady Isabel wishes patriarchal coercion away and pretends that the danger lies in female longings, while Undo your Door mystifies it and Degare acknowledges and censures a certain, restricted zone of coercion. All three poems, however, know that women desire more than makeup and designer jewellery and evince some unease about telling women what to want.