Naturally Unsuited or Appropriately Virile: Thirteenth-Century Francophone Views of Violent Women

Friday, January 2, 2015: 4:10 PM
Midtown Suite (New York Hilton)
Katrin Sjursen, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
An examination of thirteenth-century Francophone political and military treatises, encyclopedias, and chronicles reveals a murky relationship between the different genres’ depictions of violent women. The treatises that dealt with the subject of women and warfare (mainly political and military treatises) fall in line with McLaughlin’s assessment, advising that “women,” viewed as a categorical totality, probably should not participate in warfare.  By contrast, the encyclopedists, taking on a specific group of albeit foreign (though not necessarily, to their mind, fanciful) women, the Amazons, expressed more leniency regarding women in war.  Lastly, rather than express shock and distaste at the thought of a fighting woman, the chroniclers, who wrote about specific noblewomen, tended to eschew the negative opinions in favor of more complimentary depictions.  This paper argues that despite the tendency of the growing advice literature (treatises on government and on warfare) to hold a more negative opinion about the idea of women fighting, Francophone chronicles maintained their acceptance of noblewomen as competent military leaders because it suited the writers’ political agendas to uphold the specific women they  memorialized in their chronicles. The different understandings of “women” in these medieval works—the treatises discussing generic “women” as a single unit, the encyclopedists describing a particular group of foreign women, and the chroniclers depicting specific noblewomen—caution scholars against privileging a single master narrative as well as against attributing a univocal medieval understanding of noblewomen and of gender roles.
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