Reading power and ambiguity in the supernatural women of Middle English romance
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date09/07/2020
Bonsall, Jane Elizabeth
This thesis explores the different models of supernatural femininity in the Middle English romance genre, specifically analysing the representations of magical women as sites of ambiguity, moral flexibility, and power. Using a range of Middle English romance texts that foreground supernaturally powerful female characters, the thesis examines the conventions and contradictions inherent in the romance genre’s representations of magical women, and seeks to connect those representations to specific contemporary cultural anxieties about women and power in late medieval English society. I use the terms ‘supernatural woman’ and ‘magical woman’ as labels to designate the female characters in medieval romance whose extraordinary magical abilities or identities render them powerful in potentially subversive ways, and my work explores the impact such labels have on the perceived morality of these characters. Each chapter focuses on a different type of ‘supernatural woman,’ exploring romance’s treatment of that character-type, and the distinct social context informing that particular representation. The first chapter explores romance’s treatment of magical healing women in the Middle English Tristan-tradition, which I read alongside the social history of female medical practitioners in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The second chapter connects the magical Saracen princesses in texts such as Bevis of Hampton to contemporary anxieties about queenship, foreignness, and exoticism. The third chapter explores the sexual and economic authority of the ‘fairy mistress’ characters of Sir Launfal and Partonope of Blois, which I relate to the power and economic status of women in late medieval England. The fourth chapter then deals with representations of maternity and monstrosity, connecting the Middle English Melusine texts to the medical, and specifically gynaecological treatises of the period. Finally, the thesis concludes with an overview of the way Morgan le Fay’s character in the Morte Darthur encompasses the authority and ambiguity of all of the previously discussed stereotypes of magical femininity, shaping our understanding of the role of magical women in medieval literature. In all these cases, the labels ‘magical’ and ‘supernatural’ complicate the morality of these female characters and their position relative to late medieval social and gender norms. In addition, my methodology uses the romance genre’s intertextual, folkloric nature to read these texts as interwoven and – as such – possessing greater complexity and potential than their brief, formulaic, plot-driven narratives might suggest. I argue that familiarity with the conventions of the form would have permitted a more subversive reading of these texts’ representations of supernaturally powerful women. In particular, the thesis contends that the conservative elements of these texts – for example, the restoration of patriarchal hegemony and the containment or displacement of disruptive femininity omnipresent in their conclusions – are subverted and destabilised when the texts are read as existing in conversation with one another, and as inhabiting a shared, folkloric narrative space.