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Marie gave those two archetypal medieval binders of women–forced marriage and jealous husbands–a kick in the pants.

As anyone who read my first post about Marie de France knows by now, Marie was an incredibly important, totally unique 12th century author who basically kick-started the genre of medieval courtly literature as we know it.

In that post, I covered her identity (she was probably associated with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II’s English court), her personality (forceful), her place within the lineage of courtly literature (first in a line that leads directly to the later medieval romances of Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach), her importance to the genre (she’s the first to combine Celtic oral legends with courtly themes), and her generally laissez-faire attitude towards adulterous love (which I called “woman-friendly”).  Phew!  That’s a lot of review in one sentence.  So if you want more details about any of those topics, you can go back and peruse my earlier post.

However, for all you teachers out there, I promised you that in this post I’d take a closer look at a few of her Lais I think are best-suited to the classroom, and provide brief synopses as well as some teaching suggestions.  For those of you who aren’t teachers, I’d hope the summaries and questions below will spur you to track down a copy of Marie’s Lais and dive in.  (Or perhaps they might serve as an ad-hoc book club guide.)  So, without further ado:

Teaching Marie: So Many Lais, So Little Time

Teaching Marie alongside Parzifal

It was only a matter of time before someone started a hipster Disney princess meme. I think Marie would approve. (Source)

Since the 13th century German courtly romance Parzifal occupies such a central place in any Waldorf High School curriculum, let’s start by looking at what Marie’s work might bring to a reading of Wolfram’s text.  For those of you who have never had the pleasure of reading Parzifal, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It is without doubt the most complex, most beautiful rendition of the Arthurian legends that I know.  I love, love, LOVE Parzifal.  That said, as my teenage friend Devon pointed out so forcefully when she threw her copy of the book on the table, it can be a tad off-putting (especially to girls) when, in the last chapter, the remaining unmarried female characters are apportioned off like so many prizes to the gallant knights.

Reading Marie alongside Parzifal helps answer the questions, “What might the women characters have felt in this situation?”  Or even, “What might this same story look like if it had been written by a woman?”  Of course, Marie doesn’t write about the character Parzifal/Perceval per se, but two of her tales (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) employ themes and images that resonate with those found in Parzifal.  (Indeed, Marie may be a source for Wolfram’s versions.)  This is not to say, of course, that you should read the Lais instead of Parzifalbut rather, that looking at them alongside Wolfram’s work offers readers a different “way into” the stories.  So when a student like Devon wonders, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property at the end?”  You can answer:  “They weren’t always.  And here’s the proof.”

Guigemar

In “Guigemar,” the lovers’ fidelity is symbolized by matching knots in their clothing. (Source)

First, a brief recap.  In “Guigemar,” a young knight who “had never displayed the slightest interest in love” receives a corrective in the form of a talking hermaphrodite deer and an enchanted ship, the latter of which leads him to young woman who has been imprisoned by her elderly, jealous husband.  The two fall in love and remain together for 18 months, sealing their promise to be faithful to each other with symbolic clothing knots that no one other than their beloved can undo.  When the lovers are finally discovered, Guigemar is placed on his enchanted ship and borne back to his homeland, where he languishes for his lady for two years.  Meanwhile, the lady suffers in her tower until the day when she finds the door to her tower magically unlocked.  She goes down to the sea intending to drown herself, but instead finds another enchanted ship that bears her not to her beloved, but to a third castle.  The lord of this place also falls in love with her, and when she resists him, calls for his knights to help him rape her.  Luckily for the lady, none of them can undo her knotted belt, so their attempt is foiled.  (1) Guessing that the lady’s knot is the twin of one he had seen on another knight, the lord then sets up a tournament to trick Guigemar into making an appearance.  Guigemar does, and when he sees the lady, he offers service to the lord in exchange for her release.  Instead of accepting, the lord insults Guigemar, who then successfully attacks and kills him.  In the end, Guigemar and the lady are reunited and leave the castle for unknown parts.

Love, marriage, and birds: three themes found in Wolfram’s Parzifal and Marie’s Lais. (Source)

Although very different than the story of Parzifal and Condwiramurs found in Book Four of Parzifal, to my mind, the story contains some remarkable parallels: two ladies in towers, two dashing knights who don’t know how to love, both couples separated by years of longing after their initial magical encounter.  But when it comes to gender dynamics and ethics, the two tales are very different.  Whereas Wolfram basically leaves Condwiramurs out of the subsequent storyline until the very end of the book (except insofar as she is conjured in Parzifal’s fevered imagination), Marie’s female character stays central to the action.  She even gets her own enchanted ship, keeping the story structure evenly balanced between the knight’s and lady’s responses to the course of events.  And then there’s the difference in the marital status of the two pairs: Parzifal and Condwiramurs represent the pinnacle of married bliss, while Guigemar and the unnamed lady of Marie’s tale find their happiness outside the married state.  Even at the end when they’re finally reunited, it’s unclear if they ever marry.  Looking at the two episodes side by side therefore offers some wonderful opportunities for reflection on love, marriage, and the role relationships play in forging our own destiny.

Some possible questions for students to explore:

  • Compare and contrast the initial encounters of the two couples–what events lead up to their meeting?  How much do we know about each character before they encounter each other?
  • What obstacles, if any, do they have to overcome before they can love each other?
  • Is it important or unimportant that they get married?
  • What do you think each author might have been trying to say about marriage as an institution?
  • What might he/she have been trying to convey about love?
  • Compare and contrast the level of equality in each couple’s relationship.  In each case, how does the author show the fundamental parity or disparity between the two lovers?

And if you want to relate “Guigemar” to the students’ own experiences:

  • Are modern marriages on the whole equal or unequal?  What about relationships other than marriage (friendships, romantic relationships)?  In relationships where people value equality as a goal, what ways to they find to symbolize that equality, or to put it into action?

Yonec

A damsel in a tower is visited by an enchanted bird/lover, as in Marie’s Lanval. Marie would certainly agree with the motto, which reads, “Love is a rebellious bird.” (Source)

In her lai “Yonec,” Marie gives us yet another damsel in distress scenario.  This time, the lady who is kept in a tower by her aging husband dreams of a fairy lover like those found in tales.  We first encounter her pining away like some Disney princess: “Some day my prince will come….” And as in a typical tale, no sooner are the words out of her mouth than a large hawk flies into the room and is transformed into a “fair and noble knight.”  After proving that he’s a Christian fairy (by shape-shifting into the form of the lady herself in order to receive communion), the knight wins the lady’s love.

At that point, the tale takes a decidedly un-Disney-like turn.  First, Marie makes it abundantly clear that they consummated their love at that first meeting, and frequently thereafter.  In fact, it’s the lady’s libido that drives the action; since she cannot resist summoning her lover to satisfy her desire as often as she wishes, her jealous husband eventually finds them out.  The old man rigs sharp spikes on the windows so that on the hawk/lover’s next visit, the bird is mortally wounded.  Dying, the fairy lover bewails his fate to his lady and then flies away, dripping blood onto the snow beneath the window.  The lady literally leaps out of her tower, follows the blood trail through the snow (barefoot and in her shift), continuing through a long underground tunnel to a castle in a seemingly enchanted city.  She eventually finds the fairy knight on a bed, and before dying, he gives her a ring, sword, and tunic, and tells her to give them to their son, who will avenge his death.  She goes back to her husband, who takes her in.  (It seems as though his memory of being cuckolded has been magically erased.)  One day when the son is grown, a series of events leads the family to the tomb of an unknown knight.  The young man and his parents listen to the story of the deceased, and the wife realizes it is the tomb of her lover. She hands her son the sword and falls dead from shock.  Seeing his mother’s death, the son immediately cuts off his foster father’s head and becomes lord of his mother’s lover’s land.

Bird’s blood on snow is a turning point in both Parzifal and Yonec. (Source)

Oh, how I love this story!  There are so many twists and turns to follow, one could probably write a whole book on this lai alone.  However, to keep to our goal of looking at it through the lens of Parzifal, I think the most obvious point of comparison between the two works is the evocative image of bird’s blood on snow, as found at the beginning of Book Six of Parzifal.  In both stories, a bird’s blood is a key to remembering or following the beloved, a symbol of the realm of imagination, longing, and desire–in the case of “Yonec,” leading the lady to leap bravely out of her tower and follow her knight into his fairy realm; in the case of Parzifal, leading the knight into a trance-like reverie in which he contemplates the beauty of his lover.  Neither protagonist emerges from this blood unchanged–in both cases, the blood trail leads to a shift in the narrative.  In “Yonec,” the blood leads to the lady’s escape from the tower and her return there as a woman who can stand up to her husband and become author of her own destiny; in Parzifal, the blood, which reminds Parzifal of his earthly female love, ultimately smoothes the knight’s way into Arthur’s court and marks a turning point between his adventures in this world and his subsequent spiritual search for the divine love symbolized by the holy grail.

Here are some questions for consideration by the class (either in discussion or an essay):

A painting of Parzifal’s vision of Condwiramurs by the artist David Goodrich. (Source)

In both Parzifal and “Yonec,” a trail of blood marks a turning point in the story.  Choose one story and follow the changes that the trail of blood brings into the life of the protagonist (or alternatively, compare and contrast the two stories).

  • What were the main character’s circumstances and inner condition before the violent event?
  • What adventure did the blood bring about in his/her life?
  • How was he/she different after “following” the trail?
  • What do you think the blood symbolizes?
  • What about the bird?  Is it important what type of bird it is?  Why or why not?

And, again, if you want to make it a little more personal for the students:

  • Is violence or trauma (as symbolized by the blood) ever a turning point in a positive way?  Why or why not?  How does love play a role in “turning us around” when we are faced with a wound?  Can you think of an example when a wound has led to greater love?

Teaching Marie’s Lais in a Medieval History Class

This is how medieval social structures are usually taught to younger children. We can help mix it up a bit by the time the students reach high school. (Source)

In a Waldorf school, many students will have had medieval history for the first time in 6th grade, when feudalism was presented as a relatively stable, perhaps even romanticized, pyramid structure.  (Peasants on bottom, then landowners, knights, then higher nobles, then kings at the top–with clergy and bishops thrown in on the side, perhaps.)  And this was as it probably should be for younger students, who need things presented in a clear, digestible way.  However, as 11th graders (when medieval history is usually taught in Waldorf high schools), your students are ready to mix it up a little and begin to understand that social structures are not static, but are constantly negotiated and renegotiated by all the stake-holders involved.  To put it another way, societies are not objects or “isms” (as in feudalism), but rather, a continually unfolding process–verbs instead of a nouns, if you will.  Of course it’s natural to talk about social structures as “isms” as a kind of shorthand.  But as Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, was forever pointing out, the temptation to make dynamic processes into material objects should be resisted whenever possible–in history as in life.

As I suggested in my first post on Marie de France, Marie’s Lais offer us a window into how people carved out spaces for personal action and transformation within what we might describe as fairly rigid social structures.  This makes her tales perfect venues for exploring how seemingly entrenched social forms (such as feudalism) can be seen as ongoing dynamic processes.  Through her stories, we see people negotiating their roles in the social order, sometimes complying with what is expected of them, and sometimes resisting it.  I’d argue that her own somewhat anomalous position as a female author nudged her to imagine different possible viewpoints within stories.  Her gender-bending lai “Lanval,” for instance, is a perfect example of this type of skewing of the expected narrative.  I’d recommend looking at it whenever you discuss vassalage, gender roles in the middle ages, or the mutual responsibilities of royalty and subjects.

Lanval: A Fairy Queen?

The basic plot of “Lanval” is relatively simple.  A knight (the eponymous Lanval), whose service is unappreciated by Arthur’s court, despairs until he encounters a fairy queen who not only showers him with love, but with untold wealth.  Newly enriched, he returns to Arthur’s court only to be propositioned by Queen Guinevere, who, when she is spurned, accuses him of being gay.  Now Lanval’s fairy lover (no pun intended) had warned him not to reveal her existence to the world or he would lose her forever.  But in the face of Queen Guinevere’s accusation, he cannot resist bragging about his lover, comparing Guinevere (unfavorably) to his own lady.  Lanval’s boast, is to say the least, unwise.  Guinevere retaliates by accusing him of attempted rape, and Arthur puts Lanval on trial, with the redoubtable Gawain as his counsel.  At the very last minute, the fairy queen, attended by two young maidens “dressed only in purple taffeta next to their bare skin,” shows up.  (The knights of Arthur’s court, Marie reports, were “pleased to see the maidens.”  Um…yeah, I guess so.)  Gawain, Ywain, and all the other knights rejoice that Lanval is vindicated, for it is apparent to all that even the maidens, not to mention the fairy queen herself, are “more worthy than the queen [i.e. Guinevere] had ever been.”  Then the fairy lady, rides off to Avalon with Lanval aback her horse, leaving everyone behind in the dust.  (Take that, Disney princesses!)

John S. Troutman, a wickedly funny cartoonist who has drawn strips on numerous literary subjects, has rendered the whole lai into eight strips.  Here are my two favorite (click on them to enlarge and read):

Lanval and the fairy queen meet… (Source)

But their idyllic dalliance is interrupted by Guinevere’s scheming. (Source)

So, in case the strips didn’t make it perfectly clear, there are a few things about Marie’s lai that don’t quite jive with the usual knight in shining armor story we all know and love.

First, both Arthur and his queen are total tools.  We begin the story with Arthur ignoring Lanval’s worthy service, only to joyfully receive him once the knight has accumulated vast amounts of wealth.  Then Guinevere sends her maidens to seduce the other knights so that she can get it on with Lanval, only to accuse him of being gay and then of trying to rape her when she’s rejected.  Meanwhile, Arthur, oblivious to Guinevere’s scheming, is wrapped around her little finger, and ultimately so passive that he just sort of stands there when the fairy queen shows up to save the day.  Not exactly the Camelot we read about in other books.

Marie seems to have agreed with Monty Python on this one–Camelot is a silly place.

Second (and this follows from the first point), Marie calls not just Camelot, but the whole chivalric code itself into question by the basic un-soundness of everyone involved.  Knights are recognized for wealth rather than service; maidens and knights are only interested in sex and money; kings and queens exist in a little privileged bubble of infighting and intrigue.  And, let’s face it, the “hero” of the tale himself is a knight whose riches, fame, and ultimate salvation depend on the graces of a fairy princess.  No wonder he throws it all over to go spend eternity in Avalon.  Who wouldn’t?

Of course, Marie wrote other lais, and not all of them are this critical of feudal relationships.  However, “Lanval” offers us a fabulous trip through the looking glass to see how those towards the bottom of the vassalage system might have viewed the whole structure.  (And by “bottom,” here, I’m still talking about relative positions within the noble class–Lanval, though unappreciated and poor at the start of the tale, is still a knight.)

With all this background in mind, then, here are some possible questions for discussion either in class or in an essay:

  • Do you recognize any of these characters from other stories or legends?  Is there anything surprising or different about them here?  Were there any points in the story where you were surprised at the characters’ actions?  When, and why?
  • Describe the relationship between Lanval and the fairy queen?  Who has the upper hand in their relationship?  In what ways do their roles either challenge or support typical “knight in shining armor” tales?  Why do you think the author chose to portray them this way?
  • What is Lanval’s relationship to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere?  Does the relationship between the three of them bear out the expectations of the chivalric code?  Why or why not?
  • In Lanval’s relationship with Queen Guinevere, who has the upper hand?  Why?  Do you think this is a realistic portrayal of how a knight and queen might relate to each other?  Why or why not?
  • What do you think the author was trying to say about: a) King Arthur’s court, b) chivalry in general, c) relationships between men and women?
  • If you had to choose one “main message” that the author was trying to get across in this story, what would it be?  Is there only one message in this story? Do you find her message(s) easy or difficult to “decode”?  Why or why not?

Lanval: the first metrosexual knight? Perhaps the Disney princes could take a page out of his book.  (Source)

Some more personal reflections might be:

  • What myths or ideals about gender and/or relationships do we have in our culture?  Do you think we usually fit them?  Why or why not?
  • What about people who don’t fit our culture’s gender or relationship “norms”?  What place do they have in our culture?
  • Assuming that running off to Avalon with a hot fairy lover isn’t a viable option for most of us, what can we do as a culture to open up a space for people to live outside our gender and relationship “ideals?”  What can we do in our own lives?

Chaitivel: A Case for a Court of Love?

The fourth and final lai I’ll present here is “Chaitivel,” a story that ends with a question: Which of these characters has suffered the most for love?  Some scholars believe that the lai was modeled on tales used in the “courts of love”–a popular pastime for nobles introduced by Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne at just about the time Marie was writing.  These “courts” assembled a jury of high-born ladies to adjudicate lovers’ disputes, cases of wronged spouses, and amorous quandaries, passing “sentences” on the men and women involved, who, in turn, were expected implement the court’s decision faithfully.  Scholars disagree over whether or not the cases the courts judged were real or fictional; most believe it was a combination of the two.  (2)

A wounded knight and a bereft lady: who has suffered more? Painting by William Gale, 1853 (Source)

“Chaitivel” may therefore be an example of one such dilemma posed to a court of love: one woman is loved by (and truly loves) four champions, three of whom die in a tournament, while the fourth is terribly wounded in the groin.  Who, Marie asks, is the most unfortunate?  The women, who lost four lovers in one day, or the remaining man, who lives, but because of his injury, cannot pursue his love?

The lai itself is very brief–only 3 1/2 pages long.  The work of the class, I’d suggest, would be to re-create an actual court of love with “Chaitivel” as it’s central conundrum.  For instance, I could imagine splitting the class into three parts: the jury (you could decide whether it would be faithful to the original concept and be composed of all girls), the advocates for the woman’s side, and the advocates for the wounded knight.  Give each of the “opponent” groups time to consult and construct their argument–this could be brief (15 minutes in class) or longer (overnight, or even with a few days’ advance notice).  On the day of the court of love, each side presents its case to the jury, which then receives time (again, either in-class or as homework) to meet and make its decision (which it should be prepared to explain and defend).  The jury might be guided in its decision by the “rules of love” as outlined by Andre Capellanus that I reference in note 2.

The great thing about this recreation is that it can be as simple or elaborate as you like.  The whole thing could be done as a relatively quick, one-day, in-class exercise (the lai having been read the night before as homework).  Or you could go whole-hog with costumes, assigned roles, and time to prepare formal arguments.  You could even add a creative writing assignment at the end of the exercise:

  • Write your own 2-3 page lai (rhymed or prose) that presents the reader with a dilemma similar to that of “Chaitivel.”  The conundrum could involve judging who has suffered more for love, an ethical case (for instance, where a lover’s loyalties are torn and you are asking the reader to make a moral decision), or another such lovers’ dilemma.  You may set your lai either in medieval or modern times.
  • Alternatively, write a song, poem, or comic strip that re-presents one of Marie’s lais.  For instance, here’s an example of a lovely Celtic-style song that a Brit named Giles Watson has written about “Chaitivel.”

Or, for a more formal writing assignment, have the kids write up a defense of the position they argued in class and turn it in as a position paper or persuasive essay.

Final thoughts on Teaching Marie

Whenever I’m teaching texts or periods of history where there are relatively limited or proscribed roles for women (or any other group for that matter), I like to ask the students: “How do these characters find ways of becoming heroes (or heroines) despite the restrictions placed upon them?”  I often follow up with a question addressed to the students’ own lives: “Given that you, as teenagers, face a number of restrictions on your behavior or ability to do certain things, how do you make space to be a hero(ine) in your own life, or be the master/mistress of your own destiny?”  That one always gets the class going–from eyeball rolling at the mention of teenage “restrictions” to often wonderful and creative reflections on the ways in which they (like the characters in the stories) find ways to work within or around the system to create change.  Questions like these can be used with any one of Marie’s Lais, since all of them portray people “working the system” (as it were) in order to achieve a desired end.

Another point worth making:  these questions about agency are just as relevant for boys as girls.  Marie’s male protagonists, for instance, are bound by oaths of loyalty and distinctly hierarchical duties of vassalage that can put them in a distinct bind, as Lanval found out to his peril.  Throughout our lives, most of us will continue to operate in circumstances that place restrictions on our behavior and options, whether at home (as teenagers), in the romantic arena (with commitments of fidelity or marriage), at work (bosses, organizational structures and rules), or a gazillion other situations.  The beauty and flexibility of Marie’s work is that she inhabits a number of differing viewpoints, allowing us to examine big questions of hierarchy, gender roles, and reciprocal obligations–both in feudal times and our own.

For the final word on Marie’s oeuvre, though, I think we should turn to that eminent feminist scholar, Ryan Gosling:

From one of my favorite websites, “Feminist Ryan Gosling.” (Source)

‘Nuff said.

——

NOTES

A medieval chastity belt with lock. (Source)

(1) It’s worth mentioning here that many scholars have interpreted the lady’s knotted belt in “Guigemar” as the earliest mention of a chastity belt, because it foils her attempted rape by the evil king Meriaduc and his knights.  The depiction of the belt in Marie’s work adds fuel to the debate over whether medieval chastity belts were intended by jealous husbands to prevent women from being unfaithful, or whether they were essentially anti-rape devices used for women’s protection (or both).  There’s some evidence from contemporary cultures (Indonesia, for example, during the 2000 ethnic riots) that such belts are sometimes used by women for their own protection.

In any case, it’s worth noting two seemingly contradictory interpretations of the lovers’ knots.  On the one hand, the knot on Guigemar’s clothing does not actually prevent him from having sex with other people, so it’s not really equivalent to the lady’s belt.  One could therefore argue that the disparity in their respective knots underscores the essential gender difference with man being free to control his sexuality and the woman unfree.  However, on the other hand, since the belt actually saves the lady from being raped, one could argue either a) that the belt-knot is simply a realistic acknowledgment of the dangers she, as a woman, might actually face at the hands of other men, or even b) that it is precisely the love of among equals as symbolized by the knot that protects her from the violence of men who do not view her as an equal, but as prey.  Either interpretation of the knots, positive or negative, could be argued effectively, and one might ask about the knots in class and draw out both sides of the argument from the kids themselves.  And you could certainly look at this whole question of the parity of the knots without talking about chastity belts per se.

(2) Scholars also dispute whether these courts were merely a pastime for nobles, or whether they actually were binding in some legal sense; however, they do generally agree that the courts were put into practice in some form (as opposed to being simply poetic metaphors), and on the basic court structure as being led by women.  For a brief overview (from the perspective of someone who believes the courts had real juridical oversight), click here.  Another fascinating resource is Andre Capellanus’ De Amore (written at the behest of Marie de Champagne)–a list of 31 rules that outline the basic tenets of courtly love.  For an online translation, click here.  These rules could be useful guidelines in the “court of love” exercise I suggest to go along with your students’ reading of “Chaitivel.”

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Malala Yousafzai (Source)

So just in case you were wondering if gender inclusion in the classroom is still an issue, let’s take a moment to keep in our hearts (and if you’re the praying type, prayers) the 14 year old girl just shot today by the Taliban because she had the audacity to advocate for girls’ education.

Malala Yousafzai was on a bus filled with fellow schoolgirls when the vehicle was stopped and a man asked for her by name, pulled out a gun, and shot her in the head twice.  Apparently, she’s been on the Taliban hit list for some time and the group has made clear that if they she survives this attack, they’ll try again.

Malala was targeted because she has become a visible symbol of girls education in an area (the Swat valley in Pakistan) where the Taliban have put women and girls under fire.  She has been featured in a documentary about female education (be warned: the doc has some very disturbing scenes), written a diary for BBC about her struggle to attend school, and has received a number of prizes for child activists, both in her own country and internationally.

What does this mean for those of us who are lucky enough to live, teach, and attend school in areas where access to education is not restricted by gender?  To me, it’s pretty simple:  there are people (some of them actively organized into multinational armed gangs) who want to erase women.  From public spaces, from history books, from life-saving professions like the one Malala wants to pursue.  Real women and girls suffer every day from this attempt at active erasure.  It’s not a metaphor for them.

Our task, therefore, is to strive as hard as we can to keep women visible, in history, in the classroom, and in everyday life.  Our classrooms are our own very small, very subdued, but very real battleground.  With every child or teen we teach, we have an opportunity to transmit values of equality and peace.  And we have the chance to “bring back” some of the women who have been erased from many tellings of the story of humankind.  These invisible sisters of history are Malala’s predecessors.  Some of them were prominent and well-respected in their day and others, like Malala, were forcibly silenced, or even killed, for their acts of self-expression.

So while we may not have much direct impact on events in Swat, Pakistan, we do have a duty to make an intentional effort to address issues of gender in our own classrooms.  Malala Yousafzai would expect no less.

And lest you think this is all very noble, but not central to Waldorf education in particular, I’ll leave you with Steiner’s prescient words, written in his seminal work The Philosophy of Freedom way back in 1894:

So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition,” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman’s Question will never advance beyond the most elementary stage. What it lies in woman’s nature to strive for had better be left to woman herself to decide… To all who fear an upheaval of our social structure… we need only reply that a social structure in which the status of one-half of humanity is unworthy of a human being stands itself in great need of improvement.

Amen, brother.

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Lest we forget Steiner’s context, here’s a cartoon from 1906 demonstrating a fear of “What Women Will Become”

In my last post, we considered Steiner’s discussion of what he (rather quaintly, to our ears) called “The Women’s Question,” particularly as he developed it in his 1906 lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage).  We left off just at the point where Steiner had completed trouncing his contemporaries’ views on women, which he demonstrated were either contradictory, culturally or socio-economically specific, or otherwise based on false assumptions about how society and gender work.

At that point, Steiner introduces a surprising twist to the discussion.  Anticipating Jung’s theory of the anima/animus by about ten years, he claims that, if considered in totality, each human being encompasses two poles, male and female.  According to Steiner, the physical body expresses only one or the other of these poles (though we might wonder, here, about transgendered people, including hermaphrodites). In the emotional life, however, he claims that we can clearly see that both stereotypically “feminine” and “masculine” qualities can, in fact, belong to human beings of either physical gender.

Aristophanes’ Original Human Being

In this description of the human being as two-poled, Steiner not only looks forward to Jung, but also backwards to Aristophanes (or, at least, to Aristophanes as channeled by Plato in his Symposium).  The ur-myth of the bi-gendered human being, Aristophanes’ tale in the Symposium proposed that the original humans were composed of two gendered parts that made up a complete whole.  (Though unlike Steiner, Aristophanes held that these two halves could be either male-female, male-male, or female-female, thus explaining the varieties of human love as we each search among our prospective lovers for our severed half.)

Steiner was less interested than Aristophanes (at least, in this context) in the effect of this double gender on human sexual behavior than he was in the way in which we can harness this dual energy to best develop our full potential as human beings.  In this emphasis, he once again anticipated Jung’s work on individuation as it relates to anima/animus.  We must consider in every human being, Steiner urges, the totality of that person’s nature, both the revealed and the hidden parts–the male and the female.  And moreover, we must strive to integrate within ourselves whichever characteristics we are “missing.”  In other words, “a complete human being” combines so-called male and female characteristics so that our external gender is complemented by an internal tendency towards the opposite traits.

But, not content to simply scoop Jung, Steiner goes on (in good Marxist Feminist form) to insist that gender discrimination is inherently tied to a culture’s means of production.  If, he argues, we find ourselves in an entrenched patriarchy, it is because materialism “impels itself towards an external culture.”  In other words, the same impulses (or discourses, if you prefer a post-structuralist term) give rise to both patriarchal attitudes that place a premium on male bodies and experiences, and our materialist/positivist culture.  The two–patriarchy and materialism–are coeval, birthed by the same forces.

Steiner turns to a somewhat counterintuitive place for evidence of the interdependence of patriarchy and materialism:  the language of mystics.  Mystics, he claims, on some level understand that our material age is a reification of “masculine” forces at work in our bodies and our world, and therefore often use feminine imagery to describe their journeys in the non-material world of Spirit.  And it is true that many female, as well as male, mystics, frame their union with the divine using female imagery.  (Though of course, there are exceptions on both sides as well–men and women who envision themselves as “marrying” or otherwise communing with a male deity or spirit. Consider, for example, John of the Cross’s somewhat homoerotic mystical imagery.)  The prime example, for Steiner, of this feminine spirituality is Geothe, whose “Eternal-feminine” leads Faust (and us) from the illusory world of material to the immaterial “event” of Presence.

Like this Hermaphroditus with Mirror, we all need to look inside and discover our inner androgyne.

If, however, you are not an accomplished mystic, and the prospect of a deeply entrenched patriarchal materialism gets you down, Steiner reminds us not to indulge in apathy or despair.  Cultures change, and it is our job, as human beings, to change our surroundings by developing ourselves to our highest capacity.  To this end, he urges us, “men and women must look on their physical body as an instrument which enables them, in one direction or another, to be active as a totality in the physical world.  The more human beings are aware of the spiritual within them, the more does the body become an instrument, and the more do they learn to understand people by looking into the depths of the soul.”  It’s a gendered version of “think global, act local.”  If you want to change the world, change yourself–become the doubly-gendered human being you are meant to be, and in so doing, you will change the culture around you.  Patriarchy, by definition, requires men and women to be adhere to strictly defined gender roles.  (Which is why the cartoon that started off this post was so rattling to early 20th century men.)

“What does all this have to do with pedagogy?”  you may ask yourself.  (And well you might ask, 1000+ words into this blog entry.)  Quite simply, it is one of our main tasks as Waldorf educators to help young people experience and develop both sides of their human nature.  We can do this in many ways–by encouraging, as Steiner did in some of his first teacher lectures, both genders to participate in stereotypically “male” or “female” crafts (woodworking, knitting, etc.); by nurturing through skillful pedagogy certain behaviors that we notice are dormant in our students (encouraging retiring students to become braver about speaking, encouraging aggressive students to become more compassionate, etc.).

A transgender bathroom sign from a Thai school. (Source)

A transgender bathroom sign from a Thai school. (Source)

But, perhaps most importantly to the Humanities teacher, we can also accomplish this by encouraging our students to “live into” the experiences of the both genders by offering them opportunities to do so in literature, story, song, film, and so on.  We all know how a work of literature can get us “inside the head” of even such as insidious a character as, say, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  If we harness this power of imagination (something which, incidentally, Steiner describes as “female”) to live with and inhabit the perspectives, feelings, and bodily experiences of women as well as men, then we will have gone a long way towards accomplishing two goals:  a) countering the prevailing patriarchal/materialist world-view, and b) encouraging the students’ inner growth along the lines Steiner is advocating. (1)

So what is the “take-home” of the foregoing (rather long) re-cap of Steiner’s consideration of “The Women’s Question”?  I’ve boiled it down to six things to strive for in our classrooms:

1) Given the importance Steiner places on gender issues, it is imperative that we as Waldorf educators make an active effort to include women’s voices and perspectives in all aspects of our curriculum, from literature and history to math, science, physical culture, and the arts.  One simple first step: using gender-neutral language such as “human” or “humanity” instead of “man” or “mankind.”  This is standard practice in public schools, but has been painfully slow to catch on in Waldorf circles, perhaps because of a wish to remain faithful to Steiner’s German.  But folks, it’s time to let the ladies into the human race.

2) We need to embed women’s voices and perspectives in their specific socio-economic, political, geographic, and temporal location.  Steiner would expect no less.

3) We should expand our notions of “influence,” “power,” and “contributions” beyond those valued by our own culture and look towards ways in which women have historically exercised their personhood, power, and influence.  This will vary by geography and culture.  Be alert to ways in which women, through their domestic, religious, or economic endeavors, might be participating in networks of power that we, with our contemporary Western lenses, might not immediately see.

4) Tokenism (throwing in a brief consideration of one or two exceptional women) is insufficient to do justice to women’s voices and experiences. We need examples of both heroic/outstanding women and attention to the lives of everyday women.  In addition to covering famous queens, female authors, and other notables, put on your social history cap.  When you’re discussing cities, describe what the homes look like and what activities might have taken place in them.  Who was providing the childcare?  Who was making the food?  Who did the farming?  Who made the clothes?  Good social and economic history will address the role of women. (2)

5) As Waldorf teachers, we must nurture those gendered aspects of our own personality that are less well-developed.  Although these “hidden sides” are often qualities associated with the opposite sex, it varies tremendously from person to person.  As a form of inner work, we need to make a good and honest appraisal of the gendered qualities we most need to develop in ourselves–not only once, but again and again over the course of our spiritual and professional development.  An ongoing meditation practice can be extremely useful in helping identify areas of weakness to address.

Rosie the Riveter takes a coffee break before getting down to some serious Steiner-inspired inner work!

6) We need to be intentional about the importance of the moral/spiritual work we are doing when we engage in questions of gender in the classroom.  It’s all too easy to feel like gender inclusion is something we “add on” to our usual lesson, or that we simply don’t have time to be as inclusive as we would like to be.  But Steiner has assured us the question of inclusion is of vital importance, and is not a matter of trends.  In fact, in seeming anticipation of the accusation that he’s just espousing some sort of newfangled feminist claptrap, he emphatically declared that we “cannot solve the Woman’s question with ideas and trends!”  Rather, as he painstakingly shows, he is arguing is for the centrality of gender inclusion as a spiritual practice.  He sums up:  “In reality you can only solve it [i.e. the “Women’s Question”] by creating that concept, that disposition of soul which enables men and women to understand each other out of the totality of human nature.” (translator’s italics)

I think that last line  just about says it all.  Don’t you?  Now, let’s get to work.

Notes:

(1) The question of whether other minority perspectives might open up similar “breaches” in the patriarchal/materialist discourse is a fascinating one, and though beyond the scope of this entry, deserves consideration.  To what degree would post-colonial narratives (which disrupt the dominant discourses of imperialism and capitalism) have a similar effect on spiritual growth?

(2) It’s interesting that if we simply follow the template of Steiner’s three-fold social order when planning our history lessons (making sure to always cover the political, economic, and cultural spheres), it’s hard to completely exclude the ladies.  Hmmm…perhaps that man was onto something.

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Rudolf Steiner, 1915

As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to the reasons espoused by mainstream educators in favor of including women in the canon, Waldorf teachers also need to consider inclusion from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner’s writings and philosophy.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, had much to say about nearly everything (agriculture, spirituality, banking, architecture, art, sport, health… the list can seem nearly infinite).  It’s not my intention here to investigate or defend every aspect of Steiner’s thought.  Rather, I’d like to re-cap some of Steiner’s main observations about gender and muse upon what they might have to say about the issue of inclusion in the classroom.

First of all, it’s important to note that Steiner explicitly addressed what he called “The Women’s Question” in several different places, most notably, his lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage), given in November of 1906.  On that occasion he stated point blank that the question of women’s inclusion into hitherto unintegrated portions of society “is one of the greatest present questions of our culture,” and observed that the issue involved much more than simply the admission of women into higher education and the professions, or even the question of universal suffrage.  Rather, he noted, “the issue concerning women embraces an economic, a social, and a psychological side, and many other aspects as well.”  If these two statements alone aren’t an incentive for Waldorf teachers to be diligent about the inclusion of women in the canon, I don’t know what is!

As anyone who knows Steiner’s work will attest, the man often first takes the prevailing wisdom of the day to task by pointing out its own internal contradictions, then later, adds his own penetrating insight into the mix.   In this lecture, after laying out what was at stake, he considers a number of the prevailing theories concerning women, correctly observing that in most cases they directly contradict each other.  Moreover, he goes on, if we were to look at the scientists’ and psychologists’ conclusions about women (namely, at that time, that men were the active, creative ones and women the natural followers), we would find that they are severely limited by the narrow data they collect.

Female miners, WWII

Investigation of other times and cultures, he states, would reveal women who participate in what we define as “masculine” work.  This observation about the cultural and temporal context of gender roles might seem commonplace to us now.  However, at the time, it was  incredibly advanced.   It’s hard to imagine Havelock Ellis or any of the other contemporary luminaries he mentions accepting that their theories might be culturally limited.  Furthermore, he points out (and this is an especially important point for us historians), the concept of “Woman,” even within a given culture, is  itself “an unacceptable generalization.”  Which women?  Where?  In what contexts?  Are we talking lower- or upper-classes? Steiner insists we be specific.

And then even further, he argues:  if we investigate “influential” women and conclude there are very few of them out there, aren’t we being confined by our own cultural assumptions of what constitutes “influence?”  We need to examine our own inherent biases–towards privileging public spheres over private, political power/voting over other ways of exercising influence.  If we have only confronted the issue of women’s inclusion in these last hundred years or so, that is because our culture is itself both the creator and product of conditions in which it is possible to think about arenas such as “the political” or “the academic” as abstract entities, within which the equally abstract notion of “human rights” (applicable to both male and female) can be applied.

The three stooges cause a “Rumpus in the Harem”

Here, my mind immediately went to the somewhat dismissively-named “harem intrigues” that seem to be so frequently alluded to in historians’ discussions of both ancient and contemporary polygamous court cultures.  Quite honestly, I doubt that a ruler ousted by the mother or wife of a half-sibling or other potential rival felt much difference between a female-led “intrigue” and a male-led military coup.  In either case, at the end of the day, said ruler was out.

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984

I find it exhilarating to think that Steiner understood power itself to be culturally constructed–an observation that puts him in the best post-structuralist company.  He’d be right at home, for example, with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as “relations…interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and a conditioned role).” (1)  I like to think of them, in an alternate universe, sitting at the Café de Flore (upstairs in the smoke-filled back room, of course), discussing relations of power and human subjectivity.

But, to return to the subject at hand…

Towards the end of the lecture, Steiner moves from considering the various culturally determined aspects of the “woman question” (class, time period, societal context, etc.) into what he considers the heart of the matter– the essential nature of the human being.

And that’s where I’ll leave you hanging, dear readers, until my next entry.

Notes:

(1) Michel Foucault, “Power and Strategies” in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, p. 142.

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Abigail Adams and her letter

Over 200 years ago, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, asking him to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors….” Since Abigail’s time, the question of “remembering the ladies” in the canon is one that has been argued persuasively by a number of scholars in a variety of contexts.  (Tune in next time if you want to skip my re-cap here and jump to my consideration of how Steiner’s teachings are relevant to the issue.)

To me, it seems like most arguments can be grouped into several broad categories:

1) Girls are damaged by the lack of positive role models in traditional curricula, which have tended to either portray women as passive and dependent on men (or at best, an inspiration to them–for instance, Beatrice to Dante, or Pocahontas to John Smith), to limit their inclusion to a few token major historical figures such as Sappho, Queen Elizabeth I, etc.), or even to ignore them altogether.  This latter attitude of benign neglect is especially prevalent in political histories, which by their very nature, focus narrowly on one area of human interaction from which women have, for the most part, been excluded.  The lack of women in traditional literature and history curricula, so the argument goes, makes girls feel “invisible” and therefore, holds them back in their own self-development.  (Which, in turn, reinforces the overall aims and social structures of our patriarchal culture.)

The second argument is a positive corollary to the negative one outlined above:

2) Girls need to be inspired by powerful female characters and historical figures to whom they can relate, and on whom they can model their behavior.  Some also argue that boys benefit from exposure to inspirational and/or powerful female characters, since it fosters an attitude that women as well as men are worthy of respect and emulation.  This argument moves beyond tokenism (the inclusion of a few notable women as a “sidebar” to the main lesson) when the curriculum includes a broad spectrum of women as a matter of course, aiming at making “visible” the lives of women in general.  This can be achieved, for instance, by discussing the economic role that women’s (often unpaid) labor plays in various cultures, by consciously examining the roles and expectations placed on women across different cultures and times, or even by something as simple as saying, “we don’t know much about the lives of women in pre-Vedic India, but the evidence we do have suggests….”  Both types of inclusion (heroic female characters and broad-based looks at the roles of women in a given time, culture, or text) are necessary for fostering healthy self-development in girls and boys.  Put simply, we need both to be inspired by the heroic actions of the few, and to know that the humble lives of the many are valued.

The third argument is perhaps the simplest:

3) Women HAVE been active contributors to the social, economic, and political arena since the beginnings of time, so representing them is simply a matter of accurate, thorough scholarship.  In this view, introducing women and women’s accomplishments into our curricula is simply a corrective to what has historically been a sometimes unconscious, sometimes willful “blindness” on the part of (mostly male) scholars.  For example, an accurate understanding of ancient Egyptian society must try to recreate (to the best of our ability) the lives of half its population, as well as the contributions of individual women, ranging from the great female pharaohs on down to the women named in specific court documents and papyri.  The fact that reconstructing the lives and perceptions of women is often a difficult challenge does not excuse us from the attempt to do so.  And advances in historiography, which has come to include a greater reliance on evidence like court records and archaeological excavations, rather than purely textual and/or political data, have often made it possible to construct at least a broad picture of what women’s lives entailed (as in the case of ancient Egypt, for instance), even if we are left with relatively few “personalities” that emerge from the somewhat impressionistic canvas.

There are, of course, many more subtleties to the argument in favor of including women in the canon, but to my mind, they all fall broadly under one of the three arguments presented above.  And of course, Waldorf educators, like any others, should be mindful of these very persuasive arguments in favor of inclusion when considering how to structure our lessons.  However, there are even further reasons we should make efforts to be inclusive–reasons based on the philosophy of Rudoph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education.  And it is to a consideration of Steiner’s “take” on women and gender that we will turn in the next post.

In the meantime, the following site contains a good recap of the evidence from mainstream educational sources in favor of inclusion.  (And it’s also, as you’ll see, the source for my own title to this post, “Remembering the Ladies.”)  http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9215/ladies.htm

And here’s a link to a nice, concise response to the question of whether or not “women’s history” is really a valid endeavor: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/current.html#Anchor-Women’s-49575

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