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Well, it’s been two full years since I last updated this blog, and if it weren’t for a helpful kick in the ass from Ugo in Florence, I’d probably still be hiding behind mounds of schoolwork trying not to think about how badly I need to get back to this site.  Thank you, Ugo!  You rock!


Portrait of Catalina in her “Lieutenant’s” clothes, by Spanish court painter Juan van der Hamen y Gomez de León. (Source)

When I last left you, I promised you a second fabulous Renaissance lesbian, and here she is, though it’s difficult to know whether to classify her as a lesbian, a trans man, both, or none of the above.  After giving it much thought, I think I’ll settle for “badass queer,” because that, she definitely was.  World, meet Catalina de Erauso, aka “The Lieutenant Nun,” (1) who spent the great majority of her life living as a man, having dashing adventures (both in and out of the bedroom), and who ultimately successfully petitioned both the Spanish court and the Pope himself (!) to recognize her as a legal male.  (3)

Gender Bending in the Renaissance

Now, as anyone even half-familiar with Shakespeare knows, Renaissance literature and theater were full of people and practices that we might now consider genderqueer.  From the boy actors who played female roles on the English stage, to literary gender-bending disguises in Shakespearean comedies, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and other Renaissance tales–gender fluidity abounds in the stories and plays of the Renaissance.  And there are tantalizing indications that though in some ways gender roles were more fixed than they are today, then as now, people found ways to express themselves in non-gender-conforming ways.  We saw an incredible real-life example of this in the last post, which looked at Splenditello, the truly fabulous male alter-ego of a Florentine Renaissance nun, Sister Benedetta Carlini.

squirrel nuts

Catalina had some big ones.  (Source)

However, even among the wide variety of literary and true-life stories of Renaissance gender fluidity, Catalina’s story stands out.  First of all, talk about cojones!  This woman had no problem filling a pair of breeches, as her story will make amply evident.  Second of all, like Sister Benedetta’s story, Catalina’s tale provides us with a rare glimpse of real-life lesbian relationships during the Renaissance–though, notably, like Benedetta, she engaged in these romances while in her guise as a man.  And last but not least in the list of reasons we should care about and study Catalina: much of her tale takes place in the frontier of New Spain (modern-day Central and South America), so her tale provides a window into some of the ways that gender figured in that tragic period of history when the genocide and epistemicide (3) of an entire hemisphere was in full swing.  As her story makes clear, the nascent, transitional social systems in the New World opened up gaps into which someone like Catalina, who wanted to reinvent herself, could slip and even flourish.

So…on with her story.

Catalina’s Early Life

Catalina gives us an account of her childhood in the autobiography she wrote later in life, when she had achieved international fame for her exploits. (4)  Many (though not all) facts from this account have subsequently been verified both in Renaissance times by the Papal and Spanish courts, and by modern scholars.

She was born in the Basque country to a captain in the Spanish military, Don Miguel de Erauso, and his wife, Doña Maria Perez de Galarraga y Arce–sometime in the mid-1580s-early 1590s. (5)  She seems to have been from a large family, as she was constantly bumping into various brothers in far-flung places on her many adventures.  At the age of four, she was placed in a convent along with two sisters.  Her maternal aunt was the prioress.  She remained there until the age of 15, when she was due to take her vows.  At that point, the resentful Catalina, who had been singled out for a beating by a much older novice, seized a moment when all the other nuns were at prayer (Catalina had conned her aunt into thinking she was ill), grabbed a needle and thread, some coins she found lying around, stole her aunt’s keys, ran out the door, into the streets and up into the woods surrounding the convent.  As a cloistered nun, she hadn’t been outside the convent since she entered as a toddler, so at first she wandered aimlessly, her only goal to avoid recapture.

mulan haircut

You knew I wouldn’t be able to get through this post without a Mulan picture, didn’t you?  (See the whole movie sequence here.)

From this exciting beginning, Catalina’s tale gets more and more incredible.  She hid for three days making herself men’s clothes (pants and a shirt) out of her habit and undergarment.  Then she chopped off her hair and headed for a nearby town.

There, in a scenario that would repeat itself many times in the years to come, Catalina’s natural charisma seems to have taken over, because a kindly gentleman (who happened to be married to her mother’s cousin, but didn’t recognize her) took her in, clothed her as the boy he believed she was, and put her up.  She only left three months later when he wanted her to study Latin, she refused, and he hit her.

Having left the gentleman’s house, she went to the king’s court and, calling herself Francisco de Loyola, found a position as a page to the king’s secretary. (6) According to Catalina, one day she witnessed her own father come to the secretary’s house as part of his ongoing search for her.  She encountered her dad in the doorway, but he didn’t give her a second glance.  This too, is a theme in Catalina’s biography–the way that, dressed as a man, she could pass unnoticed among even her closest relations.  That evening she decided her situation was too precarious, so once again she made off in the middle of the night, this time landing, after some time, in Navarre, as the page to a knight of Santiago.  In her two years of travels with him in and around Spain, she one day attended mass at her old convent, where her mother was in attendance and apparently looked directly at her without recognizing her.

How Did She Do It?

By this time Catalina was at least 17-18 years old, and one might think her femininity would be harder to disguise, but she apparently had her means.  The Spanish pilgrim Pedro de la Valle, whom met her later in life when she was at the Pope’s court in Rome, gives us some sense of her physique when he remarks that she was tall for a woman, and had confessed to him that she used some sort of very painful poultice or herbal remedy given to her by an Italian to “dry up” her breasts.  (7) This latter comment is perhaps one of the few testaments we have about pre-hormone therapy “transition” methods.

rupaul drag mother

The drag “mother” is a time-honored tradition.  Did Catalina have a drag father?  Seems like she may have, though I doubt he was as fierce as RuPaul. (Source)

To me, what’s fascinating about this little bit of side commentary by de la Valle is that it both implies that Catalina confided her secret early on to another man (maybe a local apothecary?), (8) and also that he gave her some sort of remedio that was in common use at the time. Which raises a few questions: Exactly how many people out there were looking to reduce their breast size and/or disguise themselves as men?  Clearly enough so that breast reduction herbs were something an Italian medical professional might have in his repertoire. (9)  And furthermore, how did Catalina know to trust her herb-wise mentor with her secret?  As with so many details of Catalina’s tale, we just don’t know.  Unfortunately, this is the only mention we have of the mysterious Italian and his gender-bending recipes.  In any case, the poultice seems to have worked.  What is certain is that by her late teens/early adulthood, she was successfully living as a man in the highest echelons of Spanish society, and that no one ever seems to have questioned her identity as a man.  Even when she was eventually discovered, it was due to her own (unforced) confession rather than the fact that someone had suspected her of being a woman.

“Well,” you might be thinking, taking a break and scrolling back up to the title to this post.  “This is certainly the Renaissance, and Catalina seems pretty boss, but really, I was promised lesbian love scenes.  Where are the lesbian love scenes?” Hang on, folks, because the ride is just getting started.  If you think living successfully as a trans man in Renaissance Spain was badass, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Catalina in the New World

jay z hustler

Jay-Z wasn’t the only hustler, baby.  Catalina was no slouch herself. (Source)

To pick up Catalina’s story, she once again ditched her patron on a whim (perhaps because of that close call with her mother), and this time, headed for New Spain.  The Spanish colonies were where Catalina really got down to the business of fully owning and embodying exactly what it meant to be a virile young Spanish gentleman.  Or some might say, a cad.  When she eventually confessed her true identity to the Bishop, Catalina summed up her time in the New World by saying:

I traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instance, at the feet of Your Eminence. (10)

I don’t know about you, but to me that reads like the résumé of an original gangsta.

Case in point:  Catalina had arrived in the New World as a cabin boy on a ship belonging to (of all people) her uncle, who in a now-familiar pattern, did not recognize her, but quickly adopted the young man as his protégé.  Catalina admits that the uncle was very good to her, but in the end, her ne’er-do-well instincts took over. Upon docking in Panama, their last stop before the return trip to Spain, she clubbed him over the head while he was sleeping (!) and made off with 500 reales.  (BTW, from what we can tell, her nom de guerre changed at this point–she used many throughout her remarkable life, but it appears as though this may be the moment when she changed from Francisco de Loyola to Alonso Díaz Ramirez de Guzmán.)

catalina rejected princesses

Just as I was going to press I found this AMAZING website featuring “princesses” too bold/quirky/badass to make Disney’s cut.  Catalina’s among their picks, obvs.

After a dramatic shipwreck and another bout living with yet another patron who outfitted her with not only clothes and a business, but slaves as well, Catalina/Alonso found herself in a pickle.  Having slashed the face of a local dandy in a sword fight, (10) she was thrown in jail.  The only way out, according to her patron, was if she (being to all parties concerned a “he,” of course) married the patron’s own mistress, whose niece was, in turn, married to Catalina’s victim.

Confused?  Join the club.  Shakespeare couldn’t invent better hijinks than these. Basically, the patron’s brilliant idea was to create an alliance between the two feuding families by having Catalina/Alonso marry his own (i.e. the patron’s) lover.  That way the boss would have a forever bond with his mistress, the mistress would have the income and security of a marriage (which the boss, being already married, couldn’t give her), and the blood feud between Catalina/Alonso and the young man she mutilated would be resolved through the marriage, thereby freeing Catalina/Alonso from prison.

Now here’s the interesting bit, as far as lesbian history goes.  From this first mention of the boss’ lover, Catalina/Alonso’s tale basically reads more or less as a series of seduction narratives and fight scenes, in which the protagonist is taken in by patron after patron (sometimes patronesses as well), only to become inescapably attractive to a young woman, usually either the daughter or niece of the person who is hosting her.  Catalina/Alonso always seems to enjoy the company of the lady, and to participate quite willingly in all sorts of caresses and fondlings.  Only when events climax (as it were) in the woman’s proposal of marriage does the young Alonso flee, often leaving a substantial promised dowry behind.  In other words, it appears as though Catalina/Alsonso actively participated in all the courting and foreplay of the relationship, only deserting her lover when her male alter-ego was about to be found out.

The Juicy Details


Don Juan could have learned a thing or two from Don Alonso, Catalina’s alter ego. (Source)

The story itself makes great reading in the tradition of all swashbucklers, and I encourage you to read it for yourself, which is easily done online.  (You can read it in about an hour, and really, anything that includes cross-dressing, lesbian affairs, numerous rapier duels, a torture scene, and a trans-friendly Pope should be on your “must-read” list.)  Here are just a few excerpts, though, of the parts that most directly address Catalina’s relationships with women.  These should give you a sense of both what is said and unsaid in her narrative. Her tone, as she describes these encounters, makes it clear that she fancies herself quite the Don Juan.  (Or rather, given the chronology of the two, that Don Juan may have fancied himself quite the Don Alonso.) She writes:

I used to slip out by night to that lady’s (i.e. the above mentioned patron’s mistress) house. There she caressed me passionately and, feigning fear of the police, begged me not to return to the church [where Catalina had sought sanctuary] but to stay there. One night she even locked me in and declared that in spite of the Devil I had to bed her. She held on to me so tightly that I had to pry her hands loose to get away.

And about Catalina’s/Alonso’s next conquest:

At the end of nine months he (i.e. Catalina/Alonso’s new patron) informed me that I should seek my living elsewhere. The reason for this was that he had two young maidens living in his house, sisters of his wife, and with whom (and above all with one who was especially fond of me) I used to frolic and fool around. And one day he happened by a window and saw us in the parlour. Reclining in her petticoats, she was combing my hair, our legs entangled. He heard her telling me that I should go to Potosí and earn money so we could get married. He withdrew and summoned me shortly. He questioned me, settled accounts, and I left.

And again, this time with her own brother’s lover (how she came to be the best friend of her brother, who didn’t know her identity, and how she eventually killed him in a duel after he found her sexing up his girlfriend, you will have to find out for yourself):

I remained with my brother as his aide, dining at his table for nearly three years without his ever realizing anything. I went with him sometimes to the house of a girlfriend he had there. Other times I went there without him. He found out about this and took it hard, telling me to keep away from there. He lay in wait for me and caught me at it again. When I came out, he attacked me with his belt and injured my hand.


Like many famous lovers, Catalina was adept at juggling the attentions of two women. (Source)

And my personal favorite, the time that she juggled two different proposals at once by claiming that the gifts given to her by one prospective bride were really a wedding gift for the impending marriage to the other.  (She wound up dumping both girls just before the weddings.)  That story contains the line in which Catalina comes the closest as she ever does to declaring her sexual orientation outright, when she writes that one of the girls who desired her was “contrary to my taste, which was always the pretty faces.” (11)

Yes, but how Real is her Story?

There is so much more in her narrative that I can’t even begin to summarize it here: multiple duels and stints in prison, bouts of near-death in the high Andes, run-ins with frozen mummies, torture scenes in which she triumphs over the rack, feats of soldierly derring do, etc. etc.

If you are beginning to think to yourself that it is highly unlikely that a woman of her time could have gotten away with such brash deceit, and moreover, that all these adventures both in and out of the bedroom could not possibly have happened to one person, let me assure you that you are not the first to think so.  However, by and large, most of the major events in her tale do correlate with actual events, as far as church officials at the time and modern-day scholars have been able to tell. In other words, we don’t know for sure, for instance, whether or not the boss’ mistress really was in love with her and caressed her, but we do know that Catalina/Francisco/Alonso did serve such-and-such a master, that Alonso served in various Spanish forces in the New World, and we can verify that many of the people whom she mentions in the text did, indeed, interact with her.  Many of them even supported her (in writing and in person) in her eventual claim for a pension from the Spanish state.  Even the medical side of her story can be verified:  When she finally confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she volunteered to have a gynecological exam by a panel of matron midwives, who legally vouched for the fact that Catalina did, indeed, have female “parts,” and that she was, moreover, a virgin. (12)


Catalina excelled at “realness.” (Source)

The Bishop’s response to the midwives’ report was sheer amazement–that Catalina could have fooled so many people in so many places, and that, despite having lived among sex-starved men (soldiers, sailors, etc) for so long, she remained a virgin–seemed to him proof of God’s miracles.  Rather than arrest her and condemn her for cross-dressing (as had happened to Joan of Arc, for instance), he simply asked her to live among a group of nuns so that she could preserve her chastity. Catalina agreed for the moment, although eventually, she would appeal to the Pope himself in order to continue living her life as a man.  (More on that later.)

The Downside of “Realness” and Food for Thought

Like certain drag kings and queens that specialize in “realness,” Catalina/Alonso could quite rightly be said to embody most of the most sought-after masculine traits of her time.  This can make her a really fun, and potentially inspiring role model for contemporary trans folk, who need more genderqueer heroes from history included in the textbooks they read.  However, in the age of conquistadores, nothing is without its shadow side.  For Catalina’s hyper-masculinity includes not just the fun stuff like hose, codpieces, and feathered hats, but also casual misogyny, a hyper-macho sense of easily slighted honor, a tendency to reach for one’s sword at the slightest provocation, and most disturbingly, a truly horrific active participation in the slavery and genocide upon which the Spanish empire was based.  Indeed, Catalina/Alonso’s rousing adventures would be fun and games on the order of an old Errol Flynn movie if it weren’t for the very disturbing scenes in which she, like most Spanish soldiers, not only engages in, but positively brags about her triumphantly genocidal tactics against the indigenous population. In by far the most troubling scene in the book, her military party kills a twelve-year-old Indian boy who shot an arrow at them from a tree, and then later massacres his village, boasting that “a gutter of blood like a river flowed down through the place.”


Like the scene depicted here, Catalina describes one of her party’s raids against indigenous groups as culminating in a “river of blood.” (Source)

Catalina/Alonso was no innocent bystander, folks.  For you teachers out there, this should be made abundantly clear to the students whenever we are teaching her.  Part of what makes Catalina so great for the classroom is that her story offers us both a way to celebrating early LGBTQ heroes AND a way to shine a light on the heinous human rights abuses of the time period.

So because I always like to be practical, as well as (hopefully) inspiring, here are some suggestions for classroom discussion.  For those of you who just want to get on with her story, you can just scroll down to continue her tale below.

Questions for Discussion

  • How did Catalina perform her gender?
  • What did it mean to be a man in her time, and how well did she embody those ideals?
  • Who needs to be put down, pushed aside, or altogether obliterated in order for Catalina to seem “manly”?

And taking off from this point, one could extend the discussion further by asking:

  • How do we all perform gender in our daily lives?
  • What negative sides are there to our own performances?
  • ratchet mileyAre there certain groups that must be dominated or put down in order to achieve “realness” of a particular gender role?  (e.g. The use of “bitch/ho” in certain rap subcultures to create a hyper-masculine African-American persona, or the class-based insult “ratchet” to cast aspersion on a woman’s femininity)
  • Are there certain subgroups of people excluded from embodying certain roles? (e.g. Are gay or East Asian men considered “real” men in the media? Can a dark-skinned, heavy woman be “truly” feminine to Madison Avenue standards?)
  • Must certain groups be abolished outright or given fewer freedoms as part of some other group’s gender performance?  (e.g. conservative groups that believe gay marriage threatens heterosexual marriage, and so must be prohibited)
  • And finally: Can we find ways to embody our own preferred gender role without engaging in the harmful stereotypes and practices that can accompany it?

If we play it right, Catalina’s story can become a springboard to much wider discussions that may help our students consider the intersection of power dynamics between gender, race, class, and ethnicity (among other things) in their own lives.

Catalina’s Significance

So in addition to her usefulness as a touchpoint for issues of cross-platform oppression, what makes Catalina so special?  Other than her setting during the Spanish conquest, what sets her apart from other famous cross-dressing women like Mulan and Joan of Arc?

I’ve thought about it and researched quite a bit, and here’s what I’ve come to:

Catalina/Alonso is important because she is (as far as I can tell) the first case we can find of a person going against deeply ingrained gender norms in order to successfully live out her life as a member of another gender for no other reason than that she wanted to.

Phew! That’s a mouthful.  Let’s unpack some key phrases.



A Roman Archigallus, a MtF priestess of the goddess Cybele. (Source)

She is the first case: There are plenty of other examples of cross-dressing and gender-bending way before Catalina, most notably the priests and priestesses of a variety of gods and goddesses throughout the Near East, India, Africa, and the Americas from ancient times all the way to the present.  Shamans, both ancient and modern, have also often practiced cross-dressing or engaged in other gender-bending acts as a way of reaching the divine.  To my knowledge, however, these practices were all undertaken in the context of larger religious/cultural systems that allowed, or in some cases, even encouraged gender fluidity.  This is not to downplay their significance in the history of gender identity, but simply to point out that a male-to-female priestess of Cybele, for instance, was engaging in behavior that had a socially sanctioned and ritual purpose, whereas Catalina’s transformation was neither ritualized, nor did it form part of a larger social order that would be recognized by her peers.


Going against deeply ingrained gender norms:  Again, even when cultures have very distinct gender roles for men and women, they may have specific proscribed ways of “violating” these norms.  I’m thinking, for example, of Indian hijras, or men who dress (and in some cases live) as women.  Traditional Hindu culture has very specifically delineated gender roles, that for the most part, are strictly enforced (as they were in the Spanish culture of Catalina’s time.)  But unlike the Spanish Renaissance, which had no specific outlet for fluid gender identities, the hijra is a proscribed role for men who wish to take on female characteristics.  Similar things could be said for most of the priests, priestesses, and shamans mentioned above.  (This of course, is not to deny the very real discrimination that hijras face, but simply to point out that a third category of gender identity is socially recognized.)  Not so in Catalina’s world.  She was going her own road, without the support of any community, and without any template to follow or specific role to fill.

Successfully lived out her life: As her story makes clear, Catalina lived most of her life as a man without being discovered, doing all those things (soldiering, seducing, dueling, praying, pillaging, traveling) that a Spanish gentleman was expected to do.  At no point was she discovered until she chose to reveal herself, and even then, she went on to secure the right to continue living as a man.  (More on that below.)  This is in stark contrast, to for instance, Joan of Arc, her more famous cross-dressing counterpart, who was burned at the stake for (among other things) wearing men’s clothes.

laverne cox

I think Catalina would approve. (Source)

For no other reason than that she wanted to: Here’s the part that to me, seems so stellar.  Catalina wasn’t living as Alfonso because she wanted to save her father from having to fight in a war (a la Mulan), or because she heard voices telling her to defeat the British (a la Joan of Arc), or because she was fulfilling a religious call (like so many priests, shamans, and religious figures from around the world).  Nor was she following an already-established pathway to gender difference, as was, say, a traditional two-spirit “berdache” in Mississippian culture.  Catalina seems to have chosen to live as a man simply because she wanted to.  Whether that desire came out of a deeply felt belief that she really was a man (as many trans people today feel), or because it was simply the most expedient way not to be confined by oppressive female gender norms, is almost impossible to say.  We do know this: Catalina insisted BOTH on the fact that she was a woman (and a virgin, at that), AND that she should have the right to be called “Alonso” (or one of her other male names) and live out her life as a man.  Just because.

That makes her, in my book, a boss.

Catalina, the Court, and the Pope

So how did Catalina’s story end?  Well, once she had confessed her identity to the Bishop in Peru, she was in a tricky legal position.  Of all the most pressing issues facing her, the most important, in that time period, was her commitment to the church.  If she had ever professed vows as a nun, she was legally obligated to return to her original convent. (In the meantime, because there was really no other option for single, virgin women of a certain age, she was housed temporarily in a convent.)  Given the distance and bureaucracy involved with establishing her legal status, it took several years for confirmation to reach Peru that she had not, in fact, ever taken orders officially.  At that point, she was urged by the new Bishop of Peru to take permanent vows in the convent in which she was temporarily housed, but Catalina pushed back.  She writes, “I told him that I had no order nor religious obligation and that I was trying to get back to my native land where I would do whatever seemed best for my salvation.”

equal pay

Catalina was one of the first in the long, unfinished fight for equal pay. (Source)

What seemed best to her for her salvation, apparently, was to see if she could get a pension from the Spanish court for serving as a soldier all those years in the Indies.  This took a fair amount of work.  She needed to prove her case–not that she was a woman (for that had already been established), but that she’d been a good soldier and worthy of the same treatment as her male compatriots.  This is when many of her past patrons, battalion leaders, and others came forward and vouched for the character and battle-worthiness of Alonso (or whatever name she had been fighting under when she was in their service).  Since none of them had known she was a woman when she served with them, they were initially baffled, but many supported her cause.

Wherever she went, Catalina attracted great crowds.  This is in large part because as soon as she left the convent, she took up wearing men’s clothes again, and people couldn’t contain themselves from ogling at the “Lieutenant Nun,” as she had come to be called.  Her fame was such that when she traveled to Rome, she was granted an audience with Pope Urban VIII, whom she asked for a special papal dispensation that would allow her to live out her life as a man.  This was a brilliant strategy–if he said yes, then she’d essentially be considered legally male in any Catholic country.  He did. Catalina relates his response:

gay urban

Pope Urban VIII is better known as the man who indicted Galileo, but he turns out to have been remarkably trans-friendly.

His Holiness showed himself to be astonished by such a tale, and kindly granted me permission to continue my life dressed as a man, charging me to live honestly henceforth and to abstain from offending my neighbor, attaching the threat of the wrath of God to his order, “Non Occides.” [Latin for “Do not kill.”]

What I think is particularly interesting in Catalina’s account is that the Pope seems not to be overly concerned with her gender identity, but rather, gives his attention to her propensity for murder and mayhem. (And rightly so, I might add.)  In fact, the implication seems to be that “living honestly” for Catalina would mean living peacefully as a man.  It’s a remarkably mild, even positive reaction.

From this point on, Catalina, or rather, Don Antonio de Erauso, as she was now legally known, became a minor celebrity, fêted by Cardinals, princes, and the like at every turn.  Catalina ends her autobiography on a happy note with typical zest, with an anecdote in which she deals with some would-be hecklers.  These are literally her last words:

While strolling along the wharf in Naples one day, I perceived the loud laughter of two girls who were chatting with a couple of boys. We stared at each other and one said to me, “Where to, Lady Catalina?”  I answered, “To give you a hundred whacks on the head, my lady whores, and a hundred slashes to whomever may wish to defend you!” They shut up and slipped away.

If that isn’t the very definition of having cojones, I don’t know what is.  Would to God that all haters were as easily and forcefully shut down.

trans meme

If Catalina were alive today, she might express herself like this. (Source)

Catalina/Antonio eventually returned to the Indies (modern-day Mexico), where she set up an import/export business and died “an exemplary death” in 1650 in Veracruz. (13) To the last of her days, she lived as a man.  As far as I can tell, she was the first and only person ever to receive papal dispensation to live as another gender. (14)

And with that, I rest my case.  Model Spanish cavalier (with all the good and bad that entails). Lesbian heartbreaker. Early trans success story.  Despite, or even because of, her many flaws, Catalina de Erauso should enter history textbooks (and classrooms) as an early “badass queer.” QED.



  1. This is an English translation of Catalina’s Spanish moniker, given to her by her contemporaries, “La Monja Alférez.”
  2. It has been very difficult to figure out which gender pronoun to use when speaking about Catalina and her male alter-egos.  On the one hand, most scholarship refers to Catalina as “she,” and Catalina herself was insistent that she was, indeed, a woman. On the other hand, she herself spent most of her life dressed and living like a man, and clearly (and on more than one occasion) pled, ultimately successfully, to be treated as a man, complete with the use of an alternate name. Switching back and forth between “she” and “he” for Catalina and her various male alter-egos might make things a bit too complex for readers to follow, so I reluctantly am going to go with the scholarly crowd here.  However, I do this with quite a bit of unease.  I also might change my usage if I were teaching Catalina in class, since I tend to follow modern gender pronoun and vocabulary usage when working with teenagers.  For more of my thoughts on why this is an especially important point for teens, see my note on my use of words like “gay,” “trans,” “genderqueer,” etc. from the first note in my last post.  Having a commonly accepted English-language gender neutral pronoun would make things so much easier. *Deep sigh*
  3. The concept of “epistemicide” or the annihilation of non-Western (particularly indigenous) systems/paradigms of knowledge is one that is increasingly important in academic work on the colonial and post-colonial eras.  Even the World Bank now makes use of the concept when trying to preserve indigenous farming and medical knowledge.  It’s beyond my purview to really investigate this theme closely here, but I do think it’s interesting to note that Catalina finds her opportunity not in the Old World, where she was born, but in a place that is at the epicenter of a shift in world systems, where identities in general are to some degree both more fixed (as in the designation of people as being “pure” Castilian vs. “mestizo,” etc.) and more fluid, as the “wild west” setting of her tale makes clear.  I also think it’s important to note that Catalina, as a Spaniard, enjoyed privileges not available to many indigenous or even mestizo individuals, and so it may have been easier for her to “pass.”
  4. All the quotes from and autobiographical information about Catalina are taken from her book, “The Autobiography of Doña Catalina de Erauso,”an English translation of which can be found here online.
  5. Catalina herself gives her birthdate as 1584, but her baptismal certificate would seem to indicate it was 1592.
  6. Catalina used a variety of names throughout her life, a few of which were Pedro de Olive, Francisco de Loyola, Alonso Diaz Ramirez de Guzman, and Antonio de Erauso.  See the Spanish-language article in ARTEHISTORIA. “Monja alférez. Catalina de Erauso – Personajes – ARTEHISTORIA V2”
  7. From what I’ve been able to tell, given my admittedly scant knowledge about Renaissance herbal lore, there certainly were (and are) herbal remedies used to “dry up” milk after miscarriages or unsuccessful births; how effective these would be at eliminating breasts altogether remains unclear to me.  Or perhaps Catalina was using something that we now might recognize as an anti-estrogen. Or an acid-like concoction that literally burned her glands (perhaps explaining the pain?).  Who knows.  I should definitely take this moment, though, to add that I am NOT endorsing trying this at home, folks.  Although herbs continue to be popular among some trans folk as a way of making a supposedly kinder, gentler transition, botanicals can be just as powerful as pharmaceuticals, and I would urge extreme caution when going it alone.  Plus, we (thankfully) have WAY more options now than Catalina did.
  8. The original Spanish makes it clear that the person in whom Catalina confided and received a remedy from was male (“un italiano”).
  9. Catalina drops one other tantalizing hint that gender-bending behavior was perhaps more common during the Renaissance than we know.  She writes that, upon hearing her confession about her identity, the Bishop stated “that he considered this the most remarkable case of its type he had ever heard of in his life.” [My italics.] A lot hangs on those three little italicized words.  On the one hand, they could mean simply that the Bishop found Catalina’s story remarkable because it was more outrageous than the relatively common literary trope of cross-dressing.  On the other hand, it could also imply that the Bishop knew of other such contemporary real-life cases of women dressing as men, and that among these, Catalina’s was the most remarkable.  It’s impossible to know for sure, but the latter interpretation certainly piques one’s interest.
  10. Catalina’s military prowess has been the subject of much speculation.  Some have conjectured that she was taught sword-fighting by her father, but this seems unlikely, since she entered the convent when she was four.  It’s far more likely that she learned her military skills during her stints as a page.  In other words, she was trained exactly like any other young gentleman of the period.
  11. I should note here that this is one of the places where the ugly social and racial realities of the time are made explicit in the text.  The reason given by Catalina for her dislike of the young woman in question is that she is “very dark and ugly as the devil.”  By Catalina’s own account, the girl was the daughter of a woman who was herself the product of a mixed Spanish-Indigenous marriage.  As a pure-blood Spaniard, Catalina/Francisco was therefore situated much higher up in the colonial apartheid system, and was clearly not above abusing her own privilege, marginalized (in some ways) as she was herself.
  12. There has been a certain amount of speculation over the years about whether or not Catalina was intersex (e.g., whether or not she really had two X chromosomes, or whether she actually was XY).  Of course, barring a DNA examination of her remains (and we don’t know where she is buried), this will remain a mystery.  What we do know, though, is whatever her genes, she at least appeared to the midwives who examined her to be a woman.
  13. This quote comes from a legal document (another relación) written in 1653 in Mexico, quoted here.
  14. This is of course, discounting the legend of “Pope Joan,” a supposedly female pope who lived in the Middle Ages.  She is believed by nearly all modern scholars to be fictitious.


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Mulan on horseback

Mulan on horseback

Continuing my theme of girlhood in poetry, here’s one more strong image of girlhood for you all, while I procrastinate doing my lesson plans.  This one comes from northern China in the sixth c. CE, when it was ruled by the Tartars.  I just love the ending, which seems to imply the type of gender fluidity we associate with much more modern times.  The poem asks us: who could tell boys and girls apart if we dressed them the same way and allowed them to engage in the same activities?  (Take that, Disney princesses!)
We do not know the author, so I can’t tell you if this was written by a man or a woman.  The translation is by Arthur Waley, from his wonderful little book entitled Chinese Poems (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983).


Mulan was a skilled archer to survive 12 years of war.

Click, click, forever click, click;
Mulan sits at the door and weaves.
Listen, and you will not hear the shuttle’s sound,
But only hear a girl’s sobs and sighs.
“Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your love,
Oh tell me, lady, are you longing for your dear?”
“Oh no, oh no, I am not thinking of my love,
Oh no, oh no, I am not longing for my dear.
But last night I read the battle-roll;
The Khan has ordered a great levy of men.
The battle-roll was written in twelve books,
And in each book stood my father’s name.
My father’s sons are not grown men,
And of all my brothers, none is older than me.
Oh let me to the market to buy saddle and horse,
And ride with the soldiers to take my father’s place.”
In the eastern market she’s bought a gallant horse,
In the western market she’s bought saddle and cloth,
In the southern market she’s bought snaffle and reins,
In the northern market she’s bought a tail whip.
In the morning she stole from her father’s and mother’s house;
At night she was camping by the Yellow River’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
But only the voice of the Yellow River as its waters swirled through the night.
At dawn they left the River and went on their way;
At dusk they came to the Black Water’s side.
She could not hear her father and mother calling to her by her name,
She could only hear the muffled voices of foreign horsemen riding on the hills of Yen.
A thousand leagues she tramped on the errands of war,
Frontiers and hills she crossed like a bird in flight.
Through the northern air echoed the watchman’s tap;
The wintry light gleamed on coats of mail.
The captain had fought a hundred fights, and died;
The warriors in ten years had earned their rest.
They went home, they saw the Emperor’s face;
The Son of Heaven was seated in the Hall of Light.
The deeds of the brave were recorded in twelve books;
In prizes he gave a hundred thousand cash.
Then spoke the Khan and asked her what she would take.
“Oh Mulan asks not to be made aCounsellor at the Khan’s court;
I only beg for camel that can march a thousand leagues a day, to take me back to my home.”


A more modern rendition, with her armor peeking out from under her robes.

When her father and mother heard that she had come,
They went out to the wall and led her back to the house.
When her little sister heard that she had come,
She went to the door and rouged her face afresh.
When her little brother heard that his sister had come,
He sharpened his knife and darted like a flash
Towards the pigs and sheep.
She opened the gate that leads to the eastern tower,
She sat on her bed that stood in the western tower.
She cast aside her heavy soldier’s cloak,
And wore again her old-time dress.
She stood at the window and bound her cloudy hair;
She went to the mirror and fastened her yellow combs.
She left her house and met her messmates in the road;
Her messmates were startled out of their wits.
They had marched with her for twelve years of war
And never known Mulan was a girl.
For the male hare sits with its legs tucked in,
And the female hare is known for her bleary eye;
But set them both scampering side by side,
And who so wise could tell you, “This is he?”

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Hildegard didn't have to fly to get a bird's-eye view of the cosmos.  Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

Hildegard didn’t have to fly to get a bird’s-eye view of the cosmos. Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

A word to the wise: in case you haven’t been following the thread of this series on Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval visionary nun, you should check out my first and second posts (first one on her life and times, second one on her Big Idea).  It will make the following much easier, well, to follow.

God as Verb

When last I left you, we had examined Hildegard’s use of the term viriditas, a word she is often described as using to denote God’s generative, or “greening” power.  However, I’d taken the step of expanding the interpretation of viriditas slightly.  I’d related it to other words and images she uses frequently–fiery power, Reason, life, wind-tossed flame.  And I’d suggested that Hildegard uses viriditas (among other words and images) not to describe the actions or power of God as a Person (that is, as a noun), but rather, to situate God Him/Herself in that in-between area of matter and energy.  In other words, Hildegard experiences God as verb.

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the seas of theological conundrums. (Source)

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the theological waters. (Source)

Now, once we start talking about God as noun vs. God as verb, we’re treading into fairly deep theological waters.   Luckily for us, there are others who have gone before to part the seas, and they’ve made it relatively easy to understand.  So hang in there.

In order to explain myself (and Hildegard), I’m going to borrow here for a moment from David A. Cooper, who has written about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in his aptly entitle book, aptly God is a Verb:

“The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being.  We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun.  Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God.  We might call It God-ing…. a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other….Moreover, creation should not be treated as a noun.  It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing.  And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun–Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John.  With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing.” (1)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

This understanding of God seems, to me, to shed light on Hildegard’s often baffling array of metaphors.  In each of her terms (fiery power, viriditas, Reason), she is fundamentally pointing to the living activity inherent in them.  And this is where we need to be very careful in understanding her.  She is NOT saying that nature (stones, plants, humans, etc.) exists as fundamentally dead or inert matter that is animated by some sort of ubiquitous life energy (á la the Jedi “Force”).  That would actually be relatively easy for us to grasp.  We’re all very familiar with the idea of matter (inert) and energy (animate).

But that’s a fundamentally dualistic way of looking at things. Hildegard takes us a step further.  She is inviting us to step from duality to unity–to see creation itself as “creation-ing” (to steal Cooper’s word) and God as “God-ing.”  Let’s look again the first passage I quoted in my last post:

“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm.  And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)

You see what she’s doing here?  The herbs “suck” viriditas from the air; they “cook” viriditas so it’s available to produce fruit.  So, yes, God’s viriditas is filling and animating them, but the plants themselves are also playing an active role in “drawing” the viriditas down.  In other words, viriditas seems to somehow encapsulate the exchange between God and creation–a moment-by-moment “God-ing” that brings the universe (herbs, earth, lambs, fruit) into being.   Viriditas is not a thing, it’s a movement. (3)

Back to the Word

Apparently dualism generates its own internet memes.  (Source.)

Apparently the problem of dualism is widely-enough known to generate internet memes. (Source.)

But it’s important to watch your step, here.  We have to constantly guard against our tendency to see the world in dualistic terms, matter and energy.  It would be easy to fall back into a pattern of seeing God (noun) and creation (noun) with some sort of action (verb) between them.  Hildegard’s insight is to continually invite us to see them as parts of one and the same process–the process of the Word, which she associates with Reason (and sometimes with Wisdom). (4)  Taking a moment to look at how she uses the term “Reason,” can give us an extra window into what she’s trying to tell us.

So…Let’s take a second look at part of the longer passage I had quoted in my second post, where Hildegard speaks with the voice of the divine being she saw in a vision:

“I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species.  For I am life.  I am life, whole and entire [vita integra]…all life has its roots in me.  Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.” (5)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

For Hildegard, then, Reason is the link between God (here, represented as the Word) and creation.  (6) Reason is the root of life–the life that lives in and flows out of God, and the life that lives in and flows through creation.  Reason is not opposed to matter (á la Cartesian dualism); rather, it is the basis of it all, a fiery life flow that is constantly “God-ing” and “creation-ing” our whole universe into being.

A Reasonable Question

So, you might wonder, does Hildegard’s divine Reason have anything to do with our own capacity as humans to reason?

So glad you asked.

For Hildegard, human reason is not only the link between humans and God, but actually an aspect of the very lifeblood of divinity itself, flowing in and through us, bringing us into being moment by moment.  As such, it is an essential part of our nature:

“This life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action, and yet this life is manifest in a threefold power. For eternity is called the ‘Father,’ the Word is called the ‘Son,’ and the breath that binds both of them together is called the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And God has likewise marked humanity; in human beings there are body, soul, and reason.” (7)

“Every human soul endowed with reason exists as a soul that emerges from the true God….This same God is that living fire by which souls live and breathe.” (8)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas--for Hildegard, it's all good. (Source)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas–for Hildegard, it’s all good. (Source)

For Hildegard, then, humans possess a threefold nature modeled on the activity of God Him/Herself, with one of those parts made up of the very Reason that is the root of the Godhead itself.  The soul’s rational activity is therefore not so much modeled on God’s divine Reason (as we see in later Enlightenment notions of reason); it is divine Reason.  Our rational activity is God Him/Herself at work in us. (9)

Making over our Minds: Hildegard and Steiner

Once we’ve looked closely at Hildegard’s understanding of Reason, it’s clear that for her, Reason wasn’t just a tool her intellect deployed.  Rather, she felt, lived, and experienced her own thinking as a communion with the spiritual realm.  Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising to us–after all, she was a visionary, and we expect such extraordinary experiences from mystics.  However, what’s interesting is that she clearly expects her audience, to some degree, to be able to follow her.  She expects them to experience, in some real sense, their own Reason as an active, living, “flow” of God.  She expects them to actually participate in divine Reason. (10)


For Steiner, the death of God was not irreversible. He believed we could develop our capacity to experience phenomena directly, overcoming the subject/object dichotomy that is built into post-Enlightenment modes of consciousness. (Source.)

This is not, to say the least, how we usually experience our own intellectual activity on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century.  As Nietzsche famously announced, God is dead and we killed him.  It’s hard for any of us these days to think of our own thinking activity as something that connects us to God, much less as God him/herself at work in us.

As always, the philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, had something to say about this matter.  (Is there anything the man didn’t weigh in on?) In effect, Steiner took Nietzsche’s observation one step further, pointing out that the way in which our minds now work, the very way we cognate, no longer allows us to participate in this living, spiritual flow unless we take extra steps to overcome the subject/object divide that is built into our current mode of cognition.

That’s a tad dense, so let me unpack it for you a bit.  Steiner’s idea was that the way the modern post-enlightenment mind thinks presupposes a divide between observer and observed; this, he held, has not always been the case for all humans in all times and places.  I would point out that Hildegard’s work is one of those places where we can see the rift between earlier modes of consciousness and our own.  Her expectation that her audience will be able to experience their own cognition as an inflowing of the Divine is fundamentally foreign to our own experience of our thinking activity.

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner.  (Source)

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner. (Source)

What Steiner offers us, though, is a little glimmer of hope.  Rather than throwing up his hands and bewailing the fact that we can no longer experience our own thinking as a Divine inflowing, he, first of all, notes a few places where we DO have access to forms of non-dualistic thinking–poetic and artistic inspiration being paramount among them.  He then also offers us the insight that all our thinking is, when you get down to it, non-dualistic.  We cannot understand ourselves as a separate subject without thinking; in order to even perceive ourselves as the subject who is thinking about that object (or idea) over there, we already have to be thinking.  So thinking, in effect, gives rise to both subject and object.  It exists prior to or outside of the dualistic realm.  As such, Steiner argues, it can therefore can be understood to be a fundamentally spiritual activity. (11)

Even Homer Simpson's thinking connects him to the spiritual realm.  (Source)

Even Homer Simpson’s thinking connects him to the spiritual realm. (Source)

And this is where I think Steiner and Hildegard would find themselves in agreement: it is not so much the ideas (nouns) that result from thinking that bring us closer to the Divine; it is the act of thinking (verb) itself that is an experience of the Divine.  Whether you are thinking about God or thinking about those delicious donuts sitting on the table in front of you, your act of thinking is what connects you to the spiritual realm, not the content of your thoughts.  (12)

The question, to my mind, that both of them raise for us is this: once we see how the very activity of our thinking connects us to the Divine, how do we choose to use or develop our cognition?  Should we continue to go around as usual, thinking about ourselves (nouns) and the stuff or people around us (nouns), as though the dualistic mirage is the truth?  Or do we choose to develop that side of ourselves that can always remain alert to the fact that what is transpiring at any moment is, in fact, a verb? A you-ing and me-ing and God-ing (and even donut-ing) that is fundamentally beyond subject and object.

Hot off the presses--the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl!

Hot off the presses–the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl! (Source for background photo.)

Steiner, of course, had an answer.  He said that we should engage in those activities–art, poetry, music, meditation, close observation of nature–that are most likely to help us surmount that subject/object divide.  With practice, he held, the type of intuitive thinking that characterizes those activities will become more habitual, and in fact, may lead us to higher forms of cognition that we normally plaster over with all our dualistic nonsense.  (Well, he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that’s what he meant.)  And if we look at Hildegard’s own life, we can see that she spent it doing precisely those things Steiner identifies as exemplary of non-dualistic intuitive thinking:  composing breathtakingly beautiful music, writing poetry and dramas, illustrating her visions, meditating and praying, examining the herbs and natural remedies around her and writing extensive treatises on them.   In fact, you couldn’t really imagine a better poster-child for Steiner’s program–not even Steiner himself.

And that, my Waldorf-inspired friends, is why it behooves each and every one of us to learn about and teach Hildegard every chance we get.  ‘Nuff said.



(1) Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. pp.69-70.  I should note here that in using Cooper’s work, I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct link between Hildegard and Kabbala (though the thought is interesting, given the time period she’s writing and the possible theological works to which she might have been exposed).  Rather, I’m using Cooper because I’ve found his description of God as verb the easiest to understand and most clearly written.  I think his discussion of Kabbalist understandings of the Divine helps illuminate both Hildegard’s work and Steiner’s.
 For more on Hildegard von Bingen, other medieval Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux (with whom we know she corresponded), and Kabbalah, see Peter Shäfer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to Early Kabbalah.  New York: Princeton University Press, 2004.  
And of course, I can’t end this note without mentioning that the original statement “God is a verb” seems to have been made by Buckminster Fuller in 1963, in his book No More Secondhand God.  I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with Kabbalah and/or other forms of medieval mysticism, though the fact that he was a Unitarian and the grandson of the major transcendentalist figure Margaret Fuller opens up the possibility that he might have been familiar with these or other similar ideas.

2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164.  You can find it online here.

3)  Indeed, you do sometimes see viriditas translated simply as “greening,” though most translators put another word like, “power” or “force” on the end, in order to be consistent with the original Latin form.  However, I think that it’s precisely this impulse to make viriditas into a “thing” (i.e. a noun) that makes it so difficult to grapple with what Hildegard trying to say.  If we were to translate viriditas as a gerund (that funny grammatical construction that hovers in the realm between verb and noun, as in “I enjoy playing football”), it might be easier to get at what she’s trying to describe.

4) By “The Word,” of course, Hildegard is referring back to the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”).  The history of the complex theological relationship between the Word, Wisdom, and the other parts of the Trinity is way too complicated to go into here, since attempting to relate Wisdom (usually, for linguistic reasons, depicted as feminine) to the Godhead has always been a potentially incendiary topic.  One brief example will have to suffice:  my former professor (and Syriac scholar) Susan Ashbrook Harvey once told me that the original Syriac feminine ending for “Holy Spirit” had been expunged at a certain point in late antiquity, thereby complicating further efforts to relate this aspect of the Trinity to Wisdom (which is feminine in both the Greek and Latin, as well as the Syriac).  Apparently, a wise, female Holy Ghost was just too much for the Syriac fathers to take.

In Hildegard’s case, she seems to move between the Son/Word, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom rather fluidly, a fact that has made her somewhat of a darling of contemporary feminist theologians.  Hildegard plays pretty fast and loose with her terminology, though, sometimes even seeming to equate the Holy Spirit and Wisdom with the Virgin, thereby opening up some interesting theological possibilities for how the Virgin participates in the life of the Trinity.  For instance, compare these three brief passages from her songs: Hildegard on Wisdom in O Virtus Sapientiae: “O moving force of Wisdom, encircling the wheel of the cosmos/ Encompassing all that is, all that has life, in one vast circle….” Hildegard on the Holy Spirit in her song O Spiritu Sancto: “Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all creating being…”.  And then, to Mary in De Sancta Maria: “Hail to you, O greenest (viridissima) branch!  You budded forth amidst breezes and winds in search of the knowledge of all that is holy…Because of you, the heavens give dew to the grass, the whole Earth rejoices, Abundance of grain comes from Earth’s womb….”  I’d argue that Hildegard is not trying to be systematic here in the way modern theologians (feminist or otherwise) might want her to be: rather, she is trying to capture something that inheres in all these different understandings of God–namely, the flow of divinity that is constantly creating and sustaining the universe.

5) Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Vision 1:2.  p. 10.  ed. Matthew Fox.  trans. Richard Cunningham.  Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987.

6) In formulating her theology, Hildegard probably drew on ideas of Reason popularized by the late Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, whose work On the Consolations of Philosophy was beginning to be circulated more widely in her time.  Boethius was very influential among later mystical writers, who used his differentiation of intellect (intellectus) and reason (ratio) in order to better explain their experiences.  She may be leading the pack here, though.  Other great thinkers who took up Boethius’ ideas about Reason during this time were mostly associated with the (heavily neo-Platonist) cathedral school at Chartres–Gilbert of La Porrée, Thierry of Chartres, and Richard of Saint-Victor.  The latter wrote extensively on mystical experience and reason, and he was writing at the same time as Hildegard.  This is a rare case where the work of a female writer is much better known and explicated than that of her male contemporaries–probably precisely because her writings were not nearly as (let’s face it, boys) mind-numbingly dull.  For more on twelfth century notions of reason, M-D Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Tweltfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. pp. 75ff.  Chenu also has a fascinating account of the Hermetic and Muslim sources of neo-Platonism–raising a whole other set of questions about the various streams that flow together to inform Hildegard’s work.

7) Divine Works, Vision 1:2.  Fox, p. 11.

8) Divine Works, Vision 10:2.  Fox, p. 224.

9) It’s important, as I hinted above, to differentiate Hildegard’s view of Reason from Enlightenment understandings of reason as a critical intellectual tool.  Back in Hildegard’s time, we’re not only pre-Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), but over 100 years prior to Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelian philosophy.  The Deists and other Enlightenment fans of reason are a good 600 years later.  Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers tend to deploy reason as a tool that “I” (the subject/noun) can use for determining whether or not God (another noun) exists, Hildegard experiences Reason as a flow of “God-ing.”  This shift from an imminent spiritual Presence to the centrality of a separate human “self” is one of the defining moments in the evolution of consciousness.

The Inklings (clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Lewis, and Owen Barfield) (Source)

Barfield was a member of the famous Oxford literary group The Inklings, who met every Tuesday to drink beer and discuss their latest works. Clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. (Source)

(10) Anyone familiar with the work of Owen Barfield can see here that I’m plainly and unabashedly stealing his language to describe Hildegard’s experience.  Barfield coined the incredibly illuminating and helpful term “participation” to describe the state of consciousness in which “self and non-self are identified in the same moment of existence.” (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. p 32, note 1.)  Barfield argues that for modern humans, this form of perception that is “nearer to unity than dichotomy” is fairly rare–he gives the examples of “semi-subjective” realms such as intuition, panic, or irresistible semi-conscious urges (e.g. sexual drive) as the few places in which we still experience ourselves to be under the influence of some power external to ourselves, and yet simultaneously wholly a part of us.  On the other hand, he notes that linguistic and cultural evidence reveals that humans in earlier eras experienced this feeling of unity with the exterior world on a regular basis–indeed, for much of history, humanity seems to have experienced the world with precisely this form of monistic consciousness.  If you’re interested in delving further into Barfield’s insights, his seminal work Saving the Appearances is probably the best place to start.  The Owen Barfield Society also provides helpful links to many resources on Barfield’s work.

11)  Steiner’s views on cognition are pretty heavy philosophical stuff.  If you’d like to delve deeper into his understanding of thinking as a fundamentally non-dualistic, spiritual experience, his very dense, but extremely enlightening book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path is the best place to start.  If you’d prefer something a little less, shall we say, abstruse, Owen Barfield’s book Romanticism Comes of Age picks up many of the same ideas, but is a much easier read.

12) Interestingly, Steiner only mentions Hildegard explicitly once, as far as I can tell–in his fourth lecture on “Man in the Light of Occultism, Philosophy, and Theology,” (given in 1912) where he gives an account of the different types of mystics.  He doesn’t really describe the content of any of her work (though it’s obvious he must have read her in order to be able to place her within a continuum of different types of mysticism).  What little he says is not terribly flattering: he says she has “good and beautiful impulses but…also a considerable measure of ordinary earthly instinct and desire, and this taints [her] mystical feelings and perceptions.”  (Access the online version of the lecture here.) He then goes on to compare Hildegard unfavorably to Mechthild of Magdeburg, a later female mystic, whom Steiner believes “expresses herself always with a certain touch of humor.”  The irony of this criticism is that it comes from a man who, though apparently jovial enough in person, left a body of scholarship which is rather heavy and often difficult to read, to put it mildly.  Steiner wrote that at least some of his own works were meant to be difficult to penetrate, the idea being that the individual had to wrestle with the ideas in such a way as to spur them beyond usual categories of thought.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I wonder if Hildegard’s shifting vocabulary and enormous body of work are attempts to do much the same thing.

I should mention, though, that there is one other place where some people believe Steiner was referencing Hildegard–in a passage from 1924 where he links an unnamed medieval female “visionary…who unfolded truly wonderful insight into the spiritual world.”  He notes that this unnamed nun had no outward conflicts with orthodox Christianity, but that later, her brand of “deeply personal Christianity” found no place in received Catholic tradition.   He then links this female mystic’s oeuvre with that of Vladimir Solovyov, a late nineteenth-century Russian mystic who experienced profound visions of Sophia (Divine Wisdom).  Given the very brief description provided by Steiner in the text, his unnamed nun certainly could be Hildegard; but then again, his words could also apply to any number of other medieval female mystics, not the least of whom is Julian of Norwich.  I think it is therefore difficult to say for certain whether he was revising his earlier assessment of Hildegard or whether he had in mind a different medieval visionary entirely.  In any case, I think that once you read both Steiner and Hildegard closely, it’s obvious that there is a true affinity between them–not only in the content of their thought, but in the way in which they lived their lives as mystic polymaths whose spiritual experiences in no way excluded them from a full immersion in all the problems and activities of this world.

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This week I’ve had the pleasure of teaching 12th graders in Ann Arbor, MI about the Iranian Revolution–based on the amazing graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. If you don’t already own Persepolis, RUN (do not walk) to your nearest bookstore and buy it. It’s an amazing tool for understanding the political situation in Iran, as well as the deep suffering of the Persian people. The comic, besides being incredibly beautifully drawn, is heart-wrenching, tender, and hilariously funny at the same time. (And if you’re not a book person, there’s a movie version too that is equally as good.)

In any case, when I stumbled on this video made by A$a Soltan Rahmani (a self-described citizen of “Tehrangeles,” CA), it made me think of my new Michigan friends. Enjoy it, and listen carefully to the lyrics as she describes her own journey from a small desert town in Iran to the big desert town of LA, where the LA river is “paved in gold.”  (One caveat: though it starts out fairly innocently, the video does contain some footage from the 1979 revolution and thereafter, so it’s not one to show young children.)

Thanks, Ann Arbor folk, for making me feel so welcome in your class! (And a shout-out to my soul sistah Sianne Ngai, English professor extraordinaire, who first introduced me to A$a’s work.  A$a’s a one-of-a-kind woman who, in her own unique way, plays with and challenges the stereotypes of what a “Persian woman” should be.)

And for those of you waiting for part 2 of my post on Hildegard von Bingen, it’s coming, albeit slower than expected.  Just hang in there!

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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.”


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?


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.



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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This post is dedicated to Devon, who, at the end of reading Wolfram’s Parzifal, tossed her book on the table in frustration and asked, “Why do the women always have to be given away like property?”  

Marie de France, as depicted in a medieval manuscript. (Source)

Name: Marie de France

Birthplace/Dates:  France–possibly the Vexin region (between the Ile de France and Normandy), roughly 1140-1215?

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  The first person to write what we would now call “chivalric tales.”  She was author of several texts (including one translation): most famously, a collection of 12 Lais, brief poetic tales that were forerunners to works like Wolfram’s Parzifal and the Roman de la Rose.  Marie also produced a collection of Fables (based on Aesop and other classical sources), and a religious text called The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick (based on a Latin document of the same name).  She has also tentatively been identified as the author of a (previously unattributed) saint’s life as well.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Marie de France is one of the earliest authors who wrote about courtly love, standing at the root of a lineage that leads directly to Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal.  Given the central role Parzifal plays in the Waldorf curriculum, it’s important to understand how courtly love was understood (and experienced) by women, and Marie is a wonderful way into that question.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Parzival block (her Lais); 6th grade Medieval History; 2nd grade Fables (her Fables).

If you read only one thing by Marie de France, read: Her Lais. (1)  Many translations of Marie’s work try to preserve some semblance of the original rhyme scheme, but this can lead to a slightly stilted, archaic feeling in English. If you want an easy-to-read prose version with an excellent introduction, I’d recommend the Penguin edition of the Lais.  As far as which particular lais to read: if you’re thinking of using them alongside Parzifal, I’d recommend “Guigemar” or “Yonec.”  If you’re using them in a history unit on courtly love, then you may want to read “Lanval” or “Chaitivel.”  (My next post will focus on these four lais, including suggestions for how to use them in class.)  

Marie de France and Her Place in History

Celtic bards like the legendary Merlin were the source of the stories behind Marie’s lais. (Source)

Marie de France is most famous for her Lais, which are among the earliest examples of chivalric writing we have.  In fact, as far as we can tell, they are the oldest written chivalric poetry.  (2)  Marie drew on the earlier oral poetry (also called “lais”) sung by Celtic bards as a source for her own work, though she writes that she adjusted these oral lais, “putting them into verse, making poems from them, and working on them late into the night.” (3)  I just love that last bit–“working late into the night”–can’t you just see her sitting there, candle burning low, waiting for her kids to finally get to sleep already so she can get down to work?

But to get back to business:  As the first written chivalric poetry we have on record, Marie’s work therefore stands at the beginning of a long line of important medieval works–Chretien de Troyes’ early Arthurian tales, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, the Roman de la Rose–the list goes on and on.  Of course, her Lais are worthy of study in their own right–not only as the first productions in an incredibly important genre (chivalric literature), but as complex and beautiful literary works in and of themselves.  And if that weren’t enough to recommend them, they have the distinct advantage of giving us a glimpse into the world of chivalric love as experienced and written by a woman.  For all those students of courtly love who may have wondered what the women in the stories felt like (or what a tale of courtly love would look like if written from a female point of view), Marie’s Lais offer us a wonderful “window” in.  There are just so many good reasons to study Marie–and best of all (from the perspective of a busy teacher trying to fit just one more thing into limited class time), each lai is only 3-8 pages long (the longest is about 16): the perfect length for a one-night reading assignment.

The few depictions we have of Marie de France (none of which are contemporary) always show her writing at a desk, which is how she probably would have wanted it. (Source)

But before we jump into her work, let’s back up for a moment.  Who was Marie de France, anyway?

How do you Solve a Problem like Marie?

We must face the facts squarely: we don’t actually know that much about Marie’s identity, which is frustrating, given how important and popular her works were during the 12th and 13th centuries.  (But it’s not surprising, given the fate of many other early female authors.)  Aside from her self-description in the Fables, where she writes, “My name is Marie, and I am from France,” we have only a few other clues–none of them definitive.  She dedicates her Lais to a “noble king” (which many have thought might be King Henry II of England), and her Fables to “count William” (which has been attributed to a whole variety of Williams). (4)  Based on these references (and an analysis of her language, which includes many loan-words from English), most scholars have assumed that while she was born in France, she spent time at the court of Henry II, where she probably composed her works.

The palace of Poitiers, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne are reputed to have first held their famous “courts of love.” (Source)

This working assumption makes a good deal of sense, since Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (and her daughter Marie de Champagne) were instrumental in bringing the southern French culture of courtly love to more northern climes.  It also places Marie at the beginning of a courtly lineage that stretches from the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus (the Moorish kingdoms of Spain), to Eleanor of Aquitaine (who popularized courtly ideals in the Christian south and then brought them north when she married Henry II), to Marie de Champagne (Eleanor’s daughter), to Chretien de Troyes (whose patroness was Marie de Champagne), to Wolfram von Eschenbach, author of Parzifal (and who used Chretien de Troyes as one of his main sources).  (5)  How’s that for some Waldorf credentials?  I’d argue that anyone who stands at the root of a lineage leading to Parzifal needs to be included in the curriculum.

And if Marie’s connection to later courtly literature weren’t enough to recommend her to us, her connection to the earlier oral traditions of the Celts should be–it’s through Marie that European literature comes to enfold the tales of the Welsh and Breton bards (including stories of fairies and King Arthur) into Islamic-influenced poetry of courtly love.  In Marie, the two hitherto separate streams combined, eventually forming the mightly confluence we know as medieval romance. (6)

Marie wasn’t about to let some man steal her work. (Source)

What else do we know about Marie beyond her importance to the courtly lineage?  We know that she stayed up late to write, indicating that she probably had other duties (either courtly, or domestic, or both) that kept her busy during the day.  We know that she was fluent in several languages: she says she considered translating Latin works into French before taking up the task of relating Breton lais.  (7) We also know that she thought highly of her own authorial abilities, and had a defiant attitude towards critics who disparaged her as a female writer.  She writes,

Whoever has good material for a story is grieved if the tale is not well told.   Hear, my lords, the words of Marie, who, when she has the opportunity, does not squander her talents. Those who gain a good reputation should be commended, but when there exists in a country a man or woman of great renown, people who are envious of their abilities frequently speak insultingly of them in order to damage this reputation….But just because spiteful tittle-tattlers attempt to find fault with me I do not intend to give up.  They have a right to make slanderous remarks.  (8)

Marie’s cleverness was much like that of the Cock in her fable, whose well-timed crowing outwits the rather dim Fox who has stolen him.  (Source)

And later, in the epilogue of the Fables, in the same passage where she names herself, she worries that credit for her work will be stolen by a man:

To end these tales I’ve narrated
And into Romance tongue translated,
I’ll give my name, for memory:
I am from France, my name’s Marie.
And it may hap that many a clerk
Will claim as his what is my work
But such pronouncements I want not!
It’s folly to become forgot! (9)

All in all, the picture that emerges is one that, though hazy on the details of time and location, is actually fairly clear in certain regards.  Marie was a well-born, well-educated writer who worked hard at her craft, was proud of her work, was recognized by kings and courtiers for her efforts, and who, nonetheless, was worried that because of her gender, her stories might be mis-attributed to a man for all of posterity.  Clever to the end, she therefore embedded her name in several of her texts so that any excision would result in a distortion of the poetic meter.  Would that all the women writers of history had had such foresight and crafty wiles!

So, having established Marie’s basic authorial persona and the importance of her work in the lineage of courtly literature, we can move on.  What do her Lais tell us about women of the period in general, and about her own “take” on courtly culture in particular?

Getting “Lai”d: Women, Marriage, and Adultery in Marie de France

(Forgive the terrible pun, but that heading title was too good to resist!)

“La Belle Dame sans Merci” by John William Waterhouse (1893). The Victorians found much to love in medieval courtly depictions of women: passive, beautiful, inspirational, but often entangling or treacherous.

Seriously, now…Marie’s work provides us with an interesting counterpoint to the later male writers’ portrayals of women, love, and marriage.  First, many scholars have noted that the female characters in her stories are, on the whole, stronger than the men.  In other courtly stories, written for the most part by men, women are certainly prominently featured, but they are often idealized and held up as (rather passive) “inspiration” for men’s heroic deeds.  Or worse still, denigrated as faithless and the source of perpetual strife, as in the case of the Roman de la Rose.  So while women are definitely front and center in most courtly texts, it’s sometimes tough to find a positive female character who is not just an inspiration for manly deeds, but a protagonist in her own right.  If you share my frustration as a reader, Marie delivers the goods.  Her women are real.

On the whole, Marie’s female characters are deeply drawn, and more often than not, they take center stage in the story.  This is not to say that Marie’s women live in some feminist paradise.  The basic mise en scène of courtly love remains the same:  beautiful young ladies locked in towers by jealous husbands (more on that below), men who love these ladies and wear their colors into tournaments, mysterious fairy lovers (male and female) who can change shape at will, equally mysterious exotic creatures (hermaphroditic deer, for example) who lead knights on unexpected quests–all the tropes of medieval romance we know and love. (And really, what’s not to love about albino, intersex deer?)  But in Marie’s hands, these basic literary themes (which we should remember, she’s the first to write down in poetry) are given a subtle woman-centered twist.  Marie shows us how women struggled with and sometimes found ways around the constrictions of upper-class medieval life.

Marie empathized with the proverbial damsel in distress, but she preferred birds to mice when it came to animal liberators. (Source)

A good example is the aforementioned “damsel in distress” scenario.  In two lais (“Guigemar” and “Yonec”) a young woman has been married off by her family to a man over twice her age, who keeps her imprisoned and comes to visit only long enough to subject her to what we would call marital rape.  Marie’s own opinion of the situation seems to be much in accord with contemporary views, for she makes it abundantly clear that the young woman in question is miserable to the point of contemplating suicide.  And she depicts this despair as a perfectly reasonable response to the character’s terrible predicament, rejoicing with the reader when a young, handsome, tender man unexpectedly appears at the lady’s tower to offer her comfort and the possibility of escape.  Unlike many other courtly authors who seem to take the “lady locked in a tower” scenario for granted, Marie stops long enough to ponder the situation from the woman’s point of view.

Unlike Lynne Cheney (yes, that Lynne Cheney), Marie does not have her heroine leave her possessive husband and run off to join a lesbian free-love commune. (Source)

Indeed, Marie seems interested in much the same question as my teenage friend Devon: What happens to the poor girls traded among men like so many pieces of property?  The lady in Marie’s lai “Yonec,” gives voice to the countless damsels in distress whose fate is passed over mutely in so many medieval tales:

Alas…that ever I was born!  My destiny is hard indeed.  I am a prisoner in this tower and death alone will free me.  What is this jealous old man afraid of, to keep me so securely imprisoned?  He is extremely stupid and foolish, always fearing that he will be betrayed.

Marie here not only depicts her protagonist’s plight empathetically, but also questions the misogynist assumptions underlying the whole “damsel in distress” predicament.  However, ultimately, Marie is not a radical feminist.  (For that, you’ll have to wait for my post on another medieval female writer, the fabulous Christine de Pizan.)  None of Marie’s heroines, for instance, escapes from her tower to join an all-“womyn” commune in the woods.  For both Marie and her characters, a complete break with the system was impossible.  However, Marie’s contribution to women’s history is the way in which, while keeping more or less within the confines of the courtly system, she opened up a space for women’s self-expression and personal fulfillment.  Where did she carve out this space?  In the realm of adulterous courtly love.

In many of Marie’s Lais, the protagonists enjoy extra-marital affairs without blame.

Marie is certainly not the only medieval author to portray adultery as an opportunity for personal fulfillment.  Indeed, intense, often long-lasting extra-marital affairs are a running theme throughout later courtly literature.  But Marie is the first person to draw out this theme in writing.  In fact, it makes me wonder whether Marie’s rather laissez-faire stance towards extra-marital liaisons is something she inherited from the Celtic oral tradition, or if, rather, she gave the whole subsequent genre of courtly poetry a twist by her early empathetic “take” on the plight of women in forced marriages. (10)  In other words: was Marie’s clear sympathy for love outside marriage “picked up” by later authors, thereby becoming one of the staples of courtly literature?  I think it’s fair to say that even if Marie herself was not the originator of this relatively woman-friendly trope, she was certainly one of its most important popularizers. (11)  For that reason alone, it’s worth reading her in any class dealing with courtly love, Arthurian romance, or medieval social history.  We might not have our later stories of Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Iseult in the particular forms that we know them without Marie’s first, wildly popular tales of adulterous love. (12)

Personal or Political? The question still resonates today. The college students who created this banner have posted a song that I think Marie might like. Click here for a link.

For modern readers, including high school students, her tales raise interesting moral questions: if you are trapped within a fundamentally unjust system, what is your duty to uphold the ethical norm as defined by the dominant class?  Would we, for instance, condemn a woman in Taliban-held Afghanistan who searched for love outside her arranged marriage to a man twice her age?  Marie clearly wouldn’t.  But she does judge women and men who go the next step, towards violence, quite harshly.  (As in her lais “Equitan” or “Bisclavret.”) Where do we draw the line in modern times?  When does “civil disobedience” become insurrection?  When is the personal political?  And is there a clear line between the two?  The possibilities for classroom debate seem fruitful indeed.

And that, dear readers, is where we’ll leave Marie for today, having given you a tiny taste of the sorts of pedagogical questions I’ll raise in Part 2 of my consideration of her work.  Next time, we’ll take a closer look at a few of her Lais, including brief summaries of the four I mentioned back towards the beginning of this post (in the “Notable Woman Stats” section).  I’ll also provide suggestions for how to use these four lais in class, either alongside Parzifal or in a block on medieval history.  Till then, worthy gentlewomen and -men, adieu!



(1) There are several versions of Marie’s Lais available online, though not all of these sites include all the lais.  The Gutenberg site contains a prose translation of all the lais, there’s a rhyming translation by Judith Shoaf that’s good, but not all the lais are included.  The Penguin print edition also contains the original Old French for one lai in the back of the book; for anyone with a background in modern French, it’s easy to follow the rhyme scheme and get the gist, so it might be fun to use if some of your students take French.  (Here’s a link to an online edition of the French originals.)

(2) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (which contains chapters on King Arthur) is about 30 years older than Marie’s work, but it’s a prose history, albeit a fanciful one.  And there were earlier oral poetic compositions–legends and poetry told by bards in Wales and Brittany–circulating in Marie’s day, but nothing written until Marie.   There is a much-later manuscript (the Book of Taliesin) that claims to preserve the poems of the early Welsh bard Taliesin, who dates to the 6th c. CE.  However, it is not at all clear that the poems in question actually do belong to Taliesin, and it’s certainly highly questionable whether they date to as early as the 6th c. CE.  (Most recent scholars put them somewhere in the 10th-12th centuries.)  Still, there’s no question that Marie drew heavily on Celtic oral sources, as she herself attests.

(3) Marie de France, “Prologue.” The Lais of Marie de France, London: Penguin Books, 1999.  Trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. p. 41.

(4) An incredible diversity of opinions circulate about Marie’s true identity.  Some scholars place her squarely in the court of King Henry II, or possibly his son, Henry III.  However, others have suggested Philip II of France as a possibility, though this is definitely a minority view.  As far as Marie’s relationship with other courtly writers, there’s no proof that Marie and Chretien de Troyes knew of each other, but most scholars are agreed that Chretien’s sources included Breton lais like the ones Marie recorded, so we can’t rule it out either.  (Another suggestive piece of evidence is Chretien’s mention of Guigemar, a character from one of Marie’s Lais, in his tale “Erec et Enide.”) Even Marie’s self-identity as “from France” is contested–some scholars arguing that it doesn’t mean “France as opposed to England,” but rather, “Ile de France as opposed to Brittany or Normandy.”  All these competing theories, including one that places her in France (as opposed to England) during her period of authorship, are well-represented in Dinah Hazell’s online paper: “Rethinking Marie.” Medieval Forum, Vol 2, 2003.  There’s also an interesting connection between Marie and Chaucer–her fable of the cock and the fox is not found in Aesop, and is the only written source that pre-dates Chaucer’s version of the same tale.  Here’s a nice one-page translation of Marie’s version.

(5) It’s potentially a pretty tight connection, but there’s no way to be absolutely sure of Marie’s position at Henry’s court, so it has to remain at the level of conjecture.  At the very least, though, we can say that if the “noble king” to which Marie refers was someone other than Henry II, we can still be sure that said king was part of the rapidly spreading courtly culture of northern Europe, and that Marie was an important early link in bringing this courtly tradition into written literary form.  The more I read about her and the other early courtly authors, the more I feel that she was the central node point from which the other literature sprang.  (Her only true competitor to the position, the Norman poet Béroul, did not write what most scholars describe as “courtly” literature.) That her importance should be often overlooked is sad, but not surprising.  See notes 6 and 12 for more on the difficulties of reconstructing the lineage.

(6)  A little more on Marie’s relation to other early courtly writers:  Chretien de Troyes, the most famous early chivalric writer, is roughly contemporary with Marie, but he appears to have written about 15-25 years after her (depending on how early you date Marie).  Marie even predates the earliest written compositions by troubadours, the first of whom was Duke William IX of Aquitaine (1071–1126).  This is not to say, of course, that there wasn’t an oral form of courtly poetry that circulated in the courts of Provence and Aquitaine before Marie–but it does appear that Marie was the first to have composed courtly poems in written form.

Another question is the possibility of an Islamic influence:  did an earlier 9th c. form of courtesie exist in the Islamic courts of Al-Andalus?  It appears that in Spain, both Muslim and Jewish poets composed Sufi-inspired love poetry during the 9th-11th centuries.  One of the main theories of courtly love traces this poetry as it travels from Al-Andalus to Aquitaine via captured Muslim singers/dancers (male and female) as a result of the early reconquista.  While there’s no evidence that Marie read Islamic poetry per se, she clearly was familiar with the tenets of courtly love as defined and propagated by the courts of the Christian southwest.  As far as I can tell, Marie seems to be the first to wed the early form of courtesie found in Aquitaine with the Celtic oral tradition–a combination that gave rise to the distinctive features of medieval courtly love as we know it.

(7) Marie de France, “Prologue.” Lais. We know this is not a vain boast because she did, in fact, translate another work from the Latin–The Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick.  Her texts are also sprinkled with English words, and it is possible when she mentions “lais that I heard,” she is referring to hearing them in the original Breton, which she may have understood.  (Elsewhere she refers explicitly to Breton lais.)  All in all, she seems to have been well-educated and multi-lingual–not unusual traits for women in court society at this time.

(8) Marie de France, “Guigemar.” The Lais of Marie de France.  London: Penguin Books, 1999. p. 43.

(9) Marie de France, “Epilogue.” Fables.  Quoted in Dinah Hazell, who took the passage from Harriet Spiegel’s edition of the Fables. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

(10) Because Marie stands at the beginning of the literary courtly tradition, it’s difficult to tell if she is simply representing in print a widespread attitude of the bardic oral tradition (or nascent oral poetry of courtly love), or if indeed, Marie initiated this more female-friendly stance towards adultery.  My inclination is to think that while there may, indeed, have been an oral tradition of tales of extra-marital love, Marie’s emphasis on the plight of young women in forced marriages is specific to her own perspective as a woman.  After all, she does take pains to make it clear that she hasn’t simply transcribed the tales as she heard them, but rather has made them her own.  In the introduction to the lai “Milun,” she writes, “Anyone who intends to present a new story must approach the problem in a new way and speak so persuasively that the tale brings pleasure to people.”  I’d suggest that Marie’s “new way” included a more female-centered “take” on the stories.  Of course, it’s important to note that not all of her characters’ extra-marital affairs end well.  However, the few times in her tales when adulterers are given their comeuppance, it’s because they’ve moved from simply enjoying their adulterous love (which Marie seems to condone) to plotting to kill or otherwise endanger the cuckolded spouse.

(9) I should point out that I do think Parzifal offers some instances of strong female characters.  However, I think that you have to read a little more deeply to get at them, and that some of the most obvious examples (Sigune, whose love causes her to literally waste away on her lover’s tomb, or Orgeluse, who comes off at least at first as a bitch) are initially hard for students to relate to.  That’s not to say that with good teaching and close reading, we can’t tease out positive messages about gender from the text; but you certainly have to work harder to find female characters to relate to, I think.  Perhaps that’s because the women in Parizifal tend to be so completely invested in the gender/courtly system–something that contemporary readers might find difficult to fully embrace.  Marie’s characters tend to stand at one remove from the system–girls who are married off but are deeply unhappy; knights who are approached by the queen for sex and turn her down, thus imperiling their career, etc.

(11) It’s interesting that the most likely “originators” of the idea of adultery as a perfectly acceptable pastime for women were themselves women–Eleanor of Aquitaine and Marie de Champagne, who were the two main “early adopters” and promoters of courtly discourse.  So it may not be that Marie de France’s view was particularly unique among mid-twelfth-century noblewomen; but she was the first to make it into a literary trope, as far as I can tell.

(12) Tristan and Iseult is a particularly fascinating example of how difficult it is to trace the origins of a story.  A Norman poet, Béroul, writing at approximately the same time as Marie, wrote down a version of the Tristan and Iseult tale.  It’s unclear whether his version, which was quite lengthy, or Marie’s Tristan tale, “Chevrefoil” (which covers only one episode from the longer Tristan tale) was first.  Interestingly, both he and Marie may have been writing in Henry II’s court at the same time, for his patron is believed to be Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It’s also presumed he was drawing on the same sort of Celtic sources as Marie.  Shortly after he and Marie wrote their versions, the tale was picked up by the German Eilhart von Oberge, who may or may not have read Béroul and Marie’s works.  From there, the story enters the canon of German medieval literature through the work of Gottfried von Strassburgh.  However, both whereas modern scholars consider von Strassburgh’s tale “courtly” (in the sense of framing the story in terms of courtly ideals), Béroul and von Oberge’s versions are described by scholars are “vulgar” (meaning that the courtly elements are lacking).  Marie’s version, on the other hand, is squarely within the courtly tradition, so could be said to be the first courtly rendition of the Tristan tale.  But in this, as in so many things, it depends on how you define your terms.

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