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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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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

How will you make history this year?

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work "Book of Divine Works."  Source.

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work “Book of Divine Works.” Source.

So, after a hiatus of a few weeks (during which time I co-taught a class on Dante and was down with the flu), I’m back with another post, inspired by my time spent considering medieval cosmology.  Here’s the deal, yo: Hildegard von Bingen is the most crazily comprehensive and erudite philosopher-cum-mystic you’ve (probably) never heard of.  So read on, and prepare to be impressed…

Name: Hildegard von Bingen

Birthplace/Dates:  Bermersheim, in Rheinhessen (in what is now Germany); 1098-1179.

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  Where do I begin?  Hildegard was a visionary who wrote extensive works of mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.  She also carried on correspondences with popes, kings, and prominent theologians of her day.  She composed breathtakingly beautiful music (which is how she is most widely known today), supervised illuminations of her visions, wrote dramas, and invented her own language.  It is nearly impossible to overestimate the breadth and depth of her work, or its importance in its day.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Hildegard perfectly captures the medieval way of looking at the world.  In particular, her ideas of the macrocosm/microcosm and of the principle “as above, so below” can be used in any number of lesson blocks relating to the Middle Ages–history or literature.  Plus, Rudolf Steiner mentions her specifically as an important historical figure.  So we really have no excuse to not include her in our lesson plans.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Dante block (as a background for Dante’s world-view); 6th grade Medieval History; 11th grade History of Music; any time you are doing History of Science/Medicine.

If you read only one thing by Hildegard, I’d recommend: Peter Dronke’s chapter on her (which quotes extensively from her works) in his book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.  pp. 144-201.  Or, alternatively, you could use a reader that contains selections of all her many writings.  Two good readers are Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, eds. Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995; and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Hildegard von Bingen, a spiritual reader.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007.  Both have helpful maps and chronologies.  For some online excerpts, try this site, which has a brief bio followed by selections from her works.

Hildegard Stands Alone

hildegardryan

Ryan Gosling’s down with Hildegard–are you?

Most people these days, if they know Hildegard at all, know her as a composer, since her work has become fairly popular among early music lovers.  Others might have heard her mentioned as one of many female mystics of the middle ages.  Though she is both of these things, she is so much more–so much, in fact, that it can be difficult (not to mention overwhelming) to try to sum her up in one or two blog entries.  But I’m going to give it my best shot.  Hildegard, if you’re reading this somewhere, forgive me for my manifold sins of omission as I attempt to encapsulate your work.  But girl, there’s just so damn much of it!

In fact, in preparing to write this post I racked my brains to find someone to compare Hildegard to in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of her work.  There certainly aren’t many other medieval figures (male or female) that easily come to mind in comparison.  Even authors like Aquinas didn’t attempt to write medical tracts and compose music (not to mention cookbooks and morality plays) alongside their theological work.

The three figures I finally came up with as possible comparison points?  Aristotle, Goethe, and Rudolf Steiner.  I later read another scholar compare her to the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroës (and also Goethe).  Someone else said Avicenna.  So, ok, there were some other medieval writers who are just as impressive, but I mean, come on!  When you’re being compared to Averroës, you KNOW you’re a big deal.  So I’m not just making this stuff up.  She really is all that AND a bag of chips, as my sister would say.

Hildegard, The Early Years

So who was this nun about whom we know so little these days?  Hildegard started life as the 10th child of a couple, who, in keeping with medieval custom, gave her for the church as a “tithe,” since she represented 1/10th of the children they had produced.  At age eight she was “enclosed” in a cell with an older religious woman named Jutta, who taught her rudimentary Latin, how to chant Psalms, and all the other things a female hermit would need to know.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an "anchorhold") at a small church in Hislip, England. Source.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an “anchorhold”) at a small church in Hartlip, England. Source.

The practice of enclosure, though strange to us now, was fairly common during that period.  (English female mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich is perhaps the most famous example of this practice.) Women called “anchoresses” would live in cells (called “anchorholds”) adjoining the wall of a church, praying the liturgical hours, living a simple life, and offering prayers and advice to churchgoers.  The role of an anchoress fell somewhere between that of a nun, a hermit, and a lay person; though they never left their anchorholds and focused all their attention on God, they did have regular contact with the outside world through the window of their enclosure, which gave onto the church, and sometimes through an exterior window, through which they could consult with parishioners. They also often retained a servant girl who went out to do shopping and other daily tasks, leaving them free to focus on the prayer and contemplation that was their raison d’être.   Apparently Hildegard’s teacher Jutta was rather popular, because she accepted so many girls under her tutelage that they all eventually moved to a separate facility that became a convent.  When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess–a position she retained until her own death in 1179.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar. Source.

Ever since she was a toddler, Hildegard had experienced visions.  She was only three when she “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled; yet because of my infant condition I could express nothing of it.”  She apparently did not lose consciousness during these visions, but, as she writes, “whenever I saw these things deep in my soul I still retained outer sight, and… heard this said of no other human being.”  (1)  Perhaps related to these visions were the migraine headaches Hildegard suffered throughout her life–she writes in several places of the “frequent illness” that she suffered that “wore my body out and made my powers fail.”  Much scholarly ink has been spilled over whether her visions can be reduced to simply the side-effect of the migraines.  To my mind, the issue of headaches or no is a red herring.  I mean, really–I don’t know any other migraine sufferer who has gone on to produce canons of work comparable to Hildegard’s, so even if the visions and headaches were related, her experiences (and more importantly, what she made of them) can’t be explained away so neatly.

During her own time, at least, Hildegard was widely known and well-regarded, though she didn’t “come out” as a visionary until she was middle-aged.  As a child and teen, Hildegard writes, she did occasionally speak about otherworldly things that seemed strange to others.  On occasion she even predicted future events.  But she revealed the source of her otherworldly knowledge (her visions) to no one save Jutta.  Even after the elder nun’s death, Hildegard hid her visions from her superiors, until finally, at age 40, she experienced “painful pressures” that led her to believe she must reveal her experiences to her male superior.  He immediately had her write them down and, taking them to his superiors for verification, they were eventually pronounced genuine–the product of “that gift of prophecy which the prophets of old had proclaimed.”  Within a few years, her writings went so far as the Pope, who read them out “with joy” to an assembly of high churchmen at Trier in 1147-48.  He then wrote Hildegard a letter commanding her to write her visions down more systematically so that they could be disseminated among the theologians, churchmen, and laypeople of the day.

Hildegard, the Teacher

Like another "Hil," Hildegard von Bingen's advice was sought by people from all walks of life.   Source.

Like another “Hil,” Hildegard von Bingen’s advice was sought by people from all walks of life. Source.

The effect of this Papal commendation was immediate and far-reaching.  Within a few years Hildegard was carrying on correspondences with all the major figures of her day–kings, theologians, and scholars from all the major universities, as well as common laypeople who sought her advice.  Although she was careful to always distinguish that, as a “poor, little figure of a woman,” her power came from God and not from herself, she did not exactly shy away from doling out advice.  Quite the opposite.  She clarified points of theology for the scholarly superstars of the day in Paris, and even went so far as to upbraid King Henry II of England in a letter written before the murder of Thomas à Becket: “the foul habits of others overwhelm you and you become entangled in them….Shun this, with all your might.” (2)  Henry, apparently, did not give her sufficient heed.

If Hildegard’s opinion was widely sought-after in her day, it was with good reason.  The woman had something to say about everything, from the deepest theological mysteries to what you should feed a sick person in wintertime.  (Spelt porridge, in case you were wondering).  She expounded her ideas about God and the universe in several volumes: Scivias, her first book of visions; The Book of the Rewards of Life, a proto-Dantean look at the afterlife; and The Book of Divine Works, a later magisterial work that laid out a systematic mechanics and meaning of the cosmos.  There is just so much to cover in these works that you’ll have to wait for my next post to get the gist of what she wrote about there.  Suffice it to say, for now, that she believed that the entire cosmos, including the human being, was permeated by and continually upheld by the divine.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard.  Source.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard. Source.

As if her weighty tomes of visions and theology weren’t enough, she also produced learned commentaries on medicine that were at the cutting edge of medieval understandings of the human body.  Indeed, hers is the first medical description of the female orgasm that we have on record, leading one to wonder exactly how, as a life-long nun, she came about that intimate piece of knowledge.  (Given the complete absence of evidence that she ever strayed from the religious fold, scholars conjecture she pieced it together from accounts by her nuns and other women in the community.)  Her medical work has been called “materialist,” because she was quite committed to understanding the human body via the actions of the four elements.  This view came to be mainstream in later years, but at the time she wrote, it represented a fairly avant-garde use of the neo-Aristotelian corpus coming out of the Near East and Moorish Spain. (3)  Hildegard, however, was not interested in medical theory in the abstract; her works are filled with actual recipes for tinctures, herbal preparations, and other “on the ground” advice for physicians. This interest in the practical details of life characterizes her work as much as the high-and-mighty visions of the cosmos.  Apparently, her fame as a cookbook-writer must still be strong in Germany, where her name must conjure up images of good, down-home cooking, judging from the label on this soup can.

Hildegard, the Artist

The list of her accomplishments just goes on and on.  She wrote and directed plays–in fact, most scholars believe her “Ordo Virtutum,” composed in 1151, is the oldest medieval morality play by over a century.  This makes her the inventor of an entirely new type of drama, one that we think of as prototypical of the medieval period.  (Steinerfolk, take note: all those mystery dramas at the Goetheanum have their origin in Hildegard!)

As well as being the first morality play, “Ordo” is also the only one that has survived to us with both script and music relatively intact.  (Hildegard wrote both.)  The plot is relatively simple–a human soul (Anima) struggles between the Virtues (sung by 17 solo female voices) and the Devil.  (There is also a chorus of Patriarchs sung by men and a chorus of Souls sung by still more women.)  The work provides a lovely illustration of the practical application of her more theoretical writings on music.  For instance, the devil only yells or screeches, since according to what Hildegard wrote elsewhere, the devil cannot sing or produce mellifluous speech, music being thoroughly permeated by the divine.

And speaking of divine melody…Hildegard’s liturgical music has a soaring beauty that is clearly inspired by her visions of the heavens.  As you might expect from so accomplished a master, Hildegard’s work stands head and shoulders above traditional chant or plainsong–almost literally.  Just listen to how the voices swoop up to the heavens:

Her musical compositions must have appealed to the generations that came after her as well; the only medieval composer for whom we have as complete a canon of works is the famous 12th century monk (and legendary lover) Peter Abelard.

Her poetry, written on religious themes common to the middle ages, likewise reveals her unique way of looking at the world.  As with many 12th century thinkers, Mary plays a pivotal role.  But we also hear Sophia, Divine Wisdom, extolled in feminine form; and Love herself is rendered in the feminine and assigned a high place in Heaven.  Here’s a sample of one of my favorite verses:

Hildegard's depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias.  Source.

Hildegard’s depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias. Source.

O power of Wisdom!

You encompassed the cosmos,

encircling and embracing all

in one living orbit

with your three wings:

one soars on high,

one distills the earth’s essence,

and the third hovers everywhere.

Praise to you Wisdom, fitting praise! (4)

Hildegard, the Wrestler

Of course, life was not always sweetness and light for Hildegard, even once she’d achieved great fame.  She struggled several times with the church authorities over issues related to her convent.  In fact, the initial move of her convent from one town to another was over the objections of the monks associated with the establishment.  She also argued (this time, unsuccessfully) with an archbishop over the appointment of his sister, one of her favorite nuns, as Abbess of a different convent.  But her greatest challenge came in the last year of her life, when she decided to bury a patron of hers whom she had judged repentant in consecrated ground.  The man (whose name we do not know) had been excommunicated, possibly as a heretic.  Hildegard believed the man had changed his ways, but the authorities stood firm: until he was disinterred and reburied in unholy ground, her entire convent would remain under interdict–unable to say the daily offices or celebrate Mass.

This was a huge blow for Hildegard, and she didn’t take it lying down.  Instead, she fired back letters to the Archbishop and his prelates, arguing that she had had a vision that forewarned a “terrible and lamentable danger” would come down like a “dark cloud” upon those who forced the removal of the body.  She went on to give a very sly defense of her actions that contrasted the “upright men” who had ordered the interdict with the potential “feminine harshness [and] injustice to the sacraments of Christ” her nuns would be engaging in if they were to follow through with the orders to disinter the body.  In other words, she was not going to give an inch.  Eventually, the Archbishop relented, and six months before Hildegard’s death, lifted the interdict.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow--Hildegard beat her by about 750 years.  (But didn't take a dog along with her.) Source.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow–Hildegard beat her by about 750 years. (But didn’t take a dog along with her.) Source.

Hildegard passed away at the age of 81, having previously told her nuns that her life was nearing its close.  When she died, wrote her faithful monk admirers, two rainbows appeared in the sky over her room.  They widened and reached up to the four corners of the earth, and a full moon illumined the point where the two arcs crossed.  A red cross appeared there, surrounded by multicolored circles of light, in each of which a small cross reposed.  He wrote: “It is worthy of belief that by this sign God was showing how bright was the splendor with which he was illumining his beloved one in heaven.” (5)

That seems as good as any a place to leave off this post.  Next time, I’ll try my best to encapsulate some of the major themes of Hildegard’s work, as well as give suggestions for teaching, and a brief look at her significance for Waldorf teachers and students of Rudolf Steiner.  (Phew!  Wish me luck!)

—–

NOTES

(1) Gottfried of Disibodenberg and Theodoric of Echternach, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, quoted in Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p. 145.  When she says that she “heard this said of no other human being,” Hildegard is probably referring to the fact that many of the most famous visionaries lost normal consciousness when they saw their visions, whereas she retained full awareness of what was going on around her, “seeing” her visions inwardly, in her soul.

(2) Hildegard, “Letter to King Henry II of England,” quoted in Fiona Bowie & Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995.  p. 140.

(3) To give you an idea of the timeline here, Hildegard very slightly predates her rough contemporary Averroës, who helped popularize the work of Avicenna and other Muslim Aristotelian scholars.  This means that in all likelihood she had other sources for her Aristotelian understanding of the elements and their relation to the human body.

(4) Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Univ. of California Press, 1978, p. 64.

(5) Gottfried and Theodoric, Vita, quoted in Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of her Age.  New York: Doubleday, 2001.  p. 249.

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

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

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

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

Teaching Marie: So Many Lais, So Little Time

Teaching Marie alongside Parzifal

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

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

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

Guigemar

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

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

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

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

Some possible questions for students to explore:

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

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

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

Yonec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Marie’s Lais in a Medieval History Class

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

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

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

Lanval: A Fairy Queen?

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

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

Lanval and the fairy queen meet… (Source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some more personal reflections might be:

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

Chaitivel: A Case for a Court of Love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts on Teaching Marie

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

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

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

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

‘Nuff said.

——

NOTES

A medieval chastity belt with lock. (Source)

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

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

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

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!

——-

NOTES

(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.

Eeek! This definition of matriarchy can’t be anyone’s idea of utopia. (Source)

OK, so the title of this post is a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on how you define “matriarchy.” (1)

In popular culture, talk of matriarchy almost always refers back to an alleged ancient woman-centered, goddess-worshiping culture that preceded most of our written historical records.  Waldorf folk sometimes repeat this idea, based in part on some of Steiner’s work, which does indeed mention women playing important roles in very ancient societies.  In the last few decades, though, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled over whether this supposed prehistoric matriarchy ever really existed.  So what is the evidence for a paleolithic/neolithic matriarchy anyway?  And what does the debate have to do with Steiner’s views and how we as Waldorf teachers teach ancient history?

So…All aboard the matriarchy train!  First stop: backwards into prehistory.

The famous Venus of Willendorf statue (c. 25000 BCE) has become an icon of the supposed matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures of European prehistory. (Source)

The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy 

Let me preface this now by saying that others have debunked the story of a prehistoric matriarchy very thoroughly. (2)  I’m just going to summarize their work here.  And also, one other caveat: I’m not a hater.  Really.  I actually DO think that matriarchal societies exist, if we define matriarchy in the more limited way most contemporary anthropologists do.  I’ll get to that below, so if you’re a pro-matriarchy fan, hang in there.  I’m with you, sisters.

In a nutshell, the popular story about pre-historic matriarchies can generally be characterized in the following way:  since the dawn of time, humans lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative groups (some settled, some wandering).  People worshipped goddesses (or the Great Goddess), and women were seen as embodying the Goddess’ miraculous powers of birth, fertility, and regeneration.  Bloodlines were traced through the mother, and women held high positions in society as priestesses and possibly even political chiefs.  Most decisions were made by consensus, and warfare was practically unknown.  Men worked alongside women and sometimes formed hunting parties, but left major community decisions up to their better halves.   This idyllic life came to a shattering halt sometime around 5000 BCE, when patriarchal, war-like Indo-European invaders rushed in from the Russian steppes and conquered the pacific, woman-centered earlier cultures, who lacked the means to defend themselves.  The conquerors imposed their patriarchal male gods and social forms on the matriarchs, and the rest is history (and God) as we know it. (3)

“Venus” with breasts or phallic “baton”? You decide. (Source)

But, much as the foregoing account would make a wonderful movie (and indeed, there has been at least one novel written using this storyline), there are a number of problems with the narrative.  First, and perhaps most importantly, most scholars in the field of pre- and proto-Indo-European studies do not support it.  Based on lots of archeological evidence (some of it relatively recent, and therefore not available to the scholar who first forwarded the invasion theory), it’s become clear that there’s not much to support the idea that women were power-holders in pacifist paleolithic societies, much less that they were overthrown in a violent tussle with nasty, patriarchal Russians.  I won’t go over all of it here, but suffice it to say, for example, that they have unearthed mass graves with bodies containing in spear points that pre-date the alleged Indo-European invasion by several thousand years.  And a number of examples of what were originally described as “female” figures have turned out to be equivocally gendered, or perhaps even male.  (For example, some that were originally positioned upright and described as a “Venus” or “neck and breasts,” look remarkably like male genitalia when held horizontally.) (4)

And then there’s the whole goddess thing.  It is clear that many prehistoric cultures must have worshiped goddesses (though whether they ever worshiped a single Great Goddess is much more debatable).  But repeat after me: Goddesses are not women.  That is to say, just because a culture has powerful goddesses does not mean the women are in power.  This goddess/woman disconnect may seem obvious to anyone familiar with places like modern India (or for that matter, Ancient Greece, or the Roman Catholic church).  But popular ideas of matriarchy often seem to leap blithely from the prevalence of goddesses to the status of actual women.  You can find as many statues of plump, naked ladies as you want, but all that tells you is that a culture had a lot of plump, naked lady statues.   Depending on where you find them, you might be able to guess if they were temple images, household protector deities, or forms of paleo-porn; but often the exact position of the find is either unknown (in the case of many early excavations) or inconclusive (what does it mean if you find them in a garbage pit, for instance?).  And even if we know for sure that certain statues were goddesses, they don’t tell us anything about actual women in the community.  For that, we’d have to collect other types of evidence–DNA/skeleton analysis, examination of burial patterns, etc.  And so far, most of that material has favored interpretations that are much more nuanced in their descriptions of possible gender roles.

Whither Matriarchy?

You know a subject has hit the big time when it has it’s own Samuel Jackson meme.  (Source)

So, if we can’t definitively locate matriarchy in the distant, idyllic past, has there ever been a matriarchal culture?  The answer seems to be “yes,” though we need to nuance our definitions of matriarchy a bit.  To my mind, one of the most helpful discussions of the issue is found in the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who spent a number of years studying the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. (5) The Minangkabau are matrilineal (with land and property handed down through the mother), though political decision-making is the province of men, and the official religion is Islam.  Most importantly for us, they (even the men) refer to themselves as “matriarchal” (matriarchaat).  At first, Sanday was puzzled by this designation, because it was clear that though women controlled property and many religious rites, men still retained important positions of political and community authority.  However, after studying the Minangkabau for many years, Sanday came to believe that it was her own notion of power that prevented her from viewing the Minangkabau as matriarchal.

Behind the Matriarchy: Power as a Shared Life-Force

Traditional Indonesian concepts of power are very different than Western, post-enlightenment views of it.  We generally think about power as something you have (and wield).  There’s someone “with” power, and someone “without” power.  There’s a finite amount of it, and somebody’s gotta be on top.  At best, we imagine a type of power-sharing in which this limited supply of power is doled out equally.  (It’s called communism, and one reason it makes so many people nervous is the assumption that there’s only a limited amount of power available, so giving you more means that I have less.)

For many people in many places and times (including galaxies long ago and far away), power has been less something you “have” and more something you tap into.

However, many other cultures (including, perhaps, the pre-Enlightenment West) see power not as something to be possessed, but as an energetic force that is manifest in both animate and inanimate objects.  Think, perhaps, of Chinese ideas about “chi” (as in chi-gong or tai-chi).  Or for you Steiner-folk, the etheric body: a life force that flows through everything.  If we switch caps and think about power as a life energy that’s available for everyone to tap into, then a couple things become clear:

1. Wherever “life” is, power is too.  That means that the people/places we as 21st century Westerners might look to as wielding the greatest power (e.g. the male political realm) might not be the people/places that another society feels teem with the greatest life-force.  For example, there may be other things or beings–natural features (rocks, streams, etc.), certain ceremonial locations, ritual words and phrases, or human bodies themselves–that are felt to be particularly potent bearers of life-power.

2. Since life is abundant and ever-present, there’s not a finite amount of power that I have to hoard for myself.  We can all tap into it, albeit perhaps, in different spheres or roles.  Nature can provide us with useful metaphors here–a web or a tree being two of the most-often used.  Each person, place, or thing in the web depends on the other parts for support.  This does not mean that we are all equal in the sense of all being the same; but it means that without each person’s role, the whole web of power (or, to use another image, tree of life) would fall apart. (6)

After considering this very different understanding of power, Sanday decided that she wasn’t finding women “in power” because she was looking in the wrong place for the wrong type of power.  Instead of defining matriarchy as “the control of political power by women,” she decided, we should look for “partnership cultures” in which there is an emphasis on “the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.” (7)  In other words, we should think of matriarchy as a culture where authority is shared between women and men, and where imagery of motherhood and nurture gives meaning to the society’s overarching structure.

Anthropologists tell us that this is not really an accurate depiction of matriarchy.

In the case of the Minangkabau, their proverb “Growth in nature is our teacher” provides the foundational reference point for all their social interactions.  Whether speaking of new life in agriculture and animal husbandry or relations among human beings, maternal nurture, not “power over” is the dominant model.  So, for instance, they believe the community as a whole needs to be tended as a mother tends her child; so do animals, plant life, the relations between the community and the Indonesian state, and the relationship between the community and the spirit world.  (The Minangkabau are Muslim, but also believe in maintaining good ties with certain ancestral spirits.) Not surprisingly, given their emphasis on motherhood, they see their practice of matriliny (tracing property and land rights through the mother’s side) as the best way to nurture families and the community as a whole.

But (and this is an important but) Minangkabau women are actually NOT “in charge” in a modern, Western sense.  They have certain areas of influence and responsibility (mostly religious and domestic), but the political realm remains the domain of the men.  (Interestingly, the men themselves are perceived as themselves having a “maternal” nurturing role with regard to community politics.)  So, if we set out to look for a culture in which women were the political leaders, the Minangkabau would fail the “matriarchy” test.  However, as Sanday defines it, in a true matriarchy, power is actually shared between the sexes, who are each perceived as taking on nurturing roles in their different spheres of influence. (8)  This is consistent with the concept of power we discussed above–in which power flows through everything, and is available to be tapped into by anyone.  Women tap into it (and even foster its growth) in ceremony and domestic matters; men tap into it (and foster its growth) in the political sphere.  The two are equally important nodes in the web of life, but the dominant imagery used is one of maternal nurture.

Back to Prehistory

A sampling of “Venus” figurines from Eastern Europe. (Source)

So what does this redefinition of matriarchy tell us about pre-history?  Well, to be honest, nothing definite.  We still are faced with all the problems of data interpretation that bedevil the popular ideas of goddess-centered matriarchy.  However, it does give us a new way to imagine what might have been the case in some of the societies we’ve unearthed.  For instance, we might take another look at the figurines associated with a specific time and place, and see if we can discern any patterns that might lead us to believe that maternal imagery and motifs of growth and nurture predominate.  If so, we might take another, closer look at the physical evidence for matriliny–for instance, if families tend to be buried with maternal relatives or not.  If we were then able to see that a culture apparently practiced both matriliny AND overwhelmingly used images of maternity and nurture in their art and physical culture, then we might be able to conjecture that such a group showed signs of being matriarchal in Sanday’s more narrowly defined way.

Of course, that’s not something that I, a lowly blogger, can do.  That work rests with archaeological specialists and paleo-anthropologists.  But looking at contemporary matriarchal cultures can give us a vivid image of what may have been the case in some prehistoric settlements, and in the end, it may not look so different from what some of the milder prehistoric matriarchy proponents have been saying all along–shared power, emphasis on maternal imagery, matrilineal property lines.  But we’ll probably have to jettison the idea that any such culture was a radical feminist Garden of Eden, or that such narrowly defined matriarchal societies were in place for thousands of years across wide swaths of the paleolithic world (as opposed to being specific to certain cultures/sites and not others).

Steiner and Prehistoric Women

Here’s one idea of prehistoric women that we can probably dismiss. (Source)

Circling back to Steiner’s thoughts on women in prehistoric times, I find it interesting what he does and doesn’t say about women’s roles.  It’s not exactly clear what sources lie behind his depiction of long-ago cultures: certainly some of it draws on his contemporaries’ ideas about what geological formations might have looked like in the distant past (including land bridges and the positions of earlier continental systems).  And, given Steiner’s voracious intellect, we can probably assume that he knew of the seminal work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the Swiss scholar whose 1861 book Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World was the first to put forward the idea that there had been a matriarchal, goddess-centered ur-religion that held sway in prehistoric times.

Given these two probable influences on Steiner’s thought, I actually think it’s interesting what Steiner didn’t say.  For instance, he doesn’t talk about women as political leaders and he also doesn’t mention anything about goddesses.  Rather, he talks about how women took the lead in religious ceremonies and helped “order and arrange the little groups” (of nomadic clans)–something that sounds, perhaps, like matriliny.  He also speaks of the power of nature that flowed in and through the consciousness of both men and women, and how women took the lead in interpreting the “voices” that seemed to speak to them from the natural elements.  The men’s leadership, he postulates, came about as a result of the work the women did in the religious/natural sphere.  All of which, to me, sounds remarkably like the type of society Sanday describes in her work.  While we can’t be sure what prehistoric societies actually looked like (or how well they correlate with Steiner’s picture), I do think it’s interesting that he doesn’t give an image that goes whole-hog into the matriarchal ur-myth espoused by either Bachofen or 20th century pre-historic matriarchy enthusiasts.

How to Teach Matriarchy

So, to get back to the title of the post: to the question, “Matriarchy–fact or fiction?”,  we can give the unequivocal answer “Yes!”  It is both/and–a fabulously successful (but untrue) fiction, and a less well-known, more narrowly defined, but ultimately (at least to me) more satisfying fact.  But how to teach something this complex to high school students?

The debates on prehistoric matriarchy offer us a fabulous chance to stretch our students’ imaginations regarding the limits of patriarchy and matriarchy, and to teach them the ways in which raw data can lead to multiple interpretations.   I like the idea, for instance, of presenting the students with some of the relatively raw archeological data–figurine images, a few archeological site maps (found in the Goodison and Morris book cited in note 2), perhaps a little bit of info regarding evidence for hunting/gathering vs. sedentary agriculture at a given site over time.  Then, with that data, conduct a small-group exercise that has them try to make sense of the information they have–how were the communities structured?  who led the groups? what gods did they worship?  what led to the community’s demise?  Then finally (perhaps in the next session) after the kids report back briefly their group’s theories, present 2-3 interpretations of the same data by different scholars.  (9)  Then sit back and watch the opinions fly about “Matriarchy: fact or fiction?”

See?  Our proto-Indo-European foremothers did have a far-reaching impact, even if it turns out they didn’t rule the world in quite the way we might have hoped.

——

NOTES

(1)  Before we even start, we need some sort of brief “disambiguation” (to use a wiki-word) of the word “matriarchy” itself, since the whole issue can be very confusing.  Very quickly: matriarchy refers to a society where women rule.  Different people have different ideas about what “ruling” means–control of political structures, control of food production and how it’s distributed, etc.  Popularly, though, “matriarchy” is usually used to mean a situation where women are in positions of authority and dominance, with men taking the back seat (sort of the flip-side of patriarchy, which we all know too well).   Matriliny, on the other hand, means a society where descent (or sometimes property) passes through the mother’s line.  But please beware:  cultures can be matrilineal while still being patriarchal.  Just because you trace bloodlines, or even property, through women does not mean that women rule the roost.  Case in point:  the American South imposed a matrilineal system on slaves so that children born of female slaves would also be unfree.  However, despite the ambitions of Scarlet O’Hara, at no time was the South in any sense a “matriarchy.”    For a great discussion of this whole matriliny vs. matriarchy issue, see the Jonathan Jarrett’s blog entry on this topic.

Interpreting paleolithic images is difficult–is this a goddess, an early pornographic image, or both (or neither)? (Source)

(2) The best, most readable resource on matriarchal pre-history myths is Cynthia Eller’s book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.  You can read the first chapter online here, and access a book review that contains an excellent summary of the whole debate here.  If you’re specifically interested in the issue of interpreting so-called “Goddess” figurines, then there is an excellent essay by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey entitled, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture.”  in Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds.  Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. pp 22-45.

(3) Eller covers all of this in great detail in her book.  I should mention, though, that even the theory of an armed invasion by chariot-driving Indo-Europeans is just that–a theory (that was most forcefully put forward by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the “mother” of the contemporary matriarchy movement).  No one denies that Indo-Europeans had chariots (or arms), but there are several different scholarly opinions about how that technology made its way to the different corners of the world.  Other theories involve the spread of farming and the transmission of technological advances (like chariots) through non-military means.  Also, even folks who do support the armed invasion theory do not necessarily believe that the displaced societies were pacifist matriarchies.  There seems to be a good deal of evidence that armed conflict existed way before the supposed Indo-European invasion.  But again, if you want more detail, read Eller’s book or the first two chapters of Goodison and Morris (see note 2 for full references).

A neolithic figurine with hermaphrodite forms. (Source)

(4)  Another important point made by Tringham and Conkey (see note 2) is that these statues don’t even tell us, for instance, if the societies thought of gender in the same way we did.  For instance, there are a number of sites where non-gendered statues far outnumber both male and females statues, or (in at least several instances) where there are statues of a third sex.  In other words, we don’t even know whether these cultures thought of gender as binary or not, much less what they thought of women.

(5) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

(6)  Sanday, 231-235.  Her work on power draws heavily on ideas put forth by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who also studies Indonesia (albeit the island of Java).

(7) Sanday describes matriarchies as belonging to one of three possible  types of “partnership societies” (i.e. cultures that are relatively non-hierarchical): egalitarian (in which gender differences are not symbolically marked), diarchic (which have a “pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms”), and matriarchic (which are based on a maternal model).  In other words, you can have power-sharing societies without matriarchy per se–an interesting point to consider when we think about paleolithic/neolithic cultures. While this idea of “power as life-force” may be common to many cultures, it does not, in and of itself, mean that women are necessarily dominant, or even particularly valued.  There are plenty of indigenous and/or non-Western cultures all over the world which think of power along these lines but still have social structures that oppress women.  I’m thinking, for instance, of the Amazonian Mundurucú tribe or certain Australian aboriginal groups, both of which have customary laws that punish women by beating or gang rape if they overstep “female” bounds.

(8) Also, I should note that there are other anthropologists out there studying equally interesting matrilineal modern cultures, some of which may fit Sanday’s more narrow definition of a matriarchy.  Some interesting societies to check out are the Mosuo/Na people of Western China, the Khasi of Northeastern India, and the Qiang of the Tibetan plateau.  There is an organization that studies modern matriarchies, but in my personal opinion, they seem too interested in making sweeping generalizations.  However, they are an interesting source of material as long as you double-check their facts against more scholarly resources.

(9) To my knowledge, there are no lesson plans available online that cover prehistoric matriarchy.  There are, however, some very good resources for prehistory in general.  Using them, plus the ideas contained here, one could probably put together a good 2-4 day portion of a main lesson that would cover paleolithic/neolithic times.

Here are some of the better prehistory lesson plans available online:

  • Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has an excellent site about North American prehistory.  It’s activities are really hands-on and perfect for a Waldorf classroom–many can be adapted to prehistory of any kind, not just North America.
  • A second resource is the NY Times lesson plan on recent archeological discoveries in Africa (covering early hominids).
  • Then there’s also the NIH lesson plans about paleolithic cave art that could provide a great complement to a lesson on prehistory.

Malala Yousafzai (Source)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen, brother.

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