Typhonblue’s law is that he core of the gender role divide is that men are actors and women are acted upon. Has it always been this way in our culture?
When I say “our culture”, I need to specify. We are English-speakers and our culture is Anglosphere culture. That culture derives from an ancestral British Isles culture influenced by 2,000 years of hegemonic Latin culture. It turns out there has been an interesting development in gender roles in that culture and that change can be tracked in its early literature. That literature comes down to us thanks to the work of monks recording their own cultures’ oral literature stretching back hundreds of years into pagan times.
Medb – Let’s start with one of the monuments of Irish literature, Táin Bó Cúailnge. The main character in this epic is the queen of Connacht – although it’s pretty clear she’s really a goddess – named Medb. The actual story starts when she assembles and army of disparate elements, often by offering their chieftains her “friendly thighs”, to go on a massive cattle raid to take an incomparable bull to head her herd. As far as agency goes, Medb has it in buckets.
Deirdre – Before the story gets rolling there are several “fore-stories” to explain subsequent aspects of the main story. In one of these stories Deirdre has been raised to be the wife of Conchobar at Emain Macha in Ulster, but when she gets to his court, she decides instead to take up with one of his warriors, Naoise. He initially refuses but she coerces him by putting him under geas. (Rape culture goes deep in our history and it has always targeted men, whoever else gets hit too.) The couple has to flee and the rest of story consists of their roamings. Eventually they are lured back to Emain Macha with promises of safe passage. Naoise is killed, treacherously, and Deirdre is faced with forced marriage to Conchobar. She kills herself instead.
Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne – This theme of the love triangle centering around the woman shows up again in a later story, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Gráinne, The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. In this story Grainne is intended to marry Fionn mac Cumhaill but instead chooses one of his young warriors, Dairmuid ua Duibhne. She puts the whole dinner party to sleep with a sleeping potion and puts the moves on Dairmuid. He refuses at first but she coerces him by putting him under . Fionn and the Fianna pursue them all over Ireland and eventually many years later contrive Dairmuid’s death.
Tristan and Iseult – Next this theme shows up in a story recorded in France but set in Cornwall. It is almost certainly of Welsh origin. This time an Irish princess, Iseult, is intended to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Her mother packs a love potion in Iseult’s baggage so that she will fall in love with Mark. One of Mark’s knights, Tristan, escorts her back to Cornwall, and on the trip over Iseult has her maid bring something to drink. The maid mistakenly serves the love potion and Tristan and Iseult fall in love instead. Tragedy ensues.
Guinevere and Lancelot – For me the least gripping part of the whole Arthurian legend was the treasonous love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot, and I think it was because the characters seem to be sleep-walking through it, or seemed that way to me. Then I ran across a note that said in a French version of the story Guinevere comes of pretty badly as a vamp who initiates and pursues the affair.
Aha, back on familiar ground.
So why was Guinevere so boneless in the familiar English version of the story? Well, that love affair tore Camelot apart. Showing Guinevere in her rightful role puts a hell of an accusation on her. That may be what’s going on, but why bother to protect her reputation.
Or perhaps Guinevere really was a lot more Romanized in real life – assuming she ever existed in the first place – a lot more like Calpurnia than like Dierdre, by the time the Arthurian stories are supposed to have taken place. Well, why suddenly get all historically accurate in this one instance? Medieval story tellers are not known for that at all. Something else is going on.
I think it has to do with the tastes of the audience, and with the changing taste of the audience, and that this steady trend of ties into a broader cultural shift that had been occurring across Western Europe. That trend was the spread of Latin cultural values as a function of governments adopting Christianity, if only for the administrative skills that a literate clergy could offer. These were not specifically Christian values, they were Roman values, but in northern and western Europe, that was often the same thing.
The trend we see in these stories is in the first a woman is making a move on a man (which he is not permitted to refuse, by the way), the same thing in the next, although this time she uses a sleeping potion to drug all the witnesses, next the sleeping potion has turned into a love potion, so the woman has no responsibility – or culpability – when she falls in love, and then finally a story where it’s not clear who is zooming who, probably to hide the woman’s initiative in an illicit love affair. It’s a trend from female agency to female passivity. And this last form of the story line is the one that had all the influence in later centuries.
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