Role and Representation of Mediaeval Women in Unsworth's "Morality Play"

Essay 2008 13 Pages

Literature - Modern Literature


Role and Representation of Mediaeval Women in Morality Play

Before discussing the role and representation of woman in Morality Play, it appears worthwhile to make a few remarks about the context in which the action takes place in the novel. The scene of events is England, and the time, although no precise date is given, is what is termed the Middle Ages. However, the use of the term “Middle” or “Dark” Ages is somewhat misleading, primarily because the novel is written in the first person, representing the point of view of a would-be priest of the period. Therefore, labeling the time of action the mediaeval England becomes at once dubious, if not to say erroneous, since the people living in the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the so-called Renaissance would have hardly perceived their time as an intermediary and murky stage between two cultural and social upheavals in the development of European civilization. In other words, as Laurie Finke points out, the people of the Middle Ages would have hardly named themselves so. Moreover, the traditional definition tends to obscure the fact that the period was more progressive in many ways than either than one that preceded it or the one that immediately followed it. Neither was it a homogenous period: in England itself, the Middle Ages of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms differ considerably from the period under the Norman domination and under the Tudor rule. The division of the mediaeval England into the three above-mentioned periods, used by Finke, is in no way absolute but provides a convenient framework for the discussion of the position of mediaeval woman in philosophical or religious thought and in social practice (Finke, 1999: 16).

Although no precise date is mentioned in any place of the novel, which can indicate how little the people then were concerned with chronology and measuring time. However, although no date is mentioned, it is possible to locate the play at the end of the fourteenth century for several reasons. First of all, there are allusions to previous historical figures and events, such as the edict of Pope Boniface VIII against play-acting mentioned by the narrator as something which is a settled and habitual matter, and Boniface was Pope at the turn of the thirteenth beginning of the fourteenth century (1294-1303). Second, when the payers are “invited” to the castle of Richard de Guise and watch the tournaments, a mention is made of the battle of Poitiers, of which a veteran participates in the jousts. It is mentioned that Roger of Yarm, who “had fought in the Holy Land and also in Normandy” is matched “with an older knight, a veteran from Poitiers” (Unsworth, 166) Clearly, Poitiers is an earlier part of the Hundred Years war in France, which is going on at the time of the novel, since the patron of the company is presently “in France fighting for the King.” (op. cit., 29) Finally, the play marks a remarkable event by itself, the birth of drama and fiction based on reality rather than on tradition – a conception unthinkable for the mediaeval mind, where the emphasis lay exactly on transcribing, modifying, and embellishing the existing legends, chronicles, etc. Moreover, the time of action is noted precisely as the week just before Christmas, for the company of players is heading to Durham to play on that important Christian festival before the relative of their patron’s wife. Allusions to other Christian festivals, such as the Feast of St. Lazarus on the day they enter the nameless town of the murder, help the reader keep the track of time in the way to which the world of the novel is habituated rather than by the modern way of keeping the calendar. For Nicholas as a priest, who lards his speech with Latin and attempts to avoid sin, the observation of the time passage is particularly prominent, while the year appears of less importance, since he is not writing a chronicle. Moreover, the counting of years was not as straightforward as it appears to contemporary people – there were various ways of counting the time in the early Middle Ages, for instance, since the creation of the world. According to John Collis, the venerable Bede was the first to introduce the counting of years in the way that is used nowadays, from the birth of Christ (Коллис, 2007: 35). However, the AD system was not accepted by the Catholic Church until 1627, so it is likely that Nicholas, as a priest, whose direct allegiance went to the Pope, would be careful about using the AD counting system.

As to the geography of the novel, the same contrast between precision in some details and complete absence of others is striking. On the one hand, it is stated that the company is traveling to the north of York, heading for Durham. At the same time, the town in which most of the novel takes place, the scene of the murders, remains nameless, since the players never find its name out. it is likely that, for them, their geographic location at the present moment is less pressing than the need to earn money and to come to Durham by Christmas, so they never care to ask anyone about where they are.

Another question that is worth considering is the genre of the work within its fictional continuum. For the reader, Morality Play is a historical novel, but how the fictional narrator, Nicolas, could define his work? He wrote an account of an episode in his life, yet autobiography or life-writing was not common in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, writings by clerk and would-be priests were common, if only because literacy was mainly the privilege of the educated clergy: even the nobles were mostly illiterate, as the example of the knight to whom Nicolas was sent shows (one of the most famous poets of knightly origin of the mediaeval Germany, Wolfram von Eschenbach, could not write, either, which did not prevent him from composing highly acclaimed poems). As Graham McKenzie maintains, “even by the end of the 14th century, very few laymen could read, and in fact, the capacity to read was often regarded as evidence that a man belonged to the church” (McKenzie, 2006: Online). Thus, Nicolas’s literary activities, can, in a way, be compared to the creative attempts of the mediaeval traveling students, the Goliards. On the other hand, the Golliards wrote mostly humorous poetry about their collective experience, although they also composed didactic, historical, or allegoric poems and religious poetry (http://culture.niv.ru/doc/literature/world-encyclopedia/041.htm). Because the other name of these poets was the Vagants, from the Latin ‘vagare’, to wander, Nicholas, a runaway cleric tired of transcribing the boring verse given by his patron and lured by the beauty of the spring, can be regarded as one of those vagabond students.

In difference from them, Nicholas, whose writing also concentrates, for its pre-dominant part, on the experience of the troupe of actors rather than his own feelings and adventures, takes up the prose (the more serious media) to narrate the experience of no humorous, playful, or cheerful associations. Thus, his writing is factional rather than fictional, a story of exploring both a crime (detective story – another genre foreign to the mediaeval thinking) and a spiritual experience of confronting death and exploring the human soul. On the whole, death was a popular topic in the plague-ridden late Middle Ages, the time when the notion of Dance Macabre appeared. Similarly, the research in the soul of man (not woman, though, the existence of soul in whom was still a subject of debate) was equally prominent in the writings of clerics. In a way, Nicholas’s account of the murder, presented in the form both mystical and naïve, can be compared to the Confessions of St. Augustine, the work that is considered to be the first autobiographic writing, although it differed in many aspects from the autobiography as we know it nowadays. The primary difference between mediaeval and contemporary perceptions is that, before the Renaissance, the concept of the individual did not exist: every man was part of the society, affiliated to his family, kinship group, the Church, etc. According to Ian Watt, it was starting with the sixteenth century, with the Reformation and the development of the new economic system of capitalism, that “the effective entity on which social arrangements were now based was nor longer the family, nor the church, nor the guild, nor the township, nor any other collective unit, but the individual.” (Watt, 1957: 61). In Watt’s expression, the mediaeval Christendom was the space of “substantial social homogeneity” (ibid.). Thus, individual experience had to be submerged into collective ones, as it happens in the case of Nicolas. In this respect, it is truly revealing that women appear so little in the novel, and, whenever they appear, the reader gets no insight into their characters, contrary to what happens when Nicholas describes the behaviour or emotional conditions of his fellow artists. For Nicholas, women are creatures of a different order, their souls unfathomable, their consciousness as foreign as that of the dog, which, in a way, is also part of the actors’ company.

For the reader nowadays, the novel appears as a detective story turned upside-down. It begins with death, but the death is not the crime to be investigated. As the novel progresses, the number of deaths multiplies, as if the actors and Nicholas are involved in the Dance of Death, a popular mediaeval myth, which rise was probably connected with the continuous upsurges of plague. Only one of the deaths, however, is a crime requiring investigation, and in that only case the murderer is already known – or so it seems at first to the players. The murderer and the victim are introduced simultaneously, and justice is about to be done, when the self-fashioned detectives urged on by their leader, Martin, set out to find not the true criminal but details of the crime. Their goal is not to restore justice and truth – at least, not initially, not before Martin sets his eyes on the alleged murderer, with whom he falls in love instantly. The end which the actors pursue is to earn money from the story – the idea that awes and repulses them even as they proceed. They are going to apply the abstract principle of good and evil fighting for human soul as it is portrayed in morality plays into the concrete real-life case. Nicholas associates the wrongness of that undertaking with “using the argument of particular to general, which is admissible in logic but never in moral discourse” (Unsworth, 75). In fact, what terrifies and mesmerizes both the players and, later, their audience, is that the ageless religious principles are shown in action on the people that exist rather than on the abstract figures of Everyman or Mankind. It is interesting that, when speaking of the battle between virtues and vices within “each separate soul, in ours and in that of the woman who robbed Thomas Wells and killed him” (ibid.) Martin not only touches the truth about why plays about real happenings are more fascinating and powerful than allegories, he also places woman, the creature about the existence of soul in whom was long a point of debate in theology, on the same plain as the company members. Thus, the readers are prepared to Martin being more broad-minded and more likely to perceive woman as an equal than, for instance, Nicholas, or other men of the company.

After these preliminary remarks, one can analyze gender discourse in religious sphere and the position of woman in society in the fourteenth-century England. The theoretical framework will help to explain peculiarities of women representation in the novel by the narrator Nicholas, who attempts to ignore those who in his perception belong to a lower order than men but who play an essential role in the development of the intrigue. Further on, the essay will consider the two female characters in the novel, Margaret and the weaver’s daughter, both of whom are complex and controversial characters, and show how the image of woman as corrupt, lewd, and vain was constructed and maintained, including the performance of actors, where men, assuming women’s roles perpetuated the contemporary biases about women.

It has already been mentioned that the Middle Ages were not as dark as they are usually portrayed in school history books and mainstream stereotyped view. Therefore, one should not automatically associate the period with backwardness in thinking, including gender discrimination, and expect the imagined “shadows” to dissipate gradually towards with the progress of time. On the contrary, Finke suggests that “mediaeval anti-feminism does not really have a history; it sounds much the same in the fourteenth century as it does in the fourth” (12); in fact, she demonstrates that anti-feminism of the fourth and fourteenth century did not differ much from anti-feminism of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, traditional history books, by depicting the Middle Ages “as a monolithic and backward ‘dark age’” facilitate our perception of “mediaeval attitudes toward women [as] static, unchanging and invariably negative.” (ibid.) Finke tries to show in her book that the attitude towards women in philosophic discourse, which was dominated by the clergy, almost the only literate class, were not the same in practice.

According to Finke, “[i]n mediaeval scientific writing woman is both weaker than and inferior to man” (ibid.) Classical writers, such as Galen and Aristotle did not even believe that there were two separate genders but viewed women as defective, underdeveloped men. Christian writers, in turn, viewed women as seductresses, the agents of the original sin and the fall of mankind, associating the daughters of Eve “with the material (as opposed to the spiritual) world” (op. cit., 13). It has been stated that, for Nicholas, women are as foreign in their way of reasoning and as unimportant as animals, and his treatment of the only woman in the actors’ company does not significantly differ from his treatment of the dog. In this, Nicolas follows the teachings of the contemporary ecclesiastic authorities, who depicted women as “more bestial (they are often compared to animals, serpents and insects), more fleshly than men, and hence more lustful.” (ibid.)

The discourse of the learned clerics and monks was one thing, but the actual position of woman in society may have been somewhat different. According to Mihailov, the noble ladies enjoyed an attitude at odds with the official position of the Church: “for the feudal circle, woman was neither the sinful creature as the clerics insisted, nor an inferior being deprived of all legal rights, as the later bourgeois moralists and didactics depicted her” (Михайлов, 26). Generally speaking, although the official doctrine advanced by the Church was always present in minds of the people, in practice, the position of women varied, and they could have substantial power and authority, no matter to which class they belonged. At the same time, the position of any woman varied depending on her social and marital status. Thus, the experience of fourteenth-century noble ladies, nuns, working class, and peasant women were not the same. In the early Middle Ages, nuns were in a better position than towards the end of them, when the kings favorised male monasteries over women’s convents, but in the early mediaeval period, double monasteries including men and women, presided over by an abbess were common (Finke, 1999: 26-7). The working class women could practice their craft and even have their workshops, and they must have been successful in it, for, later, many guilds of male crafters strove to exclude women from their professions, as it happened with weaving (op. cit, 25). All in all, one can see that women in the mediaeval period were not powerless, but could win economic independence, although they were discriminated against in the official and theological discourse and their standing in general deteriorated in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. The female characters of Morality Play demonstrate both the intellectual independence and the decreasing power of women in the society that was increasingly patriarchal.

One of the few women characters of the novel, and the first woman to appear in it, is the woman of the actor company. Her position in the company is very indicative of the double standards which mediaeval society practices towards women: she is expected to do all the dirty work, the typical female activities as washing and cooking, but she is neither paid nor included in the privileged, profit making activities of the company, playing. Similarly, she has little say in the councils of the company, although in fact she shows her cleverness on many occasions, such as when she suggests that Nicholas should be shaved so that his tonsure should not betray him, or when she provides useful information for the investigation of the murder. In spite of all her intelligence and contributions to the functioning of the company of actors, she is never acknowledged as a full-fledged and valuable member, as the one of them – she is always an appendix to her partner, taken only for his say, as a stray dog for Tobias. When Martin decides to take Nicholas into the company, his argument is: “We took Margaret because Stephen wanted her, and a stray dog for Tobias. Why not a runaway priest who can be of use to us all?” (Unsworth, 17) Meanwhile, the quotation also reveals the attitude of mediaeval people to their fellows: the notion of an individual and his or her personal value does not exist, and the only relevance that a person can have is his or her usefulness for the society. In this way, Martin’s remark is not as insulting to Margaret as it may appear at first.

At the same time, it is true that the woman is not regarded as a member of the male company and is not regarded as such by others. At the end of the novel, she decides to leave the actors, and her reason is that she is treated as a servant rather than as one of them. The fact that the servants of de Guise disregarded and left her behind is insulting to her, however absurd the argument may seem to Nicholas, who is happy to have escaped from sure death. Thus, Nicholas only sees Margaret’s behaviour as ridiculous, probably part of her female folly: “It seemed to me strange and illogical, and belonging to the unreasonable nature of women, that Margaret should so resent being spared the danger of death and moreover should blame us for it, who had been placed in that danger.” (op. cit, 198) Nonetheless, Margaret has her own reasons to be injured and resentful. It is likely that she wanted with all her heart to be a full-fledged member of the company, to stay with them “in joy and sorrow”, as she then probably hopes to be with Flint. Despite Nicholas’s skepticism that neither the dog Flint intends to train nor Margaret would come up to his expectations (ibid.), one can feel that Margaret longs to find someone who will care about her and with whom she will be able to have something close to egalitarian relationship. So far, Flint proved his interest in Margaret, proved that he needed her and cared for her; partly, she may want to take her revenge on her former lover, Stephen, who would despise and beat, her. Consequently, the last words Margaret says before going to sleep contain the praise of Flint, who, in difference from the maimed Stephen, “has both his thumbs and plenty of gristle in them.” (op. cit, 199) Thus, although Nicholas takes the remark as a proof to his conviction that “women have no head for abstract thinking” (ibid.), one can also see that the narrator has neither feeling nor interest for the inner troubles of Margaret, whom he simply cannot comprehend.

Earlier in the dialogue, Margaret states with bitterness that she does not “belong to this company and never did, nor any other (op. cit., 195). The tragedy of exclusion that she must have experienced can only be measured if one takes into account the fact that, as it has already been explain, the mediaeval society was not that of individual consciousness but of collective and associative consciousness – which, nevertheless, was re-dominantly male-oriented. As Sandison observes, mediaeval women were effectively precluded from entering guilds of craftsmen: at most, they could be apprenticed and work there, but their status and their pay would be lower than that of men with the same skills and amount of work to do (Sandison, 2006: Online). Moreover, and that is not the least argument, women could not wear the clothes of the fashion and colour that indicated belonging to the guild. This way, the position of Margaret is that of any of contemporary women, who were regarded as servants to a team of professionals.

At the same time, no human being can be expected to tolerate this injustice for an indefinite period of time, and Margaret’s discontent finds vent one day, too. As a very practical person, she finds the convenient time, when the company is gone and may be hanged and when she has money on her hands from the last performance. Still, she is honest, in her own way, for she takes care to pay to the innkeeper, and not in kind, for she “cannot abide” “that stinkard” (ibid.) She makes sure that the dog and the horse, the unthinking yet not unfeeling creatures will be taken care of, too. At last, when Nicholas comes, she lets him into the barn and even shares the money with him. She explains her decision in a very convincing and moving way: “I knew I would be given no share in the playing, but I did things that were needed and no one else could do them and I thought I would have my place in the company, but no place was given to me, except only what served you.” (ibid.) As a result, the position of Margaret is that of any mediaeval woman, whose task was to please her male master (most often her husband) being given no wages save food in return. Accordingly, the conclusion of Nicholas that Margaret may not make a satisfactory wife to flint is well-grounded, because one of the principal virtues required of a wife was obedience, together with eagerness to please her husband. To compare, in The Goodman of Paris, the book that appeared between 1392 and 1294, at approximately the same time that the action in the novel takes place, the author, an elderly merchant, teaches his fifteen years old wife to serve his husband faithfully in all things. Because it was the husband whose task was to go out and earn money, woman’s work was to stay at home and make the man pleased whenever they returned home:

love your husband's person carefully, and I pray you keep him in clean linen, for that is your business, and because the trouble and care of outside affairs lieth with men, so must husbands take heed, and go and come, and journey hither and thither, in rain and wind, in snow and hail, now drenched, now dry, now sweating, now shivering, ill-fed, ill-lodged, ill-warmed and ill-bedded. (The Goodman of Paris, Online)

Clearly, Margaret is not the kind of woman to stay obediently at home and make a ready welcome to her tired husband at any time. Rather, she belongs to the type of women against whom the merchant warns his young wife, the women who would pretend obedience at first but will gradually cease the power in the household. The French merchant firmly believes that such women, who “take upon themselves authority, command and lordship, at first in a small thing, then in a larger, and a little more every day” will eventually be “be all at once, by their husband's rightful will, cast down even as Lucifer was” (ibid.) Meanwhile, whether it happened so or not in reality, one cannot be sure, but more likely than not, there were numerous husbands happy enough to stand the “authority, command and lordship” (ibid.) of their wives.

One of the few things the reader learns of Margaret’s past as presented by the narrator is that she used to practice prostitution. In view of the fact that Nicholas has received clerical education, one would expect for a severe diatribe on the subject or, at least, an indication of his extreme disapproval or scorn. On the contrary, the narrator makes no commentary, presenting the fact just as it is, as a natural event. Nicholas’s behaviour corresponds exactly to the mediaeval customs in respect of prostitution, which was, in the eyes of both lay and ecclesiastic society, nothing more than a trade, although a dirty one. However, while adultery and rape were severely punished, and the punishment for adulterous women was far crueler than for men, prostitutes were not sued in court. On the contrary, it was legally recognized, and had a framework of legislation enabling it to function: thus, women were expected to practice their trade on certain streets and wear a particular type of clothes. Angela Sandison mentions that “they fought to be allowed to wear what they chose”, but that, nevertheless, “Transgressors were fined and their garments and jewellery confiscated.” (Sandison, 2006: Online) The church did not exclude them from its premises, either, and prostitutes were allowed both to attend the services (although they had to seat in separate places) and to practice their trade in monasteries and Church councils, as well as markets and fairs (ibid.) In the novel, when the harlots appear at the inn, they are recognized by the green they wear in their sleeves, so, again, they have a certain position in the society that is officially established and regulated.

On the whole, Margaret is a complex character, and her representation in the novel is neither one-sided nor simplistic. Nicholas remarks on the lewdness of her gestures and her promiscuity, but he also mentions her gentleness. The latter observations are given in connection with her treatment of Brendan and Nicholas himself. First, Margaret does the work no one of the men is willing to undertake – changing Brendan’s clothes and preparing him for funeral. The second occasion is when Nicholas is to be shaved – an ingenious idea of eradicating the tonsure which would otherwise betrayed his status of a runaway priest, which was also suggested by Margaret. Nicholas does not miss an occasion to mention that Margaret was distinguished for “ a very deft and gentle touch” (Unsworth, 64), and, when he even did not know her name, he observed that the woman who undressed Brendan and put on him the priest’s gown “was deft and tender with him and there was kindness in her face (op. cit., 20) It is worthwhile asking whether Margaret’s gentleness in handling men, both dead and alive, is part of her previous trade or an expression of her better self, which hardship has taught her to conceal from the greedy glances of men.

Meanwhile, Margaret is often entrusted with tasks that prove both her position of an outsider in the company and the trust they invest in her and her practical-mindedness. Accordingly, when the actors perform in the inn, it is she who takes money at the gate. Moreover, when the company was entering the town, Margaret had to lead the pony – a task she carried out dexterously, and which was of high importance, too, for on the symbolical level she was responsible for maintaining the balance between good and evil, not speaking of the fact that the success of the company depended on their entry to the town. Accordingly, when Nicholas writes that Margaret led the horse “steady and slow, so as not to overbalance God and the Serpent” (op. cit, 32), there is irony of situation in it, for she, the worthy daughter of the sinning Eve, is responsible for such a thing.

The sexuality and promiscuity of women was very much constructed by men, and especially by priests and theologians, who saw sin in the satisfaction of bodily desires and woman – a demon sent to lure men to sin. One of the most radical of such views is quoted by Sandison:

A woman … is more carnal than man. Defective in formation from the outset - the bent rib, bent in a contrary direction to man, therefore she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives. It is not good to marry. What else is a woman, but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours ... all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in a women is insatiable... (Sandison, 2006: Online)

Mediaeval priests and monks, torn between corporeal longing and necessity to fast, were particularly prone to see woman as temptress. When Margaret is mending the costume of Adam in the barn, her posture, although not very modest, is hardly meant to seduce anyone, yet Nicholas sees it as an attack on his chastity: “[t]his parting of her legs under the skirt disturbed my mind and I prayed within myself to be delivered from evil.” (Unswroth, 43) It is possible that Margaret started her career as harlot exactly because her ample bosom or graceful gate disturbed the mind of some less chaste man in her youth, and she had no other way earn her living later. Because men thought women to be sinful from the outset, it was not simple for a woman to prove rape, and she did not have many options afterwards.

The first play that the company performs, the Play of Adam, involves Eve, the sinful mother of all women, and the way her role is interpreted is very revealing in terms of mediaeval views on women. The performance provides a very good clue as to the ambiguity of mediaeval attitude to the first woman, who is charged with the initial sin and the banishment of mankind from paradise. In a way, every woman is viewed as another Eve: as Finke shows in her study, Mary the Virgin, the only positive example of a woman, who atoned for the sinful act of her ancestor, is an exception impossible for any real woman to follow, if only because of the fact that no woman can be virgin and mother at once (Finke, 1999: 23-5). When one analyzes the way in which Eve is performed on stage and what kind of response she gets from the audience, one is likely to get a highly accurate notion of what the public stance on the question of womanhood was like in the High Middle Ages.

The Eve whom the spectators expect is lustful and vain, seeking to arouse and seduce Adam yet taking good care to conceal her designs from God. As Nicholas notices, “[s]he caused laughter and lewdness among the people by her vanity and preening and by the sway of her boy’s buttocks as she walked before Adam when God was not looking.” (Unsworth, 50-1). Needless to say, it is absurd, first of all because the Eve the audience sees is a young boy in disguise. Second, when one reads the Old Testament, there is nothing about the sinful ways of Eve before the Fall: on the contrary, no sin or lustful thinking enters the paradise before Eve and Adam taste of the Tree of Knowledge.

It is remarkable that the alleged murderer of the novel is a woman, too. Moreover, it is only late in the novel the of the weaver’s daughter guilt is questioned, so that the idea that a woman is capable of killing a man is not surprising or unbelievable for anyone. The reasons for the crime might be different. For one thing, Margaret suggests jealousy and revenge: “’The man will have betrayed her,’ Margaret said, as if there could only be that one reason… ‘He will have played fast and loose with her.’” (op. cit, 40) At the same time, the reasons other men believe in is that she wanted the purse the boy was bearing: this conviction, again, reveals the secret fears and anxieties of men, the ones who wield power and justice in the mediaeval world, rather than testifies against women as mean and treacherous.

Once again, women were believed inherently sinful, even demonic, bent on leading men to their physical or moral death. In the case of Thomas Well, the picture created by the players is of both moral and physical death. In the next play the company performs, the woman is shown luring the boy into the trap by a long pantomime of indecent gestures. Thus, from the very beginning, the movements of Straw, who plays the woman, are “lascivious in some degree, and this more for the sake of the people than the boy.” (Unsworth, 104). Like in modern films, where the female characters are of necessity attractive in order to make readers watch, so Straw tunes his movements to extract a certain response from the public. Next, the boy sets on an unexpected course of action, commencing with “a long movement of self-love” and finishing with “a gesture of pride and terrible invitingness.” (ibid.) Thus, all accusations of the Church against women as vain, proud, egoistic, vulgar, and carnal are posed on the stage, and the people believe it willingly. The audience is so mesmerized that no one even notices the evident absurdity of the situation: “the woman … stood there showing the place of pleasure, and the stuff of the gown was strained over the fork of her body and showed the parts of a man beneath.” (ibid.) Still, not a single person in the audience remarks the incongruity of this combination, and only the mother of Thomas well protests against her child shown to succumb to this outrageous sin. As the novel will later reveal, the truth about Thomas Well’s death is much more shocking than any of the men present at the play could imagine, and the double nature of Straw playing a woman who seduces Thomas Well is a premonition of the final revelation that the boy was raped and murdered by the local nobleman, even though it is never made known to the common people that the sodomite and murderer was the son of de Guise.

The weaver’s daughter is the character of great importance to the novel, yet she makes near to no appearance in it. It seems that she is more of a principle, a bearer of the abstract tags of “murderer” (for the people of the town), “dumb goatgirl” (for the judge), or damsel in distress for Martin, than a personality. She is an enigmatic figure, unable to speak for herself – an allegory of all women of that period, who were not expected to express their opinions publicly – and bearing no name save that of her father. She communicates with the help of signs with Martin, and all the other people can learn about her is through this mediator, a strong leader, a sort of knight of the common folk. On the other hand, a question arises whether Martin can be trusted as a perfect and impartial medium or he is an interpreter who puts his own notions into the girl and her gestures. Their communication is not as straightforward as one would wish it, for they speak in different codes of signs, as Nicholas observes. Consequently, distortions are inevitable. In so far as the novel goes, the girl fulfils Martin’s expectations by her beauty, innocence, and helplessness, but one cannot but wonder, together with Nicholas “whether Martin would continue to love her, now that she was no longer chained” (Unsworth, 206). That question ends the novel and, as a result, continues to trouble the reader’s mind the longest. Indeed, the girl is no longer a damsel in distress, and it is not clear whether or not she will require Martin’s protection any longer. Moreover, now that she is free, she can turn out to be less docile and submissive than Martin would have expected, and the fire that Nicholas spotted when seeing her first in prison can break out, too. It is true that she cannot speak, but there are other ways to make oneself understood, and when there is more than one person in the audience, chances for diversity of interpretation are more likely.

In general, the girl’s position can be compared to that of mediaeval women in another way than Margaret’s: although largely ignored and deprived of voice, with men who would usurp their right to speak, women could still make themselves heard, and, even during the so-called Dark Ages, as well as the High Middle Ages, there were women writers and poets, such as the poet Mary de France or the mystic writers Catherine of Siena, Marguerite Porete, Margery Kempe, and others. During the Middle Ages, women may have been oppressed and disregarded, but they were able to express themselves and were often heard as well.

Sources quoted:

1. Finke, L. A. (1999) Women’s Writing in English: Mediaeval England. Longman: London and New York;
2. The Goodman of Paris (1996), Internet Mediaeval Sourcebook. [Online] Available from Accessed on December 29, 2007;
3. Sandison, A. (2006) The Role of Women in the High Middle Ages. [Online] Available from http://www.wwnorton.com/rgguides/moralityrgg.htm. Accessed on December 20;
4. Watt, I. (1957) The Rise of the Novel;
5. Коллис, Д. (2007) Кельты: истоки, история, миф. Москва: Вече;
6. Михайлов, А. Д. (1976) Французский рыцарский роман и вопросы типологии жанра в средневековой литературе. Наука.


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University of Latvia – Faculty of Modern Languages
role representation mediaeval women unsworth morality play




Title: Role and Representation of Mediaeval Women in Unsworth's "Morality Play"