History has been recorded throughout time in stories, books, poems and other literary works. These writings give historians and readers of the present day valuable insights into the lifestyles, beliefs, society, economics, politics and pagan religion of the time period they originate. Authors are greatly influenced by the beliefs and attitudes of their own society and time. The works they write provide a window to the past that allows us to peak through and see what life was like for the people of that particular history.
Middle Age literary works show the reader of the present who the people were, what was important to them, and how they lived. In a culture with limited literacy and few surviving texts, works such as Beowulf and Lanval are extremely important factors in establishing these important historical aspects. The one thing that is apparent is the dominance of the purely patriarchal society. The heroic code, courage in battle, bravery,loyalty to tribes and kings, place in social order, religion and chivalrous courtly love were what this society was primarily based on.
The practices and beliefs that were the stronghold of Medieval society included men and excluded women. In this predominantly male world, one is compelled to ask the question; Where do women fit into this patriarchal Middle Age world? What are their roles? What are they valued for as women? Beowulf and Lanval paint a clear picture of women in the Middle Ages. Both of these stories tell of a male world where women are valued as the property of their husbands.
The women of Beowulf and Lanval are trapped in a life of duty. There role is that of child bearer, wife, hostess, and ornamental beauty. They are bound to their husbands, valued as ‘peace weavers’;, admired for their physical beauty, and have no power except the small influence they may have on their powerful husbands. Both Lanval and Beowulf show the bleak reality of the life of the subservient powerless women with few differences. Beowulf is written in a male perspective. The mention of women is few and far between.
The mere fact that they play such a minor role in this story is a good indication that women are not very important to this society. Some of the women that are mentioned in the story are not even given names. Beowulf’s mother is not even considered important enough to repeat her name. Hrothgar is praising Beowulf when he remarks, ‘Indeed, if she is still alive , that woman (whoever she was) who gave birth to such a son, to be one of humankind, may claim that the Creator was gracious to her in childbearing’; (Beowulf 50).
Women in this epic tale were not only valued for their childbearing skills but also for there role as ‘peace weavers’;. Freawaru and Hildeburh are given in marriage to strengthen peace ties between fighting clans. They are both used to bargain temporary peace. Both women are left with conflicting alliances between husband and family. Their marriages are doomed to produce destruction and pain for these women. Once their husbands die the temporary peace is broken and the fighting clans resume war.
The women of Beowulf also played he role of hostess. They knew there place in the Middle Age world. Wealhtheow walks around the hall ‘mindful of ceremonial’; greets her guests and offers them a sip from a ornamented cup (Beowulf 43). Wealtheow is dressed in gold, beautiful clothes and rings. It would that she is also a decorated treasure that the king owns. The only power that any woman has in this story seems to come from a queens influence on her husband. Queen Thryth commands that men ,other than her husband ,that look at her be put to death.
It is not right for a queen, compelling though her beauty , to behave like this, for a peace-weaver to deprive a dear man of his life because she fancies she has been insulted’;(Beowulf 70). Her husband, Offa, soon puts a stop to it by sending her off to be reformed. Queen Thryth returns the good submissive wife she is supposed to be. Lanval is written in the time of ‘courtly love’;. Women were worshiped from afar for their beauty. The pagan religion was dying out and the age of Christianity was wakening. The chivalric code was followed by all respectable knights.
Except for the new value placed on chivalry and the appearance of Christianity, it would seems that things did not change significantly for women in this new time of so called ‘courtly love’;. Lanval begins with the King giving out land and wives to his loyal knights. This is a perfect example of the way women are viewed as property. The queen is the only non magical women that is a important character in this story. She is valued and loved for her superior beauty. Her only power is found in her private relationship with her husband, the King.
The Queen demonstrates her power by falsely accusing Lanval of making a pass at her. When the magical women appears in court to free Lanval the queen is proven a liar, stripped of her influence on her husband, and is no longer seen as a superior beauty . The future of this queen is not hopeful. In both Lanval and Beowulf, the only women that are spoken of in length are women who are married or related to kings. It is assumed that the women who are not queens have no power. The only power for women in this lai seems to be found in the world of he supernatural, a land that would appear to be inhabited only by women.
The queen represents the ‘real’; reality of women. The beautiful supernatural women represents the way Marie de France wishes society was like. The queen is left with no power or value. The magic women has power over Lanval, the court of knights ,and the king. This lai is written from a female point of view. It is both a good indicator of the reality of the time and also the way the female author imagines that it should be. Lanval is both a hopeful and depressing story. The reality is that women have no power and are virtually possessions of their husband.