The Polarization of the Feminine in Arthurian and Troubadour Literature

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




David L. Miller


Human suffering, Anti-feminist, Conflict, Gawain and the Green Knight, Le Morte D'Arthur, Troilus and Criseyde

Subject Categories



In the literature of the troubadours and the Arthurian legend recurring feminine images appear to have great power over the male characters. Yet these portrayals of the feminine are not "realistic" in any modern conceptions of the word. Indeed they are either extremely negative images or highly positive ones with no median evident. When the images are positive the function of the feminine is to lead man upward to the spiritual realms, but when the images are negative the feminine becomes a figure of danger who can trap man into the material, the world of base matter, thereby endangering his immortal soul.

This study is based on a much-debated issue in Christian and Gnostic theology: is the physical universe to be loved as a product of God, as a part of His creation, or is it to be denied as evil at worst or a hindrance at best. The thesis of this study is that the image of woman is the focal point for this controversy regarding the good or evil nature of the physical world, for she is the immediate vehicle for further incarnations of souls in matter, as the early Gnostics and Christians believed. If the physical world is seen as a place of suffering, then women can be held at least partly responsible for human suffering. Most of the images of the feminine that are linked to the physical are negative in this literature under study and most that help man to raise himself out of the physical are positive.

Twelfth-century courtly literature was an attempt to control the more negative forces in man. Woman, then, acted as a mediator between man and his higher forces both within and without him. Her role was to help man get in touch with his own inner, better self which then had an external referrent: through a relationship with an idealized Lady a man could become ennobled and seen as such not only by himself but by his peers. However, as the courtly ethic dissolves the feminine images suffer. The writings become either anti-feminist or strictly religious, and woman is no longer a symbol of something positive in man, but is often a separate entity, the Virgin Mary, or later a more negative image, a demon, witch, or even a shape-shifter such as Morgan le Fay in Gawain and the Green Knight.

The literature of the troubadours and Arthurian myth from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries--especially the Grail legend as seen in French sources including Chretien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, and Middle English sources including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur-- is an attempt to come to terms with this problem: How to be of the world without becoming a prisoner of it; how to join the flesh and the spirit. Where the twelfth century author and Wolfram in his Parzival attempted to bridge the gap between spirit and matter, later literature indicates the split widened. The "noble experiment" of the civilization of the Round Table in Malory, for example, deteriorates when the actual and the ideal came into conflict. This conflict became projected onto the image of woman: she was the temptress, the seductress, the destroyer of the flowering of chivalry as well as, in Malory, the source of the power of the fellowship of the Round Table.

Early Christian and Gnostic writings, selected troubadour lyrics, Gawain and the Green Knight, Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde are studied to demonstrate the polarization of images of the feminine: she is either a spiritual guide, the source of all worth, or the demonic temptress who can cause the ruin of an entire civilization.


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