3. How do the lais inform us about women in this period?
One of the reasons that I teach this source is the role of women. Not only the fact that its written by a woman, but that women are key figures in these stories. Do you get evidence that theres a sort of female perspective here? How are women portrayed? Are they all good? Are they all bad? Do we have good and bad women? If so, what sorts of behaviors in women are praised or castigated, and what sorts of roles for women do these stories suggest? Particularly for elite women, since, at this point, we know that in many ways theyre losing power as these courts become more institutionalized, and power is more centralized in male-dominated institutions.
So many of these women seek out their own lovers and clearly have their desires fulfilled. That shows that this must be a woman writing this because most of their relationships are adulterous. Men who have an interest in producing legitimate heirs to inherit their property, why would they be writing a story which suggests that adultery is a good thing or the way to achieve love?
But then you can point out some of these negative characteristics of women. If these stories are written by a woman, why do you have all of these strongly negative depictions of womenwomen as scheming, women as duplicitous, women who are unfaithful to their husbands? But I think its a really open question, and it gets students to think about our own notions of whats typical for women. What is a womans perspective? Is there one womans perspective? Does the fact that you have positive and negative portrayals of women in these stories really tell us anything about gender?
Another reason to focus on them is if you look at the sources for womens history in the Middle Ages. Those sources in particular that are written by women, theyre some of the most accessible and frankly entertaining. So, for the purposes of introducing concerns and issues of women in the Middle Ages, I find that these very amusing stories work a lot better than some of the other texts by women which tend to be of a very religious nature.