4. What have scholars learned about women in this period by reading lais?
Theres a very interesting secondary literature by particularly feminist historians about courtly love. Was it a good thing for women? Is it a positive view of women or is it perhaps a new form of misogyny? This is a question that has been raised in the scholarship and its an interesting issue to try to teach students about historiography and historiographical change.
When women historians first began studying these courtly stories, they found some of the images of the women in these very attractive. These women are choosing their own lovers, and they are making men pursue them. And they are being pursued. And they are getting what they want. They are very active. They have a lot of agency, and so the early feminist interpretations of courtly love tended to be very optimistic. That these positive and powerful images of noble women reflected the social and economic conditions, say, for example, in France and England in this period. That womens condition was improving. That they had more opportunities, and that this new, more active depictions of women reflected that in some way.
Unfortunately, when social and economic historians got into the documents and really explored the status of women, what they found was pretty grim. Women across this period were very definitely losing access to real property. Noble families were increasingly practicing primogenituregiving all of the land to one male heirwhereas previously they had practiced partible inheritance so that all children inherited something, including women. Slowly but surely, women, theyre losing access to land and to other forms of wealth, so, in fact, theyre losing power over this period. So how do we explain these images of them?
Then there was another attempt to keep the positive interpretation. Feminist historians saw these as resistance. They may be losing real access to power and wealth, but here they are in a cultural mode exerting more active and positive images of themselves. Theres been a lot of work on patronage, the fact that elite women did control the household of courts, at least in the 11th and 12th centuries. Again, that begins to diminish. By controlling the purse strings, they could actually give money to troubadours and other entertainers to make up stories that were pleasing to them and so influence the stories that people heard at court. Maybe these images that they patronized of women in active roles, women having their desires fulfilled, was at least some form of creative resistance against their deteriorating social and economic status.
However, that even relatively optimistic interpretation has given way recently to even darker interpretations of the image of women in these stories. Many feminist scholars have come to doubt that these images of women are really good at all. The conclusion these scholars reached is that the images of women in these stories contribute to the objectification of women. And they come up with a secular version of the old dichotomous view of women that you have in Christianity in that shes either Eve or shes the Blessed Virgin Mary. In these stories, women are either really wicked and evil or theyre on a pedestal, and that either of these positions is not good for women.