Medieval Frame Tales Term Paper

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Medieval Literature

Gender and Sexuality in Medieval Literature

Cultural norms and gender roles have changed considerably since the medieval period. Literature is defined by the cultural constructs surrounding it. In order to understand a work of literature from a different time period and/or culture, one must first examine the cultural constructs that influenced the author at the time of writing. Sometimes, there are few clues as to culture and gender roles, other than the work itself. The following will examine the clues as to gender and sexuality found in works from Giovanni Boccaccio's "The Decameron" and Visnu Sarma's "The Pancantantra." It will address the hypothesis that, contrary to the opinions of several modern historians, the writings of Boccacio represent accurate medieval thought regarding the status and treacherous nature of women.

Boccacio: An Exploration in Florence, Italy

Giovanni Bocaccio lived in the early to mid 1300s. He was embroiled in the precarious glory that embodied the city of Florence, Italy during that time. Boccacio's works provide the reader with a candid glimpse of politics, morality, and gender roles of the time. There are several differences between beliefs about sexuality in Boccacio's time the modern era.

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The first difference is the modern stereotype that males are more likely to experience insatiable sexual desire than women. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that women were much more susceptible to sexual desire than men. Men were considered to be more rational and closer to the spiritual realm than women. Women were considered to be carnal and materialistic, even if they were nuns.

A man to live with women! he might as well live with so many devils: six times out of seven they know not themselves what they want"(Decameron, III:1:12).

The "Decameron" contains many examples of women who's desire were insatiable. This passage highlights how stereotypes have changed since the Middle Ages regarding gender roles.

TOPIC: Term Paper on Medieval Frame Tales Assignment

Fairest ladies, not a few there are both of men and of women, who are so foolish as blindly to believe that, so soon as a young woman has been veiled in white and cowled in black, she ceases to be a woman, and is no more subject to the cravings proper to her sex, than if, in assuming the garb and profession of a nun, she had put on the nature of a stone: (Decameron, III:1: 002).

Although women were considered to be illogical and insatiable, they were also expected to posess a certain "softness" that made it natural for them to assume a more submissive role during sexual acts (Salisbury, p. 85). The ideal that women were more sexually insatiable than men undoubtedly led many families to lock up their unmarried daughters in order to avoid trouble (Brundage, p. 428).

The second difference between modern ideology about the genders and medieval concepts is the idea that men are associated with heat, whereas women are associated with coldness. According to Salisbury (p. 91), if a woman's womb was warm the baby would be male. Likewise, a cold womb would produce a female child. It was believed that through sexual intercourse, the woman gained the heat that she lacked (Salisbury, p. 90). These qualities were used to explain many differences between males and females from psychological traits to physical traits.

The "Decameron" differs from other contemporary medieval texts in that its expression of sexuality and sexual acts are more direct and explicit. Sexuality was typically suggested through inuendos and allusion, but seldom was it as directly stated as in Boccacio's writing. There are differing opinions as to why this may be the case. The first contention is that Boccacio's presentation of sexuality and gender roles in a true reflection of societal ideals of the time. It may be that he was a writer that represented a more straight forward approach to what was going on in society than his contemporaries. However, it may also be the case, that Boccacio was simply crying for greater freedom of expression. In Italian lyric poetry the sexual act is never stated, although it is understood.

Even with an understanding of sexuality in Medieval Florentine society, it is difficult to determine whether Boccacio's portrayal of recurring themes of adultery and overt sexuality among the clergy are reality or whether they are a comic exaggeration of society is difficult to determine. One can be certain that Boccacio's decidedly male perspective was reflected throughout the work. The sexuality of women is portrayed as evil. In the Decameron, III; 10, Alibech develops a taste for "putting the devil back in hell" as a euphemism for taming womanly sexual desire. Men are decidedly the "victim" of the women's temptations. Although, it is ironic that they must be the ones to make the first moves and act as aggressor in sexual acts.

Sexuality in the Panchantantra

The Pachantantra is a Sanskrit writing consisting of animal fables. The worked were attributed to Vishnu Sarma in the 3rd century BCE. It is believed that these tales were based on older oral traditions and passed on through storytellers that date back to the continent's earliest inhabitants. These stories have been translated into many languages throughout the ages, including a Persian translation titled "Kalilah and Dimnah" dating from 1429.

One of the key components of the story that make it different from other medieval works, such as Boccacio is that the stories have been around for a much longer time. They undoubtedly changed and took on many different cultural elements as they were passed through the centuries. Therefore, these stories cannot be regarded as a glimpse into a single time and place, as with Boccacio's work. These tales must be regarded as a less precise look at society. They could be seen as a conglomeration of the many different cultures that influenced them.

One of the most important aspects to consider in medieval literature is the intended audience. Unlike Boccacio, who was intended for adults, the tales in the Panchantantra as regarded as children's literature. They were intended to be read to children in order to teach them moral concepts and rules. Therefore, they are not as explicitly sexual as Boccacio's work. They are meant to teach children how they should act. Taking, this into consideration, it is interesting that many of the women portrayed in the Panchatantra are betrayers, liars, unscrupulous, and blindly passionate. Women in the Panchantantra are often found in the arms of someone other than their husband. Women are portrayed as completely dependent on the man, with no means of existing on her own. The portrayal of women in the Panchantantra is similar to the women of Boccacio in many ways.

The portrayal of women in Boccacio and in the Panchantantra give us strong clues that both the intended author and the intended reader are male. It is unlikely that a woman would compose a story that portrayed herself in such an unsavory manner. It is also unlikely that women were unaware that they were portrayed in such as manner, otherwise, one could only imagine the discord it would create. Women were largely illiterate, with a few exceptions, during the Middle Ages. Men had more opportunities for education and in many cases women were forbidden from learning to read. Therefore, the authors felt "safe" in making the comments that they did towards women. It could simply remain the mens' "little secret."

If one regards the Panchantantra as a tool for teaching young children, then it is not surprising that female roles dictate subservience to men. However, one must consider, that due to the tradition that women are to remain uneducated and illiterate, these principals would only be thrust upon males. Males would then be responsible for propagating these gender roles and forcing them upon the women. Women, therefore, have little control over their own destiny as a result of these teachings. One could consider Boccacio as the soap opera of his time. Therefore, his works would have a great influence on the behavior of society as well. People would try to emulate his characters, just as they do with daytime dramas today.

In the tale, the Bullocks' Balls, we find the following passage,

They rightly say: A man is master in all things, until he lets his will be turned by a woman's words. And further: The impossible seems possible, the unachievable easily achieved, and the inedible edible to the man who is spurred on by a woman's words." (Pacnantantra, the Bullocks' Balls.)

From this passage, one can surmise that although man is master, woman still has an incredible power over him. The power of the woman over the man is not to be underestimated. However, one will not that the traits listed in this passage give the woman the power to deceive a man. For instance, by rendering the "inedible edible" the woman would have the power to poison a man. This allusion to treachery of the woman is similar to that found in Boccacio.

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"Medieval Frame Tales."  October 29, 2007.  Accessed September 24, 2021.