Reading women: models of behaviour and womanhood in the Auchinleck manuscript

Osborne, Emma Elizabeth (2018) Reading women: models of behaviour and womanhood in the Auchinleck manuscript. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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That the Auchinleck manuscript is a book that was accessed by fourteenth century female readers has been posited, but not thoroughly explored in recent scholarship. Through a significant amount of work, literary historians have established that texts written for female readers in fourteenth century England focus on the morality of women, often taking on an exemplary role designed to shape and improve female behaviour. These historians have also revealed that female readers and listeners were a significant driving force in the development of Middle English as a literary language. The result of this research has deepened our understanding of what women’s books looked like, and thus can be used to establish the likelihood of a female reader for medieval manuscripts whose intended audience is uncertain. Using the codicological work of previous Auchinleck critics as a start point, this thesis affirms that the manuscript was a woman’s book by demonstrating that it fits stylistic models common in late medieval English books that were written for a female reader. It will then add to this discussion by undertaking a feminist historicist reading of a select group of Auchinleck texts, revealing that the manuscript provides a variety of detailed models of female behaviour, which would both entertain and educate a hypothetical female reader or listener.

The first chapter of analysis examines texts which engage with rape and/or abduction as a major plot point. It examines the legal history of raptus law in order to establish the understanding of sexual assault held by the medieval audience. The chapter also provides an examination of the language of rape in non-legal sources, highlighting the difficulties of establishing what a literary rape is. Using this context, the chapter examines three texts (The Legend of Pope Gregory, Sir Degaré and Floris and Blancheflour) and reveals that there is a consistent lack of sympathy with the victims of rape, coupled with praise for the one woman who escapes it. Rape is used as a punishment for behaviour that deviates from the social norm. Reading these texts as a group develops a nuanced understanding of the role of female consent in protecting social norms, and this provides a model of behaviour for female readers.

‘Good Wives and Dangerous Distractions’, the second chapter of analysis, examines texts which offer models of wifehood within booklets one and three of the manuscript. It examines the legal nature of female consent in fourteenth century English marriage law, as well as providing a survey of the literary sources which informed opinion about wives at this particular time. Using this research as context, it examines three texts (The King of Tars, The Life of Adam and Eve and The Seven Sages of Rome) to reveal three distinct models of wifely behaviour: the obedient, the disobedient, and the evil. This chapter focuses predominantly on the disobedient and/or evil wife, as there are comparatively few examples of the obedient wife as a result of the influence of literary sources which predate the manuscript. This chapter also demonstrates how, with particular reference to The Seven Sages of Rome, the case for reading each text in manuscript context is made through the layering of models of behaviour, which allows all three texts to create significant and complex examples of how women should behave within marriage.

The final chapter of analysis, ‘Secularised Saints and Stripping Virgins’, discusses the models of behaviour depicted by Saint Margaret, Saint Katherine and the Virgin Mary. It discusses four texts, the lives of both virgin saints, The Clerk Who Would See the Virgin and The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Beginning with a discussion of the popularity of religious and devotional literature amongst female readers and listeners in fourteenth century England, this chapter considers how the small changes in the Auchinleck redactions of both Margaret and Katherine’s lives adjusts textual meaning to emphasise the required balance between the power faith grants women and the need to be subservient to patriarchal systems. It also discusses the important role of motherhood through Seynt Mergrete and the two Virgin Mary tales, which praise Mary for her unique status as both virgin and mother. After a final discussion on the dangers of the male gaze, expanded from that which is observed in ‘Rape Instigators and Abduction Victims’, the chapter concludes with a discussion of the necessity of including these religious texts in order to provide positive models of behaviour for the female reader.

In conclusion, this thesis presents two seemingly disparate Auchinleck booklets as a microcosm of the entire manuscript. It demonstrates that the separate narratives included in each booklet are intertwined, and that interpreting the meaning and purpose of each text is dependent on the models and anti-models surrounding each text. A full picture of how each text could have spoken to the female reader cannot be grasped without examining the manuscript context of each individual piece. Finally, the thesis suggests that the hypothetical reader or listener of the Auchinleck manuscript was not likely to be the merchant suggested by Ralph Hanna, but rather the daughter(s) he wished to educate.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Auchinleck manuscript, MS Advocates 19.2.1, manuscript, female, reader, English, Middle English, literature, medieval, reading, rape, sexual assault, abduction, feminist, marriage, hagiography, romance.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PE English
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Supervisor's Name: Robertson, Professor Elizabeth
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Emma E Osborne
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30994
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2019 10:53
Last Modified: 07 Jun 2019 12:34

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