"Judge no more what ladies do": Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Active Medievalism, the Female Troubadour, and Joan of Arc
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“Judge no more what ladies do”:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Active Medievalism, the Female Troubadour, and Joan of Arc

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's engagement with and contribution to the cultural discourse of Victorian medievalism is an area of her work which deserves far more critical attention than it has received: indeed the whole question of female-authored medievalism has received scant discussion.1 Medievalism, the way "the Middle Ages have been stretched in many directions in order to provide a ideological space in which a society can explore and articulate concerns which are otherwise repressed,"2 especially nineteenth-century medievalism, has received attention in recent years in Clare A. Simmons's Reversing the Conquest (1990), Kathleen Biddick's The Shock of Medievalism (1998), and Elizabeth Fay's Romantic Medievalism (2002),3 following seminal studies by Alice Chandler and Marc Girouard.4 However, all these critics largely focus on the work of only the celebrated male medievalists of the nineteenth century, with the exception of Fay, who gives equal focus to male and female writers, considering the work of Anna Seward, Mary Robinson, Letitia Landon, and Mary Shelley alongside male poets within her Romantic time-frame.

When critics have addressed EBB's medievalism, they often suggest that the poet's view corresponds with that expressed by Aurora Leigh:

I do distrust the poet who discerns No character or glory in his times, And trundles back his soul five hundred years, Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court.5

Some critics have judged EBB's endeavor to use medieval images and forms a failure. For example, while suggesting that EBB's ballads provided "a covert but thorough-going reassessment, often a total repudiation of the Victorian ideas about womanliness to which they ostensibly appeal," Dorothy Mermin proposes that the poet's use of medieval settings and ballad form were "part of her search for a world which would give scope for passion and action," a quest [End Page 585] she would later deem misdirected and repudiate in the fifth book of Aurora Leigh.6 Mermin places the use of medieval forms and settings by women poets firmly within the ideology of Victorian medievalism as a [male] constructed cultural movement, and thus judges it futile:

In the terms that would matter most to women who felt imprisoned in women's sphere—the relative freedom or fixity of social roles —nineteenth-century medievalism's dream of order was thoroughly retrogressive. . . . Elizabeth Barrett's ballads investigate the resources of medievalism, which was one of the main imaginative alternatives in the nineteenth century to the constrictions of modern life, and reject it as nostalgic folly.

(p. 94)

This verdict fails to assess, however, the power of EBB's use of medieval chivalric images to demonstrate the hypocritical and unjust gender confines of contemporary life, the expectations and demands of "feminine" behavior. She uses medievalism for her own purposes, not aligning herself entirely with the belief system of the movement. Instead, she clearly refutes the gender constructions of chivalry while highlighting contemporary social problems. In her innovative use of the ballad form, most obviously in "The Romaunt of the Page" and "Rhyme of the Duchess May" (both from Poems, 1844), as Marjorie Stone points out, "she employs the starker power structures of medieval society to foreground the status of women as objects in a male economy of social exchange, and to unmask the subtler preservation of gender inequities in contemporary Victorian ideology."7

By contrast, Karen Hodder has focused on EBB's medievalism, and provided a rare and thorough analysis of her translation of Chaucer's Annelida and Arcite, which was the poet's contribution to the 1841 volume The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, Modernized.8 Hodder argues convincingly that EBB's work "was not just brushed by the fringes of Romantic and Victorian medievalism, but that she was a serious medievalist, that is a scholar who applied her knowledge seriously; and that her familiarity with primary medieval texts, like that of Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Morris, was not temporary or superficial, but developed and woven into the fibre of her art" (p. 107). Indeed, Hodder counters "the notion that medievalism was merely...