We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Inventing Womanhood

Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing

Tara Williams

Publication Year: 2011

In Inventing Womanhood, Tara Williams investigates new ideas about womanhood that arose in fourteenth-century Britain and evolved throughout the fifteenth century. In the aftermath of the plague and the substantial cultural shifts of the late 1300s, female roles expanded temporarily. As a result, the dominant models of maiden, wife, and widow could no longer adequately describe women’s roles and lives. Middle English writers responded by experimenting with new ways of representing women across a variety of genres, from courtly poetry to devotional texts and from royal correspondence to cycle plays. In particular, writers coined new terms, including “womanhood” and “femininity,” and refashioned others, such as “motherhood.” These experiments allowed writers to develop and define a larger idea of womanhood underlying more specific identities like wife or mother and to re-imagine women’s relationships to different kinds of authority—generally masculine and frequently religious. By exploring the medieval origins of some of our most important gender vocabulary, Inventing Womanhood defamiliarizes our modern usage, which often treats those terms as etymologically transparent and almost limitlessly capacious. It also restores a necessary historical and linguistic dimension to gender studies, providing the groundwork for reconsidering how that language and the categories it creates have determined the ways in which gender has been imagined since the Middle Ages.

Published by: The Ohio State University Press

Series: Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture


pdf iconDownload PDF (17.1 MB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

pdf iconDownload PDF (710.1 KB)
pp. 2-5


pdf iconDownload PDF (446.2 KB)
pp. v-vi

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (516.1 KB)
pp. vii-viii

Many thanks to Larry Scanlon, who first showed me how fascinating medieval studies could be. The guidance of Larry and the other members of my dissertation committee—Susan Crane, Chris Chism, and Felicity Riddy—was vital to this project from its earliest phase. ...

read more

Introduction: The Origins of Womanhood

pdf iconDownload PDF (664.3 KB)
pp. 1-10

In 1348, a group of beautiful women began appearing at tournaments dressed as men. Henry Knighton, a canon of St. Mary’s Abbey in Leicester, mentions in his chronicle these unusual women and the discomfort they provoked. The passage shows Knighton grappling with the problem of describing women ...

read more

Chapter 1: Amazons and Saints: Chaucer’s Tales of Womanhood

pdf iconDownload PDF (888.3 KB)
pp. 11-50

Since the earliest work on gender in late medieval literature, there has been a great deal of attention to Chaucer’s representations of women and whether those reveal a sly antifeminism or a sympathetic protofeminism. Many scholars, including Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Jill Mann, and Priscilla Martin, have approached this issue by studying Chaucer’s female characters; ...

read more

Chapter 2: Beastly Women and Womanly Men: Gower’s Confessio Amantis

pdf iconDownload PDF (819.7 KB)
pp. 51-85

Cower’s idea of womanhood is in some ways more flexible and more radical than Chaucer’s and it complements as well as counters the latter.1 Gower’s treatment of women has attracted less attention from critics (with a few notable exceptions such as Diane Watt and Karma Lochrie), perhaps because his interests in politics and morality have overshadowed his other concerns.2 ...

read more

Chapter 3: Lydgate’s Lady and Henryson’s Whore: Womanhood in the Temple of Glas and the Testament of Cresseid

pdf iconDownload PDF (855.3 KB)
pp. 86-113

By the fifteenth century, womanhood has moved out of the earliest phase of its development but writers continue to use the term and concept in innovative and flexible ways. While John Lydgate, Thomas Hoccleve, Robert Henryson, and James I all employ the word in their texts,1 the ways in which Lydgate’s Temple of Glas and Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid develop the idea are especially significant. ...

read more

Chapter 4: Vernacularity, Femininity, and Authority: Reinventing Motherhood in The Shewings of Julian of Norwich and The Book of Margery Kempe

pdf iconDownload PDF (757.5 KB)
pp. 114-148

Margery Kempe’s and Julian of Norwich’s lives suggest some of the ways in which women’s experiences in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries exceeded the extant gender stereotypes and vocabulary—in other words, the very issue that womanhood and related coinages began to address. ...

read more

Conclusion: The Evolution of Womanhood in Fifteenth-Century Discourse

pdf iconDownload PDF (541.5 KB)
pp. 149-156

What happens to womanhood as both the historical conditions that prompted new ideas about women and the gendered language that expressed such ideas continue to evolve? The previous chapters have examined how fourteenth-century writers—most notably, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Julian of Norwich—fashioned or expanded concepts of womanhood ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (760.4 KB)
pp. 157-190

Works Cited

pdf iconDownload PDF (637.5 KB)
pp. 191-204


pdf iconDownload PDF (14.7 MB)
pp. 205-210

E-ISBN-13: 9780814270783
E-ISBN-10: 0814270786
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814211519
Print-ISBN-10: 0814211518

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture