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'Now, fye on youre wepynge!': tears in medieval English romance Hwa se mei purh Godes 3eouve i beoden habbe teares, ha mei don wiS godd al pet ha eauer wule.1 And sir Bors rode streyte unto quene Gwenyver, and whan she saw sir Bors she wepte as she were wood. 'Now, fye on youre wepynge!' seyde sir Bors de Ganys. 'For ye wepe never but whan there ys no boote'.2 1 The figure of a weeping woman is so familiar in romance literature that it may hardly seem necessary to give it special consideration. Loosely associated with the modern catch-phrase 'a damsel in distress', the sorrowing woman of romance has been granted an apparently classic status: she is understood to imply the helpless dependence of the female on a male agent of rescue. Her sorrow is primarily a pretext for male adventure, whether military, amatory or both. In the English-speaking cultures which today study medieval narrative, weeping is predominantly a feminised and a disempowered activity. If 'men must work, and women must weep',3 then weeping women are patently idle or dysfunctional. But if the medieval English romance is viewed historically, its role in the gradual construction of weeping as a sign of weakness, and as a feminised action, can be seen as markedly unusual. For it is often acknowledged that in some other social and cultural contexts of the later Middle Ages and well beyond, weeping was permitted more freely to both men and women, represented in written texts as an activity of value, and encouraged as a purposive form of behaviour.4 A n d so to look again at the nature of tears in medieval romance 1 Ancrene Wisse, ed. J.R.R. Tolkien, Early English Text Society (EETS) OS 249, London, 1962, p. 125, lines 22ff. 'If God gives any woman the gift of tears in her praying, she may do whatever she wants with Him' [my translation]. All subsequent references are to this edition. 2 The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugene Vinaver, 2 vols, 2nd. edn, Oxford, 1967, 2, p. 808. All subsequent references are to this edition. 3 Charles Kingsley, 'The Three Fishers', in The Life and Works of Charles Kingsley, London, 1902, 16, p. 252. 4 See W.A. Christian, Jr, 'Provoked Religious Weeping in Early Modern Spain', in Religious Organisation and Religious Experience, ed. John Davis, London, 1982, pp. 97-11; Clarissa W . Atkinson, '"Your Servant, M y Mother": The Figure of Saint Monica in the Ideology of Christian Motherhood', in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, ed. C.W. Atkinson, Boston, 1985, pp. 139-72; Douglas Gray, Themes and Images in the Medieval English Religious Lyric, London, 1972; C.W. Atkinson, Mystic and Pilgrim: The Book and the World of Margery Kempe, Ithaca., N Y , 1983; J. Huizinga, The 44 A. Lynch literature is to question not only a textualised past, but also the modern generic and experiential boundaries that have separated romance from other kinds of writing. In this study, I shall argue that the representation of weeping provides a measure of discrimination between varieties of medieval narrative, but also indicates a transference of cultural values between notionally separate 'religious' and 'secular' worlds. The writing of affective reactions provided a complex site of tension between competing ideologies, in which the English romance gradually lent its support to a masculinist and secular ethos, but always remained liable to resistance from a view which stressed the efficacy of tears, so that by the fifteenth century, weeping had become the volatile and unstable narrative sign it was to remain for Spenser and Shakespeare. I do not ask here how much and why medieval men and w o m e n wept in actuality. In Catherine Belsey's words, 'the project is not... a social history of the period, but a (sketch-)map of a discursive field',5 and one small part of the field at that. M y purpose is mainly to examine the incidence of weeping as sign and structural element in some medieval texts, religious and secular, including fictional and romance narratives, and through that to suggest something of its...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 43-62
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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