Feminist Influences on Literature of the Middle Ages   
  
In the Middle Ages, women had a niche for creativity and intellectual outreach through literature.  This was, in part, due to the influence of the Catholic Church.  According to the popular folklore of the time, Mary was taught to read as a child by her mother, Anne.  Judaism contained feminizing elements of its own and, since women were considered the seat of the family, allowed women to read scripture.  Mary's literacy was also a necessity to add to the story of her piety:  by reading the prophetic scriptures, she was not only aware of God's presence but also of the importance of participating in the messianic story (Koerner 52).  
 
If literacy was allowed for women of scripture, it was only fitting that contemporary women also participate. This philosophy engaged women to expand their efforts in learning, which emerged through courtly culture.    Women became sponsors of the literary translations that took texts from the Latin and put them into the vernacular of their courts.  This opened a “floodgate for women’s self-expression” across Europe, including England, France, Flanders, Italy, Germany and Spain (McCash 52).   A few of the most notable patrons include Queen Matilda, wife of Henry I of England, who sponsored the translation of the Voyage of Saint Brendan from Latin into French during the mid-twelfth century.  The French writer, Christine de Pisan, a widow and mother of three children, emerged not only as a patron of writing, but as an author herself.  In her Epistel of Othea, she reiterated classical beliefs that women were responsible for the inventions of great cultural relevance:  technology, agriculture, and literacy (Leyser 139).   Thus, women's roles transformed into “preservers of history and … arbiters of courtly taste” (McCash 49).

As women became greater consumers of secular literature, female characters became part of the 12th century chivalric stories. Marie de Champagne, daughter of King Louis VII of France, helped to introduce the feminine perspective through her sponsorship of Chretien de Troyes’ fin’ amores (McCash 49).  Female characters and romantic sub-stories became part of the heroic journey.   The plots changed from the singularity of war-based literature to “symbolic battles:  the joust, the game of chess, and the love of a woman” (46). One prominent character representing this change was Queen Guinevere  of King Arthur's court.   She was a pious wife dedicated to her husband.  When her honor was questioned, Lancelot championed her cause and, through a joust., won the restoration of this honor. However, like Eve, Guinevere gave in to temptation when she and Lancelot crossed from romantic, but chaste, love into the physical consummation of that attraction.  Her sin, like Eve’s, cast men from paradise (Bouchard 4).   Thus, even with the advancements in feminist ideals, women were still regarded with distrust and a weakness of morality in these stories.

The anti-feminist undertone that still existed was due, in part, to cultural circumstances that led to a rise in the female population.  New farming techniques provided diets higher in iron, which was a boon to women.  As mortality rates due to iron deficiency and poor nutrition dropped, the population ratios of male to female also began to change.  By the 1440s, women outnumbered men in France, Germany, and other parts of Western Europe by approximately 120 women for every 100 men.  Sheer numbers allowed women a greater presence in society.  However, scholars, threatened by the potential rise in female power, created a new reality to the longevity of women: they were, quite literally, siphoning the life forces of men. Men died in greater numbers, they argued, because men were engaged in physical work and, by extension, were working themselves to death to provide for their families.  Biologically, they argued, men were made of hotter and drier elements than women which both “accounted for their physiological and moral superiority," but which also burned out faster.  Women were, by their physiological makeup of cooler and moister forms, naturally physically weak and morally untrustworthy (Leyser 97).  Women were even robbed of giving life to babies since it was men who imbued life force into fetuses while women merely provided the material forms.  Since it was the father who imparted his own life force into his offspring,  men were the ones who sacrificed to give life more so than women (Wiesner 307).
 
While this curtailed some of the rising protofeminism, women were still able to maintain informal political power through literature.  While they could not hold political offices, serve as judges, or sit in representative institutions, they could engage in activities to shape events behind the scenes (Wiesner 289).   Women influenced arranged marriages that united powerful families.  They could also make a political subculture by spreading rumors, often through letter writing, to aid or hinder men's political careers. For aristocratic women, patronage of the arts, one of the oldest forms of propaganda, was certainly a part of this system. In sponsoring literature, women subtly sponsored their own political agendas.
  
Feminist empowerment in the rise of culture-based literature certainly influenced the writing of the Danse Macabre des Femmes. By portraying women at the moment of death, Marchant forced a new focus on women as flawed individuals.  Elements of society, cultural background, wealth and upbringing play a role in the women's lives, but each one's salvation or damnation is based upon the decisions that she made.  In this way, then, it remains part of the protofeminist ideology derived from the centuries of writings before it (Hoffman 128).  Similar to the Biblical story of Saul's conversion, the scales fall from these women's eyes to reveal the truth of understanding.  Each woman sees her fate, analyzes her life, and processes the ramifications of the decisions made.  This rationalization impacts women despite their social standings and shows the inherent ability of the female gender to impact her fate. 
  


Works Cited
  
Bouchard, Constance Brittain. Strong of Body, Brave & Noble:  Chivalry & Society in Medieval France. London:  Cornell Univeristy Press, 1986. Print.

Koerner, Joseph L. “The Mortification of the Image:  Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans       Baldung Grien.”  Representations Spring 1985: 52 – 99. JSTOR. Web. 14 Sept.   2013.  
  
Leyser, Henrietta. Medieval Women:  A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. London:  Phoenix, 2003. Print.
  
McCash, June Hall. “The Roel of Women in the Rise of the Vernacular”. Comparative      Literature 60.1 (2008): 45 – 57. JSTOR. Web. 23 March 2016.
  
  

                                                                                                              Image Citation

Unknown artist. "Christine de Pizan presents her book to Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France." Wikimedia Commons. From compendium of Christine de Pizan’s works, 1413. Produced in her scriptorium in Paris. Wikimedia, March 12, 2013 
http://bcm.bc.edu/issues/winter_2010/endnotes/an-educated-lady.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=468763

Unknown artist. "Christine de Pizan lecturing to men."  Wikimedia Commons. From compendium of Christine de Pizan’s works, 1413. Produced in her scriptorium in Paris. Wikimedia, March 12, 2013.   http://bcm.bc.edu/issues/winter_2010/endnotes/an-educated-lady.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=468763

Unknown artist (Sant-Omer or Tournai?). "Detail of a miniature of Sir Lancelot fighting Sir Mados to defend the honour of Guinevere, watched by Arthur, Guinevere, and the court, France, N. c. 1315-1325".  Digitised Manuscripts. June 2012, British Library, MS Royal 14 E. iii, f. 156v.  http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/06/index.html
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Christinede Pisana presenting her book toIsabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France.   At right, she lectures to a male audience.
Detail of a miniature of Sir Lancelot fighting Sir Mados to defend the honour of Guinevere, from the 'Morte Artu', France.
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