Longevity and the Loathly Ladies in Three Medieval Romances.

Feinstein, Sandy.

Longevity and the Loathly Ladies in Three Medieval Romances.

Feinstein, Sandy. "Longevity and the Loathly Ladies in Three Medieval Romances." Arthuriana 21 (2011): 23-48.

"Literary interest in old age," Feinstein claims, "has concentrated largely on the various stages of man topos, the 'senex amans' of fabliaux, and stylized poetic complaints, beginning with mid-twentieth century exegetical interpretations, and continuing with more recent feminist and historicist readings." (23) Feinstein's approach incorporates both of the latter. She examines three texts: Gower's "Tale of Florent," Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," and "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," focusing on the "loathly lady" figured in each, and the protagonists' responses to her. Citing historical and demographic records she contextualizes--and justifies--the argument, that after the Black Death social norms permitted more frequent marriages between young men and older, wealthier widows (24-25, 28). Understanding "social history," Feinstein asserts, makes "nuanced readings open to seemingly contradictory attitudes and representations" both possible and necessary. (26) Thus, "Gower's 'Tale of Florent' offers multiple points of view on male and female desire in young and old as well as on the power and the impotency of both." (26) Notably, unlike most studies of "Florent," Feinstein stresses the inability of so old a woman as Florent's "loathly" bride to bear children--he "stands to be the last of his line." But because she has the answer to the question he needs to find, in order to save his life, she offers a chance "to continue his line and whatever powers are associated with it" (27). Implicit is the connection with "social history" that Feinstein leaves unstated: the "loathly lady" of romance is empowered by knowledge precisely as were elderly widows, with inherited wealth. This is true in all three tales, she finds, pointing out that even (or especially, perhaps) as old women, the "loathly ladies" already possess the sovereignty they say all women want (41). Turning to the recognition of "Amans/Gower" of his own aged state in Venus' mirror at the conclusion of the CA, Feinstein points to the resemblance to the romance plot, albeit in reverse: perpetually young and beautiful Venus helps "Gower…as author, if not as lover…transform old age into youth" (31). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 36.1]


Gower Subjects
Confessio Amantis
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations