“Leading Loathsome Ladies and Deficient Dazzling Damsels: How Descending Catalogues of Charms Depict Ascending Levels of Agency”
CSULB Medieval and Renaissance Student Association Fourth Annual Conference – 2012
Paper presented in the Engendering Sir Gawain panel.
Much attention is paid in analysis of Middle English literature to descriptions of knights in armor and the symbolic importance of whether it is shining or rusty, but little care is given to descriptions of women’s attire beyond noting if they are beautiful or ugly. Considerable scholarship has been done regarding the conventional use of describing women in a descending catalogue though the symbolic importance of this convention is little explored. The way women’s appearances are described is just as indicative of their soul as that of men. It foreshadows their involvement in a text, or lack thereof, as well as their symbolic role in the narrative and most importantly it is indicative of their degree of agency. This is best exemplified by texts in which there are either two women whose appearances can be contrasted. Juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness in a binary pair naturally invite readers to look for symbolism and meaning in contrast. There is an inverse relationship between beauty and agency; the more beautiful a woman the more passive she is. However this inverse relationship while most easily viewed in a binary pair is in fact a spectrum which is apparent in narratives in which there is a change in a woman’s appearance as in “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.”