Textile as a Symbol for Feminine Body Sovereignty and Autonomy
Within Marie de France’s lais textile can often function as symbols. However, textile can often have surprising interpretations in other popular Medieval literature. Anti-feminism is a popular trope in Medieval literature. Women are depicted as untrustworthy, manipulative, and deceitful tricksters. Subsequent to initial readings of Marie de France’s Bisclavret and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (author known as “Gawain-poet”), we may think that they are anti-feminist because they do not have strong female leads who present as heroing, but rather, we see them depicted in stereotypical and dishonest ways.
Laura Wood describes in Of Werewolves and Wicked Women: Melion’s Misogyny Reconsidered, that Marie de France’s Bisclavret surmounts to it simply being “...draconian legal and poetic justice meted out to a lady who, after all, betrayed her husband out of fear after discovering that he was a werewolf,” (Wood, pg. 62) and only until recently, “... has raised doubts about how the ‘moral lesson’... ought to be read,” (Wood, pg. 62). Many have argued that the wife in Bisclavret is a martyr to ‘monstrous misogyny’ of the Middle Ages, while others suggest that de France, “... undoubtedly attributes to her werewolf’s wife several blameworthy traits that are commonplace of medieval antifeminist discourse,” (Wood, pg. 62) where it is common for women to be portrayed as secretive, hypocritical, deceitful, disloyal, and adulterous. Laura Wood helps to plant the seeds as to the conspiracy that the wife in Bisclavret should be read as too intensely independent that her rebellious nature should be read as feminist.
We can get a more nuanced reading of these two texts when one examines how textile functions symbolically in both pieces. In both Bisclavret and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight we can see how textile symbolizes women’s autonomy. Men use textile as a means of controlling, possessing, and imprisoning women, whilst women use the same textile to rebel and regain their autonomy. By examining textile in this way, we notice how female characters, such as Lady Bertilak and the wife of bisclavret, are not manipulative because they may be evil and dishonest but are forced to manipulate their way out from under the gaze of men. Women manipulate men through their control through textile in order to reclaim their bodies. This alternative reading of these two texts destabalizes the Medieval anti-feminist trope.
There are early instances of clothing being used as currency in Pre-Norman Ireland. For example, in the early tenth century, “Leathers were used for transactions and renders in medieval France and Italy,” (Zumbuhl, pg. 56) whilst in medieval Ireland, the significance for clothing meant it was, “...a marker of status and element of the individual’s public persona,” (Zumbuhl, pg. 56). In medieval Italy, in Bari, specifically, Antonietta Amati Canta explains how in a woman’s dos (“dowry”) her family would often gift her new husband a plethora of goods, and his catalog would include “notarial documents (endowments, wills, inventories, donations, inheritances, and sales) of the rich vocabulary relating to furniture, furnishings, domestic tools, linen, clothing, and jewels,” (Canta, pg. 6). This information of gift-giving on behalf of the wife to her new husband, establishes his claim as a man of status if he is in possession of a woman’s family documents and any allowance, whether that be with coin or livestock, they have to offer him. This custom not only elevates the groom, but makes his bride’s family indebted to him for relieving them of their daughter, especially if they came from a lower-class or working-class family and are not able to provide for her. To demonstrate how willingly and enthusiastically a woman wants to marry a man, her family offers up their livelihoods as collateral. They are sacrificing more than just control over their daughter, but giving the groom access to control every aspect of their lives, as well.
In Marie de France’s Bisclavret, when the husband sheds his clothing and becomes a werewolf, he is shedding the contract and control over his wife. Textile, specifically the clothes off his back, in this story is a symbol of the wife’s body. Thus, his initial possession of his clothes symbolizes his ownership over his wife, and his subsequent disposal of the clothes symbolizes his loss of that ownership. In the lai, the Anglo-Norman word “vestu” translates to “clothed” (de France, Line 69). “Vestu” has the same root as “vesten,” which is an adjective defined as “of property, to be secured in the possession of” (Anglo-Norman Dictionary). The word “vestu” first appears in the passage, “She inquired and asked him/ whether he undressed or went clothed./ “Lady,” he said, “I go quite naked” (de France, Lines 68-70). In this quote, the definition of “vesten” offers us a different way to read “vestu”- as the state of being property, of being secured in the possession of. The textile, in this instance, symbolizes the wife who is secured in the possession of the husband. The word “vestu” describes the wife’s state of being as “possessed” and “worn” like a piece of clothing by her husband. We can vision a clear parallel drawn between the wife and the husband’s clothing in her exchange with the other knight. After the wife learns the location of her husband’s clothes (which is discarded when he transforms into a werewolf), she writes to another knight who has been actively pursuing her, saying, “I grant you my love and my body” (de France, Line 115). In exchange, she makes him swear fealty, promising to steal her husband's clothes from the secret location. The other knight has to take the clothes away from the husband in order for the wife to be free of her husband, and to give herself body and soul to the knight. While her husband remains a man, social conventions of Medieval Europe dictate that she belongs to him. A beast, however, is not bound to the same social structures as a man, therefore, the husband takes off his clothes and becomes the beast, losing ownership of his wife. The wife is effectively removing herself from her husband’s possession when she asks the knight to steal her husband’s clothes. While the husband is “vestu,” he possesses her, while the husband is naked, he does not.
It is interesting to note that the discourse around Bisclavret versus his wife, is that while he “...had spent a year of exile in the forest as a result of his wife’s seizure of the set of clothes with which he resumes his humanity,” (Martin, pg. 28) the wife was living inhumanely and sinfully with the knight which she coerced into stealing her husband’s clothes and subsequently married. When her husband is in possession of the clothes, he is deemed as humane and dutiful to his king and to his duties as a husband, but when a wife seizes possession of his clothes for the sake of regaining her own body sovereignty, she is considered to be the villain of the story, while the attention goes away from the hints that Marie de France alluded to that he might be violent and abusive towards his wife. We do not see an adulterous wife, but a concerned one. It is not only until she fears her husband’s violence and his transformative abilities that she turns to the knight who is in love with her. She has also proven that she has not submitted her self to him sexually or emotionally, since she says that if he seizes her husband’s clothes, then will she give her body to him; then she will be free, seeing as now that she has her husband’s clothes, she has the ability to choose.