The Concept of Feminine Ugliness in Medieval English Poetry

Essay, 2015

11 Seiten



Introduction - black and white
Ugliness - definition through contrast
Ugliness - beauty of variety
Ugliness - spouse of immorality
Ugliness - stigma of inadequacy

Conclusion - grey

Bibliographical references

Introduction - black and white

In his article on The Ideal of Feminine Beauty in Medieval Literature, Derek. S. Brewer called attention to "the extraordinary fixity" (257) with which medieval poets referred to female beauty. A traditional and unidimensional catalogue of how to picture beautiful womanliness in lyric poetry was valid, which did not allow much individual range for artistic expressions of visual discrepancies. However, many poets dabbled in portraying ugliness and had a hand in eroding the generally accepted concept of female beauty. By demonstrating that the Middle Ages knew more varieties of entire ugliness than of entire beauty, Jan Ziolkowski concluded that descriptions of beauty forced poets to adhere to conventional guidelines, whereas they were free to invent as they longed when dealing with ugliness (14). Yet, despite such deviations from the fixed beauty catalogue, the portrayals of ugliness still confirmed the imagery of feminine beauty that was prevailing at that time. While it already can be stressed that ugliness allowed medieval English poets a greater individuality in their referring to women, it must be asked for what reasons at all poets mainly used descriptions of female ugliness in their lyrical art. In the course of this paper, it is to be illustrated that ugliness emerged as a purposefully applied means of drawing attention at a woman's disreputable character since ugliness based on the concept of physiognomy and functioned as black contrast to beauty. Dealing with this functional aspect of lyrical description, this paper aims for having a share in the research on the medieval portrayal of female ugliness, which is still in its infancy.

Before being able to deal with the issue at hand, it must be shed light on what was considered ugly in the English lyric poetry of the Middle Ages and how this ugly manner of describing women became evident. An answer to these questions must implicitly be connected with the contrasting imagery of beauty and the concept of physiognomy through which a person's looks was related to a person's morality. Finally, the main functions will be demonstrated which feminine ugliness fulfilled within the medieval English lyric poetry.

Ugliness - definition through contrast

As ugliness is the subject of this paper, it is inevitable to initially define what was generally thought to be trademarks of ugliness in medieval English poetry. Since the Middle Ages had no ideal of perfect ugliness, yet of perfect pulchritude (Ziolkowski 14), ugliness can only be explained by simultaneously referring to the concept of beauty being predominant at that time.

Umberto Eco speaks of a rigid and "almost mathematical" concept of proportion (29) and relates by that to the extraordinary strict beauty catalogue that emerged by the 12th century. This concept of idealized beauty was a convention of literature and art and based on ancient Greek and Roman poetry, courtly lyrics, and the poems of Petrarch (Evans 233). Dedicating exclusively to women and reducing all life down to one-dimensional references, this catalogue of beauty became manifest in a trinity consisting of order, idealization, and comparison. It determined in which order and by what terms and with which comparisons a female body had to be characterized. The order of such beautiful descriptions was amazingly linear: from the head of the desirable object downwards to the feet, of course, all this with the "obligatory jump over the female genitalia" (Ziolkowski 4). Apart from this austere order, the canon also clarified very rigidly what was regarded as beautiful and asked for authorized idealizations. Female hair had to be long and blonde; foreheads had to be smooth and moderate-sized; eyebrows had to be delicate; a chest had to be white; breasts had to be firm and little, and the like (Curry 3). Whiteness was the unquestionable norm. Apart from such idealizations, it was also customary to emphasise women's beauty with comparisons to beautiful things such as lilies, the rising sun, the nightly sky, or red roses (Evans 233).

Having this convention in mind and taking into account that the Middle Ages knew only two extremes concerning female looks, ugliness made an appearance as the exact opposite of beauty and became evident whenever the authorized representation of beauty through order, idealization, and authorized comparisons was transgressed.

Ugliness - beauty of variety

The transgression of the concept of feminine beauty into the realm of ugliness was achieved by disorder, counteridealization, and inappropriate comparisons (Curry 10-11).

By applying disorder, medieval poets rearranged the common succession of illustrating beauty and performed a parodying misinterpretation of the tedious convention of describing women from head to toe (Ziolkowski 3). The most obvious depictions of ugliness can be found in descriptions where ugliness emerged as the explicit opposite of beauty and therefore as counteridealization. Such descriptions still accepted the traditional presentation of women, but reversed it into the exact opposite (Jauß 155), as can be illustrated by referring, for example, to the portrayal of Lady Moneye in a poem that has been ascribed to Thomas Hoccleve. The poet not only displaced positive attributes of his mistress' to wrong places, he also counteridealized those attributes by describing as "narw and smal" (L31) what was supposed to be wide and broad and as "gray" (L40) what was supposed to be red. Apart from disorder and counteridealization, inappropriate comparisons were willingly used by medieval English poets to unfold female ugliness. Apart from Hoccleve, who describes Lady Moneye's "body shape as a footbal" (L42) and remarks that "shee syngith ful lyk a papeiay" (L43), John Lydgate also used strange similes in his poem My fayr lady, so fressh of hewe and likened a woman's appearance and behaviour to that of swines', sheep's, cows', and goats' (199-205). Exceeding even more by replacing the common beauty norm of whiteness with blackness, William Dunbar compared the facial features Of Ane Blak-Moir with cats (L8) and apes (L6).

All these examples demonstrate that ugliness had many faces and appeared when poets used disorder, counteridealization, and inappropriate comparisons to thwart the constricting corset of describing female beauty.

Ugliness - spouse of immorality

Taking into consideration the results from the paragraphs above, it can be stated that ugliness came in many forms and gave medieval poets the opportunity to disengage from the narrow set of the authorized order, terms, metaphors, and similes. Nevertheless, although English poets used the concept of ugliness for reasons of individuality, ugliness fulfilled specific functions in lyric poetry which beauty could not. In order to analyze those functions, it is necessary to relate the medieval depictions of beauty and ugliness to the concept of physiognomy which was generally accepted at that time. From this concept the substance of ugliness can be derived: disreputability.

Apart from the strict trinity of (dis)order, (counter)idealization, and (inappropriate) comparisons, the concept of both beauty and ugliness based on the "teaching" of physiognomy, the utterly common assessment of a person's morality and fate from his or her physical appearance (Megow 215). In medieval lyric poetry, physiognomy appeared as "unhappy marriage of rhetorical description and moral attitude" (Ziolkowski 20). This means that the rhetorical description of optical properties were thought to be evidence for either respectability or disreputability of a person and, therefore, to praise the well-shaped for their assumed moral integrity and blame the misshapen for their assumed moral dishonesty (Pearsall 129). By this concept, medieval English lyric poetry continued the ancient rhetorical tradition according to Aristotle, who elevated the concept of physiognomy to a science in his work Physiognomonica (Ritter/Gründer 955). The remarkable influence of physiognomy in medieval (English) lyric poetry referred also very much to the rhetorical style of Sidonius Apollinaris, whose description of physical features were exaggerated in either way to betray moral characteristics (Vogt 26-27). By keeping alive such classical rhetoric practice concerning the two extreme pairs of beauty/respectability and ugliness/disreputability, the medieval schools of writing not only confirmed the concept of beauty but, at the same time, also necessarily implicated a concept of ugliness: In this respect, ugliness was seen as the moral opposite of beauty.

Ugliness - stigma of inadequacy

Following the results provided in the previous paragraph, ugliness emerged mainly as a purposeful means of drawing attention at a person's iniquitous character (Curry 7). When it came to women, descriptions of beauty accorded with the medieval demand that a respectable damsel had to act as the "desirable object of conquest and love" and motherhood (Kasten 256), while highlighting her ugliness was to reveal her assumed shortcomings in these fields. This feminine disreputability referred to what was regarded as a sexual inadequacy, perversion, frivolity, licentiousness, and promiscuity, and was to blame the immorality of outlandish women such as the old, black, lowborn, and cursed. This functional aspect of ugliness was practically generated by exposition, juxtaposition, and transformation.

Apart from John Lydgate, who describes My fayr lady, so fressh of hewe by using strange and animal metaphors which exposed her assumed sexual perversion (199-205), William Dunbar blames the sexual frivolity Of ane Blak-Moir by referring to her skin colour and using extravagant animal metaphors. Since whiteness was the feminine beauty norm and basis for respectability, blackness was considered corybantic, outlandish, dangerous, and "needed" comparing to animals such as cats and apes (L6 und 8). John Skelton went even further and presented in his beastly poem The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng an alewoman as "ugly fayre [with a] nose somdele hoked/ And camously croked" (L26-28), while her skin was described as "lose and slacke/ Greuyned lyke a sacke/ With a croked backe" (L31-33). When Skelton finsihes his unpleasant description of the alewife with a reference to her husband, with whom she lived like “two pygges in a sty” (L234), he made her admit her animalistically sexual licentiousness, whereas he stresses her sexual inadequacy by illustrating "her vysage/ It would aswage/ A mannes courage" (L9-11). The descriptions of Elynour Rummyng's repulsiveness were to betray also the lowborn status and low life of female vendors and conveyed the message that a respectable woman would never be working in certain professions. Therefore, Skelton used ugliness to blame a low life by referring to sexual immorality.

Besides these examples of female immorality, there were further poets who dealt with old-age's ugliness in order to mock shortcomings in sexual attraction. The two poems I haue a lady where so she be and O mosy Quince hangyng by your stalke were lyrical children of the 15th century and stressed ugliness of aged women who were incapable of doing worse than taking off their gown (Person 79). Such manners of describing old-age's ugliness are very much interconnected with the literary idea of memento mori. In this way, ugliness appeared in a contrasting juxtaposition with beauty and was to function as a reminder of human beings' mortality. Even though those descriptions of ugliness were surely used to convey a sophisticated message, the portrayal of the women in question is still based on sexual inadequacy. Apart from the late medieval English poem Death and Liffe, in which a juxtaposition of a young, beautiful woman (Lady Liffe) with a deformed "ffoulest ffreake" (Lady Death, L151) contrasts sexual agility with sexual moribundity, the antithesis of fertility and infertility is also clearly shown in the Middle-English poetry Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the gorgeous wife of the green knight stands for seducement, fertility, and motherhood, while Morgan le Faye appears as very sharp a contrast and is described in great detail as blatantly ugly (Pearsall 130-33). The "toothsome" lady (L222) must be regarded as respectable for her being an object of desire and love and her potential to give birth to children. In contrast, the hag may be likely to represent wisdom and experience, but is harshly depicted in terms of physical features which disgust Sir Gawain. Her ugliness betrays her old age and her sexual inadequacy.

A last main function that was given to ugliness was that of a result or starting point of a process of transformation, which correlated explicitly with the medieval belief that a person's changes in character inevitably has to accord with changes in physical appearance (Ziolkowski 6). Very much connected with the idea of transformation is the medieval motif of the loathly lad y, which becomes evident in the English 15th-century poem The Weddynge of Syr Gawen and Dame Ragnell,[1] in which a woman undergoes a transformation from extreme unattractiveness caused by curse to extreme beauty as a result of a hero's action (Garry 130). Even though ugliness seems to be an oxymoron here for it apparently broke the concept of physiognomy by combining ugliness with a "good" character, this assumed oxymoron dissolves when it is taken into account that ugliness was caused by spell and was therefore the outcome of something baleful. At the end of the poetry, ugliness gives way to beauty which is to be harmonized eventually with the respectable character of the woman. Furthermore, it is interesting that Dame Ragnelle remained ugly as a lowborn and becomes beautiful not until she finally succeeds in manipulating Sir Gawain to marry her into a higher class of society. Throughout the poetry, the subject of sexual inadequacy is predominant and a permanent challenge to Sir Gawain, who is selflessly willing to sacrifice himself by marrying the ugly Dame Ragnelle. Ironically, going to bed with that loathly lady resembles a heroic deed for his king's sake and is rewarded with the transformation of his bride into an astonishingly beautiful woman. It is actually not so much Dame Ragnelle, but particularly Sir Gawain who appears to be rewarded in the end and compensated for his honesty by finally gaining a woman which is sexually adequate.

Conclusion - grey

Respecting the results which has been achieved in this essay, the concept of feminine ugliness and its functionality in medieval English poetry can be summarized as follows: Since the medieval poetry knew only extremes in terms of appearance and adhered to an extraordinary strict canon of female beauty, ugliness was seen as the perfect opposite of beauty and appeared whenever the representation of this beauty was violated by means of disorder, counteridealization, or inappropriate comparisons. The functions of feminine ugliness in medieval English poetry followed the "teaching" of physiognomy - the common assessment of a woman's morality from her physical features - so that ugliness was used mainly as a rhetorical vehicle of drawing attention at a woman's disreputability by referring to her sexual inadequacy. To illustrate this inadequacy, ugliness was rhetorically expressed particularly by exposition, juxtaposition, and transformation.

"And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare/ As any she belied with false compare" (L13-14). It was not until William Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 (and later thanks to numerous works of John Donne) that the old rigid canon of black and white was finally replaced by more realistic and less misogynistic descriptions of women's looks. However, it had been a long lyrical way to all those beautiful shades - to all these beautifully grey shades in between.


[1] An earlier version of this poem can be found in The Wyfe of Bayths Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (258-292) and the ballad The Marriage of Sir Gawain. Yet, the last named is merely a retelling of the poem (Price 310).

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The Concept of Feminine Ugliness in Medieval English Poetry
Freie Universität Berlin
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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ugliness, beauty, middle ages, medieval, medieval lyrics, lyric poetry, concet of ugliness, poetry, medieval english poetry, Hässlichkeit, mittelalter, mittelalterliche Lyrik, Gedicht, Poesie, England, Großbritannien, englisch, english, Brewer, Ziolkowski, beauty catalogue, Schönheit, weibliche Schönheit, Frauen, Gedichte, poem
Arbeit zitieren
Dominik Jesse (Autor:in), 2015, The Concept of Feminine Ugliness in Medieval English Poetry, München, GRIN Verlag,


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