Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

by K.P. Kulski

In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heinepagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.

As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be Stone_Buddha_covered_in_tree_rootsrepetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.

In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or laurel-forest-2228307_960_720greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.

Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”[1]

This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini DaphneDaphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.

Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.

But what does that mean?

The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to

The Dryad
The Dryad

practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.

The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for John Roddam Spencerthe withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.

These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.[2]

John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide[3]

We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a LaBelleDame-Cowper-Lwarning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”

However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.


[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1969), 115.

[2] John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 08 MAR 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad

[3] Ibid.

Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 2)

by E.J. Lawrence

Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”

Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.

When you think about it…it’s kind of amazing Morgan’s plan to kill Guinevere in this manner didn’t work

The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.

In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.


Lancelot and Guinevere (Herbert James Draper)–Gee, when you put it like that, no wonder Morgan couldn’t stand them


But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.

The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.

“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have

Drawing of a Knight on Horseback (Randolph Caldecott)

your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.

Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.

Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.

The Death of King Arthur (James Archer)

Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.


  1. SGGK, stanza 99, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.htm#anchor_Toc178583491
  2. Malory, 346, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  3. Malory, 346
  4. Malory, 123
  5. Malory, 123
  6. Malory, 123
  7. Malory, 124
  8. Malory, 732

Featured: Rejected Princesses

As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.26.04 PMThe project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.

I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.

The Clear Light of Reason

by E.J. Lawrence

It might seem odd to kick off a month dedicated to reason with a medieval mystic; however, much of Julian of Norwich’s mysticism is well-grounded in reason, particularly as it applies to her faith.

Julian of Norwich is a significant historical figure in the Catholic and Anglican churches, but also in English literature. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known text written in English by a woman. There are two reasons why this is unusual, and it’s not for the reasons one might think. The first is that it was very common for European medieval texts to be anonymous. These writers tended to see themselves writing within a tradition, or building upon the classical works, and so they seldom claimed ownership of the work, since the ideas were part of a larger storytelling world. It’s possible that we have works in English from women written before Julian of Norwich, but if so, there’s no way to tell.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
was written around the same time as Revelations…but this author was anonymous

In fact, the works that are most likely to not be anonymous in the middle ages were works of theology. It was seen as of utmost importance that these were signed, in case there were any theological discrepancies, heresies, or points of contention. Since Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is an autobiography and ultimately a work of theology, we have her name.

The second reason why her work is unusual is that it’s originally written in English, as opposed to a more official language, like Latin. At the time the text was written, at the end of the 14th century, English, long the vernacular language in England, was starting to become more accepted as more than just “street talk.” The first time the chancellor spoke English in parliament was in 1362,1 only a few years before Julian’s “revelations.” Julian claimed her revelations were given to one who “could not read a letter”2; however, the words are clearly those of an intelligent woman. Though she did have the help of a scribe3, it’s possible she did not know Latin, and thus wrote in English.

A work of theology in a vernacular language written by a woman all add up to something unique indeed.

By Martin Richards – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8022527

Little is known about Julian herself, other than what she tells us in her Revelations. We know that she was from around Norwich, and we also know that she was an anchoress–that is, a woman who has shut herself off from the world in order to live a life of solitary religious devotion.4 Before she became an anchoress, she fell ill. So ill that a priest was called in to conduct last rites. In her fever, she had sixteen visions which she later wrote in her book, all concerning the nature of Christ. This is, of course, what qualifies her as a “mystic.” The “mystics” of the European medieval era were somewhat on the fringe of mainstream Christianity. Though they were diverse in their beliefs and writings, many mystics believed in revelations and visions from God, something that was more supernatural than it was based in any scientific evidence. Julian of Norwich is regarded as one of the greatest English mystics of the medieval period.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does mysticism have to do with a theme concerning reason?

To which I suppose I could let Julian of Norwich, 14th century mystic, anchoress, and commoner, answer.

Despite Julian’s assertion that she is a “simple creature,”5 her work speaks for itself. The assertion was not uncommon for medieval monastic writings, as humility from the author would be expected. Julian’s work follows the logical pattern of many monastic writers at the time, as she walks her readers through her argument. Each chapter builds on the points preceding it, and all culminate in her final thoughts. Though some might scoff at her insistence that she received sixteen visions from God, no one can deny she uses reason in her interpretation of these visions.

Hans Baldung Grien — The Trinity and Mystic Pietà


Some of her arguments even seemed radical to mainstream theology at the time, including the assertion that the divine was feminine, as well as masculine (“For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father: for he made us and keepth us in him; and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are all enclosed”6). Other theologians of the time suggested this metaphorically; however, Julian’s assertion of the feminine in the divine is more overt and literal.

Ultimately, her premises lead to her conclusion that “Our Faith cometh of the kind Love of our soul, and of the clear light of our Reason, and of the steadfast Mind which we have of God in our first making.”7

And this is what I find so fascinating about Julian of Norwich: her ability to marry Faith and Reason, two things often seen as mutually exclusive. Here, Julian of Norwich argues that Faith comes through Reason and a “steadfast Mind.” For Julian, the two were inseparable and dependent upon one another. As she lays out her revelations and subsequent insights, one can clearly see how well thought-out her arguments were. I’ve read many monastic writings from England, France, and Germany in the Middle Ages. Most of them were men, but I’ve read a few women, as well. All have been well-reasoned, but of the ones I’ve read, none have been as fervent and infused with passion as Julian’s.

Statue of Dame Julian at Norwich Cathedral

Regardless of whether or not one accepts her revelations as facts, one cannot deny Julian of Norwich’s importance in history–either because she was the first know woman to write a work in English; or because of her contribution to mystical theology; or because of her ability to give us a rare insight into the life of a medieval anchoress.

Though we’re not overflowing with writings of medieval female intellectuals, they do exist. What makes Julian stand out to me is her focus on love, beauty, and faith, and her belief that the “clear light of Reason” illuminates them for us.


For more information on Julian of Norwich’s role as an anchoress, this is a good article: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-first-woman-to-publish-a-book-in-english-lived-in-a-room-attached-to-a-church-and-walled-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world

1 British Library: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126569.html

2 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 1.

3 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 169.

4 Dictionary.com “Anchorite”: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/anchorite?s=t

5 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 3.

6 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 110.

7 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 111.


From Ashes to Impossible, From Impossible to Success: Christine de Pizan

by K.P. Kulski

Bottoming out for Christine de Pizan meant losing her husband. In Medieval France, she not only lost her partner but the financial means he provided. Female professionalization was quite limited at the time and in order to provide for herself and her children, she either need to professionalize or remarry.

Pizan could have been practical. She could have found a new husband, perhaps someone with influence and wealth. But she did not decide to be practical, not at all. In fact, she decided to do something even more unpractical—become a professional writer as her sole source of income. She had virtually no examples of professional female writers. Sure, there were some letter writers and other great thinkers of the time, but not a woman who was sponsored by patronage and paid for her writing. Further paid enough to support a family.

Pizan would be the first.

But before that, she had to hit bottom.

I can only imagine there was a moment of soul searching, a time of self-doubt, mired in sorrow over her loss. She was quite aware that her womanhood was an obstacle. She mocks society’s low esteem of women in The Book of the City of Ladies, saying, “I was astounded that such a fine craftsmen (God) could have wished to make such an appalling object (women)…”[1] That is to say, if God is exalted for his creations, wouldn’t women also be among those things?

Yet her work indicates that she was impacted by the lack of professional women. “But I would then ask you whether you know of any women who, through the strength of emotion and subtlety of mind and comprehension, have themselves discovered any new arts and sciences which are necessary, good, and profitable…”[2]

6a00d8341c464853ef019103d990ca970c-500wiBut in hindsight also speaks through the incarnation of reason in order to calm these fears. “Rest assured, dear friend, that many noteworthy and great sciences and arts have been discovered through the understanding and subtlety of women, both in cognitive speculation, demonstrated in writing, and in the arts, manifested inmanual works of labor…”[3]

It was through her poems, seemingly written as an outlet for her sorrow that gained her the initial attention. She was well-placed already as both a daughter and wife of a royal official. Through these connections, she found patronage. Eventually, her popularity led to solid and comfortable earning that allowed Pizan to not only remain unmarried but gain economic independence. But she did play to the industry which supported her, instead she used her unique position as an opportunity to oppose misogyny. Her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, turns depictions of women in medieval literature on its head. Instead, she builds up historical and mythological women, seeking to recognize their strength, abilities and contributions. She directly challenges the idea that women are mere objects of desire and scorn.

These are big challenges for this time period. No one advocated for women in the public sphere, Pizan took the opportunity her position afforded to address misogynistic sentiments, particularly in literature. Certainly, she took a certain risk in order to do so.

Pizan found economic success, but more importantly she gained the freedom to choose her own path and give women a voice.



[1] Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies, (London: Penguin, 2000), 6.

[2] Christine de Pizan, “The Book of the City of Ladies,” Millersville University, accessed 23 June 2017, http://web.archive.org/web/20001205161800/http://www.millersv.edu:80/~english/homepage/duncan/medfem/pizan.html.

[3] Ibid.

My Doubts are Chains of Shadows – In the Light, I am Free

by E.J. Lawrence

Dear Reader, I ask that you bear with me as this post gets very personal. However, I promise I tie back to the point of this blog, and re-focus on a woman in history.

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I knew such an occupation existed. I remember in the 2nd grade, a teacher stayed inside during recess with me one day to teach me about haikus. I decided to write a poem a day, and found an old legal pad in my dad’s office on which I scribbled out some semblance of poetry every day for a good few months. Some were haikus, and some were my own brand of free verse, given my limited seven-year-old vocabulary. (They all rhymed)

The Two Brothers The Two Brothers by Elenore Abbott2

I started a writing group in the 3rd grade. At recess, two of my friends and I would sit under the tree with our notebooks and write stories together. They were fairy tales, mostly. Princesses and dragons and that sort of thing. Because those were the stories we knew and loved, and the ones we wanted to write.


But I soon learned that sharing your soul on paper is a dangerous activity. We were teased mercilessly about our writing group, and my two friends caved. One day, they simply didn’t want to write anymore, and I was left to go at it alone.

I kept a diary in a 3-ring binder. During a chilly fall day, a girl jerked it from my hands, popped open the rings and threw the whole thing in the air. I chased my loose pages, picking them up from the damp fallen leaves. It was poetic, really, the leaves of paper among the colored tree leaves. But it was the last time I wrote at recess.

I remember in fifth grade being given a writing assignment in class. We were to write a story–any story–but we had to follow the five steps of the writing process, and each of those steps would be graded. When we were given time to work in class, our teacher would circulate the room, making sure we were on task. I hated this. I didn’t want her to see what I was writing. I didn’t want to share. I hovered over my paper so closely so that she couldn’t see what I wrote. Thus I did most of my work at home, but one day carelessly left my notes lying on the coffee table, where my mother found it. She told me how wonderful it was, and asked why I didn’t show it to her sooner.

I threw it in the trash.

It wasn’t good enough. It was never good enough.

What happened to the girl who wrote poetry every day? And fairy tales at recess? Who narrated her own life as if she were a character in a novel?

Somewhere between 1st grade and 5th grade, she had discovered that writing made one vulnerable; and she did not wish to be, as they say, “an open book.”

The cover of one of my many, many journals

I did not stop writing. I filled notebooks of story ideas and stories and drawings of maps for my make-believe worlds. And then I took all of these things and shoved them under my mattress (I know, I know — incredibly original hiding spot for a teenage girl).


In college, I tried to write “literary” stories and poems for my creative writing classes, but never showed a soul the fairy tales hiding on my computer. Even if I wasn’t sharing my stories, I still felt impelled to write, to create. But never, never, not ever would I tell someone I wrote “fantasy.” Fairy tales were for children. Unless you were Tolkien. Which I was not.

After undergrad, I decided not to even apply for an MFA program because there was no way I could possibly get in. I would save myself the pain of rejection, and apply to MA English lit programs because those were much safer. I went to George Mason University, where I took a course in 12th Century literature (because it’s amazing), and one week, we studied the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun, and I came across a passage where Hildegard describes hearing a “voice from Heaven” urging her to write “what you see and hear.” Here was Hildegard’s response to the vision:

“But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of what people might say, I refused for a long time the call to write.”1

I stopped. I read that passage, then read it again. Here was a woman, in the 12th century, expressing in words what I had long felt, but refused to acknowledge. Even with a vision from Heaven telling her, “Hey, write this,” she refused — not because she doubted the vision. Not even because she doubted the message she was meant to convey. But because she doubted herself.

Hildegard_mapHildegard wrote what is commonly known as the oldest morality play, Ordo Virtutum. She was a pioneer of the study of natural sciences. She was a theologian. A scholar. A poet. A healer. A songwriter. My professor even described her as “an early sort of marriage counselor.” She was a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance was cool. And to think what the world would have missed out on, if we didn’t have her writings! If she had continuously refused to offer them.


What would have happened if Hildegard continued in her refusal because of her self-doubt and fear of “what people might say”?

And am I, in refusing to share my own writing, depriving the world?

I don’t think I’ve had any specific visions from Heaven I can point to and say, “ah ha! There’s my calling!” However, I do know that when I am writing, I feel in that moment that there is no other purpose for my being. I do not doubt that purpose. Nor do I doubt the message in the words I type. It is myself I doubt, and the rejection I fear.

Yet fear is a lie, determined to keep us in chains. It deceives us into thinking that it keeps us safe, far from the rejection and pain. But the shackles with which it holds us is darkness conjured by our own minds — shackles made of shadows. Once we test them, once the light of truth is cast upon them, they dissipate. We are freed.

Hildegard says that she overcame her doubt with “the witness of a certain noble girl of high morality and of the man whom I had found[…]” then “I set my hand to writing. When I did so[…]I rose from my sickness with renewed strength.”1 When she didn’t write, it made her physically ill, and it wasn’t until she sought the council of trusted friends that she realized what she must do — she must cast off her illusory chains, pick up the pen, and write. It was her only source of freedom.

We may none of us be the next Hildegard of Bingen, pioneering sciences, writing plays, and studying theology, all while healing people and offering counseling services (without Netflix, the 12th century was really productive). However, we do all have something to offer the world. If Hildegard or Jane Austen or Agatha Christie all had said, “oh, but what might people think about me, if I take up the pen? I can’t possibly,” imagine how the worlds of drama, romance, and mystery would be so altered. Imagine what the world might have lost.


I cannot say I am completely over this fear. However, I have resolved myself to write and share my work, even in the face of rejection. I will surround myself with support of people who remind me, “yes, this is your calling. Pursue it.” I will face my fears head on, throwing the leaves in the air myself, to see who might wish to pick them up. And even if no one does, I will keep writing.

Don’t deprive the world of your light simply because someone has shackled you with shadows. Shine, and watch them dissolve.

1 Hildegard von Bingen. Secrets of God. Selected and translated by Sabina Flanagan, 1996, pp. 11.

2 Scanned from Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1920 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition), Public Domain

3 Sean Butcher & Carmen Butcher. Map used in Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader by Carmen Butcher, published by Paraclete Press. Map of Hildegard’s preaching tours.

Pictures of Hildegard, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie {{PD-1923}}

Royal People: Isabella of France, “She-Wolf of England”

This week we are featuring an article from Just History Posts, a fellow history blog. Highly recommend. Check it out!

Just History Posts

As my last blog post on medieval English royals was about a woman from my masters dissertation, I thought I would continue the trend and go back to my undergraduate dissertation for the next in the series. For this we go back to the previous century, the early fourteenth century, and look at the wife of King Edward II of England, Isabella of France.

Isabella of France is a fantastically interesting historic figure, even more so because of how little-known she is; even I had never heard of her before I started research for my dissertation. To have not heard of a medieval Queen, especially amongst the public, may not seem like such a big deal, until you consider the fact that Queen Isabella deposed her husband, Edward II, and seized the throne of England, ruling as regent on behalf of her son for several years before he in turn…

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Marie de France Invents Courtly Love; Or, Why We Have Chivalry All Wrong

by E.J. Lawrence

I love history. My favorite part is learning about historical events, especially ones which occurred out of pure selfishness, or happenstance, that affected people or places hundreds of years later. Henry VIII’s desire to get divorced, which later caused intense strife between the Catholic and Protestant churches, for instance. Or Russia’s Pauline Laws in 1797 that said only male heirs could rule, and thus caused a young czarina to seek out the help of a devilish monk named Rasputin to save her only son. Her attempt to salvage the Romanov line, of course, ended tragically.

Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire, 6th Century

So, when K.P. suggested our May theme be about women in their “purple” (from the Empress Theodora quote), I interpreted this as a question about influence. Not just influencing a decision now and again, but influencing a long-lasting decision–one that affects our world even now.

I’m sure I could look to find women commanding armies (Boudica) or kingdoms (Empress Theodora), but that’s not really where my expertise lies. My expertise lies in literature. Arthurian literature, specifically. At first glance, you might not think women had much influence over the King Arthur stories. After all, the canonical works about King Arthur are all by men.

Perhaps. But they were enjoyed by men and women alike. And one of the most enduring facets of Arthurian legend would not even exist if it weren’t for one very influential woman: Marie de Champagne, also known as Marie de France.

Marie de France was the daughter of another highly influential woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Yes, the same Eleanor who married Henry II (the one who killed Thomas a Beckett) and conspired with her son, Henry the Young, to overthrow his father. Also, this is the same Eleanor who gave birth to Richard the Lionhearted (Marie de France’s half-brother) and John (also Marie’s half-brother, and the same man who signed the Magna Carta).

Let me re-cap that for you: If it weren’t for Eleanor of Aquitaine and her crazy family, we would likely have no Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, no T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, no Robin Hood, no Magna Carta either!the influence that this one family had on literature is immeasurable.

But we’re here to discuss Marie de France.

Marie de France by Richard of Verdun

Yes. Without Marie de France, there might not be a Lancelot, and there certainly wouldn’t be a salacious love triangle between him, King Arthur, and the beauteous Queen Guinevere.

You see, back in the day, authors used to have patrons. The patron would allow the author (or painter, or musician, etc.) to work on their art, as long as they could commission a piece from time to time for themselves. Marie de France patronized the writings of one Chrétien de Troyes. We know almost nothing about Chrétien, except that he was a writer, possibly from Troyes (in Champagne), he had an extensive education, and he was fascinated by the King Arthur tales. Anything beyond this is mostly speculation.

But we do know Marie de France asked him to write “a romance.” “Romance” for this time period is a type of work that dealt with chivalry and noble quests, not necessarily a love story. However, in this case, it was a love story. Chrétien says that “The Countess presents [me] with the matter and the meaning, and [I] undertake to shape the work, adding little to it except effort and careful attention.”1 This means, of course, that the story was all her idea, and Chrétien claims he did not change anything. Whether he says this as a dutiful artist to his patron, or to ensure everyone knows this story was not his idea, we don’t know. Yet, we are certain this story is hers.

The story is “The Knight of the Cart,” and it introduces Lancelot as he goes to rescue Guinevere from Meleagant. It is in this tale, we see Lancelot as being wholly in love, devoted to his queen…but more than a “I really hope no harm comes to my best friend’s wife” kind of way. Or even more than a “She’s the queen, it’s my duty to help her” kind of way. Rather, we get scenes such as when Lancelot is forced to lie with a woman overnight (a common trope in Arthurian literature), he keeps his shirt on, and lays as far from her as humanly possible. The Lady recognizes that “The knight had only one heart, and it was no longer his; he had entrusted it to another[…]Love, who governs all hearts, made it stay in one place.”2 It’s at this moment the Lady excuses herself, telling Lancelot she knows her company isn’t pleasing to him. Lancelot “gladly” lets her go. He is so committed to his love that he refuses the advances of another.

His passion is later compared to Pyramus when, as he fights Meleagant, Guinevere wills him to stop, and Lancelot obeys, for “A lover is obedient; when he is completely in love, he performs his beloved’s pleasure eagerly and promptly. Thus Lancelot, who loved more than Pyramus–if love more any man could–was compelled to obey.”3

But, of course, these vignettes could perhaps be brushed aside as “Courtly Love”–a name often given to the “duties” a knight owes his “lady” in such romances. Despite the title of this post, I’m not here to debate Courtly Love. However, the story makes it perfectly clear this is more than Courtly Love, for later, Lancelot breaks the bars off the queen’s prison and “had all he desired. The queen eagerly sought his company and his pleasure as he held her in his arms and she held him in hers. In the pleasure of loving, he tasted such rapturous happiness by kissing and caressing her that theirs was, without word of lie, a wondrous joy, whose equal has never yet been heard or known. But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.”4

But on this matter I shall always be silent. Every tale should pass over it in silence. The choicest and most pleasurable joys are those the tale keeps from us.4

As he leaves her room the next morning, before he is discovered, he is described as leaving like a suppliant before an altar.4 I mean, that’s a romance, right? Kissing, holding, cut scene, idol worship of the lover? Well, it’s an Arthurian Romance, in any case.

Lancelot and Guinevere’s Last Night Together by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Though Chrétien’s tale ends well, without the downfall of the kingdom, we know the impact the story has on the legend moving forward. The Lancelot/Guenevere affair sets off the chain reaction for the what will ultimately be the demise of Camelot. It’s because of this affair that Lancelot is barred from the Grail quest. Without this element of the story, Malory, Tennyson, and T.H. White would probably never written their versions. They certainly wouldn’t have been able to write their versions with the same sense of gravitas. For the fall of Arthur’s kingdom is a tragedy…but Malory’s story doesn’t end there. Rather, Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur actually ends with Lancelot’s death, as he’s spirited away by “more men than he had ever seen angels.”5 In the end, Lancelot finds redemption for his betrayal. In Lancelot, there’s a picture of Malory himself, a man with overwhelming potential who gave it all up for “love.” Lancelot finds forgiveness in ways one can only imagine Malory hoped to. So many end the story with Camelot’s destruction, but the ending of Malory’s tale is a beautiful representation of redemption. The “romances” often get lumped in with ideas about “Courtly Love” and damsels in distress, and while some of them are that simple, they expanded to be tales about so much more. Stories about love and betrayal and loss and faith.

For all this (or a good bit of it, at least), we can thank Marie de France and her patronage of the arts. So keep sharing your stories! Who can say what resounding influence they might also have on future generations?

If you’re interested in more about Lancelot and Grail lore, I also have a piece you can read here:

Transposing the Planes: Supernatural vs. Natural Elements in Le Morte D’Arthur

1 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 170

2 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 185

3 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 216

4 Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. David Staines, ed., Indiana UP, 1993, pp. 227

5 Malory, Thomas. Le Morte D’Arthur. Modern Library, 1999.

How Cinderella Becomes the Evil Queen

By: Rebecca Halsey

Pick up a collection of fairy tales and you often see two types of women – the Maiden (Cinderella) and the Evil Queen (Stepmother). Fredegund, a Merovingian queen of early Francia, appeared to play both roles. Historical texts, particularly ones written by Gregory of Tours, associate her with the kind of cruel ambition that drives many of the female villains in folklore, and it is clear that Fredegund can be linked to many despicable attempts to retain power. What isn’t clear, largely because there are only a few sources for the time period, is whether these machinations were the only way women could exercise political agency.

The Merovingian dynasty was cemented by Clovis in the early 500s. By 550 the kingdom consisted of what is now the north of France and stretched as far East as modern-day Czech Republic. Unfortunately, the Merovingians had the habit of dividing the kingdom among their heirs, which made for dramatic feuds among brothers, cousins, and their wives. Technically, Fredegund was a queen of only a portion of Francia – Soissons, the part her husband inherited.

Because Fredegund was not born to a noble family, becoming a queen required considerable gumption. Some may consider Cinderella too gentle and passive, but even in the Disney version, Cinderella comes forward when she asks to try on the glass slipper at the end. Fredegund, a servant in King Chilperic’s house, similarly speaks up. As a lady’s maid to his wife, she points out the queen’s flaws, and the king becomes convinced that he should divorce his wife in favor of Fredegund.

The reversal – the rags-to-riches story – is one key part of the Cinderella fairy tale. “A dream is a wish your heart makes,” as they say. But pushing aside the other woman is just a glimpse at Fredegund’s modus operandi. In the Merovingian empire, queenship was fraught with the fear that you would be replaced next, and Fredegund dealt with this by regularly plotting against adversaries. When King Chilperic takes a third wife, she dies within a year – strangled – presumably at Fredegund’s command.

As a mother, reflecting on the political rivalries at play during this time period, I’m not sure how I would handle the fear that my children would be killed off by a rival at any time. But Fredegund’s schemes are truly awful. She solidifies her status as a villainess not only through actions devoid of any diplomacy, but also through a tendency toward self-preservation even over her children. For example, she tries to kill her own daughter, Rigunth, after they argue about who should be mistress. This account has been cited by folklorists as inspiration for the stepmother in an early version of the Cinderella story.

Maddingly, there is evidence that Fredegund even recognized her misdeeds. In one account, when two of her sons fall ill with dysentery, she tries to atone for her sins (in this case, extorting money from her subjects) by burning tax records. However, considering her other actions, I have to wonder if there were other motivating factors behind the destruction of these documents.

In at least one assessment of this time period, I read that queens like Fredegund and her main rival, Brunhild (a sister-in-law), were powerful because of their status as regent mothers, suggesting that their chief source of authority was the royal lineage of their sons. This undercuts the raw ambition, at least in Fredegund’s case, that landed her in that role in the first place. It also doesn’t explain why the exercise of this power was so particularly brutal.

I don’t think this female cruelty was limited to the Merovingians. Certain wives and mothers of Roman emperors expressed political agency in the same cruel fashion as Fredegund did. Not to mention the countless other myths and legends from early Europe that recount brutal queens or female warriors.

Fredegund was clearly ambitious from the start, but what was the catalyst for her to become the Evil Queen? Was it when her husband tried to cast her aside? Was it going toe-to-toe with her sister-in-law Brunhild, who was working to maximize power on behalf of her children also? Once married, did King Chilperic allow Fredegund to exercise authority or could she only work behind the scenes?

It doesn’t appear that Fredegund tried to hide her plots. For this reason, I imagine that she had to capitalize on fear to compete with the male-dominated, military style of leadership that valued strength and agnatic succession. At the very least, she may have believed instilling fear was her only option for success.

Works Consulted:

Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Boston: Wyatt North Publishing, 2012. E-book.

Larrington, Carolyne. Women and Writing in Medieval Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome. New York: Viking, 2009. Print.

Set a Fire and Burn

by E.J. Lawrence

When I was younger, I remember my grandmother saying, “If everyone just listened to me, the world would be a better place.”

She said it out of frustration, and with a twinge of irony since pretty much everyone thinks this, but it’s one of those logical fallacy things–everyone may believe it, but only one person, if any, can actually be right in saying it.

“Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.” Well…those Norse were a cheerful lot.

Which brings me to the myth I’ve chosen to cover this month: Signy and Sigurd. Because, for Signy, if everyone had just listened to her, this myth would have turned out differently. But even though they didn’t, she wasn’t the sort to sit back and say, “I told you so.” No, this Norse woman rolled her eyes and said, “all right, I’ll fix the mess you made anyway.” And she sets about constructing the most elaborate revenge plot of just about any story I’ve ever read.

If you don’t know the myth, Signy and Sigurd were twins, the eldest children of King Volsung. One day, another king visits the castle and asks for Signy’s hand in marriage. To put this in 21st century terms, Signy gets bad vibes from the guy and tells her father she’d rather not marry him. Her father ignores her, and Signy reluctantly marries King Siggeir.

Her father and brother decide to visit Signy and her new husband, and Signy warns them that her husband will betray them. Of course, they don’t listen, and her father is killed, while her brother Sigmund is captured. Signy rescues her brother from captivity, then sends her son to Sigmund to be trained, so that her son might grow up and return to avenge his grandfather’s death. However, Sigmund tells her that her son is too weak, and Signy has him killed. They repeat this process, to the same results (I guess any son of this Siggeir guy is just not brute warrior material?). Fast forward a bit, and Signy decides the only way she can have a son who’s fit for her revenge purposes is to have a son with her father’s son–also known as her twin brother (why do mythologies always resort to incest? That’s an article for another day, I suppose). With the help of a sorceress, she tricks Sigmund into sleeping with her (a reverse King Arthur conception story), and has a son, who grows up and helps Sigmund set a fire to kill Signy’s husband.

Whew. See what I mean about the elaborate revenge plot? Still, for the culture at the time, it was incumbent on the offspring to avenge their parents’ murder. A lot of these stories we know–Orestes and Hamlet probably being the most famous. So, while a female revenge plot might be unusual, it certainly isn’t unheard of.

That looks hot.

Of course, perhaps the most intriguing part of this story is how it ends–as the fire that kills her husband rages, Signy turns to her son and tells him of his true incestuous parentage, then she walks into the fire to die with her husband.

Why? If she’s gotten her revenge, the thing she’d spent the last several decades trying for, why would she throw herself into the fire? Because she was also a woman bound by custom, and it was her duty to die with her husband, even though she never wanted to marry him in the first place, and even though he betrayed her father. The goal wasn’t living without him. The goal was revenge. Once she got that, she had nothing else left.

It might be easy to critique this and say that Signy was trapped by her duty as a woman. However, I think it’s also interesting to note that Signy shares a lot in common with Hamlet, who also dies once his revenge is completed. The major different between Signy and Hamlet, of course, is that Signy is much more active, taking measured, calculated steps toward her revenge; while Hamlet just mopes around wondering if life is even worth bothering about.

Hamlet, being moody. Again.

I’m not saying revenge should be a great motivator or anything like that. But in the ancient medieval world, revenge meant justice, and justice could only be taken by those who were wronged. I suppose that’s why revenge stories fascinate me so (admittedly, Oresteia is my favorite Greek cycle, and Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play); the quest for justice, for “rightness,” for balance, is an ancient quest, and so often, we feel we are denied justice. That’s the meaning behind the phrase “if everyone listened to me, the world would be a better place”–in other words, if I were in control, everything would be right with the world. The world would be just.

That’s fantasy, not reality. But it does make for a powerful story. An empowering one, really. Though it’s also worth noting that the revenge for Orestes, Hamlet, and Signy all come at a very high cost. For Orestes, the cost is his sanity. For Hamlet and Signy, it costs them their lives. Yet, all three of them knew the cost and accepted it willingly. They set the fires that consumed them.

I’m curious–if you know of any other female revenge stories a la Hamlet or The Oresteia, please share in the comments!


Works Consulted:

  1. Volsunga Saga
  2. Hamlet
  3. The Oresteia
  4. Hamlet picture By Peter Church, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13754721