What was the predominant image of women and women’s place in medieval society? A rather sexist or misogynistic view–by twentieth century standards of course–was prevalent among learned clerics. The writings of the theologian Thomas Aquinas typify this view. But although the religious of Europe’s abbeys and universities dominate the written record of the period, Thomistic sexism was not the only view of women’s proper role. In his Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays women in a much more positive way, characterizing them as somewhat empowered. Actual historical events, such as the scandal and subsequent litigation revolving around Anna Buschler which Steven Ozment details in The Burgermeister’s Daughter, suggest something of a compromise between these two literary extremes. While it is true that life was no utopia for medieval women, neither was life universally horrible or society thoroughly misogynistic.
The Church’s views on women had deep scriptural roots. In his letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul writes “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11). This view rests on the story of Eve’s creation as a helper–not an equal–to man from the rib of Adam in Genesis. It also condemns Eve, and by association all women, for allowing the serpent to trick her into Original Sin. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas extends Paul’s argument for female inferiority even farther:
As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect i…
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…quinas did not by themselves represent the views of society at large–although society by no means completely ignored them. Aquinas and Chaucer’s Wife of Bath represent two extreme views of medieval women, while the real nature of women’s condition in the period lay somewhere in the middle. Any 20th century ideas of wholesale female oppression in the middle ages are relativist “myths” which serve to glamorize the modern period rather than describe historical reality.
1 By the 11th century, roughly two centuries before Aquinas, even parish priests had become generally celibate, suggesting the widespread adoption of this practice among clergy by the 13th century (Western Heritage, 190).
2 Interestingly, the knight’s crime is rape, a crime against women. His quick punishment for the rape further highlights some security enjoyed by medieval women.
Comparing the Loss of Innocence in Cullen’s Incident and Naylor’s Mommy, What Does Nigger Mean?
Loss of Innocence in Cullen’s Incident and Naylor’s Mommy, What Does “Nigger” Mean?
Unfortunately, a question that many African Americans have to ask in childhood is “Mommy, what does nigger mean?,” and the answer to this question depicts the racism that still thrives in America (345). Both Gloria Naylor’s “‘Mommy, What Does “Nigger” Mean?'” and Countee Cullen’s “Incident” demonstrate how a word like “nigger” destroys a child’s innocence and initiates the child into a world of racism. Though the situations provoking the racial slur differ, the word “nigger” has the same effect on the young Naylor and the child in Cullen’s poem. A racist society devours the white children’s innocence, and, consequently, the white children embody the concept of racism as they consume the innocence of the black children by stereotyping them as “niggers.”
The word “nigger” causes the young Naylor and the child in Cullen’s poem to begin viewing the world in terms of “black and white”, and the racial epithet establishes an invisible barrier between the black and the white worlds. Neither child ever indicates the color of the people he/she speaks of. Naylor gives her most in-depth physical description of the child that calls her “nigger” when she recalls that she handed the papers to a little boy in back of me” (344). Naylor’s vague description gives the appearance that the young Naylor sees no important distinctions between the boy and herself. However, the fact that the “little boy” calls her “nigger” proves not only that the boy sees a major distinction between himself and Naylor, but also that the boy is white (344).
The child in Countee Cullen’s poem gives a similarly “color”-less description of the “Baltimorean” boy as he/she say…
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…my grandmother’s living room took a word that whites used to signify worthlessness or degradation and rendered it impotent” (346).
In this response to the derogatory term, Naylor’s essay offers a tool to fight racism and a message of hope for the innocent minority children which Cullen’s “Incident” lacks: In the process of socialization in a racist society, a child may lose innocence, but a child may also gain strength and character by rising above any racist stereotypes society applies to him/her.
Cullen, Countee. “Incident.” African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Ed. Al Young. New York: Harper Collins, 1996. 398.
Naylor, Gloria. “Mommy, What Does “Nigger” Mean?” New Worlds of Literature: Writings from America’s Many Cultures, second edition. Eds. Jerome Beatty and J. Paul Hunter. New York: Norton, 1994. 344-47.