Undergrad Wednesdays – Manic Pixie Dream Grisilde: Was Geoffrey Chaucer a Medieval Cameron Crowe?

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

A collection of poems written nearly 700 years ago may at first seem entirely outdated in subject matter, but there are certain aspects of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that are alarmingly relevant in today’s world despite our wishes that they had stayed in the past. One such element is the way in which countless characters tell their tales about women. In many of the tales, women are denied a nuanced voice and a complex character in favor of being reduced to overly idealized deities or spiteful, manipulative villains. It is the former representation of women and its manifestation through one particular character that serves as the subject of this post. Grisilde of “The Clerk’s Tale,” a tale about a man who routinely challenges (and emotionally abuses) his wife to test her goodness and her love for him, is a prime example of a woman who is seen only in idealized descriptions and as a figment of her husband’s male fantasy. In modern film and literary criticism, there is a term that describes the type of character Grisilde is and the role she plays in her tale: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).

Nathan Rabin, a film critic for The AV Club, coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in a 2007 review of the film Elizabethtown. He writes, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (Rabin). This type of woman typically is chic in appearance, has cutting edge taste in the arts, and practices hobbies that set her apart from other women. Some recognizable examples of MPDGs from film are represented in the image below, and the popularity of the films in which these characters appear has catalyzed the term’s use outside exclusively critical circles.

In the decade since Rabin first coined the term, it has become a staple of discussions about female characters in popular culture, inspiring everything from internet quizzes to entire novels written with the intention of dismantling the archetype.

However, while Rabin describes the archetype in terms of its place within cinematic history, Grisilde’s role in “The Clerk’s Tale” works to suggest that this concept, which has become such a common trope in modern culture, has actually been in existence for well over half a century. In fact, Hugo Schwyzer hints at this in an article for The Atlantic, writing, “As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice” (Schwyzer). Despite her name, which is much more unique than that of her husband, Walter, Grisilde lacks the quirky personality that commonly defines a MPDG by today’s standards—it would have been entirely unbelievable rather than merely eccentric to find a ukulele-strumming, pierced-eared woman in medieval England. Instead, Grisilde is remarkable in her perfection and her purity, both of which are emphasized to set her apart from other women, a staple of the MPDG genre. Walter does not ever want to take a wife, but Grisilde, because she possesses some otherworldly qualities, is the only woman who can get through to Walter and allow him to see the merits that accompany having a wife. Walter, emulating a medieval Gatsby, creates an image of Grisilde in his head that paints her as more than a person. Chaucer writes:

Commending in his heart her womanly qualities
And also her virtue, passing any person…
…and decided that he would
Wed her only, if ever he should wed. (Chaucer 239-245)

While Grisilde fits an altered version of the MPDG personality that more appropriately matches the time period from which she is a product, she fits the other half of the modern definition to a tee. Her sole function in the narrative of “The Clerk’s Tale” is as part of the journey of the male characters. For the Clerk, she serves as an example of the types of characteristics all women listening to his tale should aspire to possess. For Walter, her husband in the tale, she is a means through which he attempts to achieve his own happiness and self-assurance without regard to her feelings. Prior to getting married, Walter says the following to Grisilde:

I say this: are you ready to submit with good heart
To all my desires, and that I freely may,
As seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
And you never to grouch about it, at any time? (Chaucer 351-354)

Walter goes on to make Grisilde swear that she will never say no when he wants her to say yes. He desires to better understand the world and feel secure of his place within it, and in order to do so, he consistently tests Grisilde’s affections for him and stretches the lengths to which she will go to keep him content. Grisilde watches as her children are taken away and is even willing to see her husband marry another woman if it will make him happy.

Chaucer attempts to remedy some of the damage done through the decimation of Grisilde’s character by urging women in his envoy to “let no humility nail down your tongue” (Chaucer 1184). In comparison to the rest of “The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer’s envoy dovetails well with aspects of modern feminism. It also fits, however, in accordance with the common portrayal of modern MPDGs as bold women who have something to say and who will not let humility nail down their tongues. Unfortunately, the things these women have to say are most often pieces of advice as to how their male protagonist can improve his life. For example, Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, commonly accepted as an exemplum of the MPDG, is permitted to scream at the top of her lungs, but only after the male lead figures out his current purpose in life and takes her hand.

This type of representation in which female characters are reduced to personality quirks and pithy advice aimed at male protagonists remains problematic today because it paints women as vessels through which men can accomplish their needs and strips them of any independent ambitions. In Grisilde’s marriage, as in the relationships of countless other MDPGs, she has no agency in making the choices that better her own life. Rather, she and women such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Cameron Crowe’s Penny Lane continue to stand as a means through which a man can determine who he is, what he wants out of life, and how the woman to whom he is magnetically attracted can help him to obtain his deepest desires.

Kelsey Dool
University of Notre Dame

Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-feminism

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The question of how we deal with texts that are problematic yet revered is one that pervades modern readings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “The Clerk’s Tale” is no exception, as it depicts the unwavering devotion of Griselda to her husband King Walter, even when he cruelly takes her own children away from her. In one of the stranger literary moves in the Tales, the “Clerk’s Tale” includes an “Envoy” with some concluding remarks on the tale proper. This envoy offers a seemingly competing moral than the Clerk originally gave in his tale. How we read this envoy becomes a complicated task. For one, we are unable to say for certain who is its speaker. While many scholars believe these are still the words of the Clerk, others offer competing arguments that they are actually Chaucer’s. While finding out the intended speaker would likely change the meaning of the “Envoy,” we will read this section as most critics currently do: as an ironic passage[1].

Walter taking Griselda’s child in the Clerk’s Tale

At face value, the “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” rejects the moral that women should strive to the levels of obedience that Griselda achieves. The envoy says that this is impossible, and women should instead hold no silence and take governance into their own hands. However, the “Envoy” goes even further to direct women to wield metaphorical arrows and binding practices offensively against men. While these are metaphorical images, the point is that women should rise up and achieve unjust levels of domination over men. Read ironically, as most critics do, the speaker is in reality still advocating that Griselda’s obedience is the ideal and that female dominance is to be sidestepped. The irony highlights only two extreme possibilities for women: the selfless obedience of Griselda to her husband, and the forced dominance of a woman similar to the Wife of Bath. These two characters of the Canterbury Tales are often analyzed in opposition to one another because they are polar opposites. They represent the two ends of the spectrum, and how there is no apparent middle ground for women to inhabit. Here we find the problem of the “Envoy.” Whether or not it advocates for the obedience of Griselda, it acts as if there is only one other alternative for women, which is unjust dominance.

The “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” is not the only relevant text to display this misogynistic phenomenon. In pop culture today, the 2014 film Gone Girl has garnered attention from critics for similar reasons. The film depicts Amy Dunne, who basically fakes her own kidnapping and murder to frame her husband. In carrying out her carefully orchestrated plot, Amy lies and even kills to punish her husband.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, 2014

As critic Veronika Kiss comments in a 2014 article, “she commits these reprehensible actions under the guise of being a feminist liberator, lending credence to misguided fears that all feminists are out to get men.” The “guise of being a feminist liberator” is an important concept because even though other critics saw Amy’s independence as a feminist action, we can more truly deduce that her violent actions against men have no place in the narrative of true feminism. Therefore, Amy represents the extreme end of the womanly spectrum, opposite to the “Clerk’s Tale’s” Griselda. Placing her at this extreme implicitly establishes an argument that there are only two possibilities for women: complacent, suburban Amy, or reckless, murderous, freed Amy. This phenomenon can be described as pseudo-feminist because it implies that the “liberated” woman must be an extremist one.

In a way, this idea confines women further because it denies them the possibilities of the spectrum, and places them into one of two categories. We can argue which category Chaucer or the Clerk thinks women should belong to, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that having only two categories is reductive in nature. However, recognizing this phenomenon in media, like the examples in the “Clerk’s Tale” and Gone Girl, is an important exercise in recognizing shortcomings in equality and formulating a more reasonable, modern feminist narrative.

Tess Kaiser
University of Notre Dame

 

[1] Cherniss, Michael D. “The ‘Clerk’s Tale’ and ‘Envoy,” the Wife of Bath’s Purgatory, and The ‘Merchant’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 6, no. 4, 1972, pp. 235–254. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093203.

Buried Alive?

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Late medieval anchorhold at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England; photo by Megan J. Hall.

Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.

This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).

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A bishop blesses an anchorite as she enters her cell; Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 451, fol. 76v.

Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo [a book containing the rites, sacraments, and other liturgical offices of the Church] for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.

As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall
The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham, England: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window. Photo by Megan J. Hall.

There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English, University of Notre Dame


Sources

The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513

The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1

F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.

Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).