Even Elisabeth Achler’s hagiography admits she was faking it.
Franciscan tertiary Achler (1386-1420) fulfills all the stereotypical demands of late medieval women’s sanctity, although sometimes just barely. It is an extreme that gets her into trouble. During her three-year fast and her even more extreme twelve-year fast, she ate nothing but the Eucharist. Well, the Eucharist, and the food she stole from the kitchen and hid under her bed. 
The wobbly nature of Achler’s portrayed sanctity suggests her hagiographer is being somewhat honest, and in this case, honest to a conscious attempt to achieve living sainthood. Achler tried to live up to an ideal.
That is nothing unusual in any time or place, of course. But this case is particularly interesting as scholars question more and more the extent to which late medieval ascetic sanctity was historical versus rhetorical.
Nicholas von Flue was a wildly famous living saint whose cell became a pilgrimage site for peasants all the way up to scholars and bishops. Nicholas’ public reputation (and eventual hagiographic portrayal) represented him as a Desert Father come again. He was the most severe ascetic possible (not even eating the Eucharist!) and a hermit. His face was gaunt, his skin yellow or colorless, his hands ice cold; he lived in isolation to the point where he was known as the “Forest Brother.” 
And no matter how many people saw him in person, it didn’t matter that his hands were warm, he looked healthy, and his cell was on a corner of the property where his wife and children lived.
Whether Nicholas did or didn’t eat and whether he did or didn’t see his family are both beside the point. His sanctity was built on the rhetoric of imitating, or besting, the Desert Fathers.
But nothing better embodies the debate over historicity versus literary construction, or the ideal of women’s ascetic sanctity to which Achler aspired, than a group of books from Dominican women’s convents in fourteenth-century southern Germany. Here I want to focus on the first-person “autohagiography” of one nun, the so-called Revelations of Margaret Ebner. 
From external evidence, we know that Ebner was a historical person with a reputation for sanctity already in her own lifetime. There seemed no reason to doubt that the Revelations filled in the details from Ebner’s (necessarily biased and subjective) point of view.  The text recounts her spiritual life over the course of several decades: repetitive prayer, devotion to the Passion and the Christ-child, heavily somatic piety, sensations of sweetness, severe sickness. It is repetitive and simplistically written.
If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that was once accounted “hysterical,” you are absolutely correct. If you’re thinking this is the spirituality that scholars now recognize as distinctively feminine with very real social-theological significance, you are also correct.
But what if the Ebner of the Revelations is a hagiographic Nicholas von Flue? What if the literary portrayal of living sainthood is unconnected from the reality of a woman nevertheless renowned as holy?
So runs Susanna Bürkle’s argument for Revelations. Bürkle argues that a nun or nuns at Ebner’s convent constructed the I-narrator of the autohagiography as an exemplar of so-called women’s sanctity. 
Or, to speak in the idiom of the twenty-first century: the nuns curated a public version of Ebner that adhered to the demands of women’s sanctity.
It’s easy to draw parallels between blog posts with comments and manuscripts with glosses, between Tumblr and commonplace books. So how about late medieval women’s autohagiography and hagiography as Instagram and Facebook?
We’ve all seen the “I take 1000 selfies for every one I can post” Instagram admissions, and the smartphone videos where the gorgeous YouTube star turns this way and that to display how she can go from (ridiculously thin and good-looking) normal to supermodel quality with angles and makeup. These social media accounts have a rhetoric of their own. The “Feet in the foreground, beautiful scenery in the background” photo means ultimate relaxation. Twitter has its own grammar, often departing from “proper” English, that mashes up different vernaculars and changes from meme to meme.
And, as article after article reminds us, social media is brutal for self-esteem because we are convinced these accounts portray something of reality. No matter how much we are aware of constructing our own Facebook feeds and dividing up our Reddit alts, the ideal of others’ lives looks real. The occasional admission of failure or falseness is the modern humility topos, yes. It is also a guarantee of reality—a sign we can trust these people, who, after all, are honest about their dishonesty.
Whether or not an Instagram account is an accurate summary of the life behind it is irrelevant to us in these cases. All we can see, and all that the users mean to convey, is the ideal.
But as Elisabeth Achler’s desperate hoarding and bingeing reminds us, the construction of exemplarity in the Life of Catherine of Siena and the Vitae patrum, in Revelations and the Sister-books—on twenty-first century social media—has its costs.
Nicholas von Flue died at age 70. Margaret Ebner died at age 60.
Elisabeth Achler died at 34.
Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame
 The oldest recension of Achler’s hagiography, probably from an autograph by its author, was published by Karl Bihlmeyer, “Die schwäbische Mystikerin Elsbeth Achler von Reute († 1420) und die Überlieferung ihrer Vita,” in Festgabe Philipp Strauch zum 80. Geburtstag, ed. Ferdinand Joseph Schneider and George Basecke (Halle: Niemeyer, 1932), 88-109.
 Gabriela Signori examines the role of appearance in Nicholas von Flue’s hagiographies and reputation: “Nikolaus of Flüe (d. 1487): Physiognomies of a Late Medieval Ascetic,” Church History and Religious Culture 86, no. 1-4 (2006): 229-255.
 The standard edition is Philipp Strauch, Margaretha Ebner und Heinrich von Nördlingen: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der deutschen Mystik (Amsterdam: P. Schippers, 1966). Ebner’s text is the best-known among the Sister-books and related Dominican women’s texts because of its accessible English translation: Margaret Ebner: Major Works, trans. Leonard Patrick Hindsley, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).
 On the question of whether medieval visionary texts reveal something of the visionaries’ actual experiences: Peter Dinzelbacher, “Zur Interpretation erlebnismystischer Texte des Mittelalters,” Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literature 117 (1988): 1-23.
 Bürkle’s argument for Ebner is part of a long line of work by primarily German scholars on the Sister-books. Piece by piece, they (including Bürkle herself, working on Engelthal) have built an argument for the 14th-century Dominican women’s texts as deliberate literary works, though they differ as to the purpose of these constructions and what information the Sister-books can still tell scholars. “Die ‘Offenbarungen’ der Margareta Ebner: Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit und der autobiographische Pakt,” in Weibliche Rede – Rhetorik der Weiblichkeit. Studien zum Verhältnis von Rhetorik und Geschlechterdifferenz, ed. Doerte Bischoff and Martina Wagner (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2003), 79-102.
In particular, I appreciate how Martin highlights the failure of the patriarchy. At the beginning of Game of Thrones (both the book and the film), most of the powerful houses and many of the kingdoms are ruled by strong men—the seven kingdoms and the stormlands under Robert Baratheon, the north under Eddard Stark, the westerlands under Tywin Lannister, the iron islands under Balon Greyjoy, and the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Drogo. Even the exiled Viserys Targaryen held his family’s claim to the iron throne, though he could hardly be considered strong in any sense.
The one possible exception is the queen of thorns, Olenna Tyrell, who is ultimately poisoned by Jamie Lannister after allying with Daenerys Targaryen in season seven, episode three [“The Queen’s Justice”]. Like her grandmother, the thrice-made queen, Margaery Tyrell, also demonstrates her social prowess by navigating courtly politics and leveraging marriage to her advantage, working the system from within. However, Margaery underestimates her enemies and becomes a victim of the wildfire arson of the Sept of Balor, which all but destroys her family, sparing only Olenna who was then safe at Highgarden and beyond Cersei’s reach.
By the end of the series, things look quite different. The final contest for the iron throne is staged between two rival queens, Daenerys Targaryen and Cersei Lannister. The once exiled Daenerys, having been fostered by the Dothraki, holds perhaps the strongest claim to the iron throne, though Jon Snow’s recently discovered identity certainly complicates the matter of succession as determined by the patriarchal legal traditions of Westeros. Nevertheless, Daenerys has emerged as a conqueror in Essos and returns to Westeros with both armies and dragons.
The Baratheon family is mostly wiped out in the war of five kings (although Daenerys names Gendry Baratheon the new lord of Storm’s End), and the north and riverlands seem to be led by Sansa Stark, despite Jon Snow’s recent title as king in the north. Cersei Lannister retains the iron throne as queen, and she commands her family’s forces as well as the Iron Fleet of Euron Greyjoy and the mercenary guild known as the Golden Company. Asha Greyjoy (or Yara in the films) is also named queen of the iron islands, and she has acted as a leader throughout the series, as has the Dornish matriarch, Ellaria Sand (a character loosely associated with princess Arianne Martell, absent from the films entirely). And, after Ned Stark’s death, Catelyn Stark took command of the north and riverlands alongside her son Robb Stark until the terrible red wedding claims both their lives.
Other prominent female characters have likewise developed into formidable figures, especially the fearless assassinArya Stark, who crucially slays the Night King, the mighty knight Brienne of Tarth, and the mystical red priestess Melisandre. The young and fierce Lyanna Mormont also shows her unfailing fortitude, even as she dies heroically during the battle for Winterfell in a David and Goliath allusive scene, in which she destroys an undead giant.
I am by no means attempting to exonerate Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire from warranted allegations of sexism, and there is surely still much to reflect on and criticize in this regard. More blatantly, it seems that Game of Thrones is distinctly less concerned with issues of race. The films in particular consistently portray the Dothraki as exceptionally savage in a manner that upholds extremely harmful and problematic stereotypes. This characterization is especially troubling considering how in season eight, episode three [“The Long Night”], the Dothraki are essentially sacrificed. The much discussed Dothraki charge into the approaching forces of the Night King was the first and only assault by the living against the army of the dead, and the Dothraki were all but annihilated as a result. Rather miraculously, the one Westerosi knight who rides out with the Dothraki manages to make it back alive.
Martin consistently focuses on the gritty human experience, and most of his cultures seem barbaric in one form or another. However, especially in the film, the Dothraki are presented at times in ways that reinforce a stubborn racial bias within the modern fantasy genre. It seemed to me as a reader that in the book series, Song of Ice and Fire, Martin is able to better demonstrate that savagery and the horrors which humans inflict on each other are ubiquitous and extend to every culture—perpetrated by the free folk wildlings north of the Wall, the feudal Westerosi and the pillaging iron islanders, as often as by the Dothraki horde or the ruling class in Slaver’s Bay. Of course, I fully concede that my interpretations of the books and films are necessarily limited and affected by my white male privilege, as it is for the books’ author [George R. R. Martin] and films’ creators [David Benioff and D. B. Weiss]. It nevertheless seems apparent that the various patriarchal systems are the universal root of atrocities in both Westeros and Essos.
Perhaps as unfortunate as Game of Thrones’mistreatment of Missandei and Grey Worm is the book series’ numerous characters of color who simply do not feature in the show, including central figures from the Dornish royal family and Moqorro, a powerful red priest from Volantis, who is searching for Daenerys in Martin’s book five, A Dance with Dragons. The film also misses a number of opportunities to cast major protagonists from Essos as persons of color, including Varys, Thoros of Myr and Melisandre, all of whom are played by white actors.
While Game of Thrones falls woefully short when it comes to fantasy representations of diverse and non-white cultures, and above all underrepresents women of color, it does seems to me that the toppling of the patriarchy by powerful (generally white) women is part of its narrative design. In virtually every case, with the notable exception of Cersei, female rulership is a marked improvement upon the patriarchy that existed prior to women’s rise to power in Westeros. In my opinion, even Cersei seems objectively preferable to her son Joffrey Baratheon, the adolescent-king poisoned by Littlefinger [Petyr Baelish] and Olenna Tyrell at his own wedding.
Indeed, as the show nears its end, three formidable women—Daenerys Targaryen, Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister—are best positioned to win the game of thrones. I hope that the fact that an anti-patriarchal message, however clumsily handled, features so prominently in a mainstream fantasy series may at the very least represent an evolution in contemporary audiences’ expectations and sensibilities. In addition to the series’ function as a literary bridge between the modern and medieval for many readers and students, the bifurcating successes and failures with regard to expressions of feminist and racial attitudes in Game of Thrones make the film a potentially useful teaching tool for illustrating conscious and unconscious misogyny and racism in medievalism and fantasy literature.
Hopefully, they do not blow it and put Jon Snow on the iron throne.
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame
[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’sCanterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt postedhere.]
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a potential medieval husband’s worst nightmare: this Canterbury Tales pilgrim is bawdy, aggressively forward with her sexuality, power-hungry, and perhaps most offensively of all, average looking, at best. So terrifying are her confessions of sexual manipulation, that the Pardoner even interupts her Prologue with claims that he is now questioning his own impending marriage: “I was about to wed a wife, alas! / Why should I pay so dearly for it with my flesh?” (166–67, my translation). The Wife of Bath appears to be perpetuating negative portrayals of women; at the same time, she also appears to be satirizing men’s fears and anxieties about their wives and, by extension, all of womankind. Her extremely colorful (read: dirty and borderline-absurdist) humor could render her possibly anti-feminist tendencies to be ironic, along with her ability to engage with clerical knowledge, refusal to conform to restrictive expectations of women’s sexuality, and, ultimately, her ability to gain sovereignty, have been cited by many scholars to argue that the Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist. And certainly, there is ample evidence to suggest that she is—see, for instance, Jessica Ping’s “Big Reputation,” which argues for reading the Wife of Bath as a Taylor Swift–type, who is herself an extremely problematic figure for many modern feminists.
Regardless, for many modern readers, it can be difficult to fully distinguish these subversions of feminine expectations from a reading that understands her as a woman who fulfills all of the medieval man’s worst fears about women. Many readers are caught in a web of interpretations: is the Wife of Bath proto-feminist for wanting control in her marriages? Pseudofeminist for being promiscuous and having five husbands? Or, ironically pseudofeminist to the point of coming back around to feminist? The lack of clarity surrounding whether the Wife of Bath is normative or revolutionary makes it an extremely relevant text for contemporary fourth-wave feminism, which has seen young women, in particular, re-embrace typically “feminine” things that had previously been cast aside in a revolt against feminine expectations.
The character Amy Dunne—of the novel and film Gone Girl—also presents a complicated tension between perpetuation and deconstruction of feminist and anti-feminist tropes. Granted, Amy’s subversion of feminine tropes are far bloodier and terrifying than the Wife of Bath’s, but the plurality of possible readings are the same. Amy herself deconstructs the idea of the “Cool Girl”—the idealized woman she tried so hard to be—in a now-infamous monologue that appears in both the novel and the film:
Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. (Flynn 222)
Amy, by casting off her “Cool Girl” veneer, becomes a far darker version of the Wife of Bath: she, too, seeks to sexually manipulate the men in her life—via false rape accusations and pregnancies—and commandeer total power by fulfilling every anxiety, every fear that the contemporary man has about women. Chaucer’s medieval everyman fears their wife siphoning their money; Flynn’s contemporary everyman fears “crazy bitches” who ruin their lives with statistically improbable rape accusations and have complete financial power over them because they’ve been emasculated by their inability to be the breadwinner. Gone Girl’s author, Gillian Flynn, has been accused of misogyny because of her portrayal of Amy’s evilness: she lies about being raped on multiple occasions, goes to unbelievable lengths to manipulate the men in her life, and makes the typical “femme fatale” seem lighthearted and playful. Frankly, Amy’s a “psychotic bitch,” but does that make her antifeminist? Or is allowing a feminine character to revel in simply being a “psychotic bitch” without a necessarily political agenda feminist in its own right?
Both Gone Girl and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are successful in how they tease out complicated questions of femininity and its place in society. What are the boundaries between a good woman, a good feminist, and a good character? These are the questions that force the reader to reconsider their own expectations for and conceptions of gender, which can create a feminist narrative, even if the characters end up not being so. Whether or not a character is feminist might even be an arbitrary question; while much of the discourse surrounding Amy Dunne is centered on feminism, this video from Vanity Fair analyzes her character from a psychological standpoint, with no mention of whether she’s “feminist” or not.
Regardless of Chaucer’s intention when crafting the Wife of Bath’s character as well as his other female characters,a clever modern reader can see she is an embodiment of the most stereotypical fears of men (see Tess Kaiser’s “Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-Feminsim” to explore the question of feminism and pseudo-feminism in The Clerk’s Tale]. In her Prologue, the wife of Bath says “I had [my husbands] wholly in my hand / and since they had given me all their land, / Why should I take heed to please them, / Unless it were for my profit and pleasure?” (Chaucer 211–14, my translation). The Wife of Bath, claiming to use her husbands for their assets and control them with sex, plays off the same core of insecurity that Amy does: sexuality and power dynamics within marriage. The manifestations are different, but there is still some universal commentary about the nature of men—and, almost necessarily, the nature of women—that’s being made by how they toy with and fuel those fears.
Above all, the Wife of Bath and Amy are threatening because they are coded as typically masculine: they’re strong, and complicated, and clever, and crave power. Whether it’s feminist to defy gender norms or anti-feminist to suggest that the only strong woman is a masculine woman is precisely Flynn’s point; whatever Chaucer’s intention was, a modern reading of a medieval character is clearly inspirational to imagined gender relations. The strength of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Gone Girl is that neither of them are clear-cut; the reader is forced to confront their own opinions about gender.
University of Notre Dame
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Broadview editions, 2012.
Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl. New York, Broadway Books, 2012.