Formation of medieval female subject consciousness: A study of Italian and English mystics, Christine de Pizan, Boccaccio, and Chaucer

Date
2011
Authors
Amsel, Stephanie A.
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Abstract

The late Middle Ages witnessed a sudden fluorescence of autobiographical writings by female mystics. In addition, male-authored female characters were often given agency and authority, as shown in Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron and L'Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta, and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. My dissertation explores the proliferation of female medieval mystical writers, including Angela of Foligno (1248-1309), Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), and Margery Kempe (1373-1438), and the secular writings of Christine de Pizan (1363-1434), and powerful female characters within canonical male texts of the late Middle Ages. I focus on the parallels between these two different types of literary production and demonstrate how feminist theories can be used to better understand women writers and literary characters within the medieval literary tradition.

By demanding authority through writing, medieval female writers expanded traditional male patriarchal boundaries and, I argue, developed an increased medieval female subject consciousness. The rise of what I am calling "subject consciousness" shows that increased self-awareness and sense of self relates to how the "authorship" of texts reconstructs traditional female roles within Italian and English medieval cultures. These writing women challenged prevailing norms as they forged literal and figurative spaces to self-actualize through the act of writing.

I apply contemporary feminist viewpoints, including postcolonial, materialist feminist, and Chicana third-space theories, to analyze medieval writings in order to conceptualize how medieval female subject consciousness is created through the work of writing. I apply theories of Michel de Certeau, Teresa de Lauretis, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixious, among others, to medieval female writings to show how these early writers created agency, self-awareness, and a literal and figurative sense of "space" through the work of writing. Chicana feminist theories of Chela Sandoval and Gloria Anzaldúa expand an understanding of how medieval mystical autobiographical writings allowed women to create paradigmatic shifts in identity and authority, much like testimonios, and to challenge prevailing notions of what was expected for women during the rise of humanism in Italy and England.

Boccaccio and Chaucer are linked in this study because both authors are cognizant of the changing roles of women and the increase of medieval female subject consciousness in Italian and English medieval society. I argue that Boccaccio and Chaucer can be viewed as "witnesses" of the shifting patterns of behavior for medieval women since they subvert the seemingly anti-feminist text by the creation of their authoritative female characters, including Fiammetta, the Wife of Bath, and female writer in The Prologue of the Second Nun's Tale and the some of whom are actively involved in the process of creating identity through the act of writing.

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Keywords
Boccaccio, Chaucer, Christine de Pizan, feminist theory, medieval mystics, testimonio
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Department
English