The Norman Invasion in 1066 brings a feudal culture that will almost completely erode the rights of women. Normans consider military service the exclusive roles of males, and to support their militarized chevalier culture, women were not allowed to own land, which would have given them leadership roles in rallying knights. Forced marriage became the solution for women who were landed, primogeniture becomes law, and women are stripped of independent legal rights. They no longer leave behind wills, for they can own no property. Women become objects to be sold in marriage, as marriage fees go to male relatives. The virgin womb becomes monetized, and forced child marriages proliferate. Women are once again bartered for political gains, and become the property, along with their children, of the feudal lord upon the death of a husband21. Will it take another plague to free them?
The Norman Invasion will expand and change the English language and bring new styles of literature: the romance, troubadour songs, and lais – mystical stories of knights and ladies. These meld with the myths of Britain, lingering Celtic stories, and largely faux histories. What emerges are stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The stories in part serve as an allegorical telling of a cultural shift from pagan to Christian, with the knights on the side of Christianity and the magicians, sorceresses, dragons, and other mystical beings on the side of a meld of religious “pagan” traditions.
The ladies are presented as damsels in distress, but in a culture that entirely suppresses women’s rights, there are surprising examples of agency and power. The study of Arthurian romances and the women of this time, especially Eleanor of Aquitaine, deserves a unit on its own. However, in tracking the Mother Goddess as she wends her way in culture and literature, it is important to mention the Grail legend.
While the male-dominated institution of the Catholic Church spread through Europe, replacing pagan holidays with Christian ones, and pagan deities with patron saints, there was also a shift from worshiping God or Jesus, to a veneration of the Virgin Mary. Mary emerges as a force of redemption and renewal. She is not quite the same figure as the Celtic creator goddess Danu, but a powerful proxy. Perhaps the best place to find an example of this subversive female power in fiction is in the Grail stories.
The Holy Grail, the chalice that Jesus held at the Last Supper, has now disappeared due to male lust. The country falls into a wasteland, and it is up to Arthur’s knights to find the Grail to restore the country. The knights are guided by female acolytes, and the one who finally discovers it is a male virgin, Galahad. Jessie Weston, in From Ritual to Romance, connects the symbols of the Grail text – a cup, a lance, a dish, a sword – to four magical items of Celtic legend known as the four treasures of the children of Danu, the Tuatha de Dannan, interpreting these as fertility symbols22. The Grail represents the womb, implying that the entire success of a nation lies there, and with female guidance, a fallen nation might again be healed.
For enrichment, students can research the really fascinating life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and discuss the courtly love texts of The Romance of the Rose, which Chaucer translated, and Treatise on Love, commissioned by Eleanor. Both put women in control of wooing.
Marie de France, who likely had Eleanor as a patron, is famous for her twelve lais. These are stories in which women use wit, the blessings of mystical powers, and the very force of their spirited devotion to pursue a chosen love. While beautiful fantasies, they depict rebellion against the male-dominated world. Students might enjoy creating visual projects of these fairy-tale like stories, perhaps creating modern takes on the magic – and discuss the power of imagination as a source of solace and freedom.
The best version of the Grail legend is the Launcelot-Grail, called, The Quest of the Holy Grail. Literary connections abound: Monty Python, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Students might read T.S. White’s The Once and Future King, or Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.