Centre for Medieval Studies Lecture Series

Wendy Marie Hoofnagle

The Secrets of Wikked Wyves

Sex and Authority in the Late Middle Ages

Thursday, March 15, 2018, at 16.30
Lögberg 101

Wendy Marie Hoofnagle

In this paper, I compare Geoffrey Chaucer’s treatment of the Wife of Bath to late medieval conduct literature and the popular “Secrets of Women” medical treatise, revealing a satirical textual milieu in which aggressive female characters, seeking sovereignty over men, perform their unique style of womanly wisdom before a male audience. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer created an ostensibly feminine character in the Wife of Bath whose prologue is at least as much about the knowledge of sex—and controlling men through sex—as it is about marriage, as is well known. But in this paper, I show that Chaucer is drawing on the manipulation of the “secrets of women” in other contemporary literature to comment upon the pervasive anxiety about the gendered question of authority in medieval society. The “Secrets of Women” treatise, for example, is a misogynistic masculine textual tradition that appropriated the Trotula, a collection of gynecological lore attributed to a female twelfth-century healer, which had a profound impact on the development of women’s medicine in the high Middle Ages. The “Secrets of Women,” however, repressed knowledge of women’s medicine from the Trotula to focus solely on issues of sex and reproduction; therefore, the female sexuality once studied for the alleviation of women’s ailments was arrogated to a voyeuristic masculine gaze, to satisfy men’s curiosity and control over women. To control women’s secrets in this literary milieu, especially the secrets of their sexuality, created a new economy of exchange between men that could encompass the mystery of women’s natures as well as their physical bodies. Furthermore, these “Secrets of Women” also found expression in fourteenth-century satires of womanly wisdom, such as conduct poems and collections of prosaic knowledge. In these works, the voice is ostensibly feminine but the framing masculine narrative suggests the superiority of men because of their ability to control the feminine through their mastery of the written word, like Chaucer’s invention of the Wife of Bath. My research opens a new area of inquiry into the medieval perceptions and representations of knowledge and authority, particularly within the realm of medieval female experience, which broadens our understanding of developing gender dynamics and their legacy to subsequent generations of women.

Wendy Marie Hoofnagle is an Associate Professor and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Northern Iowa. She earned a PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Connecticut in 2008. Her recent work examines the development of “womanly wisdom” in medieval England.

The talk will be delivered in English. All are welcome to attend.