Currently, there is a debate among feminists as to whether the demeaning portrayal of women in popular media causes or is caused by negative attitudes in modern culture. A similar debate exists among historians of the late middle ages as to whether the rise in popularity of the cult of the Virgin, her portrayal in art, and the code of chivalry caused or was caused by changing attitudes towards women.
Many factors in the late middle ages coincided to create an entirely new role for women: contact with the Muslim world in Spain, the rising popularity of religious life, and the aforementioned cultural changes. All of these factors are intertwined with the new attitudes that arose around women. Virginity became exalted, femininity was lauded, courtly love turned women into objects of devotion rather than objects of desire. In short, women were placed on a pedestal. The cultural paradox of this shift in attitudes is that by being placed on that pedestal, women became objects rather than individuals. This dichotomy between respect for women as a group and respect for individual women is clearly shown in three Medieval Romances. Perceval, Tristan and Isolt, and Aucassin and Nicolette may vary greatly in plot, tone and style, but the underlying assumption is the same. In the Medieval Romance, women may be objects of devotion, but they are still merely objects to earned, won, owned and dominated.
The first example of this attitude is the saga of the damsel whom Perceval boorishly assaults. This woman, never named, is utterly enslaved and abused by men. Perceval, not heeding her protests, forces her into a compromising situation and then robs he...
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...band is a Muslim. The Christian king of Biaucaire, by contrast, does not honor her right to self-determination. The Muslim roots of Nicolette's relative freedom serve as one answer to the question of whether this literature is derivative of the culture or whether it shaped the culture. From this evidence, it seems that the former is true.
The pervasiveness of the oppressive attitudes demonstrated in these texts show clearly the dichotomous view of women in the late middle ages. The respect of womanhood which was so central to the chivalric code did not translate into greater freedom for women themselves. Modern opponents of feminism claim that the Women’s Movement has reversed this dichotomy, namely that individual freedoms have devalued women as a group. Perhaps we should ask why our culture has a problem with valuing womanhood and valuing women concurrently.
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