Winning Women in Two Middle English Alexander Poems

  • Christine Chism
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


For those who look to Amazons for medieval paradigms of women ’s self-determination, the Amazons who inhabit the fantastic world of The Wars of Alexander are a grave disappointment. Admittedly they are fully in control of their own bodies; but is it titillation or burlesque that they inhabit an island that topographically recalls the female body, with its single, “preue planke ” (1. 3868) [secret plank] whose access they limit?1 And while they are quick to challenge any man who ventures too close, their invulnerability depends upon their complete exclusion from the masculine honor economy of warfare. In fact, they exploit that exclusion, underscoring their position as enemies no man would consider worth fighting: “here warraid neuir with vs na wee bat wirschip achewid ” (WoA, 1. 3858) [Never has any man warred with us who achieved worship from it]. Pausing midway through his conquest of the world, Alexander is amused by their strategy and condescendingly offers them gold and some of his knights “to mary to 3oure maidens & make bam avaunced ” (WoA, 1. 3901) [to marry to your maidens and advance them on the social scale]. It is bad enough that he tenders to the Amazons the same social dependence upon male endowment and good marriages that they have supposedly escaped. What is worse is that they accept his gifts and reciprocate by offering Alexander unbroken horses, useless to him until their inevitable domestication. In fact, the Amazons of WoA are a parody of women ’s self-determination: isolated in their maidenhood, laughingly dismissed, and soon forgotten.


Filial Obligation Actual Father Narrative Section Epic Hero Arthurian Romance 
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  1. 2.
    Sarah Kay, “Introduction,” in Tlie Chansons de geste in the Age of Romance: Political Fictions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), pp. 1–21. Clare Lees usefully defines the concept of a masculinist poetics in “Men and Beowulf,” in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. clare A. Lees et al (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 129–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 4.
    William W. Comfort opened this distinction in “The Essential Differences between a Chanson de geste and a Romanà’aventures,” PMLA 19 (1904): 64–74 and it continued to dominate the field through R. Howard Bloch’s poststructural “tour de force,” Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1983), to the powerful feminist intervention of Kay’s Chansons de geste which reconfigures the opposition from a genealogy into a mutually critiquing dialectic but nonetheless preserves it.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 6.
    By contrast, the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon epic left less of a mark on post-Conquest romance; as Rosalind Field memorably puts it, “Roland’s horn achieves a fame denied to Beowulf s sword.” Rosalind Field, “Romance in England, 1066–1400,” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 153 [152-76].Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    Susan Crane, Insular Romance: Politics, Faith, and Culture in Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Rosalind Field, “Romance in England,” and also Rosalind Field, “The Anglo-Norman Background to Alliterative Romance,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry, Seven Essays, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), pp. 56–69; Catherine Batt, Malory’s Morte Darthur: Remaking Arthurian Tradition (New York: Palgrave, 2002).Google Scholar
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    Gayatri Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Tlieory and Criticism, eds. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), pp. 896–912.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Jennifer Summit discusses the discomfort and fascination evinced by subsequent scribes of Christine’s manuscript as they variously reframe or erase the fact that a woman was the author of that technically ambitious war-treatise. Jennifer Summit, Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380–1589 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 61–62.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    George Cary comprehensively surveyed medieval Alexander narratives in the middle of the last century, describing the sheer span of European, Arabic, Asian, and Hebrew versions and influences. George Cary, The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1957; repr. 1967); see also John Andrew Boyle, “The Alexander Romance in the East and West,” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 60 (1977): 13–27; and Richard Jasnow, “The Greek Alexander Romance and Demotic Egyptian Literature,” Journal of Near East Studies 56 (1997): 95–103.Google Scholar

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© Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman 2007

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  • Christine Chism

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