The Female Patience Figure as Frozen Empress

  • Robin Waugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


One would expect to find patience in saints. But patience literature cannot work as a distinct genre unless there are secular works that apply heroic virtues of patience to women who are not saints—ideally for my argument, not even saintly. Chrétien de Troyes in his twelfth-century French poem Cligés supplies an important example of such a nonsaintly patience figure in the character of the empress Fénice, an analogue to Griselda. Chrétien is (among other things) an important contributor to the profeminine side of the debate concerning roles for women that arises during and after the “courts of love” described by Andreas Capellanus and that runs all the way to the fifteenth century and beyond in Western Europe.1 In Cligés the empress Fénice falls in love with the titular character, a Greek prince. The lengthy interior monologue concerning her emotions is parallel to the Dialogue Portion of the passios, where a declaration of belief, a kind of self-identification, is the primary aim (4364–529). As frequently occurs in Chrétien’s works, her passion is also described, in typical courtly love fashion, as an illness. Fénice cultivates and uses this love-sickness as a way to attract her beloved (2947–61; 4295–529).2 Proactive, brave, and resourceful, she commissions her servant Thessala, a female magician and herbalist, to prepare a potion for her mistress that will simulate death so that Fénice can get out of her marriage to the emperor and instead set up a secret life with Cligés (5272–305; 5372–402).3


Fifteenth Century Patience Literature Patience Figure Secret Life Feigned Death 
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  1. 1.
    See Alison Weir, Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life (New York: Ballantyne Books, 1999), pp. 175–76. See alsoGoogle Scholar
  2. Eric Hicks, Le Débat sur “Le Roman de la Rose,” Bibliothèque du XVe siècle, no. 43 (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1977), pp. li–liv, 187–94.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Chrétien de Troyes, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes: II Cligés, ed. Alexandre Micha (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1957). Further references will be by line in the text.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Critics have considered this feigned death episode to be much more in a comic vein than the romance’s style and subject-matter maintain elsewhere. See Laine E. Doggett, “On Artifice and Realism: Thessala in Chrétien de Troyes’s Cligés,” Exemplaria 16 (2004): 66, n. 87. The episode seems to have been popular with medieval audiences because it appears as a discrete excerpt. SeeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Joan Tasker Grimbert, “Cligés and the Chansons: A Slave to Love,” in A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes, ed. Norris J. Lacy and Grimbert (Cambridge, UK: Brewer, 2005), p. 134, and nn. 48 and 49.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 64–65.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Translation: Chrétien de Troyes. Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 123–205, at p. 195. Subsequent references by page number in the text.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    For Cligés as satire of the story of Tristan and Ysold, see 3125–36, 5239–43; Jean Frappier, Chrétien de Troyes: l’homme et l’œuvre, 2nd ed. (Paris: Hatier, 1957), pp. 112–13; and Doggett, “On Artifice and Realism,” p. 44, n. 8.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady as Saint: A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), pp. 59, 81.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), p. 207.Google Scholar

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© Robin Waugh 2012

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  • Robin Waugh

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