I found Mary Leech’s discussion of “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell” very insightful, especially the ways in which she illustrates how Dame Ragnell deviates from other loathly ladies. Leech acknowledges that she is unique in how she continues to “exert unladylike power until she dies” (213) and ultimately reverses acceptable gender roles within the society, Arthur’s court, after she transforms and becomes beautiful. This stands in stark opposition to the loathly lady tales that typically reinstate gender expectations once the lady transforms and becomes submissive to the knight who has granted her sovereignty. The comparison between Dame Ragnell as a loathly lady with vivid and extended anti-blazons in contrast to Sir Gawain who represents the impeccable chivalrous knight provides an interesting point of Leech’s application of Bahktin’s concept of the grotesque. Leech states that “The misshapen body of the Bahktinian grotesque displays what is usually hidden in the body—it’s interior—and in doing so challenges the boundaries of the body and the society from which that body emerges. The classical body is contained, confined, and hidden; the grotesque body defiantly revealed, and revealing” (214). This was striking to me in comparison to discussions regarding female saints and their beauty. It would seem that beauty is the physical manifestation of inner purity and goodness, but here the loathliness becomes the manifestation of something more sinister, or at least less appealing. The standards for what is and is not acceptable as generally established and maintained by the culture within the court. Leech continues her argument by noting that with the Bahkinian grotesque, as is typical with the loathly ladies, the horrific images of the ladies force society to confront the ideas informing why these images are horrifying within the cultural and societal framework (214).Typically, the loathliness of the woman who knows the answer is pitted against the knight who has erred, or behaved in a loathly manner, and is dependent on the lady’s help. However, given Gawain’s perfection as a knight, this appears not to be the case. Leech shifts her attention to Dame Ragnell’s influence over the men through her sexuality (Gawain) and chivalrous obligation (Arthur). Instead of her returning to the patriarchal control of women, their sexuality and agency, Leech notes how Dame Ragnell demonstrates that the “Feminine ability to tempt is stronger than the ability to control feminine agency” (226). The question becomes how anomalous was this idea during the time period? Given Dame Ragnell’s unique portrayal and conceptualization as a loathly lady, perhaps women’s ability to “tempt” and “control” or influence male “authorities” was just as rare and unique—they either stayed loathly or transformed and subdued; or, as Leech seems to emphasize, perhaps this was more common than was socially comfortable. Either way, Dame Ragnell could not exist forever, and so she dies only to be iconically immortalized (227) as a wife that better suits formal societal gender expectations.
I’m still a bit torn on how to interpret Marie de France’s lai “Bisclavret.” It follows the expected form of the lai, depicting love as suffering for all parties involved, but it is also a very gendered tale in which male and female suffer due to gendered punishments. Are the punishments fair? Are they equal? What commentary on marriage and gender is being made in this text? Basically, the husband’s punishment (being turned semi-permanently into a werewolf) is inflicted upon him by his wife (and his wife’s new love interest) because he kept a secret from her. The secret—of his turning into a werewolf once a month, of course—was kept, however, in relatively good conscience; he was afraid of revealing this personal flaw to his wife and did not want to upset her. The wife’s punishment, later in the tale, is losing her nose (and bearing children with no noses), inflicted by the werewolf as punishment for keeping him from turning back into a human and abandoning him for another man. Both punishments affect physical appearance. Bisclavret’s unappealing appearance as a wolf, however, doesn’t do him much disservice; the king and knights still take him in and he enters into the homosocial bond that gives no value to appearance. He is valued and cared for just as much when he is a wolf as when he is a man. The wife’s change in appearance is different, though. Women’s appearances contribute greatly to their domestic lives (acceptance by the husband) and public lives (acceptance by female social circle), and the fact that her children were born without noses (and all of them female!) seems a far more serious punishment than that inflicted on Bisclavret. On one hand, I’d like to lay blame on the wife for such a harsh punishment toward her husband for keeping a rather harmless secret. On the other hand, the tale can be read as the wife’s inability to make choices regarding her love life without outside judgement and subsequent punishment. Is this a tale of warning for women who choose to leave their husbands more than it is a tale of warning for husbands not to keep secrets from their wives? Rather than being merely an amusing commentary on marriage, I feel like “Bisclavret” leans toward commentary on the acceptable and unacceptable behaviors of the wife in relation to her husband.