A positively medieval take on gender

Linfield College professor Jamie Friedman studies Medieval gender roles.

Rusty Rae / News-Register

Reprinted with permission of the News-Register. By Tom Henderson, March 14, 2019. 

A teenage girl named May finds herself in an abusive and dysfunctional marriage to a lecherous old lowlife.

She married him because she grew up feeling powerless and isolated. He offered her social standing and financial security. Her vain, lustful and immoral husband instead leaves her even more powerless than before.

Yet in a surprise twist, she … oops. Spoilers.

Of course, anyone who paid attention in English class may already know what happens. The tale is not the latest edgy young adult novel grappling with contemporary adolescent issues.

“The Merchant’s Tale” was written by Geoffrey Chaucer more than 600 years ago as part of “The Canterbury Tales.” It is a feminist story that takes what people may think of gender roles in the Middle Ages and consigns them to the flames.

The tale is particularly enjoyable for Jamie Friedman, who teaches medieval literature and how it relates to gender roles at Linfield College.

The aging husband in the story wants to marry a malleable teenager whom he can control and dominate.

“He uses her in ways that are just awful, and she has no voice, no power,” Friedman said. “Then at the end of the story, she cuckolds him in this sort of sneaky way and uses that malleability to her own ends.”

Granted, Dear Abby wouldn’t advise extramarital machinations as a way to deal with an abusive marriage, but Friedman said that’s the point.

“No one is supposed to read that story and say, ‘This is a great model of marriage,’” she said. “They’re supposed to be horrified, and Chaucer allows the characters to be horrified by it.”

Most importantly, Chaucer in general, and “The Merchant’s Tale” in particular, challenges students’ preconceived ideas about medieval literature.

“They realize that Chaucer is as concerned as they might be about these sorts of power dynamics,” Friedman said. “I think that it’s great to allow them to complicate their notion of what kinds of questions medieval people were asking about how power works in relationships. What should a good marriage look like?”

Of course, the dark ages were dark for a reason.

“Women didn’t have legal standing to offer testimony in courts of law, for example, or to sign their names on contracts,” Friedman said. “Women were disempowered in all kinds of ways, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t asking questions.”

Chaucer, often considered the father of English literature, was asking questions as well, she said.

“How does the system disempower women? How does it affect marriage relationships and how they work out on the ground between real people?”

Even now, 600 years later, Chaucer’s questions persist.

“That’s happening in the past, but that’s still with us in the present,” Friedman said. “It ends up being an interesting way for us to talk about the ways gender roles are working out in the present.”

Friedman became fascinated with medieval literature as an undergraduate at Whitworth University in Spokane through a professor named Doug Sugano.

“I think (he) was really interested in not allowing medieval studies to reproduce our stereotypes of it,” she said. “He introduced us to race studies, sexuality studies, and then we would study the Middle Ages as well.”

It helped form her own approach to medieval literature, said Friedman.

“I was always encouraged not to allow the past to remain unquestioned or our stereotypes of the past to remain unquestioned,” she said.

Friedman grew up in northeast Portland in the same neighborhood associated with literary character Ramona Quimby (created by Yamhill County native Beverly Cleary) and was the first member of her family to attend college. She was obsessed with literature from an early age.

“I came from poverty,” she said. “I think it was an escape. I recognized that it would be a way out, as an escape from my surroundings, but also how I would be able to escape this system and do something else with my life.”

She enjoyed medieval literature because it presented the chance to study English from the beginning.

“There’s some way in which the study of medieval literature provides a starting point to the English canon,” said Friedman. “I understood pretty quickly that reading canonical literature would give me access to a certain kind of power.”