• Sara S. Poor
  • Jana K. Schulman
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


This collection of essays explores the place, function, and meaning of women as characters, authors, constructs, and cultural symbols in a variety of epic literatures from the Middle Ages. These include: Hrotsvit of Gandersheim ’s Latin epics celebrating Otto I and the foundation of Gandersheim Abbey; the Middle English Alexander romances which follow in the tradition of the Old French chanson de gestes; the Old English Genesis; three central texts from the Old French Crusade Cycle; Girart de Roussillon, an Occitan chanson de geste; the Shahnameh, a Persian epic; the Mocedades de Rodrigo, a Spanish epic in the Cid cycle; the Middle High German Nibelungenlied; the Norse V ölsunga Saga; and the Icelandic family sagas. Such a diverse group of texts gathered under the rubric of “epic ” raises the question of how epic should be defined. Epic is traditionally understood as a verse narrative about a male hero and his heroic deeds of honor.1 Typically, the subject matter makes reference to a communal past or tradition: the hero ’s deeds often have a foundational quality—they establish a dynasty, a lasting order, or, in some cases, mark the downfall of same. Classical epics are generally written in particular languages (Greek or Latin) and have particular fonns (leonine or alexandrine hexameter). There has been a long tradition of considering epic poetry as exhibiting some degree of orality. That is, the narratives display evidence, such as the use of formulaic epithets or references to a listening audience, that they were at some point composed during or as part of an oral recitation or performance.2; Finally, the world of epic is a martial world, a community of warriors defined by its distance from a world of women and promoting an ideology of masculinity that shores up the heroes ’ relationship to power and authority.3


Female Character Female Author Foreign Woman Classical Epic Woman Character 
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  1. 1.
    Some Standard works on epic are W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature, 2d edn (London: Macmillan & Co., 1908); C. M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1952); Jan de Vries, Heroic Song and Heroic Legend, trans. B. J. Timmer (London: Oxford University Press, 1963); and Felix J. Oinas, ed., Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World’s Greatest Folk Epics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The scholarship on epic and oral formulaic theory is voluminous. For starters, see Alfred B. Lord, The Singer of Tales, 2d edn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982); and Franz Bäuml, “Medieval Texts and the Two Theories of Oral-Formulaic Composition: A Proposal for a Third Theory,” New Literary History 16 (1984): 31–49. See, also, the bibliographies in Theodore M. Andersson, A Preface to the Nibelungenlied (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987) and Alois Wolf, Heldensage und Epos: Zur Konstituierung einer mittelalterlichen volkssprachlichen Gattung im Spannungsfeld von Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1995).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Dean A. Miller, The Epic Hero (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For an indepth analysis of this traditional terminology, see Masaki Mori, Epic Grandeur: Toward a Comparative Poetics of Epic (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p. 64.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 13. See chapter 5, for Kate Olson’s reading of Bakhtin and Hrotsvit.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    In terms of the aims of this volume, our understanding of gender and its relationship to lived bodies and to history is informed predominantly by Joan Wallach Scott, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988) and Toril Moi, “What Is a Woman? Sex, Gender, and the Body in Feminist Theory,” in What Is a Woman? And Other Essays, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3–120.Google Scholar
  7. 12.
    In this endeavor, we take inspiration from feminist work on other genres. See for example, Sarah Kay, Subjectivity in Troubadour Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); E. Jane Burns, Bodytalk: When Women Speak in Old French Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993); Simon Gaunt, Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Anne Clark Bartlett, Male Authors, Female Readers: Representation and Subjectivity in Middle English Devotional Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995); Ann Marie Rasmussen, Mothers and Daughters in Medieval German Literature (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997); Jennifer Summit, Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380–1589 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Clare A. Lees and Gillian Pv. Overing, Double Agents: Women and Clerical Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001); and Maud Burnett Mclnerney, Eloquent Virgins From Thecla to Joan of Arc (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Sara S. Poor and Jana K. Schulman 2007

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  • Sara S. Poor
  • Jana K. Schulman

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