This article wants to provide a comprehensive answer to the question of why the majority of personifications in medieval literature are women. Especially, it seeks to refute the notion that female personifications of positive concepts would somehow escape or reverse the dominant gender ideology of its time. It brings together the different theories that have been proposed by scholars and situates them within a common framework. The article distinguish three levels to which these theories refer: these are, first, the level of the literal or the personification as a woman; second, the level of the figurative, or the idea that is personified; and third, the level of discourse about personification as a literary figure and allegorical practice. It shows how these three levels are characterized by the same gendered discourse. So, not only the level of the personification as a woman, but also the idea that she represents and the way that the literary figure of personification itself is described, make use of women’s status as the other, of the feminine associations of corporality, and of women’s role as mediators and objects of desire. So, it may be that positive female personifications reflect a positive evaluation of women, but this evaluation still takes place within the binary-hierarchical system that sees women in relation to and in a lower position than men. The femaleness of personifications determines the way these figures function: their gender is indissolubly linked to the social position of real women.
This article originated from the research for a dissertation submitted in order to obtain the degree of Master of Arts in Gender and Diversity. I want to thank my promotors prof.dr. Anke Gilleir of the Catholic University of Leuven and prof.dr. Wim Verbaal of Ghent University for their support.
medieval allegory; personification; gender; the feminine divine
Copyright © 2018 Dinah Wouters
Wouters, Dinah "Woman Personified: A Theoretical Framework for the Female Gender of Personifications in Medieval Literature." Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 53, No. 2 (2018) : 5-37.