My article, “Zebel and Salome, the Virgin Mary’s Midwives: Doubt, Faith, and the Miraculous in a Medieval Legend,” now appears in Midwifery Today 131 (Autumn 2019), 44-46.
“The birth of Jesus is perhaps the most famous birth in the world. It is called the Nativity (meaning “the Birth”) and represented in homes, churches, and communities by iconic Nativity scenes at Christmastime, when it is celebrated by Christians (and many non-Christians) worldwide. Nativity scenes recall figures from the birth and infancy stories of Jesus preserved in the gospels of Matthew and Luke as well as extra-biblical sources, including Christmas carols: a stable with a star shining over it; domesticated animals like the ox, ass, and sheep; angels, shepherds, and Magi (also known as the Wise Men or Three Kings); and Joseph and Mary, come from Galilee to Bethlehem to participate in a Roman census, and of course, the baby Jesus lying in a hay-filled manger.
“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed –
the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head;
the stars in the sky look down where he lay –
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.”
“Away in a Manger” (late 19thc.)
Figures that we almost never see depicted in Nativity scenes today are Zebel and Salome, the midwives who were long believed to have attended Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. That’s because no midwives are named, or even mentioned, in the Nativity accounts in the biblical Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But in the late-antique and medieval periods, several well-known written documents and visual sources depict two midwives with Mary when Jesus was born. These midwives, Zebel and Salome, play a vitally important role in such depictions: their doubt and faith, their practical knowledge and spiritual authority, are used to verify the miraculous nature of the virgin birth.”
Mallorie Johnson, a Theater major at the University of La Verne, produces a podcast called “Arguments about Classical Theater.” For the second half of episode 4, she and her co-host Dan Jerz interviewed me about Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (ca. 1651-1695), called in her time “The Tenth Muse” and the “Phoenix of the Americas”: she was a learned religious woman of the Order of St. Jerome, a “Renaissance” woman living in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, and a prolific writer of poems, plays, and a famous letter, “Reply to Sor Filotea.” The podcast is available on SoundCloud:
(My portion of the podcast begins at 31:38. Important correction: I accidentally identified the slayer of the Minotaur as Jason, when I should have said THESEUS, when discussing the classical myth of the Labyrinth … !)
In the podcast, I give a reading of my poem, “Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Sings of a Swan,” an ekphrastic poem about three portraits of Sor Juana:
SOR JUANA INÉS DE LA CRUZ SINGS OF A SWAN
When I was young, the painter came and painted me
beautiful, a book in one hand, my other hand turned out
as if waiting for You to take it and ask me to dance.
But all my secrets were simmering inside me
like spices—like cinnamon—or red pepper
ground to powder and ready to burn your mouth.
My desires were as sweet as a singing swan.
I went away from the house where I was fostered
and took refuge in a monastery dedicated to Saint Jerome,
and he came again, that painter, and painted me:
sitting in my black and white habit, a wall of books
behind me, one open before me (not the Bible),
my beads wound round my body and dripping down
my shoulder, across my thigh, held in my hand,
but easy to ignore in comparison
to the oval portrait, like a shield of faith, upon my breast
showing an angel with rainbow wings flying above
someone kneeling, like Paul on the Damascus road, before
the Power that changes us in the middle of our life’s path.
Little did I know! All that would be asked of me
by the Archbishop—my books, my music,
my scientific instruments—for answering Sor Filotea.
Yes, I confess, I said that a woman has as much
right as a man to learn to read and write, and to do it
freely! But I was not free. I was bound by my vows.
So I surrendered all.
The painter came again and painted me before I died,
one hand resting on the book of my own works, the other
holding the breviary (for life is brief), while wearing
my escudo,another oval painting upon my breast, this
time showing a woman, an angel, and a dove
descending from heavenand announcing that
The images in the six tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn (or La dame et licorne) participate in network of inter-connected meanings or, perhaps, in four levels of meaning. The imagery includes sacred (allegorical) and secular (literal or historical) senses in the service of the artistic representation of late-medieval Catholic virtue among the nobility. This is certainly tied to the patrons of the tapestries, the Le Viste family of Lyon, France.
The Le Viste family arms are represented in each of the tapestries, indicating their patronage of these extraordinary works of art. Scholarly consensus originally held that Jean IV Le Viste commissioned them, which makes sense because he was in possession of at least three sets of large tapestries, apparently including The Lady and the Unicorn, that are mentioned in his will and were given upon his death to the eldest of his three daughters, Claude. However, there is another argument attributing patronage to Antoine Le Viste, cousin germain of Jean IV Le Viste, perhaps in honor of his affianced, Jacquelin Raguier, whom he married in 1515. (1) Scholars have long doubted that these are wedding tapestries, however, because if they were, by tradition, they would represent the coats of arms of the families of both bride and groom: these six tapestries represent only the Le Viste family arms, and so it is unlikely that The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries were made to honor a nuptial celebration.
Since 1921, when A.F. Kendrick identified the tapestries as having been made in the medieval tradition of the “allegory of the senses,” modern viewers have been taught to read five of the tapestries as representative of sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch:
Sight: The Lady holds a mirror up to the Unicorn.
Hearing: The Lady plays the harmonium.
Smell: The Lady makes a chaplet of flowers while a nearby monkey sniffs a flower.
Taste: The Lady apparently gives a small, round, white sweet to a bird (which the bird holds in one claw while the other rests on her left hand).
Touch: The Lady grasps the horn of the unicorn.
The sixth tapestry, which admittedly does not fit well with this scheme, may represent a sixth idea, such as the will (“a mon seul desir”) (2), or, enigmatically, relinquishment (because the lady is placing her necklace in a casket – unless, of course, she is actually taking the necklace out of the casket).
Two other different but nevertheless cogent interpretations of the The Lady and the Unicorn have been put forward in recent years.
In 1997, Kristina Gourlay argued the The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series is not so much an “allegory of the senses” as it is a representation of the “iconography of love.” Looking to Richard de Fournival’s thirteenth-century Bestiare d’Amour, which contains a chivalric version of the mystical hunt of the unicorn story, she focuses on the tapestry that depicts the lady with the unicorn in her lap and develops an argument re-interpreting The Lady and the Unicorn as a story about the progress of a romance. In her scheme:
Taste becomes the initial “pursuit”: this is symbolized by the bird, read as a hawk, who represents her lover and the hunt of love motif; the small, round, white object she gives to the bird is not a sweet, but a pearl (which may represent the soul).
Hearing becomes “harmony” in the romantic relationship;
Smell becomes “recognition,” for she is weaving the chaplet of flowers for her lover as a token of her returned affection.
Sight becomes “capitulation,” symbolized by the unicorn in her lap;
Touch becomes “capture” when the Lady holds the unicorn’s horn in her hand and the myriad smaller animals in the tapestry are all depicted as collared.
Finally, A mon seul desir, difficult to explain with the allegory of the five senses, becomes “resolution”: to symbolize marriage, the Lady lays aside her own “device,” her necklace, in preparation to take up her husband’s arms. (3)
In 2000, Marie-Elisabeth Bruel read the tapestries in terms of noble virtues portrayed as allegorical female figures in the Roman de la Rose, equating “sight” with Oiseuse (idleness), “touch” with Richesse (wealth), “taste” with Franchise (candor or freedom of the spirit), “hearing” with Liesse (joy), “smell” with Beauté (beauty), and “a mon seul desir” with Largesse (generosity). (4) Bruel’s model, reading The Lady and the Unicorn in terms of an influential medieval literary work, has been followed by others who have read the tapestries in light of the works of Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan. (5)
According to these three major interpretations of the series as whole, as well as related studies, the Lady may represent the soul (anima) and the soul’s responses to the senses. She may represent the ideal woman, either in her virtue or her desirability as a lover (or both). She may be inspired, to some degree, by well-known medieval literary works. Furthermore, she may be intended to glorify the nobility of the Le Viste family, woo a spouse into the Le Viste family, educate the daughters of the Le Viste family in the virtues they should possess or advertise the marriageability of the young women in the Le Viste family.
Recently, in her a careful heraldric study of the tapestries, Carmen Decu Teodorescu has suggested that the particular coats of arms represented in the tapestries belonged to Antoine Le Viste, not to Jean IV Le Viste. (6) First noticed by Marice Dayras in 1963, the changes made to the Le Viste family arms in the tapestries were hypothesized by Carmen Decu Teodorescu in 2010 to be a “mark of cadency.” Such a mark is “used in heraldry to indicate by its addition to an armorial the birth order of a male heir. The cadency mark has been traditionally used to differentiate between different branches of a family which bear the same arms.” (7)As has been observed, “Cette hypothèse est renforcée par le fait que son blazon se trouve sur la rose méridionale de l’église Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois de Paris qui a été commandé par Antoine Le Viste par un marché passé en 1532.” (8)
There are four distinguishing differences in this series of six tapestries: the differences are between banners, the lady’s hair length, the presence or absence of an additional woman, and the wearing of shields (or capes) by the lion and the unicorn.
Four of the six tapestries contain two banners, one square and one rectangular but split on one end into two curling scrolls, while two contain only the square banner.
The Lady in the two tapestries with the single square banner has the long hair while the Lady of the four tapestries with the two banners has shoulder-length hair. The Lady of the four tapestries sits or stands alone between the lion and the unicorn.
However, in the four tapestries with two banners, a second woman of shorter stature appears with the central Lady in all four cases.
Interestingly, in one of the two tapestries with one banner and a long-haired, solitary Lady, the lion and the unicorn wear shields. In one of the four tapestries with two banners and a tall, short-haired Lady with a shorter woman near her, the lion and the unicorn wear shields, but ones different in shape from those in the two tapestries with a solitary Lady. In another of the four tapestries, the lion and the unicorn wear emblazoned capes.
Based on these major, easily visible distinguishing differences, quite possibly there are at least two different Le Viste tapestry sets here that have been combined, received, and interpreted as a single set. There may have been additional tapestries, now lost, in either set. This idea is not new, but it is significant for interpretation of meaning.
The idea that the central lady in the tapestries represents the Virgin Mary certainly has been considered, but it is not now widely accepted. This is in part because the connection with Mary is not as explicit in The Lady and the Unicorn as in other representations, like the 1480 Swiss tapestry altar frontal (discussed above), though it should be noted that some representations of the Virgin are quite simple, without halo or many identifying symbols around her. By contrast, the prominently displayed Le Viste family arms are quite explicitly and repeatedly displayed, leading art historians to investigate the historical situatedness of the works in terms of their patronage.
Yet culturally literate medieval people were accustomed to understanding the stories, visual art, and architecture around them at multiple levels of meaning: literally and allegorically. It is likely that The Lady and the Unicorn participates in such a network of meaning. Literally and historically, the tapestries may pertain to the women of Le Viste family: their virtue, beauty, and desirability. At the same time, allegorically or spiritually, the tapestries can be characterized as Marian, if not exclusively about Mary, and Christian, if not exclusively about Christ. The Lady is like Mary because the women of the Le Viste family seek to emulate the Virgin. Both the unicorn and the lion are like Jesus because the chivalric male head of their household seeks to emulate Christ. (9) Morally, the tapestries encourage multiple meditative practices, common to late-medieval lay Catholic spirituality, intended to edify the viewers with respect to guarding their senses, and thus, their souls, since the senses are gateways to the soul. Anagogically, they may represent matters unfolding in the future, including the laying aside of wealth in order to receive a heavenly crown.
One image in the series particularly evokes the idea of the virgin capture of the unicorn: the tapestry most commonly called “Sight.”
Author’s note: For further analysis of the tapestries in the context of Christian unicorn symbolism in the Middle Ages, please see my chapter, “The Unicorn as a Symbol for Christ in Medieval Culture,” in Illuminating Jesus in the Middle Ages, ed. Jane Beal (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).
1. Sophie Schneelbalg-Perelman, “La Dame à la licorne a été tissée à Bruxelles,” Gazette des Beaux Arts 70 (1967): 253-278. She notes the former existence of an early sixteenth-century, six panel artwork described in a 1548 inventory that once belonged to Prince Erard de la Marck, Prince-Bishop of Liège, and was entitled Los Sentidos: it represented the five senses and included a sixth panel with the inscription liberum arbitrium. She interprets a mon seul desir in light of the Latin in Los Sentidos, suggesting that the Lady may use her senses according to her free will or only desire.
2. Consider, for example, the many legends of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, several contemporary in time with these tapestries, in which the virtues of a counter-cultural Christ (“stealing from the rich to give to the poor”) and an innocent Marian maid are represented in two life-like, noble characters. For discussion, see Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form, and Reception in the Outlaw Myth, Manchester Medieval Literature and Culture Series (Manchester University Press, 2015, repr. forthcoming 2017), esp. chap. 7, “The Making and Re-Making of Maid Marian.”
3. Carmen Decu Teodorescu, “La Tenture de la Dame à la Licorne: Nouvelle lecture des armoiries,” Bulletin Monumentalde la Société Française d’ Archéologie 168:4 (2010), 355-67.
6. Kristina Gourlay, “La Dame à licorne: A Reinterpretation,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 130 (Sept. 1997): 215-232.
7. Marie-Elisabeth Bruel, “La tapisserie de la Dame à la Licorne, une représentation des vertus allégoriques du Roman de la Rose de Guillaume de Lorris,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts(Dec. 2000): 215-232.
8. See Anne Davenport, “Is there a sixth sense in The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries?” New Arcadia Review 4 (2010): http://omc.bc.edu/newarcadiacontent/isThereASixthSense_edited.html and Shelley Williams, “Text and Tapestry: The Lady and the Unicorn, Christine de Pizan and the Le Vistes” (Diss., Brigham Young University, 2009).
9. See, for example, Carl Nordenfalk, “The Five Senses in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 48 (1985): 1-22, esp. 7-10.
“This past summer, I visited England, and I saw a nightingale for the first time in the gardens of Lacock Abbey when I went walking there. It was a really extraordinary moment for me. That little brownish bird is a symbol of hope – with a legendary history.
There are no nightingales in America, but there are many in Europe and England, where the song of the nightingale is well-known and well-loved. That song has been associated with poets and poetry for hundreds of years, perhaps most famously in the Romantic poet John Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” in which he declares, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!”
This is a powerful claim, one that apparently comes from Keats’ familiarity with the haunting legend of Philomela. Originating in Greco-Roman myth but little known today, Philomela’s story is that of a rape survivor who was transformed into a nightingale. I see a secret power in her transformation that can encourage sexual abuse and assault survivors living in our world now.”
“Almost everyone has heard of Hercules, famous for his strength, who performed twelve great labors and many other feats – including holding up the sky for Atlas and bringing Alcestis back from Hades (death) to her husband (life). Once there is a Disney animated feature film about a hero, like “Hercules” (Disney, 1997), the hero’s name becomes familiar to many children and their parents world-wide. But few people know the name of Hercules’ mother, Alcmene, and even fewer know about Alcmene’s friend and midwife, Galanthis, who used her wits to defeat the goddess who was holding back the birth of Hercules.”
This essay examines the treatment of music as a theme in the fourteenth-century Latin Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden and the English translation of the universal history by John Trevisa. Both compiler and translator were preachers, with special interests in encouraging monastic and priestly preachers, and it appears that they received and transmitted stories concerning music that could serve as moral exempla. This becomes clear through an analysis of stories in five categories: the origins of music, famous musicians as moral exempla, music and sexual morality, music and national identity, and music and wisdom. Key figures examined include Tubalcain and Pythagoras, Socrates, King David, Emperor Nero, Caedmon, Saint Dunstan, Syringa and John, the Cardinal of Rome, while key people groups considered include the Cretans, the Irish, the English, and the Normans. The essay concludes with reflections on the connection between music and wisdom evident in stories retold about Socrates and Pope Sergius I.
“The religious, meditative quality of these poems is well-known and widely-acknowledged. So too is their starting point and source of inspiration: the beauty of the natural world – especially its avifauna. Hopkins certainly noticed the “finches’ wings” he mentions in “Pied Beauty” and the Common Kestrel he describes in “The Windover” in nature, and his comparison of the Holy Spirit to a bird who “broods” in “God’s Grandeur,” in language that evokes the creation narrative of Genesis and the traditional, biblical comparison of the Holy Spirit to the dove, also appears to have a direct connection to his lived experience, for he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Bridges of birds brooding and making their nests in boughs. As this essay will show, the birds in these poems are revealed through Hopkins’ poetic descriptions, but their significance is heightened, and indeed, transformed, in order to align with the themes of his poems. These themes are God’s immutability, God’s immanence, and God’s intimate care for the created world.
Three major cultural developments in Hopkins’ Victorian society provide contexts for interpreting these sonnets and their avian imagery: theories of natural selection, the invention of photography, and the effects of the Industrial Revolution. Evidence from Hopkins’ life and letters shows his awareness of “Darwinism”; ephemera associated with Hopkins and his extended family, including the carte de viste, show his familiarity with the popularity of portrait photography. The poet certainly echoes the complaints of other nineteenth-century poets about the damaging effects of industrialization. The evidence of his general knowledge of these wide-spread cultural shifts in Victorian England lends support to a literary-critical investigation of how Hopkins may be responding to such developments in in his sonnets in ways that previously have not been recognized.
As this essay will suggest, Hopkins’ reference to “finches’ wings” in “Pied Beauty” can be read as a subtle response to Darwin’s use of “Galapagos finches,” described in a study he published as a prelude to On the Origin of the Species (1859); this reading is consonant with the theme of God’s immutability celebrated in the poem. In “The Windover,” Hopkins appears to be incorporating Henry Fox Talbot’s pioneering developments in photography in his description of a Common Kestrel. In his book, The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), Talbot described photography as “light” that “draws” pictures. Likewise, Hopkins writes of how the dawn has “drawn” the windover that he equates with Christ, a comparison which supports the theme of God’s immanence in the poem. Finally, in “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins is contrasting the effects of industrialization, which he associates with the Fall, to the ongoing, intimate, and creative care of the Holy Spirit for the world, which he depicts in his poem.”
My essay, “Jane Hawkins: A Colonial American Midwife and a Complicated Birth,” appears in Midwifery Today128 (Winter 2018), 28-29.
“Jane Hawkins came from St. Ives, Cornwall, to America with other Puritan Christians in 1635. She settled in Boston with her husband, Richard Hawkins, where she served as a midwife. She was an older woman at this time, a Christian, but not a member of a Puritan church (McGregor 1996, 186). She shared the practice of midwifery with Anne Hutchinson, another colonial midwife who served the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was under the leadership of Governor John Winthrop. During a period of great religious upheaval in the community, she attended a complicated birth, which led to suspicions of her involvement with witchcraft, though she was not formally charged (Hall 1991, 19). She was subsequently forbidden to practice midwifery and banished from her home. As a result, she moved to Rhode Island with her family. The extraordinary circumstances that affected the life of the midwife Jane Hawkins deserve close attention … “
In his Ars praedicandi sermones, in traditional yet rich metaphoric language, Ranulf Higden compares Christ to a fountain, a shepherd, a rock, a lily, a rose, a violet, an elephant, a unicorn, and a youthful bridegroom wooing his beloved spouse. Ranulf encourages preachers to use such metaphors while using them himself, rendering his text a performed example of what he encourages. This text is clearly linked to two others: Ranulf’s Latin universal history, the Polychronicon, and John Trevisa’s English translation of it. In the Polychronicon, Ranulf relates the life of Christ, utilizing some of his own rhetorical suggestions from his preaching manual. He also depicts a cross-section of good and bad preachers, including Gregory, Wulfstan, Eustas, St Edmund, and one William Long- Beard and his kinsman, who exemplify (in different ways) the wisdom conveyed in Ranulf’s instruction in the Ars praedicandi. This essay suggests that the literary relationship between the preaching manual and the Polychronicon supplies additional support for the idea that the audience of the latter was not noblemen exclusively, but also clergymen who preached and had responsibility for the care of souls (cura animae).
My essays, “Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors in Childbirth” and “Mary Hobry: A Midwife and a Murder Mystery in 17th C. London,” now appear in Midwifery Today 126 (Summer 2018), 24-24-25 and 48-50.
“Not every woman can or will experience a birth that helps to facilitate the healing of past abuse. But as midwives, we can do our best to listen to women’s stories, respect their free will, and share the wisdom we have. Healing can come from the care we provide even when things do not go the way that women hoped. It takes a lot of love and patience in the process, and the work can be exhausting. But if the women are not giving up, then neither should we.”
“L’Estrange titled his short book, A Hellish Murder Committed by a French Midwife on the Body of her Husband, Jan. 27, 1688, for which she was arraigned at the Old Bailey, Feb. 22, 1687, and pleaded GUILTY, and the Day Following Received Sentence to be BURNT.It became the basis of other writings about Mary Hobry, including one poem by E. Settle and another by an anonymous poet. The latter poem versified all the details from the case in rhyming couplets; it was called “A Warning-Piece to All Married Men and Women, Being the Full Confession of Mary Hobry, the French Midwife, Who Murdered her Husband on the 17thof January, 1688 (as also the Cause Thereof).” The poem treats the tragedy as a moral parable, beginning with the lines:
All you that married men and women be
Give ear unto this woeful tragedy,
That now befell a Frenchman and his wife,
Who lived together in continual strife (lines 1-4).
The poem ends: “She now is burned, and begs of all mankind / And women too, Wisdom by her to find” (lines 164-65).”
My essay, “Tolkien, Eucatastrophe, and the Re-writing of Medieval Legend,” appears in Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society 58 (Winter 2017).
Using comparative literary analysis, this essay examines three case studies from J.R.R. Tolkien’s oeuvre, in which Tolkien practiced eucatastrophic rewriting: his folk-tale, “Sellic Spell,” in which he re-creates the Old English poem Beowulf; his poem, “Princess Mee,” in which he re-envisions aspects of the myth of Narcissus and the Middle English dream vision poem, Pearl; and the character of Éowyn from TheLord of the Rings, in which he re-imagines the fate of Brynhild, a shield-maiden and valkyrie from Norse legend. In each case, Tolkien rewrites the original so that sorrow is transformed into happiness in Tolkien’s new versions. As part of the analysis of these transformations, this essay also considers a possible personal motivation as well as a larger purpose behind Tolkien’s artistic choices: his relationship to his beloved wife, Edith, and a desire to convey to others the hope he found in his own Christian faith.
“The poets Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and John Donne were aware of the existence of medieval world maps. Evidence from their writings clearly shows that the poets were familiar with the genre and had seen cartographic examples of it. They may also have read prose descriptions of the whole world that sometimes journeyed with, and sometimes journeyed separately from, cartographic mappaemundi. The poets each used such maps metaphorically in their poems about women, juxtaposing woman- as-map in their reader-viewer’s inner eye in poetic contexts they created to represent male desire. That desire is figured in a would-be lover’s lament that turns to satiric complaint in Chaucer’s “To Rosemounde” and in a conqueror’s lust that turns to violent assault in Shakespeare’s “Rape of Lucrece,” while in Donne’s “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” it is expressed with tender empathy in an increasingly complex, metaphorical meditation on the tears shed by both lover and beloved on an occasion of parting.1 In order to understand this thematic sexualization of the mappaemundi, it is relevant first to consider the contemplative and educational functions of world maps in medieval Christian culture.”
My chapter, “Ending Dystopia: The Feminist Critique of Culture in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy” now appears in Worlds Gone Awry: Essays on Dystopian Fiction, eds. John Han, C. Clark Triplett, and Ashley G. Anthony (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2018), 122-138.
More’s purpose in Utopia was not, of course, to inform his highly educated, Latinate, mostly male readers about a “good place,” a utopian country in the New World, but rather to critique a dystopian country in his own Old World: England.
Virtually all subsequent utopian/dystopian fiction in the western tradition is generically defined by elements found in More’s Utopia, and feminist utopian writings and contemporary feminist dystopian fiction are no exceptions. The later development of the genre branches out from its roots (Christian humanist satire), producing distinctly different fruit (literary works), because it hybridizes the tree (the genre). Whereas More’s Utopia, like Platonic dialogues, is a conversation between men, feminist dystopias expand the conversation that critiques culture by:
internalizing it in their female protagonists, where its very interiority can give women power to resist male-dominated cultural forces of violence, deception, manipulation, corruption, and destruction in the dystopian environment;
externalizing and articulating it between female as well as male characters;
making part of it solely between women in their texts;
focusing it on the human rights of women, especially the right to life, the right to freedom of the will, mind, heart, and body, and the right to self-determination in their relationships and roles in the world;
and emphasizing the importance of alliance between women and children, women and men, women and women, women and the environment, and women and sources of cultural power in their world.
Authors of feminist dystopian fiction frequently take as a given that the world their female protagonists live in is being represented to those women as utopian, as a “good place” that is culturally and politically organized for their benefit, but they emphasize in no uncertain terms that the world is in fact dystopian. They show that the male-dominated cultural forces in their fictions consistently seek to exploit women’s bodies, in violation of their will, at the expense of their minds and to the detriment of their emotional wellbeing. They do not hesitate to show how some female characters living in dystopia accept these forces while others actually become perpetuators of them, and they may also highlight how male characters are not only oppressors but may be oppressed by the mechanisms of injustice in dystopia.
But in response to the “big lie” that women are living in utopia, when the actual conditions of their existence are mercilessly dystopian, authors send their female protagonists on a journey of personal and relational growth. The journey inevitably includes acquisition of new knowledge, new strength, and new, previously unknown, and virtually unimaginable freedom.This trajectory is especially clear when reading the endings of feminist dystopian fictions.
Because feminist dystopian fiction is very much in keeping not only with utopian satire but also with the fairy-tale tradition, it engages the human psychological realities of hope and fear, but often—quite purposefully—without the consolation of a traditional “happy ending.” This raises a key question: since the endings are clearly not wish-fulfillment fantasies, intended for the temporary satisfaction of readers, what purposes are being accomplished by the endings of feminist dystopian fictions? To explore the question, my chapter focuses on the ending of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010). As we shall see, her fiction makes new use of the generic elements of the utopian satirical tradition—classical learning, Christian ethics, and the discovery of a new world—in a “bad place” where the development of the psychological complexity of her female protagonist on her journey drives the critique of the real dystopia: the postmodern world inhabited by the author and her readers at the turn of the twenty-first century.
The Wycliffite Bible (WB) is the first complete Bible in English, extant in over 250 manuscript copies, and it had an extensive influence on late-medieval and early modern English culture. Translated from the Latin Vulgate, it consists of biblical books in prose and verse along with academic prologues. It is extant in two versions, the earlier (EV) and the later (LV), which often were transmitted with commentaries as well as liturgical and exegetical aids. Elizabeth Solopova’s edited volume contributes significantly to the scholarship of the late medieval English Bible already produced by Henry Ansgar Kelly (The Middle English Bible: A Reassessment, 2016), Mary Dove (The First English Bible, 2007, and The Earliest Advocates of the English Bible, 2011), and Anne Hudson (The Premature Reformation, 1988), work which is well-contextualized by broader studies on the medieval Bible by Frans van Lière (An Introduction to the Medieval Bible, 2014), Susan Boyton, and Diane Reilly (The Practice of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2011), and the quintessential Beryl Smalley (The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed., 1989).
My essay “‘Desco da parto’: The Birth Tray and its Cultural Significance in Renaissance Italy,” now appears in Midwifery Today 125 (Spring 2018): 26-28.
In this essay, I describe the practical and decorative use of the desco da parto or birth tray in Renaissance Italy. After the Black Death, birth trays were used from 1370 to the third quarter of the sixteenth century to serve the mother’s first postpartum meal: They commemorated the life of mother and baby kept safe in childbirth. The deschi featured both secular and sacred scenes, painted in tempera, with gilded borders. They could be round, twelve-sided or sixteen-sided. After serving their primary purpose, they could later be hung upon walls in family homes and passed from one generation to the next.
IMAGES OF DESCHI
Triumph of Chastity
birth tray presented to Lucrezia di Giovanni Tornbuoni,
mother of Lorenzo de’Medici, “the Magnificent”
Other biblical, allegorical or mythological desci images: