As is so often the case, a recent New Yorker cartoon took a medieval story to heart and added a 21st century twist to great comic effect. In this case, Rapunzel* has let down her hair, as the fairy tale goes, but she has inadvertently foiled the prince’s attempt to climb her prison tower using his method of a grappling hook and rope — a far less romantic way to scale the wall to her chamber than with her hair.
Ah yes! Women are so much more complicated these days, than they were in simpler times, when we could use any old ham-fisted method we wanted to rescue them … and they’d think we were marvelous! Now, nothing’s good enough and we men just can’t receive our due recognition without some woman having a better idea!
Poor guy … and to some extent I can feel his pain. Were that life were simpler and we all understood the roles we were born into and there was no need to change things or expect anything different. And yet that was the medieval way, as I alluded to in a recent post: “I am the shoemaker of Trier, as was my father before me, as will my son after me; I am an integral part of my community, even necessary to it; my neighbours respect me and depend on my skill.” And in that understanding, one could theoretically own an abiding peace in the world that eludes most of us today.
The longing for simpler times! A song comes forward for me; Archie and Edith Bunker from “All In The Family”, sitting at the living room piano, singing, “Those Were The Days.”
Boy the way Glen Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days.
And you knew who you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man
Like Herbert Hoover again.
Didn’t need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.
Remember how Archie smugly placed his cigar in his mouth at the end of the song and turned, in a state of bliss, to look at Edith? His eyes (and Edith’s) glazed over in a haze of fantasy about Depression era USA?
In my experience, the past is never as simple as we imagine. Not the Depression Era, not the Sixties (in my case), not the Middle Ages. The woe-be-gone prince in the New Yorker cartoon may in fact be a truism of the Middle Ages. Looking at the way in which medieval women have been portrayed in literature and history provides support for the idea that women were every bit as powerful and independent-thinking as they are today. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, one the most well-drawn characters from The Canterbury Tales, is as feisty and domineering as women of a certain ilk today.
Unnethe myghte they the statut holde
In which that they were bounden unto me.
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!
The Wife describes how she makes her husband labour (swynke) for her pleasure in the bedroom, and describes herself in the manner of a sovereign lord, while her husbands are the peasants who must cater to her sexual whims. The same notion is evident in the following passage:
Of tribulacion in mariage,
Of which I am expert in al myn age –
This is to seyn, myself have been the whippe.
She is the one holding the whip, and tells everyone that she is in charge in her household, especially in the bedroom. The result is a satirical, sexualized depiction of a woman, but also of feudal power arrangements. Like the other pilgrims in Chaucer’s Tales, the Wife is a caricature, but a particularly finely drawn one. And the Wife of Bath would probably agree with Rapunzel’s suggestion to the prince to try the hair, instead. “Much better idea, don’t you think?”
(It is always interesting to speculate on where the great characters of literature originated. I am sure many have wondered if the historical person on whom the Wife of Bath was based was none other than Chaucer’s own wife, Philippa Roet. Garry O’Connor, in his novel, Chaucer’s Triumph, a fictional account of Chaucer’s later life, portrays Phillipa as a sexually manipulative temptress who is rather blunt and cruel in her assessment of his lovemaking abilities. Not unlike the Wife of Bath!)
The fact is, we look to the past for understanding, hoping to find a frame to put around our own complex times. Our tendency is to look for things that never really existed, but if we look deeper, we can still find that frame. The New Yorker cartoon suggests that it might have been easier to be a gallant prince in the time of Rapunzel, but in fact it was every bit as complicated as it is today. It is endlessly fascinating how we imagine the Middle Ages to be — full of damsels in distress and white knights — and yet, when we look at the time closely, we can almost see ourselves … in all our troubling complexity.
*Note: Rapunzel is, in fact, a tale with origins in the medieval era and made popular by the Brothers Grimm in the early 1800s. It is thought to be based on the story of Saint Barbara, a 9th century Christian saint and martyr. Click here for more information.