Mothers of exile: Gender and identity in Medieval narratives of foundation

Rebecca June, Fordham University


Legendary women such as Albina, Scota, and Inge are far less familiar as foundational figures in the English national imagination than male counterparts like Brutus and King Arthur. Relative to the men, female founding figures are rare, and the often militant nature of these women leads scholars to describe stories of female origins as myths of matriarchy, legends that narrate the existence of female-dominated societies whose supposed licentiousness and barbarity necessitate their destruction and replacement by more law abiding patriarchal structures. Indeed, the denigration of female power by authors from Aeschylus to Polydore Vergil appears to support claims for the role of the female founder throughout literary history as that of the marginalized other, meant to construct masculine political identities through difference and abjection. This view must contend, however, with founding women who do not fit the model of monstrous matriarchy. Chaucer's Custance of the Man of Law's Tale, for instance, brings piety and passivity to her role as English matriarch. Just how does gender function, then, in narratives that construct group identity? Examining several female foundation narratives, including the Anglo-Norman Des Grantz Geanz, the life of Saint Osyth, Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale, the Crabhouse Nunnery Manuscript's legend, and Marie de France's Eliduc, Mothers of Exile explores the plurality and nuance in medieval depictions of female founders, identifying the semiotic link among the women of these stories as that of exile. An ambivalent and complex status drawing on ancient and medieval traditions both secular and religious, exile made female figures useful for medieval authors who sought to construct a group identity grounded in autonomy. In other words, rather than indicating the antithesis of patriarchy in foundational narratives, female gender marks out the potential for political reordering, with the line between reorder and disorder relative to the changing needs of a political community. Mothers of Exile argues for the need to include saints' lives in discussions of foundational narratives and for the reassessment of those narratives for the productive deployment of exilic ambiguity.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|Womens studies|Medieval history

Recommended Citation

June, Rebecca, "Mothers of exile: Gender and identity in Medieval narratives of foundation" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3441713.