Female suffering in medieval and early modern literature

Allison Adair Alberts, Fordham University


Late medieval devotional practice adapted the Roman martyr's standard—in which physical suffering leads to salvation and glory—as imagined, emotional suffering. Most late medieval English Christians never encountered religious persecution, but they understood that this largely self-induced, emotional pain reaped the same reward as the early martyr's physical pain. This perception of martyrdom radically changed in the early years of the Reformation, when persecution of an individual on the basis of faith once again became topical. Against this backdrop of changing political and cultural perceptions of martyrdom, the association of suffering with exemplarity remains a literary constant, particularly for women. "Female Suffering in Medieval and Early Modern Literature" contends that suffering is the prevailing test of female exemplarity in religious and secular literature from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. This test is not without difficulties, though. Drawing from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Legend of Good Women, the South English Legendary's life of Saint Margaret, John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and William Forrest's The History of Grisild the Second (a poem commemorating Katherine of Aragon), my dissertation investigates how medieval and early modern writers grapple with the challenge of making the martyr's example applicable, or even attractive, to the female reader. This project bridges criticism that has previously been separated by genre and period. Uniting secular and religious literature across the medieval and early modern divide, I show how the martyr's example deeply influences—though simultaneously problematizes—popular constructions of the feminine ideal. "Female Suffering" analyzes how and why these texts consistently return to suffering as a means to reinforce, interrogate, or refute cultural expectations of women. This project intersects with topics more broadly concerned with the changing role of women, such as female devotional practices, literacy, domesticity, and medieval and early modern martyrdom. In bringing together these texts and issues, I argue that these writers experiment with the figure of the suffering woman in order to establish, confirm, or contest a feminine ideal.

Subject Area

Medieval literature|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Alberts, Allison Adair, "Female suffering in medieval and early modern literature" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3643047.