Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Controlling the Household

D. Vance Smith, Princeton University

Work relating the fourteenth-century household ad the romance (including my own, for a deliberate reason) tends to dwell on its dominantly masculine aspect, the production of texts by male clerics, the masculine, not to say misogynist, features of romance protagonists in the household. Felicity Riddy and Maryanne Kowaleski have notably opposed this in their work on urban households, and the central role played in their economic activity by women. Yet the provincial gentry and noble household still tends to be a very masculinized space, and this is the space where most fourteenth-century romances tended to be produced, and which is represented in them most frequently. I'd like to think about what happens when we imagine the scriptural economy of the household as the function of its women, not as the work done not by male clerks under the control of the dominus.

I'll stress the literal sense of the "control" of the title, beginning with a discussion of a set of household accounts written in the 1380s by a woman for her own household, a set that includes payments to a woman for the instruction of the domina's daughter, and the enlisting of a counter-roll for her accounts. I'll then examine two apparent romance analogues of women who control households, Morgan la Faye in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Wife of Bath. These both constitute counternarratives, counter-roles, to the ostensible intentio auctoris, yet phrased in the economic terms of the household and narrative of each. I'll conclude by discussing Emare, which is a romance that meditates on the materia of a woman's narrative.


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