In this essay I will discuss the ways in which the story of King Horn and the stories of the saint’s lives from the Katherine Group can be read as representations of the way women were treated and gender roles were viewed in the medieval period. I will do this by analysing the stories and language used within the text, how women are written about and portrayed, and how, in King Horn, the gender roles expected are reversed between the female and male character, and what that could mean.
The Katherine Group is a group of saints; Saint Katherine, Saint Juliana and Saint Margaret. All three of the stories about these women share striking similarities, particularly how they are all portrayed as young, virgin girls, and therefore they were seen as desirable. Not only that, but throughout all three stories there is a strong promotion of chastity within each story. All three characters in the stories were killed, and were considered martyrs due to the reason that they were killed, and therefore made saints.
They were killed protecting their faith, and refused to relinquish their religion from Christian to pagan. These stories, written in the 12th century, are considered some of the earliest accounts of saint’s lives. All three women died very violent deaths, and the language used within each text really suggests that these characters were seen as deviated from the ‘norm’ behaviour that was expected from women around that time. In this essay, however, I will be focusing mainly on the story of Saint Margaret.
King Horn is considered the earliest example of a romance story, written in the thirteenth century. It is a classic example of medieval romance literature, following the typical features of a medieval romance story, a few including exile leading to return, a beautiful endangered lady in need of saving, and a monstrous or magical challenger. The difference, however, is that it could be argued that King Horn, while following the rules of these very typical tropes, is not the typical hegemonic male; he does not perform gender roles that would have been expected of him.
As Michael Hays points out in his adaptation (1999, iii) King Horn is not written in the style of traditional medieval romances, since commonly they are written centred around action instead of emotion, while King Horn develops the relationship between Horn and Rymenheilde in an unusually detailed description. In the story, it is said that he is “a bold lad, tall, fair and strong”. (Hays, p. 7) This description suggests that even the enemies of the story, the Saracens, consider him to be too attractive to be outright murdered.
We also see his love interest, Rymenheilde, forgoing traditional gendered expectations. She is a strong character, and perhaps could even be considered an unusual portrayal of a woman for the time in which it was written, although it has been suggested that the reason for her being so headstrong was due to her being overcome by passion for Horn. It has, however, been suggested that Rymenheilde’s only character dimension is her love for Horn; she shows no interest in anything else, other than getting him to marry her (Hynes-Berry, p. 653).
As Hynes-Berry points out, in the text we see that she “does not praise his intentions… she simply replies that she can trust him”. From this quote alone, it could be argued that Rymenheilde does not love Horn as deeply as she claims she does, and the only reason she has any interest in him is because of how beautiful he is. This writing of women as ‘dangerous’ is a medieval trope that is seen throughout other romances. In medieval literature, women are described as temptresses and to be kept away from men to deter any potential sexual activity or “promiscuity”.
However, it could be argued that Rymenheilde is set apart from that, in that she goes out to find and marry Horn, and succeeds in the end. Despite this, the writer decided to give her the name of “Rymenheilde”, which, when translated, means “holder of ice”. This could be seen as another instance of gendered language in the text; this name leads us to “expect sexual modesty of a young woman”, although instead “we get passion”. (Hays, p. iv) If we look at the story of Saint Margaret, we see that she is portrayed as a very strong, determined woman.
She is pictured, in most artistic renditions of the events of her life, as emerging from the stomach of a dragon. In her story, she is a Christian woman living in a land ruled over by a pagan, and is noticed by the ruler, wanting to either marry her or convert her to paganism. She refuses to convert from her religion, and is then tortured and killed. Within the text, we see that the one accounting the story, Teochimus, claims that the reader should “live in a state of virginity… through that blessed maiden whom we remember today in honour of her virginity”. (Mack, p. )
From this, it could be suggested that this story is purely a literary work, and not historical. It could, perhaps, have been a text designed not to be taken literally, but a character written to be admired and to live up to the standard of virginity and chastity given by the writer. This text is assumed to be written for small groups of women living an enclosed religious life, to teach how to be chastise and ‘holy’; it did, however, eventually reach a wider audience. St Margaret was a foster child, raised and was a shepherdess, and was targeted by the ruler of the land to be married.
She was, at the hand of pagans, tortured and killed when she refused to convert from Christianity to paganism. The language used within these torture ‘scenes’ could be seen as gendered. The torture begins with soldiers being ordered to “strip her stark naked and hang her up high, and beat her with cruel rods”. (Mack, p. 4) This order of taking away her dignity and undressing her against her will because she would not give up her right to follow her chosen religion for a man is an obvious example of misogyny and gendered punishment.
She is placed in prison, where a dragon appears before her, and swallows her. She makes the sign of the cross, and the dragon explodes, and she steps forth. Later, she is faced by another demon, but she forces him to submit by holding it under her foot. (Lambdin, p. 285) This role reversal of a female being able to force a representation of strength to submit is an example of questioning gender roles, especially within the context and time that this text was written in.
Add to that who the target audience for this piece was, and it can be easily argued that the portrayal of a strong woman is something that was written deliberately, to encourage the young women that would have heard these stories to understand the roles put on them to be meek and mild need not mean that they cannot also be strong and confident. It further shows us that women throughout history have not just been one dimensional and dependent; they are multi-faceted and multi-layered. King Horn is another good example of gender role reversal in the medieval time period.
Rymenheilde was written as a very strong individual, and therefore questions the gender roles placed upon not just real people of the time, but also in fictional characters of the time. Although there are some gendered words in the presentation of Rymenheilde in this story, she is still a very strong character, even by today’s standards. Her passion and determination to reach and marry the man she loves, even when she is already due to be married, is so strong that she sends out many messages to Horn, even while she is engaged, to come and save her.
While this may not be seen as traditional gender role rejection, we can see that she is still defying expectations by not giving up and accepting her role as ‘wife’ to a man she does neither love, nor want to marry. Going, again, to her name, we are presented with the opposite characteristics that are expected of a woman with a name that can be translated to ‘an icy woman’. This expectation of sexual modesty, and staying calm and cold, even, is replaced with this character that has many opinions and needs in regards to her own sexuality.
She refuses to adhere to the roles placed on her, not just from the men in her life, but also the roles from the name that she was given. From both the texts of King Horn and Saint Margaret, we have seen gender role reversal from as early as the thirteenth century. We can take from this, then, that our perceptions of masculinity and femininity from as early as medieval times is as biased as now. It would be a surprise, today, to see a woman as strong as Margaret, or a man as ‘feminine’ as Horn in today’s media.
This role reversal is something that we are still not used to, especially men not being hegemonic males; a standard that, even now for many men, is difficult to attain. A woman such as Rymenheilde would now be seen as ‘over-sexualised’ and other slurs that are critical to her personal sexuality. This oppression of women’s rights to their own bodies is worrying, and to be able to see this attempt at pushing away a woman’s sexuality as early as the thirteenth century, and that, in some ways, this continues to happen in the twenty first century is an obvious example of misogyny and the patriarchy at work.