Electronic Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

M.A. in English



First Advisor

Lindy Brady

Second Advisor

Robert A. Friedlander

Third Advisor

Sarah Baechle

Relational Format



While preconceptions of the Middle Ages often rely on assumptions about Christianity and the kind of society that the Catholic Church promoted, the reality is that the historical and literary medieval world is much more complicated. When discussing the issues of sexuality, women, and sexual normativity, these assumptions hinder our ability to accurately analyze the content and reception of medieval literature. This project addresses this gap by positioning itself among the criticism set forth by scholars of four different cultures (Irish, Norse, English, and Italian) to examine the connections between the reception of women who act outside of the boundaries of both their society and our modern expectations of medieval female sexuality. To do this, this thesis presents a chapter on sexual nonconformity in the following texts: the Old Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Old Norse Laxdæla saga, the Middle English romances Sir Gawain and the Carle of Carlisle and Amis and Amiloun, and Giovanni Boccaccio’s biography of women De mulieribus claris. By examining the connections between the adulterous, the bordering on polygamous, and the exceptional ingenuity of the women in each of these texts, a trend becomes clear – behaving in a way that does not conform to societal expectations of sexuality is not inherently contemptible in medieval literature. Instead, the motivations and repercussions of these characters’ behavior is what ultimately leads to their positive or negative reception by both author and reader. This thesis therefore argues that sometimes women acting outside of sexual norms are a more nuanced and complex subject than has been previously assumed and signifies a broad anxiety about female sexual behavior in the Middle Ages.



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