Women’s Medicine and Female Embodiment in the Morte Darthur, a Middle English Trotula Treatise, and The Mists of Avalon
By Emily Gaudet
Master’s Thesis, Dalhousie University, 2016
Abstract: This thesis compares the representation of women’s medicine in Malory’s Morte Darthur, a Middle English Trotula treatise, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Specifically, it uses the portrayal of women healers in the Trotula treatise and The Mists of Avalon to perform a reparative reading of the Morte Darthur, filling in the gaps of women’s embodied experience that are mostly absent from Malory’s text. The intention of this thesis is not to criticize Malory for misogyny, or to rank these three texts according their level of feminism. Rather, it is to show that reading a variety of genres beside each other – a romance next to a medical treatise, next to a contemporary novel that uses écriture féminine – can reveal aspects of women’s experience in the texts that would not otherwise be visible. In short, it explores how Bradley draws on the seeds of feminism in the Arthurian legend to attempt to represent women’s embodiment more fully
Introduction: Much of the feminist criticism of the Morte Darthur has focused on Malory’s representation of women: is it misogynistic or feminist – or neither, praising some women while vilifying others? What critics have rarely noted about the Morte Darthur, however, is its general neglect of women’s health.
In this essay, I will read the Morte Darthur alongside the Middle English Trotula treatise, a fifteenth-century gynecological handbook, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a twentieth-century fantasy adaptation of the Arthurian legend. Although the genres of these texts vary widely, reading them together reveals feminism is multifaceted; each text throws into relief the others’ representations of women’s medicine. As a twentieth-century text, Bradley’s novel is of course the “most feminist” of the three, especially in its focus on abortion rights and redeeming the villainous female characters of medieval Arthurian texts.