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The Long Journey

Essay by   •  December 8, 2010  •  Essay  •  3,143 Words (13 Pages)  •  1,646 Views

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What is the real difference between men and women? Is sex merely an anatomical difference, or are gender roles based on actual mental and emotional differences? Regardless of whether gender roles are socially constructed or naturally inherent, they exist and have since Adam and Eve.

The history of gender roles has been long and varied, frequently switching from near equality of the sexes to complete inequality and back. In the Middle Ages, gender limitations were prevalent in that the woman was seen as weaker, inferior to the "perfect embryo": the male. However, some equality was to be granted through the institution that most perpetuated cultural differentiation of the sexes: the Church. Gender relations began to shift with the Doctrine of Intent and the idea of courtly love. Women began to assume a higher status than before as unique and emotive beings. Emotion is also changed from being an inferior aspect of the female self to an idealized state achievable by both sexes. Abelard and Heloise are some of the first examples of this heightened emotion, and their love was celebrated rather than condemned--at least in future years. However, this emotion was in direct conflict with the Church, and along with many other factors the Doctrine of Intent helped bring about the Reformation. The Reformation brought great changes to the ideals of marriage and the church's role in marriage, but it also carried negative effects for the female's identity. As Ozment explains,

Whereas the centuries between 1300 and 1500 had been something of a golden age for women--their educational and vocational opportunities increased, and with them their civic freedom--the sixteenth century turned back the clock. Women were again squeezed out of the guilds and public places and increasingly confined to the home--a reversal of fortunes for which some scholars have held the patriarchal ideals of the Protestant reformers especially responsible. (Ozment 5)

The Reformation that intended to restore the status of women through the expansion of marriage seemed to suppress them back into their position as faithful, dependent

and subservient wives.

Two books represent this progression, or regression, in the concept of the male and female self and their roles in society, 'The Letters of Abelard and Heloise' translated by Betty Radice and 'The Burgermeister's Daughter: Scandal in a Sixteenth-Century German Town' by Steven Ozment. 'The Letters of Abelard and Heloise' is a collection of primary source letters exchanged between two lovers in twelfth-century France, separated by society and religion but forever bound by love. 'The Burgermeister's Daughter' is a story of a young German woman, Anna, suing her father, her brother and the town of Hall for mistreatment and suppression of inheritance rights due to alleged social misconduct, based on Anna's love letters as well as character accounts from witnesses at the trials. Though stylistically different, these books center on a common theme: the importance of gender roles in both the public and the private settings, and the institutions through which these notions of the male and female self are solidified.

In examining the relation of the male and female sovereign self, there are three aspects that both works center upon: the definition of gender, the view of marriage, and the use of institutions [be it marriage or something else] to subvert gender limitations and gain some universality of the sovereign self. Both of these books focus specifically on the construction of the female self, because throughout history the female has been the one whose position changes most radically, mostly dependent

on how the male is willing to see her at the time. These two stories will show two different worlds when it comes to gender relations with one common theme: the pursuit by women of a universal self.

Since Adam and Eve, women have assumed the role of the weaker sex: they were physically, mentally and morally weaker and prone to cause man's downfall. The story of Abelard and Heloise fully represents this historical construct, as well as the deviations possible. Abelard often uses the Bible and religion as a source for male superiority, and as he quotes from the Bible, '"Woman's head is man, man's head is Christ and Christ's head is God.'" (Radice 210) Man is free to seek knowledge through education and philosophy, to work and devote himself to trade, or to sacrifice himself to the Church, a sacrifice and a distinction because only the learned could apply. Yet despite the misogynistic undertones, women were not without options, and Heloise is a perfect example. Heloise was both a scholar and an abbess; two roles women could and did seek status through. However, even these roles carried the base and common understanding that women were weaker--nothing would change that.

Heloise also acknowledges the differences between the sexes, as well as the differences in how each should be treated. According to common knowledge at the time, because women did cause man's fall from Paradise, they will always be considered inferior; with this inferiority comes the necessity of protection and lowered standards of excellence. "We must therefore be careful not to impose on a woman a burden under which we see nearly all men stagger and fall," (Radice 167) Heloise writes to Abelard. Abelard agrees with this view, but adds to it his belief that women can also be more virtuous because of this very weakness. "For a woman, being the weaker sex, is the more pitiable in a state of need, easily raising human sympathy, and her virtues the more pleasing to God as it is to man." (Radice 97) Women are, self-admittedly, weaker and inferior creatures, however Heloise will prove that if desired, they can rise to an even equal status to men through institutions. Anna, the burgermeister's daughter, neither knows the virtue available to women of the twelfth century nor the possibility of eventual ascension; this is evident by the recollections from the townspeople of Hall.

"Both men and women were expected to adhere to clearly defined standards of behaviors specific to gender, social class, and contemporary community values," (Ozment 2) Ozment writes, and Anna's situation clearly shows this. Anna was the daughter of a wealthy and respected town hero, thus she had both privileges and responsibilities to adhere to. Anna's principle duty was marriage, and her failure to achieve the position of wife became the principle problem in question throughout this book. Anna claims it was due to her father's negligence and greed; her father claims it was a result of Anna's promiscuity and disobedience,

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