The Auchinleck manuscript, well-known for its romances, is as neglected as it is famous. Twenty-six non-romances have been relatively ignored by literary theorists. The women of Auchinleck are also frequently ignored in favour of the titular male characters. Studying these neglected texts reveals a consistent interest in models of female behaviour throughout the manuscript. By reading these texts in context, which codicological research provides evidence for, the texts come together to create an exemplum book for women, potentially changing the way we read Auchinleck’s famous romances.
The current paper aims to shed the light on the image of the other and its social and spiritual dimension through the status of the woman at the medieval epoch; a millennium impregnated with Christianity, during which women were considered by their essence inferior to and subject to men, and thus excluded from priesthood. The images conjured up are highly contradictory. But what can we say of the immense and quiet mass who sought salvation in monasteries, always too few, in the Beguinages or Third Orders that the late Middle Ages invented without ever seeming to satisfy either the spiritual aspirations or the social, economic, and cultural needs that the structures of religious life were supposed to meet?
Cities in medieval Flanders were often so populated that clerks making notations in mundane administrative records could not identify everyone who came before them. They thus had to ask even women to identify themselves. Women, for their part, could consequently avoid being slotted into gendered categories – ‘daughter’, ‘wife’, ‘widow’ – that marked them as the ‘Other’. Being relatively free to choose which identificatory information was most useful within a given context militated against the rigid socially constructed formulas of identification. The minimal use of such formulas failed to shift ‘otherness’ from officials to the faceless (but not nameless) individuals who populated their records.