Communicating with Horses: Women as Equestrians in 12th - through 14th - century Old French, Anglo-Norman and Middle English Literature

Leet, Elizabeth S., French - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Amy, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia
Spearing, Anthony, Department of English, University of Virginia
Lyu, Claire, Department of French Language and Literatures, University of Virginia

The female equestrians in Old French, Anglo-Norman, and Middle English literature ride and care for horses at least as skillfully as their male counterparts, yet unlike male knights, women forge partnerships based on compassion for and identification with the horse. The link between women and horses—both of whom occupy a central role in literary representations of chivalry—is reinforced by their shared legacy of abuse by men who see them as tools for their own advancement. Moreover, while many female literary characters are controlled by men, a woman with equestrian acumen can exceed the limitations others might attempt to place on her. The relationship a female equestrian has with her horse becomes the key to her recourse against patriarchal domination.

Chapter 1, which introduces Jordanus Rufus’ 13th-century theories on communicative horsemanship, establishes the embodied, nonverbal language believed best to communicate with horses. The subsequent three chapters assess the equestrian prowess of female characters who practice such a language, the praise each one earns for her horsemanship, the partnership each forges with her horse or horses, and the impact of her relationship with horses on her identity as a woman, as a literary heroine, and as a chivalric figure. In Chrétien de Troyes’ Erec et Enide, the anonymous Roman d’Eneas, Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie, and Marie de France’s lai de Lanval followed by its two Middle English adaptations, the anonymous Landevale and Thomas Chestre’s Launfal, the poets use the woman/horse relationship as a lens through which to evaluate a female literary character’s chivalric or equestrian prowess as a performance of her gender.

In chapter 2, I examine the romantic heroine, Enide, whose gentle care for horses and non-violent equestrianism earn her praise from her father, from Chrétien, and from the other characters who honor her with gifts of expensive horses. While Enide’s silence has often been cited as a consequence of Erec’s abusive treatment, it also reveals the nonverbal speech by which she communicates masterfully with horses. Spurring is emblematic of this nonverbal embodied language, though these characters use spurs differently: Erec spurs incessantly while Enide shows more restraint with these often-violent tools. The disparate means by which Erec and Enide spur reveal Chrétien’s use of their horsemanship to establish their gender difference.

In chapter 3, I analyze two Amazon equestrians whose military chivalry could not be more different from Enide’s gentle horsemanship. Camille in the Roman d’Eneas and Panteselee in the Roman de Troie are described as hybrid militarized assemblages whose interactions with horses facilitate their successful battlefield campaigns and cement their hybrid chivalric identities. Their material hybridity and struggle against patriarchal control align them with Donna Haraway’s socialist feminist cyborg figure. As cyborgs, Camille and Panteselee do battle against male warriors and against the misogyny of chivalric military culture.

The 4th chapter examines the Lanval corpus of Breton lays in which fairy women rescue their lover from poverty, help him rehabilitate his chivalric masculinity, resolve a judicial indictment against him, and finally select him as their chosen consort. These fairy equestrians evoke different interspecies bonds than those of the wifely squire Enide or the militaristic hybrid Amazons: their embellished attire and courtly manners transform them into virtual artwork whose aesthetic appeal qualifies as evidence at trial and earns them the right to take their lover away into their own fairy kingdom. Fairy equestrians resolve chivalric crises on behalf of their lover while also challenging the notion of feudal patriarchal hegemony with their powerful feminized realm.

In conclusion, each of these poets attributes equestrian prowess to female characters in order to grant them self-determination. The skillful horsemanship and mastery of chivalric and courtly mores demonstrated by the female literary characters in this dissertation help them achieve greater autonomy than their non-equestrian female counterparts. Moreover, the nonverbal, embodied language by which they reach mutual understanding with their mounts functionally extends subjectivity to the horses who are so often ubiquitous yet invisible in chivalric literature.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
medieval literature, chivalry, horsemanship, critical animal studies, ecofeminism, material feminism
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