Essay on Misogyny in Medieval Literature: Exploring Gender-Based Prejudice

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1656 Words
Date:  2023-02-12

Historically, misogyny, which refers to the outward prejudice against women, has stood out as one of the main themes explored in a plethora of literary works written in the medieval period (Fraioli 1; Dante & Mark 172). Analytically, authors revealed misogyny in different ways, including gender or sex-based discrimination, promotion of male privileges, belittling of girls and women, patriarchy, sexual objectification of women, and violence against them. Heloise, an infamous French-based nun, abbes, and writer who was popular for her romantic relationship with Peter Abelard provide the best example of medieval authors that dedicated adequate time to pursue the concept of misogyny in their literary works (Newman 121; Abelard, Michael, & Betty 102). Heloise wrote a wide range of letter to his lover, Abelard, outlining multiple instances in which men, women, and the society at large played a crucial role in promoting misogyny. Today, the infamous author is accorded a critical place in the history of French literature alongside the conception and development of feminist representation not only in France but the world as a whole. Despite the fact that just a few of Heloise letters survive in the contemporary society, a plethora of scholars consider those that do a foundational tribute of the French literature ranging from the late 13th century onwards (Mews 318). Therefore, it is imperative to provide a comprehensive discussion on how Heloise expressed misogamy in her letters.

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According to Nehrine, it is impossible to discuss the concept of misogamy in Heloise's letters without putting into consideration the role played by his lover, Abelard and the gender views held by the European medieval society (1). Analytically, a wide range of European societies that lived during the medieval period had gender views strongly built on the Tertullian and Aristotle beliefs that not only discriminated against women but also degraded their status as opposed to men. A plethora of Christian intellects such as St. Augustine and St. Jerome also played a critical role in promoting misogyny, which in turn created gender-based stereotype that extremely separated the societal role of men and their female counterparts. One major potential explanation for what created and promoted gender inequality in the medieval societies could be strongly attributed to that period's educational approach that considered the Bible (Fraioli 2; Dante & Mark 173; Abelard, Michael, & Betty 102) as well as the teachings provided by ancient philosophers such as Aristotle as typical forms of unquestionable authority.

Mews contends that Heloise alongside her lover, Abelard must have been strongly impacted by the aforementioned medieval Christian views and perspectives on how gender roles were share in the society (318). However, it is possible for one to argue that some predetermined instances in Heloise's letters indicate that the gender views held by medieval authors were considered to be too severe when compared to the norms practiced in their contemporaries. For instance, Abelard deliberately decided to place the name of his lover, Heloise in the very beginning of his greetings in his letter. This dramatic move stunned Heloise as it was an uncustomary deed for a man to do so in letter-writing. As a result, Heloise began her commitment to express misogyny in her letters when she first wrote to Abelard denouncing the idea of marriage on the basis that it merely created unnecessary oppression between men and women (Nehrine 1; Griffiths 3). However, a comprehensive analysis of the two lovers' first letters would reveal that their cogent thoughts were eventually confined in the medieval beliefs despite their apparently radical perspectives.

Secondly, Heloise expresses the concept of misogyny in the manner in which she reveals to the audience that Abelard could not free himself from the medieval belief that men are the main reason behind the existence of women even after undergoing castration. In his third letter, Abelard persistently asked his lover, Heloise to live a devout life, not necessarily for the sake of religion and spirituality but in the name of his salvation (Mews 319; Dante & Mark 173). Surprisingly, Heloise's failed to distinguish her perception from that of a subordinate medieval woman in her reply letter as she openly revealed that her decision to be a nun was as a result of the command he received from Albert. This letter expressed one of the greatest ways in which misogyny was not only created but also promoted in the medieval societies as women were mentally and physically oppressed to engage in a plethora of patriarchal activities in the sake of embracing their male counterparts (Powell 257; Newman 125). Nevertheless, all of Heloise's and her lovers' perceptions in their letters in respect to gender roles were mainly founded on the conventional dichotomous beliefs on sexuality.

According to Fraioli, Heloise revealed that in the patriarchal mind of Abelard, women in the traditional medieval society were not only viewed as inferior beings but also as a weaker sex (2). As a result, week female sex needed adequate help from the stronger male gender as there were numerous things that they could not effectively do by themselves. Nonetheless, Heloise despite being a woman did not appear to be disgusted with the perception of men being superior that their female counterparts in her letters to Abelard. Rather, Heloise impulsively underscored and acknowledged the inherent weaker nature of women as expressed in her discussion regarding her abbey, which she openly referred to as "feminine." Moreover, Heloise also described the female gender not only as a weaker sex but also a group of people who are majorly frail and lived in strong need for careful attention (Powell 260; Abelard, Michael, & Betty 102). In her first four letters, Heloise was strongly inclined to her lover's views of women by retaining congruent perceptions rather than developing her own discordant beliefs regarding the concept of femininity and masculinity.

As a result, her dichotomous way of looking and analyzing gender did not necessarily diverge from the conservative thinking of the medieval society which was conspicuously characterized by instances of misogyny (Mews 319; Griffiths 15). Thirdly, Heloise also sought to express the concept of misogyny in her letters in the manner in which her perspectives resembled those of her lover's in their discussions regarding the relationship between men and their female counterparts. Heloise agreed with Abelard in their discussion that all women were fated to serve an obstacle to men. During the letter-based discussions Abelard courageously defended his views even in front of Fulbert, Heloise's uncle. Despite his mistreatment of Heloise, Abelard revealed that she was responsible and accountable for ruining him. Similarly, Heloise found herself into absolute depression as she continuously wept on how the destiny of a woman entailed ruining a man's life (Nehrine 1; Newman 18). These atrocious instances against women emphasize on the fact that a plethora of women were thought of being harmful rather than beneficial in any society in the medieval era.

Lastly, the concept of misogyny in Heloise's letters is demonstrated in the manner in which she openly agreed with Abelard that indeed women were naturally inferior and created to be men's subordinates (Powell 265; Griffiths 19). However, these negative perceptions of men and the society at large against women were significantly transformed into an instance of admiration in regard to spiritual matters. For instance, Abelard underscored the inherent superiority of the spirituality of women by ascertaining that they indeed had a close connection with God by relying on multiple Biblical stories to illustrate the fact that the greatest miracles available in the gospel were mainly revealed to women. Conversely, Heloise, in her fourth letter expressed misogyny by refuting her lover's thoughts of women being more spiritual than their male counterparts. Despite her failure to specifically express her opposite views in form of writings, Heloise persistently highlighted the significance of intention over actions arguing that everything was in vain unless done for the sake of God's love. As a result, her stern criticisms on the inherent hypocrisy of religion are a direct indication of how women had a hypocritical nature (Nehrine 1; Fraioli 3). This assertion emphasized Heloise's outward belief that women need not to be considered respectful no matter how they may appear to be spiritual in the face of the society.


In conclusion, Heloise played a critical role in expressing how misogyny was not only created but also promoted in the medieval societies. Analytically, most of the views she held in her letters in expression of the concept of misogyny resembled to a large extent with those of her lover, Abelard. Contrariwise, there were few instances that the two lovers had contrasting viewpoints on the manner in which men and the society at large atrociously treated women. For instance, the two infamous writers differed in their consideration of women's spiritual status in the medieval society despite showing consistency throughout their letters that men were considered to be superior to women. However, Heloise's views of women and the manner in which she expresses the concept of misogyny in her letters plays a crucial role in laying the historical foundation on how women are mistreated in the society and the inherent need to address this atrocious gender-based mistreatments.

Works Cited

Abelard, Peter, Michael Clanchy, and Betty Radice. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. , 2003. Print.

Dante, Alighieri, and Mark Musa. Vita Nuova. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. Print.

Fraioli, Deborah. The Letter Collection of Abelard and Heloise, edited by David Luscombe, translated by Betty Radice and revised by David Luscombe. Journal of medieval and humanistic studies, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1-3.

Griffiths, Fiona, J. 'Men's duty to provide for women's needs': Abelard, Heloise, and their negotiation of the cura monialium. Journal of Medieval History, vol. 30, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-24.

Mews, Constant J. Abelard and Heloise. The Journal of Religion, vol. 86, no. 2, 2006, pp. 318-319.

Nehrine, Christina. Heloise & Abelard: Love Hurts. The New York Times, 13 February 2005. Accessed 22 September 2019.

Newman, Barbara. Authority, authenticity, and the repression of Heloise. Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 1992, pp. 121-157.

Powell, Morgan. Listening to Heloise at the Paraclete: Of Scholarly Diversion and a Woman's "Conversion" Listening to Heloise, vol. 3, no. 2, 2000, pp. 255-286.

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Essay on Misogyny in Medieval Literature: Exploring Gender-Based Prejudice. (2023, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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