Bound and Free: Voices of Mortal and Otherworld Women in Medieval Irish Literature

Joanne Findon

Forthcoming.

Studies and Texts 236 • x, 220 pp. • ISBN 978-0-88844-236-9 • Cloth • $90

Otherworld women feature in a number of medieval Irish tales, but they are not always powerful figures. Indeed, those who express their own desires are often disadvantaged and even threatened in the mortal world, especially when their choices are restricted by human society. The struggles they face often mirror those of mortal women; yet medieval Irish authors apparently found Otherworld women useful as vehicles for exploring social tensions and issues of contemporary concern.

Both the Acallam na Senórach (Tales of the Elders of Ireland) and tales from the Ulster Cycle seem to deploy Otherworld women to facilitate the exploration of Irish society’s emergence into a world influenced by European romance, where love shapes the choice of marriage partners despite the emotional risks – a world where violence is, ideally, tempered by restraint; where foreigners arrive and are integrated, with greater or lesser success, into Irish society; and where the voices of women can be heard. While some Otherworld women are portrayed as seductive sirens, others are helpful, even indispensable figures, often serving as vehicles for critiques of various kinds and potentially performing important cultural work.

Bound and Free analyzes female figures as literary characters, rather than as mythological beings, focusing on their expression of emotions and the repercussions for the societies depicted in the narratives. Drawing on gender analysis, speech act theory, narratology, disability theory, and trauma theory, and incorporating recent work on emotions in medieval literature, this study probes the representation of both mortal and Otherworld women as active and desiring subjects and the affective responses that their words and actions might have generated in their medieval audiences.

Author

Joanne Findon earned her MA and PhD at the Centre for Medieval Studies in the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on women’s speech and agency in medieval Irish and English literature. Her book Lady, Hero, Saint: The Digby Play’s Mary Magdalene (2011) explores the influences of secular literature on the representation of the central female character in a Middle English religious play. Her most recent work continues the exploration of women’s voice, agency and emotion in medieval Irish literature that she began in A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle (1997), extending the analysis to a number of lesser-known medieval Irish tales. She is Professor Emerita of English Literature at Trent University, where she spent more than two decades teaching courses in medieval romance, Chaucer, medieval drama, creative writing, and children’s literature. She lives in Toronto.

Endorsement

“Joanne Findon is at the forefront of the study of women in medieval Irish literature, and has already made groundbreaking contributions, not least with her 1997 monograph, A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle. Her latest book is a multifaceted exploration of women – both mortal and otherworldly – and their significance in early Irish narrative. Combining cutting-edge scholarship on medieval literature with important critical frameworks from literary theory, Findon sheds new light on the varied roles that women play in what are largely male-authored texts, produced within (and for) a patriarchal society. Engagingly written and accessible, this is an important addition to the bookshelves of anyone working on medieval Irish literature, as well as those interested in medieval literary or feminist studies more broadly.” — Elizabeth Boyle, Maynooth University

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