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An Alphabet of Feminism #12: L is for Lady

2010 December 20




‘My lady’, as her friends called her, sincerely desired to be a genuine lady, and was so at heart, but had yet to learn that money cannot buy refinement of nature, that rank does not always confer nobility, and that true breeding makes itself felt in spite of external drawbacks.

Louisa May Alcott, Good Wives (1869)

She’s A Lady.

Funny Etymology Submission #billion: lady sprung from the Old English hlaefdige (I dunno, I didn’t do Old English), a compound of hlaf (‘loaf’) and dig (‘to knead’). So a lady is literally ‘she who kneads loaves’.

I guess you can kind of see where it went from there, since its original (now obsolete) meaning is as ‘the female head of the household’; i.e., the one what does the cooking, with the ambiguity that still runs through many households where Mum’s In Charge, but Dad’s Earning. Thus, in its second meaning (also Old English), it becomes ‘A woman who rules over subjects‘, now only used in ‘poetical’ or ‘rhetorical’ senses. But in extended Middle English usage, it’s refined to ‘A woman who is the object of a man’s devotion; a mistress, lady-love’.

That’s No Lady, That’s My Wife.

Here we enter the troubled seas of courtly love, that pretty part of medieval culture peopled by sighing knights sitting under rose-bushes. Supposedly ‘invented’ by Eleanor of Aquitaine, at her court in Poitiers, it was brought to England with her marriage to Henry II in 1152.

Fra Angelico, Madonna of Humility

Fra Angelico, Madonna of Humility, c.1430

The basic idea was an almost iconoclastic worship of your lady-love, whose favours you sought through brave deeds, refined behaviour and that sort of thing. The highest ‘favour’ was the fantastically ambiguous ‘naked embrace’ (although you might well sleep with an unsheathed sword between you), and your ‘lady-love’ didn’t have to be a viable option – she could be married, generically unavailable, or just someone you’d never met but heard lots about down the alehouse. She was a spur to bravery, swordplay and courtliness, not, like, your girlfriend.

Lay Lady Lay.

But courtly love was emphatically not a concept that elevated hoi polloi: your lady would be a lady in the fourth sense of the word (‘a woman of superior social position’) and quite possibly also in the specific extended sense of the second, ‘the female corresponding to lord’ (Lord and Lady Godiva).

In contrast, peasants ‘are impelled to acts of love in the natural way like a horse or a mule’, in the words of Andreas Capellanus, who quite literally wrote the rule book for courtly love. Capellanus advises his readers to steer clear of the ‘game’ of love where the lower classes are involved, and, if overcome with lust, to ‘find a suitable spot [and] not delay in taking what you seek, gaining it by rough embraces’1 .

And such attitudes are never far from this most ‘pretty’ of love-traditions – a lyric in the Carmina Burana (c.1230) tells what happens when, despite ‘long service’, the lady still denies her knight ‘the final and best stage’:

She rampages with her sharp nails, tears my hair, forcefully repels my violence. She coils herself and entwines her knees to prevent the door of her maidenhead from being unbarred. But at last my campaign makes progress; […] I tighten by embraces our entwined bodies, I pin her arms, I implant hard kisses. In this way Venus’ palace is unbarred.

The ambiguous power-structure at the heart of being someone’s lady could hardly be clearer.

All this said, if you were Specially Virtuous, courtly love was the ideal forum for worshipping a very specific lady – the word’s third sense, ‘Our Lady’, the Virgin Mary. Ah, Mary. Everybody loves Mary, and throughout the middle ages, she picked up honorific titles like a big bit of blue velcro: ‘Our Lady’, ‘Our Blessed Lady’, ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’, ‘the Queen of Heaven’, ‘the Blessed Virgin’ you name it. She even had a special colour-code – white (sometimes red) and blue. Pre-Prussian Blue (discovered in 1704), blues were the most expensive painting pigments, so someone decided MARY SHALL WEAR ONLY BLUE, WE LOVE HER SO.

Nevertheless, Mary has an evil analogue: post-Reformation, there are plenty of references to the ‘Lady of Rome’ or the ‘Lady of Babylon’, an abusive term for the Catholic church in reference to the ‘scarlet woman’ of the Apocalypse. The dichotomy continues outside religion: see also lady‘s more worldly senses: lady of easy virtue, lady of the town, etc.

The Lady Is A Tramp.

In modern usage, lady‘s social standing is ‘loosely defined but not very high’; often, it is ‘merely a courteous synonym for woman‘, giving a strange social gloss to cisgendered biological fact. It was around 1861 (just before Good Wives) that it got its more specific sense as ‘a woman whose manners, habits and sentiments are those characteristic of the higher ranks of society’.

This could be interpreted as Alcott uses it, or, if you are Walt Disney, as exactly what it says: think Lady and the Tramp (1955), one of many poor boy – rich girl tales. The title plays on Sinatra’s song ‘The Lady Is A Tramp‘, which is repeated in strangely sexualised form in the film about the Tramp himself (you could never have a female tramp). The same idea returns in feline form in The Aristocats (1970), where again Society wins but appropriates some of the gritty male spark from the other side of the tracks. For polite desecration only, please.

So a lady can stand for certain upper-class ‘manners, habits and sentiments’ that are in opposition to those of a simple man or woman. From courtly love to the leash and collar set, the feminized force of sophistication calms, restrains, and decorates.

L is for Lady

NEXT TIME: we’ll be halfway through! But not before Hodge takes a little Christmas break. We return in 2011, with M for Marriage.

  1. …all translations are P.G. Walsh’s: it’s too early in the morning to read blogposts in Medieval Latin. []
8 Responses leave one →
  1. Aisling Kenny permalink
    December 20, 2010

    I see an excuse to bring up Little Musgrave! The Lady in that is a Lady, the kind with a castle and stuff probably.
    But really I just want an excuse to make people listen to it. :D
    (ballad-spam is the next big thing, just you wait.)

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 20, 2010

    In some equality and diversity training, people are cautioned not to use the word “lady”, because it is taken to carry a class agenda. As in lords and ladies, I assume, which reminds me of the traditional words of the toastmaster (is there no toastmistress? probably not):

    My lords, ladies and gentlemen…

    This seems to assume that “lady” covers both women of noble birth and commoners. Could this have something to do with a lower status accorded to women? (Read: even women of noble birth are scarcely elevated above the common folk?) A lower status for noblewomen (than noblemen) seems implied by the institution of male primogeniture. Yet everyone knows which lady bore the young lord… who truly knows which lord or knave fathered him? Female primogeniture would make more sense, but would sit ill with the patriarchy.

    • Hodge permalink
      December 20, 2010

      ‘Lady’ is also a catch-all title for more specific statuses (‘duchess’, for example), where it would be roughly equivalent to ‘Sir’ (which could imply ‘viscount’, ‘count’, ‘duke’ etc, without any internal indication of what it means exactly).

      As far as primogeniture is concerned, I will be addressing this very issue in later weeks! Curiously, it is France, which operated the Salic law throughout the time it had a monarchy, that gender is most important (‘No woman shall succeed in Salic land’), to the extent that a man tracing his claim through umpteen fathers and grandfathers could be booted off the throne by a single generational line running through a great-grandmother.

      England’s history seems remarkably untroubled by such issues: while men get the throne first, their sisters are perfectly entitled to rule: witness Matilda, Mary I & II, Elizabeth I & II, Anne and Victoria. In fact, where these issues are concerned, England seems to rather venerate powerful women.

      And as for the father / mother / legitimacy issue, another thing I had to cut out of ‘infant’ was just such an explanation for why medieval literature (in particular) is so full of uncle-nephew relationships. Your sister’s son was a safer bet than your wife’s. Thus Roland and Ganelon, but also, in inverted form, Arthur and Mordred, and the various Shakespeare uncles.

      Am writing through flu. Probably very incoherent / simply restating many just-made points.

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        December 20, 2010

        Yes, the English seem to venerate powerful women. Last summer, I was showing my Mexican friend round London and, explaining the statue of Boadicea at the end of Westminster Bridge, remarked “we English love our queens”.

        Get well soon, Hodge.

  3. Pet Jeffery permalink
    December 20, 2010

    Oh, and have a lovely break, Hodge.

    • Hodge permalink
      December 20, 2010

      I am spending it working as a cheesemonger.

      • Hodge permalink
        December 20, 2010

        Thank you! by the way…

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        December 20, 2010

        Blessed are the cheese makers. :-)

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