Today I had the amazing privilege of attending and speaking at my very first academic conference, the Seventh Annual Symposium on Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University (SLU).
As soon as I get my footnotes in proper format, I’m going to upload the paper I gave on academia.edu (great resource for all you researchers out there), so I thought I would share it here as well. It is basically a 20 minute version of the same argument I give in The Once and Future Queen, just WAY pared down. Hope you enjoy!
Changing Minds, Changing Role: Guinevere Throughout Literary History
When you think of Guinevere, chances are good two other names spring to mind: Arthur and Lancelot. For nearly two thousand years, she has been defined by the men in her life and the sin she committed. But the Guinevere of Arthurian literature is so much more. She is a bellwether of society’s views toward women, a character that changes over time as history’s thoughts on women evolve. She is a representative figure of the fears, hopes, lusts, and dreams of society, a figure ever morphing to meet the needs of her reader.
While a full account of Guinevere’s evolution is beyond the scope this presentation, I will endeavor to show through a handful of examples how she has served as both a warning and an aspiration for women over the last two thousand years.
Beginnings and Geoffrey of Monmouth
Guinevere begins her Arthurian journey in Welsh poetry and literature as very much a peripheral character, an object with no real identity or agency outside of her interactions with Arthur. The earliest mention of her is in the story “Culhwch and Olwen,” which is part of The Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh tales first written down between 1100-1225, but believed to be much older. Here she is little more than a symbol of Arthur’s court and its wealth. This is a silent, objectified role that she will play often in the future, even in the famous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and is in keeping with the way women were perceived by the Celts.
While Celtic women were better off than their Greek and Roman counterparts, the Celtic world was not a matriarchal utopia, nor did its women have equal rights, as some like to believe. While they had many rights and laws that protected them, Celtic women could not act as witnesses, could not enter into contracts without their husband or father’s consent, and had limited rights of property ownership and inheritance. Even “a queen had no official or special legal rights independent of her husband.”
Guinevere is also mentioned in four of the famous Welsh Triads, mnemonic devices dating to the ninth century meant to preserve early folklore, mythology, and oral history. Here we find the idea that there may have been two or three Guineveres and the condemnation of Guinevere as one as one of the unfaithful wives of Britain: “One was more faithless than those three: Gwenhywfar, Arthur’s wife, since she shamed a better man than any of the others.” Some see this as proof that Guinevere had a bad reputation from the beginning, but others believe it was a later addition, written after Geoffrey of Monmouth introduced Guinevere’s affair with Mordred into Arthurian legend.
Either way, without Monmouth, there would be no Guinevere as we know her. His pseudo-history The History of the Kings of Britain contains very little information about Guinevere: only her lineage, her betrayal of Arthur with Mordred and her flight to safety in a convent. In fact, she is mentioned only six times and never directly speaks, establishing a tradition of passivity it will take hundreds of years to break, but is perfectly aligned with early medieval views of proper female behavior.
The Middle Ages are widely considered one of the worst times in history to be female. Powerful priests used the Bible—specifically the story of woman being created by Adam’s rib and St. Paul’s admonition that women should be subservient to men, remain silent, and never teach—to emphasize the superiority of men and sinfulness of women as descendants of an immoral Eve. The Virgin Mary, meek, mild, and completely obedient to God’s will, was seen as the paragon of womanly virtue.
Medieval woman were classified according to their sexual status, rather than their occupation: they could be virgins, wives, mothers or widows. Their role was strictly to support the life desired by men. And when they went against societal expectations, like Mary Magdalene, they had to repent. Hence, Geoffrey of Monmouth has Guinevere first join in Mordred’s rebellion against Arthur, then flee to a nunnery for protection. There “she took her vows among the nuns, promising to live a chaste life,” silent, submissive and humble, just as a medieval woman was expected to behave.
Chrétien De Troyes
The next major figure to shape the character of Guinevere was Chrétien De Troyes, a twelfth-century poet who invented the love affair between Guinevere and Lancelot as an example of courtly love, likely at the behest of this patroness, Marie de France.
In his tales, Guinevere is a cold, shrew-like character who berates Lancelot as proud because on his way to rescue her, he hesitated a moment before stepping into back of a cart, lest he appear to be a common criminal. While this may seem like odd behavior, both characters are following the rules of courtly love, which insist that the man be almost obsessively in love and willing to do anything, even humiliate himself for his beloved, and that the woman be wanton and jealous and “correct any behavior in her lover that does not follow the rules of courtly love.”
In Chrétien’s stories, Guinevere and Lancelot’s love is one of bliss and joy with no hint of remorse, which is in keeping with Marie de France’s ideal of courtly love. Although sexual relations are rarely portrayed as part of courtly love, it is possible that Marie—if she was indeed the source of the affair storyline—may have been using it as a bit of reverse psychology to emphasize the exact opposite of accepted courtly love behavior, which kept love at a safe spiritual distance. In this way, Guinevere and Lancelot served as a warning to the members of her court.
The Vulgate Cycle
Not long after, in early thirteenth century, The Vulgate Cycle (also known as Lancelot-Grail Cycle) was written. Believed to be the work of Cistercian monks and clerics, the Vulgate Cycle is five interconnected tales telling the story of King Arthur from his birth to his death. These stories are the first to associate Guinevere with witchcraft and the Guinevere/Lancelot affair with the need for religious repentance from guilt.
As in earlier stories, Guinevere has no personality of her own, existing solely as an object of affection for the men in her life. Some believe she isn’t meant to be seen as a person, but as a symbol of Lancelot’s fatal flaw—loving her costs him the Grail and brings about the fall of Camelot. Here again we see her not as a woman in her own right, but as a person beloved by Lancelot, the Eve to his Adam who brings about his downfall.
It very well could be that the monks who penned this version of Guinevere, being chaste and cloistered away from the outside world, simply didn’t have the experience with women necessary to craft a convincing female character. Or, it could be that they were more interested in getting across their religious message of the evils of woman and the importance of repentance than in representing Guinevere accurately. Whatever the reason, they cast a long shadow of guilt that become more prominent as the popularity of the Arthurian legend soared at Thomas Malory’s hands.
Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur is one of the most famous works of Arthurian legend. It is the one that firmly placed a Christian King Arthur in the Middle Ages and made Guinevere a main character. In fact, she can even be seen as the prime motivator of the story, as she is the reason Lancelot goes on adventures and demonstrates his skills as the best of knights. Plus, her affair with Lancelot is what ends up allowing Mordred to usurp the throne. 
Like the story, Malory’s Guinevere is complex, and often contradictory, which can make it difficult to get a handle on exactly who Malory intended her to be. She is hot and cold with Lancelot and changes seemingly without motivation from a noble figure to a conniving adulteress and then again to repentant nun. This is likely the result of the disjunction between Malory’s varied source materials and his own views as he grappled with a sin he was forced to include, but then had to find a way to redeem.
Under Malory’s pen, Guinevere is symbolic of several things. First, of a woman’s role in helping her man attain heavenly perfection. Throughout the tale, Guinevere “tries to repair Lancelot’s flaws.” This is why she refuses his final kiss; by doing so she is in effect ensuring salvation for them both.
She is also symbolic of an ideal queen, a role at which she both succeeds and fails, and therefore appears contradictory. On one hand, she is a capable supervisor and helpmate to Arthur, yet she fails to produce an heir, which is her most important duty. In succumbing to her feelings for Lancelot, Guinevere also fails in her fidelity to her king, which is the supreme duty of any subject, especially the queen. Later, in becoming a nun, she takes on the role of repentant sinner and acts as the guardian of morality for both the female sex and the court of Camelot, and by extension, as a warning for the women of the Malory’s time.
Renaissance and Victorian Eras
After Malory, the Arthurian world—especially in relation to Guinevere—went into something of a drought until the nineteenth century due to shifting morality after the Reformation and the association of James I with King Arthur.
This negative mood reigned until the Victorians revived interest in all things Arthuriana. When Tennyson introduces Guinevere in Idylls of The King, she is already with the nuns at Amesbury, anonymously in hiding because of the affair with Lancelot and the ensuing war. Tennyson is one of the first writers to acknowledge the significance of Guinevere by allotting her an individual idyll.” To build her character, he started with the self-absorbed, scheming manipulator of Malory and Chrétien, but made her more well-rounded with clear internal conflicts that give her a life outside of the actions of men around her.
Tennyson’s Guinevere is a character torn between her duties to a man she does not love and the love she feels for a man she cannot be with. Arthur is presented as a godlike, perfect figure. Conversely, Guinevere is human and weak. In her affair with Lancelot she “betrayed both her public duty of assisting Arthur in his creation of a moral” kingdom “and her private vows to the husband who deserves her love and fidelity.” With sins of this magnitude, her only hope for redemption came in suffering that moved her to sincere and deep remorse.
Like Victorian women, she is “condemned by the very conventions she is forced to enact.” To be a woman in the Victorian era was to be subject to contradictions on a daily basis. Women were at once indispensable because they brought forth life, and utterly perplexing in a male-dominated world, especially once they showed a willingness to go against cultural norms and began, for the first time in history, to demand their rights. Guinevere’s prime sin, adultery, was decried from the pulpit and the judges’ bench, yet was the most rampant open secret of Victorian society – yet it was only acceptable behavior for men.
This hypocrisy was brought about by a flawed model in which women were expected to be submissive examples of physical and spiritual purity, the angels in the house. But because Guinevere refused to conform to the submissive wifely role her husband and her society prescribed, she became not only a threat her marriage, but to social order, and the signifier of all threat to that order.
With apologies to William Morris, T.H. White, and others could be discussed, we will now skip forward in time to the early 1980s, when, with the exception of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “featherhead” Guinevere in The Mists of Avalon, the character began being treated with respect and was equal to King Arthur for the first time. Penned primarily by women, she became a real person who was shaped by her past, with hopes and ambitions of her own. This Guinevere was the embodiment of the modern woman’s dream, able to handle anything, to overthrow the patriarchy and finally usher in the elusive era of equality women had been actively campaigning for since they first whispered the notion of suffrage nearly two hundred years before.
The first modern author to show Guinevere as Arthur’s equal was Parke Godwin in his early 1980s novels Firelord and Beloved Exile. His Guinevere is a woman with agency, intelligence, and a willingness to act according to her own whims. She is equal to Arthur in education, experience, and will, completely at odds with the meek, jealous, temperamental woman of previous legend. This is a Guinevere for the modern age, one who will rule alongside her husband and claim her worth in her own right rather than allowing others to define it for her. She is a fitting symbol of the time when women were beginning to come into their own as people, both in the workplace and in the home, demanding an end to the sexual harassment that plagued them for so long and speaking up for equal rights.
Beloved Exile was the first story to explore a non-cloistered life for Guinevere after Arthur’s death. It is likely not coincidental that in this same period women were beginning to enter the workforce en masse and take responsibility for their place in business and society as well as in the home. Hence, we see writers like Godwin placing additional emphasis on the administrative nature of Guinevere’s role as queen.
Another example is Sharan Newman, whose 1981-1985 Guinevere trilogy is still one of the best-known, most studied, works of modern Guinevereian fiction. She was the first to explore Guinevere’s youth, but also to give her a clear character arc that spanned the entire trilogy and helped the reader grow attached to her even as she matured. Her books “closely follow Guinevere’s voyage from a woman always relying on male wishes, desires, and rescues, to a truly adult woman who makes her own choices and therefore lives independently.” This is perhaps best reflected at the end of the second book when Guinevere says to Lancelot, “All my life, I waited patiently for someone to come along and rescue me. But with Mordred, I knew no one could. And I stopped waiting. After all these years, I finally rescued myself.”
Guinevere’s journey is one many women of the time could relate to. These readers were born in a more father/husband-centric time, and after a few decades of living, woke up to see themselves as individuals who didn’t need to depend on the men in their lives to survive, financially or in any other way.
As the 1980s came to an end and the 1990s began, Persia Woolley was penning a completely different take on Guinevere, described by one scholar as “arguably the most outspoken and independent of all the Guineveres written by feminist Arthurian authors.”
In Wooley’s trilogy, Guinevere is very much Arthur’s equal. When she learns that Arthur would like to marry her, she weighs the pros and cons of his proposal with her father, considering first what it would mean for her people, as she views herself as their mother. When she accepts, Arthur takes her as his co-ruler, granting her power and listening to her innovative ideas. This, too, is consistent with the mores of the time, when the idea of the “man of the house” was gradually fading and men were ceding marital power in favor of establishing a more equal married relationship. Women were also holding the offices of mayor, governor, and congresswoman for the first time, so it is not surprising that Woolley allowed Guinevere to rule while Arthur was away, a success he later acknowledges.
With the decline in popularity of feminism at the end of the twentieth century, authors and publishers soured on the idea of Guinevere, no longer seeing her, and the feministic power she represented, as relevant. According to a 2002 study, “no fewer than forty books on Arthurian themes were published in the United States in the year 2000 alone,” but only a handful were written from the female perspective.
Enter self-publishing in the late 2000s. These authors, freed of the constraints of what agents and publishers believed would sell, looked at the market, realized it had been more than a decade since a Guinevere book was published, and took up the call to arms. Nearly a dozen versions of Guinevere’s story – from historically accurate historical fiction to paranormal fantasy and romance involving vampires and faerie changelings – have been self-published in the last five to ten years. These Guineveres are a far cry from the character’s docile, silent origins; rather, they are heroines for the #Metoo era, women who are strong, intelligent, sexually liberated and in charge of their own fates. Even when their main storylines echo those of Monmouth, Malory and Tennyson, these Guineveres triumph, carrying the Arthurian legend forward and positioning it for future generations.
From a silent object or possession and a living morality tale highlighting the importance of repentance from sin, to a warning of proper Victorian female behavior and an inspiration to second and third wave feminists, the character of Guinevere has undergone massive changes as the role of women in society has evolved. She has reflected the best of womankind as a helpmate and moral guardian, as well as the worst as a shrew and wanton whore, until, finally in the modern era, under the pen of female authors becoming a reflection of their hope for equality. Given this pattern, there is no doubt that Guinevere will continue to change as society does reflecting both our aspirations and fears of female power until the day the war of the sexes comes to an end and Guinevere can finally take her place beside Arthur, ruling Camelot in parity and peace.
 Macleod, Sharon Paice, Celtic Myth and Religion: A Study of Traditional Belief (Jefferson:North Carolina, McFarland & Co., Inc., 2012),188.
 Fries, Maureen, “The Poem in the Tradition of Arthurian Literature” in The Alliterative Morte Arthure: A Reassessment of the Poem, ed. Karl Heinz Goller (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer), 31.
 Leyser, Henrietta, Medieval Women: A Social History of England 450 – 1500 (London: Phoenix Press, 2003), 93.
 101 Monmouth, The History of the Kings of Britain, 259.
 Comer, “Behold Thy Doom,” 16, 22.
 Walters, “Introduction,” lxi.
 Howey, Ann, “Once and Future Women: Popular Fiction, Feminism and Four Arthurian Rewritings,” (PhD thesis, University of Alberta, 1997), 28.
 Comer, “Behold Thy Doom,” 72.
 Ross, “The Sublime to the Ridiculous,” 193.
 Walters, “Introduction,” xxxi.
 Wyatt, “Women of Words,” 135.
 Jillings, L. G., “The Ideal of Queenship in Hartman’s Erec,” in The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages : studies presented to A.H. Diverres by colleagues, pupils, and friends, eds. B. Grout et al. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer; Torowa N.J., U.S.A.: Biblio Distribution Services, 1983) 123.
 Gossedge, Rob and Stephen Knight, “The Arthur of the Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend, eds. Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putte (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), 103.
 Ross, “The Sublime to the Ridiculous,” 32.
 Gordon-Wise, The Reclamation of a Queen, 49.
 Bonner, “Guinevere as Heroine,” 51, Comer, “Behold Thy Doom,”53.
 Umland, Rebecca, “The Snake in the Woodpile: Tennyson’s Vivien as Victorian Prostitute,” in Culture and the King: the Social Implications of the Arthurian Legend, eds. James P Carley, Valerie M Lagorio, and Martin B Shichtman (Albany: New York State U of New York P, 1994), 283.
 Comer, “Behold Thy Doom,” 65.
 Bonner, “Guinevere as Heroine,” 8.
 309 Ahern, “Listening to Guinevere,” 105-106.
 Gordon-Wise, The Reclamation of a Queen, 128.
 Newman, Sharan, The Chessboard Queen, 248.
 Cooley, “Re-vision from the Mists,” 32
 Cooley, “Re-vision from the Mists,” 28
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