The following is the text of the paper I gave at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference held in San Francisco on May 11th and 12th.
Like many conferences, it was difficult to choose which session to attend because there were many topics that sounded interesting. With that in mind, I wanted to share this online for those who were not able to hear my talk.
Deconstructing Carolingian legends to discover feminine archetypes and symbolism
Before I start, I want to get a sense of the room. How many people here are familiar with Arthurian legends? Now, how about Carolingian legends?
I want to first give an overview of Carolingian legends for those unfamiliar with them. The word Carolingian comes from the Latin Carolus Magnus, meaning Karl the Great, better known to us as Charlemagne. The legends of Charlemagne are just as luxurious of a source material as the legends of Arthur, but without any debate as to whether or not Charlemagne was an historical figure, he was, and the legends about him were stories created to entertain and not considered as history.
I will touch on the most popular aspect of these legends in art and drama so that you will be able have discussions with people who may only be familiar with the legends of Roland (in French) or Orlando (in Italian). The most famous of the legends of Charlemagne is the Chanson de Roland or the Song of Roland. Written in the eleventh century by a Frenchman, it was loosely based on a real defeat of Charlemagne's army in 778 in the Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. The historical events are rendered into mythology. There are other stories comprising the Matters of France, not all were written by Frenchmen, but they all deal with legends of Medieval France. Similarly, the Matters of Britain were not all written by British writers, but they concern Medieval Britain.
Some of the largest sources of Carolingian legend, and what I will be discussing today are two epic poems written by Italians. Orlando innamorato (Orlando in love) was written by Matteo Maria Boiardo and the first version was published in 1483 and another version with more cantos was published posthumously in 1495. He stopped writing his story when the French army invaded Italy in 1494. He found it impossible to lionize the heroic nature of fictional Frankish warriors when real French warriors were attacking the various duchies on the Italian peninsula.
A decade or so later, Ludovico Ariosto was commissioned by the same patrons to continue Boiardo's unfinished tale. Ariosto's Orlando furioso (Orlando enraged) became more famous than its predecessor and was first published in 1516, so we will soon be celebrating its five hundredth anniversary.
Those poems were pure fiction and written to entertain and flatter the poets' patrons the noble house of Este in the northern Italian city of Ferrara. The stories depict wars that never took place between Christian and Muslim armies and were undoubtedly influenced by the Crusades, which occurred centuries after Charlemagne's death in 814.
The two poems follow the title character of Orlando, a famous paladin of Charlemagne, and his unrequited love for Angelica the princess of Cathay. Once Orlando discovers that Angelica has married another, he goes insane. The story has multiple interweaving plotlines and numerous disparate settings from Europe and North Africa to Asia.
Boiardo's epic featured an invasion of the Frankish Empire by the North African Muslim army and the war was finally finished in Ariosto’s tale. There were brave knights, scoundrels, bloody sieges, enchanted realms, sorceresses, wizards, a flying hippogriff as well as the brave female warriors, Bradamante and Marfisa.
These stories inspired many artists such as Doré, Fragonard and Ingres. There was a special exhibit in 2009 at the Louvre in Paris featuring the art inspired by Orlando furioso. There are also at least a dozen operas that cover portions of Ariosto's masterpiece. Cervante's classic novel Don Quixote includes mentions of the poem and William Shakespeare even borrowed a dramatic set-up from the fourth canto of Orlando furioso for a scene in his famous comedy "Much Ado about Nothing."
Most people who are somewhat familiar with these stories know of Orlando's love and madness, but they are not as familiar with Bradamante's story which began as a subplot, but wound up becoming front and center in the story at its conclusion. In Italian, her name is pronounced Bradamanté, whereas the French pronunciation is Bradamante. Because she is a Frankish character, I use the French variant, but both are correct.
I feel Bradamante should be as famous and as well examined a character as Guinevere, Morgan le Fay and the Lady of the Lake.
The first time I read Orlando furioso was nearly ten years ago and I was startled to discover such a strong female character in literature. I had a hard time believing that this feminist character was written centuries ago, by a man, and I wondered why I had never heard of her before.
I see Bradamante as being a blend of two similar archetypes: Joan of Arc and Athena. Bradamante is depicted as riding on a white horse, bearing a shield and plume of white, having cropped hair and disguising herself as a man. She also has the nickname "The Maid." Since Joan of Arc was killed in 1431, it is reasonable to think that Boiardo and Ariosto were inspired by this real life heroine as they were writing their fictional heroine.
The major difference between the Maid of Orléans and Bradamante is that the fictional character was not persecuted for her military prowess, but instead heralded and valued as a military commander. She was the niece of Charlemagne and came from a distinguished military family. Her interest in warfare was not due to hearing divine voices, but instead military duty was in her blood. Charlemagne had also been a powerful monarch for many years before his niece was born, so unlike King Charles VII of France, he was not threatened by this warrior maiden's influence with the people.
Similar to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and victory, Bradamante is depicted at the beginning to have a heart unmoved by men. That is until Ruggiero, a Saracen warrior, performed an uncommon act of chivalry on her behalf on the battlefield. This led to their talking to one another and experiencing Love at First Sight. Ruggiero was descended from Hector of Troy and strove to live up to the image of his noble ancestor as the perfect knight.
Bradamante and Ruggiero represent an impossible love as they are warriors on opposite sides of a holy war. Symbolically this impossible love is represented in the story by the hippogriff, a mythical creature that is part eagle and part horse, and first described in Virgil's Ecclogues as being born of the mating of natural enemies of griffins and mares. Griffins were fierce protectors of gold and raiders rode horses in efforts to steal gold, leading to the animals' enmity of each other. Ariosto was the first author to use the hippogriff as a character in literature.
Bradamante and Ruggiero's bliss at finding one another does not last and they are soon cruelly separated.
This love story of Bradamante and Ruggiero shows an inverse on what we have come to expect with the hero cycle as described by Joseph Campbell with his thesis the Hero With a Thousand Faces. Instead, Bradamante's story arc is more in line with the Heroine's Journey as described by Valerie Estelle Frankel. Bradamante, a fair damsel, is given the Call to Adventure and is told she must rescue her beloved who is being held captive by a wizard in an enchanted castle. After rescuing Ruggiero, her next task is to persuade him to be baptized as a Christian and marry her. In so doing, their union will bring forth generations of heroes who will, in time, lead to the noble house d'Este of Ferrara.
This is far different from traditional quest stories with a young man fighting evil in order to save his world from destruction. Instead, Bradamante is told that her ultimate goal is marriage and motherhood. There is a tragic element however, for it is also foretold that Ruggiero will be betrayed and killed before the birth of their child.
This next part is not symbolism or archetypes, but I wanted to share with you the qualitative difference in plot structure than what we have become accustomed to. While Ruggiero is the orphaned youth raised in obscurity, it differs from most stories in that there are two prophecies with divergent fates for Ruggiero. Should he remain a Muslim, he would bring about the defeat of Charlemagne devastating Christendom. These stakes are compounded with dueling magical forces trying to influence which fate will come to pass.
There are other feminine archetypes appearing in these poems that are worth mentioning. The character Angelica, the object of Orlando's romantic obsession, is described as the most beautiful woman in the world and caused every man to fall violently in love with her. She is the archetype of Helen of Sparta (and later Troy) who was the catalyst for a war with multiple suitors vying to possess her.
There is also Alcina, a sorceress who uses her magical powers to appear youthful. After tiring of her lovers, she transforms them into trees and shrubs - retaining them as souvenirs of her conquests. This echoes the story of Circe from Greek mythology.
Another female character you should know about is the other warrior maiden Marfisa. She was abducted as a small girl, sold into slavery, and has a deep-rooted hatred of men in general. She survived a rape attempt by her king by killing him. She then slaughtered the king's guards until she was declared Queen Marfisa. That was the first of many kingdoms she conquered. Marfisa represents a destructive force of womanhood in that she conquers but does not govern. I see her as the archetype of Nemesis, the goddess of retribution.
Marfisa and Bradamante appear to be opposites at first. Marfisa is a Muslim while Bradamante is a Christian, and they are both attracted to Ruggiero. Only when it is revealed that Marfisa is not a romantic rival for Ruggiero's affections, do the two women put aside their differences and become fast friends and allies.
These legends are also filled with symbolism. The richest symbolic scene is when Bradamante is given the Call to Adventure in a cave, recognized symbolically as the womb. Melissa, an old enchantress, tells Bradamante of the two prophecies surrounding Ruggiero and what is expected of her. Melissa represents the Crone. Bradamante is a warrior maid who is being asked to become a wife and mother. The two women together comprise the three aspects of the triple headed goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone. Bradamante represents the Blade being transformed into the Chalice by the Power of Love.
|National ASWM Board Member Anne R. Key and Linda C. McCabe|