Neuroscience, Gender Roles, and a 12th-Century Love Story
By Dr. Melanie McBride
Associate Professor, Arts and Humanities at American Public University
Back in 2000, Shelley Taylor and her colleagues introduced us to the idea that flight or fight was a typically male response to stress. Women have another instinctive move that Taylor identified as “tend and befriend,” meaning that women in stressful situations gather social support by talking with friends. It turns out that many things that we know about the brain are actually things that we know about the male brain. For a long time, a woman’s menstrual cycle and fluctuating hormones were thought to interfere with finding reliable results, so researchers used men for their studies and extrapolated the results to refer to everyone. Ugh!
Fast forward to 2014, Ragini Verma, Ruben Gur, and their associates have been able to take images of the water vapor that carries thoughts within the brain. They have taken pictures of our thoughts bouncing around in our heads!
This work has documented clear differences between the sexes. A woman’s thoughts go from side to side as she connects her rational brain with her emotional brain to make a plan. A man’s thoughts go back and forth, so his thoughts are more compartmentalized; his brain goes straight from observation into his action circuits. Verma et. al. concluded that male and female brains are complementary:
“Overall, the results suggest that male brains are structured to facilitate connectivity between perception and coordinated action, whereas female brains are designed to facilitate communication between analytical and intuitive processing modes.”
In other words, men are good at doing, and women are good at communicating. This behavior is consistent with fight or flight and tend and befriend. In each case, men and women are playing to their strengths.
What happens when we apply this new research in neuroscience to the analysis of medieval literature? Let’s look more closely at a book that was wildly popular from the 12th to 15th centuries, Partonopeu de Blois.
In France, a young boy is coming of age. Under the watchful eye of his mother, he learns the skills that he will need to become a knight and a man of standing in the court. One day, he finds a ship on the shore and 13 year old Partonopeu boards the ship and is taken to a magical castle.
There, he meets Melior, who has planned the whole thing. She has chosen Partonopeu and plans to keep him hidden until he’s old enough to be presented as her husband. Until that day, she will remain invisible. Although Partonopeu has some worries, he puts those concerns aside and quickly agrees to the bargain, whereupon they consummate their union.
Everything is fine for a while, but on the advice of his mother, Partonopeu breaks the spell of invisibility, which irritates Melior. She kicks him out, and moves on with her life. Partonopeu returns home to France, and mopes around until friends push him to try again to earn Melior’s love. After he has proven himself, Melior forgives him and they get married.
Consistent with modern studies, Partonopeu goes quickly from perception to action. He’s at his best when he’s given a task that involves spatial processing, like winning a sword fight, and he excels at acting decisively. In times of confrontation, he flees or he fights. He flees when Melior is horrified that he revealed her secret. When he’s facing a more direct enemy, he picks up his sword and he fights.
There is also significant female empowerment in the text, which discredits the generalization that medieval women were doormats. However, their empowerment is not the openly confrontational style favored by men. Female characters are relational, controlling, and passive aggressive. They orchestrate events behind the scenes using a high degree of planning, communicating, and befriending. The most obvious example of this is Melior’s plan to find her own husband, but other female characters also come up with complex plans to achieve their own ends.
This research opens the door to suggesting that the author herself was a woman. The text is rich in description. It doesn’t just focus on events and actions, as many medieval romances do. It seems telling that there are many strong female characters and that men are depicted as slightly foolish. Although the men have physical strength, it’s clear that the women in the text are the brains behind much of the action.
Is this what you would expect in medieval literature? Could neuroscience help us see another side to gender norms in medieval society?
About the Author
Dr. McBride earned a B.A. and a M.A. from the University of Western Ontario before going on to complete a Ph.D. at McMaster University in the field of Medieval Studies, with minors in Renaissance and American Literature. Her thesis examined four twelfth-century French tales of adventure and intrigue to explore the ethical imperatives governing the role of the hero, and then compares the ethic to that found in fifteenth-century English versions of the same stories.
During the course of her research, she has worked with original manuscripts held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK, and at the British Library in London. She was also honored to attend the summer program in medieval studies at Cambridge University that is taught by prominent scholars in the field. She continues to engage in original research on the subject of the trial by ordeal in literature. Once deemed an irrational superstition, scholars are now trying to understand the trial as an instrument of peace in the close-knit communities that characterized medieval Europe. It appears that even showing a willingness to defend your point of view by carrying hot iron or by plunging your hand in boiling water went a long way towards soothing ruffled feelings.