Lady Philosophy and La Vieille: Old women, aging bodies, and female authority in late medieval French literature

Melinda Marsh Heywood, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation focuses critical attention on portrayals of the old female body as a means of investigating the politics and interplay of age, gender, and authority in select literary works of the late Middle Ages. I trace the considerable impact Boethius's Lady Philosophy and the Cumaean Sibyl have on portrayals of aging female characters in late medieval French texts such as the Roman de la Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, La Vieille ou les Dernieres Amours d'Ovide by Jean Le Fevre, and Le Livre de Duc des Vrais Amans by Christine de Pizan, analyzing in detail the complex interplay between age and sex, body and authority. Drawing from cultural perspectives on aging and the body as well as gender theory, I discuss both positive and negative, both corporeal and intellectual features of the late medieval literary construct of the "vieille." My thesis takes into account medieval notions of female senescence as expressed in a variety of discursive contexts, especially medical, scientific, moral and didactic. Poised on the threshold between erotic life and sterile death, between esteemed authority and futile senility, the figure of the vieille offers a window onto medieval attitudes towards women, aging, sexuality, mortality, and bodies in decline. In general, aging female characters are denigrated, their authority undermined, and they are perceived as disgusting or threatening figures in male-authored late medieval works, but Christine de Pizan can be seen as desiring to rehabilitate or "correct" these negative images. This dissertation concludes with an examination of how Christine's utilizations of the old woman figure are profoundly innovative, and considers how her strategies to revalorize the figure of the "vieille" are related to her personal attempts at establishing her authority as an erudite woman author in an intellectual milieu that has hitherto been fundamentally masculine and misogynist.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|Romance literature

Recommended Citation

Heywood, Melinda Marsh, "Lady Philosophy and La Vieille: Old women, aging bodies, and female authority in late medieval French literature" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800870.