Nino Chakunashvili                                                                                                                                                                    # 1

The Woman in the Western and Georgian Literature of the Middle Ages

            The culture of the Middle Ages was of great importance in the formation of the woman’s nature and role. It was in the Middle Ages that they started to see the woman in quite different perspective. It seemed as if the Middle Ages discovered entirely new qualitative in the woman seen as a source of good and not that of evil. As it is known Christian culture gave rise to two radically different opinions about the woman, two antipodes - wicked Eve and the Virgin. Though these views were more popular and actual in the west, not in Georgia where the woman had never been much detested.

            Quite a lot of works and researches have been written on this topic we may, for instance, name some of them, such as С. Шейхе - История женщини в средние века; М. Лабарж - Женщины в средневнковой жизни; А. Лукас - Женщины в средние века (J.M. Ferrante, J.H. Tavard, J.Duby...).

            The woman’s nature used to be a matter of interest long ago: Andocentric culture had been forming ideals of cultural images for thousands of years and in the process males had been considered far more important then females.

The woman’s role and status in the mythology and tales is rather important. The Western mythology is full of surreal, magical women who are unearthly creatures, though their chosen owes are earthly men. In the early Celtic literature women choose their husbands themselves and are very much respected. The fact is that the woman plays a rather important role. Scientists have already come it the conclusion that the chivalry novels of the Middle Ages were based on the love stories of the Celtic Mythology.

            The same is the case in the Georgian mythology. We learn from the Tale about Amiran that his father is a usual mortal, but his mother is the goddess of hunting - Dali. The characters of Georgian fairy-tales are usually beautiful woman and the lot and denouement of the story is closely connected with them.

            Christianity has basically changed a lot of things in the thought and culture of the mankind. It has had stays at which various images of the woman appeared and changed. E. Eshevski, a Russian scientist, writes that at one of the church meetings in already Christian Europe various discussions took place whether the woman was a human being or not. After stating numerous contradictory opinions one of the theologians presented much as argument: In the Bible Christ is God’s son, but on the earth he is Mary’s or the woman’s son. So the woman is a human being; otherwise her son would not be Our Saviour. There were no other contradictory arguments and the woman was recognized as a human being (Eshchevski 1870: 132).

Those who maintained that the woman by her nature was physically and intellectually imperfect appealed to the phrase from Old Testament according to which God created the woman after creating the man, from his rib and for him and nothing is mentioned whether He breathed life into her or not.

            In New Testament the woman is considered in quite a different way. According to Matthew Mary is not only Christ’s Biological, but his spiritual mother as well. The woman has not ruined mankind; she has saved it giving life to its Saviour.

            Before dealing with the culture of the Middle Ages and woman’s role in those centuries we should consider the woman in Georgian literary works of the early period, namely in Shushanik’s Torments”, where Shushanik is described as the woman, mother and finally saint. Although Shushanik’s rights are restricted, she is not a helpless woman, like those described in the works of Western or Eastern writers of that period. Shushanik is an independent person, a great defender of faith, a martyr, but still a woman who can not forgive her husband his faults. (Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature 1963)

Zenon’s sister in Grigol Khantsteli’s Life too is a strong woman who chose and married her husband herself, though her family was against it. (Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature 1963)

            All that shows that the woman’s status in Georgia of that period was stronger than it was in Europe.

            The Middle Ages as the synthetic mixture of antique and Christian cultures have inherited lots of things from both of then and away them were the views about the woman.

            Isidore of Seville in one of his works gives an etymological explanation to everything that exists in nature. “According to him the Latin word vir (man) comes from the word vis (strength) and is connected with the word - virtus (doing kind things). As for the word mulier (woman), it is derived from the adjective mollis - meaning (weak, soft, fragile)”. (Tavard 1973: 167)

            The woman is highly estimated by Peter of Lombardi (XII c). He maintains that the woman is made of the man’s rib and of no other part of him. If she had been made of the other part of the man, of the head, for instance, she would have had to rule over him; If she had been made of the man’s leg, she would have had to serve him; but she is neither a ruler nor a slave. So the man should know that he must consider the woman his equal in rights and their relations must be based on love.

            The woman is even more highly estimated by other authors. For instance, Umberto of Romania (XIII c.) thinks that the woman has some qualities given to her by God that the man has not. “For instance, the man is made of clay, while the woman is made of the rib of the perfect man. That’s why she is more refined and perfect. Pilate’s wife and Mary Magdalene tried to avoid crucifixion, while men did not do anything for that.” (Sharer 1983: 76).

            It should be marked, that in Georgia the woman had never been considered the source of evil. Georgians had never had debates whether Eve was the source of evil. On the contrary, in Georgia, the country which is under the Virgin’s protection, the woman had traditionally been respected.

            In the reign of Queen Tamar she was idolized. Queen Tamar’s contemporary writer Nicolas Gulaberidze in his work SakiTxavi suetisa cxovelisai underlines the role of the woman. According to some authors Ioane Shavteli in his Galobani varZiisa RmrTismSoblisani praises Queen Tamar.

            Since XI century Mary’s cult increases alongside with the cult of knighthood. In the Knight’s circles a peculiar form of worship towards a beautiful woman is observed. Such kind of love was based on the following principles:

1.       There is no happiness in marriage.

2.       A knight must serve his woman and satisfy her whims.

3.       The ideal of a knight and that of the knight serving his woman was almost identical. One could become a real knight only by being courteous to his woman and the indispensable condition was keeping silence, patience and devotion.

      Troubadour’s poetry is more mystical and inspired with Platonic love. Hence the woman who is worshiped by a troubadour is more ephemeral and elevated. In the Middle Ages the ground had already been prepared for seeing in earthly beauty the reflection of divine beauty.

          There is an inspiration belonging to some abbot on the door of a church saying – by means of earthly beauty soul reaches true beauty that is, it speeds from the earth to heaven.

          So it is not surprising that the poets praising women’s earthly beauty mentioned angels together with them and sometimes they saw even God in Their sweethearts. In the poetry of the Middle Ages the virtue and, in the first place, the beauty of the woman was considered immortal. It really deserved elevated love and such love was worth of apogee.

          That is why Pierre Vidal, while looking at his beloved, sees God is her. And some poet says that four hundred angels’ smile can not be compared with the smile of one’s beloved.

          It is interesting that Rustaveli who praises his characters with exquisite and elevated metaphors, never compares them either to angels or deities. Rustaveli’s characters are lit up by the Sun, their beauty rivals with the beauty of the sun.

          Rustaveli’s earthly love is value in itself. It is the thirteenth century Guido Guincheli (1240-1276) wrote: loving the woman makes the man as noble as loving God”. (Badel 1969: 84).

        In this respect, Byzantine culture, with which Georgia had close relationships, deserves attention. Here in the Middle Ages the religious concept of love was important but not the only one. In the Byzantine novel of the XII century authors advanced the aesthetic side of love. The earthly love which had been anesthetized, acquired different colouring. It became more important to describe characters’ beauty, to tell their lyric stories. Love between a man and a woman was worth of all kind of praise and Love should and in marriage. All that satisfied the ethical norms of the Middle Ages.

          We have surveyed briefly the woman’s role and status in some of the early literary works of the Middle Ages. We may conclude that the woman described in Rustaveli’s poem is sublime, with noble manners. In Rustaveli’s time there were some etiquettes of behaviour. Woman in Rustaveli’s poem like those described in Greek novels never betray. Characteristic of their love is complete emancipation. Woman is equal to man and has the same rights. The same is the case in Songs about Nibelungs where Bremhilda commits suicide after Siegfried’s death, though, it must be noted that unlike French literature, In German literature conjugal infidelity is seldom found.

          The Greek novel with its ideals has more in common with Georgian The Knight in the Panther’s Skin~, than the Western novel, where men patiently fulfil women’s humiliating caprices.

          The ideal of Rustaveli’s poem is setting down to married life, while according to Western literary works there is neither happiness nor love in married life. Ulrich Liechtenstein (XIII) states such a fact: A knight falls in love with a woman who already has a beloved. The woman pities the knight and promises him that if she ever loses her beloved she will love the knight. The woman marries her beloved and at that very moment the knight asks her to keep her promise and then brings as action against her.

          In spite of much view, works describing conjugal love can be found in the West too (Flamenca, Eriek and Enid, Perceval...).

          But it should be noted that Rustaveli with his ideals left Europe behind by preaching conjugal love, equality of rights among men and women, general equality which is actual even in our epoch.


  1. Badel  1969: Badel  P. Y, Introduction a la literature francais du Moyen Age, Paris, 1969,  (in French)

  2. Eshchevski 1870: Eschchevski C. V. Woman in Medieval Western Europe, Moscow, 1870. (in Russian)

  3. Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature 1963: Monuments of Old Georgian Hagiographic Literature, Book I (5th-10th cc.), directed and edited by Ilia Abuladze, Tbilisi, Publishing House of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, 1963 (in Georgian)

  4. Sharer  1983:  Sharer A , History of Woman in the Middle Ages, N.Y., 1983, (in French)

  5. Tavard 1973: Tavard J.H, Women in Christian Tradition, Notre Dame, 1973, (in English)





Volume 3, Issue 2


Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature

Georgian Electronic Journal of Literature