Chaucer invented 'womanhood' to fill language gap

Tara Williams

For nearly two centuries in medieval Britain, the word manhood existed but womanhood did not. Women could be categorized linguistically and socially by their marital or sexual status as maidens, wives, and widows, but there was no collective term in Middle English to denote their experience outside of or beyond these social roles and sexual identities.

In the aftermath of the plague in the late fourteenth century, women’s roles expanded temporarily as they gained greater access to financial opportunities and began to marry later or pursue spiritual authority through increasingly popular forms of lay piety.

“As a result, a gap developed between social reality and extant vocabulary,” said Tara Williams, a Research Fellow and assistant professor of English at OSU. Her Center project, “Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Late Medieval Literature,” explores how this lexical and conceptual gap was addressed, first by Geoffrey Chaucer’s invention of a constellation of related terms such as femininity and womanhood, and then by the ways in which his contemporaries and followers, male and female, adapted the terms to fit their own social conceptions and aesthetic aims.

Williams’s approach combines feminist theory with recent new directions in language study. “While philology is a long-standing component of literary studies, new scholarship has focused on the social and political aspects of language development and patterns of usage. Consequently, critics are challenging the traditional view that Chaucer is ‘the father of the English language,’ single-handedly responsible for creating the vocabulary and style that transformed Middle English from being merely serviceable into a suitable language for literary texts.”

Williams does not fully accept the argument that, rather than reflecting his poetic genius, Chaucer’s innovations were due simply to his participation in a necessary practice for writers working with the limited resources of Middle English. The word womanhood offers a striking case study, as she explained in her research proposal.

“First, although most ‘new’ Middle English words were borrowed from French or Latin sources, ‘womanhood’ is a true neologism. There is no exact contemporary French or Latin equivalent. Second, Chaucer uses it throughout his canon, not in response to his sources, but as an important interpolation that reshapes them.

“Third, other late medieval writers react to his usage and remake ‘womanhood’, both the word and the concept it denotes. Together, these usage characteristics suggest that Chaucer created ‘womanhood’ to address particular linguistic needs, both aesthetic and historical, and that later writers found the term to be significantly useful and productively variable.”

The original meanings of womanhood were highly disparate. In the decades after its first appearance, it was applied by medieval writers to the Blessed Virgin Mary and other feminine paragons of beauty and virtue. It also was applied to beastly and diseased women, Amazon warriors, and even men.

In studying the evolution of ‘womanhood’, Williams explores as well the underlying notion of ‘womanliness,’ which she said has received little attention in feminist analyses of female characters and writers. “Because ‘womanhood’ and its related terms become registers of historical variation, studying those terms involves studying representations of women at the most foundational level – language itself.”