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Gendering Death in Middle English Translations of the Epistre Othea

Middle English writers, regardless of their knowledge of classical myth, occasionally swap genders of characters in Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea (c. 1400), a work in which Christine’s invented goddess Othea instructs Hector of Troy in virtues, including those that might help him avoid his own death. The two independent fifteenth-century translations, Stephen Scrope’s Epistle of Othea (c. 1440-60) and the anonymous Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod (c. 1450), both misrepresent women as men, sometimes by accident, and at least once, I argue, to signal participation in alternative iconographical and textual discourses.

Stephen Scrope initially uses the masculine pronoun “his” for Echo in the texte of two manuscripts and the feminine “hire” in the third, but all three manuscripts correctly identify her as a “womman” in the glose (chapter 82). The translator of the Lytle Bibell of Knyghthod admonishes the reader not to be like “Narcisus the mayd,” followed by feminine pronouns throughout (chapter 16), although Narcissus is a “yong man” when he is the object of Echo’s affections (chapter 82). These alterations represent clear misunderstandings and I would suggest, in the Bibell’s female Narcissus, a stereotypical association of women with pride. However, the confusion of Atropos, a female Fate, as male in both translations should be traced instead to contemporary images of Death in the later Middle Ages.

In classical texts, the three Fates control the threads of all human lives: Clotho weaves, Lachesis measures, and Atropos cuts each life thread. Because the final task falls to Atropos, it is easy to see how she became associated with Death. In Christine’s three-part chapter, a poetic texte introduces Atropos, a moralizing glose warns the reader to remember that death that will eventually come, and a spiritual allegorie clarifies that Atropos signifies death and ultimately should evoke the Resurrection and eternal life for Christian audiences (chapter 34).

Christine supervised the production of illuminated miniatures in Paris, BNF fr. 606 and London, British Library, Harley MS 4431. The image marks Atropos as a woman with a bared and sagging breast even before the texte introduces her:

Harley 4431 fol. 111r


Ayes a toute heure regart
A Atropos et a son dart
Qui fiert et n’espargne nul ame;
Ce te fera penser de l’ame. Gabrielle Parussa, ed. Epistre Othea (Geneva: Droz, 1999), chapter 34, lines 2-5.

[At all times have regard for Atropos and her spear, who strikes and spares no soul; that will make you think of your soul.]

In the image, Atropos menaces the Pope and princes, as well as other figures without ornate headgear, illustrating how Atropos-Death spares no soul and is the great equalizer.

The French term for death, “la mort,” is grammatically feminine and would seem to lend itself to a feminine personification, but Middle English lacked such gendered nouns, and late medieval writers in general were less strict about matching the genders of personified figures to French or Latin nouns. Without access to the illumination, there is but one textual indicator that Atropos is female: Christine’s use of the feminine past participle, in the first line of the allegorie: “Atropos, qui est nottee la mort” [Atropos, who is noted as death]. In medieval manuscript copies, the feminine “ee” ending could be obscured, misread, or willfully ignored by a scribe or translator, but that may not have mattered for English poets who likely imagined Death as a masculine entity.

The skeletal and presumably male figure of Death was far more common as a Christian image than Christine’s complex and unusual image of Atropos-Death.Millard Meiss, “Atropos-Mors: Observations on a Rare Early Humanist Image,” in Florilegium Historiale: Essays Presented to Wallace K. Ferguson, ed. J. G. Rowe (Toronto, 1971), pp. 151-59, notes that Christine’s female Death is unusual.  Even early printed editions of the Othea, retitled Les cent histoires de Troy [The Hundred Stories of Troy], by Pigouchet, LeNoir, and Wyer (in English translation) revert to presenting Atropos as a threatening skeleton.

Pigouchet, Les cent histoires (c. 1499/1500)

Neither Scrope nor the Bibell translator had access to Christine’s image of Atropos, and in the English literary milieu, male images of Death predominate. Chaucer’s thieves in The Pardoner’s Tale set out to find and kill a male Death (e.g., lines 699-700, 710, etc.). Death in Piers Plowman leaves no man standing in battle and is marked by masculine pronouns (C.22.96-105). Lydgate depicts Death as a male swinging “his sythe [scythe]” in The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (lines 24825-828), a translation of Guillaume de Deguileville’s Le pèlerinage de la vie humaine, which originally featured an old woman as Death.Text from Geoffrey Chaucer, Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); William Langland, Piers Plowman: The C-Text, ed. Derek Pearsall (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1978); and John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the life of Man, ed. F. J. Furnivall, EETS, e.s. 77, 83, 92, 3 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1899-1904). However, Lydgate recognizes that the Fate Atropos is female: in Troy Book 3.4925 and Fall of Princes 1.5006-33 and 3.3665-78, he refers to Atropos as feminine and to the Fates unambiguously as three sisters (by name in these instances but also elsewhere collectively).John Lydgate, Fall of Princes, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS, e.s. 121,122, 123, 124, 4 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1924–27); and Lydgate’s Troy Book, ed. Henry Bergen, EETS, e.s. 97, 103, 106, 126, 4 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1906–35). Death is male, but Atropos is female.

As a result, Atropos becomes male for our English translators, eliding the dual genders present in Christine’s complex allegorical interpretation. Scrope uses a male pronoun and also errs in his translation of Christine’s texte, which tells readers to take heed, “Bothe to Acropos crafte and to his spede [strength].” Perhaps Scrope misread “dart” as “d’art,” which explains the translation of “crafte,” but the reference to strength is his addition. The Bibell translator’s rhyme royal stanza expands significantly on Christine’s figure:

Take hede alsoe toward Attropos,
Whose dolefull dart confoundyth many a knyght.
For thee were better be take among thi fooes
Then to abyde the sterne stroke of hys myght.
To hym perteyneyth the eend of every wyght.
He spareth nother hye nor lowe degre.
He is full hard; in hym is no pyte. (Chapter 34, lines 1-7)

The five instances of masculine pronouns leave no doubt that the Bibell translator imagines a strong, stern, malevolent male Atropos. Both translators, when imagining the figure that will cut down Hector of Troy and other accomplished knights, can only conceive of a strong man.

This may be particularly true for the Bibell translator, who inserts Atropos into later chapters 90-91 that depict the circumstances of Hector’s death. Christine’s Othea laments Hector’s impending demise, and Christine uses the narrative to instruct her reader in virtues Hector failed to acquire. But the Bibell translator presents a voice assertively insisting that death would be forestalled if Hector would just exercise the appropriate virtues:

Remembre wel alsoe that thou schall dye,
Werof the tyme I schew by my wordes certeyn.
Atrops schal withdraw hys hand to [until] thou disobey
Kyng Priamus, thi fader, wyche schal do hys peyn
Thee to require [entreat] and make turn ageyn
Fro the journey [battle] dolorous. Wefor, therof bewarre,
For to [until] this performed be, deth schal ey thee spare. (Chapter 90, lines 1-7)

The opening of the next chapter reports the specific way Hector will die and dangles the prospect of his salvation before Hector/the reader:

Yet I schal thee tell how thou schalt escape
The grett stroke of Atrops, yf it so wyl be. (Chapter 91, lines 1-2)

In the Bibell’s formulation, Atropos will restrain the fatal blow and Hector could plausibly escape death if he is virtuous (and not stooping, unarmed to despoil a king’s corpse). Death becomes what Hector and all readers are ultimately fighting and arming themselves to battle. By rendering Atropos masculine, the Bibell translator creates a central antagonist opposed to Hector and every bit Hector’s equal in strength, hardiness, and masculinity.

Such a move denies a female classical figure control over late medieval Christian readers, and both translations blunt Christine’s provocative image. But whether the translators accidentally misunderstood or actively removed a potentially feminist image, their translations demonstrate the power of dominant (read: male) iconographic and textual traditions over Christine’s more imaginative, female exemplar of Death.

By Misty Schieberle, University of Kansas