Medieval Feminism; the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Project 2)

For my first half paper I wrote for this class, I wrote all about toxic masculinity in medieval literature. The summary was problems with men and “manly” thinking basically. An issue with my paper, just like medieval literature as a whole, I completely ignored women. I figured the only just way to rectify this situation was to right about feminism in medieval literature, and because frankly it is a super unique and interesting subject to sink your teeth into. Feminism as a whole has been something that has been greatly unappreciated since societies ever existed, so looking into different medieval perspectives on what feminism looked like eating a BeanBoozled jelly bean, because you never know what your going to get. To get a decent sample of medieval feminism, we will be looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly examples. The texts to accomplish this task are Othello by William Shakespear, Paradise Lost by John Milton, and Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish. The last of which is the prime example of good feminism within the medieval era. It is important to remember the good examples of feminism while discrediting the bad and ugly versions. This essay will inform you on what to look for when reading medieval literature, starting with Cavendish.

Unsurprisingly, the best example of feminism literature we will be looking at was written by a female. Cavendish is an amazing voice for females throughout history because she was probably the most published woman of the 17th century, publishing plays, essays, criticisms and poetry, as well some of the earliest proto-science fiction. In 1667 she became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society – a bold step which was not repeated for centuries.” (English Heritage). Looking at what made Cavendish such an amazing voice for females is easy to see when looking at Blazing World. Cavendish was able to talk about her different philosophical beliefs, scientific theories, and predictions on the future through her book. These ideas would normally be discounted because she was a female, but her theories were able to have some validity through her writing. It goes without saying that this is empowering for women. 

Ignoring Cavendish as the author for a second, Blazing World offers a lot of critiques on medieval masculinity. Through Blazing World, you can see a world in which a female is able to have power in a society ruled by men. Firstly, the Empress would have given more powerful roles/jobs to females. “After the Empress had thus finish’d the Discourses and Conferences with the mentioned Societies of her Vertuoso’s, she considered by her self the manner of their Religion, and finding it very defective, was troubled, that so wise and knowing a people should have no more knowledg of the Divine Truth; Wherefore she consulted with her own thoughts, whether it was possible to convert them all to her own Religion, and to that end she resolved to build Churches, and make also up a Congregation of Women, whereof she intended to be the head her self, and to instruct them in the several points of her Religion.” (Cavendish, 59). Then Cavendish shows how/why female’s could rule better. Men would travel to different lands, seeking out other cultures, and stealing their science and technologies for their own use. Cavendish uses the Empress to show how a female would rather explore these cultures and collaborate with them rather than just stealing from them all together. “In Blazing World, the ‘Tyrannical Government’ of men is replaced by a magical and mythological mode of female rule” (Trubowitz). Whether men or women are better at ruling isn’t the argument of this paper, rather pointing out how Cavendish used a fantastical story to give women a chance to be seen in power while at the same time giving her own thoughts and opinions on the universe, something that was largely disregarded at the time for females. Blazing World is a good example of feminism during the medieval era, but now it’s time to move on to the bad with Othello.

Othello is largely described as racial play that makes comments about the alienation of minorities and how people would take advantage of them. Yes, this is true but I think the less talked about theme, feminism, is just as a important to talk about because of how the play has a lot of positives and negatives for feminism. Shakespear promotes feminism by utilizing an incredibly strong female character through Desdamona. Desdemona throughout the play stands up for what she believes in and doesn’t blindly follow the men in her life like the other female characters in the play. She even stands up to her very powerful and influential father to be with her true love. “My noble father,/ I do perceive here a divided duty./ To you I am bound for life and education./ My life and education both do learn me/ How to respect you. You are the lord of my duty,/ I am/ hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband,/ And so much duty as my mother showed/ To you, preferring you before her father,/ So much I challenge that I may profess/ Due to the Moor my lord.” (Shakespear, I.iii.179–188). Desdamona is also given power in Othello. She has physical power over Othello through her sexuality, and is so powerful, it ends up being her downfall when Othello is jealous. Shakespear giving a strong female character power is great for feminism on paper, but it wasn’t done properly.

Desdamona is a victim of the patriarchy. Shakespeare reinforces the idea that it’s a man’s world and nothing will change that. Even when a strong female is given power over a man, she is still, in the end, going to be defeated by the man. She did fight her father to be with Othello, but she was more given to Othello rather than allowed to do what she wanted. Once she was given to Othello, that was it, she was locked into being a possession to Othello. “Desdemona herself declares that “I am obedient” (3.3.99), continuing to obey Othello’s orders from the early honeymoon phase of their relationship through to the later stages of his jealous actions. Even when he orders Desdemona to go to her bed towards the end of Act IV, she still replies with the submissive “I will, my lord” (4.3.10). In her final breath, she still remains true to her husband, saying “Commend me to my kind lord” (5.2.153) and provides Othello with an alibi that he does not use. She appears to have completely accepted her role as subordinate and obedient wife.” (Massie). Shakespeare ends up having Othello literally physically kill Desdamona to get this point across that men will be more powerful than women. Othello is a bad example of feminism, but still has some upside behind it. It is nothing in comparison to the ugly version of feminism in Paradise Lost.

Calling Paradise Lost an “ugly example of feminism” is just a clever way of calling Milton’s work misogynistic. Looking at all the female characters in Paradise Lost, there’s Eve… and well, that’s it. One Female in this entire epic poem, very impressive Milton. Good luck trying to pass the Bechdel test in the film adaptation. Anyway, the character Eve could have some powerful qualities and give power back to females, but Milton is more interested in promoting religion at the expense of females. 

The prime example of misogyny is the difference between Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. The way it reads is that Eve was tricked by Satan into eating the fruit and she was clearly at fault for disobeying God. Adam on the other hand ate the fruit as a selfless act because he loved Eve so much and couldn’t be without her. “On th’ other side, Adam, soon as he heard/ The fatal Trespass don by Eve, amaz’d,/ Astonied stood and Blank, while horror chill/ Ran through his veins, and all his joynts relax’d;/ From his slack hand the Garland wreath’d for Eve/ Down drop’d, and all the faded Roses shed:/ Speechless he stood and pale, till thus at length/ First to himself he inward silence broke.”(Milton, Lines 888-895). They both ate the forbidden fruit, thus they are both at fault, but Milton writes it as if Adam’s reasoning for eating the apple was much more noble and justified then Eve’s reason. Eve even seemed to be created by men from the evil parts of them.  “One of the very first things that the Bible makes concrete, and that Milton’s rendition of the Genesis account most certainly builds on, is the idea that females were created from the rib of a man, specifically from the left-hand side of a man—a side notorious for evil.” (Whitfield, 58). Milton probably got a 1/10 on the feminism scale, not very impressive.

Now that we have seen good, bad, and ugly versions of feminism, what do we do with this information? It is important to remember early medieval feminism to see how it has evolved so we can utilize it today, and not make the same mistakes. Learning any and all forms will obviously be a net positive no matter what, but don’t discount the early writing because it is still important. Due to the lack of proper feminism in the medieval era, it is important to highlight books like Blazing World to empower women. Recognizing the faults of past writers to not make the same mistakes is also extremely important. Feminism is more complicated then it used to be, but is vital more then ever to keep up the momentum before works like Blazing World would all be for none. 


Cavendish, Margaret. “The Blazing World (1668) – Scholarly Edition.” Digital Cavendish Project, 9 Feb. 2018,

English Heritage. “Margaret Cavendish.” Margaret Cavendish | English Heritage, Accessed 11 Dec. 2022.

Massie, E. (n.d.). Inside NKU: Northern Kentucky University, Greater Cincinnati Region. A Feminist Critique of Othello. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from 

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost: Book 1.” Paradise Lost: Book 1, Accessed 11 Dec. 2022.

Shakespeare, W., Shakespeare, W., Choy, J., & Chan, C. S. (2021). Othello. UDON Entertainment. 

Trubowitz. (n.d.). Materializing adaptation theory – Retrieved December 12, 2022, from 

Whitfield, J. (n.d.). The invisible woman: Eve’s self image in paradise lost. jonathan … Retrieved December 12, 2022, from;sequence=1

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