Date of Degree

10-2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor(s)

Mario DiGangi

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature

Keywords

early modern, gender, identity, marriage, medieval, women

Abstract

Precarious Wife intervenes in the propagation of the binary--of privilege and marginalization--inherent in discussions of the institutional identity of wife in the medieval and early modern periods by exposing the vulnerability and malleability of the category often ignored or minimized in discussions of pre-modern women. Drawing on Judith Butler's work on vulnerability, this dissertation questions the normative trajectory of daughter, wife, widow for medieval and early modern women that excludes people with alternate narratives or identities. While men's subjectivity spanned multiple identities based on their class, rank, career, religious practices, community, and networks of kinship, women were almost exclusively defined in relation to a male authority. The limitation of "wife" as the lens through which we discuss medieval and early modern women requires critique. Despite cultural expectations of social cache and stability that marriage was presumed to afford, many wives found themselves in precarious conditions because of their marital status. By continuing to view wifehood as the primary and desirable classification for women, modern scholars risk re-inscribing cultural narratives of the idealized good wife while overlooking how women appropriated the narrative for their own ends in order to combat the vulnerability, coercion, and violence that they faced due, in part, to the expectations of deference that defined the role of good wife. By attending to the instability of marriage and uncovering the permeability of conjugal relationships, this dissertation analyzes what happens to women who lose their connection to their central male authority: their husbands. In doing so, this project refutes the notion that "wife" was a stable and knowable category sufficient to define women by showing that it was partial, at best, and ideologically inscribed, at worst.

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