Women as Agents of Desire in Middle High German Literature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis provides new readings of the role of female figures as sexual agents in several different genres of male-authored, Middle High German literature between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries: Partonopier und Meliur, the Straßburger Alexander, the Eneasroman, Salman und Morolf, Wigalois, Wolfdietrich and several songs by Neidhart von Reuental. Around 1200, we begin to see Middle High German courtly romance and epic give increased space and time to the involvement and development of female figures. Looking closer at how male authors claim authority over what it means to be a woman in these textual contexts will further the discussion of how a discourse of female sexual desire that differs to male desire is created in medieval literature. At its core, this is a thesis about the treatment of women and the construction of femininity, but in exploring these gender issues, it also asks to what extent female identity and desire impacts its male counterpart. Each chapter looks at a different intersection with gender that adds an additional layer of othering to the mix.

There is a consensus that female figures can and do test gender norms, but a wide- reaching study of several secular genres of medieval German literature is yet to appear.

Such a study will not only help to broaden the understanding of the function of female figures within medieval literature more broadly but will also pay due scholarly attention to the intersections between and constructions of gender, sexuality, and agency and how these constructs are formed by a process of desire.

Whether they realized it or not – the male authors exploring the agency and desire of these female figures ask their audience to think on how the feminine is configured, and – more broadly – how identity is formed. Placing women at the heart of the question of agency is essential to understanding how agency is enacted within the patriarchal systems within and beyond the pages of the medieval text.
Date of Award1 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSarah Bowden (Supervisor)

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