Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of French

Document Type



This dissertation examines the different ways authors portray female agency in medieval French literature. In focusing on three medieval writers, Chrétien de Troyes, Heldris de Cornouailles and Christine de Pizan, I contend that female agency arises as a result of trauma or crisis. I define my terms as follows: agency is the capacity and intention of performing actions on one’s own behalf. For a fictional character to have agency, therefore, she must be portrayed as having a sense of control and of being the owner of the action she executes. Additionally, I argue that as women characters assume their agency, they also demonstrate autonomy, that is to say that they act freely on personal motives. By the term trauma, I mean that authors put their fictional characters in a situation of severe upset resulting from physical or emotional injury. The word “trauma” originates from the Greek word for “wound”; I argue that agency can be developed during the healing process of an emotional wound. By crisis, I mean an extremely difficult or dangerous situation that, when reaching its most crucial point, forces these fictional characters to take action and make a decisive change in order to escape the predicament they find themselves in. Finally, during an era when gender roles were strictly defined and women were typically deprived of the freedom to make decisions for themselves, female characters had to find unusual ways to attain their goals. As Chrétien de Troyes and Heldris de Cornouailles show, female characters in fiction are especially constrained by tradition or law (before and during marriage); therefore, they need to disrupt social norms or seek the help of other women in order to act on their own volition. Christine de Pizan, by contrast, uses the example of a real person – Joan of Arc, who was alive during her time – to show of female agency becomes a tool to overcome challenges, disrupt social norms, and achieve greatness.



Committee Chair

Jensen, Katharine