Gendered Cartography: A Modern Reading of Space in The Wife’s Lament, by Tamie Dolny

The concept of space in the Wife’s Lament is difficult and nearly impossible to define; many scholars have attempted to pry open the metaphorical language with varying results. The politics of intimacy create a stark contrast in regards to agency, and while some claim that the ‘wife’ figure is powerful by virtue of language, others note her constant passivity towards masculine action. Gendered discourse around private space is an established feminist field of study. Considering the theorist Jeffrey Weeks’ article “The Sphere of the Intimate and the Values of Everyday Life” in relation to The Wife’s Lament will reveal and produce a work that enables crossover between modern heteronormative societal expectations and worldviews in medieval poetry, as space becomes mutated and binding when the speaker’s ability to initially chase her husband diverges into her inability to access a public sphere. Through a detailed analysis of current scholarship discussing spatial or temporal patterning, this essay focuses on a different approach: that the mutable relationship between ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ defines intertextual politics, rather than the specifics of locale or social status. The often-argued question of whether the feminine narrator is a ghost, a spurned wife or a sacred divine figure is neither the point nor the focus of this analysis; instead, this essay sets out to dissect gendered power through a discourse delving into the binary of public and private spheres. By merging an original Anglosaxon reading of the poem with modern feminist theories, this discussion will center around a female’s situation, character, and agency in regards to space within a text.

The first part of this article will focus on a review of relevant scholarship that deals with textual space, medieval gender relations and dynamics. The second part will deal with Weeks’ theories of sexuality and gender. After establishing a summary analysis of his argument, his thesis will be used to examine The Wife’s Lament in a genre-broadening attempt to further nuance readings of the medieval poem. The final and third part of this essay will grapple with a novel understanding of gendered identity and space, focusing on a linguistic discussion of the poem itself. The relationship between ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ will be analyzed not based off of title (the role of the husband as a lord or a God-figure, etc.) but through the liminal and hazy bond that the two ambiguous figures share. This gendered analysis will help connect modern literary theories regarding sex to a medieval poem that deals with the question of feminine agency. The development of a new cartography mapping out associations between masculine and feminine ability will provide a modern twist to this poem.

To start, this essay will ground The Wife’s Lament in the context of gender dynamics in the Middle Ages. Albrecht Classen writes in The Power of a Woman’s Voice in Medieval and Early Modern Literatures that in standard medieval literature “[y]oung wives seem to have had very little to say and were often subject to their fathers’, husbands’, and brothers’ supreme privileges” (107). Power was seemingly only bestowed upon the female figure when the male gaze was averted: widows, prioresses, and female leaders of monastic communities could gain immense political and religious power, but only when their occupied spaces were devoid of masculine influence. Women could achieve roles of strong social influence, but this social influence required a lack of a social male presence; the feminine could only usurp influence when the masculine was not included (ex. females exerting power in female-only communities). Classen goes on to note that “[m]edieval misogyny and gynophobia were indeed prevalent and dominated almost all aspects of life” (109); yet medieval culture would not have existed without the constantly shifting relationship of male vs. female. It is vital to note that just as in modern society, political communities were shaped through oppositions: the knight was “entirely dependent on the collaboration with the noble lady” (110).

Jane Chance continues on the thread of a marginalized and yet vital female identity when discussing the importance of cultural hybridities and social spaces for the medieval feminine in The Literary Subversions of Medieval Women. Comparing postcolonial theory to feminist impulses in the Middle Ages, Chance relies on Bhabha’s The Location of Culture, noting that the role of feminism in all societies is to trouble the correlation between public and private spaces (3). Stories relating to the feminine often challenge medieval misogyny by resisting emasculation and embracing “literary subversion” (8) through the creation of their own locales and spaces. The relations between contemporary gender dynamics and medieval relationships, as Chance argues, are important in breaking down and understanding a woman’s role in a medieval Anglosaxon context. The female medieval voice promotes a “resistant doubled discourse” (9) where through occupations of space, both “repressive gender systems [and] the other discourse[,] the embodied female voice that disrupts and riots” (9) are depicted. Furthermore, Peggy McCracken in The Body Politic and the Queen’s Adulterous Body in French Romance notes the duality of the feminine body in medieval romance, where the “narrative construction of women’s bodies in medieval French literature” (39) inhabit a liminal zone, devoid of typified spaces. This unique gendered cartography of the Middle Ages clearly calls for an inclusion of modern theory to explain and exemplify problematic gendered discourses.

Moving forward, we can summarize general conflicting attitudes towards depictions of space in The Wife’s Lament itself. A fascinating review of space is provided by Paul Battles in the Philological Quarterly, where he notes the lexical ambiguity of The Wife’s Lament can promote a new understanding of the female narrator’s underground dwelling; his claim is that she resides in a structure similar to a souterrain, as they usually figure in medieval literature as “secret hideaways generally associated with fugitives, who are often women” (268). His note that the wife’s’ location could be a “metaphorical expression of the speaker’s state of mind” (268) provides a more open understanding of the poem’s argument. Robert Luyster, four years later claims otherwise, arguing that the wife is symbolic of the Scandinavian goddess Freyja, and her underworld location seems “indeed to be a picture of the grave itself” (247). Then again, conflictingly, an article written by Joseph Harris on the status of the ‘wife’ and her location argues against the sepulchral dwelling. Harris asserts that it is more likely that the ‘wife’ exists in a Germanic underground house-type, a sunken hut meant for concealment rather than imprisonment. While all three of these articles disagree over the true definition of the ‘wife’s’ space, one common thread can link them all together. All note, self-reflexively, that space can never be fully defined. All that we as readers can entirely determine is that the wife exists in an imaginary vacuum, under an oak-tree. Whether or not that vacuum is sacred or deathly or ‘real’ cannot be determined in full. At the end of the day, we are left with the knowledge that the ‘wife’ inhabits space; we cannot put a name on that space for certain, nor can we determine effectively what that space is. However, we are not entirely directionless – we know the gender of the speaker, and we can analyze how a binary can arise from our linguistic knowledge of her sex.

A feminist reading of the linguistics of The Wife’s Lament has been completed by Barrie Ruth Straus in Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Arguing against observations of “her apparent passivity” (268), Strauss privileges the ‘wife’ as “perform[ing] a series of illocutionary acts” (269). By breaking down the poem into a series of speech-act relationships, Straus makes the fascinating point that the wife occupies space and gains agency through language itself. The assertions she makes help her “[order] her world to correspond to her words” (276). Straus has made the claim that the ‘wife’s’ ownership of space is intensely linked to the linguistic act. The space that should be studied is the linguistic creation of imagination rather than the specifics of whether the ‘wife’ occupies a hut or a basement.

Shifting to a modern focus, Barbara Lalla connects The Wife’s Lament to a postcolonial identity by claiming that the haunting occurring within the text in fact denies spatial agency (55). While Lalla’s article makes some baseless assumptions, such as the statement that the ‘wife’s’ love “turns to hatred and her grief to fury” (56) by the finality of her husband’s “desertion” (56), she creates a fascinating semiotic square to depict the transmission of civilization to wilderness:

Wilderness <———————————-> Civilization

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Non-Civilization <————————–> Non-Wilderness

The import of this diagram will be discussed further in part three, but it is important to note that Lalla is defining space by virtue of what is not space – civilization is not described in mere antithesis to wilderness, but includes a causal relationship with what it is truly not: non-civilization. A series of polarities has begun to develop.

Miriam Muth, in an essay from the collection Women and Language, discusses another modern reading of linguistic space. The article begins by noting that The Wife’s Lament is often packaged as a mystery to be solved, and often understandings of gendered language are glossed over in favor for a quick fix solution. She writes that the modern critic seeking Anglosaxon archetypes “must be somewhat disquieted by the indefinability of this woman’s status and the personal rather than political nature of her allegiances” (67); The Wife’s Lament reflects on an emotional state rather than a narrative argument (68) and in doing so creates semantic ambiguity that can challenge stereotypical readings of the poem as an Anglosaxon elegy or lament. The myth itself must first be reclaimed through the lens of gender (Muth also refers often to Straus’ article) before it can be understood generally through its language.

A summary review of this past scholarship shows that the ambiguity of The Wife’s Lament has previously been falsely advertised as something that can be “cracked”. One common idea that all the authors above have mentioned is that the lucid vagueness of the poem interferes with all attempts to ‘solve the mystery’ of The Wife’s Lament. In order to come to an understanding of spatial discourses and the politics at play between the feminine and masculine figures, the gendered interactions between the narrator and her ‘husband’ must be analyzed from a perspective of sexual agency, specifically through the lens of public and private spheres. It is only with this basis that the poem can ever then move forward to discuss the specifics of social status and identity. To a certain degree, we are going backwards from previous analysis, attempting to permeate the very binary structure that underlies the entire poem: the interlocking relationship between masculinity and feminine identity.

It may seem counterintuitive to analyze a medieval Anglosaxon poem through a queer theorist’s reading of J.S. Mill, but Weeks’ arguments can give readers invaluable insights as to the defined relationship between sexuality and space in The Wife’s Lament. As discussed previously, in order to break down the social bonds that define gendered encounters within the structure of the poem these social bonds must first be understood as individual unions, significant in and of themselves. Weeks’ theory gives us, the reader, this ability. By mapping out the cartography of a sexual community (whether that be homosexual or heterosexual), Weeks can help us gain insight into the discourse between two highly gendered and stereotyped individuals.

Weeks begins “The Sphere of the Intimate and the Values of Everyday Life” by noting the constant and ever changing mutability of the political, social, and intimate spheres of contemporary life. While his reading is based on the radical claim that a social community should always define the borders between “private conscience and public obligation” (644) in order to overcome them, he also constantly notes the improbability of such a desire. In a way, the uncertainty constantly lurking on the edges of Weeks’ paper is reminiscent of The Wife’s Lament; it is incredibly difficult to clearly define social strata without accidentally falling into a hazardous area of ambiguity. Weeks is noting the dilemma of attempting to outline a sphere of influence without stereotyping it or jumping to conclusions as to a broad separation, when in fact public and private spheres often overlap and coincide. This liminal nature can provide a reader with a hazy set of ambiguous differences between public and private interactions. Weeks sets out to confront this problem by positioning personal behavior as vital to public policy: the public mimics what is found to be acceptable in private life. Drawing a literary connection, a piece of literature will represent the hidden values of society; the private morals of the ‘intimate’ are reflected through the public discourse surrounding acceptability. By melding together the relations between public and private and acknowledging their intersections, Weeks effectively balances a discourse that is often muddied by undefined overlap and confusing correlations.

Weeks’ definition of the sphere of the intimate is very important, and is further highlighted here: “[it] refers to those circumstances of everyday life where ‘people live out their personal lives without systematically harmful consequences for those around them’” (Held, qtd. in Weeks 644-645). Applying this definition to The Wife’s Lament reveals a fascinating insight – as the ‘wife’ figure is being punished through isolation (whether self-induced, we do not know), she cannot have been included in the sphere of the intimate prior to the action discussed in the poem. Weeks continues, noting that the location of the private life is preoccupied with the personal aspects of a social life. The purpose of a private existence is simply to seek an “enrichment of our individuality” (648), and reflects the cultivation, ironically, of a public persona. He blends this understanding with a historicist approach to the feminine: Weeks emphasizes that the domain of personal retreat was primarily classified as feminine, or the realm of the female, at least by the turn of the 19th century. The ability to connect emotions to language was used as a technique to console “exhausted working men” (648); it is intriguing to note this in connection to Anglosaxon literature. Not only is The Wife’s Lament unique for its feminine narrator, but it is also unique for its connections to emotional space. Weeks also argues that our modern understanding of the dichotomy between personal and private varied from past civilizations, where ancient Greeks considered a privileging of the private sphere to be dehumanizing: “a man who lived only a private life […] was not fully human” (648) and the British early moderns were concerned largely with a separation of state and personal interests: “[privacy] needed to be safeguarded against arbitrary interference by state officials” (648). Prior to the 19th century, there was no clear identification of a private space as being gendered – Weeks describes it as simply a void, or a loss of social power; this is vital in importance to the development of our argument.

Weeks continues: “[t]he family is a contested space, where there is room for manoeuvre, but also explicit and tacit limits” (649). Regardlless of the exact relationship between ‘wife’ and ‘husband’—whether they are in fact married, lovers, or joined by a divine bond—is a clear social order is being presented by the poem. While it is tempting to read the poem through a feminist lens such as Straus or Muth and argue that the ‘wife’ is regaining control, it is also a somewhat exaggerated reading. The female narrator is lamenting her private sphere publicly—she is denied a space that can be clearly defined, set to haunt a shifting locale that language seemingly evades. Just as Weeks clearly maintains the position that a gendered dichotomy of space only realistically emerges alongside modernity, the absence of a function to the ‘private sphere’ in this medieval poem is the main problem that the ‘wife’ figure faces. She has been relocated to a nonexistent locale, with no social influence; her retreat into the personal represents a loss of power, or a banishment. The poem can almost be read as an eerie prophecy of later feminist criticisms: women abandoned by their husbands, forced to retreat into private spheres, devoid of public influence. The Wife’s Lament is radical and innovative as it foretells the combination of the feminine with a functionless private sphere. The ‘wife’s’ control is now only over the imagination; at most, she is a ghost.

In discussing sexual life and privacy, Weeks considers the right of an individual to everyday life, a right that the ‘wife’ figure is being denied:

A claim to individual right which abrogates our concern for, and involvement with, others is clearly an appeal to individual good over social responsibility and collective involvement. (653)

The application of this statement to The Wife’s Lament can lead us as readers to unique associations with the masculine. The ‘husband’ figure features as above: he abrogates his involvement, whether by choice or not, to his bond with the feminine. Reading this allegorically, the masculine has separated from the feminine through an emotional rejection.

This abrogation can be seen in a close reading of the language of the poem. Lines 6 to 7 read:

ærest min hlaford gewat

heonan of leodum

ofer yþa gelac;

hæfde ic uhtcea

The verb gewítan in line 6 is ‘gewat,’ in the preterite tense. While this verb can often be translated as ‘to see,’ the second translation of ‘to depart’ or ‘to withdraw’ is more useful for the purpose of understanding the relationship between masculine and feminine. In other words, the husband or Lord figure is departing from his people over the sea (‘yþa’)—he has rejected a bond with his wife and abnegates a responsibility to both society and marriage. This suspension of an emotional connection between genders is a clear link to place; there is not only a loss of mental connection, but also a geographical one. The Wife’s Lament is suggesting that a breaking of the bond between genders also relates to an unusual separation of space.

Returning to contemporary theory, the right to equality between genders, Weeks argues, is currently being replaced by the modern right to difference, where gender difference is accepted and neither gender is discriminated against; in other words, they are both equal yet unique. However it is apparent in The Wife’s Lament that this right to difference is not sustained, specifically as denoted by space. Where the husband figure maintains the right of motion or movement, the female is stuck in a specific locale, denied agency. Again, The Wife’s Lament is associating the feminine with a stagnant, powerless privacy; Weeks has given us the framework to conceptualize how this separation through space signifies gendered problems.

Let us return specifically to the lexical curiosities of the text itself. There is a strong chance that the speaker is a woman, due to the feminine conjugation of ‘sylfra’ (1). The noun ‘hlāford,’ loosely translated as ‘lord,’ is clearly masculine. The gendered dichotomy, at least, is set in stone due to the linguistic constraints of the text. An analysis based on space must begin at the first mention of quantitative ownership, which begins in line five:

Ā ic wite won

mīnra wræcsīþa

This line needs a careful literal translation. ‘Wræcsīþa’ can be loosely translated as ‘exile’ and is the genitive plural of a strong masculine noun. The final foot of the line can clearly be denoted as ‘my exile,’ so the question remains as to what is modifying ‘wræcsīþa’ into the genitive case. The beginning of the line suggests that ‘wite’ or ‘punishment,’ a strong neuter noun, is either in the nominative, accusative or dative case. Given the final foot, it’s evident that ‘wite’ (5) and ‘wræcsīþa’ (5) go hand in hand. A loose, bare-bones translation thus would be: “Always I suffer punishment by exile.” The first association of gender and space is that of the feminine with banishment.

The next mention of exile is again associated with the feminine. Line 10 reads:

wineleas wræcca

for mīnre weþearfe

Interestingly, the key to understanding the above line lies in the interpretation of the OE ‘for’ (10). A literal translation, excluding the polysemous ‘for,’ renders it as: “(I was a) friendless exile … ___ my wanderings” (10). The blank space indicates a translation of ‘for’ (10). The most common translations are: for, in, and by. Here is a side-by-side illustration:

(I was a) friendless exile          for my wanderings

(I was a) friendless exile          in my wanderings

(I was a) friendless exile          by my wanderings


Again, we are grappling with a question of space, specifically ownership. Given the initial use of ‘wræcsīþa’ (5) in line 5, we should translate line 10 in a similar vein. The female narrator is suffering punishment by exile; in doing so, she is exiled in her wanderings. In other words, she is denied a secure space.

By line 26, this becomes a problematic reading. The verb ‘dreogan’ (26) modifies ‘forest,’ and thus makes clear that while the female narrator is denied space, she still exists in place. She is forced to dwell in a ‘forest grove,’ under the famous ‘actreo’ (27). It is a paradox. We, as readers, are led to believe that the ‘wife’ is exiled to a spaceless place, and yet we are given a distinct place-marker. A location is impossible, yet one exists, suggesting that it is, in fact, part of the imaginary realm. It is important to now bring in both Weeks and the semantic structure of Lalla to grapple with this dichotomy. Lalla’s original structure defines place by what it is not:

Wilderness <———————————-> Civilization

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Non-Civilization <————————–> Non-Wilderness

Given the ‘wife’s’ position, we can add that exile is synonymous with a ‘forest grove’; the true wandering comes from a dissociation with civilization and masculine forms of social structure. While the masculine figure leaves his people (6), the female figure is left behind, remaining beyond the limits of civilization. Line 16 of The Wife’s Lament reads:

ahte ic leofra lyt

on þissum londstede, (16)

Directly translated, the feminine voice is tragically calling out: “I have little friends (beloveds) in this land” (16). While the male figure has physically removed himself from his people, the feminine voice is separated from the patriarchal social community around her. The Wife’s Lament is revealing a clear allegorical stance towards the binary of male and female: with the removal of the masculine element, the female is denied acceptance within the physical bounds of a medieval community. The poem continues, revealing by line 27 that “on wuda bearwe” (27) (loose translation: “in [a] forest grove”) is the continuation of this hidden metaphor. As the wife herself notes, “wīc wynna leas” (32) (loose translation: “dwelling-place devoid of joy”). In other words, she remains stranded in a place without happiness.

In order to understand the poem, it is not important whether the ‘wife’ actually resides in a cellar or a Germanic half-buried hut. Instead, we can read the poem as an allegory for a place of ‘non-civilization.’ The space that the wife so constantly defines is simply devoid of gendered interaction. In the penultimate line of the poem, she concludes with the phrase “wynlicran wīc” (52) (loose translation: “[a] happier dwelling-place”), reflecting on the husband’s remembrance of a happier home. The ‘wife’ is defining space as impossible; her descriptors of ‘oak tree,’ ‘forest grove,’ and other dark surroundings seem extraneous to the main point. As The Wife’s Lament is clearly an excerpt from the Exeter Book, could we make the argument that all of these descriptors are simply a way of allegorically describing a woman’s loss of emotional power over a relationship? This is all, it seems, that we can prove for certain. The key to breaking down the linguistic structure of The Wife’s Lament lies not in a definition of realistic geographic space, but instead in an understanding of the poem as a hidden metaphor for gender relations. By line 42 interpretations turn the gnomic message into a final curse – the lament turns angry:

blīþe gebaero

swylce habban sceal

sinsorgna gedreag

eac þon breostceare,

A literal, brief translation of the above three lines is: “thus he must have a cheerful face, yet with many sad cares in his heart.” The claim is that of a woman who no longer can occupy the social space of power around a relationship. She consoles herself allegorically by declaring that her partner simply appears happy, but in fact misses her. The gendered cartography is clear: the feminine wilderness is a metaphor for her loss, the non-civilization surrounding her emotions, while the masculine civilization is once again lost to her with the conclusion of the relationship.

Reading this poem as a poem is incredibly difficult given the plethora of scholarship attempting to define The Wife’s Lament. The scholarly consensus that a specific place can be defined stifles creative interpretations of the work. Instead of reading the gender relationship as defined by ‘real space’ or time, a modern interpretation (relying on Weeks’ unique take on public/private interactions) can elucidate the fact that The Wife’s Lament, just like the riddles from the Exeter Book, is a hidden allegory. The relationship and association of genders to emotional space helps clarify and denote this liminal gap between reality and imagination. The view that this article takes in claiming that The Wife’s Lament presents an allegory for the emotional end of a relationship may be seen as varyingly too simple and too controversial for many. Why mention an oak tree if there is no actual oak tree? Why elude to a wilderness if the speaker is not actually in a wilderness? The answer may not be satisfactory: there is still an oak tree, just as there is still a wilderness. However, these entities reside in the imagination of the feminine narrator, as metaphors for her internal pain. The dichotomy created between language and meaning allows for an explanation that is almost painfully simple: the language is not entirely representative of the speaker’s real experience. In performing a spoken poem, the tale features the emotional involvement, rather than the physical. This combination of private and public spheres and the opening up of feminine emotion to detail masculine abandonment clearly creates a revolutionary work of Anglosaxon literature where the ambiguous mystery is often over-read. Instead, truth can be condensed through the understanding that in poetic riddles, sometimes emotions can usurp reality. As a result, this gendered discourse privileges the female local sphere over the rigid masculine standards of social interaction, and in doing so, radically alters our comprehension of truth within poetics. The Wife’s Lament can and should be read as an allegory for feminine grief, and the ambiguity of the poem should lead us as informed readers to interpret not exact location, but instead a general sense of a cartographic gendered space.


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