Riddle Me This: On Sovergnity, Sexual Mastery, Gender and Class in Loathly Lady Tales and Riddle Ballads

doctoral seminar poetry in the medieval world resized


Riddle Me This: On Sovergnity, Sexual Mastery, Gender and Class in Loathly Lady Tales and Riddle Ballads

Tuesday 9 April 2024, 3pm

Online - Register via Eventbrite. 


This event is part of the ongoing Doctoral Seminar ‘Projecting Poetry’ and will be held online on Teams. To obtain the link, please register to the following Eventbrite link.

Registration closes 2 days before the start of the event. You will be sent the joining link within 24 hours of the event, on the day and once again 15 minutes before the event starts.

For further information, you can contact Ugo Mondini at ugo.mondini@mod-langs.ox.ac.uk


Speaker: Orit Klein Vartsky, PhD candidate at the School of Cultural Studies, Faculty of Humanities, Tel Aviv University

The paper  discusses Loathly Lady narratives from late-medieval England (The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,  the medieval ballad ‘The Marriage of Sir Gawain’) alongside their analogous  ballads (“King Henry”), riddle ballads (“Riddles Wisely Expounded,” “The Elfin Knight,” “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship”), and ballads of impossible tasks (“Kempe Owain,” “The Laily Worm and the Macherel of The Sea”), which, I argue, contain  the same plot type as riddle ballads. The English Loathly Lady narratives’ Irish source was a fable on sovereignty of the land personified as a woman, which they altered to focus on gender relations, which have undertones that involve class relations. Popular ballads, a genre contrived by and for the lower classes, use this bundle of relations to make a sharper comment on class hierarchies by making changes to the medieval plots, yet conceal this criticism beneath the discourse on gender. The question concerning women’s desire can be traced in ballads in the form of impossible tasks or riddles. The riddles often have solutions with bawdy or sexual tones which are avoided by the protagonist or antagonist, in favour of a more spiritual or earnest reply. Thus, the lady’s will, which can mean desire, mastery, or sexual urges in Early Modern English, is sublimated, in a similar manner to the one in which the answer to the Loathly Lady’s riddle, ‘what do women most desire?’ has been altered from denoting women’s mastery over men to denoting their sexual desires.




Primary source

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”, The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson,3rd ed., Oxford UP.

Child, Francis James. (ed).   “Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child 1), “King Henry” (Child 32), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: In 5 volumes. Folklore Press, 1957.

‘Marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell.’ Medieval English Literature, edited by Thomas J. Garbáty, Heath, 1984, pp. 418-439.


Secondary source

Atkinson, David. ‘”... The Wit of a Woman It Comes in handy/At times in an Hour of Need”: Some Comic Ballads of Married Life.’ Western Folklore, vol. 58, no. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 57-84.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. "The structural study of myth." The journal of American folklore 68.270 (1955): 428-444.

Poetry in the Medieval World Network