The Beggarwoman: A Symbol of Resistance and Empowerment


The Beggarwoman: A Symbol of Resistance and Empowerment

The beggarwoman is a common figure in literature, art and folklore. She is often portrayed as a marginalized, oppressed and pitiful character who lives on the fringes of society. However, the beggarwoman can also be seen as a symbol of resistance and empowerment, challenging the norms and expectations of her time and culture.

In this article, we will explore some of the ways that the beggarwoman has been represented in different contexts and genres, and how she has used her voice, agency and creativity to subvert the dominant narratives and assert her identity and dignity.

The Beggarwoman in Medieval Literature

One of the earliest and most famous examples of the beggarwoman in medieval literature is the Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath is a wealthy and independent woman who has been married five times and has travelled extensively. She is not ashamed of her sexual appetite and experience, and she uses her wit and rhetoric to defend her views on marriage, love and gender roles.

The Wife of Bath tells a tale about a knight who rapes a young maiden and is sentenced to death by King Arthur. However, the queen intervenes and gives him a chance to save his life if he can find out what women really want within a year. The knight wanders around the country, asking various women for their opinions, but he cannot find a satisfactory answer. On the last day of his quest, he meets an old and ugly beggarwoman who promises to tell him the secret if he agrees to do whatever she asks. The knight agrees, and the beggarwoman reveals that what women really want is to have sovereignty over their husbands and lovers.

The knight returns to the court and gives the correct answer, but he also has to keep his promise to the beggarwoman. She asks him to marry her, much to his horror and disgust. He tries to persuade her to take something else instead, but she refuses. She then gives him a choice: he can have her as she is, old and ugly but loyal and faithful, or he can have her young and beautiful but fickle and untrustworthy. The knight decides to let her choose for herself, thus granting her sovereignty over him. The beggarwoman is pleased by his answer and reveals that she is actually a fairy who was cursed by a witch to look like an old hag until she met a man who would respect her wishes. She then transforms into a young and beautiful lady, and they live happily ever after.

The tale of the Wife of Bath and the beggarwoman is a clever critique of the patriarchal society and the misogynistic stereotypes of women in medieval times. The beggarwoman represents both the lowest and the highest status of women: she is poor, old and ugly, but she is also wise, powerful and noble. She challenges the knight’s assumptions and prejudices about women, and teaches him a lesson about humility, consent and equality.

The Beggarwoman in Folklore


The Beggarwoman in Medieval Literature

Another genre where the beggarwoman appears frequently is folklore. Many folktales feature beggarwomen who are actually disguised as fairies, witches or goddesses. They test the character and morality of the protagonists by asking for alms or favors, and reward or punish them accordingly.

For example, in an Irish folktale called The Three Sisters, three sisters are visited by an old beggarwoman who asks for food and shelter. The eldest sister refuses to help her, saying that she has nothing to spare. The second sister gives her some bread and water, but with reluctance and contempt. The youngest sister welcomes her warmly, offers her a seat by the fire, shares her meal with her, and lets her sleep in her bed. The next morning, the beggarwoman reveals that she is actually a fairy queen who came to test their hospitality. She curses the eldest sister to become ugly and ill-tempered, she leaves the second sister as she is, neither better nor worse off than before, and she blesses the youngest sister with beauty, kindness and happiness.

In another example, in a Greek myth called Baucis and Philemon, an old couple named Baucis and Philemon live in a small village that is visited by two strangers who are actually Zeus
and Hermes in disguise. They knock on every door in the village, asking for food
and lodging