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A Feminist Lens Critique on Bradamante’s Role of Gender and Being a Warrior

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3491 words Published: 19th Oct 2021

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In Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso, Bradamante is an important protagonist because she is a woman warrior. She is a progressive and transgressive protagonist because she was at the forefront of this evolution in women’s roles and women being represented as warriors. She bended the social norms to show the potential of women gender roles and how they can change according to the times in the Renaissance of the 1500s. Bradamante can be viewed and interpreted through the lens of a feminist because she was pushing boundaries to change the concept of how and what women were represented as at that time. Bradamante was the catalyst of this new era. Bradamante is a quintessential part of this poem and can be interpreted through a feminist lens in the way she questions and changes boundaries about gender norms and women in the military, which stands out in the Renaissance period and is still being questioned today.

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Ariosto had a stylistic writing approach as he made the audience as well as Sacripant assume that Bradamante was a man in the beginning cantos. This writing style was implemented intentionally. Ariosto alluded to the mystery of this until her identity was finally revealed. Primarily, this was done by utilizing masculine articles and nouns in Italian and masculine nouns in the translated English version to not differentiate between the gender. In Italian, there are adjectives, articles and nouns that can be written ending with an O for singular or ending with I for plural words. This was done purposely to allure the reader in and make them intrigued. The audience would be tricked by Ariosto as reading this just like the Sacripant would be tricked to assume that the white warrior is a man instead of a woman.

In the first canto of Orlando Furioso, Bradamante’s identity is revealed in a cunning and conniving way. As she searches the battlefield for Ruggiero and as she inevitably crosses paths with Sacripant who at that moment was trying to rape Princess Angelica. Bradamante arrives during this attempt, beats Sacripant, and kills his horse. Sacripant didn’t know he was defeated by a woman until he was told by a page. Bradamante is first introduced as a white knight who battles Sacripant and disappears without a word. Ariosto uses description to show how the knight made the entrance: “His raiment was white as snow, and a white plume crested his helmet. King Sacripant could not endure this importunate fellow’s arrival, just in time to interfere with the pleasure which lay in store, and the look he darted at him was fraught with menace (Ariosto, 1.66-67).”

King Sacripant thought of this “knight” as another roadblock in the middle but he was astonished when he was informed that it was a woman. Even though the opposing knight wore White, Sacripant couldn’t fathom it may have been a woman. Sacripant didn’t comprehend that symbolically white can represent a woman since it can symbolize virginity and chastity. This was seen because Bradamante was chaste and this was a literary technique used by other authors such as Virigile in The Aeneid.

Ariosto analyzes the fact that the Sacripant dwelled on his defeat by a woman. He was shocked and immortalized to have endured such a scene. Ariosto captures Sacripant’s mental state by dictating on 1.66:

He sighed and groaned, not because his arm or foot may have been broken or sprained, but simply for shame: never in his life, before or since, was his face so red. This was not only because of his fall, but all the more so in that his lady it was who had pulled the heavy weight off him. He would have remained dumb, I am convinced, were it not that she restored him to speech.

The physical pain didn’t cause Sacripant’s discomfort, it was the emotional letdown and embarrassment It was the shame he felt, and it boiled inside of him. He was in detrimental shock and in awe in the sense that he was stunned and immobilized from this. Ariosto continued to describe the stun that Sacripant felt by demonstrating: “After long and useless reflection on what had taken place, coming back always to his defeat by a woman—the more he thought about it, the more it hurt—he mounted the other horse without a word (1.71).” This quote is signifying that Sacripant felt emasculated. He was upset and distraught by experiencing this and this affected him psychologically as he may have questioned his masculine abilities to be a warrior and protect others. He felt under-minded because he got beat by a woman and that he never expected a woman to be capable of being a warrior. Sacripant feels emasculated by a woman because it belittled him and removed him of his masculine duties and of his purpose. Being a man in the 1500s meant that you were supposed to be bold and strong. As a man, you were supposed to protect your family and be a warrior and not be feeble. He felt that she outdid all his responsibilities. This quote signifies that he remains astonished and in awe that a woman beat him. This concept is an ideology that he couldn’t fathom. Sacripant could never have conceptualized the fact that women would be bold and take a stand as knights.

Ariosto continues to describe Bradamante in a conniving way because he allows her to disappear from the battle with Sacripant without disclosing her identity yet. This tactic was done to conceal the identity and keep with the reader intrigued to find out the identity of the knight. Ariosto describes the scene as the unknown knight drove off into the night without a trace: “The unknown champion, who had remained in the saddle and seen the other overthrown, horse and rider, decided he had had enough of this skirmish and felt no need to carry it further. So he pulled away and rode off at a fast gallop…. (Ariosto, 1.72)” Ariosto implements this stylistic writing approach to make the reveal of Bradamante such a stunning and unbelievable one. He wants to place emphasis on the reveal and the fact that a woman knight has beaten him. Again, the reveal goes back to the concept of it was unheard of and never saw before of a woman knight being a warrior. This would be outside a woman’s role of their assigned gender grappling with men’s roles and duties. The women were intervening or sticking themselves where they didn’t necessarily belong and that would be hindering on the men to be protectors and fight in society.

In 1.69-70, Sacripant demands with arrogancy as to which knight beat him and “unseated” him. The Page informs him that it was a damsel Bradamante and he is astonished to this. Ariosto states:

‘As you see, he has overthrown me, and has only just departed,’ replied Sacripant. ‘Now tell me his name, so that I may know who it was who unseated me.’ ‘On that point’, said the other, ‘I can satisfy you at once. You must know that the rare valour which swept you from the saddle was that of a gentle damsel. / She is brave, but, more than that, she is beautiful. Her name is famous and I shall keep it from you no longer: it is Bradamant who has stripped you of all the honours you have won hitherto’.

This is symbolizing that Bradamante went against the norm of what society represented and defied orders. She left men astonished and bewildered to the fact that she was a warrior ready for battle. She was willing to beat any man that came in her way. Sacripant was in awe that a woman would face him on the battleground and that she would have the audacity to face him.

In Maureen M. Melita’s article "Gender identity and Androgyny in Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Virginia Woolf's Orlando: a biography", she discusses the gender fluidity of Bradamante as she fluctuates from being both masculine and feminine at times. In the play, Bradamante is a strong woman and conforms to domesticity when she gets married but then obtains her weaponry when she avenges her husband Ruggiero’s death. Thus, Ariosto is demonstrating how she fluctuates. Melita elaborates on this concept on pages 129 to 130 as she proves the differentiation between both protagonists:

In Marfisa, there is a total and complete self-assurance of who and what she is, but with Bradamante there is doubt and fluctuation between being a female warrior and becoming the donna gentile: wife, mother and eventual matriarch. Bradamante seems committed to the second option, as she pursues Ruggiero. According to Tomalin, as pre-Ariostian literary works allowed, ‘There are only two types of warrior woman: the bona fide guerriera and the transvestite lady who, in special circumstances, usually to rescue or to seek a lover, dons armor and succeeds in passing herself off as a man’.

Bradamante can be the warrior if she is on the quest for a man, but once she finds him, she will be constrained to the traditional role of donna gentile. Here Melita is arguing the juxtaposition of the masculine qualities with the feminine ones and how that dictates how role of her gender. Bradamante is being the firm, steadfast warrior and can be the donna gentile or the gentle woman as a mother, wife as she sacrifices her armor for a life of marriage and domesticity. This option would be conforming to the gender norms of the 1500s.

Melita continues by arguing this concept how she changed her bold, masculine and warrior status to that of a domestic housewife. She states on page 130:

In Bradamante's own pursuit of Ruggiero, she is guided by emotion, not the quest for justice. When she finally does succeed in obtaining him, many critics are quick to point out that she is immediately willing to relinquish her knightly duties and slip into the role that has been predetermined by her biological sex. This sacrifice, according to Tomalin, is not without its negative effects, as by the end of the poem there is a ‘complete hysteria in Bradamante, caused by the implications of the acceptance of the entirely female role. If she accepts conventional marriage, then she is forced also to accept the position of obedient daughter and sister’

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Melita is suggesting that Bradamante made her emotions get in the way of her mind as she was supposed to sought out justice. As she goes into the role that is predetermined by her gender, Bradamante can’t handle the fight that during this period of time she can’t fight and has to desire to and wants to because she is determined to break foreground but , she can’t because she would be going against the gender norms .

Melita compares the protagonist Orlando in Orlando by Virginia Wolf to that of Bradamante. Thus, showing a comparison of how Ludovico Ariosto’s character of Bradamante influenced briefly other characters in literature later. Since in Wolf’s work, Orlando is seen as being softer as he is androgynous in a sense because his gender fluctuates as well as her characteristics and mannerisms. Melita explains: “Woolf's male Orlando, in his underlying androgyny does in fact echo Bradamante, as he lacks a commitment to war and chooses instead, the pursuit of love as his objective. This modern Orlando has an aversion to killing, which mirrors that of Bradamante (Melita,129).” Melita is indicating that Orlando was influenced by Bradamante in the sense that he also is not as strong willed as a masculine figure and therefore is not following the gender norms of society. Melita goes on to explain that “And like the male Orlando in Woolf's novel, Bradamante becomes the ‘archetypal abandoned woman’ who watches and waits for Ruggiero's return when he goes to battle (Tomalin 552). She has now fully become the donna gentile and has abandoned the female warrior within. (Melita,130)” Both protagonists are abandoned and proceed to the gender norms according to their time periods. This will demonstrate how Bradamante was not being transgressive during this time period and how she succumbed to social and gender norms as she waited for Ruggiero’s return. Another character that may have been indirectly influenced by Bradamente is in Shakespeare’s Coleinus , Volumina. Voluminia was Colenonius;s mother and was steadfast, brave and was feminine the protect her son, plead him to stop the invasion of Rome and  she praises him. Simultaneously, throughout the play, she represents masculine qualities. When Colonous is a child, he is subjected to harsh naturing from his mother. Volumnia can be represented as a refirdgetator mother.  ( source by C Shakspeare , voluminia and Orlando F Bradamante)

This concept of women being subjected to pushing against gender norms occurred in the 1500s but is still occurring in our modern-day society. On the US women military website, it states “Beginning In 2016, women have the equal right to choose any military occupational specialty, including ground combat units, that were previously unauthorized.” According to the statistics on Women in The United States Army’s website, it is stated that only recently in the 1990s women could fly in military missions. Since she can be interpreted through feminist lens, therefore women tried to break down barriers on modern day times using her actions as inspiration. According to the article Women in the U.S. Military: Growing Share, Distinctive Profile by Eileen Patten and Kim Parker, they discuss the injustices faced by women I the military today. This is similarly represented to how Bradamante faced injustices during her time for being a woman warrior. The authors distinguish the fact women don’t have equal opportunities as men nor do they carry the same gender roles as men:

Also, women veterans of the post-9/11 era are less likely than men to have served in combat and more likely to be critical of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan….Department of Defense policy prohibits the assignment of women to any ‘unit below brigade level whose primary mission is direct ground combat.’ …..While this policy excludes women from being assigned to infantry, special operations commandos and some other roles.

It is preposterous to believe that women are treated as subordinate to men. Given the fact that they have the same potential to do manly jobs, it is a bewilderment as to why they are not given the same opportunities as men to display their potential. In such a modern-day society, how can women be limited to competing in combat. It is a disservice to our country, and it is unjustifiable that women are assigned to roles such as nurses or medics than being on the front lines like men. Women should be given the commonality of having the honor of serving the United States military just like how Bradamante utilized her armor to be a warrior in a time when it wasn’t common. But now, one can assume that women would be serving in any rank of militarily and these restrictions wouldn’t be in place.

Jennifer Barry’s “A Few Good (Wo)Men: Gender Inclusion in the United States Military” conceptualizes the fact that women were treated differently and that it was only until recently that these requirements were met to be held as the same standards as men. Barry explains how women were fighting during the majority as predominant and unimportant roles:

January 24, 2013 marked the end of one of the few remaining barriers to their full participation as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) finally lifted a ban on women serving in combat fields and assignments. Historically within the US military, women have occupied official and unofficial roles: predominantly as nurses, launderers, and cooks but also serving alongside their husbands or disguised as men. 

Barry is elaborating on the fact that it was only recently that the U.S. Department of Defense change their protocol. Women had other roles such as being nurse and doctors during WWII. The Department of Defense didn’t follow the same parallels that occurred in real life that women were able to be escape the boundaries of being housewives and become a vital part of the workplace in 1960s. Why is it taking over 40 years to match the opportunities and glass ceilings? Why did women conform to these circumstances as normalcy? This is how Bradamante opened pathways for modern day society.

Jack D’Amico’s "The Dangers and Virtues of Theatricality in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso" focuses on the dramatical impact on Bradamante’s reveal and how Ariosto precipitatedthe reveal using masculine and feminist qualities. D’Amico captures this pivotal moment by explaining how the Italian language played an essential role in the original version on page 56:

Ariosto draws on the visual power of theater to recreate the dramatic moment when Bradamante removes her shield and lifts her helmet, whereupon a coif releases the capei that spill over her shoulders and reveal her gender (onde caderon sparsi / giù per le spalle, e la scopriro a un tratto). The repetition of tratto gives this sequence the character of a dramatic peripeteia that combines Bradamante’s masculine and feminine attributes, her strength of arms and her beautiful face: ‘e la feron conoscer per donzella, / non men che fiera in arme, in viso bella’

D'Amico is epitomizing how the reveal is stunning to Sacripant just as to the audience. The gradual reveal of her helmet and then her hair led the audience by witness to this scene as well. Ariosto written this scene particularly that every facet of her body is revealed in comparison to being masculine and feminine with certain body features. Thus, her masculine features would give her strength, as her arms would be noticed in contrast with her long hair to show how Bradamante exhibits both qualities of sexes and how this vital to Bradamante to exist.

But literature and art depict again and again something that, according to the gender roles just mentioned, ought not to exist at all, namely, the woman warrior. Not only is war depicted as an armed goddess, but the Western tradition is full of myths about and representations of warrior women - warlike queens of antiquity, Amazons, Valkyries, biblical warrior women, modern saints such as Joan of Arc, and tales about historical female combatants. Out of all of these, one figure is represented again and again in early modern German literature and art, illustrating both the contradictions inherent in the warrior woman but also the way in which she is instrumentalized in a variety of causes and contexts. This is the biblical figure of Judith.

Works Cited

  • Ariosto, Ludovico, and Guido Waldman. Orlando Furioso. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
  • Barry, Jennifer. “A Few Good (Wo)Men: Gender Inclusion in the United States Military.” Columbia , JIA SIPA, 6 Oct. 2016, Accessed 11 Dec. 2019, https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/few-good-women-gender-inclusion-united-states-military
  • D’Amico, Jack. "The Dangers and Virtues of Theatricality in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso." MLN, vol. 130 no. 1, 2015, p. 42-62. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/mln.2015.0007.
  • Groesbeck, Margaret Adams. "'Tra noi non resto piu di differenza': men, transvestites, and power in Orlando Furioso." Annali d'Italianistica, vol. 16, 1998, p. 65. Literature Resource Center, https://link-gale com.proxy.library.csi.cuny.edu/apps/doc/A182336904/LitRC?u=cuny_statenisle&sid=LitRC&xid=cb1abab1. Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.
  • McLucas, John C. “Teaching the ‘Orlando Furioso’ in Today's Comprehensive State University.” Italica, vol. 92, no. 4, 2015, pp. 971–987., www.jstor.org/stable/43896062.4
  • Melita, Maureen M. "Gender identity and androgyny in Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A biography." Romance Notes, vol. 53 no. 2, 2013, p. 123-133. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/rmc.2013.0013.
  • Parker, Kim &Patten, Eileen. Women in the US military: growing share, distinctive profile. vols. Washington: Pew Research Center, 2011. Online. Internet. 12 Dec 2019. Available: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/22/women-in-the-u-s-military-growing-share-distinctive-profile/.
  • Stoppino, Eleonora. Genealogies of Fiction: Women Warriors and the Medieval Imagination in the "Orlando Furioso". Fordham University, 2012. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1c5cj9t.


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