1505 - Medea from book Vie Des Femmes Celebres
Medea from Vie Des Femmes Celebres (1505)

One of my favorite medieval characters is Medea, the enchantress who helps Jason win the Golden Fleece, performs astonishing feats such as rejuvenating Jason’s aged father, and who is most memorably depicted as a wronged woman whose many treacheries are explained, if not excused, by the madness of love. It’s hard to admire a character responsible for the murder of multiple children as well as roomfuls of adults, and yet there is something of valor in her passionate pursuit of justice, if not revenge.

While the classical versions of Medea’s story have their own pressing themes, especially as told by Euripedes or Seneca, the medieval Medea presents a number of even more interesting and troubling complexities. In most retellings (save Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, in which she is uncharacteristically silent and passive) she takes charge of the Golden Fleece incident, from educating Jason about how to confront the various monsters to providing him with armaments, magical reasons, and fire-repellent ointments to save his hide.

She dismembers her own baby brother, as she and Jason are sailing away with their prize without her father’s permission, as a pre-emptive strategy to turn away the king’s pursuing ships. When Jason repudiates her for causing the death of his uncle, the suicide of his cousins, and the despair of his aunt, she pursues him to justify that she did so only in his protection, since his uncle was plotting to kill him. When Jason attempts to take a new wife, she bursts into the wedding feast with a flock of fire-breathing dragons who immolate the guests, but not before she tears her own son by Jason in two and tosses the remains on his plate.

French National Library MS f.fr 331, fol. 139v, from Raoul Lefevre's History of Jason
French National Library MS f.fr 331, fol. 139v, from Raoul Lefevre’s History of Jason

The c. 1460 History of Jason by Raoul Lefèvre adds a new set of infractions to Medea’s credit. When she learns he is betrothed to marry Mirro, Queen of Oliferne—a contract that would have been considering binding by medieval law and custom—she compels her nurse to put an enchantment on Jason that makes him forget his first love. Then she conjures a storm to prohibit the Argo from sailing to the Isle of Lemnos and a reunion between Jason and his former amour Hypsipyle, an intervention which leads to the latter’s suicide when she understands Jason has abandoned her. Not only does she kill her own children on two separate occasions–still the chief and most chilling of her crimes–but she is also indirectly responsible for the death of Mirro, whom Jason formally (and bigamistically) married after he left her.

But here’s the real twist to her tale in the medieval version: Jason and Medea live happily ever after.

Yes, they do. After all of Jason’s other love interests have perished, after an exiled Medea has spent a long period of penitence and self-reflection in a wild wood in Thessaly, during which time she dines on acorns, nuts, and roots in the style of Mary of Egypt, she meets Jason as he wanders in the same wood. Over a meal of herbs and “small fruits,” Jason forgives her, realizes he still loves her, and agrees to take her back. After this, they return to civilization, where Jason inherits the throne from his father and they reign well and happily together for long years, producing several children who reign happily after them.

There’s an entire chapter on Medea and her amazing repatriation in my book Monstrous Women in Middle English Romance, but if you’re interested in hearing more about this story–especially about its feasts–come to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship panel on Gender and Feasting at the Southeastern Medieval Association conference in Little, Rock, Arkansas, later this week. And if you don’t care to hear any more about Medea, you can hear many other inspiring and interesting papers by any number of accomplished and engaging scholars. Because medieval scholarship just makes the world a better place, even when it does tell the story of insanely destructive, vengeful women.


Women at the Table in Caxton’s History of Jason

2 thoughts on “Women at the Table in Caxton’s History of Jason

  • November 20, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    Jason and Medea in Corinth – original story and mitology. (short version) Aeetes came from Corinth: It is said that the land of Ephyra or Ephyraea, which later was called Corinth, was given to Aeetes by his father Helius, whereas Asopia, which is a district in the neighboring region of Sicyonia, was given by Helius to his other son Aloeus. Aeetes, however, did not remain in Corinth , but instead emigrated to Colchis, the land at the eastern end of the Black Sea. On leaving for Colchis, Aeetes entrusted the kingdom to Bunus, the son of Hermes and Alcidamea, and when Bunus died, Epopeus, who some call son of Aloeus, brother of Aeetes, extended his own kingdom to include Corinth. These are the reasons why, when later the Colchian princess Medea came to Hellas, she became Queen of Corinth. What happened to Jason and Medea, after Pelias’ death. They were set to have settled on the island of Corfu.Corinthus, son of Marathon, had died childless, the Corinthians had sent for Medea, because her grandfather Helius was the founder of the city of Corinth. Once when they had no king: the Corinthians invited Medea from Corfu and granted her the throne. So Medea settled in Corinth and had made Jason, as king of Corinth. As soon as her children were born, Medea took them to the sanctuary of Hera where she buried them, believing that if they were buried there they would become immortal. In the end, she discovered that her hopes were unfounded. Jason discovered the strange murders, and refused to reconcile with Medea(She begged him to forgive her), so he gone to Corfu or other city. Medea didn’t stay in Corinth, giving the kingdom to Sisyphus.Afterwards Medea left for Athens where she married King Aegeus, father of Theseus. Accidental death of the children at the hands of Medea, but there is no suggestion that she deliberately kills the children. There is no antipathy towards Jason and there is no suggestion in evidence that Jason leaves Medea for another woman. There is another version: The second version of events has the Corinthians kill the children. where he says that the Corinthians were beginning to become unhappy by being ruled by a foreign woman and so plotted against Medea.
    Medea is an ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripides, based upon the myth of Jason and Medea. (not mitology, not religius practice, not history). Everyone can make a theater play and proclaim for mythology. After all, Medea, was the most popular Ancient Greek play in the United States in the twentieth century. Wouldn’t the ancient Athenians find that it spoke to them, as well? And the answer is no – evidently they did not. Euripides didn’t take first prize in that year’s competition. He didn’t even take second prize. He finished dead last. As you can probably well imagine, a lot of people have responded to Euripides, and his portrayal of Medea over the ages. And probably the most famous response to Euripides in general was by a man who knew him – the younger comedic playwright, Aristophanes.And again, that was a quote from Aristophanes’ play Thesmophoriazusae, which is a satire that essentially accuses Euripides of being a misogynist.The Roman writer Aulus Gellius, who lived during the 100s CE – long after Euripides, obviously – but anyway, the later Roman wrtier Aulus Gellius wrote about the playwright Euripides in his travelogue of Athens – in a book entitled Attic Nights. Gellius wrote that:Euripides is said to have had a strong antipathy toward nearly all women, either shunning their society due to his natural inclination, or because he had two wives simultaneously – since that was legal according to Athenian decree – and they had made marriage abominable to him . So, according to this later Roman historian, and Euripides’ contemporary, Aristophanes, Euripides had a staunch, and unapologetic dislike of women. In fact, misogynistic sentiments pervade many of Euripides’ plays. Women are maligned as “devisers of evil” in the play Medea. They’re called a “source of sorrow” in Euripides’ version of Orestes. Stepmothers are made to look wicked in Euripides’ plays Ion and Alcestis.Remember that Euripides’ version of Medea was a single man’s take on an old ancestral story – an adaptation of a myth that had been around before he came along. Now, anyone who does remakes, or sequels, or prequels, usually has some innovations of his or her own to add. Euripides had one. And here’s the kicker. Scholarship generally agrees that Euripides invented Medea’s murder of her children .In making Medea a child killer, Euripides conscientiously invented a story for her that had not existed before. There were actually many stories about Medea. There is also a version: Jason and Medea reconciled, returned back to Colchis, and as having there restored Aeëtes to his kingdom, and lived happily ever after. Source: Strabo Geography, Justin Epitome, Tacitus Annals, Pompeius Trogus history. Euripides’ inventions: 1.This deliberate murder of her children by Medea to be Euripides’ invention. 2. No suggestion in evidence that Jason leaves Medea for another woman before the Medea (by Euripides). Because of these inventions and disgraces of the legendary hero Jason and his wife queen Medea, it is believed Euripides died by being ripped apart by a pack of wild Macedonian dogs (or a pack of red-eyed hellhounds). Later writers represent Jason as having in the end become reconciled to Medea, as having returned with her to Colchis, and as having there restored Aeëtes to his kingdom, of which he had been deprived. Medea was honoured as a goddess at Corinth, and was said to have become the wife of Achilles in the Elysian fields. Jason, the Greek hero who captured the Golden Fleece after making a great journey to the East. In later Greco-Roman religious practice, this hero somehow acquired a series of temples across the East as well as a mountain in Iran, Mt. Jasonium (Strabo, Geography, 11.13-14). He was also recognized as the conqueror of Armenia before the Trojan War (Strabo, Geography, 11.14; Justin, Epitome, 42.2-3). Pompeius Trogus that Jason “set out on a second voyage for Colchis, accompanied by a numerous train of followers (who, at the fame of his valour, came daily from all parts to join him), by his wife Medea, whom, having previously divorced her, he had now received again from compassion for her exile” (Epitome 42.2). Then, to make amends to Medea’s father for stealing the Golden Fleece and treating his daughter badly, he “carried on great wars with the neighbouring nations; and of the cities which he took, he added part to the kingdom of his father-in-law, to make amends for the injury that he had done him in his former expedition” (Epitome 42.3). This, Trogus and Justin affirm, is the reason that that Jasonia exist across the East, in honor of Jason’s conquest of the entire region.In the end, Jason becomes a god.Thus we read in Strabo that temples and cult of Jason were spread over the whole do Asia, Media, Colchis, Albania, and Iberia, and that Jason enjoyed divine honors also in Thessaly and on the Corinthian gulf. Justin tells us that nearly the whole of the east worshipped Jason and built temples to him, and this confirmed by Tacitus (Annals vi,34). Thus, the healer and savior god Jason was worshipped widely throughout the Roman Empire long before the purported advent of “Jesus Christ.” The name (more correctly Iason) means “healer,” and Jason is possibly a local hero of Iolcus to whom healing powers were attributed. The ancients regarded him as the oldest navigator, and the patron of navigation. By the moderns he has been variously explained as a solar deity; a god of summer; a god of storm; a god of rain, who carries off the rain-giving cloud (the golden fleece) to refresh the earth after a long period of drought.

    • November 22, 2018 at 8:52 am

      Thanks for this! Have you written about this history of Jason & Medea elsewhere? I’m sure many scholars would be interested in this very concise accounts, especially since as discussions about Medea’s origins are usually so conflicting. It’s interesting to me how much fascination Medea’s story holds for modern audiences, considering the motivations attached to her character over time.


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