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.
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.