Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene is likely not be the first work of literature to come to mind when asking the question: where can we find authors who subvert gender expectations in historical literature? However, one of its central characters creates ripples of gendered confusion in her wake from the very moment she first appears on the page. Every book of Spenser’s epic poem focuses on a different knight, who each represent a particular virtue and invite an examination of this virtue.
In its third book, The Fairie Queene introduces a lady-knight called Britomart who is frequently mistaken for a man by other characters throughout the poem’s narrative. This puts her in several variously uncomfortable positions. In the first canto of book three, Britomart is mistaken, by a lady called Malecasta, as being a “fresh and lusty knight” (Spenser 378; vol. 2) and finds herself as the recipient of the lady’s persistent flirtations, before ultimately waking up to find Malecasta in her bed in the middle of the night. Much later, Britomart’s hidden womanhood creates additional confusion when Amoret, who had been rescued by Britomart, is suspected of infidelity by her husband Scudamour until he learns the truth of Britomart’s identity. Or, when her knightly persona results in conflict between Britomart and Arthegal—also disguised—who is destined to be Britomart’s one true love.
Throughout her quests in the third book, and the following books, Britomart’s role as a female knight opens the door for a significant amount of speculation. She is a largely independent female character, and over the course of the narrative becomes a capable knight, as well as a moderating influence upon Arthegal’s more draconian nature as the knight of Justice. The two destined lovers are, in many ways, parallels to each other. Both experience unwanted sexual advances from women with power, after letting their guards down, and find themselves in complicated situations connected to crossdressing. Indeed, both take on roles of the opposite gender. Britomart’s role as a knight and masculine force for good, tempered by a gentler nature, is central to her story and growth as a character. Whereas Arthegal’s position within the court of Radigund as a maid is one of punishment, this episode can be read as a necessary one, enforcing upon him—Justice embodied—a softer role to instruct him of both the value and cost of mercy.
An important symbology within their parallel roles is the representation of Britomart as being like the moon and Arthegal as being like the sun. This is most prominent in Britomart’s visit to the temple of Isis in the seventh canto of the fifth book. Here, Britomart is warned of Arthegal’s deeper nature, but there is something particularly interesting about Spenser’s choice to utilize Isis, one that may reflect the influence of Ovid’s works on his epic. A temple of Isis plays a central role within one of Ovid’s stories of sex transformation, making the appearance of Isis’ church in The Fairie Queene more intriguing for a scholar interested in trans-masculine possibility within Britomart’s long-term adventures in the guise of a man.
The reason behind Britomart’s entire quest and utilization of armor to venture boldly into the world as a knight is tied directly to Arthegal. It is through a mirror of Venus that Britomart first beholds the face of Arthegal and finds herself struck with love. She then dons armor and takes on the more masculine role of a knight, to seek out Arthegal, by becoming a mirror of Arthegal. Whether Britomart’s foray into masculinity is merely a reflection and parallel to Arthegal’s own masculinity and temporary forced femininity, remains open to interpretation. What is clear, is that this borrowed masculinity invites a variety of queer themes into a reading of Spenser’s work and allows readers to ask themselves what exactly they could mean.