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Grammatical gender and the gender of allegory in The Faerie Queene
by Laetitia Sansonetti

Recently, as I was idly scrolling through social media posts before a day’s work, something caught my eye: a post by a restaurant in Britain which solemnly announced, ‘Here she is … Our menu in all her glory’. As a French native speaker in whose mother tongue the word ‘menu’ is grammatically masculine, I would not have expected a female personification of an inanimate “masculine” noun. As a specialist of English, I might have expected a neuter pronoun instead, and would not have been surprised to read ‘Here it is … Our menu in all its glory’. As a Spenserian, I should have known better. A couple of days after the menu mismatch, once more idly scrolling through social media posts, I noticed that a colleague of mine had posted a quote from a poem by Shelley as a caption to a few pictures of clouds she had taken: ‘I am the daughter of Earth and Water / And the nursling of the Sky / I pass through the pores of the Ocean and Shores, / I change, but I cannot die’, whose source she indicated as ‘Shelley, “The Cloud”’. Someone (a French native speaker and a specialist of English) had replied by asking whether the poem was by Mary or Percy Shelley, because of the identification of a cloud as feminine, which seemed to make more sense if the “I” of the personified cloud was the same as the author of the poem – even more so to a French native speaker, since the French equivalent of ‘cloud’, nuage, is of the masculine grammatical gender. I was quite ready to acknowledge that French native speakers tend to expect the gender of anthropomorphised objects to match their grammatical gender, although the consequences might be (more than) slightly upsetting if expectations of grammatical congruence went together with expectations of semantic congruence (do I expect a personification of a list of dishes in a restaurant to have typically masculine features? What are ‘typically masculine features’?).[1] The question was even more pressing on the English side: if there is no grammatical incentive to choose one gender over another for personifications, what motivates the choice? And why eschew a neuter/neutral form (a menu in all its glory; the child, or disyllabic scion, of Earth and Water) in favour of a feminine one?

I turned to a recently-published article entitled ‘Does grammatical gender affect object concepts?’[2] The authors replicated a 2003 experiment designed to gauge the value of the famous theory of ‘linguistic relativism’ put forward by Benjamin Whorf (and Edward Sapir) according to which language shapes thought (as the usual phrasing goes).[3] As explained by Elpers, Jensen and Holmes, ‘native Spanish and native German speakers, both proficient in English, were asked (in English) to rate the similarity of pairs of pictures, with each pair consisting of one male or female person and one inanimate object or animal with masculine or feminine grammatical gender. Both groups judged the pictures as more similar when the person’s presumptive biological sex was congruent with the object or animal’s grammatical gender in their native language, compared to when the two were incongruent’. In another related experiment, ‘English speakers exhibited a similar congruency effect after learning gender-like categories. These findings have been regarded as compelling evidence that grammatical gender affects object concepts and are widely cited as support for the Whorfian hypothesis that language shapes thought (Samuel et al., 2019; Wolff & Holmes, 2011).’[4] Their own replication yielded less straightforward results, but their results ‘[fell] short of refuting the Whorfian claim that speakers of grammatical gender languages conceptualize objects as gendered’. The ‘common interpretation of such effects, by scientists and the general public alike’, ‘that inanimate objects are conceptualized as gendered—that Spanish speakers, for example, “imagine a table as […] having little skirts on its legs” (Garfield & Vuolo, 2014)’, was left standing.[5]If one finds the skirts and legs image unconvincing, one can turn to another example provided by one of the leaders of the original 2003 experiment, Lera Boroditsky: ‘So if you ask German and Spanish speakers to, say, describe a bridge, like the one here – “bridge” happens to be grammatically feminine in German, grammatically masculine in Spanish – German speakers are more likely to say bridges are “beautiful,” “elegant” and stereotypically feminine words. Whereas Spanish speakers will be more likely to say they’re “strong” or “long,” these masculine words.’ [6] Boroditsky was also part of a team who led a similar type of experiment with pictorial allegorical representations and the genders of the corresponding concepts these figures were meant to incarnate, as they appeared congruent or incongruent to native speakers of several grammatically-gendered and non-gendered languages.[7] In iconography this is most striking with representations of Death, pictured as a young man in German art but as an old woman by artists from Romance-speaking areas because, it is assumed, of the respective grammatical genders of Tod (masculine in German) and mort, morte, muerte (feminine in French, Italian, Spanish), for instance.[8]

There is a tendency to generalise, and to claim that all abstract nouns, which lend themselves to personification in allegorical representation, are feminine, because most of our Western conceptual framework derives from texts written in Latin, and a significant part of European languages derive from Latin (where the -tas suffix used to create an abstract noun from an adjective is morphologically feminine indeed).[9] And some go even further and extend the claim to all Indo-European languages.[10] Adopting a deconstructive perspective, Paxson equates personification with femininity with rhetoric with ornament with misogyny.[11] Studies on Middle English medieval allegories that stage a combat within the soul (psychomachia) have shown that male personifications came to be used as grammatical gender progressively disappeared as an overt (to use Whorf’s term) category[12] in an often-misogynistic context.[13] Caught in a Whorfian whirlpool of gender mismatch not unlike the ‘whirlepoole of hidden ieopardy’ (II.12.18.2) which Guyon and his Palmer manage to avoid en route to Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss, I remembered two episodes from The Faerie Queene in which a speaker of a Romance language might sense some mismatch between grammatical gender and semantic gender: the Parade of the Seven Deadly Sins in Book I, canto 4 and the Masque of Cupid in Book III, canto 12. As evidenced in an oft-quoted piece by Bernard Comrie, the specificities of a language in terms of grammatical gender for personification appear most obviously in attempts at translation into a different system.[14] When I was preparing a paper on French translations of The Faerie Queene for the 2015 International Spenser Society Conference, I noticed that Michel Poirier, who translated long excerpts from the poem for a bilingual edition first printed in 1957, chose a hybrid system in which the personifications, when they were first mentioned, retained the grammatical gender they usually had in French, but were thereafter referred to according to the gender they had in the English text.[15]

The Seven Deadly Sins, for instance, all have a feminine grammatical gender in French apart from one, l’orgueil [pride], which is grammatically masculine: l’avarice [avarice], la luxure [lechery], l’envie [envy], la gourmandise [gluttony], la colère [wrath], la paresse [idleness]. In The Faerie Queene, I.4, the personifications of the Sins are all male characters except for Pride, incarnated by Lucifera, the queen of hell. In translating stanzas 16 to 36, Poirier adopted a clear strategy which he explained in an endnote to his translation of I.4.18.8: ‘Spenser représente six des péchés capitaux sous forme d’hommes. Dans la traduction des strophes qui suivent, nous mettons au masculin tous les mots s’accordant avec le nom de ces péchés, bien que ceux-ci appartiennent en français au genre féminin.’ [Spenser represents six of the capital sins as men. In my translation of the following stanzas, all words agreeing with the names of these sins will be ascribed masculine gender despite the corresponding nouns being of the feminine gender in French]. For instance, the first in order of appearance, ‘sluggish Idlenesse’ (I.4.18.6), becomes ‘la molle Paresse’ (with feminine grammatical gender) when first mentioned and subsequent pronouns and other inflected forms are in the masculine gender (I.4.18.8: ‘vêtu d’un habit noir’ for ‘Arayd in habit blacked’). Poirier’s use of notes is sparse (63 in total), partly because of his lengthy introduction to the volume, and it is significant that he felt one was necessary here, to help his francophone readers adapt to the mental process required by the repeated gender switch.

When we look at the text in closer detail, we notice that the morphological differences in grammatical gender between French and English entail mental processes of adaptation and guesswork elsewhere in the passage. For instance, the epicene word ‘person’ used to refer to Lechery (I.4.24.4) becomes ‘homme’ (man) in French, making the gender switch easier from grammatically feminine ‘Luxure’ to a masculine system of reference in which Lechery/Luxure is ‘of Ladies […] loved deare’ (24.7), ‘des dames … bien aimé’, in an explicitly heterosexual context (‘man’ features on line 6 in the English original). The attending sins are introduced as ‘Counsellors’ (I.4.18.2), a term that does not bear morphological markers of grammatical gender in English but is connoted male from a cultural point of view, since a leader, regardless of gender, usually has male counsellors (and in the specific context of Elizabethan England, a female ruler had male advisers). In French there is no such grammatical bivalence, since ‘conseillers’, the word used by Poirier, refers to men (the plural feminine form would be ‘conseillères’), although it falls in the category of noun referring to functions, which are traditionally epicene in French – a tradition that is more and more contested nowadays because it is felt by some to reinforce a prejudice against women exerting high-profile professions such as doctors, professors, all positions in political life, etc. Significantly, a late-seventeenth French dictionary reads under ‘conseiller’: ‘CONSEILLER, se dit aussi de toute personne qui donne conseil ; & même figurément, des passions. Vous estes un bon, un mauvais conseiller. La colere, la necessité sont de mauvaises conseilleres. On appelle aussi Conseillere, la femme d’un Conseiller.’ When taken allegorically, anger, or – to use the Spenserian term – wrath (grammatically feminine in French, la colère), is a bad adviser (conseillère in the feminine form); but when referring to an actual person, a ‘conseillère’ is (or at least, was, as late as the 1690s) a counsellor’s wife (likewise, in Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses, the ‘Présidente de Tourvel’ is the Président’s wife).[16] Conversely, the unobtrusive apposition to (grammatically feminine) Paresse, ‘nourrice du péché’ (l.6), can draw our attention back to the English original, ‘Idlenesse, the nourse of sin’, for nourrice in French is a word whose grammatical gender matches the notional gender of the function, since wetnurses are women – although, by virtue of the lack of gender marker on articles in English, a metaphorical use of the term can be applied to male or female figures alike (much more easily than one could use it with a masculine noun in French, in a phrase like *l’orgueil, nourrice du péché [pride, the nurse of sin]).[17]

Although morphological elements do play a part in grammatical gender in French (as we saw with names of offices and functions that have a masculine and a – sometimes problematic – feminine form), the main index of grammatical gender for a noun is the corresponding article.  Allegorising the sins by personifying them as counsellors in motion (riding on ‘six unequall beasts’, I.4.18.1) means that common nouns (which are used with the definite article in French to denote their abstractness) can become proper names (used without an article). When the sins are fully personified as semantically male and lose their article, they can change grammatical gender more easily: ‘Tel était Paresse…’ (‘Such one was Idlenesse…’, I.4.20.9).[18] But we can look at it from another angle and wonder what Poirier’s careful gender switches indirectly reveal about Spenser’s own gender- and allegory-building strategies. For instance, when referring to the ‘beasts’ which the counsellors ride, in most cases there is no indication regarding their status (anthropomorphised/non-human, male/female[19]), with the exception of Lechery’s ‘bearded Gote, whose rugged heare / […] Was like the person selfe whom he did beare’ (I.4.24.2, 4), an explicitly male goat for which/whom the masculine personal pronoun is used (a feature which becomes unobtrusive in French since a he-goat is un bouc and its corresponding pronoun, ‘il’, is used for inanimate and animate referents alike). Not only are the sins personified, incarnated in characters who display the main consequences they have for those who give in to them, they also illustrate the conflation of human and animal that is typical of intemperance, as symbolised by Acrasia’s lovers in Book 2, and in particular Gryll, who resents having been restored from ‘hoggish forme … to naturall’ (II.12.86.9).[20]

Another episode sets in motion personified abstractions to expose them to the gaze of a tutelary knight – and of the readers: the Masque of Cupid in Book III, canto 12. After admiring the tapestries depicting the loves of the gods, Britomart is treated to a moving type of entertainment, with a parade of characters impersonating the successive states of mind in a love relationship. Introduced by Ease, the first series of four are paired emotions (Fancy and Desyre, followed by Doubt and Daunger), all gendered masculine. Then four pairs of logically related attitudes, with one male and one female element (Fear [M] and Hope [F]; Dissemblance [F] and Suspect [M]; Grief [M] and Fury [F]; Displeasure [M] and Pleasance [F]) and one pair of two male elements (Despight and Cruelty), lead poor Amoret, who is followed by Cupid and a series of quickly-enumerated figures about whose gender there is no indication in the text (III.12.24-25). The French translator’s task was comparatively easier here than for the parade of the deadly sins in Book I, since he was able to resort directly to personification and apply the gender chosen by the narrator to the corresponding French names, regardless of the grammatical gender of the nouns: ‘Le premier était Fantaisie, garçon ravissant’ (III.12.7.1), ‘À son côté marchait Désir amoureux’ (III.12.9.1). There is also less discrepancy between allegorical gender in English and grammatical gender in French than for the Sins: only in the case of aise (ease), fantaisie (fancy), peur (fear), and cruauté (cruelty), feminine nouns in French, is the corresponding character in Spenser’s allegory male. This greater congruency can be explained linguistically by the etymology of the terms used and literarily by the indirect source(s) of Spenser’s Masque, the French Roman de la Rose via Chaucer’s translation. To focus on the figures that are presented individually, the words ‘ease’, ‘fancy’, ‘desire’, ‘doubt’, and ‘danger’ were borrowed from Old French into Middle English, the first two from grammatically feminine nouns and the last three from masculine nouns, while ‘fear’ and ‘hope’ both derive from Old English masculine words.[21] Etymologically speaking, the conceptual gender of the personifications is not congruent with the inferred grammatical gender in the cases of ‘Ease’ and ‘Fancy’ (respectively derived from aise and fantasie, both feminine in Old French) and of ‘hope’ (a masculine word when English still had grammatical gender).

What etymology cannot account for literary precedents can. And here too, translation has a role to play, not as an interpretative operation that brings to the fore elements which a monolingual reading might have taken for granted but as the very creative process through which allegory is fashioned (and gendered). One of Spenser’s sources for the Masque of Cupid is Chaucer’s version of the Roman de la Rose, which was first printed in Thynne’s edition of Chaucer’s works in 1532.[22] On his way to finding his beloved/the rose at the centre of the garden, the speaker in Guillaume de Lorris’ poem encounters several personifications of qualities or states of mind associated with a love relation (including Dangier, for instance). The character with an ushering function similar to that of Spenser’s ‘Ease’ in the Roman is feminine, Oiseuse (l.585), and she is translated by Chaucer as ‘Ydelnesse’, a female personification (l.593). Yet ‘Ease’ is found in another Chaucerian translingual text, his translation of Boccaccio’s Teseide in The Parliament of Foules, stanza 211: there, ‘Ease’ translates the Italian Ozio, a male personification corresponding to the grammatical gender of the noun ozio, which derives from Latin otium (neuter), meaning precisely ‘idleness’. According to its gender in Italian, this personification is male in the English version (‘he […] steeled his darts…’, stanza 211, l.6). While ‘ease’ and ozio sound alike, the English word actually derives from Old French aise, a word whose grammatical gender was still uncertain as late as the late seventeenth century, as appears from Furetière’s (erroneous) note on the gender “uncertainty” of this word: ‘Le genre de ce mot est incertain, parce qu’on ne le joint à aucunes épithetes, & que le plus souvent il s’employe adverbialement. […] Ce mot vient de l’Italien agio, formé du Latin otium.’[23] The etymological information provided by the Treccani dictionary belies Furetière: agio is indeed connected to French aise, but they do not derive from otium (as Italian ozio does) – Latin adiăcens (present participle of the verb adiacere, to lie near) is the proper etymon.[24] Uncertainty in grammatical gender for French aise combined with an easy confusion between agio and ozio make ‘Ease’ a male personification to serve as a counterpart to Guillaume’s Oiseuse in the role of usher (Oiseuse opens the gate of the rose garden, Ease introduces the Masque). The two words that do not have a Romance origin (and had a masculine grammatical gender in Old English), ‘fear’ and ‘hope’, are nonetheless influenced by Latin in the gender of the corresponding personifications in the Masque, respectively male and female. Personified Fear, whom Aeneas encounters on his way to Hades in Aeneid 6 (l.276), is Metus in Latin, a grammatically masculine noun and a male personification.[25] Similarly, ‘hope’ is feminine in Latin (spes), and in French, hope as a theological virtue is feminine espérance (like faith, foi, and charity, charité), not masculine espoir. Latin grammatical gender seems to have played a part in the way classical poets devised their personifications, which had the same gender as the nouns they incarnated. This tradition is passed on to England’s ‘new Virgil’, Spenser, who builds on gender opposition to create opposite-sex couples of passions that lead up to the apparition of Amoret.[26]

But why a male Fancy? Old French fantasie was a feminine noun, so was Latin phantasia. I would like to offer a translingual explanation, arguing that Spenser was aware that his choice of gender for his personification went against established standards, and that he deliberately drew attention to this mismatch or incongruency by pointing to another system of reference in which gender mismatch was the foundation of action, namely professional Elizabethan theatre, with its boys playing women’s parts. While explicitly presented as a masque (‘in manner of a maske’, III.12.5.9), a mixed-sex participative type of courtly entertainment, the scene is actually introduced by male Ease, acting as prologue to a play: ‘And forth yssewd, as on the readie flore / Of some Theatre, a grave personage / […] Yclad in costly garments fit for the tragicke Stage’ (III.12.3.5-6, 9). Stanza 4 describes a sort of dumb show performed by Ease after he has requested silence from the (imaginary?) audience, ‘as to heare a play’ (III.12.4.4). The insistence on Fancy’s age, ‘like a lovely Boy’ (III.12.7.1), and the comparisons to notorious figures of same-sex love such as Ganymede, Jove’s cup-bearer/lover, and Hylas, Hercules’ friend/lover, blur gender boundaries as they invite the readers to think of Fancy as a boy actor playing a woman’s part (on stage and in sexual relationships). When viewed from a translingual perspective as the only character in this part of the pageant whose semantic gender does not match its expected gender (based on grammatical precedents), Fancy appears even more vividly as a gender-crossing figure.[27]

Returning to the Parade of the Deadly Sins, we can see how the masculine gender of the sins can be problematic as a show: not so much because it goes against the habit of picturing abstractions as females (as can be seen in one of the most compelling representations of the sins, the Giotto frescoes in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua, where Ira, anger, and Invidia, envy, are depicted as women),[28] but because the seven grammatically feminine nouns in Latin (Superbia, Avaritia, Luxuria, Invidia, Gula, Ira, Acedia), which had become one masculine and six feminine in French (Orgueil, Avarice, Luxure, Envie, Gourmandise, Colère, Paresse), can change genders in English according to the poet’s design. While this gender reversal disconnects grammatical gender from semantic gender, apparently proving that there is nothing intrinsically feminine in sin (or in virtue, by that token), it paradoxically reinstates a “natural” or essentialist link between the sins and the grammatical genders of their personifications, since the poet can choose without being restricted by grammar. If grammar does not determine personification, then maybe essence does.[29] In having an all-male cast perform in front of and under the aegis of a female queen, Spenser inserts his poem within a dramatic and political system that relies on the manipulation of gender.

Spenser’s incongruently male personifications in the Parade of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Masque of Cupid are not static, they are actors in a pageant – the most elementary stage of allegory in motion, of allegory as motion.[30] The seven deadly sins have to be knights serving a queen because this is how the narrative is built and The Faerie Queene is a narrative allegory: Lucifera and her ‘counsellors’ are an antitype of Alma and her knights in Book II, and a prototype of Malecasta and her knights in Book III, although the three female characters belong on different planes of allegorical personification, since Lucifera is a deadly sin, Alma represents the human soul and Malecasta is an exemplum of unchaste womanhood.[31] In the Masque, or rather the travesty of masque since in the first part the expected parallelism in heterosexual couples is upset by incongruity in allegorical gender and the second part is in no way ordered, what was expected to be a court entertainment comes closer to a theatre play performed by professional male actors sometimes impersonating female characters.

The problem of potential mismatch between specific/semantic and traditional/grammatical gender in gendered personification is one that arises only for the readers: nothing in the text indicates that Redcrosse or Britomart are told the characters’ names in the parade of the deadly sins and the masque of Cupid, with the notable exception of ‘Ease’, whose name is written on his clothes – unless one takes the identification of Ease to be paradigmatic of all the characters, down to the ‘confused rout / of persons […] whose names is hard to read’ at the end of the masque (III.12.25.1-2), in which case the identification remains hypothetical for the characters within the poem, and becomes a feature of direct communication between the poet and his readers.[32] What Redcrosse and Britomart see is a series of people impersonating states of mind: for them there is no allegorical tradition in which abstractions are gendered female, because they belong in this very tradition, they are a product of it. To return to the statement that personifications are usually female: what if we follow the more extreme version and accept the claim that all abstract nouns are grammatically feminine? Then (Spenserian) allegory, with its array of male, female, and sometimes queer characters,[33] may not be the personification of abstractions, but the incarnation of emotions, states of mind.[34]

Am I making too much of the gender(s) of personification(s) in The Faerie Queene? Or not making enough of it/them? Wondering how and why Spenser ascribed gender to his allegorical figures has led me to broader questions, some more general, some more personal: What do we visualise when we read the poem? Would I have noticed the gender mismatch in the Parade and the Masque if I had not looked at the French translation? Did I find it easier to visualise male personifications of sins because the French word for ‘sin’, péché, is grammatically masculine?[35] Would monolingual English speakers react to personifications the same way as I do? [36] Would they share my sense of queer as grammatical incongruency?[37] Would speakers of other Romance languages ask themselves the same questions? I would be curious to know how translators working in languages relying on different gender grammatical systems deal with this feature in The Faerie Queene.


Laetitia Sansonetti

Université Paris Nanterre and Institut Universitaire de France


[1] I have found Ackerman’s typology useful in categorising gender: ‘Grammatical gender: The formal syntactic and/or semantic feature that is morphosyntactically defined’; ‘Conceptual gender: The gender that is expressed, inferred, and used by a perceiver to classify a referent (typically human, but can be extended to anthropomorphized non-humans)’; ‘Biosocial gender: The gender of a person based on phenotype, socialization, cultural norms, gender expression, and gender identity. These attributes may conspire to influence conceptual gender and gender expression, but this is an ongoing debate in the field.’ (Lauren Ackerman, ‘Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference’, Glossa: a journal of general linguistics, 4(1) (2019), doi: On notional gender, see also Greville G. Corbett, ‘Introduction’, in The Expression of Gender, ed. by Greville G. Corbett (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2014), p. 3, 5-7.

[2] Nan Elpers, Greg Jensen, Kevin J. Holmes, ‘Does grammatical gender affect object concepts? Registered replication of Phillips and Boroditsky (2003)’, Journal of Memory and Language, 127 (2022); An account of the original experiment was published as: W. Phillips, L. Boroditsky, ‘Can quirks of grammar affect the way you think? Grammatical gender and object concepts’, in Proceedings of the 25th annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society, ed. by R. Alterman and D. Kirsh, Cognitive Science Society, 2003, 928-933.

[3] In his own formulation of grammatical gender in English as a ‘covert category’, that is a category that cannot be inferred from morphological features in the word itself (as opposed to grammatical gender in Latin, which is an ‘overt category’ with morphological marks), Benjamin Whorf is careful to explain that grammatical gender in English is ‘not a reflection in speech of natural and non-cultural differences’ (Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Grammatical Categories,” Language, 21: 1 (1945), 1-11, (p. 3)). Most examples he gives of gendered nouns are actually ‘personal names’ and the well-known exceptions to the human (he/she) / non-human (it) divide in pronoun use, such as ‘watercraft with sail or power and named small craft, “she”’, failing to register the anthropomorphising process at work while he is mentioning it (‘named’).

[4] The references are to: S. Samuel, G. Cole, M.J. Eacott, ‘Grammatical gender and linguistic relativity: A systematic review’, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26(6) (2019), 1767-1786; P. Wolff, K.J. Holmes, ‘Linguistic relativity’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 2(3) (2011), 253-265.

[5] The reference is to: B. Garfield, M. Vuolo, M. Fisherman’s Whorf (No. 38) [Audio podcast episode], in Lexicon Valley, Slate (2014, July 15),

[6] The video and the transcript can be accessed here: (last accessed 20 September 2022). For a counter-argument regarding Italian, watch linguist Mariangela DeLuca explain there is nothing semantically feminine about a chair, sedia, a grammatically feminine word in Italian (as part of her argument against the use of the schwa for more gender inclusiveness): (last accessed 20 September 2022). I would like to thank my friend Mario Stasi for referring me to this video. See Ackerman’s nuanced valutation of the ‘Whorfian’ attitude: ‘While I am being careful to avoid a neo-Whorfian claim that language shapes or limits our thought, I think it is reasonable to posit that the categories present in one language and not in another could draw attention to different non-linguistic properties of the members of those categories, thus creating subtle distinctions in the boundaries and shape of the categories. In this way, we might explain how grammatical gender can limit conceptual gender in practical translation without necessarily claiming that German speakers think toads are necessarily feminine’ (Ackerman, ‘Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference’, referring to the folk tale discussed and translated in Comrie quoted below – see note 14). See a playful early modern take on the matter by language teacher and plurilingual translator John Florio: ‘Some perhaps will except against the sexe, and not allowe it for a male-broode, sithens as our Italians saie, Le parole sono femine, & i fatti sono maschij, Wordes they are women, and deeds they are men. But let such know that Detti and fatti, wordes and deeds with me are all of one gender. And though they were commonly Feminine, why might not I by strong imagination (which Phisicions giue so much power vnto) alter their sexe? Or at least by such heauen-pearcing deuotion as transformed Iphis, according to that description of the Poet’ (A vvorlde of wordes, or Most copious, and exact dictionarie in Italian and English, collected by Iohn Florio (London: Arnold Hatfield for Edw. Blount, 1598), sig. a4v).

[7] Edward Segel and Lera Boroditsky, ‘Grammar in Art’, Frontiers in Cultural Psychology (2011); They boast a 78% average congruency.

[8] See Karl S. Guthke, The Gender of Death: A Cultural History in Art and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 7.

[9] Gordon Teskey, Spenserian Moments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), p. 195: ‘Personifications are usually female—usually but not always—because the Indo-European languages generally give the feminine grammatical gender to abstract qualities. This fact is necessary to observe if we are to understand personifications, at least in the literature of the West’. See also Patricia Parker, ‘On the Tongue: Cross Gendering, Effeminacy, and the Art of Words’, Style, 23:3 (1989), 445-465 (p. 446): ‘Lingua, in Latin, of course, is already feminine in its grammatical gendering’. See also Maureen Quilligan, The Allegory of Female Authority: Christine de Pizan’s ‘Cité des Dames’ (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), p. 24-25.

[10] See James J. Paxson, ‘Personification’s Gender’, Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, 16: 2 (1998), 149-179 (p. 162): ‘Otto Jespersen grew exasperated trying to work out why abstract nouns in the Indo-European languages always took the feminine gender’.

[11] As Paxson writes, ‘[P]ersonified characters in classical or early medieval literature were women because Personification as a concept (and itself personified) could be thought of as having the gendered qualities of the feminine’ (p. 157). ‘Women were not just associated with rhetorical ornamentation, seduction, or excess; it could be said that they were conceived as figures or tropes themselves’ (by the Church Fathers) (p. 168); and ‘Prosopopeia or personification is the semiotically or rhetorically self-reflexive trope par excellence in that its own lexical nature bespeaks a duality of insides and outsides: the Hellenic term prosopon poein means “to make a face or mask”; persona too means not only “person” but “mask”’ (p. 172). It is strange that Paxson should forget to note that both prosopon and persona are theatre-related terms (more about the dramatic quality of personification below). 

[12] See note 3 above.

[13] See Masha Raskolnikov, Body Against Soul: Gender and Sowlehele in Middle English Allegory (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009), p. 24: ‘Ridding the self of female personifications, in Middle English writings, works in the service of medieval misogyny’.

[14] Bernard Comrie, ‘Grammatical Gender and Personification’, in Perspectives on Language and Language Development, ed. by Dorit Diskin Ravid, Hava Bat-Zeev Shyldkrot (New York: Springer, 2005), 105-114. (Comrie’s starting point is the story of the hen and the rooster, in the Tsez language, a North-Caucasian language spoken in Daghestan.)

[15] Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene / La Reine des Fées (extraits), trans. by Michel Poirier (Paris : Aubier, 1957). Further references will be to this edition for the French text, and to The Faerie Queene, ed. by A.C. Hamilton, rev. ed. (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007), for the English text.

[16] See Ackerman, ‘Syntactic and cognitive issues in investigating gendered coreference’, for a discussion of this issue with regard to maire / mairesse (mayor) in Québec.

[17] See Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “nurse” and “nourrice”, for examples of metaphorical uses of “nurse” referring to male figures.

[18] By comparison, Stéphane Desjardins’ translation of Book I of The Faerie Queene as part of his doctoral dissertation, ‘La quête spensérienne: le traducteur et l’allégorie de l’erreur et du désespoir à l’intérieur du livre I de la Reine des fées’ (2011, Université McGill, Montreal), evinces a more radical strategy in which the sins are gendered masculine from the first mention, triggering effects not unlike those generated by the figure of anthimeria, which Paxson makes a key element in personification (‘the figure anthimeria can mean inverting grammatical gender—again, by misusing pronouns as in hypochorism or by misapplying gender-designate general nouns (a gay man can be a “she”; a group of women can be referred to as “guys”). The figure thus subverts or inverts the ontological consistency of sex or grammatical gender just as personification subverts the consistency of corporeal presence, life, or human status’, ‘Personification’s Gender,’ p. 164). Idlenesse is ‘le lent Paresse le nourricier du péché’ (with the explicitly masculine/male noun nourricier instead of nourrice) and Lechery is ‘le lascif Luxure, / Monté sur une Chèvre barbue’ (the he-goat having become a she-goat in French). Unfortunately, Desjardins does not comment on this choice.

[19] On animals and status/gender, see Whorf, ‘Grammatical Categories,’ p. 3, Corbett, ‘Introduction’, and ‘Gender typology’, in The Expression of Gender, ed. by Greville, p. 7 and 111ff, and the story in Tsez reproduced and translated in Comrie, ‘Grammatical Gender and Personification’.

[20] Cf. Paxson, ‘Personification’s Gender,’, p. 164: ‘personification already involves the radical suspension of fixed ontic categories such as bodily/abstract, human/non-human or living/non-living’.

[21] All etymological information is from the relevant Oxford English Dictionary entries.

[22] Geoffrey Chaucer, The workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed/ with dyuers workes whiche were neuer in print before: as in the table more playnly dothe appere. Cum priuilegio (London: By Thomas Godfray, 1532); I am using a digitised version of Skeat’s edition of Chaucer’s Works, which reproduces the text as it was in the 1532, despite Skeat’s waryness about the attribution to Chaucer, and provides the French text in parallel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899;, last accessed 20 September 2022), checked against the 1532 text and Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. by Armand Strubel, Paris, le Livre de Poche, 1992.

[23] Antoine Furetière, Dictionnaire universel contenant généralement tous les mots françois, tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts (The Hague: A. and R. Leers, 1690), s.v. aise.

[24] Dizionario Treccani, s.v. ozio and agio, online (, last accessed 20 September 2022).

[25] French peur and Italian paura derive from Latin pavor, a masculine noun, but are both feminine (Dizionario Treccani, s.v. paura and -ura, indicates that the morphology of Latin pavor was remade with an -ura suffix, used to coin nouns for abstractions or concrete objects drawn from verbs).

[26] The anti-masque following Amoret (st. 24-26) is inspired from the figures Aeneas meets in Hades in Canto 6 of the Aeneid.

[27] See stanza 26 in which fancy, spelt fantasy and now referring to idle notions, is associated with women in a negative way: ‘So many moe, as there be phantasies / In wavering wemens witt’.

[28] The relevant images can be viewed here : (last accessed 20 September 2022).

[29] Cf. Helen Cooper, ‘Gender and Personification in Piers Plowman,’ Yearbook of Langland Studies, 5 (1991), 31-48 (p. 33, 34): ‘for the first time in the history of Western culture, personification allegory was able to define the nature of the human form its concepts might take without grammatical constraint’. More particularly, ‘Langland’s freedom is at once linguistic and psychological: he has the opportunity to reshape a whole way of thinking about abstractions — about all the generalizations in which it is possible to speak of human behavior or human faculties’.

[30] See Jane Grogan, Exemplary Spenser: Visual and Poetic Pedagogy in “The Faerie Queene” (Aldershot:  Ashgate, 2009), p. 84: ‘The masque of Cupid that Britomart witnesses in the House of Busirane, or the dance of the Graces at Mount Acidale, are proffered as spectacles to the reader as much as to the knightly protagonists, in their use of detail, deictic and spatial cues and clear and neat demarcations of chronology as well as geography. And yet the poem’s facilitation of vicarious spectacles and Spenser’s acquiescent participation in their visual paradigms does not extinguish the radical potential of those witnessed spectacles’; Jeff Dolven, Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 139-140 about the Sins: ‘The characters are concepts, and the poem thinks by combining and recombining them in the logic, or the stream of consciousness, of its narrative. The poem advertises this idea of itself with particular clarity in such moments as the progression of the seven deadly sins, the centerpiece of the House of Pride (1.4.16–36). […] Allegory serves as a method of analysis, and narrative is its handmaiden, obediently moving from case to case without troubling the exposition with any reversals. The mind of the poem is free to think its thoughts in the most schematic, universal terms. […] But The Faerie Queene is also a story, a romance. Over the three books of 1590 the analytic self- confidence of such set pieces as the procession of sins is shaken again and again. The poem is more profoundly dedicated than any work considered here, perhaps than any work of literature, period, to exploring the tensions between paradigmatic and narrative modes of understanding’. On the Masque, Dolven also comments: ‘There is, that is to say, a kind of mis-fit between this knight and the space where she finds herself: she cannot read it, and what is more, it doesn’t seem spoken to her. They are mutually irrelevant. “Irrelevance” is a strange word to use in speaking of The Faerie Queene, for we tend to assume the overdetermined mattering of each of the poem’s parts to all the others’ (p. 170). On ‘conspicuous irrelevance’ in the poem, see Harry Berger, Jr., The Allegorical Temper: Vision and Reality in Book II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1957, chapters 5 through 7.

[31] On demonic parody, see: Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity. Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York and London: Harcourt, Brace, 1963); Carol V. Kaske, Spenser and Biblical Poetics (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[32] By contrast, in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, the sins, introduced formally by Lucifer, appear ‘in their proper shapes’ and each starts by naming himself, apart from Lechery, the only patently female character, who is addressed by Faustus as ‘mistresse minkes’ and leaves without telling her name (the information would be unnecessary since she is ‘the seventh and last’ and all others have been named). See Christopher Marlowe, The tragicall history of D. Faustus As it hath bene acted by the right honorable the Earle of Nottingham his seruants (London: Printed by V. S[immes] for Thomas Bushell, 1604, Scene 6). In The Faerie Queene, there is no interaction between the tutelary knights and the characters in the pageants.

[33] Cf. Raskolnikov’s comments on ‘Jean de Meun’s playfulness about allegorical gender’ in his continuation of the Roman de la Rose, in particular in the queer figure of Bel Accueil (Fair Reception), ‘a male entity personifying a woman’s initial welcoming to a man’ (Body Against Soul, p. 52). See also p. 200n1 for her assessment of Paxson’s queer reading of Piers Plowman in ‘Gender Personified, Personification Gendered, and the Body Figuralized in Piers Plowman’, The Yearbook of Langland Studies 12 (1998), 65-96.

[34] See how Dante explains his personification of Love by defining it as ‘an accident in a substance’ in Vita Nuova XXV, quoted by Cooper, ‘Gender and Personification in Piers Plowman’, p. 39. There is no space here to discuss the debate among Spenserians about the nature of personifications in The Faerie Queene, whether they are all on the same plane or belong on different levels of existence, what exactly they personify, and whether the poem is a psychomachia and if so in/for whose soul it is happening. See for instance, Mary Adelaide Grellner, “Britomart’s Quest for Maturity”, SEL 1500-1900 8/1 (1968), 35-43; John Erskine Hankins, Source and Meaning in Spenser’s Allegory. A Study of “The Faerie Queene” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); Graham Hough, A Preface toThe Faerie Queene” (London: Duckworth, 1962); Jan Karel Kouwenhoven, Apparent Narrative as Thematic Metaphor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); Michael Leslie, Spenser’s ‘Fierce Warres and Faithfull Loves’: Martial and Chivalric Symbolism in “The Faerie Queene” (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer and Totowa, Barnes & Nobles, 1983); Lauren Silberman, Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of “The Faerie Queene” (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1995); Macklin Smith, Prudentius’ “Psychomachia”, A Reexamination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976); Carolynn Van Dyke, The Fiction of Truth. Structures of Meaning in Narrative and Dramatic Allegory (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985). About the Roman de la Rose, see Strubel’s notes to his edition.

[35] Cf. Jakobson quoted in Segel and Boroditsky, ‘Grammar in Art’: ‘The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists: he did not realize that ‘sin’ is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (rpex)’ (from Roman Jakobson, ‘Linguistic Aspects of Translation’, in On Translation, ed. by R. A. Brower (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959), 232-239).

[36] Although scholars who have tested translanguaging (initially a schoolroom practice relying on encouraging plurilingual pupils to express themselves – see Ofelia García, Li Wei, Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave, 2014) against literary texts have found it of little applicability (see Arja Nurmi, ‘The multilingual practices of Laurence Sterne. Evidence of translanguaging?’, Written Language & Literacy, 23: 2 (2020), 232-250), I wonder whether the kind of criticism I have applied to Spenser’s text (or rather, the kind of criticism Spenser’s text has elicited from me) might not be of the translanguaging kind.

[37] Cf. Alexandre Leupin, Barbarolexis. Medieval Writing and Sexuality, trans. by Kate M. Cooper (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), in which Leupin argues that the figure “barbarolexis”, which can refer to a morphological mistake resulting in a gender mismatch in case-inflected languages, is central to literary expression in the Middle Ages.


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Cite as:

Laetitia Sansonetti, "Grammatical gender and the gender of allegory in The Faerie Queene ," Spenser Review 52.3.3 (Fall 2022). Accessed July 18th, 2024.
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