Erec and Enide: Gender Politics in the Arthurian Romances

by JoHarrington

A sexist exultation of wife abuse and male pride? Or a Medieval strike towards female empowerment? Erec et Enide requires some context to be enjoyed today.

When Erec wins his wife in a sparrow-hawk contest, he couldn't be happier.

As a knight at the court of King Arthur, he can't wait to take the beautiful Enide back and show her off before his friends. But his passion for his bride is tempered.

When his fellow knights whisper that love has impeded his manliness, Erec is determined to prove his worth. He forces his wife to accompany him on a journey, wherein he'll fight all comers.

Moreover, he orders her to remain silent, no matter what happens. Enide's self-confidence is destroyed, as she endures his mockery. But whenever danger strikes, she speaks up, saving his life each time.

Enide keeps her faith in her husband, even when faced with abduction, rape and forced marriage. Erec enters endless battles, and is nearly killed, before finally realizing that it's alright to love his wife. His pride restored, he takes her home.

This ancient Celtic Sovereignty tale was subverted into a chivalric tale for a 12th century French court. Layers of meaning need to be unraveled for a modern readership.

Why Erec and Enide will Never be a Hollywood Movie

It was a subversive tale at the time. It would be downright torn to shreds by the politically correct crowd today.

The story doesn't sit well with modern sensibilities. We've lost the context that makes it so radical, and the only sense derived renders it all so very wrong.

Hollywood would never make a movie from this legend. The apparent politics of it would lead to a media storm and protests outside the theaters.

It equates Dwarfism with evil for a start.  Nor would you need identify as a Feminist to feel uncomfortable about Erec's treatment of Enide. He spends most of the story telling her to shut up, and the rest involved in other pursuits of emotional abuse.

His actions frequently lead her into sexual danger too. At one point, it's only her quick thinking that saves her from being raped.

In short, misogyny and domestic abuse are seen as heroic. Not exactly box office gold.

Erec and Enide

This PowToon animation summarizes the story for those who need a refresher.

Chrétien de Troyes: Medieval French Writer of Erec et Enide

Given the apparent anti-female sexism inherent in the legend, it might come as a bit of a shock to realize that the story was written to entertain a woman.

Little is known about the earliest author to write a surviving manuscript about Erec and Enide.

Even his name might merely be a description. Chrétien de Troyes translates as Christian from Troyes - a town founded by Romanized Gauls, in the Champagne region of north-central France.

It's this Gallic heritage that provided such a treasure trove of ancient Celtic legends, redressed to seem contemporary to Medieval French audiences.

In Troyes especially, many of those listening (or reading) would have Celtic ancestry themselves.

Some have speculated that Chrétien de Troyes was a wandering troubadour. That is an itinerant minstrel, telling stories at various hearths in order to claim bed and board for as long as the entertainment gave value. The original 'singing for your supper' life-style.

Historically, it's a role very much associated with the Bardic tradition within Druidism. Hence the Christian label may have been an emphatic piece of reassuring marketing. No-one was going to Hell for inviting him into their homes.

Which is fabulous, because most of his surviving stories are distinctly Pagan in origin. They are thinly veiled divine tales of Celtic gods and goddesses, transformed into human beings in order to live out fantastic existences. He only occasionally remembers to insert a line about the will of God.

Chrétien also displayed, in his stories, a deep understanding of ancient Celtic spirituality. Seemingly insignificant details are added - like the color of clothes and bridles - which jar the narrative when read at face value. But take on great meaning in the context of Pagan divine lore.

In Erec et Enide, as with all of his stories, Chrétien didn't assume prior knowledge of these themes. He was usually at great pains to spell out the divine clues inherent in certain symbols and appearances. Thus he allowed his French readers to follow cues that would have been universally understood in countries like Wales.

There has never been any suggestion that he invented the legend wholesale. It's commonly assumed that Chrétien had access to an earlier Celtic version of the story, either an oral rendering or a written one that did not survive the centuries.

Erec et Enide is filled with clues to its divine origin. It was a story about the Goddess of Sovereignty (Enide) setting out a series of challenges in order to test a champion. A potential ruler (Erec) had to prove his worth, before he gained Her support for his monarchy. He was then ritually wedded to the land.

However, it doesn't quite read like that anymore. Chrétien de Troyes wrote for his audience and changed the context for the Arthurian legends forever.

DVDs about King Arthur and his World

Even today, the popular image of Arthur and his court is decidedly Medieval. The stories are much older than that, but Chrétien de Troyes did his job well.

King Arthur as a Medieval Monarch

Until Chrétien de Troyes reworked the legends, Arthur was a thoroughly Celtic 5th century warlord. It was the French Romances which added Camelot and more.

It is primarily from the work of Chrétien de Troyes that the Arthurian legends are transposed onto a Medieval courtly world. Knights in shining armor hold tournaments, and act so chivalrously to their damsels. They all live in castles. Their fashions, activities and systems of government owe nothing at all to the ancient Celts.

It was a setting designed to be familiar to Medieval French aristocrats. Readers and audiences could well imagine themselves within these stories. They could aspire to be those heroes and heroines. The values inherent in the Arthurian legends sought to underscore the notions of court etiquette in 12th century France, hence all the references to chivalry.

Between 1160 and 1172, Chrétien de Troyes effectively became the in-house bard of Marie de France, the Countess of Champagne. Everything he wrote had to pass her approval. In 1170, that included Erec et Enide.

Or, to put it another way, this apparently misogynist prose was sanctioned - and welcomed enough to warrant its survival - by a woman. Moreover, Marie de France, in today's parlance, would be viewed as a Feminist.

If she merrily allowed Enide to pout prettily and suffer so much, under the testosterone fueled deprivations of Erec, then Marie de France patently had a context missing in the modern world.

Oral Rendering of an Extract from Erec and Enide

Sir Michael of York performs a section of the legend, as penned by Chrétien de Troyes. This is how many Medieval audiences would have heard it.

Marie de France: The Medieval Patron of Erec et Enide

The Countess was a powerful and influential presence. The daughter, sister and mother of European rulers, and France's earliest known female poet in her own right.

Marie de France was the daughter of Louis VII and his first wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The example of her mother alone should tell us that Marie de France was not predisposed to think of women as powerless, even in the infamously patriarchal Medieval era.

Eleanor was not only the most influential woman in Europe at the time, but probably one of the most powerful individuals per se. Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, Eleanor was variously Queen of France and later England. She frequently ruled whole nations as regent for her husbands or son.

When Louis VII displeased her, she made moves to divorce him. When her second husband, Henry II of England, upset her, Eleanor sought to usurp him in order to place their son, Richard I, on the throne instead.

She was England's de facto ruler during the reign of Richard, as he was too busy being the lion-hearted leader of the Crusades.

Marie de France was Eleanor's eldest child. She witnessed first hand how well her mother brought kings to heel; dominated the traditionally male world of governance; and asserted her will on, well, just about everything.

An extremely intelligent woman, Marie was fluent in at least French, Latin and Breton. She collected manuscripts and books, creating her own library. Her competency in governance and politics may be attested by the fact that her husband, Henry I of Champagne, left her in charge, when he went on a three year pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Like her mother, Marie de France ruled her people. She was regent of Champagne for nearly a decade, between 1179-1187, on behalf of first her husband, then her young son. When her half-brother, Philip II of France, sought to ride roughshod over her plans, she rose in armed rebellion against him.

Despite what a surface reading of the Arthurian Romances might attest, Marie de France was not a woman given to merely accepting female docility.

Medieval literature exulted the ideal woman as chaste and meek ornamentation, powerless amid the machinations of men. They existed solely to be the prize in clashes - snatched as plunder or offered in marriage to the winner - or else acted as the objectified catalyst for male emotions. Medieval literary heroines were pretty two-dimensional. Individual personalities lost under the ubiquitous adjectives of 'fair', 'beautiful' and 'gentle'.

But not in the writing of Marie de France. Her 'lays' recounted the Celtic legends of Bretayne (modern day Brittany), and frequently subverted those traditional Medieval gender roles.

Her women not only have distinct personalities, but take an active part in their own destinies too. In Lai du Lanval, a female character becomes the 'knight in shining armor' rescuing her male 'damsel in distress'. Elsewhere, she poignantly discusses 'hidden' norms, like women trapped in arranged marriages to older men, who find ways to take younger lovers.

We can probably thank Marie de France's influence for the fact that Enid has any personality at all. Erec et Enide might seem, at first glance, to be a horribly anti-female tale, but look more closely and the reverse comes fully into focus.

When seen through the lens of chivalry, there's an underlying message leading to feminine empowerment. A context which would not have been lost on Marie. She might even have directly guided Chrétien de Troyes in how the legend should be told!

Discover the Lais of Marie de France

In an era when women were supposed to be seen and not heard, the Countess of Champagne not only promoted chivalric literature, but wrote her own.

Chivalric Codes of Conduct in Erec and Enide

By Medieval norms, Erec did nothing wrong in his behavior towards Enide. So why were his actions so shocking even then?

Judging by Marie de France's own poetic works, and the stories that she patronized through authors like Chrétien de Troyes, we know that she had a particular love of the courtly romance genre.

This could be why Erec et Enide is framed as such. Chivalrous pursuits permeate the narrative. Everything that Erec does is set against the standards expected of an honorable knight in love with his lady.

It's a mistake to dismiss Marie de France as a simpering woman, devouring love stories to fill a void of boredom in her own shallow life. I have read some modern day analyses that do that, likening her patronage of the Arthurian Romances as akin to reading Mills and Boon novels today.

But that is to miss the point of chivalry in courtly love, not to mention standards of interaction between the sexes.

Eleanor of Aquitaine (and Marie herself) not withstanding, it was the lot of most Medieval women to be pawns in a male oriented world. They were largely powerless, deemed to be the property of their male relatives.

There was tremendous potential here for abuse. Indeed the legal, religious and cultural norms of the day advocated beating wives (within reason), parading 'scolding' women in the street fitted with iron muzzles and other measures designed to keep females in their place.

Chivalry and the ideals of courtly love were a great counter-charge in the opposite direction. Men might have every right in the land to abuse their women, but if they actually exercised those rights, then they lost honor within the chivalric codes.

Tales of courtly love placed women on a pedestal. The plot-lines were all with the male characters, while their ladies remained pure, immutable and venerated. Those stories stood as examples of how to engage with females, as chivalrous men. Real world women might have struggled to live up to the featureless ideal of their literary counterparts, but at least they could expect to be treated with courtesy, if not respect.

Even today, it is shocking when Erec slips up, mistreating his wife with emotional abuse or leading her into danger. Within the genre of Medieval Romances, such behavior was a breach of etiquette bordering upon cultural heresy.

In fact, Erec et Enide went several steps further than that. Its genius lies in its subversion of the very genre it seemingly embodies, as we shall see.

Books about Chivalry in the Medieval Courtly Tradition

Marie de France also commissioned Andreas Capellanus to write 'The Art of Courtly Love'. It helped cement the notion that true gentlemen were courteous with ladies.

Radical Gender Politics in the Romance of Erec and Enide

Enide toppled a long way from her divine origin as a Sovereign Goddess. But her role now introduced the notion of women in control of their own lives.

The story began commonly enough, with the chivalrous knight engaging in bog standard courtly love. But then, instead of venerating the object of his desire, Erec reached right up onto the pedestal and dragged Enide down into the real world.

At the very moment that we see the abuse beginning, something quite radical is taking place.

Enide suddenly develops a personality. We begin to see an actual woman behind all of the 'beautiful' and 'pure' adjectives. We explore her feelings, as uncomfortable as that seems, while she's degraded in Erec's eyes.

The effect is enhanced by Chrétien de Troyes quietly switching the narrative from Erec's point of view to Enide's.

Without any fanfare at all, that abuse is happening to us personally.

Part of the reason that Erec's actions become so untenable is because we've no longer got the thought processes behind them. He's been our guide through the story so far, but his subtle silencing gives us no choice but to latch onto the nearest point of empathy - Enide. Yet it's done in such a way as to trick us into thinking that we're still following Erec's story.

Enshrining the male viewpoint, as the desirable norm in story-telling, isn't something peculiar to the Medieval period. The Bechdel Test wouldn't exist in today's world, if movies didn't habitually side-line female characters. Chrétien's gender perspective switch would be radical if he was a Hollywood scriptwriter now, let alone entertaining a 12th century French court.

Life revolves around the heroine of a courtly love tale, but she's not supposed to participate in it. Enide and her ilk should frankly be interchangeable, not only with each other, but with a statue, or a plant-pot, or anything that our heroic knights can focus upon as they compete and fawn. The chivalric heroine could be a rock in a headdress, as long as it's pretty and pure enough.

From the second that she's placed on that horse, a flesh and blood Enide becomes an active part of the story. She gets dirty and bloodied. She falls ill under her emotions (until then a theme common only for male heroes), and the stress of her situations turns her pale. She gains a measure of control over her life, even if it's only to disobey a command to silence.

As the story goes on, we see her intelligence shining through. She evaluates the ideals of the courtly love heroine (keeping silent) against real world considerations (Erec could die), and finds the former wanting. She out-wits potential rapists and abductors. She refuses her consent in a forced marriage.

Yet all of this is disguised under the fact that Enide constantly reaffirms, mostly in thought, her belief in the idealism of female roles within the auspices of chivalry. Her actions belay her sentiments each time. But it's done so cleverly, that audiences would be cheering her on, even as she breaks every code of courtly love.

By the time we've followed Erec and Enide into the great hall of Count Limors, the subversion of the genre is no longer subtle. Limors literally yells into Enide's face all that she should attain to be or possess. He's reciting the staples of the Romance heroines - riches, a good marriage, unthinking consent, obedience, sitting on a dais and looking pretty - but we're all cheering Enide on as she resists them all.

Her victory comes not in compliance, but that almighty rebel yell that she sounds against Limors. Her defiance is loud enough to raise Erec from the dead, mustering the full force of his chivalry in defense of her choices. He trusts and falls in love with her all over again because of that moment.

Once back at King Arthur's court, Enide is again elevated to the status of venerated, pure and ideal heroine of the courtly Romances. But it's framed as something now earned. The praise of the court is all about that scream. In essence, she achieved perfect womanhood by rejecting all that the chivalric codes (and societal norms too) perceived as perfection for her gender.

History Books about the Lives of Medieval Women

Learn more about life as a woman in the Middle Ages, during a time when theologists seriously debated about whether females even had a soul.

The True Message of Erec et Enide

Far from being a tale of female subjugation, this Arthurian Romance redefined acceptable behavior to the empowerment of women.

Chrétien de Troyes didn't change the world, when he released his version of Erec et Enide.

Medieval society wasn't suddenly filled with independent women demanding sovereignty over their own lives. Nor was domestic violence rendered wiped from the face of the Earth.

But it would have added a new dimension into the conduct of connoisseurs of courtly love. Which was everyone in that particular Champagne court, if they wanted to retain the goodwill of its Queen Regent.

We can half imagine abusive, or even bombastic, husbands being unfavorably likened to Erec within the real life French courts. Knights and male courtiers would be falling over themselves to prove that they would never have treated Enide with such disrespect.

Where better to demonstrate their chivalric ideals than with their own wives?

Ordinarily a strong distinction could have been made between real life females and the idealized heroines of the Romance legends. Just as modern women can't achieve in reality the glamor of air-brushed models in fashion magazines, Medieval ladies were thwarted in matching their ideals.

The real world doesn't lend itself to always being perfectly calm, beautiful and happily obedient, especially when your consent isn't required, even in massive life-changing events, like a marriage.

Enide provided an alternative. When Erec dislodged her from the metaphorical pedestal, he conferred upon his wife a flesh and blood status. Her example could be easily achieved. She had emotions. She got mucky. She panicked. She screamed.

It would have been a witless woman indeed, who didn't see the possibilities inherent there.  A moment of rebellion could be passed off as 'playing at being Enide', and it might even work to exert a woman's will in certain situations. Especially if their men were trying very hard to appear chivalrous, as etiquette dictated.

Silencing and/or denying their lady-love placed them with Erec at his most foolish and dishonorable. Reacting favorably to feminine rebellion aligned them instead with Erec at his most heroic, deserving of the praise of Arthur's chivalric order of knights.

Under the influence of Marie de France, Chrétien de Troyes produced not only an entertaining addition to the Arthurian Matter, but also something which could well have been useful for women in the battle for gender equality.

Hollywood might never make a movie based upon it, but perhaps it should.

Music and Books about Erec et Enide

I've only scratched the surface of meaning in this Arthurian Romance. Discover more through these histories, analyses and the rest.
Erec et Enide

Folk music track by I Musici paying homage to Erec et Enide.

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The Women Troubadours (Norton Paperback)

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Erec and Enide: A Romance by Chretien de Troyes

Erec and Enide was the first Arthurian romance (composed around A.D. 1170), also the first of five extant works by French court poet Chretien de Troyes. Erec and Enide, newly ma...

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Erec & Enide (Salt Modern Voices)

Taking its title from Chretien De Troyes' twelfth-century Arthurian romance, Erec & Enide moves through a vibrant, rich and playful mix of underhand lyric. A deceptive and light...

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The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Canto Classics)

The Allegory of Love is a landmark study of a powerful and influential medieval conception. C. S. Lewis explores the sentiment called 'courtly love' and the allegorical method w...

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Troubling Arthurian Histories: Court Culture, Performance and Scandal in Chrétien de Troyes's <I>...

Drawing on a range of approaches in cultural, gender and literary studies, this book presents Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide as a daring and playful exploration of scandal, ...

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Updated: 04/06/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 04/01/2014

Yes, I went for a look and ended up writing a whole article about it!

Ember on 03/31/2014

Well, I'm excited for what your research turns up! :)

edit- I left this comment before I saw the new article. I'm going to check it out now!

JoHarrington on 03/31/2014

Oh! Nice one! I'll go and check out your article forthwith, as I didn't know about any of this.

frankbeswick on 03/31/2014

No, the gospel of Mary Magdalen is a gnostic gospel of very dubious provenance arising in the post apostolic age, [like all gnostic materials.] The part that I am thinking of is the Yahwist document, which was one of the four sources of the Pentateuch, which Friedman [writing in Who Wrote the Bible] thought came from a female source. To understand the Yahwist source think of four strands woven together [the Y, E, P and D sources] and then cut across to make the modern five books that you can see now if you open the Old Testament.

If you read my article on "scandalous women" you will see some of the material which led Friedman to think that a female story teller was behind part of the Old Testament.

There is a theory that Mary, Jesus' mother, was a source behind the Gospel of Luke, specifically the first two chapters, from 1:4 to the end of chapter 2.

JoHarrington on 03/31/2014

Frank - We do know that Marie de France had her hand in it, but I'm not sure how much on this particular story.

I'm interested in the female authorship of a section of the Bible though! This is the Gospel of Mary Magdalen?

JoHarrington on 03/31/2014

Ember - You've absolutely stunned me. In twenty years of researching (and general obsession) the Arthurian legends, I've never once heard any suggestion that Chrietien de Troyes was female. But you're right! We know so little about the author, that there's no reason to assume he's male!

The likelihood is there. Writers in the 12th century are almost always men. But note the 'almost'. Chrietien's own patron, Marie de Champagne, was a Medieval female writer.

There is much in Chrietien's writing that reveals a feminine point of view. That's been exclusively explained away as Marie's influence. In fact Chrietien says that point blank in the introduction to 'Lancelot'. Marie gave him the material and told him how to write it. Chrietien just put in the work, effort and imagination.

I see no argument just now that proves Chrietien's gender either way. Leave it with me. I'll see what I can dig up. But it's blown my mind that he could be a woman. Nice one!

As for the rest, it's astounding how Medieval literature raises issues about gender that are still so pertinent today, as evidenced by your Amish lady example. That's even more relevant than I think you know.

I didn't mention here how the French Romances subverted the Celtic notions of divine Sovereignty, from land to person. I do plan to write about that though, so I won't go into it here. Your Amish lady would totally fit within that theme.

It would be great if we could see some research on the influence of 'Erec et Enide', but I should imagine that it would be quite difficult. If only to tease out this particular impact from the wider courtly love/chivalry influence, and from there into general cultural trends amongst Medieval French aristocrats. Again leave it with me. Someone must have looked at it!

frankbeswick on 03/30/2014

It is likely that story originated from a woman, as women were great story tellers. [There is a section of the Bible that might have come from a female story teller.] Chretien would have incorporated it into his work.

Ember on 03/30/2014

One final question. I'm aware that many women used to use a male pen-name to write/be published. I know all we have is the name (or title) Chrétien de Troyes... but do you think it was written by a woman? I know you used male pronouns, but it doesn't mean the possibility isn't there... and you may know for sure one way or the other so I thought I'd bring it up. It was just a thought that occurred to me.

I'll hold off on further questions/comments until you at least get a chance to reply. Sorry. :|

Ember on 03/30/2014

Okay, sorry multiple comments, I wasn't done babbling.

I think the story is interesting. I am curious to know what effect the story had on women who read it. I think it is something that we probably can't know, but I can just picture how it might have changed some women's perspective on their role in a relationship. Nothing drastic or huge. Just a small change in self image, perhaps one of many small things that collected over time leading up to women becoming more and more liberated. So perhaps it didn't have any profound effect immediately but I guess maybe it was one of a million little things that changed over time. To put it colloquially, I think that it's really cool.

Anyways, I agree that it probably wouldn't be a Hollywood blockbuster. I like your line at the end that it should be. But, part of me thinks that Hollywood would ruin it anyways. I am a ridiculously massive fan of the types of indie movies that make you feel really uncomfortable when you watch them, but if you can survive the whole movie, you find there's actually quite a bit to be gained from it. This sounds like it could be one of those movies. I could see it being appreciated by a lot of subcultures who took the time to look at it beyond what they're getting at the surface.

Also- I'm not quite sure how this all ties in with the Arthurian legends, though. That would be because I pretty much know next to nothing about them. (So you'll have to explain) I read the other set of articles you wrote which related to it (they were the ones on Y Ddraig Goch, yeah?) that were very interesting.

Okay, so please don't laugh... I was thinking about those articles the other day, and then asked my friend if she knew that Arthur and related legends were actual historical stories/ stories related to historical events etc. and not just a children's story. A legit "Did you know..?!" She was as shocked as I was, so at least there's that. But it is really interesting to me as a topic in general, at least the few that you've written and posted here so far. So, I think I said it when you wrote the others, but yeah, it is definitely something I'm interested in reading more of! :)

Ember on 03/30/2014

This was really interesting. I'm going off of your synopsis of the story because I've never read it, but I got the gist of it, and your analysis really got me thinking!

This almost entirely unrelated, but I watched bits and pieces of this show about Amish young adults who were offered a trip to NY if they agreed to be filmed for it. (So basically a reality TV show, just slightly less trashy I suppose). Anyways, the main reason I kept watching it was to find out what happened to one of the youngest. This one girl was interested because she thought it would be the most amazing thing to meet a man who would consider cooking for her or do some laundry. Arguably, the vast majority of the things she declared important to herself really don't fit in with modern ideas of feminism, but even with being raised in such a closed off community and limited exposure to the modern world, the ideas and seeds of feminism were there. She was easily the most conservative of the group, but I'd dubbed her the feminist, and because of that had someone comment that it was a bit silly to consider her an image of feminism. I said they needed to look again. Perhaps my favorite moment, from the start of the show where she talked about this dream she had of this imagined, impossible world where "men can do some women's work, and women can do men's work" and fast forward to when they've been in New York a couple of days and they go grocery shopping. When they were paying, amid all of the shock at the cost of things, availability of alcohol etc., she turns to one of the males in the group and asks why he didn't pick out any food for himself. He immediately replied that he was a man, and therefore it was not his job to worry about the food. (He is 100% serious.) She quips back something to the extent of 'it's not my job either, I hope you enjoy going hungry' (can't recall what she said verbatim). But my reaction was like 'HECK YEAH! She's so cool!!!'

Really, the only thing this relates to is when you were talking about why the context is so important. But it really is. Her telling a fellow Amish man she wasn't going to cook for him is far braver a move than what a lot of modern feminists do in their everyday lives who are properly considered feminist. (Not to down play it by any means, just...context!)

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